I have come to this idea over time and it tires me to bring it to the forefront of my thoughts and give it a couple of mental buffs so that can sell it to a patron sitting on a bar stool next to me without getting punched…”
by paul handley
I have the head of a horse. A nondisclosure agreement prevents me from revealing the name of the professional team for which I work or the name of the mascot. They must be worried about giving away trade secrets.
“Have a good game today,” said Karen, my boss, without looking up from her texting. It sounded more like a warning than a cheer.
“Sure. Thanks,” I replied, already focused on the details of my game plan.
“Don’t forget the girl,” says Karen.
“Don’t forget the girl?” I ask, looking at her quizzically. She doesn’t return any look, but continues her messaging.
“Not even close to funny,” she says, again without moving her eyes from the screen, which I can tell is more real world to her at the moment than the actual world. Who’s to say she isn’t right? I’m the one wearing a horse head.
I have to walk a contest winner out onto the field dressed in a horse outfit just like mine, except in miniature. This should be the other way around if you think about it. The child should be wearing the standard costume and not an adult. Her name is Lila. She is cute and nervous and I was saddened to see before I placed the steed dome over her head that she looks a little bit like a horse. I hope that her spirit isn’t kicked around too badly in junior high.
I hold her hand to help overcome her shyness and I see that Lila does not need it. Exiting the team tunnel she displays a nice flourish that I resolve to adopt. The girl has a way of bucking her head in rhythm that causes the mane to fly dramatically in the air like makeup was blow-drying it on cue with her internal rodeo. I’m sure my movements are way too stiff, especially from the neck up. Of course, if she had to prance around for three hours and not just the pre-game warm-up we’d see how coltish she’d feel. As I walk her back to the locker room I tell her she was great.
“I loved it,” Lila gushes, making me feel mean about my horse face observation. “Thank you so much.” I leave her with impossibly pleased parents and decide I am too pessimistic.
“Roy. Roy,” I hear my girlfriend, Kadi call me by assumed real name even though I’ve asked her not to do this as it could get me fired. Kadi has obscenely expensive third row seats but still wants to show that she has some intimacy with a man dressed up in a horse outfit that in any other setting would be absurd.
I have basked in the glow of my equine plastic wiggle eyes that only focus for moments at a time. It’s unsettling. I’ve watched them from my bed early in the morning while deciding whether or not to get up, ogling me from their resting place on a blanket I have thoughtfully provided. It’s actually a wrap for a horse I stole from a stall mate. More on that later.
Kadi would have me shit-canned to impress upon her seatmates familiarity with the EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate-the costume material) head of the franchise. I should be grateful in a way, since Kadi believes I/the mascot has celebrity status. It’s all because of reality TV and is dependent upon acknowledgement from a small percentage of the population that you are a star.
I think the audience buys into it because they want reciprocity. When the time comes and they have the chance to become a half-assed luminary the other tenuous and hopeful celebrities have to collude to maintain status and opportunities. Think of it as a union not held together by dues, but by having a single overarching purpose in common. Never implicitly communicated, but conducted by a hive instinct makes me believe it is biological in nature. I have come to this idea over time and it tires me to bring it to the forefront of my thoughts and give it a couple of mental buffs so that can sell it to a patron sitting on a bar stool next to me without getting punched.
I ignore Kadi by feigning deafness of the tone of her voice that has reached the irritation register. The pre-game crowd noise is something else and it’s tough to compete. That first night in the stall surrounded by hay (I’ll explain in a moment) she kicked me in the sides. “Oh yes, ride’m. Ride’m Silver.” I wore the horse head without her asking.
Later, Kadi on top, “Just trot at first,” I nickered.
The next morning she said “I have a horse head in my bed,” paying compulsory homage to The Godfather.
“That’s what she said,” I murmur, not sure what I meant, but it made her giggle. I had laid the head at the end of the thin mattress wreathed by hay so she could say this. Three women in a row, including her had mouthed the same words. I have to remove the dome so I can sleep. My horse pants and shirt hung over the stall wall.
