Laura owns both the Seattle stores Mint and Standard Home, but I met her at Libby's Seattle furniture store, Gusto, which functions as a clubhouse for self-employed hipster chicks. When I found out that Laura was a recent graduate of a nine-day program at an auctioneering school in Missouri, the lure of her strange, secret life compelled the three of us to cook up this trip--part investigative journalism and part excuse to get out of town for a day.
"The most important thing is to know your product," Laura states with authority. "So, we should check out the livestock first." This is her territory, so I follow obediently. "I always thought auctioneering was a beautiful thing. The chant is like singing, and I liked the way it brought people together," she says, flashing a grin. Libby, a fanatic for all things Americana, is already pushing open the gate that separates us from the animals.
Two men in worn Wranglers and rubber boots laugh as they clasp each other's gnarled hands. Behind them, eight pigs jostle and grunt and squeal. I clamber up a plank and look down into the melee. The bright eyes staring back remind me so much of my little dog that my throat clenches. "Eww! Look at that big one! He's humping her!" Laura points to a porcine Lothario whose confinement has done nothing to dim his libido. Appalled, we watch him scrub his corkscrewed unit along the back of a disinterested fellow cellmate. "Oh, my god! He shot his load!" Laura blurts.
Across from the pigs, a Technicolor rooster flaps to the top rung of a pen where three woolly sheep huddle against a concrete wall. A male with curling horns and a skittish female stand over a minuscule black lamb, no bigger than a housecat, lying strangely still in the straw. "I don't know much about sheep, but that thing sure looks dead," offers a rugged farmer as he glances from the tiny body to my stricken face. I nod back, forcing my mouth into a smile. It's time for the bidding to begin.
"This is a Type A fresh heifer. All black. Originated from the Bishop herd. You can't find these good heifers," the auctioneer slurs lazily into the microphone. We are now inside a small indoor amphitheater, where the walls and benches are painted antiseptic white but the air hangs with an animal stink. High above our heads, a metal box feeds a long piece of chain into a dark door above the dais, where the auctioneer reclines like Roman royalty. Leaning forward, we survey the spectacle.
On a circle of orange sawdust glowing in the flickering fluorescence, a cow with a hugely swollen udder searches for a way out of the fenced enclosure. Three cowboys with long, thin switches tap lazily at her protruding hipbones, spinning her around. "This auctioneer is terrible. Even I could do a better job at getting this crowd excited," Laura murmurs under her breath. "This is your big moment in the spotlight and you poop?" Libby says to the heifer, presumably rhetorically. The heifer goes for $1,475, and although I look, I cannot catch a single person bidding. Is it possible that these people know each other so intimately they can read desire in the flutter of a finger?
More and more farmers keep arriving. Most are no longer young, and I can see with a glance their years of hard labor. They make their way gingerly up the steps, greeting friends and neighbors with wisecracks and grins before lowering themselves onto their seats with an almost audible creak. These are the fathers, but where are the sons? "Cutie patrol," Libby murmurs, and I follow the discreet inclination of her head to a young man clad in cowboy boots and a baseball cap, clutching his cell phone with filthy hands. He appears to be the only son here willing to follow his father's footsteps into the beleaguered business of family farming. "My future ex-husband," I whisper back, but he stares staunchly ahead, evading the tractor-beam of my come-hither glance.
"How much for this family? Nice family, we've got the ewe and the sire and the lamb," says the auctioneer. One of the cowboys ambles into the ring clutching the limp lamb I'd presumed was DOA. I sit up very straight. He sets the lamb down in the sawdust where it trembles, curling up one twig-thin leg as it stares sightlessly out at us. "What's wrong with that lamb?" asks the auctioneer. "It got born in the trailer on the way here. Leg got stepped on, but it's just a sprain." "Least we think it's a sprain," shouts one of the few women present in the audience. The auctioneer nods and continues, "How much for this nice family?" I lurch to my feet and stagger toward the exit.
The familiar aroma of burnt coffee mingling with the tang of livestock comforts me as I wander through the lobby. Brittle "Building Demand for Beef" posters hang askew on the dirty walls, and a tomcat curls his tail around a Mr. Coffee stained brown from years of use. At the check-in counter for sellers and buyers, I absently scan an official-looking flyer that reads, "Severely disabled livestock will be moved quickly and humanely to a slaughter or rendering facility or otherwise humanely euthanized." Well, that's a comfort, I think to myself. After all, who am I to judge? Granted, I'm a vegetarian bleeding-heart, and the plight of these animals saddens me, but you can have my leather shoes when you pry them off my cold, dead feet. You could say that I'm standing directly in the fruits of these farmers' labor, so as I push open a door that reads "veterinarian," I resolve to keep an open mind and tread lightly.
I step into a puddle of blood. For a split second my mind scrambles to assign another meaning to the vivid fluid soak- ing into my boots--for surely this over-the- top color that Hollywood hacks saturate straight-to-video slasher flicks with is too gaudy to be real. I imagine a gore auteur screaming at his art department through a megaphone, "No, dammit, that fake blood is boring! Splatter something really red around the barn!" But I know this is blood, because I smell and hear and see its source.
The door I pushed open led me into the barn, to the holding area behind the auctioneer. When an animal is purchased, the buyer can request any number of routine "medical" procedures. The auctioneer duly marks these down and then reaches up and clips the piece of paper to a rattling chain high above the spectators' heads. Fluttering, the paper is hauled into the barn where, like a short-order cook in a blood-spattered apron, the veterinarian yanks it off and reads what the buyer has chosen from the menu: pregnancy check, vaccinations, antibiotics--or in the case of the cow mere inches from me, dehorning.
