Fiction from Web del Sol

The Proper Levels of Vacuum

Michael Martone

The heart of a milking system is the vacuum supplier, which produces vacuum in the pipes and tubes connected with it. The vacuum supplier must be of sufficient capacity to produce and maintain the proper vacuum level at each teat when all of the milking units are on line. There must also be sufficient vacuum to move milk rapidly into the pails or through the pipeline. Maintaining the proper level of vacuum is very important on any milking system.

      While Steve is working in the milk house, putting together the pails and claws, I am in the barn scooping out corn and protein to the cows. Steve has written out the rations on a brown paper towel. It is resting on the heap of ground corn in the wheelbarrow in front of me. The protein mix is in a plastic bucket. The cows are levering themselves up to their feet as I rush around them dumping the feed before their noses. One scoop for Molly. One and a half for Betty and a small scoop of protein. Amy gets two. The paper towel I'm reading from is like the ones Steve uses to massage the udders so that the cows will let down their milk. The radio is playing. A jazz show comes on at midnight. But I can hear the huffing the herd is making, tongues licking the concrete clean, jaws grinding. Steve bangs out of the milk house loaded with pails. The stainless steel looks ancient not because it is old but because metal that heavy, that mirrored has disappeared, it seems, from the world. Paper towels sprout from his pockets. He takes one out, dips it is some warm water, swings in under a cow and washes the bag. He does that two more times, a new towel each time. He has three floor milkers. He stands up, lights a cigarette, throws each towel in the gutter behind the cows. I am setting up the scale. The jazz comes over the radio. In the minute or so it will take the cows to let down the milk, Steve will go over to the room off the milk house and turn on the vacuum. The engine drowns out the radio with its own music.
      I have been to Steve's farm enough to know some of the routine. I know enough to know that as I type this, since it is 11:00 p.m., Steve is beginning work on the midnight milking. It is the weekend the country goes back to sun time from savings time. When I see Steve again I'll have to ask him about his schedules and what happened this weekend. I like to be able to picture him working. It is a habit I've grown fond of. Steve milking in his barn at midnight. I just read that the passenger trains all stop and wait for the time to catch up. All those stalled trains out on the dark sidings -- think of that. But it isn't the habit of habit I am thinking about tonight. Every gesture is regulated on a dairy farm. When I am up there, each cow usually gives a few pounds of milk fewer because my presence throws off the rhythm. No, routine is a given. That is one thing that makes a dairy attractive, gives the whole business its strength. Instead I am thinking about the engine that drives it all, the vacuum.
      The vacuum pipe runs around the barn, circles over the stalls like a halo. It drives the claw milker, sucking the milk from the teat, and draws it into the pail. As Steve switches the claw from a full pail to an empty one, his hands flit from valve to valve releasing a seal here, a pneumatic sigh, resealing. Here is atmosphere. Here is absence. After he assembles the claw and new pail, he taps back on to the vauum line. The pail is connected by a hose. He holds the claw in his hand beneath the udder. The four teat cups and their hoses splay out and spill out of his plam. He takes up one of the far cups and slides it on the teat. At the same time, he presses a trigger on the claw and the vacuum is there. Each cup defies gravity, holds on, begins milking. There is a clear plastic bowl where the hoses meet. It turns white with milk. The milk goes in spurts from this bowl through another bigger hose into the empty pail. I carry one of the full pails up to the scale, weigh it, record the weight on another paper towel tacked to the barn wall. I subtract ten pounds for the pail. I dump the milk into a transfer unit. It is a little bigger than a kitchen wastebasket and even has a foot pedal that, when pressed, lifts and swivels the lid out of my way. Inside, at the bottom, there is a white plastic ball. It is covering the drain, keeping the air from being sucked into the system. When I pour the milk in, the ball spins and slips. The vacuum lets the ball go. It shoots up through the milk, breaches and bobs. The milk peels from it in sheets as the ball floats, then sinks with the milk rushing down the drain and into the bulk tank. The ball comes to rest in the bottom again, a big bubble in the foam.
      It is never quite a vacuum, of course, because the milk is always there. The vacuum gives the milk eyes. It is the light ahead in the tunnel of tube or hose. It is what nature abhors. But nature isn't fleeing. Steve's barn is plumbed with glass and clear plastic. I can watch the milk rush after an invisible something that retreats ahead of it. All of a sudden the pipes are flushed with white, pulsing, filling. A strange thing to say then, that nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe better to say it is consumed by it or consumes it. To see Steve's barn course with milk, though, I allow for such pathetic fallacies. Milk is animate, acts as if it lives and thinks. As it runs through the pipes, the milk seems propelled by a consciousness that might even be desire. The vacuum makes the milk come alive. Ah, this is a dairy barn, and it is easy to personify. Steve coos to the cows, fluffs a matted tail. Yes, the engine purrs. The pumps whisper. In this pause you can feel your own diapragm contract, expand, leaving that deep hollow. The rich air of the night and the barn finds you, finds its way into you before you know it.

