Sam Gridley's fiction and satire have appeared in more than thirty magazines and anthologies, in print and online, including Other Voices, American Short Fiction, Cimarron Review, Juked, and Amarillo Bay. A founding member of the Working Writers Group in Philadelphia, Sam offers free downloads of his work at Gridleyville.com, where he serves as the mayor, fire chief, and animal control officer. "Ranger Ringo" is part of a new novel-in-stories called The Shame of What We Are.
It was after the baby didn't come that Art got his cowboy suit. The tan shirt had pockets tilted like smiling lips, outlined with a dark red cord that his mother called "piping" though it didn't look at all like his father's pipe. Similar stuff ran around the collar and down beside the snaps, which were perfect milky white circles rimmed with silver. Bright flowers sewn on the front, along with lots of squiggles and loops, made the shirt stiff and heavy. The pants, too, were stiff with flowers and squiggles on the pockets and piping down the legs.
Along with the suit, Art got a dark red felt cowboy hat and a carved-leather belt with a huge buckle that looked like twisted silver rope. Completing the outfit, a pair of shiny boots stretched to his calves. On the outside of each boot, a horse reared up as if it meant to kick anyone who bothered him.
The occasion was Art's upcoming appearance on Ranger Ringo's Roundup, his favorite Saturday TV show. In a couple of weeks he would be part of the audience when the show was recorded, and maybe he'd get picked as one of the two kids who went on stage to talk to Ringo and his trusty trail dog Scooter. Dad had "wangled" the invitation, Mom said, through someone at the university. The date in April was circled on the 1953 calendar that Mom finally got around to hanging up in the kitchen.
It was good to go around town shopping with Mom but weird too because she got so excited. Like when he was trying on the cowboy hats in Shartenberg's: "Let's see this one on you. Such handsome braiding! Is it too big, buckaroo? Stand still a second. My gosh, he's ready to rassle wild broncos!"
"Cowboys don't rassle broncos," Art whispered in savage embarrassment, afraid other customers were listening. "They bust them so they're tame for the girls."
"Oh," she said. "Will you bust one for me then? How many pieces do they bust into? Is it messy?" She buzzed around him like a housefly, and when she reached out to adjust the hat her hands shook.
"Mo-om," he whined in protest.
"Oh look," she cried, "a blue one with a white star! Try this on, cowboy of my heart, hurry up, pardner, c'mon."
It took several hours, in four different stores, before Mom was satisfied with the outfit, and Art by then was fed up. Still, it was better than her lying in bed all day, which she'd done for weeks after she came home from the hospital where she lost the baby. Those weeks had been puzzling and tense. Art hadn't even known about the baby and didn't understand how it got lost. He supposed at first he might help find it, but then there were a couple of references to bleeding that made his spine quiver, especially since nobody said how or where that happened. He wondered if other first graders understood more than he did.
When she kept to bed all those days, he thought he smelled blood in the back rooms of the house. The times he stepped in her bedroom to say hi, the air was sour and salty. She lay with the blankets in a mess and three pillows wadded behind her neck. Her hair stuck out in oily clumps.
Each night Dad sat on the bed beside Mom to rub her shoulders, and he reminded Art to be quiet and keep the TV low because she didn't feel well. Drapes in the living room stayed closed. The whole house felt dark and creepy like the witch's music from Hansel and Gretel.
Dad cooked those nights or brought dinner home from a restaurant. But he didn't always keep quiet himself. One time he played the radio so loud that Mom came to the bedroom door and screamed for him to turn it down. Another time, doing dishes in the kitchen sink, he let a plate slip out of his hands and it broke on the linoleum. He looked at it a second, then grabbed another one and threw it down. Soap suds and splinters of china flew. Then another. "God—damn—useless—b-bastards! Cheap j-junk. I'll bust the fucking lot of 'em!"
When he saw Art skipping out of the way at the far end of the kitchen, he apologized. With one shoe he roughly herded the pieces into a pile, muttering, "What happened, happened, Artie. We have to move on. You know that. I know that. How long will it take her?"
