Cow Ya Doin’?!
Editor’s note: we included an author’s note on this story, below
The family dog was diagnosed with cancer in her leg. Easily treatable, my parents told me on the phone. They’d simply cut the tumor out, and blast her with some radiation. Simple.
“Worse comes to worst,” my mother added, “they just take the leg off completely. No biggie.”
“I don’t even want to tell you how much this is setting us back. And if they have to do the leg. You can’t believe how much they charge. It’s nuts,” my father added. “It’s crazy.”
Three weeks later on a Sunday evening, I got another call from them. Things had gone downhill. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t walk, couldn’t even bark.
“Too late to take the leg off,” my mother said. “It spread.”
“You can’t believe how much it would have cost to take that leg off,” my father added, and I couldn’t help but hear the relief in his voice. “Completely insane.”
“It’s highway robbery, this vet stuff,” my mother agreed.
“So what now?” I asked them.
“Well,” my father sighed, “we booked it for Wednesday. To,” he struggled to name it, “you know.”
“Put her to sleep,” my mother clarified.
“Right,” my father said.
This was the thing that bothered me. It hadn’t been the cancer diagnosis. It was the fact that her death had been scheduled. It was an appointment. Something that was to occur during business hours, between the morning and evening rush hours, penciled in around other appointments and meetings.
I had barely thought about the dog in the past three and a half years since I’d moved out and gone to college. But now, with her death booked and confirmed, my thoughts kept returning to that buff-colored cocker spaniel. Her impending death bestowed some sort of wisdom on her. She was no longer the idiot animal that would roll around in deer shit or eat used tissues until she puked. Rather, in my mind, she’d become an enlightened creature aware of her own mortality. When she was taken to the vet that last time, and injected with whatever poison would kill her, would she feel betrayal in addition to pain? Or would she feel peace and comfort as she slipped away?
I decided that I wanted to be there. So I worked out an arrangement with the teaching assistants and professors of my Wednesday and Thursday classes. After my morning classes on Tuesday, I got into my car and headed up to Chester—back to the old house where I’d grown up. Again, my thoughts returned to the dog in its final moments before death. Would she see us as her family, or as traitors? What would she think of me when she saw me standing in front of her? Would she even remember who I was? Who would she see through those dim, dying eyes?
That’s when I became aware of the t-shirt I was wearing. I took my eyes off the road for a moment to glance at my chest.
“Shit,” I muttered.
My girlfriend hated that shirt. She was embarrassed by it. Said, it made me look “goofy.” Said it looked more like the kind of thing I would wear working at a grocery store than in the Financial District, which was where I was set to do my post-undergraduate internship. So, I did my best not to wear it around her.
But the truth is, I’d never been so excited about a piece of clothing as I was about that t-shirt, which I’d found the previous year at the Goodwill on Prospect Avenue.
On it, there was a cow with bulging udders and a bell around its neck. The Holstein was dancing on its hind legs while she strummed an acoustic guitar and sang. From her mouth, there was a speech bubble adorned with musical notes, which contained the words: “Oh your lips didn’t stop me, but I couldn’t get PASTEURIZE!” Beneath the cow’s feet, in a bold, black, silly font were the words, “Cow Ya Doin’?!”
It was truly a ridiculous shirt, made all the more ridiculous by the fact that it had certainly been made for—and previously owned by—a child. But between it being size youth-large, and my own skinny frame, it was not so small that I couldn’t fit it on my body. Granted, the length and sleeves were both too short, but the width was just right. I frequently wore it to my finance classes, and I had every intention of wearing it beneath my gown to the graduation ceremony.
As graduation and my internship loomed, everyone was urging me to take everything more seriously. They wanted me to not just think of this step, but of the next, and the one after that. What’s the plan? What’s the backup to the plan? Where do you see yourself in five years? How about ten? This stupid shirt seemed to be some small step in the other direction, back toward carefree, youthful fun. Even the fact that my girlfriend couldn’t stand it gave me comfort. It validated what I knew to be true—there was no way we would stay together after graduation.
Of course, she knew that, too. But, as if it had all been pre-planned, it was clear that I was to be the bad guy, the villain who broke her heart. She would insist we stay together, try to make it work long-distance. I’d be the cruel one who would break it off. Secretly, she’d be relieved. But outwardly, she could be the victim, the one was cast aside by the man who she’d been with for two years.
