Bull riding is not a death cult. We want to live. We do it because we want to live.

     If you’re good, and you have to be good, you make the full eight seconds on top 2,000 pounds of muscle and tendon, solid and broad, horn and hoof looking to get at you, get into you, to get you the fuck off. During those eight long seconds there is nothing but you and your bull, the whip snap of your spine, his kick your pull, his land your push, and you become fluid together, quick turning in the lurch and jerk, spinning pretty as a show car under the spotlight.

     Those eight seconds are about rhythm and submission, perfection.

     It’s everything outside those eight seconds is the problem.

 

Wyatt “with the stingray boots” was already touring when I joined up, going through life with one hand on the rope, one in the air, clinging on till it kicked him off.

     If we weren’t riding bull we were fighting a hangover on our way to riding bull. In the minors it’s not like the circus, where the circus travels with you. Towns organize a rodeo and you show up, throw down, move on.

     When I first fell in, the lesser boys took me to watch a game the real names played once the parking field emptied and the older guys went to their fires, their aches and their gripes. There must have been twenty of us lining the sides of the highway, shotgunning beers, thrilling to each passing car that didn’t kill the boy on the road, his body tight to the centre line.

     I noticed Wyatt was the only one didn’t shut his eyes up tight against the air rushing off the rigs and cars. We took it all further than we needed to. Wyatt took it further than that. He held the pose when people stopped clapping, kept his head under water when people stopped counting, stayed out there on the road so long you began to wonder about the psychic shape of the thing you were looking at. Pretty quick it stopped looking like courage.

 

In Grimshaw for my fourth ride I drew a shorthorn named El Generalissimo, a real son of a bitch and how, black and wide as a helicopter gunship, so rank in the chute they worried he’d break a rib, my knee, against the bars. Soon as I gave the nod and got him out he performed such a feat of gymnastic ability as to make the next generation of joyless Russian Olympians rip the leotards from their fist-tight crotches and backflip away from the sport forever. Mid-air, the bull pushed his spine to the ground while bringing his head and haunch together, collapsing his middle under me like a sagging accordion, making a perfect circuit with his horns and his ass, launching me over his shoulders. He had his head thrown so far back we made eye contact on my short flight forward, his pupils like smooth wet rocks. I went off sideways, heard my shoulder pop.

     There was no putting that bull to bed, even once they got the squeeze off his flank. Apparently I crawled around on my knees beside the drama, oblivious, trying and failing to snag my hat off the dirt with my good hand, missing in my double vision.

     When the bull rounded he ran low along the ground in my direction. A bullfighter dragged me to the corner by the back of my vest. When you see a bullfighter cradling a bull rider, putting his body between an injured cowboy and a certain, stomping death, well, you know that bravery can look a lot like tenderness.

     It was Wyatt pulled me through the bars, led me by my good arm to the bathroom. He pushed my vest back off my shoulders, pulled my shirt off to check for broken ribs, tender spots, helped me put my shoulder in against the door frame of the bathroom stall. He wet my shirt and wiped the blood from my forehead, wringing the froth out, pink seafoam in the sink.

     Over the halogen buzz in my head, Wyatt said, “I thought that was you done for a second.”

     I watched the blood, watery and thin, trickle down the white of the basin.

     “I’m Wyatt Thurst,” he said.

     Until then he’d only talked around me but also kind of for me, I could tell.

     “I know,” I said. “Wyatt with the stingray boots.”

     “Smile for me,” he said, taking my mouthguard out and holding my face, fresh-shaved for my big ride, moving it from one rough hand to the other. “You still got all your own teeth, so that’s good. But you’ll be no prettier for it.”

     I lifted my hair to the side and leaned into the mirror. I pushed at my cheek. Felt like I was pushing through raw steak. When I slumped some, Wyatt held me up. He had forearms like two legs of lamb, the kind of forearms that inspire unwelcome combinations of words in a man’s head. Words like “erotic asphyxiation” and “beating death.”

