Assholes and Oxheads

by Will Heinrich

“Dear Aaron,” writes Henry. “The first thing I realized was that I didn’t want to be out of touch, and the next thing I realized was that I had no one left but you to be in touch with. This is what I deserve for all my talk: to be stuck on my back writing letters to the void. And I can’t just unroll some fanciful metaphor about the lone white daisy sitting in a medicine bottle on the windowsill, either. If I want to speak, I have to posit a mind like my own on the other side, a mind with its own demands and desires which will probably want to know how I got here, and I think I’d better answer at least a couple of your questions as a demonstration of good faith. At least that part is quick: I got fired, I bought a car, and I drove it till it broke in half like a piece of overcooked toast. Do you know what a burnt-out Oldsmobile smells like? And then I got a job on a ranch here in Wyoming and spent the last six months feeding, corraling, castrating, and branding an upside-down ‘I’ into two hundred-odd cattle belonging to a Mr. Joseph Ingraham, the man who happened to be standing next to me at the first soda counter I walked into after my car broke down and who eventually agreed to try me out for a month on room and board. Learning to walk in cowboy boots gave me a crippling pain in my tailbone, and I spent a lot of time trying to distract myself with idle thought experiments. One thing I came up with was that we human beings have probably spent tens of thousands of years more relating to cattle than we’ve spent in any modern sense relating to ourselves. That’s my explanation for the strangeness of a bull’s gaze, for the slippery, reflective, déja-vu quality of its eyes: It’s not the bull that’s new. It’s me. I told myself that the Phoenician letter Alef, the origin point of recorded history and of any man’s identity who knows how to read, the mystical black notch through which Moses tells his great-grandchildren why they’re not Egyptians and Abraham fixes his account of what he saw on Mount Moriah, is supposed to be a picture of an ox head. And then, as I limped into my dusty bunkhouse long after dark and it seemed to me that the whole world was enclosed in a cow’s belly, I speculated that the letter Omega must be a picture of that same bovine firmament’s cosmic asshole. But what would come out of it? Or I mean, where would it go? Do you know what ‘red hot’ means? I’ve put an iron brand down in glowing embers and watched it soften and turn the color of the rising sun, and I’ve smelled the soft, white smell of scalded hair, and felt the beast’s trembling come back through my brand’s wooden handle, and I know that it doesn’t matter whether or not the name has stiffened into a cliché. The brand burns the same either way. Or at least it does if you’re the one touching it. But what I can maybe do, if I use these oxheads and assholes cleverly enough, is meet you halfway between my memory and your imagination. A two-and-a-half year old, reddish-brown bullock, newly purchased, a little wild. We were calling him Charlie. He goes into the chute from one end, out come the females, snap open the chute at the other end, out goes Charlie to service. Cut them apart afterward on horseback. If he gets aggressive, you hit him in the face with a bat. Do you know the first thing a bull does to threaten you? He turns sideways to show himself in profile, just the way a Sumerian accountant would picture him on the outside of a clay envelope. I thought about the difference between a phenomenon in the world and one in the mind, how we use the mind both to distance and to approach. I don’t know whether anything I stamp on the outside of this envelope, however heartfelt or clever, can do more than allude to what’s inside. I can’t even really start writing until the clay is fully sealed. On the other hand, if stamping the outside weren’t just as good as revealing the tokens within, Felix Hammer wouldn’t own half of Wall Street today and I guess I wouldn’t be writing you at all, so maybe revisiting the thing itself is exactly what I’m afraid of. But nobody’s making me do this. I elected myself. So Charlie, two and a half, unstable, the color of Utah dirt or dried blood. Some bulls carry themselves like pashas, only deigning to slip it in because they know they can take it or leave it. Some get excited in a way that’s almost charming. From cell to cell or species to species, you can relate to the overwhelming sweetness of their pleasure. But Charlie was a different kind of a god. Insecure, demanding, incapable of calm. You got the feeling his shoulders weren’t quite broad enough to bear the column of lust descending from the upper machine. So there he is in the chute and his whole face is twitching. He butts his head into the gate so hard that it twists the latch, which means that instead of pulling a switch from behind the fence, someone’s got to climb up and pull the bolt by hand. Again I elect myself. I climb up onto the corner of the chute—which is a half-assed affair of old toilet pipes and rope—and the corner I’m on is slick with Charlie’s spittle. My foot slips. The first thing I realized, as I said, was that I didn’t want to be alone in the world, two thousand miles from my home. We’re not in the habit of being straightforward with each other about how we feel, you and I, but the breath of God—as you told me one night while drunkenly taking a shit in an alleyway near the East River, do you remember that?—the breath of God blows away the superficial. You’re my only living link to myself, and it means a lot to me that we’ve kept in touch. But my foot slips, and the first thing is denial. No, I think, let’s push him back in the shed first. And in the same semantic breath, a conviction that the error is in my own mental picture. Surely there’s another rung on the side of the chute I’ve forgotten about but which remains there, anyway, a rung to catch me before I fall. And just beyond that, a state of total vulnerability. I had never understood just how thick a cocoon of expectations insulates us from the onrushing moment, how automatic a judgment it is that dismisses what’s not obviously threatening or important. When that filter’s blasted away, you’re like a secretary falling behind on correspondence. It takes ten seconds to deal with one second’s information and you don’t know how to catch up. There’s no hierarchy of sensations, either, no process of discovery. I feel my foot hitting the ground when it hits, or the pipe against my back, I taste the smell of dirt when I notice it, and if the one-ton monster in front of me decides to crush me against the fence, I’ll know no sooner than it actually happens. No more nonsense about mind-body dualism or free will. Whoever it is writing this—whatever entity this is that can choose to stand up, sit down, or cultivate the habits that come back in a pinch—it’s distinctly knocked to the side. There’s something that acts, and then there’s us, dancing in the spaces left over. But they tell me I’ll be here for four or five months, so write back if you can. It’s a small hospital. You don’t have to put the bed number.”


Will Heinrich was born in New York and spent his early childhood in Japan. His novel The King’s Evil was published in 2003 and won a PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship in 2004. More recently he’s worked as an art writer, including several years as lead critic for the New York Observer.

short stories
epistolary fiction
BOMB 132
Summer 2015
The cover of BOMB 132