Today because of Tuck Jimmy had been late to milking. He would have to take vacation time on the days he worked hours that conflicted with chore times. He could not be late any more; the habits of barn chores clobbered him and hurt too much. He ran up to the house to let out the dogs, who were barking shrilly at his arrival. Then he entered the barn. Once he had grained and watered the girls, they calmed down, but if looks could be daggers… The boys and men usually lined up at the fence after graining and waited to get petted. Michelle's men were stout, playful fellows. It was important to maintain comradeship with them because come time to breed or trim feet or get shots, if not friendly, they were easily big enough to hurt a grown man. Today they licked up their grain bowls and turned their backs on him and walked out to prance and browse in the late summer grass.
Any sign of an out-of-sorts or ill goat immediately registered with Jimmy. The whole gang was out-of-sorts today. No more OT till Michelle got back; the goats would fall off if morning and evening chores were not done how and when they were used to. If they fell off and wilted and wallowed, Michelle would never forgive him. He was determined to hand them back upbeat as usual.
Jimmy had been in barns, many of them, in which the hay in the boxes, when there was some at all, was last year's late first crop, hardly a green leaf, mostly brown. The water in the buckets was unclean. The goats were sickly from an overabundance of intestinal worms, hang dog and listless. Once proud, productive does now gave a few cups of milk, hardly that, if milked at all. It never seemed to matter what the barn was like; it could be the fanciest, newest barn anywhere, but the animals in it languished in the general carelessness. On the other hand, the cheapest built shed of a barn, if it had a sturdy roof and dry bedding, might house a herd going strong. Michelle had sold goats to a minister, he was a Methodist minister, Jimmy thought, who had done missionary work in Cambodia. He had married a Cambodian woman and they had a family of two boys and a vivacious little girl. The woman had grown up with goats and the simple way she kept them charmed Jimmy and Michelle. Their barn was a glorified lean-to but stout against the rain and wind. She milked them outside on a rough wooden stand. Taking care of them was a family project. The kids took them out to go brushing. This family got from their goats the absolute maximum of milk. Each one of them filled the bucket. And yet down the road a way was a nice barn, people whom Michelle had sold goats to, whose animals were slowly dying alive. It was hard to imagine what these people had in mind. Jimmy labored to talk to them. They seemed to like the goat idea but it never progressed beyond the symbolic into actual existence. Even their children seemed similarly put by. It wasn't neglect, rather a peculiar mismanagement of mind that went along with too much focus on work, money making or whatever else.
Jimmy never could figure out who would actually work their goats. Sometimes it was not easy to get fresh water into the barn, for instance. Certain people who seemed like nice people in every other respect kept a deadly barn. Once Jimmy had left chores to a sturdy young man who lived nearby. Then he and Michelle and Dwight went to a big show for four days. They returned to a cacophony of out-of-sorts farm animals. It wasn't that the young man had done wrong, the animals didn't die, he had been responsible, but he hadn't done the job right. It took Jimmy two hours to get everything straightened out so the animals became calm again.
Jimmy believed the art of keeping animals had been lost. Other careful goat owners complained about distractions. The youngsters except a few avoided the barn. Jimmy learned to see the barn as a large, sacred open space. One must be a serious person to keep a barn; one must insist on substance over style.
Goats especially more than other animals showed lack of human contact; domestication was stronger in them than in cows or sheep or any other barnyard animal, though a farmer who kept cows or sheep might argue with him on that point. Birds also could take over ones life. But goat farmers talked about companionship, which was different. Jimmy noticed again and again that the more time he spent among them in physical presence, the better they did. Returning home late at night after a long evening shift, he'd wander into the barn and turn on the lights, and they'd rise from their herd circle and come by and greet him making soft, sweet goat sighs. They'd stand on the lower rungs of the fence—goats love to stand on anything that makes them higher, as if they would then, Jimmy theorized, be closer to God. They'd briefly nuzzle him, chew on the bill of his ball cap. The barn was brightly lighted against the midnight. When Jimmy was at work, Dwight would help his mother to do chores. When Mike was around, he liked the barn too, in the same way as Jimmy did, but Mike was a rare bird in school. Mike's real father, Sullivan Brown, had worked hard to give Mike the best possible education, and that didn't include toying around in a barn. Dwight was just a kid, and Jimmy did not expect him to do what Jimmy did exactly the right way. There were always little things to take care of late at night, or early in the morn before a hot summer day or any time Jimmy might not be able to sleep. Jimmy could relax after the stresses and nervousness of the kind of work everyone did for money, no matter what it might be. Michelle worried about breaking even and making a little profit on the goats every year to pay the taxes with. Jimmy wondered how he might do if he worked at the cheese making and the goats full time. There were lots of reasons why he did not.
