His name was Jamie Garrath. He was fourteen and his life hung on the twilight edge between the anxious ignorance of childhood and a manhood that wished part of what it knew could somehow not be true.
Jamie stretched out lengthwise sweltering in overalls across a double chair swing on the front screened porch of his home. One foot dangled to the floor and pushed the swing back and forth. One hand draped over the edge of the seat and scratched the ears of his dog Toby, who panted beneath trying to soak some cool from the floorboards. His other hand held a book upright on his stomach.
Jamie looked forward to Sunday afternoons because was it was the only time his father ever stopped moving. After Sunday dinner his father normally slept on the porch glider, his newspaper spread forgotten across his lap, faithfully keeping the Lord’s commandment about holy rest. That meant Jamie could read without interruption.
But today Jamie’s eyes could not settle on words. His eyes fixed on a moving dust cloud that turned onto the long lane leading to the family farm.
Nor was his father stretched out on the glider. Grant Garrath stood in the shade under the oak and maple trees in front of the house and watched the arrival too. He gripped his hands behind his back and rearranged the dirt under his feet.
The approaching dust cloud was the pickup truck of Gil Custis. Gil ran the hardware store. Gil was delivering a package. The package was Ned, his own only son.
“Jamie! Jamie Garrath!”
Jamie closed his book, laid it on the floor and looked down at Toby. Toby jumped up, his tongue dripping out of the side of his mouth.
“I guess it’s time, huh?” The split oak seat creaked as Jamie pushed up and off the swing. “Time to meet the mischief, as Daddy says.”
Toby trotted over to the screen door, claws clicking on the gray painted wood.
His father called out again.
“Comin’!” Jamie yelled back, both to his father and to Toby, who wagged his entire body. “You’re a lot more enthusiastic than you oughta be, y’know.” He pushed open the wooden screen door against the squeal of the rusty spring and Toby leapt out.
Jamie had been as happy as a pig in fresh mud when his father pronounced he was going to re-open the saw mill. During the worst of the depression lumber wasn’t in demand so Garrath Mill had been forced to close. Now his father had a contract in hand for railroad crossties and was talking with the army about wood for crates. Jamie had been too young to see the mill when it was open, but he tied the smell of sawdust on his father’s clothes to light air and laughter. He was about to bust to see the inside of the place. But last night at the supper table another penny had dropped. Ned Custis, a boy in the same grade at school with Jamie, was coming to stay with them for the summer. Stay with them and work at the mill. His mother had received the news in silence.
The dusty rooster tail coming up the lane grew until Jamie could pick out the bright green of Mr. Custis’ pickup with the low varnished sideboards and hear the grind of gears that Mr. Custis never seemed able to find.
As Jamie walked up his father glanced backwards at him, shifted his felt fedora brim even with his eyes and flexed his fists behind his back. Jamie stood beside and gripped his own hands the same way.
The pickup truck slid to a stop and the dust cloud blew right on past. The deep-throbbing engine died.
His father raised an open hand in greeting. “Hello, Gil.”
The truck door cried a tight creak as Gil Custis pushed it open. “Hello, Grant.” He looked up in the back of the truck. “Come on down, boy.”
It struck Jamie as odd the door should creak. The truck was only four years old, a ‘32 Ford Model B with ‘Custis Hardware’ freshly painted on the side. Jamie spotted Ned sitting in the back of the pickup peering over the edge of the sideboards.
Jamie watched Ned climb out of the back of the pickup and pull his flat newsboy cap off his head. The boy’s black hair stood straight up like a scrub brush. He slapped at the dust on his clothes with his cap, then walked up behind Mr. Custis and looked down. His hands were stuffed deep into his pockets and stretched his braces tight. Jamie blinked. Only grown men wore braces. Beneath the dust, Ned’s jeans were new deep blue with a three inch wide light blue roll up at the bottom. His shoes were polished shiny black. His shirt was buttoned up to the top despite the heat and he stood there still as a stump with his eyes down on the dirt.
“Ned, stand up straight.” Jamie watched Mr. Custis grip Ned’s shoulder. “Stand like you been raised right, so folks will know you’re somebody.” Mr. Custis looked up at his father. “We sure do ‘preciate you doin’ this, Grant. We sure do.”
Jamie could not take his eyes off of Ned and his shiny shoes while his father and Mr. Custis talked over their heads.
“Jamie? Wake up, boy, I’m talking to you.”
“Sir?” Jamie jerked out of staring.
“Take Ned and show him around the place while Gil and I have a talk. We’ll carry his things inside.”
Jamie squinted up at his dad and then back down at Ned, whose black eyes had lifted up to look back. “Yessir.”
