by Randy Money
The Church was a converted warehouse eight blocks from the garage and less than two blocks from home. The last owners, GNB Trucking, had gone under in the late '80s when the local joke had been that GNB stood for Good 'N' Broke. As I walked in I thought I sniffed a ghost of diesel exhaust.
I was early. Layla and Chuck weren't there yet, but Pastor Bonnie was. She introduced herself as "the leader of the herd" and I spent the rest of the night trying not to call her Pasture Bonnie. Broad and heavy, she was endowed with imposing balconies front and back, and a smile just shy of overwhelmingly sincere. I explained why I was there and her smile broadened. She welcomed me and shook my hand like she was jacking up a '56 Lincoln Continental, only pulling my shoulder a little out of its socket. Keeping hold of my hand, she towed me toward the front of the church, which looked about half a block away.
Beyond several rows of pews was a podium and behind that an oak altar about half the width of the warehouse and shaped like a crescent, or maybe like horns. Above the altar a plastic udder hung from the ceiling. The udder was bigger and fuller than the one in Layla's room, but seemed tiny and fragile in the warehouse. The room was ringed with windows black with soot, most of it probably from a candle factory down the block. The rafters were bare except for wires running between hanging lamps; there weren't many, which accounted for the dimness and shadows. Every step kicked up dust, and every step echoed above, behind and ahead of us over and over until it was lost in the noise of other steps, rustlings and coughs.
Pastor Bonnie's voice boomed through the warehouse apologizing for a light turn out because several members had traveled to Albany for an emergency meeting of the state-wide chapter concerning their disagreements with the Bull God followers. She regretted not going herself, but the Goddess understood she was a single mother with a five-year-old daughter sick with the flu.
The male members of the congregation had gathered behind the pews, so I met them first. Larry, Joe, Jake, Al, Mike and Angus were big guys, mostly muscle. They seemed almost meek, and as the night went on I noticed that they were especially quiet around Pastor Bonnie, like her voice and manner overpowered them.
Angus was the only one I got to talk to after the services. I recognized him from his picture in the papers when he'd been Lavar James, a linebacker for New England. Before the Patriots released him, his back was rumored to have the largest collection of tightened cleat marks in the NFL. I asked him why he changed his name. He said partly to avoid the jokes about Lavar James, and partly as a joke. He worked for a local grocery store that bragged about carrying Black Angus beef, so when he met customers he could say he had a personal steak in Black Angus beef. I only laughed after he did.
"But," I asked, "does the Church condone eating beef?"
"We don't like it, but we know it's going to happen. We hope, by having people in the profession, we can steer people to vegetables. We also hope no one starts worshipping a carrot god." He snickered.
One guy stood off to the side. Butch nodded as the Pastor introduced me. He was bigger than the others, more like a body builder, his muscle not glazed with fat. His shirt was almost big enough through the body, but the bulge of his upper arm, even at rest, threatened to bust the sleeve, and the cuffs were stretched like his wrists were too large to close around. I thought he kept his shoulders hunched until I realized he had a ridge of muscle across his upper back like a swimmer, only more so.
Carmel, Emerald, Grace, Letitia and Zoe stood up near the altar. Like Pastor Bonnie, they made Layla look slender.
Angus told me later that all of the women had changed their names, usually from something like Ann or Louise, though Zoe had changed from Augustina. I had known Carmel and Grace when they were Mary and June. Both had been slender, vague and dull, always nodding, smiling and agreeing with whatever you said. Now they ran up to me, welcomed me with a hug and a kiss, and told Pastor Bonnie how happy they were to see me. I did what I usually do with compliments, I kept my mouth shut and turned red.
Once we passed Carmel and Grace, Pastor Bonnie whispered, "You look puzzled, Joe."
"A little. Mary andI mean Carmel and Grace used to be quiet and petite. They've changed a lot. Like Layla."
Pastor Bonnie smiled. "We all have.It's too soon to start the services, would you like to see the Pantry?"
"That's what we call our good will operation."
