Calf, fiction by James Owens

Dad is think­ing about me and a woman, but he has for­got­ten he is doing it. The heater in the truck makes the win­dows sweat on the inside and drip in lines like cry­ing, and the lights of the cars and blink­ing signs and traf­fic sig­nals get smeared in the water, so it is hard to see through. Dad / trem­bling inside but sup­press that and don't be exit­ed. this is not me tonight. it is for Kyle, a man, this kind­ness or des­per­a­tion / yanks the sleeve of his coat down over his fist and rubs a hole in the smeared light and bends toward it and looks. Then he parks and we get out of the truck, and the cold air burns in our chests and our mouths smoke. Dad's boot slides on old ice that the rain has pocked and rot­ted, and he halfway falls but catch­es the side of the truckbed with a thump and says, “Fuck,” the word snap­ping like a jerked string in the emp­ty, dark park­ing lot. Dad is not my father. My father had horns as wide as stretched arms and fist-big balls that swung down to his knees, and his breath blew from his wide nos­trils so hard and hot that it singed the hairs on the back of my soft mother's neck. Dad killed my father just after I was born. He braced him­self wide-legged, lock-kneed and close and shot him between the eyes, and Father's blood streamed out like a rope that tied him to the ground until he could nev­er move again. I saw that in a dream.

I am think­ing about Calf. It is ear­li­er, in the barn with the wind knock­ing on the tin above us, and I am pet­ting the soft hair on the slope of Calf's neck and scratch­ing between his ears. Calf sucked hard and wet on my fin­ger and his tongue rough, as if he thought my hand was his moth­er. He pushed with his nose and searched for milk.

We go inside and force the door closed against the dark, and I fol­low Dad to a table beside the wall.

This is a good table,” Dad says.

Kay,” I say. We sit. My chair has one short leg, so that it rocks from side to side. I shift the weight on my hips to make it rock and the short leg clicks on the floor.

Sit still, Kyle,” Dad says.

Kay.” I stop rocking. 

Dad says, “I like to sit in a cor­ner, where you can keep an eye on things. Nev­er sit with your back to the door. That's how they got Wild Bill Hickok.” He points a fin­ger at me like a gun and winks to aim and low­ers his thumb to shoot me between the eyes. It feels like a lit­tle hole opens.


I hug myself and shiv­er. “It's cold.”

On a night like this, my dad used to say it's cold­er than a well-digger's ass. I don't know where he got that, but it makes sense, if you think about it. I guess I'm going to have to get that heater fixed in the truck. You'll warm up in here, though, just take a few min­utes. You spent too long out in that barn today. I don't won­der you're cold.”

The wait­ress comes to us. She wears ordi­nary clothes, not a uni­form, though she has a flower-strewn apron and a pad for writ­ing. She has an extra pen stuck in her hair. She smiles.

Get you guys any­thing?” she asks.

I'll have a beer,” Dad says.

What kind? We got just about any­thing you want.”

Um, Bud­weis­er.”

What about you, honey?”

Dad / it is not for me — though for me too isn't it? for this jeal­ousy embraced like a big soft bag of spilling dirt against my chest my body coaxed and pum­meled to des­per­ate fail­ure alone in the dark­ness of the bed while his young and igno­rant stain­ing the bed­sheets with semen over and over as if to the soft­est touch of any breeze / says to me, “Tell her what you want.” To the wait­ress he says, “He's a lit­tle shy. More than a little.”

The words are in my throat. I taste them sweet and fizzing like the thing before I can say and push them stum­bling out with my tongue. “Root beer.”

There you go. One Bud and one root beer, com­ing up.”

The wait­ress leaves.

Is Calf okay? He might be cold,” I ask Dad. Calf shiv­ered for a long time when he was born. He was wet and his mama licked him all over, as if her broad pink tongue was sculpt­ing his flesh into shape for this world and warm­ing him, which is love. 

He's fine, I reckon.”

He was shiv­er­ing when he tried to stand up. It's cold tonight. Calf is little.”

Don't wor­ry, his mom will keep him warm. I'll bet he's lay­ing up against her in the barn right now, with his bel­ly tight on warm milk, snug­ger than either one of us.”

