When I got out of the Marines, riding bulls was all I could do. It was the only thing I remembered how to do when I walked out of discharge in a pair of blue jeans, toting my floppy King James Bible.
When I was a kid, Daddy used to take me to the rodeo every spring. I knew the bulls were everyone’s favorite part. Folks lusting for conquering and blood. The cowboys straddled the gates, gripping dented Dr. Pepper cans that sloshed with brown spit. They’d push a bull into the chute, and the cowboy would lower himself right behind that muscled hump, and chuck his spit can to the side and work those ropes tighter. The bulls’ eyes all looked the same. Small and wild. My daddy asked me the same question every time.
“Merrill, when you see a herd of cattle out in the pasture, which one has shit all over its ass?”
“The bull,” I’d say.
“That’s right, son.” He slugged from his Coors tallboy. “Cows never do. Cows are fine and sweet. Like your momma.”
The bulls’ muscles bunched and heaved in the pen. I didn’t tell Daddy, but I thought they were the finest creatures God put on this earth.
The cowboy licked his lips and tipped his hat. We didn’t wear helmets in those days, even after Jay Jr. went blind after being kicked in the head. The crowd hollered and whooped, and warm April air filled with dust and the smell of cheap beer. The American flag popped in the breeze. Daddy kept pointing at girls warming up their barrel ponies in the side arena, but all I could see was that cowboy arching his back and tapping the bull with his spurs. He was powerful. He was powerful like our preacher standing at the pulpit. He raised his hand, and the buzzer would sound. The bull sometimes would just trot out to the center of the arena and stand there under the sodium lights. The cowboy would tear at its hide with his heels. Sometimes the bull would hurl itself out of the gate and spin and buck until the cowboy tumbled into the arena dirt, and then chase him with stubbed horns and pink eyes. The clowns danced and bolted into barrels. As soon as I was old enough, I was sitting on those bulls and watching, just watching the other boys with their hard hands and soft lips. The preacher said what I had was a weakness.
“And if you do feel lust in your hearts and desires for things you shouldn’t be desiring, it’s weakness. And what do you do if you have weaknesses, people?” Brother Lee asked.
The congregation was always quiet.
“Amen. You repent. And who do you need in your hearts to repent?”
“The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
“That’s right. That’s right. Because if you don’t have him in your hearts today, I can tell you where you’re going right now.”
He looked at me when he said it, shaking his thick finger and rocking on his heels behind the mic stand. Daddy squeezed my leg.
“God is good,” Brother Lee whispered into the microphone.
“All the time.” My voice sounded small.
Until that moment, I didn’t know what lonely meant.
The first bull I ever rode bull shivered under me as I lowered my weight onto him. I yanked the ropes around my hand, just like I’d practiced on the tipped-over oil drum in my backyard. I guess I was about thirteen. The muscles in the bull’s back rippled, and it lowed, long and deep. His black hide was specked in dirt and shit. His spine pressed into my tailbone, and little shocks shot up my back. I looked at the cowboy on the gate, then at the crowd to see my daddy. I couldn’t find him in the sea of hats and Carhartts.
“You about ready, son?” the cowboy sitting the chute asked.
My heart flooded my ears with rushing blood. “Yeah.”
He was handsome. His blue eyes softened.
I raised my hand. The bull crow-hopped out of the gate and shook his wooly head. My shoulder nearly jerked out of its socket.
Eight seconds is a long time to hang on. My head whipped up and down and my teeth cracked together. The rope pulled the folds of my leather glove together and pinched the flesh of my palm. The crowd milled in the stands, and I thought I saw my daddy’s snuff-flecked grin.
He had given me half of a Budweiser before my first ride. The bitter froth tickled my nose, and I choked. Daddy slapped me hard between my shoulder blades and laughed.
“Go on, boy. Puts hair on your chest.”
The bull slammed down, and my hand turned loose. I flipped over its thick neck and tumbled into the dirt. I popped up and dashed to the fence. The bull trotted back to the chute.
I thought I’d never find my balls after that, they were so far up inside me.
I learned killing better than bull riding. That’s the tragedy of it, I suppose. Killing came natural. Killing came easy. Bull riding hurt me, but I just wanted to be close to these animals, these hunks of muscle and froth. I wanted to be close to the cowboys.
