The stadium reeked of hay, leather and manure. Ryan kept his arm around Sandra to protect her from the bump and shove of the crowd, a swirling flow of denim, checked shirts and the odd Stetson hat. Some of the hats were chewed and dusty but most looked fresh out of the box.
Ryan said, "Just look at these idiots, would you, Mum? It's like a fancy dress party."
Sandra didn't reply. She kept her gaze doggedly forward, looking at nothing. She could only make small flat-footed steps and it took them a long time to reach their allocated seats, 11F and 11G. Ryan guided his mother gently into the plastic chair and slung himself down next to her. He was sweating already. What the hell, at least they were here, finally sitting in this crappy stadium in this crappy town after a two-hour drive from Melbourne. He'd spotted a bar in the foyer. Perhaps he'd grab himself a couple of beers to take the edge off.
Sandra tapped Ryan on the leg and he looked around. Her eyes were shiny and unnaturally bright, like she was running a fever. "What a view," she said, straining to lift her voice over the hubbub of the crowd. "We'll be able to see everything."
Ryan nodded. The stadium was built like an amphitheatre with rows of chairs on three sides climbing to a scaffold roof strewn with lights. The stage was a giant oval of dirt with a corral at backstage. Peering into the gloom, he could just make out the hulking shapes of bulls locked one to a pen and the buzzing activity of a few dozen men dressed like cowboys.
"Want a drink?" he said.
"Mineral water would be nice."
He stood up and wrestled past the line of knees to the aisle. The customers at the bar stood ten wide and deep and there were only three bartenders. Ryan stuffed his fists into his trouser pockets and regretted, again, ever paying for his mother to get cable television. She'd discovered bull riding on one of the music channels and he couldn't figure out how such a vulgar sport could hold any fascination for her, an elegant fortyseven year old with interests like English literature and black-and-white movies. Plainly, it was ridiculous. He blamed Sandra's abrupt onset of osteoporosis, a side effect of the chemotherapy; the unexpected fragility of her bones seemed to have struck her a deeper blow than the cancer.
Ryan was in his seat for under a minute when a blare of rock music and a dazzle of strobe lights made him spill his beer. An announcer's voice echoing from a dozen speakers provoked a screaming ovation from the crowd. Ryan grimaced. Sandra, eyes bright, offered Ryan her hand and he held it like it was a baby bird. The pumping music vibrated his heart and lungs, a spray of fireworks exploded from around the stage and the crowd surged into whooping, whistling bedlam.
He looked down at the stage just as a couple of cowboys flung open a metal gate. A bull the size of a van busted out of the chute, raring and dropping, and astride its bare back clattered a rider in a Stetson who clung to a rope encircling the beast and flailed his free arm in the air like a limp noodle.
"Oh my god," Ryan said, but he couldn't hear his own voice over the holler of the crowd. The violent bucking of the bull cast off the rider's hat. Then the rider's feet came loose and he dumped to the dirt in a tumbling mess. The bull turned with its head down, seeking its target, but four men dressed in floppy clown gear rushed at it, waving and yelling. Ryan thought, “oh shit,” someone is going to die but the bull, suddenly calm and compliant, trotted through the open metal gate and headed back into the corral. Meanwhile, the rider hoisted himself to his feet. One of the clowns handed the rider his hat. With a dismissive wave, the rider acknowledged the clapping crowd and limped to the exit gate.
Ryan took a breath. "These blokes are crazy."
"Not crazy," Sandra said. "Fearless."
An abrupt clamor from the crowd pulled Ryan's attention to the stage just as a twisting, jumping bull with a man on its back broke from the second chute. The bull leapt with all four hooves in the air and the rider flew off as if shot from a gun. The crowd clapped politely. The bull ambled into the corral. Two of the clowns helped up the rider, who staggered through the exit gate holding his arm at the elbow.
Ryan said, "Well, this is just stupid."
"The rider has to make it to eight seconds," Sandra said. "If he falls off before that, he doesn't get a score."
Another bull with another rider burst onto the stage. The bull popped and skipped for a step or two then started to turn. To Ryan's surprise, the bull whirled with more speed than its bulk would suggest possible, looking less like a one-ton beast than a terrier trying to nip its own tail. Despite the turmoil, the rider appeared to be sitting in a chair. Seconds passed. The crowd's roar climbed to a higher pitch. Ryan felt that something significant was about to happen.
"Go, go, go!" Sandra yelled.
A loud buzzer went off. The rider pulled his gloved hand free from the rope and vaulted from the bull, landing on his feet. The bull went back to the corral. The rider hugged the clowns, did a jig to the screaming approval of the crowd, and sprinted through the exit gate.
"He made it," Sandra said. "Wait'll you see his score."
But Ryan couldn't hear the announcers over the noise. For the next hour, while his heart trip-hammered in his throat, a combination of rider and bull came out one after the other after the other with little to distinguish them, so that it seemed like the same man was riding out again and again on the same bull.
Finally, the music turned down and the house lights came up. People ran along the aisles. Ryan wished he had thought to buy himself another drink before intermission.
Sandra said, "Isn't it exciting? Thanks so much for bringing me."
Ryan shrugged. She put her hand on his. Her skin felt hot and dry like paper left out in the sun.
"What is it, Ryan? Aren't you having a good time?"
"Not really. Look, I don't understand the attraction. You never let me play rugby and now you're happy to watch teenagers trying to kill themselves."
"Not these boys, they're indestructible."
"Oh yeah? Well, I'd like to know how many riders die every year. And what's the injury rate? Much more than rugby, that's for sure. Did you see that bloke who had to crawl his way off the stage? And that other kid who got his leg stomped?"
"And yet they keep getting up. Nothing fazes them."
