It would be easy to say that he lured me into the fields of disrepair like Pan, calling out with his flute to come join in on the secret chaos of the world: but I already had my own disrepair within, and my own hungers, and I needed no flute call, no urging. I’ve read recently that scientists have measured the brains of adolescent boys and have determined that there is a period of transformation in which the ridges of the brain swell and then flatten out, becoming smoother, like mere rolling hills, rather than the deep ravines and canyons of the highly intelligent: and that during this physiological metamorphosis, it is for the boys as if they have received some debilitating injury, some blow to the head, so that, neurologically speaking, they glide, or perhaps stumble, through the world as if in a borderline coma during that time.
Simple commands, much less reason and rules of consequence, are beyond their ken, and if heard at all, sound perhaps like the clinking of oars or paddles against the side of a boat heard by one underwater, or like hard rain drumming on a tin roof: as if the boys are wearing a helmet of iron, against which the world, for a while, cannot, and will not, intrude.
In this regard, Moxley and I were no different. We heard no flute calls. Indeed, we heard nothing. But we could sense the world’s seams of weaknesses—or believed we could—and we moved toward them.
Moxley wanted to be a cattle baron. It wasn’t about the money—we both knew we’d go on to college, Moxley to Texas A&M, and me to the University of Texas—and that we’d float along in something or another. He wanted to become a veterinarian, too, in addition to a cattle baron—back then, excess did not seem incompatible with the future—and I thought I might like to study geography. But that was all eons away, and in the meantime, the simple math of cattle ranching—one mother cow yielding a baby, which yielded a baby, which yielded a baby—appealed to us. All we had to do was let them eat grass. We had no expenses, we were living at home, we just needed to find some cheap calves. The money would begin pouring from the cattle, like coins and bills from their mouths. With each sale, we planned to buy more calves—four more from the sale of the fatted first one, then sixteen from the sale of those four, and so on.
I lived in the suburbs of Houston, with both my parents (my father was a geologist, my mother a schoolteacher), neither of whom had a clue about my secret life with cattle (nor was there any trace of ranching in our family’s history), while Moxley lived with his grandfather, Old Ben, on forty acres of grassland about ten miles north of what were then the Houston city limits.
Old Ben’s pasture was rolling hill country, gently swelling, punctuated by brush and thorns—land which possessed only a single stock tank, one aging tractor, and a sagging, rusting barbed-wire fence that was good for retaining nothing, with rotting fence posts.
Weeds grew chest-high in the abandoned fields. Old Ben had fought in the first World War as a horse soldier and had been injured repeatedly, and was often in and out of the V.A. clinic, having various pieces of shrapnel removed, which he kept in a bloodstained gruesome collection, first on the windowsills of their little house, but then, as the collection grew, on the back porch, scattered in clutter, like the collections of interesting rocks that sometimes accrue in people’s yards over the course of a lifetime.
Old Ben had lost most of his hearing in the war, and some of his nerves as well, so that even on the days when he was home, he was not always fully present, and Moxley was free to navigate the rapids of adolescence largely unregulated.
We began to haunt the auction barns on Wednesdays and Thursdays, even before we had our driver’s licenses—skipping school and walking there, or riding our bikes—and we began to scrimp and save, to buy at those auctions the cheapest cattle available: young calves, newly weaned, little multicolored lightweights of uncertain pedigree, costing seventy or eighty dollars each.
We watched the sleek velvety gray Brahma calves, so clearly superior, pass on to other bidders for $125, or $150, and longed for such an animal; but why spend that money on one animal, when for the same amount we could get two?
After parting with our money, we would go claim our prize. Sometimes another rancher offered to put our calf in the back of his truck or trailer and ferry it home for us, though other times we hobbled the calf with ropes and chains and led it, wild and bucking, down the side of the highway, with the deadweight of a log or creosote-soaked railroad tie attached behind it like an anchor, to keep the animal—far stronger, already, than the two of us combined—from breaking loose and galloping away unowned and now unclaimed, disappearing into the countryside, our investment now no more than a kite snatched by the wind.
We gripped the calf’s leash tightly and dug in our heels, and were half-hauled home by the calf itself. In the creature’s terror it would be spraying and jetting algae-green plumes of excrement in all directions, which we would have to dodge, and were anyone to seek to follow us—to counsel us, perhaps, to turn away from our chosen path, still experimental at this point—the follower would have been able to track us easily, by the scuffed-up heel marks and divots of where we had resisted the animal’s pull, and by the violent fans of green-drying-to-brown diarrhea: the latter an inauspicious sign for an animal whose existence was predicated on how much weight it would be able to gain, and quite often the reason these marginal calves had been sent to the auction in the first place.
Arriving finally at Moxley’s grandfather’s farm, bruised and scratched, and with the calf in worse condition, we would turn it loose into the wilderness of weeds and brambles circumscribed by the sagging fence.
We had attempted, in typical adolescent half-assed fashion, to shore up the fence with loose coils of scrap wire, lacking expertise with the fence stretcher, and in some places where we had run out of wire we had used the orange nylon twine gathered from bales of hay, and lengths of odd-sorted rope, to weave a kind of cat’s cradle, a spiderweb of thin restraint, should the calf decide to try and leave our wooly, brushy, brittle pasture.
We had woven the fence with vertical stays also, limbs and branches sawed or snapped to a height of about four feet, in the hopes that these might help to provide a visual deterrent, so that the curving, staggering, collapsing fence looked more like the boundaries of some cunning trap or funnel hastily constructed by Paleolithics in an attempt to veer some driven game toward slaughter.
