Tuesday, May 28 2002
setting: five miles south of Staunton, VirginiaWeighing well over a thousand pounds, Willow's corpse up in the goat pasture wasn't going anywhere on its own. Today was the third day since she had fallen, and now I could catch whiffs of her decaying body even in my Shaque. Horses live so long that it's easy to operate under the delusion that they are immortal, so the presence of a bloated and stinking horse corpse brought home the uncomfortable reality that mortality is everyone's destination. This was the first time we'd ever had to contend with a dead body that was too big to move. In the past when goats died, we've loaded them into a wheel barrow and dumped them in the woods to be picked over by vultures. Disposing of dead chickens was even easier; we'd just toss them into the weeds up above my father's slope garden. But to get rid of a dead horse required professional assistance. So my mother called a company called Valley Proteins and they said they'd swing by in a few hours. I don't know what Valley Proteins does with the dead farm animals that they pick up, but the presence of the word "Proteins" in their name gives me the uncomfortable suspicion that it has something to do with the manufacture of food products.
Complicating matters somewhat was a botanical tour of our marsh that had been scheduled for this morning. The marsh is a rare three-acre wetland populated with ice age refugia such as Pussy Willow and Buckbean, and periodically my father leads tours through it. Today's tour was an unusually large 20 person contingent of people from the Virginia Native Plants Society. People on these tours tend to be older, conservative locals, and I'm sure the dilapidated, overgrown state of the farm is something of a shocker for their provincial sensibilities. Suffice it to say, the presence of a rotting horse carcass couldn't have made things any less shocking. At least my mother had the sense to go cover the corpse with a tarp before the plant people arrived, even though my father was convinced that doing so would lead to a solar-fueled corpse explosion. As she did so, she said, she could hear the roar of foul gases escaping from the decomposing horse's asshole. The flies, as one could imagine, were out in force, quickly blackening the orange tarp with their numbers.
The Valley Proteins truck arrived well after the Virginia Native Plants people were gone. It was a huge truck, but somehow it came up our steep driveway with ease. In anticipation of its ten foot height, I'd raised some of the wires running from the house to the Shaque, but I'd failed to raise the telephone wire high enough and it got hooked by the frayed end of a cable sticking up off the back of the truck. Amazingly, though stretched so horribly its outer husk of insulation was ripped away, the Shaque telephone continued to have a dial tone.
As the truck continued up the driveway into the goat pasture, I noticed it was copiously leaking a foul translucent reddish fluid.
When I saw the big burly driver opening the back gate of his truck next to Willow's corpse, I just knew I'd have to capture this surreal scene for posterity. I ran up to the Honey House and snapped some pictures through the window. What I saw was one of the most disturbing sights I'd ever seen: a big truck loaded with bloated Holstein dairy cows, each of them lying on its back with its legs sticking straight out in all directions like an inflated latex glove. The driver tied a rope around one of Willow's hind legs and, running a motorized winch, dragged her up onto the pile of corpses. As he did so, her abdomen ruptured and her intestines spilled out.
When he was done loading the corpse, my mother wrote the man a check for his services, not wanting to touch him as she handed it to him. One has to wonder what sort of life a man with his chosen career path can live. It's not easy to wash away the stench of death, something he is exposed to many times each day. Does the man have a wife? Where does he eat? What does he eat? My father said the guy was probably completely desensitized to the horror of his job and, in all likelihood, thinks nothing of eating bacon cheeseburgers while tooling around in his corpse truck.
For the rest of the day, the term "Valley Proteins" served as a darkly comic reference to the great beyond. Humor was the only way I knew how to handle the disturbing things I'd seen. When I wanted Hoagie's skin to crawl, for example, I'd say "Valley Proteins" and then imitate the sound of an electric-powered winch. This seemed especially apropos as we walked past smoked hams and frozen chickens in the Statler Square Kroger later today. Mind you, the corpses we'd seen in the Valley Proteins truck hadn't even been the victims of animal rights abuses; these creatures had been the lucky ones who'd lived long enough to die of old age. For me, the horror was more about the finality and matter-of-factness of death, facts that aren't driven home very often in everyday life. Joking though I was, I'd been profoundly moved by the experience and could see deeply sublime meaning in what I'd seen. It had been so horrible that it had been kind of, well, beautiful. In his own way, the guy driving the Valley Proteins truck had seemed like a sort of everyman's Grim Reaper, perhaps a pariah to some but also worthy of respect and fear. In a larger sense, you see, none of us can escape Valley Proteins.
The Valley Proteins corpse collector with his truck of bloated dairy cows.
Hoagie has asked that I not post a picture of Willow's corpse.
[REDACTED]In attempting to deal with another death, that being the death of Hoagie's computer, Hoagie and I drove out to Staple's in the Statler Square Shopping Center and looked around at what was available. Not seeing anything bare-bones enough, we continued on to Waynesboro to check out some supposed computer stores listed in the yellow pages. Unfortunately, the places presented as computer stores were actually computer consultancies, many of them geared to working with corporations and small companies. By now we were sort of desperate, so Hoagie reached into a bag and produced a clunky old vintage cell phone. It looked like it had been built back in 1996 or something. It was so old, Hoagie said, that she can no longer get replacement batteries for it and it must be plugged into a cigarette lighter to function. Unstylish though it was, it worked just fine. Soon enough I'd gotten directions for finding a tiny computer retailer called Millennium Computers located out in the northern agricultural suburbs of Waynesboro. We must have driven back and forth in front of the place three or four times before we finally saw the tiny sign at the end of the driveway leading to a conventional suburban house. Even then, though, the place didn't seem all that promising. It was protected by a half dozen big fluffy barking dogs and no one seemed to be home, even though I'd just talked to the guy on the phone.
But then this tiny munchkin door to the basement opened up and a guy appeared and invited me down. It turned out that his basement was a fully-functional retail computer outlet, where he built computers from mailorder parts and sold them. The best thing about his operation was that he could build me exactly the sort of computer I wanted, more or less, while I waited. Actually, what he did was start with a computer he already had built and remove the components I didn't need. Before he got started, he quickly dealt with another customer who had only had about $70 worth of work done on her old 486. She had a little kid with her who was marveling at an aquarium full of fishes, and I joking told the kid that it wasn't really an aquarium at all but was instead a fancy monitor running an elaborate screen saver.
Anyway, I managed to communicate effectively with the Millennium computer guy, something that doesn't usually happen in a profession where experts are used to talking to customers who have no idea what they are saying. Considering the short notice and the power of the new computer (it was an Athlon XP 1700 - they run at 1.4 GHz), the price wasn't too bad. My mother was particularly impressed given the fact that five years ago she paid over $2000 for a 220 MHz Macintosh that can now barely render a web page.
On the way home, we stopped in Staples to get a new printer to replace the dysfunctional Epson she's had for the past two years. The idea at this point was to spend a little bit more than usual to get things that work reliably. I'm not around often enough to support crappy, unreliably equipment.
I spent the rest of the day putting Hoagie's new computer together from the bare-bones case and pile of boxes we'd bought. The simple absence of file corruption errors made the experience a comparative joy, even if I've done it all a million times before. I can tell I've been doing this repeatedly because I'm getting to the point where I can remember segments of some of the software registration codes.
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