His father and Mr. Custis moved off. “Now Grant, I’m just sure this’ll be good for the boy. It’ll be good for both boys, I know it will …”
Mr. Custis’ jaw-flapping faded from earshot and was cut off by the screen door slam and left Jamie standing in the dust with Ned. Toby came up behind Jamie and leaned his neck against Jamie’s leg.
Ned stood quiet, stillness in his eyes like a Doberman puppy Jamie had seen one time. Puppies are supposed to jump around or slobber smiles and want to play. That dog had just laid there with its muzzle down on crossed front paws watching and looking everybody around like they were meat, right in the eye. That just wasn’t natural. For a dog or a boy.
Toby quit leaning on Jamie, lazy-walked over to Ned and shoved his nose up under Ned’s hand. That got a smile.
“Nice fella.” Ned rubbed Toby’s head and scratched behind his ears. “What’s his name?”
“Toby.” Jamie looked at Ned’s hand on Toby’s head. “He’s mine.”
The smile faded. Ned lifted his hand from Toby’s head and folded both hands under his arms. “All right.”
“Aww, dammit. You can pet him. He likes you; that must mean you’re okay. He can sniff out an asshole quicker than spit flyin’ in a windstorm.”
Jamie saw Ned’s eyebrows push down.
“You want to help with the milking?”
The dark eyebrows relaxed upwards. “You got cows?”
“No, we milk dung-beetles, whaddya think?”
“ ‘Course we got cows. Well, one milk cow. She’s a good ol’ gal. Gives more milk than we can drink.”
The slap bang of the screen door caught Jamie’s ear and he turned and watched his mother pace over toward them. Her arms were crossed.
Jamie had long since documented his mother’s pattern of warning signs prior to the point of peril as a matter of self-preservation. Crossed arms meant she was not to be challenged, no matter how gentle the tone. If one was so unwise as to ignore the first sign, she uncrossed her arms, put hands on hips and leaned her head a little to the side. If one extended their lack of wisdom to pure foolishness, the third and final signal was that her hands on her hips shifted into fists, coupled with a slight lift of her chin and shoulders.
She stopped beside them and smiled at Jamie. “Why don’t you get Ned to help you with the milking?” She looked over toward Ned. “You know it’s about that time.”
Toby leapt to his feet and bounded off toward the milking shed.
Jamie knew all right. Milking had been his job ever since he had been old enough to get his hand around a teat. He also knew milking one cow was a one-man job.
“All right.” Jamie jerked his head. “Come on.”
The boy followed him without a word around to the back porch and into the kitchen to get the clean milk bucket with its close fitting lid. Jamie half filled the bucket with warm water from the reservoir in the side of the cook stove, grabbed the small milking pot, and then headed back out the back door with Ned in tow.
“Watch you don’t let the screen door slam. Momma and Daddy hate it.” Jamie let the door fly back as Ned came through.
Jamie glanced backwards over his shoulder as he trotted toward the milking shed. Ned followed behind, still looking down at the dirt, this time with hands shoved so far down into his pants that his elbows were straight.
“If you don’t watch it, you’re gonna shove your pants off.”
The little jersey cow was already slowly walking spraddle-legged across the pasture for her evening feed and pressure relief. Toby drove her along, prancing, head up, all slobber smiles and tail swishing straight up in the air.
“Your cow got a name?”
“Yeah.” Jamie winced. “Elspeth.”
“I wish I wasn’t. My little sister named her. She can’t even say it without shooting spit like a scattergun since she lost her front teeth. ‘Course she calls the screen door the ‘scream’ door too, so it’s not like she’s walkin’ around with a good grip.”
Jamie stepped inside the shed and set the milking bucket down on the floor. When he turned to let the little jersey in he saw Ned standing next to the gate in a staring contest with the cow.
Ned looked over at Jamie, back to Elspeth, then blinked back to Jamie. He quirked a smile. “She looks a lot like my grandmother.”
Jamie burst out laughing.
Ned did not smile back. “Honest to God. Don’t’ tell nobody I said so, but she really does.” Ned looked back at the cow. “Gramma’s even a redhead.”
Sure enough, the cow’s topknot was dark auburn.
“You know, I’ve been wanting another name for her.” Jamie faced the cow. “Elspeth, I hereby absolve you of the burden of your name.” He made a cross in the air in front of her face. “I hereby dub thee ‘Gramma’, a name more fitting with your character and station in life.”
The newly re-dubbed ‘Gramma’ flicked her ears and flapped her tail across her rump at buzzing horseflies in complete indifference to her increased status. She mooed her impatience to get into the milking stall.
“She don’t look too impressed, Ned.”
Ned nodded. “It’s what grandmother’s best at.”
“Not being impressed.”
Jamie laughed again and opened the gate to the stall. “Come on, Gramma. Let’s relieve your hunger and suffering.”
