My First Writing Workshop??

Finally, I sit down. Woodstove (still) burning (third day of spring). Everything that eats here (including the feral cat under the porch and whatever snake shed its pretty impressive skin at the foot of the basement stairs) has hopefully been fed or demands no menu from me. Girls are upstairs glued to a screen, winning that argument for today. What can I say? Uncle. Watch Netflix. Play Guess-the-Logo on your IPhone. I’m sitting down! I’m warm! Spring really IS coming and I am going to put my feet up and watch its approach if it takes the next six weeks.

The cobweb is one strand. One strand with a loop on the end as if it has been sent out on some reconnaissance. Or a minuscule lasso. A tethered smoke ring from a Lilliputian cigar? Should I swipe it? (This would require me standing up). Or do I just sit here and brainstorm metaphors?

Metaphors.

The next day, I do take it down and wave it around a little to see it move. Over the woodstove burning (fourth day of spring), it finds its own current, a balloon-less string on its way. It resists snapping, has collected dust along its filament. I could watch it for hours, but then it reminds me of Mrs. Miller.

The imaginative leap, she might have taught us, is essential to good writing. Take a risk. Let it be bad. Slay your darlings. Write what you know. These lines would have left me awestruck. But Mrs. Miller did what we came to expect from English class. We read a book. We answered questions about the book. We read our answers out loud. We spent a few weeks diagramming sentences. We returned to a book, to answering (in cursive!) the comprehension questions posed, to showing up the next day to raise our hands.

Except for one day.

People said Mrs. Miller smoked a lot of pot. It was 1976, Westerly Junior High. It would not have surprised any of us to discover that the teachers’ lounge was an opium den, the adults perched on mushrooms sucking on hookahs. Suffocating clouds billowed out of there each time the door opened. Who knew what they were smoking between classes? And who cared? We had our own worries. We were caught in a fashion morass somewhere between the BeeGees and Black Sabbath. Everyone owned a blowdryer but no one used gel or mousse or anything else that might ameliorate the desication and volumizing of that kind of blasted heat. Some people, inspired by Welcome Back, Kotter, got perms. But those were mostly the boys. Our bodies regularly betrayed us by menstruating on the day we tried out our new (white!) painters pants or by replicating Vesuvius on the ends of our noses, by granting girls mustaches and denying them to boys, by subjecting us to feet so large, we looked like a race of L-shaped people.

Mrs. Miller did have a weird kind of a lisp. It derived, I think, from the fact that her lower jaw protruded over her upper jaw and shifted a few inches to the right of the rest of her face. These days, someone would break that jaw, wire it shut, prescribe Ensure, and charge her parents six thousand dollars, but back then, she let her hair grow in dark crimped waves, donned her corduroys and Frye boots and assumed a beatnik coolness. Or that of a complete burn-out. She sat behind her desk, peered at us beneath her heavy lids and refused to disguise her boredom.

We filed in as if it was any old day, our postures reflecting our surety that life would never get better than junior high. Whatever Mrs. Miller had in store for us, it would be at the very least, an escape from the humiliation of our daily lives. This time, Mrs. Miller didn’t even bother to stand up. The bell rang and she raised her head. “Write about this,” she said. She took her number 2 Ticonderoga and rolled it across her desk until it fell off. Then, she put her head down and passed out.

My youngest daughter is about to take 15 (not a misprint — FIFTEEN) PARCC tests (The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). My middle daughter needs to pass the Biology MCAS in a few weeks. My oldest daughter is taking SAT prep courses two nights a week, aiming for the magic number that will get her into the college of her dreams that we cannot afford. All of the above are good reasons to re-instate those smoking rooms of old. Our teachers might have been killing themselves, but at least they weren’t killing us.

I can also tell you this: no educational assessment I faced and certainly none that my daughters will conquer, could compare to that day in eighth grade language arts for me.

A whole period of creative writing?!?! It would never come again. That sparkling gemstone of a day. A day that indulged those of us who, even then, studied cobwebs, not with the intention of ridding our pristine homes of them, but as a distraction from real life, from the parts of speech, the algorithms, the unsightly evidence of hormones disrupting every surface of our once beautiful selves.

Penny, Count Your Blessings, Part II (final part!)

