By Ré Harris
Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Bobby who was four years old and wanted, more than anything else, to live the life of a cowboy. He had seen the beauty and ruggedness of their lives in the colorful picture books he dreamed over, on the television westerns that captured his heart, and in the movie matinees which held him ravenous on the edge of his seat. Besides the usual duties of the job, Bobby knew that sometimes cowboys sang, and at other times chased outlaws and protected townsfolk from harm. Sometimes, even when they tried to do right and adhere to the cowboy code, they could be misunderstood and treated like outlaws by the very people they wanted to help.
Everything about cowboys made Bobby feel better after losing his mother. A cowboy could miss her without always being upset. He’d be able to leave his father alone when he worked all the time and couldn’t play. Cowboys were busy, and at the end of the day, resting beneath glittering stars beside the spit and crackle of a campfire, they were happy to gather in reverence of the work and the brotherhood, eating beans off tin plates, drinking coffee from dented cups, and living so much of life under wide open skies. Bobby wished they knew he was one of them.
As time passed, Bobby began to feel something awful happen to him. He was being buried inside a body that kept outgrowing its jeans and cowboy hats, and inside a mind that understood more and more what it was that Roy Rogers saw in Dale Evans.
Years away from age four, Bobby became a man named Robert who found his Dale Evans in a fascinating, sensible woman named Marie who, besides loving Robert with all her heart and soul, understood and shared with him his, now, grown up passion for all things Western. They both wore wide-brimmed hats like Western heroes (trail worn ones, stained with sweat, for everyday — crisp, clean ones with fancy hatbands for special) and while Robert favored working man’s denim and large silver belt buckles, Marie was almost never without fringe on one thing or another. They met in a record store, arguing over the last copy of a collection of vintage cowboy songs, and ended their first evening together trying to stump each other with Western trivia questions touching on everything from Remington statues to the best picture Oscar winners from 1990 and 1992.
When Robert first proposed marriage to Marie, she wasn’t sure about saying yes. She put him off, knowing she wanted him, but needing to feel sure that the pain lovers could inflict on each other (some of which she had witnessed between others — some she had lived through herself) would somehow escape them. It took him six months of wooing, several long talks about what they each wanted from life, one lone broken-hearted tear he hadn’t meant for her to see, and an engagement ring with two tiny diamond studded horseshoes (each pointing in opposite directions so that one would always hold the good luck) to thoroughly convince her that theirs would be a loving and enduring match.
Often during their ensuing married life, Marie would look at Robert and swear that she could see a little boy named Bobby being excited about the showing of an old John Wayne western on television, or collecting brochures for another rustic Colorado or Wyoming vacation. Bobby was silent though aware that she said these things. It made him sad because he knew it wasn’t true.
One lazy Sunday just before breakfast, Robert went to the front lawn to get the newspaper and, while he was there, he heard a low rumbling sound which hung in the air for a moment before rising like an endless rattle of thunder. He was both shocked and elated to see a band of rodeo clowns on horseback, riding up the street toward his house. Where Robert stood, they saw only a li’l pardner named Bobby, for it was that little boy inside him whose eyes were so bright and open wide, like a beacon drawing them closer and closer.
One of them leaned down from his horse without stopping, scooped Bobby up by the back of his pajama collar and, in one fluid motion, placed him in the saddle in front of him. The horses hooves pounded pavement and tore at lawns as they rode away, leaving suburbia behind like a hazy dream. Riding away, past civilization, over rocky paths and shades of earth that Bobby had never ground into his jeans before, the band of rodeo clowns took him to their hideout in the painted mountains of the West, where they took care of him as one of their own.
Immediately after Robert shrank away, Bobby was picturing what his new world would be like. He didn’t wonder how he had been freed, because four-year-olds — even hesitant ones who don’t plunge into amusement right away — don’t often mull over the vagaries of life, they let things be. After the long sleepy ride, Bobby’s feet touched western ground and he wobbled for a moment, uncertain fingers opening in front of him wanting to touch every new thing. When no one told him not to, he ran.
Meanwhile, back at the house, Marie had been waiting for the crossword puzzle when she heard an odd clap of thunder and went out front to see about her husband. Finding neither him nor the morning paper, she paced over new curious pockmarks on their lawn, then sat on the stoop for a while, examining their block, switching back and forth every few minutes for an hour. Her heart ached as she wondered where her dear husband had gone in his pajamas.
She began to look for him in the afternoon, enlisting the aid of friends and family and eventually the police who held out little hope, considering the one incomprehensible clue. When there was no place left to look, she spent her days and nights working at her job, taking care of herself and the house and hoping not to hear the worst. She had a vague feeling that Robert was all right — more than all right — that he had been called away to do something unexpected, mysterious and exciting. She hoped she wasn’t being silly, but for the sake of optimism, she clung to her belief that he would come home soon and explain it all to her. Marie’s faith in her husband never wavered no matter what anyone said.