The black heifer has been hustled straight from her moment of gladiatorial glory in the ring into a slatted metal device called "The Little Seizer," which resembles an enormous antique toaster. The sides tilt up, immobilizing the heifer, pressing against her heaving sides and pinching her head into a hole. I lean forward and scrutinize the buttons on the machine's control panel. A plate of directions reads, "After a few seconds, slowly turn power setting down until animal resumes breathing."
Clutching a pair of cutters as long as his leg, a sinewy man in a green jumpsuit with "Northwest Veterinarian Clinic" embroidered over one pocket and "Tim" over the other bears down on the confined heifer, who is bellowing in panic. The amber horn drops to the blood-soaked ground. Then the man reaches for an electrical iron with glowing coils and presses it onto the bloody stump where the horn once grew. A cloud of smoke that stinks like a burning fingernail curls into the air and the heifer thrashes, eyeballs rolling white in her skull. When Tim turns an inquiring glance toward me, I flinch at the spray of blood dried onto his glasses.
"Am I in your way?" I ask. Tim shakes his head. "Doin' a preg check next," he tells me, sliding on a clear rubber glove that reaches to his shoulder. "You're welcome to watch." I push open a gate and stumble after him. "Watch yourself! Watch yourself! Watch yourself!" someone shouts, and I look up at a steer careening toward me. Instinct flattens me against a pen as he crashes past. A woman who seems lifted from a tintype photo of a pioneer widow trots past me on a quarter horse. "We got a lotta mean ones today," she offers over her shoulder. From my position of relative safety, I glance over at Tim, up to his armpit, fishing around inside bovine vagina. This seems to be a fine time for a cup of coffee at the Corral Cafe.
"I don't buy nothing here. I ain't had a farm for eight years. Used to be 1,000 farms in this region--now we're down to 400. It's a way of life gone by the wayside, but it's a product, too, and a product people need." I am perched on a stool at the diner connected to the main building, listening intently to an older man in a worn brown cowboy hat, while I stir sugar into my chipped cup. The coffee is watery, but I'm grateful for its warmth. "Now I just come to check out the prices... have breakfast," he says with a shrug. Like a woman might window-shop for dresses she could wear to parties where she is no longer welcome, I think.
"I did buy a nanny goat for my granddaughter last year--just to eat blackberries," he laughs.
I swivel on my stool and smile at Tom of the Van Slageren Dairy and Bud of the Bos Dairy, two huge men in rubber boots with a brood of children busily demolishing packets of saltines. "We're just sitting here trying to figure out how much money we didn't make last year," Tom booms in a voice like a Viking. They both laugh ruefully. Connie, an ageless woman with a trim figure and enormous doe eyes, sets a piece of pie in front of a stooped old man inhaling a Viceroy underneath a faded handwritten "No Smoking" sign.
"I've worked here for 15 years. My three daughters work here. And my best friend Cheryl, who's married to my ex-husband, works here," Connie says brightly. "You know this place is for sale? Wal-Mart's looking at the land." I follow Connie into the kitchen. "I've made some good friends here. Ya know, some of these guys have been coming here every morning since this place opened--and that was in 1961." She flits around, assembling a tuna melt on a plastic plate. "The dairy guys are fading since the bottom fell out five or six years ago. They held onto their farms as long as they could, until the bank took 'em away. Now the land's being turned into housing developments." She turns to me, wiping her hands on a rag. "It's a cryin' shame. It's going to change a lot of people's lives."
It's still raining outside, but rather than return to the stifling auction, where Laura and Libby remain transfixed by the bidding, I decide to walk the grounds. My conflicting feelings about this place race along nerves made jumpy by the six cups of coffee I consumed at the Corral Cafe. The vista here isn't pretty. The barn squats mere inches from the freeway, wedged between blackberry bushes, chainlink fences, and swamp. Strange bits of cast-off farm equipment and waste litter the ground. That's what I think the dead calf is for a moment anyway--litter. When I step closer, I can see that its eyes are glazed over with blue film and that someone chalked a pink X on its forehead before they tossed it into a mud puddle slick with oily rainbows. Like a mattress, it has a tag on its ear that reads, "761--Do Not Remove," and its head rests on a pile of bloody organs.
Incongruously, its outstretched legs end in dainty hooves that are as clean and pink as the fingernails of a baby. I have the urge to pick the calf up, wrap it in my jacket, and warm it back to life. Or carry it away from this place where it has been tossed like a bag of fast-food trash out a car window. For a long moment, I stare down at it wondering, are there any laws against burying livestock within city limits? But when I hear voices from the barn, I turn and trot away with a pounding heart. I feel like I am fleeing the scene of a murder and that the perpetrator may still be lurking somewhere close, watching me. I have to remind myself that nobody will have to kill me to keep me quiet, because there is nothing wrong with what I've seen. Here, it's business as usual.
"You're just in time!" Laura says as I join her and Libby back inside the auction. "Didn't you say you wanted a goat?" In the ring, one of the cowboys playfully straddles a longhaired billy goat and grabs its curling horns, riding it around while the crowd howls with laughter. Libby frowns, "I think it looks overdone. The beard and the horns is a little much." By the time the cowboys come out with cardboard boxes full of chickens, we decide that we have seen everything the Marysville cattle auction has to offer, and we make our way back out to the truck. "Well, chickie, did you have a good time?" Laura asks as we pull out onto the two-way road that leads back to the strip-mall sprawl of video stores, muffler shops, and fast-food restaurants. I turn around and watch the barn and auction get smaller and smaller. Only when I can't see it anymore do I answer.