He didn’t feel the same way about being hurt that you or I would, that’s for sure. He treated each injury as an adventure.
“See this slash running down my leg? Got that last week at the demolition derby. Sailed clean across the hood. Just got caught on the tiniest edge of twisted metal buckled down from the roof. Gonna leave a beautiful scar, isn’t it?”
There was no talking to Cletus Van Paul, only listening. I should know. I’d been listening for twenty years.
“Bettsy, take this bandage off my forehead, would you? The bleeding’s stopped by now.”
I loved Cletus. For as long as he lasted.
Pain was the only thing that really fascinated him. He beat up his body in every way he could, on purpose, all day long. But he never got angry about it.
“Check this out,” Cletus said.
Then he dove headfirst out the window into a pile of garbage cans. At least this time the window was open. People came running, as usual. They were his audience.
“You okay, mister?”
“Never better. Thanks, friend.”
Cletus didn’t believe in life insurance.
He won a lot of prize money and got paid a lot by companies to do stunt work, mostly for ads. He took every crazy job they offered.
“Going over Niagara Falls in a Buick, tomorrow,” Cletus told the neighborhood kids. “Woo-hoo!”
Then he somersaulted down a concrete staircase to get to an ice cream vendor’s cart at the bottom.
Cletus had been examined by doctors to make sure that his pain receptors actually worked. All indications were that they did. He just never treated pain like it hurt.
“Bettsy, gal, you comin’ to that shrink with me?”
The first questions pertained to what Cletus remembered from earliest childhood.
“My folks never panicked when I fell down or got a cut. They said it was natural and made it a game.”
“What sort of a game, Mr. Van Paul?”
“See how long I would bleed. Play with the dead skin. Guess how big the bruise would be. They always said not to worry, my body would fix itself. And it always has.”
The doc spoke to me privately for a bit, when we were leaving.
“His earliest responses appear to have been conditioned such that Cletus associates absolutely no trauma with any bodily harm he should suffer. The man is a walking textbook regarding the profound influence of parental attitudes upon childhood behavior.”
“So what you’re sayin’, doc, is that his folks never taught him to say Ow! and cry a lot?”
“What if he goes too far and kills himself?”
“That would be something to see….”
They had pontoons welded to the side panels of the Buick so that it could shoot the Niagara rapids with Cletus aboard. The ad, ironically, would be for life insurance.
“Ready, set, go!” Cletus hollered.
And just like that, amid a cacophony of flashbulbs, he was headed downstream. He had a helmet on. But that was just for the ad. There wasn’t even a life preserver in the car.
Why did I love Cletus Van Paul? Because he was a boy wearing a man’s body? Because he loved me and never thought twice about it? Or was it just the simplest answer of all?
You couldn’t not love him.
The rocks bounced him around side to side.
The falls were dead ahead.
All of a sudden Cletus climbed out and stood on the roof.
That wasn’t in the script.
“Hey, Bettsy, look at me!”
I smiled and waved. Cletus got hurt if you didn’t. Emotionally, I mean.
The crowd gasped. The Buick tipped forward. And down Cletus Van Paul sailed, disappearing into the clouds of mist. Everyone held their breath. I didn’t pray or anything. I’d have achieved sainthood by now if I’d followed that formula from the start. No, I just watched and waited like everybody else.
Cletus came splashing to the surface, right on camera, cheers drowning out the next five minutes of life.
He sat on the deck of the rescue boat and poured the water out of his cowboy boots. The Buick didn’t make it.
“Boy,” he said, “wouldn’t that have been a cool death scene!”
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