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Archive for the ‘Serial Fiction’ Category

Harold is walking past the sick pen when another baneful detail finds him.

“Damn it,” he whispers.  A pink, bulbous protrusion spreads under the tailhead of 71 and into a pile of manure.  It is rubbery, and fleshy, with big cauliflower-like buttons scattered across it.  71 has a prolapsed uterus.  “Damn it all,” Harold says.

Harold slouches towards the house.  A rumble grows behind him and he recognizes it as his 4020.  A flash of green skips by, on the seat a young boy level with the steering wheel.  The boy waves his hand in the air without looking back.

“Lonnie came over, wanted to drive the tractor again,” May says.  Harold walks past her into the kitchen.  “I didn’t think you’d mind.”  She licks pear preserve off her fingers with loud sucking sounds.

“That’s fine, Love.  Is it me or does the dryer sound like it’s acting up again?”  May walks into the backroom to check.  Harold opens a drawer and slips a steak knife into his pocket.

“Just you,” she hollers back.

“Sorry Doll.”

His John Deere races in a tight circle around the driveway, the driver popping up and down at every bump.  Harold opens up the window above the sink and sticks out his head.  “Lonnie, come here,” he yells.  He meets the tractor by the flower bed where it eases to a halt.  Lonnie pulls the choke and the engine rattles to a quick death.  “Mr. Shaw, I’m sorry.  I asked Mrs. Shaw and she said I can ride this a little for a while.”

Harold waves him off.  “It’s alright.  I need some help right now.  Why don’t you drive the skidsteer into the barn for me.”

In a few minutes 71’s backend sways in the air, lifters snug around her hips, connected to a chain, pulled up by the bucket of the skidsteer.  Lonnie slides out of the cab and underneath the hydraulic arms.

71’s uterus hangs from her tenderly.  “Is that her guts?” Lonnie asks.

“Sort of,” replies Harold.  He lifts a pail of teat dip thinned with water, for sterilization, and laps the brown tincture over the uterus with a cupped hand.  The teat dip trickles in wiry paths down the rough creases.  Harold gets underneath the uterus with two hands, the weight forcing his arms taut.  The skidsteer bucket hangs over his head like an ominous cloud.  He works the sensitive mass back inside the cow, patient and deftly, like wrapping a present.  71 doesn’t move but keeps her head down and moans softly every few minutes.  Lonnie stands next to Harold, intently watching him as Harold’s hand disappears into the vulva.

“I need you to hold this in for me, Lonnie.”  The small boy stares at Harold and decides he is serious.  He walks bravely to the cow without saying a word.

Lonnie is young and when he stands close to the rear udder of 71 and reaches straight into the air the uterus falls around his hands.  Harold ducks under the gate and comes back with a feed pail.  On that, Lonnie is level with Harold and the cow.

Harold Shaw probably would have liked a child.  He’s still not sure if he couldn’t have one or just didn’t.  In a quick, silent manner he tells himself that it can be for the best.  Some people can walk away from the farm, and when they do they leave the rest of those who cannot.  He might have selfishly passed on a life that someone else would have to pass on.  Still, sometimes Harold thinks about the son he did not have.  And when he does this Harold hopes for his imaginary son, hopes that he would be strong enough to walk away from his father’s problems.  But he fears his imaginary son could not.  He fears this because Harold could not walk away himself.  There are mistakes that others can’t learn from.  Sometimes Harold thinks he did the best he could in keeping his son a thought.

Harold unties the brown laces of one of his work shoes and clenches it softly in his teeth.  He lifts the steak knife from his back pocket, the blade sliding soundlessly over the bleached denim.  There’s a stillness in the barn that feels heavy like thick atmosphere.  Lonnie concentrates on the part of his arm that he can see.  Harold pulls stiff the red, swollen skin of the vulva and needles a hole with the end of the steak knife.  71 rocks nervously, the chains that hold her up swaying from the bucket.  Her chances with Harold behind her are nearly as good with a vet, and the difference is not affordable.  She may be able to calve again and she may not, and may or may not live to find out.  Harold drops the shoestring in the brown water.  It floats on top until Harold swirls the bucket and it expands with moisture.  The plastic tip punches through the bleeding holes and the dark string disappears and reappears in the tissue until it completes a circuit.  Harold holds both ends and nods.  Lonnie slides his wet hand out.  A neat bow is made.

Harold Shaw has a memory.  He is twelve years old and feeding calves in the afternoon when Jim Dunning walks up the driveway.  Jim Dunning is the man that spreads lime on fields before corn is planted.  Because Jim Dunning walks up the driveway Harold knows that his rig is stuck.  Probably a universal truth: sometimes wet spots are deceitful, sometimes you dare them.  Harold’s father always stops what he is doing to pull Jim out, but today he has left to pick up a moldboard for the plow.  Jim is tall and skinny and shows his disappointment when Harold tells him his father is gone.

“Hell,” Harold says, weighing the words he’s about to say to see if he really means them.  “I’ll yank you out.”

