This whole enormous deal wouldn’t have happened, none of it, if Dad hadn’t messed up his hip moving the manure spreader. Some people laugh at that, like Brian did. The first time I said Manure Spreader he bent in half, he was laughing so hard. Which would have been hilariously funny except that it wasn’t. I tried to explain how important a manure spreader is, but it only made him laugh harder, in this really obnoxious way he has sometimes, and besides, you’re probably laughing now too. So what. I know where your milk comes from, and your hamburgers.
I’ll always remember the day it all started because Joe Namath was so sick. Dad names all his cows after football players. It’s pretty funny, actually, going to the 4-H fair, where they list the cows by farm and name. Right there next to “Happy Valley Buttercup” is “Schwenk Walter Payton,” because none of my grandpas or great-grandpas could ever come with up a name for our place better than boring old “Schwenk Farm.” Joe Namath was the only one left from the year Dad named the cows after Jets players, which I guess is kind of fitting in a way, seeing how important the real Joe Namath was and all. Our Joe was eleven years old, which is ancient for a cow, but she was such a good milker and calver we couldn’t help but keep her. These past few weeks, though, she’d really started failing, and on this morning she wasn’t even at the gate with the other cows waiting for me, she was still lying down in the pasture, and I had to help her to stand up and everything, which is pretty hard because she weighs about a ton, and she was really limping going down to the barn, and her eyes were looking all tired.
I milked her first so she could lie down again, which she did right away. Then when milking was over I left her right where she was in the barn, and she didn’t even look like she minded. Smut couldn’t figure out what I was doing and she wouldn’t come with me to take the cows back to pasture—she just stood there in the barn, chewing on her slimy old football and waiting for me to figure out I’d forgotten one of them. Finally she came, just so she could race me back home like she always does, and block me the way Win taught her. Smut was his dog, but now that he’s not talking to Dad anymore, or to me, or ever coming home again it seems like, I guess now she’s mine.
When I went in for breakfast Curtis was reading the sports section and eating something that looked kind of square and flat and black. Like roofing shingles. Curtis will eat anything because he’s growing so much. Once he complained about burnt scrambled eggs, but other than that he just shovels it in. Which makes me look like I’m being all picky about stuff that, trust me, is pretty gross.
Dad handed me a plate and shuffled back to the stove with his walker. When things got really bad last winter with his hip and Mom working two jobs and me doing all the farm work because you can’t milk thirty-two cows with a walker, Dad decided to chip in by taking over the kitchen. But he never said, “I’m going to start cooking” or “I’m not too good at this, how could I do it better?” or anything like that. He just started putting food in front of us and then yelling at us if we said anything, no matter how bad it looked. Like now.
“It’s French toast,” Dad said like it was totally obvious. He hadn’t shaved in a while, I noticed, and his forehead was white the way it’ll always be from all those years of wearing a feed cap while his chin and nose and neck were getting so tan.
I forced down a bite. It tasted kind of weird and familiar. “What’s in here?” “Cinnamon.” “Cinnamon? Where’d you get that idea?” “The Food Channel.” He said it really casual, like he didn’t know what it meant.
Curtis and I looked at each other. Curtis doesn’t laugh, really—he’s the quietest one in the family, next to him I sound like Oprah Winfrey or something, he makes Mom cry sometimes he’s so quiet—but he was grinning.
I tried to sound matter-of-fact, which was hard because I was just about dying inside: “How long you been watching the Food Channel, Dad?” “You watch your mouth.” Curtis went back to his paper, but you could tell from his shoulders that he was still grinning.
I pushed the shingles around on my plate, wishing I didn’t have to say this next thing. “Dad? Joe’s looking real bad.” “How bad?” “Bad,” I said. Dad knew what I was talking about; he’d seen her yesterday. I hate it when he acts like I’m stupid.
We didn’t say anything more. I sat there forcing down my shingles and doing the math in my head. I’d known Joe since I was four years old. That’s more than three-quarters of my life, she’d been around. Heck, Curtis was only a baby when she was born. He couldn’t even remember her noot existing. Thinking stuff like that, there’s really not much point to making conversation.
After breakfast me and Curtis disinfected all theeeee milk equipment and worked on the barn the way we have to every day, cleaning out the calf pens and sweeping the aisles and shoveling all the poop into the gutter in the barn floor, then turning on the conveyer belt in the gutter to sweep it out to the manure cart so we can haul it away.
Back when Grandpa Warren was alive, the barn just shined it was so clean. He’d spread powdered lime on the floor every day to keep everything fresh, and wipe down the light bulbs and the big fans that brought fresh air in, and whitewash the walls every year. The walls hadn’t been painted in a long time, though. I guess Dad was hurting too much these past few years to do any real cleaning, and I sure didn’t have the time. So the barn looked pretty crappy, and smelled it too.
Whenever I passed by Joe Namath I’d take a minute to pat her and tell her what a good cow she was, because I had a pretty good idea what was coming. When I heard a truck pull into the yard, I knew it was the cattle dealer come to take her away. I gave her another pat. “I’ll be right back,” I said, like that would help, and went out to say hello at least. Delay it. Curtis followed me out because we don’t get that many visitors.
It wasn’t the cattle dealer standing there, though.
Dad came out of the kitchen pushing his walker, this satisfied look on his face. He spotted me. “I’m sure you know who this is?” Yeah. I did. Curtis right behind me whistled between his teeth, only it wasn’t whistling so much as blowing, like the sound bulls make when they’re really mad. Because standing in front of his brand-new Cherokee in his brand-new work boots, looking about as much a part of our junky old farmyard as a UFO, was Brian Nelson.
Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. Copyright (c) 2006 by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. Reprinted by permission Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.