The cowherd

Posted by jdg | Monday, October 09, 2006 | ,

A week or two ago I drove my daughter practically down to the state line for the last county fair in the state of Michigan this year.

Walking there among the 4-H barns, smelling the long-forgotten musk of cowshit and hay, I felt like what all the farmers thought I was: a city slicker who didn't know a steer from a heifer. I am sensitive about this. I respect farmers a great deal; I appreciate people who know exactly where their meat comes from. In fact, I idealize these people so much that I tend to see nothing of their backwards, troop supporting, nu-country-listening ways. And the County Fair is like pornography that feeds this idealism. I always leave plotting out the hobby farm where Wood and I will raise Juniper once we've grown tired of city life. It's really a sickness.

It's a lifelong sickness that once drove me to indentured servitude on an Irish cattle farm for three months. Back in the summer of 1998 I received free room and board on a farm in County Clare in exchange for work. When I signed up, the work was supposed to involve clearing cattle yards and piling rocks to form those lovely old walls you see in the west of Ireland, you know: hearty, rain-drenched honest work, the kind of work that would give me callouses and muscles and let me go to bed proud and smelling faintly of manure and Guinness. Unfortunately, the farm I signed up to work for doubled as a bed and breakfast, so in the mornings I was a chambermaid: changing linens, wiping pubic hairs down the drain in the shower, and emptying the wastebins of condoms that the hot German tourists had used to efficiently fuck their hot German women while I slept in the barn, my room partitioned off from the paid help, an ageless devout Catholic woman with fifteen brothers and sisters who was the most hideous creature to crawl out from under the burren since Neolithic times, and whose guilt-ridden sobbing masturbation sessions chilled me to the bone three nights a week. During the day she complained about our work incessantly, but the moment I chimed in to agree with her she told me to shut my mouth because I was lucky: her last job was at a pub in Ennistymon cleaning up the puke in the men's bathroom every night. I was like "Dude, your economy sucks."

In the afternoon I would go out and literally herd cows, moving them on the narrow back roads from tiny stone-walled field to tiny stone-walled field, counting them constantly, mending the walls, and sneaking off to drink with the staff at the hotel down the road from the fields. It was my most pretentious summer among many pretentious summers. I would wear knee-high Wellington boots and swat the giant castles of flesh with a stick when they strayed to eat grass on the side of the road. One time some German tourists even stopped to take my picture. I wished at the time I'd given them my camera, snug in my pocket, for a snapshot or two.

The 80-year-old lady who ran the farm while her daughter-in-law was off somewhere on a bender told me she thought it was a scandal what her daughter-in-law was doing with me, and that she considered it slavery. Every week she slipped me a twenty pound note, which I promptly spent at the pub. Her name was Tessie. She was obsessed with the belief that Cancer hid and crept everywhere. I once heard her scolding a young guest for picking at a pimple:

"Don't be picking at those spots now, sure that will give you the Cancer."

While I was in the vegetable garden she showed me a particular weed: "They call that the horse's mane; 'tis awful, will give you the Cancer for sure."

Tessie was as round as she was tall. She stumbled around the farmhouse all day, complaining about the guests or the weather, which was always Irish and always the same. Never in my life, though, had I heard so many discussions about the weather and the moon as I did when I lived among these farmers. Tessie's room was decorated with thousands of images of the saints. She was like the Martha Stewart of haggiography. She had a chronic ulcer on her left calf that needed to be cleaned and wrapped in Dublin every two weeks, and she had to take the bus from Galway. One time she tried to clean it herself. When I walked in she shouted at me to get out of her room. It smelled like roadkill.

Tessie made my breakfast every day: three eggs, two pieces of thickly-sliced bacon, rashers, blood pudding and baked beans, all served with tea and her fresh-baked soda bread with blackcurrant jam. Apparently she was more concerned with the Cancer than the heart disease.

One day early in my tenure I was relieved of my chambermaid duties and told to unclog the slurry. The slurry was a deep pit under the barn where the cowshit fell through grates in the floor. The cows were kept inside all winter, and the shit had been drying under a thick crust since the previous May. It was like a shit-flavored Creme Brulee. I held a hose over the slurry and used a long pipe to plunge in and out of the gurgling stew. I would occasionally bend over and peer into the depths to see if I was making any progress. The methane from the agitated slop made my head heavy. Tessie yelled at me from the window, "Mind yourself, crater. The gases from in there will give you the Cancer."

When I was unable to unclog the slurry, a guy named Lawrence Shaloo came to suck it all out. Lawrence Shaloo was a young man in his early twenties, committed to a career in emptying slurries. I never asked him how he spelled his last name. He's not the kind of guy you'd ask. In response to a suggestion that he was an eligible bachelor, another girl who worked on the farm said the only beautiful thing about Lawrence Shaloo was his name. He drove his dirty truck into the barnyard, pulled out a big hose and dropped it in the slurry. If he's lucky all he has to do is flip a switch and, after it's empty, drive away. In most cases, though, he has to put on waders and jump in himself. This was one of those times. In my attempts to loosen the shit, I had filled the slurry with hundreds of gallons of water, and he was able to slosh around down there pretty good. He told me to keep the water running and keep plunging.

At night sometimes I would sit in the kitchen and watch television, but there was only one spliced cable jack for the house and everybody was subject to the whim of old Tessie up in the all-saints room with her remote control. I would helplessly watch horrible Irish cooking programs get switched over to the Galway races for a few seconds until she flipped to the news and then settled on some melodramatic movie. She loved talking to the characters as if they could heed her advice. One night I returned from shoveling shit somewhere and she had cabbage soaking and she was sitting entranced in front of the kitchen television. She was watching the 1976 King Kong remake with the Dude and Jessica Lange. "What are you watching, Tessie?" I asked her.

"Sure it's a fi-lim about a big monkey, climbing up this yoke or another."

"Is it King-Kong?"

"Hmm. He's a terrible monkey. They're trying to kill 'em."

"Who's that woman?"

"Sure that's his girlfriend. Oh she found him in the jungle and he saved her. She and that monkey are best friends. He loves her." King-Kong climbed the building, swatting at planes. Tessie's eyes never left the screen. She tersely ordered the monkey to put that woman down, to run back to the jungle.

Tessie's middle-aged daughter-in-law, who ran the farm's day to day business, came home from her bender a couple weeks after I first arrived. Irish benders, it turns out, are considerably longer than American ones. The first thing I saw when she returned was her red key chain hanging by the door. It read: Sexy bitches carry red key chains.

But she's another story altogether, along with the guy who helped me break up a fight between two old Hereford bulls and the time I stuck my arm up to its elbow in cow vagina. Yep, those stories are for another day.