The sun is an irritation. Seven, eight, maybe a dozen sheep are furiously headed its way, scrambling over ditches, small bushes, and each other. The dog closes in—its frothing face split black and white down the middle—but the dog will not kill. The sheep do not know this; they are hunted, the eye is on. Only the dog hears the red-haired handler’s three short whistles as they cut through the air.
A man opens the door of his big truck and watches the dog turn from its prey and follow a beautiful sweep across the field back to the handler, now patting the leg she wants the dog to arrive at. It’s quiet with just the sound of one animal sprinting. The man puffs on his cigar and squints at the horizon, enveloping his head in smoke. He ignores the green-eyed flies sneaking into his truck, landing, not landing, hot-potatoing the dash. He is thinking: this is the life.
As a present the man has invited his son on his 15th birthday to join him for his weekly sheepherding practice. He has pimples and hair to his shoulders but otherwise gets out of the truck in the same manner as his father. The sandwich the son had been dickying with the whole ride is now set down as he takes it all in: this acreage, this tough ground, that sun.
The woman who owns the ranch seems surprised that the man even has a son. “This is the most fun a person can have with his clothes on. That’s why,” the man says, winking. The owner looks confused, doesn’t get it. The red-haired assistant, returning from setting the sheep in the big field, looks even more surprised, open-mouthedly so. He nods, she nods. Yeah. Son. The man’s wife has red hair too, but he figures she’s never been surprised about their son. Ha ha.
The owner offers the son a chair and asks him whether he likes dogs, what kind of dogs, what grade he’s in, and so on, but he’s too damn shy to respond. The son’s pink face aims for his feet. He’s got one shoe on top of the other. When she asks him his name, the man butts in and says, “Come on, you—tell the girls your name. Come on, tell them.” He tries to grab his son by the shoulder but ends up pulling on his t-shirt. The cotton neck stretches into a great oval. The son shoots his father a look, a look that is blocked by hair falling over his face, and something about it makes the red-haired assistant giggle. The man tells her the other two things on his fun-while-clothed list are helicopters and steamboats. His lips are quivering, at the ready to explain the physics of steamboats.
“You going to get birthday cake today?” the red-haired assistant says, turning away from the man.
“I’ll tell you,” the man says, stepping on one foot and making a loud slide with the other. “He makes his own cake, all dainty and shit.”
This makes the women very excited. The red-haired assistant touches her elbow to the son’s arm. “Really? What kind of cake?”
The son shrugs, and the camera tied to his wrist bumps his cheek as he moves hair away from his face. “I sort of make it up. Some—”
“Silvery balls, you know, frosted smiley faces,” the man says as he pivots and walks away. Two men in vests and leather pants with German Shepherds are waiting by the fence to run their dogs. The man stops just behind them, licking his cigar and fumbling for his belt loops. The dark Shepherds rise, the slack now gone from their leashes.
The group turns as the dog with the black-and-white-split face passes by, its tongue dangling like a fifth leg. “Mmm!” the man says. “I had the chance, once, to hold that dog’s leash. I could hardly do it! Such power. Tremendous power. Mm! Now, my dog…well… Frankly, I can hold her back with just the tip of my little pinky. My pinky!” He concentrates on the crease of his pinky’s first joint, running the fingernail of his thumb across the dark line, and later on this evening he will stick the pinky in his own asshole. He’ll plug his nose with his other hand and then try to fart and blow out his nose at the same time, it’s a contest, and he’s keeping score to see which hand lets go first. Funny how here at the ranch the faster your dog runs, the shorter the session.
And those men, this evening, will probably peel the leather pants off each other and grill rib-eye steaks by salting a hot cast-iron pan. Their home will fill with the smell of caramelized fat and their dogs will get to lick the pan when it cools. One of the dogs must have tried to bite the lip of the pan; his left canine is missing its round ivory tip.
The son watches the red-haired assistant pick up a bucket and walk to the horse shed, past the little pen where the ducks are kept, past the gate where the two men and his father stand. He sees his father follow her; he can hear the rigid moan of his new snakeskin boots. His father looks for a place to put his cigar, almost spearing it on the fence, as he doesn’t want to take his eye off the assistant, the bucket bouncing against her ass just below the stitched brown-and-red Levi’s patch. She bends down to pick up something, a rock or a coin, and angles her elbow way out in order to shove it into her little front pocket. His father quickens his steps, making a gesture that looks like he’s raking leaves, no, maybe rowing a canoe. Together they turn into the shed and disappear.