I hadn’t even finished high school when I joined up. I had been drinking and taking pain pills that I stole from Momma’s drawer. I swilled cheap whiskey and looked at the underwear models in the JC Penney catalogue in my bedroom, stroking their stubbled jaws through the glossy pages. Their big hands just raising their T-shirts above rippled bellies and half-hard cocks. I imagined myself twined around them, inside them, inside me.
Daddy caught me once. He picked up the catalogue, and his jaw throbbed. I was drunk. The space heater hummed in the corner, and my throat snatched. He flipped to the lingerie section and shoved high tits and sulky lips in my face.
“You been stealing your momma’s magazines? To look at this?”
He pressed the pink pages against my cheek.
“You been drinking too?”
I smelled the sharp, sour beer on his breath. He whipped the magazine up and ripped up every page, sprinkling the pieces on the floor.
“Don’t you ever do this again.” He crouched in front of me and leaned in. “You were looking at girls. Girls in their panties. You just want to look like those guys, right?” His voice trembled. “You want muscles too, huh?” He grabbed my shoulder and dug his fingertips into my skin. “Don’t you, boy?”
“Yeah, Dad. I just want to get big.”
“Sure, sure. Clean this shit up.” He rubbed my buzzed head and lit a cigarette.
I hated him.
I hadn’t been to school in months. Me and the boys would hop in my truck and tear through country roads with them in the bed. We downed cases of beer, and their hair whipped around their faces as I careened around curves and opened it up on long stretches of empty road. The Oxys pulsed behind my eyes. Once we pulled over to shoot beer cans off the fence with an old .22, and we shot a cow by accident. Shot her right in the head. Her skin rippled and her legs went stiff. She flopped over, her calf scooting around her and bawling. The calf dashed to the herd and back to its momma. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.
I looked at my buddies.
“Well shit,” I said.
They peered at me drunkenly, wetly. Bubba started to cry. Nearly eighteen years old, and he’s crying about a cow.
“It’s just a little baby.”
I flicked his ear.
“Bubba, shut the fuck up. It’s a cow. What are you? A fag?”
The others guffawed and slapped his back. His huge chest hitched and he grabbed the .22 from me and hurled it into the ditch by the pasture. He balanced on the side of the truck, opened the door and squeezed into the cab. He curled onto the passenger seat, propping his knees against the window, and stared.
The calf bleated and bumped the cow’s body with its head. We could hear a truck coming from the back pasture. The rest of the boys piled into the bed, and I sped off. The cops caught us for speeding not thirty minutes later, and we were all arrested. Reckless Driving. Driving Under the Influence. Destruction of Property. Possession of a Controlled Substance. Passing a Physical Barrier. Speeding.
Bubba’s daddy was friends with the drawling, sag-jowled prosecutor. He stood in front of the judge with a chipped grin.
“I think that if these boys agree to serve our country in the Armed Forces, they could probably avoid jail time, your honor.”
The judge nodded and acquitted us of all charges on the condition that we join up. Bubba went to the Air Force. Jessie and Jared went to the Army. I went to the Marines. The few. The proud.
I thought the service and sniper school would pull the weakness out of me. The weakness for strong hands and scruffed faces. The weakness I tamped down with painkillers and booze, then with seven-hour stints lifting weights, then with scripture, then with sniper school. But it didn’t. I always knew I needed something more.
Something in me snapped like a long strand of chewing gum when I made my first kill. I felt like the pillar of fire that swept through Sodom and Gomorrah and turned Lot’s wife to salt.
God loves killing. God hates queers.
t was beautiful. I had been lying on my belly for fourteen hours, waiting. Just waiting on a roof, counting children through my scope. The high desert wind whipped the smell of shit into my nostrils. I ate a package of animal crackers from my rations and checked my rifle. I was high up, and the wind was controllable. Fine conditions. My spotter licked his palms.
“It’s so fucking dry here. Goddamn, my hands are fucking splitting,” he said.
“How did you make it through sniper school? You are so goddamned loud.”
He preened his eyebrows. “My looks.”
I looked back into my scope. My spotter jotted down some numbers in his notebook.
Then I saw him. He walked into my sight and readjusted an AK he had strapped on his back. The Lord had delivered him unto me. It was my chance to earn a crown. To truly become a man of God. To show the father that I was more than my sickness. I squeezed off a perfect head shot. My spotter rushed to his sight.
“Shit! You got him.”
