Bob comes from a family with three sons, his brothers and he, locked together since they were children and still – even now – tied close to the bonds of their boyhood. Even now they leave their wives and homes to spend a week together, to get crazy together. They are men who hang onto every word you speak, who seem to absorb you. I don’t know how they got that way. They are like soft guitars in the harsh blustering gun-toting machismo, intellectuals among the ruffians. When I kiss Bob, I’m kissing three brothers. It’s more a merit award than an act of love.
We talk about stream-fishing, my favorite. Bob likes any old fishing, but there on the river the fish come in more variety and with more ease; and when people follow the stream, they part company; Bob isn’t a man who wants to “part company.” He already spends too much time alone. So when Bob and I throw in together, we’re on a bank or in a boat. I tire of the sedentary river slope. I prefer a canoe to a flat bottom; but on the bank, I get to be with Bob.
We sit and talk about Frank, who’s at Arlington Racetrack with his children and ex-wife. We talk too about Bob’s own wife who’s spending one day a week getting treatments for a mysterious illness up at university hospital (although she will outlive him). They are ill-suited to each other, people say, but come to each other’s rescue and lead cooperative lives in the same house. I would like to understand the dynamics of an ill-suited couple. I suppose that’s because I once came to the end of my tether and broke it and walked away, and people whose tethers seem to stretch, are of interest to a dropout. Bob says only, “We put up with each other,” when we talk about Irene. I’m used to husbands who whine and curse. Bob only says, “That’s life.”
We check the lines once in a while, grumble about the unfeeling fish who stole the bait and the other who won’t try for it; we reach for a beer and taste it on each other’s mouth. We watch carp flop and watch a turtle drift by. Head above water, following the outline of the trees above her with droopy eyes.
Something has been moving over me since I was divorced that time. The cheating songs lost their magic. I have nothing to avenge. Knowing this, I wonder vaguely what we’ll do next, Bob and I. I should have expected these pangs of disinterest rising over me like the morning sun. I blame myself, of course. It would be so easy to make all things possible and nice, and would matter so little to any other person. Would really hurt no one. I’m a better lover, now, a more shallow woman but more knowledgeable, nothing like I was during the first half of my life. What an irony: to understand all the mechanics of it and then have selfishness complicate it. “Get yourself the papers like the rest of us had to,” is what I say these days to the generous frustrated philanderers I meet. Sometimes I say, “Your wife is a friend of mine,” a total turn off. There was a poet who spoke of a man’s body being the greatest gift he could offer. It was Shelley, I suppose. He did a lot of offering. I used to lap up male poetry as if I were a barn cat feasting upon warm foamy milk.
Until lately, I thought women ran out of sex drive. Now I have become aware of women being more complicated than men, or choosing to be. At work at the hospital, a man ninety years old feels up the woman aides as they try to help him put his clothes on.
“I’m not what I used to be, George,” says Bob, forcing out a hearty insincere laugh, turning onto his back on the hard ground. We’re in the tall reeds now, out of sight of the river.
“You don’t have to prove anything to me,” I assure him, grabbing his hand. How could I have let it go so far? He thinks he’s let me down. A fool can see I’m the one who’s let someone down. “Aren’t we okay? Don’t we appreciate each other enough?” I soothe him, fighting back anger. I put his hand to my mouth. His body has let him down, but how could he not know to begin with?
“I just don’t know how everything got so tough,” Bob laughs. After a while he starts to talk about his one brother Eddie, who, he says is a playboy and has never worked a day in his life. “You’re our kind of people,” says Bob, turning on his side to look at me. He wants me to pick up with Eddie. He says he loves us both. “Quality is what we need in our family,” he says, and I join his laughter, picturing myself married to the three of them. Not that I’m a prize specimen either. We defuse the ill-fated moment of impotence, and then the joke stops being funny, and we lie silently. My anger and sorrow drift away.
I put my arm across my eyes, sun blinking through the reeds. Bob is shaking out our shirts, lifting his suspenders to his shoulders; he’s on his feet and ready to walk back to check bait, but he waits. “Whatever happened to that woman came to your place that one time?” he says, flicking chaff from his sleeve. Out here the human voice is small, drowning in the rustling grasses and in the wheel-noises above on the road on the higher ground. I must talk clearly to Bob’s bad ear and not-so-bad ear.
“Ivy, her name was,” I tell him. “She ran off to Kansas, that’s what she did. Her kids were in Kansas. She did hang around for a couple of weeks. I would’ve bet she’d never go to Kansas. She was such a hopeless victim type. I think my lifestyle –” I laugh scornfully at such a label on my struggle. “I think it scared the starch out of Ivy. The cows petrified her, and the black nights, no street lights, and the creaks and bumps around the old house. I figured when I drove her into town that last day, she’d go straight over again to Sleazebag Alley. But then after a month or so, I got this letter from Topeka. Wow, strike up the band, I tell you.”
“They used to say you couldn’t run away from your troubles,” says Bob amiably, tossing a shirt at me, “but I don’t know; I ran away from a good number of them in my time.”
