The Barn: Chapters 2 and 3
A week later and it was early May. The spring thaw was over, the mud was receding, and to Greg, sitting atop the ancient Massey-Fergusen in the upper field, the land surrounding the farm, lay exposed, in hushed anticipation of some further cataclysmic change, of either death or rebirth. The naked trees on the distant hillsides stood erect like dense clusters of pikemen stripped of regalia, reminded him of the pictures he had seen in Bobby’s history books since earliest childhood, with only the silver and blue fur of the evergreens to break up the monotony of grays and browns. In a week or two the temporal, summer greenness would come on, full flush. Overnight the trees and brush would grow leaves, would fatten to twice their size. Sightlines would diminish, the woods would darken. Light would not return there until the depths of November.
The Farnhams' farm sat on a slight incline, set back a full quarter mile from the highway, and a mile west of the village of Smithson, Vermont. The church spires and some of the rooftops of town were just barely visible from the little white two story farmhouse, until the foliage closed the view off entirely for the length of two full seasons. During those months, the Farnhams were physically isolated from their neighbors, from much of civilization, except for the radio and the TV, of course, and the two-lane highway that stretched below their front meadow, the hum and whine and rumble of cars and trucks going by, driven mostly by strangers. It was mostly strangers now, too, who came to call: the $20 an hour truck drivers who picked up the milk twice a day in their shiny chrome tubular rigs with the Massachusetts plates, the county vet and the small army of state Ag inspectors, with their clipboards and windbreakers and earnest young faces, and the occasional traveling salesman or politician.
On a bright Saturday morning a tan El Dorado turned off Route 7 and began careening and rocking its way up the Farnham's long driveway, fighting the last of the mud, the slope, the trenches, like a riverboat caught in a violent summer squall. Mary peered out anxiously through the living room window, watched as the big tan car lumbered its way toward her, until it finally pulled up and came to a halt adjacent to the windowless front porch. She put her hand to her cheek and prayed silently to herself. She had many forebodings; she was, in fact, constantly prone to them, but what she dreaded most of all at this moment was another visit from another police detective, inquiring about the activities of her son Mikey.
The man in the El Dorado opened the door gingerly and got out, shut the door and then paused briefly to inspect the car's mud-splattered fenders before heading for the house, his mouth set in an expression of distaste. He was middle-aged, short, balding, and somewhat tubby, and Mary saw he was sensitive about it; he’d hitched up his gray suit pants to hide his belly behind his belt line. This had the effect of forcing his flesh upwards toward his chest, an attempt at squaring off his rounded body, so as he chugged up the path to her door, it looked to Mary as if he might be wearing a bulletproof vest underneath his shirt and suit jacket or perhaps even a holster. The impression of stress and upward pressure was suggested further by the stranger's bulbous forehead and bare scalp, which bulked menacingly above his dark glasses.
"The best time to get him is during the afternoon milking, or dinnertime," Mary replied to the man's inquiry, after glancing at his business card, but not letting him in. He was not a policeman. He was instead a Mr. Glamor, from the First Farmers and Mechanics Cooperative and Credit Union, collection division, all the way down from Burlington. "He's out in the fields the rest of the day."
"Oh, is he? It's just that we've written your husband a couple of letters and we haven't had any response from him." Glamor’s voice and manner had a practiced air of detached politeness. "In fact, if you don't mind, I'd like to talk to you about this matter."
Mary sighed deeply, but, still flustered by her initial fear, moved aside, conceding Glamor the doorway and entry. Not that she was much surprised or taken aback by a visit such as this. Henry had taken to ripping up anything that looked like a bill, any envelope with a window and a logo decorating it, without so much as opening it.
Glamor took a seat at the kitchen table. He removed his sunglasses, revealed protruding eyes, mud-colored and watery, and blinked, looked around the room blandly, in a cursory sweep, and said, "Nice house." He opened his briefcase with a bit of ceremony, snapping open the latches. He lifted the lid soundlessly on oiled hinges, forming a physical barrier between he and Mary.
"It's about your property taxes for the last two years, Mrs. Farnham. You apparently haven't paid anything to the town of Smithson in some time. It adds up to a sizeable amount. According to our records you owe the town a lot of money," he glanced down into the maw of his briefcase, "Thousands, in fact."
"Yes. And there was a time when we'd hear from the town directly about this. We've lived here our whole lives, after all. We know the town clerk, Rebecca Stone. She’s married to my cousin Earl."
"Yes, I know Rebecca," Glamor said, with an air of having heard this line of argument many times before. As he talked, his hands appeared over the top of the briefcase from time to time, soft and puffy with nicotine-stained nails. "Smithson's a growing town, as I'm sure you would agree," he went on. "They say the Grand List has doubled in the last five years. They have all they can handle now down at that office. All they can handle. They've tried contacting you a number of times themselves, through the mail, so they say. Truth is, you're probably lucky they hand us the delinquent accounts like yours, instead of sending out the sheriff to serve notice like they used to. That other way nobody benefits, except maybe a bunch of lawyers. This way we can work it out reasonably before it gets to that." He curled his lip upward, producing a grimace-like smile. "I'm really not such an ogre, Mrs. Farnham. I'm sure we can work out a plan of action."
"So the bottom line is..."
"They need the money."
"That's correct. Some arrangements need to be made."
"We just don't have it right now."
"Has there been an illness? Is your husband still working?"
"Yes, he is, the same as always. There's been no illness. We just don't have the money to pay you at the moment."
"Well, the first thing is, we need to know when you'd be able to start paying again. We can work out a plan that way."
"I have no idea."
"You have no idea?"
"No, well...look, Mrs. Farnham, if I may be frank? Something is always better than nothing, if you know what I mean. It's letting the ball get too far in front of you that gets you in trouble."
"I'll talk to Henry about it. He runs things, not me. The farm's not been doing as well as expected lately so I don't know what he'll have to say about it."
"It gets you every time," Glamor said, as if he hadn't been listening.
Mary stood up. "I'll speak with him," she said.
Glamor looked up at her, surprised at her dismissive tone. "This is a very urgent matter, Mrs. Farnham. Situations like this can quickly get out of hand. You don't want your farm foreclosed over taxes. Not at all. That way nobody benefits, except maybe the lawyers. It could happen, though."
