Out here in the land of corn, if the farm people get to know you and judge you not too obstreperous for their barnyard sensibilities, you’re going to eventually hear at least one and probably a lot more stories about Dick Shook.
The first time I heard one I’d been living on the outskirts of West Jefferson, Ohio—three Tanning Salons, a Beer Cave, and a church—for about four years. That morning I was working on a short story in my office and had just come up with the killer line that something smelled “like a home permanent on the devil’s ass hair” when there was a rapping at the door. Usually I just blow stuff like that off, but the knock had an odd rhythm, like a secret code.
It turned out to be a local preacher and his wife. I’m not sure what the denomination was. They could have been from the Baptist church down at the end of our road but not necessarily. They were quietly gregarious, asked if I was religious and if I’d care to join them that coming Saturday for the yearly Ox Roast in the field behind their church. “Sounds great,” I said, “but I’m busy,” which I wasn’t.
There was no need for me to be mean-spirited, though, so I made a pot of coffee and, instead of inviting them inside, I set us up on the wrap-around porch with a view out to where the ancient white oak towered at the edge of what had recently been a two-mile field of corn. It was chilly, past harvest time, the first snow not too far in the offing. They didn’t complain, though, when the brisk wind scattered leaves across the stubbled fields, or the chimes in the pear tree tinkled incessantly. No one mentioned the gold leaking out of the sun like air from a sad balloon. Instead, the woman, Alma, lifted her cup, took a sip, and commenced yammering. She waylaid me with Jesus, the saints, the angels, and a rasher of bullshit concerning the nexus of patriotism and Christianity.
There was a diatribe about something called the Efflusion. I never figured out what the fuck it was. The Holy Ghost as some kind of secret agent, maybe? The day drew on toward a chilly evening and somewhere in that twister of commandments and contrition, she somehow magically wedged in a Dick Shook story, a good one too. Later, when the coffee was gone as were Reverend Ted and Alma Troyer, by the time night had closed its jaws around my head, all I really remembered about that visit was Dick Shook.
Like all the other Dick Shook stories, this one happened in autumn. Dick was a local farmer, Richard Erol Shook. His family had been farming in the area for about one hundred years. The remains of his farm are down the road from our house, about halfway to town. It’s hard to tell exactly when he lived. It couldn’t have been too long ago, because I doubt folks would remember the stories as vividly as they do. I’ve heard tales about Dick that took place, it seemed, in the 1940’s, all the way up to one about him writing a manifesto of death in his own shit on the walls of a nursing home in Hilliard in the ’90’s.
He was described as lean and wiry strong. In one story, his face was said to droop with sorrow. In another, his cheeks and forehead were said to glow. Everyone agrees that he wore a beard. But the style of his facial whiskers changes from tale to tale and from teller to teller. Supposedly, he had a lot of long, white hair and he wore it in pigtails topped off with a conical, bamboo, field workers hat. He had a dead eye. “Like a thundercloud trapped in a marble. When he was in a fierce mood, it made him look fiercer,” said old Mrs. Cartlock, sitting in her rocker at the Saturday farm market behind the pumpkins. She told me she knew him when she was a girl and that back then he had a pet goat named Abomasum.
Shook was married. You hear very few stories in which Shook is a child or as yet unmarried. They’re rare, and people ponder them obsessively, feeling closer to his origin. His wife was Esther Chesterton, the daughter of a machinist who’d taught her to be a competent mechanic on farm trucks. It’s universally agreed that she was lovely. Her father’s family was from the Caribbean and her mother’s from somewhere in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Esther, as described to me in Lester Fit’s version of the one about Shook and the Mansard ghost was “peaceful as a late summer breeze through the willows.” She had a beautiful singing voice and an uncanny accuracy when throwing butter knives.
This particular story that bubbled up out of the preacher’s wife on my porch that afternoon was about a mistake. Not a mistake committed by Shook nor Esther but by Nature. In the barn of Stanley Wells, their neighbor a quarter mile down the road, a calf was born with the face of a middle-aged man. Where the hide of the neck became the chin and nape it turned to pink flesh, wrinkles and jowls. Minus a snout, there was instead a bulbous nose; thin, down-turned lips; a receding chin; and blue eyes in a half squint. The incredible visage offered a stern sneer to the world. When Shook saw it, he told Stan, “All that thing needs is a pair of glasses, and it could run a bank.”
Eventually the creature did acquire a pair of glasses. One of the Mennonite boys rested his dead grandfather’s round-lens specs on the nose of the creature, wrapped the wire arms around its part-bovine, part-human ears, and there they stayed. This prop did something for the unfortunate beast. You could tell the stern sneer was still there but now hidden by a mask of affability. Shook and Esther took to calling the mutation Mr. Butterfield and often lay awake in bed, in the dark, laughing and confabulating stories about his bank and the weird employees and customers, all part-animal. The uproar over the uninvited strangeness died down after two months. The community took it in stride and moved on. What else could it do?
Stanley Wells didn’t call it anything save for “abomination.” He traced his troubles back to the appearance of it. Some days, he wanted to crown it with the sledgehammer and be done, sell the body for steaks. And right then, he’d look up and that familiar face would be smiling, nodding. Stanley’s wife wouldn’t go near him. “What did you do to deserve that?” she said to him, and his heart sank. He thought the same thing when he’d see the abomination lowing, a gigantic tongue issuing from an otherwise normal size human head, the creature swatting flies with its tail.
