We started A Public Space in 2006 to create a space where writers could examine and interpret the world unfettered by the usual constraints and, in so doing, shape that world. “At the most fundamental level, narrative is how we make sense of things,” Marilynne Robinson wrote in our debut issue. “Our experience of ongoing life is a story we tell ourselves…. The human situation is beautiful and strange. We are in fact Gilgamesh and Oedipus and Lear.”
Over the past six years, we’ve published more than three hundred authors and artists whose work helps us make sense of things, including numerous first publications, among them Jesmyn Ward’s glorious story “Cattle Haul.” It was named one of the best short stories of 2008 by L Magazine (along with work by Robert Coover and Louise Erdrich), but has long been unavailable to readers because the issue is sold out. We’re so thrilled that Recommended Reading will give this story a new readership, and a new life.
“I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the black, and the rural people of the South,” Jesmyn Ward explained when she accepted the National Book Award for her novel Salvage the Bones this past November, “so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught, and lovely, and important.”
We published a second story by Jesmyn Ward, “Barefoot,” in APS 14, which you can find at www.apublicspace.org along with information about the magazine and how to subscribe.
Founding Editor, A Public Space
By Jesmyn Ward
Recommended by A Public Space
IT’S EASIER DRIVING THROUGH THE COUNTRY, especially when you doing a cattle haul. Two lanes on one side and two lanes on the other. Switch lanes and pass. At night, like now, the signs sharp and clear. The trees like waves at the side of the road, all black and blue, coming in and going back out like a tide. Ain’t no lights to distract me, to crowd up around me. Just taillights, red lights, like ants, leading me in a line westward.
Part of me want to stop. Part of me want to pull over on the side of the road and turn the rig off and start walking back to where I come from; want to get out the rig and leave it all here in the dark. But I press the gas hard and daydream about flying past the flatlands, speeding to dry, parched Texas, and through the desert to Phoenix to drop these cattle off, but they got weigh stations and state troopers, and cars and rigs like bad potholes: they waiting just to slow you down and fuck you up. I see a deer by the side of the road, two of them, night-feeding by the pines. They don’t even flinch when I pass by.
After I got back from the Pennsylvania drive, I went home and I picked up the phone on the first ring, like I always do, thinking it might be Tanisha, when I heard John-Lee on the other end saying,
Reese, you going on a forty-eight-hour cattle haul. I hadn’t even gone to the office to tell him I was back.
I pulled out a box of cookies and slid out the tray to find three stale cookies and a little balled-up sandwich bag full of white powder. I threw the box in the back of the cabinet and kicked it shut and told John-Lee I wasn’t going no fucking where.
“Why not, boy?” he breathed into the phone. He said boy and I heard nigga. I pulled the cookies back out the cabinet and took out the sandwich bag and flipped the box across the counter; it knocked over one of my mama’s glass jars, the ones she used to polish and fill with preserves: I closed my eyes and I could remember how they used to smell sugar sweet, how she would fill them with all them bright colors and let me lick the spoons after she was done. After she died, my daddy threw most of them away and used the rest for drinking, and he took me to stay by my grandmother’s house.
“Cause I don’t want to do this no more,” I said. “I just got back and I’m tired and I ain’t been home in weeks and I got to go talk to that man about my grandmama’s trailer.”
Before Grandmama died and left the trailer to me, the faucets in the house started spitting out sand because the well was too shallow. I ain’t have no money to get the well re-dug, so I moved back in with my daddy. I cleaned her trailer every Sunday and I got a job as a janitor at Love’s gas station but I couldn’t never make enough for that well. When I asked about a loan, the bank teller looked at me like I was a nutra-rat. I was still trying to talk the well digger into taking payments.
“It’s worth three thousand dollars, son.” John-Lee wheezed. He knew I needed the money. I picked Mama’s jar up and set it on the windowsill over the sink. The wind blew and I could see gnats flashing gold and smashing up against the screen, where they turned silver and gray out the light.
