Even from far away, you could hear the equestrian shrieking. A denim tarp of patrons trailed into the stadium. Meaty steam perfumed the hay-smelling air. This sensual experience, combined with the intense heat of Wichita Falls, Texas, made for what some would consider a damn good rodeo. The bar has been set pretty low for a while now.
The sun wilted Phil McGraw’s spotty mustache. He squinted through the arid clouds of dust kicked up by the livestock and made out a faint glimmering. The metal bleachers had heated him up a cozy spot near a hot dog stand. He sat down, stiffening his legs against the heat. He surveyed the area for a familiar face. His niece was competing with the other children as a part of the Little Britches rodeo event. Eyes spanning the stadium, he only briefly made eye contact with a nervous cow and a greasy clown. The clown lingered next to a barrel, staring out into the crowd. He was fingering something small in his pocket.
“Uncle Phil! Uncle Phil!” A girl donning rosey boots and a hat dashed up. “I’m gonna go next!”
“Good!” He grinned and flicked the brim of her hat. “You got it, girl.”
She jittered with anticipation and skipped off. Suddenly, a deep hunger for meat tore through his stomach. Another pang. It could only be quelled with a hot dog. His mustache bristled against his lip. It was time for a feeding.
As Phil got up to scope out the line leading to the hot meat, the clown spotted earlier bumped against his arm. The clown fumbled for a moment as the impact forced the loose change out of his oversized pockets. When he bent down to pick it up, a sheepskin condom fell onto the dirt and gravel. Phil noticed. The clown noticed that Phil noticed. The clown arched his eyebrows, silently daring Phil to inquire about his erotic conquests. Phil was not interested. The smell of mustard and ketchup burned his nose. He broke eye contact and re-secured his gaze on a rotating meat log, turning in its own juices leaned against the glass.
Wichita Falls, Texas, is a quaint but sweltering town, home to rattlesnakes and whooping cough. Men and women bustled through the dirt dome in varying shades of denim, cut off shorts, paisley tops, exposed shoulders and tight belts. Other men and women had their gunts fully out, brightly highlighted by a magenta or yellow sweat-stained tee, complete with wrap-around black sunglasses and a greasy haircut. Some men donned flashy belt buckles and the occasional decorative turquoise embellishment. The only thing Phil McGraw could find in his wardrobe was a plain white button-up shirt, some clean denim jeans, modest black boots, and a worn black cowboy hat. This was his first rodeo, and he intended to make the best of it. If anything, he had to be there to support his niece.
A rodeo is the only place to watch people wrestle animals in timed events. Its cultural heritage has a deep history, transcending decades of tradition, on perfecting the art of tying ropes around animals’ throats and legs as fast as humanly possible in front of loud, jeering crowds. The low rate of animal injury makes it appear more humane. Because animals can’t communicate that they don’t like what you’re doing to them, it’s all kosher. If the neck has not been injured and bones are not broken, it is safe to say the baby cow delights in being chased by a huge horse, ridden by a man biting down on a rope with his teeth, and choke-wrangled into submission.
People love to get close to the action. Watching a man shatter his skull against the dirt as an angry animal bucks wildly towards him goes hand in hand with a 24 ounce soda and fried dough. Anyone who denies attending an event with such a high rate of injury specifically for the gore is lying to themselves and thinks you’re stupid enough to believe it.
This Little Britches event was known for their lively rough stock competitions. There, little kids valiantly struggled to control testosterone-pumped pigs and cows so mommy can get a manicure. Each kid got paid per round. Eight seconds on a horse is impressive when it’s trying to kill you. Phil’s niece was greener compared to the other kids, but she had wrestled a few sheep now and again. Some of her more seasoned friends were missing digits or displayed horrific, half-healed scars. A bull’s horn can tear through a child like a sheet of paper. Some kids got lucky through the raffle drawings and only had to wrangle a calf. Phil’s niece, however, drew a bull. They had already begun to poke it with a cattle prod to get the animal all good and agitated.
“We’re gettin’ ’em ready for ya, darling!” A sweaty man winked at the little girl as she peered over the steel box. The bull groaned with anger. Her palms began to sweat. No good. She could only use one hand to steady herself during the entire round, and last year, she almost had it amputated after being trampled by a horse.
