The Tao of the Cow
The storm reached its peak somewhere near the border of Virginia and North Carolina. The rain seemed to fall almost horizontally, and the wind rammed into vehicles, pushing cars and tractor trailers alike across entire traffic lanes. I gripped the wheel until my knuckles turned white, and chomped my cigar—a Drew Estate Tabak Especial—a little harder between my teeth. My coffee, long since cooled, sat perched against my crotch. Eyes on the road, I switched off my radio, and Clyde Lewis’s Ground Zero podcast vanished. I risked a glance in the back of the Jeep, making sure my cargo was safe and dry. Everything seemed fine. My duffel bag and laptop case were still there, as were the dozen boxes of Joe R. Lansdale’s books, which I was transporting to a convention for him.
The rain beat on the windshield and roof, demanding entry. My wipers tried valiantly to fend it off, but they were losing the battle. On the other side of the highway a tractor trailer skidded, its back end swinging back and forth, nearly clipping an obscenely huge motor home. Another tractor trailer was on my ass with the same tenacity my editors display when I miss a deadline. His grill loomed in my rearview mirror. I debated the wisdom of brake-checking him given the current road conditions, and that was when it occurred to me that this would be a fine way to die—a high-speed collision while hauling a load of books for Joe R. Lansdale through a seemingly apocalyptic storm during the second leg of what I had cheekily called my Farewell (But Not Really) Tour. It would make a fine conclusion to the Wikipedia entry of my life. I could see the news articles in my mind. “Keene died as the result of a twenty car pile-up he caused brake-checking a big rig on Interstate 64 while transporting books for Hisownself.” They’d ask Joe for a quote, and he’d say, “I liked Brian. He was a good guy. Wrote a few good books—The Lost Level and that thing about the giant worms. They were a lot of fun. He did some pretty stupid things sometimes, though. Brian could fuck things up faster than a duck going down on a tick.”
Teaching some asshole truck driver a lesson in keeping two car length’s distance between himself and other vehicles seemed much more preferable than dying of cancer. I’d seen what cancer had done to Tom and Jesus, and I was scared to death that I was next on its hit list.
“Fuck you, cancer,” I said around my cigar. “I’m choosing my own time.”
The tractor trailer backed off and veered into the other lane. I felt a twinge of disappointment. It occurred to me that perhaps I wasn’t dealing with the deaths of my friends in a healthy manner.
And that was when the Jeep’s radiator blew up. Steam gushed out from beneath the hood and my speed dropped from seventy to something that resembled a slow crawl. I managed to pull over to the side of the road, but just barely. I turned on the emergency flashers and then I sat there—rain slamming down and cars whizzing by—and finished my cigar in between cursing a lot.
After my cigar was finished, I cursed some more. Then I called a towing service. Then I decided to curse a little bit more while I waited for the tow truck to arrive. By the time the guy had my Jeep secured on his flatbed, the rain had stopped. He took me to a little garage in a little town where there must have been an ordinance stating that every resident was required to have a TRUMP-PENCE 2016 sign in their yards. Either that or the townspeople had decided to grow campaign signs in lieu of flowers and shrubs. The tow truck driver unloaded my Jeep and I tipped him and offered my thanks. The mechanic told me he could get the Jeep fixed, and that there was another Jeep Cherokee in a nearby scrapyard with a perfectly good radiator, and the entire process would take about five hours. This sounded perfectly reasonable, but I know nothing about automobile repair, so he could have just as easily told me the Jeep needed new muffler bearings and that would have sounded reasonable, too. Author Geoff Cooper once tried to teach me how to fix cars. He told me the timing belt ran the clock on the dashboard and I believed him.
But I digress.
I hung out at the garage, dining from their vending machine and watching daytime talk shows. The talk show hosts seemed convinced that Clinton would win the election. I glanced outside at all the Trump signs in front of the homes lining Main Street and wondered if the talk show hosts knew about the hot new landscaping trend this summer. Then I called author and musician Ryan Harding. My original plan had been to spend the night at Ryan’s house in Tennessee and interview him for my podcast. That plan had now gone terribly awry, which was unfortunate. Part of this Farewell Tour involves saying goodbye and thank you to my readers, but it’s also about seeing old friends one last time—just in case it is the last time—and Ryan is one of my oldest friends in this business.
