By Joe Cunningham
I wrote this several years ago, while I was a self-righteous seminarian. I made up the first line and the "years later" ending; but the rest is true. I decided not to rewrite it, even though it needs it; maybe someday I will.
It’s been forty-three years and the only reason I’m writing this now is because everyone else involved is dead.
It began on a crisp fall afternoon, when the wind was blowing fresh clean air down over Sorrell Hill and across the valley. I said goodbye to Mom, saying how Indiana Jones had jobs when he was fifteen and they gave him experiences that made him a man. I didn’t know just how prophetic those words were when I said them.
That day I began my custom of running to work, well, jogging actually. The farm was only a half a mile down the road and I was young and strong then. I would run there and home everyday I worked, though in the mornings I would walk in the dark. Fifteen was old enough for me not to be afraid of the dark, but I had my reservations, and braving country roads at 3 A.M. could give anyone the willies.
It took me five minutes to arrive jogging slow, though I’d sprint the last leg just to look good, even though nine times out of ten no one was looking. I remember walking back to the barn that first day where the boss’s three hundred plus cows were all living in their own manure. I saw a girl about my age driving a tractor full of feed. Her name was Katrina.
“Hi,” I said, bashfully. I was still shy around girls as I was around old people, “My name is Joe Cunningham, what’s yours?” I shook her hand like a boy’s hand, since those were the only hands I knew how to shake, and she showed me around the milking parlor.
“Wayne will be here any minute,” she said, smiling at me. She was four years older than I and blond, not pretty, but she had a kind of beauty of her own, character you might say. I liked her, in a friendly sort of way, and was too dumb to know she liked me in a more-than-friendly sort of way.
Wayne arrived at about 3:30 in the afternoon, everyday. He’d be out harvesting corn or spraying manure or yelling at Jake (his dad), or smacking Jake’s dog, Sandy, who was a menace and crazy. I’d often sprint home with that mutt on my heels, not sure whether I had the guts or the heart not to beat it silly with a stick or a rake.
That first day Wayne walked into the parlor in his classic style that Katrina’s older brother Carl could imitate so well. He’d strut through the middle of the doorway and scratch the lint from his bellybutton. Then he’d call out in that boisterous voice he had developed over a lifetime of yelling at animals.
“Should we call you Joe, Joseph, or Joey?” he yelled. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.
“Doesn’t matter to me,” I replied. Wayne showed me around and had Katrina try and teach me how to bed the stalls. Later he called me back to the parlor and had her teach me how to work the milk machines.
“I’ve had nine hernias, Joey” he’d tell me when he caught me staring at his giant stomach.
“Holy cow, Mr. Scholten!” I’d say every time with that usual stupid naïve look on my face. I was the only one to call him Mr. Scholten and he told me so. I guess that’s why he liked me.
Toward the end of the milking that day, the field crew arrived to change their boots and stamp their time cards. That was when I met George. He was about as tall as I was and wore a beard. He looked young: he could’ve passed for a 25 year-old though he was thirty. He had a big smile on his face when Mr. Scholten introduced me to him.
“Nice to meet ya’,” he said, looking at my hands dirty with cow junk. His were covered in black oil and when he noticed that I didn’t care, he smiled wider and shook my hand. He had a loud voice too, but it was nicer.
“Tomorrow you’ll meet Phil,” bellowed Wayne, “You’ll like Phil, everybody likes Phil. Be here at 3:15 sharp.”
The next morning I arrived at 3 A.M. The world was dark and freezing. I had had my first walk through the shadows and it was a welcome feeling to open the parlor door and smell the jet heaters leaking oil, even if I always hated the smell and preferred even cow manure instead. The milk machines were clicking and nearly ready to go, and I saw an older-looking man dressed in a plaid shirt and heavy overalls changing the filters in the milk pipes. He seemed hard of hearing, not having turned around since I entered. I guess I scared him a little when I walked up.
“Oh hello,” he said, startled a bit, like I thought he would be. He had a friendly grin on his face, which I would always see there. His hair was dark and grey in spots and a little messy, like he had tried to comb it; he wore glasses, and his eyes were very special and lit up my face.
“I’m Phil, Phil Bender,” he said.
“Nice to meet you Mr. Bender,” I said, shaking his hand. His hands were big and tough as leather, but it seemed he had never harmed a fly. His voice reminded me a little of Jimmy Stewart’s.
“Oh, huh, huh,” he chuckled, “You can just call me Phil. Did they show ya’ how to run the machines yet?” I nodded and he said he’d go get the cows and then take care of a little something and be back to help me milk.
“Do you like Oldies?” he asked, climbing up to turn on the radio. I didn’t know if I did, but anything would be better than all that country music the day before.
“Sure,” I said. Phil turned on the radio and disappeared into the barn.
Around 4:30 George arrived, as he would do everyday. Wayne wouldn’t come for another two hours and after him businessmen and then breakfast. George would help with the milking and then work the fields after eating. Phil worked mornings ‘til noon.
George put his boots on and helped me milk. That first day we just smiled a lot and got to know each other. George came from a big family that got split up with his parents’ divorce when he was ten. Then he went to live with his father. George had a three-year-old son named Jimmy and a girlfriend named Amanda and they all lived in a house Wayne lent him.
“And you know what Amanda says, Joey?” said George, “She says ‘You should have gone to live with your mom, then you would have turned out good.’” George laughed and said, “Wasn’t that nice?”
I liked George and liked talking to him. Phil and I would talk about old radio shows, old movies, and politics, and every so often I’d try to talk about Jesus. With George I’d talk about new movies, Marines (his friend was one and I wanted to be one), and politics. Sometimes George would talk about cars, but I didn’t know what he was talking about. And George loved snowmobiles: he got a new one every few years or so and was hoping to get a new one this year. And sometimes, even without me bringing it up, he’d ask me about God.
I remember trying to tell him God loved him, because he’d always laugh and tell me he’d burn in hell. I always felt bad and I could see tears in his eyes and feel pain deep down. I remember him telling me someday I’d be a priest and do the wedding for him and Amanda. I didn’t want to be priest and told him so, but I couldn’t help feeling like one then and almost wishing I was one.
I learned a lot from George. He taught me in’s and out’s of farm work, gave me tips on girls which I never used, and it was George who explained to me the Scholten family feud. Jake and Ida had come from Holland and built a farm in Vermont. Jake would tell me World War II stories about dodging Nazis, using his more colorful English to describe them. Jake had four sons: Wayne, John, Piels, and Robert; all of them had families of their own. They moved the dairy farm to Upstate New York years back, and Wayne had bought the family business. Piels was put in charge of the calves from when they were a month old until they had their first calf two years later and were ready to milk. John worked the fields and Robert did plumbing for Agway. Wayne was the boss. George said Wayne and Piels were always yelling at each other about something, until one day one of them threw a milk pail at the other and they got into a full-fledged fist fight. After that, they never spoke. That was years ago, George said. Piels was a nice guy and so was Wayne, and though I hadn’t noticed it outright before, there were deep wounds inside the both of them that would almost but never be healed.
I remember getting to like Oldies. George would play heavy metal every once in a while, but usually mornings meant dancing to “Build Me Up Buttercup” while I squeegeed manure off the floors. I sang also, or tried to, when no one was around of course. Once while singing and swinging, I stopped when I realized hundreds of big stupid eyes were watching me. I turned and looked at the cows, chewing their cud and looking at me as if I were the stupid one. I just laughed and kept dancing. Another time, I went back to herd the next group in for milking, and one cow standing in the back wouldn’t come. After yelling and screaming and hitting it with my fists (I had, of course, forgotten to bring a cane), I realized it wasn’t a she but a he (boss would put one in every now and again for business purposes and usually warn us first). I thank God I started running when I did: that bull nearly pulverized me. Instead I jumped over the fence just in time and he got a face-full of iron. I laugh now as I did then, remembering another time when I found a new way to get the cows into the parlor. I yelled and screamed and pleaded and even said please, and then used the cane, but none of them would budge. Frustrated, I sat down and just started singing to myself. As soon as I got passed the first part of the song, they all stood up and left – faster than I’d ever seen them leave before! That was just one of many hidden talents I would discover and still use.
I remember having a favorite cow. 420 was the number and Misty was her name. I didn’t have a favorite for a while because I thought that was stupid. George had one. Her name was Stella and Phil told me George had saved her life when she was little and ever since she loved him. I picked my favorite because 4/20 – April 20th – was the anniversary of my conversion. It just so happened that Katrina had given her a name to go along with the tag on her ear. All the other guys respected me in a strange sort of way because of Misty, but I never knew why, until George told me 4:20 was widely known as the “international smoking time” for marijuana.
One morning in winter, Phil disappeared into the mysterious barn I’d never gone into, like he always did, but this morning he came running back to get me.
“Hey Joey,” he said excitedly, “Come quick!” I dropped my udder dip and slid down the concrete pavement. Inside the barn it was warm and hay lay everywhere. It stunk pretty bad too, worse than the other barns. I saw a herd of cows penned in stalls to my left. They had all sorts of spray-painted marks all over ‘em. Phil would explain that they were the sick ones. To my right was Phil, speaking softly to a cow whose rear end looked like it was gonna’ blow.
“Come on over, Joey, don’t be afraid,” he said. I was, a little. Phil pointed out the face of a calf in the rear of the groaning cow. “She’s having a calf Joey, and you can help me get her out.” Phil explained that sometimes calves died just like babies if you didn’t help get them out right. They could get stuck and suffocate on the amniotic sack that came out with them. Phil tied a noose around the calf’s hooves which came out first and told me to catch her when she came out. Then he pulled. The mama cow was yelling like a bad opera singer and I caught the calf, but only for a moment: she was covered in goo and slipped out of my hands into the slushy puddle of manure underneath.
“Yuck. Sorry. Welcome to the world,” I thought. Phil dragged her out and tied the mama cow to the fence.
“She’ll rest here for a while then eat the sack her baby came out in. It’ll make her strength come back.” Cats were coming out of the woodwork and began to eat the guck that had come out with the calf. Phil shooed ‘em off. I felt sick.
“We have to tie her up because sometimes these barn cows go crazy and try to kill their young,” explained Phil.
“It’s not right having them locked up all the time in here,” he said, “Hopefully within a few hours the calf will drink her mom’s first milk and start walking.” George would explain to me how the mom’s first milk is incredible: drinking that stuff is like taking steroids and sometimes people drink it as a delicacy.
“Sometimes they kill the calves too,” he said, “Ever hear of veal? It’s great.” It is, but that sickened me at the moment.
I wasn’t becoming a greeny or anything, but certain facts of life began to dawn on me. A few weeks later I got Phil to come look at a cow in the sick pen that just wasn’t moving. The first second I laid eyes on it, I knew something was wrong. Its chest wasn’t going up and down or nothing, and its eyes were silver: that’s right, shiny and grey, like metal; and when I touched it, it was cold. Phil tied its hind legs to the tractor and dragged it away. They sold them to dog food factories I was told, unless they were young cows and then each worker would get a slab of meat to take home. I never took any. That cow was old anyway.
We could take milk too, but I never took any. My parents asked about that once and all I had to tell them was, “I saw what went into that,” and relate to them one of my stories about dropping one of the sucking cups in manure. Thank God for pasteurization. Mr. Scholten gave me a good one once for not cleaning the udders correctly.
“That’s milk we drink!” he said. “That’s milk you drink,” I wanted to say.
I picked up a bail of hay once and froze over in fear. Underneath was a cat, stiff as a brick, but smiling at me with all its fangs bared. Its eyes were closed though. I forked it into the manure once I got a hold of myself. There were cats everywhere – a whole city of them on the farm; all of them were gonna’ die sometime.
I didn’t laugh when the other guys told me how they forked cats live. Once I saw George do it. Animals are usually quicker than men by instinct, but men learn things that might be better for them not to. One cat made the mistake of running near George when he was forking the hay. Sensing danger, the cat ran the long way out of the barn while George ran straight in a diagonal and stabbed it through the belly, laughing. The cat squirmed on the pitchfork and George stabbed it again full-force and flung it off near the dog pen. I had a rough time running home that day.
I became accustomed to hardship and hard work and developed a deep appreciation for the working class man. Phil would tell me 95% of the world was asleep while we were working, not like he was bragging or anything. Phil didn’t brag. I remember slapping the alarm clock at 2:30 AM (sometimes after going to bed at 11), and listening to the wind shrill, shrieking through the trees and over the frozen snow. I’d wobble downstairs and pray first, then do my push-ups and sit ups, then eat two bowls of cereal – always (three was too much and one was too little, and I knew I’d have five more when I came back for breakfast). I’d bundle up in my uncle’s heavy blue work trousers and head off. Sometimes it would be well below zero outside, and the barns, made of metal, would be even colder and turn to wind tunnels once we opened the doors for the feed bins. When I look back I don’t know how I did it, besides just being simpler then; or perhaps it was because I wanted to be a Marine, and had over-conceived ideas about being some sort of Indiana Jones he-man wannabe; and I felt an urge to offer up sacrifices for souls. My hands would stick to the fences sometimes during winter and I’d keep going biting my tongue. Running home would freeze the water I had sprayed on my pants while cleaning the parlor, and after I’d always exercise in the cold when I got home and pray the rosary while I did so. It was untying my iced-over shoes with frozen hands that was the problem. I imagined a whole army of souls was getting to heaven because of these sacrifices I gave to Christ; and I believe they did.
But my action-hero antics could go overboard. Mr. Scholten would say, “You’re crazy, Joey,” whenever I jumped from the barn lofts onto his pick-up truck. One time, though I never told Mom, I raced a snowplow to the fence-line near my house. I saw it barreling down the hill about a hundred yards away, burying itself in a cloud of snow as it roared towards me. I could’ve dove in the tall snow bank on my left or ran straight past the last mailbox to my yard. I did the stupid thing any teenage boy would’ve done and just barely made it, humming the Indiana Jones theme while my heart pounded for what seemed like the last time. I stood on the lawn, panting and amazed that I was still alive, and heard a loud honk from the driver who had seen me only when he was a few feet away from taking me out. “Stupid kid!” he must have thought. He was right.
Mom and my siblings could always smell when I came home. I’d go right straight into the bathroom and throw my clothes to wash from there. One morning I decided to exercise my freedom since everyone was away at Mass (so I thought). I sang “Go the Distance” in the living room at the top of my lungs after I sent my clothes to wash and before my shower. Then I heard a bump on the stairs. “Lucy slept in!” I ran for cover and made it to the bathroom just in time.
My jobs were only possible because I was homeschooled. Mom was a hero, organizing lesson plans for the eight of us. Dad would help out when he came home from the office. After almost a full day’s work before sunrise, I’d breakfast and try to study. At first I managed milking two afternoons and three mornings a week, but when Mom caught me sleeping in my Math book she lowered the count. Once at Christmas time, I had five simultaneous jobs: the farm, selling coupon books at the mall, my boys’ club work, office stuff at my godson’s dad’s place, and shoveling. And schoolwork. And I swam for lifeguard training twice a week. It built character, I suppose, but I didn’t do it just for that, or the money, which I spent on an Indiana Jones jacket, extravagant Christmas presents, an art course I was taking, and college savings. Katrina admired me for saving.
I was going to go to college. By the time I took the ACT my junior year, I was set on going to a four-year liberal arts college and then joining the Marines Reserves and going to film school. I wanted to make “Catholic movies that people will actually want to go see – no offense.” Nearly everybody thought I was crazy on some account, but I was going for it; and I believed I could make it.
“And I’m going to get married and have about a million kids,” I told Lucy.
One afternoon Wayne brought in his daughter Erica and they were talking when I arrived. She was two years younger than I and short, pretty I guess, but without the character Katrina had. Wayne introduced her to me. I blushed and, not knowing how to react, I just laughed through my nose and kept working. Wayne would try several times to hook me up with her. She was his second daughter of his second marriage.
“There’s a dance down at B-ville High on Friday,” he’d say, “Erica’ll be there.”
“Great,” I’d say.
“Why don’t you go down and have a good time?” he’d say. I’d say something like “I don’t do that” or “My parents aren’t big on that stuff” or something, anything to get out of it.
Phil was no help either. He had private plans to marry me off to his grand-daughter. It was a compliment I suppose, them seeing good in me, but I hated matchmaking and held deep down and perhaps foolishly so, that the girl of my dreams would just appear some day and we’d fall in love at first sight. Going through five crushes in five years proved me wrong.
I admired Phil’s goodness. His own son died in a shotgun accident. He was a sergeant in the Army, the pride and joy of his father. After that sad incident, Phil and his wife Mary Lou adopted a wayward orphan girl who ran off with an older man when she was a teenager and had a daughter, Phil’s grand-daughter, who Phil got to write to me. I’d write back, being as Catholic as I could be, to scare her off, but it didn’t work. She’d call me on the phone and my Mom would give me the look. She’d talk forever, but I never met her.
I remember eating cookies that Phil brought in between milkings. George and Phil would always give me the last one. They were imitation Oreos usually, that Phil got from the dollar store, he said.
“I tried to get a job at the dollar store pricing items,” he’d always say.
Once I brought in a pie my mom made. Mom made the best apple pies in the world and everyone gathered around in the office to have a piece. Phil was standing next to me and they all started talking about stuff that made me blush. I laughed because it made me laugh, but Phil tried to change the subject. When he couldn’t he stayed silent and looked at me, and we understood each other.
Summers were hot and work then was sweaty. Summer was hay season. Once the grass grew long enough, John’s crew would bail it and Wayne would call in all the milking crews to pack the barns. Usually you’d get about a half-dozen cuts a season, if the rain fell right; and Wayne would always get nauseous thinking we wouldn’t fill the barns this year.
I liked throwing hay, mostly because it let us all get to know each other. There were several shifts of workers doing several types of jobs and we’d all get together for barn filling. I remember one time waiting for the next load to come with half the crew up in the loft. I don’t remember exactly how it started, but somehow I got talking about Jesus, almost preaching. Phil was there and he looked proud of me; the rest stood silent. It was something about death, I remember, and one of them rearranged a bail for no reason and looked mad saying, “You ain’t nowhere after death ‘cept six feet under.” I replied in a soft tone of voice, but I don’t remember what I said.
They were cranking up the elevator when the hay arrived and George was standing there, looking at the eager look on my face.
“Hey, let Joey do it!” he said. George would always brag about how physically fit I was. I didn’t know many guys my age, and I didn’t play organized sports, so I didn’t think I was. George did. Once George followed me home in his truck, cheering me on like a track coach. On that hot summer’s day, I stepped up to the elevator with a proud smile and started cranking five times faster than the last two guys – swirling the handle like a windmill! The old guys were chuckling to themselves, but I didn’t know why.
Crack! I had leaned my face too close to the reel and hit myself square in the nose. The whole gang chuckled, except George, Phil, and Wayne.
“You okay, Joey?” they said.
I staggered back a bit and then stepped forward to take the crank again, but Mr. Scholten wouldn’t let me. That did it for George.
“See – look at how tough he is!” he said, with a big smile on his face. I felt warm liquid fall onto my shirt and I wiped my face with my shirtsleeve. The fact that my farm clothes were hand-me-down hand-me-downs made me unafraid to do almost anything in them. My bloody nose and George made me feel like Indiana Jones and it felt good. Erica was there, I remember, but I remember not caring at all.
That Christmas George got a new snowmobile, an Artic Cat – the top of the line, and he let me try it out. I could see mixed feelings of joy and concern on his face, so he held on in the back just in case anything went wrong.
“Go, Joey, go! Go fast Joey!” We flew over the snow under the night sky and took a few bumps at full speed. The wind blew past our faces and I imagined I could hear the jingle bells of Christmas. It was a wonderful feeling, but the last wonderful feeling at the farm.
Stella died not long before Christmas. She had gotten mastitis: some sort of udder infection that curds a cow’s milk, hardens her udders, and makes everything smell disgusting. Sometimes you can save ‘em by cutting off the infected ones, but not Stella. I drew George a picture of her for Christmas on a bright grassy hillside, nothing like the junk the cows lived in here. George thought I meant to make it look like cow heaven. Misty died right after Stella, so I knew a little what it felt like to lose your favorite, though George loved Stella and I just liked Misty. Katrina said Misty got jumped on by one of the cows in heat (they did that), and she broke her leg under the weight. They’re not good for much with a broken leg, so you gotta’ shoot ‘em like horses in western movies I guess. I would no longer go back to the barn and say goodbye. I always felt like an idiot doing that anyway.
I remember working New Year’s Eve. Everybody else was out getting drunk and Wayne knew I wouldn’t be. He had me work that shift every year; He hadI got overtime pay anyway. I remember quite distinctly looking at Mr. Scholten leaning against the iron ladder leading up to the stalls and feeling sorry for him. He was as stingy as a starving elephant, and you could almost always expect a business question to come up in conversation. He had a somewhat of a right to be that way.
“Dairy farmers are getting all run out of business,” he’d tell me, “You gotta’ get big or you go under.” Phil and George both explained to me separately that a farmer’s dream was having forty cows, a bit of land, and that was it: that was the life. Nowadays, farmers got ten cents a pound for milk, so you had to have a lot of cows – at least two or three hundred – to make it worthwhile; and a lot of cows meant a lot of workers and a lot of feed, which meant a lot of corn, a lot of tractors, and a lot of debt. Wayne said he’d be paying off debt until he sold the farm to God knows who. It was one big gamble and full of headaches: try to pay off everything before you retire and hope to come out with money to spare. And he’d always be trying to get bigger (the farm that is), as if that were gonna’ help. His debt just got bigger and nothing else. There was a farm in Auburn with 3,000 cows and they milked three times a day. Wayne would always talk about it with a glint of rivalry in his eye.
Wayne knew his cows inside and out. He could tell you its number, mother, father, children, milk capacity, and litany of sicknesses just by looking at the thing’s backside. I wanted to tell him to get a life, but it was his life and he was good at what he did.
He was a good man, Wayne. He had a creed of some sort nailed on the side wall of the office, next to the crucifix I got for him blessed by the Pope. It was a funny creed, but Christian I guess.
Scholten Dairy Farm was about five miles away from the town of Baldwinsville, which was a five minute thruway drive from Syracuse. I’d often compare that to the world they lived in: theirs was a little ways apart from the rest, and they thought about five miles and five minutes different than everybody else.
We all feared Mr. Scholten in some way, because he was the boss, and because of his large stature and loud temperament. Since I usually worked just one shift a day, he’d give me jobs here and there to clean up a little more. We got paid by the hour, so that didn’t matter much, but sometimes I felt like a slave. It was good for my humility. I remember having a hard time explaining that word.
I feared Wayne most for something I hoped I’d never have to see. The very first day, he must have explained to me three times, and after him all the workers warned me, about not milking the sick cows into the tank! The tank was where all eleven thousand pounds of milk would go for our two shifts of milking. The dairy truck arrived each morning to empty it out. If one drop of milk from a sick cow got in, it would be detected somehow and we’d have to dump the whole thing – over a thousand dollars worth! I heard horror stories of it happening: young teenagers getting chewed out and never coming back. George said Phil did it once, by accident of course; everytime it was an accident. George said Phil cowered like a sad little boy while Wayne stood over him, yelling at him and calling him an idiot. Phil wasn’t an idiot, he was just older, that’s all.
One day George herded a cow from the sick pen into the parlor and told me to disconnect the pipe and milk her out. Cows died if you didn’t milk ‘em at least once or twice a day. I heard stories about farmers getting ten feet of snow and by the time they could clear enough away from their barns a few days later all the cows would be dead. The sick cow came in and I hooked her up. She had red chalk marks and spray paint all over her legs and two plastic red bands, but I forgot to unhook the pipes. George saw it first.
“Joey, no!” George ran down the concrete alley in between the milk machines and I froze in fear. My heart was pumping overtime and sweat wet my face and palms. Phil had just walked in and understood immediately what was going on. He and George grabbed the pipe that ran into the tank room and started unscrewing like madmen. In a moment, it was all over. We waited for a second as Phil and George held the disconnected pipes and nothing came through. George looked at me with a troubled look on his face. Then Phil exclaimed,
“Hey look, it’s coming out!” Sure enough, the sick cow’s milk started flowing from the tube, out onto the floor, and down the drain where it belonged. I looked at them as if they had saved my life.
“Don’t worry Joey,” said George. They both had kind looks on their faces as if to say, “Nothing happened; we won’t tell Wayne.”
I remember looking at Wayne on that New Year’s night and thinking about that moment and what he would’ve done to me if he had known.
“I saw your sister running by the other day,” he told me once. “She’s the one with red hair?” I said “ya” and got mad and let him know it in the look I gave him. “You touch her and I’ll kill you,” I thought. He smiled and didn’t say anything. I just went back to work.
That New Year’s night, he said something that I will never forget.
“What’s the new year gonna’ bring us, Joey?” he said. I fumbled through the short list of things I was looking forward to. Only a superficial thought came out.
“A new Star Wars movie!” I said. Wayne repeated what I’d said and laughed, but monstrously so, like a defiant sea captain before a storm he doesn’t know is going to break him.
It happened on a trashy night, a cold and worthless night. I remember enjoying the mornings of April, looking into the horizon before the sun came up. The world would be glowing, blue, and peaceful, something you don’t see unless you get up early just to see it, something beautiful; but there was nothing beautiful about this February morning. It was about that time of year when you begin to hate snow. December’s fine because it’s almost Christmas, and even shoveling is all right then; but after the third week of January, well after the January thaw and re-whitening, you get sick of sledding and dragging your little brothers up the hill, driving around in grey-brown slush, and being cold all the time. We had a wood stove, but even the smell of that became unwanted and we longed for green grass and soccer. The world was stagnant and there seemed no getting out of it. It was that time of year and it was pitch black.
Phil was there when I arrived and everything was lit up and ready to go. Funny, I wasn’t excited about that. Being ready early meant getting done early, but I wasn’t feeling good.
In the first group I got peed on. George had taught me how to know when it was coming, but I was half asleep and got an unwanted hot shower. It wasn’t the first time. My brothers and sisters would all cringe when I told them how I once had my mouth open when a cow clod came down. George also taught me how to fight back. Cows would kick when you tried to hitch ‘em to the milk machines (my uncle said, “So would I”). They were strong animals, dumb but strong (a full-grown usually weighed about a ton). I found that out the hard way when I grabbed a rambunctious two-year old by the neck and it bucked me off into a puddle of muck. Wayne saved me from getting trampled on.
“You have to show ‘em who’s boss, Joey,” George would say. George and Wayne were kings of that. Phil and I didn’t hit the cows much, but when George and Wayne got mad – I wouldn’t have wanted to be those cows.
The radio was playing “What’s Going On?” when George walked in. Usually he said “hi” or something, but he didn’t. His head was bowed and he just went to get changed. I knew then something was wrong.
He didn’t even talk to me. Phil came in and struck up a polite conversation, realizing George wasn’t in the best of spirits. He only gave Phil short answers and kept working, taking the barn jobs and coming back in only every so often. I remember Phil and I getting scared when we heard George beat the cows and yell like he never yelled before. I finally got to him when he was milking next to me.
“How are you, George?” I said with a big smile, as if nothing was wrong. He didn’t look at me, but he said something with a sad tone of voice I had never heard from George before.
“I just did something really stupid and really bad,” he said, and kept working.
Wayne got in at the usual time. I guess he must have noticed something because he noticed everything, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t know then.
The next few days were hell once everybody started finding out. I was the last to know because I tried not to. George was my friend and I knew he wasn’t perfect, but he was a good man and had had a hard life and little or no Sunday school. I remember Phil telling me stories about George those days before I found out, as if to build him up, thinking I might not think anything of him anymore.
I didn’t know what was going on, but I blamed Wayne for it somewhat. Once I heard Wayne talking to George about insurance or something.
“You’re not gonna’ still be with Amanda in five years are you?”
“No,” he said. His head was bowed and he looked sad.
Something happened. I heard people yelling and coming in, looking around first, and then gossiping with Wayne or someone else. Sometimes I wanted to slug ‘em.
I saw George one more time, but he didn’t even say goodbye. He just got his clothes from the worker room and left. Wayne showed up a half hour later. He went into the office and then came out and stood there watching me work.
“Joey,” he yelled; of course for him yelling was talking, “Did you hear what George did?” he asked. I nodded; I had by then. Phil had told me in the most genteel way you could and I had overheard the gossipers who had thought me to be no one important.
“Come in here Joey,” he said. I braced myself, for the first time around anyone, I don’t know why. I followed him into the tank room and he startled me, turning around quick and looking at me in the eyes. His voice was real loud, even for him.
“I took him in here Joey,” he said, “and I held him up against the wall like this.” Mr. Scholten grabbed me by the shirt and pressed my shoulder against the wall.
“I said, ‘Erica went crying to her sister and her sister told her mom, “George did something to Erica,” she said. What’d you do George? I said!’” Wayne’s eyes were bulging out and his face was redder than I’d ever seen before.
“I went down the whole list Joey,” he said, “Did ya’ do this to her? Did ya’ do that?” I had bowed my head and now I looked him in the eye again.
“Everything but the serious Joey, everything but the serious!” I choked before I could say anything, not knowing what to say anyway.
“And what would you do Joey?” he said, “What would you do if he did that to your sister? Huh?” He saw me look mad for a second, and I wanted to say “Forgive him,” but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t.
He had done it at night. Wayne and his daughters were riding snowmobiles and George was there; he only lived down the road. He had taken Erica out for a ride.
“His father too, Joey,” Wayne told me, “And this wasn’t the first time George did something like this.” I let that sink in; I shouldn’t have.
“He’s a bad man Joey, he’s a sick man.” No.
Piels came in one day and stood in the parlor, staring out one of the windows, looking at no one. I was there and so was Wayne.
“It’s a shame George would do something like that to your daughter,” he said. He said a few other things and Wayne was watching him, probing him the whole time, and I understood both of them were reaching out, trying to touch mentally and make up. They were reaching, but neither one took the step. Piels walked away, and they never spoke again.
George spent a day and a night in jail and afterwards had to wear a shock bracelet on his leg and check in with a parole officer once a week.
“If he goes anywhere, they’ll shock him, Joey!” Jake said. Jake hated George with a vengeance, and now even more.
I heard George got a job at that huge farm in Auburn. Work was never the same again. Once Wayne had me train in one of the new workers.
“Did you know that guy named George?” he asked. I nodded.
“What a…” I dropped what I was doing and looked him square in the eye. He didn’t say anything else after that.
I did feel bad for Wayne, a little. He would call me into his office and tell me about how his wife was threatening to leave. Wayne wanted to bring George back and Wayne’s wife wanted George dead. A few weeks later, she took her daughters with her and left; divorced. I winced when he told me he should thank George for that.
“Think of his boy, Joey: what kind of man is he going to grow up to be with a father like that?” I thought of George and what he went through with his own father. I hated Wayne for speaking bad about George and then wanting him back for money reasons. It took me years, but I forgave Mr. Scholten; and I forgave George.
I never told my mom what happened, my dad neither. I just said, “It was a good place for me to work, but never let Andrew or Andrés or Katie or Llazmin or Ben or anyone work there, Mom.” I never told her why. “They’re good people,” I said, “It’s just they live a different and sad life.” Mom understood, but she never knew the real reason I protected them from that place.