The Iraqi kids didn’t even notice until they were covered with Uncle Hadji’s brains, then they screamed and scuttled around like those little cockroaches you get in the pantry sometimes. I killed so many Hadjis from my nest the boys in my troop called me “The Artist formerly known as Charles Whitman.” Moto Marine. No one suspected me. I got tattoos of naked girls cloaked in fire. I followed my brothers to whorehouses and bragged about nothing.
One time, when I was on leave, I went to a twink club. To test myself. A slender boy with black curls came over to me at the bar. He leaned over to push his empty glass to the bartender and brushed his hip against my side. His lips curled into a grin.
“Buy me a drink? Mine’s empty.” He traced his fingers over my knuckles.
I choked on my beer and jerked my hand away. The soft warmth from his skin lingered on mine. My blood ran hot through me, and I wanted him too. He leaned in and wrapped his arms around me. His cologne mixed with gin and sweat. His thigh against mine. I closed my eyes and saw the redness behind my eyelids.
I hauled back and smashed my beer bottle against his scalp. His black hair slicked over with his blood. I grabbed his head and bounced it off the bar. Some of his teeth pinged off the floor. I scooped them up.
I kept those teeth in my pocket. A canine and a molar. There is power in the blood.
The white bull was my salvation. Sent by the Lord our Savior to cleanse me.
It was a sign. The night before that ride, I had a dream.
I was back in the Marines. I was at home there.
I was in the barracks talking to Rodriguez. Rodriguez with his slender wrists. Rodriguez with his curved calves. Rodriguez turning in his rack. It must have been boot camp because we all had a case of the limp-dick. Everyone knew they put saltpeter in our drinking water to keep those hard-ons at bay. Lord knows, it’s harder to break a man completely if he can still fuck.
Rodriguez was standing in the middle of the room in his skivvies and bare feet. He was telling us how we had to fight it. He said he would go into the bathroom and just think about naked girls and jerk it for an hour. Oh that’s what you’re doing in there you devil dog you horny-ass Mexican. We were all laughing, and Rodriguez stuck his fist in his shorts and poked his thumb out through the fabric. Watch out he’s packing heat. We gripped each other’s shoulders and grinned into the curves of our brothers’ necks.
But I knew better. I knew because, at night, when everyone else was dreaming about their girl back home, I held him close while he grabbed my hips through my cammies and pressed his tongue against my closed lips until I opened to him. He twined his fingers through mine and called me “Papi,” through warm puffs of breath.
Then the door to the barracks swung open so hard it smashed against the wall. We all rushed to the ends of our bunks and stood at attention. In came my daddy. He carried a .30-30 in the crook of his arm and was in full dress blues. The whites of his eyes were yellow, and he carried the stink of a tanner with him. Flies hummed around his face and lit on his shoulders. One crawled from his ear and sipped the moisture from the corner of his eye.
He stopped in front of Rodriguez and slid a cartridge into the loading gate. He pulled the lever, pointed the rifle at Rodriguez’s forehead, and shot him down. His head snapped back, and the smell of brains and shit rose in the back of my throat. The smell of a field-dressed deer carcass. I looked down where Rodriguez had fallen beside me.
“Ain’t that something?” I saluted my daddy.
“Private, close your mouth. What, are you waiting for my dick to fall in it? No such fucking luck. Jesus Christ, you are one ugly sonofabitch. Close that cocksucking mouth.”
Then I woke up.
At the rodeo, the Indian sitting the gate grinned at me with two silver teeth and said, “He has the son in him you know.”
The bull pressed my leg against the chute and flicked his purple-pink tongue into his nostril.
I wondered if he meant sun or son. Either way it was true. When I slung my leg over his back, I knew that this ride might take me into that land of dust where the buzzer doesn’t stop his horn in your side or hooves in your chest. To ascension. The bull raked his tipped horn against the gate and trembled. My heart crashed against my ribs, and I couldn’t get a breath. I pulled the rope tight and looked at this pale beast that may have come straight from the parts in the Bible where there’s seven-headed dragons. Even his hooves were white. He raised his chin and rolled one pink eye back to look me square in the face. A fly crawled from the corner of his slick nostril to rub its legs clean. I raised my hand.