I think about how hap­py Calf is. It makes me feel so good that I hurt.

The wait­ress comes back. She puts two nap­kins on the table, then sets down the bot­tle of beer and the glass of root beer.

What else can I get for you?” she asks. “The shrimp bas­ket is the spe­cial tonight.”

You want a hot dog or some­thing?” Dad asks.

I shake my head. She leaves.

Dad takes a drink.

Aren't you going to drink your pop?” Dad asks.

I hope Calf ain't cold. He is pretty.”

The pret­ti­est I've ever seen.” Dad / damned scrawny / stands up. “I'm going to go to the rest room, then I'm going to talk to some­body over there. You stay here.”


Dad leaves. I sit still for a while and look at the table, then I look at the black win­dow where the lights in the ceil­ing behind me are shin­ing. I take the car out of my pock­et and push it slow­ly to the edge of the table, then catch it after it falls. I think about Calf. The wind nev­er stopped for a sec­ond today, as if all the great and win­ter-scoured plains to the west had tipped like a plate to pour their icy spir­its out over the lit­tle farms. The wind blun­dered and stum­bled through the bony trees, but swift in the open fields its lithe, silken fin­gers rubbed the air into flakes that scat­tered ran­dom­ly and with­out accu­mu­la­tion above the freeze-clot­ted veins of earth. I won­der if my moth­er is cold in the earth. The wispi­est, soft­est frizz of hair frames her face and catch­es what­ev­er light is avail­able from sun or lamp into its brown, blonde edges, so that she always shines. Calf's moth­er pissed before he was born, hot-smelling a wrist-thick gush of cow­piss shin­ing from her into the barn straw, why? To make room for his pas­sage from her body. Did my moth­er have to void her­self to ease my com­ing through her? Calf fell from her swathed in her thick bloody wet that she licked away until he could stand, shak­ing almost too much to push him­self up, spin­dle-legged, weak and as if aston­ished to breathe. He thought my fin­gers were teats in his still unteethed hard pink mouth, suck­ing to pull more life down his throat, need­ing the pli­able pale thread of milk that he will braid into bone and flesh. We left the light on in the barn. Dad was silent, com­ing here, except some­times huff­ing a cough into his sleeve, and both our smells are dif­fer­ent because of the after­shave we abrad­ed burn­ing into our razor-fresh­ened skin side-by-side at the mir­ror. This is some­how the flesh, too, ris­ing trem­bling in trep­i­da­tion and pover­ty, hang­ing racked on its scaf­fold of wet bone to ask for more life, bawl­ing beyond voli­tion into time at once as and not as Calf bawls hunger into the edge of the wind. I didn't know I was cry­ing until I left the barn and the cold groped for and found the wet on my face. Dad said noth­ing about my unman­ly tears. 

This is Kyle,” Dad / not for me, how many years since that for me, old man pum­mel­ing his own flesh use­less­ly in the dark bed­room? / says. He sits in his chair again, and a woman sits in anoth­er chair.

The woman says, “Hey, fel­la. Your son?”

Step­son. Say hel­lo, Kyle. This is Tina. He's shy. Say hello.”

Hi,” I say.

How's it going?” Tina asks. She has lit­tle lines beside her eyes, like her hair is pulled back too tight. Her eyes are not like Mom's. She drinks from a glass with ice click­ing in it. She has a cig­a­rette between fin­gers yel­lowed from many oth­er cig­a­rettes. She pulls smoke into her mouth and waits a few sec­onds and breathes it out.

Good, I guess.” I nudge the car toward the edge of the table.

He's a lit­tle slow, huh? But that's okay.”

Dad says, “He's a good boy.”

Sure. I know he is. How old are you, Kyle?”

I say, “Sev­en­teen.”

Dad says, “Nine­teen. You're nine­teen now, Kyle. Remem­ber? Two birth­days since Mom left. He can't han­dle num­bers, but he is pret­ty good with every­thing else. He under­stands a lot more than he can put into words, don't doubt that, a lot more than you think.” When he says left he means died. 

What are you boys up to tonight?”

Just hav­ing a look around. Bored with sit­ting at home, I guess.”

Where's that, home?”

