Photo-art by Steve Wing
I hate when we lose. And I can never understand how the rest of the guys can tell jokes and goof around on the bus home. Seems to me they should be thinking about the mistakes they made, and trying to figure how not to make them again.
Take Lewis. He's the tackle who let those receivers through. He could have saved us the shame of 14 points. The difference between getting beaten and whooped. Lewis has his earphones on, oblivious to this, he's smiling and rocking out, his bushy hair flopping back and forth with whatever heavy metal shit he's listening to. He's air guitaring and giving Jones wet willies with his spit-soaked finger, thinking this is all fun and games. All fun and games.
Lewis doesn't understand my life depends on this shit. He lives in the burbs and has no idea where cheese comes from, while I live only five miles away, up at four every morning milking cows and feeding steer. Lewis doesn't want to get out of here. He's comfortable with the VW Jetta his parents gave him for his 17th birthday, and with his shag carpet basement bedroom. He's happy spending the checks he gets from part-time life guarding on new rims and that stupid German license plate he has on the front to make him seem like the rich kid he's not.
When we get back to the locker room, Lewis slaps me on the back of my neck.
"You hitting the diner, Fatboy?"
"Oh come on!"
"I have to study, man. Big Calc test tomorrow."
But of course, that's a lie. I can't go to the diner because I can't gain any more weight. I can't eat anymore junk. No gravy and biscuits, no chocolate shakes, and no red velvet cake with butter cream frosting. My life is now ruled by protein shakes and Coach Byrd's diet.
He's a real nice guy to help me out like this. He meets me in the weight room before school four times a week and has made me see my father's farm is not the only place on earth. He talks to me about college and he's arranged a few scouts, too, to come see me play. God, I hope they're watching me and not nimrods like Lewis. No chance I'll get picked up if it's teamwork they're looking for with this bunch of morons.
"Harry, how much Hefa-Lak© did you put into the feed yesterday? And did you dose the calves?"
It's 3:50. In the morning. I was up until midnight studying Calc. I have no idea what I fed the herd yesterday. It's all a blank. I need to start writing this shit down.
"Yeah what?" My father has a way of being confrontational at four in the morning like no one else. He thinks just because he's had to be up at this hour since he was ten years old, that we all have to act like it's normal.
"Yeah, I dosed the calves."
"But how much?"
"The cupful, like always," I say.
He nods and goes back to the milk room.
Ten minutes later, he's back. "It's time to give the girls their shots."
Dad treats them like daughters. Says if it weren't for the girls, we'd be broke and lost. I swear he loves them like human beings. When I was a kid, we'd name them, but now it's just number earrings, a box of room-temperature syringes, and Probovac©, the growth hormone ruining my life.
We line them up and I clean the site, in the tailhead depression, those two little divots on either side of the tail, and Dad injects the stuff in there. We do it twice a month. He says it makes us money, so I shouldn't think about all the hogwash going around.
"Did you look in on Flossy?" he asks. Flossy is my Belgian Blue prize winner. We keep her in her own stable and feed her special pellets to keep her coat shiny.
"How's she doing?"
I don't know why he's asking. He checks on her every morning too. "Fine."
"She's due that calf any day now," he says.
"Looks like a big one."
We did it by the book. The AI guy even double checked the stud for us because lately, they've been breeding heifers to get bigger stock, and sometimes, they don't survive calving. But something must have gone wrong because Flossy's calf is huge. She can barely walk now and the vet said last week if she doesn't go on her own by Friday, he's coming out to induce her a month early.
"Harry, I want to warn you. I may have to cut her," he said.
I knew that. I mean, does he think I grew up here and haven't calved 100 cows already? I knew.
Fourth quarter and it's still tied. I know the scout from Virginia Tech is out there, somewhere, with his little notebook, scribbling down facts. Fact one—I just blocked two sack attempts and took down their receiver. Fact two—I'm on a team with a bunch of idiots. Lewis is being lazy again and our quarterback could have completed way more passes if he'd only throw to Harris, who's been pacing the end zone by himself for the last two downs. But the quarterback is a racist asshole and won't throw to Harris because Harris is black. Says he doesn't want to give him any stats. Why coach even plays this guy is beyond me. There's a freshman quarterback who's just as good. But, of course, he's black too.
Third down and Harris is still free in the end zone. The quarterback throws to King, though, who's got defense all over him, and it's an interception. Worse yet, I'm on the ground on top of two linemen, and Lewis gives up trying to catch the runner, so they score on the interception and beat us 37-30. Lewis is lucky this is a home game because if I had to put up with his bullshit on the bus tonight, I'd probably kill him.
It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen. Flossy is cut down the side, all the way, and we've pulled the calf from her. It took four of us. Mom even had to come out to help. While the others go to wash up, I watch the vet stitch up her side, and marvel the giant heifer calf. Flossy stares into space exhausted, and I realize the scar means she will never win another ribbon. But the vet thinks it could be worse.