There followed an unpleasant silence.
Glamor stood up. "Alright, ma'am. Give your husband my card, if you would please. Tell him to call me as soon as possible. Tell him it's urgent."
After he left, Mary talked to herself in the kitchen. She looked around her, flustered, saw what Glamor must have seen: the cheap furniture, the torn upholstery, the gouged paneled walls of the living room, the ratty carpet ends, the dust motes, the cobwebs suspended in the corners. Freestanding piles of old newspapers, tanned with age. A rickety fold-up secretary, once thought to be an antique, now lost under the debris of accumulated paperwork: invoices, milkcheck stubs, school notices, advertising flyers, religious pamphlets, political tracts. He had said “nice house” and he had been lying.
"People drop in unannounced. What do they expect?" She started stacking the dirty dishes on the counter by the sink. "Dirty dishes, this, that, clean up one goddam thing after another," she murmured, and then a saucer she held between her fingers broke in half with a snap. She gasped inwardly, shut her eyes, pinched the skin above the bridge of her glasses with a trembling hand. "It's the pressure, Lord. The tension..." She stayed frozen, in penitence, but it was too late: it seemed like playacting. Charades. Lately there seemed to be times when God was not listening and that was frightening. Born again Christians were expected to go on believing even during these dead patches. But it was hard, so hard, like crossing a minefield, keeping one shaky foot in front of the other until you could reach the next island of safety.
"It's the loneliness..." No not the loneliness, the "lowliness", Reverend Darson called it. And that was right. The high was belief, the low was doubt, like the high and low of heaven and hell. Sometimes she was sure she could feel Christ's presence, though never with another soul around, not even at the Assembly of God church. At those extraordinary times, she felt like she did when she drank too much coffee: excited, slightly feverish, her pulse elevated. But then in a thrice the Rapture would dissipate into cold nothingness. Vapors. Like dreams. But dreams no one in this house could ever imagine or believe, if she told.
She wandered into the bathroom, clutching the tiny gold cross she kept around her neck, her fingers unconsciously tracing its outline in a delicate figure-eight pattern. She found herself looking into the bathroom mirror, against her will, remembering the odd thing her own mother had said from time to time, when she thought no one was listening. "Oh, who am I?" her mother would groan in a spasm, clasping her hands to her pink-spotted cheeks as she stared into the mirror, "Oh, who am I?"
The Massey that the farm used had once been a gleaming red and white, back when, as a very small boy, Greg had first ridden it perched on his father's lap, his tiny hands on the big shiny black vibrating steering wheel that came up horizontally to his chin. Now the tractor's body had a flaking coat of rust, and the engine chattered unevenly, sluggishly, sometimes barely audible above the wind, the senile mutterings of a mean old man. Greg on top of the Massey that morning wore the green hooded sweatshirt he'd put on when he first went out in the chill of the early morning fog. Now the noon sun was high and potent but the breeze below it still blew eddies of surprising chilliness. Throughout the morning the northwest wind had become quite strong at times, had whistled and whipped across the bare field, stirring up whirlwinds of soil, suspending them in the air like ghostly nylons, stretching them into exaggerated shapes before scattering them.
In the middle of the fallow field was another relic from Greg's childhood, an ancient handmade garden cart, its wood graying and bowing inward, the spokes of the two wheels so rusted and dented, some of them were as thin as piano wire; others seemed to have disappeared altogether.
Despite a full morning's efforts, the cart was barely a third filled. Mikey was supposed to drag the cart behind the tractor and fill it with the rocks pulled up by the harrow. Instead, Greg noted with irritation, he meandered aimlessly behind the rattling harrow discs, picking up rocks and throwing them occasionally in the direction of the cart but mostly at the flock of crows behind him. A half dozen of the blackbirds were following the tractor at a discrete distance, pouring over what was being overturned by the discs, like a team of curious archeologists. Mikey's missiles would make them move slightly out of range, but never disappear entirely.
It was a school day but Mikey was working off his third suspension, this time for cursing out the study-hall monitor and as always he looked like he relished the time off. He was wearing his combat outfit, as he called it: heavy brown lace-up boots, khaki pants which were absurdly baggy on his slight frame, and an army surplus camouflage shirt, unbuttoned and flapping behind him, over a dirty white T-shirt. He was thin, wan, shorter than most 15 year-olds at school, and strung taught as a fiddle. He had blonde curly hair and a modest ducktail. That morning Henry had caught him scaring the cows during chores, yodeling wildly and smacking them on their backs above their tailbones so that they would lurch forwards and backwards in their stalls, their heads in their stanchions twisting backwards in panic. "Making milkshakes," he liked to call it. Henry had clubbed him in the back of the head with enough force to knock him onto one knee.
Mikey suddenly scooped up a handful of pebbles and dirt, bellowed, "Get the fuck out of here," and threw the bundle at the crows. The debris fell well in front of the birds, soundlessly, impotently, like spent birdshot. Some of the crows flew off or hopped away a few feet. Most merely held their ground, eyeing him with stupid arrogance.
"I said fucking get out of here!" he screamed again, raising his two middle fingers above his head and shaking them at the birds.
"What's wrong with you now?" Greg shouted from atop the tractor and brought it to a halt. The engine idled with the faint sound of popcorn popping.
"Those fucking crows!"
"What about them?"
"They're hanging around out here, bothering me!"
"Forget about the crows and pick up those goddam rocks, would you?"
Instead, Mikey just kept goggling up at Greg with his bright blue eyes, eyes that ever since Greg or any of them could remember, seemed perpetually alit, and smiled that goofy grin, which just got broader and goofier the angrier you got at him.
"Can I drive the tractor now?"
"C'mon, Dad ain't around."
"Why do I have to pick rocks? It's a stupid job, for stupid assholes."
"That's why you're doing it."
"Screw you!" Mikey yelled at the top of his voice, scooping up and flinging another handful of dirt and rocks in no particular direction. A pebble struck the side of the tractor, clanging loudly. He started to giggle, "Oops."
"Hey, watch it you moron!"
"I wasn't trying to hit the tractor, honest," Mikey said through his giggles.
"Listen, if I have to come down off of this tractor, you're dead, you understand?"
