Big Enough for Slaughter
This story was recently published in Alaska Quarterly Review’s 30th Anniversary Issue, Spring/Summer 2012.
Big Enough For Slaughter
Alaska Quarterly Review
My father-in-law bought two calves for the baby. He won’t name them, which I think is a bad sign.
They are black and white bulls that he bought for thirty dollars a piece. The dairy sells off the males and retains the females for milking in the spring. He keeps them in the barn behind the house. He closed them in with fencing made from electric wire.
I used to try to make my husband go out there with me, alone, when we first got married. I thought the barn was incredibly sexy. But he didn’t like it and we never did anything in there. He prefers a proper bed or not at all.
The calves drink their milk in the barn. They drink out of galvanized buckets with rubber nipples and bright, cheery labels: Calf-Teria. Steam rises from the buckets. The baby plays in the hay.
“Show her the milk parlor,” my father-in-law says.
My husband shows me the milk parlor in the back of the barn. I was thinking of an ice cream parlor but this is a windowless stall with built-in levels that zigzag up the wall. It is dark and dirty with a drain in the floor crusted with rust. It’s where my mother-in-law used to milk the goats.
“I was beautiful when he met me,” my mother-in-law tells me whenever she comes to visit. They are divorced now. “But then he worked me to death.” Her face is carved with lines and looks like a side of a suitcase that’s been left out in the sun.
“This is Triangle Head,” my father-in-law says. “And that is Square Head.” He pets the heads of the calves while they nurse. They are bull headed and big eyed. Their eyes bulge, gelatinous and nervous. They make a steady, rhythmic clicking sound as they nurse from the Calf-Teria buckets. The baby throws the hay. He tries to grab one of the calves by the eyeball. The calves nurse: click, click, click.
“Aren’t you too old for this?” I ask. My father-in-law is eighty-three and pigeon-toed, lurching across the field with the Calf-Teria buckets.
“Did you see that?” he says. He points to the electric wire fencing running around the barn. It lies in dangerous, quivering spools on the ground. “I put that up myself,” he says.
I work in an office downtown.
“How was your weekend?” my boss asks on Monday. I put my lunch on my desk: a sandwich, an apple, a package of crackers, a bag of low-fat biscuits. Turn on my computer. Start the routine. She sits across me from me in an identical grey cube.
“That’s really random,” she says.
“Your story about the cows.”
“My husband’s family lives on a farm.”
We work for the newspaper’s website. My boss has a baby too, a girl that she never sees. My boss is at work when I get there. She’s at work when I leave. I go to meetings and I come out of them. I stare at the computer, at miles and miles of HTML code, a language I don’t really understand. It’s like staring into the abyss. I think about the baby at daycare. I think about him all the time.
“You can’t quit,” my husband said. “We can’t afford it.”
“But I want to,” I said.
“But you can’t,” he said. He’s a high school English teacher. He says we can’t survive on his salary alone. I’ve done the math. I’ve tried to figure it out. Stretch the money this way and that way, but it never works out. It never covers the basics.
The weather is turning to spring. The sky is the color of eggshells.
I put the baby in the car every morning, fix all his latches and drive across town. He holds on tight when I pick him up and carry him into daycare. He smells like angel food, dusted and sweet.
I walk across the lawn, the baby holding on to my neck, and get my ankles wet from the grass. The walk is the worst part, if you ask me. I walk across the lawn so that I don’t have to walk behind the other mothers. I watch them and think: How could you do that? Leave your baby behind? And then I go ahead and do the same thing.
I spend Saturday in the sandbox with the baby. We move the sand through our fingers. “Like sand through the hourglass,” my husband says.
He goes inside to turn on some jazz. There are coffee and black plums that we bought at the store. Even the baby eats them.
My father-in-law comes into town for dinner. We sit outside on collapsible chairs. He drinks all the wine in the house.
“I painted Picasso’s daughter once,” he says.
“You did not,” my husband says.
“I did,” my father-in-law says. “She wasn’t a handsome woman. She looked over her shoulder, like this,” he says. He stands up and bats his eyes, coquettish, over his shoulder.
He lived in Italy for the first three years of his marriage. It’s where they got married. My mother-in-law thought she was going to see the world. They lived in a small apartment off the Spanish Steps. Then she ended up on a farm in Virginia, milking goats.
“How are the calves?” my husband asks.
“Fine,” my father-in-law says. He looks at the street. “Do you all like veal?” he asks. Everybody laughs.
Monday morning, I’m running late. The baby throws all his food on the floor and pitches a fit when I try to put his arms in his jacket. He clings to my neck, tearful, when I drop him off at day care.
“Who’s being a baby?” Debra, our day care provider, says.
She reaches out her arms and the baby goes to her. He rests his head on her shoulder. She rocks him from side to side. There is a din of noise around them: kids playing, yelling, crying. Dora The Explorer is on the TV, shouting about something. But they are the silent center, my baby and the woman who watches him, rocking from side to side. He wraps his arms around her neck.
I walk into work dazed and it takes me the whole day to figure out, what am I doing? Who do I need to call? What’s going on here? Sometimes I’ll spend the whole day, inputting events into the calendar: festivals, concerts, sew ‘n’ sips. It is easy and mindless and stupid.
“Where is the package on farmer’s markets?” my boss says. “And theme parks? What are you doing?” she says. She is fast and busy typing. “Did you spend your whole day on calendar again?”
It took me a year to understand what “packages” meant. It means I’m supposed to write the content for the package. And the HTML code. I have to make tables, insert columns, close lines.
“Don’t you have a program that will do that?” I ask my boss, every time.
“You have to do it this way,” she says and opens up a whole page of code: brackets and back slashes. Just looking at it makes me feel sick. I don’t know how to write code. I’m a writer, but I was hired to work on the newspaper’s website. Which apparently means I need to write code and not sentences. I have books on my desks, little dictionaries, filled with the stuff, but I still don’t understand it. So I avoid it, do what I know how to do, type in more calendar events. Canoe Run Field Day. Half-off sushi and Wii bowling. Where do they come up with this stuff? They’re so hopeful and promising. Like a date.
“We could move to your father’s,” I say to my husband. To the big white Colonial on the farm.
It’s about an hour and a half drive out of town. Not convenient, but do-able. Some people have worse commutes.
“Don’t start,” my husband says.
“I can’t help it.”
We have the same conversation we have every Sunday night. We go at it in circles, pacing the same steps, working out the same circular logic.
“What do you want me to say?” my husband says.
“I want you to say you’ll fix it.”
“I can’t,” he says.
We tried living on his salary alone, once before, when I tried to make it as a freelancer. We were always short, always overdrawn, always on the brink of financial disaster.
“But I’m his mother,” I say.
“Are you really going to do this?” he says.
To read the rest of this story, please pick up the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Alaska Quarterly Review. AQR can be found at most Barnes & Noble bookstores or through the magazine’s website. Many thanks to AQR for publishing this story.