The old man pushed the child to the ground, not hard enough to hurt him, but hard enough to knock him down and make him cry.
“What're you, a wuss? Get up, boy!” Joey, eight-years-old but already on to this man, stared into the dirt, trying to carve out a hole in the earth. He wasn’t concerned that the hole he bore might take him straight to Hell. Looking up through his too-long, too-thick little boy bangs, he could see the mountains, imposing from his position in the shit speckled dust-- shit too fine to shovel, but not too fine to make his knees and hands stink. The sky, though he didn’t dare look up at it, was blue and clear. This landscape framed the child, head down, on his hands and knees, like he was the subject in a Bierstadt landscape. A sinister light pushed towards him; the too-glaring sun illuminating him in the same way it would bleach the bones of dead cattle. His grandfather, large enough to block the mountains, stood in front of him; not even this towering physique could soften the sun.
“Come on, get up!”
Joey barely teetered to his feet before his grandfather pushed him down again.
“Hah! Can’t stand up, huh? What? Now you’re going to cry? Why’re you crying? Did I hurt you? Your feelins' hurt? What’re ya cryin’ about? Come on, try again. Get up!” the old man taunted.
“My wrist hurts.” Joey wanted this to come out stronger, but it sounded more like a whimper. He’d meant to sound angry, to let his grandfather know that someday he’d get even. Instead, he just sounded like a baby. He hated his baby voice. His grandfather did, too.
“No, it don’t. Your wrist don’t hurt. Suck it up, boy! Stop cryin’!”
“Stop it, Dad, you’re being too hard on him. Come on, Joey. Get up.” His mother, Sunny, came to his rescue, but she didn’t rush over to him. Didn’t want to baby him. She resisted the urge to pick him up and kiss him. She avoided looking at him, or at her father. This was between them, she thought. “Go on. Do as he says. Get up.” She said it nicely, but not like he was hurt or anything. She acted like he didn’t really need her. She went back to brushing her horse. The black Arabian was everything she once said she wanted. It was a consolation prize from her husband when she gave up bull riding after she found out she was pregnant. She assured everyone that this horse, along with her husband, and a healthy baby would be all she would ever need again.
“And stop crying, for Chrissake. Do you want to go inside? Do you want to go play hopscotch with the little girls?” His grandfather was on a roll. There’d be no stopping him until Joey broke.
“No,” Joey croaked out. He used his bangs as a shield.
“What’s that?” His grandfather roughly pulled Joey’s hair back, forcing the boy to look him in the eyes, or if not in the eyes, at least to show his face. “What'd ya say?”
“No!” Joey yelled.
“No? What then? What do you want to do?”
“I want to ride sheep.”
“What? What’re you mumblin’?”
“I want to ride sheep!”
“Sheep?!” His grandfather laughed. “You’re not a baby anymore! Sheep! Dammit, kid. You say that like that’s somethin’ to be proud of. Crap. Them big, fluffy mamas like you ridin' em. It ain’t nothin’ when you win that. It’s like ridin’ a friggin merry-go-round for cryin' out loud. You like ridin’, right? You like it? We’re gettin' you on a bull soon. Real soon, so get used to falling, kid. Get used to landing in the dirt. Get used to the taste of shit in your mouth.”
Joey walked away, throwing a handful of dust in his grandfather’s direction.
“Thatta boy. Good job.” He finally smiled. Already deep lines deepened further around his eyes. Usually, Joey liked these lines because it meant approval, but today he didn’t even bother to look to see if they’d appeared. He just walked away, kicking up clouds of stinking dirt, trying not to let on that it was getting into his eyes and bothering him. The old man was proud to see Joey stick up for himself. “You baby that kid too much,” he turned his criticism toward Sunny.
“And you’re too tough on him.” Sunny refused to look in his direction, focusing instead on the animal she was still grooming. She purposefully slowed down the brushing--head, back haunches. One quick swipe over the top of a back leg.
“Look, the kid’s talented. He can ride.”
“Yep, he can. He rides pretty good for an eight-year-old.” Deliberate strokes--head, back, haunches, quick swipe.
“Sure does. Reminds me of you in the day.”
Sunny kept brushing. “Not really.”