I didn’t want to go. I felt like a stray dog was barking at me, like it was about to bite. I wanted to lay down and go to sleep. I wished I had never started driving, never set down my broom that day last year at Love’s after I had finished sweeping. I wished Bobby had never walked in and tripped over it and asked to sit down because all the other booths was full. I was too busy drinking my coffee and trying to think of ways to get at Tanisha to care, but then my daddy had to come into the station and order a box of fried fish and see me and see Bobby, and sit down. They started talking about trucking together and Bobby said his boss John-Lee was hiring and did my daddy need a job? When Daddy told Bobby he was just hauling dirt and driving local now and Bobby looked over at me, I should’ve took myself off break. But I just sat there and let Bobby talk. He broke down profit into miles, while I thought about my well and the dust gathering in my grandmama’s sink like threadbare dishrags. My daddy watched and sucked bones from his fish and ate white bread. At home, he ain’t even asked me if I was going to do it or not.
“I gives a fuck,” I said to John-Lee. I shouted this into the phone.
“If I had a dollar for every time you done said that in the last year, I’d be a fucking millionaire, boy. I’ll see your skinny ass in an hour.” John-Lee was laughing and it sounded like he couldn’t breathe. I heard him kick something over, something metal. He hung up.
Before my mama died, my daddy took me fishing. I didn’t catch nothing, but he caught a small redfish and let me hold it in my hands. It twisted and shook, turning its head like it was trying tell us no: it didn’t want to die, didn’t want to be up out of the water, didn’t want to go back in the bucket. My stomach feel like it got twenty fish in it now. My hands hard on the steering wheel. My eyes hurt like my brain want to close them but the drug won’t let them.
I turn on the radio and everybody’s talking shit. Ain’t nothing but country music come in clear in the middle of Louisiana, and I can’t stand none of that whining and guitar playing, but the CB radio is something else. All these assholes steady talking, and don’t none of it make sense most of the time. Sometimes sound like they right in the passenger seat with me, and sometimes like they yelling at me from the other end of a house with all the doors closed between us.
“Sweet Dick Willie here.”
The sun coming up soon. I can see it at the edge of the land, way out aways, like the crack of light coming from underneath a closed door.
“Tell your wife I’m coming for her, Sweet Dick Willie,” another voice says, low and rough.
I think I should be tired right now. I rub my eye and my face is greasy with dried up sweat and dirt: I’m turning into Bobby, sweating in the air-conditioner. Nasty shit. I pull up the bottom of my t-shirt and wipe off my face. It still feel like I smeared Crisco on it.
“Shit,” this one sounds like he’s younger than me, “I’m already here with her.”
One of the cows in the back starts yelling. It sound hollow and wide and it make me grab the wheel with both hands again.
“Sweet Dick gonna kick all your asses.” Sweet Dick sounds like he’s seventy.
The cow stop. Then I hear another one, a little lower. The other one sounded like it was crying, but this one sound angry. I hit a rough patch of road and the bed rattle and for a second I could believe that thing is slamming itself into the bars. I hate pulling live cargo. I’m going to have to pull over at the next rest station and water them. Phoenix a long way off.
“Sweet Dick gotta weak dick.” It’s the kid again. He must be closer to me cause it sound like he sitting behind me giggling in my ear.
I wonder if I seem that young to my daddy. I wonder who driveway he dumping on today.
“State trooper right before exit 45.” This voice is black. Sound like business, a little like James Earl Jones. Last thing I need is another ticket.
I’ll be coming up on Houston soon. I hate the interstate through the city: everything all wide and complicated. They got too much room for something bad to happen. My first drive, I was right to the east of Panama City and some white boy driving a yellow pickup ran off the curb and swerved and ended up a inch away from my front tires. He fishtailed down the lane, and I thought that was it: I get my first drive and can’t even make it from Mississippi into Florida before I wreck the truck—just like that, I’m back in my daddy’s house, collecting change in cups. But Whiteboy got his truck under control and I slowed down and let him get on his way.
