An Honorable Mention in the 2017 Spring Shock Trigger Warning Writing Contest

 

 

The mud caking Marcia’s boots was making them heavier by the minute. It had become an effort to lift her feet as she walked beside the white-plank fence that ringed the Dammasch Farms corral. There was nowhere to step that wasn’t muddy and wet. Even that untrampled strip that rose just under the fence rails had sunk like a fallen cake. The cows had bowed and eaten the last soft grasses there, so edging sidewise with a handhold on the top plank, a trick Laney had shown her, was no use.

She stopped by the concrete cistern that received and held the water for all of Dammasch’s hundred head of cattle. Marcia leaned on the mossy concrete, noticing the warmth of the breeze that had come up. The troughs along the fence were brimming, their water reflecting a moving February sky. Stepping up on the bottom rail of the fence for a better look around, she looked down and caught a reflection of herself in one of the troughs, her sheaf of silvering hair, breasts managing to put a dent in her heavy parka, and light-sage eyes furrowed in thought.

Where the hell are the cows?

By this late, 4:00 p.m., they should have been turned out from the midday milking and been nibbling on what was left of the grass. Marcia had watched this bovine ebb and flow for three years, and it never varied. She liked that the stuff of her life was always there when reached for, and this absence of cows where there should be cows was a burr under her saddle.

The full scent of dairyland soil rose during these overcast but rain-free interludes. She’d lain around the cottage this whole weekend, making up for a recent return of insomnia, thinking about where her life was headed, and her Monday shift at I-VEE CyberSystems loomed like the anvil clouds over northern Wyman County. Winter had put a few pounds on her, something she vowed to rectify with more walks around her neighbor’s vast property. Now, even though her boots resisted, grabbing and sucking with each step until her stomach hurt, it felt good to be outside. With each sodden step working her solar plexus, she plodded on. After reaching the firmer ground of her winter-tossed vegetable garden, she turned once more, toward the farm.

Spring had sprung over the rolling hills and nestled hamlets of fir and poplar, on this dreary afternoon. Across the vacant field rose the Dammasch brain center, an office complex two stories higher and two shades more cocoa than the fertilizer-hued stables. Not a soul, man or beast, around the offal-brown stables or the tidy, minimalist outbuilding.

A John Deere tractor with a ground-conditioning trailer was parked at the bay of the motor pool, where Laney Thomas worked. That was strange too. It was usually early summer when the conditioners were brought out to replenish the soil with nutrients, after the cows were moved to the summer enclosure, and then again in September, plain water keeping down the cattle dust.

They were friends, but Marcia had fantasized about kissing Laney’s weatherworn lips.

She’d wondered at the interest he might have in kissing her back, this fifty-six-year-old barrel-chested lifelong bachelor who’d migrated west from Idaho and drove a mustard-yellow Pontiac. He had twelve years on her, and at times, when he was particularly tired, those years conjured memories of her father. Not exactly sure how her desire for closeness with Laney aligned with feelings about her beloved father, she was nonetheless comfortable with the age difference, and the charming way he’d been attentive, and open to her, without apparent passion.

The heartbreak of her relationship with Brian, a brilliant programmer who’d been transferred to Phoenix over a year ago now, had worn to a sometimes-ache. She’d known entanglements at work were chancy but couldn’t resist when his passionate intensity broke the spell cast by her failed marriage. Into that emotional void had come the benign pleasure of conditional aloneness she recognized in other women of her age, women she worked with, who had loved, lost, and become ironic survivors. The job, the community mattered more to them now, as long as there was some kind of Laney around somewhere.

As the first drops of an incoming shower spattered the insanely hydrated chard at the edge of her garden, Marcia heard the ratchet ignition of the tractor’s engine. Someone, yes, it was Laney, had come out of the motor pool and started up the John Deere. The Dammasch full-timer jockeyed his tractor down the fence line to start what Marcia knew would be an expanding series of swipes at the large field. Twelve spigots fired earthward at once, a rolling fountain that glazed the surface of the already-soaked dirt.

Refreshed by her walk and respite from the rain, she trudged back to the cottage. It would

take time to free her boots from the caked-on mud, so Marcia left them on her covered back porch. A cup of tea, and then she’d get her snow scraper and rinse them in the utility sink.

The cows inside this late in the afternoon.

There was a rumble of thunder down from the craggiest northern hills. Laney was still at it, his tractor grinding around the enclosure, sprinkling over thousands of hoofprints that would soon be inundated. She’d never known a man quite like him, happy with his simple tasks, dogged in the performance of them. She thought about feeding him, which she had done, and kissing him, which she hadn’t.

