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D. W. Wilson’s fiction has appeared in literary journals across Canada and the United Kingdom. His collection of short stories, Once You Break a Knuckle, will be published by Hamish Hamilton Canada in 2011, to be followed by a novel, Ballistics. He is a Canadian citizen by birth and temperament, but currently pursuing a PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia.
Big Bitchin' Cow
Biff liked the smell of a truck, the gas and muddy dashboard and the steering wheel smeared with sweat and dirt – manure gone dry, and rust, rust, rust, from bled animals and oxidizing steel and that time he and the boy took one helluva shit-stomping in front of Invermere’s only bar. That was because some bonehead in a John Deere trucker cap pawed the boy’s girlfriend – woman troubles, always woman trouble with the boy – and until that night Biff had never actually been clubbed with a barstool. Afterward, he and the boy sat in his ratbag Ranger, just bleeding in each other’s company, just one ugly pair, cheeks blueing like cabbage head and nicks and burrs up and down their chins. Their eyebrows: split. Their teeth: slick with blood and snot and not all of it their own. —Thanks, Dad, the boy said, and Biff dragged a flannel sleeve over his gums and reached across to pat his son on the knee.
Now, twenty-five years later, that pat was as close to a plan as Biff had, as he drove over the frozen lake in the thunder-cracking hours of the morning. Far off on the horizon the rising sun made the Rocky mountains red and rigid like the gates of Hell. His granddaughter had explained the situation over the phone: the boy discovered a truth about his wife Biff had suspected for years, and then he’d gone hauling-ass to his truck, and then tear-assing down the driveway and around the bend and to the lake. Forty-four years old, the boy, but age doesn’t guard against everything – that one Biff knew by heart.
Biff’s plan: track the boy across the frozen lake, across all B.C., across the whole of the Great White North if that’s what it took, and pat him on the knee. He owed the boy that much and a lot more; nobody else had ever stepped up to save Biff’s life. That was on a prairie farm, the boy no more than thirteen. Not that Biff hadn’t almost been killed other than that once – nearly drowned in the Kicking Horse, got real bad pneumonia when he was eleven – but nobody but the boy had ever gone and thrown themselves in front of the raging bull, or however the saying went.
Biff checked the speedometer: one-thirty-eight, on sheer ice. At that speed he’d blast through anything – bullet through concrete theory, the boy called it. In the past, Biff and the Ranger had mowed down their share of deer and elk and, once, a moose calf at Sicamous near the pulp mill that stunk up the world like propane. He always stopped to double-check he’d killed the animal – didn’t like to see things in pain, even bugs – and kept a 30-30 locked in the toolbox behind the cab, in case he hadn’t. The only time he didn’t slow was when he clipped a black bear, since it was a goddamned bear – a beast designed to crush men’s skulls.
As a teenager, the boy, too, had wrecked a few trucks, though not once by hitting an animal. When the boy trashed something it was the good old fashioned nose-to-ditch style, or passenger-door-to-tree style, or yaw-skid-after-track-jump-to-city-bench style. Biff had about zero tolerance for idiot driving if it resulted in steeper auto insurance, but the boy got better. He went on to win a couple drag races at the gravel pits, to blitz from the cops one night after a licence suspension, and now, now, how-many-years-later, to cowboy onto the frozen lake and leave Biff chasing taillights. The boy had a head start and if he reached the far side before Biff caught up then he could disappear into the wilds for good. That scared Biff more than physical violence. That scared Biff more than lizards, and not much did. Without the boy Biff would be one more stick-stupid guy bleating around construction zones – no money, no family, nowhere to go except the cold sucking earth. Biff Crane: a man with nothing to lose. Biff Crane: a man with something to get back, maybe.
Driving on the lake, in the dark, was like driving underwater. He had a globe of light from his highbeams – no fogs on the Ranger, useless as they were – and he could only track his motion by the ice’s grain slithering beneath his wheels. It felt like floating. It felt like not moving at all. The last time he’d driven on the lake had been with the boy and the boy’s wife, them two riding a pair of GTs hitched to his trailer tow. The game: go like a maniac and bank a sharp turn, skid into yaw and slingshot the lovey-dovey brats in an arc. That marked the first time Biff ever locked antlers with the boy’s wife, since the boy skidded too near a warm spot and sunk waist-deep in the water. Biff hauled him out – the GT was lost – and packed him into the truck. The boy peeled off his snowpants and sweatpants and, yes, his underpants, and they sat in the Ranger, heat blazing, with the boy’s wife between them and everybody’s knees brushing everybody’s knees. Biff grinned like a stupid man and he could tell the boy was doing his damnedest not to.
—You’re an irresponsible bastard, the boy’s wife said as they drove to shore.
—That’s a good distance from the truth, Biff said, and the boy, naked below the waist but otherwise dressed like a logger, snorted at the window.
