One of my good cows, Betty, kicked the bucket the other day, in the worst sense. I think she had been getting sick when you were living here. She had a mild temperament, a story book cow, never needing pampering as some of them do. I still haven’t paid off the trucker who came around to pick up her carcass (I say “carcass” but am not convinced: she isn’t yet a carcass to me). I should have paid him but I didn’t think of it until after he had gone. She was still warm and I was still upset. In the old days you got paid for an animal, they’d feed it to carnivores like foxes. Now you pay to be rid of one. Every living thing has to die, of course; still I feel responsible and there’s nothing anyone else can say. I make the best of it and feel lower’n a skunk as I write this.
In Kansas and here, too, the summer has turned very dry. In other years the weather-changes from hot to cold would cause condensation and it would start to rain. This year the rule doesn’t work. I’ve always loved storms and I can’t help but get edgy to see eastern-Colorado weather in green Wisconsin. The forecasters, silly fools, talk about a “good day tomorrow” when they mean “continued dry.” Wait until everyone is eating reprocessed cardboard instead of food. Hardly any farmers here have irrigation systems. That will change, through, if this keeps up.
Sorry to bore you (as always) with farm talk. I have to sleep now and will mail this on my way to work tonight. Thanks again! Peace and rain,
If you enter a dairy barn unannounced, you will catch folks doing any number of questionable acts. Country people know that. I happened to be pushing on Charlotte with the flat of my hand trying to bump the calf inside her, when Milo Ruszczyk came through the door. As I straightened up I saw him. He stood just inside, hands in pockets, as I turned from Charlotte and pulled the Surge from Barbara in a deft upward stroke and brought out the machine to the center to pour the milk into a steel pail. I tipped an imaginary hat at Milo and ducked under Sugar, self-conscious, to put the teat cups on. He watched me while I went into the milkroom to pour milk through the strainer at the top of the bulk tank.
“They got a pipeline you can buy,” Milo said as I came back past him. “Saves on legs.”
“I heard,” I replied. I went to Rose to finish her. From my haunches beside her, I said, “I didn’t expect you.”
“Who’d you expect?” he shot back. “Never mind.”
He was something to look at, beautiful to me. He was like a flatland-vacationer in a loose summer shirt (his collarbone and the outline of his breasts defining the flimsy cloth). His pants were shapeless and his loafers scuffed. And me: ragged shorts and an old t-shirt, the bare minimum. Well, visitors should call ahead.
“You’re looking good,” I said, standing to pull off the machine. Sugar was nearly dry.
“You be.” said Milo modestly.
I poured out the milk. “Lemmy carry for awhile,” he said, stepping up. I put the milker under Beauty the Second, crossed to Sugar to remove the surcingle belt as Milo came back. He said, “How did that whole thing go with you and Whatsisname?” I bit my lip. He said, “You know. The midnight caller, walked in on us the other night.”
“Oh, well, not good,” I said. “I think we aren’t speaking. I think I’m getting the silent treatment. I wasn’t crazy about – well, I kind of invited him to take the same road out. He went away. He’ll get over it.” I left Sugar and changed belts and washed some of the scheduled udders, dumped some more milk. Milo carried away the pail. When he came back, I was hooking the machine to Lucky. “Hello, Lucky, dahling,” I said to her. She was pretty touchy. Touchiest was Ada, who needs a lot of talk and petting and who had a lightning kick she had so far not landed on me.
“She’s lucky?” asked Milo.
“Well, she is pretty lucky,” I grinned.
“They all got names, every one of ‘em?”
“Oh, sure. The one to your right is Irene.” I went back to Beauty the Second. “She’s named after Bob’s wife. She’s very patient.”
Milo looked at Irene.
“Hot, isn’t it?” I asked. “Did you already go to Missouri?”
“Figger on going tomorrow. Been running a lot.”
“Be hot in Missouri,” I said. I finished Beauty and stood up, left her, came out and poured. Put the machine under Jane. Changed straps and washed numerous udders up the line. In my earned-ahead time, I walked up to Milo. Holding the wet towel in both hands at my back, I said to him close, “Let’s try that other thing again.” It was another minimal-contact kiss, but I felt the least I could do would be to keep my accumulated debris off him. He smelled of soap, I swear. I thought, “What’s this? A man who doesn’t splash around in aftershave?” Our teeth met cordially.
I turned away and idled up to Lucky. “Good girl. Stay cool, Lucky,” I advised her. Milo stood watching, me, hand in pockets, un-smiling. “Did you ever catch up on your sleep?” I asked him. He lifted one shoulder: didn’t know, didn’t care, couldn’t recall. I said, “I have to work tonight.”
“Me, too.” said Milo. “I start for Missouri at midnight.”
“Then come back tomorrow?”
“Always drive at night if I can. Come back at night. Sleep in the afternoon, under a tree somewhere if I can find one.”
A stream of sweat trickled between my eyes and down my nose. I dashed it across my cheek with a knuckle. Lucky slapped her tail onto the back of my neck. She liked to leave her tail there and let gravity droop it off. “Damn you, Lucky,” I said fondly. I stood up and lifted away the milker.
When that work was done, Milo still had not left. We gathered up the equipment and lugged it away. Then we went to opposite sides as if we had rehearsed it, to the fronts, and unlocked the animals. They were skittish of Milo Ruszczyk, smelling or sensing him and pull pack in panic. He followed them as they went out, and closed the door after the last one. I scraped down the walkway, grabbed a bag of crushed lime and sifted it out over the floor. Milo found a straw bale and broke it up into Lucy’s stall. (Personally, I prefer sliding the twine from the bale, but men enjoy using knives or brutally breaking the twine, which are both proofs of manliness). I forked out all of the straw for bedding under the animals in the morning, to keep them clean, and I talked: “It’s stormy during chores about twice a week, y’know. Wind whips right through here, in the west, out the east, a regular wind-tunnel…. I don’t get number one door closed in time, the number two door will blow off its runners. Then you sweat for half a day trying to hoist her back up there.”