Marcia had first spotted him after she took possession of the cottage, noticing him going about his dutiful rounds in the enclosure, and would eventually learn that he was an all-purpose mechanic and driver of the Dammasch Farms motorized stock. Since his rounds often took him along the back fence of the corral, they begin exchanging hellos, she begin handing him produce from her garden, and one day after work just about a year ago now, she invited him into her kitchen. Thereafter, they’d innocently flirted on occasional dates and sometimes commiserated more seriously when bad news afflicted the community. When her toolshed buckled and sank after ten days of unremitting rainfall, he shored it back up, replacing the few dry-rotted boards with no word of payment. Every now and then he’d hand a tub of sweet cream over the fence, secured with his Dammasch discount, and she’d use it to fry him potatoes and eggs when he’d stop in after working a Saturday half shift. If Laney ever longed for more, he never betrayed it. She would hug him spontaneously, but any flutter of desire was vanquished by his uncharged, prepossessing charm. The tag “never been married,” usually something to consider about an older man, on Laney seemed inevitably benign, as if no woman, however much he might have loved her or she him, ever quite complemented his solitary core.

His gray eyebrows had long since joined over his broad forehead. His nostrils were wide, and his nose flattened—not by beatings but as decreed by Gaelic ancestry. He was Marcia’s exact height, a study in burly, brute manliness, so different from the angular, towering Brian. His sense of humor centered on irony, while an empathy born of a lifetime of animal husbandry was at the root of his appeal.

Two years of peace in Dammasch, Oregon, and a man was working his way into her heart. Now, ground conditioners in February. She wasn’t sure if the stink of the chemicals was a sense memory or something real that had pervaded the cottage.

*

Settling on the couch with the Dammasch Register, she learned that a bike was stolen from Hank Morton’s pickup, and then returned. Jess Gallagher going to State as county spelling champ, again. A full-page ad announced the annual Dammasch Dairy Festival, and Marcia was struck by how quickly the celebration had come around again. With a long evening ahead of her, she decided to whip up a batch of marshmallow yams, her specialty. Mondays were always crunch time for I-VEE support representives, so if insomnia claimed her again she’d be in for a grueling shift. Ignoring the downpour that on-again rattled her roof, Marcia gathered her coat and keys for a quick run to Erma’s Food Bin.

She was the only customer in Dammasch’s only grocery store, a mom-and-pop, with husband Frank being the pop, housed in a 1924 masonry structure with a wood-framed façade. There was a Safe-Mart in Worthington, and Marcia would make the drive in her Dodge Caravan when she needed to stock up, but unless you counted the convenience store near the highway, the plump and indefatigable Erma had the local foodstuffs market cornered.

“Marshmallow yams, eh?” said Erma, weighing the huge, irregular-size yams behind the counter. “Special occasion or just life as usual?”

“Can I get back to you on that?” said Marcia.

“I’ll be here,” Erma replied.

Turning onto her street, a frontage road along the easternmost reach of the corral, Marcia saw the two spotlights used to round up stragglers at night casting fixed white light over the oily black earth. Two dimmer lights approached along the fence line, and Marcia slowed to a crawl, wincing into the dull headlights of the tractor. When both vehicles came alongside each other, they stopped, and Laney poked his head out from under a rain-slicked poncho. Marcia rolled down her window and caught a rainy blast, and again, the scent of some unfamiliar chemical.

“What in God’s name are you doing out in this tonight?” she called.

It seemed he was just about to holler something over the rain and engine noise when the tractor lurched as if he’d taken his foot off the brakes and settled into a serious chuckhole.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said, straightening out the steering wheel. Only slightly rebuffed, she understood what he was up against in the pouring rain, and drove home.

Late that night she heard lowing, and went to the kitchen window feeling as if sleep—and a dream that featured a ruggedly handsome Laney– had come only moments before. At night you could not see the surrounding beauty, and the farm became a utility of amber lights on the backs of barracks, and cows.

The cows were out.

*

On the way to work, Marcia caught a bleak look at herself in the rearview mirror: haggard cheeks, ruffled collar, and restless brow. She’d finally gotten to sleep a second time, relaxed, perhaps, by knowing the cows were finally out, but the chemical smell she’d noticed from Laney’s ground conditioner woke her again and getting up to close the window had sealed her fate for the rest of her toss-and-turn night. On the frontage road, a raccoon had been struck and killed in the night, and she swerved suddenly, cursing under her breath. Clear-light cold sunshine accentuated the denuded browns and grays of the winter forest.

