Thursday, 18 June 2009

Apocalypse Cow -- Todd Heldt

Everything seemed possible that summer Jeff and I stole the cow. We were living in a tiny rental house near the outskirts of Denton, and because it was summer, we had both had our hours drastically cut at the opinion research place where we acted as telemarketers. I had been placed on probation because I kept introducing myself to the female head of household age 28-37 as "The Telemarketer Formerly Known as Prince." It usually got a laugh, but it was apparently not professional enough. Jeff was not a discipline case, but there was less demand for our services, no matter how professional, in the summer. We had trouble making rent, affording groceries, and keeping the lawn trimmed to the landlord’s specification. One evening Jeff was driving us to the Drink and Dunk Free-Throw Basketball Bar when we saw the cow contentedly munching the grass at the edge of the field close to highway 380. Though I am not sure which one of us spoke first, it had to have dawned on us at the same time. A voice—either his or mine—said, "We’re gonna have to take that cow."

Cows are immutable by nature, so it was no easy feat coaxing her into the back of the truck. It is hard to persuade a cow, but left to their own ingenuity, two college juniors will eventually figure something out. Riding in the back of a truck was always something I thought was sort of fun, but riding in the back of a truck with a stolen cow was even more fun because of the added danger. I had been looking forward to drinking beer, missing the backboard entirely, blaming it all on the booze, and trying once again to flirt with Molly the barkeep. But all my life I had been prone to let the world lead me where it may, and that summer was especially so. This cow was the most exciting thing to happen in a while. I decided to name her Apocalypse.

We led her into the backyard and shut the gate. One of the advantages of the house was the tall, wooden privacy fence. Our cow would be safe from the target practice of passing rednecks, and we would be safe from discovery. No one would ever suspect that we had stolen a cow. Absent visual suspicion, how would it ever even come up in conversation? As long as we could hide her from the landlord, we’d only have to mow the front yard, we would get free milk and butter, and we could sell the leftovers to the neighbors. "We could even call it organic," drawled Jeff. "We ain’t got no chemicals back here."

The next day we wondered what to do with all the cow shit. I shoveled two still-moist pies into a Piggly Wiggly shopping bag and hurled it into the trash in the alley across the street. The bottom of the bag ripped out as I swung it around, and cow manure sprayed the front of the dumpster. This was going to require much more delicacy than I had anticipated.

I was always kind of a loser when it came to ladies. Mostly I wanted the ones I couldn’t have, and the ones who wanted me I hadn’t enough sense to recognize. Molly at the Drink and Drunk seemed to go for the boys who were better at basketball than I was, but I thought the cow might give me an opening. I approached her and ordered a Shiner Bock, and as I waited for her to draw it, I asked, "Did you ever play basketball on a team, Molly?"

"I did," she said, looking up from the tap. "I was a Lady Eagle until I tore my knee up."

"Sorry to hear that," I said.

"That’ okay. I don’t miss it too much." She handed me my beer and I took a drink, a thought welling up slowly in my mind.
"Say, Molly, why do you suppose they always call the women’s basketball team the Lady Mascots? Why weren’t you just an Eagle?"

"I guess it’s so people don’t get confused."

"I could never confuse you for a man," I offered. She smiled. I tried to think of a sports name that was inherently male and would actually need a feminine designation. "The Lady He-Men!" I said after a moment.

"The Lady Macbeths," she countered.

"The Lady Lions."

"The Lady Firemen."

We were bored by the game. I said, "Molly, I have a cow named Apocalypse. Do you like organic milk?" It turned out that she did, and our first date was to meet the cow. Apocalypse seemed sad. I stroked her back and patted her head. "Something's wrong with the cow," I said to Jeff.

Jeff's knowledge had always been bent more toward common sense than book learning. He didn't wonder about how the cow felt about her new home. He simply said, "I bet she's thirsty."

"Damn, I'm dumb", I said. I set a bowl of water down in front of her. She sniffed and licked at it. Her bovine tongue was far too clumsy a tool for the job. The water spilled into the grass. "We need a bigger bowl," opined Jeff.