The goats always fell into his mood; Jimmy wondered, goats wondered. They returned into their circle, and heads upraised, they followed him around desultorily. He'd do this and that, bid them good night, and switch off the lights.
Today, the first morning Michelle was gone, Jimmy decided that he was honestly troubled. He sat down in the milking room on one of the stands. “This sucks,” he said to himself. “I am alone! I haven't been alone forever.” He certainly wondered about being stuck with a naked soul. So he scrubbed his brow and the top of his head and tacked on a fact that he thought should be simple. “Yeah, and so what!” Maybe it would be wonderful; did he ever think that he might not want her back! She was kind of a bitch sometimes anyway. And to think about it, once the animals were taken care of, and vacation time coming up, by God he could do anything he wanted! Consider that! What had he done in his life that was wrong? He ran into some bad luck. Oh-well!
Now a memory came to mind. This memory came up now and then, but it had not come up for a long time past. He had been raised in a Roman Catholic family. Both his mother and father, though fallen away, were Roman Catholic. Alice and Grandfather Freeman, whom he had lived with after the fire, were Roman Catholic. And his foster family, the Grants, was a staunch Roman Catholic family. Jimmy did everything except altar boy: Sunday afternoon instruction, Novena, Mass often twice a week, Rosary every night during Lent. The big battle with God had begun. Kid chemistry would cease bubbling and the force of God and the force of nature, in which was evil, set up to do bloody battle. He was working then; the struggle with time was heating up. Money was important. The landscape was pale. Who could help him when he stumbled and fell? So Jimmy's foster mother, Adele Grant, sent the wide-eyed, sin befuddled kid to live with the Dominican monks at St Anselm's College in Manchester for two weeks. Father Gordievski drove Jimmy and two of the altar boys to the monastery. No funny business with Father Gordievski. He was with every string and tether of his being a bulwark of the faith. Later he became principal of the big Catholic High School in Rochester. Then years later during a visit to the Grants' house when Jimmy introduced them to Michelle, Mrs Grant announced, joyfully, “You remember Father G? Our Father G is gonna become a bishop! The same young priest who blessed us and came and stood in this house is gonna become a bishop!”
Jimmy did not actually live with the monks, he lived in the college dormitories with the other boys. But they were invited into the chapel any time to sit in the back and attend any of the monks' devotions, of which there were, Jimmy thought, more than enough for him, too many. His first impression was that if you wanted to become a monk, you would have to like to sing. And you'd have to hate disorder. But then a monk had few objects to get disorderly with. Ownership did not seem to impress anybody. But the big battle, as T Hobson, a young seminary student explained, was over wife and family in opposition to devotion to God. This young man, T for Theodore, whom they put in charge of Jimmy and the others from his town, was beginning his studies to become a full-fledged monk. He was not allowed to live in the monastery yet. He lived in an eight-by-twelve cubicle with desk and cot and what few books were minded to be worthwhile in his studies.
“It's fire and ice,” the T warned. Jimmy followed him humbly to the chapel for the devotions. Jimmy considered this philosophic minded young man to be a “high person”. He did not seem touched by the subterfuges and hormonal disturbances that bothered Jimmy.
Going inside the chapel Jimmy felt actual terror. He hesitated, “Maybe I could camp just outside the door?”
The young priest had no patience with Jimmy's fears. “Come! What would that accomplish?”
Once inside and the service had started Jimmy was not so afraid. He forever after assigned to the chanting voices the word pure. The chapel was shadowy, the corners dark with anticipation, as if everyone expected an appearance. The wonder was not why but why not. One time Jimmy nodded off, and one of the monks, while filing out of the chapel, reached down, smiling, and shook him awake. Jimmy had suffered a violent embarrassment. But T, his mentor, reminded him, “Faith such as they have is rare. Especially when it is simple.” “Simple?” “Yes. No rebellion in it. You must search your soul continually to make it simple. According to our faith, it is what you must go through to become fair in the eyes of God.” “Is there more than one way?” Jimmy hoped. The young student-priest laughed, “God will give you your calling. Take it from no one but God.” Jimmy stayed on for the second week. There was a third and a fourth week, but while Jimmy was here, he was not other where at work making money. He was not allowed to read The Bible, T discouraged him from reading anything. When he read a book he had sneaked in, he felt guilty. “There is your job,” T said, pointing at the kneeler beside the window. He made a point of adding that the contraption was not used by the monks, who kneeled on the floor, sometimes for hours at a time. “What payment you receive for such works you may never know. God may never tell you. So you had better love it.” Jimmy had a terrible time kneeling, and he did not love it. But he could see the point of it, and he thought about it every day for the rest of his life.
Then suddenly now, Jimmy, sitting alone in the barn, suffered such a terrific pain behind the eyes that he gasped. He was sinful flesh. The kneeler against the dormitory window in the twilight was a fact of his history that made him breathless. He used it maybe two or three times. He jumped up. “The hell with this.” Despite lust and sinful flesh Jimmy had work to do. Was it going to be like this?