The sloping drive up her employer’s privately owned parkway was a study in contrast with the rest of the land, everything here well-trimmed and tended as if January’s storms had only whispered across the mound of bark-dusted landscaping. Marcia’s parking karma was good today, and she found a sunny spot near the wide double doors that welcomed young professionals and tech-savvy businesspeople into I-VEE’s two-story hexagon. After pouring herself some decaf chai at the company’s Seattle-worthy employee lounge, she entered the inner grid of cubicle banks and fluorescent hallways.

All day as a support representative, while extolling her firm’s strengths and troubleshooting its weaknesses, she would field questions like “My system keeps overriding the tax computation for each employee who lists dependents who don’t live at home.” Knowing that each and every call she took was potentially“monitored for quality assurance” by a supervisorial panel, Marcia had developed a warm professionalism that had earned her Support Person of the Month recognition three times in the last two years. Two of her taped conversations had been presented as exemplars at the refresher seminar for I-VEE’s phone jockeys.

Whenever she could get away for lunch, as she did this Monday, at the Home Place Diner, where the tuna melts were scrumptious, she would fantasize about plans to add a combination atrium and meditation room off her back porch. A place where her plants could steam up the windows on humid days, and she could dive into the latest novel from Barbara Kingsolver or the essays of Joan Didion. Herm Styner, Dammasch’s senior building contractor, had bid $6,000 plus materials for the job, and excelling at her own job was Marcia’s ticket to being able to afford his services. As complete and cozy as the cottage was, she longed for an updated place that would make the place truly her own.

Back at work, the orange light on her console flashed: her supervisor, Sue.

“Have you seen the interoffice post today?”

“No, I’m still clearing yesterday’s callbacks.”

“General meeting, Friday noon—mandatory.”

“What’s up?”

“I wish I could give you a heads up, sweetheart, but that’s all I can say right now.”

*

            Stopping by Erma’s Food Bin after work, Marcia wheeled her rickety cart to the store’s back wall with a hankering for some of Dammasch Farm’s delicious whipping cream. For only the second time since Marcia had moved to Dammasch after her divorce, Erma’s dairy case was empty. A note was scrawled and taped to the smudged glass of the case. No Deliveries Today, Sorry.

Once, Marcia had gotten violently sick—experiencing projectile vomiting and a crashing headache—after making cream puffs with an off-brand whipping cream from Erma’s shelves.  Unfortunately, she’d offered two to Laney over the back fence, and he’d taken them home. She asked if he’d gotten sick too, and his denial was hardly adamant. Feeding him, offering him at first treats, and later full meals, including dinners, had become the nearest thing they had to intimacy. Had he simply absorbed her culinary misstep—she imagined the poor man puking his guts out—in the interest of keeping that part of their relationship free of bad associations?

If he had, that was something to love in addition to his handsome Welsh smile and appealing work ethic.

Erma had been earnestly apologetic, explaining that the bad cream was only on her shelves because Dammasch Farms had shut down temporarily over some breakdowns in the milking machines. Desperate to offer dairy products for her customers, a bad batch of cream had gotten past her usual eagle eye.

“From now on, it’s Dammasch Farms or nothing,” Erma had vowed, handing Marcia a family-size container of the award-winning cream.

Now, anxious to get home after a long day in I-VEE’s cubicle maze, Marcia pushed the cart up to Erma’s counter with her few purchases: laundry soap, a loaf of locally baked hazelnut bread, and a package of light bulbs.

“No milk today?” she asked, remembering the old Herman Hermits song as Erma began scanning her purchases.

“Honey, I don’t know. Two guys came in with a pull order and cleared me out. All deliveries have been suspended from the farm. Frank went over to find out what’s going on.”

Marcia shouldered her purse, remembering how sick she’d gotten from the off-brand cream. It was known throughout Oregon that quality control and freshness were hallmarks of Dammasch Farms, and in three years she’d never heard of anyone getting sick from them. Just as she turned to leave, her craving for whipped cream dashed, Frank came in, the door chime ringing as he did. He had that worried look of people whose living depends on perishable goods.

Marcia stood by, wondering if she’d be privy to Frank’s report.

“What the hell’s going on over there?” exclaimed Erma, surprising Marcia with a frustrated tone she’d never heard from the shopkeeper.

“I don’t know,” said Frank, rubbing his hand over a whiskered chin. “I couldn’t get in to see anyone, and the flack they sent out couldn’t say when deliveries would start up again. Something’s going on up there.”

