The call came late in the night. Eyes wide, unable to sleep, I accepted the call. My stepmother wept on the other end.
“Did he pass?” I asked, my voice a whisper that cut through the dark.
“Yes, a few days ago.”
“Why didn’t you call?”
“I didn’t think you’d care.”
She was right. I wanted nothing to do with him, even in death. But I did care, in the sense that I had prayed for his end since childhood. The many nights that I dreamt of his violent demise, wholly consumed by the vicious swine he raised. Slaughtered as he slaughtered. Even now as an adult, I had accepted my hate for the man, but the reality of his passing made him human, and made me feel like a shitty son.
I couldn’t muster an excuse to avoid the funeral, especially if I were to attend the reading of his will that followed. Maybe the hope that he didn’t cut out his eldest son drove this guilt not to miss the burial. And maybe I hoped he’d leave me the farm in the end. The thought made me jump with joy. I could finally set that hellhole ablaze, and never look back. I hadn’t stepped foot on the farm since my mother’s death five years ago, avoiding my father, avoiding the swine.
My stomach burnt and twisted. I was nauseous as I drove on I-88 passing through the last of Chicagoland before entering the farmlands beyond. The sunrise glared into view from the cracked rearview mirror. Morning traffic always a nightmare, so I made an early start.
I chose to drive the hand-me-down pickup that brought me to Chicago ten years ago. My father’s old truck; the one with the dent on the front from a deer he hit; the one that even after all these years still smelled like pig shit. The keys grinded into a choking hum and the muffler popped. I didn’t own any cassettes, and set the radio to a country station.
Lost in a daze of dawn, preoccupied with the inevitable interactions with the family I abandoned years ago, I drifted into the endless green fields. Despite the warning light, the ding to check the engine, I didn’t bother to turn around. Honestly, I didn’t give it a second thought. The pickup was a reliable junker; the vehicle of choice when I returned home, already wrecked and ruined by the gravel roads, the muck and mud. I kept the old thing in my building’s garage, covered by a tarp, hidden from view next to my BMW three series, a sleek used sedan paid for with a bonus from a successful ad campaign I led for Porker’s Bacon Products. The car gave the appearance to all my neighbors and friends and whoever else: ‘Look! He’s made it. He’s not a pig farmer’s son.’ I held onto the truck, but god forbid if anyone were to see me driving the clunky monster.
The last time I’d seen the farm in person was after my mother’s death. I packed a box of her things and left before any words could be exchanged with my father. The doctor said her arteries practically burst. Blame it on the bacon! But, I’d rather believe her heart was enlarged on account of the boundless love she had for her children, living and dead. And when times were tough on the farm, she’d wrap her arms around me, bury me in her bosom, and shelter my eyes from the horrors my father made us endure. The violence haunts me to this day.
She told me her marriage to my father was in God’s plan, and because of her faith, she was a devoted wife and mother. After every meal, she washed dishes and stared into the distance beyond the hog shed and barn, and past the fields. I’d asked her what she was thinking about, her response: “The world is full of God’s mystery. The answer to your question is best left unsaid.”
My father’s second marriage came about a month after my mother’s passing. I was surprised, but maybe I gave him too much credit. An invitation never arrived in the mail; apparently he didn’t want his sissy son present as his new life commenced. But I did see pictures of the wedding my cousin posted online; they spit roasted a hog.
My father chose to wear working overalls instead of a suit. Tufts of his graying blond hair peeked out, untrimmed and wild, from underneath his trucker hat. His eyes were the same crisp and bloodthirsty blue I remember from childhood. My stepmother, a young blond thing, had adapted a camouflage-hunting jacket into a strapless wedding dress, a suckling pig growing in her belly, another child to rear on the farm.
My education in bloodshed started when I was five. My father forced me to clutch onto the piglets, their little bodies squirming, as he held onto a pair of clippers and a soldering iron. Their high-pitched squeals pierced my ears and filled the quiet of many sleepless nights, the stench of burnt flesh and hair forever on my nose. I never could shake the dreams of bloody tails and crushed teeth.
We kept a chicken coop behind the house. Before I left for school, I would sing to the hens as I collected their eggs, but on the butcher’s block I wailed tears of my entire childhood. My father held the hatchet in my hand and forced the blade to fall. He laughed, toppled over in glee as the blood spurt into the air, headless birds running wildly, flopping to their end.
“If you wanna eat, you’re gonna have to rip out all them feathers!”
