Rope Tricks

John O'Toole

Some evenings, when we’re parked at some fair ground, and Russell’s got some town rowdies pitching our big old canvas tent, I gaze into Bitsy’s eyes and swear I see something going on in that head of hers. Russell’s hooked our hose up to the fair ground’s water main, and Lightning the Wonder Horse is drinking from his bucket, Revolver: Dog of Destiny off somewhere chasing jackrabbits. Russell will be taking a shower in the van, the rowdies hooting and applauding his performance of “Cara Mia, Why?”, or Russell’s other favorite, the Four Season’s “Rag Doll,” and a fly or an ash from our barbecue flits by Bitsy’s blue eyes, and though she doesn’t try to shoo it or even blink, I can see her anger, as if the fly or whatever, small as it is, had nonetheless come between her and those town boys with their tanned chests and wiry arms, tattoos blue unto purple, bad haircuts, cowlicks. And the fly or whatever spins away, into desert twilight with its pinks and oranges and darkening sands. I’ll tell you though, her nonexistent sex life aside, Bitsy spins a damn fine lariat. In fact, she’s the star of the show.

The show being “Mother Mary’s Christ Crusade and Wild West-O-Rama. Mother Mary being me.

It’s not really a coma she gets into. Russell and I like to call it that because it’s simpler than describing how one day the girl, only sixteen that year, was on her way home from a lariat lesson at the Chicago Avenue Y when she took a little shortcut down a gangway between some chemical plant and the Clark Street Library and got stuck and must have panicked herself into what Dr. Chaudrapurti called a “transient ischial attack” (mini-stroke,) and, while passed out on her feet in that two foot-wide gangway, managed to inhale enough toxic fumes from the plant’s exhaust pipe to make anyone three fingers short of a slap.

But try yammering all that to some nigh clerk at a Motel 6, Russell carrying Bitsy over his shoulder through the lobby (We bought her a wheelchair but the poor thing stubbornly refuses to use it, in that sullen, stiff-limbed way of hers. Except in the tent before the faithful, of course. I guess because she knows which side her bread is buttered on.) Anyhow, so now we just say “coma.” And you’d be surprised, I believe, at how most people just don’t give a goddamn.

How she can just sit there, in her lawn chair on the fair grounds, in her armchair in the van (big ugly Naugahyde thing), day in, day out, for nine years running now, is utterly beyond my admittedly limited powers of comprehension. It’ll be raining on some lousy North Dakota prairie between, say, Mandan (lovely little town), and God-knows-where, and I’ll be in the van with her, primping myself in the full-length mirror, unwinding the curlers from my dyed-blonde ringlets, or rehearsing my sermon for the next flock of faithful, and I’ll swear I spot movement in the mirror, or maybe hear it, her armchair squeaking, her doorknob-knees cvracking and I’ll think Hallelujah, a miracle at last. Nothing of the sort, or course. Involuntary reflex. Sort of like the way a dead frog kicks his legs when you shock them.

Put a lariat in Bitsy’s hand, though, she’s smokin’. Hence the big Miracle that taps the Faithfull’s pocketbooks. Her muscles, atrophied from all that vegetating she does, suddenly and miraculously regain their vibrant tone and she is OFF, baby, OFF. Making that length of rope dance like a dervish. Forming figure-eights, leaping in and out of all those madly spinning hoops. Over her head, down around her wasted body. We talked about letting her keep the damn rope, even maybe tying it around her skinny, blue-veined wrist. Russell balked at first, fearing she might twirl and hop and figure-eight her way into another mini-stroke. I, however, reckoned that she’d know when to quit, and that perhaps, with God’s grace and the rope around her wrists, Bitsy would return to her old active ways and at last be able to live a full, rewarding life. I remember when we first tried this noble experiment. Bitsy had just wowed the crowd with her usual dazzling display of showmanship and skill, and was handing the rope off to Russell for the bit where, from the back of Lightning the Wonder Horse, he lassoes some lady with Parkinson’s Disease or whatever and drags her on stage to be cured. But instead of taking the rope this time, Russell looped it over Bitsy’s neck and rode off in his usual cloud of dust, only backstage of course, from where, to his horror, and to mine from my pulpit, we saw the girl tie a noose and try to hang herself from one of the tent posts. At which point Russell came riding back out and yanked the rope loose in time, praise the Lord. All part of the act, folks. The crowd went absolutely nuts. Of course, most of them were nuts to begin with.

