The Merry Farmer
play in one act for one actor
As the house lights dim Schumann’s MERRY FARMER is haltingly played on a tinny piano. The music breaks off suddenly in the middle of a bar and the CURTAIN rises in darkness
It is a late winter morning in 1935. The Sun has not yet risen. The FARMER comes into the barn and snaps on the lights. He is spry and of indeterminate age. Most of his ten stanchioned COWS are lying down chewing their cuds. The FARMER has come to do chores and addresses the cows cheerfully.
Good morning, dear cows. I trust you rested well. Is each of you prepared to fill the pail to overflowing? Surely you need no reminder of the unproductive sister’s fate. Ha! . . . I laugh but it’s no joke, is it?
HE has taken off his mackinaw and hangs it on a nail in the wall.
Remember Rosalie, who stood where you are standing, Jessica? Fine of withers, straight of rump, deep in the middle, capacious bag hung high and level, well-spaced teats . . . dry after three months, she who was to be in milk for ten! What avails her beauty now? Last night, fried with bacon, we ate the last of her liver.
Preparing to clean out the stable HE finds the hoe, dung fork and shovel leaning against a wall.
Well, get up old girls while I clean out the gutter. I can’t sit down to milk you with my off foot in shit.
HE prods the cows to their feet and hoes down the platform where they have been lying.
There you go . . . evacuate, evacuate, plop, plop, rise and relieve yourselves. Pee and be damned. Still, better do it now than when I’m seated at your side manipulating the mammae.
With the hoe HE pulls back traps in the floor, then with the dung fork starts throwing the manure down through the openings.
Thank God the manure pit’s in the basement and all I do is lift these traps. Not like some places I’ve been. The poor farmer breaks his back pushing a wheelbarrow up a narrow plank, slippery and wet from slop, dumps it in the open leaving all to be leached by rain and snow.
HE takes the square-edged shovel and cleans up after the fork.
Get a whiff of that, will you. Sheer ammonia! My dear grandmother always said, “Breathe it deep. The one sure remedy in this world against a cold in the head.” A good woman, and like everyone else in this world, half the time she didn’t know what she was talking about and the other half she knew all right, but she didn’t understand. Ah . . . there you go!
HE looks down through the trap with evident satisfaction.
Almost up to the scuttle! Won’t the grass grow when that gets spread!
Again with the hoe HE closes the traps, and with the shovel spreads sawdust along the length of the gutter.
This will sop up what’s coming. “Preserve your nitrogen” . . . the motto of the establishment. We don’t want the old pee to get away. Pee’s the greenness of the earth, ain’t it, darlings? Well, that looks better. And now, my dears, if you don’t mind, I’ll just brush you off.
HE picks up a brush and curry-comb and starts cleaning the cows’ flanks.
I’m not the man to spend half his strength cleaning the stable, then sit down to milk his cows stinking and wet from the long night’s rumination. Many’s the farmer I’ve seen sit down to milk his darling girls and the caked shit falls from their flanks where they’ve been laying in it all night plunk into the pail. Ah, if the poor city-folk knew the half of what they were drinking! Of course, by the time it’s pasteurized it’ll never harm a soul. Still and all, I’m squeamish. I like clean flesh to handle.
HE walks the length of the stanchions throwing grain into each cow’s manger.
Here’s twenty-four per cent protein for you, loves. This mixed feed supplement consists of soybean meal, wheat middlings, cracked corn, other ingredients too numerous to mention, all succulently flavored with molasses . . . measured out in strict accordance with your own production records. You’d like another measure, Sally? Then give another quart of milk! I’ll not begrudge it to you. Don’t be greedy. Don’t strain at your stanchions. None will be cheated. I do not play favorites. I love you all equally. Lulubelle, you’re licking up Janisary’s portion! Keep your rough tongue on your own side of the divider! Here’s the substance to condition you, minimize breeding problems, loosen the bowels and stimulate the lacteal glands! I want to see the name of each of you every month enshrined in the Roll of Honor of the Dairy Herd Improvement Association Bulletin!
HE checks the items HE will need for milking making certain everything is in order.
Forty-quart can, spring balance, record sheet, pencil, milking stool, pail, and the stage is finally set for the climacteric.
HE pushes apart two cows who are standing closely together.
Move over my dears. Don’t crush me between your hulking sides. You got to leave some space for me to sit.
HE menaces the cow with the milking stool, then places it down beside her flank and sits.
If you kick or put your foot in the bucket, or swipe me across the face with your long, fine tail, moist from laying all night in the pee filled gutter, I will break this stool over your goddam back. Remember, my dear.
HE starts milking.
Ah . . . that’s right. Let it down easy and gentle. What a lovely sound, pinging on the bottom of the bucket. There’s a gentle-teated beast! The merest flexing of the muscle in my hand and out it gushes, white and frothy. Not like stiff-teated Nellie Blye, of blessed memory, where you sat and strained until you thought your arms would drop. Or a short-teated Alderney leaking milk all day and where the palm of your hand was soaking after the second squirt.
HE leans his head against the cow’s flank.
Ah yes, and my head leaning against your flank, even in the dead of winter, warm and cozy, squeezing out the milk.
HE milks dreamily a moment in silence.
