One Saturday morning in early September of 1986, Papa put up the slats on his battered pickup and drove away. The sides were plank boards arranged like a wooden fence around the outside of the truck bed. The fence stood higher than the cab and twelve-year-old Donald thought the truck would tip over, but it didn't.
Two hours later, Papa drove back with the largest animal Donald had ever seen. Staring down from the truck bed was what Papa called a Holstein cow that had a swollen udder looking like it would burst at any moment. Great, another female, Donald thought.
Donald, his older sister Glenda by four years, and his mother made a human fence circling the cow beast as Papa led it down a ramp of loose boards onto firm ground. The white cow with black splotches looked at all of them as if to say, "Get out of my way."
With heavy, clumpy steps and no concern for the human bystanders, the cow moved its body mass in a slow arc around the truck and into the barn where a stall waited with fresh sawdust on the floor. Donald stood at the stall's entrance as the Holstein lumbered over to a box of hay hanging on the wall as if she had always lived there. She grabbed a mouthful and gave Donald a get-lost look. It was the same look he got from his sister Glenda every day. Obviously, all female mammals had this universal look.
Glenda and Mother retreated back into the house chattering loudly about the layer of runny manure the cow laid on its way to the barn. They complained even louder about how the money could have bought them new clothes and shoes. Donald thought of value and that such a large, living thing had more value than clothes and shoes that were only as good as when they were worn.
Donald watched his father step into the narrow stall unperturbed by the cow's largeness. He put a beaten tin pail under the cow's udder and sat on a short wooden stool he brought along. Donald lost sight of everything due to the cow's bulging stomach. Instead, he heard a squishy splattering ring sound against the pail's insides. Like someone having a hard time peeing.
Donald's curiosity led him to kneel down into the soft sawdust and look under the cow's belly for a closer look. With his left hand, Papa rolled his fingers downward ending with a gentle pull to bring a belch of pink fluid from the long teat. Papa immediately repeated the process with his right hand on the opposing teat. Donald thought of rolling pins watching Papa's fingers move down on one, then the other teat in careful rhythm.
The Holstein twisted her large head toward the milking and gave Donald a snort of hot breath. Along with the huge belly hanging over him, both smelled badly and penetrated the stale air around Papa and him. Papa continued to say nothing as the squirting of milk continued, one squirt at a time in a precise rhythm. The cow turned back to the hay.
Donald thought that one move by Miss Cow and it'd be crushville for him and Papa. The white and black cow dominated Donald's senses, but the Holstein just didn't seem to care about them.
"You've watched long enough. Here, grab the other two teats up high and let your fingers roll down to the end like this. Then, pull gently." Papa pushed himself up from the stool to open the space for Donald.
The sawdust felt soft under Donald's knees like a heavy blanket as he fumbled for the elongated protrusions jutting down from the swollen sack of udder. The Holstein turned her head again to watch this newbie and Donald wondered which direction cows kicked.
Unexpectedly, Donald caught his father's scent. The left over after-shave from the morning or maybe the beads of sweat taking up residence on his forehead. Donald hunched beneath the cow's stomach as Papa leaned over and guided his hands.
Donald lightly braced his long fingers at the top of the closest teat and let Papa guide his fingers like a rolling pin downward. A tug at the end brought out a weak squirt of milk that pinged the side of the tin pail and dumped into the swirling liquid already there.
"It doesn't look white," Donald said trying to maintain concentration.
"We won't use this first batch. She's too upset and has been moved around too much. Maybe on the third or fourth milking we'll pasteurize and keep the milk. Then it'll be good in some hot chocolate."
"What are you going to do with this milk?" "Throw it away. It's no good to us unless we lived in Africa where they like to drink cow's blood with the milk."
"That's pretty disgusting."
"When I was growing up on the farm, we had a farm hand who liked drinking cow's milk straight from the udder, particularly after a cow had calved and there was blood in it. That farm hand said the blood and milk was better than eating a rare steak. He couldn't resist."
Papa turned the closest teat toward his son. A weak squirt of milk dashed out, but Donald fell back anyway. They both laughed as Miss Cow turned her head to make sure they were not doing anything to her. When Papa was dying many years later, Donald only remembered this one moment as if it happened over and over.
"Stick to it," Papa said as he walked off. "Keep doing it until nothing else comes out. You'll get the hang of it."
Donald stared at Papa's thin back receding out of the stall and through the far off barn doors. Donald stared at the cow who stared back. She snorted at him again and went back to her hay munching.
When finished, Donald did not know where to dump the pail of bloodied milk. Certainly, drinking it was out of the question and the cow was indifferent to it once outside of her body. Donald carried it out into the garden where a dry spell had sent the vegetable plants into a coma-like state. Maybe the plants would appreciate a little protein, he thought.
For the next week, Donald milked the Holstein every morning before school and afternoon when he got home. The more Donald got to know the cow, the more she looked well beyond her expiration date. He decided to call her Shelf Life.