In these circumstances, having Mom up and about was a big relief, even if it meant trying on a dozen cowboy hats. It was at that time, too, right after Mom started feeling better, that Muff came to live with them.
One evening after work Dad appeared in the kitchen with a thin blanket wadded in his arms. He made sure Art and Mom both turned to look at him and then, without a word, set the blanket on the linoleum. At once it started to move and Mom jumped. "Ohmigod!" she gasped.
A black knob poked out, which became identifiable as a snubby nose when the round head followed. Art ran to grab it, and in seconds it was licking his face, pounding paws into his chest, knocking his glasses, scrambling and swarming and snuggling.
"For god sake, Gary," Mom said from behind Art, "what did you—?"
"You need something to cheer you up, Linda. We all do."
Mom walked around to see better, at the same time reaching back to tighten her apron strings as if this were an unwelcome interruption to the business of dinner preparations.
"She's a purebred boxer," Dad boasted. "Three months old. Somebody moved out of town and left her at the SPCA."
"She? It's a female then?"
"Right, 'she' usually means a female. You've been wanting a little girl."
Mom's head snapped down and shuddered like Art's did when chalk accidentally screeched on his drawing slate.
"Oh, Linda . . . C'mon, I'm sorry, it's a joke. I know a puppy can't — Give her a chance, will you? We're all trying hard here."
Dad followed Mom to the stove and slipped his arms around her. Meanwhile the puppy snuffed their ankles, the refrigerator, the table legs, Art's hands, the back door, the garbage can (twice), Art's crotch, the mop in the corner and everything else of interest in a span of ten seconds before Art blocked her from running into the dining room.
"Is it housetrained?" he heard Mom ask.
"They weren't sure. We'll work that out."
Just then the puppy proved she wasn't.
In spite of this awkward start, Mom took charge of the newcomer, feeding her, setting out a water bowl, making her a bed of rags in a cardboard box and giving her a name: Muff, "because her coat's soft as a hand warmer."
Muff spent that night blockaded in the kitchen. The next day Dad brought home a doghouse for the backyard, and over the weekend he set up a "run," a length of wire between two trees with a long chain that rolled along it. Muff would soon be too large for the house, Dad explained, so she should get used to being outside; she'd grow a thick undercoat to keep her warm, but at night she could still sleep in the kitchen.
Each day after school Art would slip through the side gate into the yard to surprise her. However quiet he tried to be, Muff was yipping by the time he rounded the corner. Though the wire stretched a long way across the yard, she always wrapped the chain so many times around a tree that she could hardly move, so she did a comical little dance, bouncing in place and pawing the air. Art untangled her and set her free to chase a ball and slobber his face and roll on the grass.
"I've never seen such a bundle of raw energy," Mom said with half a smile. "It makes my head hurt to look at her." Mom sometimes sneaked her into the living room, technically off limits, and tried to convince her to lie quietly and have her ears scratched while Mom read a book. Within minutes, though, Muff would commit an act that resulted in banishment, such as jumping on the couch or dashing eagerly across the room to pee on the carpet. Mom sighed and scolded and waited a couple of days before trying again.
Luckily Dad wasn't home for most of Muff's accidents. He said puppies needed a lot of patience, but one time when she peed in the kitchen right next to his foot he yanked her up by the scruff of her neck and walloped her five or six times until Mom yelled at him to stop.
Preoccupied with Muff, Art didn't pay much attention to the days passing. The cowboy outfit hung at the side of his closet, where he looked up at it in the pale spring mornings as he grabbed ordinary clothes for school. He wanted to put it on again and yet he didn't. Everything seemed too different these days.,/p>
Suddenly, though, it was the Saturday morning to get up early and take a bath and dress in the stiff cowboy suit and drive 45 minutes into Providence. Mom fussed over details of his appearance, doing a little dance around him, tucking and retucking his shirt and licking a finger to smooth down his hair. Even Dad, who didn't usually notice Art's clothes, told Art he looked "spectacular," like a "one-man parade."
