Out to Pasture
IN MY THIRTY-SIX YEARS, I’d traveled all over the great state of Oklahoma, but I’d never ventured as far as Gene Autry. Then one day I was with my brother Lance and his girlfriend Claire and this cousin of hers, Alice, who’d come along for the ride. We were just out driving, which was something we liked to do in those days, and there it was – Gene Autry – with a fifty-foot picture of the cowboy himself, up on a sign by the side of the highway, about fifty miles south of Norman and not much further north of Red River and the Texas state line.
First of all, let me say that unless you’re a landscape painter with a feeling for desolation, there’s not a hell of a lot to catch the eye in Gene Autry, Oklahoma. Or in the entire rest of the state, for that matter. Just a lot of prairie grass, the occasional oil well, and every now and then some bump in the road that passes for a hill. Gene Autry was so small, they didn’t even have the obligatory Love’s truck stop at the end of the exit ramp, just this dinky little Mobil Mart with all of about two gas pumps out front and this old guy smoking a cigarette by the door, like maybe he’d be just as happy if the whole place went sky high. Lance wanted to keep going – across the street, up the on-ramp, and back into the southbound lane on the 35 – and Claire was with him, of course. They wanted to cruise down to Dallas, maybe hit one of the clubs, score some ecstasy and go dancing. But Alice – well, for whatever reason, she wanted to stay and check it out.
I’ll come right out and tell you that I had designs on Alice. She was wearing this skimpy little halter-top I could see most of the way down, and one of the straps kept falling off her shoulder, so I could admire the white stripe it left on her freckled skin. She had this chipped tooth up front that showed when she smiled, and I don’t know why, but I find that kind of thing sexy. She was getting pretty giggly after three or four Lone Stars, and that didn’t help matters, either. And seeing as I was the only one of us besides Claire who actually had a job, seeing as I slaved away night and day at Davey’s Feed and had footed the bill for this entire expedition and would only have to shell out to fill the tank so we could get back to Enid, my vote counted twice. I broke the deadlock. My better wisdom prevailed.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the passenger’s side mirror as we turned off onto the state highway and headed in the direction of what was euphemistically called downtown. The sky was clear and blue, going to a lovely eggshell color over the low purple foothills to the north, and gravel lanes cut across the fields to the groves of poplar trees and ranch-style bungalows standing back from the road. Lance stepped on the gas and took it up to sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour, and that Nirvana song they’d been playing on the radio for the last ten years got drowned in the wind. It’s not that I was ugly, but only a certain type would go for me, and I knew that. Lance was the blonde-headed, clean-shaved one, a real California type, with a jaw and cheekbones that could have done commercials. Me, I was the swaggering Okie – too much forehead, not enough eyes, with a brutal kind of glowering look I couldn’t seem to do much about. My father’s legacy, I guess. Lance took after my mother’s side, on account of which he was often whipped as a child, but he’d long since begun to reap the rewards. He’d picked Claire up at this rib joint called the Two Frogs, where she waited tables Friday and Saturday nights. She had this hourglass shape that made me half-crazy, and she wobbled just about everywhere when she walked. With a lewd wink, Lance would assure me that she was a natural redhead. Sometimes I was jealous of my kid brother, but then I’d remind myself what my mother always said, that God had made each of us with His own better plan in mind, and that if Lance was the ladies’ man, then something better was waiting for me down the line.
Anyway, I was riding up front with Lance, and the girls were sitting in back, giggling and whispering to one another in a way that made my ears burn and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end, when Lance hit the brakes coming around a bend in the road and brought the jeep sliding to a stop halfway across the oncoming lane. Claire plowed into the back of my seat. Alice screamed. I just about put a dent in the dashboard with my jaw. “Shit,” Lance shouted, and as the tires squealed, I smelled burning rubber, spilled beer, and the unmistakable odor of cow dung. When I looked up, the corner of our bumper was about two feet from the side of this massive Holstein.
We all just sat there for a moment, hardly even breathing, while Claire clung to the back of my seat, and a stray strand of Alice’s dirty blonde hair fluttered next to my shoulder in the breeze, and the cow slowly turned its head and studied us through the windshield, blinking its placid brown eyes and chewing its cud. If I hadn’t known from experience just how stupid those creatures really are, I’d almost have thought it positioned itself there deliberately, halfway across the road, in order to better obstruct traffic. All the same, this one was beautiful, with lovely asymmetrical black and white markings that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle on its sides and funny cream-colored spots between its eyes. It chewed, spat, chewed, and stared at us some more. It mooed once and tossed its head, so that I could see its black tongue, all slick with mucus, sliding around inside its mouth. It brushed a fly away from itself almost tenderly, with a loving flick of its tail.
