Cattle

by Adrian Shirk

“It’s so clean here,” Janice says, sucking a cigarette and tapping the ash out the car window. Her daughter readjusts her grip on the steering wheel, and tips her shoulders to loosen her collar from her neck. “Look, mom,” she says, pointing. “Cows.” Janice looks out the window and says, “Moo.”

Janice quit her job last winter. She rose from her seat, hands flat on the desk, smiled at her pupils and walked out of the biology lab. She gathered a tape dispenser and two picture frames from her office. She walked directly to the 7-Eleven across the street from the high school, and bought a Mountain Dew Slurpee and a pack of cigarettes. On her way out, she couldn’t help it: she knocked a Snickers into her purse, and sidled out the door before paying. She burst into the small parking lot, breathing fast. She slouched next to a payphone and took out the candy bar, slipped off its wrapper, and sunk her teeth through the layers of weak milk chocolate and processed peanuts, moaning for every customer to see.

When Janice got home that afternoon, she sat at the foot of her bed pulling her socks off, exchanging the days’ anecdotes with her daughter. Janice did not mention that she had quit her teaching position. It was four-thirty in the afternoon. Janice climbed under her covers while her daughter was still talking, and fell asleep nodding her head, “Mhm.”

When she awoke, it was lunchtime on a cold Saturday, and she told her family she wasn’t going to make dinner anymore. She told her husband that she had decided to take a sabbatical. “We should have a talk, Janice,” he said. “I know,” she said. “You’re tenured, Janice. You’ve been working there for twenty years. You might lose that,” he said. And Janice said, “I know.” She gave all of her Darwin books and science testing materials to charity. She didn’t take her kids shoe shopping the following fall. They had to wear the same old sneakers for one more year.

As soon as her oldest daughter reached driving age, Janice started responding to advertisements for country homes. “For family use,” Janice told her family. It’s been months now, and she can’t find the right one. Her heart sinks after every broker’s handshake. Their promises are impossible, of things they know nothing about.

Janice asks her daughter to escort her to the real estate tours because she prefers sitting in the passenger seat these days. Keeping her eyes on the road, her daughter watches Janice peripherally. She gets this funny feeling like it could be the last time she ever sees her. She knows Janice is not on sabbatical. Janice is gripping the lighter awkwardly. She sparks and fails several times. Janice’s struggle makes her daughter nervous, so she laughs. “What are you, thirteen?” She shifts gears and wonders suddenly why Janice is shopping for country houses in the first place. It occurs to her that she never required that information.

As the car lurches to third, Janice is bucked forward and lights her cigarette by chance. She looks fierce, and then triumphant as the cigarette cherries and the smoke unfurls. She takes out her Dollar-Store sunglasses and leans back. “That cow is running across the field,” she says. “Look.” Her daughter looks. The cow is deep brown and hulking, it’s legs the size of kitchen chair’s. It looks like some kind of liquid, solid in motion, as if it might puddle upon halting.   

“Poor thing,” Janice says. Her daughter recalls that Janice was always kind. She drums her fingers. She wonders what else she was. She makes sure the doors are locked. Janice says, “You know why you never see them run like that?” Her daughter says, “Why? Janice cranes her neck, looking back at the cattle. She says, “Because the farmers keep them pregnant, year around.”  

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