The buzzer sounded, and everyone was quiet. Even the broncs stopped moving and watched as this great bull pushed his body into the air. He and I and the moon were all that was. His muscles bunched beneath me, and he swung right and snapped his hind end up, touching the back of my head. When he landed, I bit off the tip of my tongue and blood dripped on his pale hide. I didn’t feel it. This surging thing whipped and pulled my body and came crashing down like waves against rocks. We didn’t know it at the time, but the buzzer had gone off long ago.
The pick-up rider was loping beside the bull on a blanket Appaloosa and had his sunburned arm out for me to grab. My hand was stuck. I looked at the rider, and he looked at me, and we both realized that I was up shit creek. His little pony pushed her shoulder into the bull’s flank with her ears pinned, and the rider wrapped his arm around mine. My hand started to turn loose when that bull turned on that pretty red pony and hooked her with his horn. She didn’t make a sound as she fell into the dirt. The bull pushed her down with his wooly head. There was so much blood.
I couldn’t loosen the rope and felt, in a way, that it was me digging in her flesh. I became excited. Just like when I executed a perfect kill in that empty desert. Head snapping back, eyes flung into the skull, a quiet slump into the dirt. Or when, back in our racks, me and Rodriguez sneaked into the head to just pet each other and kiss until I couldn’t anymore and beat the shit out of him, listening to the crunch crunch of my fist against his slick face. We told the C.O. that it was over a girl.
Jesus God, the mare screamed like a woman. I could hear her fragile legs snapping and saw her take her last breath before my mount finished her. Before I finished her. I realized then that the rider was still wound up in my rope. A shard of bone was just pushing through his forearm and shining under the orange light. He screamed and my heart beat the same red blood as his, but I couldn’t see him. He looked so small. A weakness here under these gladiator blows. My bull spun on him and lifted him like a sacrifice with his horns. I could smell the salt and the cheap beer on his mouth as his head lolled back. He had no bottom teeth. I knew that he had to die. This bull was sent to me, for me, to eradicate the unholy desire. I could see moths flipping in the arena lights.
I was his rider. I spurred him.
The sound of the crowd reached me through the roar in my ears. My bull pitched onto his knees. I could smell the wildness on him, and it reminded me of when Daddy would come and get me from school and take me into the woods, where we would lay on our bellies by a stream and wait until a deer wandered by us to drink, and Daddy would kill him and whoop because he could feed us kids, and maybe Momma would let him back into the house, if he brought home that red, red flesh for her. She loved all of the organ meat the best, so Daddy was so careful and would root through the gut sack until he found every piece of the sweetbreads. He handed them to me to put in a plastic grocery bag. We would hoist that buck and let it bleed. Daddy would cut a sliver off of the loin and rinse it in the cold stream so we could eat it raw. It was chewy, and the blood was still warm in it. Daddy would pet my head with hands still damp from the stream and say, “This is what being a man is. Taking care of your family, son.”
All around me was heavy, white flesh. My face was warm, and I saw paramedics springing over the side of the arena.
“Jesus Christ. He’s breathing. Get this fucking bull off him.”
Soft hands slid against my chest and arms. I heard a popping diesel engine and saw the combine they used to drag the arena. The broncs were milling in the holding pen. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. The Indian who sat on the gate stood over me as he tightened a lariat around the great white bull’s horns. I saw the fuzzy, red end of a tranq dart sticking out of its neck. His Wranglers cut into his belly and groin, and I could see his cock pushed to one side as he straddled the bull’s neck. He shouted at the fat woman on the tractor and suddenly the bull’s head jerked and his pink eye rolled half-open. The red dirt gathered around his open mouth. His thick tongue dragged in the dirt. The combine bogged in the tilled earth, and the weight settled on my hips. I swayed my head and saw the medics rolling the pick-up rider onto a plastic yellow gurney.
The event veterinarian put down the tranq gun and went to the heaving pony. Her sides puffed and contracted, and her legs skewed around her. He knelt over her and took a syringe filled with pink liquid out. The mare groaned as he punched the needle into her neck and rubbed her head. She sank into the dirt with a quiet swish. The vet motioned the backhoe over to drag her out of the arena. Children in cowboy hats peeked through the bars on the fence. That bull had the sun in him.
By the time they got me to the hospital in Lawton, I was fairly certain that that sacred bull was waiting for me behind some gauzy curtain. I probably wasn’t even going to get to speak to the Lord. He would just wave me onto the back of the beast that brought me here to begin with and shut his book.
