By Joe Baumann
When their father Paul announced he was going to spend his inheritance building a miniature golf course on the family land, Troy Buckingham and his sisters experienced a collective premonition of disaster. Troy saw his college fund smoking in a barren, heaping pile, smelling of dung and rancid milk. He pictured himself working at a gas station and living in his basement bedroom until he was forty. He would never lose his virginity, not with Heather Beilman or Saul Fleischman, who took turns inhabiting his dreams, each one leaving him dry-mouthed and achy. His sisters groaned over their father’s blandishments about the windmill, the gopher mound at the fourteenth hole, the on-site creamery where a cadre of cows would produce milk they would churn into ice cream and sell by the cone. Elodie, the eldest daughter, lamented the end of her expensive private cello lessons; Maggie felt the evaporation of her dreams of owning a pony; Caroline, who wanted to be an artist ever since her trip to the St. Louis Art Museum, knew she would never have her own easels and expensive paints.
“We’ll call the place Hole-y Cow,” their father said.
Elodie groaned. Maggie and Caroline laughed. Troy bit into his black bean burger. He could feel his father’s eyes on him, pulsing him with a pleading look. Troy’s father regularly burdened him with these heavy glances, as if the fact that they were the only two with Y chromosomes in the house meant they had to forge some kind of alliance. But Troy thought the idea of a miniature golf course and ice cream shoppe (his father insisted the old-style spelling would increase the charm of the place and thus foot traffic) was as stupid as stupid could get, like the woman he’d seen on television who had liquidated her 401K so she could buy a bunch of Beanie Babies. He was pretty sure she was working at a McDonalds or something now, maybe Target or, if she was lucky, a Costco or Starbucks.
Their house sat on a huge swatch of land that neither their father or their father’s father or his father had been willing to sell, even when commercial developers salivated over it, offering well over market value, located as it was off interstate 70 close to other land developments where apartment complexes, a Toyota dealership, even a Home Depot and a sprawling subdivision filled with identical Spanish villas had sprung up in the last dozen years. Fifteen acres spilled back in golden waves, used for grazing cattle (“We already have the milking operation half-running!” their father said, slapping his hand on the dining room table). They would be able to live where they worked, so no commute, no fighting traffic, no exorbitant gas expenditures at the QT down the road.
So the kids said fine, fine. Troy looked at his sisters. What else could they do but wrinkle their lips in hopeless surrender while their father went on about what color golf balls he would order?
“Now,” he said. “What do you all think of a magic-themed course?”
It took a year to construct the golf course. His father filed permits, bought a mattress system, a feeding fence, buckets of stall cleaner. Paul let Elodie design the ice cream shoppe, choose the dipper wells, the commercial freezers, the melamine pans and scoopers. Troy watched her click through various online stores, talking to herself about whether they should make their own waffle cones or buy them pre-shaped. Troy marveled at his sister’s savvy, how, at the prospect of becoming a store manager, her otherwise artsy-fartsy musical side melted away like so much ice. Her cello sat forgotten.
Maggie and Caroline exhorted their father to fill the course with castles, castles, castles! And as many vibrant colors of ice cream as possible! They didn’t care about pasteurizers or cheese vats, chart recorders or milk pumps. They dreamt of hitting vibrant pink and purple golf balls through the mouths of burpy toads, the craggy legs of ogres, around marshy moats surrounding fairytale towers. They offered up their own hole designs, complete with monstrous waterfalls, greens that spiraled three stories high, a dragon that shot out real flames if you sank a hole in one. Their father compromised by purchasing a plastic monstrosity with wings the size of a small sedan. Its eyes showered the seventh hole with infernal red light after dusk.
At first, they served only the basics: chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Then their father caught some creativity bug and started branching out: cherry and pineapple, caramel, cookies ‘n’ cream. Then wilder flavors. People adored the pistachio, which Troy scooped it out in green mound after green mound. There was a charcoal concoction that the hipsters swooned over, and when they unveiled the newest mystery flavor, people crowed over the champagne ice cream, available only to adults over twenty-one. Some of the kids home from college for summer vacations gawked when Troy carded them. He would shrug and offer a sheepish smile, and when he could tell an ID was fake, he sold the ice cream anyway. He was pretty sure no one was going to get drunk off his father’s spumante-tinged treats, and since when did Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms plot sting operations on miniature golf courses?
