Big Enough For Slaughter

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.

“What is?”

“Your story about the cows.”

“My husband’s family lives on a farm.”

“Really?”

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 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.

“Do what?”

“Ruin everything.”

In the evenings, after work, the baby and I go for long walks. We go to the park. I watch him run around. He runs with the other kids, his head back and his smile wide. He has four pearl-size teeth. I hang out with the fathers. The mothers, apparently, are taking a break. But this is my time. This is father time, borrowed time, and I’ll take it. I’ll take every second I can get.

“How old is he?” one of the fathers asks.

“Thirteen months.”

“Cute,” the father says. “You know, it doesn’t last long.”

“I know,” I say.

“They turn into this,” he says and points to his son. “Jacob,” he calls. “Leave the water in the fountain.”

He’s rich, this guy. All the fathers are. The houses around the park are where the wealthy people live. I wonder what the fathers do for a living: if they work in finance or advertising. Their hair is textured and styled. They wear khaki pants and button down shirts, even in the blistering heat. They smell good, like sandalwood and cedar chips. Sometimes, I see one of them in a suit and start to salivate.

“You’ve come a long way,” my boss says during my quarterly review. “You picked up a few new skills, stepped outside of your comfort zone. You should be proud,” she says.

“Does that mean I get a raise?”

“Ha ha,” she says. “Funny.”

We couldn’t find a conference room, so we’re sitting in the lobby under a hanging sculpture of nickel-plated aluminum and polished steel. It’s supposed to represent the convergence of media. Something about abstract shapes and the combination of building elements. I look up at the ceiling. All I see are red and yellow blobs. They don’t mean anything to me: they’re just a series of multi-colored metals strung together with wire.

“What about your baby?” I take a sip of coffee. “How are you doing with this?”

“It’s hard, sure,” my boss says. “But what are you going to do?” She sips her coffee. “Sometimes, I lay down on the floor in front of the baby’s crib in the middle of the night. Just to listen to her breathe.”

For a minute, I feel sympathy for her. Then she says, “I’m moving you to the Sunday night shift.”

“You can’t do that.” I start smiling. I always do that when I’m upset. I’m sitting there in the lobby, under that awful sculpture, grinning like an idiot.

“We need to staff the site on Sunday nights from six until four. You’re the most seasoned producer. It falls to you.”

“Four a.m.”

“Yes,” she says. “Four a.m.”

That means I won’t be able to put the baby to bed on Sunday nights. I won’t be there when he wakes up. I won’t be there to comfort him or hear him or hold him. That means she’s taken the few hours I have with my baby and shaved even more of them away. That means she’s taken my heart and split it in two.

I get home and the baby is screaming. He’s exhausted and hungry. He flails when I pick him up, pitching himself over. His face is scarlet and his body is steaming. I strap him into his seat and rifle through the pantry, looking for something to feed him. There is pasta with butter, pasta with sauce, little spaghetti-o rings doused with high fructose corn syrup that my mother-in-law said I should throw out.

“Give him the spaghetti-o’s,” my husband says.

“Your mom says not to,” I say.

“What does she know?” he asks.

She knew enough to leave his father, I think. She knew enough that she needed to live the life that she wanted and it wasn’t on the farm. And even if I don’t like her, I’ll always admire her for that. For doing what she wanted to do with her life, no matter what anybody said.

I tear a piece of wheat bread into bite-size pieces and the baby eats them. He grabs the bread and stuffs them in his mouth. He stares at me, with his stunned face, trying to get over his tears. He looks like the calves do: wide-eyed, accusatory.

“I can’t keep doing this,” I tell my husband.

“Don’t start,” he says. Again, always again.

 

After dinner, we go upstairs. The baby runs a fire truck across the carpet. He colors in a book, large, cursive swirls in periwinkle. He gurgles and makes sweet noises. “Aiii,” he says. And “doe, doe, doe, doe.” And “dippity, dippity, dippity, die.”

My father-in-law calls.

“I need your help,” he says. “Now.”

We go down to the farm in the morning. The calves are out, in front of the barn, bleating. One of them, Triangle Head, falls to its knees. Its head swivels, like it’s being jerked on a string. A viscous, green fluid cakes the hair on its back haunches. It makes a sound. A sound I’ve never heard before. A low, mournful yelp. Then it stumbles and totters back to its feet.

“I need to get them into the truck,” my father-in-law says. He staggers around the yard with the Calf-Teria buckets. “Put these in the truck,” he says. My husband puts the buckets in the bed of the yellow truck. My father-in-law rounds up the calves, shouting, “Git! Git!” The calves buck. They lurch forward. They see their buckets, steaming, in the bed of the truck. I don’t think they will make it, they look too frail, ghosts of cows with sunken eyes and sagging skin, but somehow, they jump into the back of the truck. They rear forward on their wobbly legs and attach their mouths to the rubber nipples. “Swing the door shut,” my father-in-law shouts. “Christ.”

My father-in-law stumbles around the truck, pigeon-toed. He slams the driver’s door and fires up the engine.

