Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The Last Rodeo

"A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."

The words echoed lightly around the captive audience in the cramped gymnasium. Charlie took an emotional swallow like he always did making these speeches.

"That's what I told myself. Bullheaded stubborn is what I was. Not wanting to admit to reality. I thought I was indestructible. I thought if...I though if I believed it hard enough it would be true. And I did believe it. Real hard. Still, it was creepin' up on me how it was getting harder and harder to believe. But I didn't listen. I didn't do what a man had to do. And that's how that bronc put me in this wheelchair...for the rest of my life."

An active soul since his youth, Charlie's existence in the wheelchair laid forth a cruel fate he could not understand. He loved his life growing up on the farm with its vast vistas over the flat plains of the Texas panhandle. A boy could dream anything he wanted out there and becoming a rodeo champ consumed his life. It was his destiny, in fact. All the breaks rolled his way; a natural on the circuit. The smells, the rhythms, the anticipation - rodeo life fed him and thrilled him in one long continuation of his boyhood dream.

But a dream come true can cut both ways. Stepping outside the arena back into the "real world" angered Charlie. There, the supposed golden child didn't get all breaks he felt he deserved. Over time the anger devolved into rage. As a famous champion, his tantrums and outbursts were tolerated and even hushed up. "The price of genius," some would say. Unhelpful friends made excuses for him. Those who rode his coattails only wanted to keep the party going.

He'd met Terri, a phlebotomist, in a hospital after an accident. She was everything he wasn't and her honest humor and thousand watt smile stole his heart away. Charlie figured marriage would be just like learning to ride a wild bronco. He'd already figured that out as the answer to life - only he couldn't rope his problems and tie them away so easily. Terri refused to be caged and since Charlie refused to see any other way things could work he misconstrued her actions as a refusal of his love.

The most maddening part of those years was his feeling of a grand but vague foolishness. Part of him felt like he was on the precipice of paradise and the other a step away from doom. The constant questions and unreality swirled in his head - made worse when a bottle was added. He withdrew more then ever into the ring, the only place of clarity. There he could "win". In so-called real life winning was a miasmic mystery.

When the marriage ended, seeds of doubt first entered his mind. Maybe he hadn't had life figured out after all. His sense of destiny started to crumble. He'd had it all for a while, right? Didn't that prove him right in his life's choices? Why had it stopped working? Charlie was so certain he'd found the Answer. So proud and confident. But now...

One morning he pulled up to the arena in whatever town it happened to be. Charlie stopped the truck but something kept him inside. It was as if he was lost, plunked down in a foreign land. He didn't even know what was doing there. His childhood sun was gone from the sky. The glistening railings didn't want him anymore. The pull to stay in the truck and not move was overwhelming. Just let go and never come back.

Arena Bleachers Behind

But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

Charlie had never suffered a serious injury - until that day. Everything was off: his timing, his feeling, his heart. He wanted to quit the circuit and run back to Terri, to work on fixing what needed fixing until it was fixed. That scared the hell out of him. How could he commit his life to something that might never happen? How could he...fail? Nobody knew his need for her, they only knew of his glistening career. In the arena he was regarded as brave beyond doubt. He must stay in that cloud at all costs. To be labeled a coward would be to wipe out his life's work.

The force of will required for him to continue rose to draining levels he could never sustain. Charlie knew if he kept on that course he would die. His drinking got heavier and more violent, events so bad they could not be covered up. "I know I'm going to die. Just don't let it be today." Reduced to that final pathetic prayer, Charlie stepped into the ring one too many times; angry, unstoppable, unreasonable. But he didn't die. He got worse: a wheelchair for life.

The suicide attempt with the pills was feeble. But it opened the door for probing predators of the worst kind: do-gooders. They would run his life for him, filling him with false praise and delusional adoration. Firmly in their foul clutches, they put Charlie on display as an example of mock responsibility in a world obsessed with mocking responsibility. They told him his life could still have meaning as he lied for the "greater good."

That's how Charlie found himself paraded around to school gymnasiums like he was in now. His was to be a cautionary tale of woe, of how he'd found God, been a stubborn man, and changed his ways. The newspapers and holier-than-thou's ate it up. Article after article recounted his story and his "discovering a new kind of bravery outside of the ring." Even Charlie began to half-believe after a while. What he didn't do - what he could never do - is come clean.

"Truth is I'm a loser who ran away from his wife - and life. And I'm still running today. I'm angrier than ever and if I had a chance to get back in the ring I'd take it in a heartbeat. All these speeches you so heartily applaud are nothing but bullshit put up by these meddling assholes trying to tell people how to live their lives. If it was up to me, I'd just go ahead and die. That's all I really want to do. I've got nothing. Please let me go." That narrative wouldn't play so well in the papers. Ironically, it was the one speech that actually might do some good.

Rolled backstage out to the handicapped van that shopped him around the country, Charlie overheard two young rodeo-ers.

"That old man is a fool! He couldn't cut it and now he's whining about it. What a waste of time."

"I don't know. Makes me sorta scared..."

"If you're scared, don't get in the ring. That's how you'll end up like that has-been."

"I'm not like him. That was his whole life. Hell, I'd hate to have to spend rest of my life doing nothing but bulldogging and hangin' on to high rollers. Shi-it, I'd rather be hanging onta Jenny!"

The two boys let out a conspiratorial laugh, not noticing a self-propelled Charlie rolling furiously toward them having overheard the conversation.

"You gotta do it! You hear me? You gotta get in that ring. Prove yourself a man!" The two boys looked at Charlie in a state of disbelief - then contempt. Charlie's handlers raced desperately to wheel him away before he blew his cover and the entire do-gooder charade. "You can't just do what you want! You hear me, boy? Get in that ring! Get in that goddam ring!"

EPILOGUE: The pious woman who frantically wheeled Charlie away from the boys tried to drown out his words with profuse apologies of "This isn't the real him." and "Please ignore this tirade. He needs his medication." Skilled, practiced and vicious lies protected the perfidy. But that only reinforced the boys' idea the adult world was nothing but a hypocritical lie - and that helped them to resist joining that hypocrisy.

Charlie's hell lasted until the day he died, unrepentant and, frankly, unaware. "Losing isn't supposed to happen to me." He never accepted the idea he wasn't still on the winning track. In magnificent manipulation, the dreaded do-gooders played on his guilt, forcing the words out of him they wished to hear. Had Charlie awoken to his reality he could have shoved aside their treachery and broken free. But he was too afraid to do that, for then he'd only be left with his anger.

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