The boy’s wife was a Calgary cowgirl he met during his first year of electrical school, with dishwater blonde hair and a black cowboy hat she’d only wear when driving her car. She had soft cheekbones and a boyish jawline and a chickenpox scar on the tip of her nose. She wore skirts too short to make Biff comfortable. About nobody Biff ever met was as smart as her, and she made a point of it. She was a good enough match for the boy, Biff used to think – even if she voted for the Liberals.
—He could’ve died, the boy’s wife said.
—Well, darling, Biff told her. —You coulda pulled him out yourself.
Biff figured the boy would’ve snorted again, but his wife jabbed him with her elbow. She wasn’t a bad woman, but Biff didn’t really get her. She figured he wasn’t smart enough, and even if that were true – it probably was – she didn’t need to act like it. Biff held his tongue, though, for the boy’s sake: you didn’t need to be very smart to call a spayed horse spayed.
That incident would’ve been a decade ago, and here he was still thinking of it. Mostly, he feared he’d done something wrong, that he should’ve given the boy some kind of father-son talk. Biff knew about all kinds of fighting, ask anyone, but when it came to matters between a guy and his wife, well, he had only a slate of losses to show. If he could do it again he’d probably do things different, maybe try a bit harder not to get divorced. He never expected he’d die old and lonely. But he bet nobody ever expected that.
The sky was turning turquoise. Biff thought he could see taillights, but it could have been reflection, or nothing. He cracked his window a finger’s width to let the morning air enter the cab. He liked the smell of the bleeding hours, the frost or dew and, at home, the scent of a cold house and the cheap, cheap, stove-top coffee he’d strain into a cheap steel thermos and drink in the shower, and while pissing, and while shuffling outside in his Carhartts and steeltoes to let the Ranger’s engine wind up in the dry B.C. cold. He didn’t envy those poor bastards on the prairies, like his old man and his two brothers and the stew of fuckers from his ex’s side. Romanians – and hillbilly, even by his standards.
Not that he held anything against the ex, really. They got on well enough. She invited him over for holiday dinners and if he saw her at the bar he’d buy her a drink. One time he helped her chop a cord of lumber and haul it to her backyard in wheelbarrows. He got a peck on the cheek for that, an affectionate rub on the chest. They’d met on the prairies, went to the same highschool even if they lived in different villages, but that’s how it went with all those ghost towns around Regina: get to highschool, partner up and bunker down. Biff and the ex, at least, made it to B.C. because the province needed electricians, and they were both, if nothing else, good electricians.
As he sped along the ice, the edges of his highbeams caught a fishing hut – squat and made of grey lumber, so weatherbeaten it was almost cured – and he damned near tapped the breaks, as if that’d do any good. Every year, at least one of those things got taken out by an idiot in a truck, but nobody’d ever been killed, far as Biff knew. His ex used to like fishing in those huts, but he’d never seen the charm.
A tough woman, his ex – a denim wearer, coat and all, and the kind of girl who looked good in a ballcap, who could run her fingers through her hair and make you watch. She always had a smudge of dirt or sawdust or oil on her cheek, sure as makeup. She was damned near as strong as him and if he’d ever had to fight her he wouldn’t have wagered either way. One time, when the boy couldn’t have been more than ten, Biff and the ex hauled a cargo of teenagers around town so they could hawk Ice-Melt tickets to raise money for their football team. Biff bought a dozen himself, bet on March twenty-second, and when the twenty-second rolled around he and the ex woke in the smoky hours when the Rocky mountains cast long shadows over town. She smelled like wax paper and bronze, as though she’d been counting change all day, and as he watched her sitting wide-legged in passenger he had a feeling in his gut that the two of them were too similar to last. The ice on the lake had melted, so they were two-hundred bucks richer, but rather than celebrate they sat in the Ranger just looking at the view – the glasswork lake lit by the morning sun, as if on fire, as if made of miles and miles of fire. Between them: his cheap steel thermos, her cigarettes. Between them: the gearshift, the empty seat.
Two years later they were divorced. That same summer, Biff and the boy drove eighteen hours to the prairies and stayed with his brother, Bill, on a cattle farm outside Regina, where Biff drank more homebrewed wine than a man should and where the boy spent whole days in Bill’s yard with Bill’s dogs – two big Rottweilers named Moose I and Moose II. Biff’s clothes were a wreck of torn work tops and Carhartts, and he’d quit shaving. The way his brother stared at him – it felt like coming home beaten. It felt like not coming home at all.
—You still got Princess? Biff said at dinner, one day.
His brother nodded – one deep, deliberate dip of his chin. —She had a calf.
—After all these years, his brother said.
—She a cow of yours? the boy said through a mouthful of steak.
Biff sucked on his teeth, saw his brother watching. He shrug-a-lugged. —Not only that, he told the boy. —She’s my first cow ever. Might not mind seeing her, actually.
—She had a calf, got all mean.
—Yeah. But like I say, she’s mean now.
