I first realized Carol DeBernier was a compulsive liar the day she walked over to our house bearing a fruitcake aloft like it was a national treasure, and said, “I just love your little brother Leon. He’s the creative type, and that’s where the genius of a family lies—in its creative types.”
Carol DeBernier’s a two-faced out-and-out phony. No doubt about it.
Nobody "just loves" my brother. He’s an idiot. He’s the reason my mother and my sister and I live out here, six miles east of Nowhere, Nevada.
For a while there the dust settled, and I thought maybe things had gotten as bad as they were going to get. But I was wrong. Now, we steal electricity.
This afternoon, Leon ran the big orange extension cord across the back yard, around the fence, over the next-door neighbor’s patio, and into his kitchen. The guy is out of town for six weeks. Won’t he be surprised when he reads the next electric bill?
Leon said, "You wouldn’t believe how many people leave their electricity on, even if they go away for a long time!"
I said, "Yeah, well, everybody leaves their electricity on. For one thing, their refrigerators and freezers would go off and everything would melt if they turned it off. Right?"
He just looked at me.
I said, "Don’t you think somebody will notice a bright orange cord running all the way from our house to the next?"
He just kept looking at me. Then he got in the truck and drove off.
Can you believe my stupid brother? Leon broke the lock on some guy’s back door and, basically, stole his juice.
"I mean it!" Carol DeBernier used to chirp at my sister and me. "I really love your brother Leon. What an imagination!" And our mother just ate it up.
Idiot Boy. What’s to love?
Nothing he did back home ever worked out. He was flunking out of high school by the end of his sophomore year. He only went to class two or three times a week.
So Mother said, "You could get Leon a part-time job at that copy center."
I don’t know what she thinks, sometimes. I’d only been working there seven months, and I definitely wasn’t one of the candidates for the management program, so what made her think I had any clout?
It turned out that Judy, the night manager, was looking for a kid, a student, to work cheap: Idiot Boy’s luck. Imagine my surprise when Judy shows up on my shift a week after Leon starts, and pulls me aside and shows me a piece of paper.
"I found this on one of the copiers after Leon went home last night, and I thought you should know first," she said. And she gave me that Christian look—the pity pout? "I’m not sure, I mean, I wouldn’t know, but it seems to be a list of several types of marijuana, with prices marked on the right hand side. See?"
And sure enough, right there in black and white, Leon had photocopied a price list for "Thai," "Hawaiian," and something he called "Local Boy."
Judy shook her head and walked away. The next day I was let go, and the regional manager said she would forget the whole thing but she couldn’t have us work there any more.
Later, when Leon grew pot in Mother’s planter in the front yard, no one noticed except Carol DeBernier. And she marched right over and told Mother she didn’t see why a young person shouldn’t try different things. She said Leon was the creative type, and so he probably needed more freedom than the average person. And she looked right at my sister Amy and me when she said that. Oh, she said, if only Leon could figure out what he was good at, and make money doing whatever that might be, he would be just fine.
Well. Thank you, Carol DeBernier! Wouldn’t we all like to make money doing what we want to do? I know I would like to make a living turning the garden hose on people who don’t mind their own goddamn business. But, there you go. Most people don’t get what they want.
At the moment Amy and I work for an international company, based in Las Vegas. Four days a week we go into an air-conditioned room in a trailer, where six of us—all women, of course, because men won’t do this job without bitching all day about how much more money they could make somewhere else, and what they’ll do when they get out of this stupid place, blah, blah, blah. The six of us go and sit in a circle at a big table. Then we sort through a pile of plastic hairclips we get from a factory in Mexico, and we put them on little cards, and put the cards into decorator boxes to be shipped out all over the country.
We found out last week we’re not getting a raise for at least another year. Well, no wonder the company’s in trouble. The hair clips are not that pretty. And I don’t know what they’re thinking, buying this junk, sending it up here to be put onto cards, and then shipping it somewhere else. And the sticker printed on the back says, "Made in America." It doesn’t make any sense to me. But, hey, I don’t have a business degree, or I guess I wouldn’t be sticking hairclips on cards for a living, would I?
And if we didn’t have Leon for an idiot brother, we wouldn’t live in this bungalow in the middle of Hell, Nevada. Last week the temperature hit 117 degrees. I don’t know, but it seems like that’s hot enough to cook some brain cells. I know I feel stupider the longer we stay here. I hate this desert. Who ever had the idea to build a whole state out here?