His classmates came in foursomes; some of the jocks were drunk or stoned or both, but Troy’s father didn’t have a substance-free policy, so Troy handed over the rubber-and-steel putters without a word. College kids wearing too-large glasses and an excess of scarves showed up, the girls giggling about their terrible aim, the boys feigning disinterest in getting the lowest score but pumping their fists when they shot under par. Customers’ tan arms and legs slicked with sweat even in late evening. They ignored the sweet and sour loam smell of cow dung, calling it part of the experience, all for the sake of down home, local ice cream. Rich, buttered, creamy, organic and supporting a local business. The strawberry, with real, chunky fruit swirled in, was to die for.
Troy watched his classmates laugh their way through eighteen holes then plop down together on metal tables strewn near the concession stand. Patio umbrellas sponsored by Michelob Ultra fluttered in the windy nights while kids crammed themselves onto the circular bench seats, boys slipping their palms against girls’ thighs. Girlfriends leaned into boyfriends, whispering sweet nothings into perking ears. Cheeks were pecked, lips were locked. Troy’s heart broke when Heather Beilman and Saul Fleischman showed up on a date, hands slipping into one another’s back pockets as they left. Three little league baseball teams came one night, and Troy’s arms were sore in the morning from moving around tins of ice cream when Elodie needed help restocking.
But his father was raking in the dough. No worries about Troy’s college fund. Elodie could keep her lessons, though now she wanted to go into restaurant management and interior design, erstwhile dreams of Juilliard and a place in the Boston Symphony Orchestra abandoned. Maggie still didn’t have a pony, but Caroline had started smearing paints on her first easel.
All was well in the Buckingham household until the day the first cow died.
Troy and his sisters didn’t interact with the livestock except for when they got in trouble, such as after the night Troy snuck out with his best friend Clay Ridgemore and got drunk off a bottle of Johnny Walker and came home so hungover the next morning that he vomited in the bathroom near the ninth hole three times. His father made him spend the next day sweeping out the milking barn just because; there was no reason to swish away the clods of dirt, cow turd, and mulchy grass, because every time the cattle were corralled for a milking the concrete floor was stained again. After the one time Elodie had been put through it for her own elopement to a mall and then a party where, she claimed, she very much did not drink the spiked punch, staying out until well after her curfew, she raised such hell, screaming that she would call Child Services and the health department and the Better Business Bureau if she was made to do that ever again, their father promised never to make her go near the cows again.
So it was Tim, the farmhand they’d hired, a stringy-haired kid from Nebraska with a deep voice and a wicked farmer’s tan who was looking to forge out on his own rather than spend his whole life in corn fields forty minutes outside of Omaha, who came huffing up to the course the morning everything went to hell. Sometimes Troy had to stop from staring at the columns of wiry muscle in his back when he worked shirtless.
“Something’s wrong with Moo,” he said to Troy, huffing. Tim was lithe and lean, but apparently his cardiovascular system could use an overhaul. “Where’s your dad?”
Troy pointed toward the office in the back of the concession stand where his father kept a computer on which he worked spreadsheets to track business expenditures and intakes. The room, small and crowded with candy bar wrappers and crinkly, empty bags of chips, smelled of the air freshener pumping out the artificial aroma of apples and cinnamon. Troy listened from the cashier window while Tim whispered. Troy’s father shot out of his squeaky desk chair like a missile and charged out of the concession stand, Tim in fast pursuit. Blinking, Troy made an executive decision, pulling the displayed putters and golf balls from the counter and yanking down the corrugated metal window guard. He followed his father.
