The winding back road, which Bob had determined was
the only kind of road in Jeffries, Massachusetts, was suddenly occupied
by a thin, discolored cow. This must be the place, Bob said to himself
as he slammed the brakes.
The Nissan sedan shuddered to a halt mere inches
from the cow, whose only response was a long-lashed blink. Bob backed
the car up about 10 feet to a small clearing on the shoulder of
the road and parked. Stepping out of the car with a notebook and
camera, he snapped a photo of the cow.
Hesitantly, Bob crept around the cow, moving slowly
so as not to spook it. In the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston
where he grew up, raccoons had qualified as rare wildlife. Bob therefore
decided to be safe rather than sorry in this unfamiliar situation,
though he doubted cows posed much threat.
Having made it past the cow without challenge, Bob
continued walking along the side of the road. No other people or
cars were in sight, although he could hear birds chirping in the
deep woods that surrounded the road on both sides. After walking
about 100 yards, he noticed the woods started thinning and a few
houses began dotting the landscape. A little further up the road
on the right hand side, Bob came across what appeared to be the
remains of a small farm.
Ramshackle wire fencing surrounded a wide yard full
of grass that stood close to a foot high, except in ragged patches
that Bob assumed were chewed by a goat he saw pacing back and forth
against the fencing. A few hens sat on top of the rusted shell of
a Buick Skylark that had apparently been parked in the yard many
years earlier. Bob snapped more photos.
The house itself, made of decaying brown wood flecked
with red paint, did not look to be in much better shape than the
Buick. Noticing a crooked path of cracked flagstones leading from
a narrow, ungated opening in the fence to the front porch, Bob carefully
approached the house, watching the goat from the corner of his eye.
As opposed to cows, he was almost positive goats could be dangerous.
Bob rapped on the front door with his fist, deciding
the rusted knocker would not withstand any further usage. A miserable-looking
boy of about 16, dressed in an oversized black Harley Davidson T-shirt
and jeans faded of all color, answered.
“Hi, I’m Bob McCarthy from the Jeffries
Town Crier,” said Bob, extending his right hand. “Is
Henry Winston available?”
“Senior or Junior?” asked the boy, avoiding
“Probably Senior,” said Bob, casually
lowering his untouched hand.
The boy opened the door a crack and motioned with
one finger. Bob slipped through into a sparsely decorated living
room. A sickly man who looked to be in his mid-fifties lay on a
dilapidated couch, wrapped in a filthy blanket. The man squinted
at Bob, stretching the taut, weathered skin around his eyes and
on his forehead even tighter.
“Are you Henry Winston Senior?” asked
Bob after a momentary silence. He took the man’s lack of reply
as affirmation. “My name is Bob McCarthy, I’m the lead
reporter for the Jeffries Town Crier. Do you have a moment?”
“What do you want?” growled Henry in
a voice that sounded too strong to come from his shriveled body.
Bob suddenly had a much easier time believing the stories he had
heard about Henry Winston threatening a previous visitor from the
Crier with a double-barreled shotgun.
“I just wanted to ask you a few questions
about your animals,” said Bob.
“What about my goddamned animals?” said
Henry. “Do you want to buy one?”
“No, sir,” said Bob, “it’s
just that some of your neighbors have complained to the Board of
Selectmen about them repeatedly getting loose and into the road
and other yards.”
“I don’t give a damn about my neighbors,
the selectmen, or you!” shouted Henry. “Get the hell
out of my house!”
Bob glanced to the kitchen doorway in the corner
of the room. The boy stood there, staring at his feet, looking even
more despondent than when he had opened the door.
“I’m very sorry to have bothered you
or your family, sir,” said Bob and he turned to leave. As
he exited, he heard Henry yell a few insults about nosy reporters.
The goat snorted and pawed the ground menacingly, as if it were
preparing to charge, hurrying Bob’s exit from the yard.
Returning to his car, Bob saw that the cow had not
moved from its previous post and was displaying no apparent interest
in him or anything else in its surroundings. Yet Bob somehow had
the sense the cow was intently observing him as he got in his car,
made a U-turn, and began driving back to town.
Passing through Jeffries’ small downtown area,
Bob drove by the volunteer fire department barn, schoolhouse-turned-police
station, and shopping plaza that offered a pizza shop, hardware
store, and three empty storefronts. He parked in the small lot for
Kendall’s Sockhop Café, a 1950s-themed eatery that
stood next to the plaza.
Entering the café, Bob observed the checkered
tile had been freshly mopped and a new tin sign with a picture of
Ted Williams urging everyone to drink Moxie had been hung next to
the Elvis clock on the wall. He walked past the café’s
two booths and three tables, and sat on a stool at the formica soda
“How goes the battle, Bobby?” asked
Sue Kendall, leaning her thick arms on the countertop, her broad
face pushed even wider by her lopsided smile. The bright, unstained
whiteness of Sue’s faux poodle skirt apron indicated few customers
had come in since the 5:30 AM early bird shift. She began pouring
a cup of coffee for her lone patron.