We had money only for cattle or fence, but not both. Impulsive, eager, and impatient, we chose cattle, and the cattle slipped through our ramshackle fence like the wind itself—sometimes belly-wriggling beneath it, other times vaulting it like kangaroos.
Other times the calves simply went straight through the weakened fence, popping loose the rusted fence staples and shattering the rotted, leaning fence posts and crude branches stacked and piled as barricades. Sometimes the calves, fresh from the terror and trauma of their drive from auction, never slowed when first released through the gate at Old Ben’s farm, but kept running, galloping with their heads lowered all the way down the hill, building more and more speed, and they would hit the fence square on.
Sometimes they would sail right on through it, like a football player charging through the paper wrapped between goalposts before a football game, though other times they would bounce back in an awkward cartwheel before scrambling to their feet and running laterally some distance until they found a weaker seam and slipped through it not like anything of this world of flesh and bone, but like magicians, vanishing.
When that happened, we would have to leap on the old red tractor, starting it with a belch and clatter that inevitably frightened the calf into even wilder flight; and with Moxley driving the old tractor flat out in high gear, and me standing upright with a boot planted wobbly on each of the sweeping wide rear fenders, riding the tractor like a surfer and swinging a lariat (about which I knew nothing), we would go racing down the hill after the calf, out onto the highway, the tractor roaring and the calf running as if from some demon of hell that had been designed solely to pursue that one calf, and which would never relent.
We never caught the calves, and only on the rarest of occasions were we ever even able to draw near enough to one—wearing it down with our relentlessness—to even attempt a throw of the lariat, which was never successful.
Usually the animal would feint and weave at the last instant, as the tractor and whizzing gold lariat bore down on it, and the calf would shoot or crash through another fence, or cross a ditch and vault a fence strung so tightly that as the calf’s rear hoofs clipped the fence going over, the vibration would emit a high taut hum, which we could hear even over the sound of the tractor.
It was like the sound of a fishing line snapping, and by the time we found an unlocked gate to that pasture, the calf would have escaped to yet another field or pasture, or might be down in some wooded creek bottom, reverting to instincts more feral and cunning than those of even the deer and turkeys that frequented those creeks; and we would scour the surrounding hills for all the rest of that day—sometimes mistakenly pursuing, for a short distance, a calf which might look like ours, until that calf’s owner would come charging out on his own tractor, shouting and cursing, angling to intercept us like a jouster.
Old Ben fell too ill to drive, and then began to become a problem while Moxley was in school; he had begun to wander out into the same fields in which the rogue calves had been released, and was similarly trying to escape his lifelong home, though he was too feeble to bash or batter his way through the patchwork fence, and instead endeavored to climb over it.
Even on the instances when he made good his escape, he snagged his shirt or pants on a barb and left behind flag-size scraps of bright fabric fluttering in the breeze, and we were able to track him that way, driving the roads in his old station wagon, searching for him.
Sometimes Old Ben lay down in a ditch, trembling and exhausted from his travels, and pulled a piece of cardboard over him like a tent to shield him from the heat, and we would pass on by him, so that it might be a day or two before we or a neighbor could find him.
Other times however Old Ben would become so entangled in his own fence that he would be unable to pull free, and when we came home from school we would see him down there, sometimes waving and struggling though other times motionless, quickly spent, with his arms and legs akimbo, and his torn jacket and jeans looking like the husk from some chrysalis or other emerging insect: and we’d go pluck him from those wires, and Moxley mended his torn jacket with the crude loops of his own self-taught sewing; but again and again Old Ben sought to flow through those fences.
There were other times though when Old Ben was fine, fit as a fiddle; times when the disintegrating fabric of his old war-torn mind, frayed by mustard gas and by the general juices of war’s horror, shifted, like tiny tectonic movements, reassembling into the puzzle-piece grace his mind had possessed earlier in life—the grandfather Moxley had known and loved, and who loved him, and who had raised him. On those occasions, it felt as if we had taken a step back in time. It was confusing to feel this, for it was pleasant; and yet, being young, we were eager to press on. We knew we should be enjoying the time with Old Ben—that he was not long for the world, and that our time with him, particularly Moxley’s, was precious and rare, more valuable than any gold, or certainly any rogue cattle.
On the nights when the past reassembled itself in Old Ben and he was healthy again, even if only for a while, the three of us ate dinner together. We sat on the back porch feeling the Gulf breezes, coming from over a hundred miles to the southeast, watching the tall ungrazed grass before us bend in oceanic waves, with strange little gusts and accelerations stirring the grass in streaks and ribbons, looking briefly like the braids of a rushing river; or as if animals-in-hiding were running along those paths, just beneath the surface and unseen.
We would grill steaks on the barbecue, roast golden ears of corn, and drink fresh-squeezed lemonade, to which Ben was addicted. “Are these steaks from your cattle?” he would ask us, cutting into his steak and examining each bite as if there might be some indication of ownership within; and when we lied and told him yes, he seemed pleased—as if we had amounted to something in the world, and as if we were no longer children. He would savor each bite, then, as if he could taste some intangible yet exceptional quality.
We kept patching and then repatching the ragged-ass fence, lacing it back together with twine and scraps of rope, with ancient twists of baling wire, and with coat hangers; propping splintered shipping pallets against the gaps, stacking them and leaning them here and there in an attempt to plug the many gaps. (The calves ended up merely using these pallets as ladders and springboards.)
