Good Mourning Press published a fiction anthology called “Unconventional Love”. All the stories take place at a convention of some sort. My story is entitled “Like Kissing a Calf“.
You can read it here:
Like Kissing a Calf
“Didn’t I talk to you at last year’s event?” asked the red-headed woman standing by the display of shiny metal cream separators.
Elroy shook his head. “First time here,” he said.
“How’s that?” asked the woman, grinning.
She was about Elroy’s age, maybe thirty-five, with muscular arms and a soft pudgy face. Probably a farm wife, thought Elroy. She was wearing a blue and white striped apron. He assumed she was supplementing the family income hawking separators.
“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look a bit old to be just starting out in the dairy business,” said the woman with a soft smile.
Elroy mumbled something about switching jobs. His natural reserve kept him from doing much except nodding dumbly at the woman, whose apron slogan was “ Dorian Cream Separators, We Always Come Out On Top.”
She didn’t stop smiling. Her ID tag said Marjorie Hobbs. Elroy couldn’t take his eyes off her red hair which hung down her back in a thick plait.
Elroy wished he could think of something to say. Although he was good-looking and nicely built, shyness had plagued him his whole life. Plus he occasionally stuttered. It had started soon after he lost his mother, around the age of eight.
“But you’ve got yourself a herd, eh?” the woman named Marjorie Hobbs asked.
Elroy hesitated. “Uh…ye…ye..yes, yes I do,” he said.
Marjorie waited for him to continue, but when he didn’t, she threw out another question.
“So whaddya raise? Holsteins, like everybody else in Canada?” she asked, still smiling.
“No,” said Elroy. “Mos…mos…mostly Dutch Belteds.”
“No kiddin’. I love those gals. They’re beautiful,” said Marjorie. “How big a herd?”
“Fifty head,” he answered. “I’m just learning, really.”
He would have liked to elaborate, but he couldn’t get his words out without splintering his syllables.
“Well, maybe I’ll run into you again later, Mr. Dutch Belted,” said Marjorie, with another smile.
Her front bottom teeth were badly chipped, but she didn’t seem self-conscious about her grin. Her face was smooth and symmetric and somehow pleasing.
“Uh huh,” said Elroy.
He slunk off feeling foolishly tongue-tied. He had no idea that coming to a Dairy Farmer’s Convention would require so much socializing. He found it somewhat exhausting.
First, there had been the bearded men from up north, all of them raising Guernseys, who had invited Elroy to join them for breakfast at the motel. They were staying in two rooms adjacent to his. He declined, having already been awake for hours and driven out to LaChance’s on Route 207 to get some fried eggs and toast before the motel restaurant was open.
And then, later that morning, he was buttonholed by two students who were standing by the Ag School display. They were interviewing dairy farmers as part of their course work.
“Could I just ask you a few questions?” said one of the girls, who had long brown hair and a short denim skirt.
“O..o..okay,” said Elroy.
“What are some of the current challenges you’re facing as a dairy farmer?”
Elroy felt his palms growing moist. He opened his mouth to try to explain his own story. How he really wasn’t a dairy farmer. Not yet. He had just taken over his deceased uncle’s farm, down near Stanstead, on the Vermont border. At the same time, he continued working as an installer of oil and gas furnaces, that was his job. The same job his father had done.
But he liked cows. Always had. He loved they way they looked at him, passively, without judging. But he couldn’t get any words out.
The young college girl made him uncomfortable. The way she flipped her long hair, for instance.
He found himself staring at the girl’s thighs peeking out from under the denim skirt.
The girl smirked and flipped her hair again.
“Well, let’s try this one. What do you think farmers can do to increase milk consumption across Canada?”
Elroy shifted his weight from one foot to another.
“I…I…I have no idea,” Elroy finally answered.
He was so flustered that he turned the wrong way and ended up walking back through the same aisle with all the booths he had already seen.
He wondered how it was possible to take it all in. Just looking at the displays was overwhelming. And the workshops….“Setting Up Your Dairy for the Future”, “Sire Selection Made Easy”, “Manure Recycling For a Better Tomorrow”. There was so much to learn.