“‘Geographic Cure’ they call it now,” I tell him, “the latest news from the jargon mill. I heard it on radio psychology. ‘Geographic Cure.’ Sounds like there is such a thing.”
“Get the jeans on, George,” says Bob, “or I’ll be spinning around three times like my dog and lie back down in the weeds with you.” I pulled my jeans into place definitively and stepped up to Bob and put my arms around his neck and kiss him on the mouth like a real assertive woman, the sweaters trapped rumpled between our stomachs. Despite the smoke and the sour-beer taste, kissing Bob isn’t half bad. “I’m sorry,” I tell him.
“What you sorry for, George?” he says, although he knows.
“What am I sorry for,” I repeat. “Too many people. Too much past. Too much clutter. I used to love opportunity, it was exciting. Now it’s like a knife in our backs.”
“I wish I had known you before you figgered all this out,” says Bob in my ear.
“Nuts,” I say. “Sex ain’t everything.”
“Yeah, maybe not,” he says, “but then what is?” and we are suddenly laughing foolishly at all of it.
“For twenty years I was as passive as a jellyfish,” I tell him, shaking a finger at him like a teacher, “all I ever did was smile and give in. The perfect housewife, the one in the ads.”
Bob’s feet shift. Probably he wants to get back.
“Then one day I said, ‘Enough!’ and went after something. It wasn’t a guy, either. It was my own self. I had been under this heap of whatever it was I had become.” I nudge my moccasin into a loose fieldstone. I say to the fieldstone, “I’d probably make a poor wife for Eddie or anyone else. I can’t get back into the mold.”
Bob makes no wisecrack, soaking in my talk. He sighs. He says, “Well, you’re tuned in to yourself. That’s the way you are.” Did he get like this from dealing with the mentally ill? “Pretty tough to figure, ain’t it? You hope someday it’ll make some sense.” Then he says, “But, George, how come you let Frank tromp all over you?”
I go over the remark, playing it back to myself, looking at Bob, then looking down at the fieldstone. A mile or so away, a meadowlark trills her earnest song.
“I see he takes you out,” Bob says, “he’s running up and down the bar putting on this big show for the folks – mainly the wimmin – bragging up a storm. I have to laugh he thinks he’s hot stuff. Most of them believe it. He’s my old pal, sure, I’d give him my last dime, but I was catching trout before he ever seen one.”
Probably it’s true. Probably even about the trout is true. Why would a guy lie about his best friend? But men. They’re so competitive.
“You are right,” I agree, “more than once I’ve walked out. I even walked home once. Four miles of country road, at night. He said walking home alone showed I was unstable.”
“I tell you, George, he’s really out looking for it, and sometimes it works. You’d be surprised, places we been. You weren’t there.” Bob is digging for another smoke in his breast pocket.
“I’ve warned him about making passes,” I say. “I told him somebody is going to take him seriously someday, and he’ll get more than he expected.”
“I wish the hell he would,” says Bob. Reaches a hand to my own. We turn and, hand in hand, start out slowly to walk through the reeds. They yield and snap in our path back to the clearing and the bank, where the poles point skyward. “You’re too good for him, I know what I’m talkin’,” says Bob.
“I don’t take guys too seriously,” I say, “I, like, got my diploma. Sounds like you’re mad at Frank.”
“Yah, I s’pose,” says Bob.
“Frank likes thin-lipped women,” I say, following it along, “skinny women, tight-strung, kill ‘em to smile.”
“Yah, his ex-wife,” says Bob.
“Maybe he likes them the right size to carry across thresholds.” What a fine joke. It goes unnoticed. “But you see, when I need help, he shows up. When I need a brandy, he’s there. Dependable is the word for Frank. Sometimes I ask him about women. Ask him what he does in his spare time. He just says, ‘When would that be? You always know where I am.’”
“Garbage,” snaps Bob. He says it loudly – in the middle of a cast. The bait plops into the water downstream, breaking from the hook. “Look,” says Bob forlornly, “Yah, George, ‘You always know where I am.’ That’s what I used to tell my first wife before she caught me on the phone with a barfly I wasn’t supposed to know.” He’s reeling in. “Dig me out another beer, George; don’t let’s talk about this no more.”
Not far from where we are is a place in this same river where my children and I canoed, and swam too; twelve years old, the oldest boy was. We could walk all the way across the river; it was shallow, sludge squeezing between our toes. Today’s children aren’t allowed to experience such things. The warm filth was a novel sensation to us, too, we who found it in the cold rush of the rocky rivers further north. At only one place is this river neck-deep. I wonder, sitting with Bob, whether it is still as deep there where we used to dive, brown, non-threatening, dark not from depth, but from washouts, the rich workland flowing in whenever it rains. Farmers here in the south aren’t as careful with their soil. Like spoiled rich kids, they fail to contour their furrows and they watch the land wash away. When the land wears out they sell it to Chicago people streaming up into this country. Farmers here in the south got their land easily from their forebears. They sell seed corn with their fathers’ franchises. Before very long, a farmer will be a person who puts in eight hours a day on someone else’s land and someone else’s tractor. The farmer will earn minimum wage; approximately what a dirt-farm owner earns now.
