When the Bull Gets the Last Laugh

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Maybe it was a low point for Dad but for me, it was anything but.

We were living at the Dennis ranch, when Dad came home drunk and decided it was time to act like a real rodeo star. I was standing outside the corral, where we kept one of our two-year-old bulls. Dad saunters over to me and slurs, “ Cono, grab that bull o’r yonder. Hold’em still ‘til I get on. I’m gonna ride this son of a bitch”

“Sure I will, Dad.”

It was better than watching a picture show. While I was putting the rope around the bull’s neck Dad went over and fixed Ike’s spurs to his shoes! Not to his boots because he didn’t even own a pair of boots, but to his shoes! Then he slapped on Ike’s chaps. I helped him get on top of the bull and stood there holding his rope.

“Whenever you’re ready,” I said.

“I’z ready,” he slurred.

I let go.

Dad put one hand up in the air and said, “High, ho, silv……”

That bull didn’t even buck. He just turned around real slow, like he was trying to see what kind of idiot wanted to sit on his back. That slow turn-around was all it took. My Dad fell right off that lazy bull and straight into the dirt, Ike’s spurs dangling from Dad’s shoes.

I turned around and looked in the other direction, so Dad wouldn’t see the laugh in my face. If he was paying attention, he would have seen my shoulders quivering with the same laughter.

He got up and staggered back to the house, mumbling something about killing steak for dinner. Some things sure were funny back then, but other times? You couldn’t find “funny” anywhere you looked.

 

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper by C. Dennis-Willingham

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The Worry Wrestler

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Ike Dennis

Ike, my grandfather, ain’t mean like his son. Unless he’s breaking a horse or doing something else with purpose, he’s got a smile perched on his leathered face.

He stays cool as a cucumber even when times are hard. I hardly ever see that worry bubble dancing over his head like a cloud of Texas dust that most of us stand under.

He got rid of his worry a long time ago at the age of two when Great Grandpa Jim put him on top of a horse. If  T-R-O-U-B-L-E comes knocking on his door, he just wrestles it off until all that’s left is the T.

 

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper by C. Dennis-Willingham

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Discouraging but Deserving

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I like looking at my teach, Mrs. Alexander, at her nice smile and her fancy dress. I keep picturing my mother getting to wear a dress like that someday.

Right before it’s time to go home, Mrs. Alexander starts to teach us a new song called “Home on the Range”.

Oh give me a home, where the antelope roam and the deer and the antelope play. Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day. How often at night, where the heavens are bright with the light of the glittering stars, have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed if their glory exceeds that of ours. Home, home on the range….

I like those words. They make me feel almost as good as when I’m riding on ol’ Polo, free and easy like deer and antelope playing together without any bickering.

I like it that she tells us what the words mean, words like “discouraging.” She says that “discouraging” means that you don’t like something much, like something makes you feel uncomfortable, something that spoils your spirit.

So now I can say, that “Home on the Range” is my new favorite song. I can also say that recess today, sure was discouraging. But damn, sticking that pocketknife in Tommy Burn’s bully thigh sure felt good. He’s deserved it for a coon’s age.

Maybe there are a few clouds today after all.

 

Excerpt of No Hill for a Stepper by C. Dennis-Willingham

 

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“Eternity Don’t Sound So Good”

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It’s Sunday, revival time at the Baptist church. I don’t like it much, but the punch and cookies are good, that is if I can hold my patience until the end when all the “amen-ing” is done.

I stuff those cookies in my mouth two at a time. “Gracious me, Cono,” says Mrs. Allridge, “looks like you ain’t eaten anything for a month.”

Almost every time I get to one of those revivals, the grownups say, “Cono, don’t you want to be saved?”

“From what?” I say.

“Why the Devil hisself,” they say and then they add a bunch of amen’s to go along with it.

Unless they’re thinking about my Dad being the Devil, I just say, “No thank you.”

“But what are you waitin for? We could baptize you right now and all your sins would be forgiven and you would have eternal life.”

As far as sinning goes, I guess I’ve done my fair share of it, Amen.

“What’s eternal mean?” I ask.

“Well, it means you’ll live forever with Jesus right next to you.”

I picture Jesus standing right next to me, while I was thunk, thunk, thunkin’ on a woodpile forever and ever into eternity. And it doesn’t appeal to me one iota. Last year when we lived with Aunt Nolie, I didn’t have much chopping to do. But now, I have to chop all the time, Chop, chop to make sure Mother has enough wood for the cookstove at the Tourist Court. Chop, chop so Dad won’t lay into me.

Anyway, I’ve heard stories about how some churches take a poor person’s last dime, so they can put more gold up by the Jesus statue. Then, a penny-less old woman with only one shoe and five starving children crawls away with her head all covered up, as if she’s ashamed of being broke.

It doesn’t make no sense to me whatsoever. It seems to me that Jesus would want you to keep most of your money, so you don’t have to starve and die and can at least make it to church to pray. What gets me is watching them churchgoers and knowing that they talk all big about Jesus, but when they get home, they just keep doing their sinning anyway, like they’d forgotten every word they’d learned.

Maybe all you have to do is say you believe in Jesus and then you’ll be saved no matter how you act. But what do I know? I ain’t been saved yet.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper by C. Dennis-Willingham

 

 

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This Ain’t Us

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This Ain’t Us

I didn’t grow up with “Good morning, Cono” smiles or quiet and calm conversations around the supper table. Maybe, we just learned not to speak our mind. Especially since one or two of the minds around the kitchen table might not like our notions.

