Nellie sat down on the back porch steps and looked across the bare yard at the barn. She watched Friz go inside and slide open the big doors to the cow pasture. The black and white cows filed noisily inside, pushing and shoving as they fought their way into the stanchions where they didn’t care what happened behind them as long as the grain was in front of them. It was always the same when they went in.
She stood up and looked over her shoulder at the kitchen door. There was no sign of Mama or any of the others. She climbed down the steps, turning backward so she could hold on to one step while her feet found the one below. She walked with determined steps across the yard on chubby two-and-one-half-year-old legs.
She entered the barn with an air of authority, never thinking once of her mother’s certain disapproval. Shafts of sunlight poured though the high windows lighting the dusty air of the barn. The cows stood in an orderly row, heads through the stanchions, eating and ignoring Friz’s preparations to milk.
He was locking the last of the cows into position and he didn’t see her right away. Several of them had already peed and pooped, and Nellie watched, fascinated, as a cloud of flies swirled above the gutter in the steam rising from fresh manure.
Friz looked up and frowned. “Chile, what you doin’ here?
“I come to watch you milk, Friz,” she announced.
Friz was a tall black man with a deeply lined face and salt and pepper, close-cropped, curly hair and an easy smile. He lived on the farm in what was once the tenant house with his own large family of kids who often played with Nellie and her brothers and sisters. They were a part of her life. Her father was not a farmer; her family just rented the big house.
“Did your mama say okay?”
“Yes,” Nellie lied.
“Okay, chile, just don’t get behind any of these big ol’ BO-vines. If’n you do, you might jest get kicked clean across the barn.”
Nellie nodded, eyeing the long line of hooves and wondering what it would feel like to fly across the barn.
Two cats, one black and the other black and white, sat up on the window ledge watching with an air of indifference until Friz brought out his stool and bucket and sat down by the first cow in the line. They both jumped down and walked towards Friz and the cow, pretending only minimal interest in what he was doing.
Nellie wondered that they could jump so far and land on the cement floor with barely a sound.They sat down, some feet from one another, the tips of their tails snapping sharply back forth, but keeping a little distance between them and the cow.
Friz leaned his head into the cow’s side and squeezed the milk into the bucket, his practiced hands, dark against the white udder, pulling the milk from the cow in a musical rhythm, each stream bouncing off the sides of the bucket, singing a song known only to the cow and the man.
The cats waited. Finally, Friz looked up and smiled at the black cat. He twisted one teat up and expertly squirted a long stream of milk at the black cat, who tilted his head slightly and opened his mouth. The milk shot perfectly into his mouth, splashing a bit. Nellie giggled.
While the cat licked the milk off his cheeks and whiskers, the other cat got his turn. Again, Friz’s aim was perfect and the cat was soon licking milk off his face and whiskers. Neither cat moved any closer. They simply sat and waited, and Friz’s aim was always perfect.
Nellie loved to watch the cats catch the milk. She walked slowly up behind them and looked expectantly at Friz. He smiled and once again, twisted a teat upward and aimed a stream directly at Nellie’s face. Just like the cats, she opened her mouth to catch it. It splashed and spilled down the front of her dress and she giggled uncontrollably. Friz roared with laughter.
“Chile, you one milky mess. Your mama’s gonna tan your hide.”
Nellie laughed and wiped the dripping milk from her face and then wiped her hands down her dress. She loved Friz for including her in the cat’s game, not worrying a bit about what her mother would say.
Friz went back to milking each cow, with an occasional gift to the cats or to Nellie, whose dress bore the evidence of her happy adventure. She watched him work methodically paying close attention to his dark hands and the concentration in his lined face.Finally, he was finished the milking; he cleaned the buckets and prepared to turn the cows back out to the pasture. Nellie was disappointed that he was finished.
She knew he would not let the cows loose until she was out of the way, but she had something she wanted to say before she left. She had been looking thoughtfully at his salt and pepper hair, curled tightly against his scalp, and then, thinking that he would be impressed at how smart she was, she said, “Friz, you ain’t got hair; you got Nigger wool.”
Friz looked up sharply at Nellie, but was silent for some moments. Nellie, satisfied with her observation, stood there, wide-eyed, looking into his dark, black eyes, waiting for him to say something. Then he laughed, shaking his head back and forth in wonderment.
“Chile, I ‘spect you’se right about that,” he laughed. “Now why don’t you run your little self back up to the house before yo’ mama misses you.”
Nellie smiled and said, “Okay, Friz. Can I come back tomorrow?”
“Sure nuff, little ‘un.” Friz walked with her to the door and watched her scramble across the yard and back up the porch steps and into the house.
He shook his head sadly and turned back to his work, driving the cows back out the big door. The cats leapt back up in the window and washed their faces while they watched Friz shovel the manure and urine out of the gutter, getting the barn ready for the morning.
Nellie ran into the house and excitedly announced to her mother, “I watched Friz milk the cows. He squirted milk into the cat’s mouths and even into mine.” Her mother laughed, kneeling down and wrapping her up in her arms. “You didn’t get in his way, did you?”
Nellie shook her head firmly. “No, Mama.”
“So what did you and Friz talk about while he milked?”
“I told him that he ain’t got hair, he’s got Nigger wool!”
Her mother’s mouth fell open and she grabbed Nellie’s shoulders tightly and held her at arm’s length.
“You didn’t, did you?”
Nellie nodded her head, pigtails bobbing up and down. “Yes! An’ he thought it was so funny!”
Her mother slapped her across the face, and shook her hard. She stood up and dragged Nellie by one arm to a kitchen chair and pulled her onto it. “You just sit there,” she said with that familiar, hard edge to her voice that Nellie dreaded.
Through tears, she watched her mother go back to peeling potatoes for dinner, her mouth drawn tight. Nellie wondered what she had done wrong.