Ryan went to the bar and stood in line. He bought and downed a Scotch. Intermission finished. He bought another Scotch. He sipped his drink and watched from a doorway, finally able to hear what the excitable announcers were saying over the loudspeakers. Riders were "tough as railroad iron" or "hotter than a Cajun spice rack;” bulls had hardboiled names like “Natural Disaster”, “Retribution”, “Meat Grinder”, or cutesy names like “Bubble Butt”, “Peas and Beans”, or “Pup on a Rope”.
Ryan went back to the bar. He was the only customer. This time, the pretty woman with the braided hair took his order. As she poured his Scotch, Ryan leaned over the counter and said, "I bet these cowboys don't know anything about accreting principal swaps or leveraged leasing, am I right?"
"Huh? What was that?"
"Real world stuff: High finance." He jerked his thumb towards the arena. "Those young boys in there wouldn't get it."
The pretty woman smirked with one side of her mouth and said, "Whatever you reckon."
Ryan threw his money over the counter and took his drink. He headed back to his seat. Trying to break your neck is one thing, he decided, but contributing to the financial security of the country was something else again.
He sat down and Sandra tried to take his hand. He resisted for a while, then felt ashamed and interlaced his fingers with hers.
Bulls kept charging out of the chutes. Riders kept staying on or falling off. Ryan started to feel numbed. His mind wandered. He again thought of rugby. When he was eleven, he'd wanted to join the local club but his mother had refused. Three of his friends were on the team, and one set of parents had offered to drive Ryan to and from every practice and game, and still his mother had said no. He nagged and pleaded for days, hoping to wear her down, until one morning before school, she threw her bowl of cereal into the kitchen sink, turned to him with wet angry eyes and screamed, "I can't risk it!"
And in a rush he knew what she meant. It was just the two of them in their rented flat, no other children, no husband or father (he'd met his father twice, could recall only that the man's nails were bitten to the quick), no grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins. Sandra had fallen pregnant at sixteen and her family had promptly rejected her, and Ryan's father's family had also refused involvement. Ryan had got up from the table and wrapped his arms about his mother because suddenly he couldn't risk it either.
Sitting in the arena, he remembered the vertiginous feeling that had hit him that particular morning in his mother's kitchen because he had it again right now. He could sense the earth spinning on its axis, and it seemed that if he didn't throw himself to the ground and hang on, the rotation would sling him into space. He closed his eyes. Thumping rock music rattled at his heart. Sandra touched him on the shoulder and he glanced around.
"It's the last ride," she said. "Aren't you going to watch?"
He smiled and nodded. He leaned over and kissed her cheek, rubbed at the back of her frail hand.
The announcers yammered something over the loudspeakers and the crowd opened its throat and bellowed. A massive bull, its dewlap swinging, twisted and snapped out of the chute, the rider slewing about on its back. The crowd bayed. All at once, the place had a boisterous, unhinged energy as if a brawl could erupt any moment. Ryan looked around him at the urgent faces. Many people appeared drunk. He looked back at the stage in time to see what happened.
The bull wadded its body and kicked out. The rider jerked forward and slammed his helmet against the beast's skull. The crowd gasped at the impact. Unseated, the rider launched horizontally into the air and swirled in a circle, arms and legs gracefully extended, chaps billowing, a beautiful pinwheel. Then gravity punched him into the dirt face-first and he didn't move. The crowd hushed.
"Oh no," Sandra said. "This isn't right."
Clowns chased the bull into the corral and hurried to the rider. Other cowboys ran out. Soon, the rider had a dozen men huddled about him and Ryan could only see the boy's feet, but no one appeared to be doing anything.
"For Christ's sake, where's the ambulance?" Ryan said. "There should be paramedics here."
Sandra tightened her grip on his hand. Ryan peered into the dimness of the corrals, searching for any sign of a medical team. The rider was still motionless. One of the cowboys was using his hat to fan him. The air in the place seemed to lose its oxygen.
"Come on Mum, let's get out of here before everyone riots."
They left the stadium the same way they entered, Sandra taking small flat-footed steps and Ryan with his arm around her. It was dark outside and the late November breeze was unseasonably chill. He helped her into his car and drove out of the car park. Once on the main road, he pulled over to consult his portable GPS plugged into the car's cigarette lighter.
"I hope the motel's nice," he said, touching buttons on the GPS screen. "You can have the master bedroom and I'll take the room with the single beds in it, unless your mattress is uncomfortable, and in that case, you can have one or the other of the single beds, all right? I don't care either way, as long as we're out of there first thing tomorrow. I've got to prepare for a big meeting Monday."
She didn't say anything. He turned to her. Tears were sliding down her cheeks. He switched off the engine.
"Mum, what's wrong? Do you need your pain meds? Then what is it? That bull rider? Oh don't worry about him, he'll be fine, he's a cowboy, tough as railroad iron. They always get up, you said so yourself."
Sandra shook her head. "Oh bubs, I just can't bear it anymore."
She hadn't called him bubs for years, decades. Ryan paused. The earth rolled beneath him. Finally he said, "Well, Christ, what do these blokes expect, getting on the back of a thousand pound animal? Of course they're going to get hurt. But he was wearing a helmet, don't forget, it's probably nothing more than concussion. He'll be okay. Everything will be all right, I promise."
Sandra brought her hands to her face and wept. Ryan sat looking at her for a time then turned the key in the ignition and, guided by the calm robotic voice of the GPS, drove the car towards the motel.
"Bull Rider" was first published in Sheldon’s collection, All the Little Things That We Lose: Selected Stories.
Deborah Sheldon's credits include television scripts, magazine articles, non-fiction books (Reed Books, Random House) and medical writing. Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals, and her collection, All the Little Things That We Lose: Selected Stories, was published in January 2010. She has arthritis. Visit Deborah at http://deborahsheldon.wordpress.com.