He watched him for nearly an hour, thinking, That bull shouldn't be here.
And neither should he.
The event began right on time, with the sun high enough to warm the day, if only slightly. In the stands, spectators were wearing jackets and gloves, and the lines for hot chocolate and coffee stretched nearly toward the entrance. As usual, Luke stayed in his truck, the heater blowing. He was surrounded by dozens of idling trucks in the parking lot as his competitors tried to do the same.
He ventured out once before his turn, as did a lot of the other competitors, to watch Trey Miller's attempt to ride Big Ugly Critter. As soon as the chute door opened, the bull ducked his head and launched into a twisting kick; Miller didn't have a prayer. When he landed, the bull turned, just as he had after Luke's ride, and rushed him, head down. Luckily Miller was able to make it to the arena fence in time to scramble away to safety.
The bull, as if aware how many people were watching him, stopped his charge and snorted hard. He stood in place, staring at the receding Miller, the cold air making it appear as though he were breathing smoke out of his nostrils.
For his draw, Luke had pulled Raptor, a young bull with a short history on the tour. He was supposed to be an up-and-comer, and he didn't disappoint. He spun and bucked and jumped, but Luke felt strangely in control throughout, and by the end of the ride, he'd earned his highest score of the season. After he'd jumped down, the bull - unlike Big Ugly Critter - ignored him.
There were more competitors at this third event of the season, making the wait between rides that much longer. For his second bull, Luke drew Locomotive, and though his ride wasn't as high-scoring as the first, he remained in the lead.
Five rides later, Jake Harris had his turn on Big Ugly Critter. It didn't last long, but in a sense, he was either less or more lucky than Miller had been. He made it to the center of the arena before being thrown, and again, Big Ugly Critter turned and charged. There was nowhere to go. A younger rider might have been in trouble, but Harris was a veteran and was able to dart out of the way at the last instant, the bull's horns missing him by inches. Two bullfighters jumped in to distract Big Ugly Critter, offering a temporary reprieve that allowed Harris to reach the arena wall. He launched himself upward and threw his legs over just as the angry bull closed in, ready to gore.
Then, turning and squaring up, the bull set his sights on the bullfighters still in the arena. One made it to the safety of the arena fence, but the other had to hop into one of the barrels. Big Ugly Critter went after it, furious that his real prey had gotten away. He rammed the barrel, sending it careening across the arena, then rammed it again before pinning it against the wall, where he continued to savage it, swinging his horns and snorting, an animal gone insane.
Luke watched, feeling sick to his stomach, thinking again that the bull did not belong at the event. Or any event. One day soon, Big Ugly Critter was going to kill someone.
After the first two rounds, twenty-nine riders were on their way home. Fifteen remained. Luke was seeded first in the Championships round, the last rider of the day. There was a short break before the round started, and as the wintry sky darkened, the lights had been turned on.
His hands remained steady. His nerves were in check. He was riding well, and if his day so far was any indication, he would ride well again - which was strange, given how he'd felt at the beginning of the day. Nonetheless, the sense of dread he'd felt hadn't totally dissipated, despite his successful rides.
If anything, it had grown worse since he'd seen Big Ugly Critter go after Harris. The event promoters should have been aware of the danger, given the bull's history. They should have had five bullfighters in the ring, not just two. But even after Miller had ridden, they hadn't learned their lesson. The bull was dangerous. Psychotic, even.
Like the other finalists, Luke lined up for the last draw of the day, and one by one, he heard the bulls being assigned to the various riders. Raptor went third, Locomotive went seventh, and as the names continued, his sense of foreboding intensified. He couldn't look at the other competitors; instead, he closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable.
And in the end, just as part of him had known would happen, he drew Big Ugly Critter.
Time slowed down in the final round. The first two riders stayed on, the next three were tossed. It went back and forth on the next two.
Luke sat in his truck, listening to the announcer. His heartbeat began to speed up as adrenaline flooded his system. He tried to convince himself he was ready, that he was up to the challenge, but he wasn't. He hadn't been when he'd been at his peak, let alone now.
He didn't want to go out there. He didn't want to hear the announcer mention the truck he could win or the fact that the bull hadn't been ridden successfully in the last three years. He didn't want the announcer to tell the crowd that Big Ugly Critter was the bull who'd almost killed him, turning his potential ride into some sort of grudge match. Because it wasn't. He didn't hold a grudge against the bull. He was just an animal, albeit the craziest, meanest one he'd ever come across.
He wondered whether he should simply withdraw. Take the scores from his first two rides and be done with it. He'd still finish in the top ten, maybe even the top five, depending on how well the other riders did after all was said and done. He might drop in the overall rankings, but he'd remain in position to make the big tour...
Where Big Ugly Critter would surely end up.