I said sure, and she led me to a door in the wall behind the altar. The door opened into a short hallway, stretching along the outside wall of the building. There were two doors to our right. The first door was ajar and I saw a desk, carpeted floor and a painting of cows in a pasture. One of the cows looked to have a halo. I figured it was Pastor Bonnie's office. As we came to the next door, it opened and a woman about Pastor Bonnie's size came out juggling three large cans of stewed tomatoes.
"Hello, Pastor Bonnie," she bellowed. "The chili's going over real good. I'm going to start another pot, now."
Pastor Bonnie took a can as she introduced me to Bonita, her head cook. I took a can, too, and we followed Bonita through the door at the end of the hallway.
The Pantry was a dining room offering food to the homeless, to transients and to some professional bums I knew had Capistranoed in our neighborhood for years. Twice the size of the Church, it had brown walls and a cream- colored ceiling, and was filled with rows of folding tables. Anyone coming in grabbed a tray and joined a line past three church women who dished out beans and a potato and a slice of turkey, or a bowl of vegetarian chili and a hunk of bread. The last woman handed out the bread, paper napkins wrapped around plastic forks and spoons, and poured milk from a large dispenser into paper cups for each passing customer. I noticed they only offered milk.
A man who looked older than a Duryea came in just then and slouched into the line. He looked like he'd take a dive, but he fooled me. He got his tray to a table and collapsed in a chair without spilling anything. He bit off some bread, but it didn't go down easy, so he picked up his milk. I looked away, only to see all the women had stopped what they were doing and were watching him. I looked back and he was staring at the glass of milk, licking his lips. He brought the cup back to his mouth.
I looked at the women again, and they were still watching him with something like anticipation and a fearful hope. He chugged the milk and they all looked at each other, sudden smiles tinged with triumph. The man looked around like he was puzzled but happy; his eyes seemed brighter and more alert.
I didn't get it until the phrase "the milk of human kindness" and a memory of the ending of The Grapes of Wrath flashed through my mind. I stifled a retch remembering the milk Layla had offered me that I hadn't taken, and the whipped cream she'd served that I had. It passed as I concentrated on Pastor Bonnie talking about their plans for setting up a shelter with beds and cots for the winter.
When we got back to the Church, Layla and Chuck were sitting in the front pew. I joined them and Pastor Bonnie mounted the steps leading to a podium in front of the altar.
She began the services with a hymn and a prayer for green grass and sufficient milk, followed by another hymn; the hymns sounded like they should have been sung by Roy Acuff or Ernest Tubb. Then Pastor Bonnie cleared her throat and started speaking.
"I want to welcome a visitor to our meeting: Mr. Joseph Skepp." There was polite applause from the congregation.
"Joe has lived around here all his life. He told me a little while ago that he knew a couple of you in the past and he remarked on how you've changed since then."
I heard a tittering and looked around, hoping my face wasn't too red. Grace smiled at me and Carmel winked.
"I've been thinking recently about the very changes Mr. Skepp mentioned. You know, we look sideways at one anotherI catch myself doing it, tooand we giggle a bit or outright laugh. Around anyone as straight-forward as Mr. Skepp, we make a little joke or we mention the Goddess's gifts and then drop the subject. We act embarrassed."
She paused, looking out at us. "Why? What is there about our abundance that should embarrass us? Let us revel in our abundance, be proud of our womanly physiques. Certainly our men are!"
We all laughed.
"Let us be free in our awareness of a symbolic, physical manifestation of our Goddess's acceptance of usand of our acceptance of her. For, after all, that is why we're here. In coming together in the presence of the Goddess, we have opened ourselves to change. Certainly external changes, but also internal change. I do not believe our physiques are attained merely through exercise and diet."
Pastor Bonnie's posture had been fine earlier, but at the podium she seemed to take added height. And the look of sincerity in her smile spread through her body, infusing her posture and her gestures; her eyes were high-beams of good will, benevolence and love for her goddess and her congregation.
The door in back squeaked open.
"We have in our friendship with each other and our love of the Goddess, all received the bounty of her blessings. That bounty includes the ability to deflect the stress of daily life in this hectic and trying modern world, to find a place of comfort in it, and to draw from our beliefs and our fellowship the strength and fortitude to change, to grow into the people we've always felt we should be but could not become on our own. What we have learned is"
Pastor Bonnie raised her right hand like a conductor raises a baton. The congregation joined her as she said, "Compassion before animosity, passivity before adversity, serenity and gentleness triumphant."