“Get y’rself a beer, George, enough with the deep thoughts,” mutter Bob. “You ain’t thinking about old Frank.”
I open a can of beer without forethought and it’s too late to change my mind. Maybe I can pass the tasted drink on to him. Maybe he won’t even notice it’s been tapped. “I gave up worrying and spying some time ago,” I say. “Too hard on the digestion. You know what they say. It will all come out in the wash.”
“You think so, huh?”
“What’ve I got to lose?” I laugh, handing him the beer. “Irene is a realist too, isn’t she?”
“Ya, she’s a realist, I guess,” says Bob without sarcasm. They both accept, and they stay together, hanging on the edge. I’m a little envious, strangely enough. I haven’t met Irene.
Indian-fashion I sit on the cool dirt of the riverbank and bait hooks, running the barb into the body of the sacrificial worm, in and out twice as the worm writhes. The job is done well, but still Bob must examine them, correcting anything incorrect about their impalement. I wait for him to comment on the sterility of my fingers. A true angler has hands caked with mud and grime on purpose – sealing out the poisons of civilized life. Seldom is a fish caught when baited with clean fingers. Bob is lenient today, though. He doesn’t reprimand me. If my luck holds, we may yet catch a catfish.
I remember coming home that day after we had packed up and then stopped off at a place and gambled with Bob’s money, not that he ever carried that much; but we came out all right that day playing a numbers game with a couple who owned the roadhouse, an echoing dance floor mainly uninhabited. We sat on high stools at the far corner of the bar. It was the best time I had ever had gambling. My upbringing doesn’t allow me to enjoy casting lots. But that day, I seemed to be free and more than just hanging at the fringe of the action. Just as my game was flourishing, two men came into the bar, the brightness of the afternoon sun flashing across us, and they found stools one place away from mine. One was a twentyish fellow in his Nike t-shirt and a feedcap and the commonplace Magnum moustache from some Hawaiian Detective re-runs. The other man, more of an old farmer type, was closer to me. He had heavy graying hair, tousled as if he had come straight from work without a thought. Some strands of his heavy hair strayed to his eyebrows – grown-together eyebrows like those of a Hollywood mountain-man. His face was square, his eyes far set. He was a massive man in a loose t-shirt with half-rolled sleeves but he looked active, unlike an afternoon, sedentary beer-drinker. All this I could take in easily, having acquired a knack at county expense in the locked wing of fourth-floor mental hospital. Or maybe I learned it before that. Or maybe I’d inherited it.
The young mustached fellow sat talking to the barmaid as if they were long-lost cousins. The big guy watched our dice. Bob hailed him when that round was over. “Hey, Milo. Who you hiding from this time of day?” And, said Bob, to me, “We got to buy beer all around for these people with our winnings, George.” bringing to me the realities of barroom gambling ethics. The big man, Milo, watched the barmaid lay our token beer in front of him. He said, “We had a load of hay for up over the hill here.” His voice was deep and lazy. I looked at his face, his voice being pleasant to my ear. He continued to talk, looking at me. “Starting to run leftover hay from the south when we get time.” He named the place over the hill he’d left the hay, waiting for someone to recognize the farmer’s name. His companion, Magnum, left his seat to cross the dance floor to put money into the juke box. The machine had been disconnected for day time, but the young barmaid was more than happy to reactivate it. A cowboy began singing “Waltzing Through Texas,” a song that improves in a tavern setting. The bar owner called, “Turn it down, Debbie, we don’t need all that noise when the sun’s shining,” and secretly I thanked the man for his providence.
Milo was talking at me and past me, telling Bob about Missouri where he’d loaded his truck full of southern hay. Bob was mentioning relatives in Rolla, Missouri. The conversation limped to its inevitable end, and Bob added, “This here is George, my buddy. You know each other? No, you don’t. This here is Milo. He used to bust horses and now he turned around and sells ponies to puppies.” Bob lifted his drink at us. “George, she used to work with me, over at the funny farm,” he said, “until I turned to professional fishing.”
Milo and I found ourselves shaking hands with each other. I saw that his eyes were brown, in the dim light, and I saw his gold left-incisor tooth, and I saw his collarbone running back under the faded shirt – lacking buttons – under his bib suspenders. You have to understand, I like big people. I give them lavish credit for having appetites not just for food but for numerous other desirable things. I fought back the desire to tell Milo all about this fixation of mine. Instead, I ruthlessly interrupted my baser instincts: “I’d be interested in buying some hay.” I thought to myself, he thinks it’s a joke, a come-on.
“Yah,” said Bob. He was getting ready to roll the dice again. He was moving objects and wiping the counter. “She milks cows. She’s over just off Platt Road.” He nudged my arm, invigorated by beer. “George, we should start calling you Malcolm.”
“Smart-mouth guys help me with night milking,” I retorted.
“She knows I milked my last damn cow thirty years ago,” Bob informed Milo.