Good a time as any to pass the ol’ collection plate. This was the job of our dear dog, Revolver. The Dog of Destiny, sleeping on the floor beneath the dashboard now, coming to over every other pothole to yawn and claw frantically at an ugly, hairless patch on his right flank. Sometimes turn and bite it till it bleeds little pinholes, like red needlepoint in an old grayish rag. We’re driving through east Texas, through the damn Chihuahua Desert. Not really lost, because Russell has the radio tuned to KTYR in Tyler City, our next stop, and as we drive along that godforsaken two land blacktop, the station’s signal keeps getting louder, clearing up too. Lost to me, though, city girl to my moldy little toenails, and even though, after earning our D.D.’s at Fullerton Theological in Chicago, we had crossed more desert sands than Moses and Chuck Heston combined, Russell and I never really felt at home here. Grayish-white sand, ratty little bushes, stunted cacti, scrawny jackrabbits. And the poor cows. Strays, perhaps? Homeless, soulless. Skin-and-bone going quietly insane.

Speed bump. Revolver wakes and bares his rotten teeth at Russell. The two never really hit it off all that well. The sky is ferociously blue now. The sun has desc3ended to lounge all over the road and desert floor. Our AC is busted and DAMN it is hot. We’ve been drinking soda pop, ice cold when we bought it several miles back, but it made my throat all sticky and I’m thinking of making Russell stop for bottled water. I reach down and flick upholstery stuffing off Revolver. His eyes are red, his long tongue looking like a salmon filet. Russell’s got his shirt off and is starting to smell. He is badly sunburned, his fat shoulders peeling, leaving pulp underneath. He leans forward shifting gears and we hit another pothole and the blubber on his back shakes the sweat loose in rivers. I tell him I think we ought to water poor Lightning. “With what?” Russell grumps. “Nehi Grape? We’ll hit Tyler City soon. He can drink till his kidneys explode.”

I thought of the poor beast back there in that tiny wheeled stall attached to our van, lousy hay to munch, nothing to drink, not even a damn window to show the miles rolling by. Nothing to do but stare at the wall.

Revolver gives a low growl. He is liking Russell less and less lately. Russell says “Aw shut up, stupid.” Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. The dog is half German Shepherd, half Labrador Retriever, and though he’s got his daddy’s wolfen face and can imitate with uncanny accuracy his mama’s bloodthirsty manner, he’s really quite a gentle soul, as most show folk are. And though, as the near mutt has aged, the edge has sort of worn off his killer-persona, he still has quite the knack for getting folks to dig deep, almost as though they had a gun to their heads (hence his name), collection plate between his yellowed teeth, that infamous low growl having taken on a deep, chesty rattle of late. “We owe this dog a lot,” I tell Russell.

“Shut up and watch the damn scenery,” he says.

“What scenery?” You ask me, all of Texas is a big vacant lot. Beats the hell out of Chicago, though, at least the Chicago we were trapped in all those years. Muggy in summer, damn near malarial, snowbound and colder than a corpse’s ass in winter, Bitsy catching strep every time she turned around. Russell and yours truly trying to make a go of those storefront churches, the one on Western Avenue with the rats big as angora cats, the one beneath the Howard “L” that used to be a porno shop, with people searching through our racks of religious pamphlets for “Young, Shaved and Willing” and “Big Bottoms Monthly.” Which just goes to prove that a D.D. from Fullerton Theological doesn’t promise you a heavenly mansion, or one on Lake Shore Drive either. Russell and I learned the hard way, I’m afraid, that the key to the God Game, as to any other calling, can be summed up in one word: Networking. Too bad we weren’t the networking type, the two of us, young fools that we were, preferring to hole up in our Wrigleyville apartment and study Billy Graham and Robert Schuler books and make monkey-love and ponder Jerry Fallwell and make more monkey-love. One particularly grueling winter, the two of us memorizing huge chunks of Bible between bouts on the ol’ Posturpedic that the next day had us walking like Jesus on his way up to Calvary. Russell lost his faith that final city summer when Bitsy went nuts and our landlord evicted us from underneath the Howard Street “L”, smack in the middle of Sunday Worship no less, which would have been embarrassing, I suppose, if anyone had bothered to show up. I was more than sorry when Russell took leave of the Communion of Saints, not just sorry for his poor damned soul, but sorry for that extra link t God I’d just lost. Because if anyone could have gotten through to the Guy it was Russell M. Buel with his Pauline zeal and purity of heart.