Tedious damn work, just the same, twice a day every day of the year. You’d think a man with my background and education would have found less menial employment. Just because it’s noble like George Washington. Sturdy yeoman . . . husbandry the backbone of the nation. Ah, if I had Thomas Jefferson here right this minute wouldn’t I rub his nose in it! Or Henry David Thoreau. Or Lev Tolstoi. And what about Knut Hamsun with his peasant wisdom! Fried potatoes and fat pork for breakfast, the house stinking of stale cow, and me dreaming of croissants and sweet butter on a balcony overlooking the Garden of the Tuilleries! . . . Well, that’s life. In your youth you were a rebel. Revolt against materialism . . . sinister urban civilization separating man from the earth that nurtures him. . . . Well, there’s nothing between you and basic sustenance this morning. Where would they be without your labor and how satisfying to know you’re the base on which rests the pyramids of Megapolis tra la. . . . You with your perspective, vision, dogged, rugged common earth sense wisdom. . . . Come in, Mr. President. Delighted to see you. Excuse me for not getting up. I’d offer you my hand but it’s occupied. Have a seat. You’ll find an extra milking-stool beyond that calf hitched to the wall. Oh, it’s dirty? Well, wipe it off with your handkerchief. It’s only chaff and dust sifted through the ceiling plus a little fecal splatter. Yes, I keep my hay stored up above. Handy barn, ain’t it? Toss down what I need each day and it lands in front of the cattle . . . Saves on the handling, don’t you know. And acts as insulation until Spring. Now, where were we? Ah, yes . . . the nation’s safety. Well, if I were you I’d always bear in mind the distance between them and us is the same as the distance between us—and them—unless they go around ass backwards, which, as stupid and foreign as they are, they ain’t apt to do. Besides, they’re no more stupid than us and we’re just as foreign to them. Provincialism is amusing for the tourist trade but it won’t do as a guide for national policy. No, I don’t mind if you quote me . . . You’d like me to tell it in person to a joint session of Congress? I’d help you willingly, but if I go to Washington who’s going to milk the cows? . . . Ah, it’s my sacred duty to my country, is it? And you’ll send down a Justice of the Supreme Court to do chores. . . . Well, I don’t say he couldn’t milk them but my experience has always been that if I’m not here myself production is invariably lowered. The cows are used to me and even your Justice with the best intentions in the world is a stranger. They’ll hold up their milk if it’s the Pope. They don’t know him either. And he’ll be sure to get something mixed up no matter how carefully I write out the instructions. Two weeks ago I went up to East Moab to the commissions sale and I hired old Burt Hanchett to do chores. He knows just how I do for he’s helped me many a time. How much grain each one gets, who to milk first, who last. And just the same, next morning three cows had garget. And that was only one milking I missed. Well, if you’ll send the Presidential plane to fetch me and bring me back afterwards I guess I could do it for you. But that’s a pretty extravagant gesture. The tax payers will raise holy Hell. I know how I’d feel myself.
HE has finished milking the cow and before getting up admires her production.
Ah, look at that, will you! Froth up to the rim of the pail. Twenty pounds or I’m not sitting in the barn milking her. . . . Well, we’ll weigh it and find out.
HE weighs the milk on the spring balance and writes down the weight on a milk chart tacked to the wall.
Twenty-one pounds eight ounces! When you’ve milked them as often as I have you can estimate the amount pretty close. But when you’re keeping official records, you understand, estimates are not close enough. And nineteen three last night. Forty pounds eleven ounces of milk in twenty-four hours and she ain’t even fresh! Calved last September! There’s a cow for you, Mr. President. You can introduce her to the Secretary of Agriculture any time. Nothing to be ashamed of there, Poppinjay’s Extra Lassie Twenty-two. I want you to meet His Excellency, the President, my dear. He just dropped in to say Hello and ask a favor.
HE pours the milk through a cloth strainer pad into a forty-quart can.
Listen to that gurgle through the strainer. There’s music for you. Don’t talk to me of Bach or Beethoven! I got to have a forty-quart can for every three cows in the stable every milking!
HE moves the stool to the second cow.
And this is Tessie. She’s second in line. Say good-morning to the President, my dear. And remember, what I told Poppinjay about kicking goes for you too.
HE sits down to milk.
Ah, to Hell with the Chief. What’s he got of interest to an independent farmer-type, proud, capable, industrious? I want to know will she be up when I get through? Will she have breakfast waiting, or will she be snoring in bed and I got to make for myself like yesterday and the day before and the day before that and like for the past three months already. She’s pregnant she says. She can’t get up. Well, that’s a good reason, I tell her. My cows are pregnant too and they’re pregnant nine months just like you and they get up and they give milk twice a day until two months before they calve and three months after they calve I get them pregnant again and if you don’t think that’s work you just try it. “I’m no cow,” she says. “I’m a woman of excellent background. I got a college education and a degree to prove it and I don’t have to take your shit, mister, because any time I want all I got to do is go down to my mother’s place and she will get me a good job teaching at the State College and if you don’t like it you can go fuck.” That’s what she said to me, her husband, married, honest, hard-working. And I said to her, “Boy, don’t you talk like a well-bred, refined lady! If my cows talked English they’d talk more refined than that!” And she says, “If you don’t love me what did you go and knock me up for?” Knock her up! Oh boy! That’s a fine way to talk about love, wouldn’t you say? Even with a cow you say you got her bred. I’d like to know what kind of State College would give her a job if they heard her talk like I hear her. And when we were first married she was as sweet a girl as anyone ever saw. Sweet and pretty and good-tempered. “Ah,” she said, “to be a farmer’s wife! The romance of the soil. The peace and quiet of the country-side. Silently the Sun looks over the hillcrest. Below in the valley-mist, the cowbells clank off-key and flat but somehow sweet in the fresh still air. The ponderous beasts wind their way up from the pasture where they’ve been grazing all night, their flanks bright and clean from rain and laying in dew, their pendulous udders swaying as they move. You’re driving them from behind. I’m heading them into the barnyard, tying them up. Then sitting down beside you to do the morning’s work.” Well, that lasted a week. She had no interest in toil. “If milking’s too hard,” I said, “grain them, brush them off, clean out the gutter. After all, you only got to open the traps and shove it down.” But that wasn’t romantic enough. The idea of noble toil and the idea of the simple life, that’s great. You’re at the Louvre looking at pictures. A Ruysdael or the lusty peasants of a Brueghel. But you’re outside the frame. Just don’t paint me in, Mr. Brueghel. “If I sleep,” she says, “I’m not aware of how bad the house smells. Or you in your dirty work-clothes.” Now how do you like that for criticism? I hang my overalls in the shed every time I come in, and kick off my boots as well. How many other farmers you think are that meticulous? A little smell has got to sneak in. It’s the nature of the work. . . . Come on, Tessie. You ain’t through yet. There’s more milk in your old bag than that. Let it down, sister. I got eight more cows waiting and I haven’t even had breakfast yet. You can’t treat a man like that! Miserable damn bitch! I’ll send you off to the butcher soon as the first of them heifers across the feed floor comes in. Yes I will. Why don’t you get a milking machine then? Well, why don’t I? Well, damn it, one of these days I will! I can take care of just ten cows by hand and soon as two more freshen damned if I won’t have a machine, in debt or not in debt and you watch me! Saving up for a bathroom! A person wants to be clean can wash himself just as well in a tin tub beside the kitchen stove, just like they done since the Book of Genesis!
