To 2015 - 2016
Got Milk?

By Sherry Luo

  1. Untitled
    Untitled
    By Susannah Poole, 11
 Chase Elsen took a long, satisfying swig of warm milk from a cheap Dixie paper cup. Milk helped to tame his nerves, something he needed for his first day back at work. Chase had spent the last few months jobless and it was only thanks to his frugality and a meticulously handled savings account that he did not spend those months homeless as well. The unemployment office had become where he took his daily dose of chagrin and free instant coffee, the next-door soup kitchen where he brooded and prayed. It had been an unflattering and tiresome position to be in. The last week, though, had proved to be miraculous for Chase. There had been an extremely generous offer on a dairy farm. The job description listed administering to livestock and maintaining machinery as some of the activities expected of a ‘Dairy Farm Assistant Herdsman.’ To Chase that was just fancy talk for scooping up cow manure and hooking up cows to milking machines (or “udder-suckers” as he called them in his mind). But a job was a job, and “pickings were slim” as the lady running the office liked to point out to everyone. “Plus it might be an umm... enlightening experience for you!” she said with false enthusiasm as she slammed a brick of paperwork in front of him. Enlightening work at a dairy farm. It was almost laughable.
 
Chase was sitting behind the wheel of his proud Chevy, the kind of car a salesman would call a “vintage model.” The paint might be going, but it still got great mileage. He drove past acres and acres of corn and wheat with the occasional silo or barn accenting the skyline. Driving on the Nebraskan highway gave Chase a sense of pleasure; he had the feeling of driving in a great big hamster wheel. The monotony of the gentle half-blue, half-gold landscape stilled his thoughts (not that Chase’s mind had many thoughts to begin with).
 
When Chase reached the address of the dairy farm, he was not sure if it was the right one. He looked carefully at the address he had written down:
 
Place of Bovine Dairy
715 Godfrey Rd.
Firth, NE 68358
 
The sign above the gate said “Place of Bovine Dairy Farm,” but there were no grazing animals in any of the surrounding fields. Maybe they’re in the stables getting fed or something, he thought, but the sight itself made him uncomfortable. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen any animals the whole way out here.
 
When he got out of the car, he saw a man walking towards him. That he was expecting. The manager, Mr. Milan, had notified him that he would send someone to meet him on his first day. What he was not anticipating was the dead silence that welcomed him when he stepped out of his truck. Straining his ears, Chase could not detect even the faintest mooing. Even at night such an absence of sound would not be possible in a place that held more than a hundred cows. But before he could question it, the man had reached him, his burly arm held out to shake.
 
“Hey, there. You must be Mr. Elsen. Name’s Scott Manhattan. Friends call me Manny.” Chase hoped that Manny’s handshake was not indicative of his personality; he had grabbed Chase’s hand and jerked his arm violently like a bullwhip.
 
“Chase is fine. Mr. Elsen’s what people call my dad.” Chase looked around, not that there was much of anything worth looking at. “So you’re supposed to show me the ropes here?”
 
“That’s right. There’s a lot to take in, Chase, so we’d best be going. I reckon you probably already have some questions.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “I think it’d be best to head to the Milking Parlor first. Yes, I think that’d be best. Okay, let’s go, Chase. This way.” Manny walked briskly ahead, taking long, powerful strides. Chase was by no means an athletic man and had to speed walk to keep up with Manny. Under the hot Nebraskan sun, Chase’s skin was starting to suffocate under his cotton button-down.
 
“So do you often get new workers here?” Chase asked.
 
“Not really, actually. I’ve never done this before, you know, walking someone through how things work here.”
 
“Is that so?”
 
“We’ve been here for years and years, and there weren’t that many of us to begin with. You see, Mr. Milan the owner looks for a certain kind of man when he’s hiring; it’s not about whether or not you can actually do the job; it’s got more to do with whether you can keep quiet about it.”
 
“Keep quiet about it,” Chase echoed pensively.
 
“Right. I bet you’re wondering where we keep all of the cows or whether we have any at all. Has that crossed your mind at all?”
 
“It is awfully quiet out here…”
 
“That’s because we don’t actually have any cows out here, even though we call ourselves a dairy farm.”
 
“So do you use goats instead?”
 
“What I mean is that we don’t have any animals here.”
 
“And yet you still call yourselves a farm.”
 
“Let me explain, let me explain. Do you know what bovine spongiform encephalopathy is?” Silence. “It’s just the scientific name for mad cow disease.” Manny said this matter-of-factly, as if it should have been obvious.
 