“The herd wasn’t out till quite last night,” offered Marcia. Frank and Erma took this bit of news with a shared glance. Frank shook his head. “I’ll call Bill over at Alpine Glow and see about getting some product.”

Pulling down the frontage road, Marcia was reassured to see the herd, their tawny flanks and ruddy fur crowns warming in the last dappled sunlight. A calf tagged along beside her mother, anxious to connect with a swinging udder. A thousand sodden hoofprints and dozens of fresh manure piles had sullied the conditioned ground of the night before.

Marcia stowed her groceries, put tea on, and flipped on the radio. KBTZ, the CBS affiliate out of Worthington, was live with a report about Dammasch Farms.

“Dammasch Farms has just released a prepared statement on its decision earlier today to pull its products from stores and suspend deliveries. Media Relations Coordinator Rhonda Miles admitted that issues surrounding the production process had raised concerns and could not say when Dammasch products would be available again. Local grocers are scrambling to find other dairy manufacturers to supply the region. Alpine Glow Dairy in Worthington reports they are swamped with new orders. Consumers have been asked to return any Dammasch products to the place of purchase for a full refund.”

Marcia opened her refrigerator.

In the deli drawer was half of a loaf of Dammasch Farms pepper-jack cheese.

She felt a rumble in stomach, not the hollow ache of losing Brian, or the strenuous ache of mud pulling on her boots, or the passing nausea she’d felt after smelling the chemicals dispersed from Laney’s tractor.

She dialed Laney’s number, but he didn’t pick up.

He had taken her through the dairy once. She’d taken the tourist tour soon after moving to Dammasch but found herself pretending she was seeing it all for the first time. He was prideful of the cavernous main stable, its rafters home to countless birds and the remnants of old nests. She’d been struck by the mooing that day, the regurgitations and cud chews of a thousand cows. On the ground floor of the processing plant, they watched dairy of every stripe coming down the conveyors: cheese, milk, butter, and the industry-renowned whipping cream, a clover-derived elixir that forever soured the palate against processed competitors.

Their last stop had been the motor pool, with its greasy scents and mixture of spanking-new and well-worn machinery. Laney’s desk was a modest enclave of coffee cups and dog-eared manuals. His supervisor, Ivan, came over from operations, and the balding desk jockey with a Dammasch Farms tie clip greeted Marcia warmly.

Next morning, with daybreak obscured by eastern clouds, a slow-moving tractor on the frontage road complicated Marcia’s departure for work. She recognized Laney’s broad back, the signature way he cocked his cap, down low over his eyes to block rain or sun. He saw her, smiled, and down-shifted the workhorse, its tires caked with dried mud he would rinse off outside the motor pool. Marcia’s minivan and the tractor stopped abreast on the quiet roadway. He got down off the tractor smooth and easy, but once on the ground, there was worry perceptible as he walked toward her, a slowed-down gait you’d expect from a man with something on his mind.

Farmhands were always first to lose their pasty winter complexions. Laney had already gotten a light browning from some rare February sun breaks, which complemented the tufts of dark brown hair under his cap. But there was something fearful behind those luminous blue eyes as he approached Marcia’s minivan. He tipped his V-creased brim, his wont when they happened on each other.

“Hey,” said Marcia, her tone strained, betraying that Laney’s fear was instantly transmitted to her. Just then, he looked behind her. In her rearview mirror, she saw that it was Adele Meyers, the long-widowed neighbor who lived down the frontage road. She’d have to move the minivan out of the lane to let the vintage station wagon by. Pulling forward to a plot of dirt that led to a gate, Marcia waited while Adele passed by with a wave, and watched as Laney returned to the tractor and switched off its motor.

“You look like you’ve had a long day, Mr. Thomas,” she said, noticing odd white splotches on the cuffs of his coveralls, as if he’d splashed them with bleach.

“Can I come by after work?” he said, with a kind of gravity reserved for when things weren’t going well in his world, which meant Dammasch Farms. She felt for him, more than just the usual attraction. Marcia couldn’t remember another time that he had invited himself over.

“I’ll see you at six; plan on dinner.”

With the goings-on at Laney’s place of employment, Marcia opted for three pork chops she had in the freezer, to avoid any associations with the animals that were his stock and trade. She found herself anxious to see him, to be there for him, but could not see that first kiss happening tonight. The chops, with rice and fresh chard on the side, were not quite ready when Laney showed up, so Marcia sat him on her living room couch. He took a sip of the beer she brought him. She felt she knew him well enough now to know he wasn’t ready to talk just yet.