Now my brother’s always had a temper. I was always bailing him out of trouble, even as a child. When you got right down to brass tacks, I was the gentle giant, and Lance was the hothead, and most of my reputation as a brawler owed to the fact that I usually ended up finishing what Lance started – that, and, as I’ve said, I had this mean look I couldn’t do much about. But there was something in Lance, this hair-trigger thing that just went off sometimes, and here was the perfect illustration.
Lance leaned on the horn and waved his arms at the thing, but it didn’t budge. “Come on,” he screamed, and he hit the horn again and waved his arms some more. “You stupid fucker,” he shouted, as if the cow could somehow understand him better if he insulted it. He threw the jeep into gear and backed up a few feet, so we were facing the side of the animal dead on – I thought for a second that he intended to try and run the thing over – but then he seemed to think better of this, and he killed the engine and climbed out of the jeep instead. He was wearing a tee-shirt, dungarees, and a pair of shit-kickers with steel caps in the toes – his cow-hand look, he liked to call it – all of which belied the fact that if there was one thing Lance wasn’t cut out for, it was work. The last time that boy held a job for more than six weeks, Reagan was still in office, and Lance was saving up for a limo so he could take little Laura Price to their senior prom and boink her in the back seat. No, Lance had no taste for work, and it was only a steady stream of girlfriends and my mother’s infinite patience that had kept a roof over his head and food in his belly all these years, not to mention my own sacrifices. My father had more than his share of character flaws, as I’ll be the first to admit, but if the old man hadn’t kicked off, Lance would have had to start fending for himself a long time ago.
Lance stalked around the front of the jeep, got behind the cow, and shoved with both arms out in front of him, like he was trying to push somebody’s car into their driveway. The Holstein looked over its shoulder and mooed again, showing me another sliver of slimy black tongue. It flicked its tail, like it was trying to shoo Lance away, and stomped one hind foot testily on the asphalt. In the back of the jeep, Claire and Alice started giggling, and I don’t know why, but something about that bothered me.
Lance put his shoulder into it. He leaned right up against the cow’s posterior and threw all his weight against the creature, gritting his teeth and cursing. He took a step back, swung at the cow’s rump a couple of times, and just about lost his balance. Then he started screaming at me.
“Well, don’t just sit there and watch, you big ape. You fucking asshole, Larry, get out here and help me.”
This induced fresh peals of laughter in the girls, and I felt my ears and the back of my neck grow hot. But I’d long since become accustomed to Lance’s temper, and I’d more than once been the target of it, so that isn’t what got me. And it wasn’t the sight of a grown man trying to wrestle a five hundred pound heifer out of the road when there was more than enough room on the shoulder for us to drive around. No, it was something in those milky brown eyes, something about the way that cow turned its head and stared at me through the shadows the trees made on the windshield, and the hazy, late afternoon sunlight fell through the branches of the poplars and dappled the roadway, and the clouds moved slowly across the sky. We’d spent the afternoon swimming up at Turner Falls, and maybe the sun had baked my brain in my head, or maybe I’d just had one too many of those Lone Stars. Whatever it was, I couldn’t move. Instead, I found myself staring into that Holstein’s eyes. They seemed to recede to an infinite depth, and I felt myself plunging into them, like I was falling from a great height onto the world’s largest feather bed, and something clicked almost audibly inside me.
I smelled the methane almost as soon as I heard the farting noise, which was followed immediately by a wet plopping sound, and there was Lance, standing right behind that cow, buried just about up to his knees in a fresh pile of dung. My brother just stood there, with his nose wrinkled and his fists balled up at his sides, too dumbfounded to do much other than stare down at his boots. The cow grunted in a way that seemed to suggest it was satisfied with itself. The girls were silent for a moment, and then they burst out laughing, a dry, throaty rasp that made me think of lizards in the desert. And maybe that’s what set Lance off – the fact the girls were laughing at him – or maybe it was just that thing inside him that came bubbling up at the worst of times. But he changed then, right before my eyes, and he started laying into that cow like I’d never seen him lay into anything before in his life.