Paul Buckingham had thought he’d been doing a nice thing in letting each of his kids name one of the milking cows. Troy had still been dumpy and disbelieving, so when his father pointed to the large bovine body that his eldest son would christen, Troy, arms folded over his chest and a dead-eyed look on his face, declared that his cow would be named Moo.
And by the time Troy, his father, and Tim reached the barn, Moo was mooing no more.
Paul Buckingham called a vet, who couldn’t figure it out. No signs of anaplasmosis or blue-green algae toxicity. No prussic acid. There was no evidence of perilla mint on the grounds. The vet, a barrel-shaped man with a beard beaded with sweat and streaked gray, plucked off his latex gloves with a puff of talcum powder, wiped his hands on his jeans, and then shrugged at Troy’s father. He couldn’t explain Moo’s death, advising only that they needed to call a licensed disposer to remove the body.
“It could infect the rest of them. The decomposing flesh, and whatever caused the death,” he said.
Paul Buckingham made the call. A truck came out that afternoon. Men in space-age jumpsuits that glimmered white against the grass snapped on elbow-length gloves and hauled the cow away.
But even so, the others followed quickly, like dominos falling in a line. Cashmere (named by Elodie), Cuckoo (Maggie), Snarfle (Caroline). All dead, all fast.
“Mad cow?” their father said on the phone.
Not mad cow. None of the cattle suffered incoordination, trouble rising or walking. They’d all been their same complacent, lowing selves, tails swishing. Udders dangling, heavy sacs. And then—thunk—they were dead. They’d have seen the signs of bovine spongiform encephalopathy well before Moo or Snarfle or any of the other cows croaked.
The remaining milking cows—five—seemed fine for a few days, but then two of them dropped on a Saturday morning.
Troy watched his father slumped in the office making frantic phone calls. He would slam the door shut, shaking the walls of the concession stand. His voice burbled like he was under water. Troy imagined him thrashing, thumping his fist on the rickety desk.
And then the other three cows pitched over Sunday morning. Tim delivered the news, his brow glistening with nerves. Troy was sure he’d been crying, which made him want to wrap his arms around Tim’s wiry frame. With a good scrub, and maybe a haircut, Tim would be dashing, with his shelf of cheekbones and steel-blue eyes that were, at the moment, shot with blood. The dead cows were splayed on their sides in the meadow near the barn, open mouths seeping half-chewed cud. Their bodies were already bloated, the noxious smell of methane farting into the sky, the barn saturated with it.
Elodie looked around, shifty-eyed, when customers asked why the ice cream supplies were so low. They kept serving what they had already churned; the vet didn’t say to stop, their father argued. So let’s make every scoop count. Who knows when we’ll have more. So they scraped the bottom of the frozen serving tins, pulling every bit of ice cream they could. Before the cows started dying they’d skimmed and pasteurized several gallons yet to be churned, so there was still something.
The vanilla and chocolate ice cream ran out first. Customers gawked and wondered how an ice cream shoppe—a shoppe—ran out of vanilla.
“It’s like a Taco Bell not having beef.”
“Um,” Troy said, holding an empty cone in its white sleeve.
Their father stayed in the office well after the golf course was closed, the pathway lights blinkered off. Troy tried to think of things to say as he tidied up, slotting the putters in their cubbies and letting the balls clatter on their drying racks, sparkling and smooth after a wash in a bucket of hot tap water and dish soap. His jaw hinged open and shut as he wiped down the counter and then scrubbed at the sneeze guard over the ice cream, but nothing came out of his mouth. He felt like a balloon with a slow leak.
They bought two new milking cows after paying to have the entire barn sanitized from rafters to floor, the walls scrubbed clean with an antibacterial spray so strong none of them could enter for two days afterward.
Tim found those cows a week later, flies buzzing against their open, unblinking eyelids.
His sisters whispered about the cows, Caroline crying herself to sleep over the death of Snarfle. She announced at breakfast on Tuesday that she had prayed to God to bring the cows back to life, that she would never eat another scoop of ice cream her entire life if they would just be okay.
“You don’t have to do that,” Elodie said.
