The man walks over to stand next to the boy, props a cleated shoe on the fence rail. He means to study the bulls as he does before every performance. For that’s half of what he thinks of it, a performance. The other half is something else that all these years have yet to reveal to him. Besides checking for the giveaway tilt of the head or rheumy eye, he’s looking for the ones that have an edge about them, a nervous energy beneath the slack hide. The ones getting their game on.
The kid fidgets, and when the man looks over, the boy is radiant in the sunlight: his red hair hot as a firecracker; his face overrun in freckles. The man can’t make out the color of his eyes, great maybe, but it’s so clear they’re like a baby’s fresh out of that first darkness.
“You the clown, ain’t you?” the boy asks of the man dressed in loose drawers and face greased in paint.
The grizzled veteran and the eager newbie: it’s a story we’ve read in dozens of different settings, from all points of view. Up the Down Staircase, one of the first adult books (in the sense of grown-up, not pornographic) I read, had the newly graduated Miss Barrett in her first classroom contrasted with an entire New York high school full of teachers in various stages of burnout. The first Star Wars episode played Luke, with his idealized vision of rescuing Princess Leia, against the pragmatic Han Solo. Even Working Girl had Melanie Griffiths trying to break into her first job against the dreamcrushing self-interest of Sigourney Weaver. And Hollywood movies play it all the time: the ingenue vs the star.
The story can play out different ways. The happy-ending version has the newbie triumphant and forming a friendship with the veteran, who now has a fresher outlook thanks to the experience. The revenge version has the newbie almost defeated, then rising to crush the veteran. The tragic version has the veteran crushing the newbie. The TV-series version has them both learning something and forming something of a conflicted but tolerable working relationship.
Davis puts this dynamic to work in the rodeo, the bull riding competition. The veteran is the rodeo clown, who’s been Hap the Clown for so long, he barely remembers his given name.
He watches the bulls a long moment. “Glenn. Name’s Glenn.”
“I’m Louis,” the kid offers, like he’s been asked, and holds out of hand, which the man takes after a long pause.
“Why a clown? Were you a rider first? Did you used to ride the bulls?”
“Do I look that stupid to you?”
The boy’s gaze moves up and down the clown outfit. “Well yeah. But that’s the point, right?”
And yes. That’s the point, he thinks. It’s always the point. It’s the clown, the buffoon, it’s God’s own fool who’s left to save the day.
Since I know nothing about bull riding or rodeos, I did some casual research to figure out exactly what Glenn does, and what the difference is between him and the barrel man he references later in the story. It seems there are different systems depending on where you are, but in general, there are clowns who are crowd-entertainers, barrel clowns who do some work distracting bulls and some entertaining, and bullfighters who dress as clowns to attract the bull’s attention, but aren’t there to entertain the crowd. Their job is to provide a target for the bull once the rider is thrown, so that the rider can get to his feet and get the hell out of the ring. One article compares them to Secret Service agents assigned to take the bullet for the protectee. Glenn is this kind of bullfighter.
We find out something of his background: his father raised bulls for the circuit, and was financially destroyed by a bad purchase. His mother was disappointed that Glenn went into the rodeo, but he believes “it would have proved some small consolation that he’s never ridden the bulls.” That “Do I look stupid” line is his stock retort when anyone asks him if he’s ridden, or wants to ride.
The newbie is Louis, who wants to ride a bull. I’ll admit I don’t see the appeal of bullriding, but a lot of people don’t see the appeal of reading stories and writing about them, so it’s all good. We get some idea of what he’s after:
Of riding the bulls, he says, “First time I seen it? Man, oh man, guys like riding a fucking earthquake and he comes off after eight seconds, and I can see it.” The boys eyes light with a hallelujah fire. “He comes off that ride and he’s different from me and my dad and all my friends and all the people I’ve ever known in this world. Different. You get that, right?”
There’s little to be said after that, and then the quiet between them feels so good, the man can’t bring himself to tell the boy everything he should have known from the get-go
I was surprised at how engrossed I was in the story, how much I was pushing towards finding out what happens. Glenn isn’t the kind of character who reveals himself, yet I did feel like I got to know him, much more than Louis who just might not have as much to know, given his young age. One line bothered me: “[B]eneath the splendor, there’s always the ruin.” It doesn’t seem to fit the tone of the piece. But it’s a superb line. And it brings to mind the suffering that often goes into glory, as well as the tears of a clown under the makeup.
No, I’m not going to reveal what happens, except to say it wasn’t really a surprise, but was quite satisfying. Not in a happy-ending sort of way; not in a revenge way, or a tv-series way. In its own way, it worked. That’s the best description of this story, which brought me in, in spite of myself: it did its job, just like Glenn.