"Ha ha ha, you don't fucking scare me." He planted himself behind the tractor, put the thumb of his right hand to his nose, attached the other thumb with elaborate care to the little finger of his right hand and then waggled all eight fingers at Greg, while cackling in a high, keening falsetto voice.
Greg made a sudden lunge, as if he were going to jump off of the tractor. Mikey took off through the field, his shirttail flying behind him, his boots plowing awkwardly through the soft dirt, slowing him considerably. He looked back, stopped, when he saw that Greg had been bluffing.
Once when Mikey was a towheaded wild-child of eight or nine, Greg had occasion to hold him, trying to subdue him after he had run amok in the house in the early evening, after supper, when Mary was lying down trying to sleep. Greg pressed Mikey to his chest, feeling Mikey's heartbeat pounding against his, incredibly fast and powerful, like the piston strokes of an engine that was idling too hot, off the scale. Mikey's spine was alive with kinetic energy, too, like a high-voltage tension cable, pulsating with electricity. Every muscle in Mikey's body resisted Greg's embrace but at the same time, beneath the resistance, Greg sensed a frame that might have been as brittle as an eggshell, as fragile as a baby bird's, a bone structure that might crumble
into splinters if he squeezed too hard or released him too soon.
"You'd better get back here. If Dad comes out and sees all these rocks lying around, he's gonna belt you another one," yelled Greg. His voice was hoarse, his throat sore from screaming
at Mikey all morning. He gingerly put the tractor back in gear, moved the accelerator lever down and then circumnavigated the field a final time before stopping for dinner. Mikey circled slowly toward the tractor, picking up an occasional rock and flinging it as far as he could, sometimes around the garden cart, most times not.
They were alone in the kitchen momentarily after dinner. Henry was looking into the refrigerator, scowling. Mary was clearing the table.
"Jesus, how can I eat and eat and I'm still hungry? And there ain't a thing left to eat in this house."
Mary didn't reply. They had both put on weight, so if one said something, the other could too. So she said nothing. They skirted each other awkwardly in the small confines of the
kitchen. Mary had a recollection that was like a hallucination of she and Henry dancing. She and Henry were the two smallest kids their age in school, both of them thin and wiry back then, shy farm kids, but the lithest couple at the square dances. At one time, dancing with him was all that seemed to matter in the world to her: the sound of the bow scraping over the fiddle strings, the goodnatured tenor voice of the caller, Bob Prevost, always quick with a quip, the smell of clean white sawdust on the floor. Nothing had ever been so clean, so white since then.
"There was a man here from the bank this morning. A Mister Glamor."
Henry shut the refrigerator door and stood leaning against the stove, his arms folded on his chest, his head tilted, not looking at Mary as they spoke. "What'd he want?"
"He was here about the taxes we owe, the town taxes."
"What's the bank got to do with it?"
Mary started wiping the vinyl tablecloth down with a sponge. "He said they handle the town's delinquent accounts now. He said they could take the farm if we don't pay."
"Cause of property taxes? They'd never do it. He's just threatening."
"He offered to work out a payment schedule."
"What'd you tell him?"
"I said we'd discuss it."
She stopped her wiping. "What else was I supposed to say, Henry?"
"It's what I'm hoping you didn't say. Like we can pay 'em anything right now."
"They're going to foreclose if we don't pay."
"They're just saying that. They’re not stupid, take away a man's livelihood. That'd be biting off the hand that feed's 'em."
"He said we owe thousands."
Henry stuck a finger in his ear, twisted it, took it out and examined it, an old habit in bad moments. "I can't hear about it now. I got work to do."
He headed for the mudroom. Just before he stepped out through the doorway, he turned around, his face rosy pink with fury. "Of course that'd be just fine with you, now wouldn't it?," he sputtered hoarsely. "That'd just about make your day, now wouldn't it?"
"I never said..." she began but he had already slammed the door behind him.
"JESUS HELP ME..."
The two of them writhed on the bedroom floor in the dark. Greg's arms wrapped tightly around Bobby's waist, arms locked, his cheek pressed hard against Bobby's sweating bare back.
"Please, please let go of me, please, please...LET ME GO!."
"No, I won't let you go," he grunted, gritting his teeth so hard, he thought they might shatter in his mouth, forcing out the words one by one in a croak, "Running...won't...help..." One of Bobby's elbows smashed into his forehead, just above his left eye. A shower of twinkling lights, red and blue and white burst in front of his eyes like fireworks. He groaned but hung on grimly, squinching his eyes shut tightly in anticipation of another blow.
Bobby wailed again, "I want myself back, Oh, please, God, give me back myself."
"You're here, Bobby. You're right here," he croaked into his brother's back, as the two of them flopped around the floor in a frenzied circle, Bobby's legs kicking out, scissoring out fiercely now, like a swimmer in terror of drowning.
"I can't stay here. YOU'LL KILL ME! I'LL DIE!"
"You won't die, Bobby, I swear. I won't let you die." He gripped his arms at Bobby's beltline with his hands, held them there with his entire concentration. The sting of his own tears when they came surprised him, welling up and out of his sockets in one uncontrollable spasm, mingling with Bobby's sweat in his mouth. He hated them because he thought they would weaken him, make him lose his hold. Bobby's feet flailed and kicked the pine dresser. The dresser legs squealed in agony against the wooden floor. Next it was the free-standing bookshelf beside Bobby's bed, rattling it, making it sway ominously. A few volumes tumbled down and smacked the floor beside their heads. One, a hefty hardcover, bounced off Bobby's temple but Bobby didn't even
notice the blow, Greg could see.
Bobby's body suddenly stiffened and lay still."God, just give me back myself," he said, in a loud, shaky voice that sounded almost normal, as if he had suddenly decided to try reasoning with his tormentor. He paused and waited, his breath and Greg's rasping raggedly in the sudden silence before he went on. "Please, I'm just, I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm asking you to please, please forgive me and give me back myself now, please." His voice had shattered by that last word, splintering into a million quavering pieces, rising upward into a bleak, despairing cry. He began to writhe again in struggle against his brother. “PLEEEASE..."
