Floodgate

June 14, 2018

Inside this barn, I could be fooled into thinking everyone is where they’re supposed to be. All I hear is the milking machine. Milk sloshes into the glass tank, and the cows breathe. It’s humid tonight. The cows’ breath blows out like steam under the bare light bulbs. Everything seems simple in here. The cats know it. They lick their paws and curl up on hay bales. I could almost believe we’re all safe. It feels safe with smells you can count on, hay, manure, piss. But take a look out the door and see what was destroyed all around us in this one day.

The barn’s okay. The flood didn’t crap up the white trim, and the tall part where the pigeons get in still points toward heaven. Dickinson Farm has been the only dairy farm in the valley for a while now.

Mikey says I am one lucky SOB to have this job as a farmhand. Or, she says, maybe the Dickinsons are lucky. They could’ve rented a backhoe, but that would’ve cost them. That’s her joke about how strong I am.

The guy on the radio says, Who else could punish the gays with storms like today’s but God? He did with AIDS, and 9/11, and now this flood. My boss, Don, turns off the radio and says not to believe everything I hear. Think it through, Tyler, he says. What is the evidence? What can you be sure of?

Mikey says I’m no philosopher. Mikey says to make a list when it’s hard to think.

1. Mikey is missing.
2. Yesterday, I did something I regret so bad I can hardly think of anything else.
3. Today a hurricane came to the mountains.
4. Hurricanes don’t belong in the mountains.
5. The guy on the radio says that everything that happened is part of God’s plan.

It’s hard to believe that this morning the storm just seemed like any old heavy rain. While I fed the calves their bottles, I watched the raindrops sliding down the edge of the barn roof near where the spiders hang. Drips flew off like in the TV ad for joining the Marines. One drop after another bailed out into the air and was gone. Just as gone as Mikey.

When I drove home during lunch break to see if she’d come back, the rain gauge on my trailer already said five inches. I miss her pointy chin and the way she squints when she looks at me. I miss the baby that makes her belly stick out. I miss her butterfly tattoo that she calls her tramp stamp and the smell of her gum and the smooth skin of her legs, and her tiny feet in those sandals that clap her heels when she walks.

Yesterday I hurt her, and I am not like that. It was just that one time. I promise God I will not do it again, ever.

But God. He is like the smartest one in school. Those kids were never nice to me. I kept trying to be part of what they were doing, but all that trying made me feel like an animal in a trap. Maybe not a leg hold, but a Hav-a-hart. They called me fat and stupid, and my mind paced back and forth, back and forth, trying everything for them to like me. That’s how Mikey made me feel yesterday.

Don says it takes a certain kind of smarts to work hard and pay attention to the animals the way I do and to be kind and gentle like I am. Only, I wasn’t kind and gentle yesterday when Mikey told me no, she won’t be keeping her baby. No, Tyler, I won’t be doing that, she said.

On my way back to the barn after lunch, my wipers couldn’t slap fast enough. The river was so high it rubbed the belly of the bridge. She wasn’t at Mooselips Lounge, where she works. Not last night and not at my lunch break. I hoped she was behind the bar, reaching for glasses and pouring drinks. I really wanted to see her, listening to the guys on their stools with her eyebrow up—that way she does—ready for the next raunchy joke, but no one had seen her.

Then I’d finished feeding the calves, and I needed Don’s son, Matt, to tell me what to do. Matt hardly says anything, but he knows what’s next. He’s a good guy but not friendly. I found his father and him and his younger sister, Chrissy, who everyone knows aced Ag School, standing under the barn roof overhang. They looked down across the field through the rain, toward the river. I’ve worked for the Dickinsons for two years and never seen them all stop work and just stand still like that. They stood with their thumbs in their jean pockets—Don, the dad, the tallest, in the middle. Don is solid. He is used to making hard decisions and used to making do. With them standing in a row it didn’t take much to see those people are related. Chrissy has carrot-colored hair and Matt has a dark beard, but they’re sturdy like their father. Both kids wear muck boots. Mine are lace-ups like their dad’s. When Don goes into the farmhouse, he undoes his laces and takes his boots off so he won’t track manure in. When he comes out of the house and puts his boots back on, he does them up again all the way to the top. That’s what I do, too. He doesn’t work as much since his accident. He never complains about the pain.

