Blanketed with snow, the farmland was little more than a hazy white blur as I sped down the rural county road that cut through it. I drove this forgotten corner of southern Indiana in silence as the radio was broken, my thoughts accompanied only by the hum of my tires on the blacktop. The car I drove had been my grandfather’s and had become my ride home following his funeral in Illinois and a family dispute over who would be forced to inherit this machine that was only slightly smaller than the average aircraft carrier. While it seemed odd to me that no one wanted a car that seemed to be in perfect working order, despite my grandpa’s claim that the left turn signal was faulty, so I took it. Once I was on the road, I figured out why. Not only was the in-dash cassette deck no longer en vogue, the gas bill for this behemoth was likely to have cleaned out my bank account by the time I got it to my driveway in Florida. I’d dropped a small fortune filling the tank before I left my hometown and was alarmed to find that it wouldn’t even get me out of the state before it needed to be topped off again. It was as if this car’s sole mission was to single-handedly annihilate the environment. With this in mind, it was no surprise to me that, as I approached the Kentucky border, I was in need of gasoline. I wasn’t in the red or anything, but I had always heard that Kentuckians fueled their vehicles with grain alcohol, so I thought I should probably get gas before entering a state where it might be tough to find.
I saw a small, run down gas station ahead of me and decided that was as good a place as any. I pulled over and stopped beside an antique gas pump that sat in front of the run-down and rusty aluminum siding building. The structure looked as if a good breeze would push it completely over, and the owners seemed to be trying to prevent that from happening by piling as much crap around it as possible. At least a dozen cars in various states of disassembly littered the property, as did stacks of tires, an RV that may or may not have been a functioning meth lab, a pile of hubcaps, various 55-gallon drums riddled with bullet holes, and a car that was hooked up to a tow truck that was hooked up to larger tow truck. It was a menagerie of automotive decay.
I stepped out of the car and saw two men in coveralls by the front door. One of them was tall and fat and the other was tall and skinny. Both had beady eyes, but while the skinny one’s darted around suspiciously with a hint of paranoia, the fat one’s stared straight ahead, glassy and vacant.
“Do I just pre-pay inside, or-,” I started as I walked toward them.
“We’ll take care of ya,” the skinny one said, tapping fat guy on the shoulder and snapping him out of whatever glue-sniffing haze his head was in. The fat guy walked directly to the pump as if it was what he’d been programmed for and someone had just hit his “on” switch.
As I approached the door of the building, I saw a goat staked to the ground behind a stack of bullet-riddled tires, it had been invisible from the road. It nosed through the muddy snow and slush in search of some grass to eat. I looked at it for a long second and then one of its eyes slowly rotated in its socket to meet mine.
“Don’t pay that stubborn beast no mind,” said the skinny gas station guy as he opened the door to walk inside. “Same goes for the goat. Eats are inside if yer hungry.”
I broke the hypnotic gaze of the goat and walked inside. Despite being a sunny day, it was shadowy and gray inside the building. The glass door was so filthy that it kept most of the sunlight out, leaving the illumination duties to the sole fluorescent light that flickered, hummed, and buzzed to the point of being nearly seizure-inducing. There was a coffee pot and a couple sad looking racks of long-neglected snack foods inside. I grabbed a couple bags of expired potato chips, a candy bar, and filled a foam cup with coffee that was much thicker than anything classified as a liquid should be. I put a lid on the cup, trying to ignore the faint scent of roofing tar that came from it, as my need for caffeine outweighed my normal dietary restrictions that stopped me from ingesting construction materials.
I got to the cash register and saw a jar full of slender cigars next to it. I grabbed a half-dozen and put them on the pile with the rest of my junk, creating essentially the unhealthiest cornucopia in the history of anything. The skinny attendant sat on a stool behind the counter smoking a cigarette. I glanced at his coveralls and noticed a patch where his name should be, but instead there was simply a question mark stitched onto it. I wanted to write it off as an artistic flair this guy was feeling; like he probably went by “The Gas Station Attendant Formally Known as Burt”, but he wasn’t sure enough about it, so he went with a question mark.
The fat, glue-sniffing guy entered the building and went directly to the cash register where he started ringing up everything as well as the gas he’d just pumped. He pounded the cash register keys with all the finesse one could expect of a grizzly bear playing classical piano. When he was finished totaling everything, he said nothing, just stared at me uncomfortably. I looked at the cash register for my total, threw a few bills on the counter and gathered up my things.
