As I was milking the cows Friday evening, meditating and watching udders deflate while the pulsator clicked a rhythm on the floor tank, it occurred to me that things are going really well at the farm. My boys are more or less home schooling half the time, and we'd spent most of the afternoon cutting firewood. What was more, after I'd done the initial cuts, my 12-year-old ran the chainsaw and the younger boys loaded the wood while I sipped beer and made sure nobody did anything dangerous.
You get a lot of time to meditate while milking cows, especially with the machine doing most of the work. I glanced out at the sloping concrete floor of our produce barn that was finally clean and free of clutter, thinking what a blessing Diana Winter has been since she swooped in like Mary Poppins. I was really getting carried away, thinking about how happy I was to be in Boonville where most of my customers are literal neighbors and friends. Everything was falling into place. I was actually considering calling up my dad and telling him, “You know, I hate to say it, but right now it seems like everything is going pretty well. The boys are getting along with each other, they love their puppies, they help when I need it. Maybe I always knew what I was doing after all.”
My poor parents have always wondered what went wrong with me — especially my mom, who can't even talk on the phone with me without commenting about something she screwed up, raising me. 36 years old with two ex-es and three sons, managing a rinky dink little farm in “Boonville,” fooling around with organic techniques and frequently broke.
Diana insists on pouring the milk, normally, but this time when I carried the five gallon tank into the kitchen. She was at the computer smoking a joint.
"What? Are you doing that Farmville business again?” (“Farmville” is this interactive on-line program where people pretend to be farmers. Diana's into it.)
There I was pulling the empty jars from the dishwasher and lining them up in the sink, fastening the filter in the stainless steel funnel. “Oh.”
“I itemized everything that accumulated on the workshelf in the last week since I quit cleaning up after you and your boys.”
Sure enough, there wasn't a free spot to set the milk tank on the shelf. I had it on the floor. I call it a workshelf. It's this magnificent redwood slab something like 20 inches wide and two inches thick, and it's supposed to be a work station someday when we're making cheese or canning tomatoes, but for now it works good for setting things down when you're too lazy to think about where they go, apparently. The egg baskets actually belong there, sort of, even though our hens are not laying at this time of year, but the rest was pure clutter. “What do you mean, itemized everything?”
I guess Diana used this software that is handy for taking inventory. “That stuff must belong there because you put it there, so I thought since it is so valuable it was worth my time to take inventory.”
Now it was on the computer, complete with photographs for each category. You had a wood chisel, an empty jug of bar and chain oil, the Christmas present I still hadn't mailed to my sister's baby daughter. There was the ears of white and blue corn from our neighbors that the youngest boys had grown out for seed the last year. They were up there so the puppies wouldn't tear into them. The same with my rubber rain boots. The puppies had already gnawed a hole in the left one. “You know, Diana, I definitely noticed the difference when you first got here. I was just thinking what a difference you've made.”
“I came out here to apprentice on a farm, not clean up after a bunch of slobs.”
Needless to say, I wasted no time cleaning off the work station once the milk was filtered. When the calf was fed, I retired to do some reading, itching at my eyes maybe. I must have been rubbing my eyes a bunch. I woke up at three in the morning and of course the first thing that itches if you're a guy in the country who got poison oak on his hands without realizing it is your crotch. Lying there in the dark I wondered if maybe the dogs had rolled in the poison oak or something. By six in the morning my eyelids were itching, usually one of the next most sensitive places. By eight o'clock, when I set the milk tank up on our work station, Diana was looking at me funny.
“Holy shit!” she said.
“What? You can't believe the work station is still clean?”
“Oh. I think I'm coming down with poison oak.”
When I walked into town Saturday afternoon, my friends said I looked like I'd been in a fight. “Maybe go to clinic, get cream to rub on it,” said one of my neighbors.
“This kind of thing happens all the time,” I said. “It's nothing.”
Sunday morning I woke at 3 o'clock and thought it was awfully dark. I thought it was a goddam power outage, which was weird because we hadn't gotten too much wind yet. I could hear rain hitting the roof. After a while my fingers reached up and sort of pried one of my eyes open, revealing the light from the stereo and what not. There was no way to go back to sleep. My face was so swollen I had to lay on my back and agonize, more or less hallucinating until morning, when I literally had to pry my eyes open to climb out of bed and get ready to milk the cows. I could only see for seconds in a stretch, and then everything was blurry.
“You look like somebody else,” said Diana, who, along with my oldest son, really pitched in to help finish the chores.
Of course it was Sunday so the Health clinic was closed. Supposedly soapweed, or soaproot, that grows a little like pineapples all over the roadsides, is an antidote to poison oak, so I grabbed a shovel and staggered down Lambert Lane towards a patch of soapweed that I knew about. Luckily I encountered some neighbors who were taking their chihuahua for a walk.
“Your face!” said the lady.
“Poison oak. No bueno.”
“No bueno,” agreed the man.
“We have cream from the clinic,” she said. “I have it for my son so he doesn't scratch.”
“Oh? Yeah, they're closed.”
I followed the couple to their house, as I staggered like I was drunk. My equilibrium was a little screwed up. Not only were my eyes swollen shut, rendering me functionally blind, but my ears were inflated like balloons and vertigo was setting in. I was in the midst of a miserable moment and didn't make a lot of small talk there on the porch as they quickly handed me the tube of steroid cream. When I returned to the farm there was Diana with a few packets of Benadryl antihistamine tablets, and she'd even dug up a soaproot for me. That stuff burned when I rubbed it on my cheeks, so it must have done some good. By two in the afternoon the swelling had diminished around my eyes so I could walk around without having to pry them open, though more then a few minutes of this effort gave me a headache. Things were turning out okay, sort of. So far.