Nobody took better care of the farm animals than Jimmy did. On a hot summer night, he'd switch the lights on in the barn way before dawn and he'd baby his pets, pitching out old bedding and laying down shavings, trimming feet, cleaning buckets and pouring in fresh, cold water from the barn hydrant. By the time she got out to the barn, udders would be bursting with milk. “It's a love-hate relationship with the barn,” he said. “I better keep doing it or I'll never find out which.” Even after a long overnight, he'd head for the barn for at least two hours and come in finally so tired he was asleep shuffling out of his trousers as he walked down the hallway before crashing into bed. But, she thought, suppose he hadn't understood about the trip. No, he must, she had told him ten times. Soon the coffee was perking, and she sat at the kitchen table waiting for the five minutes to be up and she wondered if she had forgotten anything. After thinking for long enough to decide that she had everything packed and she was ready to go, she poured herself a cup of coffee, cream and sugar, and her mind wandered back to Jimmy.
Since they had moved to Maine Jimmy had seemed to her different. He wasn't like before they separated and he went to Mexico. Before he had friends and he'd notice everything. Every weekend there was some party of the fliers he would drag her to. And she remembered watching big-eyed from a corner while Jimmy, sleeves rolled up, necktie slid down to his chest, was at the center of everything. Some of it probably had to do with the lubrication, but otherwise it was outward going Jimmy doing his thing. She knew him before the Army. They had a tempestuous relationship. But he changed in the Army so she wondered what might have happened that he didn't care to talk about. She considered that the Army often changed boys. Why shouldn't it? They went in at an impressionable age, and they got out older. She probably should be more interested than she was. When he got out she was living on Everett Avenue in Chelsea. Dawn, her little girl, was doing fine, but Mike was only four months old and he was sick all the time. Jimmy had helped her with Mike. And at that time Jerry, her younger brother, and Jimmy had been friendly. This was before Jerry started to get in trouble. Anyway, she and Jimmy had good times and they went out together. He was always working, but they naturally fell in together like thieves and they set up together because they looked forward to seeing each other, and unless they denned up, they wouldn't see each other hardly at all. Michelle considered that to be natural. Then she got pregnant with Dwight, who was Jimmy's. She had always wanted three or four kids, she loved kids, and she had never thought of the Dew as a mistake, but he was not born into the optimal situation either. She was afraid Jimmy would drift, but he was so thrilled with the baby, and then he wanted to get married, and she had always dreamed, what with all the shit that had happened, that somebody would want to marry her. If Dwight was born before the Army, she thought it might have been different. So the Army changed him but nothing like the Mexico thing. Come to think on it, there was this black kid back in the neighborhood. His dad was white, but mother was black. He fought in the ring. He loved fighting in the ring. He did all right, and then he went into some big fights, he was a neighborhood hero by then, and when they put him with the big guns he started to get beat up. And then the kid wasn't lively any more, he was quiet, he stayed away, silent. Jimmy was like that when he got back from Mexico, as if he had been in a big fight, and he got beat up. And over the years since, it seemed to her, he had gotten worse. He sat in the corner. When friends came over, or family, he disappeared, which aggravated her no end. Just when Ellis Hanson showed up, Jimmy would stop in and hang out with Ellis, another big storyteller, a local character and truck driver, and for two minutes Jimmy's face would brighten and eyes twinkle the way they used to. And as Michelle began to think about Jimmy being downcast looking, and maybe she wasn't a wonder to deal with, then she thought maybe this going to Florida was not a great idea. Michelle ought to arrange things at home a little better. A herd of twelve milkers was a load of work to do alone. She could sell some animals then she could go to Florida. She ought to call Jimmy early, make sure he remembered and he'd be back in time to drive her to Portland, but she had heard something about Tuck, and anyway, she didn't like bothering him at work.