Jim is talkative in the cab, glad to be getting his truck out, asking Harold about school, sports, and his teachers.  Harold answers diligently but replays in his head everything he has seen his father do: where to hook the chain, what gear to have it in.

The front left tire of the truck can’t be seen, swallowed in anger by the earth.  Harold backs the duels to the truck and joins the two machines with a chain that lays limp between them.  Harold looks out the front window and imagines a path between two wet spots to aim the wheels.  When Jim nods his head Harold puts it in gear, lets go of the clutch.

The Ford glides confidently over the worked ground, the chain behind it coming to life, beginning to straighten, until, at once, the links are pulled taut and the tractor jolts with great resistance.  But it doesn’t stop.  It rolls on, slowly, with strain.  The dirt in front of the truck’s wheel parts reluctantly as it’s coaxed along, still crawling forward.  Harold keeps his body twisted to look back, glancing at the empty field ahead of him and hoping the Ford will not stop moving.

Relief pulses through Harold’s tractor when the lime truck bounces freely again.

“Nice work,” his father says that night before flicking the milkers on.  They got the field planted the next morning.  It was one of the best moments in Harold’s life.

Harold felt like a farmer.

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Check out the Fiction Archives for previous Harold Shaw installments.

Fiction

“How are you feeling, Old Girl?”  Harold climbs into the sick pen.  The straw bends beneath his work shoes and the cow lifts her head to watch his approach.  Her neck chain holds a plastic tag that reads 71.  That’s who she is.  He holds her ears; they feel thin and cold.

In the end, there are many diseases and metabolic conditions a cow can have, but it can usually be narrowed to an assumption.  It’s made simpler by, in the end, only being a few things one can do.  71 calved a few days ago and the low body temperature probably means milk fever.  Harold has already given her liquid calcium and hoped that she’d be on her feet by now, meaning fixed.

Harold slides his hand up and down her neck.  “You sure were a kicky son of a bitch,” he says, and then feels guilty for using the past tense.  He withdraws his hand.  Most heifers are uneasy with the foreign weight of milkers on their teats, but the blessed 71 swung her back legs at Harold every milking.  She had fight and was consistent with it.  She had a way of approaching life.  Now, however, she moans deeply, her broad frame motionless.   She was the biggest ass of the entire barn, and Harold hates to see her humbled.

These are not the things that make Harold want to die: broken forks, kicky heifers, old equipment, loose cattle, getting up early, sore joints, never having a vacation, debt, working all day, milk inspectors, scarred knuckles, sick cows, manure in the coffee, too much rain or not enough, feed bills, country music turning into pop, land taxes, fixing the planter, rotten hay.

On the porch Harold Shaw shakes the boots off his feet; they fall to the concrete lifeless.  He takes off his manure-splattered pants and drapes them over the bench swing.  Harold walks through the front door in his underwear.

“Got time for breakfast?” May asks, wiping the counter with a faded rag.

“Just a sandwich will work.”  He sits at the kitchen table while May checks a row of cupboards.

“No bread,” she reports.

“Did you bake anything?”

“No flour.”

“Cereal it is,” Harold says.  May sets the milk and Rice Crispies in front of him.  He kisses her on the cheek when she brings a bowl.  He is still in his underwear, and veins glow through the bristly hair on his thighs.  He hasn’t bothered putting on a clean pair of pants coming in from the barn in decades.  May used to comment on his sexy body until they were both middle aged, and then it was his white legs.  Now she doesn’t even warn him when there are visitors.

“You’ll never believe this, Harold.  I got off the phone with Sarah, and she says the conditions for a tornado are going to be possible for the next couple of days.”  May vigorously sweeps the floor, the pile of dust nearly invisible.  She’s never one for sitting down, always cleaning or baking or helping Lonnie, the neighbor’s kid, with a school project.  Harold thinks this is cute.  For nearly being the same age, she is a lot younger than him.

“You know me too well.  I don’t believe it,” he says.

“They said it was possible.”

“You’d be surprised at the things possible.”

“Imagine,” May says.

There is silence, except the tapping of a faucet.  Harold scrapes Rice Crispies off the inside edge of the bowl and guides them back to the milk.

May wedges in between Harold and the table and sits on his lap, spilling a little milk on the placemat.  Her small frame is barely capable of pressure.  She puts her arms around his neck and stares.

“How are you doing, Harold?”

Harold sighs.  “Well, another watering bowl is broken and I have to get that fixed so I don’t have to haul water to it three times a day.  And I’d like to get the L-shaped field mowed before it goes to head.  A cow went down after calving and I haven’t been able to get her to come around yet.”

May watches Harold without saying a word.  Harold wonders if it is something he said.

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Check the fiction archive for previous “Forget Harold Shaw” installments.

By Ryan Dennis

Harold Shaw found pieces of corn at the bottom of his cup.  This is the fear of every farmer every morning in the milking parlour, that manure somehow finds its way into the coffee.  A sort of roulette they all must suffer.