There were synchronous snorts from the rear.
Layla and I turned and saw three guys standing in the back. Big guys, built like Butch. Layla surprised me when she whispered, "Shit!"
I turned back. Pastor Bonnie was looking at the newcomers with something other than compassion and gentleness. I heard the men scuff and looked again: they seemed to be positioning themselves, like they expected war.
"We welcome visitorsgentlemen," Pastor Bonnie said; her voice was, I thought, carefully neutral. "We even welcome Bull God disciples. But we don't welcome sarcasm or disruption. We have our Goddess to worship, and you have your god."
One of the men spoke up, looking at Butch. "Geez, what're you doin' here? What kinda god lets fat women rule the herd?"
I've heard challenges like that in bars. They're usually followed by local war, so I inched my way along the pew toward the wall. I knew Chuck and Angus could hold their own, but I wasn't sure about the others. If we fought, I wanted to come up behind these guys and end it fast, before someone, and especially before one of the women, got hurt. I kept my eyes on the Bull God bullies, so I was more than half way down the outside isle when I realized the men had stayed seated and the women were standing face to face with them.
"Only in misbegotten herds like your do men lead," Pastor Bonnie said.
The guy laughed. "What happened to your passivity and shit, bitch?"
"There's nothing in our creed that says you don't defend yourself. And there's a lot in it that says defend your herd, little man. Especially from steroid-drunk lunatics."
Even at a distance and in that light I could see the guy redden.
He wasn't the only one. I could see anger in Angus's face and in the faces of the other guys, too, and what looked like shame.
"Am I supposed to be afraid? I'm not one of your neutered boys. It pisses me off that you keep some good men tied down and all you cows are good for is milking. Now, sit down while a man takes over." He grinned, reaching out and tweaking her right breast as he made to push her aside.
The fight was over before I could join it. Pastor Bonnie threw a left hook that would have taken out a wall. Carmel and Emerald tackled one guy and sat on him, while Letitia leaped on the last guy and put him in a headlock; Zoe helped Letitia by twisting the guy's arm behind his back. Grace laid a hand on Butch's arm and shook her head at him. Layla hadn't even had to move.
Their spokesman stood up shakily and Pastor Bonnie grabbed his ear and led him past me to the exit.
"I won't tolerate this. I won't. Not in my church. If you want to behave this way, do it in your own church. And let your fellow disciples know that. Now, get out!" She opened the door and shoved his ear out of it. The other women let loose of their charges and they, and Butch, followed the spokesman. I
went back to my seat as the women went back to theirs.
Pastor Bonnie cleared her throat and said, "I want to thank you gentlemen for letting us handle that. Here in the Cow Goddess's church, it is more appropriate for women to defend themselves. In a way, after all, that's why women come to the Goddess: to make lives for ourselves, which means learning to defend ourselves."
The guys just looked at one another, no one saying anything.
Pastor Bonnie's service ended shortly afterwards and we all went out to eat. That was when Angus and I talked. Neither Angus nor, later, Chuck said anything about the fight. They acted uncomfortable when I raised the subject.
I attended a few more meetings but I didn't get wrapped up in the Church like Chuck and Layla; for me it was time away from work with several pleasant, peculiar people. Pastor Bonnie being the only member not paired up with someone, we even went out a few times. But she tried to convert me, so I told her I was mostly happy like I was and that I wasn't enthused by her religion. When I suggested the other guys were less and less content taking second place to a Cow Goddess, she got upset and we stopped seeing each other. About then, business tailed off more and I used the time to work to keep what customers I had.
I saw less of Chuck. He worked late sometimes but mostly, when he wasn't at a Cow Goddess meeting, he and Layla spent their time with couples from the Church. At work, Chuck sped up after a while, but then slowed down again about the time he gained some weight. He didn't get fat, he just filled out so that he looked settled, even docile. When I got on him to work harderusually when I caught him staring out the windowhis attitude was, everything in its time, I'll get to it when I get to it. This annoyed the hell out of me until I noticed fewer people were coming back with complaints; in slowing down, he'd become more thorough. I swallowed my annoyance and tried admiring his steadiness.