I liked that the shirt would outlast my relationship with her. I liked that when I was sweating it out for a Swiss investment bank everyday, I could put it on at night, and it would remind me of drinking beer with my buddies in our shitty, cheap, off-campus apartment. I liked everything about that shirt, even its wordplay. Past your eyes. Pasteurize. It really was pretty clever.
And yet, there I was in the driver’s seat of my 1989 Nissan Maxima with its bumper held on by wire coathangers, having second thoughts about it. I could see the dog laying in the lap of my mother awaiting its final injection. The doctor would depress the syringe’s plunger a bit to test it, or get the air bubbles out—whatever the reason was in the movies. We, of course, will have an epitaph that is simple yet graceful engraved in a stone: Beloved Pet, Friend, Family member, You will always be in our hearts. This she’ll never have the opportunity to see. Instead, her cloudy black eyes stare straight ahead at what will become her epitaph: Cow Ya Doin’?!!
“How ya doin’.” I said to an old, white-haired woman standing near the front of the Rockaway Thrift Shop. She was arranging tiny animal sculptures made of imitation jade on the glass countertop.
She looked me up and down suspiciously.
“Just hoping to grab a shirt,” I said, feeling self-conscious.
“Mmmm,” she said doubtfully. She turned back to the small green carvings.
I made my way to a rack packed with men’s dress shirts. I began to go through them, then looked back up at the old woman up front. She stared at me from the same spot as she had been, unmoving, as if she, too, was made of artificial jade.
The only dress shirt that I could find that wasn’t either badly stained or covered in a hideous pattern was a simple white one. It looked as if it might be far too big, so I thought I ought to try it on. I had barely begun to remove my coat, when the old woman, as if she’d read my mind, snapped at me. “You can’t disrobe in here! Use a dressing room!”
“I was just going to try this on over my t—” I started to say.
“Dressing room!” she insisted.
I did as I was told, and found the nearest dressing room. The door to it wasn’t a door at all; it was a pair of sheer white curtains. I pulled them together behind me, but there was a gap between them a few inches wide. Through the gap, and the fabric itself, I could see the women’s section as well as the children’s. Somehow, I felt more exposed inside the dressing room than I did standing next to the rack.
I pulled off my jacket: nothing much, just a brown imitation suede coat with a white imitation fur collar. Looked back up and saw that the old woman from the front of the store was now in the women’s section. It was like she had been picked up and moved like a rook, or a bishop. It also appeared that she might have been staring at me. I did my best to ignore it and looked for a hook on which to hang my coat. I didn’t find one. Instead, I found a piece of paper tacked and taped to the wall. Written on it in a thick black marker was this message: “Not a bathroom!!!” The three exclamation marks were rendered in even heavier and broader strokes than the letters. I examined the makeshift sign for a smiley face, or something to denote that it was a joke. Like the coat hook, nothing. I sort of stood there, just holding my coat, wondering who would relieve themselves in this dressing room. Aside from the absence of a toilet, there was no privacy. It occurred to me that as unlikely as it seemed, someone must have made the mistake for a sign to be posted.
There were two pipes running up the wall. They were encased in what looked like about 10 coats of off-white paint; about the same shade of our dog’s fur. Heat radiated off one of them. I felt flushed. I looked down at the garment to remind myself why I was even in the dressing room in the first place. Who cared if it fit? It was a plain white dress shirt, and that was good enough. All I wanted was something to cover up the singing cow. No matter how big it was, it would do. I looked at the sign on the wall one last time, then I flung the curtains open and stepped out of the small room.
I waited for a clerk to ring me up, but there was no one there. Looked for a bell, but didn’t see anything. Tried clearing my throat to get someone’s attention. Hopefully, someone other than the old woman. But it seemed she was the only one there, and after about five minutes, she hobbled to the register. She eyed me accusingly. I wondered if she was suspicious that I might have stolen something. She kept looking at me, sizing me up, and groaning as if she was debating something with herself. Then, all at once, as if one side of the debate won out, she turned around and headed back for the dressing room.
“Ma’am?” I called to her, annoyed, “I’ve gotta get going here. Couldja ring me up?”