     When I straightened I saw Wyatt behind me. We both looked down at his hand in the mirror, still at the bottom of my stomach, his pinky in the trail of hair that led into my underwear. He’s going to kiss me, I thought. I might have to knock him on his ass. But he didn’t. I didn’t. He handed me back my shirt and went to get ice from the vendors.

     We sat in the stands in silence, the bag dripping into my ear. I watched the audience watching the show. What would this thing be without them? We stood to cover our hearts with our hats while some local cowgirls circled the arena full gallop, kicking up pitch, the one in the middle, “the Pride of Alberta,” in a military uniform and holding a giant Canadian flag that shot fireworks from the end of the pole. I don’t think it was the concussion when I say it was the single most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

     “You’ve been driving with the Christian twins,” he said.

     I had.

     “Can you drive?” he asked.

     I could.

 

I don’t know if he was worried about me or just needed a second driver that night, but it went fine and we spent the rest of that summer road surfing between stops, one of us driving and the other dangling high up off the road in the gap between the open door and the side of the camper, one hand planted on the seat, one arm wrapped around the window’s edge, tapping and dragging our boots along a highway moving ninety miles an hour under us. Alone but for each other, feathered in excess, we danced on Death’s back, we pissed in your sink. We hoped it wouldn’t end because it couldn’t end well.

 

They said I rode fine. Smart but cowardly, as was my way.

      Slowly at first and then all at once the skies filled with the anguish of geese and the trees went to rust. Then the season was over and it was back to drywalling or tractors and earplugs and metal-toed boots.

      Off-season was spent trying not to hear my mother coughing up baby jellyfish that beached themselves at the bottom of the sink, stubborn fuckers you couldn’t splash down, that you had to wipe to clean.

      The trailer wasn’t big. I gave her space by hosing off my old workout bench and getting the weights from under the front steps. A couple of girls I didn’t remember from school, teenagers in the shapes of their mothers, started coming out to watch me do sets, to share a cigarette and give me eyes like didn’t they just know all about it.

      It isn’t good to be handsome. The world is different for you, opens in a way it maybe shouldn’t. I’m not handsome. Wyatt was. He had the battered beauty of abandoned farmhouses and ships too long at sea. That’s poetic. As in I took it from a poem. I am not handsome but I had a good body — I have it still — and women like the easy way I pull my hat on, back to front.

     When I got lonesome I texted Wyatt — hey man, what’s up man, happy birthday man, gun emoji, tango lady, birthday cake, tango lady — and sometimes he’d even write back.

 

Then it was April and I was back on the road, guilty as glad to be leaving that locked-up mausoleum of a trailer.

     I finally caught up with Wyatt in Camrose. I saddled up beside him, lay my arms on the fence like they were too heavy to hold. He put a stingray boot up on the bottom rung, gave it a wipe. We both watched the Christian twins in the chute, Justin pulling rope for Ty. Ty struck the revival tent pose of readiness: head bowed, right arm lifted, right hand open, eyes closed in prayer. He nodded once and the gate swung open.

     I said, “I hear the strippers in town wear wool socks.”

     “That’s the most Canadian thing I’ve ever heard,” said Wyatt.

     “How was home?”

     He spat at that, brown and thick.

     “I opened the camper on the way out here,” he said. “Full of boxes.”

     His stepdad had packed his shit and given it back to him. Trophies, high school diploma, his baby shoes.

     The buzzer went and Ty loosed his hand, slid over and off. The bull stopped kicking, stood there dumb-eyed until they got him trotting dainty toward the pen. Ty found a safe spot to drop a knee and made a show of offering a tight-eyed, swaying praise up to Jesus.

     “Did your mom know?” I asked.

     “Can’t be sure she didn’t.”

     “That’s cold.”

     Wyatt told me he unloaded the boxes on the side of the road to get at the spare and left them, watched his childhood get smaller, farther away in his rear-view mirror.

     I guess we all gave our youth to the road.

 

He was rootless, angry. Reckless and it suited him.

     I scored a near perfect 93 in Fort Bridge. He picked up herpes from a girl in Morris. Didn’t slow him down much. Most of the riders had herpes — the good ones at least. I got two screws in my wrist at Strathmore. There was talk of him making the stampede if his luck held out, or at least, there was talk between us. Wyatt picked a fight with some townies in Dawson, three-ply types with one-ply souls, ending with one more screw in my wrist and Wyatt with a broken cheekbone.

