South of Tom’s River, deep into the pine barrens. The first stop is a
small farm off on a back road that’s only recently been paved. The road
lines are painted bright and shiny, tracked over with mud at the mouth of
the dirt driveway. They pull up to the old house and a guy with
sideburns—Lenny’s age, if Lenny was still around—comes out chewing gum,
dressed in dirty brown jeans and a t-shirt with the flag of Hawaii on it.
Out the door behind him scurry four hairy dogs that run circles around the
truck, barking and whining. Alpo takes a list out of the shopping bag,
consults it, then rolls down his window and the guy comes over. "Mr.
Frank?" The guy blinks a few times, looking in at the bandages on Claude’s
face. "Mr. Frank?"
"Charles. Frank Charles." He speaks slowly, laboring over each word as
if speech is a new thing and his mouth needs some time to get used to it.
"You guys do that every time, y’know. I’m an old friend of Mr. Cas. We was
in together. You guys should give me some more respect, okay?"
Alpo pushes his glasses up on his slippery nose. "Any problems this
month, Mr. Charles?"
The guy thinks about it for a minute, hitches up his belt with both
hands. His sideburns are long, and they feather out over his ears. "Never
seen them shit quite that way before. Maxie, be quiet."
"No fatalities? No illnesses?"
"Yup, that’s what I said."
"That’s what I said, I said."
"The white cows? Or the other ones?"
Frank Charles studies his running shoes. They’re white with blue
swoop-marks on them, and they’re caked with brown mud. "Other."
"What did you do with the bodies?"
"Left em there, like you said to." He giggles once, out of the side of
his mouth—a strange, pressured sound.
"All right, we’ll take care of that. Any births? Says here you had a
few cows almost ready to go."
"Three a those."
"And the calves, they were all completely white?"
"Yep. I don’t know how you guys did it since they was preggo before you
even got started with the shots."
"How about the milk," Alpo asks. "Production stable? You tracking it
like we showed you? Any changes up or down?"
"They’re producing more milk than last month?"
"A lot more? A little more?"
"More’s what I said, isn’t it? You figure the rest out. Maxie! Quit!
That damn dog. She starts it. Rest of them just follow her lead."
"And you’re dumping the milk, right Mr. Charles? Remember you signed
those papers that said how the milk was to be disposed of?"
Frank Charles’ eyes get big for a second, and then he looks around
quickly—at the house, the low clouds, at the silver bulldog on the hood of
the truck. "I remember. I been dumping all of it, just like you said. I’m
not selling any of it, no sir." Claude shakes his head.
Alpo rolls his eyes. "How about the food intake?"
"I’m just not hungry." Frank grins at Claude. When Claude’s expression
doesn’t change, he looks back at Alpo and points at his own face. "What’d
you do to that guy, anyway?"
"Is the livestock eating more or less, Mr. Charles."
"Shit. You guys have no sense of humor. I can’t get the damn things to
eat much of anything anymore. Not that they seem to need it.."
"All right. I’ll need to see your data, Frank."
Frank Charles wanders back towards the house, stops on the porch and
giggles again, opens the screen door and goes inside. The dogs seem a
little confused, and decide to settle down on the porch. Alpo takes Rudy
Roy’s briefcase, cups his hand over the lock and dials in a combination.
Inside are rows of glass vials and a large syringe nestled into foam, some
things wrapped in plastic and some sort of hand-held computer, flat and
black and about the size of a slice of bread. All of it is surrounded by
stacks of cash, mostly twenties. He pulls a pen off the computer and
writes some notes onto the screen. The computer beeps, and then Alpo
writes some more notes.
Frank Charles is taking his time. Claude pops the cassette out of the
radio and turns the FM on looking for some news. Rain tomorrow, no shit.