“You wait just a minute.” She answered as she continued her painfully slow journey back to the dressing room.
“Look, I’m sorry but I’m in a bit of a hurry,” I practically pleaded with her.
“Wait just one minute, I said!” She took a few more deliberate steps and grumbled, possibly to herself, “The dressing room is not a bathroom, you know.”
“I didn’t use it as a—.” But I knew it was pointless to try to convince her. “I can’t believe this,” I muttered to myself.
The old woman was now checking out the dressing room. Not content with just looking, she started to feel the ground with her bright white sneakers. According to the piece of masking tape on the collar, the shirt was $2.50. I got out my wallet and pulled out three singles. “Look, lady, the price on this shirt says two-fifty, so here’s three.”
“I said wait a minute, I’ll be right there!”
“No, you just keep the change,” I said, as if she might find a puddle of urine on the ground any moment. I hit the door with an outstretched arm and left.
I paused before I got into the car to put the shirt on. The driver’s side window served as a distorted mirror. It made me look flattened, like I had been stretched width-wise to fit a Cinemascope film. With the plot to have every button buttoned, I looked into the window. The shirt was not too big after all, but there it was, Cow ya doin’?!! coming right through the fabric. I should have picked another shirt, even if it did have a terrible pattern on it. But there was no way I was going back in there. I got back into my car and headed to the place I’d once called home.
“Lily from York, you are always so sweet. And, oh, I can’t forget that Jim from out there in Lionshead called a little while ago, too. Hi Jim. And hi, Jim, to your lovely family—Susan, and little Jimmy. Hope you two are doin’ just fine. Hopefully we all can get together and have one of them cookouts we always had such a great time havin’… ” The radio man paused uncomfortably. He must have lost his thread.
There was nothing decent on the radio. I had gone through the entire FM range twice and found nothing worth listening to. Except WCKR. The station came in at 87.3FM. WCKR’s motto was, “You’re never far from WCKR. WCKR, Needham.” I found this to be an interesting tagline because, in fact, you were always far from WCKR. When I listened to the radio station I was driving through Needham and it still wasn’t coming in well. It cracked and buzzed about every ten seconds, interrupting the folksy voice of the dee-jay that spoke of strangers in neighboring towns.
“…Now speaking of Jim, he introduced me to this next artist. His name is James Sundquist. You might remember James from The Fendermen. Well, ol’ James did a few records by himself. And you know, I remember being over at Jim’s and listening to some of James’ records all night long. I was just blown away by the way Jim played guitar…er, did I say Jim? I meant James. Well then, anyway, I guess this one is for Jim for introducing me to James Sundquist…” The voice was consumed by interference. I hit the “power” button on the radio and killed the static.
I drove the rest of the way—about an hour—trying to conjure happy memories of the dog rather than imagine what her final moments would be like. But instead of positive ones, I kept stumbling over the same incident. I was young. I’m not sure how young I was. Young enough to be excited that my parents actually left me home alone while they went out for dinner and a movie. It was just me and the dog. I made myself a sandwich: shaved ham and yellow American cheese on a roll. To drink: a tall glass of iced tea with about twice as much sugar as directed by the packaging. Did I add any Gosling’s Rum from my parents’ liquor shelf? No, I wasn’t that old yet. However, I was daring enough to take my dinner into the family room. With my parents out of the house, I could watch television while I ate—something that was strictly forbidden in our house. But the moment I sat down the dog, quick as a cricket, snagged the sandwich from the low coffee table. I swore at her. Then I made another sandwich. The first sandwich must have just been an appetizer because the dog seemed to hunt the next one. She waited for me to pick up the remote control. Then, seeing her opening, lunged at it hard enough to knock over the glass of extra dark iced tea. She growled as she devoured it, rubbing mustard into the navy blue carpet with her snout and paws. The sandwich was unsalvageable. But I still couldn’t let her eat two of them. I plunged my hand into the mass of ham, cheese, bread, mustard and dog saliva, she attacked me as I were an intruder. With one bite, she drew blood and tears. I pressed my hand into my shirt. With spiteful resolve I kicked the remaining sandwich away and pushed her with my shins toward the sliding door that led to the backyard. I cleaned up the mess. All the ham was gone so I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She watched me through the glass, whimpering and yelping to be let in. I pretended not to hear or see her, as I tried and failed to focus on whatever was on the television. My sandwich was terrible. And when I finally got done forcing it down, I scrubbed the carpet so that the mustard and iced tea wouldn’t stain it. About fifteen minutes before my parents were due home, I begrudgingly let the dog in, disappointed it hadn’t run away.