Up near Wabash.”

That's not so far, I been to Wabash lots of times, but I haven't seen you around before.”


There is a silence.

Well, do you want a par­ty, Willis?”

Let's just talk a lit­tle first.”

She shrugs and smokes.

Not much hap­pen­ing in this place tonight, that's for sure. ”

Anoth­er silence.

Do you think Calf is cold?” I ask Dad. He looks / embar­rassed, the damned calf again / mad when I ask. 

Cath? Is that your girl­friend, Kyle?” Tina says.

I blush warm like blood seep­ing through my face. “No, no!”

He said 'Calf,'” Dad says, “like a baby cow. One of our cows had a calf this morn­ing, and Kyle named it Calf. Not very imag­i­na­tive. He loves it. He hasn't talked about any­thing else all day long.”

Oh, that's fine,” Tina says. “When we were kids, my broth­er had a dog named Dog. He was a mean fuck­er, I mean the dog, except when he was with Frankie. Fol­lowed my broth­er around every­where he went and nev­er bit any­body, then.”

I think every­body used to have a dog named Dog,” Dad / my body is a dog named Dog / says.

Is Calf okay?” 

He's fine, Kyle.” 

What if the dogs come?” Tina talk­ing made me think about the dogs.

They won't tonight. That's enough ques­tions for a while. Let's talk to Tina.” Dad's voice is tired. Every­body is qui­et. The wind push­es on the window.

Well, then,” Tina says. “What's it's going to be? Do you want a party?”

How much?” Dad asks.

What you want to do?”

Just ordi­nary, I guess.”

You mean straight sex. A hun­dred and fifty.”

Dad looks at the win­dow, as if he is try­ing to find the dark.

A hun­dred.”

One twen­ty-five, and only because it's a Tues­day and too damn cold for rea­son­able peo­ple to be out. We can use a room upstairs, so you don't have to pay for a room. Pay me when we get up there.”

Some­thing hurts Dad. He looks like a fist is clench­ing and open­ing and clench­ing again in his mouth.

Not me,” he says. “I'm not going.”

Tina's mouth is open. A curly thread of cig­a­rette smoke leaves it. She looks at Dad and looks at me and looks at Dad. I push the car off the edge of the table and catch it. The car is red.

Oh, Jesus fuck. No,” Tina says. She stands and leans on her hand on the table, push­ing down, the backs of her fin­gers white because the blood is pushed out. “Fuck­ing hell no.”

Wait,” Dad says. His voice is a wire in his mouth.

Tina picks up her glass and the ice clicks against the sides. She leaves.

The dogs. In sum­mer the corn is high and the sus­sur­ant wind breathes through the fields with a noise like the begin­ning of sleep, high­er and low­er all day long accord­ing to the wind, the ribbed green blades rub­bing togeth­er, the dense hot green shad­ow under the mat of leaves risen from earth like a flu­id around the stalks. “Wait,” Dad says again as she is walk­ing away. The dogs came through, break­ing the stalks, rolling over them as if fight­ing. One dog had the fawn's throat between its teeth, and the oth­er bit the thin bone of a hind leg, just above the foot, thrash­ing their heads back and forth, the fawn a limp rag between them as they wres­tled and rolled on the ground and stood and pulled. The doe reared on her hind legs around them, squeal­ing thin and hope­less pan­ic, a mother's sound blue and bright like the edge of the flame from an acety­lene torch, her front hooves dig­ging cir­cles in the air, try­ing to find a grip and climb away, until the dogs bore the dead fawn back into the corn, still fight­ing over it, and the doe stood still, her head low­ered between exhaust­ed splayed legs. Did I close the door of the barn before we left? Soft small things are easy to hurt. When I think that the dogs might come back and find Calf, it hurts so bad that I am afraid I might wet my pants.

Tina comes and stands beside the table. 

What am I sup­posed to do?” Dad, star­ing angry at the table / come stiff­ened on his bed­sheets every morn­ing and the whole ques­tion ris­ing up in him between his thighs between his shoul­ders in his eyes like a warm ani­mal heav­ing slow­ly its back up through the brown dirt and shak­ing and look­ing around for what this means or maybe even poi­soned with long­ing the long­ing a poi­son because he doesn't know long­ing for what, and what can I do? / asks. “Does he have to live his whole life with­out anything?”