Train derailed in Texas. More and more bombing going on. The flip phone
rings so he doesn’t get the full gist of the newscast, but it all doesn’t
sound very good. Alpo answers the phone, then passes it over. "Clawed
Shoo-tow," Rudy Roy Caglistino says. "My frog man? That you? Look. I know
it’s your last gig. I know it, my man! But look, you always been good to
us, right? What say you take just a few more rides. For me. Personal. No
more of this small time crap shit. I mean the real stuff! The stuff that
matters. The stuff that pays you back the right way, know what I’m
saying?" Claude knows. He just doesn’t know what to answer. Frank Charles
comes back with an old pencil tucked behind his right ear and a stack of
paper, and Claude tells Rudy Roy he’ll think about it and call him back.
"Think hard, my man," Rudy Roy says. "You know I’m countin’ on you."
Frank Charles smiles like a proud five-year old when he hands the
materials over. Alpo takes the sheets and spreads them out on the
briefcase, and even Claude can see that the last group of columns were all
filled in pretty fast, in pencil. Alpo circles a few numbers for show.
"Thanks, Frank. You remember that today’s the pickup day? We’re going to
need to check all of them over and get our own livestock loaded before I
can pay you. I’m going to have to bring those white calves along with me,
Frank Charles is still smiling. It’s a smile with pressure behind it in
the jaws and eyes, like the whole of his face is holding something back.
He nods absently, and waves them on around back to where the barn is.
The barn had been red once, but it’s gray and weathered now. They can
still see an old, faded ad for chewing tobacco along the one side that
faces nothing, a long stretch of fields, mounded up with what must be
hills of green cow shit. Flies rise up in great glittering clouds as they
pull in and maybe twelve cows mill in and out of the structure or are
lying down in the shade, chewing and swatting restlessly with their tails.
Most of them are the black and white blotched ones, and they’re the worst
looking animals Claude has ever seen—scrawny and runny-eyed, ribs showing,
with big bloated udders that swing ponderously back and forth, threatening
to tip them over as they walk. Only three of them are looking all right,
three smaller, dirty white cows that mill in and around the others.
Alpo takes some medical gloves out from the briefcase and passes a set
to Claude, then he rummages around under the seat and pulls out two folded
packages, one of which he hands over. "Be careful of a couple of things,"
he says, unwrapping the other. It’s a blue jumpsuit of some kind, made out
of a thin, pliable material almost like paper. "Don’t come into full
contact with any of them if you can help it. If you do, there’s gas in the
back of the truck you should wash yourself off with, whatever touches. The
quicker the better and watch out for your eyes. We had goggles last time
around, but I don’t see any here now. They don’t move all that fast, so it
shouldn’t be all that big a deal. Put this on, too." He hands Claude a
thin mask to cover his face and nose, then he shakes out the suit and
pulls the legs on over his shoes.
He gets out of the truck with the briefcase. Claude puts the mask on
over the bandages, pulls the gloves on, and then slides into the suit and
zips it up the front. It’s huge and billowing—he feels inflated, like some
strange sort of circus act, half blimp, half clown. Blankets of flies
spring into the air, shifting and darting like a flocks of birds across
"What I need to do," Alpo says, "is to isolate each of the standard
animals, look it over and extract a sample of fluid from the spinal
column. Then we’ll round up ours, those three whites and the calves,
wherever they are, and we’ll take them with us." He points out the white
cows. "Bring the gas down. I’ll feel better having it close."
The cow doesn’t move, though its eyes track Alpo as he gets closer. He
talks in a monotone as he goes, a soothing voice without any change in
pitch or tone. The cow doesn’t seem to react until he’s right up on top of
it. But then it spooks, blows steam out of its nose and swivels its head
around. It lets out a low bawl and its legs start to quiver. It edges
backward, farther out into the field, keeping its eyes on Alpo.
"Circle around from behind," Alpo calls.
Claude walks in a wide arc out and comes in behind the cow, hands
spread wide, enough to the side so that the cow can see him, but not far
enough over that it’ll have a way to get by him. They back it toward the
fence. The cow shivers more, lets loose a long stream of air out the back
end and Claude gets a hot whiff of it right through the bandages and the
clotted blood in his nose. The air is heavy and dank and foul, a soup of
everything he hates about this country. He takes a step back and his eyes
"Pretty fierce, huh. I wouldn’t light any matches if I were you." Alpo
gets up to the head of the cow, grabs it around the neck, and sets to
work. He pats the cow down, feeling along its sides and up under the
stomach for any sores or strange lumps, murmuring low, meaningless words
to calm the animal. He rolls back its eyelids on each side and checks down
in its ears. Then he cracks the briefcase again and takes out the syringe.