“Oh. That.”
 
“You probably don’t remember, but I think it was maybe twenty, maybe twenty-five, years ago that a huge wave of it hit the Midwest.”
 
Twenty to twenty-five years ago. I would have been three years old when this happened. “No, I can’t say that I remember. I don’t think I’ve even read anything about it.”
 
“Well, I’m not surprised there. The EPA tried to hush up the whole incident, but you can only erase history, not change it. But here’s the thing that got everyone: mad cow disease isn’t contagious like the flu. Cows get it because of a misfolded protein, a prion, in their brains, a sort of glitch you could call it.” Chase thought that it was awfully posh of Manny to throw around a word like bovine spongiform encephalopathy and prion in a place like Firth, Nebraska. Just a quirk of his, he supposed. “It’s not supposed to be that widespread. Every cow in the nation got infected, just like that, BAM!” Manny snapped his fingers. “There wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. Slowly but surely, we lost every cow. Not a single one left.”
 
The eerie silence on the dairy farm could attest to that. “So if you don’t use cows, then--” Chase began to ask.
 
Manny held up his pointer finger. “Hold on, I’m getting there.” He paused. “So what do you say to a nation that practically lives off beef and milk? We couldn’t just broadcast that. People would go nuts over it. I mean, labs can create synthetic beef, but they can't mass produce like farms can. But we don't deal with beef here. Milk's the name of the game here. Without cows, we've had to use a... different kind of livestock."
 
"What do you mean, different?"
 
Manny just sighed. "It's probably better if I just show you." They had reached the front of an impressively large building painted a dramatic dark grey. To Chase it looked more like a dock warehouse than an actual barn, but who was he to judge agricultural architecture?
 
The inside of the Milking Parlor looked somewhat like the interior of a supermarket, except that in place of shelves there were aisles upon aisles of stalls. They were more tall than they were wide and bad swinging doors; they reminded Chase of bathroom stalls.
 
"Feel free to look around," said Manny with his thumbs in his pockets. "Milking time will be in a few." Chase wandered about. He felt rather uncomfortable being in place that did... something.
 
He walked into one of the stalls. He had no space to move around comfortably; he could turn around fine, but there was no space to stretch his arms or legs. What looked like two large suction cups were hanging above him from transparent tubing that climbed upwards to the ceiling and disappeared in a labyrinth of tubing that Chase guessed led to a processing plant. Other than that, the only other embellishment in the stall was a lone chair. “It doesn’t really look right,” he called back to Manny. “I still don’t --”
 
Manny cut him off. “Elsen, come over here. Time to actually learn something.” What Manny wanted to show Chase was the control board. It was nothing too intimidating, merely some buttons, levers, and switches, and Chase memorized the commands easily.
 
Abruptly, a blaring siren went off, the first legitimate sound Chase had heard this whole time. After this much silence, the outburst made him jump. It felt like a drill bit was being shoved in his ear, shredding his ear drum and murdering his cochlea.
 
“Calm down, Chase,” Manny said with his hand comfortingly on Chase’s shoulder. “It’s just the signal for milking time. So press that lever. You remember what it does, don’t you?”
 
“It opens the gates to the stables.”
 
“That’s right. Let ‘er rip, Elsen.” With a firm grip Chase yanked down on the lever. The blaring siren noise stopped, only to be replaced by the harsh grinding metallic scream of the sliding gates at the back of the Milking Parlor. Chase knew not to expect a herd of cows to coming through those gates, but there was no possible way that he would have ever guessed that a swarm of humans would come teeming through. They were dressed in oversized and wrinkly gray jumpsuits; it looked as if they were enshrouded in old elephant skins. Most of them were women: old women, young women, ugly women, gorgeous women, thin women, fat women; name a kind of woman and she would be in that crowd. Chase did notice some men, however.
 
“Are they workers?” Chase asked Manny, who had his arms folded.
 
He shook his head. “You’re a slow one, aren’t you? You still haven’t figured it out yet?” He sighed. “You’ll get it soon enough. Just keep watching.” Chase watched.
 
Each person filed into their own stall so smoothly that it was obvious that this was all routine. Chase watched a nearby brunette go into her own stall and sit down on the chair. Behind him, Manny flipped a switch on the control board which lowered the hanging suction cups like jungle snakes descending down a vine. The brunette unzipped her jumpsuit to reveal rosy, luscious breasts. She reached up and grabbed the suction cups, attaching them to her breasts. Manny flicked another switch, and the suction cups started rhythmically constricting, the transparent tubing filling with a yellowish, white liquid. Chase stared unabashedly, until he realized the magnitude of the sight before him.
 
