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 silently 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 hay racks, 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 towards the ground, Penny had one teat that aimed at my chin, a second at my chest. Two others jutted into the belly of the cow behind her. No milking machine hung on her without its seal leaking and making 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, at one hundred-forty pounds, 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.
“Can I please call for the truck tomorrow and put her on it?” I said.
“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 I 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.
“You’re not coming in with me,” I told her.
She feared I’d withhold information the way my father did with doctors, but with this doctor, the evidence presented itself. I was shy, but even more so when she was around, my mother who 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. “He’s got a herd of champions. Good milkers. But he insists on keeping these dogs who don’t milk 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.
My mother 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,” my mother said. “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. We had one grocery store in town, a local donut shop, a Burger Chef. If your hair was too long or you had no car, they hired someone else. 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 got out and let the dogs jump on him. He didn’t touch them, kept his hands in his back pockets as they buffeted him around. God knows where my father was — underneath the manure spreader fixing a belt, down in the freestall dismantling a waterer.
“Make sure his mother knows he’ll be done late,” my mother said.
She liked to order me out with messages. Days went by when the only time she left the house was to run to a machine shop for tractor parts. She’d started watching one soap opera at lunch time, 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 a romance novel. In Catholic school, she’d had the first seat, first row — 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 pink bathrobe, opened the door a crack releasing old smoke.
“He’ll be done around ten.”
“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 hay loft.
“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 mark on her face, 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 black one, never mind remember a face. He craned his neck over my shoulder, petrified by the herd surging towards the open door.
“Step back, I’ll get them,” I said, 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 an eye. 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.