“Just coming back from Henry Winston’s
place,” said Bob. “Do you know him?”
“Everyone knows Henry.”
“I’m not surprised. What’s his
“Cancer, poverty, nothing special.”
Sue’s smile quickly vanished.
“I kind of figured he wasn’t feeling
so hot and not exactly rolling in dough,” said Bob. “But
what’s up with the cows and goats running loose?”
“Henry’s wife died about five years
ago,” said Sue. “Then he came down with lung cancer
a few years later. His son had to drop out of school to take care
of him. The boy is so busy looking after his dad, I don’t
think he has a lot of time to watch the animals.”
“I met Henry Junior,” said Bob. “I
felt awful sorry for him.”
“Very considerate of you.” Sue’s
smile had still not returned.
Bob poured a container of half-and-half and two packets
of sugar into his coffee, and carefully stirred the contents. “What
was Henry like before all this happened?” he asked. “I
heard he pulled a gun on a reporter once.”
Sue’s smile reappeared for a glimmering moment.
“Henry was never exactly a saint,” she said,”
but he tended his farm OK when he was healthy. He did once have
a dog who had to be put down for biting somebody, as I recall.”
“Why doesn’t he get some help?”
asked Bob. “I’m sure the state would give him something.”
“Don’t be so sure,” said Sue.
“To the Beacon Hill crowd, western Massachusetts is suburban
Worcester. They don’t even know we exist, or at least prefer
not to think about us. Henry wouldn’t take help, anyway. His
family has owned that land for 100 years. People around here mind
“I’ve noticed,” said Bob. He slurped
down his coffee and placed $1.25 plus 50 cents tip on the counter.
Sue nodded, picked up his cup, and turned toward the kitchen. Bob
tapped the counter and left.
Bob had gone to Boston University on a journalism
scholarship after serving as sports editor for the student paper
at Boston Latin High. As a bona fide townie, he had been an exotic
species at BU, his Celtics hats, cardigan sweaters, and gold cross
necklaces sticking out almost as much on campus as the turbans and
long, thick beards of the Muslim graduate students from the Middle
East. These, of course, were also scholarship students from working
families. The sons of sheiks and oil billionaires preferred to be
clean-shaven and dressed like models from a J. Crew catalog.
Bob had done all the right things at BU, devoting
countless hours to the Daily Free Press during the school
year. In the summers, he freelanced for a Dorchester-based publication
aimed at Irish immigrants. Upon graduating, he received no job offers,
despite sending resumes to every daily and weekly newspaper within
20 miles of Boston. As the months went by, Bob continued widening
the arc of his application zone, until he landed a job in Jeffries,
about 120 miles west of Boston in the foothills of the Berkshire
In the six months since, Bob had been slowly adapting,
trading his cardigan sweaters for flannel hunting shirts and suede
tennis shoes for steeltoe workboots. But events like screeching
to a halt for a cow in the road still threw him a bit.
After leaving the café, Bob drove the short
distance to the two-story building that housed the Crier
office on the second floor, as well as a laundromat and a used book
store below. He parked in back, climbed the fire escape stairs to
the rear sliding glass door that was hardly ever locked, day or
night, and entered the newsroom.
“Jesus Christ, Bob, I keep telling you, use
the front door!” exclaimed Tom Hunter, owner and editor of
the Crier, as well as two other weeklies that covered news
and events in neighboring small towns. Tom glared at Bob from behind
a stack of yellowing newspapers that almost completely encircled
“Sorry, Tom.” Bob cleared a pile of
sticky notes and 3x5 filing cards from his desktop and sat down.
He dumped his notebook and camera in a drawer and slouched back
in his chair.
“Sit up straight,” commanded Tom. “You’re
too young to look that defeated. How did it go at the Winston estate?”
“Well, it didn’t go, really,”
said Bob as he slowly straightened his posture. “The tip about
the cow blocking the road was valid, but nobody was home.”
“That’s odd.” Tom removed his
thick glasses. “I heard Henry Winston has cancer so bad he
can hardly stand up straight. I also heard his only car is on the
“Maybe he’s at the hospital, or asleep,”
said Bob. “But nobody came to the door. I knocked for a wicked
Tom shrugged. “Go back tomorrow. And stop
saying ‘wicked.’ It’s worse than hearing you try
to say the letter ‘r.’ “
“Whatever you say, boss.” Bob clipped
the ‘r’ at the end of ‘whatever’ in exaggerated
fashion, but Tom seemed not to notice. “Although tomorrow
I’m supposed to talk to Chief Stanton about the burglary last
week, and then the garden club is having its show.”
“Well, that’s certainly exciting,”
said Tom. “You’ll get back to Henry Winston eventually.
Besides, it’s not all that big of a deal. How much difference
does a cow in the road really make in the grand scheme of things?”
Bob paused to think about Tom’s question,
imagining the cow still out there standing in the road, impassively
blinking at passers-by while secretly taking note of everyone and
everything it saw. “I don’t know,” he finally
answered. “Not very much, I guess.”