Humans? Are you serious? You’re feeding the nation breast milk?!
 
Manny simply shrugged. “Like I said, it’s not about whether or not you can do the job, it’s about keeping quiet. Look, it’s not what you think,” he said upon seeing Chase’s disgusted face. “All of the people here are here of their own accord. We even pay them for their services, bed and board thrown in. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to sell their own bodies for money. These people can’t really do any other work; more likely than not, they’re unskilled, untrained, single parents, high school dropouts, lower-class grind, you know how it goes.
 
“We feed them food spiked with oxytocin to stimulate their mammary glands, so the milk comes easier. The men, too. Did you know that men can breastfeed too? I actually didn’t know that before I took this job.” That was a fact Chase could have done without. He thought of the cup of milk he drank this morning. He might as well have been sucking directly on the teats of that brunette over there. The thought alone made his stomach lurch, and, as befitting of a dairy farm, the milk Chase drank that morning made a reappearance on the cement floor of the Milking Parlor.
 
Chase moaned. His tongue and gums burned with bile.
 
“You know you’ll have to clean that up, right?” Manny said
 
“Clean it up yourself,” he croaked. “You disgusting people, you--”
 
“It is no more disgusting than drinking cow’s milk,” rang an authoritative voice. Chase turned and saw another man approaching him. This one was dressed in a finely pressed suit. With both hands behind his back, he walked with an air of dignity. Chase was impressed by his poise. A most presidential figure.
 
“Mr. Milan. Didn’t think that you’d actually come out here today,” Manny said respectfully.
 
Mr. Milan shrugged. “I figured you’d have trouble converting Mr. Elsen. And from what I can see, he’s not taking it all that well.” He eyed the vomit on the floor with a wrinkled nose, as if it could spread like the plague. Mr. Milan straightened his cuffs. “Mr. Elsen, come with me.” Mr. Milan left without even checking to see if Chase was following. Chase figured he might as well; there was no way he could stay in here any longer.
 
Mr. Milan walked back down the gravel path to where Chase’s truck was patiently waiting. “So, Mr. Elsen. What do you think of this whole endeavor?”
 
“I’d rather not say, Mr. Milan.” Despite the vulgarity of it all, Chase needed this job. Badly.
 
“A man who knows the value of silence. That’s good. I like that in you.” They walked in silence for a while before Mr. Milan spoke again. “I am not going to deny that what we’re doing is probably wrong, because what we’re doing is definitely wrong. Lying to the whole nation, you might not think that it’s possible, but it is. All of this,” he gestured to the empty fields, the Milking Parlor, the Stables, “is all covered up and funded by the government and has been in progress for over twenty years.” He looked pointedly at Chase, expecting him, perhaps, to comment on how impressive it all was, looking to bask in some paltry glory, but Chase did not deign to humor the man. Mr. Milan cleared his throat.
 
“We are doing this country a great service, even if you don’t see it that way, Mr. Elsen. Human milk is, in fact, more healthy, more natural than cow’s milk. More protein, more antibodies. Whose idea was it in the first place to drink cow’s milk? Quite unnatural, if you think about it. Human’s milk is for humans, and cow’s milk is for cows. Nature drew those boundaries for a reason, you must understand.” Nature might have drawn them, but mankind broke them, Chase thought.
 
“Now we must address the heart of the matter.” They had reached Chase’s truck. Mr. Milan gave it a cursory judgmental glance before he directly faced Chase with a stern expression. “There is only a forward from here. You can choose to work with us and not have to worry about being penniless or you can walk away; no one will listen to your outlandish claims and you can go back to sulking in the unemployment office.”
 
As much as Chase didn’t want to admit it, Mr. Milan was right. He really only had one option open to him. He comforted himself by telling himself that he was only working here; he wasn’t advocating any beliefs. It didn’t matter whether he thought things here were right or wrong. What mattered was paying next month’s rent on time. “Forward it is, then. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Milan.”
 
Mr. Milan made no sound, but the most minute deflation of his shoulders made it clear how nervous he had been that Chase would reject his offer. That was when Chase realized how much control he had had over Mr. Milan in that one moment, how much power he had relinquished. The truth of this place had been his to reveal. Now it once again belonged to Mr. Milan.
 
They said their farewells, exchanged the final niceties. Driving away, Chase’s mind was still absorbing everything that had transpired. It all made sense, in a way, but here is the real question: Where’s all of our beef coming from?
  
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