"She mightn't live, son."
"I'll look after her."
"She's pretty beat, Harry."
"I'll take care of her."
"Don't get your hopes up."
I mean, isn't that the mantra of my life? Isn't that what coach says to us before every game? What the college scouts have said, so far?
Don't I hear it every morning I'm lifting weights with Byrd, running laps, trying to get this flab off, when it just keeps piling on? And in my head? "Don't get your hopes up, Fatboy. You were born this way, and you'll die this way."
The world just isn't fair. I'm eighteen. What did I do so far deserving of this shit? Of course I know what's going on. I heard our family doctor tell Mom all about it almost five years ago. Only Dad still makes us eat a beef-heavy diet. Says we have to support our fellow farmers.
Flossy is dead three days later. A mix of hemorrhage and exhaustion. There was just too much work her body had to do to heal after the ordeal. After they take her away in the truck, I clean out the stall and splash disinfectant around until the place smells like an orange grove. Then, I lay down new straw and heat it with the lamp, and take to mothering her calf. Poor thing.
She suckles so hard I have to plant my feet solid to balance the bottle, and I have to refill it twice. When I tell Dad this, he doesn't believe me.
The next morning she takes three. Three bottles. And she sucks the teat right off the third one and cries for more. I try to hug her, but she nudges me to the door. Clever girl—and just like Flossy. Her manner is familiar, insistent, and warm. Three days old and she's already the size of a calf of two months.
When the vet comes to check on her a week later, I'm standing by the stall door, with a percentile chart. No amount of math classes have prepared me for charting the calf's weight. She's off the charts.
"She's got a case of bovine gigantism, Harry." That's what the vet says. Bovine gigantism. I'd never heard of that.
"She won't be a show girl, anyway." Not like Flossy, no. Not a show girl, unless you count freak shows. I've got the Andre the Giant of cows.
Lewis is throwing an end-of-season party and he's got Deep Purple blaring. I know it's stupid of me to expect maturity from this guy, but come on. He's jumping from car to car, trunk to roof to hood, leaving dents and not caring about it at all.
And what is there to celebrate? Our 1-16 season? The only reason we even won that one game is because the quarterback was injured and they put in the black kid, Freeze, and he and Harris ate up the field and made the rest of us look like leftovers.
"Hey! Get the fuck off my car, man!"
Lewis is jumping up and down on Harris's roof, playing the drum solo on an air drum kit. He doesn't hear him.
"HEY!" Harris says, snatching Lewis's ankle. "Get the fuck off my car!"
It's his dad's car. Lewis knows it. Lewis thinks every kid should have his own car because he does. Told me once, people would like me more if I didn't drive my dad's old pickup everywhere. "And you could lose a few pounds. Nobody wants to be friends with a guy who has tits," he said.
Lewis is still jumping, so Harris yanks his leg out from under him and pulls him down from the car and on to the road. Then he starts beating the shit out of him. After a minute of face-smashing thuds, the neighbor comes out of his house with a cordless phone.
"I'm calling the cops!" he says, waving the phone.
Lewis and Harris can't hear him. Deep Purple is so loud, no one at the party can hear anything but Black Knight Live in Berlin. I want to help, but I think Harris will think I'm a racist asshole if I stop him beating Lewis's ass. Plus, I think Lewis could use a good ass-whooping. Maybe he'd grow up, then.
So I make my way to the truck and drive home. I figure the cops will come any minute and I don't feel like getting busted for shit I wasn't doing. Anyway, Byrd says I can't ever have beer with my metabolism.
It's Saturday morning and I'm running around the track. Three miles wrapped in trash bags in the dark. Byrd says I'm doing great, under the circumstances. He's pissed I can't lose the flab, though. It's coming off my waist and my butt, but not my chest. I can't tell him it's the hormones, but I know that's what it is. I'm not stupid. This morning before I came out here to run, I walked through the sheds, filled the feed troughs, smelled the antibiotics we give them now for increased mastitis, and had the same daydream I always have.
Harry's Daydream: Dad dies young and leaves the farm to me. I turn it into an organic dairy farm, allowing us to charge more for the product rather than dose the herd with unnatural crap that gives teenaged football players tits and causes their sisters to start their periods at age eight.
I used to have other daydreams. Back when I heard the doctor tell my mother about the other boys. Back when I still thought my dad was a hero.
Harry's Old Daydream #1: Dad realizes dosing the herd is hurting human beings, including his own children, and he decides to turn the farm organic.
Harry's Old Daydream #2: Dad stops making us eat beef every night.
