The real reason why my family got two goats is up to interpretation. The story changes depending on who you ask, but the facts remain the same. Dad had a coworker from IGA who owned two goats. The coworker was moving from Marion, a small town near the city of Florence, South Carolina where I grew up, to another town across the state. Due to lethargy, a lack of supplies, or environmental hazards pertaining to his new home, the coworker could not bring the two goats with him. So somehow we picked them up.
My black goat Fido liked the smell and taste of pine. I used to go out to my dirt lane and break the limbs off pine trees. He would suck up pine with a wutwutwutwut. My white goat Billy Bob never ate pine. Instead, he would always take big chunks out of the 5-foot high wooden shed Dad and I erected for the horned mammals.
My two goats were stupid. Think about all the brain damage NFL players get even while wearing helmets. Now think about two territorial goats cramped in a small pen with nothing else to do but tackle each other. They slammed the full weights of their bodies through their heads so much that I think Fido forgot how to bleat. He never forgot how to eat, though. He was as round as an eight ball. Sometimes when I would enter the pen with his pine branch he would run up to me, curled horns pointed forward, and aim straight for my balls. Usually, I would catch the tip of his horn in my free hand and hand feed him the pine branch. Sometimes I would miss, and the tip of his horn would barrage my testicles. I would groan in pain, but I would never cuss at him. He didn’t know any better.
Billy Bob was the smarter of the two. Sometimes he would amuse Fido, but when he didn’t feel like interacting with the dumber goat, he would hop up on the 5-foot high shed and just lie there. Then he would watch Fido as he angrily pranced around the shed.
The first time I learned about homosexuality was from my two goats. Now please don’t correlate my goats’ stupidity to their homosexuality. Goats are like people. There are smart ones and there are stupid ones. I just happened to have two stupid goats who were incidentally homosexual.
Anyway, I was never taught about homosexuality in my southern schools, and my parents never mentioned it. Sometimes I saw Fido on top of Billy Bob, but I just thought Fido wanted to be propped up because he was so fat. I saw his belly pushed out over Billy Bob’s back with his much too skinny front legs flopped over either side. It took me a couple of days of observation to notice Fido using his hind legs in this process. I noticed his stock flex and relax and his hock shiver with each undulation. Billy Bob would stand there stoically. He would stare at me with his serene honey-colored eyes.
My Dad hated these goats. At the time I couldn’t figure out why. They were always nice to me. It is true that Fido would charge me, but it is also true that once I gave Fido his pine branch, Fido would let me pet him. A fair exchange. Fido would never charge me if I didn’t come to the pen with a branch, so I wouldn’t say he charged me out of aggression, but Fido charged me because he thought that this interaction was some game. He was more of a play partner than a bully, even though the play involved sacrificing external organs. Billy Bob was nicer. He would always stand still while I patted his white coarse hair. I didn’t realize Dad didn’t like these goats because of their homosexual behavior. I was in high school when I finally learned the word “homophobic,” and by then the two goats had already passed away.
One day, Dad and I came out to the two goats carrying two bags of feed. I usually fed them by myself, but my bag was almost empty so it wasn’t going to be enough, and I was too weak to carry a full bag. When we arrived at the pen’s gate, Fido seemed to be enjoying himself more than usual. His front thin legs smacked against Billy Bob’s sides. WUTWUTWUTWUTWUT. Since Dad was there with me this time, and since Dad was an adult and had more experience in these affairs, I decided to ask him if he knew what process the two goats were undergoing.
“They’re fuckin’ each other. We got some faggot goats.”
This really didn’t help my learning. At the time I knew “fuck” was a bad word, but I wasn’t in middle school yet so “faggot” hadn’t entered my vocabulary.
My dad was a “devout Christian.” I put these two words in quotes because that is what he called himself. But he really wasn’t devout in anything except for gambling. Every day he would drop me home after school and then, “Run out to the store.” Dad would either choose the Shell station across from Francis Marion University or the BP station adjacent to it. Then he would always come home with at least two scratch-off cards and one Powerball ticket. His gambling wasn’t a complete waste though. Eventually, some of his money came back to me in the form of my state-funded college scholarship.
Now comes the hard part. Was Dad “Christian?” I think he believed in God. Dad used His name a lot while swearing. At least I hope Dad believed in God because if not, then asking for something’s or someone’s condemnation from heaven wouldn’t be worth it. I think Dad prayed too. Or maybe he was just drowsing off while reading the newspaper.
