The old man grinned as she hurried toward him, the bag over her shoulder, making her look mature and worldly.
“Miss Sissy,” he caught her and hugged her, their heights equal. Other passengers from the plane smiled in passing as she laughed.
“Well that’s better than ‘Sassy’,”
He dropped his face back into the familiar stern lines. “You earned that name. You were always sassing me about something.”
She hooked her arm through his and they made their way toward the baggage claim. “You were just too much fun when you were riled. All that barking…”
“How long can you stay?” He walked beside her, aware she was shortening her stride for him. It made him proud and sad at the same time.
“Only the weekend, I’m afraid. Can you believe it’s been five years?”
“Looking at you now, yes. You’re all grown up.” And she was. There were fine lines on her wide forehead, crinkles at the corner of her blue eyes, a softening of what had once been a tightly compacted body.
“Only on the outside. I don’t think my insides will ever grow up.”
They picked up her suitcase, had a brief struggle over who would carry it. He won, barely. Then they were headed out of town in his Ford pickup. He was glad to leave the city behind. A tension he hadn’t quite been aware of dropped from him as they hit the freeway which would take them back to Scottsville.
“So,” Sissy half turned in the front seat to face him. “Tell me why you never come to see us?”
He scowled. Travel was dangerous except he couldn’t say that when she had just made the trip, could he? He settled for a shrug. “Busy, I guess,”
“Busy! Too busy to visit me? That’s not very nice. Your one and only favorite granddaughter?”
“You haven’t lost any of your sass after all.”
They rode in silence for a while. He could tell by Sissy’s intent study of the landscape she was re-living old memories, and he didn’t want to disturb her.
Sissy finally broke the silence. “Mom says you’re afraid to travel.”
Afraid! Irritation flared. “I wouldn’t say afraid. The few times I have gone anywhere, I wished I hadn’t. People were rude, unfriendly. It was one problem after another.”
His last trip had been to the southwest to visit his parent’s place in Arizona after his father had passed away. He’d gone with the idea he might keep it, become a snowbird. After lost luggage, struggling with crowds who looked through him, shying from those strange people who didn’t, he decided home was the best place after all.
“Are you still fighting with the Sarns?”
Another abrupt change. Had her mind always danced around like this? He glanced at his speedometer. It didn’t pay to think about his neighbors and drive. “They never change. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. Last week their cows got loose. One of them trampled my garden to ruin. The rest wrecked havoc on my yard. I had to call the sheriff to get them out.”
“I’m sure they didn’t turn their cows loose on purpose,” Sissy’s face had lost its delight. She looked very grown-up now – serious eyes, brow slightly furrowed.
He bit back the ‘wouldn’t surprise me if they had’. He wasn’t going to let the Sarns spoil his time with his granddaughter. “Whatever. I hope you’re hungry. I put a roast on before I left.” He pulled into the long driveway leading to the house.
“It looks exactly the same!”
He felt an inward glow of pleasure. Yes. It looked the way it always had. Fences lining the driveway, tight and stout. Sarn’s cows had had to come up his driveway to get into his garden. The house was two stories, sharply white against the backdrop of the blue sky surrounded by huge oak trees planted by his grandfather; their trunks were so thick he couldn’t get his arms around them. The red barn stood behind and to the left of the house. It, too, had a good strong look, though next year it would need a new paint job.
Sissy went upstairs to get settled in her old room while he put the finishing touches on supper. It was odd how he had adjusted to doing things like supper. When Sissy had been five or six the only time he’d seen her had been if she came out to the barn while he was working, or at supper after the table was laid and he came in to eat. Of course, she’d spent a lot of time in the barn with him. Clara had tried to teach Sissy to sew and cook but it had been like trying to ride a cow. It could be done but it would never feel right.
“You should have waited. I’d have helped.”
“You had a long trip. I’ll let you do it all tomorrow.”
“And dishes tonight if I’m really good?” Sissy lifted the lid off the pot he’d set on the table, smiling with pleasure at the smell of roast, potatoes and carrots.
He grinned. “You don’t even have to be good. How’s your job going?”
Sissy’s smile dulled. If he hadn’t known her so well, he would have missed it. “It pays the bills.”
