Walking That Short Distance, Childhood Enlightenment in the ’50s a short story by David Sheppard
From the author: I wrote this short story (1987) for a class in creative writing at the University of Colorado. It is the most autobiographical story I’ve ever told. It’s sort of a compilation of events from my own life with some alterations of family composition. I know it’s difficult to believe, but I’ve known kids who were even more naive at eleven than I was. How things have changed in sixty years.
As the bull ran, his huge pink testicles swung from side to side like the clapper of a bell. The year was 1952 and eleven year old Michael was standing in the dirt yard in front of the house with the milk barn off to his left, looking across the corral into Mr Olson’s field where the Holstein bull followed a heifer in a half run, his nose at her tail. Michael’s father had called his attention to the bull and heifer and had then disappeared into the barn where he was working on the milking machines. His father was sometimes like that, calling Michael’s attention to something disgusting and then laughing while Michael watched. But Michael was fascinated with what the bull was doing even though he was ashamed of himself for continuing to watch. He didn’t like to cater to his father’s more base tendencies.
As Michael watched, the heifer slowed and the bull jumped easily with his front hooves, placing his chin on her rump, elevating his chest and mounting her. His hind legs, now carrying his full load, struggled to keep up. The patch of scraggly hair and hide that hung from the center of his belly puckered and out came a thin pointed shaft, so red and dripping wet that Michael thought at first that it was bleeding, and the trembling end of it bent down like it was broken. The shaft was shooting out, hitting her rear end, then off to the side along her hip, lashing around like a whip, until it found the right spot and disappeared inside. Michael thought it must hurt the cow to have that thing in her but then realized that she was running with him not from him, that she was really helping him. But it is so long, he thought, what could it be doing inside her? He visualized it inside her wrapping around her intestines, nudging her organs. Why wouldn’t that hurt? He thought of the bull’s raw looking shaft and how sensitive it must be, how warm it must be inside that heifer. While Michael was thinking, the bull’s front hooves dangled about her shoulders, and his knotty head stared straight ahead, bulging eyes drilling holes in the sky as his huge hips churned.
Michael swallowed deeply, looked down at his black-cloth tennis shoes, then raised his dark brown eyes and looked across the pasture to the green fields of cotton and corn. He heard the screen door slam and turned to see his mother, with her apron on, watching him through a frown, her hands on her hips. He didn’t understand what the bull and cow were doing, but he knew there was something indecent about it. His mother was making sure he knew. He felt wedged between his father and mother. He would set Michael up, and she would chop him down. Why wouldn’t they talk to him about these things? he wondered, as he brushed curly blond hair out of his eyes. First it was the two dogs that got hooked together some how and couldn’t get loose. His father had simply laughed and walked away. Michael had tried to talk to his mother about it, but she just shut him up and fell into a mad silence. And now this silent disapproval over the bull and heifer. Why did his mother just stand there like that? Why didn’t she say something? Why didn’t his father say something?
Michael sat in a chair at the kitchen table with his right leg folded under him, constructing a totem pole for his class on North American Indians, an orange and white striped cat named Tiger sleeping in his lap. He was alone in the house with his mother, and he like that. She switched off the static coming from the small Philco radio and leaned against the sink as she hummed “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” pealing and slicing potatoes into a large glass bowl. It was dark outside, and through the house walls, Michael heard the deep hum of the vacuum pump, the machine that sucked milk from the cow’s teats, coming from the milk barn. Through the night air, the hum alternated from high to low pitch. Michael felt comforted by this pulsing heartbeat from the barn.