Paper, my canvass Words, my paint My heart, my brush Writer, I am
“The Bible says children should honor their mother and father,” Mother reminded me. She called the Bible ‘Life’s Instruction Book.’ Most confusing damn instruction book I’d ever set eyes on. And it didn’t explain what to do when your parents were divorced and had divergent belief systems. The Bible also said something about a servant being unable to serve two masters.
“Father’s not in on this.”
Didn’t matter. Mother’s interpretation of the Bible came straight from the mouth of God, of course, and only her ears were finely tuned enough to receive the correct message.
Whiskers nosed my hand, a silent show of solidarity.
“Things will not go well with you . . .” Mother continued the same lecture every time I resisted altar calls, repenting, mandatory daily devotions of her choosing, or refused to raise my hands during marathon praise-and-worship jam fests before fire-and-brimstone sermons. And when religious dogma didn’t work, she threatened, “If you don’t confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and witness, singing his name, ‘Wonderful, Counselor, Prince of Peace, The Almighty,’ accept him as your own and proclaim, ‘My God reigns over all the heavens and all the earth . . .’ I’ll take Whiskers away.”
Whiskers—my new puppy and closest friend up until moving to Harvard—was safe. We’d been truly saved. No more anxious nights home alone. No more being afraid someone would break into the house and hurt me. No more having my room purged of stuffed owls and frogs, toy witches and friendly pretend monsters because they were ‘evil.’
Mother’s jump from mainstream Protestantism to a cultish alternative was a hard horse pill to swallow. Healing after the divorce she insisted upon, she found solace in her new flavor of church, attending evening ‘singles club.’ My mother was in long-term recovery from a self-inflicted wound: a nervous breakdown due to years of suppressing her own wants and desires while constantly trying to please others. By the time I came around in her later childbearing years, Mother had had her fill of taking care of others and turned to taking care of herself, in any way she felt necessary, full-time.
‘Welcome to Harvard—Home of Milk Day.’ The sign at the city limits became a fixture in my brain. Smaller placards hung below the leading attraction including: Rotary Club, Kiwanis, Lions, Shriners, Moose Club . . . . Creosote-preserved telephone poles framed them all. Every weekend we passed by the town welcome. Then, after a snail’s-pace drive through the block-long main business district, we passed the town’s mascot—Harmilda the Holstein—a plastic cow. Her moniker came from “HARvard MILk DAys,” the annual town festival held the first weekend in June. Harmilda, often the victim of rival high school pranks, suffered TP-ing and various other desecrations, even kidnapping, but she was safe at home this year, posing for pictures, the center of attention.
* * *
“MOOve it, MOOve it, MOOve it,” Sarah bellowed to bed-racing team #7. Reese, running along with four other pajama-clad team members, sped down the whitewashed ‘Milky Way,’ main drag, Ayer Street, wheels a smokin’. The ears on Sarah’s spotted bovine costume flapped with every cheer. I stood, dressed as a Holstein, along the parade route with my two new best friends. My very first Milk Day.
“Go Kurt!” Kate yelled from the sidelines, twirling her black-and-white tail with the RPMs of a full-throttle propeller. Bed #7 zoomed past the old Harvard Café to the first obstacle challenge. I clapped my hooves together, caught up in the rush of excitement. Kurt, riding coxswain, hopped off the brass bed and began stuffing his pillow into a pillowcase. The other four racers furiously installed the fitted sheet, a precision pit crew. Pillow in hand, Kurt remounted the bed with a confidence that belied his FFA-nerd reputation. They whizzed by Harvard State Bank, beating team #2’s four-poster to the next event where mugs of warm milk awaited their chug-a-lug.
“Drink it, drink it, drink it,” Sarah yelled to her brother, hurrying him along. Kurt gave her the thumbs up, appreciating support from his sister, who often joined others in nerd-bashing him. “He’s just so geeky,” she had said to me. “I mean, who kisses cows?” Then she shivered, grossed out and repulsed.
Reese wiped milk from his chin onto his pajama sleeve as they scurried beyond Sternberg’s Department Store toward the finish line in a sensational contest witnessed by thousands.
Kate, along with the rest of Harvard’s populace, celebrated milk. Her enmoosiasm got the best of her as she pumped the udder of her cow suit rhythmically with fist and thumb, expressing real milk over the crowd. Eric, drunk on something other than life, opened his mouth as a target. Distracted by team #7 overtaking team #3’s trundle bed for the win, Kate ignored him until he said, “Can I suck you dry?” She slapped him; even Kate had her limits. Sarah looked on, wishing Eric had asked her instead. She had been unable to squelch the waxing and waning crush she’d had on him since their shared kiss in a seventh-grade game of Truth or Dare. Sarah began mooing a celebratory chorus of “We are the Champions.” Kate and I joined in her silliness, rushing toward the rest of our herd as we all celebrated sweet victory at the finish line. From then on, we became known as The Three Moosketeers, a label that stuck our entire senior year.