HE has gotten up, moved the milk stool, weighed the milk, written down the weight and poured the milk through the strainer into the forty-quart can.
Fourteen-two! Well, you’re barely making it, sister. You don’t want to be baloney you smarten up. You ain’t due to dry off till November and if your record’s less than six thousand of milk and two forty of butter fat you can kiss your baby calf goodbye and I’ll have your mail forwarded to Swift & Co., Chicago, Ill. You eat just as much hay and take up just as much room and give me just as much trouble producing twenty pounds a day as if you produced sixty. And I know it and you know it and if you don’t know it you better had! You know what they paid last month at the creamery per hundredweight? If I told you what good would it do, stupid damn bitch.
HE prepares to milk the third cow.
And now Jessica. How much’ll I get from you this morning? Look at that bag! Dragging on the floor! Where the Hell am I supposed to hold the pail for that? And if you step on a quarter, what’s going to happen? Well, you try stepping on one and you’ll find out right quick! Three teated cows don’t last long in this barn!
HE has sat down and begun to milk.
So she’s going to have a baby and I’m the father. Well, you’re damn right I’m the father! Who the Hell else would throw one into her walking around like a fat lazy slob? The mailman? He’d do anything. But when would he have done it? Ain’t I here all day and ain’t she too and when she does go down street don’t I always go with her? Say, she’s something to be jealous of! We’ll soon see the color of its hair and if it’s curly! My clothes smell of dung, do they? Well, what does she think hers smell of? Chanel No. 5? So when the roadcrew opens the driveway after a snowfall she’s got to give them coffee. Ah, you got to be hospitable, do you? And neighborly? And what do we pay town taxes for and who gives me hot coffee for doing what I get paid to do? Him in the barn milking and she sitting there in her bathrobe with the three of them drinking hot coffee because it’s eight below zero in the cab of their snowplough! No it ain’t, or it’s not, my dear, it certainly is not. And what would she say if Greta Garbo came in here one morning and asked me to pull her car out of the ditch with my tractor, that’s what I’d like to know and why couldn’t it happen? Ah, good morning, you dear, beautiful creature. So your car went off the road and you saw my tractor standing in the dooryard! And you’d like me to give your car just a nudge? My dear girl, I’ve got a chain hooked on to that tractor and I’ll pull your car out in no time flat. Sit down, my dear, and just as soon as I finish milking Jessica . . . Ha ha ha . . . finish milking Jessica . . . That’s a good one! You don’t think I’m human? Well, what do you think the cow is? I can’t jump from one thing to another. I got to finish one thing before I jump. Just be patient. You’ll find out how human I can be . . . dear Queen Christina. I’m pretty handsome myself, in a rugged kind of way. When I came into your room the other night . . . neither of us could sleep and you rolled over and looked at me with those great brown eyes . . . your eyes ain’t brown. That’s the cow I must be thinking of! . . . Your great grey-green eyes and a little tear spilled down your cheek and you said, “Think of me first as a woman.” Oh, my dear Queen, I think of you only as a woman. As a beautiful, loyal, tender and devoted woman not like some sluts I could mention entertaining the road crew in their negligee while the husband slaves loyally and steadfastly for their welfare. What would you say if I come to Hollywood to be your leading man? When I was a boy they all said I had talent. I was the Town Crier in the Thanksgiving play at Cedarcrest Grammar and Mrs. Moose said the speech was too long to learn and she cut it in half but I learned the whole of it anyway and wasn’t she surprised when I kept speaking what she cut out. There she was trying to shush me and all the kids trying not to giggle but I said it all, every word of it and didn’t they applaud when I sat down! I guess they did and it was some occasion, let me tell you! Still and all it’s no Thanksgiving pageant making movies though some I’ve seen could have stood a little Thanksgiving. Now why couldn’t I charm a woman of the world? I am, after all, a man of the world who deliberately turned his back on a civilization of which he disapproved to come up into these hills to lead a more reflective life, a life close to nature, a self-reliant man, a hardy pioneer type. If the electricity fails life does not grind to a halt. I am not dependent on buttons for power and light and heat. Or on the chain store super-market for sustenance. If my wife wasn’t so damn lazy she’d spin wool and weave garments but she doesn’t even bake bread or churn butter. Ah, my dear, the twentieth century is the ruination of us all. Including me. This is nothing but a damn milk factory, ain’t it, and how the Hell can I compete with Albert Terriault when I don’t even have a single-unit milker for ten cows and he’s got three double units for the fifty he milks and keeps two in help all year. He’s mechanized and I’m romantic. Well, someone’s got to be romantic and here am I covering the retreat of Don Quixote. If they’d only interview me for “The Saturday Review of Literature”!
HE gets up, taking the stool with him and admires Jessica’s production.
Jessica, you’re a good bossy and even though your teats drag on the floor and you’re a pain to milk, you let it down and you show me a profit and even if I don’t love you I got to be grateful and if she does have a baby and she don’t nurse it herself I’m going to save out your milk for the house.
HE weighs the milk and notes it on the chart.
Eighteen eight. The same year the house was built! Ah, history in the making! Napoleon in Paris and me here in this barn! What would Einstein say to that, him and his curved space time?
HE pours the milk through the strainer.
HE notices a cow passing manure.
Josie Fennel Fullpail, you’re a slob! . . . A real slob! After I just got through cleaning the gutter! You can’t tell me you didn’t do it on purpose. Where the Hell did I put that hoe?
HE finds the hoe leaning against the wall and cleans off the platform.
Ah, here it is! And all over the platform too. If you stood straight like you’re supposed to stand it would fall in the gutter where it’s supposed to fall. Well, if you were any smarter than you are you wouldn’t be a cow. Stupid damn bitch!
HE sits down to milk her.
All of them are stupid. And then they ask why is man so stupid. Well, why? You use these stupid beasts for food. You drink their milk. You eat their flesh. So what do you expect? The stupidity has got to go somewhere. Look at them with their beautiful melting brown eyes! You turn them loose in a stall and they’ll shit in their own manger and then they’ll bellow at you to bring them fresh hay! A pig at least will go in the corner! You don’t find pigs, for all their hoggish ways, crapping in the food trough! Now what’s wrong with you? Damn it, stand still when I sit down to milk you! Well, I can fix that tail too.
To prevent the cow’s twitching her tail he catches it with his hand.