Patiently Milo studied us. Then he talked some more. “This is pretty high-class hay. Later on in the year we get the slough hay – horse hay – and that’s cheaper, of course. Cheaper when I buy it. ‘Course I soak horse owners. I can do maybe three trips a month depending on how things go around here. It’ll run you less’n a buck a bale if we don’t break down. Prices later on, well, you never know.” We were looking straight at each other, no Bob. It really did feel like business. I did the figures in my head while I noticed the mole on Milo’s right cheekbone and a flagrant fringe of nostril hair, dark like his eyebrows. He said to me, “I can get all anybody wants. Guy likes to keep on paying his bills.” A fast grin, again the gold teeth. I liked him.
“Three hundred bales to start with?” I asked. “But it’s got to be good quality. You know you got to have good feed for a dairy herd, can’t take chances. No mold. Alfalfa. Should be mostly alfalfa, but a little brume mixture won’t hurt any.”
“Well, this is good hay,” protested Milo. He turned away and I heard him say to Magnum, “I wish we’d brought one along.” Back to me: “But you can just go up there and take a look at her. Second place on the right just over the hill. The name’s on the mailbox. Johnson…er….Jenson.”
“We could go back,” I said, “but naw, you bring over a load next week or when you can. We’ll, like, evaluate it then.”
He was extending a king-sized hand holding a business card. Over his shoulder, Magnum was grinning. I took the card from him, reading it with difficulty in the dim light. “Milo Ruszczyk, Underneath that name were the words “Cattle/Trucking/Feed.” And under that a phone number. “R-u-s-z-c-z-y-k.” I spelled aloud. “Russ-check. Rush-check.” I explained to him. “I used to live up north and I always checked on the names on the barns. Czernecki, Pepernick. I believe you could use a couple of vowels. I happen to have some extra vowels in my name. I could sell you a couple. Trade for hay, you know?”
Milo licked across his upper lip the way some people do, and handed me the stub of a pencil. “Want to write down your location on the back of that,” he said.
“George, here we go now,” called out Bob, waving the dice.
“I’ll be right with you,” I told him. I wrote on the blank side of Milo’s card, my farm’s fire number and the name of the road. I examined what I had written. I turned the card back over and read again from the other side. “Milo Russ-check,” I said. I gave the card and the pencil back to him. Milo was looking at me, a worldly man with soft eyes and an austere mouth, all business.
Easily, I got home early. Sun said four o’clock. The easy afternoon had made the world simple. Home and into the yard, Fiat, quits running, feet hit the ground; twist around and pull the keys from tumbler, stand up, breathe deep.
And nothing much to the barn work. Run out the silage cart, the last usable silage before it gets chopped again next fall, fork it into the mangers for each separate cow. The ground feed, to keep them interested: fill it from the bags; scoop out sparingly over the divvied-up silage. Simple to remember which cows get less. The dry ones get less, the ones that haven’t been milked for a while. Lucy and Grace and Blue, who will freshen in September, and now let them in. Easy enough. No problem at all.
The doors rolled back and in they come, clumping to their places in earnest expectation. I went along re-guiding heads and closing stanchions, talking to each one. Then I turned up the radio. Bob Seeger was winding up “Some Day, Lady, You’ll Accompany Me,” a wonderful song. As I went into the milk room, Mama Cass’s voice poured out rich from her grave, as so many of them do. “There’s a New Day Dawning!” Dear God, I should have known right then that it could never last – that it would all have to come tumbling down.
Six o’clock news was on while I was finishing with the eighth or ninth cow. The milk pails seemed to get heavier, but that was perfectly okay; I was leaving the haze of the afternoon. I was glad to be alone with no one around. I was thinking about trying up the hammock if I got through early enough, thinking of spending time watching the stars come into view. I finished with Charlotte and washed up Irene and walked across to Betty. I pushed her on the hip as she lay. She moved a little, and let out a sign, and made no move to get up. “Ah, Betty,” I said, “You going to lie there all night? You just get up.” She didn’t get up. She was uninterested in what I would do to her and she was uninterested in getting to her feet.
I went on with the machines and left her there. I thought of old Beauty the first, from our first herd, who used to pull a “tired” act. She’d get into her third trimester, heavy with calf, and then one fine morning she would refuse to stand up. We would have to get extra help from around the neighborhood, get block and tackle and get chains around her and pull her up from a ceiling pulley. The next morning, she would be okay. When it was over, that once a year, she really deserved a final trip to the stockyards; but she produced large healthy calves and a lot of milk, and it was only that one day a year she’d play sick – as if she needed the attention.
But Betty? Betty was no prima donna. She didn’t even pull grass from the other side of the fence. If Betty could not get up, it was no Broadway production. A stone of impending doom came into my stomach just below the ribcage.
I tried to leave her alone, trudging through the rest of the work, which had deteriorated into a numbing procedure. But I found myself going back every few minutes to nudge her, as if she could be finally persuaded. I went around to the front of her and let her stanchion swing open. I got some molasses and drizzled it onto the top of the silage she had left untouched. Nothing worked. I wound up the milking, rinsed out the milkers, cleaned up the pails, sloshed the milkhouse floor, the whole enchilada. Back then I went to Betty, lifting her head out of the stanchion with my hands and wrists under her boy jaw to give her air and freedom.