Just me and him go up. You stay here.”

Dad's face looks sick, or like he has bit­ten some­thing so sour it makes his teeth ache.

Fuck yes, I stay here,” he says. “What do you think I want? What do you think this is?”

Tina says, “Two hundred.”

Dad does not argue. He takes mon­ey from his wal­let and gives it to Tina.

What am I sup­posed to do?” Dad / not for me noth­ing for me only numb inert noth­ing for me / says again. “Every morn­ing his sheet is wet with come, but I don't think he even knows he's a man or what to do for him­self. Maybe you could at least show him that.”

I don't know what you're sup­posed to do, but I know what I'm sup­posed to do. I'm sup­posed to make a fuck­ing car pay­ment in the morn­ing, and nobody but me to get it done. Doesn't mat­ter to me, if you can't get it up and have to send him to do it all for you.” She sounds mean, angry, too. She puts the mon­ey in her pock­et. She takes my hand and pulls. “Come on,” she says. “Kay,” I say. I reach for the red car but miss it as she pulls me, and it falls.

We go out. When Tina opens the door, the cold pours in like a buck­et of thrown water, and I think we are going out into a place where every­thing will shine with a lay­er of frost, the win­dows, the parked cars, the clumps of weed and grass and leaf­less bush­es stripped and trem­bling like wired toy arma­tures of bone in the waste beyond the park­ing lot, all var­nished and shin­ing with clean ice, as it is on some morn­ings that I like, but noth­ing is frozen yet, only raw wet still from the rain before, and the wind work­ing rough and raw on any skin it can find. The moon inside the clouds is a white liq­uid bruise. Our shoes when we go out are like break­ing sticks on the con­crete, then we are on hard slick dirt, and Tina leads me around the cor­ner into at first the blind dark, then what light there is set­tles into my eyes, and there is a met­al stair on the side of the build­ing. As we go up, the stair creaks and shakes, and thin drops of freez­ing rain­wa­ter shake from the steps and splash on the ground underneath.

In the room Tina turns on a light, and the shad­ows jump away from us. Tina shiv­ers. She turns a dial beside the door, and warm air purrs from vents along the walls, and I think I can see heat shim­mer­ing above the vents like a road in sum­mer. She says, “You can go ahead and get undressed. I'll be right back.” She goes into the bath­room with­out turn­ing a light on in there. She leaves the door half-open, and I hear her pee­ing and think of Calf, hap­py and fine tonight, sleep­ing against his moth­er. There is not much in the room, a few met­al chairs fold­ed against one wall and a long, nar­row couch cov­ered in green cloth, with a pat­tern of long-tailed birds in yel­low thread on the back cush­ions, and I stand look­ing at them, until Tina comes back.

Don't just stand there,” Tina says. She comes close, so I put my arms out and around her and she leans into me for a moment, releas­ing her weight, as if all the heav­i­ness of the world had been press­ing down on her from the sky, urg­ing her with­out relent­ing into the rest that I am, her soft­ened flesh run­ning to thick­ness around the waist and warm and pil­lowed where her breasts push against my chest. “Rest here for a minute,” Tina / rest is bet­ter than sleep, because asleep you don't know you are rest­ing, and the best is the ear­ly morn­ing still dark in the win­dow but the first light then nudg­ing slow­ly as if in incre­ments though it is not incre­men­tal, the light over the edge of every­thing wedg­ing into the dark until gray sky and then blue sky and then col­ors among the things down here, and the smell of cof­fee, and sit­ting so that my hip eas­es from the night of lying on it, the eas­ing of the ache a plea­sure, and greater plea­sure in being alone for half an hour between my wak­ing and tammy's, though plea­sure lat­er in being with her, too, both of us far away and alone togeth­er, love for her but also a dull­ness in that, an inca­pac­i­ty and fear, but away from peo­ple loud hot smelling crowd men push­ing in always with their eyes and their hands mov­ing, and jesus i am a whore, how the fuck did that hap­pen?, but tam­my will be up soon and she can't under­stand no hot water, must wait until there is the mon­ey, a whore, but remem­ber my mommy's shin­ing red shoes with lit­tle straps over the toes and the heels so steep i held the porch rail almost falling but walked the shoes too big slip­ping and mom­my laugh­ing hap­py in the door­way, tina tina you beau­ty some­day you will know what shoes like that are for, but not tam­my, but now this boy big clum­sy dumb oh jesus what an idea, but only a few min­utes and then / says, except that I am not rest now, I am chaos before there were names, and her scent enters me, sham­poo and the per­fume almost as thick as lath­er on her skin because it is sup­posed to dis­guise the odors of cig­a­rette smoke and sweat but does not dis­guise any­thing, and under that the woman smell that is real­ly her, as warm and pul­sive as crum­bled bread or the smell of black wet earth that drips from the har­row blades before seed­time. I don't want her to move away, but she shifts her weight back into her bones and stands, tug­ging at my belt and slip­ping the but­ton of my pants loose. She push­es in the mid­dle of my chest and says, “Sit here,” and I sit on the old couch. Tina on her knees drags my pants down to my ankles. 