I couldn’t stop the truck: John-Lee had gave me sixteen hours to make it to Miami. By the time I got to Orlando, the caffeine had wore off, and I was starting to doze. So I opened the dimebag of crystal that I found in that old coffee mug my daddy gave me and I put a little bit on my finger and I breathed it in. My nose was flayed like a fish. I was up. When I came back from that trip, Daddy didn’t say nothing about it.
I heard my daddy’s truck crunching up the gravel and dirt in the driveway. He got out his truck and walked up to my rig, looking at the tires, the front grill, the windshield. I saw his hair done dried, the heat and the day had sucked the grease out of it and it looked like a scrubbed-out Brillo pad. His T-shirt dirty gray and sweating wet around the neck and the pits, and his boots was only halfway laced up.
I stepped away from the window so he couldn’t see me. I thought about going back to Love’s and getting my old job back. I wouldn’t do this shit no more: I’d get clean and I’d see Tanisha all the time and I’d save my money slow. Driving wasn’t doing shit for me anyway.
I’d just got back from a thirty-hour drive hauling baby swings from Pennsylvania. The usual packet from my daddy had only lasted to Tennessee on the first leg of the drive, so I had to spend more than four hundred in trucker bathrooms the rest of the way up there. You can always recognize the truckers that have it to sell; they look at you in the face in the laundry rooms and the bathrooms and don’t look away.
On the way home, I stopped twice to fuel up and check the pallets, once in Kentucky and once in Ohio. I pushed that rig. I watched the rest of the little bills I had left from the first drive disappear from my pockets to other truckers’ rough, ashy hands and leave lesser things at the stops: lint, receipts for tater chips and cold drinks, packets of blow. I parked in a Flying J truck stop once and slept for three hours with my head on my arms on the steering wheel. Least, I think I slept. I closed my eyes and then opened them and my watch said it was three hours later and I figured it was time for me to get back on the road.
Out in the yard, my daddy got out the rig and leaned against the door to shut it and almost tripped down the step.
I done passed through three weigh stations already and I don’t feel like pulling over, but I hear the cows squealing and I know they need water. The sun been done rose. These Mississippi cows, and I know they hate this kind of weather even more than I do. Ain’t no shade in Texas.
I ride until I see the exit and hit the pack again before I pull over. The trucks weaving in and weaving out between each other. Some rigs so fancy you can tell the trucker don’t got no home: that’s where they live. I stop and wait and watch and ease forward. A big yellow monster stop for me to get pass him.
The hose is rubbery and hard in my hand. I spray it through the slats in the side of the bed. The sun cutting the cows like knives across they sides. They low and cry and crowd toward the water.
I don’t notice the lot lizard until she was on me. She’s a older white woman, got stonewashed jeans on and a red T-shirt with Texas written in yellow across the front. Her hair short in the front and long and brown and matted in the back; it fall like rope. She open her mouth to smile, and she missing a tooth on the side.
“Got you a full load there?”
“Yeah.” I wish I could turn the water up, but it’s as high as it can get. One of the cows bays. She runs her hand through her hair.
“That one look a little sick.”
“What you talking about?”
“That one there that sound like a goat.” She pointing at one who got its face smashed sideways to the bar. Its head hang down by its feet. I trip on the hose when I step up to the load. She right beside me, and she smell like cigarettes.
“Maybe it’s just tired. They been standing since Mississippi.”
“You can tell you ain’t from Texas. Cows always stand.”
“Well since you know everything about cows, what’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know. Look like she sick.”
The cow snorts and its eyes flutter open wide for a second before they slide almost closed again. Its legs shaking like mine, its knees shivering like balls. She lean in and whisper in my ear.
“Got room for one more? Somebody young as you need good company on a long ride.”
She smiling and her brown eyes seem nice for a moment, crinkling and folding like paper at the corners. I ain’t seen Tanisha in weeks. I think of her and the careful way she sat on my lap the first time I invited her to my grandmama house to see it, and I want to be there again with her, on the cool concrete front steps, with the grass coming up to cover us like a blanket. I back away from the trailer, away from the bed, and turn the hose back up and point it at the trailer. One of the cows slams its head up against the gate. I shoot it on the crown.
