For hours I watched barns rust in deep grass and cornfields, scuffed beneath low clouds fumbling towards the ground in billowy crowds. Cows scattered along the hillsides behind wooden fences chomped and chewed, following one another to the best graze place. The Man didn’t mind the silence in my staring.
“They’ve got their own order. They arrange themselves exactly the same way each time.” The Man ground the truck gear to slow, skipping toward a trail of brake lights that began to stammer. I looked at a row of Holsteins walking steady up a hill to the very same land that lay on the other side as we came to a stop behind cars that stitched a seam between the hills. The biggest was weaving her hips back and forth in the middle of the line, a deep russet that limped a little as she stepped. I stared at the moving rank and ignored the chain of cars standing.
The Man turned up the CB, which grumped with tetchy men halted in the lanes. They mumbled with complaints about the dumbass drivers that crashed beneath a sudden downpour that caught them unawares without snappy wipers. The men muttered on.
. . .We got a clogged drain up here. Upturned car. Another one skidded off the road. . .
. . .I can’t get stuck. Anyone got a song? Daybreaker, where are you?. . .
. . .My wife’s waiting. . .Should I get her on the phone?. . .
. . .Stay on, Fisherman. Storms ahead. . .
. . .You stupid fucks, use the GPS. Mercury don’t need this shit - I’m a villain, I’m a rogue. I’m alone in this world with nowhere but the land I can call my own. . .
. . .You call that poetry? Get off the line, Maverick, move your squelch. Don’t come crying when that Samsung can’t warn you about a semen stained couch dropped on the 10, ten-four. . .
The Man turned down the CB to pacify the voices. I watched the clouds make twirly wisps and conglomerate beyond the hills. I wondered where those clouds were headed, made of delicate stuff until they collected in grey knots angry with lightning and thunder. I looked back towards the cows gradually stepping up the hill as if they had all the time to take while the clouds hustled against them and plotted.
“What about the fat one? Broken hip?” I asked questions that wouldn’t have been heard had the wind still been shoving through the window to tangle with my hair.
“There’s a reason she’s in the middle. The biggest are not the strongest who survive.” The Man twisted a knob on the radio and I listened to nibbled voices that clutched against the static. He came to rest on a station with an infuriated woman. I imagined her hair on fire, sending flints across the air to alight dried leaves and make the fields burst.
. . . And they lose, because they’re wayward! And they sit in a fury of their own making! Because they’ve crossed the line! It’s drawn in the sand; it’s etched forever from God’s unhindered time. . .
I watched the cow’s legs fumble. Was it a bungled knee or chipped hip that kept her behind? I tried to see which cow led the others, but the leader had already descended over the hill. I focused on the edges of the russet’s rump as it trundled on.
“The ranchers want them fat, which is one thing. The cows probably want another. It doesn’t matter, though, when they’re eventually led to slaughter. Size has nothing on survival.” The man tugged the pant legs of his jeans toward each knee to release the bunched constrictions caused by the driver’s springing seat.
. . .That is why we tell them to subdue the inside passions. . .We tell them, abstain from that which stains, creates what is unwanted. . .For doesn’t God decide the difficult behest, and goodness?. . .
“Which ones lead the rest if it’s not the fat?” There was a band of cows shambolic in the back, too lethargic to shove one another into their proper places.
“Who knows which? Who knows why? If I did, I’d teach about how those droop eyed creatures really live their lives. All I know is they line up the same every time, enter the barn meanest first, and at night they sleep side-by-side staring up at the circling stars, no escape until they die, turned to cheap fine leather. Boots. Jackets. Burgers. In our world, their ways don’t apply.” The Man jerked the truck forward and garbled a curse, having to stop again suddenly.
. . .Are they forgiven? If they ask for forgiveness, should it not be granted?. . .
I reached over to twist the fury from the knob, blurring the woman’s voice until I found someone singing about the lonesome way we cry. The strand of cars kept easing towards the crash, and I couldn’t keep watch on the lumbering chain of heifers. We edged nearer, disturbed by jagged, screechy stops.
“Sounds like me,” I replied. The Man looked over. I was running my fingers through my hair to untangle the mess made from the open windows.
“You sound nothing like that. You’ve got a fertile voice. Reminds me of being knee deep in soil, planting seeds that lengthen into thick, fat stalks.” The Man reached over to open the glove box for a melted comb with crooked, bitter teeth. He held it out to me.
