“Ribber” belongs to a collection of linked stories in progress, entitled Livestock. The book takes place during a two-week span while a cow, having escaped from a slaughterhouse, runs loose through a small southern city. As the fugitive eludes capture, it enters the lives and imaginations of various characters, ultimately drawing connections among townsfolk otherwise divided by class, race, and politics.
I have been working on this collection on and off for years, but only recently have I begun to consider the stories through the lens of our nation’s harshly divided political landscape. Dill, the main character in “Ribber” first appeared in another story as the antagonist. I wanted to consider Dill’s point of view and drafted a version of this story about three years ago. Then I got engrossed in another book project and set the stories aside. It wasn’t until the last presidential election that I saw my way to revising “Ribber” to include a direct reference to politics. In a sense, the story became a kind of allegory of the election. Most of it was already there, however. I didn’t change Dill so much as discover the political context for the character I had already drawn.
In preparation for “Ribber,” I did some research on slaughterhouse work. But many of the details, while not autobiographical, are drawn from personal experience. My husband lived for nearly a decade across from a small slaughterhouse in Cincinnati. When we got together, he recounted story after story of the macabre ambience: buckets of steaming skins, racks of tongues, crows dropping bones plucked off the gut truck onto his roof. He showed me his video footage of cows being captured, stunned by electric prods, lassoed and hauled back inside. I was equally repulsed and fascinated by the morbid spectacle. For about a year, I often sat across the street and watched those parts of the gruesome operation I could see from outside the building, talking with workers, taking notes. In 2002, just as we were moving to New York, one cow managed to pull off a stunning escape. She was at large for ten days and by the time they caught her, there was such a groundswell of support that musician and animal rights activist Peter Max came to the rescue, sending “Cincinnati Freedom” to a farm in upstate New York where she lived until 2015. All my characters may not share her rosy fate, but that brave bovine remains an inspiration.