A coronated Milk Queen presided over the subsequent milk-drinking contest—which Reese won—before the carnival rides, games, farm tours, cattle show, and hot air balloons got under way.
“Congratulations buddy,” Kurt said to Reese, then became tongue-tied before he could say anymore. Another relatively new girl, Ashley, daughter of the Brown’s (the only black family in town) walked by and caught his eye, rendering him speechless.
“Thanks, couldn’t have done it without moo,” Reese answered, raising his empty glass while an otherwise innocuous-looking man glared at Kurt.
“That guy looks like Eric,” I whispered to Sarah while the man continued to glare. “Is that his father?”
“No, his grandfather,” she whispered back.
I sensed a creepiness. “Come on, we’re late,” I said, herding my friends to the Youth Fellowship (YF) fundraising booth.
Kurt, Sarah, Reese, and I sold hot dogs for an hour before Kurt had to conduct farm tours at home. “Come along,” he said to me. “You’re a Milk Day virgin.”
I blushed at the v-word.
“Our cows are famous.” Sarah pointed out, waving a Milk Day flyer in front of my face.
“Just the beginning of better things to come,” Kurt said proudly.
He showed me the pasture, stanchions, and hay. We came to the calf pens where he began cooing at the calves like the babies they were. He began humming along to the Michael Jackson tune playing throughout the barn, humming to the calves, an everyday occurrence according to Sarah.
“They are so cute!” I said, thinking they were kissable, but not about to admit that to Sarah, who tagged along even though she’d seen it hundreds of times. Still, she patted one’s head. Kurt pet Ear Tag #47 under the chin. The calf nuzzled his hand, then sucked in two fingers, looking for breakfast.
“Kurt, he’s eating your hand,” I said, in case he didn’t notice.
“She,” Kurt corrected. “She’s my 4-H project. It’s fine. You try.” Kurt pulled my hand over to #47’s cute little nose. The calf let a crying moo, looking for mom. Her squared-off teeth left my fingers alone, but heavy suction and cow slobber ensued.
“I’m a cow pacifier,” I said, enjoying the sensation, forming a bond, but most of all, happy I had new friends.
Since my parents’ divorce, I had commuted back and forth for five arduous years. Mom’s house during the week. Dad’s house on the weekend. Mom’s house. Dad’s house. Mom’s house. Dad’s house. Always shuffled. Never settled. Finally, in my last year of high school, my wish came true. I resided permanently with Dad.
We addressed our parents as Mother and Father, unlike the vast majority of the population—the first example of many abnormalities, nothing to do with being stuffy or formal. And it had nothing to do with Father being a member of the clergy even though some kids thought otherwise, showing no mercy. But not my new friends.
“#47’s my second calf,” Kurt explained. “My first one died and I had to start over for 4-H. Her name was Billie Jean.” Kurt looked almost moved to tears. “I’ve been afraid to name this one.”
“Died?” I asked.
“We found her dead in the pasture with her throat slit, KKK painted on her side,” Sarah said.
“We couldn’t figure out what the KKK would have against cows.” Kurt kicked some hay, clearly re-living some frustration.
I remembered a freakish story my dad had told me shortly after he moved into the parsonage. “My dad said that Pastor Green, the pastor before us, had stopped by asking if he could get into the attic because he had left something up there. So my dad let him in, but the guy didn’t find anything.”
“What’d he leave?” Sarah interrupted. I held up my index finger, asking her to wait.
“My dad thought that was weird, so he told the church secretaries about it and they started laughing.”
Kurt and Sarah glanced at each other, wondering what this had to do with anything.
“Because they had cleaned out the attic before my dad moved in and they found a KKK uniform.”
Kurt and Sarah looked at each other in shocked disbelief. My stomach felt ill, more so than when I had heard the story the first time. I looked into #47’s innocent face and tried not to think of the time in eighth grade when we dissected a cow’s eye. Kurt pierced the silence that hung sickeningly in the air.
“Pastor Green was a Klansman!” Kurt kicked a bale harder, causing #47 to startle. I pet her soothingly on her head, between her eyes.
Sarah shuddered at the small-town dirty little secret, revealed. “Good thing he’s dead,” she said.