She knew Tuck well enough. Jimmy brought him home for Thanksgiving and Christmas some years because he had nowhere else to go. Jimmy doted on Tuck, took care of him. Jimmy and Tuck would wander around the barn yard holding hands and poor pale Tuck would have a big grin on his face. Tuck was always on his absolute best behavior. Sounded like bad teeth, from what she had heard. She certainly would agree with that. “Oh,” Michelle mumbled to herself, “better get a backup.” So that is when she called her goat breeding pal, Deanna Parker, who she knew was in the habit of getting up around 4am or some such ungodly hour even earlier than that. She liked to make bread and goats' milk cheese early, which she sold at the co-op in town, and she liked to watch the dawn, and in winter she warmed up the house with the oven. Deanna was an early riser all her life, so Michelle got the phone jingling.
Michelle explained about Jimmy to Deanna.
“I understand perfectly,” Deanna said. “George doesn't get anything as many times as I tell him. And if I should come between him and work, I'd be a goner. He'd run over me in the driveway. Just give me a ring. I am almost done the bread for this morning, and I can make it to Portland and back before morning milking.”
At six still no Jimmy. Five minutes of anguish later she dialed him at work.
“Michelle,” she heard a breathless voice, “you ain't gonna believe this.”
“Figured,” she said quietly.
“Just a minute. Tuck, stop, give me a minute. It's Michelle, I have to talk to Michelle.”
In disgust, Tuck let go of the kitchen table that he had been trying to crash through the sliding glass door, and he turned and walked out to the living room and dropped onto the couch, his fingers in his mouth.
“Thanks. Anyway, Deanna is taking me.”
“Michelle, don't be angry. I don't want you to go away mad at me.”
“You're hopeless, Jimmy. Take care of the girls.”
“Don't I always? I wish you wouldn't go.”
Then she said, softly, “We haven't been apart for a long time.”
He made her wait before he said, “I'll take care of the girls. Go, do what you gotta do. I'll manage.”
She wanted to hear a soft word but that wasn't Jimmy. “All right. I'll talk to you as soon as I get there.”
“Okay. Gotta go. Tuck…by.”
Thinking about Michelle, he swore that he should be more sentimental with her, Lord knows with the kids gone, and old guys' wives dead, money floating around and Michelle so young looking, like she was getting old backwards, and friends all over town. But Tuck had his fingers in his mouth and he was gnawing on them. If he chewed on his fingers too much, that would be another problem worse than the teeth. He had nicked up his fingers and arms enough already. Jimmy imagined the dentist refusing to see him. Tuck wouldn't let Jimmy pull his fingers from his mouth. “Tuck, please don't chew. We are going to the doctor today.” Tuck released his hand from his mouth. His eyes were big and dark and hungry with an amazing sad confusion, and then Tuck was crying. “I know, baby, I know,” Jimmy said softly. “It will be better.” Jimmy felt sorrow for Tuck, a sorrow that spread over him from top to toe. Jimmy gasped, leaned back, still holding Tuck's arm by the wrist, for he had not felt in his entire life any such sorrow for another human being before; he had not thought himself capable of it.
Michelle called Deanna, and Deanna said, “Okay. Be right down.”
Michelle moved her suitcase onto the porch and sat on a porch chair waiting for Deanna. It was late September, the day was dawning cool, clear and dry. Already on the corner of the porch facing east, the sun was brightening. Dwight would go out with his dad on summer mornings. Dwight loved going barefoot, and he'd go out barefoot to walk in the dew. Dew is in the dew, Jimmy would say. Jimmy and Dwight would work in the garden together. Mike on the other hand was a thinker. Mike was going to Brown, and his father and Michelle's brother, Ted, and Jimmy were cooperating. Mike was all eyes; a great student, he soaked up everything. Maybe she could convince her mother to help out, too. But Michelle still wondered if she was really going to go through with it. And then she didn't wonder, because she knew she was. There was in the background a shallow fear, because she was afraid of her mother. Her mother had in the background of Michelle's life a terrible cold grip. She remembered the Chelsea mist, the cold cobblestones on Cherry Street, the sharp report of her mother's heels as she walked up the street and disappeared round the corner toward Chelsea Square bus stop that day. It was after Michelle's father died. Her older brother, Ted, took over the household. She and her baby brother, Jerry, were still too young to do for themselves. They did not see her again for four years. In her absence, her mother took on the weight of legend. Michelle had been sure that her mother had gone away so that she could come back to them, and she'd bring Michelle pretty clothes to wear to school, and her mother would build a nice house for them to live in, and she'd cook for them again. And still to this day her mother cast a big shadow and Michelle wanted it out. She did not want a shadow, she wanted a real, flesh and blood mother. She wanted answers. If her mother was weak, Michelle wanted to know; if her mother was strong, Michelle wanted to know.