It was late afternoon by the time I made it to Chester. I parked on the street right in front of the split-level house clad in beige vinyl siding. Got out of the car and smoothed my thrift store dress shirt. The walkway to the front door cut straight through the middle of the square lawn, dividing it into two rectangles. I walked it the way I always did: by making sure my foot landed squarely on every single crack between the beige cement tiles.
I was surprised to find the door was locked. I still had a house key so I used it. I called out that I was home to what I knew was an empty house. The autumn sun was already setting, casting a warm orange light into some parts of the house, while leaving others in deep, inky shadow. I walked into the kitchen and turned on the light.
A note sat on the otherwise immaculate wooden kitchen counter, which read:
The vet had to move his schedule around so he asked us to bring the dog in today. They said we’ll get Aggie’s ashes in 2 days. Dad and I were hoping you could stick around till then. Help yourself to anything in the house but save room for dinner! We should be home by around 6.
Like the old woman from the Rockaway Thrift Shop, I shuffled across the kitchen and reached into the cold, bright light of the refrigerator and pulled a brown bottle of blonde ale from the top shelf. I took a swig of beer and read the note again, as it slowly sunk in that the dog was already dead. It may have been dead the entire day. As I sped my way here, trying to imagine her final moments, trying—but failing—to come up with good memories, the dog had already been put down.
For a fraction of a second, I could picture Aggie tilt her head quizzically as I asked her if she wanted to play. It was just a passing glance of a vision, but I could see her wag her tail and rest her golden chin on her flaxen paws as she begged to played with.
I was jarred back into the present by the sudden sound of the front door opening so swiftly that the brass knocker managed to knock itself. This was followed immediately by the echoing sound of footsteps on the terra cotta tiles. My parents had arrived; Aggie had not.
“Hey, there he is!” my father said as he emerged from the shadowy darkness of the hallway.
My mother was right behind him. “Oh, honey! How was the drive? Was it good? Did you get caught in much traffic?”
“No, it was fine,” I said, slowly, as if I’d just awoken from a nap.
“Nah, not the way he was coming,” my father said. “All that traffic is northbound. Bet it was fast moving, eh?” he asked me.
“Yeah, it was—”
“I’m sorry you missed everything,” my mother said, “it was really sad. Upsetting, really. Honestly, I’m glad you weren’t there. Just glad we got it over with. And then—do you remember where the vet is? There’s a whole bunch of new places that opened up there this summer. So we finally decided to try that All Day Brunch Cafe place. Not bad! Not the best, but honestly, not bad. And it’s new, so maybe they’ll even get better. Hey, if you want, we can take you over there before you head back down.”
“Good—you got yourself a beer!” my father interjected. “I’m not far behind you.”
“Anyway, we came home after brunch, took a nap, and then I remembered I had some things to return at Macy’s—”
“Return,” my father said, using two fingers on each hand to signal quotation marks. “She wanted to look for a new coat—”
“Well, both. I had some things to return, but I really wanted to see this suede jacket there…I didn’t get it. But I might. I’ll think on it. You haven’t been waiting long, have you?” she asked, as if the suede coat had just reminded her that I was standing right there in front of her. “When did you get here? Come, talk to me while I put my stuff away,” she said as she walked back into the hallway and turned the light on.
“Just like ten minutes ago. Fifteen. I don’t know,” I said as I followed her and my father to the closet, where my mother was now hanging up her coat and her scarf on wooden hangers. The first step in taking off her gloves involved removing a loop from around a bead at the cuffs. She did this and moved on to the next step. I watched her pull each finger of her gloves a little at a time. Pinky, ring finger, middle finger, index finger, thumb and back again till the gloves were free and empty. She hung them from a small hook at the side of the closet. She was always careful with what she called her “ecru” gloves. She had them for years and for most of them I thought ecru was a brand name. Later I heard her talking about how fond she was of matching ecru and hunter green. That’s when I found out it was a color; a color I would have probably called cream, like Aggie’s fur had been.