Harold places the mug in the cart, resigned.  It is a cart full of dusty milking supplies, and he pulls it along the aisle like a movable alter.  One of the milkers slips down a teat and gasps for barn air.  Harold squats next to it, unsteady, the manure on the back of his boots rubbing on his pant legs.  The cow is a first calf heifer and her udder is hard with oedema.  Harold holds the milker in place while she rocks nervously on her hind legs.  Immediately, her back arches and her tail lifts in the air.  He knows that if he lets go the milker will fall and breathe in dirt and straw, so he holds on, and tries to twist his body away.  It’s an awkward position and the wrinkles in his face fold into each other as he grimaces.  Falling urine drums against the concrete as if, instead, falling from heaven and Harold feels it as a hot, musty rain on his arms and face.

Harold is tired of trying to find the joy in life.  He knows other people his age, but he is not like them.  What Harold realizes is that he could never be like them.  Not even when he was young and pliable.  The differences are more than a retirement house or a bird house or travelling to Europe or cardigan sweaters.

It’s like yesterday when he was pitching out a calf pen with a silage fork because the neighbour’s son was bedding stalls with the skidsteer.  After a while he heard the dying of the skidsteer, but the walk to the shed to get it seemed like more effort than to finish pitching out the pen by hand.  Change at this point is too tiring.  The lucky ones die of a heart attack at the right age.  He’s seen people who quit farming.  They shrivel up and become small.  He knows people who have sold out and he knows that at this very moment they are pacing around their kitchen, nervous, because in all their life they have never learned to sit down.  And then, he knows, it is too late to learn anything.  Harold Shaw is seventy five and afraid that a heart attack may never come.

The streams of milk inside the milker Harold holds have thinned away.  He closes a valve and kills the pulsation, only it’s broken so a faint beating is still felt in the rubber hose.  A man speaks from a radio in the rafters and says an odd pressure system is coming from the south, and it’s the type that makes tornados.  The heifer snaps her switch in the air.  Harold hangs the milker up.  A pile of manure stretches across the gutter to the edge of the alley, steam bending away from it.  Harold scrapes it off by pushing the tines of a pitchfork sideways across the concrete.  The area has never had a tornado because it is too hilly.  And still, it’s not likely, the radio regrets.  The head of the fork breaks from the shaft.  Harold picks it out of the manure and dropkicks it.  It upsets the cows.  But you never know about things like weather, a second man says.  The metal tines clank end over end down the aisle and is still rocking when it settles.  Until he gets a new fork Harold will use the side of his boot to scrape manure.

The sunlight at the end of barn is plugged by a figure with a clipboard.   He’s a young guy, probably late twenties, a little heavy set, a chiselled goatee.  His hat is clean and sits wide over his forehead with black and white shapes like a Holstein’s body.  Tacky: no words or logos on this Holstein hat.

Harold can’t remember his name, but the sight of him always angers Harold: he’s a milk inspector, only because it’s easy to be a milk inspector.

And above all, Harold knows that with little exception, fat guys with goatees are worthless individuals.

“Harold, I gave you two times to change all the gaskets and get a new pump.  It’s starting to corrode inside and out and it can quit any time.” He points his index finger at Harold. “I’m going to fail you.”

Harold is silent, not a recipient of an artificial hello or a condescending handshake that they used to offer.  It makes Harold feel old, in that this kid isn’t even a proper jerk.  The milk inspector fills out narcissistic forms on his clipboard, scribbling in a way meant to scare Harold into repenting.

It is nothing new that this kid doesn’t know farming.  Harold would buy another pump if he could, but there are other things that need fixing.  Harold flexes his fingers around the pitchfork shaft in his hand.

The milk inspector looking up:  “I’m sorry, Harold.  I like you, but…” He shakes his head like a kindergarten teacher.  In the end, it’s the tacky hat that really upsets Harold.

Harold swings.  The shaft cuts a rigid path through the air and hits the inspector on the cheek.  It makes a dull whap.

“What?” the milk inspector yells in a high pitched whine.  His face loses colour.  He touches his cheek and points a finger at Harold.

Harold hits him again.

“Hey!”  The milk inspector steps back quickly, shielding his face.  He almost trips over himself.  “Are you senile?  I’m not going to fight an old man.”   Harold threatens, raising the shaft again.  The inspector recoils.  He keeps his arms by his head.

“Forget you, Harold Shaw.  You’re done.  It’s over.”  The milk inspector nearly runs out barn.  His foot slips on the manure grate and he stumbles backwards, landing on his back.  The clipboard explodes.

Harold looks for a roll of duct tape to fix his fork while a truck door slams and hurries down the driveway.  Dust and yellow forms swirl behind it.

Harold Shaw wears his hat backwards.  It’s a green Pioneer hat with the logo stitched in white and it’s backwards because his father and grandfather wore it normal.  All old people do.  Worse than that, they wear it raised, so it’s barely on the head and usually cocked to the side.  Harold wears his hat backwards to show that he is still lucid and aware of the world.

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Forget Harold Shaw will appear in installments every Friday.

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