A Man Of The Earth by: Ashley Pitt
The atmosphere in Gabby's Country Cabaret was loud and hot. Lisa's jeans clung to her legs with sweat and she had broken one of her belt loops already from tugging them upwards every two minutes during the stereotypical line dance to "Boot Skootin' Boogie". The Cloverdale Rodeo was just around the corner and there was an excited buzz about Langley. Of course, these days it seemed there were more rides than events every year and the population of animal rights activists seemed to swell. The shops throughout the town center had been selling novelty, pink cowboy hats for the ladies for the last month, their windows covered in flyers featuring mad-eyed cows with the words, "Meat is Murder!" and other PETA propaganda.
Surveying the room, Lisa counted atleast ten heads clad in the laughable pink hats and thought to herself, where has it all gone? She turned to a gyrating girlfriend on the dance floor and above the deafening din of "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy," she shouted, "I'm going outside for some air!"
"What?" her friend yelled back.
"Air!" Lisa repeated.
Her friend signalled to her ear and made a face, just as some handsome cowboy came up behind her spun her into two-step formation except with his hand dangerously low. Lisa rolled her eyes and left her friend to flirt and dance while she passed through the coat-check and went outside to sit on the cement steps.
It wasn't that she was against pink cowboy hats, really. They were cute and all and admittedly, she knew she was being a bit of a spoilsport. It was 2010 after all, she couldn't expect every female in this town to really understand the true essence and history behind the rodeo and wearing pink hats and getting into the festivities did not make them idiots either. The problem, she supposed, was that she felt a bit like a dying breed and she wondered if she hadn't come from a real country family, if she would be like those girls in there, adjusting their tube tops, checking their cell phones and planning their big rodeo weekend in the beer gardens. She just wanted to go home and talk to Grandpa.
Her grandpa Joe had been a bull rider. BC, Alberta, all across the prairies…you name the place, he had competed there. He had all kinds of stories to tell. Now, he often repeated himself, but Lisa was too polite to say anything and enjoyed hearing them each time anyway.
He'd grown up on a farm near Red Deer his whole life. Everyone often joked that he was riding in his diapers before he ever learned to walk. "A man of the earth," her mama often said of old Joe. Joe had come from a long line of men like him. Lisa remembered him bouncing her on his knee while recounting harrowing tales of her great-grandfather Frank (Joe's own pa) and ending each story shaking his head and laughing, "A regular Wyatt Earp, he was."
One story Grandpa Joe had told her about Frank was the one where he caught the infamous Billy Miner. It always started the same.
"It was black as coal outside and it was dead silent 'cept for the odd cricket and frog. The smell of damp grass and train tracks was in the air. Your great-grandpa Frank was crouched in a bush. He'd heard men talking in hushed voices at the local watering hole and what with my mom's swollen belly, thought there might be a worthwhile reward in checking it out. He'd heard these men saying a robbery was afoot and Billy had warned them to keep their traps shut."
Obviously, the men had not kept their traps shut because five hours later, Lisa's great-grandfather was crouched in a bush at the specified location he'd eavesdropped on, hyper vigilant and ready to play the hero. A far away honk and the vibration of the tracks and surrounding brush broke the silence. As it got nearer, Frank became acutely aware of a secondary noise. The sound of twigs snapping and muffled laughter. It was Billy and his gang. Frank held his position and his breath, as they passed the bush he was hiding in.
The train was getting close. One of Billy's men was on the track waving his arms with a lantern in his hands. The honk of the train grew louder and more persistent and the shrill cry of grinding metal as the conductor hit the breaks empowered the entire space for what seemed like hours but was really only a few minutes. Frank thought his head might explode from the schreeching noise and lost position when a spark flew his way, flicked up off the tracks. It was now or never, as soon as someone turned around they would see him.
Taking out his rifle, Frank pointed it square at Billy and said with the classic, heavy drawl, "Sir, I would be much obliged if you could stop what you're doing and high-tail it out of here."
Grandpa Joe would always pause dramatically at this part when telling Lisa the story (even now that she was a young adult).
"Well, what happened Grandpa? What happened?" Lisa would squeal, squirming in her seat with excitement.
"What happened?" echoed Grandpa in exasperation, "Billy turned around with an even bigger gun! And said, 'No Sir, I would be much obliged if YOU could stop what you're doing and high-tail it out of here before I blow your head off!'"
Grandpa would give a great big belly laugh at this point then almost out of breath, exclaim, "but ol' Billy dint know how smart my Pa was! His friend Jake then come out behind Billy and his gang from the rear side and damn near boxed them in!"
Coughing due to overexcitement now, Grandpa would continue on between hacks, the rest of the story. Apparently with Jake on one side and Great-grandpa Frank on the other, both with rifles, Billy had no choice but to put his own hands up—especially now that the conductor himself was leaning out the train door with a great big club given the stall time Frank had given him. The story always ended with Billy Miner and his gang being tied up and dragged into town by Frank, Jake and a ragtag bunch of other wannabe heroes that jumped off the train to help.
It was an excellent story that always warmed her heart to hear. Well, aside from when she had found out it wasn't true back in grade school. It had been heritage day at her elementary and Lisa had been all too excited when the subject of Billy Miner came up, to brag about her great-grandfather. Suffice it to say, she'd been darn angry when she got home from school that day. If it hadn't have been for Lisa's mother, she would have torn a strip out of her grandfather for lying to her. She thought they had a special bond and felt like he had betrayed her. She remembered lying on her bed face-down crying while her mom rubbed her back, recalling the humiliation of her whole class laughing at her when she told the ludicrous story.
"I'm never listening to Grandpa's stories again!" she'd said.
