My whole family went to the Reynolds Beef Farm to pick out my calf. It would be my first year showing a steer in the Wabash County 4-H Fair, and I was excited, even though my older brothers, Derrick and Darren, had warned me not to get too attached. “It’s not a dog,” they’d said. I’d nodded and agreed as I thought up possible names for my calf. I had a two-page list of them on yellow legal-pad paper, which I kept folded in my big World Book Dictionary.
We rode in the used station wagon Dad had bought with money he’d made working overtime at the ceiling-tile factory. It was 1978, and at the age of ten I could barely contain my glee at the idea of having my own animal to raise and dote on. Derrick and Darren had already found theirs, but mine would come from a farm two counties over and require a delivery. The Crandells participated in 4-H the way we did everything: bargain hunting, doing odd jobs, and keeping costs and desires to a minimum. I’d saved some money, and my dad had matched it, helping me track my balance in a credit-union bankbook. One hundred and seventy-five dollars seemed to me the kind of money a man would have when he asked a woman to marry him.
We turned onto a long blacktop road, and Mom nudged Dad to slow down as we passed a sign with the name of the farm in bold letters and a bull’s head surrounded by calves of every color: black, tan, spotted, red, white, and even a grayish blue. This was the farm of a man who owned — not rented, like us. We hoped he might have an animal I could afford. I was talking a lot, as usual, and when I took a breath, Dad jumped in: “Don’t get all riled up now. You act that way, and you’ll spend every penny in your bankbook.” Derrick and Darren elbowed me, and I straightened up but still imagined petting my calf.
We rolled into the driveway and saw a man by a picnic table scraping mud from his boots. White haired, with skin the color of roasted ham, he placed a muddy putty knife on the table and brushed off his hands. Dad got out of the car, and while they shook hands, the rest of us peered around the property and talked excitedly about what we saw: Darren spotted the livestock trophies lining the picture window of the house. Derrick saw a cattle dog trotting around the perfectly painted barn. Our sisters noticed the family had a swimming pool and a store-bought play set and a trampoline. We grew quiet when Dad came back.
He said the girls could visit with Mr. Reynolds’s granddaughters, who were on the porch with a litter of newborn kittens. The girls were happy about this and followed Mom. My brothers and I got out and shook Mr. Reynolds’s hand. I was proud when Dad told him how I’d worked hard and saved my money, but Mr. Reynolds seemed a little aloof. He opened a gate and led us through one pasture after another. It was a bright, crisp day, and our cheeks reddened in the strong wind. Blackbirds cawed, and cows looked up, chewing hay. When we entered the fourth pasture, a dog rushed over, barking. It was a farm mongrel, mostly wet teeth and raised fur. “Shush!” yelled Mr. Reynolds, and he threw his arms in the air to make the dog retreat. The dog had been overprotective of him, he explained, ever since he’d saved it from a raging creek flood. Someone asked its name, and he told us it didn’t have one; that naming animals was not advisable. The dog was barking less now, turning circles as Mr. Reynolds ignored it. We walked through more gates and a grove of small pine trees ringing yet another pasture. Then we stopped. Below us, about two hundred yards away, a herd of speckled cattle with yearling calves grazed on a blue-green blanket of grass.
“These are in your ballpark,” he said.
I understood: the pastures we’d passed through contained cattle from the best breeding lines, animals we could not afford. The families who could afford those cattle always won Grand Champion and Reserve Champion and went on to the state fair in Indianapolis. Their last names were printed in large white letters on their pristine red barns: the Godshalks, the Willamettes, the Fergusons.
“Now, mind you, they aren’t culls or any of that,” Mr. Reynolds said, plucking a piece of grass and sucking it as Dad lit a Salem. “They don’t originate from the trophy lines. But if what you’re wanting is a calf for a 4-H project, any of these will do.”
I stood next to my brothers and surveyed the cattle in the pasture. A few clouds swollen with rain were moving slowly on the horizon, as if tethered to the walnut trees below. Dad nodded and took a long drag from his cigarette before mashing it out on the wet ground and putting the butt in his shirt pocket.