The cancer hit about six months ago and my stepmother made the call. It was the first time I heard her voice, richly coated in disgust. At least she had the decency to reach out.
“He can rot for all I care,” I told her, my voice stuttered and cold.
“He don’t want to see you neither!”
Before she hung up, I heard my half-brother on the other end, asking for his breakfast. She named him Gabe; just the same as my other little brother, may he rest in peace.
My hair blew in the breeze. It was an early summer morning, the grass still coated with dew, the sun still crisp. My father would have said that the air smelled like money, but it stunk like pig shit to me, the same stench that set into my clothes and hair, the stink that followed me to school and provoked insults.
Pig boy! That’s what the children called me.
Long metal sheds and grain silos dotted the horizon. On rare occasions, rotund pink bodies waddled around in muck behind metal cages. The pastures Gabe and I once frolicked through wasted by endless rows of corn and soybeans, all for the hogs to eat.
After Gabe’s death, I struggled to keep friends, choosing the solitude of the farm instead. My father put me to work, piling on Gabe’s share of the chores and I nearly lost myself to the senselessness of death, falling numb to the constant slaughter. If my mother weren’t around, I would’ve grown into a version of my father, but she reminded me that life is glorious. She taught me how to be gentle and kind. With her influence, my father allowed me to raise a piglet, but he had one condition: I couldn’t name the thing, because that’s what it was. In secret, I swaddled the piglet and fed him with a bottle. I named him Baby because that’s what he was to me.
After half a year, and nearing a hundred pounds, he out grew my room. Set a considerable distance from the barn, I built a pen for him to call home. I sheltered my Baby from the metal gears that grinded and sawed and rendered. Unfortunately, the others weren’t so lucky.
My bladder ached as I approached the Highway 40 exit, the last leg of the trip into the fields. With a near empty tank, I figured it was better to fill up along the interstate, where major chains and corporations have settled in, signs of civilization. The station would be filled with strangers, and not the townies that remember me, or relatives that ask why I don’t speak to my father. I could only say ‘we’re different people’ so many times before they’d take my distance personal.
The gas station was off the ramp, a parking lot filled with 1-ton pick-ups, and semis in line for diesel, all hauling hog transport trailers, freshly collected from surrounding farms, the terrified squeals piercing through the hum of traffic.
I covered my ears and ran for the toilet. The greasy clerk followed my steps, or at least I imagined him examining my shuffling feet. A light flickered overhead as I played a game on my phone, relaxing into the dank stall, a simple distraction from my nerves. I candy crushed a high score, and realized the battery was at one percent. The screen fell black and unresponsive, regardless, I tapped relentlessly.
“Fuck!” I whispered, alone in the musty room.
Outside, yellow bags covered the unleaded nozzles and fluttered in the wind at every pump. I don’t know how I didn’t realize before.
At the counter, the clerk’s enlarged eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses stared at me. He swiped through his thinning hair as he pointed in the direction I already knew I had to go, my old town was the closest station. I don’t know why I asked.
“You come from Chicago?” the clerk asked as I turned away, my feet nearly out the door.
“How’d you know?”
“Where to start?” he said, pointing to my tortoise shell glasses, trimmed goatee, and ironed suit. “Then again, it might be your cologne.”
I forgot to bring a charger; I don’t know how I left it behind. I reassured myself in the wake of panic that I could live without my phone for a day.
I headed south, the route home imprinted on my mind. The fuel light dinged, joining the array of other lights on the dash, the time certainly near. The truck sputtered, just reaching the boarded and rusting old main street, the gas station the only business left besides a shitty bar, and the post office.
The four pumps had the gas I needed. I fumbled with my wallet. The credit card shook in my hand as I looked over my shoulder, examining all the shadows. But a rumble came from down the street and the earth shook. A thundering truck pulled up to the pump beside me. The latest country tune blared from the radio and the engine puttered as a sturdy set man stepped out. He had a face I’d never seen before, a stranger in my hometown. I was able to breathe a bit.
Mud and shit encrusted the bottoms of his otherwise shiny boots, and blonde curly locks hidden under his trucker cap gave him his youth. I watched the man, intently, as I filled. He looked familiar in the strangest way like a word on the tip of my tongue, but he evaded my gaze, leaning on the side of his truck, his tanned, thick arms folded over his broad chest. But he looked up and his crystal blue eyes caught mine. He smiled, a charming closed lip grin, sneaky as if he was trying to hide the dip tucked into his bottom lip. I didn’t look away and continued to examine him, gawk at the freckles on his upper cheeks, his flesh colored mustache. He winked, and maybe I imagined it, but he blew me a kiss, but not one of love, one that asked for trouble.