I can hold the end of it right here between my knee and the pail and you just try switching it! Don’t you raise that foot to me, Josie Fennel Fullpail! For God’s sake, it’s Sunday morning! Be good. Take it easy! I want to get through chores early and take a little relaxation too. Stand still, I say! Are you in heat? Is that your trouble?
HE gets up and examines the cow’s external organs, rubbing her backbone near the tail setting.
Oh, Jesus Christ, she’s in heat! Sunday morning and I got to call up the inseminator! If I let her go over she’ll calve at least three weeks late. I must have been crazy when I said I was going to farm school. My father should have had me committed when I told him why I decided to leave that gorgeous urban complex where I was born and raised, where you never saw a live cow or pig and only now and then a horse pulling a milk wagon or trotting in the park.
HE sits down again and resumes milking.
If I’d been ten years old you could understand. A kid might say he’s going to be a farmer or a fireman or anything. But me, I had graduated and from the liberal arts division of the State University. Stand still, you shit head, you’re being milked by a Bachelor of Arts! After myself my father’s my worst enemy. Or maybe it’s my mother for having had me. But how the Hell did Ma know she was going to have a farmer? How do I know what Karen’s going to have? Something with two heads maybe. One to look like me, the other like the road-crew. Can you hear the two heads jawing at each other? “I got to help my Pa in the barn.” “I got to help my Pa clear the roads.” Kids don’t help anyone. When did you ever help your old man? As ye sow ye shall reap. It’s April and the ground’s still frozen. You got to get out the manure and fix fence and harrow the corn piece and stock it down and get your garden in, and by then it’ll be time to start haying and if the tractor lasts another year you’ll be doing well and she goes to the hospital in July just when she should be freezing peas. Oh God, and I’m still a young man and probably got to live through this for fifty more years. Stand still, you old bitch, or I’ll breed you myself with my boots on! I’ll stand on a box! You don’t think it’s been done, huh?
HE gets up to weigh the milk, etc.
Eight pounds of milk! Even in heat she’s got to give more than that! . . . My God! The calf’s loose! Will you look at that! Her calf got loose and sucked her dry! God damn calf! God damn calf-tie! It broke. Who’s more stupid . . . me or the calf? I knew it was rotted. Or the damn cow for letting her suck!
HE has found a small chain in the milk room and snaps one end around the calf’s neck and the other to a ring in the wall.
You won’t break this chain, you little bitch. Oh well . . . all you have to really do is go out in the hay mow and hang yourself from a rafter. If you do it right you won’t feel a thing. The trouble is you won’t do it right. OK. OK. It’s only Sunday morning. In three months your wife’s going to have a kid. Congratulations. It only looks a little like the road crew. The shape of the head is like his mother’s grandpa. Flat. Good looking boy. He’ll be a movie star. How many more are left to milk? I can’t count that far.
HE sits down to the next cow.
Good morning, Daddy. Today I’m going to do chores for you. I’m going to clean the stable and grain the cows and milk them before I go to school. When I grow up I’m going to be the biggest farmer in Gilboa County. I’m going to have three stables of fifty cows each. I’m going to have a nursery barn for calves and dry cows waiting to calve. I’m going to have a young stock barn. I’m going to buy all of Albert Terriault’s land. He’s got no kids anyhow and no one to leave it to. And McGregor’s on the north. I’m going to hay half the county. Jordan Valley Creamery will have all it can handle from this place alone. You damned little fool! You know what happens to a farmer? He’s got twenty tons of clover hay ready to bale and the baler breaks down. A storm comes up and it all gets wet. So you got to shake out twenty tons of hay. By now it’s all black and the leaves fall off. You bring it in to the barn and it ain’t fit for bedding. It’s covered with dry mold and when you put it away the barn’s so dusty you sneeze black snot for a week. The cows get out of the pasture just as you’re set to rake new mown hay. They get in the corn piece and trample down six acres. There’s been no rain for a month so the pasture’s all dried up and you got to cut green feed and lug it to the barn for them. The hired man takes out the tractor and runs it into a wall. The cutter bar snaps in half the third time round and you got to go fifteen miles to get a new one because down to the garage the welder’s so far behind he can’t fix it for ten days and anyway it’ll only break again because that damn fool hired man will catch it on a rock. You’re going to work thirty-five years and twenty-six of them in a truss because you ruptured yourself swinging milk cans on the truck. Listen, if that’s what you want, go ahead and do it! You ain’t my kid anyhow, you frigging little bastard. Ask your Ma whose kid you are! Now that’s a fine way to talk to a human being come into this world unasked. You love your dog and you love your cat and you didn’t sire them neither hard up as you been so what difference does it make who sired this baby boy running around this place tagging after you and doing what he sees you do. He’s not the bastard. You’re the bastard to talk that way to him. He calls you Daddy and that makes you Daddy enough. He’s going to have a good education. He’s going from high school to college and then he’s going to Law School and when you get ready to retire he’s going to be Attorney General for the State and this old place is going to be his Summer home and you and Ma are going to keep it up for him. In November you’ll spend a few weeks up to the State Capital and right after Christmas down to Miami until Easter. Then back to get the garden started. What a future! You better die before that happens. Ten dirty cows. You live off the milk from ten dirty cows. You get them bred by artificial insemination. You sell their bull calves for veal. You’re no better than a pimp. If that’s living you better die tomorrow. In fact, what are you waiting for? Today’s just as good. You don’t have to live. Why don’t you sell out and get a job? In the first place you couldn’t sell. Who’d buy this place? You couldn’t give it away. And who’d hire you to do what? Just because you got a B.A.? Since you got it you ain’t done nothing but pull teats. Maybe that qualifies you for being bouncer in a whore house. Work on the road? Carpenter’s assistant? Maybe you could learn to lay bricks. How about government work? The F.B.I. A man with your insight into human nature should have gone into the State Department. Turn time backwards. Don’t do anything you did. Do everything different. Instead of marrying that slob who never gets up till it’s time for lunch, who sits on her fat ass all afternoon reading “Passion and Charm” because she’s got neither. Ah, the mistakes a man can make thinking he’s doing what’s best for himself and the world. Ho hum. Ho hum. Ten cows, five heifers, three calves and a cow coming in next week. One old horse, tractor, manure spreader, baler, side-delivery rake, two bottom gang plough. What am I worth at the East Moab Auction? Three thousand for the livestock. Three thousand for the machinery. Eight thousand for the land and buildings if you’re lucky. Fourteen thousand dollars invested at four per cent. Five hundred and sixty dollars a year. Could I live on a dollar and fifty-five cents a day? Damn right I could if I didn’t have that slob to feed too. And now the kid. My kid. If only the bacon was crisp once in a while. Well, sometimes she’s got breakfast ready. And the coffee hot and smelling good and warm toast and eggs fried fresh and just runny when you cut the yellow. I forgot to include the hens. Maybe you could get it up to a dollar sixty a day. Liquidate the assets and reinvest. There’s no reason why you couldn’t run it up to ten thousand a year. They run it higher starting lower. Listen, life’s not so bad. There’s the sun shining in the window. Shining on the black cobwebs and flaking whitewash and the dust on the cows’ backs. Soon the bot fly lumps will be ready to squeeze. Pop ’em up and step on ’em. Watch the pus well out from under the hides. Where would we all be if Columbus got right to China like he thought?