Inside the De Soto Art's feet kept kicking out at the seat in front of him although he tried to sit still. His fingers dug into the cushions. This was so wonderfully impossible it couldn't be happening to him, but he was so nervous his spine had gone rigid. When the car turned a corner he keeled sideways.
They left the car in a parking lot and crossed the street toward an ugly two-story brick building that didn't seem at all Western to Art. "We're late," Mom scurried, dragging Art by the arm. "Hurry."
Inside, a woman pointed them down a long green windowless hall. Art's boots clacked on the tile floor. Dad knocked on a door while Mom tugged off Art's spring jacket. A young man in a business suit peeked out the door and asked, "For the Ringo show?"
"Right," Dad said. He introduced himself and Mom and then swept an arm in Art's direction. "And may I present," Dad grinned, "Arizona Art Dennison."
"So glad to meet you, Arizona," the man also grinned. "My, those are some duds." Art blushed. Why had Dad made up that name?
"Are you ready for some fun?" the man asked. Art was too embarrassed to do more than nod. "Come right this way, please, they're about to get started. Mom and Dad, if you step inside the waiting room here, you'll be shown to seats with an excellent view."
Moving timidly now, Art followed the man to the end of the hall. The boots pinched his feet and the shirt cuffs chafed his wrists. They went through a double door with chipped paint into a high wide room. What struck Art first was the profusion of black circles and tubes and wires dangling overhead. Then the man warned him to step over fat cables underfoot. As they approached a set of low wooden bleachers already swarming with strange kids, Art had an impulse to bolt, but the man had him firmly by the elbow.
"Fifth row," the man said. Art had to climb over kids' legs to squeeze in at the far end, top left. The seat was narrow and rough and Art's knees bumped the back of the kid in front of him. His elbow jostled a blond boy in a checked shirt, who responded by coughing on Art. Somebody smelled like sausage.
Art hated crowds, but this would be worth it if he got called up to meet Ranger Ringo and Scooter. He'd tell Ringo about his own dog and how she zoomed around the backyard to catch a ball but didn't like to bring it back. He'd ask about Ringo's horse Mulberry, who sometimes appeared on the show. Sneakily (too shy to look at anyone directly) he sized up his competition and realized he had the fanciest outfit in the immediate neighborhood. Ringo would have to pick him because he looked so much like a cowboy. Art was proud of his mother for having selected the outfit and at the same time worried that he wouldn't sound like a professional cowpuncher. "Howdy, podnah," he practiced drawling under his breath.
Various grownups milled around up front, looking important. Lights snapped on in the black circles overhead, aimed right at the bleachers, and while Art was blinking a man stepped up and said he was Ringo's sidekick and would help them know what to do when the show started. He wore jeans and a shirt with pearl buttons. They were supposed to clap their hands, he explained, when they heard Ranger Ringo's theme song, and at the end they should stand up and cheer and wave their cowboy hats if they had them. "If you're chewing gum," he went on, "please get rid of it now." The blond kid next to Art took a big wad from his mouth and stuck it under the bleacher seat.
"Let's try it once for practice," the sidekick said, and suddenly everyone was standing up and cheering except for Art, who got jostled and nearly fell off the edge of the bleachers. He managed to get to his feet before the others sat down.
Now a big black box with a man seated behind it swiveled and aimed at the kids and more lights came on. Art's glasses filled with reflections. It was too hot in here. The blond boy burped without excusing himself. Oh, that's the camera, Art thought as it pointed right at him.
"Your parents and brothers and sisters," the sidekick mentioned, "are just over there," and he waved at a big space off to the right where Art could see adults filing in to sit on folding chairs. He couldn't spot his own Mom and Dad. "Let's show them how much fun we're having. Let me hear another cheer."
Again the kids rose in unison and yelled and waved their hands and hats, and this time Art was with them. The sidekick congratulated them on being a great bunch of cowboys and cowgirls (yes, Art noticed a couple of girls), and if they'd be patient the show would start in a few minutes. We'll be prerecording it, he said, so when you get home this afternoon you can watch yourselves on TV. Be sure to smile and sit straight when you see the red camera light come on.