Oddly enough, I saw more of Layla. She came over two or three times a week with lunch. We fell back into talking books, probably because it was a pleasant, neutral subject. Sometimes Chuck would join in and it finally dawned on me that Layla had accomplished something school hadn't: she'd interested Chuck in reading.
What surprised me more, though, was how often Layla dropped by when she knew Chuck wasn't around. With the weather getting worse, we'd eat in the garage. I found a clean chair for her and kept it clean by bawling Chuck out whenever he went near it.
I'm not really sure when the trouble began. I noticed some changes, like Chuck's work speeding up again and getting sloppy. And he got surly. I didn't realize I'd been keeping quiet around him until one day an old guy, a regular since my dad's time, complained that his car was running worse with a new water pump than before Chuck installed it. Chuck blew up, yelling accusations that the old guy had waited too long to bring his car in to begin with. It was a crock. Trying to smooth things over, I got a look under the hood: Chuck had installed the wrong model pump and rigged it so it almost worked. When the old guy left he said he'd never come back as long as Chuck worked for me.
Chuck took my cussing out, but not gracefully, his glare doing more to shut me up than my running out of gas. That was when I noticed he was proportioned differently than a few months before: he seemed trimmer and a hump of muscle had formed across his shoulders. A few days later he picked up an engine, an entire engine, and rammed it against the wall a couple of times because he couldn't get the carburetor back together again. I thought he'd break bones or get a hernia, but he didn't. He just stomped away, swearing, while I counted the ante for a new engine. Later, when I joked about laying off the steroids, he glared at me and I dropped the subject.
But I really thought everything was fine. Whatever signs I saw and didn't interpret correctly, like a newspaper report that the Pantry had closed for renovations, there must have been others I missed altogether. You see, business was getting worse. The guy down the street had added stalls and mechanics, and Sears kept running specials that I couldn't match. Most of my profits were going to pay for the home my dad was in, so I didn't have money to compete. Seeing Chuck and Layla outside work, when we got together, was like a vacation from the pressure, so maybe I didn't want to notice them falling apart.
Late one morning while I was puttering in the office and Chuck was banging away in the garage, a guy came in.
The guy looked familiar. He was almost six feet tall but looked shorter because he was so broadand not just across the shoulders, but broad from head to toe, his shoulders hunched thicker than Chuck's. His eyebrows were drawn down and he walked across the room face forward, like he wanted to ram the counter. I couldn't think where I knew him from, but I knew I didn't like him.
"Yeah. What's your name?"
"Uh huh. I'll tell him you're here."
When I called Chuck from the garage, he waved at Bubba then cleaned up and they left. Layla dropped in about five minutes later.
"Where's Chuck?" she asked.
"He left a few minutes ago."
"I was supposed to meet him for lunch."
"Huh. Not like him to forget. But it looked like they'd planned to meet."
"A guy named Bubba picked him up."
She stared off like she sometimes did and I asked, "Layla, is something wrong?"
She said, "Have you noticed a change in Chuck?"
"You mean, moody?"
"Yeah.Don't you remember Bubba?"
The moment she said the name, I did. Bubba was the talkative Bull God bully at the first meeting I'd attended. "Now I do."
"Most of the guys from Church have joined the Bull God. Chuck's only the latest. I was hoping he'd get tired of them and quit, but lately he's been pestering me, saying he doesn't want any more to do with a wimpy, weak Goddess. He says he wants to worship a strong God."
I don't know if it works this way for other people, but sometimes I see things that seem important to me and I don't know why. For some reason I noticed that she'd lost a little weight and that there was a reddish tinge to her eyes. And then it occurred to me that for weeks she'd seemed tense and nervous but now she just looked resigned, almost uninterested.
"Have you talked to anyone at your church about it?" I asked.
"Yes. They're at a loss. You know, one of the reasons women join the Cow Goddess is the hope of attracting men. Now, that doesn't seem to work any more. Almost all the men have left the herd. Even Pastor Bonnie's demoralized. We've talked for months, and the only means we've thought of for fighting off the Bull God seemed too drastic. But they're slowly absorbing us. Remember Letitia and Zoe? Their boyfriends were among the first to go to the Bull God. Now they're married to the men, they've quit their jobs, live at home and from what I heard, obey their husbands like slaves. House slaves.
