by Jeff W. Bens
Feature image: Johann Christian Reinhart. Lying Goat, from Die Zweite Thierfolge, 1800. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Dr. Frank Shire had never been down to Athlone before, hadn’t been back to Ireland to see the Kennelly brothers in the decade since he’d finished his fellowship at the University College of Animal Surgery, had seen them just the one time when they’d visited New York. The only American at the Fisherman’s Rest, the only American in all of Athlone for all he knew at that time of year, November, in the wet cold, driven straight to their father’s fisherman’s hotel by the Kennellys before he’d even had a chance to eat breakfast after the all-night flight to Shannon from JFK.
“She may be dying,” is all Robbie K said.
His brother Michael added, “She may be dead.”
The goat was upstairs lying in Brendan Kennelly’s grown son’s bed. “She’s not been up for two days,” Brendan said.
“That’s my bed,” said Robbie K.
“Shut your hole,” said Brendan.
“Are you in love with her then dad?” asked Michael K.
“This is Doctor Frank Shire. From America,” Robbie said.
“I know that. It’s nice to meet you, Frank. Sorry about the circumstance.”
“He’s an important guest in our village and an important veterinarian in New York. If he can’t help her, da, she’s done.”
“I told you before to shut it,” said Brendan. He turned and shook Frank’s hand. “I didn’t know you had animals in New York. Much beside squirrels and such.”
“And hippies,” said Robbie.
“Do you think you can help the Queen there?” Brendan asked.
He felt he was missing something, which is how Maureen had made him feel. Only his getting on the plane had ended their three-day fight after he found she was sleeping with the guy, the dairy farmer, Tom Greene, whose cows Dr. Frank kept healthy, healthy enough to keep their Brooklyn-born owner with the thick Italian glasses and new Carhartt jacket in enough cash to bed his wife at the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck not once but two times, Dr. Frank only finding out when Greene showed up at their country house in tears and told Dr. Frank he was in love with Maureen. He could have her. Frank was tired of the whole marriage business. He was tired even of sex with her. It was becoming like cow-milking. You leave it alone for a few days, it builds up, you have to release it, you may as well release it with her. Or not. You may as well shoot out the lights in the airplane restroom or into a bale of hay.
She still gave a good haircut, he’d say that for Maureen, but short of that, she didn’t do much for him at all. And let’s face it, he didn’t do anything, anymore, for her.
There’d been a time. Not too long before, at Cornell, in Ithaca, where she’d stayed on to cut hair and grow weed, then to cut hair and open a farmer’s market, Frank visiting every Sunday until he got up the courage to ask her out—her long, slender arms lifting bushel baskets of corn from a truck, dirt on her cheeks, hair stuck to her forehead, a smile that was still beautiful when he could see it, an ass in blue jeans that still looked good. Better than his. Better than his fat gut, his balding head, his reddening face. Men are supposed to age better than women. Not Frank.
And later, not too long ago, when they built their new bed from the falling-down barn in the back yard of the house they’d bought, Frank now realized, as a way to do something together once they’d heard for certain Maureen couldn’t have a child. That part was fun, building the bed, looking at the house. Different anyway. Their place was beautiful, the bed was beautiful, it was four a.m. in Rhinebeck, she was probably sleeping with Greene in their beautiful bed.
“Her name’s Queenie?”
“Why would you name a goat?” Robbie K said, shaking his head.
“She’s not a pet, Frank,” Michael added, solemnly.
Dr. Frank just looked at the goat lying tucked into the bed. The sheets had soccer players on them and the blanket, at the top, said Robbie’s Binky in blue stitching.
“She’s a queen,” Brendan said. “She’s the festival queen.”
“The wife of Puck,” Michael said.
“We hoist her to the level above the town clock and she keeps watch over the festival, sort of balances out old Puck what’s always trying to hump her—”
“It’s a sight, on that small platform. Anyway, last year our vet gave him something to calm his desires—”
“And he stood up there all bummed-out like.”
“But still it was a great festival.”
“You two sound like two fucking idiots,” Brendan said. “And I’m not concerned with pagan fecking festivals and an excuse for these two to chase the local girls and fill their bellies with Guinness. Not that they need an excuse. But if this goat doesn’t pull through it will put a curse on the whole village—we won’t catch a fish in the spring, we won’t see a tourist in the summer, we won’t pour a pint to anything but a sour face.”
He had a feeling he was being put through some kind of test. The Kennellys were famous jokesters, since the time he’d met them at a pub during his year’s fellowship in Dublin where they were selling gym equipment to health clubs, until now, they were always hijinking—two forty-year-olds behaving like they were twenty still, with wives and children who loved them and let them run about on their way. He loved them too, they were the brothers he didn’t have, they’d pig-pile you at night and breeze sneezing powder atop your Guinness and more than once drive a car straight into a bog, but somehow a goat in a bed, and with Brendan involved, seemed too genuinely Irish-weird to be any- thing but real.