A few minutes passed with the kids sweating and shifting. Some of the bright lights switched off. In spite of the admonition about gum, Art heard pops from a row below. Then kids started cheering and clapping for no apparent reason. Peering forward through the lights, around the hats and heads and shoulders, Art realized that Ringo himself had appeared. He looked smaller than on TV but wore the same white Stetson and Texas Ranger shirt with a big silver star-shaped badge. He waved a couple of times to the children but mostly talked with the grownups up front, with sharp gestures like he was unhappy about something. Perhaps he wanted the gum chewer arrested.
As time passed, Art had to go to the bathroom but there was nobody to ask about it and in any case it was too shameful to mention. He pinched his thighs together. He heard other kids talking and whispering but he didn't know anyone to talk to.
All at once it was happening. The bright lights came on again and Ringo stood behind a little L-shaped arrangement of lumber, which Art now understood was the corral fence seen on TV. The theme song played and they clapped and stood and cheered. Ringo talked to the camera, welcoming all the boys and girls in TV land. He did some rope tricks, making the lasso dance on the floor. "Who's our favorite cartoon hero?" he asked. Everybody yelled the name. "That's right," Ringo agreed, "it's Wrangler Rabbit!" and a cartoon played on a little screen propped beside the corral. (On TV, Art knew, you didn't see the screen, just the cartoon.) Afterward, Ringo stood behind a stand with a cardboard poster and talked about a type of chocolate milk that was mmmm so good and contributed to healthy bones.
It was time for the first choice from the audience. Another sidekick in a Western shirt quickly picked one of the two girls from the stands, and she sat on a stool next to Ringo while he played his guitar and sang a song about cowpokes on a dusty trail. He pretended he was singing for her especially — even winking at her, it looked like — but Art knew this was silly because there wouldn't be girls on a dusty trail. Scooter romped out on stage, wagging and happy, and the girl got to pet him and hold his leash. "What's Scooter's favorite dog food?" Ringo asked, and the girl told him the answer. Ringo stood by another poster and talked about products for happy pets while the girl came back to the bleachers. Art wondered why Dad didn't buy Muff the type of food Scooter liked.
More songs, more rope tricks (lassoing a post and a sidekick's outstretched hat), a short film about beavers building dams, and then the big part where Ringo and Scooter brought one lucky kid up front, talked to him about his family and favorite songs and had him lead the Ranger Oath, in which they all — kids at home as well as in the bleachers — put their hands on their hearts and promised to obey the law, follow the Golden Rule and respect teachers and parents.
The sidekick advanced toward the bleachers again, casting his eyes over the children. "Who wants to help with the Ranger Oath?" he called. Everyone shot up a hand, and some kids stood and waved both arms, which Art thought rude. The blond kid did that, but Art knew better; he sat straight and raised his right hand politely, glancing down in bashfulness. He shivered. It seemed impossible that he wouldn't be chosen, given his perfect duds and behavior, not to mention the fact that he knew the Oath by heart. As he stretched up his arm, though, the alarming sensation in his groin gushed up to his chest. Worrying about that, he failed to notice that another kid was already running forward.
Art blinked back disbelief as all the shouting, waving kids sat down. It was grossly unfair. The sidekick must not have looked at Art's section of the stands. The boy up front was too chubby, Art thought, and not even wearing a cowboy hat or boots. When Ringo asked the boy's name, he waved foolishly at the camera and said hi to his grandma and grandpa and his cat. Everyone knew cowboys didn't have cats!
Art despised that little fat kid. His jaws ached where he clenched them. Yet he was deeply relieved to sit here and mumble along with the Oath, rather than stand in front and try not to pee.
Art scarcely noticed the rest of the show. He coiled up on the ceiling among the lights, where he watched himself lean forward on his arms to press down on his lap. "Wait up everybody, hold the show, little kid has to pee!" he imagined the sidekick hollering.
Then the boys were clambering from the bleachers. Lights had switched off, and apparently they'd been told they could go to their families, because everybody was bouncing off to the right where the adults rose from their seats. Ringo had disappeared. Art stood and walked along the bleacher row and down the steps and woodenly followed the others, though he couldn't see his parents in the crowd. Had they forgotten to wait?