Gas overflowed. “Fuck!”
The man slammed his door, gunned the engine, and spun out of the station. I watched until his truck was out of sight. Thank god, he turned in the opposite direction from where I was heading.
When it was too hot for chores in the summertime, Gabe and I, three years apart and the best of friends, explored the pastures for arrowheads, collected flowers, chased raccoons and weasels, caught grasshoppers and butterflies, and knew all the creeks that had a shady place to fish. We found an escape from the farm, from the grasp of our father in the countryside where we biked along the tricky gravel roads amongst the rumbling tractors, and milk tankers, and cattle transports, all going too fast, not looking for kids.
My father had piled on extra chores one June and I couldn’t play with Gabe, the cost of getting older. I told him to wait for me until I was finished. I don’t know how many times I told him he shouldn’t bike alone, but so much like Gabe, he left without me anyways, always too brave and ready for adventure. He was found in a ditch, four days later, rolled into the tall grass like road kill. No one ever did find the driver that hit him. The sheriff didn’t think an investigation was necessary, blamed it on an out-of-towner. No one in the community would be so inhumane, he said, Gabe was a child for god’s sake.
Even with a full tank, the ignition struggled. Black smoke popped from the muffler and puffed into an unsteady hum. Fifteen miles down the road, some ten miles from home, the truck came to a permanent halt. The humid heat rose, the sun veiled by haze. Moisture hung close to the crops in every direction.
I was sweating through my jacket and tossed it to the side. No one drove by and I cursed my phone, my own stupidity for not charging it, letting the battery wear down when I needed it most. I took it all for granted, hoping that the funeral would pass without a thought, without a tear shed, doing what was expected of me, performing my last role as a son. More than anything, I wanted to say goodbye to this world, to never drive down these roads again. Whether my father left me anything didn’t matter in the end, I just wanted to bury this part of my life forever.
Baby grew to two hundred pounds and before long he was three hundred and then a whopping four hundred, winning a blue ribbon at the country fair, an achievement that brought pride and a pat on the back from my father. But his eyes were on Baby, they always had been. Not even a week after I brought my Baby home, my father placed a rifle in my hands. He ordered Baby’s life and when I refused, he jabbed the rifle’s butt in my cheek and dragged me to Baby’s pen. He shot the poor thing as I watched in horror, his squeals dampened by blood, tears on my tongue. I cursed him, and got the butt again, this time knocking me unconscious.
When I came to the next morning, he called me to the barn.
“Look how good your hog looks!” he said, his smile glimmering in the sunrise, pointing at my Baby, gutted and hanging from a hook.
That night we had pork chops for dinner. He told me I’d feel better once I ate.
I decided to walk, the funeral already out of my mind. At least I’d make it to the reading of the will; the heat couldn’t stop me. I straddled the ditch, my over shirt unbuttoned, my undershirt soaked through. Like so many summers before, I kept an eye on the road behind me, in front, and back again. My hopes were raised when a cloud of dust rose and a truck barreled down. I raised my arm and waved, but the truck didn’t stop, didn’t attempt to slow. The headlights narrowed and I dove into the tall grass as it careened by, nearly hitting me, my heart racing.
He ran the blade down the length of my over shirt, popping the buttons. Once he tore the undershirt, exposing my pink skin, he took hold of my flanks with vigor as if were a chuck of meat, using his grip to determine the size and weight and how to portion. He licked his lips, as if he tasted my flesh already.
I had barely caught my breath as I stumbled out of the weeds. The truck slowed into a cloud of dust, the red brake lights burning through like the eyes of an evil specter. The horn honked and a tanned arm beckoned me. Through the mirror, I saw that devilish smile, those blue eyes and the urge to run away sprung, but I buried the feeling, the man was just another farmer.
“Need some help?” the man asked, his voice calm and full of country twang.
“You almost hit me.”
“Walking on these roads out here is dangerous.”
“My phone’s dead, otherwise I would’ve called a tow.”
“Not like you’d get service. No tower, no signal.”
“Could you give me a ride back to the gas station?”
“Better yet, there’s an old landline phone at my place, just up over that hill there.” He pointed to a hog shed on the crest.
