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June 1, 2009 Fiction

The Cow

Jeff Kass

The Cow photo

When Larry hit the cow on the two-lane highway in Virginia, the face of the cow, its open mouth hurtling past the driver's-side window, scared him most. He was on his way to Charlottesville to visit his girlfriend at UVA. She he was in law school, and though he couldn't yet marshal the evidence, he suspected she was sleeping with at least one of her classmates. Nonetheless, he wanted to see her. He wanted her to nestle against his chest, nuzzling into him as he lay prone somewhere — on a floor or a futon — gazing at the ceiling, listening to slow and mournful hip hop ballads. That was an underrated genre, the hip hop ballad. It could be moving, the croaking of hard-edged rhymes like dope and no hope ordesperate wish and fat spliff.


It was dark when Larry hit the cow, the black cow, and the highway was unlit so that when he'd crested a small hill clipping along at 75, all he saw in front of him were four white hooves. The World Series had been on the radio, the Giants and the A's, and Jack Buck had been buffeting the car through the night, his grainy voice like a vat of beer being brewed. When Larry saw the hooves, he didn't immediately understand what they were. Did he react too slowly? Could he have avoided the cow? He doesn't know. There were hooves in the road. And something attached to the hooves. And then he swerved, braked — did he brake? There were the hooves, the swerve, a dive to the right like a baserunner hoping to avoid a tag, then the smack into the hind legs, the thing upended, the awful panicked sound like a bray, or a neigh, a low-bowelled squeal, then the face by the window, the dark wide mouth.

It seemed to hang there. Larry was surprised by its enormity. Hairy plush lips and oblong yellow teeth that sprouted from the bottom gum like a cluster of buttered gravestones. They looked like they could chew all day, bulldoze through an entire backyard. Maybe an automobile showroom. It was wondrous, a mouth of such capacity — a horde of conquerors could fit into it, a capsized sea of buildings — and Larry knows this: there are tapestries and there are other kinds of tapestries. There are acrobats who make Ferris wheels out of their own bodies. There are colors packed in the ridges of Larry's own teeth he has yet to taste. There are staircases and caverns and in some of the caverns there are rotting smells, corpses, species of animal that shrink at sounds inaudible to the human ear.

For Larry, the consequences are significant. There are times when the purchase of electronic gadgetry wrapped in plastic is appropriate. There are other times when it is better to spend money on sandwiches. A particular kind of lettuce. There are times when the teeth of a cow demonstrate fear, fear of the results of the collision that has already occurred, bumper to hind-legs, and dread of the collision yet to come, the bounce of skull onto asphalt.

Larry will remember the mid-air cow teeth, the hairy startled lips. He will think of them when he kisses the woman who will soon break up with him, when he tells her how the cow's terror was his own terror, was the terror of all children in the dark, the terror of men in buses exploded, and she will laugh at him and say why didn't you bring me a steak? If you were going to slaughter a cow and total your car and be four hours late, if you were going to have to file reports with the state police, couldn't you at least have brought me a steak?

Larry will think of how the window framed the cow's face like a portrait. The mouth, the long shoebox snout, the round panicked eyes like dark planets on the verge of dying. Eyes that seemed short of breath. It is important to make choices, Larry understands. Kiss the girl and allow time for the expected rituals. Get your rocks off. Read a magazine. Imagine the cow suffered only a slight abrasion. That the cow, a good girl, a Bessie or Lonnie, made her way back to the pasture and lives there still. Plentiful milk will continue to issue from that living cow. Enough sustenance for an entire elementary school's snack cartons. A small elementary school. Which is how such schools should be. Lots of individual attention during the formative stages.

A cow should never scream in terror, Larry knows. No child should ever hear the bellow of a terrified cow. There should be Jack Buck. That is fine. The voice of Jack Buck. There should be hip hop laments, yearnings for moments of no bullets and no lead paint in the breakfast cereal. Kisses sweeter than fruit juice. Cows should not stand on highways like that. Posing. As if they own the road. That is wrong. That is a wrong thing. There's not even any food on the highway.

image: Ryan Molloy