His wife helps make ends meet by taking in guests from the city who don’t know about life on a farm. Right now, she has a houseful of people. They thought they’d miss the hurricane by coming to the mountains.

When I joined them, Don and Matt and Chrissy were watching the river creeping higher. That was feed corn in the fields below the barn. We mix it into cow mash all winter long. Don once told me that in the hundred-year flood—when I was about eleven, which was ten years ago and not a hundred—the river washed a foot of gravel over the fields and killed all his corn. Mikey was thirteen then, but I didn’t know her. It’s my fault she isn’t at home. I can’t believe it.

She jokes that she lives with me because no one else was enough of a sap to take her in. She was pregnant when her landlord kicked her out last spring. She didn’t have anywhere to go. She moved in with me that same day. Her baby isn’t mine. Yesterday, she told me the baby belongs to people in New York City. I thought she was kidding. She said she probably should have told me sooner, but it wasn’t really anyone’s business but her own. I said I wanted to marry her and take care of them both. She said, Didn’t I tell you not to get any big ideas about me? I meant it. She said, I’m no mother, and, besides, it’s not mine to keep.

But that’s just not right. It’s in her, right? It’s her bladder that baby’s pushing against that wakes us up so many times at night. It’s her tight skin I feel when the baby’s kicking. Not some lady’s in New York City. I said if she didn’t want to marry me, we could be partners. Aren’t we already partners? I said. She said, see there: another one of your wild ideas. Quit having those. Didn’t I warn you about that?

Standing under the eaves, Chrissy wondered out loud about how to anchor something, maybe old tires, to make a berm to keep the water out of the corn. Did they have enough old tires to make a difference? Matt said there was nothing we could do to stop a flood. His voice was tight. I said, Are you guys arguing? Don said they were just having a desperate debate. Matt said, There’s nothing to debate, and turned back to the barn. Chrissy looked at her feet. Chrissy drives to Burlington twice a month to play ice hockey. Whenever she goes, Matt slow-shakes his head, not smiling. Maybe that’s his way of being surprised. He did it when he found out Mikey Arbiteau was living with me, Tyler Stevens.

I thought about all that corn getting ruined. It made me sick to my stomach. The Dickinsons would have to buy feed corn so the cows would be okay over the winter. If they had to buy feed, how would they be able to pay me? Why should I be the one God punished for the gays? The only gay I know is Andrew in the hardware store. Over his cash register, Andrew has a picture of two men wearing short leather shorts and suspenders. I don’t talk to him, except to answer politely like Don does.

Then I thought maybe I am being punished for hurting Mikey. But if she heard me, she’d say, You think this storm is about you? When did you ever get so important? Ever heard of climate change?

The guy on the radio says that’s nothing but a hoax.

The corn had another two weeks to go before it was ready. I said maybe we could save it by cutting it right then. I could feel the tractor wheel in my hand already. I love that machine, and it has a cab that would keep me dry. Chrissy said, Tyler, unripe corn’s no good for the cows, and what’s no good for the cows is no good for us. She says something like that to me about once a day. She also says if I wasn’t so good-looking I never would’ve gotten the job. That’s kind of funny because I mostly just think of her as being one of the boys.

Mikey says if I were a view, she’d want a picture window. I can hold her like a baby in one arm. She only weighs ninety-eight pounds when she isn’t pregnant. She says everyone wants me for my body, even the Dickinsons. That’s another one of her jokes. Chrissy says to think again about what Mikey’s hanging around with me for.

Chrissy told me to move all the machines up to the higher ground above the farmhouse. The air smelled like metal, like before a thunderstorm, but already the rain couldn’t fall any harder or faster. Even in a slicker, I got soaked. With the hood pulled tight over my ears, I could hear the river pounding. It sounded like a train. While I was out there, the power went down.

Chrissy’s face turned red with her trying to power up the generator. She took the front panel off. I didn’t know what to do to help. I wished I did. She was so mad; she mashed her curly hair down on her head like she was trying to stuff a rabbit back in the hutch. She talks more than Matt, mostly about improving milk production. Chrissy wins national breeders' competitions almost every year. She decides which cows they’ll breed. Her blue ribbons line the whole front wall of the barn. She says she is going for udders with sound conformation so they can hold more milk. The perfect cow would be a mouth, a digestive system, and a nice big sturdy udder, and they wouldn’t have feet or legs at all because feet get rot and legs go lame. That makes her sound cold, but she loves those cows like her babies. She knows the great-grandmother and grandmother and mother of every one of them.