“Let me have a look.” Dr. Frank approached the goat.
“Are you going to kiss it then Frank?” Robbie K asked.
“Quiet,” said Brendan.
“Where’s the usual vet?” asked Frank. The goat was sleeping. From the looks of its lips, it was definitely not well.
“On holiday. In Belgium of all fecking places.”
“Dirty Belgian bastards,” said Michael.
“I don’t know how they’re even a country,” added Robbie.
“Ah, it’s for a woman don’t you know,” Brendan shook his head. “A big fat Belgian woman.”
“That’s too far,” said Robbie. “And I like them big.”
“And,” Frank didn’t want to be insulting, but these weren’t country people, Athlone was a pretty, small town not far from Limerick and well enough connected to the rest of the world, “why is the goat, Queenie, in Robbie’s bed?”
“Well she sure as feck wasn’t going into mine,” said Brendan.
He pulled the sheet back. The goat was wearing a tartan skirt and a white brassiere.
No one laughed. “We didn’t dare touch her,” Robbie said quickly and when Frank whirled around to confront them, they were all red-faced with Irish shame.
“I never should have let her go,” Brendan shook his head.
“Uncle Liam’s got no barn? No yard?” Robbie said.
“There was. But they sold it, my fucking brother, the whole lot, to Decklanders so they could build a Mcfeckingmansion with a deck and put a who-loves-your-daddy barbecue on it and carry on on their cellular phones now that we’ve got a tower and live that fecking Deck Life that’s killing the very spirit of Ireland.”
“Not to mention business.”
“And that. I all but don’t order the Guinness any longer. The young won’t drink it, if they even come out. Stella Artois.”
Dr. Frank put his hand on the goat’s chest, up inside the brassiere.
“Oh now,” said Robbie, turning away, slightly.
“How long has she been here?” Dr. Frank asked.
Robbie shook his head. “I come by last night—”
“Paralytic, and he’s got her in my bed.”
“I couldn’t let her sleep downstairs, not with the customers and the pheasant. And I didn’t want to leave her outside where she might die of the cold.”
“Or of ridicule.”
“Your mother would have done the same!”
“Ah she would, it’s true enough dad,” Robbie said.
The Kennellys were quiet for a moment.
“You found her—like this?” Dr. Frank asked.
“You think I dressed her?! My stupid brother brought her over. The vet usually drinks here. She was just wandering the High Road. He nearly struck her with his car. Jaysus, try explaining that one to the constables!”
“I’ve got to lift up her skirt.”
“Oh Jaysus,” Michael said.
“It’s a fucking goat!” Brendan reminded everyone.
“So it is, da,” Robbie added.
“Enough from you.”
“Do you have a thermometer?”
“Oh now Jaysus—” Brendan went out to rummage the medicine cabinet.
“Could he have finally lost it?” Robbie asked. “Do you think our da had sex with a not-so-young goat?”
“I DID NOT HAVE SEX WITH A GOAT! JAYSUS I’M ONLY IN THE NEXT ROOM, DO YOU THINK I’VE GONE DEAF!”
Brendan came back in with a thermometer, handed it to Dr. Frank. “I won’t be using that again,” Brendan said.
Dr. Frank gingerly lifted the skirt. “I’ll need someone to hold the animal’s head.”
“I’ll do it,” Robbie said solemnly. He got hold of the goat’s head. “You know, da, in a certain light, she does have a way about her.”
Frank eased the thermometer up her shit-crusted ass and waited.
He’d sit in his study watching the leaves. They were all over the grass now, all over the porches, every color, the branches bare, leaves and branches catching in the feeders outside his office, where he might be sliding a needle into a house pet, treating a Labrador for worms. They didn’t share meals anymore, they didn’t play Scrabble, they didn’t swim in Snake Pond. They didn’t bicycle. When they went apple picking, a month ago, they didn’t get drunk on cider or mulled wine and when Frank put an apple on his head they both knew he was trying too hard.
He’d sent Robbie a text. Wife and I feuding. Slept with another man. Robbie had replied, Why would you do a thing like that, Frank? Then quickly a second text, Just come.
“Do they have the same temperature as us?” Michael asked.
“Ha ha . . .” Robbie said. “But I’m serious now. Frank, come have a sniff.”“They run a lot hotter, around 104.”
“Do they now?” said Michael, interested.
“She feels a little cold around the face to tell the truth,” Robbie said. “He’s not checking her face, Dr. Kildare.”
Dr. Frank pulled the thermometer out. “Here—” Brendan quickly handed him a tissue. 99 degrees.
“She is cold.”
“You know,” says Robbie, “and she smells familiar-like. Not like you’d think a goat would smell.”
“Or a sheep.”