“Whadd’ya mean, not really? Yeah really,” her father began to walk over to her but thought better of it. He had to shield his eyes to keep looking at her. Damn mid-afternoon sun could be a killer. He stood apart from her. It was awkward between them. He was talking to her back, a view he’d gotten used to since her teens. Always turning her back on him, that one. She was quite the rider before she got pregnant with Joey. Not great, but gutsy. That girl hung on, and when she fell, she exploded with anger. Broke her hand once, not from a fall, but from punching the gate afterward. That’s the kind of competitor she was. Gutsy and mad. The worst combination of woman the rodeo guys used to tease. She set out to beat everyone, though it was nearly impossible, and it almost never happened. Still, she loved everything about the rodeo--including the smell of the animals. She loved how loud it was. She loved being covered in a fine layer of dirt from the time they got there until she stood in the hot shower in some motel room, watching the muddy water whirl around her feet and into the drain. She loved the trophies she won sometimes. The wins were frequent at first but came less and less as she grew older and the boys got stronger. She still had all her helmets on a shelf in her closet. Joey loved to put them on, too. They were pink when she was younger, but by the time she was fourteen, she had traded in the bubblegum sweetie-pie look for a shiny black version. At eighteen, she spent her winnings on a helmet that made her look like a knight. It was still black, but she had paid an artist at the mall to airbrush orange and red flames that spread toward the cage around her face. That helmet was her pride and joy. By the time she got to competitions where the boys were as big as men, she stopped bringing home trophies altogether. No one, not even her father, could convince her to compete against other girls. So the men lined up, smiling at each other, wincing in the glaring sunshine, sure of their conquest. Except for Joe. Joe beat her in the arena every time, but it was never an easy win. The bull-riding against her was easy, sure. Watching her lose, now that hurt him. Didn’t stop him, though.
“Hey!” her father called to her. “When’s that husband of yours coming back?”
“After the tour,” she yelled back at him.
“That kid needs his father to show him the ropes.”
“He’s fine, Dad,” she stopped and turned to look at him. “He’s fine. Leave him be.”
“Yeah. Leave him be. He’ll amount to nothin’ if I leave him be. Up to you, he’d still be in diapers.”
Sunny ignored him, pretending that she didn’t hear a word he said. She was tough enough on the kid. He was eight. He didn’t need to be any tougher than he already was. It was she who needed to toughen up. She’d lost her edge when she got pregnant with him. Quit bull riding as soon as she found out. Protecting him from the get-go.
“Hey, Jo-Jo. What’s up, kiddo?” She also pulled his bangs out of his eyes, those eyes that were identical to his dad’s, though everyone else thought they saw her in them.
“My wrist really does hurt.”
“No, it doesn’t, Buddy. It’s mind over matter. Go put some ice on it, and do something else. It’ll go away. I promise.” Her smile went right through him. His mom’s smile. He couldn’t get enough of it; he’d do anything it took to make her smile. “Go on, now. Get outta here.” She’d look at his wrist tonight, just to make sure nothing was broken. She checked her irritation at him. After all, maybe it did hurt him. “Hey, Joey. Love you, Bud.” He ran and crashed into her, hugging her so hard she nearly fell over. “Come on, now. Not so hard! Your mom is a weakling.” Her hand shaded her eyes from the afternoon sun. At about 1:00, the Colorado ranch became as dry as the desert. It was always at about this time that she would imagine the Wild West. As a kid, she’d had those stiff, plastic dolls and horses, The Wests, from the Old West. The joints allowed the arms and legs to bend in unnatural positions, but Johnny and Jane West were her best companions. Johnny was dressed all in brown from his hat to his boots, and Jane in fashionable robin’s egg blue. She’d saved them and had hoped that Joey would love them as much as she had, but he just left them outside. She found Jane in a hay bale once and hid both dolls behind her helmets after that. The plastic horses, Joey treasured--both Thunderbolt and Flame. The Wests’ Indian guide and friend, Chief Cherokee, had long been lost, left behind at some rodeo in Texas as best as Sunny could remember it.
“No, you’re not. You’re strong as a bull!” His voice startled her back to adulthood.
She snorted at him, huffed some loud, mean breaths, scraped the ground with her boots, then roared at him, tickling him at the same time. “Go! Go away!” She laughed and patted his bottom, pretending to spank him.
“I’m going, Mom! I’m going! I’ll make you some iced-tea. You want some?”
“Sure,” she hollered back. “Make sure you clean up the mess you make, though!” Sometimes when she spoke with her son she felt a little like she was babysitting; like she was having this conversation with a neighbor’s child. Even after eight years, she sometimes had to remind herself that she was the mom and the wife. She was the little lady in charge.
“One for each glass!”
“Got it!” He did seem to be favoring his right arm.
“You need to use that wrist! Don’t baby it!” she yelled to him. She watched him wince as he shook it out. Maybe her father was right. He was kind of delicate. Not like her at all. Or his dad. “Where’d you come from?” she yelled to him.
“Nothing, Baby. We’re going to get you up on a bull soon! A calf! They’re MEAN! The meanest calf we can find!” He waved at her with his right arm, as if to let her know that he was as brave as she was. She threw him another smile, and he ran off. She checked herself again. Sunny was annoyed lately more and more at her boy. She loved him. No question about that. And her father was right; he rode better than any kid she’d ever seen ride. He’ll be better than Joe, Sr., she thought. Last she’d heard from Joe, he had won big in Houston and was heading to Oklahoma. He was a shoe-in there, too. The money wasn’t bad. Especially with them living with her father. He’d be in Colorado by mid-month, and they’d get to be a family then. She was considering following him to Wyoming and maybe even Reno. She’d have to have a meeting with the school again if she did. Or leave Joey behind with her father. They talked about homeschooling him so he could ride the winter circuit. If he was really going to do this, it was inevitable.