“They should have pulled the plug on him sooner,” Kurt said, referring to the state Pastor Green was in after the still unsolved hit-and-run that ultimately did him in.
We sat quietly together, each wondering how else our world wasn’t what we thought it was, then stuffed those thoughts deeply away and moved on.
“We’re going to New York this summer with YF,” Sarah said. “Wanna come?” Kurt nodded, his eyes seconding her invitation, waiting for my answer.
I pulled my fingers from the calf’s mouth, wondered where to wipe the slobber, then chose Kurt’s pants.
“What, and leave #47 behind?” I teased, ruffling her ears.
* * *
A tourist bus took us to the main New York City sights: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations complex, even the Bowery. Our tour guide took the microphone. “Where is everyone from today?” she asked.
Various people raised their hands and shouted out their origins. One man, seated way in the back, said with an accent, “Australia!” Aussie pride permeated the word. My ears perked up like a dog hearing an impossible-to-resist rabbit.
The bus driver turned the corner then stopped in front of a streetside shopping district. “Chinatown,” he announced. We disembarked, entered a tourist shop. I wandered through the aisles and displays listening for Australian accents, seeking out the people from Down Under, almost hunting them down. Memories of the 1983 Newport, Rhode Island America’s Cup yacht race and winged keel euphoria burning through my veins added to my adrenaline rush. I noticed a lady with a Union Jack- and Southern Cross-emblazoned shopping bag.
“You must be the couple from Australia,” I said to them, almost like they were movie stars and I was starstruck.
“Yes. And where are you from?” the man inquired, genuinely seeming interested.
“Illinois. I’m here with a youth group.”
“I see.” He looked down the aisle at Sarah and Kurt, who were trying on Chinese masks, scaring tourist children.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Australia. I’m hoping to be an exchange student there some day.”
“I hope you do,” the Australian man said, his words filled with encouragement. “What’s your name?”
“I hope you do, Camryn. And when you do, look us up, won’t you?”
“Sure.” I said, but not really sure. Perfect strangers from Australia on a bus in New York were inviting me over?
We again boarded the bus. The tour guide droned on with New York City facts she must have repeated a thousand times. I hardly listened. I bubbled over with excitement about my new Australian friends. At the end of the excursion, the Australian woman handed me a slip of paper.
Randall and Judy Underwood 5654 James Street Green Valley, NSW 2168
“Keep in touch,” Judy said. And she meant it.
* * *
The New York trip strengthened my bond with my YF friends, yet, YF’s religious aspect stunk, in my teenage opinion. For appearances sake, if nothing else, the minister’s family participated in church events. It was the law. Or it seemed that way to me. The law required attending church every Sunday, choir practice, youth group, special services, fundraisers, etc. with little or no reprieve. Sometimes I’d feign illness just to get out of it. Our dad even missed the birth of his first child in order to conduct Sunday services. Years in retrospect, he regretted spending more time with the church family rather than the family family. Father never explicitly said we had to attend church for appearances sake. Implicit expectation dictated that we attend. The guilt motor purred loudly. Our parents exempted my older siblings from church attendance when they had jobs and needed to work, but they grew up and moved out. No longer applicable. Mother later on surmised that letting them off the hook, work or not, was a regrettable and maybe even an unforgivable sin. They would be damned to hell for sure. When I landed a part-time job, Father let me ‘sin’ too.
Thrust upon me, youth group opened doors, creating lifelong friendships and one even longer than that. At school, between fourth and fifth hour, Sarah and I regularly exchanged notes—had been since school started five months ago. We updated each other with hot, breaking news, coordinated our social calendars, and expressed our deepest profound thoughts. Sarah handed me a note written on index cards.
I’m supposed to be doing my assignment on the solar system, so I have to look studious. I used a big word, aren’t you impressed? Oh wow! The guys just walked by from gym class. My hormones are raging. Are you going to the dance this weekend? At least to see who is or isn’t there? I want a boyfriend badly. I’m depressed. Write me a story, okay? I need something good to read—to cheer me up. I shall wipe away my tears on Uranus. See, I am doing my homework.
What am I going to do next year with you gone? Exchange student, what are you thinking?
* * *
"Mail call." My stepmother, Josephine, deposited the three Australia travel brochures I had mailed away for on my desk, right on top of the two I collected from the travel agency at the mall the day before. Last week the mailman delivered four brochures, the ones from my Australian tourism '800 number’ inquiries. My mouth started salivating as I flipped through the pages. Kangaroos. Koalas. Opera House. Great Barrier Reef. Emu. Crocodiles. Coober Pedy. Opals. Tasmania and its Devils. I wanted it all, needed it for some inexplicable reason. I plastered an Opera House centerfold on my wall, right next to the kangaroo and above the koalas.