I remember one day, when I was about five or six years old, Dad and I went to the Agri Supply Store to pick up some goat feed. It was a squat, yellow tin store that sold farm supplies. Most of the farm supplies were common farm equipment such as buckets, sprayers, hay rakes, ploughs, and tractor parts. But there were some things there that you would have never seen before, and other things that seemed to serve no purpose other than looking dangerous.
As we were walking to the store from the parking lot I noticed that there were no children. All I saw were skinny old white men who wore denim and dusty boots. They walked as if they were secondary students running late to class, pressed down by their heavy book bags. That was when I noticed Dad’s hand latched onto the back of my neck. He always had his hand there whenever we would move across a parking lot. It was as if I was a small puppy, he would pull back my scruff if there was a car coming, and he would push me forward if it was safe. Then I remembered that Mom would always hold my hand, and I recalled all the little girls in their pink shirts and butterfly pants who latched onto their mother’s arms in front of Walmarts. I tried to turn my head around to ask Dad a question, but he kept pushing me forward. I decided to ask him anyway.
“Dad, why don’t we hold hands?”
“Men don’t hold hands, boy.”
“Mom holds my hands.”
“Two men don’t hold hands. You can hold hands with women. Not with men.”
By then we were already in the store. He took his hands off my neck and turned me around. He squatted to my eye level and looked at me with his wrinkled green eyes.
“Son, I know what I said don’t make sense to you now. But I can’t have you turn out like those two goats.”
He then placed his two strong hands on my shoulders. It felt as if he was pressing me down into the concrete floor.
“No it’s OK, Dad. I understand.”
I understood that the weight of his hands were killing my shoulders. I did not see what Fido’s resting position had to do with men holding hands, but I wasn’t going to question Dad. This was the first time he ever tried to explain life to me. I couldn’t ask him a question or he might not ever try to explain anything else. Dad smiled, got up, and walked over to the six wheel stocking carts.
* * * * *
Once a week, Mom would make a dish called Tostados. She made this name up herself. Got it from the Latin American dish “Tostada,” even though “Tostada” is a tortilla based dish, and Tostados are served on plates. Also, the word “tostado” in Spanish actually means “toasted,” but Tostados are baked in a cooking pan. Tostados are composed of a layer of Nacho Ranch Doritos spread on the bottom of a cooking pan, with sliced sausage bits and red kidney beans placed on top, then the whole thing is sprinkled with shredded cheese and baked. An artery clogger for sure. It also stuck to plates as much as it would stick to heart valves. I remember that a couple of days after my interaction with Dad at the Agri Supply Store, I asked Mom about Dad’s relationship with the two goats, while she was toiling away at the sticky residue left from former Tostados plates.
“Mom, why does Dad hate the goats so much?”
She crinkled her eyes as she scrubbed
“Because they do what all animals do.”
“I don’t understand.”
She put the red grimed plate into the bottom of the translucent water. She pulled up her hands and clasped them together as she leaned her elbows on the counter’s fake wood. She turned and looked at me, but it felt as if she was looking past me, past the drying rack, and past the line of trees past the back yard.
“Do you remember the story I told you about when your father and I first met?”
“You were both at Skateland. He fell, so he asked you to rub his bottom.”
Mom laughed her Southern belle laugh.
“That’s right. Do you know how different Skateland was back then than it is now?”
She turned away from me and fished for the grimy plate. She found it and continued to meticulously scrub out the clots of red that had become part of the plate’s existence.
“When we were there, the front lobby as you know it now didn’t exist. There was no foosball table, no air hockey table, no crane with prizes, no gray floor with green and red zigzags, there was only that wooden counter and shelves of shoes. There was no lobby to separate that hard blue rink, it was just a desk connected to the span of blue.”
She paused from scrubbing, inspected the plate, decided to give up on it, and rested it on the drying rack. She pulled a fork from the suds and started scrubbing.
“Skateland didn’t play the music you hear now. It played music from our time. There was no Britney Spears, no Backstreet Boys, but Elton John and Duran Duran.”
She placed the fork on the drying rack and unplugged the sink. The swirling of water reminded me of Fido inhaling pine. Wutwutwutwuwtut. Mom washed and dried her hands with a towel that lay flaccid on the counter. She dried the fake wood around the sink with that same cloth. Then she left it crumpled and sighed. She smiled and turned to me.
“Do you remember what the goat pen was before you helped Dad make it?”
“Wasn’t it just an empty plot of grass?”
She nodded, “An empty plot of grass.”