As a boy, whenever he visited his uncle, he had pitched in with the evening milking, checking the long black pulse tubes, attaching the claws to the udders, listening to the thumping of the pump. He would feel part of the earth in a way he never did when he was around his classmates or helping his dad tinker with an oil furnace.
The cows were his best friends. All knowing, peaceful, soulful, with their deep eyes taking him in and accepting him. His shyness. His stutter. Accepting everything, just as it was.
He hungered for that.
But running an entire dairy operation, as a business. Maybe that was beyond him.
He wasn’t even sure he could endure the bustle of the Dairy Convention much longer. But since he’d paid a hefty registration fee, he told himself to stick it out until closing.
In the afternoon, he trudged along the aisles in the large convention hall, his eyes narrowed as if he wanted to blot out the lights.
He gingerly collected pamphlets on everything from brucellosis to robotic milkers. Although he naturally avoided making eye contact, other people spoke to him constantly. A few salesmen even slapped his back in their zeal to talk about ways of preventing mastitis, or improving silage storage. Elroy had to retreat several times to the men’s room, to center himself, before returning to face the crowds, the noise, and the never-ending flood of information.
Just as he was exiting a presentation on feed conversion, he ran into Marjorie again, still wearing her Dorian Cream Separator apron.
“Hey, it’s you. The newbie,” said Marjorie, pulling off her apron and stuffing it into her shoulder bag. “Mr. Dutch Belted.”
“Uh…” said Elroy, “Uh…yes.”
“Finding your way around?” asked Marjorie. “Or do you need a guide? My next shift doesn’t start until four.”
She was standing very close to Elroy and her skin gave off a sweet, soapy smell, like fresh laundry and grass clippings. As he breathed in her fragrance, Elroy suddenly remembered his own mother, right before she died, hanging out his school shirts on the clothesline in the backyard. He remembered the fresh perfume of the clothes and way the sunlight patterned the lawn and his mother’s arms tight around him when she finished the chore.
Everything will be all right, his mother had said, from here on in.
“Let’s go see the champions, Mr. Dutch” suggested Marjorie. “That’s the best part of this place.”
Without waiting for Elroy to agree or disagree, she practically dragged him along and started walking towards the area reserved for the animals.
Elroy, too, had been saving the cows for last.
The animal hall felt like a sanctuary, quiet and still. People spoke almost reverently. The carnival atmosphere of the convention seemed far away and the air had a familiar milky odor.
Elroy could feel himself relaxing. Even Marjorie grew quiet. All they could hear was the swish-swish of the circulating fans, and an occasional soft gulping sound as a cow devoured a tidy pile of feed.
“Oh,” said Marjorie, “This is what makes me happy.”
Elroy and Marjorie stopped in front of each placid creature and looked into their deep, bovine eyes. The cows lowered their eyelids almost coquettishly.
The cows all had a sign above their stall, with their name and their milk production. Some cows had plastic stars next to their names for exceeding 9400 liters per year.
“Hello, Blue Babe,” Marjorie said to a particularly clean and curvy Jersey.
“Isn’t she a beauty?” asked Marjorie.
Elroy nodded and reached out to scratch the cow’s ears, then he ran his hand down her soft, solid neck.
Margaret leaned into the stall at the same time and brushed her bare arm against Elroy’s.
Elroy looked at the cow and then back at Marjorie, and suddenly he felt very warm. Little dabs of sweat formed along his hairline. His groin felt heavy. He took off his cap, and wiped his head with a handkerchief.
Marjorie continued to caress Blue Babe. When the cow opened her mouth, Marjorie extended her hand and let the animal lick her fingers with its rough tongue. Elroy did the same.
“I’d rather be in a cow barn than anywhere on earth,” said Marjorie.
“Me too,” said Elroy.
Elroy wasn’t sure what was happening to him, except he felt as if a sense of well-being was lapping at his feet, like a wave.
“Let’s go check out some of the others over there!” said Marjorie, enthusiastically.
“Ye…ye..yes…,” answered Elroy, following her across the floor.
As a young adolescent, while other boys were huddling over magazines featuring siliconed models with air-brushed bellies, Elroy breathed in the simple, natural sensuality of his uncle’s herd. He’d massage the shaved teats, as soft and spongy as pie dough. Occasionally, he’d help with the calving, marveling at the wet pinkness of new life.
