The Bull (November 2009 Story of the Month


by CS DeWildt

"Get up, Jakey." The boy sat up in the bed.  He smelled eggs.  His breakfast. Five at five, every morning with a triple side of toast, no butter. The egg yolks stared back at him like yellow eyes. He stabbed the eyes with sharp toast corners and watched the goop flow. Jake inhaled the energy, ravenous with anticipation, not fear.

Dad put a large glass of water and a small glass of juice in front of him. Jake wiped up the last of the congealing yolk with his finger, and ate it.

"When we leaving?" Jake said.

"Soon as you're done. Drink your water."

"I know." Jake lifted the glass and Dad stepped outside to smoke. He never smoked in the trailer because of the boy. He wanted nothing to harm him. That was one of the few truths he kept close.

Dad got out of prison when Jake was ten. He didn't even know about the boy. Jake was the product of a conjugal visit. His mom managed to make it a pregnancy and then some before she saw Dad again. She told Dad the day before he was released. After she left, he sat alone in his cell, waiting for the doors to swing open the one last time. That was the longest day he'd spent there.

Jake washed his dishes by hand and put the dripping plate and cups into the drying rack next to the sink, next to the frying pan Dad had washed. At the door he pulled on his canvas sneakers. He ran a finger over the thin soles. They were worn smooth. Jake touched his face and felt the contrast of his scarred, left cheek. It was a vivid remnant of the dog attack. Jake was five and he'd lost two teeth in the mauling. Now, seeing the scar, he decided he'd grow a beard when he could.

The dog was a stranger that had wandered onto the land, probably born in a barn and certainly more feral than pet. It took a piece of Jake and would have taken more, but Jake had the presence of mind to stick it in the belly with his pocketknife. The knife was Dad's, pearl handled, though Jake had no idea. Jake had found it in an old toolbox under the stairs. That dog lay to rot in front of the trailer until the bloat was gone and the stink was too much. With a patched up face and a bandana to block the dust and the stench, the boy dug a shallow grave and pushed the dog in with his foot. The dog's remaining skin and fur writhed with the undercurrents of flesh beetles and maggots. Jake watched and cocked his head left. Dropped in the knife. Filled the hole.

Dad killed his cigarette as Jake came out of the trailer. The eastern sky was just a little blue over the horizon. In the west the sky was still black and star-filled. Jake looked over the yard. It was more of a field than a yard; there were no discernable boundaries, just brown dirt and rock and patches of overgrown mesquite. Old, waving saguaro cacti dotted the mountain foothills in the distance. There were no neighbors to speak of; there was the old man whose trailer could be seen as a tiny box a half-mile down the dirt road. There was no one to complain about the desert-dusted exercise equipment in front of the tin roof singlewide. Jake ran a finger over the silver weights resting heavy above the padded bench. He wouldn't lift today. He wouldn't ride the ancient exercise bike and he wouldn't pound the brown turf in his size 8s.

"Ready," Dad said.

"Yep."

Father and son sat like mirrored twins on opposing sides of the cool vinyl seat as the '79 Oldsmobile ate up the blacktop, their heads back, arms out the window, hands gliding on the wind. They drove west with the sun creeping up their backs. Jake felt they were trying to outrun the plasma ball and the feeling didn't bother him. It was old, familiar, like the dream he came back to often. When he thought about it, the dream, he couldn't remember if it was new or just freshly backdated. He told himself he would write down the date, keep a log so he would know when he had last remembered thinking about the dream. He never did it so it played out the same as before, if it had happened before.

The news over the radio spoke of youth violence. Offenders were found to be getting younger with teen girls being the group with the fastest rate of growth. Dad turned off the radio leaving only the wind and the cacti to entertain them.

"It isn't as bad out there as they'd have you think," Dad said.

"I know," Jake said.

"Do you?" Dad was looking at him and Jake felt it as he stared off into the Catalina mountain range to the north. He turned his head south.

"Yeah."

"Violence goes back to the gods."

"I know."

"Good."

It was bright and there was no denying the heat when they pulled into the Shell gas station. There was a white and green border patrol SUV parked out front. Next to it a flatbed full of Indians drank water and grain alcohol. There was a dog, black and gray, a blue merle herding mix, laying left of the entrance, panting. Its eyes were as bright as its ribs were visible. Jake watched it, resting his head on the car door while Dad pumped gas behind him.

"Dad, can I go see that dog?"