Lance kicked the cow once, hard, on the side, and the cow threw back its head and mooed. He kicked it again, right on the flank, and the shit on his boots splattered the side of the cow and the front of the jeep. I flinched reflexively as brown flecks of shit from the heel of his boot sprayed across the windshield. The cow bellowed and stomped its hind legs, but still it didn’t move. It was a contest of wills now. Lance stood up on one leg behind that creature and kicked the side of it again and again, but it wouldn’t budge. So he started kicking it in the belly, bringing his steel-toed boots up between the cow’s hind legs and into its udder. And that did it. That poor, stupid creature finally moved, but it moved backwards. It backed into Lance, so that he fell over in the road.
It was right then I thought about what my mother used to say – about God, and how He had His special plan for each and every one of us. I thought about how she used to tell me that I’d find the right woman, that special woman, who would appreciate me for my virtues, and I knew that wasn’t true, either. Maybe it was something inside me, but that certain type that went for me – well, that wasn’t the type I’d ever wanted. And as for the type I did want? I listened to Claire and Alice falling all over themselves in the back of the jeep, holding onto each other and busting their guts laughing, and I didn’t know if I wanted that type anymore, either. What was a cow to me – to any of us – after all? Just so much hamburger. Just so much red meat. What would we do with all the cows if we didn’t eat them, I’d often wondered. God knows, they weren’t the loveliest creatures, and I’d been cow tipping enough in my time to know that they couldn’t exactly fend for themselves, even if this one was doing a pretty good job of it.
I climbed out of the jeep. I had this tattoo on my arm, a little mug of beer with foam dripping off the top that people told me looked like a caterpillar, and maybe it was the sunburn on my biceps from basking all that afternoon, but it seemed to sizzle. Fifteen years I’d had that thing, and if I could have afforded the laser surgery, I would have had it burned off a long time ago, but now it itched like I’d just got it yesterday. Not a day in my life had I spent in the gym, and my arms were as big around as most men’s thighs, my brother’s included.
Lance was lying flat on the seat of his Wranglers in the middle of the road, smack dab in that pile of cow dung, and struggling to get up. The girls were standing in the back of the jeep, and they were cheering – they were actually cheering him on. Alice gripped the roll bar with one hand and shook her can of beer in the air with the other, so that it sloshed all over her arm. Claire was jumping up and down, squealing and clapping her hands, like she’d just won a brand new washer-dryer combo on The Price is Right or something.
The sloping, late afternoon sunlight painted the fields along the sides of the road a pale gold, and a lone oil well humped a dry hillock of grass off in the distance, moving in an odd, out-of-kilter synchronization with its shadow. I took one step toward my brother as he struggled to his feet, squashing cow shit under his boots. I reached out my hand to him – I’m not sure why – but he recoiled, falling back onto the asphalt, as if in horror. The girls’ giddy laughter reached a fever pitch, and then they were screaming.
“Get him, Lance, get him,” I heard Claire.
Alice whooped while she throttled the roll bar, rocking the jeep so hard, I could hear the shocks groan.
As I stood there, with my hand reached out to my brother, not knowing whether I intended to help him to his feet or beat his brains into the pavement, he rose up from his haunches and caught me around the midriff, knocking the wind out of me and lifting me up off the road. I dropped all my weight onto his back, but his feet stayed under him, and the pair of us tottered from side to side like a couple of autistic kids trying to square dance while our feet slipped in the shit in the asphalt, and Lance pummeled my ribs. I fought him off, but he tugged my shirt up around my shoulders, so I couldn’t move my arms.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Claire climb down from the jeep, holding onto the roll bar and lowering herself to the asphalt like she was climbing into a swimming pool. Alice followed her, pinching her can of beer almost daintily between a thumb and a forefinger. The cow bellowed plaintively, striking a high, lonesome note. A dry, hot wind blew up out of nowhere, and it stirred the tops of the trees.
And before I knew what was happening, Claire leapt onto my back, and she was yanking on a fistful of my hair, gouging me in the eyes, and spurring me in the flanks with her little blue Keds, while Alice kneed me in the belly and upended her beer, dumping the foamy backwash over my head. I swung my fists blindly, trying to extract my arms from the sleeves of my shirt, striking Lance or maybe one of the girls across the jaw, but everything was happening too slowly, and I felt like I was melting. I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. When I bellowed, the noise I made was incomprehensible to me. I looked up at the fluffy white clouds, at the pearl blue sky, and felt the jolt of the cattle prod. I saw the slaughterhouses with the steaming carcasses swinging on hooks, dripping shit, guts, and blood. I reached over my brother’s shoulders for his belt loops, but the seat of his pants was slick with shit, and I couldn’t get a grip. I tried to wrap my arms around his neck, but I slipped on the cow shit in the road and tumbled to all fours. I opened my mouth, but all that came out was, moo.