He felt more comfortable with his uncle’s herd than with his school mates, especially the girls.
In high school, an older girl named Berdina pursued him. She said he was cute, even if “he couldn’t talk right.”
She boldly asked him to go to the movies, offering to pick him up in her father’s truck. When she arrived, the radio was blaring. He was grateful that she sang along with the songs because he wouldn’t have known what to say. After the movie, Berdina tried to kiss him, pinning the younger boy against the door of the truck with her hefty chest.
“Use your tongue, like this,” said Berdina, whose mouth tasted spicy and sharp like Doritos, with a faint aftertaste of beer.
“I….I…thin..think it’s late. You’d better bring me home,” said Elroy, after accepting a few more slippery attacks on his gums.
His first thought was that he would rather kiss a calf. Their breath smelled better than Berdina’s. Like buttermilk. Comforting and familiar.
Since then, as a young man, he’d slept a few times with prostitutes when he went up to Montreal for furnace installations. He’d meet them in bars, grateful that neither kissing nor conversation was expected. The putes were just as happy to make their money in silence. Elroy accepted the experience for what it was, but he sometimes gagged at the fermented, grainy smell of their bodies, as if they bathed in Scotch.
Now, standing in the demonstration barn with Marjorie, he suddenly wondered what it would be like to kiss this sweet-smelling woman whom he had just met.
They were standing in front of a Milking Shorthorn, one of the rarer breeds on display.
“She’s got a pretty good bag on her, don’t you think?” asked Marjorie, casually, with no hesitation.
Elroy looked at the cow whose udders hung wide and full, like the full, soft, leathery saddle of a motorcycle.
“Yes,” he said.
He felt comfortable walking from stall to stall with this stranger, together admiring the robust body of each cow….staring at the secret, sensual folds of female skin which human beings normally only share with each other during moments of intimacy. Now and then one of the cows would gracefully lift her tail and ease her waste to the ground, or piss like a fire hose onto the hay.
“I’d love to have my own herd,” said Marjorie. “I’ve got this boring, boring job as a salesperson. It’s killing me. My parents sold our dairy fifteen years ago,”
“I’m so sorry,” said Elroy.
“Well, it’s because of my being alone. No husband. No siblings. I guess they thought I couldn’t handle the business. But I could have done it.”
“Do you think so?” asked Elroy. “I don’t mean to doubt you. It’s just….”
He stopped in mid-sentence, suddenly realizing that he had managed to speak more than ten words without stuttering.
“Go on,” said Marjorie. “You’re not going to offend me.
“Well, dairy farming seems to be a big job….for anyone… man or woman. I’m beginning to doubt that I’m up for it.”
Again he marveled at his words. They were coming out whole, not chopped into syllables.“But maybe you know things that I don’t,” he added politely.
He looked at Marjorie again.
“I bet I know lots of things that you don’t,” said Marjorie, with a tease in her voice.
“I meant….about running a dairy,” explained Elroy.
Marjorie laughed. “I knew what you meant.”
She suddenly pulled her apron out of her bag.
“Listen, I have to go back to work soon. But I’ll give you my cell number. Call me. We’ll talk cows, plain and simple,” she said.
“Okay,” said Elroy. “I will.”
Marjorie wrote out her number on the back of a pamphlet concerning neonatal calf diseases which Elroy had picked up at one of the stands.
“There,” she said, handing the pamphlet back to him.
But neither one of them made a move to leave the barn. They stood there, with their hands growing damp and restless at their sides, and the cows stirring softly in their stanchions, while back in the Convention Hall, hundreds of dairy farmers continued talking about all sorts of things that didn’t really matter.
Check out “Unconventional Love”
(Listed by most recently released)
An unconventional convention of stories: seven romantic tales of fandom, geekery, and dairy.
Unconventional Love is a collection of short stories that take place at the world’s greatest conventions attended by cosplayers, YouTube stars, bug enthusiasts, and more.
Whatever race, gender, or sexuality, everyone is welcome at the con!
Featuring stories by Gabriella Brand, Adam Clark, K Orion Fray, Charles Land, Tahni J. Nikitins, Frances Pauli, Lyn Thorne-Alder, and D.H. Tuck.
Published March 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0692671450 / ISBN-10: 0692671455