Dad looked turned from the scrolling numbers of the pump display, surveyed the lot.

"Alright, careful. You should eat something."

Jake doubled back, leaned through the open window of the Olds. He opened the glove box and grabbed the sandwich.

The dog watched Jake approach, saw something in the boy's hand, saw the boy looking at him, showing smiling teeth. The dog smelled the sandwich and its tail slapped the concrete.

"Hey boy." The dog stood slowly and stepped forward to meet the boy. Jake pulled the plastic bag from his sandwich and bit into it. He scratched the dog's head. Jake ripped away a piece of the sandwich. The dog took it gingerly, licking the tips of the boy's fingers.

"Good boy," Jake said. The dog smacked at the peanut butter stuck in its muzzle. They shared the rest of the sandwich equally.

"C'mon Jakey," Dad said exiting the store. Dad handed him a large bottle of water. Jake uncapped the bottle and poured a small stream, letting the dog lap at it. Jake took a long drink himself and then followed after Dad. He watched in the rearview mirror. The dog watched him go and then turned its attention to the evaporating wet patch of concrete next to the entrance.

They were sweating by afternoon and Jake climbed into the back of the car. He rolled down the back windows and climbed back into the front seat. He laid his head on the door, catching as much of the wind as he could.

"Stay hydrated," Dad said. Jake took a drink the water bottle. He lapped at the last falling drops and thought about the dog. He hoped it had a shady spot to sleep. Or a breeze.

Dad's ink was done in prison. He had a Nazi SS on his chest and a small swastika he kept covered with his wristwatch. One night, a while after Mom had left, there was a Nazi show on television.

"Do you hate Jewish people," Jake asked.

"No," Dad said.

"That's what your tattoos mean."

"I know."

Jake sat on the carpet of the trailer looking at his dad, waiting for an explanation. Dad drank the last of the warming beer from the can. "I'm gonna smoke," he said.

Jake sat alone in front of the TV in a mix of blue light from the screen and the yellow glow of the floor lamp next to Dad's chair. SS soldiers goose-stepped across the Sony Trinitron. With Dad gone the trailer felt big and the TV noise wasn't enough to calm the boy.

Jake stepped out of the trailer into the cool air. He sat down on the narrow trailer steps. Dad spoke to the night.

"Sometimes," he began, "you just do things because they're easier than fighting. Then they start to make sense because the rules aren't the same wherever you go. Whatever rules you got in your head, it don't always work that way. And to hell with making them understand."

Coyotes yelped and snarled out in the desert, miles away. Dad smoked one cigarette after another.

"Jakey," he said after a time. "You need to learn to fight."

The Olds burst a tire way out on Indian Road number 15. Jake stood by in the blazing noon sun sweating and watching his sweating dad, listening. There was nothing but open graze land in any direction, desert scrub for the cattle and donkeys and horses that wandered the landscape. There was another range of mountains further west. Jake didn't know what they were. Dad did, but it never came up.

"Loosen the lugs before you jack it up," Dad said. "Otherwise it's a real pain in the ass."

"Cause the wheel will turn?"

"Right." Dad said. He manhandled the L-shaped lug wrench and loosened 4 of the 5 nuts with the relative ease, the more stubborn of those yielded to gravity as Dad bounced his weight on the end of the tool. Teetering on one foot, hands holding the hood for balance, the 5th nut would not give.

"God damn, that bitch is on there. Get me the spare, Jakey."

Jakey pulled the bulky full size spare from the trunk and rolled it through the dust to the front right quarter panel. The tire had been patched and plugged a million times and the tread was worn smooth as Jake's shoes. Dad lifted the tire and brought it down hard on the end of the lug wrench. The nut gave immediately.

"There we go," Dad said. Jake watched Dad jack up the car. There was the sound of an engine in the distance. Jake saw a vehicle, just a dot, come over the rise. It grew in size and volume quickly, roaring through the hot wavy air that glazed the road. The truck blazed by, kicking up dust. Jake turned his head from the stinging sand grains. He watched the truck shrink down again. It was the Indians from the Shell station. They shrank too.

"Think we got it. Put this in the trunk." Jake took the flat tire and pulled it to the back of the car. He heaved it into the trunk. Dad dropped the jack in next to it, slammed the trunk home.

"We late?" Jakey asked.

Dad wiped the grease and brake dust from his watch. "We're fine. Late doesn't apply to us, you know?"

"Yeah, I guess not."

