The Calf

I am wrapped and warm.

Contractions shock my world. An arm intrudes. A hand grabs my leg, pulls me out. I fall onto dusty dirt swaddled in my birthing skin. Fetid air smothers my first breath. Clamors explode in my ears.

A soft tongue laps.

Mama.

I’m seized again, dropped into a cold wheelbarrow. They’re taking me away. Mama follows next to me. She tries to block the wheelbarrow, but they shove her aside. Our mutual calls to each other rise together to clash against harsh voices into a cacophony of suffering. Still she follows until she can follow no more. They dump me into a truck, birthing skin, muddy placenta, and all. Mama cries and crashes herself against the rail. The truck engine roars. I howl, mama. My needs thrust full-throated until her anguish fades into the distance, until my gullet is raw. Still I cry until exhaustion takes over, and I dream:

I am standing on two feet, not four, a man bound by a discomfiting suit and tie, not fur. Everything is familiar. I’ve been here before, stood on these two legs. I oversee a stockade network crowded with cows extending into the plains beyond the horizon where a setting sun blisters the sky. I wish for the umpteenth time to be home with my wife and newborn baby girl.

Rows of faces protruding through fence headgates into a long trough of slop remind me of the endless rows of cubicles I just left at the office. Lifeless eyes staring over bellowing maws mirror my own feelings. Many lay on their side. Several weakened bodies stumble on their knees as a cursing man cattle-prods them towards a livestock truck. He sees me, approaches. I hand off a baseball cap embroidered with “I heart Sanmonto” and clap his back, an unnatural smile plastered to my face. The smell of foul waste and filthy animals burns my nose, but I try not to think of it or the tortures before me, rather what’s critical for my employer, the profit motive, and the earned money required to pay off my chic new house and fancy car.

A hose wakes me, sprays away my birthing skin. They toss me into a tiny crate whose fence rails hug close without comfort. My soaked body dries slowly in the soggy air thick with pungent odors and discordant noise. Other calves sit next to me in identical situations. I howl for help. Where’s mama? There’s no mama they say.

I crave to suckle. My tongue searches through space, pulls at the air. I nurse on my empty mouth until a discarded dirty rag replaces. Despite the greasy taste, it feels good to suck something. I doze and dream:

I am that man again, this time marching on my two feet, with balled fists instead of front hooves, into a big white domed building. A hangover from last night’s spousal argument over finances beats at my brain. The falsity of this high-minded place snags at my sanity. I don’t want to be here, yet I proceed. An old scraggly man sits at a large desk gazing with bleary eyes at anxious beads of sweat on my forehead and upper lip. Everyone bustles about calling him Congressman. One of my hands unclenches to clutch some papers with a heading. Sanmonto. Global Expansion. Feed The World. My pushed voice rattles, rushes louder than I wish. The Congressman knuckles under, promises quick product approval. This pyrrhic victory pricks at my chest, gnaws at my soul.

Everything blurs; my dream shifts. The Congressman morphs into a scientist dressed in a white lab coat. He lifts a beaker shaking his head. I want to leave, to run away–maybe I don’t need this job–but my stomach tangles and my instincts go unheeded. Instead I compel my stiff jaw to speak while jabbing at his chest in the same way the executive above me had jabbed mine. He acquiesces. A hapless experiment with an extravagant udder stands in a corner mewling. I turn from the sight trying to blink away its memory, cursing my want of courage to change my circumstance.

A kicking boot rouses me to the reek of gas and dung. I am made to stand and they attach something to my testicles. It pinches and burns. A needle stings my shoulder muscle as fluid rushes in. A heavy collar dragging down my neck is tethered to my crate rail. I can no longer stand. My rag is taken away so I suck my restraint. The weight chafing my neck and small space holds me in place until my legs are too weak to lift me. My yearning to move, to live, turns to stupor, and dreams:

I am that same man standing onstage in a large meeting hall before a cheering crowd. Again, as always, I am away from my family, missing my daughter’s first violin recital just like my father had missed mine. A picture of a bull overlays a sharp line with a jagged red arrow going up and up reaching past the ceiling, beyond the moon, grasping for the stars. The top of the chart has words. Sanmonto. Stocks. Biotech industries. This success stands in cruel contrast to the state of my marriage and the offspring I seldom see. The red arrow is my prison.