“Camryn, phone,” Jo yelled from downstairs.
“Got it, Jo,” I yelled back. “Hello.” I picked up the phone in my room. The phone in my room that made me feel delightfully spoiled, a phone never taken for granted.
“Kate and I wondered if you wanted to hang out. Pizza, a movie, and stuff,” Sarah explained while crunching potato chips in my ear.
“Sure.” Sock drawer inventory could wait.
“We’ll pick you up in a few.”
Sarah’s car was older, a gas hog, but hers nonetheless, and it gave our clique of ‘the averages’ a sense of freedom. Often, Sarah made the rounds picking us up for school in the mornings. The Three Moosketeers stuck together. None of us was super popular. We weren’t total outcasts or in the wild drug-and-alcohol crowd either.
The horn honked outside. “I’m going to Sarah’s,” I yelled up the stairs. “Whiskers’s coming with me.” The parental units trusted me, no need to ask permission. I never overtly got into trouble or caused them to worry. I kept them informed. They let me be.
“Whiskers wanted to come along,” I said as I slid into the back seat. “She likes playing sheep dog with your cows.” Whiskers nudged the back of Sarah’s head.
“Hi, Whiskers,” Sarah said. She threw the heap into reverse. “I thought we’d stop by Crud’s.” Disgruntled, Sarah had renamed Eric, Crud. Her discontent nearly turned her into a stalker, but gave us daily entertainment. Earlier in the year, Eric and Kate sort of dated, but Kate was cool about it—no anxious waiting for phone calls, no knotted-up knickers.
“He’s there. He’s there. He’s there!” Sarah screamed, flooring it before Crud saw us, a normal occurrence. We usually drove around town, making the rounds, spying on the interesting boys’ homes—they, unaware. Often, we spoke in code referring to Crud’s hangout—Eric Bancroft’s Farm Implement—as ‘The Place’ so no one else understood. Eric claimed he owned the business even though he was really a Jr.
I looked back. “John’s truck’s there too.”
Kate screamed. Her flavor of the month and Crud were friends.
“I’ll ask John why Crud’s been so mean lately,” she said.
“Yeah, and find out what they’re doing this weekend,” Sarah said, happy to get answers. “And find out if he really likes me or what.” She looked strung out between the glorious prospect of spending time with Crud and the hurt of being jerked around.
We group dated often, but when those one-on-ones came around, we demanded a full report. The interrogation began. “So Kate, how did it go with John last night?” Sarah quizzed.
“Fine.” Kate fancied secrecy over spilling juicy details. She smirked. We all directed our ears her way, straining for information tidbits. “We talked.” She smirked again. It was hard to tell if Kate was withholding vital information or just leading us to believe there was more to tell.
By this time, we had already arrived at Reese’s house and picked him up to join us. He sat in the back seat. Whiskers’ wet, black nose bumped Reese’s elbow, then she licked his arm.
“She likes you,” I said. He scratched behind her ears. Satisfied, she took the window seat, forcing me closer to Reese. He casually listened to us press Kate for details, laughing. He was quiet, blending into the discussion, posing none of the usual opposite-sex threat. Sarah rounded the last corner sharply, causing me to on-purpose squish Reese against the door. “Oops,” I said, smiling. Whiskers pressed her paws into my arm, getting in on the action. She reached her head across mine, showering Reese with doggie kisses, me smushed in between.
“Come smell our dairy air,” Sarah announced as we pulled into her driveway, then snorted in laughter, which tickled the rest of us too. Whiskers bounded out of the car as soon as it stopped, heading straight to the calf pens, sniffing smells that were new to her every time.
“Honey, we’re home,” Sarah called, continuing to be funny.
Kurt pulled pizzas out of the oven as we walked in. “Hey,” Reese said.
“Hey,” Kurt replied, their traditional exchange.
Sarah started up Porky’s as we all helped ourselves and settled around the TV. Her parents were gone, unable to disapprove our R-rated video. “Mmmmm. Pizza.” Kurt did his best caveman imitation.
“Mmmmm. Pizza,” Reese echoed, a male bonding thing. Kate shot me a look, red-faced, as the guys on the movie were mentioning the desires of their nether regions. I pretended not to notice the uncomfortableness of the polar sexes even though there was a butterfly loose in my stomach. I stretched out on the couch and used Reese’s lap as a footrest, my eyes focused on the movie. He looked at me, unbothered.
