Sally Bellerose’s book The Girls Club won the Bywater Prize and is forthcoming from Bywater Books. Bellerose was awarded a Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts based on an excerpt from this book. The first chapter won first place in fiction from Writers at Work. Excerpts from the novel have been anthologized and featured in literary journals including Love Shook My Heart, Sinister Wisdom, The Sun, The Best of Writers at Work, Cutthroat, and Quarterly West. The manuscript was a finalist for the James Jones Fellowship, the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, The Backspace Scholarship, and the Bellwether Endowment. Robert Olen Butler chose Chapter Two as first place winner for the Rick DeMarinis Short Story Award.
I met Sally Bellerose at Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in 2010. She’d just won a prize and a publishing contract for her first novel, The Girls Club. But what I liked best, and instantly, about her was her irreverence. So, it is with purest pleasure that I give you her 2000-word short story about riding a cow, and other acts of rebellious autonomy.
I love Jill Malone’s blog. Love reading along when she argues, softly or stridently, with herself or the world. Love her love letters to her beloveds, herself or the world. Love her passions on the page. Can’t wait for Giraffe People. I’m honored to be a guest here.
I have tried several times to answer the questions of where the idea for The Girls Club came from and how long I worked on the book. The answers are never the same. What follows is a short story that split and morphed into several short scenes in the novel. Published in 1992, this is the first of several short stories that evolved into parts of the book. I think the book, like most stories, started with desire.
Riding the Cow
In 1957 my father bought his first car and I learned to behave. The car was green, a wood-paneled Chevy wagon. I was white, brunette, a six year old daughter. He loved us both. I learned to behave on Saturday rides to Uncle Billy and Auntie Bernice’s farm in my father’s ‘57 Chevy. It was hard to behave, especially in a car. I had no experience behaving in small moving spaces, but I had no choice. I wanted to ride the cow.
It’s a long ride from Fairview to Granby. I listen to my father sing along with Doris Day, Roy Rogers and the double mint twins. He doesn’t care who’s on the radio, although he likes Perry Como best. The car radio gets one station. I like the music but even at six I know that my mother is right when she says, “That’s enough Dear, you’ll make the children tone deaf.”
I could block out his noise, the way I do when my baby sister starts to bawl as we sit side by side in the back seat, but my father always drags me in to it. He presses his hand to his heart like he’s been mortally wounded and asks, “What do you think, little girl. Is your Daddy’s voice that bad?” My mother yells at him to keep his hands on the wheel.
When we drive to the farm it’s important to keep both of my parents happy. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter. When I’m bad they threaten to put me to bed early or not let me watch TV. I like my bed and I always fall asleep when the TV is on anyway. But on Saturday morning I want them happy. One time they had a fight on the way to the farm. They were fighting because my father wanted to take a puppy home from the farm and my mother didn’t want to. After the fight we stopped to get an ice cream cone and went straight back home, without even going to the farm. I cried. My father said, “It’s O.K. We’ll get you a puppy.” I didn’t care if we got a puppy or not. I missed my cow.
So this morning I’m being careful. If I say my father has a lousy voice he might get mad. If I say he doesn’t have a lousy voice my mother might get mad. They probably won’t get really mad, just teasing mad, but I’m not taking any chances. I want to be a good happy girl, with good happy parents, who let me ride my cow. I try to distract my father from using his lousy voice by reading the time aloud from the round green clock. If I sit up straight I can see the clock from the back seat. It sticks out from the dashboard. My father is proud that there’s a clock and a radio in his car. My mother is proud that her six-year-old can tell time.
When we finally get to the farm my father and Uncle Billy hang around the car admiring the whitewalls and the clock. They open the hood.
My mother, baby sister, Auntie Bernice, and I sit around Auntie Bernice’s big kitchen table. There’s a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table. I don’t grab one. After my Auntie jiggles my baby sister around for a while, she says, “What time did our little girl get to Auntie Bernice’s today?” She winks at my mother.