She might have been crazy, but Penny was unfailingly fertile. When she came into heat that spring, we let her into the milking parlor alone. In a makeshift chute, her escape blocked with several iron gates, (a standard two-by-four kept everyone else still, but the year before, Penny split that in half before anyone touched her and ripped her knee open), Penny panted and strained. I climbed up on the outside of the chute, leaned over the bars and pushed her against the wall.

Behind her, my father gripped a hollow rod, a plastic sleeve on one arm up to his elbow, syringe in his teeth, even though she repeatedly tried to back over him. Finally, he moved one of the gates behind her and maneuvered his arms through its bars.

I asked my father if he knew the story of Ferdinand the bull. Instead of reading me books, my father told me stories when I was little. I made him keep talking until I fell asleep because I was afraid to be the only one awake in the house. He told and re-told tales until he was sure I was out.

“Well, Ferdinand only wants to sit under his cork tree all day,” I said, although my father had not answered my original question. I explained how the little bull got to Madrid and sat down in the arena so he could smell the flowers in the ladies’ hats. He was too sweet to fight. “Those are the kinds of genes we should be using on Penny.”

“You always got your head in a book,” he said through gritted teeth.

I reminded him that that was a good quality.

My father muscled the cow over with his shoulder. “It’d be real good quality if you could hold her there for one goddamned minute.”

We had a young bull who ran with the heifers. It might have been safer to turn Penny out for a day or two with Martino. He wasn’t mean yet, but he was amorous and persistent. He might be the only one who could wear Penny down without getting mortally wounded, but we’d have to figure out how to get Penny into the heifer pasture first. We could also call the breeders cooperative and have them send over a technician to breed her, but even my father, that questionable businessman, realized the insurance risk that would be.

Penny quivered, then crashed back against the bars, pushing my toes off my perch.

“Keep her still!” my father hissed, the syringe still clamped in his teeth.

I climbed back up, stretched farther across her body, thrust more of my flimsy weight into her. With his free hand my father lifted her tail. She jammed my shoulder backwards, smashed my other fingers between herself and the metal bars and knocked me off again, this time on my rear end. My elbows scraped concrete.

Cursing, my father flung open the office door and returned with the nose lead. Once he pinched the soft pink meat inside her nostrils with them, Penny trumpeted. Other cows would have stopped moving, but Penny reared, threw her shoulders into the barn wall and shattered a pane of glass with her head. My father, shards glittering in his thin hair, wrapped the rope around a post and said, “Hold this, now. Try a little.”

She kicked out behind her, missing his knees and bloodying her own shins instead. She whipped her tail about his arms, my neck, bawled and shot snot, but my father reached deep up to his elbow inside her, then slid the plastic rod in and shot the semen through with the syringe. Penny bellowed. He peeled off the sleeve, filthy with manure, and unclamped the nose lead.

I once asked my mother why we never had the birds and the bees conversation.

“You grew up on a farm,” she said. “You saw everything you needed to know.”

In this context, my lack of a social life seemed a blessing.

“Well that’s that,” I said, examining my abrasions. “Penny’s issue will flourish for another generation, thank God.”

Some cows had to be bred several times before they conceived. Some never conceived again. But I had a clear picture of Penny’s lunatic egg cuddling up to one lucky swimmer.

“See if you can let her go,” my father said as he stormed off.

This was the man who only ever hurried through milking so we could ride the Ferris wheel at the Firemen’s Carnival. Out mending fences in March, he’d stumble upon early wildflowers and pick me a bouquet.

Penny twisted beside me, drool streaming in silver strands.

“He and I used to like each other,” I told her. “What’s all the fuss about, anyway?”

How could Penny not know how lucky she was? Someone shoveled up after her. She ate hearty even though the grain bill was overdue. I reached over and swatted some glass off her shoulders, pulled my hand away before she crushed it. So she was ugly. It wasn’t as if she was going to have to sit home without a prom date – again – even if she’d finally got this peaches and cream complexion. She had a hundred or so sisters to pal around with so she didn’t have to be lonely or move a thousand miles away in the hope of making some friends who didn’t consider her house a field trip destination.

Penny’s shoulders twitched. She marked me with a bugeye.

“No,” I said. “You get to stay right here where he’ll look out for you.”

