“He is content most of the day to stand and stare. Sometimes he lies down, but most of the time he stands stock still in the center of his field. He sees what he sees and knows what he knows.”
From THE BULL, a short story by Peter Obourn published in Riddle Fence Literary Journal.
I raise cattle, beef cattle, right here on this ranch—I got one bull, he weighs about 4,000 pounds—they say he looks fearsome, but he ain’t. Mostly, he just stands out in the field like a piece of furniture.
Now I have a lot of the cows artificially inseminated, but the bull handles as many as he can, because for me, and the bull, and probably even the cows, the natural way is better. I’m thinking of trading the bull for another, just to improve the bloodline if you know what I mean.
I ran into my wife the other day, in Garrett’s Department Store. I was in the city, buying a lamp for the living room. I had decided to spruce up the place. Don’t know what she was doing in the furniture department, except I know she likes furniture. Always did. I ended up buying a lot of stuff: end tables, even a leather sofa. She helped. She’s a good shopper.
We went out for a cup of coffee. “How are the boys?” she said. I just kind of looked at her. “Listen, J.C., I write to them and I call them, but they don’t call back and they never write. I try.”
“I’ll speak to them,” I said. We got two sons and they’ve done real well. Went to college. Albert, he lives over in Fairmont. Married. Got his own farm and a kid on the way. My son Jimmy, he lives up on Long Island. That’s in New York. He took me to a party up there. They had this thing called valet parking. I hope I said that right. You drive up and this kid takes your car and drives away. Then when you’re ready to go, another kid brings it back. It’s the damnedest thing.
We used to be married but it didn’t work out. I’m not saying anything about her, but I had custody of the kids.
“You did a good job, J.C.,” she said, after I brought her up to date on the kids. I raised ’em pretty good. I’m proud of that.
“I wish one of them had become a soldier,” I said. “We owe our country that, but they went their own way.”
“You got two perfect sons, smart enough not to want to get themselves killed and you’re not happy.” She ran her hand through her hair, which used to be sort of however she came out of the shower, but now she had some kind of hairdo. “So, you’re finally fixing the place up. Today you spent over a thousand dollars on stuff you never let me spend a nickel on.” She shook her head. Of course, we didn’t have the money back then, but I didn’t say nothing.
She asked me how many cattle you up to now and how many miles of barb wire have you got. I told her there were about four hundred head now and almost three miles of fence, which takes a lot of time. “Got the combine ready for harvest,” I said. “I’m thinking about adding some silage to the hay. Did some deworming last week and castrated six calves, two more than same time last year.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. “That’s great, J.C. And then, in the evening you go in your office and write it all down and check it twice.” She understood that on a cattle ranch keeping and maintaining detailed records is essential. “You still doing it all on your own?” she asked me. I nodded. I live alone. My brother Billy lives down the road a mile. I keep a neat house, and Billy likes it messy. That’s why he moved out. No hard feelings. Billy comes over and helps when I need him, but he works at the cement factory until five, so it has to be before or after that. “You let the dogs in the house yet?” she said.
“Of course not,” I said. She was wearing something like a man’s suit made for a woman. She must be some kind of professional now but I didn’t ask.
She said she had just been in a bridge tournament. I said what was that and she said, “You know what bridge is, J.C. Remember, I tried to teach you and you paid attention for about one minute.” I didn’t remember it at all. “Let me see your hands,” she said. “Your hands were so rough and strong.” She took my hand in hers. “So rough,” she said. Her hand was timid. I always had to think about being gentle, so as not to hurt her.
When she stood up from the table to leave, she said, “It was good to see you, J.C.” Then she smiled. “You seein’ anybody?”
“Nope,” I said, “just me, livin’ alone, the way I like it,” which wasn’t exactly true.
“That’s good. There’s a lot of lucky women in the world. By that I mean all the women who haven’t fallen for that look in your eye.” she said. Then she kissed me and said, “I’ll always love you, J.C., but you’ll always be impossible.”
The furniture got delivered and I just put all the old stuff in a pile out by the road. The neighbors will take it. The new furniture made the rest of the house look terrible, so I covered all the new stuff with old sheets and started scraping and painting.
I live in the house I grew up in. A big old white farmhouse—used to be a farm around it, barns and everything. Now just the house is left, and most all the furniture, of course, the most dramatic piece of which is the feather sofa. It’s huge—big and brown mostly and kind of tweedy but soft and has feathers in the cushions. Some are sticking out—little feathers—goose feathers, called down. It’s kind of lumpy but since the lumps are filled with down, it’s comfortable even if you sit on a lump. Mamma died on the sofa, under the crazy quilt that her mamma’s mamma made. We threw the quilt out, but I kept the sofa.
My brother Norbert lived here a long time after Mamma died. Then my boyfriend Morris moved in, and then it was the three of us. And that was fine. There’s plenty of room. Morris and Norbert, they hardly talked to each other, but they talked to me, and that worked out. It wasn’t great but it worked.
Morris is a big man—lazy—lazy in a good way—strong and lazy. And Morris loved the sofa. That’s where Morris was. Made some permanent dents in the sofa. And I got the habit of waiting on him. But then I realized that wasn’t good for him. So I stopped waitin’ on him. Get it yourself, I’d say. But…no, I don’t mean but. I mean to say, although…no, I don’t mean that either. So, anyway, Morris left, and then Norbert finally got a job and he moved out. Said he missed Morris, which I don’t believe for a minute.