Throbbing music pounds at my aching temples. My armpits sweat rivers as people jump in rhythm. My eyes squint as ambition over-illuminates the room, reflects sun-bright on every shiny face. Profits, more profits, they sing with the same excitable tones of my wife. Their joy at numbers pins my diaphragm to my throat. In the midst of community, I am lost in isolation. The CEO lifts his arms. I must perform my role, not wallow in wretchedness, so I match his upraised arms, as if to catch their adulation, which pelts me like a hard rain, chilling me to my marrow.

A slammed bucket wakes me, sloshing a vaguely chemical-smelling white goop into my now open eyes. Nausea prevents me from touching it so they pour it down my esophagus. Eventually I drink it without being forced. The burning pinching thing hanging between my legs soon falls off, taking my balls with it. I rub my dry itchy skin against the rough wooden slat floor. There are so many others. Our moans encircle groans to echo beside screaming machines.

A nearby snuffling causes me to nose at a weakness in my fence. Another sniffs and nuzzles me. Our mouths reach to suckle each other. Mutual sorrows inspire my new friend. He reaches into his imagination to whisper tales of gentle green fields and a kind blue sky with benevolent breezes caressing us both. Even under the metal ceiling, confining the hoary light of a permanent winter, my tender heart soars, trembling at the thought that such a place exists. My friend keeps on soothing until I drowse, and dream:

I am the man driving my open-roofed, fast car. Speed is my escape from job stress and family decline, the driver’s seat, my hiding place. I round every curve as fast as I can go to unknot my strained stomach. My modified motor manufactures the loudest possible vroom to cover up conflicting voices in my aching head. The twisting road turns and turns, the wind lifting my denial, my inability to face myself, to ever increasing levels. A livestock truck comes at me head on.

My soul lifts and in my dream a calf is conceived.

I am wrapped and warm.

Jack

Dogfucious says, “He who make bad life choices have beef with karma.”

 

 

You Can Come Home Again

“Dawn!”

I had just returned from a long walk through my childhood neighborhood in Hawaii. I was standing at my parents’ mailbox, at the foot of a long uphill driveway, removing its contents for them.  A postal truck was parked nearby and the post office lady had had her head buried inside organizing her mail. I hadn’t paid much attention to her until she called my name. It was the last thing I expected to hear. I left Hawaii over 30 years ago and have had infrequent visits since, none of which included the post office.

I turned my head to see an enormous smile in a wrinkled face. She was as small and fragile looking as my aging parents. Her lined face was tanned and blotched from a lifetime in the bright Hawaiian sun. Gray hair, short and frizzy, stuck out about her head. I vaguely remembered the petite, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who drove up our long driveway to hand deliver large packages. Her brown teeth gleamed with glee as I returned her hello. “What a memory you have! I’m so impressed.”

“I can still remember you and your sister playing in the streets with the other kids.”

I looked down a street all at once lushly familiar and eerily different. My mind’s eye conjured a ghostly image of children skateboarding and her waving as she drove by. Like a skeleton with a new skin, the street looked the same, but many of the homes and landscaping were remodeled. I said, “All of my old friends have moved away. Almost no one is left here from the old days.”

“Are you visiting your folks?”

“Yes.”

“Where’s your sister?”

“She lives in Kailua.”

“Same as you?”

“No, I’m visiting from L.A. ”

Her eyes widened with the kind of surprise I often see when people discover I left Paradise to live on the Mainland. “Why would you leave Hawaii?” they ask in tones suggesting my wanderlust is a sign of mental deficiency. I always answer that I can visit. When I do, so much is different. The plants grow wild in my parents’ yard. New highways are built and roads are expanded. The beaches erode and wash away. Houses develop further and further up the hills. Pineapple and sugar businesses go away and tourism steps up its game to replace them. Hawaii becomes like a woman who changed her style so completely as to be almost unrecognizable. I added, “My Dad’s not doing so well.”