“I thought you liked it.” He took a slice of roast and set the plate back between them.
“I did. Except ‘challenge’ has become ‘impossible’. They’ve cut back on personnel so much I can’t get done what needs to be done. What I do manage to accomplish is half as…half right.” She shook her head. “You’re always with me at work.”
“Yes, you. Your voice. ‘Really, Miss Sissy, do you expect to get away with such slipshod work? ‘The plow will break, the horse run wild because you did the job as a child’.” The last was sung in a singsong voice.
He felt himself grinning. He had said it every time she pulled part of the weeds, or milked half the cow. At fourteen, standing before the too quickly painted barn door she’d stomped her foot and demanded to know just what plows and horses had to do with a barn door.
“It’s not just your company – it’s the trend today,”
Sissy sighed, pushing a potato around with her fork. “I know, but knowing doesn’t make it any easier. I watch reports go out with errors, people calling me, angry because I haven’t returned ‘their’ calls, co-workers needing information I haven’t got time to compile and give them. I’m working six to six right now and can’t keep up.”
“It sounds like you need a vacation, if nothing else.”
“That’s the truth! Pass more potatoes please.”
She ate well. He’d been afraid she’d turned into one of those health nuts that lived on water and things he couldn’t pronounce.
The silence was peaceful; accented by the tick of the clock in the living room that was just off the dining room, and the scrape of forks on plates. The refrigerator kicked in with a whine to its hum which had worried him six years ago.
“What kind of stock do you have now?”
“Not much. Ten head of cow. Clara’s chickens are still wandering around because the hens hide their eggs. I always end up with a new brood or two every year. Ginger.”
“She’s still alive!” Sissy’s fork stopped in midair. “I was afraid to ask.”
“Yes, she’s still alive. I’ve never seen such a rough looking horse that wasn’t a carcass. I thought last winter would get her. She made it through though. I don’t leave her out anymore that would kill her for sure. Even in the barn I have to put a blanket on her to keep her warm.” He raised an eyebrow at the smirk on Sissy’s face. “What?”
“The vision of you tucking Ginger in for the night. I used to have to resort to tears to get you to bring her in during a thunderstorm.”
“Old bones have a tendency to sympathize with each other.” He wasn’t sure where the idea came from. It came out of his mouth without bothering to pause in his mind first. “If your job is so bad, you could quit it. Help me run the farm,” thoughts flittered through his head – how nice the company would be, they could increase the herd. Could he and Sissy get along on a daily basis? He was pretty set in his ways. Hope and reservations wound together like threads in a rug.
“I appreciate it, Grandpa, I really do…I don’t think it would be a good idea,”
He speared some roast, disappointed and relieved. “Not much money in farming any more, anyway.”
“It’s partly that. Actually, it’s a lot that. I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a full time farmer,” Sissy grinned at him. “I still don’t like getting up early. And I’m still lazy enough to be slow.”
He didn’t doubt the first but knew lazy was impossible for Sissy. He waved a hand. “If you’d said yes, I’d have tried talking you out of it.” They finished dinner and habit made him start gathering dishes.
“I’ll do it. My pay for the meal,”
“How about if we do it together,”
It didn’t take long to get the dishes stacked and the sink full. Sissy washed while he rinsed and dried.
“Um, I hope you don’t mind, I’d like to run over and say hi to the Sarns,”
He almost dropped the plate he was drying. Emotions flared up – jealousy the foremost. He managed to stifle all but the ‘why’.
Sissy scrubbed hard at a spot in the roast pan. “I’d like to find out how Marjorie is doing,”
“They might not be thrilled to see you,”
“Grandpa, Marjorie and I have been friends no matter what. Mr. and Mrs. Sarns always treated me well. They never held your disagreements against me,”
Great, now he felt petty. “You can take the truck. The keys are in it.”
“I’ll just hike across the pasture. I need the exercise.” She hesitated, and then looked at him sideways. “You could come with me. It would be a pleasant walk.”
“Until we got there. Sarns will be happy to see you but they’ll run me off so fast I’ll meet myself.”
“Maybe you underestimate them,”
“Maybe you over estimate them.”
