I rented the room because it was the only one both private and spartan enough to meet my needs. I preferred bare floors, simple furnishings, clean lines, none of that retro-modern, Pottery Barn, pseudo-mid century business, with the drum lantern lights and the geometric furnishings and shag rugs. I wanted a straight-backed chair, a spare and simple bed. And no family photos either, no tchotchkes or nostalgic mementos from trips past, nothing that would cause me to remember. I wanted to forget. It was surprising, really, how few places would allow this simple concession.
The drive to the farm from the freeway was longer than I’d expected. It would take forty minutes at least to arrive at the university tomorrow, where I was scheduled to give my keynote lecture on Dante Alighieri and the Psychology of Exile. No matter, it would give me time to think. I’d given the lecture hundreds of times, but I liked to mix up the anecdotes I employed, perhaps switch up some of the images on my powerpoint.
The farmhouse rose into view at a T in the road with the moon full and orange behind it, and I rolled down the windows to feel the air. It was hot and dusty. A round, vegetal smell rolled in through the window. On the porch, a dark-haired woman was standing in a brightly colored dress. She smiled like we knew each other. She even waved. I parked the car and walked to the porch. “Parker!” she said, using my first name and then embracing me as I stood still with arms at my side. “Welcome,” she said.
Inside, it became very clear what kind of farm this was. A horned, white goat wearing a bow tie sauntered past without acknowledging me. “Hello, Frankie,” said the woman in the brightly colored dress. Down a long hallway, I could see the edge of a large dining table where a small brown goat was nudging the edge of the table with his chin, trying to access the full plate of food just above him. “Coconut!” the woman said, and the goat backed away from the table, though imperceptibly. I declined dinner and went to my room. The next morning, as I was leaving for my lecture, the woman in the brightly colored dress - though she was no longer wearing the dress, but sweatpants - was running around in the road with a man I presumed to be her husband. Apparently, the goats had broken through the fence. In the rearview mirror, I watched as the woman herded a group of three goats gently through the gate only for one to break away again, drawn by a clump of Black-Eyed-Susans which it set to chewing vigorously. My lecture went well enough. They always ask, because they are young and full of lust themselves, about Francesca in the Circle of the Lustful and I want to tell them that there are many different kinds of lust - the blind lusting for color, the lonely man’s lust for companionship - and not all of them are punishable, just humiliating. I answer, instead, though, with the tale they want to hear - of Francesca’s betrayal and her husband’s rage.
That evening, I accepted the woman’s invitation to dinner. She was still wearing a brightly colored dress, but a different one. I had the urge to squint in her presence, though not in an unpleasant way. After dinner, she offered me a cup of canelazo. I took the canelazo gratefully but refused to look down at the goat nudging my knee. The next morning, I awoke with the taste of cinnamon on my tongue. The goats were at it again, but this time, the woman rapped furiously at my car window as I was pulling out of the driveway. Her husband was gone for the day, she said. When I stared at her blankly, she gestured at the road full of goats behind her. “Help!” she finally said. I pulled my car to the side of the road and climbed out. Already the goats were upon me, nudging with their horns at the bulges in my pockets where I keep pens and cough drops, my wallet. Several of the goats had collars and a few came willingly when I pulled them by their collars back up the driveway, but most of them stood still, stolidly resistant. They refused even to look at me. The woman offered me handfuls of alfalfa, thick and wet with the smell of molasses, and instructed me to lure them with this towards the enclosure. I did this over and over again until, finally, all of the goats had been accounted for. As I was washing my hands at an outdoor sink overlooking the goat enclosure, a brown goat of small stature appeared at the fence and eyed me with his rectangular pupil. Then, he climbed onto a stump of wood and jumped the fence. The goat nearly landed on me - he must have jumped five feet in the air - and I yelled or made some other guttural and likely unpleasant noise as I fell backward into the grass. The woman came running from the porch to help me up, and she was laughing as she offered her hand to pull me up. When she saw that I was not laughing, she tried to stop, but this only made her laughter worse. By them time I got in my car and left, already twenty minutes late for my lecture, I could see from my window that she was laughing so hard she had to wipe tears from her eyes.
I was only a few minutes into my lecture - a rushed discussion of Cerebus, the three headed dog who both guards and torments the gluttonous - when I started giggling. The students took this at first as a strange hiccup in the instruction - nervousness, maybe. They continued to take notes, not registering the high-pitched but short-lived tittering. But then they had to stop taking notes altogether, because there was nothing to write, except perhaps a description of me, bent over the podium, glasses in my hand, shaking with laughter so violent that the podium itself shook and the pages of my notebook were dappled with teardrops. “The goats,” I keep trying to say when I caught my breath, but then I would be overtaken, again, by laughter. One by one the students filed out of the room until I was left alone with just my laughter and then, finally, the sound of my own quiet breathing.