He dumped grain into the feed bin at the end of the milking stall, slid a wooden bar behind Gramma to hold her in, then sat on the milking stool and washed her heavy bag with the warm water. He looked back over his shoulder at Ned, who leaned up against the shed wall and brushed dirt off of his new dark blue jeans. He followed the creases with his fingers.
“You wanna try?”
Ned looked up at Jamie and then at Gramma’s bag. “Okay, sure.”
“Grab the other stool.” Jamie shifted a little to one side. “See first you gotta wrap your thumb and first finger around the top of the teat, see? That shuts off the flow of milk back up into the bag. Then you squeeze down with your other fingers like this.” As Jamie demonstrated a strong stream of milk squirted out and hit the side of the milking pot. “When the little pot is full you dump it into the pail.”
“That’s all there is to it?”
“Just keep doing it with both hands ‘til there ain’t no more milk.”
The first couple of trys went awry; one even squirted onto Ned’s shiny shoes, but to Jamie’s surprise, the town boy showed a remarkable talent for milking. Once he got the hang of it he filled the small pot with milk and dumped it into the bucket with surprising regularity.
“Hey, I kinda like this.”
“No accounting for taste. The novelty will soon pall, I guarantee.”
That moment the blast of the train whistle, while not exactly shattering the air, was enough of a shock to cause ‘Gramma’ to lift her head out of the trough and moan a little moo.
“There a train landing near here?”
“There’s a crossing. That’s the evening train.” He watched Toby push his nose up against Ned’s face. “There’s one mid morning too. The train’s got to slow down to a crawl through here because of the steep grade, but ever since somebody got hit a year or so ago they’ve gotta give a blast to make sure nobody wanders out on the track. Farmers been complaining about the noise for a coon’s age but it ain’t done any good. ”
“Who was it?”
“There wasn’t enough left of him to tell, but they think it was just a tramp.”
The streams hitting the side of milking pot stopped for a minute. “I wonder if his family knows what happened to him.”
“The only thing he had on him was a watch with ‘HH’ engraved on the inside. Not a lot to go on.”
“They might be hunting for him.”
“Likely he didn’t have much family, if any. Or they didn’t care much about him.”
Jamie watched Ned shake his head as the streams started again. “No. His family’s looking for him.”
Toby ambled to the corner of the shed. He plumped down on the straw and panted a little moaning woof up at Jamie.
“How long do you keep this up?”
“Until the milk gives out. Your hands gettin’ tired? I can take over if they are.”
“I’m all right. I was just wondering.”
Jamie shifted his stool and leaned against the wall. “I don’t mean to be nosy, well maybe I do, but what are you here for, exactly?”
Ned lifted his shoulders and let them fall again, his eyes fixed on what he was doing. “Don’t know. Pop said I needed to work at something different for a while.”
“Different from what?”
Again the shoulder lift. “I don’t know.”
Jamie sniffed and rubbed his nose on his sleeve. There’d be time.
“I think she’s done.”
Jamie pushed his way forward. “Here, let me at her for a minute.”
They switched places and Jamie felt Ned’s eyes on him as he stripped the last of the milk from each teat in turn pinched between his thumb and his index finger. Then Jamie stood up, cleared out the milking pot and the bucket and released the bar that kept Gramma in the stall. Gramma didn’t move.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Nothin’. She’s just asleep. She does that sometimes.”
Now Jamie felt Ned’s eyes boring at him for real.
“Look, just ‘cause I didn’t grow up in the country is no reason for you to make fun of me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She can’t be asleep. She’s standing up.”
“Oh yeah, she can. Cows sleep that way.”
“Pass your hand in front of her face.”
It was true. Gramma was dead asleep.
Jamie laughed air out of his nose. “You must have the magic touch. Come on, Gramma.” Jamie slapped the little jersey on her rump. “Let’s go.” She started and backed out of the stall, a lot calmer than when she walked in.
Jamie heard a clank, a curse and a splash behind him. He turned and saw Ned with the bucket in his hand and terror on his face. Fully half the milk from the bucket soaked into the dirt floor. The other half soaked the legs of Ned’s brand new jeans deep blue and reflected white on the toes of both of his shiny black shoes.
“You must not’a held your mouth right.”
Ned waved his free hand in the air and stared down at himself. “What am I gonna do?”
“It’s not like we need the milk, we usually got to give some away, but Momma’s gonna have a hoppin’ hissy fit with a tail on it when finds out she’s gotta wash clothes tonight.”
“Sure. Matter of fact, it’s gotta be done right now. If it’s not th’ milk’ll sour in the cloth and you’ll never get the smell out.”
Jamie was rewarded by pure dread on Ned’s face.
As he led Ned back to the house, Jamie listened to heavy depressed thumping steps behind him and grinned in the gathering twilight.