Yeah, so, they give us these little bathroom breaks every hour or so, cause it’d be a real shame if Rudolph Hornblower, the dancing Rhino, pissed his fluffy purple dress pants in front of these little whiney-ass children. Their parents, many in the death throes of potty training the little imps, would certainly be nonplussed.
It was that time again, so me and Rhonda Hornblower, who silently encased my buddy Dave, would smile (always the same flat, toothy grin) and wave at the poor souls who would now have to wait in amusement park purgatory for fifteen blistering, immobile minutes. I always felt sorry for Jimmy, the poor old sap who worked the line, trying to be firm and cheery at the same time, delivering the bad news.
“Okay, everybody, thanks for your patience. The Dancing Rhinos are so happy to see all of their favorite little fans. We’re just gonna take a short break so Rudy and Rhonda can get a quick drink.”
Man, I loved that part, seeing contempt and despair simultaneously ooze down the faces of those sweating, irritated parents. This was when the parents and the children switched places, the grownups pouting and the children trying to cheer them up.
“Don’t worry, Daddy, it won’t be that long. I’ll be real still.”
I did feel sorry for the kids, though, because some of them were pure, selfless in their devotion to the caped, purple-bedazzled Hornblowers.
This was when the parents and the children switched places, the grownups pouting and the children trying to cheer them up.
Rudy and Rhonda had been created for daytime children’s television to educate children, in a fun way, on the dangers of animal extinction. It’s all happy and nice, comes at it from a preservation side, you know—positive—donate, raise awareness, etc., but I like to research my acting parts, so I dug a little deeper.
The real story is quite brutal, so the show has to seriously cut out the gore and violence, you know, the tranquilizers and bullet holes, the de-horning with axes. Most people think Rhinos are tougher than nails, but they’re easy marks for poachers. Black Rhinos are super aggressive, but White Rhinos (Rudy and Rhonda are White Rhinos—the most numerous and easily recognized) usually run from danger, but then stop when they get tired and need something to drink. But then they lose sight of the hunters and forget. That’s just the threat on the ground from locals, doesn’t account for the professionals who tranquilize the creatures by helicopter and then land, lopping off the horns and letting the animals die from drug overdose or blood loss while they fly away again, taking only the lucrative horns. It makes me sad to think of those massive bleeding hulks dying slow, then being torn apart by scavengers or left to rot. And I wonder about the lonely calves.
Well, enough on that depressing crap, let’s get back to the jolly theme park.
So, anyhow, on the Saturday of spring break, you know, the busiest day of the whole season, Dave and I were taking our three o’clock break, and I got a call on my cell. Now, I wasn’t even supposed to have it on me. I’d already been warned when it happened before.
See, one day it started ringing, and this crazy-eyed four year old with red hair and chocolate ice cream smothered hands started running laps around me, patting down Rudy the Rhino in all of the uncomfortable places, searching for the source of the screamed, repetitive, “Turn down for what?!” while his younger brother awkwardly head-bobbed to the muffled electronic warbling, “eh-eh-aah-eh-uh-ooh!” By the time the ringtone ended, the grubby little monster had smeared so much chocolate on my suit that it looked like poor Rudolph Hornblower shit himself.
So this time I ran to our private little crapper for characters and disrobed fast, hoping no one would hear the phone. I was out of breath and sweating profusely when I said hello. The voice on the other end was distant, as always.
“You still dressing up like a douche bag Rhino?”
I can only guess that Pops was mean so he wouldn’t feel.
“Yeah I do, Pops. Thanks for the annual telephone call; it’s always so nice to hear your voice.”
A long pause, and I was starting to get irritated, needed to pee, for real, and get a drink, you know, chill a second before going out to face the endless adoring throng of maniacal children and perturbed parents.
His voice was nearly a whisper.
“So, anyway, I got bone cancer, got it bad. Two months is all…”
It was like I’d been plowed by the Black Rhino, like I was in a protracted swirling tunnel and here he came—a long thunderous run, a thudding crash and two horns to the chest. I leaned back against the locker just as Dave silently walked in, and I was glad I’d been sweating, the moisture all over my face.
“Yeah, so, I just wanted to tell ya. All right then.”
Pops had a way of always avoiding everything, missing each tender moment.
It was like I’d been plowed by the Black Rhino, like I was in a protracted swirling tunnel and here he came—a long thunderous run, a thudding crash and two horns to the chest.
He never wiped a tear, never read a page, never threw a ball or came to watch a game. He ignored every real and imagined pain, letting mom do the best she could until she finally got sick of his shit and called it quits, took me far away, on a permanent cross-country road trip. That was fifteen years ago, and he’d seemed happy to let us go, hadn’t come around, not even once. No presents, no cards. Few calls, most of them a few weeks after my birthday or Christmas, to sort of apologize. I say sort of, because he never really said he was sorry. I guess making the effort to call was good enough in his mind.
And I learned to make it without him, without the strength or direction, the protection and kindness that a kid needs from a father. And though I hated him very much, I never lied to myself, pretending like it didn’t matter. I couldn’t change my life, but that didn’t mean I had to act all Zen about getting screwed by the guy who should have loved and cared for me.
And I always hoped for something, the smallest grain of good.
Not enough time, even if he wanted to try to make it right, and clearly, he didn’t.
I leaned over, looked to make sure Dave wasn’t paying attention, and then took a deep draught from the flask I had secreted in my bag. Evan Williams, he was my daddy, the one who hugged and punished, who put me to sleep at night and then pounded my head in the mornings. I took some consolation from his wisdom that afternoon and then washed my face real good and popped in a Lifesaver. Can’t walk back out smelling like Rudy the Whino, right?
