She scratched behind the dog’s ear and he looked at her, his glossy eyes making
her think of Buck Root and how his eyes made her dissolve when Joy brought him home
that time. But the years had gone by and Buck-type men in Livia’s life were fading
coals of memory. “My wild oats has turned to prunes,” she grumbled sourly.
“I’m the shits.”
—Livia Miles, in The Altar of the Body
Excerpts: The Altar of the Body
Part One: Many a Lecherous Lay
Chapter One: I, George
The first time I see her she is steering a Lincoln Continental through the neighborhood.
Slow as vodka logic she comes, looking left and right, searching for something.
Tree leaves reflect fractal patterns off her windshield, smearing her image, bringing
her in and out of focus.
I’m on the porch, sweaty from working in the Minnesota heat, my shirt clinging
to my back, my toes steaming inside my shoes. I’m smoking my pipe and drinking
a can of Grain Belt and watching the Lincoln, the bumper low, sniffing the asphalt.
It’s an old car, a four-door boater, champagne-colored, with rust patches
showing through the wheel-wells, roof dented in the center looking like a little
birdbath or a holster for a cannonball. The tires suck at the hot pavement. The
engine is idling. A valve-lifter ticks beneath the hood.
When she gets closer I see platinum hair, bushy, like a dandelion gone to seed.
Her hair shines in the sun for a second, then darkens as the car enters shade, then
it shines again. When the car comes parallel, she spots me. The passenger window
is open and she is leaning toward it, keeping one hand on the wheel. Her pale skin
and pale hair make me think of Icelandic girls with hard cheekbones and translucent
skin and eyes bold as glaciers.
The rest of the car eases forward and I can see a man pushing it, a big man with
big shoulders, his huge hands splayed across the trunk. His head is down, his back
bull-like bulges, his legs churn in slow-motion. He glances at me and I see heavy-lidded
eyes. Strands of hair cling to his forehead. His breath is harsh, sobbing with effort.
The woman pulls the car to the curb and the man leans his forearms on the lid for
a second, then he straightens and pulls his shoulders back, rolls them and groans.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a chest so big, nor shoulders so wide
or a neck so thick. He puts his hands on his hips and grins lopsided and says,
“She’s a heavy hussy, man.”
I point my pipe at the old Lincoln. “Lincolns,” I say.
“Freeway floaters,” says the man, “but hell to push when they
break down.” He winks at me. There is something familiar about him, but I
can’t place it. Eyes big as June-bugs. I’ve seen those eyes, I tell
myself. I’ve seen that jutting chin, that tic of a dimple in it.
Sunlight through the trees shimmies over him. A gold stud in his earlobe sparkles.
He glances back at the woman in the car. She is looking at herself in the mirror,
fussing with her hair.
And then he says, “Hey, I’m looking for George McLeod. Does that bugger
still live here?”
I stand up and cram the can of beer into my shirt pocket. “That’s me.
I’m that bugger,” I tell him.
“Hey, George, that really you?”
“Yessir. What can I do for you?”
“What happened to your hair, George?” I finger the top of my head where
a few hairs still mark a path down the middle. He smiles and I notice that his upper
lip has a fleshy hook pushing it slightly over the front teeth. And that’s
when it hits me who he is — big eyes, olive skin, the hook-lip grin. “Mikey?”
I say. “That you, Mikey?”
“It’s me, George.”
I laugh and say, “How the hell you get so big, Mikey? Jesus, you look like...like
“Pecs, abs and gluteus to the max,” he sings, shifting his butt sideways
and patting it. “I growed. I’m not Mikey no more, George. I’m
“It’s my stage name, my show name.”
“Buck Root,” I say, savoring the sound of it. “So where you been
all these years, Buck Root?”
He says he’s been everywhere — east coast, west coast, midwest, down
south and up north and down Minneapolis at a competition there: Mr. Minnesota. And
he says he thought he might as well come by Medicine Lake and see if I’m still
“Still kicking,” I say. “Older, fat as a toad and damn near bald,
but still kicking, yhah.”
Above him the leaves move. The tip of a leaf brushes his hair and he swats at it.
“Thought it was a bee,” he says, staring at the tree as if it has done
a whimsical thing. I’m thinking he’s a woman’s dream of what a
man should be, nose heroic, velvet-lips, and eyes that say bedroom-bedroom.
“So, George, you got a hug for me?” he asks.
I stick my hand out to shake. He grabs it and jerks me in and nearly crushes me.