“No thank you.”
“You sure.” I see the bottom of her front two teeth is brown. I bet if she opened her mouth a little further so I could see the bottom, they’d be the same from clamping down on the pipe.
“Yeah.” I say it loud.
“Well, if you change your mind…”
I picked up the phone and dialed the number by heart.
The foreman at the factory where I had to deliver the baby swings had been some small, skinny nigga with a fat face. He cut the seal, and I watched them boys, some of them younger than me, unload. I crossed my arms and tried to lean back and look hard and stop from shaking my leg. I tried not to think about what I had: a daddy slipping me crystal because he thought it was helping me make money, a asshole redneck boss, and a girl I hadn’t seen in almost a month, when I felt the sickness coming on. I threw up the first time right there on the foreman’s feet. I threw up again right before I had pulled up into my daddy’s yard.
“Love’s,” Tanisha said, sounding tired. I could hardly hear her; she was quiet most of the time, though, and only got loud when she got angry, when some trucker asked her for a extra biscuit for free or complained about the price of diesel.
“Hey,” I was trying to whisper.
“Love’s,” she said, louder.
“It’s me, Reese,” I said.
My daddy was just sitting in the passenger seat of his truck with the door open.
“Ain’t heard from you in a while,” she said. I had to strain to hear her.
“I been in and out a lot; been on a couple of good runs. I done almost saved up enough—”
“For the trailer,” she finished for me. “I know.”
“After this job,” I said, and slid off the counter to the floor. “I’ll come pick you up.”
“Whatever you say, Reese.”
“I got to go. Got customers here.”
“Alright, well I’ll call you when I get back, I’m going to Phoenix on a cattle haul and—”
“What you say you needed,” she said, her voice stretching out and getting tinier and tinier like she was running away from me, and then I heard a rough man’s voice, and then a click and the dial tone.
Every time I go west instead of east, seem like the sun bleach all the color out of the land. In the middle of Texas, ain’t no pines, no thick green grass: just grass the color of sand. I can feel the heat pressing into the truck, trying to get in through the cracks of the windows. The cows in the back done got quiet, like the heat done wrapped around them and told them to shut up, to not open they mouths and waste the water.
I think about driving back through this mess after I drop the cows off, and speed up the drive in my eyes so that it’s like watching a movie in fast forward: me and the truck diving into the green again. I see my daddy in the house waiting for me, sitting at his same seat at the table. I picture this in my head even though I know he probably ain’t even going to be there, that the house will smell like empty: dust and cut grass and Comet and fried grease.
I’m nervous about that cow, the sick one the hooker pointed out to me. What if it’s getting the other ones sick? What if it’s breathing germs all over them? What if I get to Phoenix and I have a trailer bed full of dead cows? I pull over to the shoulder of the road. I step out the truck and the sun hit me hard across the face, bright and strong. The air punch its way into my lungs in fists.
The cows ain’t moving. They all sitting there like the sick one was at the gas station, they heads down, they noses low. I’d be standing like that too if I was out in this heat. A big red and white one in front of me, sweating good. Look like he been hosed off. I stick my finger closer to his wet neck and when I touch him, he stay still. I jump instead of him. His sweat hot as boiling water. A black one next to him open its mouth and bawl. I’m not fast enough pulling my hand out, and the back of it sprayed with spit. The black one put her head down again, and I wipe the back of my hand on my pants leg. I run back to the front of the rig and put it in gear. I shift a little before the engine ready each time, figure each moment saved be the sooner I get there.
Even the cactus in the desert look like they falling over into the sand. My headlights hit them, light them up for seconds in the dark, and they look like people. The back of my hand still itch. I swear if I was a couple of shades lighter it would be turning red.
Somebody’ll say something over the CB once every blue moon, sounding just as surprised and alone as those cactuses. Ain’t nobody talking back to nobody else.
“Holy shit, I got me a fine woman up here.”
The feedback crackles back quiet. I hate how the desert don’t make no sound at night.