We found a suitable kiddie pool at the 7th resale shop we went to. It was blue and had pictures of smiling squids and starfish. At a buck twenty-five, we could recoup our costs in no time. A cow is a fine commodity.

We had gotten pretty good at milking her, disposing of poop, and once we had practiced with the churn a few times, making butter. When Molly came by to meet Apocalypse, we had fresh milk, cream, and unsalted butter. Molly was much obliged, and she even gave me a peck on the lips. Things were looking up, but I could tell something was troubling her. "What’s wrong?" I asked.

"Shouldn’t a cow be a little freer to roam?" she asked. "Apocalypse seems awfully confined back here." I had to admit I hadn’t thought of it before.

As soon as Molly left, I approached Jeff in the kitchen. "Does this taste good?" He shoved a spoonful of something fatty and over-sweetened into my mouth.

"No, "I said. "It is too sweet."

"Damn," he said.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Organic ice cream," he said with a huff, recognizing that his experiment had failed.

"Maybe next time," I consoled. "Say, Molly says that Apocalypse needs more exercise. Should we start taking her for walks?"

"What if she gets off the leash and bites someone?"

"Hmmm," I considered the possibility aloud. "We’ll have to walk her late at night."

"That's cool," said Jeff. "Oh, and Molly is a vegetarian. Under no circumstances can we ever eat this cow."

"We could always say she ran away or got run over."

"No." It was decided that between the hours of midnight and two AM one of us would walk Apocalypse around the block each night. I took the belt out of an old bathrobe and tied it around her neck with gentle precision. I found that she allowed herself to be led quite easily. I said to the cow, "I think Molly likes me, and I owe it all to you." The cow said nothing, so we walked in silence. Half-way around the block, she had a body function, and I shoveled it into a storm drain.

Life seemed like it could go on forever. The next day we hid Apocalypse in Jeff’s bedroom while the landlord surveyed our lawn. "The backyard ain’t even," he said.

"Well, sir, no one can see it with the privacy fence, so I guess I was sort of haphazard about cutting it," I said.

"You need to do a better job," he said. "I don’t want the neighbors to think I rent to trash."

"No sir," said Jeff. "Would you like some ice cream?"

"Don’t give him that stuff," I said.

"No, it’s a new recipe. I got everything figured out," Jeff said.

The old man passed on the ice cream, and we let Apocalypse out of the house. I led her over to a patch of tall grass and tried to persuade her to eat. She looked at me mutely with sad, liquid eyes. I gave her a hug. She began to pee.

"Did you house train her?" asked Jeff.

The ice cream was much better, and when we went to the farmers’ market with our weekly load of milk, whipping cream, and butter, we brought along a carton of it to spoon out for samples. "I like it best with fresh, organic peaches," I would say to people, who invariably wanted to know when we would be selling it. When we got home, Jeff kicked it into high gear. He milked and milked until finally Apocalypse mooed plaintively every time he touched an udder.

"Dude," I said. "Lay off the milking."

"Think of the money we could be making," he said.

"It isn’t about the money. It’s about the cow. We got everything we wanted out of Apocalypse, and if we get greedy it will ruin everything." After a few minutes of quiet rumination Jeff agreed. "Maybe we can steal another cow," he said. "What if we had two cows?"

"We don’t have room for another cow. Besides, when classes start up in the fall, we’ll have less time. Apocalypse is enough."

Molly and I were in full-swing by then, and she made sure I was thoroughly acquainted with all her favorite parts. Often we would hole up in my bedroom and make love again and again. She had a long, lean body that could only be compared to a tire-swing. I could climb all over her, up or down, back or forth. I could swing us to new heights and spin us dizzily around or we could suspend ourselves together almost motionless, in a slow, lackadaisical twirl. "This is perfect," I said to her one night, though I was pretty sure she was asleep. She didn't answer me, and I sneaked out to walk the cow. Molly was beautiful, and I was pretty sure I loved her. I didn't even mind that she didn't shave her underarms.