"You're right here, Bobby," Greg said hoarsely, his voice roughening as more tears came. This time they wouldn't stop. He tried to tighten his grip against them. "It's almost over now,
Bobby." He began to sob quietly, pressing his cheek against Bobby's roiling back, slippery with sweat and tears and saliva. "You're right here, Bobby, I swear. I swear to God you're right
The next morning after the cows had been pastured for the day, they put Dolores in one of the sick stalls. It was an effort even to get her up on her feet. Together Greg and Henry coaxed and cajoled her along. Greg led her by a short piece of rope, patted her head and flanks, whispered endearments in her ear. She moved down the cement aisle on shaky legs, legs that looked too short and thin to support the awful, swaying burden of her distended belly. She collapsed as soon as she reached the stall, sending up a spray of sawdust in her rush to be inert. She lay panting, with her head pressed up against the backboard, her belly and milk sac spread out massively, filling up the entire cubicle.
"You said you'd call. It's milk fever. You know it and I know it," Greg said to his father as he tied the rope off on a post behind her head.
"She's better than she was. You don't know a damn thing."
"I know the longer you wait, the worse she'll get. A calcium shot would clear it up immediately. Otherwise, we'll lose her and the calf."
"And I'm telling you she's better. She's standing up, she's eating. She'll give birth and then she'll be just fine. I've seen it over and over, time and again, since long before you were born."
"She's about to go into labor and she's dry. How's that doing better?" He sighed heavily before continuing. "Look, I'll give Victor a call and you can take it out of my goddam pay, I don't care."
"Out of your pay?" Henry said with a snort of laughter.
"Yeah, out of my pay. What's wrong with that?"
Henry shook his head and emitted more chuckles, a very peculiar, almost childlike giggle, "You mean out of your twenty a week? I'm afraid that ain't gonna quite cover it."
Greg stared at his father's back. He felt the blood rush out of his face, as a terrible thought flickered through his mind. "No," he said slowly, carefully, his throat dry and constricted, his ears faintly ringing, as if the air in the barn had suddenly become thick and too difficult to breathe, as if he could only form the words he spoke with great concentration and effort, "I mean out of my other pay, what you're putting away for me each week. For college. I mean, you are..." He could not finish the sentence.
Instead a raw, thick silence was allowed to lay between them for more than a minute.
Henry stuck his right pinky into his ear, turned it to and fro and then examined the tip of it reflectively before answering his son. "Don't you worry about that. When the time comes, I've got you covered, don't you worry about it. Meanwhile, I'll give Victor a yell and you won't even have to pay. But I'm still convinced you're blowing this all the hell out of proportion. You don't know, you have no idea the cows I've seen and what they're capable of."
Greg, too relieved to speak, just nodded his head.
Josephine Warshaw liked to describe herself, if anybody asked, as "a fallen Catholic". She used the term half cynically, half seriously, in that she believed herself to be far beyond the reach of the Church's rituals, its ancient admonitions and strictures which had dominated and defined, in a sense, her first thirty two years of life. And yet she also felt great nostalgia for the Church. How comforting it would be to know the parameters of good and evil, of sin and virtue, again, to have those moral values be like fixed and unchanging polarities, as they were for her as a child, a teenager, a young wife, a young mother. Wherever she found herself on a Sunday morning, she would often hunt down the local Catholic church and attend mass. It wasn't a compulsion but rather a gentle tug, which she could either choose to ignore or not. She would begin her search by looking in the Yellow Pages, under "Churches - Catholic" and follow her nose from there. If she liked the church, she might return from time to time.
On her second Sunday in Smithson, she gave in to the impulse and found a church in the book called "Our Benevolent Lady of the Snows" in Burlington, twenty miles to the north, a name that amused and intrigued her. She liked the idea that the Church's patron saint was not the typical austere, virtuous, hypocritical male, such as Saint Augustine or Saint Francis but perhaps a lion-hearted woman with a past, like herself. She left a note for her daughter Jill, who was still asleep in their second floor apartment in the old Merrill house and headed out to meet this "Lady of the Snows."
The Merrill house where mother and daughter lived stood a half a mile downhill and across Route 7 from the Farnham farm, a large two-story Colonial with old-fashioned cedar siding with brown shutters and, altogether, with its several Rumfoord fireplaces, a half dozen brick chimneys poking above its charcoal-colored roof. It had in years past housed as many as 13 Merrills at once, as the family had lived and farmed in Smithson for seven generations, but by the time Robert Merrill (known by everyone in town as Old Man Merrill) passed on, the only surviving members of the clan in the area were his 58 year-old daughter Alice, who owned and lived in a fancy double trailer up the road in Bolton and Alice's 33 year-old son Bob, who still lived with her and ran his own carpentry outfit out of the trailer. The Merrill house stood vacant for a couple of seasons until Bob suggested they fix it up as rental property. He had said to his mother one day over Sunday dinner, "I bet we could turn the place into two-three apartments. At least two. Then we won't be paying the taxes on it for nothing." Alice, who had such a low, gravelly voice she was sometimes mistaken for a man on the phone, said go ahead, only she wanted Bob to be particular about whom he would accept as tenants, being as the house had tradition, and her father, who had lived there his whole life, spanning most of the past century, was just so lately in his grave.
Bob took to fixing and painting it during his spare time, and during the winter and spring, his slack seasons, putting in walls where they were needed, plumbing fixtures, an outside staircase, woodstoves, until by the following fall, the place held two three-bedrooms, one up and one down. By November 1 he had them rented, the downstairs to two young men who both taught at the high school and whom everyone in Smithson assumed were homosexual (except Alice, who after hearing the pro arguments for a month or so, finally compromised with "maybe they are but don't know it", which satisfied no one and changed no minds on the subject).
Upstairs was occupied at first by a married couple, only she got pregnant that first winter, and they moved to larger quarters in town. The apartment lay vacant for a month, while Bob advertised again in the paper and sweated and cursed all through March when no suitable tenants showed. Desperate, he put an "Apartment to Rent" sign out in the yard, wondering what kind of street trash that might attract.
Early in April, a woman with jet black hair with one vivid streak of gray through it, drove up to the house in a yellow VW bug with Pennsylvania plates. With her was her daughter who had the same jet-black hair. In fact, she pretty much looked like a double of her mother, except younger and smaller. They both wore sunglasses. They had an appointment with Bob, who showed them around the place and then asked them a few questions. Their names were Josephine and Gillian Warshaw.