As they drove away a fight-scarred coyote stepped onto the road and sniffed at the pair's fading scent. An automobile with working air conditioning would have left a condensation puddle behind. The coyote crossed the road and disappeared, blending into the landscape, searching on for sustenance.

Jake had not seen his mother since he was eight, when dad came home. Jake knew him from old photographs. His favorite was a Polaroid of Dad standing shirtless in front of an old chopper. The bike was electric blue with a long thin fork, white and blue flame decorated the gas tank. Dad was smiling, holding a Budweiser can.

Dad came through the door of the trailer holding a blue gift-wrapped box Jake hoped was his. Jake's mom had dressed him in a suit and the tag from the shirt made his neck itch.

"Hi Jakey," Dad said.

"Hi Dad."

After dinner, Dad gave Jake the gift. He opened it carefully, not wanting to ruin the shining blue paper. Jake peeled the tape from one end and slid a box out of the decorative sheath.

"Monopoly, thanks."

"You ever play?" Dad asked.

"Yeah, but not on my own board. Will you play it with me?"

"Sure thing."

Dad and Jake sat together on the floor while Mom washed the dinner dishes.

Jake tore the cellophane wrapper from the box with less care than he had shown the wrapping paper. He opened the box, pulling out the various pieces: property deeds, red hotels and green houses, the dice, the pewter statuettes and the board.

"There's no money," Jake said.

"What?" Dad moved closer, scanned the contents, looked into the empty box. "Damn it, what a rip!"

"Did they forget?"

"I guess they did. Sorry Jakey. We can return it and get you a new one."

The Monopoly game was set aside and eventually found it's way to the top shelf of Jake's closet. It never went back to the store. It was the kind of job for Mom, but she left in the night and neither had seen her since.

"Where'd she go?" Jake had said.

"Away," Dad said.

"For how long?"

"Forever probably." And that was the last they talked about her.

It was then the training started. Jake didn't have time to think about or miss his mom. Dad kept him busy with calm, disciplined training. Everything was routine. The eggs, the run, the bike, the bags. It began again at lunch, and then at dinner. There was no such thing as a day off.

"Prison put me on to a path I never would have known otherwise," Dad said sometimes as Jake sweat and panted. Jake listened intently because he never had a man tell him anything before.

The old farm was just off to the left before the road began to dissolve into a dirt two-track and then raw desert. There were about thirty or so cars and trucks lined up in the dirt. Behind the old blockhouse a large group of men gathered. Jake saw the Indians from the truck mixed in with the rest of the men. More than 100 eyes found the Olds and the air was abuzz with a mix of Espanol, English, and tribal speak. The air smelled of testosterone and whiskey.

"Need a minute?" Dad asked. Jake thought.

"No."

Dad grabbed the black canvas bag from the back seat and set it between them. Jake unzipped it, pulled out the white tape. He peeled up an edge to get it started and handed it to Dad. Dad pulled a long piece of tape from the roll. Jake held out his right hand. Dad applied the tape while Jake fished through the bag among petroleum jelly, bandages, instant ice packs, and suture. He blew the dust from his red plastic mouth guard. When dad finished with the right hand Jake gave him his left.

Dad took out a black marker and wrote "THE" on the taped right hand and "BULL" on his left.

The circular arrangement of the men at the old homestead was not of their own design. Jake approached, leading Dad, and the herd of men parted revealing the sectioned cattle gates. The metal gates were tied end-to-end with thick twine and arranged in a circle about thirty feet across. This is where someone had once worked their horses, breaking them and training them in the dust. At the far end of the circle stood a boy, maybe a bit older than Jake, bigger for sure. Jake looked at his own taped fists.

"El Toro," someone said.

Jake removed his shirt and pulled his lean frame through the bars of the gate. There was little fanfare, a few claps and whistles, but they were for the event, not the contenders. The boy across the circular ring bounced and stared at Jake. Jake met his gaze, held it. A small pregnant Mexican girl entered the space, stood center ring, blocking the fighters' view of one another. She held up a white board with the odds scribbled in red. Jake was the underdog at 13-1. Dad always put 100 dollars on Jakey, underdog or no. Jake looked at the Mexican girl, probably his age. Half of her face was fire-scarred and purple; the symmetry screamed intent. She turned in the ring and held the odds board high. Jake looked at her face as it rotated before him, one side flawless and beautiful, the other not so. She was partially bald and one ear was shriveled to a tiny lump of blackened cauliflower flesh. She exited the ring and the opponent was no longer staring, but talking to his corner, the lone man, probably the kid's dad. The referee entered. He was a little and brown, old and twisted like hot bacon.