In his own bedraggled state, however, Ben saw none of the failures. “That’s what being a cattleman’s about,” he said—he, who had never owned a cow in his life. “Ninety-five percent of it is the grunt work, and five percent is buying low and selling high. I like how you boys work at it,” he said, and he never dreamed or knew that in our own half-assedness, we were making so much more work for ourselves than if we’d done the job right the first time.
After we got our driver’s licenses we used Ben’s old station wagon—he was no longer able to drive—and after getting him to bed, and hasping the doors to his house shut, as if stabling some wild horse, and latching the windows from the outside, we left the darkened farmhouse and headed for the lights of the city, which cast a golden half-dome high into the fog and scudding clouds.
It was a vast glowing ball of light, seeming close enough that we could have walked or ridden our bikes to reach it: and driving Ben’s big station wagon, with its power steering and gas-sucking engine, was like piloting a rocket ship. There were no shades of gray, out in the country like that: there was only the quiet stillness of night, with crickets chirping, and fireflies, too, back then—and the instrument panels on the dashboard were the only light of fixed reference as we powered through that darkness, hungry for that nearing dome of city light. The gauges and dials before us were as nearly mysterious to us as the instrument panel of a jet airplane, and neither Moxley nor I paid much attention to them. For the most part, he knew only the basics: to aim the car, steering it crudely like the iron gunboat it was, and how to use the accelerator and the brakes.
And after but a few miles of such darkness, there would suddenly be light, blazes of it hurled at us from all directions—grids and window squares and spears of light, sundials and radials of inflorescence and neon; and we were swallowed by it, were born into it, and suddenly we could see before us the hood of the old Detroit ironhorse that had carried us into the city and swallowed us, as the city, and Westheimer Avenue, seemed to be swallowing the car, and we were no longer driving so much as being driven.
All-night gas stations, all-night grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, massage parlors, oil-change garages, floral shops, apartment complexes, dentists’ offices, car dealerships—it was all jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, there was no zoning, and though we had seen it all before in the daytime, and were accustomed to it, it looked entirely different at night—alluring, even beautiful, rather than squalid and chaotic.
The neon strip fascinated us, as might a carnival, but what ultimately caught our imagination on these night sojourns was not the glamorous, exotic urban core, but the strange seams of disintegrating roughness on the perimeters: pockets toward and around which the expanding city spilled and flowed like lava: little passed-by islands of the past, not unlike our own on the western edge. We passed through the blaze of light and strip malls, the loneliness of illuminated commerce, and came out the other side, on the poorer, eastern edge, where all the high-voltage power grids were clustered, and the multinational refineries.
Here the air was dense with the odor of burning plastic, vaporous benzenes and toluenes adhering to the palate with every breath, and the night-fog sky glowed with blue, pink, orange flickers from the flares of waste gas jetting from a thousand smokestacks. The blaze of commerce faded over our shoulders and behind us, and often we found ourselves driving through neighborhoods that seemed to be sinking into the black soil, the muck of peat, as if pressed down by the immense weight of the industrial demands placed upon that spongy soil—gigantic tanks and water towers and chemical vats, strange intestinal folds and coils of tarnished aluminum towering above us, creeping through the remnant forests like nighttime serpents.
Snowy egrets and night herons passed through the flames, or so it seemed, and floated amidst the puffs of pollution as serenely as if in a dream of grace; and on those back roads, totally lost, splashing through puddles axle-deep and deeper, and thudding over potholes big enough to lose a bowling ball in, Moxley would sometimes turn the lights off and navigate the darkened streets in that manner, passing through pools of rainbow-colored poisonous light and wisps and tatters of toxic fog, as if gliding with the same grace and purpose as the egrets above us. Many of the rotting old homes had ancient live oaks out in front, their yards bare due to the trees’ complete shading of the soil. In the rainy season, the water stood a foot deep in the streets, so that driving up and down them was more like poling the canals of Venice than driving: and the heat from our car’s undercarriage hissed steam as we plowed slowly up and down these streets.
We were drawn to these rougher, ranker places at night, and yet we wanted to see them in the full light of day also; and when we traveled to these eastern edges during school, while taking a long lunch break or cutting classes entirely, we discovered little hanging-on businesses run out of those disintegrating houses, places where old men and women still made tortillas by hand, or repaired leather boots and work shoes, or did drywall masonry, or made horseshoes by hand even though there were increasingly few horses and ever more cars and trucks, especially trucks, as urban Texas began the calcification of its myths in full earnest.
Places where a patch of corn might exist next to a ten-story office building, places where people still hung their clothes on the line to dry, and little five- and ten-acre groves in which there might still exist a ghost-herd of deer. Ponds in which there might still lurk giant, sullen, doomed catfish, even with the city’s advancing hulk blocking now partially the rising and setting of the sun.
Through such explorations, we found the Goat Man as surely and directly as if he had been standing on the roof of his shed calling to us with some foxhunter’s horn, leading us straight to the hand-painted rotting-plywood sign tilted in the mire outside his hovel.
Baby Claves, $15 read the sign, each letter painted a different color, as if by a child. We parked in his muddy driveway, the low-slung station wagon dragging its belly over the corrugated troughs of countless such turnings-around, wallowing and slithering and splashing up to the front porch of a collapsing clapboard shed-house that seemed to be held up by nothing more than the thick braids and ghost vines of dead ivy.