My mother takes my baby sister and bounces her on her knee. “Go ahead honey. Tell Auntie what time it says on the clock.”
I’m confused because the clock says the wrong time. The big hand is on the twelve and the little hand is on the four. We haven’t had lunch yet so it’s still morning. I say, “Your clock is broken.” My mother beams.
Auntie Bernice is happy too. She says, “Well, what time does it say honey?”
My mother kisses my baby sister. My Auntie gives me four chocolate chip cookies. Everybody is happy.
Uncle Billy and Auntie Bernice have a big farm, my father has a shiny car, my mother has a giggly baby and a daughter who can tell time. I’m pretty sure it’s almost time to ride my cow.
Uncle Billy and my father come in. Auntie Bernice tells them how she changed the clock to trick me.
Uncle Billy picks me up and looks at Auntie Bernice. “Now, Mother, you should know by now that you can’t trick this little lady.” She’s not his mother. I asked him one time. He laughed and told everyone that I thought Auntie Bernice was his mother. On the way home that day my mother said I shouldn’t ask such questions. She said some day Auntie Bernice would be blessed with children and I should behave until then. Uncle Billy and
Auntie Bernice have cows and horses, and chickens. Maybe he thinks if he calls her Mother they’ll get blessed with children.
Uncle Billy sits me down on the counter. I like jumping down off the counter, but he stands there in front of me, so I have to stay put. I want to poke him, but I sit there behaving, staring at his belly until he lifts me off again. He pats my bottom and says, “Go talk to your cow.” I run out of Auntie Bernice’s kitchen. The screen door slams, but no one yells at me.
I push the latch up with both hands and the barn doors swing open. The cows stand in their stalls. Forty-seven cow heads turn toward me. They think I’m going to let them out to pasture, it’s almost time. I run to Molly’s stall. I hang on the rail and scratch between her eyes. She looks at me with her big crossed cow eyes.
She lowers her head a little and I scratch behind her ears. I don’t hear their voices or their footsteps so I climb up the side of the stall onto Molly and straddle her wide back. My legs stick out in opposite directions across her. I hug her neck and tell her how much I love her. She says, “Moo.” I hear my father and Uncle Billy outside the barn and climb off Molly.
Uncle Billy lets me lead Molly out onto the pasture. He picks me up under my armpits, lifts me up off the grass and sits me on the cow. Uncle Billy makes me sit with both my feet hanging down over one side of her fat belly. He thinks that’s how you ride a cow. He never lets go of me. He’s nice to me and smells like the barn, but I wish he would go away.
Mama yells from the kitchen window, “Don’t be scared honey. Billy, don’t you let her fall off that cow.”
Uncle Billy’s hands are big. They reach all the way around me. I want him to go away so I can sit on the cow the good way, with my legs apart. Mama says I’m too small to ride the cow with one foot on one side and the other foot on the other side. She says it’s dangerous because my legs are so short and the cow is so fat. I bet it’s easier to fall off a cow with both legs hanging over one side then it is to fall off a cow if you’re riding it with your legs apart. I want to learn to ride the cow the good way so that I can teach my friends, the Kallowitz twins.
I named the cow Molly. Uncle Billy let me pick out a cow for my very own. I’m the only one Molly lets on her back. Uncle Billy says Molly lets me ride her because I’m such a speck of a girl. It’s really because Molly loves only me. She’ll love the twins too, when she gets to meet them. I have a plan. I plan to behave and make my parents so happy that they’ll say yes next time and take the twins to the farm with us so we can all ride Molly.
Uncle Billy holds on to me and my father walks Molly around the pasture with me on her back. Molly and me pretend that Uncle Billy fell in a gopher hole and my father has to help him climb out. It takes them all afternoon and Molly and me ride around the pasture alone for the rest of the day. I have to stop pretending when Uncle Billy squeezes his hands together and lifts me off Molly.
