It was a time in my life filled with simple gifts: good teeth and lustrous skin, the smell of wood smoke and manure, wet flannel and courage. The kind of courage necessary to move to the country and live out my dreams. Days when loving was enough and all I needed was to hold her close and keep my pecker up and the wolf from the door.
It happens before we get married; when I’m head over heels and she can do no wrong. I don’t bat an eye when she reads Diet for a Small Planet and goes vegan and macrobiotic overnight. She’s young and beautiful and her skin is singing the first deep notes of pregnancy, so whatever she dishes up is fine with me. Millet casseroles, sorry guacamole, and adzuki bean patties. I lace them with mustard and ketchup, pretend they’re hamburgers, clean my plate, and go out to chop wood, roll a smoke, tend to the marijuana behind the outhouse. Buy myself a secondhand guitar and sing to the stars. Who’s to complain?
When the baby comes, everything changes. Sleep deprivation, nocturnal emissions, and a steady regime of raw garlic and borage. We haven’t made love for three months. She tapes soggy teabags to her nipples to toughen them up, and everything, including my carrot/carob and garbanzo bean birthday cake, comes dusted with brewer’s yeast. The engines of reproduction are still warm, maternal bliss rolling in like ground fog. My priorities are different. I’ve got mouths to feed, needs to sublimate.
With an eye to the future I go back to school, driving our decrepit station wagon 25 miles to the city. The heater is broken and, in winter, I wear a balaclava and stick my head out the window, which is terminally opaque with frost. I must look like a criminal, a madman searching for a knife he’s dropped. There’s something in my eyes: hunger, the ice-cold glint of deficiency. A steady diet of soybeans is not enough. I need meat.
I opt for pork, on the hoof. Three newly weaned piglets bought at your friendly neighborhood Hutterite colony. I do my best, push back my hat to scratch my head, saying yep and nope, but who am I kidding? I’m a backslid Jew from the city and my field is literature. Still, I play it close to the vest, trying to look confident and knowledgeable. It all comes undone when the pig-boss opens his mouth. The guy stutters like Porky Pig with a Low German lilt and elongated vowels. B-b-boy, Ahhm tehllin you dah b-b-behst ting to f-feyd dese c-c-critters iss Maple Leaf p-p-p-pig stahrter.
Maybe I should’ve taken my time, asked more questions, haggled over the price. Maybe I should’ve gotten straight and shopped around a bit, but I have to get out before I piss myself. I fork over the cash and stuff the porkers in the back seat, where they shit and squeal like there’s no tomorrow. As soon as I hit the gravel, I crank open the windows and dissolve into hysterics.
Animal husbandry. The minute I get home, a farm is born and I’m married to the land, slave to appetites even more insistent than my own. I slap together a pigpen beside the compost heap. Supplement their diet with store-bought pellets and the remains of organic cuisine, but it’s never enough. They eat with a vengeance, gashing the earth with their greed. By fall those pigs weigh more than I do and can root clean my feeble excuse of a fence without breaking a sweat. Then they head down the road for greener pastures: the neighbor’s, where there’s a manicured lawn and a real garden to pillage. Not to mention a thirty-ought-six hung in the rear window of the pickup.
She is not pleased. In spite of her reverence for all sentient beings, she loathes the pigs. They make her skin crawl with their infantile pinkness, the horrible way their smooth and hairless contours mock Buddha and resemble the baby. By an act of will she pries them from the Great Mandala and dreams of their death. It is with reluctance and cursing and a child on the hip that she heads out onto the road to coax them home. After two episodes she retires as swineherd.
Come fall and I’m humming the last mile home from university when I happen upon my pigs, three abreast across the road, staring me down. In the reflexive second it takes to shift gears and swerve, I remember the grocery list. Sal ammoniac, flypaper, and, oh shit, a bag of no-name pig feed. Without missing a beat I gun the motor and speed past my driveway. Two miles east to the Starving Horse Creek General Store. In my rearview mirror I can see the rosy heads execute a slow pirouette in the dust, snouts raised, sniffing the air. The pigs have a score to settle. They follow me down the road.
The general store is the heart and soul of this dying town. It’s the post office, the liquor store, and the bus depot rolled into one. There’s generally a troop of regulars leaning on the counter over coffee, farmers broadcasting local news and weather. From their obscenely naked ears, the bulging truckers’ wallets, and what I can see of their eyes, I can tell they’ve got me pegged. Hippie faggot. Godless communist. What’s wrong with this country. Before I can hoist the 75-pound burlap sack of reconstituted chicken beaks to my shoulder and crabwalk to the car, they extract their pound of flesh. How’s the job, how’s the kid, and, wink wink, how’s the little woman making out.
Sheepfuckers. By the time I’m allowed to pay, the pigs have gained ground. When I open the door, there they are, waiting at the foot of the stairs like long-lost relatives. I dump the feed in the back and drive home in low gear, slow enough for the pigs to keep pace. Slow enough to hear the hoots of derision from the farmers, their porcine snorts of contempt. Slow enough to realize I’ll never live it down.
Things have gotten out of hand. This kid has diarrhea, there are rabbits in the garden and holes in the roof. Even my dope’s gone sour, soaking up biffy juices and pesticide residues and inducing impossible dreams of a quick and easy flight. Like a swamp, the house is in constant ferment, a battleground of opposing forces, each insisting on life. Flies hover over our plates, the stinking slop pail, and her perpetual stockpot. The rooms are filled with diapers in every stage of their cycle. Even our lovely puppies and kittens have grown mangy and scrofulous. We argue, shouting, weeping, and slamming doors. Then the house fills with an unnatural quiet and the flies settle back on the furniture.
Dust and the death of innocence, this is what I’m tasting as I strangle the steering wheel, humping through the animal and vegetable world with pigs in hot pursuit. I miss locked doors and Laundromats, the intricate riddle of a brassiere. The small ceremonies of urban civilization, where work and play, not to mention loving, come like store-bought bread. Tired and confused, I don’t know if I’m hungry or horny, and I have to fight the impulse in my right foot to come down hard on the accelerator. To speed up and drive on, drive until I or the car or the pigs give up and die. I’d do it, too, except I’m low on gas, short on funds. Except for her and the kid and the mess I’d leave behind. And those pink and persistent obligations, the beasts that dog my days, three doomed piggies crying all the way home.
Laurie Block’s most recent book, Time Out of Mind, received the 2007 Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. Excerpted from Prairie Fire (Vol. 31, No. 3), a quarterly Canadian magazine of new writing. www.prairiefire.ca
This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.