Sometimes when milking Shelf Life, she would turn to watch Donald and give him a vicious snort from both large nostrils that sprayed him with cow boogers. Other times, Donald would use fresh hay to tempt Shelf Life from the fenced in field out back. She would come into the stall with a slow get-out-of-the-way gait because it probably took too much effort to change course. Mostly, she seemed to have a testy attitude that Donald compared to his older sister Glenda when she was in a grouchy mood, which was a lot lately now that school started.
Donald began to worry about the nights getting colder in that barn for Shelf Life.
"We need to get some heat for our cow," Donald announced at supper on Friday. Mother had made pork chops.
"She'll be all right where she is as long as we keep the doors and windows closed. I put her in that back stall 'cause that gets the afternoon Sun in winter and stays warmer," said Papa, chomping down on a breaded pork chop.
"Maybe we can get her some blankets for later when it gets really cold."
Papa and Mother both hesitated in their eating, eyed each other as if about to say something important, and continued eating. Donald wondered when the milk would clear up good enough to pasteurize.
The next morning as Donald milked Shelf Life, he said, "I guess you understand things and know you have it good which is why you don't crush me."
"Moo." Shelf Life went back to munching on the hay.
"I think the whole thing is centered around what to do with your raw milk. Papa says it's not ready to be pasteurized, but Glenda and Mother wouldn't drink it even then." Donald continued to pull on each tapered teat in a rhythm that felt natural.
Donald stopped and watched the milk drip out of the abused teat. The milk in the tin pail looked like he had squeezed pieces of Shelf Life's inner udder out with the milk. Once, Glenda tried to explain to him about her period. Donald didn't want to hear about all the disgusting things girls had to take care of. He decided the issue with Shelf Life was not the same.
As Donald sat on the wooden stool, he played games with the milky white stream shooting out from the teats. He pretended to put out fires. He made whirlpools and owned a turbulent universe made peaceful by a tin pail of pinkish milk. If anything, he connected with Shelf Life that first week. He felt like their time together had long since stopped being a chore, but a relationship. His first, he would realize years later.
He wondered what kind of relationship he should have with Glenda. Each morning at dawn, Donald came upstairs after milking to see Glenda through her open doorway preening and primping in front of her mirror. In the evening, he came back upstairs to see her sloughing off makeup and leaving the day's events as tissues tossed on her vanity. Donald thought it was too much of an effort to do that every day. He wondered why she always kept her door opened and why she disliked her pimpled face so much to take all that time to paint it every day.
On a Sunday morning, Glenda appeared in the barn doorway silhouetted against the rising sun. "You just like pulling on her teats for therapy. You think that cow is your friend and that's pathetic. If it was a human girl, it'd hate you."
Yep, she was right on that, which Donald refused to admit. He hated that Glenda knew more about him than he knew about himself. "Why don't you hang out with your friends from school?"
"They don't want to be bothered with me. Anyway, in another year I'll graduate and go to a college away from here."
"Who ever heard of a girl who didn't have friends?"
Glenda left abruptly. Donald wondered if brother and sister could know that much about each other.
Donald pulled on Shelf Life's teats, squirting the raw milk into the dented pail and remembering that Papa said he'd get a real stainless steel can when it was time to pasteurize. Donald wondered when that would be. They continued to buy milk from the store and Donald continued dumping the milk onto the garden plants. The summer heat lasted into late September and the local news complained about crop loss. Not with their garden -- plants drunk on protein.
Donald never thought about why his family members never asked what happened with the milk. It didn't matter to Donald because, by the third week of school, he felt like he was breezing through this last year of middle school without the traumatizing effect of the previous years. He was sure he would be ready for high school, with Shelf Life around.
On a Friday evening near the end of September, Donald stepped off the school bus and headed toward the waiting barn, bypassing the lit up house. He had to tell Shelf Life that she would be the subject of his first writing assignment. Inside the barn, Donald saw an empty stall.
"Where is she?" Donald stood just inside the kitchen doorway watching Mother chop up vegetables from the garden. Donald sensed the lack of Papa's presence. Glenda, who hated homework, sat at the kitchen table with her schoolbook opened in front of her.
"Your father can tell you when he gets back," Mother said without interrupting her chopping.
"No, I want to know now. I'm supposed to be milking her. She's expecting me." Donald saw that Glenda was reading her book upside down.
"Calm down, Donald," the mother figure continued to cut up plant roots. "She fell this morning and couldn't get up." She never stopped chopping.
Donald stared at her back as she ignored him. He saw Mother as empty as the stall in their barn. Donald clenched his fists at his sides as his Mother made him not understand why he lived there.
"Please, wait until your father gets home. He'll explain it to you then. He should have been home by now." Mother kept chopping. Glenda kept paying vivid attention to her upside down textbook.
Donald lost his position in time and space. He hoped his voice did not squeak. "I want Shelf Life back." Donald stared at the vegetables Mother kept chopping that came from the milk and blood of Shelf Life.
