Fiction: Miles Klee’s “The Milkman’s Exhaustion”

Conventionally handsome, but why the fuss over that? He’s nothing special, nothing unique. There exist a million men who have his kind of beauty.

Perhaps that’s why it is in such high demand.

His truck runs perfectly, never stalls. Purrs at the curb like a big dumb cat. Milk bottles clink in his milk bottle carrier, sounding like milk bottles in the movies.

More like movies than movies, in fact.

Alexandra, Belinda. Cassandra and Emilia and Fiona. Happily married except one grieving widow. The odd echoing of the names is accidental.

It’s good that in the climax, he is not given to saying the names.

Wouldn’t anything make more sense than the milkman? Engineers, he knows, are making cheaper refrigerators. Buy milk from the grocer, keep it cool at home. Run the milkman out of a job. Why not.

“What do you like about me,” he asks.

“I don’t know,” Cassandra says.

“You’re here.” Belinda.

“You don’t really want me to tell,” is Alexandra’s answer.

Emilia goes: “Fuck off.”

He loves any reply at all. He loves them.

The milk is viscous in its bottles. Bottles clinking as in movies. The milk is yellowing, obscene: he cannot stand the sight. If he sees a housewife sip it, he will never touch her again, for somehow the game is ruined. Their milkbreath suffocates him.

He hasn’t had milk since boyhood. A little sister drank from his cup when he wasn’t paying attention, and when he drank again he could tell: it was warmer, or just different, he didn’t know how he knew, but he did.

Damn it, which one is the widow? They are all so sad it is hard to tell. They all make love eagerly, and that is all they ever do: make love.

Isn’t there one whose name begins with a D?

There’s another truck, a rival milkman, but the milkman has never met him. He has only seen the truck around town—blue where his is red, and red where his is pearlescent gray.

Donna, it’s Donna who’s the D. Fiona’s teenage daughter, with brand-new tits much like enormous Ds. She flounces heavily into the kitchen when he is involved with Fiona (the widow, he is almost totally sure) and inquires if it’s a decent batch, doing a soft-shoe routine.

“No,” says Fiona, straightening her skirt. “Cows gave it sour just for you.”

“She’s right,” the milkman adds. “Cows hate you.”

Donna really can’t believe that they would speak to her this way.

“I’m going to fix you both,” she sneers.

Emilia is in a sour mood, but then this is what he likes about her. She is nearly as tall as him, and he has to put her hand on his cock.

“More that,” she says. “How original.”

More than once he has said the same thing to two women, but only when it was true both times. Are we supposed to find that noble? “Of course not,” the milkman would say, “but it strikes me as good manners.”

Shit. He’s forgotten Alexandra.

“I forgive,” Alexandra says in a nonetheless petulant voice when he finally does turn up. “I’ll have to tie you down.”

The milkman does not mind, no sir. He wishes other women had her zest for naked power. She makes him submit.

Emilia too, in her way. Cassandra … sure. But Alexandra revels.

Her husband is a defense contractor, the milkman half-recalls.

He’d grab her ass, but his hands are bound.

Then he is at Cassandra’s.

“Not now,” Cassandra says. “Richard will be home any second.” Cassandra speaks of her husband as if he runs a network of spies.

Come to think of it, maybe so, because right then he strolls in.

Overdue, the milkman thinks.

“What in Sam Hill!” Richard says, maybe not a spy after all.

“Don’t fight!” wails Cassandra. “I cannot watch men fight!”

There was a G, the milkman recalls. Grinella. Husband killed her, or she might have killed herself. One made to look like the other.

“Cassie, you tart,” says Richard, grinning in a low way. “I thought you was feeling frisky, I could tell! How you getting on with my Cassie this evening, boy? You making her feel nice?”

Richard doesn’t run a network of spies. He is one of the men who designed the highway. Without him, there wouldn’t be this town.

“Sir, I—”

“Shut up, boy.”

“Ooo,” Cassandra squeals.

“You like when I tell that boy to shut up?” Richard asks. “Come on over to Bill’s backyard, boy.”

In Bill’s backyard the husbands drink smelly bourbon. It’s a fine gathering until it turns to business. They offer the milkman a generous fee to keep on fucking their wives—making love, whichever.

“I can’t,” the milkman decides. “Going to move out west.”

“Look, old sport,” the eldest husband says. “We can’t have you vanish and leave our ladyfolk broken to pieces. Won’t do.”

“Take responsibility, son.”

“Mine’ll go batty without you.”

“Mine first,” Richard argues.

