Starting at fifty cents a pound. So give me five, five, five. OK! Six, then, six, six, six and a quarter.” The auctioneer releases a slur of words into the dusty air, his voice loud and deep enough to carry over the calves’ bawling and the drone of conversations and the shuffle of boots up concrete steps and, she hopes, the wobbly way air is coming out of her nose and the tap-tap-tapping of her stubby fingernail on her knee, neither of which she can stop.
“Who’ll give me seven? Beautiful Angus calves here.”
A bidder nods, his ball cap dipping down and then up. The auctioneer jumps to seven and a half, and then eight, eight, eight, and the calves churn, milling together in their nervousness, bawling and nuzzling each other.
She watches another man lift a finger to bid. He wears a sweat-stained cap advertising Erase, a chemical that kills corn-root worms. No, no, no, she thinks in unison with the auctioneer’s eight, eight, eight. No, he’s not the one. She smooths her bangs down with her palms and presses her lips together to even out her peach lipstick. It would be so much easier if he would find her, but if he doesn’t, she’s prepared, this time, to find him.
The calves are chased out, and a new group is chased in. They cluster together, backing into one another. A few brave ones stand on the edges, staring up into the bleachers that surround them. It’s not so crowded today, and the benches are only spotted with bidders. A slant of sunlight coming through a high window lights up the dust and hay bits and cigarette smoke floating in the air, and for a moment it’s almost quiet. Then the auctioneer’s husky voice starts up again. “Got a group of Hereford-cross here,” he drawls, then abruptly changes to a speedy staccato. “Start with six, six, six, who’s gonna give me six?”
She’s watching one calf in particular, a soft, ruddy red bull with a white face. He stands frozen, blinking at the crowd, and then takes a few galloping steps, kicking his hind legs into the air. He mounts another calf, his front legs gripping and slipping on her hindquarters. As she moves away, he follows, stumbling on his two hind legs. He falls off, then jumps on her again. The female bucks and kicks at him, but he mounts her anyway, clasping her back and lurching after her.
“Got an ornery one here.” The auctioneer slows his voice and momentarily stops the bidding. “Not quite old enough, but darn ready for when he is. He’ll get the job done for you. So someone gimme six, six, six.”
A man takes a bite from his doughnut and tips his hat, and another spits tobacco into his cup and gives a nod, and the auctioneer goes back and forth, goading out an extra three cents per pound as the young bull calf gives up and stands panting, flaring his nostrils, sniffing for the scent of a female.
This is her fourth time here in the past month. Before that, it had been years, which is why she recognizes no one. And no one, she hopes, knows her, although it would be easy enough to explain why she’s here.
For a long time she stares at the ear of a man sitting several seats in front of her and to the right. His blond sideburn comes down halfway beside the lobe and then is cleanly shaven off, leaving red, tough skin. She can see he has a mustache, Western style. She’s never kissed a man with a mustache before. He runs his hand down his cheek as he watches the calves, then scratches his ear — perhaps because she is looking at it, she thinks. But he does not look in her direction. Instead, he takes a sip out of a styrofoam cup and spills some coffee on his denim shirt. He ducks his chin to look at the spill and brushes it away with the tips of his fingers, shaking his head slightly, admonishing himself, which is something she would have done. And she thinks, He’s the one, he’s the one. Please, God, let this work.
She grabs her purse and walks up the bleacher steps. In the bathroom, she tightens her face against the faint smell of urine and menstrual blood, puts a peppermint breath mint in her mouth, and leans forward over the sink to stare at her face in the mirror. “I hope this works for you, kid,” she says quietly. “Good luck.”
She buys a cup of coffee and then returns to the auction pit, this time descending by a different set of stairs. She pretends interest in the cows that have just been chased in, but really she is aiming toward the blond man, who has taken off his cap, revealing a line across his head where the hair is matted, and she stares at that line until she’s right beside him. “Excuse me,” she says and shuffles past his knees and down a few paces and then sits. She drops her purse to the cement floor and sets the coffee cup on the aluminum seat beside her. It will be too hard to start a conversation later, so she’s got to do it now. Now, now, now, she thinks, and then turns to him and smiles and says, “Looking to buy some calves?”