She put her hands through my hair and started frisking it. I drew two steps back and started patting it down. She laughed.
“Your father never liked it when I ran my hands through his hair either. Now he doesn’t have much hair for me to frisk anymore. Times change. Places change. People change. That is why your father doesn’t like those two goats. When I first met your father it was many years ago, but he is still that same boy who fell down and asked me to rub his bottom.”
I still didn’t understand, but visualizing Dad falling on his butt was too funny for me. I laughed and forgot that I didn’t understand. Years later I would finally learn what the term “gay” was. There was a decreasing stigma about homosexuality, and an increasing number of people started coming out. I didn’t realize it, but Mom talked about how Dad clung to that old stigma.
It is hard for me to talk about Dad’s relationship with this stigma because Dad was a hard man to get information from. I know he supported the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, instituted by President Clinton, then backed later by President W. Bush, which banned LGBTQ+ military members from coming out. When Dad was pressed about his approval of this policy by anyone, the response would always be one flat statement, “It ain’t natural.” When Dad watched news of President Obama’s administration repealing this policy, he would stand in front of the TV, staring at the ground and shaking his head. “It ain’t natural.” One time I had enough courage to ask him why he thought so. I got another flat statement, “Because it ain’t the way God made it son.”
If God didn’t make gay people, then who did? Satan? I did not ask. This was the only time I can remember where I didn’t ask Dad for clarification because I was afraid of the answer. Mostly I didn’t ask questions because it was a rare occasion for Dad to talk about something serious, and I didn’t want these rare occasions to be permanently canceled from a single stupid question. But not this time. I didn’t realize it then, but at the time I didn’t want to stop wanting Dad’s serious talks. I didn’t want a single stupid answer to ruin it.
Even though I didn’t completely understand the stigma against homosexuals, I was still affected by it. That old stigma permeated the music Dad listened to. Dad would drive me to school in his beige van while listening to a bluegrass and country Christian radio station. Sometimes the song “Down to the Farm” by Lewis & Lewis played.
Come on down to the farm, come on out to the barn.
You won’t see two roosters walkin’ arm and arm.
They couldn’t make a chicken; they don’t have an egg to hatch.
When God said, “Love your brother,” I don’t think He meant like that.
I would look outside my window seeing the rush of trees, textured splotches of green and brown. Obviously Dad understood the song. I heard him say “Amen,” “Mhm,” and “It ain’t natural,” as the song lulled on, a composition of blue grass, country accented spoken word, and an indistinct female humming.
But at the time I didn’t understand the song. I thought the lyrics didn’t make sense because roosters don’t have arms; they have wings. Later I realized my nitpicking prepubescent brain missed the bigger picture. Lewis & Lewis argued that people can’t be gay because animals aren’t. They should have come down to my gay farm.
They should have come down to my gay farm because Lewis & Lewis seemed like genuinely nice people. They have their own website. It is clunky, with a gray tiled background similar to a bathroom floor. The home page has a picture of them, a married couple, grandparents, arms folded, standing back to back, shoulder to shoulder, smiling in their suits. The husband Ray, died from a three year long battle with cancer, and the scroll text box on the home page describing the wife Laura’s process of mourning is heart wrenching. Laura held him in her arms until he passed. Then once Ray passed, Laura still held his hand until the body was taken away. Laura didn’t want the shell to leave, even if the soul was gone.
After I read the text box, I wondered how someone with so much love for another human being could be so ignorant to others. How did Laura not know that this song, “Down to the Farm,” wasn’t spreading the love of the gospel, but insinuating gays as unnatural and thus preempting hate? Then I found it. “Ray’s Ranting.” It was a box on the side of the website. I clicked it, and it sent me to a page where Ray was grinning at me, dressed in white, his arms bearing down on some invisible white surface, surrounded by a body of text. The body of text was entitled “A Last Call to Stand.” Even though Ray was sitting down, he urged me as a Christian to stand up against President Barack Obama’s “anti-Christ mentality” (even though Obama was and still is a practicing Christian), and urged me to stop being a “meek and lowly” Christian (even though all Christians are supposed to be meek and lowly), and stand up against the people offensive towards our religion (Were these offensive people supposed to be Christian congressmen who pushed for a multi-religious society because freedom of religion is one of our land’s founding principles?). Ray stated that our nation was founded on Christianity and these liberals are going to turn our Land of Liberty into “an immoral Godless wasteland.” This was when I realized how someone with a religion that preached love could practice hate. Politics does evil things to good people.
