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Riding in the Middle

Michelle Collins Anderson

A blast from the useless air conditioner assaults my sun-freckled face. I long to roll down a window in our mustard-colored pickup, but my 10-year-old legs straddle the gearshift in an awkward embrace. Our worthless cow dog, Belle, fills the floorboard like a mangy rug.

It’s Saturday. A day of dreams cut short by my father’s call to chores. Of hastily gobbled cold cereal and the reluctant gasp of sock feet meeting the stiff leather of cowboy boots.

Already it’s well past noon. We’re hauling our second trailerload of stamping, sweating cattle from one farm to another. The August sun has shriveled and bleached the pasture grass to broomsticks. An ungrazed pasture offers only a few weeks’ fodder, a short respite until this heatwave evaporates in a fire-and-brimstone thunderstorm. But today, like yesterday and the days and weeks before that, the sky is an empty blue bowl.

The dry red gravel road is a washboard, and we pop up and down in our seats like kernels of corn in oil. But sideways glances at the men on my left and on my right reveal two unmoving faces.

Grandad stares out the passenger-side window, right arm stuck by sweat to the vinyl armrest beneath the window. His other hand rubs Belle’s head — muzzle to ears — over and over. I watch her bob to meet the unerring hand at another angle, try unsuccessfully to ease an itch, then finally settle for what she’s got.

My father drives, tongue a narrow pink pyramid rising above his upper lip as he concentrates. Pepsi can changes from hand to hand as he balances steering and shifting. There is anger in the way he goes from third to fourth. The gearshift jabs my blue-denimed knee.

“I don’t know why we had to move cattle 30 miles on the hottest goddamn day of the goddamn summer,” he says. Not a question. Foot heavier on the gas.

Grandad’s temple tenses and shifts with a slight ripple of his jaw. His gaze stays fixed on the parched Ozark pastureland zipping fast-forward through the passenger window.

“Wouldn’t be if we’d of got started on time.”

I feel invisible as they wage their strange, silent battle. Two familiar dogs, resniffing and circling with every meeting.

Dad rolls down the window and spits angrily into the 55-mile-per-hour breeze. The handle comes off in his hand.

“Piece of shit.”

With this, Grandad finally looks at this brown-haired version of himself. Shoots a meaningful glance toward me and my young ears.

“You’re the one that wanted the feed.” Dad’s words are spit out like hard ice cubes in the withering heat of the cab. “You know the Co-op closes at noon on Saturday.”

Silence. The thick, sour smell of drying sweat mingles with the dusty sweetness of straw, almost suffocating me. I turn my attention to the red-brown scab on my elbow. Pick at a stiffened edge until it hurts.

“Maybe you oughtta try getting to bed at a decent hour.” I don’t need to look up to know Grandad is emphasizing his point with a nod toward me: the responsibility. “Then you could get up.” Tone reasonable but righteous.

When we pull up to the chained metal gate, Grandad is out the door with a slam and Belle trades the floorboard for the seat, its split seams revealing cheap, coffee-stained foam.

“Stubborn.” Dad talks across the top of the soda can toward Grandad’s back as the padlock is removed, gate swung inward. “It’s his way or the highway, every single goddamn time.”

I am mute as the door reopens. A fist-like pounding in my chest and ears threatens to split me wide open and I realize I’ve been holding my breath. Grandad eases back into the seat, banishing Belle to the floor with a slight arch of his shaggy eyebrow. The cattle trailer lurches gracelessly behind us, filled with the thundering roll of heavy hooves hitting metal.

Far ahead, at the end of this first field, a single black dot lies unmoving near the cattle feeders. I start to speak, but stop. I quickly scan the pasture for the herd of cattle we unloaded earlier this morning, spotting them under the shade of a distant gnarled blackjack.

The small black dot becomes a huge dead cow as we approach in the pickup. The heat, of course. But also the fighting. The head-butting and bellowing and the whirlwinds of dust as cows jockey endlessly for position in a new field.

Dad’s door shuts like an expletive as he grabs his keys. He is gone to get the tractor. Sweat stains irregular patterns on the back of his red T-shirt.

Grandad stands over the body, wipes the dusty sweat from his face with the back of a large-knuckled hand. The hands come to rest briefly on lean, bony hips. His leather workboot, scuffed with the rural graffiti of manure and mud, traces a line in the powdery dust.

The 900-pound cow is definitely dead. Her four legs stick out from her side like a four-poster bed, her bloated belly hard beneath the tightly stretched skin. The softer black hair of her coat is sunburned cinnamon on her back, head and tail. It moves almost imperceptibly in the whisper of wind that refuses to cool or soothe.

Her eye looks shamelessly at heaven, unseeing. Small, glittering green-blue flies walk on her eyeball, giving the illusion of animation until the lazy hum of wings floats through the thick, humid air. The cow’s unblinking acceptance of this death party makes my eyes water. But still I look.

I see her uncomfortable in the thick dust created by thousands of careless hooves. Her tail extends flaglike from her hindquarters, exposing a swollen, shiny vulva that brims with a vaseline-like ooze. I feel my insides contract, nearly heave.

Finally, Grandad looks up from the buzzing black mound and his tired gray-green eyes meet mine.

“Honey, I sure am sorry you had to be here for this.” A slight, spasm-like nod of the head toward the carcass. “I don’t like you seeing this side of the business.”

The blue Ford belches a monotonal dirge, varying only in loudness determined by the gas pedal beneath Dad’s foot as he returns.

Silently, the two men grasp the stiff back legs, wheelbarrow-like. Then they pull, together, as if hearing a signal that I did not. The udder is revealed, a hard brown bowling ball with exploded holes. The legs cross daintily at the ankle as they are lashed to the back of the tractor.

Dad settles back into the spoon-shaped seat and it complains with a metallic whine. As he pulls away, giant black doughnut tires make two sets of V-shaped marks in the dry dust. In-between, uneven stripes from the stiffened forelegs and hooves. Dust collects in the cow’s snot-slickened nostrils.

I feel cold sweat under my arms even in the scorch of this unforgiving August sun. Dad grows smaller as the cow blindly stretches unheeding legs toward me in a last gesture of despair. A drop of sweat burns my eye and I blink. I turn away, grateful that I can.