“You going to let her go or you going to talk to her all day?” my father said as he marched through on his way to the calf barns.

When I yanked the gates away, Penny bolted, bag swinging, shit spraying, for the open door.

At supper that night, my father turned over my report card and remarked that I had not made the honor roll. I had gotten a C in math, a hard-earned one at that.

“You take after your daddy in lots of things, but not in math.”

“It goes without saying,” my mother said. “She gets all her weaknesses from me.”

“Guess you won’t be a trigonometry major,” he said. “Especially if I’m not around to help you out.”

In sixth grade, the teacher had made us correct our own long division homework and then call out our grades to him. After I disgraced myself several times by calling out the lowest grades in my group, I went to my father. Every night, I’d do my homework and, when he finished night milking, he’d come in and go over it as I slept. The next morning, I’d look for the places he’d put a faint check mark beside – the problems that I would do over before he got up for breakfast and checked them again.

I would never win the Nobel Prize in mathematics but I could calculate pretty quickly the profit we’d make if one cow in particular disappeared, and I told him so.

“I’d like to put your Aunt Rita on the truck when she goes crazy over pictures of snakes on TV, but just being nervous isn’t a good enough reason,” he said.

“My sister may be afraid of things, but she hasn’t hurt anyone yet,” my mother said.

It wasn’t just Penny. He wouldn’t let any of them go. It was as if he’d miss them or something, wouldn’t know what to do with himself without them. How would he survive them not being here? What would my father be without cows?

I got up to leave before I cried. Cried. Something I hadn’t done in front of my father in years. It felt hopeless to me then: the idea of loving something this much and knowing you couldn’t make a living at it, not without killing yourself.

My mother looked up from her plate. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“Can’t get rid of the ones that milk, he says. Can’t get rid of the ones that don’t milk, either. As if we make a decent living at this.”

Then I did start to cry, but I was already on my way upstairs.

I heard my mother say, “She may get her math skills from me, but she gets that meanness from you.”

For two days, my father and I gave each other the silent treatment. My mother ironed a shirt for me one morning while I finished a few math problems.

“If you ask, he’ll help you with those,” she said.

“I know what I’m doing,” I said.

“Okay. Maybe. But it kills him when you’re mad. I know he doesn’t make it easy on you, on any of us. But he can’t take it when you’re upset with him. You know that.”

“I wouldn’t have chosen this life,” I said. “He did. You did. But I have to be out there. I can’t go get a job working a cash register like other kids my age.”

My mother set the iron down. Steam curled around her face.

“You can go anywhere you want. You think we can’t do it without you? Who do you think did it before you arrived? Me. Me and your sisters and brother. Who did it before we got here? About four generations of this family. Go get another job. See how we don’t fall apart. But when you do head off to a university somewhere on his tab, choose something you’ll love no matter how much work it is. See if you have enough smarts to figure out what your passion might be – whether you get rich off it or not.”

My father, always the last one up, came out of the bathroom and sat down with his coffee. Outside the picture window, mist rose off the backs of cows as they lay in greening fields. The dogs trotted back beneath the pasture gate from a night hunting rats and possum. The calves called from their stalls for milk. Cats gathered on the back steps in the sun. I could smell the skunk cabbage unfurling at the brook’s edge, the wet earth yielding, the way it happened every spring of my life. How did spring arrive other places? I had no idea, except that it couldn’t match what unfolded here.

“I need some help, Dad,” I said.

He took the pencil out of my hand and tapped me on the head before scratching away in the margins.

Seven months later, on a November day that promised snow, I sat in the kitchen, college applications spread across the table: Life today is all about making connections, getting involved. My father stood in the doorway, crowbar in hand.

“Want to help me put some dry cows away?”

It wasn’t really a question.

I pulled on boots and hunted for gloves and a hat, until he said, “It’s not going to take long.”

We put dry cows away once a month, so we assumed familiar roles without speaking. My father would drive the cows down an aisle toward the door. I stood cemented in muck ankle-deep. When they came toward me, I would shake a stick, so that instead of heading out to the fields behind me, they turned left and trotted through the open gate to their new quarters.

He listed a couple cows to look for and then tacked Penny’s name to the end of the roll. I shook my head. If I had known we needed to move Penny, I would have come more prepared to be out in the elements. I might even have arrived armed.

