They’re all gone now, but when I was a kid, there were cows all around my house, even though we were only twelve miles from downtown. Half the kids I went to school with, their parents owned cows. Even my own parents, a dozen cows, penned in the field across the street, behind my dad’s saloon. Big brown cows with white faces and large, sad eyes — and long eyelashes, longer even than the ones my mom kept in her top dresser drawer.
One of the cows I named after my sister: Janet the cow. My sister didn’t like that. She thought that in some obscure way I was calling her a cow — which I was. But there was more to it than that. Standing at the electric fence (two thin wires strung between White ceramic spools), afraid of getting shocked, I loved to watch Janet the cow licking the huge block of salt my father had dropped in the middle of the field. I loved to watch her pick her way among the cowpies and nibble the grass and clover. At times, she’d draw near the fence and raise her head to stare at me, and I’d stare back, neither of us knowing what to make of the other, but each comforted somehow by the other’s presence.
One day, I came home from school, and the cows were all gone.
“What happened to the cows?” I asked my mother.
“They’re gone,” she said.
“Gone where?” I asked.
“Your father sold them to the slaughterhouse,” she said matter-of-factly, as if telling me I needed a haircut or to wash my hands for dinner.
For months after that I couldn’t eat a hamburger without wondering whether this one was her, or this one, or this one.
It wasn’t that I loved the cow more than I did my sister. Being the boy that I was, I couldn’t love my sister, so I loved the cow. I could stand and watch the cows, watch how they took the heat and the violent rains and the flies and the muggy mist, and not feel sorry for them, like I did for myself and my sister.
I hated that, on a whim from my father, the cows had all been killed. I had been as powerless to protect them as I was to protect my sister. My father would never love her. She would never be his pet. She would never dance on his arm, in love with that image of herself, the woman she might have become, a woman loved by men.