But what would happen the next time? If he drew the bull in the first round? When he was in California, for instance? Or Utah? After spending a small fortune on the flight and the motel and food? Would he be prepared to walk away then, too?
He didn't know. Right now, his mind was incoherent, filled with static, though when he glanced down, his hands were completely still. Odd, he thought, considering...
In the distance, the roar of the crowd went up, signaling a successful ride. A good one from the sound of it. Good for him, Luke thought, whoever it was. These days, he begrudged no one his success. He, more than anyone, knew the risks.
It was time. If he was going to go through with it, he had to make his decision. Stay or go, ride or withdraw, save the ranch or let the bank take it away.
Live or die...
He drew a long breath. Hands still good. He was as ready as he'd ever be. Pushing open the door, he stepped onto the hard-packed dirt and gazed upward at the darkening winter sky.
Live or die. That's what it all came down to. Steeling himself to the walk to the arena, he wondered which it would be.
hen I wake, my first thought is that my body is weak and growing steadily weaker. Sleep, instead of giving me strength, has robbed me of some of the precious hours I have remaining.
Morning sunlight slants through the window, reflected bright and sharp by the snow. It takes a moment to realize that it's Monday. More than thirty-six hours now since the accident. Who could have imagined such a thing happening to an old man like me? This will to live. But I have always been a survivor, a man who laughs in the face of death and spits in the eye of mother fate. I fear nothing, not even the pain. It's time for me to open the door and scale the embankment, to flag down a passing car. If no one comes to me, I will have to go to them.
Who am I kidding?
I can do no such thing. The agony is so intense that it takes a concerted effort to bring the world back into focus. For a moment, I feel strangely dissociated from my body - I can see myself propped on the steering wheel, my body a broken wreck. For the first time since the accident, I am sure that it is no longer possible for me to move. The bells are tolling, and I do not have long. This should frighten me, but it doesn't. In no small way, I have been waiting to die for the last nine years.
I was not meant to be alone. I am not good at it. The years since Ruth's passing have ticked by with the kind of desperate silence known only to the elderly. It is a silence underscored by loneliness and the knowledge t
hat the good years are already in the past, coupled with the complications of old age itself.
The body is not meant to survive nearly a century. I speak from experience when I say this. Two years after Ruth died, I suffered a minor heart attack - I was barely able to dial for help before I fell to the floor, unconscious. Two years after that, it became difficult to maintain my balance, and I purchased the walker to keep from toppling into the rosebushes whenever I ventured outside.
Caring for my father had taught me to expect these kinds of challenges, and I was largely able to move past them. What I hadn't expected, however, was the endless array of minor torments - little things, once so easy, now rendered impossible. I can no longer open a jar of jelly; I have the cashier at the supermarket do it before she slips it into the bag. My hands shake so much that my penmanship is barely legible, which makes it difficult to pay the bills. I can read only in the brightest of lights, and without my dentures in place, I can eat nothing but soup. Even at night, age is torturous. It takes forever for me to fall asleep, and prolonged slumber is a mirage. There is medicine, too - so many pills that I've had to tack a chart on the refrigerator to keep them straight. Medicine for arthritis and high blood pressure and high cholesterol, some taken with food and some without, and I'm told that I must always carry nitroglycerine pills in my pocket, in the event I ever again feel that searing pain in my chest. Before the cancer took root - a cancer that will gnaw at me until I'm nothing but skin and bones - I used to wonder what indignity the future would bring next. And God, in his wisdom, provided the answer. How about an accident! Let's break his bones and bury him in snow! I sometimes think God has an odd sense of humor.
Had I said this to Ruth, she would not have laughed. She would say I should be thankful, for not everyone is blessed with a long life. She would have said that the accident was my fault. And then, with a shrug, she would have explained that I had lived because our story was not yet finished.
What became of me? And what will become of the collection?
I've spent nine years answering these questions, and I think Ruth would have been pleased. I've spent these years surrounded by Ruth's passion; I have spent my years embraced by her. Everywhere I have looked, I've been reminded of her, and before I go to bed every night, I stare at the painting above the fireplace, comforted by the knowledge that our story will have precisely the kind of ending that Ruth would have wanted.
The sun rises higher, and I hurt even in the distant recesses of my body. My throat is parched and all I want is to close my eyes and fade away.
But Ruth will not let me. There is an intensity in her gaze that wills me to look at her.
"It is worse now," she says. "The way you are feeling."
"I'm just tired," I mumble.
"Yes," she says. "But it is not your time yet. There is more you must tell me."
I can barely make out her words. "Why?"
"Because it is the story of us," she says. "And I want to hear about you."
My mind spins again. The side of my face hurts where it presses against the steering wheel, and I notice that my broken arm looks bizarrely swollen. It has turned purple and my fingers look like sausages. "You know how it ends."