      I spent Labor Day weekend on Steve's farm. After the midnight milking, at two in the morning, we sat in the dooryard and looked south into the night. Steve told me again about the train because he knew I liked to hear about trains. There had been a line nearby, but it has since been abandoned. When he was a boy and milking at night, he would emerge from the barn and see the creamy lights of the passenger train streaming by. He said he guessed he imagined then the places that train was bound for. At least he conjured up, for a moment, people hidden inside the white smear of light.
      Up above us there was another schedule. I hope if the comet, recently departed, did anything, it brought people out to the country to see the sky. People say that city lights wash out the light of the stars and hide the sky, as if they really know what that means. Light is as prevalent as plastic. If a stainless steel pail can surprise me, so can these stars. We sat in the lawn chairs. Steve popped open another beer. Another vacuum. Another escape. Stars fell out of the sky. One would have been enough.
      As I think of it now, we talked about our weaknesses. We were clothed in the darkness and a little drunk and tired. How I hated being weak. That was my confession. We had tried to put up hay that day, and the bales were wet. I could lift them off the ground but couldn't muster enough strength to pitch them up onto the rack. Steve -- Steve worried loneliness. It was a little puzzle. He only felt it after people had come to visit. After they were gone, after a few days, he didn't notice he was alone again. But friends visited because they thought he needed the company. He wanted them to come but hated the loneliness they brought with them and left behind. He found it curious that he didn't miss people more. That feeling kind of scared him.
      It was a wonderful conversation that contained all kinds of emptiness. The silences of one who really is getting out of the habit of speaking. The natural pauses. The silence of not knowing what to say. The desire to say nothing that will fill up the silence. It was the talk of people who knew they should be sleeping and say only enough to keep the conversation going. Above us, that night, I like to think the sky was expanding. Another vacuum.
      It is easy thinking of Steve there. It is after milking now. Maybe he's bedded down in the barn in the new straw he has just finished pitching around. It's raining. Why run through it to the house? He'll keep the cows in. The cows are folded up on the floor, busy with the hay and chewing. The gutters are cleaned. He has spread a sandy lime on the concrete. From his bed he looks out the back door of the barn. It is a little speck of a farm, eighty acres, surrounded by huge row crop grain fields. Too easy to say it is loneliness. Too easy to say he is alone. There is the rat he hasn't been able to kill. Maybe this rat comes skipping quickly now over his outstretched legs. No, what is missing is my not really understanding how it feels to be there. His life, like the night sky, cannot be fathomed. I miss getting it down right. I am missing.

      The cows stand on the highest part of the farm in a green clover field. Their color is a kind of dazzleflage, black and white, that makes it hard to judge their size or distance or even their speed when they move. The Holstein does not blend in but stands out. Still it is hard to put the whole cow together. Her black and white pieces seem to move independently of each other. Smoke dissapating. Clouds billowing. These animals are projective tests. You see things in them. Maps. Portraits. Even the horrific outlines of cuts of meat. What is the figure? What is the ground?
      The pup, Brett, bounds ahead of us, anxious to show us she can herd. Amy lowers her big head and the dog wheels, nips back over a shoulder, and runs. She goes barreling by us, back to the barn. Steve knows he shouldn't be milking Holsteins. They eat too much. Their milk just adds to the surplus. But he likes the way they look, out on the green field. As he walks up the lane, he never takes his eyes from them. "Come, boss. Come, boss," he chants. He likes the way they look. They stir as he calls, and I see an abstract shape peel from one animal then paste itself to another she is passing. A blotch from Jane splashes onto Betty who cranes to lick her flank from black to white. "Come, boss." And the cows do start flowing like the milk in the barn. It is a code of pulsing white and flashing black.
      There has been so much to do this summer. Steve hasn't been able to keep current the drawings in his herd book. Ideally, he would enter all the information as soon as the calf is born. I don't trust this. I swear the white spot on the nose of a calf named Theresa moved during the summer as she grew. Steve laughs and looks through pictures of my other visits for evidence. If the book were up to date, her markings on both her sides and on her head would have been sketched in. Each page has these generic outlines of a cow. There is a lightly printed grid to help recreate the shapes. The cows that have been entered in the book haven't been finished. Lines squiggle around but no blocks of black. When I see this, the colorer in me wants to fill in, turn a pencil on its side and make the broad flat shading strokes. I want to outline, define. But I don't know the herd that well and could easily produce a pack of negative cows, an anti- herd.
      The markings of these animals are abstract and are abstractly the embodiment of the vacuum. It is as if the huge sides of these creatures are chalkboards for this lesson. The world of the farm is reduced to this binary instruction. It's the physics of the farm. Their coats dumbly strobe. Here is nothing. Here is everything.
      There is the white milk and the black night sky. The farm as I think about it seems to be sucked up into the realm of pure thought. The farm is real enough -- the mud, the gutters. The vacuum just moves milk from point A to point B. But there is also the idea that these black and white Holsteins eerily suggest, spooky ghosts from those platonic pastures. Maybe that is what Steve is being drawn into as he drinks in his cows with his eyes. He likes the way they look in the same way I am drawn to the whiteness of this once empty paper now swimming with black ink.

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