Attached to the outside of the hovel was a gerrymandered assemblage of corrals and stables, ramshackle slats of mixed-dimension scrap lumber, from behind which came an anguished cacophony of bleats and bawls and whinnies and outright bloodcurdling screams, as we got out of the car and sought to make our way dry-footed from one mud hummock to the next, up toward the sagging porch, to inquire about the baby claves, hoping very much that they were indeed calves, and not some odd bivalve oyster we’d never heard of.
We peered through dusty windows (some of the panes were cracked, held together with fraying duct tape) and saw that the rooms were filled with tilted mounds of newspapers so ancient and yellowing that they had begun to form mulch.
An old man answered the door when we knocked, the man blinking, not so much as having been just awakened but as if instead rousing himself from some other communion or reverie, some lost-world voyage. He appeared to be in his sixties, with a long wild silver beard and equally wild silver hair, in the filaments of which fluttered a few moths, as if he were an old bear that had just been roused from his work of snuffling through a rotting log in search of grubs.
His teeth were no better than the slats that framed the walls of his jury-rigged corrals, and, barefooted, he was dressed in only a pair of hole-sprung, oil-stained, forest-green workpants, on which we recognized the dried-brown flecks of manure-splatter, and an equally stained sleeveless ribbed-underwear T-shirt that had once been white, but which was now the color of his skin, and appeared to have been on his body so long as to have become like a second kind of skin—one which, if it were ever removed, might peel off with it large patches of his original birthskin.
The odor coming from the house was quite different from the general barnyard stench of uncleaned feces, and somehow even more offensive.
Despite the general air of filth and torpor radiating from the house and its host, however, his carriage and bearing was erect, almost military—as if our presence had electrified him with hungry possibility; as if we were the first customers, or potential customers, he might have encountered in so long a time that he had forgotten his old patterns of defeat.
When he first spoke, however, to announce his name, the crispness of his posture was undercut somewhat by the shining trickle of tobacco drool that escaped through some of the gaps in his lower teeth, like a slow release of gleaming venom.
“Sloat,” he said, and at first I thought it was some language of his own making: that he was attempting to fix us, tentatively, with a curse. “Heironymous Sloat,” he said, reaching out a gnarly spittle- and mucous-stained hand. We exchanged looks of daring and double daring, and finally, Moxley offered his own pale and unscarred hand.
“Come on in,” Sloat said, making a sweeping gesture that was both grand and yet familial—as if, horrifically, he recognized in us some kindred spirit—and despite our horror, after another pause we followed him in.
Since all the other rooms were filled with newspapers and tin cans, Sloat’s bed had been dragged into the center room. The kitchen was nearly filled with unwashed pots and dishes, in which phalanxes of roaches stirred themselves into sudden scuttling escape as we entered. The rug in the center room was wet underfoot—the water-stained, sagging ceiling was still dripping from the previous night’s rain, and on the headboard of the bed there was a small fish bowl, filled with cloudy water, in which a goldfish hung suspended, slowly finning in place, with nothing else in the bowl but a single short decaying sprig of seaweed.
The fish’s water was so cloudy with its own befoulment as to seem almost viscous, and for some reason the fish so caught my attention that I felt hypnotized, suspended in the strange house—as if I had become the fish. I had no desire to move, nor could I look anywhere else. All of my focus was on that one little scrap of color, once bright but now muted, though still living.
I glanced over at Moxley and was disturbed to see that he seemed somehow invigorated, even stimulated, by the rampant disorder.
So severe was my hypnosis, and so disoriented were both of us, that neither of us had noticed there was someone sleeping in the rumpled, unmade bed beside which we stood: and when the person stirred, we stepped back, alarmed.
The sleeper was a young woman, not much older than we were, sleeping in a nightgown only slightly less dingy than the shirt of the older man—and though it was midafternoon, and bright outside, the girl’s face was puffy with sleep, and she stirred with such languor that I felt certain she had been sleeping all day.
She sat up and stared at us as if trying to make sense of us, and brushed her hair from her shoulders. Her hair was orange, very nearly the same color as the fish’s dull scales, and Sloat stared at her in a way that was both dismissive and yet slightly curious—as if wondering why, on this particular day, she had awakened so early.
She swung her feet off the bed and stood unsteadily, and watched us with unblinking raptness.
“Let’s go look at the stock,” Sloat said, and we could tell that it gave him pleasure to say the word stock.
The three of us went through the cluttered kitchen and out to the backyard—it surprised me that there were no dogs or cats in the house—and the girl followed us to the door but no farther, and stood there on the other side of the screen. Her bare feet, I had noticed, were dirty, as if she had made the journey out to the stables before, but on this occasion lingered behind, as if perhaps made shy.
Sloat was wearing old sharp-toed cowboy boots, his thin shanks shoved into them in such a way that I knew he wasn’t wearing socks, and he walked in a brisk, almost fierce line straight through the puddles and troughs toward the stables, as if he enjoyed splashing through the muck and grime, while Moxley and I pussyfooted from little hummock to hummock, sometimes slipping and dipping a foot in one water-filled rut or another. Foam floated on the top of many of the puddles, as if someone, or something, had been urinating in them.
Sloat pushed through a rickety one-hinge gate, and goats, chickens, and other fleeting, unidentified animals scattered before his explosive entrance. Sloat began cursing and shouting at them, picked up a stick and rat-tat-tatted it along the pickets to excite them further, like a small boy, and as if to demonstrate their vigor to their potential buyers.
A pig, a pony, a rooster. A calf, or something that looked like a calf, except for its huge head, which was so out of proportion for the tiny body that it seemed more like the head of an elephant.