“Ha ha . . .” Robbie said. “But I’m serious now. Frank, come have a sniff.”
It was possible this was to be the climax of the gag. Like when Robbie complained of “dog shoulder” when Frank was still in veterinary school, and when Frank was finally convinced to lean in to see Robbie leapt at him barking with Guinness foam frothing from his lips. This was truly his problem, he was too trusting, or maybe just too naive. He’d always been this way. With his classmates, who would tease him endlessly so that he spent more and more time in the woods outside Walden, New York, with the cardinals in the trees, the trout in the rivers, the foxes when you were quiet, deer, beaver, raccoons, quail. He didn’t think a guy who grass-fed his cows, who killed on-site, who solar-paneled his home, would jump on a married woman, a woman married to the man who cared for his animals when they were sick, who worked to keep them well.
He wondered who’d do this to a goat, dress it like this. Teenage boys, most likely. Sometimes they’d surrounded him in the halls, just to see what he’d do. He wouldn’t do anything. He might look out the window to a squirrel leaping from branch to branch. He might close his eyes and see himself in a canoe, watching ducks take off, hearing the sound they made flapping. He might see his dog curled up in her dog bed, her legs running in a dream. Eventually the kids would go away.
Looking back, she’d been only too eager for him to go, when he made the plans for his trip in July.
He leaned over the goat, waiting for the shoe to drop. Instead, he smelled what Robbie was talking about and then as if to confirm it, the goat’s dry lips parted and it belched.
“Oh now Jaysus!” Brendan said.
Robbie announced, “She’s drunk!”
Michael laughed. “She’s not!”
“Come have a sniff.”
Brendan and Michael joined them leaning over the goat. Michael’s eyebrows went up. “Guinness!”
Brendan nodded, “And Jameson.”
“No. Bell’s,” said Robbie.
“Low class,” Michael replied and the men laughed.
“You’ve got a drunken goat here,” Dr. Frank pronounced.
“In a skirt and brassiere,” Brendan added. Then quickly, “Well she can’t sleep here.”
The Kennellys looked at their father.
“You put her in there, you get her out,” Robbie said.
“We’ll bundle her.”
“Those are my blankets!”
“You’re forty years old. You’ve not slept in that bed for twenty years!”
“I slept in it last week!”
“Okay, you haven’t slept in that bed so you’d remember in twenty years. Let’s go.”
Brendan carefully picked up one corner of the bedcovers. Robbie got the other and Michael took the hind end. “I don’t care much for my end,” Michael said.
“What if it’s rabid, da? Or worse, has a venereal.”
Queenie shot up from her sleep. “The gnashing of teeth! Bundle her!”
“Jaysus she’s a fighter!”
“I thought she was half dead! Frank, you’re American, you must have a gun!”
They staggered the goat toward the stairs. “I’ll break my fecking neck!”
“I’ll break my fecking brother’s.”
“Keep its head straight!”
“Just let her go, dad!”
“She’s a guest!”
They charged the goat down the stairs, bundled in Robbie’s bedding, and dropped her in front of the fire.
The Kennellys were howling. “That’s the most fun Michael’s had in bed in years!”
“A feisty Irish lass!”
The goat spun around a couple times, then collapsed back into sleep.
“She’ll be hung like the Pope,” Robbie said.
“Hey now,” Brendan said. He wiped his eyes and his forehead with his sleeve. “I’ll just get her out of her things there, and once she’s on her feet I’ll put her out back.”
She’ll be all right then Frank, for the festival?” Michael asked.
“When’s the festival?”
Robbie went to the bar and poured four small whiskies.
Frank looked at them, shook his head. “She should be okay.”
Robbie brought the whiskey. He raised his glass. “To Frank. If you make love as well as you doctor, and you was a woman, I’d marry you.”
The men drank. The whiskey felt good. His heart was beating. He was sweating from laughing and getting the goat down the stairs.
Robbie set his glass loudly on the mantel. “What’ll it be then, Frank? Take a stroll? See the sights? We’ll have a Chinaman at the Tinker’s Son.”
Brendan was pouring himself a second small whiskey. A photo of Brendan and his late wife stood on the shelf above the cash register, Brendan’s wife grinning, holding up a fish.
Queenie had rolled herself so that her face was turned slightly to the fire. Brendan had put some fresh peat in and the barroom was slowly warming with the smell of sweet coal. The goat shivered a little, the fire reflected across her.
“I’m just going to sit here a while, if that’s all right,” Frank said. “Enjoy the fire.”
“You got a crush on Queenie?” Michael asked.
“A little one, yeah,” Dr. Frank answered and he leaned back in his chair and watched the smoke lifting, the whiskey in his belly, the small ribs of the goat rising and falling with her breath.
Jeff W. Bens is the author of the novels The Mighty Oak and Albert, Himself. His short fiction and essays are published widely.