"Is that where you hail from? Pennsylvania?" Bob asked.
"Yeah, or there abouts." The older woman did all the talking. Gillian kept looking away into the distance the whole time, with her arms folded over her light blue windbreaker, distracted, like she wasn't listening. "We have some references if you need them."
"That would be appreciated, thanks."
"Is this place quiet?" asked Josie. She had a pleasant voice, with a trace of an accent, maybe Southern.
"Well, you have some road traffic, of course, but not so much since they put the interstate exit in five years ago. And you have the other tenants downstairs but they stick to themselves pretty much. They're teachers at the local high school here, so they retire early."
"They have any kids?"
"No, no just themselves."
"No, actually, they're two guys, two men."
Josie studied Bob through her dark glasses, then snuck a brief smile onto her lips. "They homosexual?" she asked.
Bob looked flustered, coughed once or twice before answering. He thought ruefully,
irrelevantly, about how he should have gone on that diet a month ago. "Well, I'm not sure, I
wouldn't know about that."
"Because I'd like it better if they were. I really would. Mostly on account of..." She gestured toward Jill. "I mean, it would be a real selling point."
"Oh, well, yeah, sure, I understand, considering...I'd have to say probably yes, I mean, yeah, most likely..." His face was rosy beneath his Red Sox cap. Josie started to laugh. After a second, he did, too. He reached into his shirt pocket, took out a cigarette and a lighter, lit up.
After they settled on the details and they were on their way out, Gillian asked Bob for a cigarette. It was the first thing she had said since arriving.
"Need a light?" he asked her after giving her one.
"No thanks," she said. She gave him a brief half-smile as she pocketed the cigarette.
They moved in on the 15th.
"That girl looks kind of lonely," Bob told his mother that night, while they played chess after supper. He had helped them move their stuff up to the second floor. "Lost, sort of. But not like she's unhappy, exactly. It's more like she's kind of ambivalent about being with her mother."
"How old is the girl?" Alice asked in her buzzsaw voice.
"The mother said 19," said Bob and moved his knight.
"Typical mother-daughter, especially at that age," said Alice as she castled. "What she look like?"
"Oh, she sure is pretty. They both are." Then he castled, too.
Bob decided that it was their eyes that made them both more than pretty, but beautiful. He had at last had a chance to peak at them without the ubiquitous shades and found them a revelation: coal-black brown with diamond sparkles, like gemstones seen through a hidden light. They were intelligent eyes, spaced wide apart, with a slight Mediterranean cast. Striking. But Gillian's made him feel uneasy because they were also untrustworthy and kind of wild, as if her intelligence were a particularly keen variation of animal cunning. Mostly they seemed impenetrable, as if it made no real difference if she wore sunglasses or not. They took in the light and radiated back only shadows. They were windows with the blinds half closed.
She had her raven hair cut to fit her face quite nicely, unlike Josie who let its natural curliness reign. She wore pretty clothes that looked expensive. She bummed another cigarette from him when he left.
That second Sunday in Vermont, while Josie was off to church, Jill arose at 10 and made herself coffee, smoked a cigarette as she sat and sipped at the kitchen table. She was cold; the apartment was cold. Her last boyfriend, LePage, down in Derbyville Pennsylvania, had warned her in his mock-worldly way that the further north you went, the colder both the climate and the people became. She knew this was his way of telling her that he had feelings for her, the closest he ever came or would come. But what he said was true, too. Glancing at the sky through the kitchen window, all she could see at first was gray and the gray communicated the chill inside and outside perfectly. The fog wouldn't burn off for at least another hour, probably. Half the day's sunshine, half its warmth would be wasted on the effort.
From somewhere nearby, she heard a cow bellow, a strangely intimate sound, as if it were directed at her specifically, bearing an urgent message. She ignored it, concentrating instead on the immediate problem at hand: whether to light up the roach she had found in the ashtray or wait until the fog had burned off, and the sun had warmed the air a little.
She heard the cow sound again, and immediately following it, the honk of a car horn, then a shout from someone, more cattle bellowing. With increasing awareness, she realized finally that there was some kind of commotion going on just outside, right below the apartment kitchen, in fact. She padded over to the window in her bare feet and looked down.
"Holy shit!" Her breath made a wet ring on the glass.
The front yard was filled with them, a sea of black and white, more cows than could ever be counted except with great effort, a dozen, two dozen, more. They were packed together in such density, in such quantity that the yard had become indistinguishable from the road. Cars were starting to pile up. She could see the breech in the fence across the highway, where more and more cows loitered and milled, their heads all pointed in the same direction, nudging each other gently, like party guests, queuing up for the buffet table.
She got dressed in a frenzy, without thinking clearly about it, donning a flimsy, frilled white blouse and jeans a trifle small for her, and her lime-green tennis shoes. She banged down the stairs, making as much noise as possible, cursing and carrying on the whole way like a drunk, and then flung wide the front door.
There was one right next to her, within five feet of the doorway, almost up on the stoop, chewing its cud and staring at her in vacuous reflection. She gave a little scream and jumped back inside, clutching the doorpost. She took the opportunity to bang on the door of the downstairs apartment. There was no answer. Where are those two fags when you need them? she thought viciously. After a few seconds she peeked out again cautiously.
The cow had lost interest in her and moved away, dipping its head, nuzzling around for something to eat. From the doorway, Jill studied the cows carefully, as if sizing up a potential enemy, probing for weaknesses. She had never been this close up to one, had only really seen them at a glance, from the safety of a passing car. From that perspective, they had seemed just another part of the scenery, and not a very interesting part at that. Rather, in their ubiquity and their somnolence, as immutable and pastoral as the trees and rocks and hills surrounding them. Now she realized that what she was experiencing was exactly the difference between seeing something on TV and seeing the real, breathing, three-dimensional item in the flesh.
She crept out on to the stoop and looked outward. The cows were everywhere, all over the yard, the driveway, the walkway, the road, the shoulders, milling around casually, aimlessly, stomping on the flowers, nuzzling the lawn with their fat, pink tongues, swishing their tails, or standing with heads upraised, perfectly still, for seconds at a time, as if posing for an oilpainting. The pot and nicotine and caffeine and the surreal quality of the scene made her head swirl crazily.