I opened the doors and turned the animals out into the summer night. As they left, Betty stretched a back leg out. Her head seemed to sag like that of a napping dog. I sat down then on the concrete floor beside her. “Come on, Babe, it’s summer,” I coaxed her, “don’t give up. The best is yet to come.” I thought I had better call someone. I thought about calling Frank. I thought about calling a veterinarian, although the only one I had in my mind happened to live at the nursing home. I stroked Betty’s temple. Under my hand, her breathing changed, grew bumpy, caught in a gasp. I remember anesthesia during childbirth: “takes the edge off,” I remembered the woman saying, the woman with cool fingers. I saw Betty’s eyes roll up and then regain. I was scared now, sacred to go for the phone. I was afraid she would die while I was gone.
I lifted Betty’s head up onto my lap; I massaged her neck with my free hand. Silken, her neck hair felt. “All paths cross again,” I said to her. I had believed it long ago, in the sixties, for a while. “Your calf is so strong,” I told her. “That calf of yours never got sick – we pulled that calf through, we did okay on that calf.” And Betty’s head lifted weakly from my lap as if she heard me. Then it lowered and got heavier and finally very heavy. Her whole body stiffened, another back leg jutted out. The shudder built to a peak and then she breathed out, anp extended breath, and then let go, went limp. At the end, water was running. It came from a spasm of the bladder muscle and was running into a gutter. It was the way some of my patients had died. Then Betty’s eyes clouded up and turned blank.
So we were just there together. There was no longer any rush to do anything. I thought I could afford to give her some time. Why not? We had known each other pretty long. Her head was warm, warm in my lap. People get to think about death ahead of time, you know; well, maybe animals do too; who is to say?
My eyes stung with idiotic tears I could not stop. They ran down my cheeks and face and neck, and they soaked into my collar. I kept on talking to Betty as if she were still alive. I am all she can feel of life, I thought, maybe she can still hear me. Who knows?
In the dark, the floor became hard and cold. I lifted Betty’s head from my lap. It was very heavy. I slid out from under her, pushing some straw under her head as I eased it back down. My whole lower half was numb. I stepped across the gutter with stone feet and stood at the door uncertain.
So then I walked out into the dark and felt my way up to the house. Inside, I dialed Frank’s number on the phone. It rang there nine times. I had forgotten about his horseraces. He was out there somewhere, probably back in Wisconsin putting the frosting onto his payday. There had been nights when he’d come past to hammer on the door, befuddled by the liquor in his bloodstream, but he had difficulty remembering my days off and was not often successful in finding me.
To call Bob was out of the question. I had never called Bob at his home. It would have been inexcusable to do such a thing, and tonight it would amount to stealing another handful and all for nothing more than a pat on my head.
Absently I tried Frank again. Yes, he was out, and he was making the rounds. I could go out and try to find him. I could drive the Fiat around all night looking for him. Sure I could.
There was the number I had read twice from the card Milo had handed me – his corny business card. I thought about the number. I’m not good with numbers. Math I like, but recollection is different.
A woman answered the phone. My impulse was to hang up. Then I said raggedly, “Is Milo around?” Whatever the woman answered I could not hear. Wrong number, maybe. Then a man’s voice came in: “Yeah,” flat and almost surly.
“We met today at the Owl’s Nest?” The name of the place had come into my head like forgotten people’s names at a class reunion. “We talked about hay? You recall?” He was silent. “I need some help,” I said, rushing on, “I’m not clear on what I should – I have, um, I have a problem here, I guess I need some advice.”
“Go ahead,” said Milo. “What kind of problem you got?”
“What I have is a dead animal, a dead cow,” I said into the phone. “She’s been off her feed for some time – been milking poorly, but now she just got real weak and went down, um, right during milking. Well, I finished up and went to look her over and here she just died on me, and, you know, it looks like I should have moved her out of here while she’s still, uh; somebody is going to have to have some way to get her out of here. That’s the story, I guess I’ve said it all.” There was dry bitterness in my mouth and no more words.
He said, “She’s in the barn?”
“Yes,” I said, nodding my head at the phone. “Just a few steps inside. Do you have…or do you do…this type of thing?”
“Well, yeah,” he said. “Sure, I can take care of it. Take her out tonight; it’s easier than, ah, waiting. I can get there in, yeah, I guess I know where you are, in an hour or so. Yeah, give me an hour.”
I put down the phone, my hand sweaty. I walked to the bathroom, turned on the faucet, grating my hands together under it, and then splashed cold water over my face and head. Then I left the house and walked back out across to the barn, again without a yard light. Inside the barn, though, the lights were still burning, hanging bare laced with cobwebs. The barn was the same as it had been this morning except this morning, Betty had been alive, and tonight she’s no longer alive. I went over and kicked some loose straw into a mound to sit on and took up the watch again with Betty. My hand went again to her neck, still warm. I thought this is called the dead, what Betty is now…as they say in church, the quick and the dead. My lips were dry as paper. With my tongue, I could trace the salty groves.
Death was always Hemingway’s main dish, but to me, it is acid swallowed, burning away my speech and leaving me mute. Now in the barn around me there were noises, little noises of living things. The air began to liven with chitterlings. The calves, over at the far wall, were tapping and clinking pails, knocking into metal railings, and even from the mow upstairs, there were breathy stirrings of birds or bats. It was mice moving on ledges, one of them furtively creeping near the soundless radio on the rafter.