It wasn’t until halfway through a meal filled with reflective siliences and his compliments that he sighed, drained his beer, and said, “I’m not supposed to talk about this. I could lose my job, though I’m not sure there’s much of a job to lose anymore.”

“You know that anything you tell me stays at this table.”

When Laney massaged his own forehead, trying to find the words, she prompted, “I noticed the ground conditioners. Isn’t that a spring-summer thing?” It was a knowledgeable question, something that almost qualified her as a local.

“Keep this between us, although I don’t think you’ll have to keep the secret long. It wasn’t conditioner. It was disinfectant.”

Marcia put her elbows on the table, thinking of the chemical smell and the bleachy splotches on his pant legs. Her last forkful of rice wouldn’t go all the way down.

“A feed order, after Christmas, from Canada. Apparently, they used the grain bagging conveyor to bag some nursery manure, without a proper cleaning. We got a contaminated lot, mad cow. The herd has been eating it for a month.”

Marcia kept her eyes on Laney’s overgrown, knitted brow. He looked into her eyes, anticipating the questions forming behind them. “They got the heads-up from the Canadian Agricultural Council about ten days ago. They tested fifteen cows and got five positive results.”         Marcia threw everything she knew or had heard about the disease into her next question. “But they’re dairy cows. Don’t you have to eat the meat of an infected cow to be at risk?”

“Would you drink milk from a mad cow?”

“Why did they bother to disinfect the enclosure when they knew the cows would be back out?”

“There were plans to bring in a new herd, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Mooing that would normally be lost to familiarity intruded upon Marcia’s table.

“Bovine spongiform encephalopathy,” he said.  “They’re all doomed. They’ll all be slaughtered on Friday.”

Marcia gulped, feeling like the marshmallow yams she’d made for dessert were suddenly out of the question. She thought about the cows, her neighbors, certain bossies she’d gotten to know, the expressions at once vacant and somehow knowing.

The stove timer dinged completion of the marshmallow yams. Heat flooded the small kitchen when she opened the oven door. She set the glass baking pan on a cooling rack.

Laney rose from the table, and for a span of second Marcia wondered if he was leaving. Instead, he went to the same window she’d stood vigil at the night she first noticed the changed schedule of the cows.

She walked over to him. “I know how much the dairy means to you.”

There was enough light thrown by the outbuilding lights to see the herd. But for a few outliers at the fence line, they clumped together in the center of the corral, switching tails and twitching ears, alert in their way for the next passing shower.  Laney turned, and he and Marcia embraced. A dry kiss. She smelled the clean, manly musk on his neck, her nipples hardening.

This was it, finally, and though the kiss stayed dry, and he pulled away first, more surprised at himself than she was, it was not a disappointment.

*

            Mandatory general meetings at I-VEE CyberSystems were rare, and the mandatory part was enforced with a capital M. Different departments had their own hierarchies and politics, but every now and then everyone was required to answer a company-wide memo. Marcia could remember three such meetings in her three years: with the arrival of a new interoffice computer system, when a new president was hired, and when the profit-sharing portfolios turned over. She’d sat next to Brian at that last assembly, an assembly at which he was informed that his company stock was worth over $100,000. At Brian’s urging, Marcia had gone out that next payday and become a shareholder herself, but the stock took a dive soon after and had remained flat ever since.

She sat in the exhibition hall with seventy-five coworkers and her immediate superior, Sue, who steadfastly refused to share whatever she knew about the reason for the meeting. The buzz hushed as CEO Morton Ziedman took the podium with a five o’clock shadow and a long face. He read from a prepared statement.

“My friends and coworkers, I come before you today with an unfortunate message to deliver. It is my duty to inform you that I-VEE will transfer its technical support operations outside the United States.”

The exhibition hall was as silent as one of the company’s micro-clean rooms on a weekend. Marcia glanced at Sue, who, for all her protestations of ignorance, seemed saddened but not surprised.

“Our executive board has determined that to remain competitive in a crowded information industry, we must cut the costs of doing business, streamline production, reduce overhead, and restructure our customer support arm to reflect global competition.”

The chief executive paused and looked out over the silent crowd. “I want to stress that the relocation has nothing to do with the quality of the Dammasch workforce.            We are proud of all you’ve accomplished here. I can assure you that in large part through your efforts, we’ve become a respected firm throughout the globe. Unfortunately, it is that very global marketplace that necessitates this decision.”