So I’ve been alone for a year now. Well, once in a while Aunt Doris comes and stays overnight. She sleeps on the sofa, although there’s three empty bedrooms. “Where’s that old quilt?” she always asks. We talk like a house afire, but she never stays more than one night, then goes back to Topeka and rambles around her empty house. I never visit her. She talks way too much.
I miss Morris. He was a good listener. Never said it was a bad day. Actually, I don’t miss him so much lately, because I met this guy. We go out for a drink; that is, I meet him at Jimmy’s a couple nights a week. His name is J.C. Actually, his real name is James, but as he says, “They call me J.C.”
He doesn’t talk so much, but, well, I like to dance. He likes it too. I can tell—the way he moves—the way his face relaxes.
My brother J.C. is a clean, hardworking man. Raised two kids up right, after his wife walked out on him. She was in the wrong, but, well, in some ways I don’t blame her, and I didn’t feel that way until I tried living with J.C. Life is hard for J.C. Not that it needs to be. It just is. He’s not mean or nasty about it, but what it boils down to is everything is his way or no way. Everything.
Like, when I moved out, J.C. took on the phone company, which nobody that’s not crazy ever does. He got all wound up in a snarl because, as J.C. tells the story, when I moved out, they wanted to charge him for a phone and me for a phone. His idea, which he told the phone company, was just keep the same number for both of us, and we’d split the cost, but they wouldn’t do it. So, he ran a line over across the fields to my house, almost a mile, and now the phone rings at both houses. It’s not real handy because, well, if I’m here I’ll always answer and likewise J.C. If not, well, people just got to call back, unless I’m at J.C.’s or he’s over here, which is sometimes, but not very much. Another problem is, we can’t call each other.
I went over to live with my brother after his boys both left because, us both being alone, it seemed the natural thing to do. Now, although I moved out, I got to go over to J.C.’s now almost every night, tryin’ to unconfuse him, because he’s met this woman and the two of them together is something to watch.
Her brother is Norbert Peabody, who is an easygoing, relaxed guy. He told me about this guy named Morris used to lived with them—a big, fat guy who just sat around all day but somehow Maude really liked him and Norbert says after Morris left, she sat around staring at the sofa like Morris was still sitting there doing nothing, so Norbert left and now she lives alone and she meets J.C., and that changed everything and I say watch out. I never had a girlfriend or anything close to that, but I know there’s good things about having a woman, like a romance, I mean, but there’s also other things, complications and such, and I know Norbert agrees with me on this. It’s just asking for trouble.
- C. and Maude—they’re both lonely, which I suppose is their own fault, but there it is. I like her. You can’t help but like her. She soft-talked me into spending one weekend at J.C.’s so they could take this bus trip to the zydeco festival, and they came back all stuck on each other.
So he asked her to move in with him, and she said yes, she would do it.
They were even talking about marriage.
One night me and J.C. was over to her house, and she was talking about what she was going to bring when she moved in. Some Realtor had just left. She has a house full of furniture, and you know women and furniture. So she started naming what she might bring, like this chair or that table, and he kept shaking his head, and finally she mentions the sofa, and he says, “Please, Maude, not the sofa. I got a perfectly good sofa. I don’t care what you else you bring to clutter up the house, but I ain’t having those loose chicken feathers flying all over.”
She started to cry, and that surprised both of us. I never seen her cry before. Then she left the room and left J.C. and me sitting on that sofa, sipping our beers.
In about five minutes she came back into the room, carrying a shotgun. “Get up,” she said, and we scrambled as she fired about ten shots of buckshot into that sofa and they was feathers all over the place.
“There,” she said, “Now get out, the both of you,” and me and J.C. left.
I didn’t see her for a long time. She plain stopped coming to Jimmy’s. All I was seein’ was Billy, and I was getting damn sick of him.
Then one night she just showed up all smiles and talking to me like it was a day after she blasted that sofa with her shotgun and told me to get out, or even more like it was the day before, like it never happened.
So we started up again, and, as it turned out, the zydeco festival was coming up again. We’re sitting on the grass listening to the music, far enough away from the stage so we can talk. “So,” she said. “I know it’s about a year old, but, I was wondering, is that offer to move in with you, is that still open?”
I didn’t say anything for a minute, and then I said, “I don’t know,” which was the truth.
“Okay, well, anyway, what I really need to know is this. Let’s just say that it was still open, and let’s say I got a chair instead of that sofa—the one you couldn’t live with. Let’s just say that. I mean, I’m not saying I got one or would want to bring it if I did. But let’s say I did get a chair, and it had feathers, and I said I wanted to accept your offer to move in, which I understand might not still be open, but let’s say it was.” She sat back and looked at me. I didn’t say anything. “Well?” she said.
“Oh, boy,” I said. “So, this is purely theoretical like.”
“Same thing,” she said. “You can think about it. Take your time. Now, let’s dance.”
The week after the zydeco festival, J.C. went to auction. He looked everything over but didn’t bid once. So that old bull is still there. Most of the day he stands stock still. He prefers the middle of his field. Sometimes snow will sit on his back, and there are no tracks around him so you know he has not moved for hours. When he is still, his muscles seem to ripple. There might be a switch of his tail. He watches the cows grazing in the field beyond the fence. With equal interest he may turn his head and study the old red bicycle with the bent frame that leans against the barn. For only a year he gamboled and ran and jumped, and then he became strong and solid and gentle and slow. His memories are of that first year and that he has mated with about half of the cows over the past three years. And his meals, the same each day. He eats only what he needs. He is content most of the day to stand and stare. Sometimes he lies down, but most of the time he stands stock still in the center of his field. He sees what he sees and knows what he knows.