“I buy them from the Feist Brothers,” he said. “The ones that don’t get sold at auction. They give me a special deal,” he said.
The animals continued to bleat and caterwaul, flowing away, flinging themselves against the fences. Some of them ran in demented circles, and others tried to burrow in the mud, while the goats, the most nimble of them, leapt to the tops of the little crude-hammered, straw-lined doghouses and peered down with their wildly disconcerting vertical-slit lantern-green eyes as if welcoming Moxley and me into some new and alien fraternity of half-man, half-animal: and as if, now that Moxley and I were inside the corral, the goats had us exactly where they wanted us.
Moxley had eyes only for the calves, thin ribbed though they were, dehydrated and listless, almost sleepwalkerish compared to the frenzy and exodus of the other animals. Six of them were huddled over in one corner of the makeshift corral, quivering collectively, their stringy tails and flanks crusted green.
“Which are the fifteen-dollar ones?” he asked, and, sensing weakness, Sloat replied, “Those are all gone now. The only ones I have left are thirty-five.”
Moxley paused. “What about that little Brahma?” he asked, pointing to the one animal that was clearly superior, perhaps even still healthy.
“Oh, that’s my little prize bull,” Sloat said. “I couldn’t let you have him for less than seventy-five.”
Between us, we had only sixty-five, which in the end turned out to be precisely enough. We had no trailer attached to the back of Old Ben’s station wagon, but Sloat showed us how we could pull out the backseat, lash it to the roof for the drive home, and line the floor and walls of the station wagon with squares of cardboard, in case the calf soiled it, and drive home with him in that manner. “I’ve done it many a time myself,” Sloat said.
The girl had come out to watch us, had waded barefooted through the same puddles in which her father, or whatever his relation was to her, had waded. She now stood on the other side of the gate, still wearing her nightgown, and watched us as Sloat and Moxley and me, our financial transaction completed, chased the bull calf around the corral, slipping in the muck, Sloat swatting the calf hard with a splintered baseball bat, whacking it whenever he could, and Moxley and me trying to tackle the calf and wrestle it to the ground.
The calf was three times as strong as any one of us, however, and time and again no sooner had one of us gotten a headlock on it than it would run into the side of the corral, smashing the would-be tackler hard against the wall; and soon both Moxley and I were bleeding from our shins, noses and foreheads, and I had a split lip: and still Sloat kept circling the corral, following the terrified calf, smacking him hard with the baseball bat.
Somehow, all the other creatures had disappeared—had vanished into other, adjacent corrals, or perhaps through a maze of secret passageways—and leaning against one of the wobbly slat walls, blood dripping from my nose, I saw now what Sloat had been doing with his wild tirade: that each time, as the calf rounded a corner, Sloat had pushed open another gap or gate and ushered two or three more non-target animals into one of the outlying pens, until finally, the calf was isolated.
Sloat was winded, and he stood there gasping and sucking air, the bat held loosely in his hands. The calf stood facing the three of us, panting likewise, and suddenly Sloat rushed him, seemingly having waited to gauge when the animal would be midbreath, too startled or tired to bolt, and he struck the calf as hard as he could with the baseball bat, hitting it on the bony plate of its forehead.
The calf neither buckled nor wobbled, but seemed only to sag a little: as if for a long time he had been tense or worried about something, but could now finally relax.
Sloat hit the calf again quickly and then a third and fourth time, striking it now like a man trying to hammer a wooden stake into the ground; and that was how the calf sank, shutting its eyes and folding, sinking lower: and still Sloat kept striking it, as if he intended to punish it or kill it, or both.
He did not stop until the calf was unconscious, or perhaps dead, and lying on its side. Then he laid his bat down tenderly, as if it were some valuable instrument, and to be accorded great respect.
The Goat Girl watched as if she had seen it all before. Sloat paused to catch his breath and then called to us to help him heft the calf quickly, before it came back to consciousness, though we could not imagine such a thing, and I was thinking at first that he had just stolen our money: had taken our sixty-five dollars, killed our calf, and was now demanding our assistance in burying it.
The Goat Girl roused herself finally, and splashed through the puddles of foam and slime, out toward the car in advance of us, as if intending to lay palm fronds before our approach. She opened our car door and placed the scraps of cardboard in the car’s interior, for when the calf resurrected.
“How long will he be out?” Moxley asked.
“Where are you taking him?” Sloat asked, and I told him, west Houston—about an hour and a half away.
“An hour and a half,” said Sloat, whom I had now begun to think of as the Goat Man. He shook our proffered hands—cattlemen!—and told us, as we were driving off, to come back soon, that he had a lot of volume come through, and that he would keep an eye out for good stock, for buyers as discerning as we were, and that he would probably be able to give us a better break next time.
Moxley slithered the station wagon out to the end of the drive—the Goat Man and Goat Girl followed—and Moxley stopped and rolled his window down and thanked them both again and asked the girl what her name was.
But she had fallen into a reverie and was staring at us in much the same manner as the calf had after receiving his first blow; and as we drove away she did not raise her hand to return our waves, nor did she give any other sign of having seen or heard us, or that she was aware of our existence in the world.
Driving away, I was troubled deeply by the ragtag, slovenly, almost calculated half-assedness of the operation; and on the drive home, though Moxley and I for the most part were pleased and excited about having gotten another calf, and so cheaply, I was discomforted, could feel a rumbling confusion, the protest that sometimes precedes revolution, though other times leads to nothing, only acquiescence, then senescence. I could see that Moxley did not feel it, however; and sensing this, I felt weaker, and slightly alone.
