The Five Hundred Dollar Phone Call

    One winter when I worked as a hired hand for Edgar, a local dairyman, I got accustomed to crawling out of bed at 4:30
seven days a week to drive the six miles to Edgar's barn and start milking chores at 5:00. During those six months I never saw
the sun come up except through a barn window.
    Edgar and I would race through the preliminaries, feeding hay and grain to the stanchioned cows in the barn before starting
in with the milking machines. We each had two machines, and we started at one end of the barn and worked toward the other,
visiting with one another across the center aisle above the din of milk pump, blaring local radio, and the random noises of
eighty-some cows. The tedium of chores was the same every day, and we strove for efficiency, trimming from our regimen
every excess movement.
    Anyone who has ever wondered what possesses a person to eke out a living milking cows is justified in their questioning.
Just as only someone lacking the sense of smell could work in the far end of a fish processing plant, those who choose to milk
cows must lack something. Twice a day milking, seven days a week--it's not a life, it's a sentence. But for six months it was just another job for me, even interesting in some ways.
    I got used to waking up in the dark.  So much so, that one day I woke from a nap in daylight, and in that mind-muddled
moment, I thought it was morning and I'd overslept. I scooped up an armful of clothes and went tearing downstairs naked.  My wife looked up from her phone conversation to see me burst wild-eyed into the room and slowly awaken from my idiocy.
    After a while, that six miles of driving to the barn and then home again twice a day got me thinking about a motorcycle. Getting fifty or sixty miles per gallon on a motorcycle would cut the cost of my commute. So when I found the right bike for sale about thirty miles away, I withdrew five hundred dollars cash from our savings.
    Five hundred, five weeks pay.  I got the money from the bank on a Friday.  The motorcycle owner and I both worked and could meet only on Sunday afternoon.  I had four C-notes, but the last hundred was in twenties, tens, and fives, as I hoped
to negotiate a cheaper price. I folded the cash into a small wad, wrapped it in a plastic sandwich bag, and stuffed it deep into
my pants pocket--the safest place I could think of in our wood-heated house.
    And who wouldn't pat his pocket occasionally, under the circumstances, to ensure that the money was there? It always was,
of course, but my hand went continually to my pocket.
    Sunday morning about halfway through milking, however, my pocket was empty. For a brief moment, I was frantic--could I have lost it in the hay?--until I realized--Oh, yeah--when I changed my jeans for a clean pair that morning, I had emptied my pockets onto the kitchen table. Half awake and in the dim kerosene lamplight of 4:45 am, it would have been easy to overlook the wadded up plastic bag. Knowing my money was safe on the kitchen table, I swung to the next cow, slapped
the machine on, and went on milking. We lacked only an hour of being done with chores; it hardly seemed worth it to leave the barn, walk over to the house, call home, and possibly even wake Marcia--when I'd be home in just over an hour.  I put my mind at rest, and told Edgar the one about the traveling salesman and the one-eyed dog.
    It was early spring, the sun warmed the world, and I drove home feeling good, imagining how the road would feel under
a motorcycle.
    I went straight to the kitchen table for the little plastic bag of cash.  It wasn't there. Our daughter, Erin, was almost
two, and I asked Marcia: "Has Erin had been playing at the table this morning?"
    "No, I haven't brought her downstairs yet. I've been busy cleaning the kitchen."
    My stomach got tight. Marcia's method of cleaning has always been an inside joke.  She doesn't like cleaning house, so she steels herself to it, becomes a whirlwind, and rushes through the job mechanically.  So she can get on to other things.
    "When you cleaned up, did you find my money?" I asked.
    "What money?"
    "The motorcycle money, that five hundred bucks."
    "No. Where did you leave it?"
    I explained about changing my pants, emptying my pockets on the table, and missing the money during milking. We both
looked at the empty surface of the cleanly wiped kitchen table. "You didn't find a small, wadded-up plastic sandwich bag on
the table," I asked?
    "I found what looked like an old lunchbag . . . and dumped it into the stove with the old mail."  Marcia's face
looked ashen. And then she started to cry.
    My reaction made no more sense. Lifting the lid of the kitchen stove, I looked into the firebox--as if a plastic bag full of dry
paper might just roll safely to one side of the fire and lay there untouched.
    So much for my motorcycle days. Maybe the flames protected me from another bike wreck. I had lost control of the first
one I owned in a gravel-loving moment of inattentiveness.
    Later that week, a friend said, "I think that would end my marriage, if it happened to me."  But I had to wonder--who was
at fault here, the idiot who left a wad of cash laying around, or the woman who put her mind in neutral and her body
in overdrive to clean house?  "Fault" is sometimes a useless, troublesome concept.  Things happen.  In the end the incident
became another of those that strengthen a marriage. You don't let little details like money get in the way of a good thing.

Back to my home page