Seventeen miles out of Tyler City now, give or take a few dead jackrabbits, sun oozing down behind a flotilla of mountains, its last rays a glistering sore on our windshield. Shadows spreading wide, the desert floor looking like a water-damaged carpet. Last light as sickly-pretty as an anorexic virgin. And though it might seem odd that a born-again agnostic like my husband would decided to hitch his carcass to a Jesus H. road show, I guess what won him over was the traveling part, the shrewd fellow figuring that a man with no address was that much harder to sue. I doubt if even Hoby could tracdk us down now, though God knows my brother-in-law must certainly have tried, eager to recoup the fifty-thousand he had loaned us for the van and the costumes and props and our beloved horse, Lightning.

Russell bought him cheap because the poor beast suffered from hip dysplasia. A team of vets our at Arlington Park had given the animal an artificial ball and socket, thus enabling him to perform the simple canters and trots and deep bows our show required, Russell in the saddle, firing his cap gun, tipping his Stetson to the crowd. Russell was getting any younger though – Who was? – and had lately developed an annoying balance problem, probably caused by a chronic inner ear infection, causing him to topple off the dauntless Wonder Horse, lately at the alarming rate of three or four times per show. Trouper that he was, though, Russell soon learned to cover these mishaps by pretending to wrestle this or that wild “injun” to the ground.

A spectacle that so wowed our entertainment-starved crowds that we finally hired an actual, honest-to-God Native American. Fellow named Lenny, full-blooded Navajo and beauty school dropout. Twenty bucks a day plus all he could eat at whatever IHOP or Denny’s we would stop at on the road. And Lenny, despite his slight build, was some eater. Steep price to pay, if we’d ever actually paid him. But goodness what a fright in his war paint and feathers, whooping and carrying on as though someone had dropped a road flare down his pants. “WOO WOO!” right in my ear. Lord, thought I’d go deaf as a brick. Shaking his stupid tomahawk in my face while I’m reading from E[phesians. Shouting stuff like “UNGUENTINE! BROKAW! OPRAH! ONOMATOPOEIA!” Authentic Indian war cries which I think he made up. And every time poor Russell leaped off Lightning onto Lenny’s back, the kid would shout something like “Holy crap, you fat tub of guts. Who ya think you are, freakin’ CUSTER?” Then one day Mr. Authentic Navajo fired one of his suction cupped arrows into the crowd and put out some old bastard’s eye. Well, what could we do? We had to let him go. And just as soon as we’d outrun the local sheriff and crossed the state line, that’s exactly what we did.

But things have a way of coming round. Obnoxious people do too. Imagine our surprise when we reached the Tyler City outskirts at sundown and Russell hooked up our water line and filled the usual buckets for Lightning and Revolver, then went about hiring four Indian guys from the local reservation, one of whom turned out to be ol’ Unguentine himself, the Suction Cup Kid, none other than good ol’, foul-mouthed, underweight Lenny. Well, Russell got back from giving the Indian guys their orders and lifted Bitsy down and got her seated in her lawn chair, then gave the generator a kick to wake it up, and I was firing up the barbecue for weenies from our mini-fridge and I hear Russell grumbling to himself about “that damn little smartass” not pulling his weight, so I tell him “Look, he[s not as big as the other boys. Those tent posts are heavy. Invite him on over for weenies and beer.” Now Russell, though crabby as sin sometimes, and inexplicably insensitive to the suffering of animals, is nonetheless the kindest of souls when he feels well. In fact, if good works alone could get you into heaven (They CAN’T. Take THAT, Catholics!) he’d have himself a red carpeted escalator to God. That particular night, though his colon having gone blooey on him, he muttered something to the effect of “I’LL give him a weenie.” So I went over there to where the guys were setting up and took Lenny aside and invited him myself. I suspect he was more than relieved, not so much to get out of all that manual labor as to get the hell away from the other three guys, a trio of bruisers who seemed to have taken issue with Lenny’s skin-tight , violet short-shorts and chartreuse neckerchief.

