Gerald Whitley woke for the 5 a.m. milking. His wife, Lena, was not far behind him, pulling at her loosening perm with crooked fingers and fumbling with the cord of her house coat. Usually, once she reached the kitchen, she made coffee in the old Corning percolator, and this was the task she set to as Gerald put on his boots in the green fiberglass summer porch.
Between Lena’s red checked curtains, Gerald had seen the light on in the barn, the naked bulb swaying back and forth on its yellowing string, moats of straw dust floating upwards. Gerald expected that his son Jeff was already inside, dousing udders with iodine solution and rolling out the wheeled milk tank. Jeff often did that: beat his father to the barn even though he lived a mile away. He would be there, squint-eyed and slow to respond, a 24-ounce minute market coffee somewhere within reach because his wife Daphne was never up early enough to make the boy a proper mug for traveling.
Gerald didn’t like Jeff’s wife. He felt that a woman who dyed her hair the color of cotton and had her nails pasted on at a salon was not the kind of girl you married, but Jeff had. And Gerald accepted that fact with the same quiet resignation he’d met most of life’s disappointments with. The woman’s only redeeming quality was that she had had a child, Gunter, shortly after the couple’s first anniversary. The little boy’s strawberry-blonde hair and freckled face confirmed that he was indeed Jeff’s child, and for this, Gerald and Lena mutually sighed with relief. They hadn’t known exactly what to expect from Daphne. Behind Daphne’s back, Lena referred to her as Lilith. “Will Lilith be eating with us tonight?” Lena would chuckle as Gerald came in from the barn on the nights Jeff stayed for supper. She knew the answer, but she felt the joke had not yet gotten old.
Gerald would say, smiling tolerantly, “Now, Lena, dear. You know better. Lilith doesn’t like Eden.”
Eden, of course, referred to the farm, its fields and animals, and all the responsibility it entailed. Daphne, they’d quickly learned, was not a worker and certainly not a practical mate for a farmer. By contrast, Lena, who did not suffer from laziness, vanity or lust, made bread, cheese, butter, and jams, preserved the summer harvest, tended the chickens, and kept Gerald and his intermittent farmhands fed three times a day.
Daphne, on the other hand, did heaven only knew what all day long in the little siding-covered double wide that stood two pastures and a cornfield northwest of Gerald and Lena’s house. They rarely ever saw her at all, and Gerald and Lena suspected that, frequently, she was not even home because Jeff often brought Gunter with him. And Gunter would follow Lena around all day, quietly watching everything she did. He was a silent little boy, who revealed nothing significant about his home life, even when questioned directly. He would simply shrug when asked about his mother. Gerald and Lena felt sorry for him, and even worse for Jeff, who, at only thirty-five, seemed careworn, his edges dulled by constant uncertainty and probably also suspicion. “How’s a man to live with that kind of stress,” asked Gerald rhetorically one night.
Lena was now in the doorway near Gerald, putting on her thin-soled canvas shoes. Gerald knew she was going out to get eggs from the hens. This meant that when he and Jeff were done, breakfast would be on the enamel-topped kitchen table, like it always was. And it would be a man’s breakfast: sausage, eggs, fat triangles of knife-sliced toast on the rim of his plate, big square pats of homemade butter. He thought about those eggs as he laced his shoes, the perfect yellow sunshine of yolk into which he’d dip his toast. Lena left the summer porch before he did, a wire basket over her arm.
It was early April and the pathway Gerald had made during the winter, traveling on foot between house and barn, had gone soft. Water lay in grayish clay deposits, which pulled at his boots, making them catch at his heels. As he expected, Jeff’s truck was parked near the barn, and Gerald could hear someone—was it Jeff?—spinning the dial on the barn’s cordless radio.
Even from where he was standing, Gerald could perceive the cows shifting in their stalls, their heavy girth moving uneasily against the makeshift wooden slats intended to hold them for milking. Whoever was dialing across channels paused first on a Spanish language station, skipped quickly through classic country, and then stopped on a channel that Gerald immediately recognized as religion from the speaker’s histrionic vibrato. The volume went up.
“Revelations 10: 1 says, ‘And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire!’”
By this time, Gerald stood in the doorway, looking into the barn. Of the dozen cows that stood before the central trough filled with timothy, none of them were eating. They were agitated, their black eyes wide enough to show yellowish whites. Having registered Gerald’s presence, they pulled at their ropes and rolled their eyes back to consider him. Gerald heard only radio static now, the auditory snow and piercing squeals of a tuner seeking a station.
“Jeff!” he called. “Jeff! What are you doin’ with that radio? You got the girls all upset.”
He looked at the first cow, Gracie, a white-nosed Jersey whose butterfat he boasted to be close to 5%--a source of great pride to him. She was quivering around her flanks, an uncontrollable twitching that continued in short ripples up her loin and across her ribs. Gerald laid a hand on her to calm her, and she turned her head to look at him, lowing once, softly.
Gerald walked back towards the milk room, where the big tanks were. Along the way, he noticed that straw had been roughly brushed aside, as if someone had purposely kicked it out of the way. Inside the milk room, which was several degrees cooler than even the barn itself, the light shone blue on the vertical stainless steel cooling tanks. Still, Jeff was not there.
However, when Gerald turned around, he stood face to face with his son, whose gray eyes were wide, the pupils the size of pin pricks. Gerald felt his heart lurch. Jeff’s brownish-red hair was tousled, as if he’d been fighting with someone. His face was no more than two inches from Gerald’s, but Gerald could feel his son’s warm breath, which smelled like coffee rather than liquor. There was a much deeper, almost rank smell of animal panic lifting from beneath his clothes. Neither said anything for a few seconds. They just stared at each other, frozen.
more to come....