“Adieu, gentlemen,” I said, walking toward the door.
“You do what?” the skinny one asked, lighting a fresh cigarette from the butt of his old one.
“I do need to get back on the road.” I walked through the door, back into the Midwestern winter.
As I walked back to my car, I looked over again at the goat, still nosing through the snow looking for green. Again, its eye rolled over to look at me and we held a gaze for a moment. I looked at the rope that held it to the ground and wondered if it would actually keep the goat in place if it decided to charge and head butt me. With that in mind, I kept a cautious eye on the animal as I walked to my car and got in.
I drove in silence, sipping my coffee and eating stale potato chips until I came to a roadblock a couple miles later and a sign showing me a detour. I put the car in park, opened the glove box and took out a map.
“What are you doing that for?” asked a voice from the passenger seat. “Just follow the sign. It tells you where to go.”
I looked over and saw the goat from the gas station sitting next to me. His head was mostly forward, but his left eye was still turned in a way that fixed its gaze on me.“What…,” I began. “What… what are you? How?”
“Just follow the sign and you’ll be back on track soon,” the beast explained. “I was born and raised here. Trust the locals, my friend.”
“How did you,” I was still catching up to the reality of a goat riding shotgun. “You weren’t here a minute ago.”
“Neither were you and this car,” he replied. “You were back there. Now you’re here. Everyone arrives somewhere all the time.”
“You’re a goat.”
“You’re a man.”
“Why are you…”
“I needed to get out for a bit,” he said. He motioned down the gravel road with his hoof. “Just follow the detour sign and you’ll get where you’re going.”
I hesitated for a moment, wondering about how wise it was to take directions from a farm animal known for hitting things with its head.
“You’re not one of those dudes who are too insecure to take directions, are you?” the goat asked.
“No,” I said, immediately ashamed at my need to look cool in front of this goat.
“Then proceed when ready.”
He buried his head in the bag of potato chips. Judging by his lack of success at finding grass this time of year, I didn’t blame him. I made the left turn and tried to put the fact that I was taking directions from a goat out of my mind.
“So do you hitchhike a lot?” I asked.
“Nope,” he held up a hoof, “no thumbs. Nice dashboard savior décor, by the way.”
“It was my grandparents’.” I looked at the statue of Jesus that stood on the dashboard, silently observing, and likely judging, the conversation I was having with a farm animal.
“I’m a bit like Jesus,” the goat offered after a minute.
“Because of the beards?”
“No,” he said.
He looked at me quizzically, his bulbous eyes getting even more so.
“You know, stakes… big nails,” I explained. “You were staked to the ground at the gas station. He was staked-.”
“I got it,” the goat interrupted. “I was just making a point that we were both born in barns.”
We drove in silence for a few minutes. I contemplated whether or not a goat could rise from the dead and if, when it did, it would be able to roll the rock away from the entrance of the tomb by butting it with its head. The goat ate the empty potato chip bag.“We need to stop,” the goat said suddenly.
“Why?,” I asked. “You gotta piss?”
“Goats,” he said, “don’t ask to be let out to piss. I want something to eat.”
“You just ate all my food and you’re hungry?”
“I just want like a salad or something,” he said. “There’s no grass this time of year and those assholes expect that I can live off of dirty snow simply because that’s what took the place of the grass.”
“Watch your language,” I teased, “you’re a holy man.”
“Wrong on both counts,” he shot back. “Please stop. I need some greens, man!”
“I will stop and get you a salad in a little while,” I said, taking the car into a curvy stretch of road that snaked itself between patches of cornfield.
“I need one now,” he pleaded.
“How did you even get here anyway?” I asked. The question had annoyed me since the discovery of this goat and now I needed an answer. I would not be derailed by demands for salad.
“I didn’t let you in my car. I didn’t even know you were in here.”
“Can you please- Can you-?” the goat was starting to motion forward with his hoof.
“I just looked up and you were here and eating all my food, and now you’re going to start making demands for more food and that I stop and burn all my gas looking for a restaurant that will serve me a take-out garden fresh salad in the middle of January in southern Indiana?”
“Could you please not run me over?” the goat asked as he timidly pointed out the windshield.
I looked up and saw the goat–the same goat that sat next to me in the car–standing in the middle of the road as I came out of the curve. He was staked to the ground and staring at me. Screaming, I hit the brake pedal and tried to mash it through the floorboards. I looked to my right and saw the goat next to me, screaming just as loud as I was. I looked forward again, and he was there too. He stared directly into my eyes with a blank expression on his goat face and waited for me to stop.