I am Calf's moth­er in her mouth, and she is Calf.

But I don't under­stand how the time splits and jumps, and there is too much stretched-thin red noise inside me, and I am falling down the met­al stairs out­side. I try to catch myself, but my wrist hits the handrail hard, so that my arm rings and vibrates like the met­al, and I am still falling, and I go over the rail out into the black air. I fall for a long time and land on my back, and the frozen ground knocks the air in my chest into a ball that hurts to push up through my throat, and I turn over with my knees up to my bel­ly, look­ing for a way to breathe. Tina clat­ters down the stairs, shout­ing, “Jesus, are you okay? Are you okay?”

What the fuck did you do to him?” Dad roars, stand­ing over me, and Tina flinch­es away from him and says, “Noth­ing noth­ing, he just got up and ran, I don't know — noth­ing!” afraid and close to cry­ing. I can breathe now, the air like thin oil on the inside walls of my chest, and Dad gets down on his knees and feels my arms and legs to see if bones are bro­ken. He asks if I am hurt.

No,” I say.

Can you stand up?”

Kay.” Dad tries to help me up, but the wrist he is hold­ing hurts like pour­ing ice water on it, and I fall back and then stand by myself, hold­ing my hand against my side.

He ought to go to the emer­gency room,” Tina says, then, “But you take him there, okay? Don't bring no ambu­lance here. What the fuck, Kyle? Why did you do that?” She is shak­ing. Her voice / fuck why did he do that? I can't be in trou­ble again I can't. He's hurt but fuck fuck / shakes apart in the air, into thin strings of sound that blow away. 

Dad holds my oth­er arm and leads me back to the truck in small steps like an old man. My face is wet. Cry­ing smells warm. He left my red car on the table. Calf, I think, and I feel mean because I haven't thought of him for a while, and he seems small­er because I have not been think­ing about him. Before he was born, I could put my face against his mama's side and feel Calf mov­ing inside her, but he must be sad now because she is so far away, no longer her hot blood froth­ing and hum­ming through the chan­nels of her and all around him as he wait­ed long in the cage of her ribs, before ever the first wak­ing, as she knit­ted him bone and hair and eye, par­ti­cle after par­ti­cle, from the noth­ing­ness where he was not. 

Shhh,” Dad whis­pers, “shhh, Kyle, you're okay, we'll go to the doc­tor, and you're okay.” Then my feet are far away and my legs are wob­bly liq­uid. I can't find the ground, and I fall over an edge again into anoth­er dark. For a long time I try to move in the dark, but I can't move, then I wake up.

jamesowensJames Owens's most recent col­lec­tion of poems is Mor­talia (Future­Cy­cle Press, 2015). His poems and sto­ries have appeared in Blue Fifth Review, Poet­ry Ire­land, Kestrel, Appalachi­an Her­itage, and Ken­tucky Review, among oth­ers. Orig­i­nal­ly from South­west Vir­ginia, he worked on region­al news­pa­pers before earn­ing an MFA at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma. He now lives in cen­tral Indi­ana and north­ern Ontario.

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