For the two months before she calved again, Penny wouldn’t visit the milking parlor to fatten up on grain. Instead, after milking her that morning, my father would have shot her udder up with antibiotics. Now, she’d rest in the dry cow section of the barn until she calved and started a new lactation. That is, if we could manage to get her where we wanted her to go.

My father tried several times to get the three cows moving together, but Penny charged back to the safety of her herdmates despite the rap across her muzzle when she dashed past him. We settled on chasing the other two. As they trotted through the gate, my father stopped with his hands on his hips, purple ear lobes poking out beneath his stocking cap.

“Now let’s get the other one,” he said.

An hour passed. My hands cramped around the stick. My toes stung. Penny knocked my father backwards into the feed trough, stepped on his foot. She hid herself amongst other cows, ran off to the farthest reaches of the barn. Finally the most recent hired man showed up, a guy fresh from a machine shop lay-off and rehab. With him and my father behind her, Penny charged in the right direction. Nostrils flaring, white foam bubbling from her mouth, she rounded the turn.

As she skidded toward me, I yelled, waved my stick, flapped my arms. She gave me one bulging-eyed stare, then lunged past me on the left. I tried to move, but the manure held. Instead of stepping out of it, I fell sideways into it, the blur of Penny’s hooves catching the ends of my hair.

Before I righted myself, my father threw the crowbar at the wall.

“Stop the goddamned cow!” he said. The hired man started after her even though my father was talking to me.

I stood with one sock in the shit, left side of my face coated with it, and yanked my boot out of the ooze.

“Stop your own goddamned cow,” I said, and left him there.

An hour later, my mother knocked on the bathroom door to tell me to hurry because my father was coming in.

“Let him wait,” I said.

He was already late for dinner, late for milking. I let the hot water run over me a few more minutes before shutting it off, stayed in my room while he ate.

When I came downstairs to grab the papers I’d left there, he stirred his coffee, clinking spoon against rim.

“You look pretty,” he said.

“You spent a lot of money on this face,” I said, though I doubt he had any idea what I was talking about. “How do you think I’d look without this side of it?”

“Just as pretty to me.”

The washing machine hummed behind us, my mother a genius at getting any quantity of manure out of any fabric. I shuffled my drafts, folded them into a glossy packet sent from a university several hours away.

He wondered, shyly, how it was going with my applications, and I said, “Fine.”

He pushed back his chair. The hired man would have already milked the first few groups by himself. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible. “Looks like the next time we put Penny out to pasture, you’ll be long gone. Of course, we could wait till Thanksgiving break so you won’t miss out.”

“I don’t think it’s funny,” I said. “That cow’s going to hurt somebody. I’m not sorry it won’t be me.”

“Who’s going to hurt you when your daddy’s around?”

As a boy, he had driven the horse and wagon on its milk route, as a young man he cleared woods for pastures to grow the first alfalfa in the state, as a veteran home from the Second World War he raised a herd of purebred cattle that made him famous. He married my mother when he was fifty years old, took in her four children. A year later, I was born and he’d worried ever since – aloud – that he was so old, he wouldn’t live to see me graduate from high school. Now, at almost seventy, he stood up from the supper table, several hours left in his day. His asthma aggravated him. He woke often with back spasms. He needed surgery for cataracts. Yet we knew better than to discuss retirement with him. We had as few ideas as he did about what he would do all day if he didn’t do what he had done all his life. My father’s day without work in it was much harder to imagine than the days ahead without me in them.

He picked his hat up from the table and pulled it over his ears, his fingers with some nails missing, some blackened, a ring finger crooked from the time he caught it in the baler. He put his hand on my shoulder and studied the photos on the packet before me, students with arms around one another, students bent over test tubes, cheering at soccer games, rappelling off rock face.

I thought it looked a little scary, but he said what he always said when something scared me: “Anybody gives you a hard time out there, you just come tell your daddy.”

He squeezed my shoulder hard and turned to go.

“Dad,” I called after him. “It’s not like that.”

With his hand on the doorknob, he smiled at me, a beautiful smile that made me wish I had one like it, that I could use it as he did, to surprise people. “I have no idea what it’s like out there,” he said. “But I know you. None of those kids are tougher than you are, honey.”