HE gets up, weighs the milk, pours it into the can then raises the strainer to see how much room is left.
Sixteen pounds of milk and I might as well change cans even though it ain’t up to the neck. Almost but not quite. Five cows in one can. There’s no million bucks in that business. Well, into the cooler with you.
HE gets out a second forty-quart can, puts the strainer in its neck, then places the cover on the filled can, rolls it back into the milk room and sets it down in the cold water.
Let the cream rise so them thieving bastards at the creamery can skim it before they test it and cut your fat to what they want to pay for. Ah, the poor independent husbandman, taken advantage of by one and all. “His bacteria count’s up, is it? This creamery can’t accept no such bacteria count from any patron. Send it back. Let him feed it to his calves. Let him pour it on the ground. What do we care what he does with it? He’s supposed to have an aerator anyhow. If he broke his back producing it that’s no skin off my ass. Them old cooling tanks is obsolete. Who cares how much an aerator costs? That’s not my business. Or a bulk tank either. If he’s an inefficient producer to Hell with him. This here country’s prosperity is predicated on efficiency. You want to be a patriotic American citizen then you be efficient and make a million dollars and if you ain’t and don’t you’re just a no-good, bellyaching pinko.” How do you like that for red talk to a black cow, Annabella? Move over, my love, it’s your turn now.
HE shoves the next two cows apart so he can get in between them, then sits down to milk.
I sit here milking and dreaming of the decadent life of the moneyed aristocracy for which I have so much contempt and envy. No one comes in that door to watch, to pass the time of day, to comfort me in my travail. Sometimes of a Summer evening someone shows up. Ah yes. It’s the President again. What’s he want this time? Come to offer you a job? Secretary of Agriculture. I’m sick of agriculture. State or nothing. Oh, you’re lost, mister? For a minute I thought you were somebody else. You’re looking for Sharon Center? Well, you took the wrong turn ten miles back. If you continue on this road you may land up at Beaver Meadow but more likely you’ll drown in mud first. They ain’t turned the water this Spring. It’s only a few farmers live up there. Who needs them for anything? And what do they need to get out for? Who cares whether they pay taxes like anyone else? They can live on milk and they got canned vegetables left from last Summer. You can’t do nothing in this town. The precinct won’t vote to keep their own drinking water unpolluted. Not if it’s going to cost them a half cent on the grand list. And these are the sterling freeholders you left your native metropolis to live among. Boy, did you get screwed! He’s just some damned fool come up from the city with a little book-learning. He’ll never last it out. Not here he won’t. Three years and the place’ll be for sale again. Nobody made a living up there since 1830. Him and that frumpy slut he married. Boy, don’t they make a pair? She’s got a college education too. Got her degree in fucking if the Road Crew’s to be believed. She’s a specialist. And all he knows is cows so they got nothing in common because she don’t like it that way.” That’s how they talk, the sturdy backbone of the nation. You can read it any time you want in Robert Frost. “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall.” “Good fences make good neighbors.” Well, there’re no walls here and no fences either. The deer’ll eat the garden before you do every time. They’ll start with the lettuce in May and end up in October digging your carrots. Supposing I’d been a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Clear, concise prose, unambiguous, direct. Objective reporting all the truth all the time. Press conference at the Elysee Palace. Opening of Parliament. Three hour interview with the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Number seven coming up. Don’t lay down now, Susie. Stay on your feet. Dumbhead . . . Soon as I weigh Annabella’s milk you’re going to have to push yourself right up again.
HE gets up and weighs the milk, etc.
Seven pounds flat. Well, she’s drying off. Not bad considering. Not bad. But four more left to milk and then face the kitchen stove, the cheerful kitchen stove stinking up the house with the sweet smell of frying grease.
HE pets the cow’s rump.
You’re going to have a nice little heifer and it’ll be born the same day as her baby. You and she must have both had the same idea the same time. Coincidence makes the world go round.
With his fingers HE presses the cow’s middle where the embryo calf can be felt.
There’s its head. Yes sir, there’s a calf in you, Annabella girl. A beautiful heifer calf, maybe. OK, Susie. Step lively. Papa wants his breakfast too.
HE sits down to the next cow.
Ah, Susie, if only you weren’t swayback! Here it’s Sunday morning and I’m in the barn just like I’m here every other morning of the year rain or shine, sick or well. And how’ll it be thirty years from now? A man can’t do this kind of work forever. Social security? For a farmer? Mister, you’ll be living off the town and each year in the account of the Overseer of the Poor your name will be written down with just how big a grocery order you got and which merchant had the privilege of serving you at the town’s expense. That’s one solution. Another solution’s the kid. Now cut it out, sturdy yeoman. What kid of yours is going to support you thirty years from now if you do him the favor to live that long? After breakfast you better get the Sunday paper, the news of the week, what the Speaker of the House said to the Chairman of the Subcommittee for the Preservation of the Life and Welfare of the Backbone of the Nation. And the news of Society. What they were doing last week on the Bahamas. Where are you going, Mrs. Vandevander? “Downtown, Mr. De Ladela.” What for, Mrs. Vandervander? “To get bread, Mr. De Ladela.” Who to? Haw! What I like before breakfast is subtle humor.
A cup of coffee, a sandwich, and yoo hoo . . .
