My Enormous Stepson Owen Won’t Stop Talking About Melissa Leo

by Tom Batten


My enormous stepson Owen won’t stop talking about Melissa Leo. The actress. You would know her if you saw her. Owen talks about her all day. In the morning, in the afternoon. At dinner, between huge forkfuls of pasta, he’ll mention some award she won, maybe from the Florida Film Critics Circle. As if I didn’t already know this. As if I were a child, sitting at his knee, wondering if that august institution had ever singled her out for her accomplishments. At night he paces the hallway, his broad shoulders brushing opposite walls and jostling framed photographs so that I’ll have to re-center them all in the morning, reciting her filmography from memory, to no one.

He used to speak of many things. Football. Baseball. Video games. The petty dramas that high school boys and high school girls subject one another to, ferrets, the relative distance of the moon from Earth. The best preparation of various cuts of meat. Whether a man could eat an entire Toyota Camry if he endeavored to do so in small pieces over the course of a year.

This last one he would mention purely to antagonize me. I would say to him, “You stay away from my Camry, Owen,” and he would laugh and claim he was simply curious.

Now his conversational repertoire has been limited exclusively to Melissa Leo, her life and times.

I know why. There is no mystery, here. He claims his interest in Melissa Leo is sheer appreciation for her incredible talent, but that isn’t the truth. It is a lie. I tell him, “Owen, be honest,” and he says, “I exude honesty.” I look up the definition of “exude,” suspicious of his usage. His usage is correct. Regardless, he is lying. His apparent obsession with Melissa Leo is a challenge to me. He believes he knows more about her, that he understands her with a depth I cannot achieve.

Owen already presents a wide array of parenting challenges. I’ve mentioned his physical enormity. He’s headstrong, and a bully, as well. Once, on a field trip to an art museum, he convinced the curator to allow him to keep an original Edward Hopper painting. The painting was of a woman sitting alone in a small bedroom gazing at a coffee cup. When he came home with it I told him he couldn’t keep it, that the painting belonged in a museum. He agreed to return it. That night he cut the canvas from the frame with a razor and folded it until it fit into a manila envelope and the next day he mailed it back. His body gives off a distinctive musk that attracts and invigorates wild animals. We’ve been banned from the zoo. Sometimes he hangs his unlaundered clothes from tree limbs overnight, and in the morning our yard is filled with coyotes. Our neighbors are forced to keep their dogs and cats inside. The stamp he used to mail the painting back to the museum was taken from my collection. My body produces no distinctive musk. The coyotes snap at me in the morning when I venture from the house to my Camry in the driveway.

My supervisor does not accept this excuse for my occasional tardiness. He notes the date and how late I arrive, each time I arrive late, in my file in the Human Resources office. Henrietta, who works in the Human Resources office and is responsible for fetching my file and signing a form each time my supervisor places a note concerning my tardiness, glowers at me in the hallway. She does not like that my tardiness creates additional work for her. My supervisor tells me I must assert myself. He says this about Owen; I have not told him about Henrietta’s glowering. I have told my wife about Henrietta’s glowering but she is not as interested in that as she is in my relationship with Owen. She says Owen is challenging me. She says I must push back, and show him that I am dominant.

I invited Owen to dinner. In my Camry, on our way to the restaurant, two police cruisers sped past us with their lights blazing and turned into the parking lot of a Wendy’s. “Look,” I said, “looks like a job for Kay Howard.”

Kay Howard is the name of the character Melissa Leo played on the television series, Homicide: Life on the Street.

“I think you mean Detective Sargeant Kay Howard,” Owen said. “And anyway, she transferred to the Fugitive Squad eventually, and I doubt that’s what’s going on.”

I took him to his favorite all-you-can-eat pizza buffet, which is called Oh, The Pizza. The restaurant’s logo is a burning zeppelin with hundreds of slices of pizza floating in the black smoke rising from the flames, as though the zeppelin had been stuffed with pizza pies and whatever explosion had wrecked the ship was propelling slices into the air. When we walked inside the hostess ran for the manager, a portly man with thin red hair who greeted Owen by name and as he showed us to a table, reminded him that the restaurant’s policy was that each customer was allowed only one plate full of pizza at a time. Owen did not acknowledge the manager at all. It was if the man were a ghost only I could see or hear. As soon as he left us Owen filled two plates with tall stacks of pizza slices and began eating them very quickly.