Troy was tired, ragged from a too-bright dream of Tim, who appeared suddenly in his bedroom, stripped of his shirt, muscles pulsing with size like he’d spent the last thirty minutes flexing. They had started kissing, Tim’s hands raking through Troy’s hair, fingers webbing around his ears and throat, pressing against his back and hips. He’d been awakened by the bubbling noises of his sisters talking, Maggie shrieking something about a stolen hair brush, their voices vibrating along the shabby walls of the farmhouse’s damp second floor.
He worked his jaw, which felt gummed up like a poorly-oiled piston.
“Tell her,” Elodie said.
Troy sighed. “You don’t need to pray over the cows.”
“Yes I do!” Caroline said, nearly wailing. “How else will we get Snarfle back?”
Troy arched an eyebrow at Elodie. Their younger sisters had been strangely calm when their mother got sick three years ago, her cords of auburn hair replaced by vibrant bandanas, makeup sluiced off, pouches of exhaustion knitted beneath her eyes. Her cheeks went hollow instead of rouged. At her funeral, the girls cried, burbling out baby noises, but they never asked where their mother had gone or if she’d be back. The next morning, Troy and Elodie had found Maggie scrambling eggs, just like their mother had done the entirety of Maggie’s nine-year-old life. Caroline was trying to pour orange juice, her little hands slipping against the carton. Troy had plucked it from her right before disaster struck. Seeing the fragile look on her face, he exhorted her to let him help, insisting she was the one guiding the orange fountain of juice down into each of the five glasses she’d managed to pull from their position in a cabinet.
They had approached death, Troy thought, with an unsettling aplomb, far less tormented than he was. Troy had been branded by torturous nightmares of his mother, trapped inside a coffin and helplessly banging on the box’s sides until her oxygen ran out or, somehow more frightfully, she managed to claw her way through particle board and fabric and wormy earth to break the surface, only to be smacked to death by an eighteen-wheeler as she trudged her way back home, unsteady and dehydrated, ankles twisting and spraining in the high heels she’d never worn in life but which had been slipped on her feet in death. He’d woken up, sweat-streaked and chest heaving, many times in the days after her passing.
Their father, looking like he’d been pummeled with a bag of fruit, arrived at the table. His eyes were scoopy and hollow, his skin the ashy color of an anemic pork chop. He rubbed at his face with the pads of his palms and yawned, shaking his head. Troy passed him a plate. He ate three bites of toast then tossed it back onto the plate, scattering crumbs across the porcelain before he stood and marched out of the house. Troy was the only one who followed.
The walk from the farmhouse to the golf course took five minutes; the morning was already sweating, dew clustered on the high grass, heat waving off the asphalt of the frontage road and the interstate beyond. The noise of cars zooming along the highway and the heavy breeze whistling through his ears gave Troy an excuse not to speak.
As usual, his father unlocked the concession stand and marched into the office, shutting the door behind him. Troy got to work wiping down the putters with sanitizing tissues, polishing their heads to glinting, placing the balls he’d left on the drying rack last night back into their slots in the metal dispenser so children could choose their favorite of six iridescent colors. He rummaged through the walk-in freezer for leftover ice cream, yanking the scoopers from the drying racks, restocking the waffle cones. They were on their last batch of churned ice cream, barely an inch left in the ten gallon tub. Tim had no new milk to process and wheel over on the small ATV he used to haul gallons from the creamery over to the stand. There were no cows, no milk, hardly a shoppe.
Troy stood in the stand listening. The sound came up, as it had for several days straight now, in a sad, cresting wave: the blunted noise of his father’s sobs, soft as the whoosh of the dishwasher at first, then rising as he lost control. Troy’s stomach twisted. He closed his eyes and felt himself bobbing on his father’s sorrow.
A school bus pulled into the lot minutes after Troy unhooked the chain draped over the entryway; he was hardly back in the stand before he heard the patter of dozens of kiddie footsteps.
His father leaned out of the office, groaning.
“Oh god,” he said. “I forgot about the campers. Do we have anything in stock?”
