Monday, February 22, 2016

Chapter 4—Barn Schizophrenia

    Four years ago a retired man who had somehow managed to hustle a cute, young wife gave Michelle her first goats. He had lived an up and down life; he had even for some reason spent time in jail. He and his young wife liked to wander, so they might end up living in this or that house, often while the houses were up for sale. They were both handy, and they made repairs in lieu of rent, preparing the house for sale. They often lived in out of the way, curious places. Jimmy tried to remember how Michelle met this man and his young wife. He thought he had written something about them in his journal, but he hadn't been able to find a word. He remembered that he and Michelle had spent an afternoon with them. It was late winter, mud season, and they had parked at the end of a long, uphill driveway. The young wife baked the most wondrous tasting muffin cakes. The old man watched proudly. She didn't care for philosophy with the dialogue, preferred her philosophy to be straight out. They must have made Jimmy's journal. He had wanted a story to blame the catastrophe named goating on. But his journal in those days was a giant green book with thousands of extra paper clipped pages. Finding anything specific in it was luck, hit or miss. What added up was nowhere found, and what would never add up he found in paragraph after paragraph. So the history of the retired man and cute, sweet, adorable young wife remained a mystery, and Jimmy could never properly condemn them to a thousand consecutive sentences in hell without parole.
    Anyway, the young wife and Michelle, when she and Jimmy first moved to Maine, became acquainted. Michelle often collected acquaintances. Too bad Michelle was married, everyone thought, who would want to get to know the weird guy? In fact, Jimmy depended on Michelle for acquaintance collection; she brought that color into his life. Jimmy liked these people, young, old, unmarried; behind their backs he called them Adam and Eve. It was funny how they lived. Young women often have too much to do, and the old man might be unhappy getting dragged out of his easy chair. He'd go off around the corner, cussing. But by-and-by he returned to his young wife in the usual overjoyed state, and he tagged along where ever she went. The house they were living in was only a mile or so around the next hill. It was on a knoll at the end of a long, steep driveway. They had a splendid view of the mountains and foothills to the west. When they dropped by, the old man and Jimmy usually spent the visit studying the Ford Econoline van he drove. In his US Delivery days Jimmy had owned one, and he had acquired wisdom on how to keep them on the road. Other than elderly hoses and frayed belts the engine looked fine, no apparent coolant or oil leaks that Jimmy could see, which tended to put you broke down on the side of the road fast. But Jimmy had not yet learned how they did auto repair in Maine, which was drive it till it broke, and he still adhered to the big city philosophy of preventive maintenance. The old man nodded, grunted, got sick of hearing about it. A dead shock absorber meant nothing to him. Jimmy would soon learn the art of junker driving as it was practiced in Maine. The old man knew he would not have to teach Jimmy. That was one thing you learned soon enough. Instead, he seemed preoccupied with the young wife; when she was out of his sight, he was another old man, but give him a picture of her walking toward him smiling and he was thirty years younger. They often wandered around cross-country to distant family and friends and points unknown. One day he and young wife drove in. They got out, old man and smiling youngster, and they went around and opened the van and two saggy old four legged animals popped out. Old man and young wife led them on bailing twine leashes in front of the house. What were they? Existential dread comes to mind.
    Michelle popped out the door like a kid on Christmas morning. “They're goats, you nut,” she scolded Jimmy, clapping her hands.
    Whatever, they were the skankest looking four legged things Jimmy ever saw. He had finished building Michelle a twenty-by-twenty shed for a barn. He built it for love, thinking love would get him somewhere. In spite of it all, he wouldn't mind if she got pregnant again, but instead it got him nowhere. He ended up with goats. Some chickens she said, maybe pigs, there was already a Holstein heifer in one of the stalls, wandering around a fenced in acre. She had once thought about raising Irish Setters. They were gorgeous dogs and they went for five-hundred apiece. These two things standing in the driveway in front of him could not be the future! Jimmy fell backward in a sweat. Already he loved the barn at the same time as he hated the barn. Barn schizophrenia! Existential dread being by far too vague a phraseology.
    The old man explained, “A friend of ours used them to brush a field. Michelle said she might want them. What the hell, they're free.”
    “Oh, I don't think so,” Jimmy said, wandering toward them from the porch, garden spade in hand. It was spring. He was heading outside early, thinking about dirt with plenty of worms in it. He had some serious dirt round this house with plenty of worms in it.
