Sunday, August 24, 2008

To Be Born a Cow

Two blackbirds are walking down the road. I’ve watched them go from Katie’s house, all the way down to Pearl and Eldon’s. They are walking right down the middle of the road like they own the place. Not one car has come. I don’t get a lot of traffic on this road. Two birds couldn’t have walked far down the road in New Jersey without a car coming, not even on my little country lane.

Behind them, cows are crying. They are penned up in the back of Eldon’s barn, having just been weaned from their mothers. They didn’t cry all night long but this morning they started up. It just hit them. Their mothers are not coming back. Maybe they can hear their mothers calling them from the pasture down the road. It sounds like my metal garage door scraping on the asphalt driveway when you open it. I bet they are getting hungry. Eldon is not going to rush out there and give them some grain like a human would soothe a human baby with a bottle or a pacifier. He’ll feed them when it’s time. He takes good care of them. But still. They’re cows. When they go to the livestock sale, they might not eat all day. There will be long periods when no one will feed them. When they get loaded onto metal tractor trailers and taken across country to the slaughter house, crowded with other calves they don’t know, stepping on each other, peeing on each other, they won’t eat. The killer buyer is not going to pull over into some truck stop to feed and water all the crying cows. What’s the point? He is taking them to be slaughtered. I imagine we have laws about it, about how long a cow can go before he has to be fed and watered but I don’t know.

This is the part where if I was telling this story out loud to someone, they would make a joke about steak. They put on a good front. But the truth is, they are uncomfortable hearing my tale of peed-on sobbing baby cows but they won’t admit it for fear they’d have to stop eating meat if they showed any feelings.

The boy cows are the saddest. They get killed sooner. You can’t keep a bunch of bulls around. The girls, called heifers, are sometimes kept to have more babies. They will live for a few years. But not very long. I asked Pearl how long she keeps the girls and was surprised and disappointed that it was not very long. About as long as the life of a plastic lawn chair or a pair of Sunday shoes. But before that, they will cry for their own babies when they are taken away. I think, how unlucky, to be born a cow. How unfair. Just because you are a cow, you have to go through all this sadness.

In the old days, when I heard mooing, I would think, oh, how nice. Now I know what they are crying about. I hear screeching metal doors and terrible heartbreak when Eldon moves the cows around.

I feel like a traitor with these cows. I can’t complain. I am the reason they suffer like this. I eat them. I can hardly look them in the face anymore, I feel so guilty. I send Kelly over with bread, heels leftover in the plastic bags, stale hamburger buns. She feeds the mother cow who just had twins and is penned up right next to our garage. The mother cow has a tongue that is long and purple. It is the color of a Chow’s tongue. Real pretty. It hooks the bread and she pulls it into her mouth and licks her lips. The purple tongue touched Kelly’s hand. She said, “It’s soft Mama.”

I can’t think too much about the cows. I didn’t realize how sad it was.

The blackbirds fly up onto the top of Eldon’s split-rail fence and then they jump down into the field for something interesting in the grass. They don’t know how lucky they are, born a blackbird.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The War Zone

Every morning when I go out onto the porch with my coffee, it looks like a war zone. I have to pick up the broom and sweep all the bodies away. Waspy looking things. Funky things with pinchers. Blue bees. Spiders. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t kill any spiders but Kurt keeps insisting I’m going to get bit. He says, “Okay then, but don’t come crying to me when you get a bad spider bite and you’re in the hospital with a gnarly infection up your arm and they might have to amputate.” So I don’t say nothin’ when he kills the spiders. I don’t kill them though. It’s kind of a compromise.

Then there’s the king bees. Kurt looked them up on the computer. They’re really Japanese hornets. But he calls them king bees and he’s got everyone calling them king bees like that’s really their name. Eldon, whistling, “Them there king bees are mighty pesky this year.” And Kelly’s friend, Heather, “Mrs. Van Cleave, I would have picked you more apples from my apples trees for your horses but there were king bees all over the place!” And Kurt’s boy at work, “I mighta coulda come into work but there was a swarm a king bees chasin’ me and I ran down yonder in the wrong direction.”

At any rate, he dubbed them the king bee because they put all queens to shame. These suckers are big. They’re about as big as a man’s big toe and they have a stinger like you wouldn’t believe. For some reason, they are dying to get into this house. They crawl up the window screens and stare longingly at my family eating dinner inside. They hang onto the edges of the door waiting for someone to innocently step outside for a smoke and then wham! They hitch a ride inside and they’re flying all over the place, crashing into my lampshades and denting the walls. They’re so big, the cat thinks they’re flying mice and he leaps up into the air, tries to bat them, twists and misses.

Kurt tries to get them before they come into the house. He is on his third electronic fly swatter. I admit, I broke one of them in a panic swinging it around blindly when a wasp kept coming after me. He broke the other one whacking it on the post on the railing. You don’t use them like a traditional fly swatter. You swing gently with no flick of the wrist and let the bug sort of float into it and get electrocuted of his own free will. Kurt and Kelly jump up and down with glee when one of them gets fried. Zzzzzzz! Then they examine the bodies. Sometimes they make me look. That’s how I know the king bee has a stinger like you wouldn’t believe.