I took the opportunity while Owen’s mouth was full to mention how I’d always felt that the criticism Leo received for launching her own ad campaign in order to persuade members of the Academy to award her for her role in The Fighter was unfair. People thought it came off as desperate, but I’d felt the ads were classy and dignified.

Owen swallowed the pizza in his mouth. “She’s only eleven years older than Mark Wahlberg,” he said. “David O. Russell had to talk her into taking the role.” He crammed more pizza into his mouth. I picked at my salad. The lettuce was wilted, the tomatoes slightly brown.

“She’s always been outspoken about ageism in Hollywood,” I said. “She’s a strong woman with strong opinions. She’s taken flack for her views on feminism, as well. But she stands her ground.”

Owen spit a partially chewed mouthful of pizza into a napkin and set it on the table between his two plates. He set his elbows on the table and looked me in the eye. “What do you make of her allegiance to the theory that the Earth is flat?” he asked.

I had not heard that Melissa Leo believed that the earth was flat, but the last time Owen had asked for my opinion on anything had been a year earlier, when he inquired as to whether I thought he was capable of hurling a box containing all the wrestling trophies I’d won in high school and college clear to the opposite bank of the lake near our house. I’d told him I did not think him capable. The box sits at the bottom of the lake to this day, a testament to my superior judgment.

Owen ate pizza and awaited my response. “I’m sure she has her reasons,” I said.

“Interesting,” Owen said. “Because in an interview promoting Frozen River, she specifically stated that she believes the Earth to be round.”

It was a clever trap. My only response was to meekly mention that she’d won an Independent Spirit Award for her work in that film.

“And a Gotham award,” Owen said.

“And the Marrakech International Film Festival Award for Best Leading Actress,” I said.

“She lives in Stone Ridge, New York,” Owen said. “Population 1,173.”

“That’s as of the 2010 census,” I said. “The population is probably higher, now.”

I said this louder than intended. I said this at a volume that might be considered screaming. The other diners in the restaurant gawked. The manager hovered near the buffet, watching us. His thin red hair glistened with sweat.

Owen paid no mind to the gawking patrons or the watchful, sweating manager. He stared at me. He stared into my eyes. I stared into his. We breathed in, and out. Our hearts pumped blood through our bodies. Our fingernails and hair grew, slowly.

Somewhere in the world a giant panda was drowning in a river.

Somewhere a butterfly was emerging from a chrysalis.

Somewhere a man with an irregularly shaped penis was shivering with fear as he exposed himself to a new lover for the first time.

Somewhere Henrietta from Human Resources was using an ice pick to poke a new hole in her husband’s belt and congratulating him on his remarkable weight loss, and he was telling her that eating right was paying off even as the undiagnosed cancer in his stomach grew and grew. Somewhere Melissa Leo was reading a script and wondering if her character would have a mid-western accent, while the writer of that script sat alone in his apartment pricing escort services on the internet, while the escort he’d eventually call for a date was walking by a homeless woman who later that night, while the writer was telling the escort about how his mother had withheld affection, would buy a winning lottery ticket. She’ll use her millions to buy a fabulous mansion with a home theater and one day, years from now, she’ll screen the film based on the script that Melissa Leo is currently reading, but it won’t star Melissa Leo, because the script will have been reworked and revised into a vehicle for Vanessa Hudgens. The formerly homeless woman will find the film trite, and Vanessa Hudgens will be nominated for a Golden Globe but she will not win, and Owen will forget about Melissa Leo and develop an obsession with Eva Green and Henrietta’s husband will die and I’ll send her a card that says, “Condolences,” when what I really mean is all we have is our hearts and they’re always either burning or breaking but even burnt or broken, they are ours, they are ours, they are ours.

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