Mechanical Bull

There was a flyer for it in the coffee shop, a mechanical bull. Shady’s Ribs was having a cowboy party and they were renting a mechanical bull for the evening. I’d recently returned to New England after a year touring earth. I thought it was going to be different, coming home, thought there’d be a new electricity to the life I’d left. I don’t know why I thought that. I was putting off getting a job because I still had money left to stay off the books for another three weeks. My friends were all gone. He moved to Florida.

I got another haircut. They have to talk to you. Then I went back and caught the end of Gladiator on AMC before I started getting ready to go to Shady’s. I looked at my new haircut for a long time before I started shaving my face. I was surprised that there was still cologne left. I thought I’d used it up before I went to Laos. Sometimes if something isn’t working, like a watch, or a toy, and you give it a year alone, it will work again. I understood that. Because something like that might be the problem with me. You never know who might be out tonight, I told myself.

“Rum and coke,” I screamed.

“Strut?” Dimitri, the bartender, looked frightened to see me. Strut isn’t something people call me to my face but he’d forgotten. My name is Ray, but for a long time I had a broken leg. “Where the hell have you been?” he screamed.

“Laos.”

“What?”

“A rum and coke.”

“You got it, buddy.”

It was still weird to hear myself speaking English. I hadn’t spoken it for a long time. Hadn’t really spoken anything for eleven months or so. There was a breeze and they’d opened the place up to the deck where a small crowd had gathered around the blow-up bullring. I could see the top of someone going back and forth like a weed.

My barber wanted to know why the hell I went all the way out to Laos by myself. I told him nobody I know commits to anything. He stopped the scissors and comb and blew air through his lips like I was dead wrong about that. I liked that barber.

The breeze was rank off the harbor. There was rain coming tomorrow and it felt like people sensed the importance of tonight. A young woman was on the bull. The bull was taking its time, moving languidly back and forth, spinning one-eighty, and one-eighty back. The breasts inside her cowgirl top pulled in and smoothed the fabric along the sides and released.

Next to the ring, the bull man stood at the controls. His face was blank. You couldn’t see his hands working in the control panel but there were a lot of changing lights reflecting up the front of his huge white shirt.

My gaze returned to the girl. The bull was starting to act up. It was starting to hitch like a seizure and the girl’s breasts were all over the map. In one jarring dive, the bull’s nose struck the mattress and threw the girl into the pit. I shot a look at the bull man. His face never changed. Someone else signed the waiver and went into the ring, a man. When he got into the saddle the bull man’s hands went to work at the controls sending the bull into a continuous three-sixty spin. He somehow survived the first whirl and the bull paused. The man let out a celebratory whoop. Then the bull dropped straight back and dumped the guy into the pit. I watched him gather himself up, humiliated, and took a long drink of my rum and coke. My eyes drifted over to the bull man. He was totally deadpan.

Something in me was starting to sour that couldn’t be saved. The bull man was perverse. He was a bully. The kind of guy who would have called me Strut for all those weeks of my hell. Where did he get off throwing people around like puppy toys? Questions started flickering up in me like flames. I didn’t feel the alcohol anymore.

For twenty minutes I just watched, increasingly uncomfortable, frustrated by his skill at the controls. He was completely joyless, although I believed that somewhere near the pit of him glowed a passion for his work. His was a private, sinister glee he hid from the world. He knew he was shameful but wasn’t big enough to express it with his face. I knew there was something I had to do, but I was afraid. Of course he had to be beaten at his own game. The trouble was I didn’t know if I was up to it. I decided to talk to him.

“What’s the record?” On my face I put a look that said I’d ridden mechanical bulls the world over, maybe even a few live ones in Lubbock.

“I could have you off instantly,” he said.

“You think so?”

That’s when he laughed. It was just a sound, though. His face didn’t laugh.

“Sign the waiver,” he said, and it sounded like a challenge.

“I need a pen to sign the waiver,” I said.

“Pen’s inside the clipboard.”

“Is it?”

He didn’t respond. Changing rainbow light played in the stubbly dough under his chin.

I found the pen and scrawled my name on the line.

Walking into the ring, I felt exhilarated and scared in a way I hadn’t in a long while. I’d befriended loneliness, isolation, sadness, regret and fear. They were as close to me as the five fingers of my hand. But this was different. This was exciting. There was a honey pot hanging in the night just for me, and all I had to do was take it. The child’s delight of having something to look forward to was so electrifying.

The bull’s saddle was built of the slickest plastic, I realized, understanding that its smoothness was going to be my biggest enemy. I had superior balance. The bull man wasn’t going to throw me off my bearing with any cheap shots, but I couldn’t trust that saddle. It was a secret advantage he’d designed for himself. A lot of time went into smoothing that saddle, I guessed. Hours, probably. What a coward. In front of my crotch, a short length of greasy rope with a big knot was the handle. I took it in my left hand. The bull started to move. I put my right hand up in the air for balance as the bull began to buck.