Milo came through the milk house, ignoring the sliding door. I had heard no vehicle noise. He was in a shapeless dark 1930s farmer coat, the kind with square pockets, and he had shoved a stocking cap onto his head, an unlikely winter cap slanted to one side of his head. His hair stuck out around it like a clown’s. He stopped just under the radio and stood looking at me hunched there on the floor beside Betty.
“I guess it could have waited until morning,” I said. The sudden sound of my voice filled the empty barn. “I guess I lost my mind for a minute.”
“Huh,” said Milo, as if it were another joke he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge. “Well,” he said, “she’s deader’n hell.” He stepped closer, crossed the gutter and leaned back half-sitting against Blue’s section-iron next door to Betty, looking at me, his hands patting his thighs. “No use trying to give her first aid. You don’t look as good yourself.”
He looked at Betty for a while. Then he stood up, turned and slowly walked down to the other end, walking under the lights to the far door, looking right and then left, casing the joint. Then he came strolling back. I thought about getting up from the floor, but instead I waited to see how it was going to go. “You’re the only one who stayed up?” he asked.
“Well. I’m alone here. I’m alone at this place. Nobody else lives here. I’m it.”
“Oh,” he said. And leaned back where he had been before, on Blue’s stall.
“So, I held this committee meeting with myself,” I said. Here I go again almost apologizing for dragging him out into the mysteries of the night. Well. Why apologize? If the carcass gets stiff, whose problem is it? Turns out to be somebody else’s. “So, your truck is out there,” I said.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” he said breezily, “there’s nothing to getting her on. Nothing atall.”
“You’d like to get going.”
“Well,” he said uncertainly, “that’s the idea.”
“I can get up,” I said, “you don’t have to lead me.”
He looked at me with the flicker of a smile. “Here we are,” he said scratching at his forehead, “hanging around out here over this poor dead bossy-cow. I didn’t figger I’d, um, get here like this.”
“Well, yes, I’d rather it had been a nice load of alfalfa.” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “you’da been looking happier and me, I’d be filling my pockets full of your nice crisp dollar bills.”
“You did get the short stick tonight,” I admitted. “As for me, staying up late, that’s nothing. I work all night usually. Losing a good cow, that’s something else again.”
“How many cows you milk here?”
“Twenty. Well…I guess nineteen now.” I patted Betty’s neck.
“Four calves?” He had noticed them on this little stroll.
“And two yearlings outside. I’m just barely solvent”
“I feel a little solvent myself tonight,” said Milo, looking at the ceiling. It sounded like an inference. Men are so fond of inferences.
“Bob says you’re a cowboy.”
Milo’s hands move on his thighs. “I used to do rodeo some.” It was exactly like Bob when he talked about the war in Indochina. Such close-mouthed twits. But still, it’s better than talking you into a coma.
“See, I’m a writer,” I explained, “that’s why I try to get folks to talk about themselves.” (I can’t remember when I ever said that to anyone before).
His answer came slow, “Ah. You write poems?”
“No, I’m not a poet, just a slop shooter,” I said, laughing.
He seemed relieved. I, too, was relieved, that he didn’t ask about publishing. “Well,” he said carefully, “no harm in that, I s’pose.”
“I don’t know,” I said, “because you write about your home town and get into print and then the home folks want to hang you.”
“Ain’t that hell?” he asked without surprise. “That happened to you?”
“Well no, that’s just something I’ve heard, but maybe it’s just that, you know, people resent good fortune. You never get much glory back where you come from.”
“You starting to feel better now?”
I wondered whether he was trying to rush me. I wondered whether he was one of those gents who regard women as airheads. I wondered, too, whether it was just a sincere question about how I felt. That would be very nice, I thought. “I guess you’d like to get the show on the road,” I said. I attempted to get to my feet with a semblance of grace grabbing Betty’s stall iron.
“You want to leave; I can do it alone, nothin’ to it.” To me it sounded more like a dare than a dismissal. Not only that, but he still stood relaxed, hands on thighs, watching me try to straighten myself out.
The truck pushed partly in through the doors, resembling the back of a wrecker with higher sides. The stone rolled back into my belly at the sight of chains, pulleys, and cables. All Milo did was run a couple of trusses around her some way or other. I decided I’d put down some hay for morning. That would be better than vomiting into the gutter for all the world to see. In the end, she was cradled, with little effort, swung over, and let down gently into the truck box. I wondered whether the tender loving care was there as a show for me to watch. It’s a folly to let my mind rebel like that. I have anger enough already.
The rig moaned its way out of the barn; I thought it was driving away. I moved to close the doors behind it. Then the brake lights flashed, and Milo stepped around into the yellowish light of the barn and closed up the tailgate. I could see a star above the truck through the gaping doors – outside, in the open air. He came in.
“You okay now?” he said gruffly.
“As compared to what?” I sounded glib, like Frank, “No. Really. A couple of days; it might take a while. I kind of, you know, wish I had to get ready and go off to work tonight. Get out of my own skin.”