“That’s not what I meant,” I said, thinking of cows pushed toward circular saws that slid behind their rolling eyes. I thought of bloody ribs and thighs parceled onto hooks later spitting grease above roiling flames, and the imagined smell made my stomach low with deprivation. I looked back at The Man’s grill perspiring behind his seat with speckled fat. I grabbed my bag and reached for a jar with peanut cream and scooped a dollop onto my fingers. I licked the balm that spread along my palm before screwing on the lid and shoving it back.
“We’ll stop as soon as we get beyond the wreckage. You two must be hungry. Should we stop for steaks? Celebrate?” The Man grinned beneath the beard that fashioned him a philosopher.
“Your new life.”
We were moving faster towards the source of the disruption. On the side of the road, a car turned over like an upturned bug waiting for the broom.
Once, when I was little, a cicada fell from the tree, one leg twitching in my palm as I examined the luminescence of its underside. I held it and watched it glitter oil slicked rainbows in the sunlight. It dazzled a blackbird that swooped down and plucked it from my hand. I watched it shimmer and flash in the bird’s beak before they both blipped out of sight.
We inched closer to the crash. Paramedics and firemen were pacing, their arms folded across their chests. In the upturned car, a man was hanging upside down from a belt still and unmoving, a pair of glasses dangling from his ear and refracting a prism of blue and purple onto the wheel. I blinked rapidly and watched the colors shimmy like the underbelly of the shrill cicada, a shell it would have shed when it tightened had it been given time to grow.
“No need to lollygag. He’ll be all right. He’s deep in thought.” The cars ahead began speeding along a still darkened road ready to be dried by shafts of light that would awaken the damp wildflowers. The man pushed hard on the pedal and we thrust forth.
“I bet you’ve seen worse,” I said, imagining the wreckage and wrack piled along the roads’ sides.
“Maybe I have. Maybe you have. Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you back? Maybe you’re having second thoughts and want to talk to the father? I’ll be heading along that route again soon. I can always carry you.”
The Man tugged at each pant leg again, pulling the jeans toward his knees one by one. “I do like the company. All’s I’ve got usually are the guys yelling and singing along the line, those who won’t use their phones, anyhow. How we stay connected is old and gone, some say useless. To each his own.” The Man rolled down his window and the wind began violently pushing my hair around again. I roped it around my fingers and wrapped it against my neck to keep it from swatting me in stinging little whips. Right now the fist-sized ball in my belly was like a damp sock easing to a stop after a terrible, winding spin.
I wished I could still see the cow with the lumbering gait, watch how she joined her rickety jaunt against the lumbers of the rest, and I wished I could see what happened when they finally made it home to the welcoming red barn doors.
The Man erased the voices on the radio. “The ones who use their phones still get lost all of the time. They should get back to the old CB. Do you mind?” The Man reached toward the dial, desirous of the back and forth, although I wanted to listen to more songs on the radio about the lonesomeness who died.
. . .Moving along just fine, Doughnut. . .
. . .Anyone heard about what oceans do when the seas are about to part?. . .
. . .What do you say, Mosey?. . .
. . .They wave. . .
. . .Dumb ass. You eight years old, or what?. . .
I remembered a time when I was young, busy drawing circles in the dirt before scooping the mud into lumps I would form into a family. I’d let the clods dry and crack like old people’s skin and then throw them into the swamps to dissolve back to where they came from. I flung them out and watched hunks speckle the sky as they separated in flight. I’d throw the biggest first, and the smallest I’d save for last because they made finely scattered trails as they whipped across the sky.
“I’m glad you decided to come along,” The Man said. “I think you’ll like staying with me and Joanna. She sews things. When we almost had our own she made tons of booties, bonnets, sweaters. They’re piling up in the attic like spider webs and she won’t let me get rid of them. It’s her soft heart. Just don’t ask her about it. She’ll come round to dragging them down once she gets to know you. When the topic comes up sudden, she holds up in a stupor. It’s no good to surprise her like that. I surely learned that lesson.” The Man bit the edge of a fingernail that was halfway falling off. He ripped it from its bed with a pained face and spit the jagged moon toward the window. It landed against the glass and he swerved the truck a little as he poked his finger at it before wiping it against the window’s open top. Tiny raindrops began forming flower shapes across the windshield and The Man rolled up the glass to keep the drips from splattering onto his lap.
“I won’t say anything,” I said, planning not to talk much. I had already lied to The Man about the father, as if we were just fighting until he noticed his baby’s shared eyes. I couldn’t tell The Man that I had no way to find him. I couldn’t tell The Man about how my own father had sent me away to the place of new beginnings to deliver a stain no one would know about back home. I couldn’t tell The Man how all I knew was to run, run away, that it was too late, that it had been too late before I knew it, and that it was mine, had always been mine. These thoughts shuttled around inside.