“Down to the Farm” was produced in the late 2000s, seemingly in response to Obama’s election. In fact, the same radio station Dad made me listen to that played “Down to the Farm,” was a different radio station before Obama was elected. 100.9 The Cross, located in Fairmount North Carolina, and somehow picked up in Florence, South Carolina, changed its programing after the 2008 election. When Dad first forced me to listen to The Cross on his car radio, there was a lot of preaching, and a lot of singing, but most of the other programs were about Bible Distribution. Spokespeople of these programs spoke with seemingly good intentions, urging people to donate money so that Bibles could be distributed to Third World Countries, and to countries with strict restrictions on religion, like China. I would say about a third of The Cross’ entire program urged people to donate for the growth of faith in China. Specifically China. Of course, this had political implications as well. The Cross’ strong Conservative stance was against shipping jobs overseas. A way of stopping this would be to Americanize the Chinese through religion. Similar to the “Hearts and Minds” wars in both Vietnam and Iraq, the only way to defeat a Chinese economic victory over the U.S. was by liberating her people. Thus the more Christians in China, the more people to rebel against the system, the more people to rebel against the system, the more effective systemic change would be, the more effective systemic change would be, the more workers rights given, the more workers rights given, the more expensive shipping overseas jobs would be, the more expensive shipping overseas jobs would be, the less overseas jobs shipped. Or this was the idea anyway. It was a war of “Hearts and Minds.”
And it wasn’t a war of hate. Whether Bible Distribution is good because it assists people in worshipping the religion they want to worship, or whether it is bad because it helps precipitate deaths through executions in intolerant countries, from a Christian perspective volunteering any time, effort, or money into these programs is an honorable thing to do. These persecuted citizens of China and the Third World are the modern-day Paul’s, Luke’s, and Matthew’s, willing to pay the ultimate price for their faith, becoming unnamed martyrs in the 21st century. The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
But after Obama’s election, that third of The Cross’ program changed from Bible Distribution to anti-Obama Christian talk shows. The hosts always had country accents and spoke with aggression, each vowel hitting hard, rattling my head harder than a shovel. Obama was always the “Antichrist,” these times were always the “End of Days,” and Michelle was almost always, “Lucifer’s Little Helper.” I could never understand this attitude. I still don’t. Many aspects of Obama’s platform seemed Christian to me. Help the lowly and the meek. Obamacare. Love your neighbor as yourself. Gay rights. From a Christian perspective, I can’t see him as an evil man. Especially not the Antichrist. The only explanation I can come up with for why so many fellow Christians hated him was because he was a liberal. And politics does evil things to good people.
* * * * *
Homosexual behavior in the Ovis genus, also known as sheep, is actually quite common knowledge to animal behaviorists. Goats are part of the same subfamily as sheep or Caprinae, and express similar sexual behaviors. The most promising biological explanation as to why sheep and thus goats exhibit homosexual behavior deals with something called the sexually dimorphic nucleus. This nucleus lies within the hypothalamus of the brain and conducts male sexual behavior by incorporating sensory knowledge from the peripheral nervous system (which is a system of nerves not part of the brain or spinal cord, including the sensory nervous system which processes sight, smell, touch, balance, and sound) along with knowledge of hormone levels. It was discovered that rams with a smaller sexually dimorphic nucleus tended to mount males almost exclusively. However, it is unknown whether this homosexual behavior is the result of a smaller sexually dimorphic nucleus, or if the nucleus is smaller because of homosexual behavior.
And at this point, it is not possible to find out. There is no technology precise enough that is able to locate and measure the size of the sexually dimorphic nucleus in living rams. The sexually dimorphic nucleus’ size is about a speck of pinky. Scientists do not know what causes sheep or goats to be gay just as scientists do not know what causes humans to be gay. Many arguments state that there is probably some genetic predisposition to homosexual behavior that interplays with the environment, but this is still a highly speculative conjecture.
Is it possible that these goats and sheep act out homosexual behavior because of love? This is another speculative venture that almost borders upon the fringes of what scientists call “anthropomorphism,” or the positing of human traits and qualities into something nonhuman, such as animals. One example of how this term can be used is by observing African Elephant “mourning rituals.” African Elephant mothers tend to hover around the bodies of their dead offspring. Many lay minded people as myself would view this behavior as the mother grieving the death of her child, just as us humans view the soulless body of a loved one in an open casket before one more last “Bye.” However, to scientists this is a no-no. A behavior is exhibited because of a stimulus, but the reasons behind the behavior is unknown and impossible (at the present time) to measure.