Then the headlights to Deanna's pickup flickered in the long driveway. Michelle grasped her scuffed up leather satchel, carried it down into the dooryard, and swung it into the pickup body. Then jumping and pulling she climbed into the high cab.
The diesel engine turned over with noisy busy clacking. Deanna's spare, dark face, sharpened by a lifetime without frills, and her keen eyes studied Michelle. “Well,” Deanna said, “no happy girl this morning?”
“Don't know if this is such a great idea.”
“I hate my mother.”
Deanna burst out laughing. “At your age? Best go and find out why.”
Michelle sighed. “I think I know why. I think.” She didn't tell her that she was also daunted by her mother, that even the thought of her mother had the effect of a billowing cloud crossing the sun on a summer day. Half a lifetime gone past and she was that incomplete. She tried to buck up, but it wasn't there. A dark ring circled round her heart. Her palms were damp and her hands trembled.
“Let's go,” Michelle said.
“Wow,” Deanna said, “you look like a kid heading for a thrashing.”
Deanna turned the big pickup around in the dooryard space and while they were driving out Michelle thought that she would never again see these people, her family, and this place the way she had. The three kids she had raised, all in the fight, living lives of their own, the husband, whom she knew in a sudden moment long ago she had knotted herself to the rest of her days. With a sharp tug at the heart she thought that when she returned, home must be forever different, whether for better or worse she knew not.
Tuck behaved fine at the dentist. Dr Boice, a gruff, stocky, powerful man, didn't care who you were or where you came from. Lucy went outside to smoke a cigarette. “I'll let you handle it. I don't like this doctor. He's a brute, if you ask me. I'd never take anybody to him if I didn't have to.” Jimmy smiled, because he loved this dentist. He would work on Tuck when nobody else would and without chatter. But the doctor had bad news. “His whole head is no good, dammit. He'll have to come back. I can't take them all out at once. It must hurt like hell. He'll need to take something for the pain right away. He's probably acting up.” Tuck had not been on any meds for a long time. No one wanted to give him a med to cure the mischievousness. But there are meds for pain.
While Tuck slept off the gas—or whatever it was, Jimmy hadn't seen what they gave Tuck to put him out, it had happened so fast—, he urinated on himself. That was the only bad thing he did. The nurse was unhappy. She gave them a spray bottle of cleaner, and Jimmy changed Tuck, still dead to the world, and Lucy cleaned up the puddle. Then the nurse apologized to Lucy for being testy. Lucy had none of it. When the nurse left, Lucy said, “Some bag! A little urine. Tell me she's a nurse!”
As soon as Tuck woke, Jimmy gave him the Demerol the nurse dropped off. Jimmy worried that Tuck would give them a hard time in the van on the way back. Lucy was a nervous driver, but Tuck didn't know how to unclip the seatbelt. Other than a few weary signs and impulsive arm waving, Tuck was quiet in the drive back to the house. Tuck had taken Demerol for pain one time before, when he broke his ankle. It had reduced his acting up, kept him in the wheelchair till he healed enough to start clomping around. Back at the house Lucy took Tuck's hand and led him up the stairs onto the porch and into the house.
“Oh, poor sweetheart,” Lucy said, “does my baby hurt?”
Tuck nodded. He wasn't supposed to have enough intelligence to understand words. Jimmy wondered whether it was Lucy's voice or her words that Tuck understood. Smiling, Jimmy watched them. Tuck lay his chin on her shoulder, and they embraced tenderly. “Come sit down with Lucy little Tucker…” While Lucy was going on with the baby talk, Jimmy got busy finishing up the shift documentation. Laura said that she'd relieve Jimmy and backup Lucy. But it seemed to Jimmy that Lucy had the situation under control. Tuck had fallen asleep. His head drooped over as he leaned against her.