Supposing I say to her, Honey, as much as we need a bathroom we need a milking machine more. If I have a single two-unit machine I can milk twenty head instead of the ten I’m milking now and instead of earning a gross income of twelve dollars a day I’ll raise it up to twenty-four. Now we’re still paying for the farm, on the tractor, on the Chevy pick-up, on the horse that died last winter. We got the grain bill each month, the gas, the electricity. I forgot to count in the chain saw, et cetera, et cetera. So we’ll be paying a little more but we’ll have a little more. Of course the farm don’t cut enough hay for twenty cows and I’ll have to increase the size of the stable and we’d ought to have a silo then as well. . . . Listen, Sweetheart, I know it’s hard for you to live on a net income of a dollar a day. It’s hard for me too, but here we are doing it. Maybe if we tighten our belts a little more. Twenty head and the net income might someday be a dollar and a half a day. You know I can’t take care of more than ten head by hand. And get the wood out in winter. And we’re going to need cod liver oil for the baby and there’s bound to be at least one doctor’s bill. Don’t cry, Honey. Sure we need a bathroom. . . . Listen, she’s right, damn it. This ain’t the sixteenth century even though it looks like it me sitting here milking these damn cows with my bare hands. She’s entitled to one bathroom just like every other red-blooded American woman mother and she’s going to have one bathroom and I’m going to have a milking machine with it and if we’re so far in debt we can’t pay the interest let them take the damn place back. Let the bankers run it themselves, they’re so damn smart. Dry your eyes, Baby. All I want to know is am I really the father or can’t you tell for sure? If I were a woman damned if I couldn’t tell who was the father of my kid. What do you think I keep records for? Don’t you suppose I know who Susie’s father is? I can’t tell you his name right off. It’s either that Jordan bull or the one the Society got at the Ohio dispersal. Listen, all I have to do is look it up. You know and I know it’s right there in the book. When she was bred and to who. That’s a six dollar fee right there but it’s cheaper than keeping my own bull and where would I get a bull like that from? That’s a proven sire, Honey. They compared the records of ten of his daughters against the records of their dams. That’s why I’m keeping records, sweetheart. I’m cooperating with the Society. You’re not living on Tobacco Road. What do you think I got all that book learning for, like the neighbors say? I’m not so extravagant. It only seems to you that everything for the farm I want I get but everything you need for the house has to wait. Well, the artificial breeding’s an economy right there and we don’t have any contagious abortion any more either. Why don’t you complain about that too? Every other farmer I know his wife gets up and gives him breakfast before he goes to the barn but in this here establishment I make my own breakfast after I get through and I suppose I don’t bring you coffee right to your bed? Look at that! She filled the pail! Susie, Susie, you’re the best little old cow in Gilboa County!
HE gets up, weighs milk, etc.
Sway back or no, Susie, I love you! If I wasn’t married already you wouldn’t be an old maid yourself. Twenty-two pounds six ounces of white, foaming milk right down through the strainer and tomorrow morning it’ll be pasteurized, homogenized, bottled and delivered to the little bastard denizens of Boston, Massachusetts, cradle of liberty, Old Bay State, hip hip hooray and three to go! Watch it, Janisary, here I come!
HE sits down to the next cow.
Let her mother buy her a bathroom then. She’s so damn busy telling what kind of teaching job she’s going to get her down to the State College. When the Hell is she going to teach? For the next two years she’s going to be changing diapers. You’d like for us to have a washer and a dryer too in addition to the bathroom? That’s a funny coincidence. So would I. You know how to write your name somebody told me? Well, write it on a check. She’s got the dough. What’s she saving it for? A fancy funeral? Cry all day, “My own poor darling living in a house without even the basic necessities!” In the old days the bride’s family set the groom up in business and they were proud to do it. All I had I put into this farm, Mother, and I borrowed as much more as I could and I can’t borrow any more and I’m taking care of your daughter, my wife, as well as I can take care of her and when did you buy us so much as a heifer calf for me to raise so I could increase the net return of this sterling agricultural project and what did every other woman do before Thomas Alva Edison invented electricity? She talks like she thinks Edison was created the same day as little fishes. Stop your nagging! No one’s nagging! It won’t do to get mad before breakfast. Think of something lovely. In the United States in the Twentieth Century menial labor has finally been abolished. Electricity is man’s servant and machines have been developed to assume that burdensome drudgery connected with day-to-day living. Chemicals are also available to make the shit house smell like milady’s boudoir. If you were a minister right now you’d be memorizing the sermon you’re going to preach at eleven thirty A.M. and if you were the president of National Milk and Cream Products, Inc. you’d be sleeping in a bed with silk sheets. Say, do you know Albert Terriault sleeps in silk sheets? To look at that scrawny little miser and his dried out old wife would you believe there was juice enough in both of them to get an idea like that? Silk sheets and pajamas! I bet that feels good!
HE is stripping the cow, getting out the last of the milk from each quarter by milking her high with thumb and forefinger while with the other hand HE massages the udder.
If you don’t get out all the milk they’ll go dry. They used to say in her wild state the cow only gave milk as long as the calf wanted it. But the idea that the calf don’t want it any more, that’s for the birds. I got three two-year old heifers, bred already, and every time they get a chance they’ll suck any cow will stand for them! And if a cow won’t stand, they’ll suck each other. And you talk about degeneracy being peculiar to humans! How do you tell a cow’s in heat in the pasture? She jumps another cow. And you ever see two bulls in a pen together? No, they don’t fight. Not all the time they don’t. They’re jumping each other like queers anywhere. Ah, to Hell with sex. It’s a pain too. Well, what is nice to think about sitting here in the barn the only man awake this time of day two miles each way on the road? Before Edison’s time or RCA’s or somebody, to cool the milk they cut ice from the ponds and stored it in pits all Summer covered with sawdust and the poor farmer had to go and dig it up and cut what he needed each morning and haul it to the tank and you have a six can General Electric cooler you got second hand and never a day’s trouble with it and why don’t G.E. ask you for an endorsement for which they would pay good hard American cash? Balance of payments and all that money running away like milk from a can with a hole in the bottom. Ah, my dear wife, it’s Sunday morning and in another six weeks on a Sunday morning after I get through doing chores I’ll have to mow the lawn because it will be Spring and do you want this place to look like Slob’s Dwelling, shaggy, unkempt and slovenly? The swallows will have returned by then and there will be little nests attached to the rafters of the woodshed from which our tiny feathered friends will drop fleas and bird shit as usual. Face life fearlessly. Go out and get a mistress for yourself. One of the Summer people up to the lake. That woman who always wants you to cut her meadow. “You can have the hay just for the taking. The American farmer has become so lazy with all the government price supports that if you offer him the hay for nothing he won’t bother to cut it. He expects you to cut it for him and put it in his barn yourself.” Lady, if you was a cow you wouldn’t eat that golden rod either. Give you hay fever. Say, wouldn’t she make a mistress? I wouldn’t look twice at her the wrinkles showing on her neck under all that crap she puts on. Fine figure of a woman. Frustrated old hag. I love my wife, Madam. I have eyes for her only. But I seen you making eyes at me all right. All you have to offer a man is money and that’s a considerable offering. Who’s the father of her kids? The one who comes up week-ends they call Daddy? Not him, for God’s sake! They’d have to hold him up to get it up. In the old days when every farmer had his own runt bull they had breeding racks where they hitched the cow and then they’d bring the bull around to serve her and he’d get so excited he couldn’t aim right and the old farmer had to give him a helping hand, guide it home, and now it’s all done with a glass tube and the inseminator puts a rubber sleeve on his arm and shoves it in to the shoulder first to make sure everything’s where it’s supposed to be. You make all the progress you can make, mister, but there’s no way of facing reality except straight. You all through, Janisary? Nice bossy. I hardly ever see their faces any more.