In the row before her, Marcia saw several women dabbing handkerchiefs to their eyes. She recalled the state of upheaval that had brought her to Dammasch three years ago, grieving her marriage. She had thought hard about having the sprawling dairy as a neighbor, had factored that there would be noise, like from Laney’s tractors, and scents wafting on the breeze. But the cottage was perfect, and there was, even at efficient Dammasch, that sense of a farm, all the bountiful associations of growth, sustenance, and life. Now, with women softly weeping all around her, and the men none too happy either, she wondered what this beautiful and unchanging place meant to them, and what the end of employment here portended for them.

Marcia was delivered from her reverie by Ziedman’s introduction of Operations Manager Richard Yee, a friendly supervisor who often visited Marcia’s cubicle asking, “How are things on the farm?” There was no friendly glint behind his glasses today, and he looked older, with sags and bags that she had never noticed before.

“We need qualified staffers to electronically train personnel at I-VEE’s new customer support center in Mumbai, India,” Yee said as the microphone shrilled a bit. “We understand that such a move is not feasible for most of you and that most of you will opt to immediately move on. We will be providing a severance package equal to earnings over two pay periods. We will support you in your efforts to seek new employment. Those qualified individuals who wish to stay may expect employment through this summer as we close down operations. All others can expect their last day to be March 1.”

Marcia glanced at her coworkers, the grim set of each jaw, their hanging heads, and at those who stared fixedly toward the stage. Sue was one of the latter, had always been a straightforward sort, and Marcia wondered if her take-charge, everything’s-possible supervisor would stay as long as the company needed her.

Yee continued with an uptick of enthusiasm. “I’m pleased to announce that I-VEE has also approved a limited program to retain some of our present staff. For those willing to accept relocation to Mumbai, we have twenty positions available in supervisory roles. Anyone interested can apply at the personnel office starting tomorrow. Any questions can also be referred to that department.”

Yee walked off amid an unhealthy-sounding murmur, yielding the microphone back to Ziedman.

“Again, we’re all very proud of you and what we’ve accomplished here and wish you the best in your future endeavors,” he said.

Marcia and Sue walked with a stream of shell-shocked cohorts back to their desks. Some were demonstrably angry, and several doors slammed. Though it was coming up on noon, the lunchroom remained deserted as the collective viscera absorbed the shock. Mary, an outspoken young woman who’d come aboard in the last year, was ostensibly talking only to her best friend, Naomi, by the water cooler, but her voice was loud enough for everyone in the hall to hear.“Retraining a bunch of foreigners,” she said, “so they can take our jobs.”

That night, Marcia’s insomnia returned with a vengeance. She’d lost sleep over such inconsequential things in the past. No, not inconsequential, but unformed, vague misgivings and fears about the future. Now, with two fully formed catastrophes at two corporations having disturbed the peace of her adopted hometown, a place she’d grown to love, she realized that her night sweats had been forewarnings of a sense of age and loneliness, which tugged at her like mud on boots.

She’d grown used to spending her life with a gigantic herd of cattle. Watching them grow from births that happened at all hours, broken water on straw while the herd masticated nearby. Watching them migrate to the summer corral each June and July, while the grass in the main corral was reseeded. She humored the heartstrings that tugged around the image of Laney, as if kissing his chapped lips was another as yet unformed change that was coming.

At dawn, her head ached horribly. Out the living room window rain-savaged hillocks marched toward granite cliffs that climbed each other’s backs down the county line. Laney had called after their sad dinner, at which they had managed to eat the marshmallow yams, and invited her on a daytrip to those gold-violet crags sometime in the near future. Marcia had accepted.

Thankful it was Saturday morning, she chased down two extra-strength Bayer aspirin with the flat water in a glass on her nightstand and soon fell back asleep.

 *

            “Aren’t we a fine pair?” said Laney at Marcia’s table in his work clothes, his square shoulders sagging. His pink slip lay on the floral-print tablecloth. It was a cloudy noon on a Thursday, and he had punched out for the last time. Marcia had taken a sick day to mull over her own choices, and, not wanting to upstage his upheaval with her own, had revealed to him only last night on the telephone the particulars of her company’s global retrenchment. Also on the table was the afternoon edition of the Dammasch Register he’d brought with him, whose front-page headline topped the latest in a series of reports about the trouble besetting Dammasch Farms: “State Probe Into Canadian Feed Approved by Governor.”  Marcia scanned the story after putting the kettle on the stove.