“They’re your wives,” the milkman feebly protests. “It’s you who’ve got to make them happy.” They laugh. A box of cigars goes round. Enough for everyone and the milkman. They smoke under the bitter cold stars, cough and clap each other’s backs. All the husbands have been to war. They tell just horrible stories.

The milkman does have his own friend, called Swifty, and he’s not made love even once. Swifty sits with him at the bar. He wants to hear everything.

“What’s to tell,” the milkman says in earnest.

“You’re goddamn slow,” Swifty says. “That look.”

“There was the time with the daughter.” Swifty perks at the mention of young pussy. The milkman forges on.

“Donna?” the milkman had said one drizzly morning. “Where’s your mother?”

“Salon,” the busty girl had replied.

“Why are you home?”

“I’m sick.”

“What do you imagine the cure was,” the milkman jokes in the tavern.

“Sucking on your balls,” his friend says.

His friend.

The housewives are friends till his body disagrees. As when he’s impotent for Emilia. As when he was with Grinella.

What happened, or didn’t, was his fault.

But they always believe it is theirs.

“That’s why you’ll never get hitched,” Swifty says. “Know why?”

“Please.”

“Cause why buy milk when you get the cow for—”

Is the milkman afraid of hell? He wonders this himself. The idea is not inconsistent with what is happening right now. How absurd that it’s now right now, and not five minutes before.

Alexandra reminds him of Fiona, Cassandra of Emilia, but Emilia reminds him of Alexandra, Belinda of no one. He tells her that she is utterly unique.

“Nothing in common with anyone,” she sighs.

The milkman doesn’t put much stock in psychiatrists, but Belinda could maybe use one. Same with Fiona, at that.
Something in common after all.

She is the widow.

Isn’t she?

The husbands force him to caddy for some tournament. In his milkman’s uniform. The starch and heat conspire to destroy him. The golf course is poorly maintained and the husbands curse and hack at it. Later, in the clubhouse, they strike a deal to buy and develop the land. A shopping pavilion, they say.

“Do you hunt?” Belinda’s husband asks over martinis. Belinda or Cassandra has told the milkman that her marriage is nearly over, that it really wasn’t his fault.

“When in season,” the milkman lies. He is too gentle to hunt.

“You’ll never bag anything big that way. Got to take what’s yours while you can.” The husband illustrates this point by snatching a crab cake from a silver plate carried past him. “That’s what my ancestors did.”

The milkman does not want to talk about ancestry.

“For six generations,” the husband boasts, “the men of my family were court jewelers in Denmark. I trace my lineage to the Normans who conquered England.”

“What,” says another husband.

“Not you, Norman,” the first husband says.

The milkman has read about periods in history when men could take many wives. But the men with many wives were leaders of their people. The milkman comes from nothing—and that is how the men treat him.

The women are nicer about it.

“Fetch me a glass of water, darling?” Fiona says when he’s busy trying to fix her sink pipe. Emilia calls him stupid at least five times an hour. And bites. Cassandra expects him to take her stained sheets home and wash them.

“Thought you were getting divorced,” he says.

And wishes he hadn’t. Was that Belinda?

This cannot be how he lives.

“So you’re sleeping with Alexandra,” she says, barely interested.

Are they all getting divorced, and very gradually? Is it merely a figure of speech?

He wonders for the billionth time why they want him. Has to. Because again: nothing special. He’s only satisfied with a female satisfaction, has no desire of his own—just to serve, and more than that: to please.

What nonsense. Of course he has desire.

Doesn’t he?

The other, infernal milk truck: he’ll see it parked in front of a house and shortly afterward find it in a cul-de-sac across town. There must be a couple, or more: a healthy, growing business. The milkman works for a company too, it’s easy to forget.

Women don’t like you staring at them, as they haven’t earned their looks. Men don’t mind because they think they have. The latter he knows for sure, as he sort of believes it himself.

Donna, however, likes when he stares at her tits.

As well as sex, he has wet dreams. Masturbates. There is no extinguishing this lust, and it ends up everywhere. It looks like the yellowing milk he carries into the neighborhood each week. Has he not made this awful connection before? It’s like what a psychiatrist talks about.

The milkman goes to a regular doctor. He needs a medical procedure. The doctor has not explained it well, but he thinks it will relieve the milkman’s “urges.” From his bag of instruments he plucks a small curved knife.

“The old days,” he says, “we’d give you opium for this.”

The doctor makes house calls. Has he then been close with Cassandra? Tied up by Alexandra? The milkman has never been jealous—you cannot own a person. He is just curious about their inner lives, and secrets.

He is often a secret himself.