I live in a stable near the stadium. It’s not bad. When it got chilly the heating system set up for the horses would kick in. While not my original intent, it was a short commute and I thought it would help my performance. I also knew it would make me difficult to locate. A woman I met who drove the horse drawn tourist carriages downtown showed me where they housed the animals and the caretaker let me stay there. We bonded over steed entertainment. The owner never entered the stalls and if she did, I bet she would let me stay. The horse head was entree.
I heard a voice from the stands that made me shiver. “Put that fucking horse out of its misery. Hey, guy dressed like a donkey. Get out the way. What do they pay you for, be an obstructionist?”
I’ve had heard slight variations of that voice a hundred times, but this was the prototype. I knew because the fear that I felt from the unknowing imitators deescalated and this time there was a consistent trajectory of increasing heart rate, twitch speed above my right eye and loss of feeling in my extremities. My instinctual first line of defense that I had used with Kadi was ineffectual.
“Luca, move that horse’s ass out of the way. For fuck’s sake, why don’t they just park a big wooden Trojan horse in front of me?
“The management here has its head up its ass, boss,” said Luca.
“Are you telling me something I don’t know? Now you’re giving me sports viewing advice? Get that fucking horse gone. And you too, get going.”
“Or I’m going to stick your head up that horse’s ass and you can be the back end for the rest of the game.”
As I saw Luca begin to clamber over the red railing I headed for a tunnel not visible to them as it was almost directly under Stan Dolecki’s (Nickname The Doler) (AKA The Boss) and Luca’s legs. The exit was fronted by a steel door that was easy to miss if the searcher wasn’t aware of it. Apparently, that only applied to normal people, but not Luca who had chased people through a multitude of homes and the back house of restaurants that weren’t meeting code in a dozen ways such as exposed wiring and regulation exits.
The owners paid the The Doler to maintain the infractions. A normal person would have quit once I made my escape, but if I popped up in front of Stan again, Luca was likely to absorb the brunt of his rage. He was motivated.
Stan The Dole was the reason I wasn’t in the Witness Protection Plan, but working as a ski instructor, river rafting guide and a horse for the last thirty-nine months. It happened through a convoluted set of circumstances involving my employment in the gambling industry for Stan and friendship with a lady named Maritza, who I knew through my then collegiate brother. My brother watched Maritza’s boy on occasion while she was working one of her three jobs that Stan had arranged for her. As anyone who knows Stan would have guessed the arrangement with the lady was all to his benefit. She worked as practically slave labor since she was an illegal immigrant from Ecuador and didn’t have any recourse.
One of the three enterprises sold decadent doughnuts that bordered on immoral such as maple wrapped with bacon strips or vanilla frosting topped with sugary cereal O’s that I ate when she brought home day olds. Maritza would take naps in her car in-between jobs. She kept the engine running for the heat or air conditioning. To make sure she wasn’t late to a job from running out of gas, she kept a can of fuel in the back seat.
One evening after serving doughnuts the gas container tipped over and Maritza died from the fumes in her sleep. The cops asked everyone who knew her about her story and I told, resulting in shutting down The Doler’s three operations, charges, fines, injunctions and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit. I turned down the witness protection program because I had no faith in it and now I had unrelenting Luca on my ass.
I rushed up the cement stairs. I forgot about the ceiling clearance in the stairwell and smacked the crown of the horse head, sending me backwards hard. I must have blacked out for a second. I felt my head being removed. Luca was kneeling over me cradling the stallion’s head. “I was going to hit you too, but in the body.”
“You look like you took a roundhouse,” Luca observed. I got up and grabbed the head out of his arms. He looked at me in surprise. “Hey, I know you. Oh, Boss is going to love me.”
I neighed and started to run in a daze from the blow and an existential state from being of two animal worlds as if mid-metamorphosis.
“You’re a dead man,” he called after me. Luca was one of those muscular fat guys, like a defensive lineman that uses their bulk to stuff the run up the middle. “You’re fucking glue, asshole,” he wheezed.
“I’m rubber,” I cackled breathlessly, recalling a childhood retort. I approached an entry to the public area. Being seen by the general populace wearing the back end of the horse sans head gear was violating a tenet of my contract. I strapped the mustang’s noggin back on and tried to blend with the fans that were slapping my back and I did an impromptu jig to keep in character. I quickly ducked down behind a crowd getting their fill of $8.50 cups of beer before they were cut off at halftime. I had heard stories about drunken horse abuse prior to the intermission freeze. Beer showers, getting tripped, pelted with coins and foil wrappers.