Sissy sighed, hung the dishcloth over the faucet and wiped her hands dry. He had the feeling he’d disappointed her. “I’ll be back before dark.”
“Have a good time.”
The house felt empty after she’d left but he was used to that. He didn’t mind living alone. He ‘did’ mind the transition. Since there was plenty of daylight left, he went out to the garden to start repairing the damage the cow had done. It wasn’t as bad as he’d thought. The fence was stretched a bit in places.
The one adventurous cow had flattened his zucchini hill where it had settled to chew its cud. He wasn’t even sure why he’d planted zucchini – he didn’t like the stuff. Habit, he supposed. Clara had always had zucchini. She’d used it for baking; breads, cookies, cakes. There were tracks through the rows, some fertilizer he hadn’t put there himself; a few broken plants and the cow had leveled his corn – what was left wouldn’t make enough for canning. He took care of his own. To have his garden invaded because the Sarns didn’t….
He went back in the house to get the pliers he’d left on the kitchen counter. The phone rang, startling him so when he answered ‘hello’ it was gruff, still half angry.
“Grandpa, I’m at Sarns and I need your help. Bud has had a stroke. Mrs. Sarns just left with the ambulance. Their chores need doing and I can’t do them by myself.”
His knee jerk response was embarrassing and predictable. He knew because Sissy continued before he could even speak.
“You’d be helping me, not them. They would never have thought to ask.”
The words stung all the more for the truth of them. Well, cows didn’t understand feuds or strokes. They still had to be milked and fed.
"I’ll be right there.”
As he pulled on his work boots it struck him that he’d never been in the Sarns barn. All these years and the most he’d ever seen of their place was the doorway and porch. He had enough humanity to wonder how bad Bud’s stroke was, enough selfishness to be uneasy they might sell. He could end up with a housing development next door and he was past the days when he could afford to buy it back. Marjorie probably wouldn’t help her mother run the place and he didn’t know Kathy Sarns well enough to know if she could manage alone.
When he pulled in, he ignored the regular driveway which led to the house and followed the rough, secondary driveway around the house to the barn. He had the feeling of walking into a meeting where you’re not quite sure it’s the right one. He even wondered for a moment if Sissy was putting him on and any moment Bud would come raging out of the house to demand to know what he was doing. That was ridiculous enough to relax him.
He went through the side door in the barn, noticing it stuck a bit. The interior felt the same as his – airy, warm from the spring heat of the day. And it smelled the same; hay, manure, old wood and the sweet smell of oats.
The cows had heard the door open and were filing into the large stall which took up one whole wall. In a month or two when Bud got his feeders and his calves started dropping, he would probably shut the door. There wouldn’t be room for the cows then but right now it was a skeleton herd; bigger than his had been in years, but small by farm standards.
The greedy one, a Black Angus, was leading the way. As soon as she saw him she stopped and began backing up, feet dragging, ears cupped toward him. He was NOT Bud. Two Herefords stopped in the doorway and he could see the head of another Angus, chin on the butt of the Hereford trying to figure out what the hold up was.
Did Bud feed in or out? He looked on the floor of the stall. It was by no means clean but that didn’t mean anything. Perhaps the way the hay was used would tell him. He heard the rattle of feed on metal – Sissy tending something else. Pigs? Chickens? He didn’t know.
He climbed the ladder to the loft. It opened on either side so the hay could be dumped into the stall. A low drawn-out moo drifted up from below. He wasn’t Bud but he was in the right spot. He looked over the edge of the loft floor and was greeted by upturned black, brown and white faces. They didn’t care, as long as he dropped hay. Tonight they would eat in. There was supposed to be a storm and he would feed his own cows in. Bud could get upset later.
He began tossing down hay, creating piles as close to the center as possible. There was the usual shuffle – the greedy Angus moving more than the others – convinced the next pile was better than the one she was at.
When he’d given them what he felt was enough, he went back down the ladder to check the water. He found the spigot first and then followed the hose, unsure of where the trough was. As he followed it, he passed a small window – clean where all the other windows were milky white with years of dust and weather. He automatically peered out; surprised he had a clear view of his own house. Odd. His barn windows hadn’t been cleaned in years. He looked, fascinated at seeing his home of thirty years from this angle.