Then he went out. I took my papers upstairs to my bedroom where, every window had views of fields I’d wandered through with one dog or another, where cows grazed all summer and bulls tossed their heads at me over barbed wire. I saw barn roofs beneath which I’d helped deliver calves who sprawled on sawdust before they righted themselves, shook the fluid from their ears and stood for the first time. I saw the tops of trees rooted in soil so black and wet, it encouraged moss at the base of every enormous trunk. I considered all the sunsets, storm clouds, fireworks, coming at us from beyond the tree line, all the hiding places for wildflowers.

Lights burned in the milking parlor where my father moved from one cow to another, singing as he did so, interrupting one verse to right a machine, then resuming his song, his work.

Penny, Count Your Blessings: Part I

Penny, Count Your Blessings

The winter I was sixteen, we milked over a hundred cows. The only one who’d kick you was Penny.

“Why do we keep this cow?” I said, dodging another of her attempts.

“Reach in,” my father said. “Stop daydreaming and keep your head out of the way.”

I daydreamed plenty. Armed with a shopping bag of college brochures, I chanted the promises of university life: go from the ordinary to the unexpected, discover new passions. Standing in the pit of the milking parlor, udder-level with two rows of cows, seven on a side, I milked whenever hired help didn’t show, which was often. I cleaned barns, filled hayracks, cut corn. Through it all I thought: One of these days. Now it loomed: the time I would be done with cows, especially cows like Penny.

Only my father would have kept a cow like her. Though most cows’ udders hang like upside down hearts, four teats pointing toward the ground, Penny had teats like weathervane arrows. No milking machine hung on her without its seal leaking (which made a racket) or falling off altogether.

With Penny in the milking parlor, you couldn’t rush down the line dipping teats with iodine the way you did with any other bunch. Instead, you extended your arm to touch her hock with your finger. Once she got the kick out of the way, she’d stand, leg trembling. The knock-your-head-off-your-shoulders jolt came if you surprised her. My father feared nothing.

“You’re always in a hurry,” he’d say, shoving me aside and putting the machine on her. He warded off her blows with a bare arm, pushed her leg back to the ground. “You got a date or something?”

“High school boys are really attracted to girls who smell like cow manure, didn’t you know?” I said.

“Nothing wrong with hard work,” said a man who’d never wanted anything else. “Besides, why be like all those other girls?”

Penny swatted me with her tail, left a trail of manure across my cheek.

I begged him to let me call for the auction truck.

“Can’t get rid of the ones that milk, smart girl. Just show the cow who’s boss.” He squeezed my arm where the muscle should have been. “You’ve got to toughen up a little, honey. You think it’s going to be easy out there without your daddy to protect you?”

My mother and I sat in the waiting room at the dermatologist’s. It was her idea, just as it had been her idea for me to get contacts instead of another pair of glasses with lenses thick enough to start a fire with on a cloudy day. The office buzzed with conversation and soft rock.

In the car, she agreed not come in with me. I knew she’d try because she feared I’d withhold information the way my father did with doctors, but with this doctor, the evidence presented itself. I had acne or I would be home right now, home or somewhere with kids my own age doing the normal things kids my own age did. I was shy, but even more so when my mother was around. The woman had never met a person she wasn’t related to or didn’t go to school with. Once we got her off the farm, she made it look easy – making friends, making conversation.

I tried reading my notes for the next day’s trigonometry exam.

“I’m going to fail,” I said.

My mother flipped through Good Housekeeping. “You always say that.”

“I mean it. I can’t study here, and I have to milk tonight.”

“Come in at nine and get an hour in.”

I thought of my father trying to man both sides of the parlor and clean up afterwards. He’d be out there past midnight.

“If he’d just get rid of a few cows, we’d get through so much faster,” I said. We repeated this conversation many times those years, the years just before I prepared to leave them there. My father had a herd of champions. Good milkers, stars of the county fair circuit. But he insisted on keeping dogs like Penny who didn’t milk well and who could hurt someone.

No need to tell my mother the last part since one of Penny’s crazy predecessors had crushed her against a wall a few years back and ruptured two discs. The surgeries brought about my mother’s retirement from milking.

“All he knows is work,” she said. “He could care less about the business end of it.”

I considered him hovered over his adding machine, checkbook open beside him and, on top of it, the grain bill.

“Maybe,” I said. “But he also gets too attached to some of them.”

His show cows mostly. When he lost one of them or had to send one to the beef auction, he wouldn’t speak for days.

“Look who’s talking,” my mother said. She bit the inside of her cheek. People said we looked alike, same wide-spaced, dark eyes, prominent chins and cheekbones, same nose taking up too much space. When they first dated, my father told her she had dancer’s legs. I couldn’t imagine ever hearing that about my own legs, especially since they were mostly covered in worn jeans stained with manure.

“Your father has two loves in his life,” she said, without bitterness. “You and those animals. If you can’t convince him to do something with the ones who are no good, no one can.”

The receptionist slid her window open and told me I could come in.

I walked across the waiting room and closed the door.

Some kid or other always showed up looking for work. Westerly was part beach town, part mill town. The Italians, like my family, settled away from the ocean. They found work in textile mills or granite quarries. In the 1970’s, almost fourteen thousand people lived there year-round, another twelve thousand arrived for the summer. We had three small grocery stores, a local donut chain with a couple shops and a few fast food chains. If your hair was too long or you had no car, the managers hired someone else. On the other hand, my father might call you Hippie, but he’d have a job for you. My mother provided lunches and taxi service. Still, the turnover was significant. I had plenty of opportunities to perfect the Penny lesson.

That February, I watched from the kitchen window as a kid got dropped off in a gold Dodge Dart missing its rear bumper. The dogs barked and charged the car. I felt a glimmer of hope when this boy let the dogs jump on him. He didn’t touch them, kept his hands in his back pockets as they buffeted him around, but he didn’t look scared exactly. God knows where my father was – underneath the manure spreader fixing a belt, down in the freestall dismantling a waterer.

My mother told me to let his mother know he’d be done late. We could never be more specific than that.

My mother liked to order me out with messages. Days went by when the only time she left the house was to run to plumbing supply for flux or to Agway for salt licks. She’d started watching one soap opera at lunchtime, but by the end of a year, she turned the television on at noon and kept it on through Merv Griffin, the six o’clock news, Concentration. By 7:30 she sat in bed reading the romance novels whose full-bosomed covers embarrassed me. In Catholic school, she’d been the original smart girl. Anytime my homework required an illustration, she’d teach me how to draw it. She did still visit friends from her old neighborhood, but she left my father’s sandwich on the table, wrapped in wax paper as neatly as a gift.

I went out, waved to the kid and tapped on his mother’s window. She wore a plaid bathrobe and opened the door a crack releasing old smoke. I told her he’d be done around ten. I didn’t add: hopefully.

“He’ll have to walk home then,” she said and drove off.

The kid wore new boots, black plastic ones they sold at Fisher’s Big Wheel. I shooed the dogs and they went to collapse in the hayloft.

“My mother will drive you,” I said.

Later, we stood in the doorway of the milking parlor. I kept the cows out by waving a lead pipe.

“See that cow with the big white circle on her face, the hair standing up between her ears?” I said. Penny jostled others, bulled forward blindly, batted her head around in panic. Her rump sloped off severely, her legs hooked underneath her as if she was permanently close to sitting. “When she comes in, watch out.”

The kid wouldn’t have been able to tell a brown cow from a pink one, never mind remember a face. He craned his neck over my shoulder, petrified by the herd surging toward the open door.

I told him to step back, that I’d get them, and he scuttled behind me. You see, I wished I could tell my father, boys do not find this kind of courage attractive.

In the pit, I showed the kid a marking on Penny’s otherwise white flank, a small black mark in the shape of a fishhook. You could depend on added clues – a teat scratched from bull briars she’d charged through, an ear bloodied from tearing it away from something during flight.

“If you forget her, she’ll kill you,” I said. This seemed to impress him. He shook his head at her and whistled.

Most new kids lasted about two weeks. The kid whose mother never changed out of her bathrobe lasted three days. When my mother called me, I was sitting on my bed, reading a college brochure: Because your search for a school is as unique as you are . . .

“Doesn’t look like your dad’s going to have help tonight,” she said.

“I’m not going.” I said this often, especially in winter. The unheated milking parlor, my wet hands, my feet on cement.

Plates clattered as my mother finished supper dishes. She admitted there were times when she wondered how she’d gotten here after running the diner where my father came in for every meal. He left her a twenty dollar tip, almost a week’s salary, when he found out she had four kids. He charmed her, never gave up. She milked beside him for years before her injury, laid me sleeping on a cot in the office near the furnace while she worked.

Lately, she began conversations with, “Someday soon, when you’re off to college . . .” and ended them with, “What am I going to do without you?” Then, she’d hug me and say, “I’m not saying I don’t want you to go, of course. I want that more than anything. Go off and have a ball.”

“There’s a little thing called studying,” I’d mumble into her shoulder.

“Oh, Worrywart, believe it or not, you can work hard and have fun.”

My father, who never reached high school because the early start conflicted with his milk delivery route, believed in education and believed in footing the bill for it. But my sisters married young. My brother left home in a van full of long-haired guys and their guitars to travel the country, maybe audition for Johnny Cash. I was the honor roll student, the kid who lost sleep over paper deadlines and SATs. So off I’d go in a couple years, the first in the family to take up residence hours away in search of a degree.

What would it be like to know that on the coldest nights of the year, you didn’t have to go out there into the dark and wind, into a long night of work? In a couple years when the hired help let him down, my mother would be the only one home. I pitched the pamphlet against the wall and dug long underwear out of a pile on the floor.

“Do you know how I’m going to decide which college to attend?” I asked my mother as I pulled on my boots downstairs. The sides of my nose and the crease in my chin burned from the acne medicine. My whole face peeled away in white flakes leaving behind an angry red.

“One that’s as far away from cows as possible,” she said.

“All animals. I mean it. I don’t want to see so much as a dog being walked outside my dorm window.”

I opened the back door and my father’s singing drifted across the barnyard – Everybody loves somebody sometime . . .

My mother shook her head. “Sometimes I feel sorry for him because he’s got so much to do out there, but listen to the foolish man. He’s happy.”

Was she happy? Most days, I doubted it. But she kept a life off the farm, friends from the old neighborhood, shopping trips to the Fall River outlets, babysitting for my sisters’ kids. Once a year, she spent a week in Maine with a good friend, just the two of them eating lobsters and playing Scrabble on a shady deck overlooking a salt water bay.

When I swung the parlor door open, my father stopped singing and looked up from where he was hosing off the back feet of a cow. The parlor smelled sharply of manure and iodine. The animals gave off heat despite the cold, the vacuum of the milking machines provided a soft percussion. The dogs trotted through a door and butted me with their snouts.

“Good to see you, honey,” my father said, then resumed, “Something in my heart keeps saying, that sometime is now. . .”

The dogs’ tails cooled the air currents around my legs until I climbed down into the pit and got busy.

When Penny came in an hour later, I followed protocol. She kicked the air so hard at my first poke, she cut her leg on a bolt in her stanchion.

“Stupid animal,” I said, though I had been lulled that night, as if in crossing off my working nights on an imaginary calendar, I’d forgotten I’d actually have to leave – pack my bags, drive away, sleep in a room without the sounds of tractors roaring out my open window, dogs barking at raccoons in the corn fields. To hear instead the breathing of strangers, their footsteps down long hallways, to smell their laundry soap, their shampoos.

But Penny jerked me out of my reverie. At times, I pitied her, homely as she was, terrified and senseless. Now I tried deciding which life was worse – a cow’s or those assigned to look after them. Well, I thought, at least the way out for me isn’t on a truck headed for a beef auction.

“You know, Dad, that kid might have stuck around if it wasn’t for Penny here.”

“Kid was kind of nervous.” My father said this about everyone.

He stripped the milk out of another animal’s teat by hand, her quarter red and swollen with mastitis. What squirted out was more water than milk, clots of yellow, streaks of blood. She’d probably go blind in that quarter despite my father’s efforts, but he’d keep her.

Penny might have been the only cow who could hurt you, but there was a mini-herd of animals we could have done without.

“When the first tuition bill comes, I have an idea of who you can sell to pay it,” I said.

“Why don’t you take care of book stuff and I’ll worry about farming.”