Russell, poor lamb, couldn’t join our merry barbecue. Not, as he would love us to believe, out of unabashed, old asshole-rudeness, rather because he was pretty much shackled to the toilet in our van. Which was okay with Lenny, who perhaps felt that Russell, under guise of rehearsing, might throw himself on Lenny’s back and beat the kid to dust or something. Okay with Revolver too. The mongrel, quite sleepy and without his arch-enemy, soon settled down in Lenny’s lap and dozed off. Bitsy sat staring into space, her usual slouch having stiffened to the posture of a military corpse with the Indian’s arrival on the scene.

I’m polishing off my third weenie, with mustard and pickle lily and finely chopped onions, when Lenny pulls her kerchief off, wipes his forehead with it, says how it’s hot enough to render the fat off his Aunty Pearl’s hips, then with a sheepish grin pops the big question.

“No, son, you cannot marry Bitsy.”

“Though I’d ask,” says Lenny.

“Worth a shot,” I agree.

Lenny starts pondering his future without Bitsy. It doesn’t seem to bother him all that much. Revolver wakes up. Lenny starts feeding him a weenie but the dog dozes off again, half the little snack jutting our of his mouth. Fireflies, hordes of them, are making Lenny blink. A desert wind stirs, blows the fireflies to hell, brining the aroma of the toilet in our van. Lenny ties his kerchief back on and pops his other big question.

I mull it over, the fireflies back now, bothering the hell out of stone-faced Bitsy. “You promise not to shoot any more of those arrows?”

“I swear on my ancestors’ bones,” Lenny says.

“Gee, I don’t know, Len.”

“I won’t shake my tomahawk in your face no more neither.

“I’ll have to ask Russell,” I tell him.

Which I didn’t. I simply said “Lenny’s back in.” To which Russell said “You could’ve asked me first, goddamit. I own this damn freak show.” To which I replied, “You do not. Hoby does.” To which Russell shot back with “I’m the one he wants to sue.” To which I simply replied “All I’ve got to do is phone him.” To which Russell parried “Where’s the damn toilet paper?”

And so it was that, early the next morning, young Leonard skyhigh joined us in the back of the van to once again apply his fearsome war paint and headdress, Russell and Bitsy already in their rhinestone-encrusted Wild West getups, Bitsy’s skirt and jacket red with embroidered lariats, Russell’s genuine buckskin with frills on the cuffs and hems, silver six-shooters on each pocket, his gun belt low on his blubbery hips. I in my turquoise-blue hoopskirt and blouse, my ringlets dangling blonder than blonde from my Stetson, eye shadow widening my transfer-punch eyes, enough rouge on my cheeks to pain a couple of barns.

Big crowd that morning. Farmers in go-to-meeting seersucker, wives and daughters in cloth dresses colorful as salt water taffy. Ranchers in denim suits, string ties and cowhide boots. Clean cut kids dressed in Sears duds and positively gleaming. The usual townie punks come to sneer and snicker. Too many goddam flies, too much heat. And Lord, the mosquitoes. Even Bitsy raised her hand once or twice to shoo them off. Fortunately, the girl was backstage at the time. Supposed to be paralyzed, you see, till the Miracle.