She had worriedly made an appointment with her doctor about the Dammasch products she’d eaten in the last month, though she had assured Marcia that the chance of infection from eating pasteurized dairy was infinitesimal. Laney had embraced her upon hearing of Marcia’s clean bill of health.

“I don’t know much about such things, but I’m so relieved to hear you’re OK. God willing, no one will get sick.”

“Says here they’re going to take the opportunity of the shutdown to completely retrofit and modernize the plant,” Marcia went on, looking for the silver lining she’d been unable to find in her own looming unemployment. “Perhaps you’ll get your job back.”

“I suppose it’s possible.”

Only one hour and Marcia was already sensing the self-doubt that comes to men without work. All the worse for a man like Laney Thomas, a master of his own worth through unquestioning labor.

“You know that farm inside and out,” said Marcia as the kettle whistled.

Marcia placed the tea in front of him. “What are you going to do?”

Laney took a sip. “Well, I’ve got my unemployment, and I’ll see if I can get some pickup work at a smaller farm. But there are thirty guys in the same boat I’m in, and many of them have families.” He looked up. “What about you?”

Marcia walked around to him and, taking the kind of chance a woman takes when she and the man she wants to be her man are facing the first real challenge of their relationship, moved her own chair close enough to allow her scent to reach him. “Oh, I suppose I’ll retrain Mary Finklesteen’s foreigners till summer and then collect my unemployment while I look for work.”

He placed his arm around her shoulder, drawing her closer. They kissed, and the arousal that had passed between them returned. When the phone rang on the wall by the back door,

Marcia made no move to answer it.

There was an appealing proportion to his wiry limbs and compact body. His hands were calloused where they’d been chaffed against steel handles and the melt plastic of steering wheels, and she didn’t mind how they snagged on her peasant blouse. Marcia pulled her blouse up over her head, unclasped her bra, and gave Laney his look at her breasts. She noticed a bulge stirring under his canvass pants, kissing him again. Finally, some holdout intransigence within him snapped, and he took one of her breasts in his mouth. His arms were suddenly strong around her; his hands found the abundance of buttocks made full from walking and sitting in equal parts. He had never been in her bedroom before, and with a thrust he entered her. She answered with her own female rut back at him.

As he reached a plateau that seemed it could go on forever, she released, suddenly confident of his cock, swept by numb pleasure, biting his shoulder seconds before he plowed her with a gasp, his head thrown back.

“Laney,” she murmured in his ear.

Later, after sundown but not quite into full darkness, they emerged from interlocked sleep. “How strange to think that on Monday I won’t be needed,” said Laney.

Marcia smiled. “I don’t know about that.”

They dressed doubtfully, cows mooing out the window, not sure what came next. Marcia flipped on two small lamps in the kitchen.

“Let’s take a walk,” she said.

The lights of Dammasch Farms went on, and they held each other again, her leaning back against the white planks of the fence. One lone cow had walked down the line and stood watching two upright and melded creatures outside her life’s enclosure. Big brown spotted sort she was, with two big brown eyes and two yellow horns curved inward like an unjoined halo above her head.

“Let’s take that drive tomorrow, get away from all this,” he said.

“Okay.”

The cow watched as Marcia kissed Laney again, warm and sad.

*

            The sun-drenched clarity of the following morning was painful because the promise of it would not be fulfilled. There was lots of rain due in these parts before any claim could be made of good weather. Marcia let her eyes and skin bask in the sunlight. The herd was a watercolor still life but for the languorous flap of tails. Laney had left in the wee hours, home to get a shave and change of clothes for his first Friday of unemployment. As the widow Meyers’s rooster crowed from half a mile down the frontage road, he pulled up again to Marcia’s cottage in his mustard-toned Pontiac sedan. Marcia was ready in jeans and hiking boots, with a white Dale Evans buttoned country shirt. Before he could get turned around in the gravel driveway, a flatbed truck piled with tree limbs and branches rumbled past. Men were waiting and opened the frontage gate to let the truck in. They both watched from the front seat as the truck tilted and dropped its load in the center of the main corral. Laney pulled away silently, and it dawned on her that they had witnessed the creation of a pyre.

They came out of the Food Bin with grapes, bread, bottled water, and a bottle of wine. Marcia had noticed Frank stocking the dairy case with Alpine Glow cheeses, half-and-half, and whipped cream. Erma had skipped her usual repartee, offering only a sly smile at the kind of purchases she knew were not Marcia’s typical fare. Parked in front of city hall was a TV news truck from KBTZ.

