Leroy Can Tell You When
Leroy can count by seventeens
without using his fingers. He can look at a crowd and tell you how many people
are in it. He knows what x is before
I finish reading him the equation. He knows about sin and cos and tan and
all the buttons on my algebra calculator.
Thing is, he’s too slow to know to be thankful. If I say, “Leroy,
do you know how lucky you are to be a math whiz?” he says something like, “Thirteen
words. Forty-one letters.” If I say, “Can you help me with my math
homework?” he says, “Always happy to help the retard.” That’s
his favorite joke. And he laughs for about five minutes every time I let him
Today he’s counting by twenty-twos. He says this will get him to a hundred
thousand in about forty minutes. I don’t doubt him.
There’s a girl on the bus who Leroy likes. She’s little and in kindergarten.
He’s ten and big for his age. I try to tell him not to talk to her, in
case she gets scared of him, but he won’t listen.
“Hi,” he says.
“Hi,” she answers, spelling H-I in the air with her finger while
she says it.
Then she asks him to show her what’s in his book bag and when he does,
she asks for all of it and he gives it to her. His spelling homework, a Super
Ball, his library book, a notepad he got in a Cheerios box, and a watermelon-shaped
eraser. I bet if he had a million dollars in there, he’d give that to
Her mother meets her at the bus stop and has to wait while she crams all
stuff into her backpack. I hear her every day asking, “Where’d you
get all that stuff?” And the girl tells her that Leroy gave it to her.
That’s fine until Leroy gives her his underpants.
The phone rings later that night, and it’s the school. When Mom hangs
up, she comes into the living room and grabs Leroy by the shoulder.
“Show me your underpants!” She grabs the waistband of his Lee jeans
roughly and looks inside. “Where are they?”
“Leroy, where are your underpants?”
“I love that girl,” he says, “on the bus.”
“Did you give them to her? Did she see your privacy?”
“Her name is Annie.”
“Mom. He didn’t mean anything bad by it.”
She sits down in front of him, cross-legged.
“Leroy, you can’t give people your underpants. They’re part
of your privates. Remember our talk about privates?”
“Seventeen words. Eighty-nine letters.”
“Leroy, do you understand that you can’t give away your underpants?”
“Yes, Mom. Eleven words, fifty-four letters.”
“You can get in big trouble, you know?”
Mom is still in her white pantyhose. Her swollen red feet shine through and
I can see she’s still wrapping the corn on her right big toe. She sighs and
goes back to the kitchen. She’s making German sausage and mashed potatoes,
Today, Annie isn’t on the bus. During social studies class, the beige phone
in Mrs. Dunkel’s class rings and she tells me I have to go to the office.
I strut to the hall, where worry hits me. What did Leroy do this time?
When I get to the office, Annie is there, sitting in one of the orange chairs,
watching the janitor hang Christmas decorations in the hallway. I wave to
the secretary and sit down, and watch the janitor climb an old wooden ladder
string garland across the ceiling and staple it to the foam panels. Annie’s
right hand traces letters in the palm of her left, like a pretend notepad with
block capital letter per page. I follow her finger. A-R-T-A-T-T-A-C-K. Art
“John?” It’s Mr. Killian, the principal.
When I get into his office, I see Leroy sitting there, with an icepack on
“Leroy, what happened?”
He moves the ice to show me a swollen eye. “She hit me.”
“She did? Why?”
“Her dad told her to.”
I look at Mr. Killian. “So how is that his fault?”
“I want you to sit with your brother on the bus from now on.”
I nod and the secretary beeps in. Mom is here.
When I look back at Leroy, he’s counting again, with that look on his face
like numbers are his only friends. That peaceful, glazed look that I wish I had
instead of being worried all the time. I know it’s bad to wish it, but
I do. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to worry about anything but counting
by twelve to infinity. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to take care of someone
who doesn’t know to be thankful about my taking care of them.
Leroy tells me that I have lived 4,430 days. It’s only when he tells
me I have 16,784 left to live that I get curious.
“Stop messing,” I say.
“You are. You don’t really know how many days I have left.”
“Sure I do. I know how many days everybody has left.”
He never lies.
“Mom has 3,890. Mr. Killian has 7,312. I have 362. Harry, the kid with
the big cow at the rodeo last summer, has 24,826. And Annie, the girl on
the bus has
32,835. And Mrs.—”
“Hold on. You have 362?”
“So what’s going to happen to you next November?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Don’t tell Mom, OK?”
“I mean it,” he says.
I reach for my calculator and I figure out that I am going to die when I’m
fifty-eight. This seems reasonable. Mr. Killian walks back in with Mom and Annie,
and Annie’s Mom, whose face looks like a cat that got smacked.
“John has agreed to sit with his brother on the bus from now on,” Mr.
“Hi, Leroy,” Annie says.