When the Jeep was fixed, I checked my GPS and did some calculating. My family cabin in West Virginia wasn’t too far away. I could spend the night there, recover from my ordeal, and head out from there for my signing in Chattanooga the next day. So that’s what I did.
Our family cabin sits on a bit of land that’s been in my family for generations. My cousin still farms it. Down yonder in the hollow is a spot where my grandfather used to make moonshine back during the days of Prohibition. Some say moonshine still gets made there today, but if I wrote about that, we’d have to call this nine-month series of columns “meta-fiction” instead of “non-fiction” and I don’t want to do that because so far, everything I’ve told you is the truth. And also because I don’t want to confess to making moonshine.
But I digress again.
I sat there that night, trying to write, but the words would not come. Instead, I opened a bottle of bourbon, defrosted some venison, and made myself dinner. I sat quietly, listening to the woods and drinking and thinking.
What had Jesus been trying to warn me of, back at the bookstore in Pennsylvania? The storm I’d driven through? That my radiator would take a dump and make me miss time hanging out with Ryan? No, that didn’t seem right. What seemed more plausible, and more logical, was that the entire thing had been my imagination. Jesus’s spirit wasn’t there in that bookstore. He wasn’t flitting about on the other side, trying to send me a message. He was dead. My best friend was dead, and the entire thing was my subconscious, eager to talk to him one last time, desperate for one last laugh or one last moment of contact. The whole thing had been a trick I’d played on myself. No, I decided. I was not dealing with the deaths of my friends—especially Jesus’s death—in any way that was even remotely healthy. I’m not a New Age kind of guy, and the last time the people in my life convinced me to try talk therapy, they regretted it because I didn’t shut up for six months. I wasn’t sure what the grieving process was supposed to entail, but I figured it probably wasn’t abandoning my loved ones and traveling across the country on some fucking book tour, and drinking my own weight in bourbon, and playing chicken with tractor trailers on rain-slicked highways.
Jesus hadn’t been trying to warn me about anything, because Jesus was dead. The experience in the bookstore was a warning from my own subconscious.
I got up at four in the morning and left the cabin, heading for Chattanooga. The mountains were thick with fog, and darkness seemed to cling to everything. There are no street lights in that part of West Virginia, and houses are sparse and shuttered at that time of morning. Even the moon was concealed. I drove in darkness, watching the mist swirl in my headlights, and tried not to cry. I missed my friend, and I was angry at my subconscious for being cruel.
Suddenly, something loomed in my headlights, seeming to materialize out of the mist.
When he was alive, Jesus and I had a long-standing joke about cows. It started with our mutual appreciation for the vampire cow of Marvel Comics—a villain from the Seventies run of Howard the Duck. It extended to the laughs we used to share over a story his former co-writer on the first Clickers novel, Mark Williams, had once written—a tale about a zombie cow. Mark had passed away before ever publishing the story, and years later, Jesus and I were able to re-work it into the final Clickers novel, the appropriately named Clickers vs. Zombies. But our shared cow jokes really kicked into high gear when Jesus moved from Los Angeles to Central Pennsylvania. Having never been a country boy, he found himself living across from a dairy farm, and he was perplexed, bewildered, and more-than-a-little frightened of the cows next door. The second day after he moved here, he called me up in a panic and said, “What’s wrong with these cows? What are they doing? They’re possessed! They’re making noise and riding on top of each other!” I explained to him they were making baby cows, but Jesus was unconvinced. Until the day he died, part of him suspected the cows were possessed.
All of that came flashing back to me now because there in my headlights, fog swirling around it, stood a cow. I slammed on the brakes. The new radiator kept working. And the cow didn’t move. It simply stood there in the middle of the road, glancing at me as if to say…well, I don’t know what it would say, because it was a fucking cow.
Tao is a Chinese word signifying the “way” or “path” or “route.”
The experience in the bookstore wasn’t a warning from my own subconscious about my lack of a healthy grieving process. It really had been Jesus, trying to warn me about something else. This cow—this inexplicable cow standing in the middle of a deserted road at four o’clock in the morning—was his way of assuring me that it was really him.
Grinning, I grabbed my cell phone and snapped a picture. (Later, when Jesus’s wife saw the picture, she said, “Jesus is on the road with you.” And she was right). Having captured the moment on film, I reached into the console, pulled out a cigar, clipped the end, and lit it.
Then, I drove around the cow and continued on down the road.
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.