Six months after its birth, Stanley wound up at the Shook’s place, tapping at the door, looking for Dick. Esther called to her husband. A few minutes later, smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee in the rocker on the porch, Shook listened as Stan told him, “That face is my father’s face.”
“That certainly ups the ante,” said Dick.
“Every now and then it makes a cow sound, and in that sound I hear a word in my father’s voice. I’m writing them down.”
“How many you got?”
Stan took a piece of paper from his back pocket and read aloud. “situation, climbed, cumulo-nimbus, erratic, prince, perished, beyond, cow.”
“Gibberish,” said Dick.
“That’s the order in which I heard them.”
“Don’t you think maybe the cow’s just lowing and you’re so upset about how it looks that you hear what isn’t there?”
“Maybe,” said Stan. “But I do really hear these words. I think it’s like a puzzle, some kind of coded language.”
Dick gave a smile that was worse than a frown.
“I have to decode the message my father is sending.”
“What could it possibly say?”
“I firmly believe that when I solve the puzzle and decode the words and their order, they will be a message that says he loves me very much.”
Shook stood and ushered Stan into the rocker. “You’re way the fuck out in the field, Stan,” he said, patting his old friend on the shoulder. He lit two cigarettes, one for each. He smoked and watched Stan weep into the crook of his arm.
“Yeah, you gotta do something about that cow,” said Dick.
Stan wiped his eyes and said, “Marion won’t come near me. She thinks that thing was born from me fucking the cows.”
Dick stifled a laugh. “Why don’t you try to sell it?”
“I did. And when the people I’d talked to on the phone laid eyes on it, they ran and called the cops on me. And so that’s why I’m here.”
“I need you to kill it for me, Dick.”
“Why me?” Shook laughed nervously and stepped away from his neighbor. “You got that old pistol. Put that thing in its ear and blow it a goodnight kiss.”
“I can’t do it,” said Stan and started blubbering. “It’s my pa.”
Two minutes of blubbering and Dick gave in. He promised Stan he’d come for it at midnight.
When Dick told Esther what he’d promised Stan, she snorted. “I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with that mess. Mr. Butterfield? He’s obviously cursed. And you’re gonna kill him? Shook’s not thinking straight,” she said.
“Nonsense,” he said. “I’m gonna sneak down there at midnight. I’ll have my flashlight and the .38 Special. You can wait for me in the car. I’ll creep up to the barn, let myself in, find Butterfield and administer one to the heart, one high on the shoulder, and one in that creepy head.”
“I’m going in with you,” she said.
“No. You’ve gotta keep the car running and be ready to drive.”
“If he wants you to kill his old man cow, why are you sneaking over there in the middle of the night? Why not just march over there now and do it?”
“Not sure,” said Dick and laughed. “For some reason the night seemed an appropriate time. It made so much more sense when I suggested it to Stan.”
“What’s wrong with you?” said Esther.
“You can’t kill a nightmare in broad daylight.”
In the Shook’s living room, the lights were out, but the TV was on and muted to a whisper, a skinny black cat lazed before the fireplace. It was past one, the wind had come up and yellow leaves swirled in flocks through the night. Esther drove and Dick sat in the back seat of the ancient turquoise Plymouth. They crept down the road past stubbled fields toward Wells’ property.
“I wish I hadn’t agreed to this,” Shook said.
“This is nonsense,” said Esther. She pulled over in front of the field that held Stan’s barn. “If he gets you, scream,” she said.
“Are you trying to be funny?” Dick asked and leaned forward to kiss the nape of her neck. He lifted the gun off the back seat and put it in his jacket pocket. He grabbed the flashlight and got out of the car. He went quietly up the hill into the dark and Esther cut the engine. Night came in through the open driver’s side window. She leaned her elbow out. Leaves scuffled along the road and a dog barked over in the next county.
A moment later, five giant, hollow spheres of sound exploded, one after the other, muffled by the distance and confines of the barn. And a moment after that, Shook staggered down the hill, the gun at his side, the flashlight pointing straight down but still lit. He got in the back seat and shut the door.
“How’d that go?” she asked.
“Messy,” he said. “A goddamn mess.”
A week after the assassination of Mr. Butterfield, as they lay in bed in the dark, Shook told Esther that before he plugged the cow, it had looked straight into his flashlight beam, a face floating in the dark. “Tell my son, I love him very much,” it said. There were tears in its eyes.
“Good lord,” she said.
“The sight of that horror speaking of love, forced me to pull the trigger. Once I did, I couldn’t stop till the job was done and then some.” He shivered and she put her arms around him.
“Stan’s wife said yesterday that he’s cut the face off the cadaver and keeps it in the kitchen freezer with the venison and the frozen vegetables,” said Esther. “Are you ever gonna tell him what Butterfield’s last words were?
“I doubt he could get crazier if I told him,” said Dick, but as it turned out, he never got around to it.
In a different, later story, Dick has a vision that contains a scene with Butterfield just outside the pearly gates of heaven. In it the cow asks his murderer to take a good word to the lord for him. Shook nods and passes through into paradise, and at that moment wakes from the prophetic dream perched upon his tractor adrift in a sea of corn.
I haven’t heard that one yet, I’ve only heard about it.