Troy peered into the deep cooler where ice cream had once collected but was now empty aside from the coagulated condensation that had formed wavering ridges of porous ice. Troy nudged a finger at it and crumbles peeled off, scattering in the bottom. He looked back at his father and shook his head.
“Fuck. Okay.” He disappeared back into the office, then emerged with a handful of bills. “Look, they paid a big group rate for twenty kids and five adults to do a round of eighteen each, followed by an ice cream party. I’m going to go buy some gallons from the Stop-n-Shop. I’ll be back before they’re done.”
He watched his father dart past the first portion of the child horde. The kids ignored him, zooming and darting like field mice around the metal tables, some of them bouncing up and down, shouting with excitement toward the display of golf balls. Others shrieked about ice cream, banging their tiny splayed hands against the sneeze guard like it was a bass drum. They were dressed in identical yellow shirts with the name Camp Oswego! in bright blue Comic Sans; their counselors’ shirts were the exact opposite, the neon yellow letters blurbing out from cotton stained the color of the Indian Ocean. One of them walked up to the window where Troy was slumped and staring at the kids.
It was Saul Fleischman. He was tan, his brown hair bleached to wheat by his days in the sun. The swirls of hair on his arms were golden flecks, and the t-shirt strained against his shoulders.
“Hey,” Troy said, standing up straight. “My dad explained.”
“Golf and ice cream for the kids,” Saul said.
“Well, they can each pick a club and a ball.”
Saul let out a rip-roaring whistle that somehow had the power to stop all of the children at once, as if he’d cast a spell calcifying their joints into rock. He yelled some kind of camp chant and the kids fell into a pair of messy lines. Saul sauntered back to the window and, without a word, started pulling balls from the dispenser, a random arrangement, hauling a fistful of the small plastic kid-sized clubs.
Troy watched. Saul moved with a languid assurance, as if he was made of water that dripped and sloughed however it wanted. When he handed out the clubs and balls, two of the kids tried to swap, but Saul told them, voice stiff and hard as a two-by-four, to use the ones he’d given them. One of the children, a squeaky girl with wispy hair, said that her favorite color was pink, and that the boy she was trying to exchange with didn’t want pink as much as he wanted her green.
Saul shook his head.
Troy’s father squelched into the concession stand twenty minutes later while the first group of kids was rounding the sixth hole. He dragged two tubs of ice cream, one in each hand, and gestured for Troy to help him.
“Scoop it out into the tins.”
“So it looks like ours.”
“But it looks nothing like ours.”
They stared at one another for a long moment, the only noise the raucous screaming of children as they thwacked at their golf balls.
“Let it melt a little,” his father said, dropping the tubs with a snorty thump onto the concrete floor. He waved his hand and dashed into the office, slamming the door behind him. Troy looked out through the cashier window and watched the children laughing and stomping across the greens, dragging their plastic putters like rigid tails. The counselors kept score on printed grids the size of index cards, propping them on their thighs and scribbling with the stubby eraserless pencils Troy kept stocked in a mesh cup next to the balls. Besides Saul, who was hawkishly barking for the kids in his group to maintain an orderly fashion, the counselors were letting the kids muck around however they liked, taking second and third whacks with their clubs before their balls had stopped rolling. One kid slid his along the ninth hole like a hockey puck, dribbling it all the way to the hole. Another he heard thump her ball so hard it flew into the murky pond tinged purplish green like an oil stain. Troy sighed and waited, holding out another ball before the counselor appeared, a sobbing seven-year-old following in her wake.
The first group of campers curled back around forty-five minutes later, bouncing with dizzy energy as they approached the eighteenth hole. Elodie stomped in then, stopping in the middle of the stand and planting her hands on her hips. She gestured toward the sweating tubs of ice cream.
“What are these?”
“A back-up plan,” Troy said, gesturing toward the shuttered office.
