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.