He turned away, slid one barn door shut, reached and slid the other one to meet it, and plunked down the door hook. He turned back to me, the prosaic look on his face. “What can I do for you?” he said.
I was impressed. Yes. I was impressed. He was close enough that I could trace my finger around the button on his coat, which I did. His hand, though, closed around my wrist. “Just help me finger this out, will you?” he said flatly. “Should I be getting myself out of here?”
I could not believe the finesse. The finesse, out here in the middle of redneck country. “Oh,” I say, “don’t worry about me. I don’t. There’s somebody back there waiting for you. I wouldn’t –” I let the sentence hang, looking at his coat button.
“I couldn’t even tell her who was on the phone,” said Milo. “I told her one of the George brothers, whoever the hell that might be. I never even heard your name.”
“Eldridge is my name,” I said like a schoolteacher. “But it’s a borrowed name; it’s from my ex-husband, as the saying goes. I use it to keep things orderly for the offspring. Mary. Johansen. And then Eldridge. Isn’t’ that grand? I love the way a woman’s name keeps growing like a dawn creeping Charlie.” He’d better stop me or I’ll be doing my plug for matrilineal society. I said, “Would you like a drink of water? The water is good here.”
“Tell you the truth, I just want to sit,” said Milo. “I drove ten hours from Missouri this morning. You got a hay bale a guy can sit on?”
“Got chairs in the house. We could sit in chairs and drink Danish coffee and see who gets ulcers first.”
“Na,” he said, “I’ll see the house next time.”
He knew, as well as I did, where I had put the bales. When I came back with a tin cup of water from the milk room, he had shucked off his farmer coat and had cast it against the steps, and was sitting on a bale. I sat on another. We looked at each other grimly. I handed him the cup. And then I got reckless, which has happened several times since the day I first found out about the one hundred percent solution to my own personhood. “I think the matter is,” I said to him, “that I like you too much.”
He sipped the water. “Well, you took a punch tonight,” he said. “You just liked your cow too much.” And he drank the rest of the water and laid the cup on the steps.
But, you see, he had been the one who dropped the door hook. So I sat there on my bale, feeling through my jeans pockets, as if my thoughts were deep. A bobber from Bob’s fishing stuff was in my pocket. A split sinker or two lay at the bottom, and there was something in the pocket the shape of a half-dollar, enclosed in plastic wrap. “Son of a gun,” I thought, “it’s a condom.” Having a rubber stashed in my pocket was a practice I’d begun when the sixties met the seventies, although in these latter days, I often forgot, having always had my doubts anyway.
Milo meantime was going on. “Most customers, they call me for dead animal pickup, then they go hide in the house.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah, that’s so,” he said, mocking me. “They don’t want any part of it. Gives them the shiverin’ fits. Even though we all know she died on their watch, and I had nothin’ to do with it.”
“It’s probably guilt,” I said helpfully, having spent plenty of time with guilt myself. “Guilt paralyzes people.”
“Now vets,” he said, “vets run like scared rabbits. Dog dies while they got it, and they tell the dog’s owner, ‘Whoa! You knew there’s a dog heaven,’ then they call me. ‘You come out at midnight, pick it up, stay out of sight!”
“It’s a failure thing,” I explained. “It’s a denial.”
“Well. That’s nice,” he said without malice. He reached out for my two hands. Luckily I’d left the condom in the pocket. His big fingers explored the calluses on my hands and the torn skin. “You’re a tough cookie,” he muttered, eyebrows raised.
“Supervisor on the fourth floor hospital calls it good motivation level,” I pointed to my temple to show him what kind of hospital it was. Then I placed that hand back in his hand.
“I’m a shrink, too,” said Milo. “When the boys, the guys I hire, when they get in trouble with the women, I give them advice. Well, not good advice. I’m a guru. I’m a – statesman, elder statesman. You know. Statesman. A spectator sportsman.”
“What a shame,” I said.
“You think so?” he said. “I got it made. I’m all set. Place and equipment’s all paid off, and business pretty good. I got me a house-keeper seems to think she’s better off taking care of me than going home and getting beat up again.”
“That’s who I need,” I agreed. “You got a good deal. Somebody to pick up dirty socks. Put the hay down. Wash the milkers. Possibilities are endless.” On the third finger of my right hand he had run across the friendship ring Frank had dug out of the ground with his metal detector. It was loose, and he turned it. “I’ll betcha I smell like catfish bait,” I mused. “It’s caked all over me. Along with cow muck. Hands are clean, though. Splashing around in antiseptic teat washer for an hour. How did we get on this subject?” In my nostrils hung the warm whisper of leafy hay. Even city people like that smell. To farmers, it’s the trigger of a thousand feelings of unbearable heat and dust in a bumpy field, the airlessness of the mow with its steamy walls of stacked bales – hands ready to bleed from twine cuts. But then when the soil rests, there’s the sweet security of a crop saved.
Now, when I think back about that night, I see Milo’s dark square face above the open neck of his threadbare colorless shirt, limp with countless washings. I see myself worn down and assaulted and ready to lash out at some prattling philosopher, anger nibbling at the edges. I remember a wary cat about us on the wooden steps – one of the wilder ones – poised to whirl away into the upper darkness.