We broke bales of enticement in front of each stanchion for positive reinforcement, which sometimes keep them from straying to the wrong stall. I left Milo and went to rinse the equipment, change the tank filter, wash down the floor. It’s the bacteria versus the Good Guys, more or less, and so far the Good Guys are more or less winning.
When I came back Milo was leaning on Blue’s stall, where he had been the other night when Betty died.
“You’re good help,” I snapped, “you lookin’ for a part-time job or a full-time job?”
“I don’t know if I could stand workin’ for you,” he said, his hands gripping the iron cross-bar under him.
“I like to get done. Sometimes it drags on half the night.”
“I know that,” Milo said, shaking his head.
“This week I’d like to find another cow for Betty’s place,” I told him, standing in the middle. “None of the young stock is big enough to bring in. I’ll have to take a day off and get over to Monroe country. Bothers me to see her empty space. I’m sure she’d see it my way.
“Betty’s the dead one?”
“That’s right. I’ll probably replace her with a Swiss. Swiss are quiet and intelligent.”
“I never heard that.”
“Well, you got mostly Holstein-worshipers around here. They’re all Germans, what d’you think you’re going to hear from them?”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“Those guys, I tell you, they get together in their Holstein meetings, they leave the hausfrau at home in the kitchen, of course; they drink beer and talk about the Fatherland. ‘Ach, ja, das ist richtich, Black und Vite all der vey!’ Good thing you weren’t married to some of that.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know about that.”
“You never married a German then.”
“Not that I know of. I was one time married for ten-eleven years after the big war when everybody was getting married. I wasn’t that good at it.”
“Yes,” I said eagerly, “that’s when they all did it. Ten-eleven years isn’t too bad these days. I believe they’re all still doing it.”
“Yeah, I guess they are,” said Milo with some remorse.
“No me, though,” I told him briskly, “I don’t marry people anymore.”
“Uh-huh. Does Whatsisname know that?”
“Well…I don’t know. It doesn’t come up.” I walked back to the radio on the beam and turned the switch. Elvis was singing about whether I was sorry we drifted apart. I cut off Elvis. “You got a watch?” I asked Milo.
He fished a watch out of his pants pocket. “Ten to eight.” he said.
“Cow door latched nice and tight?”
“Well, sure,” he said testily.
“See, because Beauty can force that door open with her horn. And I get upset when I get home in the morning from work and the cows are lounging all over the barn chewing their cuds.”
“That would be upsetting,” he acknowledged.
“They like to break off the water cups, too,” I said.
“Well, a cow is pretty big. Maybe they don’t mean to, I’m saying”
“Oh, they mean to, all right.” I stepped across the gutter to where he leaned half-sitting. I stood between his knees. With him leaning there, we were on the same level. Our mouths were. Old Cool-hand Milo was suddenly and fervently kissing this smelly farm hick. “How can you stand me?” I ask.
“It’s tough,” he said, his fingers moving on my elbows.
“Milo,” I said resolutely. “How to say this. In a little while I have to go clean up. I do have to. I have to stick to this schedule or I screw up at work. I have to clean up and sack out and then tonight I’ll have to put gas in the Fiat, too, on the way in. Extra ten minutes.” I took a deep breath, backed away and leaned on the iron opposite Milo. “One night I got into work all dragged out and Victor Dusik came up to the desk for a smoke although it wasn’t time for him yet to have one; and he started insulting this black co-work of mine. I love this woman more than anyone in the whole world almost. And I went after Victor and I grabbed him by the back of his collar and ran him fifty feet down to seclusion and locked him up. Does that make any sense?”
“I don’t know,” said Milo, his eyes laughing. “How big is Victor?”
“Well…not much bigger than…well, the thing is, it doesn’t make sense. You don’t treat a mental patient like that. Makes you as schizoid as he is. No excuse for it. Victor was born in an institution. His father and his mother were both patients. I suppose it’s this infuriating culture that makes me fly off like that. I love Jean so much, I never get tired of her, and then to realize what this white power structure has always done to her people…and Victor being only a crazy echo of this rotten system.”
“The long and the short of it is, you gotta get your sleep,” Milo said, scratching his forehead.
“Sorry,” I said, “I get carried away. At work I’m called a behavior mod technician. We have rewards and then there are punishments. Locked rooms, they’re punishments. Punishments aren’t very useful. Rewards work better, you can figure that out. A patient might get admitted, she’s a smoker. We like that; she has to turn in all the cigarettes she owns, right away. Then we hand ‘em back to her, her own cigarettes, one at a time. Get the picture? She doesn’t know right, she goes without. We can do anything with that patient. We can replace her weird ways with some ways that are less weird. But Victor, forty years he’s been locked up, pacing and jabbering. The best reward anyone can give him is a walk in the sun. He’ll walk outside with nothing outside with nothing on his feet! An exit from hell is what it is. How do you ever teach him right or wrong? Everything in Victor’s life is wrong,” I said. “You know, you happen to have really good eye-contact.”
He said, “Eye contact, huh?”
“Now sometimes we got a guy who wises up about the behavior and program. He sees that we’re trying to bend him. He says, ‘Nuts, I’ll just quit smoking.’ Now this we can’t have. He has shorted us out. Staff gets mad. This guy is less psychotic now, like a miracle, but the program has been trashed. You see?”
Milo said, “You want to come over here?” He caught my hand and pulled, and we came together, my arm folded between us so my fingers could move on his collarbone and flimsy shirt. “It’s okay,” he said to me. “We got next week, we got next month. We got all kinds of time.”