Matt was checking on a springing heifer in the birthing stall. He hollered at his sister, Quit studying the thing, it just needs jostling. Chrissy said back, Jostle this! I just need a flashlight. She let the shop door slam behind her.

The milking machines draw a lot of power. Cow udders hurt when they don’t get milked on time. While Chrissy was gone, Matt kicked the generator and it started right up.

Don and I splashed out to tighten the tarps over the manure piles. The river was coming around the bridge into the corn. There was no place else for the water to go. The tassels shivered and then the stalks did a line dance before they tipped over and got sucked under. It’s hard to explain, and it hurt to see. It was like each stalk bowed to us before it drowned.

I thought maybe God had kicked over the water towers in heaven. How else would you explain more than an inch of rain an hour all day long? That’s a kind of evidence, isn’t it?

The house and barn are set up from the river. The heifer shed was down closer to the river. Where the water ran off the hill it cut between the house and the heifer shed. It poured over the grass like a silver sheet. Don was keeping his eye on the heifer shed. Floods had never reached it. He said he wasn’t worried yet. I didn’t admit I was worrying about anything either.

Mikey may be small, but you should see her slam-dunk a person just by talking. Yesterday, Mikey told me that her baby’s DNA is not her DNA. I hear a lot about DNA when Ward Winter comes by the barn to sell bull sperm. There are always jerk-off jokes when Ward’s around. Mikey said the New York people are giving her money for birthing the baby. I said that’s not right. She should not sell a baby. She said the baby was never hers. They were just paying for her body. I said, YOU SHOULD NOT SELL YOUR BODY either. She said they’re just paying rent on her body, and she gets it back when the baby’s done with it. Her saying she was renting herself out, started a scary sort of thundering inside me. That’s when I should have tried making a list of things I’m sure of. But I didn’t.

Don said we were going to have to deal with the water coming through from higher in the valley. With the stump of one of the fingers he lost, he pointed at the sky—which was not very far up—and said, Plus whatever’s left up there. He is a good man. He stays calm and thinks things through. He is sometimes surprised, like the time the tractor rolled, but he bears up.

We began milking early, around three p.m. It took a while because the generator could only run one of the milking machines. Chrissy and Matt wouldn’t even use the same pot of teat dip. The gutter cleaner couldn’t run off the generator at the same time as the milking machine, so they needed me mucking out and pushing the shit down the chute with a shovel. It was humid work.

Don never says anything loud. Even when he raises his voice above the sound of the milking machines, he isn’t harsh. The way you know Don is riled is he opens his eyes wider behind his glasses. He tapped me on the shoulder and said, River’s coming for the heifer shed. I’ll clean up here, and we can do the rest later. You go on out and help.

The yard around the house looked fine—wet, but normal. Between the house and the heifer shed the wide gully was beginning to fill with water. Back of the heifer shed, the river was going crazy. That water churned up a strong smell of dirt. The idea was to move the heifers across the gully, past the house, up to the main cow barn. Chrissy said, Let’s move a little faster, Tyler. You start with the calves.

The heifers range in size from the yearlings about ready to be bred down to the ones just big enough to be on their own. There were about twenty, all different sizes, and two calves—in a roped-off corner of the shed—still too young to be with the bigger girls. When they’re that young, they’re goofy and wild. Either they think you have milk for them and follow you, or they think you’re scary. Then they jump out of reach with their heels and elbows sticking out every which way.

Matt backed the pickup with the market trailer over to Chrissy at the heifer shed. Chrissy called and the heifers came to her, but they wouldn’t get in the trailer. She tried walking with them, but they’d go a few steps, and then they’d stop and stand stiff. They didn’t want to leave their home even though the water was rising all around it. Matt slapped their butts to get them moving, but they wouldn’t budge more than a step or two, and only sideways.

