The Birthday Lunch, Robert Leleux ’03
As a teenager, Robert Leleux ’03 lived with his glamorous mother on the family horse farm in East Texas. One day they came home from their weekly trip to Neiman Marcus and found a letter from Robert’s father, Bob O’Doole. He was leaving Mother for another woman, thereby rendering Robert and Mother “nouveau poor.” So Mother did the logical thing: She got lip and breast implants, traded in her wigs for a mane of plasticky, adhesive hair, and started hunting for a rich husband. To Robert’s dismay, she settled on Mr. Taft, a toupeed man who owned a chain of 24-hour breakfast joints. And so our story begins…
Excerpted from The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy by Robert Leleux ’03
Mr. Taft wanted me to hit the road. He wanted to marry Mother and move her to Lubbock, and I was the only thing holding up his proposal. I was too dense to understand immediately that I’d become a romantic liability for Mother; that a middle-aged jeune fille can’t be flanked by her grown son; that a rich man doesn’t marry a blonde in order to support her children. And one of the reasons I failed to interpret the signals telling me that my days of living with Mother were numbered—signals such as the fact that during lulls in conversation Mr. Taft fell into the following refrain, “So your mama says it won’t be long now before you move far, far away to a four-year college all the way up in New York City!”—was that I worked hard to avoid Mr. Taft’s company. So hard, in fact, that I failed to notice he was also avoiding mine.
There were many good reasons for wanting to avoid Mr. Taft, and most of them were simply matters of good taste. The man wore wrinkle-resistant pants. His favorite weekend pastime was reenacting Civil War battles. He carried pictures of his tomato plants around in his wallet like they were his grandchildren. And every time he pulled his Cadillac out of a parking space, every time, he said the same thing: “We’re off to see the Wizard!” Which was tolerable enough the first dozen or so times, but which eventually brought tears to my eyes.
But the real reason I avoided Mr. Taft had nothing to do with any of this, or the fact that he referred to Lubbock as “the old country,” or even that he forced people to listen to Irish step dancing on his car stereo—something that was, to my mind, of dubious visual entertainment, but which held absolutely no aural appeal. No, the real reason I loathed spending time with Mr. Taft was the M&M (Moonlight and Magnolia) Act Mother put on whenever she was with him.
Mother’s M&M Act was the same old Chase Him ’Til He’s Caught You method of man-trapping usually employed by southern ladies. It consisted of Mother batting her false eyelashes and claiming, loudly and often, how passionately she loved listening to Irish step dancing on the radio, and asking, “Is anybody else hot in here?” when what she meant was, “Turn on the fucking air conditioner!” until Mr. Taft was finally convinced that Mother’s every thought, opinion, and hobby were identical to his own. In a nutshell, the M&M Act involved Mother feeding Mr. Taft one completely unbelievable lie after the next, all of which he swallowed like gravy, because, I realized, gentlemen in the South expect ladies to lie to them out of feminine delicacy. But Mother wasn’t lying because she was a lady. Mother was lying because she wanted all of Mr. Taft’s money, and then, she wanted him to die.
“Remember,” Mother warned me, one Saturday that fall, heading to my birthday luncheon at the Ritz—which really wasn’t my birthday luncheon at all, but just a date I’d been invited to join at the last minute because Mother had guilt pangs for having been stuck, on my real birthday, in an airport with Mr. Taft while returning from a wine-tasting tour of the Sonoma Valley—“Mr. Taft thinks I’m fortyish.”
“How ish?” I asked.
“Oh, you know,” she said. “He thinks I’ll be forty in, you know…” Mother waved her hand in the air, as if to suggest the far horizon. “The next several years.”
“Just how ish does that make me?” I asked.
“Don’t mention your age.”
“But what if he asks me? It is my birthday luncheon, sort of. Don’t you think he’s going to ask me how old I am?”
“Then just change the subject, Robert. Start talking about something else. But don’t mention the O’Dooles. Or the divorce. Or the French. Or JoAnn and Alfred. And, whatever you do, for chrissakes, don’t mention Jimmy Carter.”
“Then what am I supposed to talk about?”
“Why don’t you just stick to how much you want to move to New York? That’s always safe. Just talk about moving away.”
But mostly I tried not to talk, even when Mr. Taft asked me dumb, direct questions like whether Houston was hot enough for me, because I was so uncertain as to which basic facts of life Mr. Taft was aware of, and so afraid of accidentally exposing Mother in a lie, that I just nodded my head and smiled at him like a foreign person, first over my mesclun salad and then over my fresh Gulf catfish, and finally over my tres leches cake.
It was Mother who kept the chatter breezing across the table—saying things like how lucky we were to have Mr. Taft escorting us to lovely restaurants, and how Mr. Taft always knew how to treat a lady, and how Mr. Taft had sworn to take her all the way to Virginia for a restaging of The Second Battle of Manassas. “Isn’t that just too, too thrilling, Robert? Especially since you know that’s always been my very favorite battle. So much better than The First Manassas, I’ve always thought.”