Harry's Old Daydream #3: Dad takes this all the way to Washington D.C. and fights the companies who lobby to keep the hormones in use. He brings me as proof, and I don't care if he parades me in front of Congress, saying, "This is my boy. Look at him! He's got tits!" because it's for the greater good. Isn't that what parents are supposed to do? Protect their children? From drug dealers?
One day I'll escape. My college prospects don't look great now that the season is over and no scouts were interested. But I'll escape somehow. Become vegetarian. Cleanse this shit from my system and start over. But for today, I have work to do.
"Harry!" my mother yells. She doesn't come out here this early, usually. I'm immediately worried. I find her holding the front page of the paper, pointing. When I get close enough, she tells me Lewis is dead, and it takes me a minute to register. Lewis is dead?
You mean Lewis, the bushy-haired blonde Deep Purple loving asshole who ruined my scholarship prospects by being a lazy teammate? You mean the name-calling spoiled suburbanite Jetta-driving asshole who told everyone to call me Fatboy in the seventh grade? That Lewis?
Before I can read about it, there is a crash behind me and then, loud cattle racket. When I get to the shed, I see her, the giant calf, now the size of a yearling bullock at only six weeks old, running amok among the dairy herd. Again. This is the fifth time this month. She stops and gobbles on an udder, the cow kicks at her and freaks out, then she bucks and takes off. She jumps the gate and lands out in the field, thrashing her head from side to side. It takes my father an hour to lasso her back in. I have to fix the door with steel hinges and bang the bars back into shape.
"I'll need to call the vet, Harry," Dad says.
"For what?" I know for what.
"She's not right in the head, son."
"But can't we just keep her in a bigger stall? Maybe this is her way of telling us she needs more room. She's all I have left of Flossy." My mother would call this grasping at straws, but it's worth a try.
He sighs and sends me to the steer shed to clear out the back pen where we keep spare equipment. On the way out, I take the front page from where Mom left it, and tuck it under my arm. Before I begin the job of making Flossy's giant calf a new home, I sit and read about the death of James Lewis. Beaten to death on the road outside his house. Harris is in the county, locked up until a trial, and the community is in shock. They call Lewis a football star. A local hero. I feel like throwing up.
"Are you okay?" Mom asks as I'm washing my hands before lunch.
"You were close to James, weren't you?"
"I guess." I guess, if you call that close.
Just as I'm finishing a steak sandwich and a pint of milk, the phone rings. It's Jones and he tells me they're gonna lynch Harris's older brother tonight as revenge. And because I can't figure out what to say, and my mind is more on losing Flossy's calf, I don't say anything at all.
All I can think about as I'm hammering hinge pins in the high steel gate on the new stall is how screwed up this place is. On one hand, we all want to be Lynn Swan or Tony Dorsett, and on the other hand, we're still talking about lynchings. I think about Lewis and how I'm never going to see him again. How if I'd have broken up the fight last night, he might still be here. How if I'd have that one extra ounce of courage and self esteem, which he helped whittle away with his decade of name-calling, I would have never left the party in such a cowardly hurry. What a mix up. Before I can stop myself, I'm in the stall, sitting on the itchy fresh straw, crying about the whole irony of it.
Everything is wrong.
Everything is just plain wrong.
So I go in the house and call the police and tell them Harris's brother is gonna get lynched and leave it to them to figure out what to do about it. Then, I find my mother, down in the laundry room, and ask her to make me an appointment with the doctor to finally talk about my options.
The anesthesiologist asks me to count from ten. I see him in his Snoopy character mask, preoccupied with the equipment and the gas he's regulating, and then suddenly he is Lewis, and he is laughing at me. ‘Fatboy got his tits cut off,' he says.
Then I'm in a rodeo where everyone has breasts. Even the kids. And the dogs. And the rodeo clowns swing theirs around in circles to make the audience laugh. I'm there to show Flossy's giant calf.
"Next up, Harry's Giant! A Guinness record holder folks! Look at the size of her!"
And when we walk out, her, the size of a two-story house and me, with breasts like Mae West, the crowd goes quiet. I knew she'd knock them dead. I am proud and I am feeling like a winner for the first time in my life until someone shouts, "Holy shit! Do you see the size of that kid's knockers?"
There I am with the world's biggest cow and the only thing the crowd sees are my breasts.
And then I wake up in the private room alone. A few hours after, my mother picks me up and takes me home to recover.
A week later, I'm in the shed with Dad, trying to figure if she'll grow more and if she does, how we'll keep her.
"Why don't we call her Babe?" Dad says, staring in at her.
My father likes his puns. A Belgian Blue calf with bovine gigantism named Babe.
"Sure," I say.
We're silent for a few minutes.
"I'm proud of you, Harry. I think you made the right choice."
Which choice is he talking about? Calling the cops? Speaking at Lewis's funeral? Visiting Harris in jail? Naming the calf Babe?
Or is he talking about the breast reduction surgery?
Because if he is, I don't want to talk about it.