     It soothed him some, having an outward wound he could poke and show.

 

Mom died second year, off-season. I woke from my vigil in her hospital room to see a pair of stingray boots crossed up on the corner of her bed.

     Wyatt brought flowers ripped from the hospital grounds, which was kind in theory, or as good as kind. We put them in a cup of water and he was gone that night.

 

When it happens it never happens the way you think. It was the fourth season and we’d fought over something stupid. The radio, directions, whose turn it was to drive, the relative merits of Brazilian and American ropes, if you can even be a real cowboy these days without a solid social media presence. Who knows. We fought and I caught a ride with the Christian twins. Or he stranded me and I caught a ride with the Christian twins.

     Either way: I came across seven strong women from a passing basketball team lifting Wyatt through the windshield of his truck outside Fort McMurray.

     It was quiet but for the shuffle and grunt of the women straining. The oil fields, muted by distance, spat fire, black smoke. Like a can of spilled paint, an orange sunset splashed across the sky above them.

     The rest of the basketball team pressed themselves to the windows of the yellow bus, blinkers on, pulled up beyond the scene.

     Wyatt lay on the crumpled front of his truck, toes to the sky. His bolero hung from around his neck, the metal caps tapping against the hood with each jag of breath, a deadly kind of hiccup, expected yet surprising, all of us listening, not daring to breathe, thinking every one his last.

     I leaned in close to the wreckage of his mouth when I saw his lips move, his eyes startled, alive.

     “Easy, friend,” I said, as I lifted his head to pour a nip from my flask down the back of his throat. The coach objected. The girls wept. But for the spectators I would have had him drink from my mouth. He took the balm down coughing, but I think willing. I caught the bits of teeth blown out his mouth, splinters I pushed about my palm gentle as broken glass to separate from the blood. I don’t know why I kept them.

     A bloody zag led from the front of the car to the fields beyond where the pistons churned obscenely, lapping that sweet, that sticky from a gash in the earth. You could follow the bloody path to an animal with trailing hind legs, I was sure, twisted and useless as the wreck. If you wanted to see a thing like that, you could.

     The rodeo traffic crawled by. I watched it as an out-of-body experience, a fistful of teeth held to each passing car. People looked from me to Wyatt and back, threw an outline of a cross across their chests.

     When I called them I could see them from his stories: his mom and stepdad, their shrunken heads and desiccated bodies, shrivelling up tight sucking on Chiclets screwed into their gums, talking to him always at the end of a phone brought out to the pool on a silver tray, his mother talking for and about his stepdad, reporting in a sunny voice that he was “here,” he was “listening,” interpreting each man to the other. Theirs was the only number I found, written on the back of a bus ticket. I found it in a wallet in the clear plastic bag with clothing the hospital gave me.

     Wyatt Thurst, with a name he knew to be screamed by the men in the stands, whispered by girls in their hearts in their beds. Short and broad, potato-fed, taking up space out there in the open, making it all seem smaller. Stepping outside his tent in the morning with his soiled underwear to plant his feet on either side of the coming piss stream, announcing something meaningless in a knowing way, something like, “Ah, Mr. Bird and Mr. Squirrel,” that same Wyatt, Wyatt with the stingray boots, dying on the hood of his truck.

     We were all strong, none strong enough.

filigree

Brendan Bowles has won the Toronto Star Short Story Award, has been nominated for the Disquiet International Literature Award, and was longlisted in the Broken Social Scene Story Contest and for the CBC Short Story Prize. He was one of two writers nominated by PEN Canada for PEN International’s New Voices Award in 2013. Bowles lives in Toronto.
 

“Wyatt Thurst” is so lovingly polished it glows. Following two bull riders in the minors through their rodeo circuit, the electrifying and compulsively readable narrative whip snaps like your spine on an eight-second ride. What is left unspoken haunts the pages as much as the keenly observed details of the world that the author has built. — Jury Citation (2016 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers)

 


  
 
 

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