“The party has arrived!” Victor barged in, making his presence known. He surveyed the room and its occupants, then took a seat furthest from me. I squirmed inside. He’d given me a homecoming carnation, asked me to dance at a social, and had planted other seeds of interest. Victor, Kate’s cousin and friend of John and Crud, occasionally joined our assemblage. The last time, he had tickled me and carried me across the street to his car. I was smitten and began stalker mode in spite of the fact that right after deer season opened, he showed up at school with his fresh bow-and-arrow kill draped over his car. He thought it cool, drinking its blood, just like in the movie Red Dawn.
At Christmas time, I had painstakingly created a handmade felt Christmas card for Victor, complete with a thin brown teddy bear stuffed with emotional viscera. I implanted a red felt heart and sewed him up. Under cover of darkness, my accomplice, Sarah, and I conducted a covert operation to deliver the card, which was concealed in a gift box.
“Wait here,” I had said, hopping out of the passenger seat. With heart pounding, I ran to his parked jeep. Thankfully, it was unlocked, so I placed the package on the front seat, closed the door and ran, breathless. Shaking with nervous fright and elation, I jumped back into the car. Sarah sped off.
“What did I do? What did I do?” I was screaming, laughing, relieved, and ready to be sick all at the same time.
“You’re crazy,” Sarah said, hysterical with laughter.
We calmed down over chocolate ice cream.
Later, when Sarah did her routine surveillance, she observed Victor take the box over to Crud’s place, throw the teddy bear on the ground, and stomp it in the muddy snow. He stomped my heart.
Here he was, and I, embarrassed, hurt, and bewildered. How could he possibly have led me on like that? And then throw it all in my face? I was clueless. Reese knew all about these happenings as he heard Sarah’s report first hand. He disappeared into the background when we girl talked, but sometimes we asked him for advice—from a male perspective. Usually the answer we got was “I don’t know,” and a little snicker.
Remembering all this, I felt vulnerable being stretched out on the couch, and adjusted myself. I turned around the other direction so instead of my feet resting on Reese’s lap, my elbows were, my hands propping up my head. I looked up at Reese with a ho-hum guise and continued watching the movie. Reese seemed anxious, but didn’t throw me off or ask me to move. He scanned my backside. I was oblivious.
I never considered myself much to look at, but wanted to be. At 110 pounds and just over five and a half feet tall, I believed I had a big butt. I certainly had no chest, and zits were a constant battle. It wasn’t the disfiguring kind of acne, but the generally distracting and annoying kind. I tried everything to solve the problem—routine zit popping, hydrogen peroxide, milk of magnesia facials, rubbing alcohol, salicylic acid, etc. Nothing worked. It was an inherited genetic defect. My whole body was a genetic defect as far as I was concerned. My eyes turned two shades of brown—another abnormality to live with. As a baby, I had one blue eye and one brown, just like some dogs. I spent a good share of time trying to restore my darkening blonde hair to its previous light blonde state. And I purged, and starved, but not in a major way. I mean, I was never institutionalized or anything. Mother even told me I was just average looking. Not that being average was a bad thing, but a real mother should tell her children they are pretty even if she just means on the inside.
When the movie was over, our gathering disbanded.
“What did you do New Year’s Eve?” Sarah asked as she drove us home.
“Worked,” Kate droned. “Waitressing is so much fun,” she said, stuffing her finger down her throat in a mock gag.
“I was out of town,” Sarah said, screwing up her nose in revulsion, “with my parents.”
“I didn’t do much,” Reese said matter-of-factly. “I sat home watching TV by myself.”
“So did I,” I said, slightly stunned with coincidence. “You should have come over!” I sighed. Hanging-out time, wasted.
Neither of us was much into the drinking and party scene. Our group of friends, for the most part, accepted this perceived quirk. Sarah and Kurt were finding their identities, searching in wine bottles now and then. Victor, Crud, and John tried to be bad with beer. Kate imbibed socially on occasion.
“Come to the basketball game on Tuesday,” Kate suggested. “We can be Reese and Kurt’s athletic supporters.”
Reese blushed. Reese was the only one who actually played, Kurt relegated to water boy after tripping over his own feet one too many times during a game.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” I said, ramming Reese even though we hadn’t turned a corner.
“Go Hornets!” Kate yelled. “Woo hoo! I’ll meet you after the game. I have to play in pep band.”
“Hornets are great. Goin’ down state,” Sarah chanted. We all chimed in. It was easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm, the team undefeated, state championship tournament in sight.