“I’ll get the hand to drive them up to the paddock,” said Mr. Reynolds. “That way you can get a closer view of what your money’s buying.” He used a walkie-talkie to call for the farmhand, and we followed him and our dad back the way we’d come. I had visions of bathing my calf and using a blow-dryer on its soft fur as it nuzzled me like a well-trained horse. I was thinking about leading the calf around a show pen and a judge in a Stetson slapping its rear end when he chose it Grand Champion. My brothers had never placed in the 4-H competition, and I’d seen them sell off their steers at the end of the fair. It was part of raising a calf. They put their checks in the bank and used the money to buy school clothes, purchase feed for their new animals, and maybe fund a couple of trips to the A&W restaurant during fair week. But I had dreams of winning because I also knew it was customary not to auction off a prizewinning animal. Businesses like the Handy Andy convenience store would rent it for promotional purposes, and people would come to get their pictures taken with the Grand Champion.
The gaunt farmhand used an ATV to drive the calves into the paddock, employing deft maneuvers to separate them from their mothers, whose udders were heavy with milk. I opened my mouth to protest, but I didn’t want to risk leaving without a calf. So I kept quiet and kind of shimmied in place, an anxious tic that my brothers had said made me seem less mature. Darren put a hand on my shoulder. The farmhand used the nose of the ATV to slam the metal gate shut. The cows called from behind it, while the calves huddled in the center of the paddock, nostrils slick and tails twitching. “See anything that strikes your eye?” asked Mr. Reynolds. The dog from earlier was running the length of the fence, braying as if he’d treed a raccoon. Dad told me to choose my top three, and my brothers would help me make the final decision.
After picking two calves, I spotted a smaller one with speckles on only half his body: auburn dots that ran from his face to midway down the torso. The back half was white with just a few of the same dots showing again at the rear. The calf moved in and around the others, keeping his head low but his eyes wide open. He had pretty lashes like the ones on my sisters’ baby dolls. His legs were short, which I knew would hurt his chances in the ring. Still, I felt drawn to the calf and had already named him in my mind: Speckles. Derrick shook his head as I made my third choice. Mr. Reynolds and Dad observed our deliberations. Derrick and Darren tried to talk me out of Speckles, pointing out that the other two calves had spots, too, and longer legs. But my mind was made up. “He won’t grow into his legs,” said Darren. “He’ll have a hard time catching up,” Derrick added. They appealed to our dad, who simply told them it was my money. Ready to settle up, I felt in my overalls for the check my dad had already cosigned, and I followed Mr. Reynolds into his office in the barn. He charged me only seventy-five dollars, delivery included.
Late one evening, after my siblings and I had gotten off the bus, done our chores, and eaten gravy over toast, the Reynolds farm truck eased into our driveway, pulling a livestock trailer. I yanked on coveralls and ran out into the dusk, an old halter and rope over my shoulder. I helped the farmhand open the trailer’s rusted back gate and saw the gleaming eyes of Speckles. The man shone a flashlight while I put a halter on Speckles and led him out of the trailer, pulling a little when he planted his feet. The farmhand gave me a sack of high-end feed and told me to gradually ease him off it and onto whatever we fed. With that, the man got into the truck and drove away.
The area around the barn was quiet except for the purring pigeons in the hayloft. I explained to Speckles how he would meet my brothers’ steers and how we fed hay as treats, and I let him know about the new straw I’d put down in his stall. He was even shorter than I’d realized; his head fit easily under my armpit. It was difficult to see how he’d grow enough to be ready to show in August. I tied his rope to a beam and went to another part of the barn, where we kept the homemade 4-H show box — painted white with big green four-leaf clovers on every side and our last name written in Mom’s cursive stroke. Inside were a brush, tail detangler, and a tube of pomade used to coif sections of the steer’s hide and make the muscles look more developed under the show ring’s lights.
I rushed back to Speckles, put the grooming equipment down on a hay bale, and got him a bucket of water. Then I fed him several handfuls of his old feed with a little of ours mixed in — just simple cracked corn with some molasses. While he ate, I rubbed his head and talked to him. After the feed was gone, he burped, licked his nostrils, drank some more, then grew sleepy, batting those long eyelashes like a model in a makeup commercial. Speckles eased himself into the straw and started chewing cud. I began brushing him. He let me work on him for more than an hour, as I cleaned his ears and detangled his tail. Eventually I grew tired, too, and fell asleep next to Speckles. Darren found me. “Hey,” he said, shaking me awake, the owls hooting in the barn’s silo. “Come on, get up. You can’t be acting like it’s a sleepover.” I went inside to bed, though I wanted to stay in the barn with Speckles, parting his hair and working to make him a champion.
