AJ Atwater

Steeple Lassoer

I got good with my lasso. I could loop a lounging brother’s big toe with one whistle through the air. They’d say, hey, and I’d have them by the toe. How did you do that? they’d ask. Soon I started buying better lassos with my allowance and I’d practice looping remaining fence poles in the backyard where Mother had put in fencing one year when she decided we had to have dogs. Having dogs came to an end when Mother spotted one jumping the fence. I’d stand in the middle of the dog-less, fence-less backyard and loop those fence posts. I’d spin the lasso in the air two feet above a post before dropping it down neat as can be then I’d be off to the park by our house with one or the other of my brothers. If we watched for broken whisky bottles left by those who frequent the park we could run like the wind. I’d twirl my lasso, drop it over my brother and pull him down. Then flip the rope off and regroup in three seconds flat. I’d get my rope twirling again and away we’d go, me lassoing my brother or dead tree trunks. I was doing this when I got the idea. To lasso church steeples for a living. To be fair, it was a Sunday morning and church bells were ringing at the Freedom Church on 21st Street across the way and down from our house, Pastor Pretty’s church, where the one time we went to services, Mother had looked resplendent. She wore a black gown with a flowing train and four strings of black pearls held together with this enormous gold clasp. I saw women on the far side of the church basement when we went down for coffee, cookies and Kool-Aid after the service looking down their strait-laced noses at Mother, her, a woman without a man. Sons born one after the other with a few gap years in between. Seven of us. The church ladies’ dresses were soft pink. They wore tiny gold crosses. They patted my brothers and me on our heads, then went into the kitchen and made a batch of sandwiches. They scooped up handfuls of cookies, we saw, and put them with the sandwiches in a white cardboard box. With a pitying look they handed the box to Mother. Me and my brothers wanted the cookies. We cared less about sandwiches but those chocolate chip cookies made our mouths water especially since we had been allowed only one apiece in the church basement and had to eat it slowly and politely. But Mother, strong-willed and quarrelsome, would have none of their charity so as we were leaving she trooped to the altar with our youngest brother in her arms. As she was depositing the offending box on the baptismal font, we heard Pastor Pretty coming up the stairs, talking, and there was our mother, the scoundrel, depositing the unwanted. When she saw us making gigantic gestures and whisper-shouting, we had to admit to each other later we’d never seen our mother move so fast over so long a distance. Pastor Pretty came upon us as we were parading out. Still here? he asked, but we were at the bottom of the outside steps by that time. Mother chased a brother who was acting like an airplane. Then she handed the youngest to me and bent down to re-tie a tennis shoe of another brother. Soon we were on our way home strung out along the sidewalk like a gaggle of wayward geese led by a tall black-clothed woman in heels. Once home we started our typical Sunday afternoon which involved doing as little as possible. To while away the time, we brothers imagined the church ladies finding their carefully prepared charity box on the baptismal font. Imagined their lips curled in distaste, perfect pious mouths forming little wiggly O’s, then settling into thin lines, them standing at the altar with Pastor Pretty’s wife. She was probably the ringleader. We imagined her lifting the box gingerly like it was a piece of used, soggy Kleenex thrown down by a stranger. We could see in our mind’s eye Pastor Pretty’s wife depositing the unclean and unwanted in the trash behind the church. I snuck out the backdoor that afternoon hoping to find the box perched in the trash but it was already in the hands of one of the men who frequent the park. He was wolfing down sandwiches and stuffing cookies into his pockets. When he saw me, he threw the empty box to the ground, sprinted across the street and disappeared into the park. I lit out after him, but stopped at the perimeter. I had chased a man. I’d never chased a human being before. I’d chased my brothers. But they aren’t human beings. They are my brothers and there’s a difference. It felt funny, chasing a hungry human being, yelling at them about cookies. Back home I whiled away the rest of the afternoon being thoughtful and quiet after I told my brothers about the man. They didn’t like that I was quiet. Where’s your lasso? they asked. We brothers preferred things normal like when we’d drift this way and that on our morning walks to school, punching arms, some walking with one leg in the gutter and the other on the sidewalk, half-running and half-dragging our feet. We knew words like inaniloquent or colposinquanonia. Mother had taught us to be smart especially in the face of ignorance. Ignore those who look down on your unexpected smarts, high-water pants held up by ragged old belts and your dirty-looking, but clean-as-a-whistle old T-shirts she preached at breakfast. Be aware of fools, Mother said every morning. Little ones looked up at her with wonder in their faces when Mother broke into her breakfast sermons. Then she’d whip out Shakespeare’s Hamlet and read, us scraping our spoons thoughtfully in bowls getting the last of our oatmeal or Wheaties. Most mornings, at some point, Mother would finally look at whatever kitchen clock we had. God, she’d say and leap up. You’ll be late. Lunches. Lunches, she’d say and hand out brown paper bags as we paraded past her to the door, banging into each other, grabbing shabby backpacks with broken zippers, coursing down the steps like a little stream of black-haired fish, swimming away, spilling into the world, the younger ones still around the table in carriers or sitting on booster seats. We brothers needed normal from Mother, too, so when I told her at the dinner table I was going to lasso church steeples for a living, we expected quarreling, nay-saying, nopeing and where did you get that crazy idea? But she just sat there with a spoonful of Spaghetti-Os almost to her mouth. In her other hand was a folded piece of white bread. Her black hair was pulled into a ponytail. Her eye shadow was bright green. She set her spoon down that day still full of Spaghetti-Os and placed her bread on top. Lasso the clock, she said to me.