"Get a grip," she told herself. "You have to get a grip. You have to think, think, think now."
She tried to recall everything she knew about cows. Except for childhood memories of the cartoon cow on the milk carton and the one that jumped over the moon, there wasn't much. The half a verse, "I've never seen a purple cow, I never hope to see one," ran like an idiot-chant through her mind, over and over. She couldn't remember the other half. She thought vaguely that it might help her out somehow, might give her some useful advice. Do they bite? No, of course not. That's stupid. Even a city slicker like you knows cows eat grass. She took a step down from the stoop into the yard. She clung to the image of a cow as nonªthreatening, pathetic in their docility. The hippies of the animal kingdom.
Bovine, fat, female, lazy, stupid, cud©chewing. Elsie, Daisy, Bessie.ÄÄ How could creatures with names such as that possibly hurt anyone? She couldn't recall ever hearing of a person being killed by a cow. And yet, up close like this, en masse, they looked insanely, frightfully dangerous.
"I've never seen a purple cow, I never hope to see one."
A man in a silver Volvo got out of his car and yelled at Jill, "These your cows?"
"Does this place look like a fucking farm?" She tried to hide the quail of panic in her voice but it came out as a shrill yell. The man withdrew silently into his Volvo. Shrieking seemed to clear her head a little. Finally, because she didn't know what else to do, she moved further off the stoop into the front yard, walking on shaky legs, making for the road, but still uncertain as to why, her pulse pounding giddily in her wrists and temples. She went gingerly, on tiptoe, so as not to disturb the animals. Do they sense fear, like dogs? The thought made her freeze up momentarily. No, of course not, stupid. They're not fucking Dobermans. They eat grass, remember that, stupid. They're vegetarians.
As she passed, the cows moved aside for her casually, with an odd politeness, floating by her like big black and white barrage balloons, as if they automatically accepted her as one of them. She began to relax a little. Now and again a ratty tail swished past her face, a velveteen stomach rubbed up against her hips. She was surprised at how tough and unflabby the big bellies felt, how the skin was stretched taut as a bongo drum, the short fur the texture of rough suede. She thought of large winesacs filled to bursting.
As she neared the road, a car she couldn't see honked its horn and a few cows, startled, lurched suddenly, four or five of them in a row, with the others around them catching a whiff of the panic. The impact of their two dozen hooves or so smacking the ground simultaneously shook the ground beneath her feet, and raised a cloud of dust. A terrifying cinematic vision of a Western-style stampede suddenly played in her imagination. She pictured it perfectly, nightmarishly: spooked by her presence, an uncontrollable chain reaction begins, the massive blocks of meat and bone and sinew hurl themselves in her direction and she is crushed flat beneath them. She tiptoed swiftly back in the direction of her stoop in near-panic, whispering to herself along the way, "I can't deal with this, I can't deal with this, I can't deal with this."
But she had to do something. Christ, what do I do, what the fuck do I do?
As if in answer, as if she had conjured him up out of a miasma of hysteria, an elderly farmer, small and very thin, with a long nose and large, fleshy ears and beagle©like brown eyes, materialized before her out of the cow©midst. He had on baggy, rumpled, navy©blue work clothes spotted with black oil stains and an ancient blue, baseball cap which looked grafted onto his head, as if he never took it off, even to sleep. The faint ghostly outline of the letter "B" was just barely discernable above the brim. His movements were slow and stiff, slightly arthritic, his unshaven face rubbery and mobile and overtly expressive. He nodded to her and then clucked sympathetically as he climbed the step up to the stoop next to her. Just as she was about to ask her what she should do, he began mumbling, looking away from her as he spoke, as if he were picking up a conversation with her in mid©stream.
¸ "Ain't mutcha can do©oo'n these sitchaytions 'cept set 'n watch," he opined and shook his head slowly, his hands on his hips, his thumbs in his belt, his fingers pressed against his front pants pockets.
Jill didn't understand a word he said, but was afraid to tell him, lest he get offended and go away. A full minute went by, during which both of them looked out over the sea of cows in silence, like two strangers standing on the periphery of a crowded cocktail party, thrown together by sheer accident of fate, each of them desperately searching the crowd for a familiar, friendly face to come rescue them. At last he licked his lips and continued: "Them's the Witham cows, though, yuh©uh. You moit'n go up'n tell'em uhbeewt it. Meantime, I kin trytah get 'em off the road for ya, yuh©uh." That final syllable was expelled with a brief ejaculation of breath, like a hiccup.
The word came out in a desolate wail. She looked at him now with a pained, harried, exasperated expression, the look of someone trying to make sense of a foreign language, lost in a foreign land.
He raised his voice, making it nasal and much sharper, the accent mysteriously receding, "I was sayin' them cows belong to the Withams, up thataway." His hand flapped in the direction of the Witham house.
"How do you know that?"
"Cause that's their field and that's their farm and that's their brand," he replied a bit querulously now, pointing to the W brand on one of the cow's hind legs. "Now you hurry and get 'em because I can't hold 'em myself for very long."
She seemed hypnotized by the seared flesh on the cow.
"Now hurry along young lady," the farmer repeated already moving through the cows toward the road.
"Sure," she said, still staring at the brand. And then she turned and started walking fast, then ran the half mile to the Witham driveway. It was an uphill trek and she was winded by the time she arrived at the driveway. But she didn't stop to catch her breath. As if pursued by demons, she crossed the highway and just kept running up the pitted driveway until she reached the house.
She entered the yard, went up the steps to the porch, opened the windowless screen door, banged on the glass panel on the wooden door and doubled over out of breath. Nobody answered for a full minute. She knocked again, still panting. There was only silence still. Finally, she tried opening the door to let herself in. She found herself face to face through the pane of glass with
a middle©aged woman. For one eerie moment they wrestled each other for control of the doorknob. The woman gave Jill a look like she had caught her trying to break in, a look that chilled her. She let go of the knob and the woman opened the door a crack.
"Cows..." was all Jill could gasp for a moment.
"Your cows..." she panted.
"What about our cows?" The woman sounded irritable.
"They're...on...the...road," she finally managed.
"Where are they?"
"Down by...down there," and pointed her finger vaguely northward.
