Discontinuous Cows

They were just two middle school teachers on summer vacation, trying to see a little country, get away from the wilderness of Los Angeles, get somewhere you could actually see stars at night.  They were middle-aged, but fighting it off with vegetables and athletic shoes and yoga classes.  They were driving up Nevada state highway 379 north of Duckwater, on the way to the Alkali Desert where they intended to camp out and go hiking.

It was late June, not too hot, and they had the windows down and Jack Johnson playing on the CD player.  They had seen some green pastures and hay fields around Duckwater, but now they were out in the desert again, driving along about sixty-five on a mostly empty two-lane blacktop road.

A farm truck came up behind them and went on around with its engine roaring and its canvas tarp flapping.  It was a good sized truck with wooden slats for sides and a back gate that split in the middle to swing open for loading and unloading.  There were cow legs sticking out between the wood slats, and the sudden, nauseating smell of rotting meat.

The legs stuck out in random places, some up pretty high, which gave the impression the truck was full to the brim with dead cows that could not have walked in on their own.  And then there was that smell.

Most people have encountered some dead and rotting meat by the time they are middle-aged.  Some dried out road kill pancake or a dead mouse in the back of the closet or some baloney tucked behind a stack of low-fat yogurt containers—those ones in a flavor you don’t really like but you got because they were on sale.  And they can tell the difference between old, desiccated flesh and fresher stuff, stuff that is still moist and turning strange colors, or maybe looking eerily in motion with maggots crawling all around on it, or a swarm of flies.

Dead fairly recently, is what I mean, with that smell that about knocks you over, and that’s what this truck with the legs sticking out smelled like.  Enough to make you gag as it passed you on a desert highway going eighty miles an hour—the legs bouncing up and down with the bumps in the road.  Going much too fast for any flies to linger outside the truck, but you could imagine them under that canvas tarp.

That’s the first thing Norma imagined—about six billion flies buzzing around under the tarp, some of them wandering too close to the edge and getting blown off into the desert.  What a surprise that must be for them.  Thinking things were going pretty good.  They were going to eat some meat and lay some eggs, complete the cycle of life as nature intended, and then that’s all gone, and there you are, tumbling in the turbulent desert air, cycle of life pulled right out from under you, maybe ending your short life going splat on the windshield of two school teachers.  Norma taught biology, among other things, and egg-laying was as close as she ever had to get to explaining sex to children, for which she was grateful.

Louise’s initial thought was how the cows had gotten in the truck in the first place.  She could tell by the legs that they weren’t standing.  She imagined the cows in there sort of sliding around on top of each other.  Maybe they had just been dumped in by a front-end loader, already dead.  One leg stuck out the top through a hole in the tarp, its hoof angled forward like some weird-ass periscope.

“Get a picture,” Louise said.  Her voice sounded muffled because she was trying to talk without breathing.

Norma reached into the back seat to find her camera.  The truck was steadily pulling away.  The truck driver in a big hurry to get somewhere, or away from somewhere, or outrun the stink, or maybe just crazy… who knew?  Louise sped up to try to stay with it but she was still losing ground.  By the time Norma turned back around and got the camera ready, another strange thing happened.

An F-16 swooped down right over their heads about a hundred feet off the ground.  It swooshed on over the truck and started climbing, a faint black smoke coming from its tail.  Norma got a shot of the truck with the jet fighter beyond it—nose slightly up and banking to starboard.

A truck full of dead cows barreling down the highway in the middle of nowhere.  A nauseating smell that made you want to be just about anywhere else.  And a jet fighter fiercely asserting its presence.  Did it get any more weird-ass than that?

Louise only said things like “weird-ass” during summer vacation.  She taught arithmetic, and the thing about arithmetic is that it has dependable rules and ordered relationships you can count on—there’s nothing weird-ass about it.  Louise wanted the students to understand that.  And she wanted their parents to know they could count on her to give their children something stable and solid to help them cope with life.  She wanted to keep her job.

This, however, was a very weird-ass business, this truck full of dead cows with jet fighter escort in the Nevada desert.  Weirder than even Las Vegas, where they had just spent a day and a night.  Las Vegas had a fake sphinx and fake volcano and fake castles and thousands of people faking having a good time, but it didn’t have anything as weird as this.  Well, maybe.

“Can we slow down and get some breathable air?” said Norma.

In fact, there were some fairly weird-ass things about arithmetic, when you stopped to think about it.  Like when you multiplied and divided fractions.  Or that if you added all the digits in a number together and if that sum was divisible by three then the number itself was divisible by three, which was practically like numerology.  But thankfully there weren’t too many you had to deal with in middle school.  Mostly things were pretty simple and straightforward and some rules—like, no dividing by zero allowed—you didn’t have to explain because they were just true and always the same and that was that.  And if you needed six decimal places in the value for pi you just looked it up in a table in the back of the book and you didn’t have to worry about how they figured that out or if it made any sense or if you could trust them to be right. Everybody else used the same table and even if there was a typo somewhere what did it matter as long as everybody agreed?  It’s not like the kids were trying to land a space craft on Mars or anything.  What mattered was that there were things you could count on.

“How did the picture turn out?” asked Louise.  She eased off the gas as the truck disappeared over a low hill.

“Too far away,” said Norma. “You see a truck and a jet.  You can’t really see the legs sticking out, or that the jet swooped right over him.  What the hell was that?”

“It was a truck full of dead cows.”

“It was a jet fighter.  They fly around in the desert all the time.”

“He was just curious.”

“He could smell it even up there.”

“He was practicing his attack dive.”

“He was messing with the truck driver.”

“He was showing off.”

“He knew there were two cute school teachers in the car.”

“They died of mad cow disease.”

“They ate radioactive hay.”

“They were killed by space aliens.”

“It’s a government cover-up.”

“We’re going to get sick and die horribly.”

“I want a shower.  Please stop the car.”

“Maybe we should go back to Vegas for another night.”

“He’s going to blast him as soon as there aren’t any witnesses.”

And this, boys and girls, is why you never divide by zero.  Because you might blow up your engine chasing a truck full of dead cows and get stuck all alone in the desert with no cell phone coverage and all you can do is wait for a van full of scientists in white biohazard suits to show up and spray disinfectant all over you.  Then they will take you to a secret underground military installation for intensive debriefing and make you sign a non-disclosure agreement in your own blood.  There will be veiled and not so veiled threats about being disappeared from normal human society if you don’t keep your mouth shut.  Is that what you want?  Or you can just be a good citizen and go along and everything will be fine.  What’s it gonna be?

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