    Michelle dived off the porch past him, jumped most of the steps, “I love the floppy ears,” she shouted.
    The young wife smiled. She wanted to get rid of them to a “good home”. She was more sensible than Michelle.
    “They're Nubian crosses,” Michelle said. “Oh, they'll be fine for now.”
    “Where we got them,” explained the old man, “he said they had been in with a buck. He said they were probably due soon. The meat is a great delicacy.”
    The previous summer Michelle had experimented with sheep. Neither he nor she knew anything about raising animals. Everything was a fight and a struggle. The two sheep had died. A nearby farmer, who was talkative and enthusiastic, taking a liking to Michelle, came around now and then, offering free advice. He was a big guy, hands like hams, he liked holding little animals in his arms. Mainers will drop by to check on you when you are new to see that you are not overwhelmed, still capable of getting somewhere, as Maine life, with the harsh winters, can get confusing. Finally, a baby Holstein heifer was born on Michelle's farm. George Brett came over to help pull the calf out, which then lay half-dead on the clean pine shavings. But Michelle knew exactly what to do, cleared the nostrils, toweled the poor devil, who was now awakening into hard, bitter life, and soon the calf was standing shakily, big dark eyes blank in the strange bright light, looking for a teat to suck on. George said, tersely, “Might be worth something someday.”
    All of this was to Jimmy a mystery. Michelle seemed to get it; she was the farmer. There was a stone wall called farming in front of Jimmy's eyes, and as hard as he rammed his head against it, he could never get past it into comprehension. Immanuel Kant on metaphysics was more understandable to him than a slime soaked, new born calf, flopping around in a bed of shavings. How did the calf know to get up and start looking for a teat? And then suck on it to get milk out of it? Or was a farmer not supposed to think about such things? Or the investment, as the animals ate endlessly. A horse, you could ride, a dairy cow eventually developed an udder—by no means a sure thing—that a dribble of milk came out of. When Jimmy debated economics, he always ended up in the red. Michelle, being the farmer, found common sense in it, but in confusion Jimmy wondered, doubted. What could it mean? He walked up to the barn everyday, hayed, grained, watered, cleaned pens, and hung out, scratching his head. What was this odor and comfortable racket? Turned out a dribble of milk did come out, while dung exited, landing with a plop nearby. Dung and milk didn't seem to add up, but milk with bread was the staff of life. As often happens, Jimmy became interested in the confusion going on, no matter the shortfall in common sense.
    The baby heifer and mother did eventually go to a nearby dairy farm for a tantalizing sum. A high school math teacher turned dairy farmer bought them. You'd think he'd be able to add things up. Jimmy never asked. It spurred Michelle on. She didn't care about money, she never cared about money, she wanted to make a dollar or two, enough to carry on with. Piglets were going for fifty bucks apiece. And so on.
    Before the goats pigs became attached to Jimmy, unknown why. One dark, cold, snowy night a sow was pigging. Jimmy had to go to work. “Michelle, 'Bama,”—he named them after US states—“is pigging. Go out in the barn and check that the piglets are making it under the heat lamp.”  He came back from work. 'Bama had ten piglets, only four still alive, the others dead from having been too groggy at first to find their way on their own to the pen in which were the heat lamps. Jimmy had insisted on pigs. He read Louis Bromfield's books. There were always pigs in his books. Bromfield said, “If you can't make money raising pigs, get out of farming.”  A big true fact about farming brutally stated.
    But to hell with advice from the real world. Michelle had farmers' logic. She forged onward. Pigs and sheep were a bore: no personality. Rabbits reproduced themselves with unbelievable rapidity. How do you keep all this reproduction under control? The market for rabbit flesh tumbled. The only local dealer in rabbit flesh left his wife and disappeared. Chickens were an interesting flirtation. Michelle sold eggs to the neighbors. She got out of the house; it was a social event. She established herself in the neighborhood, collected rumors, made friends with everybody. The animals frightened Jimmy because they were all mouth, all helpless need. Jimmy's world was best straight and simple. Auto repair, for instance, was straight and simple. Animals got sick; like children they got into things which tended to spiral out of control fast unless you insisted on fences and order. When disorder first appeared in the Garden of Eden, disorder walked out of the barn. Adam must have built a barn. Once disorder established himself, preening and strutting in the orchard, he gathered the serpent, and all was lost. Jimmy was sure goats must have been somewhere in the equation. Take the story of Joseph, son of Rachel and Jacob. Jimmy would bet anything that Joseph was good with the goats, and goating played an important part in Joseph's story. Fearing for the future, Jimmy watched Michelle load the two goats in a spare pen in the “barn”. Not long, goats jumped out, and were running around the dooryard. Took six of them, cussing old dude, young wife, Jimmy, already in a panic about the future, Michelle and Dwight and Dawn, whom Michelle had rousted out of bed, to help corral them. Dawn, who often took Jimmy's part in this animal thing of her mother's, was soon cussing in concert with the old dude.
