Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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His Last Bull Ride...

by Chris Sharp

Back in the County Fair a couple of years ago the bull they called Adolf had kicked in his head, breaking some of his skull. From then on his left eye looked at things sideways no matter what his brain was doing.

His thoughts could get back to speed when the sun started racing into the hills for the night. But the dusk was also a reminder of all the daylight hours he'd spent looking at the world from a special peephole in his brain.

If he had been something more than a quiet and humble cowboy grateful to have good California soil under his boots, he might have talked more about what he had lived through. His doctor told him he'd had the kind of bull-kicking no man was supposed to have survived without getting some part of his thinking clipped off. But live through it he had, even if he was only seeing the world through a hole in the wall that was left for ghosts who went sightseeing in this world.

He was sunning himself now, just being happy, which was a big change for him since he had left the bull-riding circuit. The kick in his head had opened many doors that were supposed to stay closed for those who were on a normal journey in life. People could tell he was getting by now without brushing most of his teeth. But he preferred using the time thinking of the things that started turning a man into a kind of big dog, happy just to watch for things while dozing off into a new day.

Once he stopped using what he saw as his human characteristics, those things started walking away from him. That was true especially of anything to do with eating across from another person. But he held onto other characteristics, like the style of touching his cowboy hat just so when the sun got hot under his collar.

He sat where he lived practically all the time, under the different levels of the daylight.

His disability check was in the big hands of his sister and landlady, who had somehow wrested power of attorney over him. With all that control over his life, she wanted to seem big hearted. So she gave him some of the money (his own money!) to exercise and train her horses. When he sat around until he couldn't keep his eyes open watching the stars and the moon, he slept just yards from the stable in an antique recreational vehicle that armored him with each slam of the door. He no longer could have his own car, because the state wouldn't allow him to drive.

His two nieces rode horses nearly every day, his 15-year-old daughter Sandy riding with them nearly every Saturday when he had custody of her. Sandy rode Hector, a muscular quarter horse, while the nieces exercised their Arabians who showed their snobbery for any old cowboy they sensed by trotting around the arena with dressage prance steps.

"Ride her, cowgirl," he said to Sandy, with a good laugh.

He cupped his hand so his voice would go straight into Sandy's ears, instead of dispersing through the thin air.

"Dad, we're going on the trail." Sandy had stopped her horse, waiting for the Arabians to go first.

"Ride her, cowgirl," he said again.

He was trying to take his eyes off her sky-blue helmet, because it kept steering him away from her big horse.

He was pretty tired already, so he gave up the battle and looked at the trees instead.

The trees were perfect for California, so much like a melting pot with mulberry and oak and off by itself a juniper standing like a statue. He tried to listen to the trees, but he heard nothing special, as the wind rustling through the leaves and the branches might as well have been words spoken in a foreign language. Still, that gave him a bit of a breather, because not getting the message of tree winds told him that his mind was acting pretty much on the same page with everyone else's brains on this pretty pleasant day.

There had been days when the trees told him secrets -- how the next month would be dustbowl dry when the weathermen were predicting rain, how the bay mare's foal would be stillborn. Not having to worry about things he couldn't have helped even before the bull-kick was downright restful.

Sandy pulled Hector up to her father in the blue riding helmet that seemed to crush her head in and make it smaller, drawing his own blue eyes away from her face and the huge horse she rode.

"So what are you going to do, Dad?"

He shrugged his cowboy shoulders, set in a red plaid shirt, as he usually moved his trapezoid muscles when something came his way.

"Are you going to stick around here and wait for us, Dad?"

"I guess I will. I guess I'll watch you ride some."

"We just did. But now we're going off on a trail, Dad."

He stuck his thumb up. "Gotcha."

"Okay, Dad. Then just stay here."

She moved the huge Hector away from him with the lightest touch of her heel.

"I'll just wait here some more, I guess," he said to her.

Sandy didn't like hearing him talk like that, when he didn't have anything interesting more to say and he said something boring to her anyway. But he wasn't going to share with his daughter the juicy stuff in his head because he knew that would be too much for her.

It was when his brain became so rebellious it began to tick like a time bomb that he had started keeping most of his thoughts to himself. His own kin had looked at him funny and talked about putting him in a "home" when he told them that old man McReady had stopped by to warn him about a coyote snatching up chickens in the valley. He'd forgotten that McReady had died a few years back... As it turned out, there was a coyote picking off Joe Francis's laying hens, but that wasn't the part they remembered.

"Bye, Dad." She was riding off on the trail with her two nieces.