I smell beef on his breath, hamburger-beef. He kisses my cheek and roughs me up,
then lets go and steps back and looks around. “Hey, I’m glad to know
you’re still in the same place,” he says. “Things haven’t
changed so much as I thought they would. I expected there would be some shopping
mall here, you know. Or maybe some big resort and old ladies in bikinis trying to
get laid. But it’s still the same. Trees, houses, lawns, the lake. I remember
that tree there.” He points at the spruce in the front yard. “That bugger
got tall. What is it now, sixty feet? Seventy?” A wistful look glides over
his face. “Lot of wind gone through those needles,” he says. “Time
flies. That’s what happens.”
The woman kills the engine. She has kept primping in the mirror, touching her hair,
painting her lips, but now she’s ready. The door protests like old doors do
when they’re never oiled, kaareak, ba-wham! as she flings it closed.
She moves toward us and I’m watching her hips moving in a sheath of leather
skirt and I’m whispering, “Oh wow,” and she catches what I say
and she puts on a look like she’s the home-coming queen and she says, “I’m
I take her hand. She has a large hand for a woman. The touch of it makes me feel
giddy. She’s as tall as me, very thin, with arms pale as taproots. A gold
earring drilled through a flap of skin in her navel flashes beneath a blue tanktop
that has IMAGINE written on it in silver letters, Gothic style. She has fine-firm
boobs. The nipples look like bullets pressing against the cloth.
“This is him,” says Buck to her. “This is cousin George.”
“Cousin George,” she says.
I feel my ears burning. A feel my lips quivering, smiling. I make a helpless gesture
toward the apartments and say hoarsely, “I live here.” She lets go of
my hand. My palm is moist. It feels swollen.
“This is the address all right,” she says. “We almost didn’t
get here.” She chucks her chin toward the Lincoln. She looks at me with crinkling,
smiling eyes. Her eyes are blue with flecks of gray beneath lashes thick enough
to float a toothpick. She has a delicate jaw, a rounded chin, a small nose with
a tiny, ball-tipped end, a tempting mouth, the lower lip large and chewy, the upper
lip slightly thinner.
Buck is beside her and even though she is tall for a woman, she looks petite next
“Buck and Joy,” I say. Sunlight shines around them. “You guys
look like moviestars,” I say.
Buck’s eyes glitter with pleasure. “Quite a change, hey, George? What’s
it been, twenty years since you last saw me?”
I think on it for a second and say, “It was not long after Dad died when you
left. So what’s that? I was fifteen. Now I’m forty-four. Twenty-nine
years, can it be that long? Twenty-nine years?”
Buck says to Joy, “We all lived right here in these apartments. Both our families.
Us upstairs, them downstairs.”
“I know,” says Joy.
“Buck was so skinny back then he had to stand up twice to make a shadow,”
I say to her. “But look at him now.”
“I growed and growed,” he says. And he raises his arm, shows a massive
biceps. “I’m Buck Root: Mr. Los Angeles, Mr. Philadelphia, Mr. Chicago,
Mr. Mount Olympus.”
“And Mr. Baja Peninsula and Mr. Minneapolis Thighs,” adds Joy.
“That name Buck Root,” I tell him. “It rings a bell. I feel like
I heard it somewhere.”
“Don’t know.” I concentrate on his name, trying to remember.
“Talking about me,” says the weightlifter, glancing at Joy. “Everywhere
I go, people have heard of the Root. It’s a catchy name, once you hear it,
you don’t forget it. Hey, a word to the wise. Fame is in the name.
If you know what I mean. Hey, Marion Morrison a.k.a John Wayne; Archibald Leach
a.k.a. Cary Grant; Bernard Schwartz a.k.a. Tony Curtis. Get the picture, George?”
“Norma Jean Baker a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe,” I answer.
Buck looks at Joy. “Told you my cousin was cool.”
“I think I saw you doing some kind of advertisement,” I tell him. “Some
kind of thing on TV?”
“The Tubeflex!” he says. “Hey, you saw my Tubeflex commercial:
“I didn’t know it was you. How about that! That was you?”
“That was awhile ago. Hey, you got a good memory there, George.” He
looks at Joy. “George always had a good memory.”
“Buck’s was better,” I say. “He memorized Alice Through the
Looking Glass. You remember that, Buck?”
“Sort of do, yeah.”
“My mother. She got you into it. You two seeing who could memorize most. Mom
loved you, you know. She said you had the mind of an artist.”
“Hear that, Joy? Mind of an artist.”
I turn to Joy and say, “But mostly he was shy as a mouse, hardly said a word.