While she was pining for Robert, Bobby was being mesmerized by the rodeo clowns. They were wearing funny grease paint faces, ten gallon hats, bright-colored kerchiefs, pointy-toed boots, jangling spurs, and fancy fringed chaps. And they were all bowlegged! Bobby was in cowboy heaven.
The rodeo clowns taught him how to rope wooden steers (they didn’t have any real steers, which was good as far as Bobby was concerned, because somehow he remembered Marie being a vegetarian who would be upset if she thought he was abusing cattle.) They taught him how to fire a six-shooter and to hit targets smaller than the broad side of a barn, and they taught him how to do fun tricks while riding on horseback. Bobby was happy with the rodeo clowns and they were happy with him.
One day, a few weeks after he was whisked away, Bobby asked the clowns if he could go home to see his mama. (Being only four, he had gotten his memory of Marie mixed up with that of his dear departed mother.) This saddened the clowns, and gathering around their new friend, united as a whole but speaking in turns, they told him that it wouldn’t be a good idea for him to go home, because he would forget what they had taught him and because mothers and wives never understood — they would urge him to see a psychiatrist, and the roving band of rodeo clowns didn’t believe in psychiatry. If Bobby was to be one of them, and become a bona fide member of their group, he would have to stay with them forever. Bobby pondered this for a moment and, as he thought, he began to remember things: some man asking if he had made the changes to the Bates contract, somebody asking to borrow his lawn mower, grown-ups at a dinner table laughing, soft fingertips on the back of his neck, the smell of hot cakes and perfume in a blue and white kitchen … The dirt path he was standing on began to move farther away from his head, and Bobby began to remember who Marie was. The rodeo clowns flinched when they saw Robert, but they calmed down when he took one look at them and shrank into Bobby again.
The boy had a sinking feeling in his stomach. He looked from painted face to painted face, and hoped he could figure out the best thing to do. His woeful thoughts prompted him to ask if he would have to wear the make-up if he stayed. The rodeo clowns were indignant. “It’s called grease paint,” they told him, and yes, he would, because it was a long-standing tradition. Bobby cried uncontrollable tears and began to rub his eyes. He made that sad, staccato sobbing sound that small children make in their throats when their little hearts are breaking and they don’t know what else to do. The clowns fought their own tears, quiet ones without sobs. Hiding the bulk of their sadness deep inside, they blew their noses into their kerchiefs one by one with smooth, surreptitious moves fitting the fortitude broken-hearted cowboys, and rodeo clowns, must always show.
When they were sure their voices wouldn’t crack, they told Bobby it was all right; they would take him home to Marie. They would be sad to see him go, but that sort of thing had happened before. Once in a while, a little boy, an inner child, would stay with them and they would raise another happy rodeo clown, but mostly the boys wanted to be the men they used to be and go home to their families, their wives.
Early the following evening, they took him home. He was allowed to keep the ten gallon hat they had given him and the blue-patterned kerchief that looked so good around his neck. The rodeo clowns each shook his hand goodbye, then he was left where they had found him, on his front lawn.
Marie had been home from work for about an hour when she happened to look out the window just after the clowns had left. She ran to the door, flung it open and stood in the doorway looking out at her husband in his pajamas, with his new hat and kerchief, still clutching last month’s newspaper which she hadn’t seen until that moment. She ran to him and threw her arms around him as if she believed he would disappear again if not somehow anchored to the earth. Then she kissed him, deep and tender, on the lips. This Robert enjoyed (as opposed to Bobby, who would have kicked and flailed and squirmed if he could have, wiping his mouth and yelling something apropos like, “Ick!”, “Yuck!” or “Phooey!”) Robert’s hands circled her waist and he stroked the small of her back, just beneath the soft cotton of his old Riders in the Sky t-shirt. Their embrace continued for a few moments, their silhouettes cast against the gold, red, purple and cobalt of the dissolving sunset.
After they crossed the lawn together toward their front door, went inside and settled in, Robert, who now had an acute awareness that Bobby was still a vital part of him, related to his wife the entire story of his disappearance. She listened close to each twist and turn, to every word, holding firmly onto his arm, not just because she had missed him, but out of a strong and immediate desire that all future spur of the moment adventures be taken together.
Robert bore no unpleasant repercussions from his experience with the clowns, and since he had three weeks of vacation coming anyway, his boss, out of consideration for his years of diligence and good work (and for the amount of time and effort it would have taken to train his replacement) agreed to disregard his absence with little explanation — this time. Friends and family, upon hearing the tale, were tentative and polite at first, afterwards separating into two distinct groups — those who never mentioned it again, and those who would approach him, one at a time, time and again, asking for more detailed retellings, delighting in every word even more if he remembered some new detail.
All was fine again with Robert and Marie. They continued their lives together, as loving a couple as they had ever been. The rodeo clowns would have been pleased to know that there was no psychiatry involved.
Copyright © by Kathleen (Ré) Harris 2010. All Rights Reserved