The adults shush.
Leroy waves, still counting.
“Is there anything else?” Annie’s mother says.
I whisper to Mom that Annie shouldn’t ask for Leroy’s stuff anymore.
“It would be helpful if Annie didn’t ask Leroy for his things anymore.”
The girl’s mother tenses. “Are you saying that my daughter asked
for your son’s filthy underwear?”
Mom inhales to answer, but then Annie stands up.
“Sorry I hit you, Leroy,” she says.
Leroy jumps up and grabs her and hugs her so tightly she squeals and then
he looks her in the eyes and says, “Your Mom is gonna die in 14,754 days.”
And she answers, softly, “I know. She’s going to get hit by a dump
truck full of rocks.”
The three adults look at each other and roll their eyes.
But I don’t doubt it one bit.
* * *
Mom doesn’t believe me at first,
but I prove it to her. I take Leroy around the old folks home where she works
and get him to whisper the numbers in my ear and I write them down, seal them
in an envelope, and tell her to open it two months later.
Now we’re on the road twice a week.
We go from home to home, meeting people. Leroy whispers the numbers to
me, I write them down, and Mom sells the list to the administration.
if they know When everybody’s going to die, then they can run the place
a lot smoother.
When I ask her how it feels to be the mom of a kid-genius like Leroy,
she says, “It
pays winter coats for you two.” When I ask her what it’s like to
know she has ten years to live, she says, “It feels like shit.” When
she asks Leroy how long he has, he lies and tells her Annie’s number, and
she says, “Good to know you’ll both outlive me.” She means, “good
to know dragging you around like this isnt gonna kill you.”
The thing that really ticks me off is that neither of them seems happy.
I mean, Leroy has a gift, you know? A real gift. He can really see into
But Mom just treats him like normal. Well, if you consider normal dragging
around like a freak show to make money off him. She tells him to tie
his own shoes, fights with him over zipping his own coat. Tells him to
butt. Not like I think she should treat him like a prince or anything,
but it would
be nice if she said, “Leroy, I’m proud of you,” or
something that real mothers say to their real fortune-teller sons.
And Leroy is more upset than relieved every time we take him out of school.
think he could at least be thankful for that.
“I miss Annie,” he says.
“But you don’t even see Annie anymore. She’s in kindergarten.”
“I miss her on the bus.”
I’d been sitting with him since the underpants incident. “But you
don’t see her there, either.”
“But we talk.”
They do not talk. “Don’t fib.”
“We do. We talk with our brains. She told me she likes my shoes.”
“I can tell you When, and she can tell you How.”
“How she likes your shoes?”
“No, retard,” he says, slugging my arm. “How you’re going
Leroy looks pretty much normal from the outside, but when he gets really
happy, his face deforms a little bit. His mouth smiles like a special
does—crooked and wet. He’s looking at me that way now.
“I can tell you When and she can tell you How.”
“How am I going to die?”
“I don’t know. Annie can tell you. She told me.”
“So how are you gonna die, then?” The school janitor pops into my
head. HEART ATTACK, not Art Attack.
“I can’t tell you.”
I grab him in that brotherly wrestling hold, like we’re joking around. “Tell
I wrestle him and pin his strong shoulders. With my face above his, I work
up a big glob of spit. “Tell me or I’ll let this drop!” He doesn’t,
so I let it drop slowly, and it snakes right up his nose until he coughs.
“Mom!” He wiggles free and I chase him down the hallway.
“What’s so bad about it? Why can’t you tell me?”
When I pry the lock open to our room, he’s on his bed rocking, and I hug
him and apologize. I try to crack jokes so he’ll give me a goofy smile
again, but he can’t. He can only have one emotion at a time, Mom says.
So now he’s just sad, and so am I. Still, I wonder how he’s going
to die. And why he won’t tell me. He tells me everything else.
* * *
next fall, I’m in junior high, so I take a different bus.
“Annie’s not coming to school anymore,” Leroy says.
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know. That kid Mark says she’s dead, but I know he’s
lying. She still has 32,635 days left. I think she moved.”
“That Mark kid is a jerk.”
“He’s only got 873 left, so I don’t care.”
“And how many are you down to now?” I didn’t ask all summer.
“That’s like two months.”
“And you still won’t tell me what Annie said? About How?”
“Eleven words, forty-three letters.”
“Why not? You know I can take it.”
Leroy puts his hands over his ears and starts to walk away. “Eight words,
My life has become so weird that I’m not processing this like I should.
I have two months left with my little brother. That should make me do something
other than mark the day on the calendar with an X.
I decide to give Leroy every spare minute until he dies. I get Mom
to take us cool places, usually on the way back from a nursing home.
a few harvest
fairs and eat funnel cake. Leroy wins a six-foot-long furry snake
and refuses to unwrap it from his neck for a week. At nights, we
of Transformers or checkers or backgammon, Leroy’s favorite.