I could tell time when I was five. When I was five the twins, Suzzie and Jenny Kallowitz, moved in to the house next door. Mama said, “Tell Mrs. Kallowitz what time it is.” I said, “It’s 2 o’clock,” and Mrs. Kallowitz said, “What a smart girl.” Now the twins Suzzie and Jenny Kallowitz can tell time and Mrs. Kallowitz doesn’t think I’m so smart anymore.
I’m the one who showed the twins how the little hand moves. We were lying on my bedroom floor. I was in the middle holding the alarm clock I gave them for their birthday. They have the same birthday. The twins pushed up against me to see the clock and we turned the knob and made it all different times. The big hand was too hard for the twins to read. The twins still don’t know how to read the big hand.
The twins wear shirts with no sleeves. Sometimes when it’s hot they don’t wear any shirts. I always have to wear a shirt, except in the tub. It was very hot the day I taught the twins to tell time, but we were playing at my house, so we had to keep our shirts on. I’ll teach them the big hand at their house.
Once I slept over the twins’ house and we wore Mr. Kallowitz’s T-shirt. It was so big that it fit all three of us at the same time. I asked Suzzie if I could be a twin too and she said yes, but Jenny said no. I bet Jenny would let me be a twin if I let her ride my cow.
Now it’s 8 o’clock at night. I’m home in bed in the stupid pj’s with sleeves and long legs my mother and father make me wear. They won’t come to bed until 10 o’clock. Jenny and Suzzie get to stay up on Saturday until Mr. and Mrs. Kallowitz go to bed. Then they get to wear sleeveless babydolls, but I don’t care because I’m going to ride my cow. Saturday nights are the best nights to ride because I almost always get to see Molly on Saturday mornings. Sometimes I don’t put the clothes I wore while I was sitting on her back in the hamper like
I’m supposed to. I roll them up and hide them under my bed. I take them out when it’s time to ride and put my head on them. They smell like Molly. I squish up the sleeves and the legs of my pjs. They bunch around my armpits and between my legs. Tonight I have a long time to ride. Sometimes it takes a long time before the blanket and sheets I pull up between my legs get to be my cow. Tonight it’s easy.
I throw one leg over my covers and lie on my side. I ride with one leg on one side and one leg on the other side, like you’re supposed to ride. I pull on the reins and the saddle pushes in to the big crack below my belly button. No one knows that my sheets become Molly’s secret cow saddle and secret cow reins. Even my mother and Uncle Billy don’t know. They think that reins and saddles are only for horses. Uncle Billy keeps telling me that when I’m bigger I can ride his horses. I’m never going to ride Uncle Billy’s horses.
The harder I pull on the reins the faster Molly goes. Cows can go fast if they want to. I squeeze my bottom and feel my two asses. Jenny and Suzzie have three different names for their bottoms. Asses is the best one. I like to feel Molly pulling up the middle of my asses. When she starts to run fast she makes two of me. Two me’s, both the same. Two asses and two legs and two arms and two eyes. Two sides just the same. I’ve got an extra everything.
I think it’s funny that I have an extra everything, two me’s. I squeeze my bottom harder and giggle. I don’t giggle loud because I don’t want my mother to come in to find out if everything is alright. I squeeze from the hole in the back to the hole in the front. I pull Molly’s reins. I think it would be fun if I could squish my two me’s together. Molly likes it too. I’m going to tell the twins there’s four of them. I squeeze and squeeze. I squeeze me and me and Suzzie and Suzzie and Jenny and Jenny. Molly runs faster, faster. The cow bell dingle dingles. I hold on tight to her reins and grab her neck to stay on. I’m a little scared but Molly talks to me in her cow voice, “Don’t be scared honey.” I squeeze into myself. Faster, faster, we go, me and me and Molly and Molly and the four twins. We hang on to each other tight and we ride very fast and very far, the good way.
“Martha”, “Riding the Cow”, edited by Janet Aalfs, Sally Bellerose, and Susan Stinson, Tuesday Night , Orogeny Press, 1992.
“Riding the Cow”, The Body of Love , edited by Tee Corrine, Banned Books, 1993.