By Leonard Bishop
Last year I had decided to stop writing “artistic” novels that penetrate the core of life and peel naked the soul; I wanted to become wealthy.
I would write a commercial novel about the old West. A generational novel, a panoramic saga a la Michener and Clavell. I would have power-thrusts, cattle lords, railroad barons, and a senator with an old-world Mafioso connection.
And then I went to a cattle auction in Salina and the horror of the experience still makes me retch.
The nine hours I spent there was like living inside a hobo’s soiled underwear. I went home and pulled out every hair from my nostrils, but the stench is still in my nose. I have already made arrangements with a mortician to bury me anywhere in the world, as long as the cemetery is 500 miles from a cattle auction. I took my five year old son, Luke, with me. The scars have not yet appeared. I am waiting for him to wake up screaming, then rush into our bedroom covered with ticks, eerie drool, and a horn poked up from his forehead.
I confess to an admiration and awe for the men and women who work with cattle. They have more patience, courage and character than I will ever acquire. In order to provide the public with meat loaf and chops, they make great sacrifices.
My purpose in attending the cattle auction was research. We drove with a farmer who wanted to sell about 30 heifers. The beasts were in the rear of a long trailer. He backed it into a platform and asked if I would help him open the trailer gates. I thought he looked arrogant in his high cowboy boots.
I began to smell the animals. I opened my side of the gate and I was suddenly ankle deep in a tide of excrement. I wanted to shriek with discomfort but had to grab my son to keep him from drowning. Even as the farmer prodded the cattle to the pens, it was coming out of them. I wanted to steal his high cowboy boots.
We went inside an auditorium-like structure and the stink was an axe-head whamming my lungs. I held my son’s nose until he almost suffocated. There were hundreds of men and women in jeans, boots and hats, chatting as though they did not know they were sitting in the rectum of hell. Brown bugs, fleas, mosquitoes and probably tse-tse flies attacked us. Afraid of seeming unheroic to my son, I did not bolt. The farmer said, “How’s ‘bout some burgers an’ fries?” I almost heaved my breakfast onto his bright plaid shirt.
I thought of my money-making commercial novel: In 1869 three brothers migrate from Czechoslovakia. They separate and agree to meet in Wichita. One rides the railroad, another a wagon train, another signs up for a cattle drive.
I sat and watched them bring out the cattle to be auctioned. Whatever evacuative orifices God had provided them with, were busy. They bumped, shoved, jumped on and splattered each other. Then the auctioneer began his babble. His voice clattered like a ton of beer cans avalanching through a steel tunnel. The farmer beside me understood every word. My son asked, “What’d he say, Dad?” I muttered, “He was just clearing his throat.” My commercial novel began to drain from my ambitions.
Two fearless men stood among the beasts and flailed them with whips. Then I began thinking the people had suddenly become agitated lunatics. They blinked, crossed legs, jiggled feet, touched eyebrows, nodded, winked, shrugged, rubbed their ears, wiggled their fingers, patted bellies, tapped hat brims, picked their teeth. Believing they might be contagious, I wanted to grab Luke and run. The farmer chewed his ninth hamburger and whispered, “Settle down –they’re jest bidding.” I sat, scratching my flea bites and soothing my son by reciting the poetry of John Donne and passages from Aristotle. But in my soul I was grieving.
I wanted wealth, but not desperately enough to be around cattle. I thought of one chapter I would have to write in my commercial novel. The setting was a pig farm. I almost wept. I was fallen before I was launched. I would have to continue writing serious novels and earn less money. Am I cursed, I wonder –or blessed? Kansas and its cattle are forcing me to keep my literary integrity.
(first published August 5, 1984 The Manhattan Mercury)