If somebody were to peek in the window at suppertime, they’d have seen four mouths that moved due to chewing, not from that risky pastime called “talking”. In fact, if we tried to catch each word that came out of our mouths, especially at suppertime, there wouldn’t be enough to fill a soup bowl. And if we were counting on words for our nourishment, well then, we would have starved plumb to death.

I grew up believing that conversation cost money and since those were hard times, Mother and Dad tried to save every penny they could. So if Dad were to tell me, “Son, please leave the pie in front’a Ike’s plate,” it would have cost fifty cents and we could have put that half dollar towards new shoes for Delma.

“Son, the woodpile’s low so I need you to chop the wood today please,” would have cost seventy-five cents and we’d have been chewing on lambsquarters for the rest of our poor lives.

Now on the other hand, when he looked directly at me, pointed to that woodpile and said, “Get busy!” he’d just stockpiled a bundle of money. And if it weren’t for him buying his liquor, we would have had enough money for several good meals and maybe even a new dress for Mother.

 

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper by C. Dennis-Willingham

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He Ain’t Normal

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Although I’d thought about it many a time, I made it through half of the summer without killing No-Account. So has Aunt Nolie for that matter. Her and that dead-beat husband of hers seem be back to some kind of normal — which for them  means the typical bed grunting.

I see No-Account out the window. He’s brought Dad home from another hot springs pool that was supposed to help with his arthritis.

No-Account walks through the door. He’s supporting a man under his arm that looks nothing like my dad. Looks like he weighs no more than a baby bird. Ninety pounds is what they say he is now. Skinny as a rail, not worth a grain of salt. Definitely  not strong enough to lift a hand on me — barely strong enough to lift a word.

Excerpt from the novel, No Hill for a Stepper by C. Dennis-Willingham.

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A Restart to Nothing New

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Delma mashes her little nose up against the window of the car. I stay quiet, thinking about what lays ahead, something I don’t yet know about.   I try to picture it, a town with gypsum snow under the ground, a town where Dad is happy, a town where….

“Where we goin’, Cono?” Delma whispers.

“I ain’t so sure Sis, but it’ll be someplace good ‘cause looky here, we’re ridin’ in a four-door automobile!”

She turns away from me then and keeps pressing her little nose up against the window until she finally gives in to sleeping on Mother’s lap. At least we are together, Delma and me. It’s just another place that I plan to watch over her. I want to keep her close by, so nobody can snatch her away again. As long as I can do that, it doesn’t make no difference where we are.

The car keeps humming slowly down the highway. I try to sleep but I can’t. Instead, I think about Mr. Ed Rotan and decide right then and there that “Cono, Texas” has a real good ring to it. Cono, Texas won’t just have snow gypsum under the ground and a railroad on top of it. It’ll have oil underground and derricks on the top, pumping night and day. I call them jacks “grasshoppers” because that’s just what they look like when they’re pumping up and down. They’re grasshoppers trying to hop away, but they’re stuck and have to settle for hopping up and down in the same place.

My town will have at least two good cafés that serve T-bone steaks and tea iced in clean tin jars, free to me since it’s my town.

My mind leaves Cono, Texas and I think again on Ranger, the town where I learned how to brush my teeth, where Ma and Pa have a farm and a house that you’ll always want to go back to, where Polo takes me anywhere I want to go. Ranger is about haircuts that teach you about boxing and about boxing that teaches you to keep standing up. It’s a town where a Tiger can stir the ground and make you a little sister.

Oh yeah. The town of Ranger teaches you that goats freeze, but hands burn.

I go back to the comfort of Cono, Texas, off the poor list and high on the hog. I don’t quite know what to expect, but I sure do like this red brick highway leading to someplace new. I’m thinking that everything’s going to be “copacetic,” like bright colorful times might be ahead, like we’re following a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

But I don’t know nothin’ from nothin’.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper by C. Dennis-Willingham

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More than a Bloody Moon

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Dad is slumped over on me now; half of his weight is on my right side, my right arm under his. I walk him to his side of the bed hoping Mother won’t wake up and see how drunk he is, see the blood I didn’t get the chance to wipe off his face. He lies down and is out cold. He’s good for the night.

I go into my room and see Delma asleep on her bed. I lie down on mine and stare up at the ceiling. A dim light comes through my window. The half-moon pays me a visit, casts shadows of a kid named Cono who never could beat Hicks Boy.

Well, I guess Dad has met his own Hicks Boy.

I can’t believe I’m not jumping up and down, celebrating. I feel kinda sorry for him, my dad beaten by a cue stick. The same man who, to my knowledge, never lost a fight except for in the boxing ring with Shorty Houghton when I was three years old.

I also feel pretty good that I was there for him, did something for him that maybe he’ll remember. But it doesn’t really matter if he remembers. I will. For the first time, I felt useful to him.

I hear Mother scream. I snap back into the present, out of my daydream. Maybe she’s woken up, has seen blood on her sheets reflected in moonlight, seen the blood on Dad’s face.

I start to get up but the quiet has taken over. I think I might just go back to sleep but the silence only lasts for a moment.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper by C. Dennis-Willingham

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No Birthday Without Her

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Scooter and me walk to the swimming hole. He’s playing the blues harp, but even his sour notes don’t distract me from thinking about my birthday. Without Mama, it wouldn’t be a birthday anyway. It would be a few friends, a cake and presents without promise. Now I have to talk to The Secret Keepers, Miss Helen or Miss Delores. If they know where Mama is, maybe they can send word that I refuse to turn twelve without her.

Excerpt from The Moonshine Thicket, by C. Dennis-Willingham

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