This early in the game patrons wanted to buy me a beer. Within twelve seconds I got two offers. Someone else called out “Hey the horse wants a beer.” Another said “Charlie, let me get you a beer.” I nodded.
Others were delighted. “Hey, I didn’t know horses drank beer.” “Should you be drinking on the job?” One of the earlier proposers followed up on his offer and yelled up to the front of the line, “Somebody get Charlie a drink. I’ll pay.” They loved the idea of an intoxicated horse. They were also going to get me killed. Hiding in a horse outfit was difficult enough. With all the commotion, Luca spotted me and I saw him coming at me with the unstoppable momentum of a jackknifed truck being dragged by the trailer over a cliff. People moved out of his way or bounced off him.
The horse outfit is magical. When I wasn’t working I couldn’t meet a woman at a bar to save my life. None of my other seasonal jobs had nearly the same cachet. I loved being the horse. I never believed that pep talk when something bad happens, that things happen for a reason. Nothing happens for a reason, but my death warrant had fortuitously led to a charmed life.
I started to edge away from the beer customers. They called out “Where are you going?” “Back to the game?” Then to each other, “You know how much these tickets cost,” followed by more laughs. I looked at the card someone had handed me. It was for Alcoholics Anonymous. I threw it on the floor and began to gallop back into the stadium.
Living in a stall isn’t exactly a charmed life, but it was free which is nice. Until a few minutes ago I had felt smug that The Doler and others of his ilk couldn’t find me even though I’m at least on local television every home game in his town. That’s eight times in a 16 game season. More if they win home field advantage for the playoffs.
Coming down the stadium steps, a large cheer went up that at first I thought was for me, but all eyes were on the field of play. I looked up and saw Luca coming after me. I imagined I could hear him or feel his heft vibrating the stairs. Perhaps being a horse with limited vision made my ears and feet more sensitive, but it was probably just the crowd rocking the stadium. I stepped onto a small platform that separated the stands from the field. Stan Dolecki must have seen me coming and was walking down the aisle from one direction and Luca was coming at me down the stairs.
I could leap twelve feet down onto the field with the distinct possibility of breaking a leg. I had glanced at the scoreboard and we we’re already down. If Stan bet with his heart on the home team as he was known to, he could be having visions of future loses coupled with the vivid reminder that was me, of other monies he had lost.
I started an exaggerated strut and sent punches to the sky and those nearest to me reached out. I turned toward the field and let myself do a trust fall back into their arms. The crowd started passing me back over their heads. Games were no longer enough; teams had to borrow from other successful spectacles like rock concerts.
As I crowd-surfed my vision was taken up by a split screen of the sky and the Jumbotron. Play must have stopped and a camera searching for entertainment focused on me and I watched myself on TV pushing aside the sky.
Suddenly my legs dropped and then the rest of my body followed forward to the floor of an aisle I had already surfed over. From the cement pocket between the seats I looked up to see a woman texting in the seats behind me oblivious to my presence and next to her an elderly couple both looking apologetic, their facial muscles in sync.
In the row I landed there was a young girl about six holding her head crying. I had felt my calf hit her as I fell or maybe that was a seat back. The child’s father was holding his neck that had cushioned my fall. I rose to my feet and limped a step. Thinking, Shit, I hope I don’t get fired.
I tried to console the girl. “Sweetheart, it’s OK.” The guy I presumed was the Dad said “Get the hell out of here,” like a good father would. The girl reminded me of my daughter that I had left. I began to tear up, impairing my vision more than usual. I started to walk away and remembered I was lame. When my wife and daughter went into the witness protection program I had turned down, I wanted to show them it was OK not to be. Of course, I had known for a while it was anything but, for a family. My wife wouldn’t let me see either of them and I didn’t have much legal standing.
How was I going to run with a bum wheel? Then I felt a gun pressed to the side of my horse head and heard The Doler’s voice say “I’m going to put you out of your misery.”
While waiting for the shot, I wondered for a moment if my daughter had a new father that took her to games. I heard a shot muffled by headgear, crowd noise, and then only muffle.
(illustrations: john richen)