    “Don't reckon they'll like being indoors,” predicted the old dude, easily winded.
    “Oh, I'm sure they'll like being here, eventually,” the young wife said, optimistically, “and they'll get used to it.”
    “How do you catch them to milk them?”  Michelle wondered with farmers' simple logic, a logic that always amazed Jimmy with its ability to throw aside distractions like the big picture and zero in on whatever pinhead of reality was about to be smashed into.
    “You milk them?”  Dawn said. “Who the hell would wanna do that?”
    Dwight said, “They have teats, you pull on their teats, dummy, and the milk comes out.”
    “You are shitting me. Every day?”
    “Course, like cows, morning and evening, or they dry up.”
    “Watch your language,” Michelle said, “we have company.”
    “They're goats,” the old man shrugged, meaning they deserve every cuss word they get.
    Eventually, the two fools had hopped and sprinted themselves into exhaustion. Dwight caught one, and the other was afraid to be alone, and then Dwight caught her. Jimmy nailed boards up almost to the ceiling. They went into amazing hysterics in a wild attempt to get out, gave up after a time and settled down miserably.
    “Wonder if they'll go in with the cow and calf?”  Jimmy said.
    “Sure, in a week or so. Give them some company,” Michelle said. “We'll haveta feed them separate some kind of way.”
    “Ma, this is crazy.”  Dawn pointed at her head. Dawn liked to remain on friendly terms with the obvious. She could not rest till she had taken care of or at least given expression to everything about the obvious.
    Michelle shrugged. Farmers' logic had vanished. That was another odd thing about farmers' logic. Somehow it had the ability to vanish as if into the fabric of nature. Whereupon, if inspired it oozed out again.
    She went to the young wife, thanked her profusely, and quivvered with delight and leaned over and hugged her.
    In a week the goats had calmed down. They let Michelle walk in the pen, pet them and make friends. They almost acted like normal barn yard animals. Jimmy took them out on the electric fencing, and they apparently knew what it was all about, because they would not go near the wire even out of curiosity. So Jimmy let them free in the pasture with the cow. They got along fine from the first, kept their distance. Michelle bought another calf, a beef, an Angus, and young Brett advised her to bottle feed both calves. She bought the Angus cheap on a chance. It had the runs. If she could nurse him round and it grew to good size, he would be worth big money. He hung on for awhile, then died. Took all of an afternoon for Jimmy to dig a hole big enough to bury the carcass in. But the math teacher dropped by to see the Holsteins, baby heifer and cow. Once Michelle weaned the calf, he wanted to buy them both. The money pleased Michelle. What remained in the bucket after milking the young cow, once the calves were fed, she brought in the house to drink. Everybody agreed that it was better than store bought. Soon the goats came to Jimmy when he walked out to them in the field with a bucket of grain. They'd freshen as soon as they kidded. The young cow had been in the barn long enough that both goats and humans missed her. The cows went and Michelle sold off the pigs and she began to fill the barnyard with goats.
    Michelle got clarifying info from the other goat ladies in the neighborhood. This began the process in which there were goat people, who were worth knowing, and otherwise the rest of the world's scalawags, who were not worth knowing.  Dawn had, to please her mother, joined the 4-H, and she went to the meetings in Locke's Mills for a short time. Dawn quickly became uninterested in both 4-H and the meetings. “They're just a bunch of kids jumping through hoops over animals. The gardening might be okay for the disabled or mentally deficient.”  To Dawn these rural concerns brought up images of stubborn lame men, inbreeding and mental deficiency. But Michelle immediately became friends with the 4-H leader, Esther Cole, because she had Nubian goats. Dwight, a beginning teenager at that time, replaced Dawn at the 4-H meetings. Dwight stayed with 4-H through high school, and he became one of the best showmen at the fairs, his mother's pride and joy.