Dad stood behind the gate, towel in one hand, water bottle in the other. "What are you going to do?"

"Get inside."

"When?"

"Immediately."

"Then?"

"Counter whatever he throws."

"And what'll that do?"

"Make him afraid to hit me."

"Right. Where's he look weak?"

Jake studied his opponent. The boy was like a man with an adolescent's head. His face was red with acne. He was well-muscled and his torso was decorated with green, home-inked tattoos. Praying hands lay across his chest; tombstones and significant dates were placed randomly, faces of fallen ancestors, and on his neck, a baby's face and a single word beneath: AMORE.

"Nowhere."

"Ha. Everybody's weak somewhere. You find it and you keep on it."

"Okay."

"Don't worry about the odds. They don't know you. He's riding on his size. They think he's hard, but they don't know hard. He don't know hard. You're goin' to teach him hard. You hear me?"

"Yes."

"Say it."

"I'm hard. He's not."

"Good boy, Jakey. You keep on him."

A Mexican man struck the top bar of the metal gate with an 18-inch section of rebar. The sound was muted and thick.

"Get off the fence you dumb bastards!" the man yelled. Three drunken men backed from the gate. The man struck the gate again sending the tinny vibrations in all directions. He nodded, satisfied with the sound of the makeshift bell.

"Fight!" the grizzled ref commanded.

Jake lowered his chin and moved forward, staring past his own raised fists. He measured his opponent's reach and was ready for the jabs. Inside was Jake's place, always inside. He would suffocate the green-trimmed man-child. The kid's punches were crisp and snapped Jake's head back. Jake pressed through the sting and kept on him. Another two quick jabs, pain, no noise anywhere. Jake continued to close the space. The size difference and the first few punches had the crowd counting their winnings.

"C'mon Jakey! Charge him! Charge him!" Dad said.

Jake didn't hear the words. They landed somewhere in his subconscious, but he did what was ordered through a combination of muscle memory and experience. He knocked away a jab, kept his feet moving and began throwing body shots in a furious left-right flurry. The tattooed boy hunkered down and brought his arms to his side to protect the ribs. Jake twisted his hard knuckles into the boy's arms at the end of each strike, trying to drill through the bone. He continued slugging at the body until the rhythm nearly became predictable. The man-child's arms dropped when Jake pressed ahead, not when he punched. Jake worked the body through another flurry and added a well-placed right uppercut. The kid stumbled back bringing gasps and cheers from the men around the ring. The kid's eyes went glassy for just a second. Jake pressed his advantage but his opponent came back quickly, strong chinned and angry. A short exchange and a clinch. The ref pushed them apart and commanded they continue. The tattooed boy smiled at Jake, a show that he wasn't hurt, a sign that he had been. Jake went back to work, driving inside the kid's reach advantage. He continued to pound the body, taking more snapping jabs. Jake threw the uppercut several more times but couldn't land it cleanly, glancing it off of muscled shoulders or finding only empty space. He never stopped stalking. He took mean headshots and pressed forward landing hard shots of his own. The kid covered up his ribs. Jake threw a left hook that grazed the kid's chin. The kid stepped back, planted his feet and shot a straight right into Jake's solar plexus, right where the ribs opened up at the zyphoid process. The wind rushed out of Jake's body and his chest burned. He stepped back, slipping in the dirt. He stumbled, gasping. The tattooed boy stepped forward, pressed ahead.

"Get him! He's hurt!" someone said through the garbled rush of voices. Jake's eyes focused beyond the boy. He saw the boy's smiling father. He saw the smile forming words: "Kill him! Kill him!" The mass of tattoos became his focus again. The right arm was cocked back at the kid's side. Jake allowed the fist to release and leaned back. He felt the wind of the powerful hook. The bell ended the round.

Jake went to Dad. He found air, breathed deep and came back to life. Jake tilted his head back and Dad poured water into his open, panting hole. He resisted the desire to take in the water. He swished it between his cheeks. He felt the contrast between his cool mouth and his sweating body. The sun was dipping toward the horizon but the heat would not relent. Jake spat in the dirt.

"Good round, Jakey. Keep the pressure on! Did he hurt you?"

"Just took my wind. I slipped."

"Did you find it?"

"He telegraphs his right hook big time."

