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Wash. Rinse. Repeat. MAG
Beep beep. Beep beep. Beep beep.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008, 5:30 a.m.: I'm not sure if I'm awake. I can't see light coming through my window, I can't hear my mom talking on the phone, and the air feels heavy. I feel like there's a thick gray cloud around my mind. And that beeping … how annoying. I am awake.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Thursday, June 5, 2008, 5:30 a.m.: That beeping again. I'm definitely awake.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
If I have to get up every morning at 5:30 to do chores, that means it's summer. In fact, it's not just this summer, but every summer since I was eight. Lying in bed, I picture Mary riding a donkey all the way to Bethlehem, pregnant, through the desert under a hot sun (a trick my fifth-grade teacher taught me), and finally I get up. I wake my dad, then trek down to the barn.
I step outside, and slip on my uncomfortable, manure-covered boots. Although I was loath to get out of bed, there truly is nothing like waking up on a farm. The ghostly mist hangs just above the hayfields, the slight breeze, and the sounds of a bleating calf make up the eighth wonder of the world. All that disappears when I get to the barn with toads and mice lurking in every crevice. I jump over the step in case there's a critter underneath and run into the steer pen, where these creatures dare not tread for fear of the 1,300-pound beasts.
I grab the dusty halters from the hook and cautiously enter the pen, terrified one of the steer will decide he's had enough and charge me. I momentarily forget that animals can sense fear, so it takes me an extra 15 minutes to get their halters on.
Then, I lead the steer out of the barn one at a time. As always, there's one stubborn animal that doesn't want to walk, and I must literally drag him. Another 10 minutes wasted. I'll never get done with all my chores!
After the steer are securely tied, I drag my feet to the water pump and start spraying the animals. Steam rolls off their backs in little clouds that soften their true form and turn them into large teddy bears,
for a second almost making this job enjoyable. Then one kicks at me, and
I drop the hose, spraying water all over my face.
Despicable, ugly beasts.
After I'm done thoroughly bathing myself and the steer, I walk them back into the air-conditioned room and begin their beauty regimen. I spray leave-in conditioner that smells like amaretto, then carefully part the hair down their bumpy spines, style the tail hair upward, comb the body hair forward, and comb the leg hair up. After that I brush them furiously with a bristled brush, then again with an electric drill that's powered by all the contempt and disgust I have for these degrading chores. Finally I blow dry the hair. By now it's at least 7 a.m. I finish by feeding them grain and turning the fans on.
Friday, June 6, 2008, 5:30 a.m.: Wash, rinse, repeat.
Saturday, June 7, 2003, 5:30 a.m.: Back then I couldn't wait to get down to the barn to work with the show steer! I ran all the way in my cool new boots. I sprang over the threshold, greeting the toads that were sunbathing, swept the barn, got the grain, cleaned the pen, washed the steer, put them in the cooler, and got to work. I loved my chores and didn't even bother to wake up my dad because I wanted to do it all myself. And prove to Doug that I am really into showing steer.
Doug was the guy we hired to trim the steer's hooves for the fair, the guy who moved into the house at our other farm, who taught me everything about showing cattle. Big, sturdy Doug with slightly yellowing teeth you see on most coffee drinkers (even though he wasn't one). Doug, with the gelled-back gray-white hair you see on handsome older movie stars. And the Wrangler jeans, of course. I never saw him in anything else. A safe, constant, comfortable person. My beloved mentor.
I couldn't wait to get to the barn and start working on my steer in hopes that he would stop by and find me hard at work. I wanted to be accepted into the circle of cattle-showers that included Doug and his sons, Garrett and Brock. I loved them all with the real love of a child – indestructible, pure, and naive. They probably laughed at my childishness, but they loved me back.
I don't see them anymore, but they are still here. They are the bristles that brush my steer, the grain I feed them, and the sweet-smelling conditioner I use to soften the animals' hair. They are the shadows that follow me around the barn because they taught me everything. All I know I learned from them, and everything I did I did for them.
I remember the weekend we went to a show in Milwaukee, and I brought a steer with the nicest, thickest hair I had ever seen. This may sound trivial, but in the business of show cattle, it's all about the hair. My dad told me later how impressed Doug was with the work I put into growing that nice hair. My spirits took off like a red balloon that just escaped a child's sweaty hand.
Each comment from Doug or Garrett made me want to work harder. My favorite memories are shaped around them. I used to sit on top of the show box, waiting for one of them to come talk to me. I listened to the clank of metal chutes filling with stubborn cattle, the buzz of hair clippers, the sweet sound of some unfamiliar curse word, and it was music to my ears. I couldn't get enough.
I breathed in the sounds and tasted the scents – cherry amaretto, hot fresh manure, salty sweat, burning hair. It was a feast for my senses. No matter how much I drank it in, I was never full. And Doug was always there when I needed him, always had the answers. I, his personal Patroclus, was always ready and waiting to do whatever he asked, to follow in his big footsteps. I never imagined that one day he wouldn't be there.
Sunday, June 8, 2008, 5:30 a.m.: I traipse down to the barn lethargically, dreading my monotonous chores. Suddenly I see a familiar maroon car. It looks shabbier than I remember, with traces of rust. I've only seen one car like that … it has to be – Doug!
I run and give him a big hug. I can't believe it! It's been five summers, but now it seems like no time at all. Suddenly I'm a little girl again, and all I want is to do my chores, to show him how much I still love showing cattle.
But I can't. I've grown up. Showing cattle has lost its appeal, and no matter how hard I try, I can't make myself love something I never really cared about in the first place.
That's it. That's why I can't stand the smells anymore, why I dread coming down here each day. I never did it for me. I just enjoyed the people it brought into my life.
So I look at Doug, the mentor I loved. Do I still love him? Why did he come back after all this time? I look for ancient runes in the craggy lines that have appeared on his face, desperately searching for the answer.
What I see astonishes me. I realize that the slick, gelled-back hair I once thought so suave is really a bit pathetic for an older man. I notice his teeth aren't yellow, but almost brown. I see that his hands look old and have liver spots. Finally I look in his eyes, and realize that my childhood innocence is gone. Doug represented love for me, and now all he symbolizes is time. Time wasted, time lost.
In less than 10 minutes, he is gone. The gray mass that clouded my mind and eyesight earlier returns and I sink to the ground with the realization that change is the only constant in the world.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.