Then her mom had said, "Lisa, let me tell you something. Your grandpa shouldn't have lied to you. But you know what? Your great-granddaddy was no saint and he certainly was no Wyatt Earp. He was a drunk. There was no work and no food and definitely no money for a long time when Grandpa Joe was little and his daddy did everything he could but it still wasn't enough. So he took to drinking. The only times they had together that were fun were rodeos and pig racing. When no jobs were available and the whiskey had run dry, old Frank would take your Grandpa out and teach him to rope. They didn't have any cattle then except an old cow named Bessie, but she was for milking and they left her alone. They'd rope fence posts and all kinds of things. And when grandpa got older, he started bull riding. It made his dad proud which is why even after a few close calls, he kept doing it. Now, I'm telling you this Lisa because I want you to understand something. When you really love someone, you want the other people in your life to appreciate them too. And your great-grandpa could be a downright mean son of a bitch sometimes, but your grandpa sure loved him anyways and he wanted to share that with you. Even if it was a lie, it had good intentions behind it."
She had been too young to fully understand this at the time but took it to mean that she shouldn't make Grandpa feel bad about it, so she never said anything. Her mom must have though because Grandpa Joe didn't repeat that story again.
Lisa sighed out loud and felt depressed from the combination of draft beer and nostalgia. She pulled her limp brown hair into a ponytail and got back up to go find her friends and tell them she was going home. A twenty minute cab ride later and she was back home in Aldergrove on their own little slice of heaven. She'd have to call the ferrier tomorrow she remembered while passing the stables on her way to the back door. Inside, she dropped her purse on the counter and kicked off her shoes. The house was oddly quiet.
"Anybody home?" she yelled in the hallway.
Sobbing from her mother's bedroom was the only response she got. Walking quickly down the hall, she opened the door to find her mom sitting on the edge of her bed, crying.
"Mom, what's wrong?" Lisa asked worried.
"Your grandma's past away sweetheart. Grandpa went to wake her from her nap and she wouldn't wake up." She said, breaking into full sobs again.
Lisa sat next to her mom and rubbed her back soothingly, trying to comfort her. "Aww, mom…" was all she could say.
It was that weekend they had the funeral. Rodeo weekend. Family and friends filled the reception hall after the modest ceremony at the funeral home. Her grandpa was in a corner, groups of people surrounding him, offering their condolences, giving him their hugs. He wasn't even looking at all of them, just blindly hugging back with a haunted look in his eyes, stale crackers and havarti beside him on a paper plate and his gray suit busting at the bottons. He'd worn that suit to her graduation, she remembered, grandma had worn her tailored linen dress. Lisa went over to him and sat at his side. Without a word tears started to swell in his eyes and he grabbed her hand tightly. He still wasn't looking at her, just holding onto her for support. Everyone else left them alone. "Grandpa, I'm--", Lisa started.
"Shh… I've heard enough apologies for today, sweetheart." He said, taking a deep breath to steady his voice, "I just don't know what to do next. Not just tomorrow or today but this minute, this second…"
Lisa didn't say anything back right away, just thought for a bit and glanced at her watch. "Grandpa," she started after about a minute, "let's go to the rodeo. The bull riding starts soon."
Joe just looked back at her, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "…I don't think she'd mind…" he said, gesturing towards the heavens, "Okay, let's go. Meet you at the car."
They both slipped off to the bathrooms and when no one was looking, dashed down the narrow hall behind the reception hall, like little kids, to the car.
Down at the fairgrounds, the rodeo was packed. Protesters swarmed the parking lot with security guards hot on their heels and the smell of hay and manure was in the air. Kids screamed in the heat through their painted faces and screams cascaded from the various amusement rides. New country music pumped from speakers in the beer gardens and Lisa distinctly smelled the sweet smell of cinnamon donuts. However, Joe did not appear to notice any of the hustle and bustle or warm food smells, instead, he instinctively made a beeline for the stands. Lisa walked with him and just as they were about to get to the stands, she spotted pink cowboy hats in a booth. She stopped to shoot an ironic smile towards the offending objects just as Grandpa Joe looked over.
"Do you want one sweetie?" he asked.
Lisa was going to say no but then thought to herself, to hell with it! Why not? And nodded at her grandfather. He produced a twenty, paid and plopped the hat on her head.
"Suits you!" he said with a smile.
Lisa rolled her eyes, giggling. They found a decent spot on the stands, just as the event was starting up. Her grandpa was leaned forward in anticipation.
The announcer's voice was indiscernible from the loud echoes all the speakers produced in the sheltered stands. Just as it looked like things were underway and about to start, however, rodeo clowns it appeared were jumping into the ring. Two of these supposed clowns unfurled a banner in the middle of the ring.
"What does that say? I don't have my glasses…" her grandpa was asking.
Lisa quickly scanned it, squinting, "Buck…the…rodeo…" she said.
"Lisa! Watch your language!" Joe grumbled.
"No, Grandpa. The banner says, 'Buck the rodeo'."
Now the obviously fake rodeo clowns were running from security, digging their nails into the mud and dirt trying to get some sort of grip as they were dragged out of the ring.
"Okay, I think they're going to start now," Lisa assured him.
"Buck the rodeo…" he mumbled under his breath, "They don't even know what they're talking about."
"I know Grandpa, I know." She chided him cheekily, patting him on the shoulder like a child.
Joe cocked an eye at her and said, "Watch out girlie. I'm your elder. By the way, that hat is ridiculous."
They both laughed heartily and Lisa rested her head on his shoulder as the events played out. Neither of them worried about all their relatives probably being out looking for them. And later on, when they found themselves in the beer gardens, Lisa slow-danced with her grandfather to an old Patsy Cline song and let her hostility towards the other rodeo-goers go. Sure, they weren't all cowboys and cowgirls but if the feeling Lisa got on these grounds was any indication, they were here because they could feel it too. It hadn't gone anywhere.