The does had formed a tangle against the gate, waiting for Jimmy to get his sorry human act together finally, sinful flesh and all, and relieve them of their burden of milk. He had goats in front of him, real living things, and there was Tuck, too, another real live thing, and here he was, Jimmy Freeman, buried in ancient history. “I'm coming, girls,” he said.
Michelle had written a list on the blackboard in the milking room. He was supposed to take out the girls in this specific order according to the list or there would be chaos. Moon was the first on the list. He went to the gate. Moon, a slender, smallish doe overwhelmed by will to milk, was slithering through the gang toward the gate. Then Magic came out, for she was second on the list. Jimmy pinch hit with the milking often enough that he knew which udder belonged to which. Moon went to her stand on the left, and jumped aboard, and Magic went to her stand on the right, and jumped aboard, and they both dived into their grain ration. The grain was in a dish hanging in a slot under their noses. Guiltily, he faced two overfull udders. The milk poured out of Moon as if forever, almost ten pounds, close to a gallon. Just on this milking Moon gave almost ten percent of her body weight, not ten percent per day, as was the average. Jimmy wondered what it could be like carrying around all that weight. Alas, mystery and wonder, Jimmy thought, I am sick with them. Then he jumped over to Magic who filled the pot too, but she was a prancer, a light-hearted doe. At the shows Magic was in her prime; she loved to show off, and she was an eye catcher with the judges. Next were Sarabi and Dancer. Both were smoother, more rounded and powerful does. Sarabi was all brown, though her head was more tan than brown. He went through the entire list. There were ten does to milk because Michelle had put up on the board that she was drying off Dusty and Agnes. They were both older girls and they would not go to any of the late fall shows this year. He could milk them once a day for three or four days and then they could settle down and get ready for the buck. Dusty could not care less that he was passing her over. She kicked up her heels and went out with the others into the grass. But Agnes whimpered, staring at him, because she loved to be milked. Agnes had been born in this barn; she would die in this barn. Michelle might not even breed her this year because her kidding last year was hard. Two of the three kids had got tangled up and when Michelle finally hauled them out, they were dead. Michelle had never kept any of Agnes' kids. Agnes was not finished, she needed one more leg, but she had come close to finishing numerous times. None of her bucks made the cut, and Michelle sold off her does. This meant that Agnes's career was probably over, and she would join up with Macy and Day, two old finished champions, and spend her days in the clover. Then one day she would be dust same as all things become dust and her existence, as far as Jimmy knew, would fall into nothingness. Agnes stood by the gate watching him. None of her offspring would go into the books; Jimmy didn't think any of the does, though they had brought good money, had been sold with registration, although Michelle would probably know. Agnes had conducted her life with sweetness and simplicity, she had never been sick a day of it, and had every year been in milk. And now she must live without doing her necessary duty on earth. The darkness was enclosing her. Agnes stood motionless, silently eyeing him. Jimmy tried to turn away, but couldn't. She had lived her long life, eight years, without complaint, she had pushed forward nature, a slight animal of small weight, and suddenly a deep sorrow filled Jimmy's heart. “What does it matter?” Jimmy thought. “What rule would it break?” He let her out, and she climbed on the stand, dived into the grain, stomped her hind legs and presented her udder to be milked. But he would not milk her, he would give her this last moment of peace, and he petted her, for she had been a good girl, and she had just missed. Just missed! It was not meant to be for her: lack of the small muscles which held up the rear udder. Her udder wobbled when she walked. Though big, strong, growthy, pretty color, black with white streaks, that was one thing, those damned muscles never developed, they only got worse. “Ah, alas,” Jimmy said to her. “I love you anyway. Shaky pudding or no.” After finishing the handfuls of grain, she turned toward him, looked up at him, seeming ready to get off the stand and go find some hay. So he helped her off the stand and let her back into the pen. That was milking.
The girls had been full. The ten gallon stainless steel bucket was heavy to lug into the house. Deanna would come after it soon to use for her cheese making. Jimmy deserved a steak dinner and maybe a beer. As soon as he was in the house, the dogs crowded around. Their bowl had crumbles in it and water bowl was full of clean water. They were looking for attention. Sunshine and Cricket. Though a little lame at times nowadays, Sunshine was the pleasant, placid companion of fifteen years. Cricket, terrier firehouse markings and black face, her pointy ears standing up perfectly straight, was four years younger. In families kids depart leaving old dogs. Old dogs grow old and tired. I should eat, Jimmy thought, staggering down the hallway toward the bedroom, stripping as he went. Both dogs followed him. Cricket jumped in bed, burrowed under the covers. Sunshine turned round in her corner of the bedroom, she lay down on a quilt put out for her. Jimmy was asleep before his head hit the pillow.