18 August, 2011

The Pig


My father brought her home without warning one afternoon, to the shock of my mother. I remember being in the back seat of her brown Volkswagen Fox when we pulled into our suburban driveway, and hearing Mum mutter something under her breath. Then I saw her, standing beside my father, close to our back door, all naked and freckled and innocently smiling: the pig.

"She can live around the compost heap," my father explained. "I'll build a fence and we can just let her wallow around back there. She'll be happy."

We had a good-sized compost pile behind the garage — probably six feet by nine — into which we cast organic waste: watermelon rinds, coffee grounds, moldy bread. This stuff, any pig should be more than pleased to loll around in. No mention was made of city ordinances or what, in fact, had possessed my father to purchase for us a pink porcine pal. She was there, and that was all there was to it — at least to my naive seven-year-old mind.

True to his word, my father erected a long-overdue white picket fence on the site of our stinky waste pen, complete with a little gate. Behind the garage, the pig was shielded from our neighbors' view. Since she was such a silent swine, there was none of the oinking one would think (as my parents did) would alert passersby to the pig's almost certainly illegal presence.

Not that there were many passersby in our neighborhood. We didn't even have a sidewalk on our particular stretch of street. Pedestrians, on the rare occasions they appeared, were usually mail carriers or meter readers. Even though an elementary school lay right behind our backyard fence, school-age kids were virtually nonexistent. The only ones to be found lived around the corner — two rough-and-tumble boys who wore faded Aerosmith T-shirts and sported too-frequent black eyes. Not my cup of tea. I had a pig at home, thank you.

And it was always just "the pig." We never did give her a name. This should have been odd to me, given my predilection for naming every animal I came in contact with. Even my pet hermit crabs had names, taken from the Greek mythology, with which I was obsessed — Hercules and Sisyphus — and they were barely sentient. So why not also the pig? It couldn't have been that my parents had warned me against getting attached, because that would have immediately struck me as wrong. Perhaps I had a nascent, unconscious sense of what was going on, why we really kept a nameless pig.

It is a Kansas City tradition to organize a huge, festive parade downtown, on Saint Patrick's Day. That year, my parents, who owned and operated a chimney services company, entered us. The us in this instance included the pig. My parents donned the traditional top hats and tails they actually wore out on jobs, and I wore my pint-sized version of same, with a theatrical smear of soot on my cheek. The pig got a little green derby hat and green sequined collar, both adorned with shamrocks. As if the outfits weren't enough, my father rigged my Radio Flyer wagon with faux brick,  to look like a chimney on wheels. My parents took turns pulling this  ad hoc float in the parade while I crouched inside, popping up at intervals of every block or so, waving jauntily. The pig had it easier; all she had to do was smile and trot alongside the family on her thin green rope leash.

After meals, from time to time, I took a plate of leftovers behind the garage. The pig always seemed happy to see me, rushing over to the fence to wedge her moist snout between the fence pickets. For an animal reviled by many cultures for its uncleanliness, she stayed surprisingly spot-free. If we hadn't kept her in what amounted to a mud pit, even her trotters would've probably been pink. A meticulous, tidy child, I was impressed by this dignity. I found myself warming to her.

Then one morning, after my father had left for what I assumed was work, I went out to feed the pig the remnants of a cantaloupe I'd eaten for breakfast. I'd started spending time with her on these trips, talking quietly to her and scratching behind her floppy, fuzzy ears until she closed her eyes and made grunts like a series of relaxed sighs. But she was gone, her pen empty.

"We had to get rid of her," my mother told me when I ran into the house. My shock, I admit, had less to do with concern for the pig's well-being than with the astonished notion that she'd somehow managed to undo the gate latch, step out of her pen, and replace the bolt in her escape. I knew pigs were intelligent, but for a moment I worried we were dealing with Houdini on the Hoof.

Nothing much was said of the pig for the next couple of days. I was content staying silent on the whole thing, and my parents left no doubt they did not wish to discuss it. Eventually, though, the secret came out as all my family's revelations seemed to: over breakfast. I had the temerity to ask why the bacon that morning had come out of white paper wrapping, rather than the vacuum-sealed clear plastic I was used to.

"Well...," my mother began. Then my father took over.

"It's the pig," he said matter-of-factly. "This bacon came from the pig. We took her to the butcher the other day. This is just some of the good food the pig gave us."

While you, dear reader, probably saw this coming from a mile away, I was blind-sided. True, the pig and I never had the chance to get too attached. Ours were very different worlds, after all — hers, a squalid pen full of loam and old banana peels; mine, a spruce roomful of books and toys — yet the shock of eating the flesh of a creature who, days before, I'd been patting on the head and feeding old eggs was substantial. My eyes burned and my jaw tingled as I placed my strip of bacon back on the plate and stared at it. A minute earlier it had smelled and looked so good. But now....

The same thing happened when I learned, at four years old, what eggs really were. I knew they came from chickens, who laid them into fluffy straw nests and brooded over them with great care. I also knew that chickens hatched from eggs. Somehow, however, I never put Fact A and Fact B together until finding a smear of blood in one of my otherwise perfect, runny yolks as I dragged a buttery wedge of toast through them. For months thereafter I couldn't so much as look at an egg without gagging: unfertilized chicken ova! A sensitive boy, you might call me, but I got over that aversion with time. Sunny-side-up eggs are a hard habit to shake.

So too was it with the pig. A few weeks of childhood vegetarianism passed, resisting her greasy aromatics as they wafted daily around our table. Then my righteous indignation caved to my taste buds. The pig lived a good life, I reminded myself, and it was not without grateful joy that we would cut into her juicy chops, the flavorful roast, and savory sausages. One bite was all it took for me to rescind the prior remarks about my parents' savage ways. They were mine, too, in the end. Vegetarians, I decided, were missing out on a truly good thing.





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