"Good boy, Jakey. Now you make him pay for that. Keep working the body. That left feel good?"

"Yes."

"You know what to do then?"

"Yes."

The bellman struck the gate with his rebar. Dad slapped his shoulder and Jake pressed ahead.

"Yer dead little boy," the tattooed boy said. His mouthpiece garbled the words, but his intent was clear, embedded in the tone.

Jake answered the threat with a burst of right hands. The last one caught the boy's floating ribs and Jake felt the crack, heard the squeal, saw the wince. Jake continued working the spot until he was caught with a solid hook that made him see the familiar flash of white. He answered with his own powerful right cross and went back to the ribs before the kid's head could face him again. The kid began to circle; Jake stepped with him, cutting off the escape. The kid changed direction and Jake followed, slicing the ring further. He pressed on. The kid stepped forward and landed some hard body shots. Jake threw a straight right and found the empty space left by a tilt of the head. The boy landed a clean left to Jake's temple. The flash returned; Jake's legs gave. He went down to the dirt.

"...3...4...5," the ref counted. Jake felt the hot sand on his cheek. The men surrounding the ring were going ape shit crazy. Jake saw the tattooed boy at his corner, two of him. The boy's father was slapping his back, raising his arm.

"C'mon Jakey! Get up!"

"7...8" the ref shouted. Jake swayed as the world settled, six physical dimensions coalescing to three. The ref blocked his path, took his hands. "Are you okay?"

"Yes."

"Look me in the eye," the ref ordered. Jake did it. He forced his swollen lids open and stared into the ref's face.

"I'm fine. I'm fine."

The ref nodded. He returned to a neutral space between the pugilists.

"Fight!"

Jake charged. He would never stop crowding the man-child. The kid met him, sensing an advantage. He launched a power shot that Jake dodged easily. Jake countered with a hard straight right that broke the boy's nose. Jake almost laughed at the crooked beak in front of him, until the red blood began to flow. The boy opened his mouth, unable to breath otherwise. His eyes watered and his chin hung loose below the hole. Jake watched the blood stream from the nose and drip off the chin, the drops slapping home in the dirty blood puddle. Jake felt the anger begin to creep in. He harnessed it, charged. Jake launched wild body shots, tucked his chin. He tightened his core. The straight right to the body came again and landed in the same spot it had in the first round. Jake kept his air, but stumbled back. The kid's fist was already cocked at his side as he stepped forward, bloody and angry.

Jake slid his left foot back into a southpaw stance and drew out the earth's power through his leg. The kid's father was screaming. "Watch the left!" the man yelled. The boy's right fist stayed low. He moved closer, shaking it, ready to unload. The kid's right side was completely unguarded, again.

Jake measured the distance and dug into the dirt with his feet. The energy flowed up his legs, through the twist of his hips, through his shoulder, his arm. The twisting fist landed hard underneath the kid's open chin, slamming his teeth together. He bit through his tongue and Jake punched through the boy. He imagined the kid's face giving in, collapsing. Jake could feel the soft and hard tissues, hot and moist. He drove through brain matter and lifted the kid from the planet as his fist met the inside of the skull.

The man-child did not get up by his own power and the payouts were made. Jake and Dad cleared close to three grand from the purse and the bet. Dad put his arm around Jake and held him tight and close as they walked back to the Olds. Hard, stinging, congratulatory hands landed on Jake's back. "El Toro" became a mantra.

"Thank you," Jake said. "Thank you." Jake looked among the men for the burned girl. She was not there.

Dad drove through the dark. It was quiet except for the cool desert air rushing over the car and the rumble of the engine. Jake's body was tight and sore. His face was swollen. His head throbbed.

"You done good, kid," Dad said without looking from the road.

"I know," Jake said. Now Dad looked at him.

"Good," he said. "Your face hurt?"

"Not too bad."

"Well it's killing me."

The laugh shook his torso and Jake winced. He leaned against the car door and felt the cool glass on his hot, tender face. He closed his eyes.

Jake thought about the dog from the Shell station. He wondered what had become of it. He saw himself and the dog in the back of the Olds. The dog loved him; this boy who pried swollen red ticks from his flesh and dropped them out of the window into the night. After a time he could ignore the pain. He slept.


CS DeWildt is a liar. He wants to hurt you. His work has appeared in a variety of print and webzines. He is the author Dead Animals, a collection of short stories and flash, as well as the crime novella Candy and Cigarettes. Please visit CS at http://csdewildt.com