Truth and Lies and the Heart of a Bull
October 7, 2015 § 6 Comments
A guest post from Samantha Tucker:
Though I am only eight I know instinctively my grandpa is full of shit. I am a logical child, and I devour Nancy Drew and Goosebumps and write my own stories about Big Foot, but I pride myself on knowing when something isn’t real, is made up, no matter my visceral desire to accept the bizarre as truth.
I am curious but cautious, and when my grandpa tells me, “Sam—I saw a man rip a bull’s heart out,” I want to ask: Does the bull fall over? What does the matador do with the heart? What movie have you stolen this from, Grandpa? Why do I imagine the matador takes a bite out of it, the blood dribbling down his chin like juice from the reddest apple?
Like juice from the reddest apple.
The way he tells it, he is there in the arena, so close he’s nearly the matador himself. The embroidered jacket hangs heavy on his shoulders, the beads glittering, swinging like pendulums at each nimble flick, swish, of the capote, the marooned matador cloak; his shoulders reach like monuments, the thickness of the fabric accentuating his swagger, his dance around the arena and out of reach of the snorting bull. The arena and the bull breathe as one, deep panting breaths moving in, out, a steady swelling tide of air, of need, of hunger.
But the matador does not breathe. He has stopped breathing. He waits. The bull scrapes the mud off his hoof, a threat, a promise, the ultimate truth, and charges the man, this jowled, scowling, matador-by-extension, sitting across the kitchen table from me. Just as the horns reach him, he drops to one knee and thrusts his gathered fingers, his clawed fist, right into the bull’s chest. Now the crowd, the bull, they stop breathing, and it’s the matador who is panting, all white rage and triumph as he rips the bull’s heart out and raises it, dripping, to the sky—a new red sun.
Except, of course, that’s not the way he tells it—the way he told it. My Grandpa grew up poor on the streets of Pittsburgh, was bald for as long as I knew him, and may have never been to Spain. He was loud and ungracious, a ruddy Vietnam vet sporting a Pin-up tattoo on his forearm, an incessant talker, so much so that my grandmother began talking to herself to maintain sanity, her dam against his relentless stream of chatter. He was blunt in demeanor, but sharp in mind—smart and well-read, always reaching past his working class life with gruff, appropriated ideas (often prejudiced, always grandiose), holding court at his kitchen table, pontificating over his weary, loyal family. A bull’s heart, he insists.
But he’s not the only one bullshitting. The new red sun, the flick, swish—my words stand in for his, add shine, the story all mine now. My version of his version of whatever it was—tall-tale, embellished truth, outright lie, lifted from some book or movie. My version is embellished, too. He never described what the matador wore, did he? What if the beads were just glittering fabric? Did he even mention a crowd? What if the arena was empty because the townsfolk turned their backs on the aging bullfighter, because they refuse to see their legend undone?
Perhaps the last metaphor was a step too far. But was it his doing, or mine?
“Now, Sam, in my day the bullfighting wasn’t protested by all these tree-hugging, liberal crybabies. This was a sport. I’m telling you now—raised hand for emphasis—this bull was big. He had these horns! And that bullfighter was just waiting for him to charge, just moving around and waiting for him to charge. And I tell you what, when that bull charged, the man fell to one knee and he thrust his hand in and pulled that heart right out. Like this—raised fist with fingers bunched together in a single point—and just reached in and pulled that heart right out. Put it in the air so we could all see.” He laid his hand flat on the table then, patted the table once, to emphasize the end of the story and the validity of it, too.
This, the trick of storytelling, of inheriting and recording family histories—uncovering where the emphasis lies. I mean both lies and lies, both untruths and where the intentions land in finality. I could spend too much of time sorting the reasons my grandpa claimed stories that may have not been his. The kind of hard-scrabble life he led was more pained than adventurous—is it so wrong he made his life anew? Magicked so many fictions into biography?
He told many stories, most of them repeated, but I am near certain he only told us about the bull’s heart once, at the kitchen table, with the sun coming through the flowered curtains, my grandma bustling from the oven to the sink to the fridge, my siblings and I sneaking incredulous glances. Told just once, but this is the story endured.
And what of my own need to record and add a final flourish? Did you notice that change in verb tense, the desperate, italicized told? Grandpa died in March 2014. I’ve lost the chance to interrogate him about the bull’s heart. I don’t know that I would, anyway. At his end, the biggest, loudest man I ever knew shrunk. His stomach flattened, and he got so damn quiet. Our last Christmas together, not long before his first stroke, he stood, his stomach still rounded over his spindly, eighty-year-old legs, and bellowed a polka song over the shreds of wrapping paper: “Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun! Roll out the barrel! We’ve got the blues on the run!” We rolled our eyes as one, our family. Grandpa was a hard man to love, a man full of difficult love. He was telling us this was his last Christmas; he was antagonizing us. We didn’t correct him, though he dared us to. It turned out he’d been telling the truth all along.
Samantha Tucker is a Colorado native. She currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is a creative writing MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. Roxane Gay recently chose two of Sam’s essays to be among the first published on The Butter. Sam has also written for Guernica, has work forthcoming with Ecotone, and she recently graduated from the nonfiction MA program at Colorado State University. Sam’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Here, is ready for a publisher. www.theamericandreamstartshere.com