With some of the others, he started the bull out slow, incrementally working up to the undoing finale, but with me, the bull man took a totally different tack. He tried to get me off instantly, just like he’d boasted. I had to hand it to him: he almost succeeded with a hard one-eighty degree spin-dive combo, but I willed myself to stay moored, only mildly banging my head off the bull’s massive rubber skull as it came up fast for the reverse-dump tactic. Time didn’t exist. And maybe the deck outside the ring looked different from the back of the bull, but I swore the crowd had increased. I saw it in frames. People had tightened up around the ring. A small sea of cowboy hats appeared to melt into each other. The sound: cheering. They were cheering for me.

He put the bull into a murderous back-and-forth, a hellish see-saw maneuver that actually started to numb my whole body, and for the first time I worried that this was it. I was scooting up out of the saddle, losing my purchase on the rope, and just as I felt myself coming loose, the bull dove, and I was airborne. Game over. That’s what I thought. But no. By some miracle I landed on the bull’s rubber head, instantly affixing myself to it.

The crowd actually could not believe what they were seeing. The sound: a genuine riot soundtrack.

I locked my arms and legs around the big rubbery head and the bull went wild. I clung to it like glue. That was the secret, I realized, with insane happiness. You had to get out of the saddle to win! The bull man must have been reading my thoughts because the bull was acting up in ways I would have previously thought impossible, ways I hadn’t seen while shadowing it earlier. He drove it into a mad, freewheeling spin, replete with bucking, savage nose-dives, tooth-loosening quarter-turns, and apocalyptic tail-dumps, but I’d already been that mad before and it just felt like, like being on a swing, or something.

One time in Laos, I fell eight feet off the back of an elephant while touring the Plain of Jars. The mahout, my guide, blitzed on Regency cognac, had cleated the great mammal once too strongly on the tender putty below its ear, inspiring a full-blown charge into a clutch of banana plants. I rolled straight off the rear. The cries off the mahout carried off into the distance as I lay breathless in a khaki cloud staring dully at the sky.

After the elephant, this was like the moon room at the annual dairy fest. The bull man was going to have to reach deeper into his bag of tricks to beat this cowboy. What I really wanted was to see his face. It wasn’t enough for me to know that I was breaking him. I wanted to see it. But he denied me the pleasure by keeping my face and the bull’s aimed away from him as he tried to kill me, which, according to the terms of the waiver, he was free to do. Kill and/or dismember.

A crowd-driven power entered me. He’d abandoned his creativity at the controls and was now just repeatedly smashing the bull’s head into the mattress, trying to wear out my endurance. Each connection with the semi-coarse material only just scuffed my forehead, irritating the skin. Before long, the rash opened and blood beaded off my nose. Sweat stung my eyes. I could sometimes see the crowd, dun silhouettes banked up against the ring, some hanging over and pounding the mattress in my name. More was riding on me now than just my own private battle with the bull man. People were expecting me to stay on. I couldn’t let myself down, and I certainly couldn’t let down all of my fans, the ones who had gotten sitters to come out to watch me tonight. Word had probably gotten around town by now about a guy at Shady’s. I imagined people hurrying to settle up their tabs at other bars to get down here to see this legend breaking the bull man into a thousand pieces.

Cups full of booze whizzed through the air around the bullring. I heard my name in the crowd. Not Strut, but Ray. “Look at Ray!” “Ray’s killing it!” My body was so numb and I was getting so dizzy that crazy ideas started crossing my mind. At one point, I actually thought that I could let go and nothing would happen—I’d never achieved this level of confidence. Then my deeper instincts kicked in to override the notion and I held fast.

I don’t know how long it lasted before the bull stopped, but it didn’t matter. I still felt like the bull was going even though it wasn’t. I pushed myself up, dazed, and looked behind me to see the bull man jumping over the side of the ring, landing in a roll, and scrambling to his feet on the mattress. I felt his huge hands grab me around the back of the neck and throw me into the pit. I staggered to my feet.

“Do you know how unsafe that was?” he screamed, grabbing me by the throat and slugging me in the belly with his other fist.

“They’re laughing at you,” I croaked.

He reached for me again, but two fans entered the ring and took him down hard.

When I got to my feet, the assembly roared. Fans closest to the ring outstretched their hands to me. I touched their fingers. They took me by the arms and hoisted me out of the ring into their embrace.

The bull closed after my ride. The rainbow light of the controls continued to blink away against the night. The bull was moveless in the home position, and the bull man was nowhere to be seen. I thought he might be lurking around in the dark near Shady’s, chain-smoking, waiting for last-call before returning to breakdown the bullring so no one would see him at it. That was my feeling about the type of person he was.

I know because that’s exactly the type of person I am.

I promise if you put me behind the controls of that bull you would never want to get on it. You wouldn’t want me behind the controls of anything. I would be the worst bull man you ever saw, mad that you would even think of getting on my bull with your audacity. I’d give you a ride from hell. Good thing I’m still not working anywhere. Good for you. But I’ll be looking for work in the next couple of weeks. Maybe food service. Do you know of something like that? Let me know if you hear of something hands-on. Maybe mention my name. Tell them Ray’s back from Laos, and he’s looking for work.