The calf woke up when we were still an hour from Ben’s ranch. The calf did not awaken gradually, as a human might, stirring and blinking and looking around to ascertain his new surroundings, but awoke instead explosively, denting a crumple in the roof immediately with his bony head. He squealed and then began crashing against the sides of the car’s interior so violently, and with such a clacking of hoofs, that we were afraid he would break the glass and escape; and his frenzied thrashings (unable to stand to his full height in the back of the car, and instead crawling), reminded me of how, hours earlier, the calf had been rounding the makeshift corral.
We attempted to shoo the calf to the back, swatting at him with our hands, but these gestures held no more meaning for the bull than if we had been waving flyswatters at him, and his squeals transformed to full roars, amplified to terrifying proportions within the confines of the car. At one point he was in the front seat with us, having lunged over it, and in his flailings managed to head butt me, and he cut Moxley’s shins so deeply with swift kicks of his sharp little hoofs that they were bruised and bleeding, and he nearly ran off the road—but then the calf decided it preferred the space and relative freedom of the backseat, and vaulted back over the seat again and into its cardboard lair, where it continued to hurl itself against the walls.
As the Goat Man had foreseen, and as a symptom of the ailment that had caused it to not be bid upon in the first place at the regular auction—the auction that had preceded the mysterious Feist Brothers obtaining him—the calf in its fright began emitting fountains of greenish, watery diarrhea, spraying it midwhirl as if from a hose, so that we were yelling and ducking, and soon the interior of the car was nearly coated with dripping green slime: and though panicked, we were fierce in our determination to see this thing through, and we knew that if we stopped and turned the calf out into the open, we would never capture it again.
Somehow we made it home, and in the darkness of the new evening, with fireflies blinking in the fields, we drove straight out into Old Ben’s pasture, ghostly-gray weeds scraping and scratching against the sides of the wagon with an eerie, clawing keen that further terrified the calf: and when we rolled down the tailgate’s window, he leapt out through the window into that clean sweet fresh night air; and this calf, too, we never saw again, though the residue of his journey, his passage, remained with us for weeks afterward, in cracks and crevices of the old station wagon, despite our best scrubbing.
Old Ben fell further into the rot. Moxley and I could both see it, in his increasing lapses of memory, and his increasingly erratic behavior—and though I had perceived Moxley to be somehow more mature than I—more confident in the world—I was surprised by how vulnerable Moxley seemed to be made by Ben’s fading.
Ben was ancient, a papery husk of a man—dusty, tottering history, having already far exceeded the odds by having lived as long as he had, and was going downhill fast. Such descent could not be pleasant for Old Ben, who, after all, had once been a young man much like ourselves. His quality of life was plummeting, even as ours, fueled by the strength of our youth, was ascending; did Moxley really expect, or even want, for the old man to hang on forever, an eternal hostage to his failed and failing body, just so Moxley would have the luxury of having an older surviving family member?
We couldn’t keep him locked up all the time. Moxley had taken over control of the car completely, took it to school each day, and hid the keys whenever he was home, but Old Ben’s will was every bit as fierce as Moxley’s, and Ben continued to escape. We often found him floating in the stock tank, using an inner tube for a life vest, fishing, with no hook tied to his line, flailing at the water determinedly.
He disappeared for a week once, after rummaging through the drawers and finding the key to the tractor, which he drove away, blowing a hole through the back wall of the barn. We didn’t notice the hole, nor the fact that the tractor was missing, and it was not until a sheriff called from Raton County, New Mexico, asking if Moxley knew an elderly gentleman named Ben, before we had any clue of where he was. We skipped school and drove out there to get him, pulling a rented flatbed on which to strap the tractor, and he was as glad to see us as a child would have been; and Moxley, in his relief, was like a child himself, his eyes tearing with joy.
All through that winter, we continued to buy more stock from the Goat Man: knowing better, but unable to help ourselves, and lured, too, by the low prices. Even if one in ten of his scour-ridden wastrels survived to market, we would come out ahead, we told ourselves; but none of them did, they all escaped through our failed fence, usually in the very first afternoon of their freedom, and we never saw any of them again.
We imagined their various fates. We envisioned certain of them being carried away by the panthers that were rumored to still slink through the Brazos riverbottoms, and the black jaguars that were reported to have come up from Mexico, following those same creeks and rivers as if summoned, to snack on our cheap and ill-begotten calves, or claves, as we called them. We imagined immense gargoyles and winged harpies that swooped down to snatch up our renegade runaway crops. We envisioned modern-day cattle rustlers congregating around the perimeter of our ranch like fishermen. It was easy to imagine that even the Goat Man himself followed us home and scooped up each runaway calf in a net, and returned with it then to his lair, where he would sell it a second time to another customer.
Or perhaps there was some hole in the earth, some cavern, into which all the calves disappeared, as if sucked there by a monstrous and irresistible force. Any or all of these paranoias might as well have been true, given the completeness of the calves’ vanishings.
With each purchase we made, I felt more certain that we were traveling down a wrong path, and yet we found ourselves returning to the Goat Man’s hovel again and again, and giving him more and more money.
We ferried our stock in U-Haul trailers—and across the months, as we purchased more cowflesh from the Goat Man—meat vanishing into the ether again and again, as if into some quarkish void—we became familiar enough with Sloat and his daughter to learn that her name was Flozelle, and to visit with them about matters other than stock.