I grabbed an empty feeding bottle and tried tricking the calves by holding it out to them. One spooked. I grabbed the other one and swung her up around my neck. She weighed a little more than a bag of seed. I ran through the downpour, through the gully that was filling with water, past the house for the big barn. Her wet tummy hair itched the back of my neck. Her legs bucked like crazy against my hold on her. I carried Mikey like that before her belly got too big. It pissed her off to be tossed up there. The baby is due in two weeks. She started her talk with me yesterday saying she would be riding a bus today to stay with those people in New York until the baby came. I just wish I knew where she went, because I checked at the bus station after I checked at the bar, and the buses aren’t running. When she moved into my place, she said she didn’t have friends who’d put her up because no one could put up with her. So where did she go?

I never thought I could be with a girl as hot as Mikey. She is so special. It wasn’t just that I wished I’d been able to not hit her. It’s worse than that. She has three rules, and the very first one is: don’t stay with anyone who hits you.

Whatever happens will be my own fault because I wasn’t able to stop myself. My arm had its own engine that kicked in and didn’t care how much I love her. All that horsepower was revving in my arm, go, go, go, go. The sound of my hand landing is something I can’t describe because if I tried, I would have to think about it even harder. Once my arm went, I couldn’t stop a thing.

Don had spread hay in the big barn’s tool shed to make a dry room for the calves. I plunked that first one’s bitty hooves down and ducked out from under.

The water’d reached the footings of the heifer shed. The river beyond pounded like thunder. Don says usually the White River at that bend measures about fifty feet across bank to bank and between two and four feet deep. It was a couple of cornfields across by then, and there was no sign of the bridge. Matt whooped. The heifers scooted around in a big circle instead of climbing into the trailer, and they had Chrissy surrounded. I hoisted the last calf around my neck. Matt shouted, We got to get the truck out of here. Chrissy yelled back, You’d save the truck before the animals?

Don watched from the lawn by the house. He shouted across the rising water to where I stood by the heifer shed, Tyler, why don’t you send that little shaver over, and get that truck out of there.

The way the water was coming up, I had to make her swim. I gave her a shove-off. Her eyes were so big that if it hadn’t been for the bellyful of methane that keeps even the littlest cow on top of the water, I could have thought it was her eyes that kept her floating. Don pulled her up on his side.

I pushed through the water and swung myself up into the truck. It started, but the tires spun in the soup. In no time, Don came backing the tractor down to the water’s edge and hitched it to the truck. No one ever hooked a tractor up so fast. Don and the tractor pulled the pickup, dragging the empty trailer, through the rising water up to dry ground.

Chrissy worked the heifers like a cattle dog. They didn’t want to swim across to dry land any more than they’d wanted to get in the trailer. They made a racket and rolled their eyes, and bumped into one another and acted stupid. And one near Chrissy turned and splashed toward the last dry patch in the shed, so then they all went back in. Matt said a string of words stronger than even Mikey would say and waded across the gully to the house. It was up to his chest. He yelled over his shoulder that he was going for help from the goddamn flatlanders.

The way he looked made me think of the last time Mikey borrowed my truck and came to pick me up after work. Matt came to the window while she was sliding into the passenger seat, and said, What are you doing, Mikey? She said, Nothing. He said, Taking advantage? She said, Nice to see you, too, Matt. Let’s go, Tyler. Matt stared at her and pointed his first two fingers at his eyes and then pointed them at her. Afterwards, she said they’d had a couple of dates in high school and hadn’t gotten along even back then.

Out the back of the shed the river looked like a really wide muddy waterfall falling sideways. Water was also cutting down from the hill above the house and swirling into the river water rising in the gully. I prayed Mikey was safe and dry. I could see her soaked through, holding her jacket tight around her, standing by the side of the road.

That was how I first met her. I’d just left a load at the dump, and it had started raining, and she was hitchhiking with all of her bags bunched up on the roadside. She wore her winter parka even though it was mud season and sixty degrees out. She smelled amazing and she was so tiny I could barely think of anything. Her hair made her head look big, but in a good way. She wore leopard-print pants. It was like I had a wild cat, like I’ve only seen on nature shows, in my truck. She said, I’m so fucking late. You are a really nice guy to pick me up, but could you drive faster? I joked, It looks like you are moving out. Then I was embarrassed because that turned out to be true, and she had no place to go after her shift at the bar. She asked if I had room where I live.