"Then, about a month ago, a really articulate woman who despises the Bull God was mugged. We think they did it, but we can't prove it."
"Have you tried talking to Chuck?"
"At first. But he'd get mad and we'd end up arguing."
"Maybe you guys should lay low for awhile, let the Bullies go about
their business, then get together again when things have quieted down."
She sighed and stood. "I don't think we can. They mean to have us, Joe, they mean to rule the herd. They won't let things quiet down.No. That's not quite it. They don't want us, they want bossy cows they can milk for all they're worth." She laughed and there was a curl to her lips I hadn't seen there before.
"Sorry, Joe. I don't mean to trouble you. But I'm afraid we're losing and I'm afraid of what'll happen after that."
"What do you mean, 'what'll happen'?"
"There won't be any way to reconcile with Chuck. Then I quit Chuck and I quit the Church and go my own way. If he lets me. If not, then I'll have to defend myself. You know, like your dad said, when something doesn't work, try something else."
The banging wouldn't go away no matter how deep I burrowed under my pillow so I gave up, got up and stumbled to the door. Through the peep hole I saw Layla pounding away. I hadn't seen her in over a week and had wondered what happened to her. When I'd asked Chuck, he'd just glared at me so I'd stopped asking. I unlocked and opened the door, and she stampeded in, almost trampling me.
"Layla, what's wrong? What is it?"
She slammed the door, locked it, and dropped on the edge of my couch. One eye was bruised and her cheek was badly swollen. Her other eye was larger than usual, the white showing, and she was crying.
"He's done it, he's finally done it," she said, gasping between sobs. "I can't go back there. I can't."
I led her to the couch and made her sit. She crossed her arms under her breasts and rocked back and forth, moaning like she was sick.
"Are you hurt? --Layla! --Layla, take a deep breath and let it out slowly. You have to calm down."
Her eyes were glassy and she was still moaning. Thinking she was going to pass out, I slapped her. She blinked and looked at me. I said, in as commanding a voice as I could imitate, "Passivity before adversity; Serenity and Gentleness always triumphant." I felt stupid, like I was offering horse lineament to a victim of a six car pile up, but she blinked a few times, took that deep breath and let it out. Then she moaned again.
"Chuck did this?"
"Yeah. He hit me. He hit me and I ran away. And he tore down my altar. He told me I have to give up my job and classes and stay home. And he insists onon milking me, too. The Bull God wants our milk, he said. It's part of Chuck's tithe."
She looked up at me like she expected me to make everything all right.
"No shit." I said.
"No, he doesn't want that." She giggled and it bordered on
hysteria, but she cut it off. "Sorry. Just trying to find something funny.Anyway, my breasts hurt because I'm full. It's something that happens to women who worship the Goddess. You get big boobs filled with milk. That's why so many strippers started worshipping the Goddess. Especially after all the scares with implants."
"Oh.Do you want to use the bathroom?"
"Please. Do you mind?"
"Yes. I'd rather have you sit here in pain.Do you want a bowl or something? I have a beer pitcher.It's not frosted."
She laughed and wiped her eyes. "No. No, thanks."
I stood outside the bathroom and listened to water running in the sink. "Could you tell me more, Layla? I mean, I've seen Cow Goddess women handle the Bullies before, so I don't see the problem."
"Together we can handle them, even when they're together. But they've been getting at us one at a time. First, they found ways to take our men away. Then our men started pestering us, wearing us down with arguments and demands. Lately it's turned physical. Our last three, four meetings have had fewer and fewer women. Besides Zoe, Letitia and the woman we think they mugged, we've lost two more to muggingsand one of them is in the hospitaland another to a hit-and-run driver. Three others just stopped coming; we haven't heard from any of them, and haven't been able to contact them. And there's nothing we can go to the authorities with."
I got a towel and wrapped some ice in it. When she came out she sat next to me on the couch and I put the towel on her eye. Her shoulders were slumped, her whole body sagged.