*

            February mists rode the spine of the upland plateau, now and again drawing away to reveal granite promontories in stark sunlight. “Gorgeous,” said Marcia as Laney slowed for shaded hairpin turns still coated in frost. He took an unimproved road into the forest and drove so deep into the bush that the wintery whips of dormant willows trailed over the roof like sweeps in a carwash. The forest opened out into a meadow on a gentle slope surrounded by a natural amphitheater of rising rock.

“We’re here,” said Laney, pulling off the road.

They stepped away from the stopped engine and heard a creek’s onrush in the gully below. An owl hooted invisibly from behind a sunny curtain of pungent fir.

They walked around the edge of the meadow, returning to Laney’s youthful haunts. He’d been coming to this spot since he was a boy. His parents, a Welsh farmer and his Irish wife, had accepted a generous offer from Dammasch Farms in the seventies and retired to a vintage saltbox on a quiet street near their new physician’s office in Worthington’s old downtown. They’d died within four months of each other, a distant eighteen years ago now, Laney’s father first, and reposed in what had been two of the last spots available at Whispering Oak Cemetery, a pioneer burial ground Laney and Marcia had passed that morning, where the highway starts its climb. His older brothers had long ago left the region and called at Christmas and Easter, but he had not seen them since their mother’s funeral.

As Laney took Marcia’s hand, she imagined the skinny, sun-browned boy he must have been. A boy-to-man who found peace in the land and the integral workings of machines. They walked down to the creek, which carried the first white-furrowed rushes of snowmelt, then back up, he grabbing her arm as she nearly turned her ankle in a gopher hole. After spreading a camp blanket on a plot of winter grass at the crest of the hill, Marcia excused herself to pee in the woods. She found a hidden a wall of rock that had taken the brunt of morning sun, leaned back and luxuriated in the natural warmth, felt an excitement aroused by the scent of humid duff that sprouted blossoms, and the man she knew was nearby.

They uncorked the wine and poured it into plastic glasses. Laney offered a comfortably banal toast to new beginnings. But he was hard already as they undressed, and she offered herself under the warm sun, for the hawk’s sentient approval, for the creek rushing below, and for the owl’s silence.

Sad, obsolete, past his prime, she held on, now, now—

Over.

*

            Smoke rose as they descended the high country. Burning cores of Halloween orange and sunburn raging up into licks of smoky flame. Marcia watched a distant conflagration she knew was in her own backyard.

A barbeque aroma permeated everything in Dammasch proper, the best and worst smell the dairy had ever produced. By the time they reached the frontage road, a maelstrom of blister-pink illuminated dairy buildings like emptied shrines. Blood ghosts infiltrated the stand of elm by widow Meyers’s farmhouse. Now horns, now hooves, and sizzling ribs. The fiery sockets of cow skulls.

A few workers toiled, raking back ash heaps, rounding up the glowing bones that shot smoldering from the center and threatened to alight again. Marcia was not expecting it, the spontaneous combustion, tears, like the last fluid left in her, trackingher face through flakes of char that had begun to settle on everything.

.                                                                       *

The tip of the silvery wing glinted as the jet made a long, slow turn in the sky. An alarming throttle-down made it seem as if the monstrous 747 had stalled in midair. Two overhead storage compartments fell open violently as the jet flexed, causing one woman to scream and two others to answer with screams of their own.

A stewardess left her belted seat near the galley to restore the carry-on luggage and close the compartments. Thousands of feet below was a sprawling brown metropolis. They flew over an inconceivable pan of human habitation stretched to the precipice of the desert. The jet touched down, roaring with a final throat-catching back-thrust.

“Welcome to Mumbai.”

Laney was on the aisle and wrangled Marcia into an eagerly waiting line of hostel-bound students with backpacks, travelers with veiled wives, and collections of Asian and European tourists. As a Korean Airlines flight attendant with alabaster skin bade them farewell with a wave, Marcia made the discreet sign of the cross she always made when her flight ended. After making their way through throngs and descending mobbed escalators, they found their luggage on the carousel and walked outside into the blast of heat and white sun. A scent of jet fumes, suspect water, and an undercurrent of sewage greeted her nostrils. Instantly, she was sweating, her upper lip ticklish, her undergarments suddenly too close. It was a city her mother had always referred to as Bombay. She had one week to settle in and prepare to begin her new job at I-VEE CyberSystems International.

Laney was a different kind of handsome in his sunglasses, her love for him made final somehow by the far-flung adventure that had befallen them. His grace period was definitely more open-ended, and probably permanent.

******

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