"We'll have to get the boys. They're out in the barn." She closed the door and disappeared inside. Jill, having expected to be invited in, instead found herself leaning against the porch screen as she caught her breath. Native rudeness. And her mother said they were supposed to be so friendly, wave to you when they pass you walking down the road.
As she started breathing normally, Jill began noticing her surroundings. The shabbiness. The porch seemed to be detaching itself from the house, and was listing at an angle. The farmhouse itself, which from across the road looked like a simple and practical white two©story frame structure, was in terrible need of a paint job. Old discarded toys and tools and ragged carpet ends littered the porch floor. Most of the windows had no screens in them; they were left open to the elements. The few screens that remained were rusted and coming apart from the frames. The house, in fact, reminded her of tenements she and her mother had driven by in downtown Baltimore, rundown, burnt out neighborhoods where poverty seethed like an open sore. She was surprised to see such a poor house where, from a half a mile distant, the house and barns and silos had seemed to her proud and imperious, almost haughty structures. Now to see up close the dirt, the grubbiness, the dingy plastic and rusting debris of poverty here, of all places was not expected, made her reflect on the farm in an entirely different way. "They could do something with this house," she almost whispered aloud, as she slouched against the wall of the porch and looked around her. The house wasn't so bad, really. It was just so unkempt, as if they cared nothing for it.
And then Mrs. Witham, who had not re©appeared, with her hair back in a severe bun, a double chin and a thick midriff which hid what might have been once a pretty face and body. She looked old and young, both at the same time, as if she were a child who had aged suddenly, still leaving some of the traces of youth visible beneath the graying hair, the thickened and coarsened body.
Jill paced the porch for another minute, resisting the impulse to bang on the door again. Then she stalked off the porch and toward the barn. Upon entering the yard between the house and barn she was surrounded by a morass of mud and she had to pick her way gingerly across the yard. Her pretty lime©green tennis shoes became coated almost instantly with damp, cold, viscous mud. She looked around helplessly for some signs of life, but all she saw were some dilapidated sheds containing a few pieces of rusting equipment and a tan, incredibly muddy pickup truck. She headed toward the wooden barn door. It had a sign above it, burnished in wood: "H.R.Witham & Sons". She pushed the door open
and went in.
She entered the milking parlor, saw the enormous shiny steel bulk tank and the milking machines, the large metallic sink. Then she went into the barn.
The smell hit her like a blow, almost drove her back out. It was overwhelming, as if she had been gassed. For a minute she fought an impulse to gag. She immediately, instinctively started breathing shallowly through her mouth. She walked further in, squinting in the half dark. Manure and mud seemed to cover everything: the stalls, the walls, the beams, the ceiling, the windows, the lightbulbs, the tubing, everything. She looked down at the floor and was startled to see that the brown/green slime was actually moving, slithering past her feet in the slush gutter. The machine that ran the gutter was loud enough to drown out most other noises, but she soon became aware of another underlying sound: a high insectile whine, the sound of a million barn flies buzzing simultaneously. The drone seemed to originate from every corner of the barn, to encompass the barn, in fact, as if the barn had been built not to house cows, but to provide shelter for a million teeming insects. She resisted another impulse to gag, to turn and flee.
In the stalls there were a few cows lingering in their stanchions. A couple of them had risen automatically as soon as they became aware of her, clanging upright to attention. One of them close to where she stood looked at her indifferently and then lifted up its tail, urinating onto the walkway, a long yellow stream that spattered on the cement, spraying her with a slight mist. She flinched, cried out involuntarily.
She became aware of movement at the other end of the barn. Bobby, in jeans and checked shirt and olive©green rubber boots, was shoveling manure from one of the stalls into the gutter, singing to himself. He was short and stocky, well©muscled, in fact, top heavy with muscle, with a short, thick neck. He had an unruly lock of brown hair which fell into his eyes as he worked.
"Hey you!" she yelled.
He looked up in her direction and blinked at her, "Hi, there." he yelled back. He began to walk toward her.
"Hi," she said back and gave a little sardonic wave.
"Can I help you?" he said, as he walked toward her.
"Your cows are in the road," she said, "and in my yard. I told your mother about it, she said she would tell you, but I guess she didn't."
"Oh, Jeeze. She probably called on the intercom but I didn't hear her. Too busy singing and making a racket. Damn." His smile faded, he paused, and then his face lit up again. Jill was relieved that he had no accent, not even a trace of one. In fact there was something reassuringly prim and preppy about his voice, his entire manner, that didn't go along with the boots, the muscles, the filthy clothes and the greasy hair.
He cocked his head to one side.
"I'm Bobby. You're Gillian, right?"
"Yeah, how'd you know?" She looked at him suspiciously.
"And your mother's name is Josie, right?"
"Yeah," she said again with a little nervous laugh. "Really, how'd you know that?"
"And you live down in the old Merrill house?"
"Yeah, that's right. Right down the road from here. Where your cows are blocking the highway. In both directions." She said all this still breathing shallowly through her mouth, feeling irritated and impatient at this dumb duet, feeling like she was going to pass out if she didn't get out of the barn in the next sixty seconds.
From behind them, a cow lowed.
"It's a small town. Everybody makes it their business to find out about everyone else, even strangers. Especially strangers," said Bobby, leaning on the shovel, staring at her, looking like he had no intention of moving.
She was baffled by his inertia. "Well, we'd better do something, don't you think?"
He looked slightly startled by her tone. "Yeah, you're right. Let me get my brother Greg and we'll take the pickup down."
She fled the barn out the way she came in.
She was walking down the driveway when the rusty, tan Ford pickup pulled up beside her.
"Why don't you hop in? We'll give you a ride back down," yelled Bobby while leaning out the window.
"No that's okay. Really. I can walk."
"C'mon, it'll be faster. Besides, we might need your help."
She stopped and considered the distance. Then nodded. "Alright."
"Greg, this is Jill from down the road, you know, in the Merrill place, " Bobby said as he moved over.
"Yeah, I know." Greg gave her a polite smile, said "Hi." He was taller and slimmer, blonder than Bobby, a nice looking boy, actually, probably a redneck, too, she thought. They both reeked of cowshit. In the close quarters of the pickup cab it was almost unbearable. She rolled the window down, despite the chill in the air. She wondered how anybody could possibly ever get used to that smell.
