Canned Milk with a Cartoon Cow


The morning has always been my worst time for impressing others, responding to orders and getting on the ball. My father spent years trying to condition me out of that. He sometimes woke us beating pots and pans in our room, a sudden explosive jangling banging like firehouse alarm bells made out of car wrecks.  I’d snap upright in terror, breathless, shocked back from my dreams of flight. But that was ordinary life for Daddy. He got a whole houseful of people ready to face society every day, preparing himself for a battle of wills with large groups of bull-headed people including judges, lawyers, cops and robbers, the Sheriff and all his deputies—including plenty of mutinous ones—as well as murderers and thieves, people talking from behind thick iron bars and victims and families of all these people. And morning happened to be his best time of day. He was always on full throttle in the morning.

He’d installed an intercom in the house by then, with microphones and speakers in every room. He played the radio loudly in the mornings and the Monitor Radio Network filled the house with music and funny people telling silly stories but also serious voices reading the news of Space, Race Riots and the War in Viet Nam. Then back to Henry Mancini and jokes.

Those mornings were surreal: it was crazy to be snapped awake by car-wreck alarm bells to these happy voices and funny songs in this world of murdered Presidents and blown-up churches, bodies hanging in the woods and monks sitting burning, unmoving like Buddha because of what America was doing in their country. This was no way for me to return to the world, fresh from the psychic cleansing of my dreams. I woke with a memory of a kind of cloud that floated somewhere in the powerful blackness between the earth and moon—a vast mist of glittering bits, pulsing in the gravity among the orbiting orbs around the sun and through the universe. I felt that pulse through my daily life, especially at meals, when the overwhelming flood of aromas and textures hypnotized me: I had to send that out to space, to the spaceman, floating in that silver cloud so that he could taste it and feel the love with which it was cooked and the warmth of the hearts that served it, though I, myself, was not really there, and of all meals, especially at breakfast, I was absent in the present.

I was aware that Daddy jumped up and started breakfast every morning and got us all up and ready while he cooked the food and he served us all and shaved while we ate. He got ready for court or for a shoot-out, never late or caught off guard. But, shocked awake and distressed at the start of my day, still not quite asleep, I would go to the kitchen, where Daddy was cooking, and find my anxious, serious way to the table, where Mother was drinking her morning coffee with her left hand, her right hand useless in her lap. On the table, there was usually a can of condensed milk for the coffee. It had a cartoon cow on the label. A smiling cow. I remembered it from before she got sick, before we even moved into this house. It was like an old family friend.

“Get your plate, Skipper,” Daddy would say: “Come on, Bobby, Jane!” and he would slide eggs and sausage onto our plates, or pancakes and sausage, or bacon or sausage with waffles. He was a great cook. And with such heavy responsibilities he handled it all and heaped extra effort into the minute details of keeping everything going. I guess it was either the product of the Great Depression or it was just his nature to be so driven, one thing after another, heavy responsibility in every direction, unceasing.

It was not that I forsook duty, myself, but Daddy had a unique story and he was playing out this huge epic of his own life but I was a different character with my own story and plot elements, including a much different mission. I was a truth teller, which is probably one reason he didn’t become closer to me. Ever since I was a little kid, I sincerely told whatever I knew, including anything he or my mother or grandfather or grandmother told me. I would tell it to anyone. So nobody told me anything. My brother knew how to keep a secret, so he was in tighter with everyone. So I had a bit of a natural disconnect with my surroundings to begin with and I was mission directed to figure out that cloud that still lingered in my vision from my dreams. But there was no time for that kind of consciousness in our mornings. Daddy considered it slow thinking. But so many things were going on at breakfast that, being very quiet anyway, it was easy for me to fade into the background, and I did when possible, returning my thoughts to the transmission I was sending the spaceman in the cloud, detailing everything about life here on earth, transferring the completeness of my thinking to a most meticulous preparation of my food, a deep staring as I ate, gazing through space at what looked like a junkyard of thousands of pieces of something hanging deep in the stars, something I could possibly understand and assemble if I looked at all the pieces long enough.

And while, with silent, lifting mind, I trod the untrespassed sanctity of space, I put out my hand, and impeccably buttered my waffle, filling each hot little pocket and seeing the butter melt and sink into the bread. I spread my syrup exactly the same, each step taking terrible minutes, pressing syrup carefully into each indentation, like my mind presse into every fissure and twist of my brain.

“Skipper!” Daddy shouted and I jerked back to the present, everyone looking at me holding the butter knife, and Daddy would say, “Stop buttering that waffle and go on and eat it! You ain’t got time to be fooling around!”

But it was hard for me to consider the ordinary patterns. I was becoming an allegorical engineer, driving a train of thought through a country that had no rails and only unpredictable stops in the local world. When Daddy and Granddaddy worked on their cars, they would call from under the engine for me to bring some kind of tool or other and I would go and seek it in the toolbox, but when I looked at the hundreds of jumbled pieces in there I could not decipher the patterns. These pieces looked like the things that hung in the cloud out by the moon, endless mechanistic bits with no apparent order, jumbles of greasy handles and fittings of scaled sizes, but I could never really grasp their relationships. To find the tool they wanted, I usually had to calculate some number, such as seven-thirty-seconds, or something. Five-sixteenths, I think, was something they used to ask for. And I would look in the rusty old toolbox, under the elm tree, beside Granddaddy’s bright green lawn, at all those odd-shaped metal pieces covered in grease. I couldn’t make out the numbers inscribed on them and Grandmother Harper had made me very uneasy about getting dirty, so it was painful even to look. And they always wanted something different. Five-sixteenths box-end, seven-thirty-seconds open-end, crescent wrench, vice-grips, six-fifty-fourths-inch ratchet or something, and I searched slowly, carefully in those rusty boxes of grease. Angry expletives drifted out from under the cars. Meanwhile, I was in a space suit, looking at what were really the pieces of myself, pulsing loosely in neutral gravity. So I often forgot that I was looking for something on earth as I gazed into the greasy toolbox and saw the cloud of glittering  pieces suspended near the moon, laced through with light and shadows.