“Got me a fine little thing in the car next to me. Redhead. Black car.”
I see two pairs of red lights on the horizon and I wonder if that’s him.
“She sleeping with her head in the driver’s lap. Got a little dress on. I’d let her stretch out in the back of my rig. Let her sss—”
I cut the CB off. Tanisha hair’s red when the sun hit it right. It was a burning red the last time I seen her, right before my daddy walked in. She was on my lap. He knocked on the wall outside the door, quick like he always did before he walked into my room. I saw him looking at us before she did, and I looked over her hair, smoking like the red ash at the bottom of a fire from the sun beaming in through the window, and I saw his mouth open a little, his eyes turn black. He was looking at her back, at my hand there, rubbing her. I kicked my dresser, and Tanisha jerked up and saw him. She looked at the floor. He looked like he was fixing to say sorry, and then his face shut; he mumbled something about me cleaning out the shed and walked away.
I feel like somebody pulling a blindfold over my eyes, forcing them down. I pull over and cut off the headlights and put my yellow lights on. I know I should get out the rig and go check on the cows. I ain’t heard nothing from them since earlier: you think they would’ve started hollering at night cause of the cold. But something about the desert and the night scare me: it’s too much space and dark for something to step out of all that dark and grab. I pull a flannel shirt I stole out my daddy’s drawer on over my T-shirt and fumble my way to sofa at the back of the rig. I lay down on my side and put my feet up on the cushion. Don’t matter to me. It’s my last ride.
I lay there and under the steady rumbling from the rig’s motor, I hear other things. A noise sound like something falling on the bed: either a stomp or a cow laying down. Maybe they dying right now. The wind cut through the window; it sound like a boy whistling, like I whistled the first time my grandmama pushed her lips together and showed me. Under it all, I hear the refrigerator next to me, humming, sounding like crickets, like the night do on the few nights I been home this past year, with the crickets singing through the window, calling out with one voice, a voice calling Reese, Reese, Reese, my name coming from all the trees and the grass and the underbrush with armadillos and possum crawling through it outside so that I fall asleep and don’t even know it.
I washed off real quick. I kept trying to make myself focus on what I had to do. I dried off and wrapped a towel around me. I knew I had forty-eight hours to get the cattle where they needed to be: if I didn’t make it in time or if something went wrong, I wouldn’t get paid in full. When I walked out the shower my daddy was standing in the hallway.
“You here to stay?”
“Naw. I’m heading back out today.”
He looked at my chest and then up at my face.
“You been eating?”
I wish I had put my clothes on before I got out the bathroom. I knew what he saw: the bones in the middle of my chest sticking out like knuckles.
“Just working hard, that’s all,” I said.
“Yeah.” I wiped the water from my neck. “This it. After this one I’ma quit. I be back in around four days. Then I’ll have near enough for the well,” I said.
He was staring at my face, his eyes so dark brown they looked black. After he bought me to live with Grandmama, he used to visit once in a while. He’d come in from a long haul and watch me play in front of the tv with my toys in the living room. He’d fall asleep in the easy chair and I’d creep up beside him and touch him with my finger on his arm. His veins had stood out like snakes. His muscles had been big and soft when he was sleeping. I felt skinny and small facing him: I don’t understand how he did it for all them years. I wasn’t never as big as he was, but I was bigger than this before I started all this shit. Even when I was just pushing that broom around and mopping the bathrooms at Love’s, I was still bigger than this.
“Well,” he said, and stopped.
I see Grandmama in him sometime, in the way he move when he washing dishes at the sink or the way he laugh like it hurting him when he watching tv. Just like I figure sometime he see Mama in me. I rubbed my hands on the towel; it was thin as a sheet, and waited for him to say more.
“If you want to,” he said.
He nodded at me and opened his mouth like he was about to say something else. He turned around and walked to the kitchen.
“I got some fried chicken and some biscuits in here if you want it.”
“No, sir,” I said.
I went to my room and put on my clothes. When I walked back out to the kitchen he was sitting at the table eating chicken out of a KFC box. He didn’t say nothing, and I didn’t neither. He slid a paper bag across the table, looked like the lunches Grandmama used to pack for me to take to school.