Our clock was a blue rooster with a long neck. A likely candidate. A few brothers scattered to the corners of the kitchen to watch, their chairs scrapped back forming an obstacle course. I stood away from the table and forked out a circle. I navigated the obstacle course, twirling my rope, expertly closing in on the clock thinking all the while about the angle I’d need. About sure-footedness. Then moving fast to the left, I closed in suddenly. Fast like a snake. I lassoed the clock neck and pulled the rope tight, yet lightly before flipping it back over the rooster’s head. From the corners of the kitchen my brothers cheered like maniacs. Mother picked up her slice of folded white bread and ate it. We dragged our assortment of wood chairs back to the table, took up our spoons and started shoveling in Spaghetti-Os. We reached for bread and eyed fruit cocktail in a big bowl in the middle of the table. Mother had opened four cans. I’ll need a white stallion, a white Stetson and bright red cowboy boots, I said to Mother as if I were some kind of expert. She began dishing out fruit cocktail. My brothers were breathing shallow. They waited quietly like a nest of rabbits. I could almost see a pink glaze in their eyes, noses twitching, heads cocked, waiting for Mother’s reaction. Then she asked in a quiz-like way: What do stallions eat?

Stallions eat oats, said one brother.

Stallions eat hay.

Stallions eat straw.

No they don’t. They don’t eat straw.

Says who?

Me!

Who are you, I’d like to know, said a smarty pants brother.

They eat green grass, another brother said. Then he said to me, name your stallion Fido.

That name’s been taken, I said. That was the name of our dog without a tail.

No, another brother chimed in. That was the name of our dog who kept jumping the fence.

The fence jumper wasn’t Fido. That was Spot, said another brother.

Spot was the name of the white dog that died, some brother said.

 Spot was the name of the dog with three legs, Mother said firmly having had enough. Time for baths, she said. Then she cleared the table.

That’s how it began. And ended. My career as a steeple lassoer. My lasso never dropped like a falcon to steeples. Never flipped back up like a thin ballerina of air to me, me a cutting-edge steeple lassoer. Instead, I teach roping on the rodeo circuit. Montana. Wyoming. Florida. My brothers are scattered around the country. One fills vending machines, two are lawyers, another studies the effect of sugar on the cardiovascular system. The two youngest are in business together renting out bucket trucks. One summer a few of my brothers were around the house when I was there, us helping Mother with this or that and the topic of steeple lassoing came up. My brothers squinted into the past to see if, somehow, they could remember that particular conversation. They ended up shrugging and instead dug into their Spaghetti-Os. But I remembered my dream of riding a white stallion, wearing a white Stetson and bright red cowboy boots until I came to my senses and realized that is exactly what I do in my own real life.

 

AJ Atwater’s fiction is published or forthcoming in Roanoke Review, LitroNY, Blood Tree Literature, Gargoyle, Gravel, Green Mountains Review, Vestal Review, PANK and others.