The silence of the room pounded in Donald's ears. He listened to his heart strike his chest. "She's been taken to the market to be killed and eaten as if she was never real. Why? She wasn't sick. There was nothing wrong with her. All she did was let me milk her."
"Shelf Life was sick." Mother stopped chopping and held the sharp knife in midair as if to slice her hand.
"I should have been part of this decision. Shelf life was the only living thing I connected with and now she's gone. You didn't even let me say goodbye."
Donald found himself in the barn standing in the middle of Shelf Life's stall. He looked around and saw her manure that looked runny and gooey, evidence of her fear, he decided. He wondered if Shelf Life cried and if she would think that it was him who did this.
"I didn't care that you didn't care about me," Donald told Shelf Life's manure.
Donald stared into the slats of the stall just like Shelf Life did. The oak slats looked like jail bars turned sideways. There wasn't much room to move around, even for a small boy like him. Actually, it was pretty cramped.
He touched Shelf Life's leftover hay, imagining her standing right where he now stood. Donald waited for someone to come outside and comfort him. Half an hour later, Donald watched Papa drive up in the empty pickup with the sides taken down. Through the barn door, he watched Papa go into the house and come out toward the barn. Donald realized he stood in Shelf Life's manure. It stunk with flies buzzing around.
"She was old and in pain," Papa said standing in the large open barn door. The fading outside light caused his face to be in shadow.
"I could have taken care of her."
"I'm not going to have an animal suffer like that. I only bought her because the owner was taking her to the market and I thought she had a few more years."
"You were wrong."
Papa hesitated, as if drawing the courage to admit a failure. "Yes, I was wrong." Father and son stared at each other for a few moments before Papa turned and left.
Donald followed his father and took his shoes off at the back stairs since they stunk of Shelf Life's manure. The last trace of her person on this Earth.
Supper was on the table and no one said anything to Donald. They talked softly as if they would disturb a ghost. Mother served meatloaf and Donald ate none of it nor anything on his plate, even though it was his favorite. He went back to the barn, wanting to make a statement that he was suffering. No one seemed to care except the flies.
That weekend, Donald spent as much time as possible inside the barn where Shelf Life used to live. He imagined the feel of milking, but he could not really. He realized they had mice in the barn. They were not interested in paying him any attention, either.
Each evening Mother made salads and cooked vegetables from the garden. Donald didn't tell them that Shelf Life's milk helped them to grow strong through the drought. By the next Friday, the air grew too cold to stand staring in an empty barn stall. Donald came inside the house and stayed in his bedroom. Until Saturday morning.
Glenda pounded on Donald's bedroom door.
"I'm not getting up yet," Donald shouted.
"I've got something to show you in the barn." Glenda pounded on the door again.
Donald decided to go with Glenda before she tore down his bedroom door. "Why do you keep your door closed all the time, anyway? Why don't you keep it opened like I do? Our doors are across the hallway from each other and I can't talk to you if your door is closed. I've got to warn you about high school when you get there. I didn't have anybody to warn me."
Donald heard a slight tremble in Glenda's voice. Like a tear in her confidence. "All right, I'll keep my door opened," he said. He'd never thought it was that much of a big deal, anyway.
They were headed out the back porch and Donald saw Papa and Mother coming out of the barn. Donald looked at Glenda.
"I don't want another cow. Nothing can replace Shelf Life."
"Believe me, we're not making that mistake twice."
Inside the barn, curled on top of a foot-tall stack of sawdust and straw was a small black and white animal.
"This is Wendy the Piglet. She doesn't like me, so she should be happy with you taking care of her."
"Shelf Life was a cow."
"Wendy is a runt, meaning she's not wanted by her mother."
"We're not eating her when she gets older."
"Don't worry, I won't eat anything you call a pet."
Donald looked at the scrawny piglet and said to Glenda, "You're going to have to help me raise her."
Years later when Donald graduated high school, he shed a few tears for Shelf Life. Unashamed, he let the tears trickle down his cheeks in front of his classmates who thought he would be missing them. Donald didn't even know most of their names.
After graduation, Donald went home to give Wendy a bath. By this time, she was a seven hundred pound pig of unquestionable intelligence who expected her bath once a week. If she didn't get it, neighbors a mile away heard her squeal. Glenda was home from college and waited for Donald with buckets and rags.
For two years, Donald commuted between agriculture school and home so he could be with Wendy. In the second year, Papa died of a heart attack and Mother took his pension and their savings to the beach where her sister lived. Donald quit school and moved onto the eleven-acre farm that Mother deeded to him and Glenda. He bought a Holstein cow, four goats, and two llamas. Donald married the woman who sold him the llamas. Jennifer refurbished furniture and a year later they had a daughter who liked to ride the Holstein cow.
Wendy went where she wanted on the farm, but never very far. Each Saturday morning, Glenda came over with her kids and they all gave Wendy a bath. Shelf Life never liked getting wet, anyway.