    From Esther and Dwight Jimmy ended up with plans for a milking room, doors to and from, and a milking stand, which would hold the doe in place while Michelle was milking. She declared that these free girls—free as in any way you want to think about them—were not “promising”, but they did have udders which were expanding, and that meant that they were pregnant and would kid soon. And Jimmy must keep his eyes open for any such event.
    Then a few days after these announcements, Michelle went into town with Dawn grocery shopping. Before she left, she stood in front of him, gathered up his eyes, and said gravely, “Be aware, Jimmy, I don't think it will be much longer.”  What did that mean? Somebody was gonna die? He didn't care what it meant. He returned to clearing land for a garden.
    All this went straight over Jimmy's head. That those poor souls could reproduce was beyond his comprehension. He could sit with Plato and Socrates all day exploring the starry realms sooner than understand that those long-legged creatures off in the distance under the trees looking like insects could reproduce. Farmers' ineffable logic suddenly reappeared, “How do you think they have survived for all these thousands of years?”  Michelle said.
    “No kidding,” he replied, “these aren't the first ones?”  It made more sense to him to think that God had recently made a sudden, inexplicable error, and these were the outcome.
    Michelle's pronouncements on goats were similar to Michelle's usual pronouncements; they were not debatable. Jimmy, on the other hand, amused himself with the thought that goats had appeared suchlike at a specific moment in nature and likewise would disappear as suddenly, like the dinosaurs or whatever else had happened to evolve out of existence, hopefully sooner than later. That way, soon, he could go back to pigs again.
    He went around his normal details, which this time of year was collecting firewood and clearing garden space, and he happened to be working nearby, and he looked over and one of them, the one he called Charity, which had two white front stockings, was standing over a thing on the ground, licking it. “What the fuck is that?”  Jimmy thought, irritated to be disturbed. So he wandered over, and there was a tiny, brown little kid in the grass, more like a stick figure, who was struggling to stand up. Hysterical terror was his first thought. Where was Michelle? Where was Dawn? Dawn was with Michelle gone to town in the old VW. What was he supposed to do? It must die if he did nothing? He decided that he had to do something, though unclear about why he did not want it to die. There was Clyde Gimbal down the street where Michelle bought the grain and the farming tools, for which she paid extra in order to have a person nearby to get advice from. Jimmy ran inside the house. It never once occurred to him that he was acting like a fool. Hands shaking, he dialed Mr Gimbal's number.
    “Mr Gimbol, something has happened,” Jimmy started. “I don't know what to do.”
    “Barn set afire,” Gimbol said. “I'll be right up.”
    “No, not that. There's a thing in the field in the grass. One of the goats.”
    “Huh, oh that. That's even worse. In fact, I'd take a fire any day before that should happen. Done now, though.”
    “What am I supposed to do?”
    “You can watch out she don't eat it. They do that, after all the energy they used up they just might get some hungry.”  Gimbol got so much attached to this idea as a possibility that he settled down and fell right into it. “She'll clean it off some before though. Won't hurt her none. Take awhile, then they eat 'em for a snack aside the brush and stuff.”
    Jimmy was half taken in but then it got too ridiculous.
    “Naww, come on. What do I do?”
    So Gimbol burst out chuckling. Jimmy suddenly hoped this conversation would not end up returning to him after a trip around the neighborhood, which of course it did.
    “Well, if you hang on and do not a thing I expect the kid might eventually jump up and start looking around for the proverbial teat. Let her get a good drink. Colostrum has got antibodies what not in it.”
    Jimmy returned to the site of nature happening, gave it a good distance, squatted down, so as to take a low profile and not disturb the doe. Every now and then Charity glanced in his direction, fidgeted, but remained by the kid, who was now standing on its own, though wobbling. Jimmy sighed, wondering why he should care, but there it was: goats. He had never cared to the point of getting nervous about it when any other animal had been born, unless it died, then he cared, because he had to dig a hole in the tough Maine sod to bury it in. “What is that?” He said aloud. A warm mushy feeling in his breast, the fault of his wife. He put his hand over his heart to push it down. He stood and went back to chopping firewood. Something had just happened that would use up a big part of the rest of his life.

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