“Where are you going?” my husband asks.

But my father-in-law is already peeling out of the driveway, a cloud of red dust behind him.

“Get the baby,” my husband says.

We follow close behind my father-in-law’s truck, my heart jumping every time the yellow truck stops at a traffic light. The calves lurch forward. They wobble from side to side when he starts again. But for the most part, they stay upright, nursing from their Calf-Teria buckets. We pass the train tracks and the old service station. There’s nothing else out here but fields and farms on either side. We follow close behind. The baby is cooing, “Da-a-a-a. Da-a-a.”

The truck’s left signal works, but the right doesn’t. My father-in-law sticks out his arm and hangs at a right.

I thought that maybe we were going to the vet. But this is not the vet.

 

A large man in overalls comes out to the truck. My husband unlatches the gate on the truck. It swings in the dirt. The calves step down. We watch from the car, the baby and I, with the windows rolled down. My father-in-law stands there, eighty-three, his white hair blowing in the wind. He looks crushed and small in the butcher’s yard. I wonder how long ago he stopped feeding the calves. If the buckets were too heavy for him. Or if he just got tired of it.

“I thought they would be bigger,” the butcher says. He spits something out of the side of his mouth.

The butcher slips a harness over each of the calves’ heads. Triangle Head fights him, but the butcher grabs his snout and slips the harness across it. My father-in-law hands out a wad of money but the butcher shakes it off. “You pay on receipt.”

My father-in-law scratches Triangle Head between the ears; he traces the square on the other one’s skull. My husband comes back to the wagon. He shuts off the radio and throws the car into reverse.

“Are we really doing this?”

“They’ve scoured,” my husband says. “They’ll die anyway,”

The butcher leads the calves to one of the buildings, the one with the oil stain on it. My father-in-law follows far behind them. I fight the urge to look back, but I can’t help it. The calves walk beside the butcher. He leads them, one in each hand, by their harness. They are slow but obedient, walking with their heads down beside him. Square Head’s tail twitches, white bristles against his soiled haunches. I wonder if they know where they’re going. I watch my father-in-law and think about the walk to daycare, where my ankles get wet from the lawn.

The baby chatters, happily, on the ride home. “Dippity-dippity-die.”

We go back to the routine. Pancakes and tea in the morning. The drop-off and pick-up at daycare. Bath before bedtime. Reading books and then throwing them on the floor. The baby goes to sleep, easily. We get up in the morning and do it all over again.

Each morning, I tell myself, “I can’t do this. I can’t keep doing this.” But I do. I do it again and again and again. I hand over my baby to another woman. I give away the one thing I want most in the world.

I don’t know how I can tell you that I rationalize it, but I do. Maybe it’s like my father-in-law with the calves. He tells us what happened at the slaughterhouse when he comes into town for dinner.

“So?” My husband says.

“They said I could go in the room and watch.” My father-in-law sips his wine. His lips are stained purple. “I didn’t want to watch,” my father-in-law says.

The baby runs up and down the yard, squealing. The sprinklers are on, there are three of them, and he runs up and down the yard, touching all of them in succession. He gets up close to them, puts out a hand and wears a pained expression. Then he runs away, laughing and screaming.

“They brought them out on hooks when I went back. They’d lost all personality,” my father-in-law says. He spreads his thin, papery hands. “But I could tell which was which.”

We sit there for a while. The baby runs down the brick walkways, slips and falls. I go to pick him up, dust him up, and he’s off, running again.

“I kept thinking about their eyes,” he sips his wine and groans like it’s being pressed out of him. “They had such nice eyes. Long lashes  Like a woman’s.”

“So,” my husband says. “Did you bring any meat?”

“It’s in the freezer,” my father-in-law says.

We drink the rest of the wine in the side yard. Night starts in the street with blue shadows, the sky still pink. My husband and father-in-law talk in low tones about something on the news. The baby runs up and down the yard, squealing with happiness.

“I bought two kids,” my father-in-law says finally.

“You didn’t,” my husband says.

“I did,” my father-in-law laughs. “For the baby.”

I leave them in the side yard to start my new shift. It’s quiet, dusk on a Sunday night, at the office. There are lights from the lobby and a handful of reporters, standing outside, smoking. I tell myself it’s not that bad. The baby will be asleep in two hours. I’ll get Friday off and we’ll spend the whole day together. I already start planning it. We’ll go to the park. I’ll bring the black plums that he likes, milk, fresh bread that I’ll tear in strips. I’ll get a large coffee at the shop. We’ll sit in the park and watch the trains go by. We’ll play in the sand box. Maybe we’ll go down to the farm and see the new kids.

aqrBefore I left, I found the bag my father-in-law brought in the freezer. He must have thought we would want it. It had a label on it in cursive script that said “Hearts.” The bag was bloody and dark, the atria and ventricles frozen solid. They looked like grapes. I left them in there, at the back, where I know that I can find them.

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 Many thanks to Alaska Quarterly Review for originally publishing this story in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue.