He had been in the barn only a few moments, but the late summer heat and humidity had transformed the milking parlor into a kind of sauna, steamy heat mixed with smells of manure and corn and soury milk slowly drying on the floor. The flies greeted him in their usual, indifferent manner, buzzing by as if scanning a menu and quickly moving on to the more nourishing items in the barn.
The sun was fierce, but one benefit of the humidity was the shady interlude offered by a procession of cottony, slightly-gray-on-the-edges clouds. This flat, open farm country bred an intuitive understanding of weather. Absolutely clear skies in the morning, with gradual clouding as temperatures rose during the day. By afternoon, if the weather system carried enough moisture, the cumulous clouds became enormous, dark and capable of interrupting work. You could see it coming. You could feel the air fill and prepare to relieve its payload.
He moved quickly, with an economy of movement earned through routine. He was already bathed in sweat. His yellow T-shirt, worn thin and faded, clung to the length of his torso. Only the tail, which extended over the waistband of his blue jeans, remained untouched by perspiration. The damp material even traced his upper arms, which were not especially muscular, but the shirt was several years old and a few sizes too small.
Everyday boots clump-shuffled on the floor, the only sound discernible from the low hum of the flies. Except for the cement floor of the small room in which the bulk tank sat, the floors in the barn were carpeted with cow shit, dust and straw, transformed by decades of boots and hooves into an as-yet-unclassified geology. He connected the pipeline apparatus to the bulk tank, set out the milking machines and the bucket of warm water for washing the cows’ udders, and brought the first six cows into the parlor, giving each a small scoop of ground corn before the low whirring of the vacuum pump told the rest of the farmyard that the late afternoon milking had begun.
The young calves immediately asked for their supper. Awakened from their slumber and already shuffling about the small pens in the back of the parlor, the entry of their mothers, or at least milk-giving cows, reminded them that they were constantly hungry. In the course of the milking, machines pulsing steadily on each teat, he liked to go back and play with the calves. Their big eyes watched for him over the top of the fences, ready to engage in the single-minded pursuit of sucking on anything that fit into their mouths. When he was younger he had been more inclined to offer them his fingers, their slimy suction nearly matched the pulse of the milking machines. The fact that he relinquished no milk did not seem to matter. They were content to suck as if the human finger connected them to the machines drawing milk out of their mothers and into the pipeline that ran along the ceiling and into the tank room.
There were thirty cows in the herd. They presented as much variety of black and white patterns as could be expected from selective breeding, though the dominant pattern appeared to be black with white splotches and not the other way around. Their udders displayed immense variation, related to age and the tensile strength of the ligaments attaching them to their bodies. He was on the dairy judging team of his school’s Future Farmers of America club, so he knew how to tell which udders were superior in terms of aesthetics, though he also knew that such splendor played a distant second to production in his dad’s eyes. Those cows with the large, sagging udders and slightly splayed teats tended to be the big producers.
The cows were brought into the milking parlor, six at a time, from a holding area down the hall. Their twice-a-day procession was quite orderly, as though some cow committee had organized the herd and determined which ones went in the first batch, the second and on to the last. The loners and delinquents comprised the last batch, always. For about three or four days after calving, a fresh cow would be held until the end, as its milk could not be put into the bulk tank and instead was used to feed the new calves, each of whom would get fresh milk for the first month before being weaned. Barn cats, whose presence ensured that mice would not be found in this barn, got whatever was left over.
The stalls were rusted iron pipes, of an undetermined age, with six clasping stanchions of wood-lined metal that were closed by a single lever at the end of the row. The color and texture conveyed the fundamental simplicity and economy of a small farm, where things were used until they could no longer possibly serve their functions. The coarse surface of oxidized metal was like that of dark red bricks. Most cows had their favorite spots among the six stalls. They trudged into place with the dimwitted contentment found in domesticated livestock. Occasionally, their established order was disturbed and a cow would find its preferred stall taken. Some simply were unable to adjust and move to an open one and would march stupidly in between two cows. While a little encouragement usually was enough for them to back out and find an open spot, this upset order could plunge a cow into complete chaos. Already limited synapses were so blunted by the routines of domestication that it couldn’t hope to sort out a solution, and a higher level of intervention was needed to restore the mindless serenity. An old ax handle sat behind the door for these extreme cases. Once order was restored, the cows munched on the corn feed, their tiny brains quickly granting them obliviousness.
He used a sponge and hot water to clean the udders of the first three cows and then put on the milking machines, which hung on leather straps he had fitted over their backs. Once in place he moved on to clean the other three cows. He moved the machines silently among the cows, working quickly to finish the first six and bring in the second batch. This quickness wasn’t hurried; he didn’t have to be anywhere soon. His father always worked fast, so he did too, starting from when he was small and his only contribution in the barn was to put the leather straps on the cows as his dad washed their teats. He would make it a little race each time. When his dad would take a machine off a cow, he would zip into action, taking that strap off and moving it to an unmilked cow or putting it on the hook to wait for the next batch. He didn’t want his dad to have to wait. Four straps enabled him to stay one ahead of the machines. Sometimes, when the cows synchronized their milking, he would have to nearly run, as his dad wasted no time moving from one to the next. If his dad had to wait for him to get the strap moved to the next cow he felt a small, trivial sense of failure, like he didn’t measure up. As he had grown older and able to do everything by himself, he had come to see that the fourth strap wasn’t even necessary. He could take off the machine, hold it in his left hand and then grab the strap with his right and carry it with him to the next cow. The fourth strap had been a set of training wheels to get him started.
© Thomas Osdoba, 1996.