The owner’s cell phone rings and she screams at the tarp-covered array of barking dogs to shut-the-f-up before answering the call. The son realizes his hands hurt; his skin is irritated by all this dirt and residue kicked up by every dog that has walked by. No moisture. No moisturizer. “Moist,” he says, several times, pushing his lips out for the oy sound, until it makes him laugh. He rubs something sticky off the camera shutter, and then snaps some photos: the circles of satellite dishes attached to the side of the owner’s house, the squares of take-out trash blown against the fencing, to go with the sandwich close-ups he took earlier, the dusty, dusty ground. No one comes out of the shed. Clearly there are horses. Beside the shed is a gigantic pile of horse shit. From where he’s sitting it doesn’t smell, but square-footage-wise it’s larger, much larger, than his room at home. Moist.
For five years their dog Rosie had only ever been interested in ripping apart the garden and chewing on the wooden table legs. Or eating the sequins and fur off the outfits his mother sews for the dog every Halloween. This year it was Chewbacca and his father laughed when his wife anguished over the torn fabric, saying that it was funny, Chew-bacca, get it? Around that time someone at his father’s office told him the dog’s behavior might be a sign of some good herding instincts. That meant a new truck and some jeans and some boots. He’s come every week since. Rosie’s a natural son of a bitch, he’s told everyone.
When it’s the man’s turn to run his dog, all of a sudden he’s standing by the entrance to the big field, and the red-haired assistant appears beside the son, strands of hair in her mouth, out of breath, and tells him he should go out there too. They stand—two figures in a shitload of open space—as their dog runs the four-hundred-plus yards to gather the sheep. The little dog races her heart out, and today she remembers the tricky section where the sheep can see their pens on the other side of the fence and always storm the railing, and she doesn’t lose a single one as she drives the herd into a neat cluster around the son, who has both arms stretched in front of him trying to frame sheep and dog into a photograph. The son has watched the entire run through the cheap lens of his camera, capturing a diagonal glare in every picture. No one has ever explained to him the physics of shooting into the sun.
The man tells his son to move away, get, get, move, out of the way, away from the sheep. The son lowers the camera, but the wrist strap catches a few strands of hair and he has to yank to get it free. “Is she supposed to do this?”
“You’re in the way.” The man’s nostrils are wide, taking in air. “Did you watch that? And you thought she was just a lazy, pet-store son-of-a-bitch, huh? See how she did that? See how she brought the sheep all to me? Yeah…well…she’s only brought them to you, over there, because you’re in the way… Move!” he says, stomping his feet to get the dog’s attention. “Now here!” The little dog clusters the sheep tightly around her master. Her eyes are perfect circles. She knows she’s done a good job.
“Move out of the way!” the man roars.
The son, with all the woolies around him, cannot take a single step. The sheep push into him, their heads like fists. The man chases down his dog and leads her away, tugging with two hands on the leash when she tries to go back to her job.
The sheep turn like black-headed magnets to watch the dog leave. The son touches the wool, and is surprised how dirty and prickly it feels. They huddle around him, he’s the protector, and their eyes soften. Must be instinct or some weird group decision. The son has no idea. He’s never been around animals like this. Never had a thing for fur, but trying at this moment to connect the sheep to, say, knitted socks, or hats, or cheese? And one time he kicked his dog. Once. He did think she was just a couch potato dog. It’s crazy to see her run. So fast and so far. She had never seen sheep before; how does she know what to do?
Someone yells at him to get out of there, and he tries to take a step but the sheep don’t let him move. They press against his knees, mobilizing tighter and tighter around him. They’re a little out of control, bumping into him. His jeans become muddied and encrusted with spit.
Son of a bitch, he hears his father say. And suddenly the gate bangs open and a black-and-white blur heads toward him as the sheep mow him to the ground. Dust collects inside his shoes and his socks. It’s now quiet, and his tailbone is a point of focus and of pain. The sky above is pale, a sort of dim, milky blue. The sun seems like it’s doing nothing.
