The Learning Game
The cow lay dead in the middle of the road. Jack pointed at it.
“Cat,” he said.
“That’s not a cat,” Ray said. “That’s a cow. That’s a dead cow, Jack.”
We were once happy.
“Pull over,” Ray said. “There’s no one behind us. There’s no one anywhere. We’re all alone, in the middle of nothing, with this dead cow on a dumb road. I want to take a break.”
Break? I’ve been driving for five hours.
I went to the side of the dirt road which looked endless in the wavering air full of mirages. The only thing else around us were bales of hay in the distance. As soon as we got out of the car we started to sweat.
“Damn,” Ray said.
“Damn,” Jack said.
“No,” Ray replied. “You can’t say that word. Only adults can say that word. Adults, Jack, not you.”
“Damn,” Jack said again.
Ray raised his voice: “Stop. Stop.”
We were all already drenched in sweat.
“Let it go,” I said. “He doesn’t know any better or what it means. He’s just repeating, learning.”
I took Jack by the hand and we walked towards the cow. I loved the way he wobbled from side to side, still trying to make sense of his own body and the world around him. Despite the heat and the carcass, and Ray, it was a pleasurable moment, walking side by side, hand in hand with the little one.
“It must have just died,” I said. “There isn’t a stench. Poor thing.”
“It’s a cow,” Ray said. “We just ate some hamburgers yesterday. Who cares.”
I ran my hand through Jack’s fledgling hair, damp and soft. He was looking around, observing all that he could, taking it all in. To us, we were nowhere, to him, we were everywhere. I picked Jack up and propped him against my body and breathed in his hair.
“You’re being mean,” I said.
I wasn’t expecting an apology.
“It’s a cow.”
I waited for it.
“Damn,” Jack said.
Ray threw his arms in the air and walked in circles for a few seconds like a dog. Jack pointed at the dead cow.
“Cat,” he said.
“Cow,” Ray said. “That’s a dead cow, Jack.”
I gave up and didn’t bother saying anything. I had already given up years ago, before we even adopted Jack. Five years ago, to be exact. Right now, I was only in it for Jack, coming up with plans to get out of it, just me and Jack. No Ray. It’ll happen.
“Hey Jack,” I said. “Look – that’s a cow.”
I whispered into his ear.
“Meow meow,” Jack replied.
Ray didn’t hear him. He was too busy thinking about himself. How did this happen? Why was I still with him? I couldn’t help but remember when we were first in love. And then it all changed – his mood, his temper, he was just unhappy all of the time. A jerk. And it became worse when we started to take care of Jack. Good memories only elongate the bad ones.
“Cat!” Jack shouted. “Cat! Cat! Cat!”
He continued to point at the dead cow.
“No,” Ray said. “No. Stop it. You should know this by now. That’s a cow. It goes moo. It’s a damn cow, Jack. We ate one yesterday.”
I heard him whisper “idiot” to himself.
I looked down the road, and in the distance, I saw a car heading this way. Good enough. At least he won’t be stranded. Or maybe he will. I held Jack tightly, pressing him against my body and headed toward the car as Jack was looking the other way, standing at the feet of the dead cow. Trying to be as gentle as possible, I sat Jack down in the backseat, buckled him up, and got into the driver’s side. As I turned the ignition on, Jack turned around.
“What are you doing?”
What am I doing?
“Hey. Hey. What are you doing?”
I eased the car up and put the window down.
“I hope you’re happy. I hope you’ll be happy. It’s just you and the dead cow.”
“What the fuck are you doing? Fuck.”
I sped off, barely missing the cow. I looked at Ray in the rear-view mirror, standing there with his arms in the air.
“Fuck,” Jack said.
And I laughed – it was a loud, good laugh, one I hadn’t felt in years.
Shome Dasgupta is the author of i am here And You Are Gone (Winner Of The 2010 OW Press Fiction Chapbook Contest), The Seagull And The Urn (HarperCollins India, 2013) which has been republished in the UK by Accent Press as The Sea Singer (2016), Anklet And Other Stories (Golden Antelope Press, 2017), Pretend I Am Someone You Like (University of West Alabama’s Livingston Press, 2018), and Mute (Tolsun Books, 2018). He currently serves as the Series Editor for the Wigleaf Top 50. He lives in Lafayette, LA, and can be found at www.shomedome.com and @laughingyeti.
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