Meanwhile, Phil had reached the front of the line. His mustache vibrated with excitement. Between bites of the first dog, he coughed out an order for a second. He sauntered back to the hot bench with ketchup dripping down his fingers. Suddenly, his bald spot began to tingle. The feeling was mild, like molly cut with baking powder. Although it felt good, something wasn’t right. Through the cheering crowd and screaming children, he heard a man and woman’s voice in argumentive tones.
“I’m serious! You’re just making this whole thing up in your head!”
“I’m not doing this now.” “You are the one who brought it up!”
Phil put on an empathetic face and hiked up his belt. His confident stride towards them interrupted the back and forth. Mouths half-open, the couple eyeballed him with wrinkled brows. He was taking too long to approach them as he stumbled up the bleachers. His boots made an annoying, loud clacking against the hollow, tinny steps, and the incline left him exhausted. By the time he had gotten close enough to have a conversation, he had been hiking his leg up over the seats with both hands, complete with grunting and gasping for breath. Beads of sweat coupled under his reddened neck. Although the argument had been diffused, the situation left both parties slightly irritated.
“I..” He had just finished catching his breath. “Now I know y’all weren’t fighting over horses and hogs.” He thought that would be a cute thing to say. Maybe he’d get a charmed laugh and they’d all hold hands for a second.
“It’s not your concern, sir.” The man was weirdly polite.
“That’s true. My concern is with my niece. If she doesn’t win this rodeo money her mom’s gonna whoop her for sure.” Phil shrugged and took a bite of his lukewarm hot dog. The bun was wet with ketchup and reeked of old onions.
“That’s horrible!” The woman looked off into the dusty animal pit. A little pink human was nervously perched atop some kind of heaving beast. She frantically whipped her head around and gestured towards Phil.
“I think she’s going now!”
“Let’s not get sidetracked here.” Phil stretched out his hands and beckoned towards the searing bleachers. “Let’s talk.”
Oddly entranced by this request, the couple obeyed. They maintained an icy distance. Phil took that as an invitation to sit between them. He took off his hat and readjusted his turquoise bolo tie. His bald spot ached with satisfaction.
“So what seems to be the issue here?” His eyebrows relaxed against his maternal and shimmering eyes. The couple stayed silent, peeking at each other’s gaze for some kind of cue. To the irritation of the girlfriend, the man rolled his eyes and sighed.
“Okay, I don’t care. It’s, I, I don’t know what you’re doing right now, but I-“
“He thinks I’m sleeping around! He thinks I fuck clowns!” Phil cringed at the swear word.
“Well, are you?”
“No! I just have friends! I have good friends, they happen to be men, some of those men are, yes, clowns! I have clown friends! Just because I’m good friends with a clown does not mean I’m having sex with him!”
“She’s not telling you the whole story! She’s not tellin’ me where she is at night! I’m finding seemingly endless chains of colorful rags in almost every container, and the other day, she asked me to paint my face before we had sex! Not like a, an animal, like a frog or a kitty or some shit, but a clown. She wants me to paint my face like a clown so she can keep the fantasy going like the sick freak she is.”
“Not true! Not true!” The woman began a minutes-long mantra of not-trues until everybody stopped talking and it got really awkward. They had not noticed the small crowd forming around the bleachers as if people were eavesdropping collectively. Some people openly stared, anticipating a cue from one of the three involved.
“Okay…” Phil needed to collect himself. This woman was clearly on the goofy sauce.
A scream tore through the silence. Half of the stadium startled to and whipped their heads towards the source. Through the dust and fur, shreds of pink and fine little strands of hair were hucked into the audience. Another person’s scream echoed through the arena. The chaos ended abruptly as the bull charged back into its pen. What was left in the mess laid Phil’s niece, crumpled in a bloody heap, bravely choking back tears and holding a fistful of her own flesh. You could see right through the side of her face. Her tongue flailed behind the wound and other disgusting minutiae. Phil stared straight ahead. He sang a little song in his head to distract himself from the whimpering.
“Well, that’s horrible. Give her a hand, folks!” The announcer clapped into the microphone. A wave of concerned, faltering applause slowly washed over the crowd. The girl struggled to her feet and was assisted by a stout, silly looking man with rainbow suspenders. People clapped a little harder, unable to find an appropriate time to stop. Phil’s hands were getting sore and red.
As the announcer informed the crowd of the next contender, Phil attempted to return the conversation topic to the affair. The color hadn’t returned to the couple’s faces yet, but Phil was insistent.
“So, are you having an affair?”
“N-No!” The woman was horrified more by his nonchalant tone than the accusatory question. So much for the family. She began to speak but was cut off by a tinkling phone ringer. It was Phil’s, playing the Whispering Winds theme. His niece was calling.