"I want to hear it. In your own words."
"No," I say.
"After sitting shiva, the depression set in," she goes on, ignoring me. "You were very lonely. I did not want this for you."
Sorrow has crept into her voice, and I close my eyes. "I couldn't help it," I say. "I missed you."
She is silent for a moment. She knows I am being evasive. "Look at me, Ira. I want to see your eyes as you tell me what happened."
"I don't want to talk about this."
"Why not?" she persists.
The ragged sound of my breath fills the car as I choose my words. "Because," I finally offer, "I'm ashamed."
"Because of what you did," she announces.
She knows the truth and I nod, afraid of what she thinks of me. In time, I hear her sigh.
"I was very worried about you," she finally says. "You would not eat after you sat shiva, after everyone went away."
"I wasn't hungry."
"This is not true. You were hungry all the time. You chose to ignore it. You were starving yourself."
"It doesn't matter now --," I falter.
"I want you to tell me the truth," she persists.
"I wanted to be with you."
"But what does that mean?"
Too tired to argue, I finally open my eyes. "It means," I say, "that I was trying to die."
It was the silence that did it. The silence that I still experience now, a silence that descended after the other mourners went away. At the time, I was not used to it. It was oppressive, suffocating - so quiet that it eventually became a roar that drowned out everything else. And slowly but surely, it leached me of my ability to care.
Exhaustion and habits further conspired against me. At breakfast, I would pull out two cups for coffee instead of one, and my throat would clench as I put the extra cup back in the cupboard. In the afternoon, I would call out that I was going out to retrieve the mail, only to realize that there was no one to answer me. My stomach felt permanently tense, and in the evenings, I couldn't fathom the idea of cooking a dinner that I would have to eat alone. Days would pass where I ate nothing at all.
I am no doctor. I do not know if the depression was clinical or simply a normal product of mourning, but the effect was the same. I did not see any reason to go on. I did not want to go on. But I was a coward, unwilling to take specific action. Instead, I took no action, other than a refusal to eat much of anything, and again the effect was the same. I lost weight and grew steadily weaker, my path preordained, and little by little, my memories became jumbled. The realization that I was losing Ruth again made everything even worse, and soon I was eating nothing at all. Soon, the summers we spent together vanished entirely and I no longer saw any reason to fend off the inevitable. I began to spend most of my time in bed, eyes unfocused as I gazed at the ceiling, the past and the future a blank.
"I do not think this is true," she says. "You say that because you were depressed, you did not eat. You say that because you could not remember, you did not eat. But I think that it is because you did not eat that you could not remember. And so you did not have the strength to fight the depression."
"I was old," I say. "My strength had long since evaporated."
"You are making excuses now." She waves a hand. "But this is not a time to make jokes. I was very worried about you."
"You couldn't be worried. You weren't there. That was the problem."
Her eyes narrow and I know I've struck a nerve. She tilts her head, the morning sunlight casting half her face in shadow. "Why do you say this?"
"Because it's true?"
"Then how can I be here now?"
"Maybe you aren't."
"Ira..." She shakes her head. She talks to me the way I imagine she once talked to her students. "Can you see me? Can you hear me?" She leans forward, placing her hand on my own. "Can you feel this?"
Her hand is warm and soft, hands I know even better than my own. "Yes," I say. "But I couldn't then."
She smiles, looking satisfied, as if I'd just proved her point. "That is because you were not eating."
A truth emerges in any long marriage, and the truth is this: Our spouses sometimes know us better than we even know ourselves.
Ruth was no exception. She knew me. She knew how much I would miss her; she knew how much I needed to hear from her. She also knew that I, not she, would be the one left alone. It's the only explanation, and over the years, I have never questioned it. If she made one mistake, it was that I did not discover what she had done until my cheeks had hollowed and my arms looked like twigs. I do not remember much about the day I made my discovery. The events have been lost to me, but this is not surprising. By that point, my days had become interchangeable, without meaning, and it wasn't until darkness set in that I found myself
staring at the box of letters that sat upon Ruth's chest of drawers.
I had seen them every night since her passing, but they were hers, not mine, and to my misguided way of thinking, I simply assumed they would make me feel worse. They would remind me of how much I missed her; they would remind me of all that I had lost. And the idea was unbearable. I just could not face it. And yet, on that night, perhaps because I'd become numb to my feelings, I forced myself from the bed and retrieved the box. I wanted to remember again, if only for a single night, even if it hurt me.
The box was strangely light, and when I lifted the lid, I caught a whiff of the hand lotion Ruth had always used. It was faint, but it was there, and all at once, my hands began to shake. But I was a man possessed, and I reached for the first of the anniversary letters I'd written to her.