He looks up, jolted out of his thoughts, but not angry, not intruded upon. “No,” he says, “I’m here for the sheep. Guess I got here early.”
“Well, they should be up soon.”
He nods and turns his attention back to the calves. He’s being friendly, nothing more, and she thinks she should just let it go, and besides, her hands are shaking. But she sits on her hands and promises herself she’ll quit after one more try: “I had one sheep when I was a little girl,” she says, “and I remember how we tied a rubber band around its tail so it would fall off. How do you do that, anyway, with a big herd?”
He considers her question for a moment, then scoots over across the smooth seat so that they won’t have to strain to hear, and she lets out a long, shaky breath and fills her lungs again before he is beside her.
“Well, sometimes they use rubber bands, or they just cut the tails off when they’re castrating.”
“I’ve heard the men castrate, you know . . . with their teeth.”
“Well, there’s that.”
“Some sort of prove-yourself-a-man ritual.”
“Not partial to it myself.”
“But you’ve seen it done?”
“Sure. It’s very fast.”
“I just can’t picture it.”
“I’m not sure you’d want to.”
“You got a herd?”
“I work for a sheep rancher in Wyoming. I had to bring a horse down here for a cousin of his, so he asked me to see if I can bring back a trailer full of good ewes. How about you?”
She hesitates, because she cannot remember the response she has practiced. Once the words start, they come out all wrong, in a jumble, and she speeds up to find the end of the sentence. “We, my husband and I, own a small cattle ranch north of town, Herefords mostly. Maybe you passed it on your way in? I’m here because my husband is out of town, and he’s gone a lot, which is fine by me, really, but I got a little lonely today, so I thought I’d head down here to see if any old friends were around, but they’re not. Not today, I guess.”
She presses her fingertips to her forehead, alarmed that she might have revealed something, but also hoping that she has. After all, she no longer knows how to proceed. How can she convey to him that she has not kissed another man besides her husband in fourteen years, and that she’s kissed only three others in her life, and that she’s not even sure how a first kiss is supposed to feel anymore? But now she’s got to know; she’s got to kiss someone soon, because she misses that feeling, and she wants to feel it again so that she can hold it inside her at the end. She used to think, when she only thought about doing this instead of actually taking the first step, that her insides were dying for the lack of a new kiss. Now she really is dying, and she doesn’t want to go without having a first kiss one more time, just one more time.
So could he please help her out with this? she wants to ask. If she could, she would tell him, I know I’m not beautiful, and you don’t have to adore me the way I imagined a lover would, the way I thought it would be for all these years — admiring my back while I’m asleep, naked, in your sheets; holding me to you because you don’t want to lose me. No, you don’t have to do any of that. But if you could just smile at me, and find something I say funny or clever, or see something special in my face and tell me about it and then kiss me, it would be enough, it would be enough. If only she could say this, say something, in this silence.
But he surprises her, suddenly, with a torrent of his own words. He lives in a trailer, he says, in the middle of nowhere, with his horse, Blue, and his dog, Samuel. It’s the last place, that dry open prairie, where a man like him can go. He watches the sheep and shoots coyotes and usually sleeps outside, and he feels strange now, in this crowded room, in this Colorado town with mountains and buildings and college students. But it’s good for him, he knows. He’s got to stay in touch with this other world every once in a while, and — he says, looking at her with a tilt of his head — it’s nice to be talking to someone other than Samuel and Blue.
He is genuine and soft, not flirting or wanting anything, and his kindness drains her. But it also sends her a wave of courage; his honesty has made way for hers, and she will try to get as close as she can to saying what cannot quite be said.
So she says, “I heard once that you know you’re getting old when you stop desiring something in the present, or in the future, and just sit around reliving the past. So I’ve been thinking lately, What is it in the present that I desire? Because I don’t want to be growing old.” She laughs, trying to make it light, but he’s looking at her with serious gray eyes, so she continues, her voice barely above a whisper. “And I was just wondering if there’s anything, up there in that flat, quiet place, that you find yourself, well . . . desiring.”
His eyes drift from hers to the center of the arena, where a large bull is pacing around the edge of the pen, waving his head in the air, as if trying to catch something in his horns, snorting at some invisible foe.