But I can’t help being anthropomorphic when it comes to my two goats. They were more than animals to me. They were my family. I fed them, watered them, petted them, stepped in their aqueous defecation so I smelled like them, and we would play games together. Fido and I would play pin the horn on my balls, and Billy Bob would always let me wrestle him. I would hug the base of his neck and clamp my hands together at his brisket. I would try to drag him to the ground, but he would always jump up sending me flying on my back, smearing my T-shirt in dung and mud.
So when Fido died, and I saw how Billy Bob acted, there was no other way for me to explain his behavior other than that Billy Bob was grieving for a lost loved one.
When Fido died, my Dad was going to drag his body out of the pen while I dug his grave in our backyard. But something inside me told me that I wanted to go out to the pen first. I realize now that I wanted to see how Billy Bob was handling the death of his lover. When we arrived at the pen, Billy Bob was lying down next to Fido’s stiff body. Billy Bob’s eyes were closed, and his head rested on Fido’s neck. When Dad opened the gate, Billy Bob opened his eyes. Dad walked over and tried to grab Fido’s nose, but Billy Bob butted him in the chest, causing him to stumble over. Then Billy Bob turned to look at me with his soft honey-colored eyes.
“He wants me to do it.”
My Dad stood to the side, rubbing his chest, as I walked toward Billy Bob. I knelt down on one knee and lifted Billy Bob’s muzzle with both hands. I closed my eyes and leaned in, feeling Billy Bob’s horns as they gently tapped my forehead.
“Don’t worry. I’ll place you right beside him when you go.”
* * * * *
Billy Bob lived for a couple of years after Fido’s death. But Billy Bob was stagnant. He stood at his feed and water buckets and never moved. He stood there silent even when our neighbor’s bulldog escaped their pen. He stood there silent as the bulldog climbed over the mesh. He stood there silent as the bulldog tore into the flesh of his neck. We wouldn’t have known he was dying if it wasn’t for our dogs’ barking. Mom, Dad, and I charged the bulldog with baseball bats and ran him out of our yard. All our neighbors did was say sorry.
We lay Billy Bob down on a couch cushion and placed him in the sunroom. He died the next morning. Dad was off that day. I told Dad to wait. I would bury him once I came back from school. Dad didn’t wait. Dad buried Billy Bob on the opposite side of the backyard from Fido. I didn’t keep my promise.
I wonder if Dad buried Billy Bob so far away from Fido because he didn’t want any ghost goat copulation. Fido’s ghost would probably still be fat, too fat to walk across the length of the yard to get to Billy Bob because of all the extra energy required to be a ghost. Dad probably didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to hear a ghostly and orgasmic wutwutwutwutwut outside his window.
But Billy Bob’s burial still bothers me to this day. Sometimes I think that if I really loved Billy Bob, I would have dug him up, dragged his body across our yard, and reburied him next to Fido. But then I remember how much I loved my Dad. I didn’t know exactly how he would have felt if I reburied Billy Bob, but I knew he would not have liked it. Maybe he would have disliked this because it made all his work burying the goat pointless, maybe he would have disliked this because he thought that the dead shouldn’t be dug up, or maybe he would have disliked this because he didn’t want the two goats to be close even in death. I didn’t know the reason why, but as his son, I knew Dad would have not approved. This is why I didn’t rebury Billy Bob, and also why his burial still bothers me. I had to choose between who I loved more, even if the one I loved more’s wishes had nefarious intent. I choose a more hateful form of love and sacrificed someone else’s love for my own. Protection. I wanted my relationship with Dad to stay protected. Even if this meant doing the evil of doing nothing, I would embrace the evil for my own benefit.
* * * * *
The once upon a time goat pen is a garden now. It is a fortress; the inner greens are surrounded by wood and mesh. Where Fido died grows watermelon plants; where Billy Bob died grows string beans. Dad and I don’t go out to this garden. The garden is Mom’s. She uses her trowel and toils away at the moist black earth. The plants have become one with the pen; their leaves and vines hug wood and metal. It is Mom’s promise to the two goats to keep the pen living after their death. If Dad tried to grow things here it wouldn’t work. The green warmth would be brown, shriveled, and cold. His trowel would make the earth turn to clay. But he doesn’t grow things here. Mom does. It is a garden breathing with life. It is a monument, a labor of love.
[Check out Paul Stephen Bryant's back porch interview]