I envied the 4-Hers from the well-to-do families, who got to keep their animals longer. Winning the Wabash County 4-H Fair meant you could compete at the state level, which meant your steer could be brought back home. Of course, at some point it would be sent to the butcher, but not for another couple of years. I never wanted to let Speckles go.
For the next two months, I spent all my free time after school and between chores with Speckles. On Sunday nights, while the others were inside watching Wild Kingdom, I snuck him pretzels and let him drink Pepsi from a bottle. I put oil on his hooves until they shone like marble. I cleaned his teeth with Pepsodent and a dish brush. I put a halter on him and led him around the pasture and down our lane and back, over and over, pausing as if inside the show ring, then lifting his head with both my hands so he would look proud before a pretend judge. The halter left an indentation across his nose. When I massaged the area, he would softly butt his head against me, which made me smile. I applied salve to the spot where the halter had rubbed him, and I researched the condition at the extension office. That’s how I learned that lamb’s wool wrapped around the halter helped. I bought some wool with the two-dollar bill I’d gotten from my grandparents for my birthday.
Speckles was getting bigger but not taller, and his belly seemed distended most of the time, as if he’d eaten a beach ball. We had a scale to weigh wagons full of soybeans, and I led him onto it every week. Derrick and Darren had given up on reprimanding me but continued saying how I had better get used to the idea that Speckles would ultimately be auctioned off along with their “beef projects” — they never named their steers — and trucked to the processing plant. I screamed at them for this and pouted and privately believed they were brutes who didn’t deserve to have animals.
Once school was out for the summer, I devoted even more time to Speckles, walking him after chores and staying in the barn with him after the sun had set and the stars had come out. Early one morning in June I was teasing his tail hair into a ball — a common grooming technique for the show ring — and telling him about a book I was reading called Bridge to Terabithia, about a lonely farm boy named Jesse and his eccentric friend Leslie. My brothers seemed to be rushing through feeding their steers, but I hardly noticed as I sprayed Aqua Net to hold the ball of hair in place. Usually our mother and our sisters performed the beauty treatments right before show time. I’d never seen a boy or man tease tail hair, but I was enjoying it. Darren and Derrick ducked out a side door. I had stepped back to admire Speckles’s tail bouffant when I spotted my father smoking in the doorway. He crushed the cigarette against the jamb and tucked the butt into his pants cuff. Embarrassed, I pretended to check the buckle on Speckles’s halter. Dad walked over and sat down on the feed trough, where the wood was polished smooth from years of animals eating from it. He didn’t speak for a while, and I kept busy, fluffing straw and using the pitchfork to remove a cow pie from behind Speckles. Dad worked all the time, either at the factory or on the farm, and I hadn’t seen much of him since that day at the Reynolds Beef Farm.
“He’s put on weight,” Dad said. He blew his nose into a handkerchief, which he carefully folded into a square and shoved into his back pocket. “I’d say he’ll weigh upwards of seven hundred by fair time.”
“He weighed 595 last week,” I said, relieved to talk manly figures.
“That soybean scale is off by about ten pounds. I wouldn’t be surprised if you can’t put another hundred on him in two months.” Dad stood and walked toward Speckles. I tossed the manure and straw over the gate and leaned the pitchfork against the wall. “Son,” said my dad as he patted Speckles’s back, “the point of the 4-H program is to learn livestock practices on an individual animal, so you can understand how to provide it to an entire herd.” I sensed I was supposed to look up and meet his eyes, and I did so with difficulty. He told me it was only natural to get attached during the process, but the important thing was to focus on feed, roughage, and rations needed to gain market weight.
I hated the word market. I pictured parts of Speckles under plastic wrap, bloody and cold in the meat aisle at Clark’s Grocery. My throat hurt, and I couldn’t swallow. I started fiddling with the rope that I used to lead Speckles. I could hear Dad opening the barn door to leave. Bright sun poured into the barn. My father paused, and finally the light went away as the door latch clicked shut. Alone with Speckles, I cried and told him I was going to read Bridge to Terabithia to him. I fell asleep telling him all about the hardships of Jesse’s life on his family’s farm.
Over the next several weeks I convinced myself that Speckles would win a ribbon at the 4-H fair and be spared the slaughterhouse, or else I would lay out to my father all the sound reasons for not selling off Speckles. I made myself believe that everything was going to be fine. When my brothers warned me about treating Speckles like a dog, I would pretend to agree and force myself to call him “my steer.” I feigned interest whenever they talked about his “meat development” and how much they might get for their steers on auction night. When Dad or my brothers were around, I was a no-nonsense livestock man, talking about using cracked corn for high-energy ratios. Privately I had dreams of my family becoming rich enough to care for all the runts and unwanted animals. We would build an elaborate barn for them and feed them expensive food and provide the most-golden straw I’d ever seen and let them live to old age.
I made sure I was alone with Speckles when I read to him from the novel. I weighed him twice a week and continued grooming him, secretly wondering how his long eyelashes would look with some of Mom’s mascara. I combed his hair and parted it in different styles. Speckles licked me and pushed his big head into my shoulder. I could sit atop him and even lie back. He remained calm, chewing cud and expelling gas from both ends. He liked toast and strawberry Kool-Aid. I filched carrots from the garden and fed them to him whole, the green tassels dangling from his mouth as he chewed.
By the time the Wabash County 4-H Fair arrived, I’d created several different hairstyles for Speckles and read him the entire novel twice. He would walk alongside me without a rope, and he nodded his head when I called his name. At the fairgrounds we pulled into the area where the scales were, and I got out of the truck and handed the officials our paperwork. Trucks and trailers lined the gravel drive, and all around were the sounds of cattle mooing and kicking trailer gates. The scents of cinnamon from the funnel cakes and grease from the food canteen were nearly as strong as the odors of manure and sawdust. In addition to the livestock shows, the fair had a beauty pageant, a demolition derby, tractor pulls, and a midway with rides. Because we couldn’t afford real summer vacations, the 4-H fair was the closest we got.
The wealthy farmers got to weigh in their animals first. People gawked, and men whistled as beef cattle with shiny, muscled torsos strode onto the scales. The 4-Hers who owned these animals wore designer shirts with pearl snap buttons and cowboy boots that cost as much as our heating oil for one winter. The animals’ leather halters and lead ropes matched the owners’ expensive boots. I wore Darren’s hand-me-down flannel shirt and a pair of jeans my mother had bought at a rummage sale and hemmed nearly up to my knee.
After waiting almost an hour, we weighed in. Derrick’s steer was more than a thousand pounds and Darren’s almost eleven hundred. I led Speckles onto the scales. He was docile and looked dumpy compared to the others, his frayed jute halter slack under his weak chin. The 4-H man smiled at me and winked. “Trained him real good,” he said. Another man motioned for me to lead Speckles off the scales, then handed me a piece of paper with the weight on it: 645 pounds. “That ain’t nothing to shake a stick at,” he said. “Fifty cents a pound, and you’ll go home with over three hundred bucks after auction.” I pretended not to hear him and led Speckles along a line of cramped stalls, where family names were pinned on note cards. We found ours near the back; the wealthy families occupied whole rows toward the front, their RVs and trucks gleaming under the lights. Dad had a friend from the factory help him carry our bright white-and-green grooming box and place it behind our steers. We filled their water buckets and gave them hay. Dad asked who could go for a cheeseburger and fries and a cold root beer, and we all went and ate. I snuck the bottom bun half into my pocket and brought it back to Speckles.
For three days we stayed up late playing cards on bales of hay with other 4-Hers and went to the poultry and rabbit shows, the horse and pony contests, and the sheep expositions. Mom and the girls teased the steers’ tails and shined their hooves with clear fingernail polish. It was understood that I would follow my brothers’ lead and focus on making sure the steer had fresh water, clean bedding, and handfuls of grain. I missed being alone with Speckles and reading to him.
Steers in Speckles’s weight class were shown on the first day, and I was excited as I led him into the ring. Dad had to work, and Derrick and Darren were back at the farm doing chores, since their show wasn’t for two more days. In my stocky jeans and seed-corn hat — pulled down so that my ears stuck out like jug handles — I led Speckles around the ring along with fifteen or so other 4-Hers and their steers. I passed Mom and the girls in the stands several times before the judge picked out his top three, then the next five. Finally he motioned for me and Speckles to line up with a group of others. As the winners paraded around the ring, we were handed yellow participation ribbons.
Back at the stall, I helped Mom and the girls take down Speckles’s tail hair. I was glad my dad and brothers weren’t around, and I told my sisters about how I’d read a novel to my steer, and how he knew his name. I tried hard to push away the awful thought of selling Speckles. Mom had brought cheese sandwiches, and we ate sitting on top of the grooming box, swatting flies and talking about Speckles’s long lashes. When my brothers returned, they told me they, too, had gotten participation ribbons their first year; it wasn’t a good idea to pin it up above Speckles’s head because buyers walking through wouldn’t bid as much for meat that came from yellow-ribbon animals. I ignored them.
Derrick and Darren earned red ribbons for their steers, placing in the bottom third of their weight class, and for the remainder of the week we alternated between watching events and eating more fair food. The midway rides were an excellent distraction. One of Derrick’s friends had made it all the way to the finals in the demolition derby, and I was thrilled to sit in his mud-splattered junker and pretend to drive it. We sat in the stands later that night and watched as my brother’s friend was T-boned by a hoodless heap of rust that went on to claim the big prize: a forty-buck gift certificate to Tractor Supply and a free meal at the Lion’s Club tent. Afterward we filed back to the barns, and I tended to Speckles while Dad waited, tapping his pack of Salems. The next day was the big auction, and a sudden rush of panic hit me. My hands shook as I pulled sheaves of hay apart and stuffed them into the feeder bin near Speckles’s face. The barn lights started ticking off, and a man announced over the PA that all 4-Hers should be finished with their projects and off the premises before the gates closed. As we walked to the car, all I could think about was how Speckles nuzzled me every time I talked to him. On the way home, while my brothers and sisters dozed, I made a last attempt to figure out how I might save him. I slipped into sleep, too, and had a dream where I strolled around a processing plant with a beautiful speckled hide draped over my shoulders and blood under my feet.
Speckles’s weight class was one of the first to go at auction. I forced myself to breathe as I led him into a chute amid bright lights and smatterings of applause. The high-schooler behind me smelled like beer and kept coughing and sighing. I rubbed Speckles’s head and talked to him and didn’t care if the others thought I was weird. A girl in front of me led a red-and-white Hereford into the ring. Cameras flashed, the auctioneer singsonged through an impossibly fast bidding process, and the girl and her steer exited the side gates in a cloud of sawdust and whoops. I entered the ring and felt all eyes on me. Speckles seemed as content as ever, following me obediently, the rope slack. I passed my family and saw Mom and the girls smiling. I was afraid I might break down, and shame rose in my cheeks like a fever. All sounds vanished. I couldn’t hear the bidding or the crowd. Then Speckles and I were ushered from the ring and through an intricate series of gates and chutes. At the end, men in cowboy hats and uniform shirts were taking away the animals slated for slaughter. I started to cry then and couldn’t hold back. Speckles’s life was like all the other things we couldn’t afford.
The girl and steer ahead of me parted as if in some choreographed dance, girl going one way and steer the other, toward a set of semitrucks. One truck was air-conditioned and partitioned with separate stalls and soft straw for the champions to be taken home for pampering; the other truck was manure splattered, with rust and no bedding, for the animals to be butchered. I planted my feet as they tried to remove Speckles’s halter. I buried my face into his neck, sobbing. Suddenly all I held was an empty halter. The man ushered me toward a wall of hay bales, beyond which was the gravel parking lot and the woods. I wrenched away from him and ran fast, past rows of trucks and cars, until I reached the trees, lit by the lights from the auction barn. I stopped when I saw my dad jogging toward me.
I would not show another calf again, but I would think often about the one I’d sacrificed. Speckles sold for a total of $187. (As my brothers had predicted, his yellow ribbon had hurt the price.) Weeks later, when the check arrived from the processing company, my mother deposited the money into my savings account. After we subtracted my outstanding feed bill and the transport fee to the slaughterhouse, I had eighty-nine dollars left.