The dust cascaded off of Billy as he navigated the narrow pathway leading the rodeo cashier’s office…. His thirty years on the circuit had recently settled into his knees causing a tilt to his now continuous slow gate. The only good news today for Billy was that his efforts brought in $350 for placing fourth behind three other cowboys half his age. The leather faced bronc rider thought, “$350 should be just enough to get me to and through the next stop in Santa Fe”.
Billy caught himself talking out loud to no one in particular…. “I’m getting way too old for this shit”.
Years ago there would have been tons of kids with their parents waiting at the exit for an autograph or a chance to see the one and only Billy Chiclets up close, but now there was no one between Billy and the paymaster…. no congratulatory cheers….. just up those three steps waiting to test Billy’s threshold for pain until “getting his due”…..
“Looks like you’re in the money!”
“Works just fine Fortes.”
Fortes is more skinny than slim. He’s missing a front tooth which is exposed by his smile at the sight of the sun baked legendary bronc rider, the man he’d been paying out since the kid version arrived on the scene way back when.
Fortes, even though he already knows the answer inquired….”Hey Billy, you going on to Santa Fe?”
“I spose so…. If I have enough left over after dinner at Lenny’s.”
“I guess you haven’t heard….Lenny closed down and moved on to Arizona to live with his daughter and her husband. Everyones sayin’ his real sick.”
“That’s too bad. Lenny’s was a good man, I’m gonna miss those T-bones.”
“Was? Jesus Billy, he ain’t dead yet.”
“Sounds pretty dead to me….he’ll probably be eating mush and watching those reality shows on the TV until he takes the dirt nap.”
Being tossed off 1,500 lb. Brahmans never gave Billy much reason for worry until the last couple of years. Most professional athletes Billy’s age, would have saved up and been retired by now, but Billy was never that good with money or the idea of settling down. He never fancied living in some desert condo, drinking himself further into obscurity, playing golf and workin’ on the crosswords. He belonged in the ring, feeling alive…..a part of something bigger than himself, living in the moment, pleasing all his “fans”.
Exiting down the steps of the trailer, Billy gripped the rail to keep the weight off his tender knees. Glancing across the grounds, he took in a small coral spotting an angry woman whipping a horse, attempting to force the reluctant creature quickly in and around two rusty barrels. The rider kept relentlessly digging her spurs into the frantic horse’s underbelly, forcing a near collapse. The palomino, drenched in sweat, was terrorized by the wrath of the saddled savage. After the rider dismounted, the mare, without time to recover fought back with what little she had left as the frustrated “cowgirl” beat and dragged her towards an open trailer attached to a shiny six wheeled SUV. Billy worked his way over to the scene….
“Everything ok here?”
“I got this handled…..this one here is about to get put down…..she’s absolutely worthless!”
“You’ve got a lot of questions for someone that has no say.”
“I’ll tell you what. I’ve got $200 cash here that says I do have a say. Plus It’l save you some gas, trouble and time for finding the Grim Reaper somewhere out there.”
“Make it $250 and she’s your headache….hell, make it $300 and I’ll even throw in this fine halter and a lead rope.”
“Ok, Ok, $300… Just hand her over now and we’ll be outta your hair.”
After counting out almost all of what cash he had left, Billy gently took the lead rope and stroked the horse’s wet mane deflecting the steam coming off her body. Looking into each others eyes, there was an immediate bonding. As the giant SUV drove off, they walked away side by side to find the rodeo vet, Dr. Klaus Bauman, who was, as in every year, Billy’s lift to Santa Fe.
Klaus could see Billy approaching with an “extra passenger”. Luckily, for them this trip, he had two open spots in the trailer and an inviting meadow waiting ahead at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo’s.
After easily coaxing the mare with a carrot into the trailer, Billy heaved his gear into the back bed of the pick-up next to an extremely large stainless steel box surrounded by all kinds of sophisticated paraphernalia. Being a man of few words, still wearing his dusty chaps, Billy spit into the dirt and resolved to have no questions for the Doc about the steel box….that was the Doc’s business. Billy quickly nodded off into a deep sleep as the old rodeo vet began the familiar trek back to Santa Fe. The sound of wheels on the concrete gave rhythm and comfort to Billy. He always enjoyed being on the road, especially when someone else was doing the driving. Klaus didn’t mind. He liked the quiet time, allowing him to ponder about how he would deal with the giant heart beating inside the box in the back.
Settling into his thoughts, Doctor Bauman thought for a second that his thick glasses were playing a trick on him. Out, off the road, about twenty yards, he sighted a lone bull lying helplessly in the dirt below an old dilapidated billboard. Billy, sleeping hard in the passenger seat, was unaware that Klaus had even ever pulled over to stop, missing the whole hour it took for Klaus to revive and bring back the frail bull into the second stall of the trailer. When Klaus got back to the truck, Billy was still out cold snoring in the passenger seat. The short old veterinarian laughed to himself, pulled back out onto the highway, and prepared for the evening’s desert star show. There’d be plenty of time later to explain the bull and silver box to Billy.