We would linger in that center room—bedroom, dining room, living room, all—and talk briefly, first about the weather and then about the Houston Oilers, before venturing out into what Moxley and I had taken to calling the Pissyard. We learned that Flozelle’s mother had died when she was born, that Flozelle had no brothers or sisters, and that Sloat loathed schools.
“I homeschool her,” he said. “Go ahead, ask her anything.”
We could have been wiseasses. We could have flaunted our ridiculous little knowledge—the names of signatories to various historical documents, the critical dates of various armistices—but in the presence of such abject filth, and before her shellshocked quietude, we were uncharacteristically humbled. Instead, Moxley asked, almost gently, “How long have you had that fish?” and before Flozelle could answer, Sloat bullshitted us by telling us that the fish had been given to his grandmother on her wedding day, almost a hundred years ago.
“What’s its name?” I asked, and this time, before Sloat could reply, Flozelle answered.
“Goldy,” she said proudly, and a shiver ran down my back. If I had known what sadness or loneliness really felt like, I think I might have recognized it as such; but as it was, I felt only a shiver, and then felt it again as she climbed up onto the unmade bed (the bottoms of her bare feet unwashed and bearing little crumb-fragments) and unscrewed the lid to a jar of uncooked oatmeal she kept beside the bowl, and sprinkled a few flakes into the viscous water.
Moxley was watching her with what seemed to me to be a troubled look—and after she had finished feeding the bloated fish, she turned and climbed back down off the lumpen bed, and then we filed out through the kitchen and on out into the Pissyard to go look at, and purchase, more stock.
Back before Ben had begun falling to pieces, Moxley and I had sometimes gone by my house after school to do homework and hang out. My mother would make cookies, and if Moxley was still there when my father got home from work, Moxley would occasionally have supper with us. But those days had gone by long ago, Ben now requiring almost all of his waking care. I helped as I could, doing little things like helping clean up the house. Whenever Ben discovered that he was trapped, he would ransack the house, pulling books down off of shelves and hurling his clothes out of his drawer; once, he rolled up the carpet and tried to set the end of it on fire, as if lighting a giant cigar: when we arrived at the farmhouse, we could see the toxic gray smoke seeping from out of the windows; and rushing inside, we found Ben passed out next to the rug, which had smoldered and burned a big hole in the plywood flooring, revealing the gaping darkened maw of basement below, with the perimeter of that burned-out crater circular, like a caldera, having burned so close to Ben that his arm hung down into the pit; and all the next day we hammered and sawed new sheets of plywood to patch that abyss. For a few days afterward, Ben seemed contrite, and neither misbehaved nor otherwise suffered any departures from sentience: as if such lapses were, after all, at least partially willful.
I helped cook dinners, and some nights I stayed over at their farmhouse and helped make breakfast, and helped Moxley batten down the doors and windows before leaving for school. Knives, scissors, matches, guns, fishhooks, lighter fluid, gasoline, household cleaners—it all had to be put away. Moxley had tied a hundred-and-fifty-foot length of rope around Ben’s waist each night, so that if Ben awoke and went sleepwalking, wandering the dewy hills, he could be tracked and reeled in like a marlin or other sportfish.
The farmhouse was a pleasant place to awaken in the morning—the coppery sun rising just above the tops of the trees, and the ungrazed fields lush and tall and green, with mourning doves cooing and pecking red grit and gravel from the driveway—and the interior of the house would be spangled with the prisms of light from all the little pieces of glass arrayed on the windowsill, Ben’s shrapnel collection. The spectral casts of rainbow would be splashed all over the walls, like the light that passes through stained glass windows, and there would be no sound but the ticking of the grandfather clock in the front hallway, and the cooing of those doves, and the lowing of distant cows not ours. Moxley and I would fix breakfast, gather our homework, then lock up the house and leave, hurrying toward school.
I had some money from mowing lawns, and Moxley was pretty flush, or so it seemed to us, from Ben’s pension checks. As much from habit now as from desire, we made further pilgrimages to Sloat’s corrals, that winter and spring.
And following each purchase, upon our return to Ben’s ranch, sometimes our new crop of sickly calves would remain in the pasture for a few days, though never longer than a week, after which, always, they disappeared, carrying with them their daunting and damnable genes, the strange double-crossed combination of recessive alleles that had caused the strangeness to blossom in them in the first place—the abnormality, the weakness, that had led to the unfortunate chain of circumstances that resulted in their passing from a real auction to the Feist Brothers, who would sell them for dog meat if they could, and then to Sloat and a short life of squalor, and then to us, and to whatever freedom or destiny awaited them.
Ben caught pneumonia after one of his escapes. (He had broken out a window and crawled through, leaving a trail of blood as well as new glass scattered amidst his windowsill-sparkling shards of glass from fifty years earlier; we trailed him down to the pond, his favorite resting spot, where he stood shivering waist deep, as if awaiting a baptism.) Moxley had to check him into the hospital, and after he was gone, the silence in the farmhouse was profound.
Moxley was edgy, waiting for the day when Old Ben would be coming home, but that day never came; and although it had been clear that Ben’s days at home were numbered, the abyss of his absence still came as a surprise, as did Moxley’s new anger.
We continued with our old rituals, as if Ben was still with us—cooking the steaks on the back porch grill, and buying cattle—but the ground beneath our feet seemed less firm.