Donna approaches his truck. It’s parked between houses, the milkman adjusting his mirrors. He adjusts them each, and when he is done, the first is newly out of whack, so he does them all again.

“One of your bottles broke,” Donna says.

“Sorry,” the milkman says.

“It broke when I threw it on the floor. Mom said ask for a new one, free.”

“I can’t go around giving free milk, Donna.”

“Yes you can.” She pauses. “You gave us bad milk before.”

He gives it to her. She runs back into her house, leaving the front door open. Shortly after, within, the movie-sound of shattering glass. But the milkman hears something else: the sound of all his bottles clinking, as in movies, when a fist pounds on the side of his truck.

In each side mirror he spies a suited G-man.

“Morning,” one says. The other drags him out and throws him onto a lawn.

Belinda’s lawn. Fiona’s.

The widow’s.

Anyway, down on the lawn he goes. The hurt and the green and the smell of life. The G-men call him everything he’s not.

“In America,” one says, kicking him with a pointy shoe, “you pay.”

What the G-men are doing here is a puzzle. It’s not to crack down on communist milkmen, the milkman reasons.

Well …

As he’s beaten, he’s looking forward to pity. But the housewives are unsympathetic that night. Except for Emilia, spinach in her teeth. Emilia, the blonde. Belinda dark-haired, Cassandra and Fiona brunettes. Alexandra somewhat reddish.

Hair doesn’t matter, the milkman says.

But this rings terribly false.

A sinus infection takes hold, something he caught off Belinda’s kids, a pair of boys transferring filth from one place to another. Sick from them and pollen in the air. It is late spring; the trees are having sex.

Trees are fucking.

Making love.

The milkman gets in his truck and drives. He doesn’t make his usual stops, not for milk and certainly not to fuck. Nobody will care. Not the husbands, who fight in wars and live as if peace were mild entertainment. Not the wives and widow, who’d rather amuse themselves.

The edges of town become a city, and then he is driving up the lake, and then it is another small town. Another. Then nothing. Rolling hills and shabby old gas pumps, fields dark and glossy as ocean, a misted range of peaks far west.

He spots a cow farm, pulls over. Chops the wood fence with an axe.

The milkman does not stop to wonder where he got an axe.

When he’s broken through, the cows have retreated uphill, toward the woods. He runs there and into a cluster of them.

“You’re free!” he cries. “Run for it!”

The cows blink hard, but they do not move. When he wants to leave, they will not get out of his way. He’s frightened, now, at their stubborn mass. He’ll have to wait till they trample him, or wander off on their own.

Or till the farmer milks.

“What are you doing here?”

Over the swatting tails of the cows, he sees her: Grinella. She wears overalls and a wide sun hat. Shoos the cows, who move aside.

“I’ve missed you,” the milkman says.

“Now that won’t do,” she tells him, sounding like one of the older husbands. She scans the property, eyes running over the herd and, far off, a crooked old stone well. Cloud-shadows racing over the grass.

“You’re dead,” the milkman tells her. “Strangled.”

“Hung myself,” Grinella says. “And made it look like strangling. Go home now and make some girl happy. Haven’t I always said you were going to make some lucky girl happy? Go on, before you spook the cows.”

The milkman fully expects to wake up with electrodes clamped on his head. He has heard so much bad advice—so many silly lessons. None could touch the bottom of his feeling: the feeling that you watch yourself do things.

He watches himself get back in the truck.

Watches himself drive home.

Later, he watches himself fall asleep.

“Alone,” the milkman says.

Why not.

In his dreams he is still stranded at the farm. One of the rival red-and-blue milk trucks rounds a curve in the road and stops. A pink-blond face leans out. He’s not required to wear a hat, or even shave, the milkman sees.

“Going to town?” this other milkman asks.

The milkman watches himself climb in.

 

 

***

Miles Klee was born in Brooklyn. He studied at Williams College under writers Jim Shepard, Andrea Barrett, and Paul Park, and now lives in Manhattan. His debut novel, Ivyland (OR Books 2012), drew glowing reviews and was likened to “J.G. Ballard zapped with a thousand volts of electricity” by the Wall Street Journal, later becoming a finalist in the 2013 Tournament of Books. He is the author of True False (OR Books, 2015). Klee is an editor at the web culture site the Daily Dot; his essays, satire, and fiction have appeared in Lapham’s QuarterlyVanity Fair3:AMSalonThe AwlThe New York ObserverThe MillionsThe Village VoiceThe Brooklyn RailFlavorwire, and elsewhere.

Image: clipart-library.com

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