She smiled and said, “When people get old, they like to see their kids. I don’t see your parents so often these days. When I drive up the hill, I leave the boxes at the door. Don’t wanna disturb them.”

Yet, with every visit, something small will happen, like a rainbow dancing in the clouds, and all I ever loved about Hawaii shines with her jewel tone colors in the salty sweet air. Here, the brilliant memory of my old postal clerk lets me know I’m home again. I hugged her spontaneously. “Thank you,” I said, then walked up the hill.

Sisters!

Young Love in Old People

They were so easy to serve, I almost made the mistake of giving them very little attention and dismissing them as uninteresting in lieu of the more needy tables around them. They were lumpy in their comfortableness. Her shoulder-length gray hair sat limply on her head. She wore a simple dress with sensible shoes. His hair was thinning and neat and his sports coat looked worn and clean. Soft and smiling, they brought a quiet dignity to The Pie Shoppe, where many of the young customers sat crumpled into casually torn jeans or sweats. They blended into the bland decor of the restaurant, where the bright colors and brash brassiness of their younger counter parts screamed their being.

Their food was finished and he asked for the check. “We have to go home so she can have her way with me.”

Did I just hear this bland old man make an indirect sexual reference? That was the last thing I expected from a smiling great-grandparent. I felt uncharacteristic warmth on my cheeks and giggled self-consciously. “Well, don’t get too crazy now.”

The woman burst out laughing. “Oh! You have no idea!”

I laughed too. “Well, I guess not!”

He said, “She’s insatiable. I didn’t know I could keep up with her. At first I thought she’d break me. But this old soul’s got some dance in his step.”

“It’s good to know it doesn’t go away!” I said.

“Oh no. It just gets better,” said the woman.

After their check was paid, they gathered themselves slowly together as I said good-bye and thank you. She handed him his cane, then walked ahead as he paused to talk to me, touching my arm as he spoke. “You know, we met again after 60 years. We knew each other in school and didn’t even date. We went our separate ways for 60 years. Now, we’re like kids again! I didn’t know it could be like this.”

My spirit soared as I watched him walk away, stepping lightly despite his need for a cane. Young love in old people. I didn’t know it could be like that either.

Passages

I stood at the hostess stand and one of my regulars, The Wife, walked in with a man who resembled her husband– same handlebar mustache, same slightly wild, side-combed hair, only they were sandy-colored instead of gray.

“Hi! I haven’t seen you in forever,” I greeted with a big smile.

She smiled too. “Have you met my son?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t had the pleasure.” He and I shook hands then we walked towards a booth in my section. “Where’s your husband? Parking the car?” The words tumbled chirpily out of my mouth, even as I suddenly sensed what was next.

“He passed away a couple months ago.” She sounded calm.

My chest collapsed. My eyes stung. Death’s hooded presence was looking over my shoulder again, his scythe hollowing out my heart. I was still reeling from the recent loss of my cat. The Wife’s loss of a lifetime love, whose union was represented in their middle-aged son, and his loss of his father seemed incomprehensibly painful. All I could manage was, “I am so sorry.”

“Thank you,” she said, recognizing compassion in my moistened eyes.

As they settled into booth, I asked, “Would you like your extra-hot decaf?”

“No,” she said with a tiny shake of her head, “I’ll just have water.” She’d never just had water before.

I looked at The Son. “I’ll have water too,” he said.

“He looks just like him,” I said to The Wife.

She puffed up proudly. “You think so?”

“Oh yes. I almost thought it was him when you walked in.” I was happy to make her happy. But, as I walked away, I looked back to see her sparkle had dulled like lead, and her ash-colored hair hooded her crestfallen face.

When they were finished, he approached me at the server stand with the bill book open, exact change for the bill on one side and a $5 bill–a generous tip–on the other. His father paid with the same style. I thanked him.

He stared at the front of the restaurant, a wall of windows and a door leading into the patio. The parking lot blacktop glistened darkly under the midafternoon sun. “He passed suddenly. A bleeding ulcer. I had lunch with him the day before. The next day he was gone. We argued at lunch. I didn’t get to say I’m sorry. I didn’t get to say goodbye.” The words were stated blankly, numbly, as if they were said before and often, but the repetition hadn’t eased their poignancy. Then he looked at me. “Life changes. It always changes. We can’t fight the changes.”