Mr. Taft tugged proudly at the waist of his sans-a-belt pants. Between the wine and the cake and Mother’s bragging, he looked baked and turkey-stuffed. And after he signed for his American Express card, Mother reached both of her hands across the table to hold both of Mr. Taft’s hands, and mouthed “I love you” over the coffee service. And as he mouthed “I love you” back, his eyes positively sparkled with adoration and chardonnay, and Mother’s charm bracelets tinkled in a way which, I’m sure, to Mr. Taft, sounded dainty and enticing, but which reminded me of the jangling of bullet casings. So that by the time we made it back to Mother’s car, I was so exhausted by the effort of their romance that I napped all the way home.
Mother, too, was worn by her romance. She’d started smoking again (a habit she’d abandoned while modeling at Texas A&M) in order to cope with the fact that Mr. Taft’s idea of perfect happiness was spending every spare minute alone with her. Even if Mother hadn’t found him so repulsive—“Mr. Taft has strange tastes, Robert,” was all she’d say—Mother’s husbandly ideal had always run along the lines of incarcerated white-collar criminals and other high-dollar men prevented by circumstance from hanging around too much. Many times, over the years, I’d caught her gazing cow-eyed over a mug shot in the Houston Chronicle of some top oil executive ensnared by an insider-trading sting operation.
“Here’s the plan, Robert,” Mother said. “I’m marrying this old man. And then, I’m going to go to bed and smoke for the next fifty years.” Mother said this to me while sitting in bed and smoking one cigarette, and then another, mashing their butts into the cut-crystal ashtray she’d propped onto her lap, which was the size of a hubcap and heavy enough to kill a man. This was how she spent most of her time between travels with Mr. Taft. And although I was disturbed by Mother’s new passion for doing nothing (because it suggested a depressed state of mind, and because Mother’s hair was so flammable, and because I’d been raised on the tale of The Fiery Death of Linda Darnell, who’d been Mother’s favorite brunette movie star), I loved having the opportunity to sit on her bed and talk to her, as she leaned into her pillows, smoking with her eyes closed. I was still friendless, and Mother was still the only person listening to me. The less I saw of her, the more I had to tell her: about the movies, and about My New Idol, Lillian Hellman, and about Mrs. Rayburn, my geometry teacher, who I thought might be evil, but who did community theater musicals, which I thought might be fun.
One day in October, when my voice and Mother’s cigarette smoke filled her bedroom, and I was attempting to convey just how fervently I wished Jesus would send me a famous, blacklisted writer to fall in love with, as he’d done for Lillian Hellman, Mr. Taft telephoned Mother, once more, to say how he couldn’t wait for their weekend in Oaxaca. Then Mother began a truly disgusting routine of purring into the telephone receiver, and tut-tut-tutting her tongue, and just when I thought she’d hum a few bars from “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” she made a series of noises with her lips that sounded like she was calling the mallards home to roost, and then she hung up. “God,” she said. “Even the telephone is hateful.”
“All I have to say is Mr. Taft is no Dashiell Hammett,” I said, because I wanted to make sure our earlier conversation wasn’t sidetracked.
“Well, Mr. Taft is the best hope we’ve got right now,” said Mother. She squished a cigarette into her ashtray like she was trying to kill a bug. “Although, when I asked the Lord for a husband, he was not what I had in mind.”
“Which is why I’m asking Jesus for someone who’ll guide me through the pitfalls of crafting my first creative work. Like He sent Dash to Lily, so she could write The Children’s Hour.”
“Lillian Hellman was Jewish,” said Mother.
“Then I’ll ask Jehovah,” I said.
“Lillian Hellman looked like my elbow,” she said.
“Mother. You’re not playing.”
“I’m beginning to think the power of prayer works better in getting rid of people you don’t want than in bringing people you do.”
To be honest, this thought had also crossed my mind. I’d pleaded with Jesus to fling Eddie, Mother’s hideous church girlfriend, from our lives, and He had. After Mother’s first weekend in Lubbock with Mr. Taft, she’d stopped returning Eddie’s phone calls. “Men are too much work,” she’d said. “But women are really too much work.” And at that moment, I’d truly felt the Lord’s presence in my life. On the other hand, praying had yet to score me any romantic leads, particularly in the form of left-wing mystery writers. “What kind of husband do you want?” I asked.
“Dead,” she said.
“If a man dropped out of the sky? Who would he be?”
“I don’t know,” said Mother. She scraped a little smidge of ash off the tip of her tongue with her fingernail.
“Sure you do,” I said.
“I don’t want to discuss him with you,” she said.
And that’s when I knew my days with Mother were numbered.