"I'm sorry, Joe." She leaned against me. "I don't like involving you, but I can't go to my parents' and my money and cards are back at the apartment. Since the other women are going through the same thing, I can't even get help there."
She was starting to puddle up again, so I patted her hand and got up. "Stay here if you want. I'll sleep on the couch."
"No, he'll show up sooner or later."
"Doesn't matter." I got blankets and a pillow and arranged them on the couch. She wouldn't let me sleep there, though, so I got her to lay down and draped the blanket over her. I said good-night and on an impulse kissed her forehead. She looked up at me.
"Did I choose the wrong guy, Joe?"
I laughed. "I thought so." I went to my room, dug out my softball bat from my closet and sat in a rocking chair, intent on staying awake.
I woke up the next morning curled like a question mark in the chair. When I hobbled to the living room Layla was gone. I found a note on the kitchen table: "Joe, Don't worry. I've thought it through and I know what to do. Like you said, when something doesn't work, try something else. That's what worked for me once, maybe it will again. If Chuck knew I was here tonight he'd kill both of us, so I'm going back. I think I can get away from him within a year. Be seeing you. Layla."
I didn't think he would, but Chuck showed up at work the next day.
I was up front reading the morning paper when he came in. A small paragraph in the gossip column told me that Mona Moorne had retired the day before to spend more time with her husband and start a family. There was a picture of them; he had heavy brows, a thick neck and humped shoulders.
I kept quiet, waiting to find out what he'd say. But he didn't talk. He banged and crashed around all day. Once he broke a wrench and tossed it off a wall, swearing. I didn't like the way he glanced at me when he did it.
Just before he left for the day, he stopped in front of me, stuck his finger in my chest like a chisel into wood, and said, "I'm letting it go this time, Joe. We're old pals and I figure you thought you were helping, but you weren't. Stay away from Layla and keep out of my business from here on. Next time, INo next time! Mess with my woman, and I'll have my friends kill both of you."
His eyes got bigger and madder as he talked, and his finger started shaking. I was ready to duck, but he didn't swing. Instead, he turned on his heel and left.
I could put a good face on it, say I didn't want to get him madder, didn't want him to take it home to Layla. I could say I was waiting for a better time to face him down, to help Layla get away from him. Truth is, he scared me and I wasn't going to get in a fight I wasn't sure I'd survive much less win.
The only good thing I could see was that he didn't come in swinging. Maybe there was still some Chuck under the Bull; I just had no idea how to find it.
Over the next three months I tried calling Layla repeatedly but she wouldn't talk to me. She'd say she was fine, just fine, everything was progressing like she expected, she'd be seeing me soon, and then she'd hang up. Once, before she could hang up, I asked if Chuck was still hitting her. She hesitated, then said, "You shouldn't worry so much. See you soon."
I tried talking to Chuck, too. Just ordinary stuffsee Kelly bail out the Bills yesterday? hey, did you hear the Mustang Club's going to unveil the new Mustangs out at the mall? Most of the time all I got were nods and grunts. Once in awhile he'd talk, but as soon as the subject turned to Layla or the Bull God, he'd shut up or tell me to. I kept a watch on his hands. Once they were so badly bruised and scrappedand I knew it wasn't from workthat I picked up a tire iron while his back was to me, but I couldn't do it. I called Layla later and she laughed, said she was busy licking her wounds, but not to worry, she'd be seeing me soon. Her voice was a purr with a tinge of humor that sounded cynical, ironic even, not like her voice at all.
Meanwhile, the papers reported that the Cow Goddess Church had disbanded, permanently closing the Pantry. The reports cited financial reasons. A few public officials expressed concern that such a valuable charity was closing, but it was a local election year and their concern didn't last after the Bull God contingent donated to several campaigns. Within a week the Cow Goddess was old news.
Not long after that the papers started reporting a plague of mysterious deaths across the city, but especially on the north side, near my garage. Dogs of all sizes were being ripped apart, including Dobermans, German shepherds and even pit bulls. Rumors about a big cat spread, and the newspapers ran articles debunking them; while no one I knew had seen a cat big enough to shred pit bulls, a few had found deep furrows in their trees starting almost seven feet above the ground.