“I put a leg and a thigh and a biscuit in there for you anyway. You could eat it on the road.”
I didn’t want to take it. I’d take caffeine pills again, I told myself. I’d throw it away. I nodded at him and grabbed the bag.
“Alright, then,” he said, and nodded. I jumped down the steps and almost fell into the long, weedy grass.
The dawn coming up pink on the horizon like a tongue. I go to the front and shove a bag of chips in my mouth. They Lays, and even though they supposed to be greasy and go down easy, they still turn to grit on my tongue. I drink the rest of my Mountain Dew and take another one out the frigerator. I know my daddy up now; he like to get in his loads, hauling dirt and rocks and gravel and oyster shells and whatever else people need before the hottest heat of the day. Tanisha already behind the counter at the gas station, handing out boxes of chicken without touching the trucker’s hands, taking they orders with her eyes down. Except for me: I know she’ll look at me when I get back, when I go in to talk to her.
I take off my daddy’s shirt and roll it up with the pillow behind the seat. I check the pack; it got three hits in it. I scoop up one and sniff. I sit there and I hear everything: the leather creaking under my back, every piece of sand that hit the windshield, my breath going in and out fast. I’m awake. I get out the truck and go check the cows.
Every one of them laying down on the flatbed. I hit the bar and it feel like ice beneath my palm, so cold I think some of the skin going to come away when I pull my hand back. It smell like bad hay, like cow shit. I hit the bar again and I hear one of them low. If they can make noise, they alive. It ain’t my fault if they sick, ain’t my fault some creatures need home like they need food. I lean into the bars and one of them, brown with black brown eyes, lays its head to the side and looks at me. It blinks slow. Ain’t nothing I can do. I turn back and climb into the cab. I put the truck in gear and the skin on my hand burn, and I drive.
The cows shuffled against one another like they was nervous when they was walking up the ramp in Mississippi: the rancher who loading them yelled all kinds of words I didn’t even know. If all I had to do was lay around in this pasture and eat grass underneath these big old pine trees, I would’ve been nervous about getting into a truck, too. I felt sorry for them, in a way, cause I done been where they was going. I knew the same sun in Mississippi different out there; I knew this was the last time they was going to see green.
I put my hands in my pockets and felt around even though I knew what was in there: lint in one, lint in the other. I’d stop at the first gas station and throw out my daddy’s food. I wouldn’t even open the bag. I’d buy some yellow jackets, some firecrackers, some caffeine. I pulled my hands out my pockets and folded my arms. The rancher closed and locked the gate. Out past the pasture I saw woods, and in the distance, more cows. They looked like they knew what was going on. They was all standing still and looking at me and the truck and the rancher all suspicious, swishing they brown and black tails. Egrets walked between them, picking they way and nodding they heads like they was starting some shit. One of the big males with horns that looked like cones mooed at us. The rancher latched the door closed and pulled away the ramp.
“You know what to do, huh?”
“Yeah, I done did this before.”
I jumped in the cab and turned the key in the ignition. Before I took my foot off the clutch and put the rig in gear, I had already opened the bag. There, buried under the biscuit and bunched like a mayonnaise packet between the leg and thigh, was a small, white greasy bag. I thought about my daddy, alone in the house. I wonder if he ate all that chicken. I could’ve sat down with him and ate some. I could’ve made time. I could’ve found five minutes to sit there in the kitchen and eat. I could picture him handing me a thigh, a biscuit—and not being able to just come out and hand me the little plastic bag. I could’ve ate the chicken on a napkin and just threw it away real quick, not even had a mess to clean up.
I follow John-Lee’s directions. I do what I know to do: I put my hands on the wheel and I drive. I watch my speed. I pass two state troopers and they stay still on the side of the road, and I wonder if they saw my bed of dying cattle, and I wonder what they thought. I drive with both hands on the wheel, the diseased one at two and the other at ten, like the truck invisible and everybody can see in the cab.