The needle is a long, thin one, and it slides smoothly in between the
thick vertebrae of the cow’s heavy neck. Alpo’s thumb pulls back and the
flask fills with a pale pink fluid. When it’s full, he pops it out, places
it carefully in the briefcase, and replaces it with an empty one.
They move on to the next, and then try for a third. It’s not
easy—they’re a skittish bunch, prone to bolting, and the hard part is
getting close enough to them to grab on. Alpo tells Claude to get Frank
Charles, and they glove and mask him too. It takes Frank a few minutes to
figure it all out--he puts his feet in the wrong legs of the suit, gets
the mask on upside-down and in the end Claude has to dress him. But he
makes a fine sheepdog, running along the perimeter and rounding in the
quicker ones. "I do this every morning," he says. "Great way to get some
exercise. Maxie! C’mere, girl." The dogs leap from the porch and duck
under a well-worn part of the wooden fence. Frank comes up behind the cows
and claps his hands low to the ground and startles them into motion, and
then he jogs along behind them, head thrown back and stepping high with
his toes, pumping his arms into the air, just out of their view. He makes
a lot of noise, huffing and clapping his hands and shouting. "Hey!" he
says. "Ho there! Supercows look out, I’m comin’ atcha!" The cattle swivel
their heads back and forth, trying to get a look at Claude and Alpo, Frank
Charles and the dogs all at the same time. They shift as a group in and
out of the shelter of the barn, now bumping together, now scattering apart
back out into the field. Frank Charles keeps jerking and shouting, the
dogs circle and growl and startle them at random and sometimes the cows
run in the direction of Alpo and sometimes they don’t.
But once they do reach him, Alpo calms the cows into a trance and they
don’t move at all, they just stand there with blank looks on while he does
his thing. He makes notes on the small computer after each animal. When
he’s on the last few, and those are all corralled into a group, Claude
opens the back gate of the truck and slides out a metal ramp. He climbs
inside, grabs a long length of rope and ties a loop in it. There’s a
bright flash from the distance and heavy thunder rolls in on the breeze.
From up here he can see the long line of new thunderclouds coming in low
over the endless stretch of stunted pine trees and scrub.
Back down in the field, he comes up on one of the white cows slowly, in
the same way Alpo did, mumbling under his breath. He gets up next to it
and lowers the rope down over its head, tightens it up and gives a tug.
The cow doesn’t react. He tugs again, and the cow lifts its head and looks
at him straight in the eye. The cow’s eye is dark brown and its iris is
full and black like a person’s, like his father’s, and there Claude is,
alone in the middle of it all, reflected from deep in that black, black
The feeling passes. It’s a cow, Claude tells himself. He gives it
another tug and it starts walking with him, right up onto the back of the
truck. In the cab, the flip phone is ringing. He listens to the sound of
it, like some far off, monstrous insect. He waits until it’s done. Then
he’s leaning over to untie the knot when he hears Alpo give out a kind of
high pitched keening, a weird sound, like a rabbit run over. Claude hops
off the truck and comes around. "Fuck me!" Alpo yells. He’s standing there
in the center of a silent audience of cows with a gray look, holding one
wet, gloveless, chimp-hand up in front of his face and picking long
slivers of a broken glass vial out of it. "The thunder spooked them," he
says. "They all shifted. Goddamn it! Get me that gasoline, will you? This
thing was full."
Claude brings a jug over and pours it. There are several shallow,
bleeding gashes across Alpo’s small palm. Alpo grimaces as he scrubs his
hand with the other gloved one, and nods for Claude to pour again. "I am
so entirely screwed," Alpo says. "I mean, like entirely." He has Claude
bring him a towel from the truck and he wraps it around the wound.