"Bye, Sandy." For a minute he wondered if he should say goodbye to his two nieces as well. But then he decided he might as well not.

Sandy and the nieces were riding along on their attached horses in a nice and leisurely horse-riding way, and he watched them even as they got on the old canyon road on the other side of the corral. The ongoing white clouds moved as a team above them. It seemed everything was moving but him. He was just sitting there.

At last he decided to get involved in this moving around stuff as well, so he moved his boots, which were filled with his old dumb feet, on top of a small clean-cut tree stump that had been waiting for that purpose.

I'm a long way from New York, was his thought for the day.

New York had been the city that had built his reputation. His reputation had led to his meeting his wife, and his wife gave him his youngest child Sandy, the one aspect of his world that left him with his lasting joy. So it was natural for him to think of New York, which started this entire process.

It was long over a quarter century now since he had gotten that phone call to ride a bull in New York's Madison Square Garden. The guy who called him said his name was Toots Shor. "You ever heard of me, babe? I know you heard of my restaurant. Leaned on by the IRS, right. But we're opening again in Penn Station, babe. You must have heard of a champ making a comeback." Then somehow Shor told him he was backing a summer rodeo in New York, and he wanted to stock old Madison Square Garden with cowboys to kick off his new downtown restaurant in the vicinity.

He had a feeling at once Shor had to be part of some big New York men's news, because what other kind of man would talk such as this, like the first duty of his voice was to the cigar that stood in its way. Beside, Shor told him he could send a bus ticket to New York if he wanted one. "Sure, Toots, take me to New York," he told Shor, knowing there was no way to hide the excitement in his voice.

People must have heard about me somehow, he told people then, or something this could never have happened.

But what happened after he came into Manhattan to ride the bulls of Madison Square Garden was both one of the best times in his life as well as one of the worst.

His night had started out with all his ducks in a row. There had to be real children in New York because they all seemed to be sitting in Madison Square Garden that first night, watching him and twirling their sparkler junk. He always liked to compete in front of loud kids and their easily-swayed mothers. With his cowboy swagger he could often get them to make the kind of noise that might impact a judge's score on one of his rides.

The bull he was riding for his first qualification run that night was named "Sonny." It seemed a good name, one that was easy to say. "We're dancing tonight, Sonny. Dancing. Sonny, this night." As he always did, he talked to the bull in his woman's voice. First thing you learn in the rodeo is if you're dancing with a bull, you let the bull lead and let him be the man. Then you've got to turn back into a man when you get tossed.

He could feel Sonny's juices flowing, just really stoking, about ready to become a true bull instead of a wooden one that just stood there. "Dance, Sonny," he said, as the gate opened.

"Hah," he said, to enjoy himself on his first big jump.

But he could feel Sonny wasn't really dancing right. There was no connect between when the bull was rocking and when he was rolling. Since there was nothing to follow, he simply allowed himself to be hurled up like he was a human rocket.

It was his one of his best falls but one of his worst performances in his rodeo circuit career. It seemed he had been on the bull a second -- less than a second, even before the clowns could turn their heads to see what happened to him.

Since it was just him and Sonny in the arena while the clowns looked on like idiots, he took the intimate opportunity to sneak behind the bucking bull and kick him on his rump. Then he dived over the protective ramp like a superman.

After the performances he was forced to go to Toots Shor's restaurant that night for the opening night party. All the expected old has-beens and hungry reporters were there. He was surprised that John Wayne or Roy Rogers didn't show up, though. Then an ancient party bear with eyes that sagged like his pants stepped up to him wasted and booze-breathed to tell him, "I'm Toots Shor and you're the man."

"Yes sir," he said.

"The Daily News got your picture, kid," Shor told him.

He found out what that meant that next day as he went to catch a bus back to California at the Port Authority Bus Station, only to be stopped by the front photo of the Daily News that showed both him and Sonny over a headline: "Cowboy Kicks Butt."

He tried to remind his wife while she was divorcing him of that legend he had created of himself from that New York Daily News photo, which kept his head up to this day. The legend followed him all the way through the rodeo circuit, making promoters compete with each other to pay for his crowd-pleasing runs. Half-cowboy, half-clown, he'd be the main draw even if he didn't place. Crowds paid him big time to see him kick a bull or try to as soon as he got tossed. Then he'd get better at it, raising his fist and shouting some crazy thing.

He became such a good cowboy for the rodeo that he earned more money for making appearances than some others got paid for winning championships. If he wasn't signed to ride a bull at a major competition, the event somehow never became so major again.