“Do you know if it’s a girl?”
“There may be more than one.” I don’t know why I amplified. I guess I was thinking of myself along with the budding lump that enjoyed dizzying itself more and more as time went by.
The rain was pouring harder, battering the windshield, and the sound muffled the men on the CB who were busy “woo woo’ing” like a pack of dogs. The windshield wiper swiped at the rain in vicious swings. Everything was dripping and grey.
“You think you got more than one snuggled up in there? Joanna’d love that. She loves to baby. You should see her with her sugar gliders.” We began to ascend a hill, and the truck slowed down, hulking up the road while cars whizzed dangerously past. Another truck came climbing fast behind.
You’d better move that ass. . . Is that you, Philosopher? Damn, Dan The Man? It’s been a long time . . .
The man picked up the mouthpiece of the CB, which sat in his hand like a smudged ant head.
“DingleBerry, that you? Where’ve you been all my life?” The Man rubbed the mouthpiece on his shirt, wiping away the grub to give the ant’s skull a little shine. The smell of mouthy saliva hovered in the cab
. . . .Take it off line, love doves. . .
. . .Aw, how cute. Reunited, and it feels so good. . .
I hope you’re all paying attention to the road. Once you’re past that wreck there’s rain. Right, Philosopher? Tell them about how even if you get ahead there’s still more fight. . .
“10-4, DingleBerry. You said it right,” The Man held the ant’s head close to his chest, crossing it over his heart like we did in school while we faced the flag. The rain whipped across the glass furiously as we inched, slowing more despite the grinding gears of the burly truck that punched along.
I’m right behind you. I’ve got your back. Let those tiny fellows fly. We got time. Well, that’s not exactly right. . .
. . .Get a room. . .
. . .Firecracker, where you at?. . .
. . .I’m out of it, sailing beyond the horizon. . .
. . .I just wish it’d hurry along. I hear there’s women at the J, exit 29. . .
. . .You talking about Big Betty? Man, I miss that woman. . .
. . .I can hear you, and I ain’t at exit 29. ParkerBrother, you’d better quit before that girlfriend gets to slashing your tires again. . .
The voices switched back and forth, and The Man put the CB back into its cradle. I looked in the big mirror through the rain and saw the lights of a semi that eased behind us. The beams flickered on and off and a tiny red car whittled past on the left, then pulled in front to slow us further. The tiny car braked in stuttering jibes while moving up the hill.
“Damn it. Move. You’re small enough to get by.” The Man didn’t have any anger in his voice, but I could tell by the way he pressed the gas a little harder and the tightness of the muscle contracted in his cheek that he was not pleased. He looked like he was chewing on rubble.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“He’s afraid of the rain. Rightly so, but there’s no need to hold everyone else up with fright. That’s what causes collisions. That and the drivers so out of their minds they can’t stop to get their head right before moving on.” The clenching of his jaw released as the car disappeared over the top of the hill.
I was glad to be with The Man then, moving towards a house with teeny sweaters in an attic. I imagined Joanna as a tiny old woman with knitting needles, rocking in a chair, a smile of welcome reaching towards flashing, emerald eyes. But The Man couldn’t have been more than forty, and the grandmother I fashioned didn’t seem quite right paired with The Man on a bed lying side by side.
“I hope she likes me.” I imagined the old woman feeding me steaming soups and wrapping me in a woven blanket she tucked before putting out the light.
“You don’t have to worry. It’s natural. You’ll know what to do once it comes. You’ll do what’s right.”
I didn’t want to tell The Man I meant Joanna. I wanted to reach for his hand and squeeze it like I used to with my momma when we waited in long lines. I looked at his fingers gripping the clutch. Hair sprouted from the knuckles in spindled bursts. The thoughts of my mother sought the raindrops that sped quickly from the windshield, dashing off.
When we reached the top of the hill, the rain began to ease and a sun began to streak the sky. The fields around were similar to those we had been passing for hours, covered in fields of grass and corn or barns. All of the cows must have found their way inside. I wished I could watch them wander and worry the grass again, creating an order that did not quite abide.
My stomach began to growl and I had a sudden urge for a blood red steak, a desire to chew the gristly fat into thick lumps and fibrous strands. I wanted to be a part of the world without the pain of separation. I imagined an approving god shifting the clouds into patterns that amused The Man, long bearded, kind.
The truck that trailed behind barreled up on our left side. A deafening honk erupted as it passed. The rain had cleared and we were really moving now. Through the glass, I could barely make out a hand waving hello, or possibly goodbye.