The wind has sent a tangle of fur into his arm. He lifts his arm and the fur keeps going. It’s him who has followed the red-haired assistant into the horse shed, it’s him that asks her why everyone on the ranch wears Levi’s rather than Wranglers, and it is his cock magically spreading apart the two sides of the zipper (“Look, no hands”) to show her why the button fly is a total bummer. She’ll let him feel what she has in her little front pocket but he has to stick his fingers in to get it out. She’ll turn the bucket over and stand on it; she’s got good balance, her little toes straddling the rim. She’ll show him the scar on her thigh from being accidentally bit by a dog that was pissed off after being kicked by a cow, and she tried to get between them. She’ll explain how it’s more dangerous to herd cows and he’ll say, Oh yeah, and lick her scar, up, up, up, and up, and ask how it is the dogs know what to do. She’ll carve an X in his nipples. Ooh!
After doing her on the hay bales, he will carry her into the big field so she can watch him command the split-faced dog. She’ll have a good view of him handling the dog, sending him out, way out, to collect—no, not pussy sheep, but cows: big-assed, mean, two-ton steers—and it will be him the dog responds to, him holding the cane/stick thing, him doing the complicated whistles his father still can’t figure out. Like his father doesn’t even know which one means come and which one means go.
Only, the son is struck with momentary panic. He’s never done it before. Sure, he’s a good jacker-off-er, a member of the long-shower-special-forces, but there on the hay, he wouldn’t be able to tell whether it was her hand or her armpit or her what that punched his ticket. It would be over in less than five seconds. Chew-kacca. She’ll get up and wash her hands in the sink and disappear. What sink?
The smell of cigar smoke drifts into his personal space and the red-haired assistant is there, sitting him up and dusting off his back.
“You want some water or something?” she says, asking him but looking at his father, who is staring into the distance.
The son shakes his head, and tries to spit out the sour taste in his mouth.
“Your dog likes you. That’s why she…” she looks over at his father. “Instead of…”
“Whoa,” his father says, and they turn to see the split-faced dog chase a sheep that has been separated from the herd. The dog positions itself between the fence and the sheep in order to force her back to the others. The sheep panics and hurtles herself into the chain link and rebounds, four hooves up, into the air. “Mmm! What a dog!” his father says. On his back is a sweat stain the shape of Florida.
The red-haired assistant asks the son whether he’s OK for the third time. He gets up and walks out of the big field, leaving the gate open behind him. The red-haired assistant catches up to him as they pass the two men working their Shepherds. She says hey, and explains how today they’ve separated the Shepherds to see what they’ll do with smaller pens and fewer sheep. She tells him the dogs are brothers but one’s got too much drive, the other none. The one dog wants to group the sheep together and then go lie down in the shade. The other one wants a piece of every sheep’s back leg, and practically once a month they have to pull a bleeding sheep out of the ring. There’s a lot of yelling as they go by.
The son looks at the red hair, her head, her mouth, telling him how they’re trying something new. “Dogs are like weights,” she says. “They balance. A smaller field, and maybe they’ll run a little more confident, if they think the handler will cover the fence. A little slower if the space seems too tight. We’ll see what happens.” He’s hearing her, but this sour taste won’t go away.
“Oh, and with the sheep, you kinda have to bend your knees.”
“Whatever,” the son says.
When son and father get home his mother calls them “her men” and complains that they both smell like horses. His father rolls his eyes. The space by the front door is small. His father sits on the little stool and takes off his boots. His mother picks up several blades of yellowed grass that appear on the floor. The son asks his mom if he can use her good lotion for his hands. She holds up her thumb and first finger to show her son a gap of about a quarter of an inch. She brings her husband a new cigar along with a beer before declaring that horses or no horses Rosie was ripe for a bath. Over her shoulder she tells her son the kitchen is all his.
The son watches his dad drink the beer, his Adam’s apple as it hikes up and up before gliding back into place at the end of the swallow. The movement somehow intensifies his father’s long look. His long-waisted look. From his father’s belt to the crotch of his pants there’s an abdomen of considerable length. He turns away, he doesn’t want to look anymore. He kicks and squirrels out of his shoes, leaning a hand against the wall, his tailbone a distant star. He bends at his own waist, assessing its arc. Its future.
The son waits for the sound of running water to stop before he shouts that he feels sick and not in a cake-making mood. His mother offers a something something that she picked up, and could throw a something together. She says there’s also a few something somethings, yummy, and that she’s set out the long apron he likes, saving the one with the farm animals holding wooden spoons for herself.
The son says nothing. In the hallway mirror he catches his father’s reflection, a shake of the head, and a flash of green from the bottle he’s holding. Too much sun, he hears him say, though he asks it like a question.