HE gets up, weighs the milk, pets the cow, etc.
Twenty pounds. What did I tell you? I’m a small farmer but I’m a good one, bossy. Ain’t you a lucky cow to belong to such an educated farmer knows just how to raise you and handle you and get you to show a profit? But look at my pant leg! You got a spray teat, Janisary! If I had a machine the teat-cup would have caught that spray. When it dries and sours it’s going to smell worse than shit. I’ll have to use a dilator on you one of these days. Well, we’re getting there.
HE sits down to milk the next cow and notices that the barn cat has appeared.
Ah, so you finally showed up, Miss Meeow. I suppose you been out at the grain box hunting mice, and now you’d like your milk. Don’t lie to me! I heard McGregor’s yellow tomcat yowling on the wall when I got up. Some mouse! I opened the grain box this morning and two jumped out. I stepped on one but it’s the other’s going to have the litter! I could save milk and be my own cat for all the good you do around here. Don’t you come rubbing against my leg, you whoring cat! I don’t want your love and all you want’s my milk. Here, catch that!
HE aims a squirt of milk at the cat.
Squirted all over your face. How you going to catch a mouse when you can’t sit up and catch a squirt of milk? Well, lick it off. I’ll fill your saucer when I get through. You’re so weak, go and take a nap in the hay mow. Damn cat’s all fucked out. If you spent cat energy like I spend human energy doing something productive you wouldn’t have so much to spend on sexuality. When I go to bed at night I want to sleep. And when I wake up mornings, she wants to sleep. It’s what we call natural birth control. I didn’t have to be a farmer. When I was in college Ellie Stebbins threw herself at me. An only child and her pa the biggest manufacturer of ladies’ raincoats east of the Mississippi. “I need an heir, young man,” he says to me. “For there’s no one to take over the business after I get through with it. Ellie’s very fond of you, my boy,” he says, “and Ellie’s husband is going to be a rich and powerful man.” Well, there had to be some compensation. Anyway, to then I’d been nurtured on Percy Bysshe Shelley. So I looked at him aloof-like and I said, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” If I’d been real quick-witted I would have thought of something appropriate. “Ah,” he said, “a wooly-headed queer!” He sure sized me up right. Off went Ellie to a finishing school and off I went to “The Growth of the Soil.” No, my dear, it wasn’t quite that simple, but there’s no point remembering it now for any good it will do either of us. She wasn’t pretty but she was cute. Listen, who the Hell isn’t, one time or another? No, I never regretted it. Not even in the Spring of the year down in the barn basement pitching on to the manure spreader. This is socially necessary labor. Man can survive sans Stebbins’ Ladies’ Raincoats but deprive the great cities of their milk supply for three days and you’ll find out what Mankind needs to survive, if you didn’t know before. I didn’t quote Shelley to her old man either. The fact is we had a falling-out. She went one way. I went the other. She regretted it all her life. A very unhappy woman, they tell me. Ellie, my dear, I’m glad you thought to stop in as you were passing by on your way to the mountains. And in a little fur-trimmed jacket too! Just like the one you wore at the Spring Dance. How many years ago? Does it really matter? Here we are again and the orchestra is playing the same number. Do you get a little twinge, hearing it? Of course I do. A happy memory? No, I wouldn’t call it happy. Bitter-sweet’s the term I’d use. You’ve met my wife, of course? This is Ellie Stebbins, dear. I mean Ellie Stebbins Winterborne. We haven’t seen each other since I don’t know when. She didn’t even know we’re married. That’s funny. I knew she was. I guess ours didn’t make the newspapers. Yes, Ellie we’re very happy. My wife’s name is Karen. We’re expecting. Oh, you can tell? Well, of course. In about three months. You don’t have children yet? Oh, I’m sorry, my dear. Very sorry. You got it at Reno? Ah . . . as they say in Paris, “C’est la vie!” That band really chooses its music carefully, doesn’t it? Another number that was ours. Don’t the strangest things happen to commonplace people? Here am I and there are you and if we had it to do over again we’d make a different set of mistakes just as damning, just as irrevocable. Yes, my dear . . . and yes. There you go, wrinkling up that funny, adorable little nose again. You want it to freeze that way? How little you’ve changed. . . . Ellie Stebbins, don’t come into my head so early in the morning or I might really go out into that hay mow and hang myself. And what are you going to have for breakfast today, my merry farmer? Canned tomato juice, fried potatoes and the blackest damn coffee that ever got poured out of a dirty grey enamel pot. OK, Lulubelle. That’ll be it for now.
HE gets up and weighs the milk as before.
Milk for America to grow on! You did it out of spite, didn’t you, to show them you could do it. Well, you sure as Hell showed them. Professor Stevenson thought it would really be a noble experiment but Professor Hitchcock said, “Don’t be a fool, son.” Damn negative advice. How is anyone not going to be a fool? Last cow until five thirty this afternoon. Move over, Buttercup, you big fat bitch! You want to squash me against the wall?