With Old Ben’s last pension check, Moxley and I went to a real auction, and bought a real calf—not one of Sloat’s misfits, but a registered Brahma—a stout little bull calf. And rather than risking losing this one, we kept it tethered, like a dog on a leash, in the barn. It was not as wild as Sloat’s terrified refugees, and soon we were able to feed and water it by hand: and it grew fatter week by week. We fed it a diet rich in protein, purchasing sweet alfalfa and pellet cubes. We brushed it and curried it and estimated its weight daily as we fatted it for market. And it seemed to me that with some success having finally been achieved, Moxley’s anger and loneliness had stabilized, and I was glad that this calf, at least, had not escaped. It was a strange thought to both of us, to consider that we were raising the animal so someone else could eat him, but that was what cattlemen did.
As this calf finally grew fatter, Moxley seemed to grow angry at the Goat Man, and barely spoke to him now when we traveled out there: and though we still went out there with the same, if not greater, frequency, we had stopped purchasing stock from the Goat Man, and instead merely went out into the Pissyards to look. After having purchased the calf from the regular auction, Sloat’s offerings were revealed to us in their full haplessness, and we could not bring ourselves to take them at any price; though still, we went to look, almost morbidly curious about what misfits might have passed through his gates that week.
Moxley asked Flozelle out on what I suppose could be labeled a date, even though I was with them. I wanted to believe the best of him, but it seemed to me that it was a meanness, a bedevilment. Moxley still had the same aspirations—he was intent upon going to school and becoming a vet—but the moments of harshness seemed to emerge from him at odd and unpredictable times, like fragments of bone or glass emerging from beneath the thinnest of skin.
The three of us began to ride places together once or twice a week, and for a while, Flozelle fascinated us. She knew how to fix things—how to rebuild a carburetor, how to peel a tire from its rim and plug it with gum and canvas and seat it back onto its rim—and sometimes, out in the country, we stopped beside the fields of strangers and got out and climbed over the barbed-wire fence and went out to where other people’s horses were grazing. We would slip up onto those horses bareback and ride them around strangers’ fields for hours at a time. Flozelle knew how to gentle even the most unruly or skittish horse by biting its ears with her teeth and hanging on like a pit bull until Moxley or I had climbed up, and then she’d release her bitehold, and we’d rocket across the pasture, the barrel ribs of the horse beneath us heaving: the expensive thoroughbreds of oilmen, the sleek and fatted horses farting wildly from their too-rich diets of grain.
She had never been to a movie before, and when we took her, she stared rapt, ate three buckets of popcorn, chewing ceaselessly through Star Wars. She began spending some afternoons with Moxley out at his farm, and helping him with chores—mowing with the tractor the unkempt grass, bush-hogging brush and cutting bales of hay for our young bull. She showed us how to castrate him, to make him put on even more weight even faster, and she set about repairing the shabby, sorry fence we had never gotten around to fixing properly.
The calf, the steer, was getting immense, or so it seemed to us, and though he still was friendly and manageable, his strength concerned us. We worried that he might strangle himself on his harness, his leash, should he ever attempt to break out of the barn, and so not long after Flozelle had completed her repairs on the fence, we turned him out into the field, unfastening his rope and opening the barn doors, whereupon he emerged slowly, blinking, and then descended to the fresh green fields below and began grazing confidently, as if he had known all his life those fields were waiting for him, and that he would reach them in due time.
I had the strange thought that if only Old Ben could have still been alive to see it, the sight might somehow have helped heal him, even though I knew that to be an impossibility. He had been an old man, war torn, and at the end of his line; no amount of care, nor even miracles, could have kept him from going downhill.
To the best of my knowledge, Flozelle did not shower, as if such a practice might be alien to her or her father’s religious beliefs. In my parents’ car, I drove up to the farm one warm day in the spring, unannounced, and surprised Moxley and Flozelle, who were out in the backyard. Moxley was dressed, but Flozelle was not, and Moxley was spraying her down with the hose—not in fun, as I might have suspected, but in a manner strangely more workmanlike, as one might wash a car, or even a horse; and when they saw me, Moxley was embarrassed and shut the hose off, though Flozelle was not discomfited at all, and merely took an old towel, little larger than a washcloth, and began drying off.
And later, after he had taken her home—after we had both driven out to Sloat’s and dropped her off, without going inside, and without going back into the Pissyards to look around, I asked him, “Are you sleeping with her?”—and he looked at me with true surprise and then said, “I am,” and when I asked him if she ever spent the night over at the farmhouse, he looked less surprised, less proud, and said yes.
What did it matter to me? It was nothing but an act, almost lavatory-like in nature, I supposed—workmanlike and without emotion, if not insensate. I imagined it to be for Moxley like the filling of a hole, the shoveling in of something, and the tamping down. It was not anything. He was doing what he had to do, almost as if taking care of her; and she, with all the things the Goat Man had taught her, had fixed his fences, had repaired the old tractor, the barn.
She had not led him down any errant path, nor was his life, nor mine, going to change or deviate from our destinies as a result of any choices made, or not made. She was like fodder, was all. We were just filling the days. We were still fattening up. We were still strong in the world, and moving forward. I had no call to feel lonely or worried. We still had all the time in the world, the world was still ours, there was no rot anywhere, the day was still fresh and new, we could do no wrong. We would grow, just not now.
Rick Bass is the author of twenty-four books of fiction and nonfiction, including the forthcoming memoir, The Wild Marsh. A previous memoir, Why I Came West, has been named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives with his family in Yaak and Missoula, in Montana, where he remains active in the efforts to help protect as wilderness the last roadless areas in the Yaak Valley.