One day a month later Bubba rushed in, whispered to Chuck and they both ran out. Within five minutes, Layla sauntered in.
She stood in the doorway. She wore a form fitting leather jumpsuit, leather boots, even a leather jacket. Her legs were sleeker, her hips had narrowed, her waist was thinner, and her former watermelons were now plums.
Her drawl had changed, too. The first time we'd met her voice had given me an erection, now her purr gave me an erection, but an erection like a squirrel's tail twitching at sight of a cat. I fought off an urge to run.
"What's wrong, Joe? --Cat got your tongue?" She laughed and I didn't like that, either.
"Hi, Layla. You've changed. A lot." My voice squeaked a little.
She laughed again and my balls shriveled and tried to hide in my throat and my legs twitched. She walked across the floor, slowly as ever, but with an almost boneless flexibility. A step away, she leaned forward, resting one hand against the counter and reaching out to my face with the other. She stroked my cheek, her nails lightly scraping down to my jaw. There was tenderness in her expression, but I wasn't sure I could trust it.
"You look confused."
"Yeah. I guess so. You give up on the Cow Goddess, Layla?"
"Call me Kate. The Bull God boys were right, you know. The Cow Goddess couldn't protect us. But we found a Goddess who could."
Her nails were a fraction of an inch from my eyes. I fought against backing away.
"The Cat Goddess?"
Her eyes narrowed and her nails dug in slightly, but she smiled.
"I knew you were worried. You were good to me that night, Joe. I appreciate that. Did he tell you he beat me when I got home? He slapped me around almost every night for a week after that. He was angry that I'd left and furious that I'd thrown out my milk. They like that, you know, the babies and their baby God. He hasn't had any in weeks. None of them has. No milk, no sex. And they'll never beat us again. They're nervous, you know. That's why they're meeting today.
"It took six months to become one with the Cow Goddess, Joe." She pushed off the counter and headed back to the door. She opened it and held the edge sandwiched between her hands.
"About two more months and it won't be dogs getting scratched, and I'll be free of him." She ran her nails down the door as she spoke, leaving furrows. "Bye, Joe. I'll be seeing you."
I tried to warn Chuck. I don't know why. Some residue of loyalty and friendship, maybe. Maybe some bond between men that's greater than love. I don't know. Whatever, it didn't work.
"Don't push her too hard," I said.
"Butt out, Joe. I'm warning you. Stay outta my life and keep away from Layla."
"Bullshit. It's just Layla, dried out and flattened, the old cow."
"Something's happening, Chuck. The Cow Goddess hasn't come through, so they've switched goddesses, and the Cat Goddess is dangerous. Those dogs aren't dying accidentally."
"I ain't a dog and I ain't afraid of no fuckin' pussy!" He bellowed, leaning over me. I stepped back. I'd taken to keeping a hammer near me and I slipped my hand over it. "So shut up! I don't want to hear your whining."
His nostrils twitched and he turned away.
"Layla?" he called out the garage door. "You there? --Damn cow's taken to following me, Joe. God, I hate that." He disappeared out the door and came back a few minutes later, looking confused, angry and mean.
"She's been doing this, Joe. Following me, watching me. I hate it. I gotta mind to show her how much I hate it. I won't have her stalking me."
The end came two months to the day after Kate stopped at the garage.
I woke up to pounding and bellowing at my door. I thought about just laying still. It scared me because it was Chuck and I knew what he was running from.
The pain and fear in his voice finally pulled me out of bed. I opened the door and stepped back, having learned from Layla's entrance. He charged in, slammed the door and locked it. Then he collapsed.
Chuck's face was scratched, gouged and bruised, and his clothes were shredded. I bent over him too quickly and he closed his eyes, cowering behind his arms. Four bites on his neck seeped blood. Any one of them, less than an inch different, would have severed his jugular.
"She's out there! She followed me. She hates me and wants to eat me. Stop her, Joe! She'll listen to you." There wasn't any Bull left in his voice.
I stood still, not sure he was pathetic enough for me to face Kate. Before I could think myself into a locked closet, I stepped outside.
A maple by the sidewalk had an extra shadow clinging to it in the moonlight.