My mind floated to my cat. She was put to sleep in my lap by a home pet doctor’s needle. I had to fight the rising force in me to jump up and rip the needle out of the gentle hand, whose owner was invited into my home to do exactly what he was doing, to scream out, “Stop! Stop! You can’t murder my cat! I won’t let you! Please stop!” Instead, my scream stuck in my throat in a bilious lump. My hands caressed my kitty as they had for all her 18 years, while tears dripped off my chin in steady rhythm. She was ill and had suffered enough. Any alternative was more suffering and little hope for much else.

Her surviving litter sister took it better. We all spent the morning huddled in bed, their purrs a continuous hum. As her sister ceased breathing, she moved restlessly about. The body was laid to rest in a cat bed to be picked up later by the crematorium. She sniffed her sister softly, then licked her gently, like goodbye kisses. She laid down to share the bed, as if she was still alive to snuggle, until the body became cold and stiff. She got to say goodbye. I got to say goodbye. I got to say I’m sorry.

No, we can’t fight the changes.

I said, “He will always be with you. He is with everything now.” I hugged him spontaneously, though I’d only just met him, then hugged his mother, who joined us at that moment. We said no more and they turned to walk slowly out of the restaurant.

Me and My Sweet Survivor

How to Date Your Waitress

Theatrical Server looked mystified as she counted cash from a bill book. “I just don’t understand,” she mused.

“What?” asked the Manager Server, a young blonde who doubled as Assistant Manager and Server depending on the shift assignment. That day, she was serving. She and Theatrical Server are terrific friends.

The lunch rush was dwindling. I was hiding in the corner of the server aisle, nibbling on some illicit cornbread and listening. To eat unpurchased food at The Pie Shoppe was strictly forbidden by The Owner who considered it stealing no matter how long we worked without a break.

“The guy at 62 kept asking me out. He kept saying he wants to share a slice of cherry pie with me one day.”

“Hahaha! Cherry pie? That’s random. What was he suggesting?”

“Cherry pie came up cuz his mother asked if it was good and I said it was my favorite. That’s what I say every time someone asks me about a pie,” said Theatrical Server with great élan. She was a natural flirt. In addition to working at The Pie Shoppe, she was a lead singer in a band, went to college full-time, had an active social life, and generally burned the candle at all ends.

She went on. “So, he just paid and left me a $3 tip. The bill was $24. He was still talking ‘bout wanting to share cherry pie when he walked out of here. That’s messed up!”

Manager Server said, with a wry grin, “So, you gonna go out with him?”

“No! I don’t get it. That tip’s insulting. Plus he asks me out. What’s he thinking? I would’ve been okay if he gave me just one dollar more. Two more dollars would’ve impressed me!”

“Did you wanna go out with him?”

“Dude! No! That’s beside the point.” Theatrical Server’s pale emerald eyes glittered.

“Maybe he doesn’t know how to tip.” She was still grinning.

“Shit! He doesn’t know how to date.”

Silly Slips of the Tongue

“Sooo happy to see you, Dawn,” said Outspoken Hostess in a sparkling, overly formal tone which suggested more sarcasm than sincerity. This was my typical arrive-to-work banter.

“Yes, well I’m sooo happy to be here,” I said, with equal extravagance, as I punched into the time clock and put on my serving apron.

She laughed. Then I continued, as I checked the floor plan to see where I was stationed. “With a sick cat at home and money bleeding out my ass for vet services, I suppose I need to be here.”

“Every tunnel has its silver lightning,” she said, in tones of the wise sage.

“What?!?” There was much din in The Pie Shoppe and I couldn’t be sure of what I heard. “Did you just say, ‘Every tunnel has its silver lightning?'” Then I burst out laughing.

“Isn’t that how it goes?” she asked, this time sincere.

“It does for me from now on,” I said, as I walked to the server aisle, still giggling.