“Uncle Phil. Did you see me?” The tiny voice strained through the speaker.
“Yep, you took it like a champ!” Phil eyed his thoroughly soaked dog, ice cold and attracting flies.
“I got my face ripped off.” She tried to stay composed.
“It wasn’t too bad. Now you’re a woman. Sometimes in life, your face gets ripped off by a pissed off cow. Deal with it, honey! Life ain’t a bed of roses. It’s what you make of it!” Exasperated by a child’s suffering, Phil flicked his phone shut. No more distractions. “Sorry about that.”
The boyfriend grimaced with agitation. Phil caught the direction of his gaze and followed it straight towards a rodeo clown. Not any clown, but the one he had bumped into before his niece lost, or won, he wasn’t sure. Suddenly, he had an idea. Phil stood up and cupped his hands to his bristly mouth.
“I’d like to call the rodeo clown up to the stage!” The couple looked around wearily at the glassy-eyed crowd and the limping animals below them. The clown, confused, slowly walked up the bleachers, taking caution to not trip over his hilariously huge feet. He honked his nose unenthusiastically. His right hand remained pinched together in his pocket. The crowd parted for him and collectively gestured towards a seat. Unsettled by the hive mind, the clown slowly complied.
“Do you know this woman?” Phil gestured towards the bug-eyed lady. Her mouth quivered in suppression. The clown nervously grinned. The paint made his teeth look way worse than they actually are. Even rodeo clowns get dental benefits.
“Yes and no.” The boyfriend winced. He suspected it might be him. “I just know her, is all.”
A hushed murmur emerged from the audience.
“Well, what do you mean? Are you having an affair with her?”
“Yeah, that’s somethin’ I’d like to know.” The boyfriend leaned forward and looked the clown up and down. That’d be an easy beating.
“No. And for the record, it impossible to have sex in a barrel. Not even with yourself!” The clown shrugged. The boyfriend stood up for a moment and rubbed his face.
“How does he know about that!?” The girlfriend recoiled at the question. She hissed that she told him. The boyfriend insulted that she confided in a rodeo clown about her relationship issues, laughed so hard his body shook.
“It’s a stupid question! It’s a stupid, stupid question!” The girlfriend began to wave her arms. The audience was loving it. One guy in the back looked like he was becoming physically aroused from the peak drama levels. His eyes were rolling into the back of his head and shit, really weird shit like that.
“I don’t think you can have sex in a barrel. It’s just, it’s not comfortable.” Phil shrugged his shoulders again.
“Oh, so you’re on her side!” The boyfriend raised his voice over Phil’s musings.
“No, no, I just, you gotta admit, that’s pretty ridiculous.”
“It’s not ridiculous! He’s a clown! A clown that my girlfriend is closer to than me! They go shopping together! He bought her a ring! You know the bullshit she told me?” Excited, he asked again about the bullshit. Phil’s eyebrows wavered with curiosity.
“It’s not bullshit! It’s totally normal for a friend to give another friend a ring!” The girlfriend attempted to dominate the conversation.
“It’s bullshit! Would you be okay if I bought one of my female friends a ring? And told her all our secrets and ran crying to her when we fought?”
“You don’t have female friends!”
“That’s not the fucking point!” Phil just, kind of, lost steam. He was pretty sick of the whole “he said, she said, clown said” thing. He started to get up while the two continued to bicker, but he was pulled back momentarily after they noticed.
“What are you doing? Where are you going?” Both seemed frantic and desperate for an answer.
“I just, ah, I don’t know. It’s not worth it.” Phil waved his hands as if to wave away the situation entirely.
“What? You got us into this mess! What do we do now that we’ve talked it out, huh?”
“Well, I mean, I don’t know, you’re both annoying loudmouths, so there you go. You’re perfect for each other. I don’t know. This was a mistake.” Phil started to get up again, cuffing the wet bread in his hairy knuckles. His stomach gurgled for something that wasn’t long and chewy. He also wanted to check on his niece. She’s probably still a little sore.
“What? That’s it? Just get over it!?” The boyfriend began to pace in the limited bench space he had.
“Yeah, or break up. It’s not like it’s a big deal anyway. Don’t take life so seriously. Move on.” Phil had a considerable distance between himself and the couple now. His escape was certain.
“Thanks, asshole!” The man shouted. “You should do this for a living!”
And so Phil McGraw did.