The man smiled insistently as I hesitated at the door, the dusty interior, the plastic cup full of chew spit, fast food wrappers and cigarette packs that littered the ground. It was all too familiar and I realized why I couldn’t keep my eyes off him at the gas station: the man was a glimpse of my father in his youth.
The man slapped my knee as I pulled the seat belt to a click. “How’d you get yourself lost round these parts? Not everyday I see a man like you.”
“Family,” I said, clearing my throat, looking back at the old truck through the mirror, abandoned on the side of the road.
“No shit?” he said with a laugh that came with another slap on the knee.
“I grew up here,” I said, shifting away, hugging the door and window. “Not far away, close by actually. Very close.”
“You don’t live round here no more. I’d know you otherwise.”
“Farming isn’t for me.”
“Oh, is that so?” the man said, his smile fading into a sour scowl.
“Never liked it. Always wanted to get away, to be in the city.”
“Oh a city boy. Too good for farming, huh?”
“I’m different, I guess.”
“You ain’t one of them sissy fags are you? Shit, they ain’t any better than a fucking hog.”
Around the same time that Gabe went missing, a deer hit the old pick up. It was the same time that my father gave me the truck as he got something brand new. And maybe everyone in my life would’ve told me I should’ve been grateful, but I couldn’t get a simple question out of my head: was it my father? At Gabe’s funeral, my mother said everything in life was part of God’s plan, and Gabe was now in paradise. Now, I’ll never know; the answer best left unsaid.
He pulled into a gravel drive and parked the truck behind the grey shed surrounded by cornfields. I started to shake, something wasn‘t right about this man, but I tried to assure myself that it was the farm that triggered me, made me more sensitive and untrusting. The man got out, but I didn’t budge, no, I couldn’t.
“Come on now,” he said, opening the passenger door.
Dust rolled in and coated my tongue. Shit was the only scent.
“Can you take me to the gas station?”
“The phone works fine inside,” the man said, his tone terse and direct, his hands clenching into fists. “Or it ain’t good enough for you neither?”
“Please, take me to the gas station,” I begged. I couldn’t bear to take a step into the muck, take a breath of the foul air, to be anywhere near this man.
“If you don’t wanna make the call,” he said, biting his lower lip and looking over his shoulder. “What do you really want?”
He rubbed along the silhouette of a budding erection.
I stared at him, but his icy gaze made me shudder. I sprang for the door, but his hand caught hold of my wrist, his anger pulsating in his grip.
The man narrowed his eyes. “Now boy, you better get out of my truck, right now.”
I shook in the seat. When I refused to budge, he lost his patience and tore me out. My hands and knees plunged deep into the mud.
My stomach dropped and I dry heaved. The stench of death and shit and life surrounded me. The rocks, and mud, and straw, and bits of feed blurred into a single shit brown.
“I said, get up!”
He threw his boot into my stomach.
I toppled onto my back, the sun shining in my eyes. He lifted me by the neck onto the side of the pickup. He raised a fist and repeatedly hit me in the face, crushing my nose, blinding my eye, cracking my cheek. Bells rang, but I didn’t feel pain, blood dripping from my chin. With his final strike, the bright blue skies went black.
I have the briefest memories being dragged through the mud. The intermittent nightmare of squeals and earthy grunts, and rope being tied around my wrists, so tight, that when I woke my hands pulsated, high over my head, wrapped around a hook. The air was ammonia rich, like I was swimming in shit. A bag covered my face in what seemed like mere moments before my execution, but with eyeholes and a faint scent of latex, it was certainly a mask.
Time ceased, hypnotized into a daze by the whirring industrial fans, knowing that my entire life was in danger, knowing that these would be my last breaths, unless he had other horrors in store.
“SOOEY!” the man yelled from somewhere out of sight.
A stampede of grunts fought for the trough as the man dumped a bucket of slop that was the color of blood, the consistency of rendered pork. Swine eating swine, and maybe soon, my flesh will be on the menu.
The man had sharply cold eyes, his tongue hanging free and loose. His hand rubbed his groin and my heart raced, tears welled, knowing what he desired. My feet slipped on the wooden slats, unable to wiggle by hands loose, the slipping cord burnt my wrists.
The man stood before me, licking him lips. The man pulled out a six-inch blade from a leather sheath at his hip and lunged at me. I whimpered, unable to hold in my fear. I could hardly breath, my frantic panting collected in the mask, hyperventilating from the heat and fear and disgust. I suffocated in the latex.