With his wonderfully crazy way of looking and acting after he was thrown, it wasn't hard for him to provide for his wife and their three kids from his unending checks. In their 19 years together, Roxy never had to work full time to help out. Hardly ever did she have to work more than 10 hours a week in any store.

So when she was leaving him, he told her what she was leaving.

"You know what a hard man I am. But if you ever left you'd find for yourself, this helps me find things other people never notice. You got to be pretty tight to see all the folds on a rose, Roxy, or they'll just wash on you."

"I'm sorry," she said stridently, her way of saying she just didn't want to talk about anything, just like she didn't want to just start taking ballroom dancing with him as a solution to their crisis at this time.

I'm sorry, too, he thought. Now I get sick and disabled for taking a bull kick to buy you things, so I'm pretty upset as well, sweetheart. But she could just go where all cowards go. They all go somewhere.

What also hurt his pride was that his final bull ride was such a joke. He was 56 when he got on Adolf. He just didn't know what he could learn to do next. The rodeo promoters kept paying him these big checks to get thrown off bulls so he could play out to the audiences his famous cheeky temper tantrums, but he always knew this deal would have to end some day. He just didn't know what would happen next.

He didn't even know what happened with Adolf. He was dancing pretty nicely with Adolf's kicks, but all of a sudden he woke up in a hospital. He had no memory of getting kicked. He had no memory of having any trouble staying on the bull's hide.

It was like he was still riding on top of that bull, even after he'd been told he would never ride again.

What really happened, he decided, was Roxy couldn't handle what his neurologist said about his brain tumor.

They couldn't even dig it out. It just had to stay there.

He had known something had gone very wrong with his brain about a year after that bull kicked it around. One night he was just sitting at home, trying to think, when Roxy flushed the toilet. Suddenly, but all so naturally, the water flowing down the drain touched musical notes that had been hidden from him before. He didn't know it at the time, but all the cells in his body were singing to him that he was dying while using the flushing toilet as a musical accompaniment.

When he went to the bathroom and asked Roxy to flush the toilet one more time, she looked frightened, like she'd just received terrible news but had no details.

He then waited for his first seizure -- on his stomach with arms and legs flailing wildly like he was very young again -- before the tumor was finally made public by an MRI.

But the funny thing was that he felt better now, as he walked around behind his sister's exercise arena, and then onto the dirt road that once connected him all of the admiring world. He touched his big Stetson cowboy hat, which sheltered his brain tumor from the fading sun and thought about everything one more time, as he always did every hour.

It had to be that bull that kicked his head that did it, that made a tumor he probably had all his life just suddenly get active and grow, even if the doctors scoffed at the idea.

There was no trouble before that.

All those bulls he'd kicked to draw laughs from an audience, so he could keep getting those checks, had finally brought him to the last bull who got in the final kick.

"Dad," said his daughter, in a bad, screeching voice.

She was loping ahead of her cousins in her big old quarter horse until she made Hector stop at the toes of his cowboy boots.

"Where you going?" she asked.

"Just took a little walk."

"You're not supposed to go out somewhere by yourself, Dad." she said.

"Will you go out with me? I just want to tell you something."

What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong. Just want to show you good stuff from your dad."

"I need to wash Hector. He's hot."

"Then do you want to take a little walk with me? Just ten minutes is all."

"Sure I will."

"Just to talk a bit with your dad"

She patted Hector's head, apologizing to the horse for making him lope when he was so hot. Then she jumped off to lead him to the wash hose. There was a command in her walk, he saw, that made Hector follow her without being pulled.

That was what he liked about her, he thought. He went to sit on his old outdoor seat again. Then he set his feet on the tree stump like before. But his feet looked better now, a lot more alive than those stupid halting feet he had just stacked under a tree a half hour ago. That's the main thing he wanted to show his daughter at this point, to assure her how alive he was now, now that he had taken the biggest and most satisfying dump of his life.

Because if she wasn't afraid of horses, she wasn't afraid of being with a father who could leave his entire body under that mulberry tree like the rodeo man he used to be. That last ride had been the death of him at last -- but that was okay, too.


© 2008 Chris Sharp

Bio: Chris Sharp graduated from Fresno State University in 1997. In 2003, he won the West 35th Street Award for best new fiction by Crimestalkers.com. Between stories, he is a public school teacher at the Menifee School District in Riverside County, CA. Chris's most recent appearance in Aphelion was Memories of Dinners Past, the story of one man's session with a different kind of medium (August 2008).

E-mail: Chris Sharp

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