Mikey Mouse, we called him.”
“Not my Bucky, no way,” says Joy, looking at him as if seeing him new.
“That was then and this is now,” says Buck. He puts his fists into his
waist, sticks out his chest and in an announcer’s voice he says, “Be
buff! Get Maximum Buff!”
“Buck’s posed in magazines,” says Joy.
“Pumping Iron, I was in that about two years ago. Hey, I’ve been
in Bodybuilders, and Steel Body. In Body Sculptors, I was a
big article in there. They called me the dean of bodybuilders.”
“Little Mike, the dean of bodybuilders,” I say.
“We won Mr. Minneapolis Thighs this morning,” says Joy. We all pause
to look at Buck’s thighs. He is wearing faded jeans and his thighs put a strain
on the fabric.
“In Minneapolis...Mr. Thighs,” adds Joy, her words drifting. Then she
points at the lake and says, “You get to live on a lake. Lucky you.”
“That’s Medicine Lake,” says Buck. We all look toward the curve
at the end of the street, where the lake shows silver threads visible through some
trees. “Used to swim right off there, me and George, hey, George?”
“Kids still do,” I tell him. “It’s kid-paradise.”
A car goes by on the road. A bearded figure waves. It is our cousin Ronnie.
“George!” he shouts.
“Ronnie!” I shout.
He honks and keeps going.
“Is that cousin Ronnie?” says Buck.
“That’s him,” I say.
“Another one of my cousins,” says Buck. “How about cousin Larry?
Is he still around?”
“Larry’s a Golden Valley cop.”
“A cop! Holy shit, a cop.”
“And Ronnie owns a bar over at Foggy Meadow Lake. He’s got topless dancers.”
“Ronnie owns a topless bar.” Buck shakes his head. He looks at me as
if I’m sprinkling wonders all over the place.
“I’ve heard all about you crazy kids,” Joy tells me. She touches
my arm. “Crazy kids,” she says again.
I wonder what Buck could have told her that was crazy about us. I recall summer
days swimming with my cousins and friends, Mikey hanging at the edges sometimes,
but mostly staying indoors, reading, watching TV, eating pretzels and drinking Cokes.
Sometimes he would sit for my mother and she would paint him and he would tell her
jokes. Buck was a joke collector, kept them on three by five cards in a shoebox.
He clung to my mother, took her over for a while and made me jealous. His mother,
my aunt, was a depressive, stupefied on pills. She couldn’t cope with him.
I’d hear her yelling at him, calling him a little bastard, telling him to
get out of her sight. My uncle had given up on her, had taken off, disappeared and
she cut her wrists then and Mikey stayed with us for months, until my aunt got out
of the hospital and took him away, she and Buck going west with some pipefitter
“Hey, our car won’t go when you put it in gear,” Buck says. “Tromp
on the gas and the engine roars and nothing happens. What you think is wrong with
her?” He is looking at me the same way he did when we were boys and he’d
bring his math over. Smart as he was, he never caught on to math. Said it made his
I chew my pipe and study the car. “Transmission be my guess. The bands.”
“The bands,” he repeats.
“Or maybe the fluid’s low.”
“Something like that.”
“How much to fix it?”
“Hard to say. Something like that can be tricky, it’d be a wad. You
remember Joe Cuff? He can tell you. He’s got a garage over at Crystal Lake.”
“Joe Cuff? He still around? I hated that sonofabitch. He was always kicking
my ass. One time he told me I couldn’t go past that telephone pole —
that one right there. He said on the other side of that pole was his territory
and if I wanted to go through his territory I had to pay a quarter.” Buck
starts chuckling, and he tells us how he would sprint past the telephone pole and
buy his mother her cigarettes at the store and sprint back, but sometimes Joe Cuff
would catch him and beat on him and take his change.
“He’s the same,” I say. “Still likes to fight. He was in
Vietnam. Couldn’t wait to get there, afraid the war would be over before he
got old enough. Only seventeen and he went over there and won metals — a Bronze
Star and a Purple Heart. Shot in the kidney. He’s only got one now. A big
ole scar where the other one was. That’s Joe Cuff for you. No fear.”
“Hated that sonofabitch big time,” grumbles Buck. He cocks a serious
eyebrow at me. “You see these fists?” he says. His fists look hard as
stones, the knuckles volcanic. “Next time we meet, I’ll be taking his
quarters, you watch.”
