I owned an Omni once, a car so unreliable I carried quarts of oil like passengers. Worse, I was afraid to leave it parked outside on a rainy day for fear it wouldn’t start. Which means the morning was clear when I allowed that car to rest beside a field where dozens of dairy cows grazed among a scattering of discarded Omnis, confirming a friend’s late-night, beer-soaked story. The cows breathed white where they were shadowed. I counted eleven Omnis. Those skeletal cars prophesized so convincingly that I pledged to trade in my Omni before it was strangled by the next overnight downpour that attacked it in a motel parking lot 500 miles from home.
I never mentioned that vow to the student, years later, who, in precise, exacting prose, described her father’s dairy farm. She cited the names of twelve cows, the dollars and cents of one year’s income after expenses were subtracted. She framed that essay around the life cycle hazards of dairy cows, how calves are sometimes crushed by their mothers, and scours is a scourge that thins a herd. Most intriguing was her description of the cow behavior she called “downed.” Those cows, she wrote, simply refused to get up, even if prodded and tugged. Her father, as a last resort, gave them glucose injections that worked often enough. She’d seen dozens stand and walk, surviving, sometimes for years, until her father had to calculate what was left of the life span of each cow’s arthritic legs because it needed to be able to walk to the rendering truck in order to earn a final, decent investment return.
During that same academic year, a network television paranormal show featured her classmate and the ghost of a boy that haunted her bedroom, the small space where he had died at nine years old, twenty-five years before she was born. She, too, had grown up on what had become the last dairy farm in a neighborhood full of failures. A camera scanned her bedroom while her voice-over confirmed she still felt the dead boy’s presence. She confessed that for years she had spent many nights sleepless, anxious, and curious, but not afraid. Almost in love with his transparency, she felt that her body was watched by someone who envied her. It wasn’t sexual, she said. It was more brotherly, like a blessing, as if he were watching over her to ensure a lifetime’s safety.
She became the valedictorian of her class. After graduation, both she and the other farmer’s daughter went home to dairy farms that were still solvent, spending one last summer there before becoming writers and editors. Neither had heard of the dairy farm that hosted the remains of Omnis.
That May, for his birthday, I drove my father to the dairy farm that bordered property he had held on to for thirty years as a retirement plan he believed in even as my mother sickened, not selling that land until she died. By that spring, the dairy farmer was in his seventies, his three sons long since grown, two working elsewhere, as he put it, “for others.” Pastured, the cows, many of them lying down, were at a distance that kept me from taking a census for what appeared to be the herd’s diminished numbers.
For all of those thirty years, my father had praised the independence of that dairy farmer, how that sort of work meant you were “beholding to nobody.” When we had visited on weekends while I was a boy, he was always up early to work at the endless maintenance necessary to keep twenty acres and a house, which he rented out, a facsimile of how he saw his future. It took a private discipline, a calling accepted by men like that dairy farmer, which he embraced before we set off for the several acres of woods that still remained on the property he’d owned.
Eighty-five, the first year he acquiesced to using a cane, he led me to a clearing among a grove of pine trees. The picnic shelter he had once built by hand was still there. The rusted screens on either side filtered light into the dim, empty interior while my father stared and stood very still as if listening for ghosts. At last, he tapped the badly warped door with his cane, prodding me to open it. I struggled for more than a few seconds before I put my shoulder to it and shoved, budging it far enough to squeeze through. Working to honor that near-ruin, I stepped inside and stood upon that precarious wooden floor to verify the indelible presence of his personal past.