Anyhow, one of the good things about being an oversized cartoon character is that you don’t get to talk. I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to talk for days without crying, and frankly, I wouldn’t know the words. The other benefit of that giant Rhino head is that no matter how shitty you feel, no matter how disastrous your life becomes, you can and in fact do, always smile—one big, incredulous, cheesy grin.
So there I went, hand-in-hand with my buddy Dave, back to the anxious children and their tortured parents, to renew the happy and ridiculous farce. I trudged through, shaking hands, hugging, posing, and signing books.
I was fatigued, the terror of permanently incomplete closure looming, and Rudy started becoming lethargic. The line was moving too slow. Even Jimmy, the old dude who monitored the crowd, started urging Rudy to move a little quicker. Rhonda kept looking over with that goofy smirk, waving her arms in exasperation.
Then I heard it, the conversation between the man and woman and boy, maybe four families back. The dad was pissed, was just staring off in the distance, folding and unfolding and folding his arms again, huffing and puffing. Under his breath I heard him curse (by the way, Rhinos can’t see shit, but their hearing is superb) asking why in the hell they should keep waiting in this forsaken line. The mother just smiled, patted the eager son, Bobbie, on the head. She spoke placidly, saying how much it meant to their boy.
Suddenly, a memory surfaced, circa six-years-old. I had a glove and a ball, my Pops was sitting in his La-Z-Boy, watching a Phillies-Mets game. I’m sure if I could fly back in time and see everything clearly, I might notice that Phightin’ Phils were getting their asses beat, and Jimmy Rollins had just dogged it half way to first base after a bad first-pitch swing on a low fastball out of the zone, the result not a homer as he hoped, but an infield popout, a bad play, a selfish play. I don’t recall any of that. I just remember wanting, more than anything in the world, for my Pops to go get his glove down from the top corner of his desk in his office. I asked and asked. If I was an adult, I might have seen the signs, understood that something inside him wasn’t right and that it was starting to boil, simmered a little hotter every time I called his name.
Finally, I guess my questioning blew his top and he leaped up, snatched my glove and ball. He marched outside, and I was a kid, so like, I kind of thought that even though he didn’t have his glove, maybe he was going to bare-hand catch or something. Naw, he chucked the ball in the creek behind our yard and tossed my glove on the roof. Didn’t even look at me. Just turned around, went to the fridge and grabbed another MGD, then sat back in his La-Z-Boy. Never spoke a word.
By now Rudy was a statue; I was drowning in a hopeless feeling, staring at little Bobbie. And he was staring back at me, concerned.
If I was an adult, I might have seen the signs, understood that something inside him wasn’t right and that it was starting to boil, simmered a little hotter every time I called his name.
“Hey, momma, is Rudy okay, he seems kind of sick or something.”
Then I heard the dad again, grumbling that I was an asshole.
“That’s enough, Will!”
The mom gave a sharp look while the family I had largely been ignoring moved along, and the unhappy family of three moved a step closer to bliss. The dad’s face was all red now, but he was silent, had been rebuked by the mom, who was clearly in charge. Little Bobbie was becoming a bubbling ball of happy. He turned to his father, and his face was shining, all sweaty and hopeful.
“Hey, Dad, we’re almost there, see?”
The dad didn’t look at his son or acknowledge him, but instead spoke to the mom.
“Sheila, I can’t take any more of this shit. When you guys get done, come find me over at the Wild Safari Brewing Company around the corner. I gotta get a beer.”
No one saw it but me. Not Sheila, whose eyes were following her husband with disgust, and certainly not Will, who was already gone. Bobbie was crushed, wiped a tear, set his jaw. He wanted to see Rudy the Rhino, sure, but he really just wanted to be with his mom and dad, to hang out for a little bit on his terms, in his little, simple world, where Rhinos get to dance and smile because there are no poachers roaming about.
They say the Black Rhino is aggressive, will charge any threat, has been known to pose a real danger to people on safari if they get too close. Will had gotten too close, had stomped on my wound, and my soul was breaking dark.
We all want to right things that are unfair, and I’m no different. The next family had moved forward, three bouncing little girls bearing pink notebooks adorned with smiling, twirling images of Rudy and Rhonda. They also had those big fat purple Sharpies.
The smallest girl handed me her Sharpie and I patted her on the head, walked off set, and followed Will around the corner to the Wild Safari Brewing Company. I, or rather Rudy, was all smiles.
Jimmy and Dave, well, you know, Rhonda, just stared after me for a second, didn’t understand that the dam had broken through, the sorrow was over the banks, and there was no turning back.
Will was putting back one of those fancy micro beers, a semi-hoppy golden ale or some bullshit. I guess he thought he deserved a break, had literally been pushed too hard, had earned the several dollar mark-up by his paternal exertion.
Rudolph Hornblower, the dancing Rhino, charged, attacking with the fat Sharpie until it exploded and bled purple all over the unconscious body of Will.
Then Rhonda finally reacted, ran over and pulled Rudy off poor Will quick enough to save his life, but not quick enough to salvage my job. Oh, well. Rudy was still smiling when security took him away.
And hey, don’t worry. That dull father is going to wake again. And when he does, maybe he’ll remember his son.
See, a Rhinoceros horn completely severed never grows back. But sometimes, when a horn is only broken, it still has the chance to heal, to grow again.