Biff barely heard him, took the boy and hopped in the Ranger and made his way to the barn. Then he was facing Princess, his darling cow, who, as a young man, Biff had saved from certain death – the only living creature he could say that for. That time, Princess was pregnant, and Biff woke in the night with this sudden feeling – the same feeling he’d later have about him and his wife, how doomed they were –as if she needed his help. He bolted out the door, ignored his hollering old man, and found Princess in labour. They lost the calf – and every other one, every other time – but Princess persisted.
And now her little sucker of a calf was sucking milk, legs as wobbly as a tv stand. Princess had a bottle-shaped blotch along her bottom ribs. One eye was grey and the other green, and both of them a tad too close together. Her head was big for the rest of her, which itself was pretty damned big.
The boy stayed outside the stall, but Biff went in. Princess’s tail whipped against her sides. The bleary-eyed calf slunk toward Princess’s hind legs but Biff lowered his palm at it and it seemed to calm. He laid his hand on Princess’s flank – he loved that cow, would’ve nicknamed his daughter the same, had he had one, and never told her its origins.
—Hey, gal, he said.
Princess made a deep, mewling sound in her throat, like a drill stuck in low gear. He patted her, like you might a dog. —Remember me? he said, and she raised her head as if acknowledging that she did, in fact, remember him.
—See? Biff said, turning to the boy.
In hindsight, his warning might have been the scuffing of the calf’s hooves on the floor, or the sound of straw kicked into, and then drifting from, the air – almost like a person flicking dirt off their fingertips. But it happened too fast – too fast, even as he registered something like horror on the boy’s face, but not quite horror, because what kind of man gets scared of a cow?
The beast knocked him over with one great, bullheaded blow to his blindside. It was like getting blasted through concrete. It was like being pushed underwater – that disorienting. Biff hit the ground mouth first and the muscle above his shoulder – the big one, tough as trailer-hitch, that holds the arm in place and can tow a flatbed – tore nearly in two, and then Princess was on top him, front legs bent to pin him beneath her weight and her big head clubbing him like a madman with a barstool.
Even with two functioning arms he wouldn’t have fended her off. His left hung useless, four-inches lower than it ought, numb with ache through to his fingertips. He barely knew where he was. He barely knew which way was up. Princess reared her head around, bludgeoning him, but Biff managed on each swing to get his good arm between her head and his. He cracked her in the gums with his elbow. He pushed his thumb into her eye. In his mouth: dirt and cow shit and bits of chewed straw. In his mouth: the rusty, loose-change flavour of his own blood.
Then the boy came. Not thirteen years old, grain-thin, in a pair of gumboots and baggy Carhartts belonging to Biff and a stained t-shirt that said: 4U2NV. He hit the cow like you’d hit a cow to tip one. He put his whole body in the act, shoulder-first, toes in the mud and a face screwed upward and inward with the effort of his heave. He made a sound like a kid would make to help his dad push a truck from the ditch. And Princess barely moved. Sixteen hundred, maybe eighteen hundred pounds, that Princess – one big bitching cow. She rocked. Maybe she got distracted. It gave Biff his chance. He stretched his good hand behind his head, to the underside of the wooden stalls, and in a feat of strength he would never repeat, dragged himself from beneath the cow, beneath the stall, and to safety.
The boy vaulted out the moment Biff cleared, and then they limped from the barn and the boy drove the Ranger, since Biff couldn’t operate a gearshift. His arm hurt like nothing in the world – worse than the time he got blood poisoning from a wood splinter in the palm, after being flung from the sidecar of his ex-wife’s Harley – but he couldn’t keep a straight face. The boy gave him this look – a frown damned near comical it was so serious. He held it, sternly, at least for a second. Then the two of them laughed great whooping laughs that shot rings of pain through Biff’s shoulder.
—You owe me one, the boy said.
—I sure do, Biff told him.
—You see that – saved your life, the boy said, and he flashed Biff a ridiculous thumbs up, like you’d give to a guy about to go get laid.
Now, on the frozen lake, Biff would pay the boy back, because he had to, because the boy had saved him from certain death, because nobody gave him the time of day like the boy did, and because there was nothing else in the world Biff cared about more. Everything depended on it – at least, everything that mattered. And as his speedometer cusped one-fifty-seven, the absolute fastest he’d ever got the Ranger moving, he had this sudden gut feeling that he and the boy were in the same driver’s seat of the same truck, just two decades separate.
Thirty-years ago, thirty-years backward in time, while Biff cradled his maimed shoulder and they bounced along his brother’s farm road, the boy had grinned a boy’s grin that showed all the crooked teeth he wouldn’t suffer braces to straighten, and then he reached across the seat and patted Biff on the knee. —It’ll all be okay, Dad, the boy said, and Biff, Biff – well, Biff believed him.
©2010 Dave Wilson
Press release about Wilson's forthcoming collection, Once You Break a Knuckle
Order Malahat Review #162, containing a Wilson story