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.”

 

 

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Ode to My Nice Neighbor

She knocks at my door. I answer.

“I’m a bootlegger,” she said and thrust a gallon jug with a sunny liquor in my hands.

The homemade label says, “Limoncello. Enjoy!” The top looks like a jam jar.

“Cleaning out the house for my move. I found it in a corner, but it should be good.”

I hugged her, “Damn. Now I’m really sorry to see you go.”

She laughed and left just as quickly as she came. “… so much to do…”

“Thank you and good luck!”

I made a lemon drop martini before you could say “Lemonade.”

My dog, Jack, says, "Let them eat steak!"

Dogfucius say, “Love thy neighbor, especially if they make good drinks!”

Charm Above Circumstance

Another boring day at the office?

The Pie Shoppe had another couple hours left before closing and I was feeling crabby. There were very few customers to wait on. Ahead on the to-do list was cleaning the server aisle, where sticky pie fillings and greasy pie crust crumbs managed to get onto everything. The unstimulating, corporately designed decor, with its drab brown tones and dreary furnishings, was weighing me down. I was bored and wanted to go home. Feeling sorry for myself, I greeted my new table.

“If your name is ‘Dawn’, how come you’re working at night?” His face was merry and the wrinkles around his eyes crinkled flirtatiously. He sat with two white-haired ladies.

“Working at night keeps me off the streets,” I quipped back, hoping my current crankiness didn’t put too much edge in my voice.

“Do you work late?” he asked.

“I’ll be closing the place.” Sadly, I wanted to add.

The older of the ladies asked, “What time do you close?”

“We close at 11 p.m. on Saturdays,” I replied.

“What if I came in at 11 p.m.?” she asked.

“I suppose if you walked in the door at 10:59, you’d get served,” I replied, still hoping my annoyance didn’t show.

“Yeah. With a bunch of spit in my food.”

“Ha!” I laughed in spite of myself. “There might be some surly spread on your burger and fries.”

The dry humor didn’t stop, especially with the gentleman. “I suppose I need to tap a spring to get more water around here.”

“It’ll be fresher and better tasting, then,” I said.

At the end of their meal, I accidentally gave them the wrong bill.

He waved me over. “There’s a problem here. I want to pay this but I don’t remember drinking a root beer.”

I apologized and gave them the correct bill. “You’ll probably like this less since it’s more.”

“I’m still waiting for my rootbeer,” he said.

“I’ll bring your rootbeer.” I smiled and winked. “And pour it over your head.” Their mirth was contagious.

“Dawn, go away, you’re no good for me!” He sang the oft-sung-to-me song charmingly off-key.

“Stop it,” said the younger lady, smiling. “You’re making her nervous!”

“It’s true,” I said. “I’ll go home and cry myself to sleep tonight.”

She said, “Well, tomorrow will be the dawn of a new day!”

They paid their bill leaving a generous gratuity. I didn’t see them come in so as they stood up to leave I was startled to see the gentleman struggle to set himself upright on two canes. His face twisted with pain as he balanced himself. Then he looked up, saw me, and instantly brightened, “You have a nice rest of your night, now.”

“Thank you. I hope you do as well.” I said.

He slowly lurched out of the restaurant with his two ladies tottering behind.

Who was I to feel sorry for myself?

The Art of Persistence

I was shopping at Jons, an Armenian grocery store chain with locations throughout Glendale and East Hollywood. The locals call it Little Armenia. Their selection of quality Mediterranean ingredients make them one of my favorite foodie haunts. I especially love their yogurt, kefir, and carbonated yogurt drink.

I don’t typically dress up for such adventures. Rolling out of bed, throwing on an old tank top and shorts, and stuffing my hair in a ponytail was my beauty regimen. There was no make-up on my face. I was proud I washed it. Living in the quasi-barrio offered many advantages, including dressing with what look liked rash carelessness in other parts of shallow L.A. People preened to be seen on the Westside. I dressed to disappear on the Eastside. The last thing I expected as I scrutinized the cultured dairy section was any sort of male attention.

His softly insistent voice startled me. “Can I take you to lunch sometime?”

I looked to my left where a man about my age stood. He didn’t have a cart or basket and wasn’t carrying any products. His clothes were mismatched and his hair hung willy nilly. Eyes were gray and wandered about. Nails were bitten down to waning crescent moons.

“Um… no… I have boyfriend,” I said, thinking a boyfriend was irrelevant to the question. He made me edgy. Not sure I would even be comfortable discussing the merits of various yogurt brands, much less arranging for lunch.

“I don’t mind if you don’t mind. There’s room for all of us.” His tone was serious and his gaze intent.

“Well, I’m really busy… but thanks for asking.” I still endeavored politeness as I was afraid of pushing some button and him acting out like he came from Crazytown.

“I’m really easy to squeeze into a schedule.”

“I don’t think I can squeeze you in.”

“Well, can I have your number and maybe we can chat?”

“No, I’d rather not.”

“Would you like my number?”

This guy was not going to take a hint and his persistence was turning my edginess into screaming meemies. “No. Look, I really think you should just let this go and leave me alone.”

“Okay, I don’t want to annoy you or anything.”

I stifled an ironic laugh. “Thank you.”

I went back to my kefir selection and he shuffled away. I kept an eye over my shoulder all the way home.

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!

Birthday Bitch

I picked up a bottle of Bitch Wine from the endcap at Trader Joe’s, hoping it would give me an expressive, expansive, and inexpensive Cabernet.

An earthy and elegant woman stood on the other side of the display studying the chalkboard description. Her fingers twirled a supple lock of hair as she read about the voluptuous succulence and creamy mouthfeel of this sassy, full-bodied red.

Her daughter approached, looking adorable in pink leggings which matched the collar of her dress, and clutching a box of Joe-Joes. She stared up at her mother with the cloying sweetness of pleading eyes.

“Put those back, please. We have plenty of junk food at home,” said the mother, not taking her eyes off the wine display.

“But, Mo-om…”

“I said, ‘No!’”

“Buut, Mo-o-o-om…”

The mother looked down at her daughter, exchanging an unspoken communication. Her body sagged and her face crushed into a yearning-to-flee expression. She grabbed two bottles of wine, holding them to her breasts. “Okay. You can have them. But today is the last day of your birthday month!”

Today is the last day of my birthday month and my 50th birthday.

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.