"It's over. He's beaten and you've won. It's time to stop."
The shadow twitched and leaped and suddenly Kate was at the bottom of the steps.
"I'm hungry, Joe. I want him, now. Don't try to stop me."
"I won't, but it's over. You started this to defend yourself, not to kill anyone. You've won."
She hissed. "Out of my way," she yowled, the echoes bouncing around the porch, "I'm hungry, and I have a taste for Chuck steak!" From inside I heard whimpering.
"What are you now, Jane?"
She didn't answer immediately, then yowled, "Kate!"
"No. Jane. What are you now? Is this what you wanted? I know a little something about you and I don't believe you're happy with this, Jane."
"You know nothing about me!" Her voice hissed.
"I know a little. I know when Jane was unhappy with herself, she became Layla"
"She found the Cow Goddess!" a yowl that made me grip the porch railing to keep from running.
"I don't know that. For all the time I spent in the Church, I never saw anything that proved there is a Cow Goddess. All I saw were women in need of love and self-respect who came together to help each other. When that didn't work anymore, Layla became Kate. But there has to be some Jane left. If there wasn't, Chuck would already be meat. So now I want to know, Jane, what do you think of this? Are you happy?"
"But, Joe, I wanted to bulldog and brand the little cow boy." She giggled.
For the first time, I heard her voice without Layla's drawl or Kate's purr. I liked Jane's voice.
"Cute, but if you'd wanted him, you'd have caught him before he got here."
"It didn't have to go this far, Joe. I tried to tell him that, but he was so goddamned bullheaded." Still the pleasant voice, but angry.
"I know Jane, and I'm sorry it came to this. But now it's up to you how much farther it goes. Your call. You want him, I won't try to stop you."
She didn't say anything, just stood there, seeming somehow to move and twitch even when still.
Then she backed up a step.
"Goodnight, Joe," she said, "I'll be seeing you."
The next morning's paper listed names of men less lucky than Chuck. Across the country morgues were full of shredded Bull God disciples. The victims' connections to the Bull God and the Cow Goddess were mentioned, but the Cat Goddess wasn't. Warrants were issued for the arrest of the women the victims were married to or lived with, all of them former members of the Church of the Cow Goddess; Jane Kowalski was wanted for questioning. The descriptions given tallied with their appearance as Cow Goddess disciples. Considering the last time I'd seen Jane/Layla/Kate, I figured she could have shot the bull with a dozen cops and not been recognized by one. Not even Mona Moorne was found.
That was a year ago.
Now Chuck flinches at the sound of cat fights and crosses the street to avoid kittens. He quit the garage, explaining I remind him too much of bad times. He's become a Catholic and is engaged to a young, devout Catholic woman who's appalled by Cow and Cat Goddesses, and Bull Gods. She believes in cleaning her home, doing the laundry and having a brood. Their first is due in seven months.
Me, I'm still living in my dad's house. I paid off his mortgage a few years ago, then bought the house from him for a buck before the Alzheimers got bad. That's how I could afford to sell the garage and put ninety-five percent of the money into a trust fund for his maintenance. I'll work for the competition until January then start a job at the University. The following semester I'll start classes, concentrating on creative writing. I've heard it's a great profession for starving. Meanwhile, I'm still too busy for the Great Woman Hunt, but sometimes I dream of Layla and sometimes I dream of Jane, or what I know about her and what I guess about her. I think I'd be smart enough now to dig through Jane's shyness. I know I wouldn't lose a second chance with Layla. I miss talking to her, I miss her scent, I miss her eyes catching me like a softball mitt and cradling me in her placidness. I wish things had been different.
And maybe they will be. Lately I've had the feeling of being followed and watched. Sometimes I'll turn and see a shadow a block away duck into deeper shadows. I think she's tailing me, but I'm not sure which one of her it is. On those nights I dream of Kate.
The Kate dreams unsettle me: I don't know what she wants or needs, and I never know what she'll do; I expect to be hurt. Still, I always wonder what the next dream will hold, whether she'll purr or hiss, pad or scratch. And I like thinking that someone out there is thinking about me, so I wonder what will happen if she comes back. I may know shortly; I think I'll be seeing her soon.