From the hook on the wall of the closet, the two black decorative beads of the glove were like eyeballs, and they were watching me.
“Did you eat anything? We were thinking of ordering in, but we’ve got some leftover cavatelli and broccoli in the fridge if you’re hungry. Your mother made it last night.” My father formed his lips like he was going to whistle, but inhaled instead, “Fantastic. Mmmm. Absolutely fantastic.”
“What’s that say on the shirt you’ve got on under there?” My mother asked with a note of disapproval.
My father took his reading glasses out of his shirt pocket, put them on and squinted, as he leaned toward me for a closer examination. Before he opened his mouth, I could hear the silence of the room swallowed up by the creeping sound of static. I could search out as many stations as I wanted, but none would come in. None except this one. You’re never far from WCKR! He leaned in closer now and read it like a local dee-jay reading some birthday notice or special dedication scrawled onto a yellow Post-it Note stuck onto the worn surface of an old analog console. He read it like that. Like he wanted to say hi to Jim. Like the Fendermen were about to yelp their “Mule Skinner Blues” from a dusty, black 45. He read it the way he would read a sign tacked and taped to the wall of a dressing room. He said it the way I would soon say I’m sorry, it’s over, let’s just move on, stay friends, keep in touch, see what else is out there. Like I might say, I’m done with this job and I quit and I want to be a teacher, not a Swiss fucking banker. He said the words into my chest and into the hallway and into the house, the old house that I used to call home, where my mother could snatch them from the air, and hang them up like the empty, ecru gloves. Just like that, he read the shirt, he said the words, he asked the question, “Cow Ya Doin’?!”
A note from the author, David Obuchowski:
I typically do not include background on stories that I submit, but I’m making an exception here. In the year 2000, I wrote a story called, “Cow Ya Doin’?!” I was 21 years old at the time, and a senior at the University of Illinois. I had always wanted to be a fiction writer, and so I opted to be an English major. It wasn’t until I was a junior (at which point, I’d completed nearly all credits for my major) that I realized I should have majored in Rhetoric, where I could have focused on Creative Writing. So I took a Creative Writing course my senior year. It was a 200-level workshop filled with students who’d already been studying Creative Writing. The first story I wrote was garbage. But then the next story I wrote was something special. I knew it was as soon as I’d finished it. So did the professor, who encouraged me to submit it to the Undergraduate Fiction Contest. So, I did. The story won 1st prize and $5,000.
I went from being entirely devoid of confidence in my writing ability to believing I was a truly magnificent writer. I sent “Cow Ya Doin’?!” to places like The Paris Review and The New Yorker and a handful of other legendary publications. The 21-year old me was crushed when I got a whopping five or six rejections. I put the story away, now believing the story wasn’t as good as I had thought, and I wasn’t nearly the writer I briefly believed myself to be. For the next fifteen years, I almost entirely stopped writing fiction.
And then, feeling entirely lost without it, I started writing fiction again, and I dedicated myself to the craft. In the last few years, I’ve had about 13 stories published, and have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and one of my stories this year has been submitted to Best American Short Stories. Earlier this year, I found myself thinking a lot about “Cow Ya Doin’?!” So, I decided to unearth it.
For a 20 or 21 year old, the story wasn’t bad. But it also was definitely not good enough to send out. Still, there was something really special in it, even after all these years. So I decided to edit it. But the more I edited, the more I realized, it needed far more than edits. So I started from scratch, and rewrote the entire thing, maintaining only the “beats” and the title. Otherwise, there’s barely a word in common. And yet, it’s still “Cow Ya Doin’?!” I love this story. I am proud of it. I am 43 years old now—twice as old as I was when I won that prize. And I believe now is the time for this story to be introduced to the world. So here it is, for your consideration: a story about a dying pet, a silly t-shirt, and about seeing through things and finding the truth.
David Obuchowski’s essays and fiction appear in Longreads, Baltimore Review, Salon, West Trade Review, and many others. Along with multiple Pushchart Prize nominations, his fiction is in contention to be included in the Best American Short Stories anthology. His first children’s book—a collaboration with Sarah Pedry—publishes in 2023 by Minedition.