“I never knew you. Your appetites were too great.”
“And now what, Lord?”
“You must cut the bull into pieces, lay them on the altar, and call upon my holy fire.”
“But how, Lord?”
He wouldn’t answer. He can’t bear to be in the presence of sin.
When I woke up, I was filled with light. I could be forgiven. He had given me another chance. A nurse came in with a clipboard. She smiled at me and took out my I.V.
“You are one lucky son of a gun, Mr. Merrill. You just have a minor concussion and a pulled groin. That bull was after you, huh?” She smoothed the sheets around my legs and grinned again. “You’ll be out of here very shortly. Do you have insurance?”
I shook my head.
“Well, go ahead and get dressed, and I’ll be back in a bit with some paperwork.”
I grabbed my clothes from the chair, dressed and left.
It wasn’t like in the movies. No one even looked up as I walked out, let alone try and stop me with pleas about my condition. The nurses all seemed fixed to one screen or another, as still as water flowers in their pink and blue scrubs. I nodded at a few of them as I left, draping my jacket over my bent shoulder. I could down all of them from the parking garage across the street with an M82, even when they started running. Pop pop pop and their heads would bust like watermelons. I was good at killing. Killing is what God demands. I used the payphone outside of the hospital to call a cab to the rodeo grounds. Lay the flesh on the altar. Kill the demon inside me.
When I got to the grounds, I went to my truck and pulled it up beside the bull holding pen. I cranked my windows down, pushed my seat back, and snoozed in the thick warmth of the Oklahoma spring. All night, I heard bulls pushing against panels of the holding pen and lowing to one another in the dark. I got out of my truck and propped my foot up on the gate. The sodium bulbs hummed around us, casting a ruddy sheen on their slick, summer hides. Their eyes glistened like Rodriguez’s after a hard run. I figured any moment they would start talking to me about jerking off in the head. The thought made me laugh, and I reached through the bars to rub their red curly heads. They just rolled back their eyes and pressed their swollen sides together like sausages in a can.
I sat astride the edge of the corral and draped a loop of yellow, nylon rope over the edge. The bulls shifted and swung their heads into each other, making hollow echoes in the quiet night. I took out my knife. The knife I carried with me from the moment they issued it to me. A Ka-Bar. Sturdy. Reliable. I looped my rope just behind the ears of the closest bull and pulled his head close to my knee. I took my knife and pressed the tip into the soft folds just under his jaw and ripped the tough hide straight above my shoulder. I closed my eyes. Rodriguez’s face, bruised by my fist. The black-haired boy in the bar. Calvin Klein models. Skeptical whores. Dead Hadjis. I hated them. I hated them the way God hates sin. The arc of blood splashed the rest of the beeves. The slit-throat bull buckled, and his weight pulled me off the fence into the surging mound of cattle. They panicked now. Their sweat turned sour, and they bellowed as a one-horned zebu pinned them into a corner and rooted into their bellies. I grabbed the fence and hauled myself up. The white bull caught sight of me and rocked his head from side to side. His muzzle was slick, and he darted his tongue into his nostril as the others trembled and pressed into one another. Oh here was my penance.
I hung by the crook of my elbow while the others milled by. The bull pushed through the forest of black eyes until we stood face-to-face. He huffed bits of wet cud onto my cheeks and pressed closer. He raised his chin and snuffed the air in front of my face. His ears flicked.
I lifted my knife and dragged it in a crescent under the bull’s chin. He just lay his jaw on my shoulder and the hot blood poured down the front of me. It soaked through my underwear and pooled in my boots. The dirt turned to mud under me, and my heels slipped under the pressure of the animal. Soon I was lying under this white beast, and I could feel the weight of the sacrifice pressing me under the thick glop.
I prayed under the hooves and bellies while my mouth filled with dirt and my cuts with grit. My pockets were full of teeth.
I reckon I was ready to face God. To hold up my cupped hands filled with the pale one’s blood and let it spill onto my head. To be washed in the blood. To show my fathers that this was not my lot. Perhaps my sins are too great. My hatred too strong. My weakness too deep.
It’s hard to hide from God when you’re naked in the fucking garden.
Rachael Peralez received her MFA in creative writing at the University of New Orleans, where she received the award of Best Thesis for her collection of short stories. She resides in New Orleans with her husband and two dogs, who love her terribly.