Amy doesn’t mind the desert as much as I do. Or, if she does, she’s too nice to say so. She’s always been the polite one in our family. Amy is a licensed massage therapist. But, as you might expect, therapeutic massage isn’t the kind that’s in demand out this way. Amy’s potential clients all wanted their massage "finished off." So after a few months of arguing with angry men in cowboy boots, and with no repeat customers in sight, Amy took a job at the hairclip company where I was already working.
At least it’s a job. At least Amy and I don’t mind working for a living.
Nobody ever told Leon he had to get a job. We never told him he had to do anything. That’s part of the trouble. And Mother was always so careful with him when he was a baby! Oh, she treated Leon like he was made of gold. And he acted like he was made of gold. Only, he wasn’t. He was a big fat baby with squinty little eyes and a stupid expression on his face. You know how some babies look when they’re farting or pooping in their pants? Leon looked like that all the time.
Last year, we finally sent Leon out here to Nevada, to study electronics at the Dixon Academy. Leon first heard about it on TV. He watched a lot of TV after he got fired for photocopying that marijuana price list.
Mother never exactly understood what the whole photocopy thing was about. She grounded him. Can you believe it? Idiot Boy stole copies, and they were copies of his drug list. That was his ingenious double crime. And what did he have to do to make up for it? Stay home and eat snacks.
That’s where he was when he got the idea to buy pornography off the Internet and re-sell it at a mark-up, to his friends who didn’t have computers. What do you think Idiot Boy got for that one? A slap on the wrist and more time at home!
I told him, "Probation isn’t the same thing as house arrest—you dummy. Why don’t you go for a walk sometime?" And he looked at me with his dopey doggy eyes.
"I’m not sure that’s true," he said. "Maybe you should look it up."
What did I expect? He was Mother’s menopause baby. I told her to get him tested when he was in the second grade. She did, and the doctors told her: "Slow metabolism, but nothing unusual."
For years, Mother told all of her friends and relatives: "He’s got a slow metabolism, but that’s nothing unusual." And she went on coddling him, listening to his stupid ideas. She let him take apart every appliance in the house to find out how it operated. Only he could never put anything back together.
But Mother didn’t question Leon’s intelligence, even when she was elbow-deep in broken toasters and clock radios. She let him have anything he wanted. So we took out a loan and sent him where he wanted to go when his probation ended. By then I was working at Xerox, and I had a pretty good chance at the management program there.
We put Leon on a plane and sent him to the Dixon Academy of Technology, in the beautiful Nevada desert. That’s where he had decided he would start a brand new life in electronic engineering. For some reason—I guess the tuition—the school overlooked the fact that Leon had failed science for two years running in high school. Leon told the Academy’s President that he was "ready to learn." And Mother believed him. She was still mailing Leon a monthly allowance when I took the checkbook away from her.
That happened right after we got a call from the cops.
Leon was caught stealing the plumbing and fixtures from a vacant house. He told the police he was doing a favor for the guy who used to own the house. The guy had sold the property but he forgot some stuff he needed, and he asked Leon to help him out for a hundred bucks.
Nobody believed Leon at first. But the police checked out the story. Then they uncovered this racket the guy was pulling all over the southwest. He’d buy a house and fix it up, sell it for a profit, then steal back all the fixtures right before the new owner moved in. The guy went to prison, and Leon got probation again. Only, he can’t leave the state. So guess who got to move out here to support the Idiot Boy?
Can you believe how lucky some incredibly dumb people are? Why is that? Why does Leon walk through life like an animal—like a big circus bear with two days’ growth on his goofy face—planting pot in the front yard, stealing pipes and doorknobs as a favor to a complete stranger?
I can see him right now. I’m looking out the patio window at Leon. He’s frowning, leaning down low to the ground, pulling the extension cord tighter.
He went to the store. And now he’s got at least 20 brown cardboard boxes flattened out in a pile. He’s going to lay those boxes out, end against end, all the way across our dirt yard, to cover the orange extension cord.
Mother stands next to me at the patio window, watching her stupid son.
"Now, this is where all that electronics training will come in handy," she says, because she doesn’t even know that Leon flunked out of the Dixon Academy after two weeks.
Leon will be outside all night, carefully laying down the flattened boxes. He is dead certain no one will be able to tell those boxes from the dirt. In Leon’s mind, he is the genius of the family. In his mind, he is working on a foolproof master plan. In his mind, the only possible result of all this will be free electricity.