Eventually, whoever was under the car, cursing the engine, would give up waiting for me to bring the whatchamacallit, crawl out and get it themselves and run me off from helping any more. And so I never learned doodly-squat about engines.

Later, I got a job in a grocery store and I also got a reputation as being weird there. Weird Harper. I mean, I was flying airplanes by then. I got the job so I could pay for my lessons. Daddy supported this because it would make me look good for the Air Force Academy. I was in the Civil Air Patrol. I couldn’t repair a car or airplane engine, but I could navigate an airplane with a compass, map and wind computer. So I was smart enough to work in the grocery store and I was thorough and meticulous in all my simple grocery duties, but I was maybe a little slow. “Harper’s too slow,” I heard some stockers say and John, the boss would sometimes tell me, “Pick it up, Harper.” And I tried to go faster but I prefered to be thorough. At the store, it happened, they sold the same kind of condensed milk Mother and Daddy used to drink in their coffee, with the cartoon cow on the label, our old family friend. And sometimes, as with all store displays, this stack of cans would get dishevelled as people pawed and picked at it over a day or two and John would eventually assign someone to rebuild it. This was something I especially liked to do. I’d never thought about it much, but going to that aisle and kneeling before all those cartoon cow labels filled me with reverence and awe.

It was a simple job to rebuild that display or most any other stack of cans and boxes anywhere in the little store. Pull out all the loose cans from the shelf, then the partial cases and the unopened cases on bottom. Dust out the shelf. Put back the unopened cases, replace the partial cases, and stack the loose cans back on top. Even done carefully, it should only take a few minutes, but it took me half an hour or longer to do the canned milk, meticulously positioning every molecule that could be adjusted by hand, every alignment of each cartoon cow horn. Time seemed to freeze and people passing in the aisle—the shoppers, my fellow workers, even my bosses—felt they’d hit a dream spot until I finally finished and everyone was glad. Still, John liked the way it looked and, time and again, he gave me the job.

His brother, Sammy, and sometimes John himself would say, “Pick it up, Harper. Get it done.” and I always tried to oblige them, but redoing that display tuned me in to the sparkling space cloud and there was nothing I could do about that. Standing in my apron in the polished grocery aisle, I would kneel before the holy cartoon cows and enter the ritual, as if a good, proper straightening of these elements of communion could return me to the time before things went wrong, those happy days, when Mother ran freely and we walked in the woods behind the house, and she and Daddy drank coffee from a rocket-shaped percolator and whitened it with this kind of milk. Perhaps, if I did this ritual well enough, this milk could still save things and Mother could walk again.

Daddy opened those squat little cans, using the tip of a sharp butcher’s knife poised at the very edge, pounding the end of the handle with the heel of his hand, enlarging one hole to pour from, leaving the smaller to vent. He poured the thick, sweet milk in their cups and put the can in the refrigerator, where cream clotted around the pour hole. This all surged through the deepest parts of my mind as I handled those cans and cases, carefully as I had cleaned the sanctuary at the church each week working toward the God and Country award in the Scouts. Of course, all my childhood thoughts eventually drifted back to that fateful morning and my vision of the cans in the milk display blended with images of the ambulance pulling into our driveway. I remembered calling to Mother in her bathroom, remembered watching the ambulance take her as I cleared the cans from the shelf.

I remembered all us kids staying at Sgt. Fosters’ house for months, remembered hearing again and again that my mother would never walk again.

With the milk display all taken apart, the shelf dusted clean, I floated in my space suit between the earth and the moon amid the thousands of pieces of me that pulsed out there and as I restacked the cans of milk, I observed those free-floating pieces in space. And I reached for their perfect form in space, in zero gravity until I finally saw those cows again, back in that grocery store aisle, the milk display perfect as an ancient structure in stone. I stood up, dusted my hands and stood back to admire the stacked cans, remembering nothing, smiling like a fool.

One day, just back from lunch, I was going to ask John what he wanted me to do next, but as I neared the office, I heard him talking with one of my fellow stockers and I paused.

“Fred, I want you to work the frozen food,” John said.

“What about canned milk?” Fred asked. “That needs to be done.”

“I’m gonna have Harper do the canned milk,” John answered and I wondered at that.

“Harper’s too slow,” Fred complained.

“Fred,” John told him, “if I want something done fast, I’ll get you to do it. If I want it done right, I’ll get Harper.”

I was startled and thrilled to hear John say that. I stepped back from the office to calm myself down. I went to look at the milk display and, sure enough, it was a mess. After a moment, I went back to the office and innocently took the assignment from John. I went to work on it, grinning like a fool, and did my best. I always did my best for John.

Leave a reply