I don’t know what the neighbors think, the ones who don’t know about the electronic fly swatter, when they drive by at night and Kurt is out there smoking and swinging. It looks like he’s got a tennis racquet and he’s hitting invisible balls. Sometimes he does something fancy. Makes a big loopy swing, seeing how many he can get at once. When he’s feeling really creative, he might attempt a swing from behind his back or under his leg.

In the morning, I get out the broom and sweep away the casualties.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

An A-ha Moment

Am I turning agoraphobic? Or at least becoming a dud? Because I don’t want to go anywhere. It’s not that I’m afraid to go places. Or even uncomfortable going places. After all the places I’ve been to, all the jobs I’ve had, there’s not too much that scares me. I can pretty much get along with all types—from biker dudes, farmers, police officers, accordion players, nuns, retired ladies who volunteer and Harlequin romance novelists, to hippies, transvestites and obsessive-compulsive CEOs who micromanage and have no sense of humor or conscience—I like them all and they usually like me.

Places don’t scare me either. I’ve been in ghettos, drug dens, roach-infested projects with caged light bulbs and five deadlocks on the doors, abandoned factory buildings, insane asylums, mansions, New York City penthouses, after-hours bars in the meat packing district, in cop cars, on stage, on TV, on a ranch in Oklahoma with tarantulas the size of kittens and on a roller coaster that hung me upside down until I thought my eyeballs were going to roll out of my head and I did in fact lose an earring. So that’s not the problem.

I guess I’m a dud. Because I don’t feel like going anywhere, even to do things that might be fun. Like to the Westlake Library the other night to hear an author I am interested in, Scott Loring Sanders, read from his book, “The Hanging Woods.” In fact, I was dreading it. Because I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay here on the farm and ride my horses, pick up rocks in the riding arena, even pick up manure, which is when I do my best thinking. I wanted to wash the red-and-white checked curtains on the kitchen windows, do the bills, paint the trim on the barn, write a story, or go out to the woods with Kelly so she could show me where she saw the blue lizard.

But I let my friend Becky (one of who I call “the writer friends,” though she is also a “horsey friend,” since she owns two of them, an over-lapper in the friend department), drag me to the library. If the author of “The Hanging Woods” ever heard this, I would hope that he wouldn’t take it personally because, in truth, I really wanted to hear him read and planned to buy the book and read it myself. I thought, if only he could come here and maybe read me passages from the old horse’s back. He could follow me around on Doc who is totally bombproof and wouldn’t care if there were disturbing and dark incidents even if they involved animals. Nothing much rattles Doc. Plus, he can’t understand English. I could work Bullet in the round pen while the author was reading and even deworm all the horses, Doc included. It would be a win-win for everybody.

But then all those lake people who came to hear him read, in their creased white trousers and open-toed sandals, would have had to come here and I don’t have enough seating. And the flies. Even though I have an electronic fly swatter (that’s another story) I don’t think they’d be happy about the flies. Plus I don’t have any bottled water. That’s one of those things I think is crazy, buying bottled water when it comes free right out of the tap. So I went to the library.

And I had a good time. I was a little nervous meeting the writer because authors are celebrities to me. That’s who impress me. I could care less about Lindsey Lohan or Britney and I can’t stomach Brangelina. One time I met Joyce Carol Oates. Now that was exciting. I still remember how she was older than I expected and how conservative she seemed, like a church lady or a school marm. It amazed me that such a savvy and disturbing story as, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” which was made into the movie, “Smooth Talk,” with Laura Dern and Treat Williams, could have come out of someone who appeared to be far removed from teenage angst and who, by the looks of her at least, couldn’t have known about sexual manipulation (or sexual molestation, depending on your tolerance). Of course, as we saw in the story, sometimes appearances are not what they seem and the mark of a great writer is the ability to create characters you think are real and stories you suspect really happened. I had to refrain from asking, “Is that you?” Because I know better.

At any rate, now I have another reason not to leave the farm. I want to sit on the porch in my rocking chair and read “The Hanging Woods.” But it is in line behind a few other books since I can’t stop buying them—I’m a real book junkie. And if I read them out of order of how I bought them, I feel guilty. So “The Hanging Woods” has to wait its turn. It is behind “Population: 485” by Michael Perry, a collection of essays about small town life and which I am almost finished with. I am also in the middle of “Writing Alone and With Others” by Pat Schneider. I always have a writing book going at the same time. After “Population: 485,” I have a couple of memoirs: “Candy Girl” by Diablo Cody, the writer of “Juno,” about when she was a go-go dancer, and “The Tender Bar” by J.R. Moehringer, both of which I was attracted to because I am writing a collection of short stories that is set in bars. One of those stories, “Onion Beach,” was published in “Mid-American Review” a few years back. Another one is out, submitted to a contest.

After the memoirs, I have “Flower Children,” a novel by Maxine Swann. Oh, and I’m not even including the horse books. Right now I’m reading, “Horses Behavin’ Badly,” because I always have a bucking horse on my hands or know someone who does. And we shouldn’t forget the magazines. “The Writer,” “Writer’s Digest,” all the country decorating magazines, the horse magazines and of course “O,” because that’s where I learn to be nice to everyone and to look for my a-ha moments.

A-ha! I can’t leave here because I have too much to read! That’s it. But sometimes I’m glad I did.

If you want to find out more about “The Hanging Woods,” go to Scott Loring Sanders’ website: