THE CATTLE MUTILATIONS
“That shirt makes your eyes look amazing,” Mrs. Dupriest said. We were standing behind the high school next to the horseshoe pit with the rest of her phys ed class. A hundred yards away, on the far side of the state road, a sheriff’s deputy was taking pictures of the dead livestock strewn across a rocky field. Nobody else was paying any attention to him. We’d all gotten pretty used to the cattle mutilations by then. “Have you considered auditioning for the play?”
I looked at Mrs. Dupriest and shrugged. She and the choir leader, Mr. Beavers, a bedraggled Jehovah’s Witness, co-directed the winter musicals. Mrs. Dupriest must have been in her late to mid-thirties back then, but she had a much younger-looking body. In college, she’d played volleyball on a team that was famous in our state. She kept herself in shape by doing yoga and Transcendental Meditation. Between class periods, the thick-boned girls would all congregate around her in the hallway for advice on how to lose weight. “You need to swallow a fistful of cotton balls before every meal,” Mrs. Dupriest would tell them. “Then drink three and a half glasses of lukewarm water. That will fill you up without adding extra calories.” The girls would all blush and dissolve into giggles. Being skinny just required will power, Mrs. Dupriest insisted.
“Can you sing?” she asked me
“No,” I said. I could make out maybe half a dozen carcasses across the road. The grass around the bodies had turned black, as if it had been scorched by a blow torch. To ward off the mounting stench of dead meat, the deputy had tied a red bandanna across his face.
“That’s alright,” Mrs. Dupriest answered. “Anybody can sing if they put their heart into it.” Gusts of wind kept flaring the bottom of her short skirt. She held the hem down with her hand. “Singing is just a skill you can learn,” she went on. “Like tennis or typing.”
On a map, Piggott County looked like a dropped boot. Our one claim to fame, before the cattle mutilations, was a notorious Indian massacre. The victims, mainly women and young children, belonged to the Bitter Water and Moth People clans. According to the tourist literature, between sixty and two hundred people were cut down in less than three minutes by a Mormon militia. One theory held that the cattle mutilations were occult payback, evil medicine. Another popular hypothesis attributed the mutilations to extraterrestrials. Supposedly, they were using commercial cattle stocks to incubate and research the HIV/AIDS virus. A woman, who claimed on local TV that she’d been beamed up into a UFO, owned the town laundromat. She said the aliens wore cerulean robes and looked human, but were smaller than us and slanty-eyed with claw hands like lobsters and grey featureless faces. The woman was plain-looking and thin, with a small, round bald spot on the side of her scalp shaped like a bottle cap. Whenever I saw her at the laundromat, she ‘d always be in a bright mood, chain-smoking Raleighs and happily dispensing change for the machines. But on TV, she seemed unfocused and depressed after she’d told her story. She kept repeating that she didn’t believe the aliens’ motives were evil.
I would have been content with a smaller part in the musical, the Stranger Next Door, for instance, or the Spaniard. But Mrs. Dupriest had insisted from the start that I take on the starring role. Not that there hadn’t been more talented boys who’d auditioned for the part. One boy, who had a widow’s peak and acne so bad it looked like sunburn, could do a much better fake British accent than I could. Another boy was a formidable joke- and storyteller. Everybody laughed uproariously at his riddles and witticisms. According to Mrs. Dupriest, however, I was the only one who’d been blessed with “star power.” “You have all the bells and whistles,” she assured me. “That’s something you can’t teach. It’s in the DNA. You’re either born with it or not.” It was true, I suppose. My classmates all said that I was the spitting image of the actor who’d played the gorgeous renegade trucker in White Line Fever. I was five feet eleven and a half, 145 pounds, with blue-green eyes and classically high cheekbones. My only physical flaw were my teeth. After years of inadvertent neglect, they were in a bad state, crooked and discolored, with deep-set brown stains. As a result, I’d stopped smiling early in my adolescence and had learned to purse my lips, instead, to accentuate my cheekbones. It was a look I’d picked up after scrutinizing the facial expressions on the male mannequins in the Sears and JCPenny stores at the mall.
The next four weeks of rehearsals were a difficult grind for me. I’d never really needed to work hard at anything before. I was only an average student and a fair-to-mediocre athlete, but my good looks and keen fashion sense had made me a kind of celebrity at school. Every day I’d sport crushed velvet or polyester leisure suits to my classes, tall platform shoes, gold chains, and chunky bracelets. Girls followed me around like strays. When I walked into a room, heads would literally turn.
My biggest problem, according to Mrs. Dupriest, was that I was “too uptight.” “Good actors share the parts of themselves that most people keep hidden,” she’d tell me. “They’re always naked.”
After the regular rehearsals wrapped up, the two of us would stay behind so that Mrs. Dupriest could work with me one-on-one. I wasn’t legally old enough to drive after dark, and my grandmother, who I was living with at the time, was struggling to hold down a second job at night, so Mrs. Dupriest would chauffeur me home after rehearsals. During our sessions together, she liked to go on about what she called her “philosophy of the theater.” “Method acting killed James Dean,” she said more than once, dropping obscure names like Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, and Stanford Meisner. Then, before long, we’d leave the auditorium and head back to her homeroom, where she’d fire up a joint to help break down my inhibitions, and walk me through various types of movement and acting exercises. Sometimes Mrs. Dupriest would order me to stare at her intently for a full minute or two, and then, with my back turned to her, describe what she was wearing. This was supposed to improve my affective memory. “What color are my pumps?” she’d ask. “Are my nylons beige or nude?” Other times, she’d tell me to picture something I did every day. Usually it was something ordinary, like taking a shower. Then I’d have to mime the whole rigmarole of removing my clothes, stepping into the shower stall, turning on the water and soaping up my body parts, and so on.
When the all-night patrols started, Mr. Beavers was one of the first volunteers. He and the other vigilantes would rendezvous at the Wake Up Café, knock back a mug or two of bitter coffee as thick as motor oil, top it off with a peach cobbler, and then cruise the back roads in the dead of night with their shotguns and assault rifles. Most of the mutilations shared a similar modus operandi. On close examination, the wounds would nearly always appear to have been inflicted with surgical instruments. Sometimes the flesh would ooze a greenish fluid that burned human skin on contact. Rarely was there any blood left at the scene. And in the rare exceptions, the blood traces exhibited weird color anomalies and failed to coagulate. Mutilation of the genitals, the tongue, or the rectum was evident as well in the vast majority of cases.
From time to time, Mrs. Dupriest and I would encounter a patrol after leaving play practice. If the two of us came upon a checkpoint, the vigilantes manning the makeshift barrier would usually lower their firearms right away after they’d ascertained who we were and wave us through. Some of the rookies, however—the flag-waver and patrioteer types—were dangerously trigger-happy, Mr. Beavers cautioned us. They’d shoot you soon as look you, he said. He was a thin man with long ears like jumbo potatoes and dark, black circles under his eyes that made him seem perpetually anxious and worn out. The world had entered the “Last Days,” he told anybody who’d listen. Satan had crawled out of hell. He was on earth now, Mr. Beavers said, and stirring up trouble. Like a lot of the other vigilantes, he was prepping for the Armageddon. He knew how to make bombs out of fruit juice bottles and could start a fire with a rock and a scraggy stick. After the play was done, he said he was thinking of selling his home and property and hiding out in an underground desert sanctuary to wait for the world to end.
I had never been in a car as classy as Mrs. Dupriest’s. The engine was powered, according to her, by an Incline-6 engine with an output of one hundred and thirty horsepower. “She can do zero to sixty in under eight seconds,” Mrs. Dupriest informed me. She knew all about engines, apparently, and liked to put pedal to the metal. Mr. Dupriest was always nagging at her to slow down, she’d complain. “He reminds me of an old lady sometimes.” They fought about housework and each other’s spending habits. He was not her ideal type, Mrs. Dupriest had confided to me once, rolling her eyes. I had never seen Mr. Dupriest in the flesh, but from the wallet size photo that Mrs. Dupriest had shown me, he reminded me of an Apollo astronaut. Crewcut and blank-faced in a plaid blazer and wide red necktie. She and Mr. Dupriest had four kids in all, she told me, three boys and a girl. The daughter was the eldest, she said. She did ballet. The youngest boy had a congenital heart defect.
On one of the coldest nights of the year, Mrs. Dupriest and I were stranded at school until nearly midnight waiting for the plow trucks to clear the roads. A mass of freezing arctic air had swooped in from Siberia and, as we finally made our way out of the school building, fat, side-blowing flakes of snow swirled all around us, polka dotting the parking lot’s frozen blacktop.
By the time we reached Mrs. Dupriest’s car, I was chilled down to my bones, and we scooted inside ASAP, our breath clouding the air.
“Buzz—Mr. Dupriest—is probably wondering what’s happened to me,” Mrs. Dupriest said. She switched on the windshield wipers to clear snow off the glass. Except for the delicate lines around her eyes, she could have been twenty-five.
The floor was cluttered, as usual, with cassette cases and messy piles of stepped-on school papers. I nudged them aside with my disco shoe, then blew on my hands, my breath puffing out of my mouth in tiny clouds. Outside, a pair of skinny deer loped through the anemic glow of the headlights, their ribs showing. As we waited for the car to defrost, Mrs. Dupriest, who had been rummaging around inside her handbag, extracted a flimsy joint.
“I suppose I must look old and ugly to you,” she said out of the blue, scrunching up her face a little.
I didn’t know how to respond. I always felt kind of dumb in Mrs. Dupriest’s presence.
“You’re not ugly,” I finally conceded. Our faces were very close.
“Thank you,” she said. A plow truck rumbled past us, loudly scraping the blacktop. “You’re very sweet.” She gave me a good long look, then flicked a Bic lighter with her thumb and lit the joint. She took a deep drag and held it out to me. On the wrinkled tip, I could see the greasy traces of her cherry red lipstick. I lifted the joint gingerly to my lips and inhaled.
A week and a half before opening night, a pair of state troopers, who’d been collecting tissue and soil samples from the site of a big cattle mutilation, fell mysteriously ill. Their symptoms were alarming: open sores on the skin, internal bleeding, major hair loss. Rumor had it that a fleet of lit cruisers had descended on the Baptist hospital and a state of emergency was imminent. But the next day the County Board of Health sent a representative to a hastily convened town meeting to reassure the populace that everything was okay. Predictably, the government representative denied that anything apocalyptic was afoot. He had a small face with big teeth and ears and a shiny, prominent forehead. In his presentation, he attributed the cattle mutilations to carrion-eating insects and other natural causes—dehydration, blood pooling, parasites, carrion birds, solar desiccation, postmortem bloat. He showed us a slide with a magnified view of a blowfly, along with photos of dead cattle with missing or mutilated lips, anuses, eyes, mouths, and genitalia. The tone of his voice was astringent and colorless, but his face kept breaking out into a bemused, self-satisfied expression that seemed to bear no connection to his stream of talk. Human activity was also a contributing factor, he added toward the end of his presentation. “Some deviants,” he explained matter-of-factly, “derive pleasure and sexual stimulation from torturing animals.” Then he smirked again, turned back to the screen, and advanced another slide.
I spent most of the next Saturday morning languishing on the couch, reading my lines from the play aloud and trying to pin down my big speech about the jungle plane crash, when the phone in my grandmother’s bedroom rang. She was away at work as usual, so I put my script aside and got up to answer it. My grandmother’s bedroom was smaller than mine—less than half the size—with a scratched-up dresser and a rocking chair full of dirty clothes. A beach towel with an image of a flamingo was nailed over one of the windows and a cold draft was blowing in through the gaps around the frame. I switched on the wall light and plopped down on the edge of my grandmother’s bed. On her bedside table, was a framed photo of me at fourteen with a mullety haircut and a closed-mouth smile that concealed my teeth. I reached across the mattress for the phone. “Hello,” I said. A man answered. He told me that he was Mrs. Dupriest’s husband. Was Mrs. Dupriest there? he asked. His voice sounded kind of messed up and ghost-like, as if he was talking into a bucket.
“No,” I said. He didn’t answer right away, but I could hear him breathing hard into the phone. It was like the steady licking of an oven flame.
“And why should I believe you?” he finally asked. Then he laughed.
A gust of wind shook the flamingo beach towel hanging over the window. Out of habit, I absentmindedly touched my front teeth with my tongue to make sure they weren’t loose. In those days, I used to have terrible nightmares about my teeth falling out. I’d dream that I was drinking a glass of water and my teeth would crumble into pieces and fall into the glass, leaving trails of blood. Or I’d be kissing somebody and suddenly have to pull away to spit loose teeth out of my mouth.
Abruptly, I got to my feet. “I have to go now,” I lied. “My grandmother is calling me from the other room.”
“Goodbye, then,” Mr. Dupriest said with an exaggerated intonation of politeness.
On Monday, Mrs. Dupriest asked me to report to her homeroom for what she called a tête-à-tête. It was her prep period and the room was empty when I got there. Naturally, I’d assumed that she wanted to talk to me about the play. Dress rehearsals were only a couple of days away, and my lines were still a little shaky. Everybody else had memorized their parts weeks ago. Mrs. Dupriest, however, had something else on her mind. Skootching forward in her chair, she narrowed her eyes at me. “I’m going to be blunt,” she said. “It’s not easy for me to say this, okay? But I’d like you to see a dentist.”
I blushed. My teeth were awful of course, but her directive seemed to come out of nowhere, like a punch.
“You have a lot of dental decay,” she said gravely. “You need to have it taken care of.” She paused for a moment and touched my knee. “They use funny gas now,” she continued. “Mr. Dupriest had dental surgery when we were in college. They cut open his gums and sewed a pair of spiked poles into his mouth. But he didn’t feel a thing,” she said. Her tone was pert and authoritative and I could tell that she expected me to act grateful, but the shameful realization that she must have been brooding on my teeth for weeks struck me hard. I couldn’t look her in the eye. “Anyway, it’s not going to cost your grandmother a dime,” she said. “I’ll arrange everything.”
The lunch period bell rang and there was a sudden clamor of clanging metal lockers outside in the hallway. I cleared my throat and stood up to leave. Somebody had drawn an erect phallus on the chalkboard behind Mrs. Dupriest’s desk, I suddenly noticed. It gave me a strange feeling in my stomach. “Thank you,” I murmured and left the room.
The dentist that Mrs. Dupriest had found for me worked out of a private home an hour away. You had to drive long distances to get anywhere in Piggott. People lived far apart on ranches or in scattered aggregations of rundown trailers and shotgun shacks near the highway. Everywhere else was just badlands. We’d learned in school that the word came from the old French trappers. Les mauvaises terres à traverse. Bad lands to travel.
Before we left, Mrs. Dupriest and I smoked a joint together in her sports car. She looked especially pretty, I thought. Her eyes were rimmed with blue liner and she was wearing silk stockings with seams up the back and dangly earrings that tinkled every time she moved her head.
The road was wet and slushy, but we made good time. Mrs. Dupriest had the radio on classical music. Ravel’s Bolero. The drum part pounded away as we sped down the highway. Childishly, I’d begun to hope that we would never arrive. But then, just as the sky was turning dark, we pulled into the driveway of an anonymous-looking gray bungalow. A pair of cow-shaped lawn decorations—nearly life-sized—stood side-by-side on the postage stamp front yard. I peeled off my seatbelt, got out, and followed Mrs. Dupriest up the shoveled path to the dentist’s office, my gold block heel loafers clacking on the concrete like tap shoes. Inside, the waiting room was small and low-ceilinged with stencil-bordered wallpaper. The air had a cloyingly sweet smell like soupy ice cream and laundry detergent.
The dentist’s assistant greeted us in a flat, too-loud voice. She was a big, horsey woman, with raw, red hands and fake fingernails. She asked me for my name, made a note in green ink in the calendar on her desk, and then handed me a leaky ballpoint pen and a clipboard with an insurance form. “Please fill this out,’ she told me.
I took the form from her and Mrs. Dupriest and I made our way to a row of plastic chairs beside a sliding-glass door. “It’s hot in here,” Mrs. Dupriest said. She removed her coat and we sat down. I didn’t feel well, suddenly. My skin stung all over with pinpricks of drying perspiration and I had a dull feeling in my skull. I wondered if I was getting sick. Plus, I urgently needed to urinate. Excusing myself, I got up and crossed the waiting room. The bathroom door was very thin, just particle board, and I urinated as quietly as I could, aiming away from the water, toward the orange rust stains on the side of the bowl. Then I flushed and spent a long time picking at my hair in the mirror. When I returned to my seat, Mrs. Dupriest was filling out the rest of the insurance form for me. She looked up and smiled. We were both left-handed, I noticed for the first time. I stood by the greasy glass door for a minute and, in the light of a sodium lamp, watched an orange cat eating a squirrel carcass. Then I sat down again next to Mrs. Dupriest.
“Don’t be nervous,” Mrs. Dupriest said. In the bright fluorescent light, I could see the very fine, honey-colored hairs above her upper lip. She uncrossed her legs and pulled my head to her shoulder The top three buttons of her blouse were unbuttoned and the tops of her breasts were visible. She caressed my face gently. “Everything will be alright,” she promised.
Later that night, on the way home from the dentist, we spotted two men burning a pile of dead cattle behind the old Auction Yard. It was a big fire, as tall as the eagle-faced totem pole that had been erected there years ago by the VFW. One of the cow-burners looked like a spaceman in his bulky white hazmat suit. The other was dressed in ill-fitting Indian clothes. Mrs. Dupriest and I got out of the car to watch. A dozen carcasses had been thrown into the fire, perhaps more. They made a high-pitched whistling sound as they swelled up with gasses and burned. I could feel the heat from the bonfire on my face, but my mouth was still numb from the Novocain. After a while, the man in Indian clothes got down on both knees on the winter-hard mud to perform an exorcism. “Go away,” he started to sing in a soft, almost girlish, voice. His elaborate, feathered headdress shook as he nodded in rhythm. He was an old man. He looked emaciated. He had skin like a raisin and his cheeks and eyes were deeply sunken into his seamed face. The song went on for a long time. When it was finished, Mrs. Dupriest, her eyes having gone all sparkly, grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard. Then we got back into her sports car. I remember, just then, that I wanted to tell her something important. But I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. My tongue was like a lump of wool; it wasn’t under my control. So we drove back to my grandmother’s house in silence until Mrs. Dupriest started another joint and told me again for the umpteenth time how ethereally beautiful I was.
Jacques Debrot‘s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including Nothing Short of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Stories, The Collagist, and Hobart. He has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and recently won The Thorn Prize in Fiction.