Milk, butter, and ice cream production were giving us extra money, we had a foolproof system for hiding Apocalypse when the landlord came by to get rent and check on the grounds, and Apocalypse was getting plenty of sleep, food, water and exercise. You have never seen a more radiant cow. Some moments I would look up and see the sunlight laced through the trees and think that the world could drift peacefully from day to day for all eternity.

Still, I knew it couldn’t last. The approach of September caused a dull ache in the back of my mind. We would be working more and taking classes again. The influx of students would
give Molly more choices, and she would eventually leave me. That was the way of the world, and it seemed like I was helpless to stop it.Jeff and I played baseball on his Nintendo. He struck me out, and my players took the field.

"The more I try to hold onto the world, the more it seems to escape me," I said.

He nodded solemnly. "The more I have, the more I am afraid of losing it," he said. He pop-flied an out. "What if I quit school and become a farmer," he said.

"Is that what you want?"

"I always thought I wanted to go into criminal justice, but I don’t know. Everything turns into work."

"I can’t picture you as a farmer."

"What do you think is going to happen with you and Molly?" My players were up to bat. We were way too good at pitching on this game. The game was always decided by one run in extra innings. "She is too pretty for me," I said.

"You want someone ugly?"

"No, I want someone pretty, but I am not sure I deserve someone pretty. I’m just kind of me, and I think once people start coming back into town, it will look funny for the two of us to be together. Everyone will wonder, ‘Why is she with that guy?’ She’ll break up with me by October." My third batter was up, and Jeff tried to sneak a low curve ball past me. The very end of my bat caught the ball, and I launched it high into left-center field. "It’s outta there," said Jeff. But then it fell short, and his center fielder caught it at the wall. My players headed to the field.

"So it goes," I said.

"It was a good run. Molly is very pretty," opined Jeff. "Crunchy," he added for clarification.

"I was lucky to have her as long as I did."
"She hasn’t left you yet."

"I know, but sometimes the world seems too good. We should take Apocalypse back to her rightful owner and get back to our lives."

Jeff knocked the first pitch over the wall. "That’ll do it."

"That’ll do it," I said.

In August we came home from the farmer’s market with enough ice cream money to equal our summertime telemarketer checks. Jeff was trying convince me to start a vegetable garden when we turned the corner and saw the landlord parked in front of the house. Not only had he found Apocalypse, he had stepped in a cow pie. He gave us an ultimatum: Apocalypse or us. We had two days to get rid of her.

I retired to my room to ponder my next move when Molly called me over for a talk. I already knew what it was going to be about, so I told her to have the talk without me. We hung up, and I gave Apocalypse one last hug. I said, "Well, cow, I think the summer of love has come to an end." I swatted her backside and she mooed without comprehension. She stared at me with her big, black eyes, and I led her through the gate. She followed me without a leash, and I walked her down the farm road, toward town. I stopped at an old farmhouse and knocked, wondering what I would say. I heard old feet shuffling behind the door, and I cleared my throat. The door opened and I felt my eyes start to water. The old man stared me hard in the face.

I said, "Did you ever lose a cow?"

Painting for The Front View by Lori Andrews

About The Author:
Todd Heldt has published poetry and prose in dozens of journals, including Birmingham Poetry Review, Borderlands, Chattahoochee Review, Sycamore Review, and Laurel Review. In recent years, he won 2nd place in the 8th Annual Poetry Superhighway Poetry Contest, was a nominee for a Pushcart Prize, and was a finalist in the Cleveland State University first book competition.
His first novel, "Before You Were a Prophet," was serialized at The Hiss Quarterly and is now available through Lulu, Inc. It’s a humorous tale about death, guilt, god, rednecks, kleptomania, and William Carlos Williams scholars. In October of 2009, Ghost Road Press will publish Todd's full-length collection of poetry, "Card Tricks for the Starving."
When he's not feeding alligators at the Lincoln Park Zoo he's probably hanging out with his wife, Kelly, and flying kites.