Yesterday, when she said she’d be using the money to buy a car, I suddenly saw her trading her baby for a set of wheels. I said, You are going against God. Don’t you know He’s watching? She said, You don’t know one thing about anything outside this valley, do you? Her eyes looked like hawk eyes, like she could see a long way into me. And that’s when she said, Tyler, can you spell surrogate? She said it like one of the mean kids. Can you even say the word?

When Mikey said that, for a second, I stopped being me. I wasn’t anywhere. Some other quicker guy slipped in and hit the only girl who ever acted like she liked me. She grabbed her face and fell onto the couch, but she barely touched down. She scooted past me and scooped up her bag and turned to look at me once quick over her shoulder and was out the door. Maybe if she’d said something. She always has something to say. But she didn’t. Just that look over her shoulder, like she was gone already.

Mrs. Dickinson has a loud sweet voice. When she answers the phone in the kitchen, it’s like a song: Good MORning, DICKinson FA-ARM. But the rain and the river were so loud we could barely hear her bossing her guests in their fancy rain slickers. She pointed to where they should stand, in rows, making two human fences to guide the heifers past the house and into the barn. Made me think of Red Rover, Red Rover, the only school game the kids ever wanted me for. Matt and Don moved the guests around and made a lane for the heifers right to the main barn door. By then the shed was an island, and the water was still coming up. Our heifers started lowing. Chrissy cooed and pretended she was calm for their sakes. It helped me to hear her talking cow talk.

Matt swam from the house lawn back across the gully—which was getting wider and deeper—to where we waited in the shed. He’d taken his shirt and boots off. He swam like a kid, swinging side to side, splashing. The heifers tried to back up. They bunched together, up to their knees. They shied from him. The river, or I don’t know, it wasn’t a river anymore with banks or anything, I’m just calling it the river because it was moving the fastest—that part was on the far side of the heifer shed. Between the shed and the lawn where the guests waited to funnel the heifers to the barn was a little quieter. But a tire swirled out of there past us and shot into a new current that bent into the trees.

Matt should have been in the back with me right from the start, but there was a huge crashing sound. A tree must have gone down around the bend, and both Chrissy and Matt splashed in and started swimming for the house.

It worked fine while I could keep my feet under me. I didn’t have to do much but tap a few of the heifers’ behinds. Those girls finally saw the water was coming for them, and they wanted to be with Chrissy. Even though they rolled their eyes, their cow brains clicked into working together. We swam over the ground where we slaughter turkeys just before Thanksgiving, and on toward the farmhouse lawn. The water smelled like chemicals. The little cows paddled ahead of me. Their ears leaned forward and their backs lined up. Off to our left, the sugarhouse was up to its eaves in swirling brown water. It must have been twisting the current like a stone in a brook. The water pushed one of the girls closer to Matt than she wanted to be. His way of swimming would scare anyone. She got off course. She started drifting toward the river’s main current, like a barge into the wrong lane. She slid sideways. Her head was almost all white, which helped me keep track of her even with so much stinging rain in my eyes. In no time, she was behind me. I tried to get around behind her. That water was so cold, my legs felt stiff as trees. The pull of the river forced me into using everything I got. I just had to. We were in a mess of mean-looking waves. The water pulled hard on my clothes. I had grit between my teeth, and the taste was like starter fluid. I kept thinking how crazy I would go if I lost that little girl. I tried to make a list that was sort of a prayer.

1. I don’t know anything.
2. What’s my evidence?
3. He knows everything.
4. What’s my evidence? He has a plan.
5. Which I don’t get.

My thoughts wouldn’t stick; they blew apart like fog breaking away in the high beams of my truck.

6. I am sorry.

That heifer’s face and hips had squared up the way they do as they grow, but she wasn’t near grown. A pint-sized cow dragged in a direction she wasn’t facing. A whole tree bounced past us, roots first. I swam as hard as I could, and I couldn’t get downriver of her. I tried to lunge and grab her. I wished I’d taken my boots off.

Out in the center of the river, a propane tank, sized for a house, skidded past like a cork, going about thirty miles an hour. When I saw that, the noise I hadn’t paid attention to came clear. The Dickinsons were yelling from the lawn by the house, “Tyler!” Waving me toward them. “Let her go!”

This is hard to tell. She kept facing me while she got sucked into the flow. I never really had a chance. She twisted to show me the white of her eye.