∼ ∼ ∼
I look at the car and feel pity for it. Old and decrepit and starting to cause trouble,
the Lincoln is a candidate for the bone yard, get rid of it. Everything about it
is sagging. Tires are curb-chewed, bits of body rusting away, showing a dozen rusty
red holes, like steel termites are living in it. I run my hand over the dent in
the roof and think about taking a bathroom plunger and sucking the dent out.
“How’d this happen?” I ask. “Somebody shoot a cannonball
“That’s his fist,” says Joy. “Hammered it that way. Just
one blow. Bam! The day we lost Mr. Reno. Buck was mad. Boom!” She makes a
fist and brings it down on the roof to show how he made the dent. “Boom! like
that,” she says and the roof reverberates.
“Hey!” yells a voice inside the car. “Quit poundin on my head,
I hadn’t noticed anyone in the back seat, but then I see her and she is hardly
bigger than a monkey, a hoop of a lady bent over, her head hiding between her shoulders.
I nod at her and say, “I didn’t see you there.”
“I seen you,” she says, her tone crabby. She has violent red hair and
a face seamed like a walnut. She has a yellow and black-striped afghan across her
shoulders. On her lap is a paperback book and next to her is a pug-faced, black
and white dog. The dog raises its head, looks at me with foggy eyes, opens its mouth
to bark, thinks better of it, lowers its chin on its paws again.
I glance at the title of the book: West Of The Pecos. A narrow-eyed, dark-skinned
cowboy is looking at me and drawing a gun from a holster.
“That’s my mom,” says Joy. “And that’s Ho Tep.”
“Ho Tep,” I say.
“Chinese god of happiness,” says Joy. “Or maybe it was Egypt.
I can’t remember. Mom, is Ho Tep Chinese or Egyptian god of happiness?”
“What you askin me for? You named him, didn’t you?”
“I wouldn’t be asking if I had.” Joy whispers, “She’s
“Ho Tep,” I repeat. The name makes me smile. “The god of happiness,
“He’s seventy-seven in dog years.” Joy leans her head in the window
and shouts, “Mom, this is him, this is Buck’s cousin, this is George
The old lady puts her hands over her ears. “Am I deeef?” she says.
“You are when you wanna be,” mutters Joy.
The old lady snorts. Then she looks at me and works up a bloodless smile and she
says, “Pleased to meet you. I’m Livia Miles.”
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
“He says ma’am,” says the old lady. She has slightly crossed eyes
and I don’t know which one to look at. “I’m thirsty,” she
says, pointing to the top of the can sticking out of my shirt pocket. I slip the
beer out and offer it to her and she snatches it, finishes it off in a few swallows.
“Good beer,” she says and burps politely behind her fingers.
Stepping over to the trash can at the curb, I drop the bottle inside and a mess
of flies fly out and swizzle around my head. One flicks off my chin and I swat at
it and watch it zip over to the Lincoln and land on the back window and feel its
way around a nickel-sized hole in the glass. The hole has a web of fine lines circling
it. I go over and wiggle my pinky through the hole, feel the edges tugging at me.
Joy and Buck are watching.
“Big hole,” I say.
“Big gun,” says Buck.
“It went off,” says Joy.
She and Buck look at one another. I am puzzled over the hole, wondering if the bullet
came from inside or outside, wondering who was shooting at whom. I wait a second
for the story, but no one says anything. Joy takes hold of the hem of her skirt,
gives it a shake, then waves at a mosquito.
“Minnesota’s sticky,” she says, shaking her skirt again.
I’m downwind. A not unpleasant scent of female body drifts my way and I think
how long it’s been since I smelled Connie Hawkins. It’s been awhile,
a couple months since we were in her van.
Joy pinches her nostrils and says, “I’m ripe. I need a shower.”
I check inside the car and see the bent lady holding the book, turning a page, her
lips forming words. The dog sleeps with the tip of his tongue sticking out. His
lower canines thrusting up on each side full of tartar. A cross-breeze runs through
the open windows and pecks at the old lady’s hair and I see patches of scalp.
She doesn’t seem to feel the heat. The afghan over her shoulders hangs like
furled butterfly wings.
I tell Buck and Joy that they might as well come in and use the phone. Joe Cuff
has a tow truck that can haul the car down to his garage.
“That’s a plan,” says Buck, looking at Joy.
“Them too?” I ask, pointing at Livia and the dog.
“Let them stay for now,” says Joy. “They won’t even know
I lead the way up the walk to the porch and stand to the side, motioning Joy and
Buck to go first. The wooden stairs, dimpled with age, sag under Buck. His body
fills the entrance, his head dipping as he goes through into the hall.
“Same place. You know where it is,” I tell him.
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