“Jimmy, between you and me, I do not like that doctor. He is mean.”
“Name me another one who'd work on Tuck.”
“I know. It's a mean and evil world. I hate it. But my health coach says I should be myself and not just get along when I don't want to.”
“Sure. He got some teeth out. So Tuck is getting somewhere. Maybe in awhile, Tuck will be better.”
“I don't believe he needs to have all his teeth out. Do you?”
Lucy would carry on about these subjects indefinitely. Then every little detail would get the tint of her buxom shadow. The consumers loved her, followed her around like puppies. She always worked hard, but she had trouble staying anywhere. The complaint you'd always hear was that she was “superficial”. Rumor was that her first marriage went down the tubes because he accidentally used her toothbrush. That kind of thing. When she got going, as she was now, it did seem pointless.
Jimmy was relieved to see Laura's fancy, black four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi sporty car drive into the driveway.
Jimmy said, “I believe whatever that doctor tells me, don't you?”
“But you want Tuck to get better, don't you?”
Then Laura came through the door. She glanced at Tuck asleep on Lucy's shoulder. “Hi, kids. There! Having a good time?”
Laura Randall was a tall, sinewy woman. Her husband was a weight lifter and they had a gym in the house. The whole family lifted weights, and everybody had muscles on muscles, even the blonde little girl whom Jimmy often saw with her mother.
“Luce doesn't like the doctor,” Jimmy said.
“He gassed Tuck and then hit him like a truck,” Lucy demanded.
“Be glad to give you the paltry list of dentists who'd have anything to do with Tuck, and you can go over it to your heart's content,” Laura said. “You've got to take it where you can get it, especially with these guys.”
So they contemplated that fact for awhile.
Then Laura spoke up, “You can go any time, Jimmy.”
“Thanks. I've got twelve goats to milk, and Michelle's in Florida taking care of her sick mother.”
“Gee, Jimmy,” Lucy said, apparently done with Dr Boice for awhile, “she just dumped you with the damage and went to Florida? That sucks.”
Laura eyed him carefully, as if she already had figured something out. “Huh,” she said. Laura knew Michelle very well.
Jimmy ought to ask Laura for vacation time. In this situation with Tuck he doubted that she'd be happy about it. Laura called emergencies “all hands on deck”. Everybody worried that staff or consumer would get hurt. And there might be a messy investigation by the state. And worse would become even worse. The theory was that nobody should get hurt if there was full staffing. Jimmy reminded Laura about the Demerol from the dentist's that he had locked in the medications' cabinet. She'd organize a prescription at Preb's Pharmacy in South Paris Square. The supervisors handled each of the drugs in a specific mysterious way. With Tuck acting so badly Laura was spending most of her time at Pinetree house working disaster control. Nobody wanted to see the state come in. They'd find a scapegoat and it could be anybody. Then they'd be in and out for the next six months without solving the problem of Tuck.
Jimmy drove home to Michelle's goats. Though tired from a less than classic morning, it could have been worse. There were three other consumers besides Tuck and each one had their own needs, but recently nobody had heard a peep from any of them, as they also worked patiently through Tuck's chaos. Though Jimmy was tired the energy from the goats would pick him up as soon as he got in the barn. Only then would he have to face the dilemma of nobody home. “Nobody is gonna be home,” Jimmy said to himself. He had not come home to nobody since the Mexico thing fifteen years ago, and that had been a disaster. The ancient Ford pickup forged up the High Street hill then he came into the beautiful view of the rolling hills along the bluff. Every time he went over this route, he suddenly knew why he lived where he lived. He could breathe. He ought to stop at the corner in the village and get a six pack. He could stay drunk for two weeks if he wanted to. There certainly was a world of clowning around he could do if he wanted to.
The goats noted him driving in and came to the fence and squalled and scolded under the pine trees along the driveway. He was late; their udders were bursting with milk. Like a fireman rushing to a fire he jumped into his barn boots, not bothering to go inside to change, and grained the entire crew, gave out fresh hay and water, and he explained the situation, “No mother for awhile, girls,” he said. It was amazing what goats understood. They organized themselves into groups by age and swing, and discussed the situation.