Then his mother was hugging him. "Was it fun? Isn't the dog cute? I had such a good time, didn't you? What was your favorite part?" Dad pinched his shoulder. "I liked the rope tricks best," Art muttered, though he wasn't sure that was true. He tugged at his mother's arm, made her bend down and whispered to her. On the way out a sidekick handed Art a paper bag containing an official tin badge and an autographed picture of Ranger Ringo, but Art was mortified when his mother spoke right up to ask about bathrooms.
Dad took them out to lunch to celebrate — a big restaurant on the main drag with soft chairs, white tablecloths and giant white cloth napkins. "Our son here was on television," he told the waitress. "Ooooh," she said, grinning at Art, "can I have your autograph?" Art didn't appreciate the teasing.
Mom was gabbling about this and that. Dad put his arm on the back of her chair, and she leaned into him, eyes shiny behind her glasses. Both of them smiled at Art, but he knew he had disappointed them by not being chosen.
By then, too, he was yearning to get out of his cowboy suit. The underside of the fancy stitched flowers irritated his skin. The pants stuck to his thighs. Wearing these clothes in a restaurant added to the embarrassment of being an also-ran, and when his turkey club sandwich with pink toothpicks arrived he took only three bites before his stomach grew hard and burps spread acid on his tongue.
The ride home was sad. Low-sailing clouds made the towns gray and dirty even though Mom commented on the budding bushes. "Look at the forsythia," she enthused. "I'm going to plant those in our yard. And roses. And a bed of peonies in back." Dad said, "Linda, that's great, but be careful not to overdo it, you know," and she answered, "I don't know what you're talking about. Can't I have flowers if I want them?"
At home Art quickly changed clothes and darted out to see Muff, who had choked herself tight against a tree. When he untangled her she knocked him over three times before he got tired of her behavior and chained her up again. "This is supposed to be a run!" he scolded her. "So run, don't strangle yourself!"
That afternoon Mom made a big production out of watching the show. She brought in popcorn and soda pop like at a movie. But all the attention was stupid because, as it turned out, Art was practically invisible in the crowd on the bleachers. He looked tiny and squished in the back row, his face hidden behind his glasses — really not like a cowboy at all. "Yay," Mom clapped when the camera caught a fleeting glimpse of him. Dad sent up a puff of smoke from his pipe.
Afterward, when Art looked out the back door, Muff had already choked herself to the tree again. "Stupid stupid stupid," he yelled at her.
In the following weeks Art seldom watched Ranger Ringo's Roundup. His new favorite was Kukla, Fran and Ollie, though he wouldn't let on to other boys that he liked a spotted dragon puppet with a single huge tooth. Ringo's photo and badge got buried in the bottom drawer of his dresser. The cowboy duds went to the back of the closet, and by the time they resurfaced Art had outgrown them.
In the fall of that year, Muff went into "heat" and they had to be extra careful not to let her out the gate. "She wants to meet a boy dog and have babies," Dad explained. Her bottom got red and bloody and when she rubbed herself on the hall rug it stank for days. Art wondered about babies and blood and found the whole matter nauseating.
Despite the family's precautions, one afternoon Muff chewed through her chain and dug under the fence and ran into the street, right under the wheels of a car. Art, reading in his bedroom, heard the tires squeal. Dad rushed her to the vet's, but returned with her empty collar.
"Nothing could be done," he said. "There was too much internal damage. I'm sorry, Artie."
Mom sat suddenly at the kitchen table and hid her face in her hands. "No," she murmured. "No. This can't. I can't."
From behind, Dad put both hands on her shoulders. Looking across at Art, who stood by the kitchen door, he bit his lip and shook his head slowly.
Art couldn't speak. His insides had changed to a ball of gas. He hid in his room to cry.
At bedtime that night, gingerly between two fingers, he picked up the collar from the chair where Dad had dropped it. In his room he shoved it to the back of the bottom drawer of his dresser, where, as he withdrew his hand, he felt the dull edge of the flimsy tin badge.