Gray is the New Black

I enjoyed the blunt, direct nature of Outspoken Hostess, figuring she was compensating for her youth and size. Petite and pretty, she was the youngest worker in The Pie Shoppe. At barely twenty, she hadn’t outgrown the know-it-all teenager, which she broadcast from a face well below my chin. I never had to guess what she was thinking. Over the three years she’d known me, she offered unabashed and unasked for opinions on my eye makeup, hair, lipstick color, uniform cleanliness, and overall skinniness. Yet, she was charming, like the cute and quirky sitcom sidekick who says all the things the star of the show is thinking but is “too nice” to say. Perhaps I seemed like a lost chick and, as a young mother with two small children, she’d taken me under her wing. Since I was almost old enough to be her grandmother, I tended not to take her too seriously.

It was slow. I was at the hostess stand waiting for customers and staring with longing at the sunshiny day outside, when Outspoken Hostess said, with the slightest lilt from her Spanish accent, “What are you doing after work, Dawn?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Maybe you’d like to come for a makeover at my house. My mom can do it for you.”

I looked down at her dark, straight, streaked hair pulled neatly into a bun at the nape of her neck. Two artfully selected burnished tresses framed her round face. My hair was also twisted into a bun. I touched my frizzy flyaways self-consciously. “Uh. Why? Do I need one or something?” Outspoken Hostess and I often shared dry-humored ribbing as well. I figured she was creating some entertainment to pass the doldrums.

“I wanna make your hair darker. Give it some color.”

“My hair already has some color.”

“Yeah, but you need a different color. Gray is not hot. Gray doesn’t look nice. You need to brighten your hair.”

I didn’t want to reveal it, but this hurt. Wrinkles don’t bother me. Neither does sagging skin. I’ve even shrugged off perimenopause symptoms, however difficult they sometimes are. Quite irrationally, gray hair is different. My fading hair makes me feel like a flower withered, dry and drab, and, like a vase full of dead flowers, society seems ready to throw hoary old ladies in the dumpster. Still, the perverse devil’s advocate in me decided to play this game. I said with a grin, “I thought gray was the new black. Lotsa celebrities are going gray. Some of the younger ones are coloring their dark hair white.”

“That’s not gray, that’s platinum blonde,” she deadpanned as if she wondered how I could miss something so obvious. “I’m serious. I’m being real. When I care about people, I tell it to them straight. Just let her do it. My mom can give you a cut, style and color. We’ll do it for free. You just pay for the product. You’d look tits. So boss.”

Tits? Boss? Damn, I felt old. I surmised she meant those nouns as positive adjectives. I believed she was verbally putting her arm around my shoulder, giving me a heart-to-heart. “I’m trying to embrace my gray hair,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster.

“Why? Don’t you want to look your best?”

“Doesn’t gray hair look good too? It’s a color.”

“No. It doesn’t. It’s dull. It’s plain. Think about your man. You can’t get yourself a new boyfriend and then let yourself go. You have to keep looking good so he’ll stay.”

“My boyfriend is encouraging me to grow out the gray. It was his idea.”

She laughed. “What boyfriend would tell a girlfriend that?”

“A good one.” I laughed too. “You wait ‘til you’re my age. You’ll remember this conversation. You’ll wanna embrace your grays too. You’re going to be embarrassed you were so rude to me.”

“No, I won’t. I will look good. My hair will be colored so I will look my best.”

“C’mon, it’s not that bad. A woman can still look good with gray hair.”

Another server, who was also young, was listening in and Outspoken Hostess turned to her. “I’m trying to tell her she needs to color her hair so she can look her best. Don’t you think she’d look good if she got some color?”

I said, “I’m growing out my gray hair to see how it looks. What do you think?”

She startled at the attention drawn to her. Her blue eyes spiraled, like the center of a whirlpool, moving quickly around between Outspoken Hostess and myself. Her mouth opened and closed soundlessly before she sputtered, “I don’t know. I can’t tell. Your gray hasn’t fully grown in yet.” Then she ran off, seemingly as quickly as she could, presumably to check on her tables, but most likely to avoid any more spotlit questioning.

“See!” Outspoken Hostess looked smug.