Klaus looked over at the traveling companion sleeping beside him. Having watched Billy on the circuit over the years, he knew it was time for the once popular legend to “slow down”. Klaus had a friend, who had a friend, who knew a butcher needing help at his his shop in Santa Fe. Klaus knew it paid very little, but included room and board which would give Billy a place to “hang his hat” at least until he could figure things out. Klaus resolved, as it often was when dealing with Billy, to bring it up later when the time was right.
Ultimately, Billy’s “free” room turned out to be about half the size of a jail cell. A single bed and small night stand took up the corner, barely leaving room for a small chest of drawers against the other wall. The only adornments were a small bedside lamp, a colorful blue blanket at the foot of the bed and a tiny statue of Saint Francis. Billy had to laugh every time he exited, thinking the only thing worse would be if the door was locked until he was allowed to go to work.
After a few weeks of hosing off and scrubbing the counters and floor at the butcher’s shop, Billy knew he would need much more to fill his day if he was going to remain sane. Again, through a friend of a friend who remembered Billy from the rodeo, Billy was able to land a janitorial job at an elementary school just a five minute walk from his room behind the butcher shop.
The gruff rodeo legend quickly took on the title of “Mr. Air Man” i.e. the guy the kids went to when they needed to pump up the balls on the playground. After “learning the ropes”, Billy would often prop up his chair against the wall of the supply room and watch the children play, waiting on their need for more air or better balls. He would pretend not to hear them make fun of him as they ran off to play. Billy didn’t much care cause “all this was temporary”, he figured to be back riding soon enough, after his bones healed.
Days turned into weeks and weeks to months as Billy surrendered into his different, but predictable life. One of his favorite routines since taking the custodial job was after lunch finding two large carrots snuck into his backpack….perfect for taking ‘cross town to the meadow by Dr. Bauman’s laboratory/ranch for a share with the horse and bull. Billy loved giving them a break from swishing their tails and nibbling on the grass, watching them trot over to him for their anticipated treat.
When getting ahead in money (which wasn’t that often), Billy occasionally played out the pros and cons of returning to the circuit….. but after his first year Billy began to find a sliver of light in the space and rhythm between his heartbeats. The small bed at the end of each day began to deliver more and more comfort. Billy took up reading and over time, the children on the playground stopped laughing at him. He began to feel appreciated and finally upon finding a new source for fans, Billy was graced with humility and contentment.
Two months or so after the passing of Klaus Bauman and the great heart, Billy learned he had been left the pasture next to the laboratory. Not long after, when delivering Mariah and Niakrok their carrots, Billy found Klaus’s housekeeper, Pelota, loading Niakrok into the trailer behind Klaus’s old truck.
As Billy gave Niakrok his carrot he glanced over to Pelota, “Where you headed?”
“North Dakota. I found work there as a sculptress.”
“Good place for a bull?”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
“I spose you will.
As Pelota was about to drive off she rolled down her window and tearfully met Billy’s stern eyes, “Good bye Mr. Chiclets.”
“Good bye Pelota”.
“Thank you, we’ll never forget your and Mr. Bauman’s kindness.”
One of Billy’s first and favorite routines had now been torpedoed. He was used to being in control, but that was another time long ago. As he watched the truck and trailer disappear down the road, Billy held the second carrot in his hand momentarily lost in thoughts. When recovering back into the moment, he turned to see Mariah also peering over the fence at their disappearing companions. Billy slowly walked up and stroked her mane offering the carrot with his other hand. The lone palomino bobbed her head and let out a great whiny. After a deep exhalation and snort, she gently took the carrot and followed Billy to the gate he closed between them. In the seasons that followed, it became increasingly difficult for Billy to leave her in their meadow alone.
The Santa Ana delivered the season’s last gust squarely into Billy’s back, exiting through him leaving a silent stillness in the air, momentarily freezing everyone in the city square. Billy noticed he was the only one capable of motion in the square. The vendors by the Palace of the Governors looked like paintings on the ancient adobe walls. The street musicians were muted and petrified. The only two things audible were the flowing water off the square’s fountain and a lone guitar playing from across the vast lawn.
Billy’s eyes traced the melody of the guitar to see what looked like a carving of Pelota sitting with a group of people on a large blue blanket. He slowly raised his arm trying to catch the attention of her eerily still body, but halfway up his arm locked to accommodate a pigeon…..another pigeon, just behind simultaneously landed and froze near Pelota.
As the first bell of the Basilica Saint Francis rang, a lone bull hosting a third pigeon atop his head approached Billy’s now fully paralyzed body. The bull and bird navigated between a chessboard of sculpted rock dogs, until colliding directly into and through Billy. At the end of their ghostlike “merging” all activity in and around the square reset into motion. The three pigeons regrouped and took flight towards the nearby mountain peaks. Billy stood next to the lone bull and watched the three birds disappear into the bright New Mexican sunlight.