“There’s plenty I desire,” he finally says. “And not all of it I could put into words . . . even if I was going to tell you.” He smiles and bats her knee with his palm, playfully, innocently. “I didn’t realize that folks at auctions talked about more than just the weather. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Jack.”
“Carolyn,” she says, holding out her hand and curling her fingers tightly around his as they shake.
“Carolyn,” he repeats, and she holds the sound of him saying her name in her head. After all, part of her desire is to live within someone else, someone new, before she dies. Maybe, she thinks, this will be enough.
The sheep he bought are in the corral. Even from inside her house, she can hear them bleating. But they have pasture and water, so their scared bawling, after Jack whooped them out of the trailer, has disappeared. She’ll explain their droppings to her husband by telling him that a stranger from Wyoming stayed the night so he wouldn’t have to make that long drive back so late in the day. It is the truth, so far. But she hopes there will be more, another truth, which she will also tell her husband if he asks her.
She will say to him: When I had a life in front of me, I was always greedy for something new. And I felt guilty because of that greed, because I love you. But I don’t have time for guilt anymore. I’m sorry.
She hopes her husband will forgive her. His kindness has always prevented her from justifying what she is about to do. And that kindness may even bring him home early, because he is afraid for her, because of the sickness that has spread into her bones. But mostly, she knows, he is afraid for himself, being without her. This is also greedy, but in a way that is human and pure, and she does not blame him. Also, she suspects on particularly cloudy days, he may already be considering the possibilities before him after she is gone. Loss, yes, but then a new love? A new direction? She doesn’t have that option. She does hope that his life, after her, will include some of the good they shared, and some good made possible by someone else.
This isn’t about greed for him or her, she tells herself. It is a chance to understand and recognize desire, and then to meet it head-on. There is plenty of desire in her, more than can be embraced in the time she has left. Desire not only for a kiss, or the tingle spreading from her pelvis to her spine, or the feel of a tongue against her lower arm and circling her breast, but also for warm days and the smell of wheat drying in the fields and the chance to be alive in someone else. Greed and desire. They are, she thinks now, not separate things; they are the same, and they are good.
She pours Jack a cup of coffee and sets out a plate of crackers. She wishes she had put the dishes in the dishwasher and wiped the counter tops before she left this morning, but she must not have truly believed then that a man would be sitting in the kitchen with her now. She did change the sheets, though, and they will smell like the sun and wind that dried them, and maybe that will remind him of his Wyoming nights, and he will be pleased and roll over and touch her shoulder and speak of stars and remember her that way.
He’s a little more quirky than she first thought; she sees that now. “I like to think about beautiful words,” he is saying. “What if you could taste turquoise?”
She doesn’t know what to say to that. Finally, she says, “I thought Wyoming sheep ranchers only thought about words like beer and poker and sex.”
“Well, that, too.” His grin reveals a chipped tooth.
“Is it enough?” she blurts out.
He leans forward and looks into her eyes. “I don’t know. It’s enough for the usual day. But the usual days aren’t what really make up a life, are they?” He says this as if he’s not quite sure himself, and then he stands up and walks to the kitchen sink and looks out the window toward the mountains.
“Do they make you claustrophobic?” she asks him.
“They make me feel grounded and protected.”
“I can see that.”
“That’s one thing about my life. I’ve always felt quite safe.”
The kiss is clumsy. Her teeth knock against his lips, and the two of them bump foreheads, and he pulls away. But she leans toward him again, before he has time to get very far, and their lips meet in a soft way, until his hands move across her back and press her hips to him. Then the kisses are hard and compact, much as she always thought they would be. Only more scary and more grand, because they are real.
She leads him to the bedroom and pulls back the clean sheets. In the instant before flesh touches clean cotton, she knows that this moment was impossible in her life until now, that it might be wrong, might turn out wrong. But it is a flash of something new, something that she can hold inside her in that last moment.
She imagines the end will come as she lies on this bed, loving her husband, the mountains circling their land, the flat meadows stretching from the foothills to their door. And now she will also have this: a sudden rise in the earth, this small outcropping of rocks that breaks up the landscape.