I had a cow named Rita. She danced the rumba with me. I ate her after two summers of rumba Tuesdays.
She wasn't red on white; she was white on big, black continents, or black on small, white continents, depending upon which way you looked. Hairs blurred borders.
At the curved base of each white ear her hair grew like dark grass. Those twitching tunnels that seemed too small for her huge head, displayed Rita's only sign of nervousness, aside from an occasional hide shiver to shake off flies. Her nose glistened wet and pink with a dark dot on it, just like the spots on her pink udder.
Dad said her breed, Holstein-Frisian, was named after the area in Holland where the cows came from. He always knew these sorts of things. Breeding was important to him, but not as important as friends. Rita was a gift in exchange for fence work.
My oldest brother, Robbie, said the day of the barbecue, "That old cow was half mule and half monkey. You'd better be careful eating that burger, Rita. Pretty soon, you'll grow a tail, too." I silently fought being forced to eat my secret namesake, my dance partner. Dad and Mama didn't know I'd named Rita. Robbie didn't know either. They were against naming and playing with farm animals like pets. Dad ignored Robbie's remark and simply said, "Eat." So I cried silently. Said the barbecue smoke was burning my eyes. Bit into my burger and washed it down with milk.
I couldn't have been more than eight when Robbie first suggested that I start helping in the milking barn. After feeding the chickens and rabbits, I would come to the barn, biding my time until he was ready for me, grabbing at the light fairies of hay, feed, dust and airborne dung, spinning in shafts of sinking sun and pulsing mammal breath. I'd turn up the radio and Rita, always first in line, would stare at me with eyes that seemed like you could reach into them with your whole fist and arm and never hit anything hard.
Rita was old for a milker. I'd lead her out of the milking barn into our holding pen only after the machines had sucked her teats dry enough to make the overhead hoses start wheezing and whistling. Robbie would remove each rubber-capped, stainless steel tube one by one from her udder. He would unstrap the leather and metal straps on her back that held the machine to her belly. Then he'd hand me the rope.
The first Tuesday I led Rita, he said, "OK, take her back to the holding pen, she's finished." The holding pen was once the bull's home. Dad decided that it was too much bother to keep a bull around who was always breaking down fences trying to tup the cows. He borrowed a bull and brought in the vet to do artificial insemination. Dad said it was easier on him and the cows, plus it made up for the cost in kept fences. I'm not sure how the cows felt about that whole thing. They seemed to be making an awful fuss the day the bull left the barn.
I clutched her rope and walked towards the holding pen, anxiously aware that her stride was bigger than mine. Her breath was puffing so close that I was breathing in what she was breathing out behind me. I walked faster-past the other milking stalls that stretched a good length to handle twenty head at once, but usually only handled four at a time to save confusion-past the harnesses hung on the scratched walls of the barn, harnesses for horses we never rode because of chores. In no time I led her into the dark and sweet, molasses barley smell of the back holding pen to wait.
Upon entering the pen, I stopped and pulled the light chain that hung from the rafters. It hung next to a fly strip that looked like a long, old orange peel drying. Newly dead fly corpses glittered black and iridescent along its length. I stepped carefully into the light. I didn't want to have to step on rats with my boots and feel the roll of the ground under my feet. It always made me shudder for hours afterwards.
Robbie turned the radio to the Spanish radio station. Robbie was always singing to himself. I think Barbara Jane in his junior class had something to do with it. He kept writing her name all over his binder and on his arm like a tattoo. Mama said that the ink was going to give him blood poisoning and he needed to stop it. But with his shirt sleeves rolled up, you could see Barbara Jane all over him.
Robbie liked the polka sounding songs. I liked the slower songs where someone was singing like they'd lost their last love. We didn't know what they were saying most of the time, but we sang what we thought we heard through the static of the radio and the chugging of the milking machines. As a song reached the back pen, I recognized it and started to hum.
The song on the radio was called "Aquellos Ojos Verdes." I know that's the name of it, because Mama told me. José, who helped us repair fences and irrigation ditches, spoke Spanish. He translated the song for her one day. Since then, she'd say each time it came on, "That's the song about a man in love with a woman with green eyes. Mama has green eyes, can you see my green eyes?" This often accompanied a touch of her pale hair and a pie-eyed look that made you sick. "It's a rumba," she'd say, and would go all dreamy.
Mama told me she used to do the rumba to that song when she first met Dad. It seemed hard to picture, Dad dancing, with his long, lanky legs and bentover back. Mama let me dance with her in the kitchen when she was in a good mood, which wasn't often now that Dad went sour on account of his bull-cracked hip.
One afternoon, when Robbie was helping Dad put up some new fence posts, Mama and I danced salsa, rumba, cha-cha, and mambo right through chores and dinner-making. The guys were mad when they came in and there was nothing done. Mama and I drove down to the local A&W and got us some hot dogs, fries and root beer floats for dinner. She just kept saying, "Oh, well. Oh, well."
That's how I know that Rita was doing the rumba in the pen that first day, because she seemed to dance the same steps as Mama. It looked as if Rita had rehearsed. The gate on the pen was still open and she didn't seem in any hurry to dance a complete circle so that I could close it. I hung onto her rope loosely, knowing that my body couldn't stop her if she chose to bolt and run instead of swish and sway.
But Rita stayed, swayed to the music slowly, back and forth, shifting her big hips from one rear hoof to the other until her emptied udder would slop with a slap, like a wave cresting and collapsing upon itself. Her dung encrusted tail switched across her back and belly to the beat. Her hooves dug deep in the cow dung and leftover hay scattered on the floor, scraping right through to the base of stone. It echoed the swish-swish, clock-clock, swish-swish, clock-clock of her hoof steps slow and natural; a background to the mechanical woosh, woosh, woosh of the other cows still with their teats in the tubes.
I sat on that fence mesmerized and swaying, too. The sound grew from the floor of the pen, I was sure of it, for I felt it grab my feet when I slid down and my muck boots touched the stones. I moved magically into the slide-step of Rita's beat as the radio piped throughout the barn on rat chewed electric cords that Dad always swore he was going to repair before the whole goddamned barn burned down.
Rita ignored me at first. Then we turned together smoothly, until I stepped in some manure, slippery green and fresh. Thankfully I managed to catch myself. By that time, Robbie was calling me to come get another cow. I looked at Rita and told her, "Gotta stop. Move up." She turned her head, cocked her ears and stared at me like I was silly. I had my chunk of garden hose ready to tap her flank. "Come on," I said. "Get in there. I'll hit you with this hose, I swear, I will." She didn't budge and I didn't hit her; I just leaned hard against her, my face pressed into her hide, smelling her dusty sweet. Rita mooed, but moved.
The next day, the radio played salsa music with a quicker beat. Rita didn't seem interested, even when the tune seemed right. She only danced the rumba on Tuesdays in secret in the back pen after the milking. And when I ate her, I tasted salt.
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