"Oh Jesus!" Greg said and gave a crippled little chuckle when they came to the breach and the cows and the halted traffic and the beleaguered farmer trying to herd the cows back in. Greg parked the truck on the side of the road and the three of them piled out. The farmer, a man named Bert Jones, had never gained control of the herd. The cows were massed in and around the road and were tramping through the neighbors' yards. Traffic was backed up both ways.
"If I had my switches..." Jones tried to explain.
"You did what you could. Thanks for sticking around," Greg told him.
"I sent the girl back to tell you," Jones said by way of apology.
"That's alright. You did what you could."
Greg and Bobby plunged into the herd, like politicians working a crowd, patting and gesturing and cajoling the cows to move through the opening in the fence and into the open field. Sometimes they called the cows by name. Greg looked over toward Jill standing by the pickup.
"Can you stand over here?"
"To block off traffic."
Jill looked around in confusion, "But they're not moving."
"Not the cars, the cows."
"Don't worry," Bobby said, "They look big and fat but they're really gentle creatures, harmless."
"I know that," said Jill and got in place.
Witham had taught Greg that leading a herd to where you wanted them to go was like guiding a stream to its destination: you had to put up barriers to keep the lines flowing the right way, and you had to cover your flanks. But mostly you had to make sure the stream went where it wanted to go anyway."They say water seeks its own level. Well, that's true with cows too, I guess," he had said to Greg at age 12, when he began in earnest to tell his son the secrets of dairying. "They have a sixth sense about where they're supposed to be."There's always a leader, more or less like a pilot fish; the rest of them will go where she goes. Most of the time you can't figure why a particular cow gets the call, but they do. Sometimes it's the oldest one, the one who's been around the herd the longest, but most times not. I've seen a newcomer be one, someone from another herd entirely. I've even asked the previous owner if she was a bigshot over there in his herd, and apparently not. They just grow the stripes overnight, in transit, I guess. The thing you can't do is try and pick one yourself. Never works. They choose their own. Christ knows why."
That summer, a cow named Inez was the pilot fish, the point cow. Inez had a black nose and one black ear; that was how Greg identified her now. She was seven, five years a milker, two years from the slaughterhouse. Greg prodded her gently into the field and pointed her toward the hillside. Immediately a group of six other cows turned and followed her, her inner circle.
"The main thing is you have to watch them, watch them behave. It's usually nothing dramatic, it's little things. Like the way they bunch at the stream, who breaks out of the pack, or who goes first down the walkway and who follows. Kinda like watching a group of little kids on the playground, who's the leader, who's the follower, who's holding hands with who? You know."
Inez wandered up the slope heading toward home, followed by the rest of the herd. Greg and Bobby prodded them along, giving them little slaps and yelling at them good©naturedly.
"But sometimes no matter what you do, they'll just up and go contrary on you. Some dairyers think the only thing a cow will respond to is pain. So they whip on that cow and they whip on her. All that does is panic the animal, makes her leary about following you anywhere. You've got to treat them gentle, just
prod them along. Lead them to where they know they really want to go. When you're dealing with a herd, if you panic them, well, you're in trouble right there. If you've spooked enough of them in the past, you're liable to be chasing cows around till the sun goes down. Besides, it makes for a jumpy cow, and a cow with jumpy nerves can't milk the way they should. To say nothing of
the cruelty of it."
The road was at last cleared and the cars and trucks with their sullen drivers finally drove off. The two boys led the rest in groups of two and threes back into the open pasture and sealed the breach. When they were done, Jill felt peculiarly exhilarated, as if she had been part of a victorious campaign. She went over to where Greg was inspecting the breach in the fence.
"Hey Bobby," he said, "Didn't you patch the fence at this spot last month?"
Bobby came over, "Yeah, that's right, I did."
"Look here. The wires are loose. Didn't you secure them?"
"I thought I did."
"You dope! That's why the cows got loose. You didn't secure them tight enough."
"Yeah, really! I thought from the angle that somebody sideswiped it with their car or something. Instead it was your screw©up."
Jill spoke up from the road's edge, her hands in her back pockets, backing up slowly, "Well, I'll see you around."
They both looked up in surprise as if they had forgotten her existence.
"Yeah, see ya. Thanks," Greg said and gave her a tight
"Come up and see the farm sometime, during chores, see the milking," Bobby chimed in loudly and Greg felt like slugging him.
Jill just smiled her half©smile, crossed the road and disappeared inside the house.
Later that day, in the barn, the slush gutter churned, the vacuum pumps sucked, the cows flicked their tails at flies as they waited to be milked. A portable radio blared tinny music, gave the stock market report and the weather. Bobby and Greg rushed through the milking.
"Tomorrow I want you two to go check the fence all along the north end," Hank had told them when he showed up and they told about the breach. "Should never have happened. I have half a mind to go up and do it myself right now."
"Dad, it was some drunk in a pickup, or something," Greg said, "We'll set some posts and string some more wire at the spot."
"Well, the fence could stand checking anyhow," Hank said and that was all they spoke during the remainder of chores.
After supper, Greg sat out on a boulder down the hill from the house and glanced over at the Merrill place from time to time, trying not to stare. All day, his heart had been beating fast, he'd found it hard to catch his breath, or to say any words, his throat was so dry and constricted. He felt like his brow beaded with sweat every time she looked at him. When she'd smiled at them when they said goodbye, it took an enormous effort of will to smile back. Now, it made him blush to think of his shyness. He felt like he had made a miserable impression.
He hadn't been able to stop thinking about her. Bobby made it worse with his enthusiasm for her. That was all Bobby could talk about, brimming over with ideas about bringing her over to chores sometime, showing her the operation. Then saying what a great person she probably was. It was irritating. Bobby thought that anyone who paid attention to him for more than five seconds was a great person. And she had barely managed that. It was really annoying. They'd had words about it right before he headed out to the boulder to be alone.
"Didn't you notice the way she rolled down the window in the truck?" Greg said. "Like she couldn't stand the smell of us?"
"Really? No, I didn't notice that."
"There's no way she'd be that shallow."
"How do you know? She looks like a Barbie Doll. She probably has some kind of Ken doll for a boyfriend."
"I don't believe that. Her eyes are too intelligent, too bright. She's not that shallow."