When they’re finished loading, they douse the fly-covered,
maggot-ridden bodies of the few dead cows with the rest of gasoline and
set them aflame. Alpo, subdued and withdrawn, has them toss in their
gloves and masks and suits, and then he picks up another container of gas
and spreads it across the field on the biggest piles of shit and sets them
on fire too. They catch fast and burn high, and the black smoke is strong
enough to make them all lightheaded as they lean up against the cab of the
truck. The sky goes dark, and rain slides towards them in gray sheets
across the frozen trees.
Alpo hands Frank Charles a stack of twenties. "So you know where you’ve
been, Frank?" he asks.
Frank nods and says "I been down to Atlantic City, drivin’ all night. I
got lucky at the craps there just like I do every couple months or so."
Alpo says "And you’re to wait four weeks before the milk is set for
consumption or sale, as per your contract."
"I hear ya."
"Remember that consumption can have serious side effects, and that
we’re can’t be held liable in any way should you choose to ignore the
"Yeah, yeah." He scratches with his foot a few times in the dirt. First
one, then the other. He says, "Hey, you guys ever think of doing
"Sure. Super chickens. Extra eggs, you know—maybe they could pop them
out already hard-boiled." He cackles, sounding a lot like a bird himself.
"I mean, chickens are pretty bad to start with. You seen what they eat,
how they live in those big farms? Eating shit all day, then they kill you.
How much worse could it get?"
"I’ll pass that along."
"You should. I’d never touch ‘em myself, mind you. You know those
things came from snakes?"
There’s a bright flash and the slap of thunder and a cow from the back
lets out a startled bawl. Frank Charles waves, though they’re standing
right in front of him, and he wanders back toward the house with the dogs
in tow. The rain sweeps in like it was dumped out of a bucket and soaks
Alpo and Claude get back into the cab of the truck with the heater on.
Alpo sets the briefcase full of cow-fluid behind his seat, sighs, and
gestures over towards the house. Frank Charles is out on the porch. He
stands there with his dogs in a half circle around him and his face tilted
up towards the sky with a train of smoke blowing across him and the rain
sweeping in, his arms outstretched like a preacher over his congregation.
"Guy’s not right." Claude runs a hand through his hair to get it back
out of his eyes. The bandages are soaked through with sweat and rain.
Alpo pushes the glasses back up his nose. "Can’t say we didn’t warn
him." He lifts up his hand, peels off the towel and studies it.
"So you’ve got to tell me," Claude says. "Is this all for real?
Alpo looks over at him. "The supercows?" Alpo says. "Remember, you’ve
only seen part of it. If this goes like the other test groups I’ve seen,
within two weeks all of Frank Charles livestock will be dead."
"Sure. Right." Claude looks out the window on his side. All of Frank
Charles’ cows have gathered under what’s left of the barn. "What’s that
mean for you, then?" Meaning the scratches, his hand.
Alpo doesn’t answer the question. "It’s your last day, right?" Claude
nods. "Roy-boy call you?"
"You know he did."
"He wants to make you an offer. You going to take it?"
"I did.." Alpo shakes his head, holds out the injured hand and gestures
with it to take in the truck, the cows, the farm. "Learn from your elders.
And kid, if you make the right choice? And I think you just might? Then
the less you know about any of this situation, what’s real, what’s not,
the better. Get me?"
Claude nods. He reaches under the wheel and starts up the truck. He
backs up to the barn to turn around, then pulls around the house. Frank
Charles doesn’t open his eyes, but he gives them two thumbs-up as they
pass by. Claude pulls one short blast out of the air horn and there’s a
flash of lightning at the very same time. Frank Charles cracks into one of
the widest, most off-of-center grins Claude has ever seen. His teeth are
so long and so piss-colored that they jump out of the twilight, and his
mouth and tongue are so deep and black that all the rest of that last
drive, picking up cows, burning things, all the rest of his way back to
his father’s Canadian coast in a beat-up old Dodge; all the rest of his
long and quiet life spent catching fish and selling them to his father’s
cousins and their cousins and friends that he knew once as a child and
would come to know again, the expression ambushes Claude up out of sets of
double-yellow road lines when he least expects it.