“I’m dead on my feet,” Milo said. “Not good for much. You want me to stay, I’ll stay, but, see, I have to be out of here by three-four o’clock.”
“No,” I said. I was never one to whip a tired horse. Idly a thought walked by me, about Milo’s mouth: would it have tasted like garlic or like a cigar? Would it have tasted like Tabasco? (Grandmother Jorgine, why do you whisper these things to me? Is it you? Are you cautioning me, or are you bestowing your blessing?)
Milo said, “See, I’ll be back here with hay middle of next week.”
“That’s right,” I agreed pleasantly. Men have this fencing: I do not like leaving my fate to someone else’s devices. Being in control; that’s where it’s at. I am fond of my own taste. I’m fond of my own luck, which holds up for important things. I have no wish to depend on a guy’s cemented preferences – for Pete’s sake, he learns them when he’s in high school and never loses them, never escapes. “You’re right,” I assured Milo, “a little time won’t kill anyone, will it?” I thought, “An-ti-ci-pa, yay, yay, yay, shun,” like the song says.
“Somebody out there,” Milo interrupted my silent song. “Do you care if we get caught?” Sure enough, there was a noise, a bumping at the hooked door. “Here,” said Milo, “just a second, quick now,” and in one movement we leaned toward each other, hearing steps across the milk house – shoes with leather heals. “Primitive” is the word for the kiss. Crude. Uncivil. Done with teeth.
Frank’s step is decisive. He came through the door unflinching at the dimness, hesitating under the lights to get his bearings, shouting as he does always to evoke response: “What the hell? Where the hell is everybody?” The noise flowing from him.
“Frank,” I said, and he peered at the place where we sat on the bales, seeing mostly, I suppose, Milo’s big back.
“What in hell is going on? What’s the damn truck?” He stood rooted and posturing under the lights.
“Had a cow die is all,” I said. “The fresh Brown Swiss.”
“I’ll be – go to hell,” he shouted. “She loaded already?”
“Yes, that’s right. We were just winding it up,” Milo sat looking at me, his eyes laughing. I could see them, dark as it was.
“So what are you doing? Holding a eulogy? Truck don’t start?” Frank walked closer, came to our side of the barn, and as he rounded the corner, he caught his shoulder on Grace’s swinging stanchion, and let out a howl of profanity, invoking Lutheran deity, a deluge of the kind he always said he had learned while in the custody of the 1941 Army Air Corps. “It’s eleven o’clock!” he announced, as if he were booking someone for criminal trespass.
“That late,” I said. I flushed with astonishment listening to my own fast lie.
“Damn lucky I broke up the party,” shot back Frank. Faith was not Frank’s strong suit.
“So how did the races go, Frank?”
“Never you mind how did the races go,” he said, massaging his damaged shoulder. “I came out better than even is how they went. That Trifecta is what saved the day. We eat steak this week, you lucky girl.”
Milo stood up, sliding a finger across my knee. “I’ll just go,” he said.
Then the two of them did the ritual of men, facing each other as if they were team players in a locker room, introducing themselves, and then addressing each other immediately on a first-name basis, spitting freely upon the floor. It was touching, as always. I kicked hay up in the mangers, making work. Milo walked around Frank and went out the door without looking back. Presently the truck whined, groaned and crunched away into the night.
“I gotta tell you, Putz,” Frank said gleefully, a whole new man, “that sorrel filly in the fifth race.” I could smell his brandy at six paces. He flashed the money in his wallet, shuffling bills like playing cards so that one ten-spot even drifted to the floor, lying on the white lime. Frank was not at ease with humility. Through his long history with animals, he could spot temperament and build, he could spot winners. Some other time, I might have listened in awe. He was rubbing his wreaked shoulder as he talked.
“Frank, baby,” I said when he started to repeat about the sorrel filly in the fifth race, “the world has worn me down tonight. I need some time alone. I’m not good company. Would you mind going on home and calling me tomorrow?”
“You’re not going to work?”
“I’ll call in. I’m not up to it. I would snarl at people.”
“I thought you were off tonight,” he protested. “I wanted to take you up to the corner place. Lindy’s up there – I saw his truck – he’s prob’ly be there with that chick you like. Dee? Come on, lemme buy you an Old Fashioned, that’ll pick you up.”
“Drinking isn’t going to help this,” I told him. “I’d never catch up with you anyway; you got too good a start on me.”
This kind of talk always made Frank angry. He held five fingers. “Only a few.”
“More’n enough,” I interrupted. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Glad you had luck today.” I rose and approached carefully, sliding my hands up his chest, touching his slide tie.
“I just need some alone tonight, ok?”
“I could stay,” he whined.
“No, you go and have a good time. I’m dead on my feet,” I said, repeating Milo’s claim. “Just go. Call me tomorrow.”
We shut off the lights, clicked on the yard light, latched the doors, walked slowly toward the house. Under the glow of the yard light, I paused and reached for him, kissing him a goodnight kiss that I hoped he wouldn’t misinterpret.
“See ya,” I murmured.