And I did.
The car came to a stop less than a foot from where the goat stood in the middle of the road. I looked to my right again and saw that my passenger seat was empty. Looking up I saw the goat was still standing in front of my car. He lowered his head until his bulbous eyes peered at me from just above the faux-luxury hood ornament. I looked at the passenger seat a third time and it was still vacant. The back seat was vacant. I was alone in the car and needed to sit still just to let that fact sink in.
The driver’s side window of the car imploded, showering me with tiny shards of glass, and snapping me out of my contemplation of solitude. Something heavy flew past my face and landed on the passenger seat. I looked over and saw that it was a rock the size of a housecat. A pair of strong hands reached into the car, grabbed me by the coat and dragged me through the window. I was thrown on the ground as soon as my legs had cleared the opening that had been the window. I looked up to see that it was the fat, hazy gas station attendant who had dragged me from my car. His eyes were still glassy and he stared blankly at me.
“What the fuck, man? Why didn’t you just open it?” I asked. “It was open. The handle, man, always try the handle first!”
He took a couple steps toward me and kicked me in the stomach, doubling me over and knocking the wind from me.
“Take it easy,” said the skinny attendant as he stepped around the back of the car puffing on a cigarette.
“Christ, you guys followed me out here to jack this car? You know it gets terrible mileage, right?”
“Get in,” Question Mark said to his associate as he opened the driver’s side door. “No, dumbass, we brought the dirt road through the field and got here ahead of you.”
The pair got in the car and the scrawny attendant yelled for at his partner for several minutes about the amount of glass in the upholstery.
“Hey,” I got to my feet and stumbled toward the car, “let me get my shit out of the trunk, will ya? I’ve got my bag back there. C’mon, man, don’t make me lose everything today.”
“About a quarter-mile down the road is a bridge over a creek. I’ll leave your bag there,” he said as he put the car in gear. “Also, you can keep the goat.” The engine roared and the wheels spun, spraying gravel in a giant rooster tail as the scrawny bastard stomped on the gas pedal and the steel behemoth took off like a bullet. I looked at the goat, still staked to the road, and walked over to him. I pulled the stake that held him in place out of the ground, and started walking down the road in search of the bridge I hoped was actually there. The goat followed.
The road was cold under my feet and I could feel it seeping through the worn soles of my combat boots. I buried my hands deep in my coat pockets and thanked whatever powers control the weather that it was not windy, as the openness of the rural landscape would have enabled a cold breeze to cut me right in half. I pulled one of the cigars from my pocket and lit it, puffing on smoke as I shuffled down the road, the goat directly behind me, dragging the metal spike by the rope still tied around his neck, a metallic ringing sounding with every rock the spike hit on the gravel road. We were an odd attempt to be a literal realization of a train metaphor as we trudged forward.
Some time later, we came upon the bridge Question Mark had mentioned. One of the famed covered bridges of Indiana postcard fame, it had once been painted red, but time and Midwestern winters had not been kind to it. Grey and weathered wood was showing through the few rust-colored patches of paint that were left. I found my pathetic looking and half-empty duffel bag sitting undisturbed on the side of the road next to where the bridge began.
“Looks like your owner is a thief of his word,” I said to the goat. One of his eyes stayed fixed on me while the other rolled around in its socket.
I went to pick up my bag and noticed a small object sitting on top of it. I knelt down to inspect it closer and discovered it was the tiny Jesus statue from the dashboard of my grandparents’ car. I looked to the goat, and he rotated his eyes to stare directly, back at me. He calmly strolled over to me, opened his mouth and ate dashboard savior right out of my hand. All he was missing now was thirty pieces of silver and a noose.
I sighed, heaved my duffel bag onto my shoulder, and looked through the structure that was the covered bridge. It was snowing on the other side, despite the clear skies on the side where I stood and I could see the tracks my grandpa’s car had left in the freshly fallen white dust on the road. I stepped onto the bridge and tried to ignore the creaking and cracking of the ancient wood as the full weight of my boots shifted onto it. A few steps in, I heard hooves clopping against the boards as the goat followed me. Maybe he needed a friend. Maybe he thought I did. Maybe he thought I would continue to feed him small statues of religious characters. In any case, a long snowy road was ahead of me, and I was happy to have the company.