“Thanks for coming, Grandpa,” Sissy appeared from wherever she’d been in the barn.
“Yeah. Not a problem. How is Bud?”
“I don’t know yet. What are you looking at?”
He motioned toward the window. “My place,”
Something in her face? A shift in her body? The desire to visit the Sarns? Of course. The barn was behind Sarns house, on a slight rise. It would block his place from their house. They’d have to look from their barn. As soon as it registered on his face, he knew she knew.
“Since Grandma died. Mom and I are so far away,”
“They offered. They liked Grandma, me,” Sissy looked away, a single tear tracking down her cheek. “You,”
“I’ve got to water,” his body was moving away even as his mind registered the variety of information; the ‘feud’ had been his alone? Not Clara’s, not Bud’s. Sissy was grieving for Bud Sarns. The property should have been his. Had been! Bud and his last minute offer had stolen it from him. That snake of a realtor leading him on and never letting him know…
He went out the small door at the back of the barn and it wasn’t until he was to the pasture fence that he realized he’d forgotten to turn the water on. The greedy Black Angus was peeking out of the entrance at him, hay stuck at odd ends from her mouth. It touched a warm place in him because every herd had one; food? More? Better? He was also pretty sure it was the one that had gotten in the garden.
Sighing, he went back into the barn, the mud which had built on his boots from the sloppy ground outside dragging at his feet. He found the spigot and turned it on, something Bud probably did before he started feeding – now he would have to wait for the trough to fill and flush.
Then he went to the window.
From here, it was such a different perspective. His farm, his house, yes, he could even see a few of his own cows. The home of a crotchety old man; was that how Sissy saw him?
Sissy was a young woman and also the little girl she used to be. The traces were still there in the sheen of her hair, the remembered skinniness of her arms and legs.
“They’ve got an old milk cow and she needs stripping.” Sissy motioned to a stall he hadn’t noticed to the front and left of the door he’d entered. “I don’t know if I remember how well enough to do a good job.”
He nodded. The trough would be a while to fill. He went to the stall, greeted with the same, wary ‘you’re not my normal human’ look. He automatically began talking to her, telling her how pretty she was, how warm his hands were, nonsense words that didn’t matter. Only the tone mattered.
She was a huge, old Guernsey. Hipbones poking out, eyes hollow with age. She was well cared for though. The straw in her stall was nearly knee deep; the gentleness in her eyes spoke of years of love.
“Her name is May,” Sissy handed him the stool. Then she dumped the hay she had ready in May’s manger.
He sat down and got busy. “You know her,”
“She’s nearly as old as Ginger.”
Sissy leaned on the stall door. “Are you mad at me?”
How could he be? This was him, that’s how. The man with a grudge. For all she knew, he would never speak to her again. He put his forehead against May’s flank, rewarded by a flick of a thankfully clean tail. “No. I’m not mad.”
He focused on May’s udder, hands working automatically where his mind wasn’t. “Once in a while life holds up a mirror and the reflection is not what you expected.” Another pause. “Me. Not you. Why don’t you take the truck, go to the hospital. Kathy Sarns could probably use some support.”
“Would you come with me?”
He pictured himself showing up, the ultimate hypocrite. Besides, it would be for him, not Kathy or Bud. He was the last thing they needed to deal with at the moment. “No. No, I can’t.” He glanced up at Sissy and saw her eyes clouded with disappointment. “There will be a time but this isn’t it right now. Find out when May is used to being milked in the morning. Also tell Kathy not to worry about the chores. I’ll take care of them as long as necessary.”
Sissy relaxed. “You’re right. I’ll ask,”
“Keys are in the truck,”
“I love you, Grandpa,”
“I love you too, Sassy.” He put his head back against May so Sissy couldn’t see his face. He heard her leave, the truck start up and pull away. He finished stripping the udder and sat back.
May turned her head and looked at him, tongue finding her nostril.
He’d do. DSS
Rebecca Monroe, 53,of Troy, Montana, works for the U.S. Forest Service. She lives in a log cabin on a river in Montana, and has also been a dog groomer. Her short stories have been published in several literary magazines.
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