I left home when I was seventeen and would go back sometimes and visit Scholten Dairy Farm. I’d always get sentimental and remember everything that happened there. Nothing much would change. I’d find some Spanish speaking workers working there and there were names I didn’t know on the time cards, but everything else was the same. Mr. Scholten would always ask me if I was looking for work and I would always say, “No thanks.” Before I left once he took out a card and wrote down a few phone numbers for me.
“This one’s Katrina,” he said, “She’s married and has kids now.” I mentally erased it.
“This one’s for Phil,” he said, “Oh, he’d like to see you Joey; you we’re like a son to him.”
“And this one’s for George.” He noticed me smile wider. “Give him a call, Joey.” He said that in a soft, compassionate voice. I never heard him talk like that before.
“I like you Joey,” he said, smiling, and this time it was genuine, “Everybody liked you.” I stuffed the card in my pocket, said goodbye, and jogged home.
I never called them: Katrina because she was married; Phil because I always thought I’d see him again; and George, because I didn’t know what to say. I never did see any of them again, except George.
Last week I went home to visit my brothers and sisters. I was driving on 690. Snow was falling on Syracuse in blankets and I could barely see anything but the tail-lights of the car in front of me. It was dark, about eight’ o’clock, and I was heading out of town. We were moving along when I saw a pick-up truck skid across the meridian and crash head-on into a tractor trailer. I heard a noise like a shotgun and saw pieces of truck frame spill out all over the road. The trailer skidded and its cargo flipped onto the pavement. Traffic slid off into the snowbanks and I got out of my car, and ran.
When I reached the scene, some people had already pulled the two drivers out of their vehicles. There were no passengers. The tractor trailer driver was unhurt, but the guy who drove the pick-up didn’t even look like a man anymore. I looked at his I.D. I couldn’t believe it.
It took a long time for help to arrive. I went with them in the ambulance, staring at the mess I once knew as George Bell. He was in a coma and wasn’t responding to any stimulus. The medics were drilling him with tubes. His heart was still beating; he was alive.
I cried on the way to the hospital. I remembered the time when I told George about my lifeguard training adventures.
“So they had us pair up for rescues and I got the biggest guy in the group, he must have been 300 pounds,” I said. We were practicing panic rescues, when the victim grabs you and you have to break away. I told him how I nearly drowned trying to get away from this guy. “Drowning must be the worst way to go,” I said.
“No,” said George. He told me when he was a kid, he had waded too far out in the ocean, lost footing, and began to sink. “I remember it was very peaceful,” he said, “And then an older kid pulled me out. Amanda said he should’ve left me in.”
I looked at George, and felt as if he were slipping under water, and I couldn’t save him, and I started to pray.
When we got to the hospital, they rushed him into the E.R. and wouldn’t let me follow since I wasn’t related. I waited for what seemed like an eternity.
A while later, I was called up to his room. “I was told George Bell had a visitor,” said the doctor, looking me over. “There’s no next of kin: no wife, and his kid was killed driving D.W.I.” He paused and closed the file. “There’s no hope,” he said coldly, “I just wanted to let you know that.” I thanked him and he left. I walked into the room. It smelled like a hospital, that disgusting smell I hated ever since I was a boy: the smell of old, dying people. I stepped up close to the bed. George was breathing softly and his heart monitor was beating, slowly.
“Hey George,” I said, “It’s Joey. Ya’, I know, it took me long enough to come back, but I’m here now.” I started talking about what I had done with my life and laughing about some funny moments. I even brought up a few of the adventures we had on the farm.
“God loves you, George,” I said. He didn’t respond. I knew sometimes they could hear you when you talked to them in a coma, so I kept talking. I told him the parable of the vineyard workers and how the owner went out at different times of the day, and all of them received the same pay. I told him that he could still go to heaven and was made to be there.
All of sudden, his machines started to go berserk and I yelled out and pushed the service button. Then George’s eyes opened.
He was shaking and throwing up. He starred right into my eyes and rocked his head back and forth. His heart monitor kept beeping faster.
“George,” I said, “Are you sorry George? Are you sorry?” My voice had a sense of urgency to it, for I knew, somehow, this was the end. He was shivering all over and all the time looking at me, deep into my eyes. Then, suddenly, he grabbed my arm with both hands and held it hard. He was crying.
He made a face, like he wanted to say something, but he couldn’t. He choked and coughed and then was silent, all the time staring at me, until his stare became blank, and he sighed deeply; and George was gone.
I decided to write this because I wanted to show the world all people are people. If George was sorry, and I believe he was, someday he’ll be in heaven, because I gave him absolution.