Sunny watched Joey through the kitchen window standing on a chair, scooping out instant tea into two tall, plastic cups. He’s gonna make a mess, she thought. And my father is going to have a fit. She took a deep breath and shook her head. She kicked the dirt to stir it up, put her hands into her pockets, looked up at the sky for just a second. She exhaled long enough to feel oxygen deprived and crave a breath in. Better go save him, she thought to herself. That boy needs saving.
“Hey, Joe. Let’s clean this mess up, ok? Granddad isn’t going to like this.” Poor kid was smiling ear to ear until she walked in.
“How come he gets so mad at me, Ma?”
“I don’t know. He’s like a mean old hornet sometimes. That’s all. It’s him, Dude. Not you.”
“Uh uh. It’s me. He gets really, really mad at me. Do you get mad at me like that?”
“You know sometimes I get mad, Joey. What kind of a question is that?”
“I mean, do you get hateful mad at me?”
“No, Joey. I never hate you. Neither does Granddad.”
“Neither does Granddad what?” Her father came into the kitchen. “Hope you’re cleaning this mess up,” he said.
“That’s just what we’re doing, right, Joe-Joe?”
“I asked my mom if she ever hates me like you do,” his honesty cut right through Sunny.
Her father didn’t respond. He just looked at the two of them and left the kitchen.
“See? He does hate me.”
Sunny heard the tv go on in the living room.
“No, he doesn’t. He just doesn’t know any other way.”
“Was he like this with you, when you were a little girl?”
“Nope. He’s gotten all sour, Joey. I don’t know why.” But she did know why. It was the moment she and Joe announced they had eloped. Her parents sat at the kitchen table looking at their hands; then her father had simply gotten up and left the room. Her mother, Diana, had cried.
“I would have liked to have been there,” she’d said. Sunny could practically see her broken heart. “I’ve always thought I’d see you get married.”
“I’m pregnant, Mom.” Sunny blurted it out to distract her mother from her ache.
“A baby!” Her mother clapped her hands and cried even harder. “A baby! Frank! Frank! You’re gonna be a grandpa!” she yelled.
They all heard the front door slam.
“Don’t worry, kids. Dad will come around! Where will you live?” Joe and Sunny shot each other quick looks. Diana caught on immediately. “Here?! Oh, of course, here! Where else would you go? You can have the guest house in the back. It will be cozy, but with Joe gone most of the time, you’ll be just fine alone there, Sunny.” They laughed.
“Thanks, Mom. That’s one way of looking at it.”
“Oh, you’ll be fine, both of you. You’ll be off the circuit now, right?” She directed her question to her daughter.
“Yes, Mom. I’m done with riding.” She saw her father out in the ring with the horses. He’d be disappointed in her decision not to ride anymore, but he must have seen the writing on the wall. She wasn’t that good. Not good enough. Even he must have already seen that.
“So when did he get so mean?” Joey once again intruded on her thoughts.
“I don’t know, maybe after Grandma died. He took it hard.” This was a much cleaner explanation. Sunny’s mother must have known she was sick, but never let on. Just before Joey’s first birthday, she finally let her family know. She had died before he turned two. It would be reasonable that this is what turned her father into such an angry man. But Sunny knew better. She knew it in her heart. She felt it, maybe as strongly as he did.
“Whatta think about ridin’ a calf soon?” she thought it was time to change the subject.
Joey stirred the drink a little harder, spilling some in the process.
“No opinion?” she teased him, nudging him, perhaps a little too hard, nearly knocking him off the chair he was standing on. He handed her the iced tea.
“Seriously, Joe. What do you think?” She tried to hide her irritation at him, but her voice was strained.
“I dunno,” was all he could say.
“You don’t know? Honestly, Joey? You don’t know whether or not you want to ride anymore?”
“No, Mom! I don’t know! I don’t think so; I don’t know!” Joey rarely yelled at Sunny. He wasn’t like other kids in that way. He did what he was told when he was told and always seemed happy to do it. He took her completely off guard.
“What? Are you kidding me? No? You said no,” Sunny stepped back a little bit. “You said no. So that’s it. You’re done riding.” She said it like it was his punishment like he should be ashamed of himself like he could find no redemption, ever, from this decision, this decision made at eight years old.
“No, I didn’t, Ma. I didn’t mean no. I just meant I don’t know.” He was quieter but desperate to win back her approval.
Sunny put her hands over her face. “You tell him,” she said quietly.
“Yes. It’s your decision, so you tell him.”
Joey jumped off the chair and ran outside. Good, Sunny thought. God damn it! Let him go! But then she felt a sickly guilt. She knew she’d regret this. She knew she’d wish later that she’d run after him and kissed him to make it all better. She knew this, but still, she just stood in the kitchen, cleaning up the mess, putting the chair back, feeling the shame of so many failures creep up from the kitchen tiles, through her boots, up her legs and settle, for a lifetime, in her heart.