“Farmers cull, Dad. They make decisions about profit and loss and understand that once a cow eats more money than she makes, it’s time to go.”

“You don’t know every goddamned thing,” he said. “And you sure talk a lot about farming for someone who can’t wait to get the hell away from here.”

Penny’s kick launched her machine under the cow in front of her. I sought a safe path through her flashing hooves to re-attach it, but finally hung it on the weigh jar and turned the valve to release her milk. It swirled away through the pipeline, into the tank.

“Just be damned sure you don’t study farming.” My father’s voice returned to its usual growl. “Or by Christ you’ll pay the goddamned bill yourself.”

To be continued . .

Chapter 3 How We Came to be the DOR Girls: You Might Have Seen This Coming

The First (and only) Year: Back row: Melissa, Jeanne Kelly. Front row: Cathy Lange, me, Jeanne Boss (missing: Robin).

The First (and only) Year: Back row: Melissa, Jeanne Kelly. Front row: Cathy Lange, me, Jeanne Boss (missing: Robin).

So you know how this ends. It doesn’t. Twenty-six years later, we meet once a month for dinner. Saltonstall, seventh floor has led to every milestone, every hot topic since: buying our first houses, getting married, dealing with infertility, being working mothers, adoptive mothers, step-mothers, losing loved ones, changing jobs, divorce, menopause, college tuitions, retired spouses. We have never all worked together again (in fact, we worked together less than a year total), but the Office of Facilities Management at the Department of Revenue and those cubicles we started from have led to New York City piano bars, Ogunquit’s winter beaches, to a hillside outside of Florence where fireworks exploded below us over Duomo, to a house so remotely beautiful on Fire Island, we humped our food and wine over miles of sand to reach it. It has led to the steep inclines of mountains in Montana on horseback, to the Cape’s summer beaches, to the French Quarter and Quebec’s old city, to the quiet water beside a loon sanctuary in New Hampshire.

And all this is because, in the absence of any real work, it turns out, you spend an hour in an abandoned office space, a space strung with loose wires, metal brackets, rolls of soiled carpeting, and look at Melissa’s photos from Ireland. She is in love with an Irish boy and you are all so caught up in the romance, you stumble back out into the light of the corridor blinking as if the movie has just ended, the credits rolling as you hurry back to your lonely office.

To start your day, Jeanne Kelly reads you your horoscope from the Boston Herald and when the Names Project comes to town on a day when your boss isn’t in the office, you spend three hours reading every quilt panel, as stunned into silence as you have ever been to see all the young lives spent and mourned individually and en masse. You walk home together through the Common and Jeanne says, “Someday, I’d like to see Italy,” and you say, “Then let’s.”

You weigh in on Cathy Lange’s wedding plans and, when she returns from a fifteen minute coffee break with a gown from Filene’s Basement, you crowd into her cubicle to see it. When one of the managers sticks his head in, someone says: She’s getting married! and what can he say to that? Labels from the new label maker entrusted to Cathy’s care appear in all kinds of places, including the lip of Jeanne Kelly’s pen drawer where she is greeted several times a day with the neatly pressed saying: jeanne kelly says this place sucks.

You root Robin on when she decides it’s finally time to take on the inept managerial team. How can you not admire someone who has a plan? Who makes sense? And how can you finally blame her when, thwarted by people whose idea of a good work environment include the mandatory Sunshine Club parties where your presence is not only required, but recorded and you are expected to contribute to the food bill, she moves onward, upward?

You wander back to that pristine space where you thought no important work ever got done and you find a box of homemade truffles from Jeanne I. who, it turns out, loves Christmas — and a few days later, when you tell her how delicious they were, you find a few more on your otherwise useless blotter. Because you said you liked them, she tells you.

And today. And forever.

And today. And forever.

In the absence of real work, when Sammye the big boss opens Jeanne Kelly’s drawer and reads the label, you huddle at your desks muffling hysterics. Then you head for happy hour at Houlihan’s and dance your fool heads off even though it’s only 6PM. When it’s time to go home, you don’t worry. You’ll always be twenty-something, buzzing along happily, dancing together as if the ball is just about to drop with your best friends in the world and, though you have to leave them now, you’ll see them all again tomorrow.