By the time I get to the ranch where I’m supposed to drop them off, I done finished the pack. I done made it within the forty-eight hours, but the cattle probably breathing they last breath by now. I pull up in the drop- off yard, and I turn the truck around and pull up so the gate of the flatbed is facing the pen. As if they going to walk out. I laugh and don’t know why I’m laughing.
A man with a cowboy hat and a gold belt buckle that shine like a false front walk toward the truck. I get out. My eyes twitching in my head, but I stand in the cool next to the rig and dig my hands in my pockets and wait on him, and try not to look at the bed. My head buzzing and I think it’s the gathering of flies. The man stops in front of me and starts speaking; I done lost the first part of what he’s saying before it’s even out of his mouth.
“…from Down South Trucking, right? You right on time.”
“That’s a serious haul for somebody so young.”
“My daddy drives trucks.”
I don’t know why this what I say back. I wonder if he would argue with this man if he was the one did the drive, if he was the one pulled up out here in the middle of the desert with a truck bed full of dying cattle. I wonder if my daddy’d say anything.
“Well, let’s get them cattle out.”
I let him walk around to the back of the truck. Two ranch hands done pushed a ramp up to the back of the gate of the bed. Cows and men and dust and flies clog the air. I look away from them to the horizon; sand from here to nowhere. The man with the gold belt buckle cuts the seal and opens up the latch, and I close my eyes and wait for him to start cussing.
I hear feet first. Footsteps so hard I think they got to be a stampede of cowboys, pissed-off ranch hands in boots running for me to whip my ass. I open my eyes and see my dying cattle shuffling out the bed. On they feet. Fine. They heads straight forward in the air, some straight up, sniffing and mooing. They run and the fat jiggle on they sides, the muscle roll in they shoulders. The supervisor smiling. The ranch hands yelling “Ha! Ha!” and sitting on the top of the gate, waving them in. I back against the side of the rig and feel the metal hot as skin at my back. Part of me want to run out in the middle of the river of cows and put my hands out flat to feel they backs running by warm like water underneath my hands.
The foreman clear his throat and spit and I open my eyes to see him handing me a clipboard. My cows done melted into the herd, and the ranch hands chasing them away.
“Thank you, son,” the supervisor say.
He turn and walk back to the building and I step into my cab. The sun climbing up the sky, pulling itself by its arms, getting madder and hotter the further up it goes. I start the rig and head into the east. The load should be lighter now, but I still feel the weight of the cows back there, the dead weight of them laying there with they heads down in the truck bed not moving, rolling they eyes up to look at the sky, to look at me, to look at the desert and the receding green out the slats.
I feel a warm roll of sober in my guts: it’s going to take me more than two days to get home. The mountains rim the sky; the cactus pop up like startled hitchhikers. The radio rustling with static. I wonder where all the other truckers done went, see them in my head driving down pine tunnels chattering like birds, making conversation. A dead jackrabbit smeared red and black over the road. Even though I know I’m too far away for his radio to pick me up, even though I know he can’t hear me, I want to pick up the receiver, push the red button and say, Daddy.
Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won five Hopwood awards for essays, drama, and fiction. A Stegner Fellow at Stanford from 2008 to 2010, she is currently the Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. Her debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds, was an Essence Book Club selection, a Black Caucus of the ALA Honor Award recipient, and a finalist for both the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Her second novel, Salvage The Bones, was a finalist for the 2012 Young Lions Fiction Award and the 2012 Indie Choice Award, and was the winner of the 2012 Alex Award and the 2011 National Book Award in Fiction.
A Public Space, an independent print magazine of literature and culture, was founded in 2006 to present innovative and meaningful new work for the twenty-first century. In her essay in our debut issue, Marilynne Robinson asks, “Why write fiction? … and why read it? What does it mean? Why does it matter?” These questions continue to invigorate the magazine. For more information, and to subscribe, visit www.apublicspace.org.
“Cattle Haul” first appeared in A Public Space and is reprinted by permission of Jesmyn Ward. All rights reserved by the author.