Elodie sputtered her lips and charged over to the office door and banged on it. Troy trudged to the ice cream and hauled it onto the low counter behind the freezer. He pried open the vanilla, which had turned into a dense soup, loose enough that he could simply drive a spatula into one side and slide the entire mucky heap into one of the steel pans. Troy repeated the process with the chocolate while Elodie kept banging on the door, her right hand in a tight fist.
“Dad,” she called out. “Open the door.”
The kids at the eighteenth green shrieked and chirped. The hole was shaped like a long Skee-ball chute, the upswerved area where the cup lay covered by a slanted metal grille. In order to win a free game, golfers had to shoot straight and true halfway up the incline; any shorter, higher, or off-center and the ball would get chunked into a low trough that fed into a box hidden beneath a trap door in the grass. A ball plunked into the hole would set off an electronic bell that would whir from the side of the concession stand and light up a police siren atop the hole’s cage. One after another the kids’ balls zoomed up the ramp, clattering past the hole and banging around before settling into one of the chutes.
Elodie tapped Troy on the shoulder.
“He won’t come out. He won’t even say anything.” Her eyes were wide, pupils dilated like she’d snorted cocaine. “Something’s wrong.”
Troy sighed. “I’m sure he’s fine.”
She stared. Troy huffed and marched to the office door, rapping with his knuckles. “Dad, come out. You’re freaking out Elodie.”
Troy heard nothing, no shuffling of papers, no squeak of the office chair. Usually their father played AM radio on a small hand-held he kept on a shelf, the talk show hosts’ voices barely audible over the static that clogged the speakers, but even that was absent. Troy felt a little trampoline of nausea rise in his belly.
“He’s probably sleeping,” Troy said. “You know he doesn’t sleep at night, right?”
“Yeah, I hear the refrigerator door all the time.”
“So he’s napping.”
“He snores. There’s no snoring.”
“I’m sure he’s fine.”
A cacophony of children’s hands beating against the sneeze guard snapped Elodie and Troy to attention. Saul was standing behind the kids, arms folded over his bloat of a chest, saying nothing as the children screeched and moaned for their ice cream like a gang of rowdy football fans. Troy and Elodie began scooping, Troy managing the vanilla and Elodie the chocolate. The kids seemed to multiply like rabbits, clotting the space before the ice cream stand, many of them speeding through the final hole to take up their place in the queue.
When all the children were distracted by their ice cream cones, the counselors stepped up to the stand for their own. Saul was last, a bullish smirk on his face. He pulled off his reflective sunglasses and perched them on his head.
Standing in front of Elodie, he leaned over the guard and said, “I know that’s store-bought. But don’t worry. I won’t say anything.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Sorry about the cows.”
“How’d you know?” Troy said.
“Just one of those things. It gets around.” He took his cone and winked at Elodie. “Thanks.” Some of the ice cream dribbled down his knuckles. Saul smeared it on the sneeze guard.
“Douchebag,” Elodie murmured.
Troy watched Saul walk away, calves flexing like a beating heart.
As the bus pulled away, its air brakes farting noise into the air, Troy and Elodie turned back to their father’s office. Troy, trying to forget Saul’s leery gaze at Elodie, started pounding. She joined in, and they slammed at the door in tandem, non-stop, bashing their fists against the flimsy plywood until something, anything happened. They got into a steady, lengthy rhythm. Troy thought of Saul Fleischman. He thought of the cows. The dripping, grainy store-bought ice cream. The smell of cud. The wick-wack of golf clubs and balls.
Then, out of nowhere, the siren above the eighteenth hole went off, the bell letting out a whooping whine. They whirled around, the siren spinning and flaring its red glare into the spangle of the afternoon. At that same moment, the office door yawned open.
Frozen in his chair, Paul Buckingham’s shoulders were stiff, as if caught on a hanger. He was staring toward the open doorway. Nothing was wrong with him, nothing noticeable aside from the utter stillness of his chest, the lifelessness of his eyes. Elodie shrieked, but all Troy could do was stare at the cavernous shape of his father’s mouth, rounded into an O as if trapped in the midst of letting out a low, vibrating moo.
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, was nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016, and was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. He can be reached at joebaumann.wordpress.com.