I’ve been trying to
track down Annie, too, because I can’t stop thinking about
going to die. Knowing When isn’t enough. And Leroy would die
happier if he saw her one last time.
“So, if you know How, then can’t you stop it from happening?” I
ask one night over a bowl of popcorn and a game of Uno.
“That wouldn’t be right.”
“But what’s the point, then?”
“What’s the point of what?”
“Of knowing How?
He shrugs. “Uno.”
“So in a month, you’re just going to happily walk into the arms of
death, with no urge to save yourself?”
“Twenty-one words, eighty letters. I don’t know what you mean.”
“You don’t want to live?”
He stops and looks at me with his head cocked. He really has no concept of
what I’m talking about. He has lived a life full of acceptance.
“So, in a month, you’ll just do whatever it is that you know is going
to kill you?”
“Twenty-nine days. Uno.”
“I’ll miss you, you know?”
This is the first time Leroy has ever seen me cry. He has no idea what to
do. So he starts counting by forty-sevens to the tune of the Transformers TV show
* * *
Everything is going
great, like normal, and then Leroy starts to freak out. There are still
about forty old people left to
in the B
wing of Harmony Hills main building. We brought the puppy today,
for the residents
to pet and scratch. Mom tries to divert attention by taking the
puppy and making a big fuss over it. Im stuck with trying to calm Leroy
done this before. I take him to the men’s room.
He sits on the tall, handicapped toilet seat and bawls into his
snot everywhere. He’s drooling. Finally, he says something.
“I don’t want to do it anymore. It makes me sad.”
“OK, Leroy. I’ll take you home,” I say.
“Mom wants me to finish. I can’t finish!”
“You don’t have to. I’ll get her to start the car.” Five
days left, and Leroy shouldn’t have to suffer like this. I tell Leroy to
stay in the bathroom and I find Mom and ask her to get ready to leave.
“He has to finish this job, John.” She squints at me.
“He’s just a kid! He wants to go home!”
“Tell him he can go home once his work is finished.”
Next thing I know, I’m helping Leroy slide out the small bathroom window.
We get out to the parking lot on the busy suburban corner, and I take Mom’s
keys from my coat pocket and start the car. How hard can it be? Gas pedal,
And then I hear Leroy yell, “Annie!” and before I can stop him, he’s
running into stopped traffic at the intersection, and opening a car door. He’s
hugging her and she’s squealing with joy until her father gets out of the
car, slugs Leroy, and grabs her from his arms. The lights turn green and rush
hour horns beep in the lane behind Annie’s dad’s car. Leroy rubs
his jaw and tells Annie he misses her. Her mother is trying to direct traffic
behind them, and jabbering into a cell phone. Presumably 911. The father winds
up again to hit him.
“Please! Stop!” I scream. I can’t get there fast enough because
the eastbound lanes are still on a green light.
“Leroy, watch out!” Annie yells.
But before any of us can do anything, Annie’s dad punches Leroy so hard
that he flies into the eastbound lane. And Leroy gets slammed by a tractor-trailer.
After it hits him, the truck skids sideways to a halt, traffic
stops, and sirens start. Leroy lands on the gritty shoulder,
face down. Annie is the
reach him and she throws her arms around him, and says, “Leroy? Leroy?”
I get there a few seconds after, and lift his bleeding head into
my lap. Annie’s
crying so hard I want to adopt her.
Her father drags her back into their car, and he steers into
the nursing home’s
parking lot, and parks next to Mom’s car, which is still running. The
ambulance and cops arrive. Leroy is in and out of consciousness and keeps patting
with his limp hand.
“I love you, buddy,” I say, and he smiles.
Mom arrives. “Leroy! Baby!” She looks at me. “What happened?”
I give her the wait-finger and look back at him. “You lied?”
“Two words. Seven letters. I didn’t want you to worry.”
Mom barges in. “Leroy? Baby? Just hang on.” But Leroy keeps eye
contact with me.
“You mean it’s today?” I ask.
* * *
At Leroy’s funeral, Mom wails.
I feel bad for not telling her because her guilt is so big it’s swallowed
our whole town. “If only I wasn’t working so hard,” she says. “If
only I had more time to play with him.” But she had time and she knows
it. She was just taking him for granted, same as I was until I found out.
Annie’s father is in big trouble. I told the police everything that happened,
and they think it’s his fault. He comes to Leroy’s funeral and he’s
brought Annie. At the end, when we all get to file past his closed, white coffin,
Annie stops for a whole minute and talks to him through the wood. I see her writing
with her fingertip on the painted wood, in big, invisible capital letters. She
writes, “HIT BY A TRUCK.”
And I come to realize that I don’t want to know How. I don’t want
to know When. I just want this day to be over so I can start learning how to
live without him.
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