HE brandishes the milking stool at the cow forcing her to make room for him to sit down. A bell is heard ringing at the house.
Hey, is that the bell? Jesus Christ! . . . It is the bell! She’s awake! She’s ringing for me. What the Hell happened to her? The telephone must have woke her up. Who’d be calling this time of day? Maybe her mother’s dead. Maybe it’s Washington. They’re going to make me Secretary of State after all.
HE gets up, goes to the stable door, opens it and calls:
What’s the matter?
A woman’s voice can be heard in reply but no words are audible.
What? . . . Breakfast? You made breakfast? . . . She must be going to have a miscarriage. You want me to come eat? . . . What did you make? . . . French toast? My God! Sure I’ll come. . . . Sure I’m hungry. But I got one cow left to milk. Then I got to hay them. . . . Hay them after? . . . After breakfast? . . . After what? . . . Jesus! What are you yelling something like that across the road for? You want the neighbors to know everything we do? . . . How do you know who’s walking around these hills? . . . I know it’s legal. Stop talking like a lawyer. Be refined, for God’s sake! What a woman! . . . It’s nobody’s business what we do after breakfast! . . . Yeah, I’m good for it! But I got to finish chores. You want the cows to blat the whole time? I know you wouldn’t hear a thing! But it makes me nervous! Go back in the house. You’ll catch cold standing there in your negligee hollering stuff like that across the road! . . . Hey, listen! Telephone the inseminator. We got a cow in heat. Can you hear, Karen? She’s in heat. . . . No . . . a cow! Tell him to come up this afternoon. What? . . . Any time he wants. He won’t get here before three. If you don’t think we’ll be finished then you’ll be a widow. . . . Yes, I’m going to hurry. Keep the French toast hot!
HE closes the stable door and returns to the cow.
She’d probably like me to get a heart attack. That’s what does it. Lusty slut! And she pretends to be an intellectual. Well, everyone’s mind is in a different part of the anatomy. At least she’s got some interests. Did you ever hear of such an ambivalent relationship? Of course we hate each other. What’s that got to do with anything? She’s a married woman and she knows her rights, love or no love. If I don’t give it to her she can go up to the Superior Court of Gilboa County and get a divorce for herself. “Young man, your wife says you’re not doing her any good. How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?” Well, if I’m not doing her any good, Your Honor, I’d like to know who is. Have you seen her lately? Maybe we don’t hate each other. How do we know how we really feel? It changes every five minutes anyhow, don’t it? I probably love her passionately. Karen, my darling, I see you as though with eyes long blinded that suddenly have had their sight restored. How beautiful you are and how grateful I am to be your devoted though unworthy husband. That would bring tears to the eyes of a scarecrow. She’s got an itch. A legal itch. And it woke her up this April morning and she made me breakfast and she’s keeping it warm until I come in and eat it and after I’m refreshed and strengthened . . . Oh boy . . . But that’s what they get married for, ain’t it, old girl? How the Hell would you know? You’re just a cow. Maybe I’ll even take a quick bath and shave. We’ll do it fancy for a change. I’ll spray myself with Aqua Velva. No barn stink this morning! Not only is she entitled to it, but it’ll do me good too. Let’s be absolutely honest and objective about this, girls. I like it as much as she does. It makes peace between us. And when it’s real good she says to me afterwards, “I could have married worse.” And I say to her, exhausted like, “Moi aussi, cherie.” . . . Listen girls, why don’t you be good sports for once in your lives? Give me until ten o’clock. You had a good feed last night and I gave you plenty of grain this morning. You could wait for your hay until ten. If I hay you now it’s going to take me twenty more minutes and when she’s feeling like she’s feeling now, twenty minutes is a long time. It’s long for anyone when they feel like that. Josie Fennel Fullpail knows what I’m talking about, don’t you, Josie? And all of the rest of you too. You give me till ten o’clock. I’ll have my breakfast, wash up, take care of the business, and when I come back, instead of feeding you that old herdsgrass that got wet twice before we got it in the barn I’ll open up a mow of second cut alfalfa with the leaves still green. . . . Yeah, I can just imagine. I know how reasonable and accommodating a bunch of cows can be. If I don’t hay you when you’re supposed to be hayed you’ll start up a chorus that’ll make “Meistersinger” sound like a piccolo solo. Damn bitches. You don’t care how nervous you make me. You know you can take advantage of me because I’m a conscientious husbandman. I realize my duties to my livestock. I learned my lesson. I graduated at the head of my class at Gainesborough School of Vocational Agriculture, the only graduate in twenty years who had a B.A. from the State University. I know you’re entitled to your hay as soon as I get through milking. Well, today we’re going to break the rules. That’s what rules are for. And if you blat, you’re going to blat but I’m going to be deaf to your blatting just like she is. Hey, Buttercup, how much more milk are you going to give today? All of a sudden you got to fill up the pail? You could have given this much yesterday and taken a vacation this morning. You know she don’t get ideas like this every day. A pregnant woman’s unpredictable. They ain’t as used to pregnancy as you cows. God knows what ideas she’ll get if I don’t take advantage of this one. There! Give the rest of it tonight. That’s enough. Good cow.
HE gets up and tosses the milking stool into a corner, weighs the milk, notes it down, pours it through the strainer.
Go on through that strainer, damn you. That pad ain’t clogged!
HE lifts the strainer up and bangs it down on the neck of the can.
The rest is for the cat. Full can.
HE pours some milk into a saucer on the floor, then places the strainer over the empty pail. HE rolls the can into the milk room, lifts it into the cooling tank, then lowers the tank’s cover.
Into the cooler! The milk truck driver knows where to find you if I’m not around.
Habit draws him to haying the cattle.
The hay’s right there. It really wouldn’t take twenty minutes to feed it out. Not if I hurry.
From the house the bell is heard again.
Well, you hear her, don’t you? She can’t wait. OK . . . I’m coming . . . I’m coming, Karen. And the road crew can go crap. You got to do something to change your routine once in a while. Let go of that bell, for God’s sake, Karen! Can’t you hear me? I’m coming! . . . Well, that’s love for you.
Carrying the milk pail and strainer, he leaves the barn turning off the lights as he goes. Since the Sun has risen by now, there is no perceptible change inside the stable.
The battered piano resumes with Schumann’s “Merry Farmer.”