I preached an especially good sermon that day. Brand new, based on “Blessed are the pure of heart.” Even Revolver managed to stay awake for it, though it might have had more to do with his kidney stones troubling him again than with any oratorical skills I might humbly possess. The Laying on of Hands went amazingly well. You could actually hear the sudden hush from the crowd, like the sudden dead silence in the eye of a tornado, when I laid my hands on Bitsy’s blonde heard and intoned, like a doctor who has just performed his umpteenth tonsillectomy, “Okay, kid, you’re healed. Get up and start twirling.”

And so Bitsy rose as I handed her the lariat. Whirling and looping, spinning and jumping, doing the splits as the rope snaked around her. Gauging the crowd at its zenith of awe, I put the tin collection plate in Revolver’s crumbling teeth and off the dog trotted, up and down the rows of folding chairs, the lovely sound of quarters hitting metal in my ears, the lovelier silence of vies, tens and twenties, fluttering down like leaves off some glorious money tree. Ah.

Time to whip out my trusty ukulele and launch into “Jesus, Press the Heathen to They Bosom Sweet,” Lenny’s cue to come leaping out in his Brave Eagle getup, whooping his head off and swinging his tomahawk, Russell riding our on dear old Lightning, firing his cap pistol at the frightening savage. Lenny, in what I considered a brilliant ad lib, dodging the imaginary bullets with his pelvis, a sort of bump ‘n grind thing he no doubt stole from “The Matrix,” but stunningly effective nonetheless. More clinking against tin. More silent sound of banknotes falling. Ah, life is sweet. Bittersweet, anyway, but why mince words? Revolver barking in heartfelt gratitude. And that was when all hell broke loose.

One of the townie punks, a seven foot bruiser with sideburns shaped sort of like Illinois, has apparently taken exception to Revolver’s good-natured pawing and has lifted the hapless mutt high in the air and now, just as Russell is about to leap from Lightning onto Lenny’s painted back, hurls the aged dog clean over thirty rows of folding chairs onto the stage at Lightning’s front hooves. The bruiser, an Indian, or so I assume, shouting “We don’t have to take that kind of shit off that fag!” Well, Revolver in his death throes manages to struggle onto his forepaws and let out one last dying bark, spooking Lightning into throwing dear Russell, who lands short of Lenny and, reaching out for balance, knocks the Navajo backwards into Bitsy, causing her to trip on her whirling lariat and topple face-first into our Wild West Last Supper diorama (Jesus and the boys in ten gallons at a chuck wagon), knocking it over, half the tent with it.

Pulling myself out from under the canvas, wincing at a flare-up of arthritis in my hip, I happen to spot Bitsy, blessedly unharmed, shuffling off the stage, the rope in one hand, straggling behind her across the dirt floor.

A local cop who’s been assigned to crowd control helps me and Lenny pull a tent post off poor Russell, who can’t move his toes or fingers and starts wailing that this means wither his back or neck is broken, or both, and at any rate he doesn’t feel at all well and thinks he might throw up. The cop, a pie-faced good ol’ boy with hair like a brush fire converging on his bald spot, is kind enough to call an ambulance. Lightning, meanwhile, has taken another tent pole smack across his scrawny back and is lying on his side gulping huge, noisy breaths, his cathedra- ribs heaving pitifully with the effort of survival. The cop examines Lightning’s twisted left foreleg and says that it’s broken. He says he will take care of it as soon as the ambulance arrives.

I don’t care to see this and start to get a nasty feeling about Bitsy. Kissing Russell’s forehead and squeezing his hand, I assure him that things will be okay. I then leave the tent and take off across the dusty fair ground through the heat waves and dazzling noon sun toward the van.

I find her there, slumped in her lawn chair, her blue eyes following a fat, greenish fly as it waltzes back and forth through the gritty, dry air. The sky is a big baby blue that never learned to blink. She has knotted the lariat into a noose and drap3ed it over the van’s wide-open back door. I pick her up and carry her inside. Jesus, she hardly weighs a thing.

John O'Toole was born and raised in Chicago. He is currently employed as a cataloger of rare books and manuscripts at the University of Southern California. At USC he studied fiction writing with T.C. Boyle and recently earned a masters degree in professional writing. In 2006, his collection of short stories, "Beer and Confessions", was published by Press.