He came closer, step-by-step, close enough to feel his body heat, to smell his odor. My whole body winced with each playful jab, his laughter a bolt through my spine. He taunted me with kisses.
“I ain’t gonna hurt you pig boy, not anymore than I do these swine. First I fatten ‘em, then I breed ‘em, and once they’re good and ready, I slit their throats.”
He circled, almost dancing, laughing with a bloodthirsty delicacy I haven’t heard since childhood. Silent prayers encircled my every thought, hoping my mother would protect me once again.
Before I even realized, wet warmth ran down my legs and soaked my pants. The man laughed in delight at my embarrassment, at the weakness of my humanity, my legs crossing, the fear welling so deep that I was no different than a hog awaiting slaughter.
He sucked in snot and spat on the mask. I winced, my entire body shaking, my hands numb, but I could feel the rope slipping, but nowhere close to freedom. I didn’t dare examine the knot. Instead, I watched him, his loose steps, his erection.
He ran the blade down the length of my over shirt, popping the buttons. Once he tore the undershirt, exposing my pink skin, he took hold of my flanks with vigor as if were a chuck of meat, using his grip to determine the size and weight and how to portion. He licked his lips, as if he tasted my flesh already. His hands led him around to my backside, and with the blade at my neck, he plunged his warm and filthy hand deep into the depths of my pants, and fondled my privates. I squealed as he yanked on my testicles, so hard that my stomach jerked. I puked into the mask, wishing I could hobble over and die.
My greatest fear became a reality as He ripped off my pants and mounted me. I succumbed to the dry and forceful penetration, despite my efforts to stop him, my screaming, my clenching, my pitiful kicking.
“You like this!” he said, his tongue licking my ear, the spit gurgling in his throat.
He grunted, and laughed, and worked the blade at my neck, holding it just on the surface of my skin.
“Faggot! You worthless shit! I’ll show you who you can call daddy.”
I whimpered, the pain grew with each pulsing shove
He snorted and squealed. “Pig boy! Take my fat cock! Take all of it!”
Exhausted, I fell limp as he thrashed.
And just when I gave up the fight, the rope gave a little, and then some more, until the knot unraveled and my hands slipped free. I tumbled to the ground, dragging the man with me. Along the way, the knife flew from the man’s grip.
But even on the ground he didn’t stop, overpowering me, pushing my head down onto the slat, tasting shit, the goo sloshing through the eye slits, the eerie warmth of the floor pressed into my chest. I struggled against his hands, managed to squirm free. I crawled, under the bellies of the hogs and through the muck and found the knife, taking hold of it, wielding it like a magical sword.
The man roared and caught my legs. I didn’t resist when he dragged me closer, letting him laugh at my helplessness, at my pathetic break. I held the knife close. The moment he flipped me over, as he was bent over and panting, my eyes locked with his cold blues and I jammed the blade into his neck. Blood spurted, but the man just gave that same devilish smile. He fingered the handle, the torrent of blood, but didn’t manage to hurt me again; instead he collapsed on top of me, his body an impossible weight.
I must have passed out because when I came to, the man’s body had been pulled off to the side. The blood was an enticing meal for the opportunistic swine, and the pigs were munching on his face, fingers already missing from each hand.
Thunder rumbled and rain pattered on the metal roof, the hum of the fan unchanged, the smell just as horrendous. I pulled off the mask: a pink caricature of a hog, with a wide snout and perky ears.
Pain radiated from every tender point in my body. Blood seeped from his entry. My hands rubbed raw.
I rummaged through his jeans, and found his keys. Even though it wouldn’t hurt him, I kicked his limp cock and hairy balls, and migrated to his bloated stomach, his torn up face. My rage boiled into a scream so loud that the pigs scuttled into the far corners of the shed, their grunting silenced.
Under the darkening sky, near evening, the funeral long past, I stumbled to the man’s truck. The rain fell and washed the mud and shit, the blood and spit, and all the sweat, my clothes ragged and ruined. I limped into the driver’s seat and struggled to fit the keys into the ignition. The radio blinked on in the middle of a country tune. The engine had a healthy hum and I sped towards the highway.
The music fell silent and the radio host broke through with a news update: “The hunt for suspects in the murder of a Chicago man is still underway. The victim was found with his throat slit in a ditch off Highway 40, completely nude, except for a pig mask. The County Sheriff has blamed the unusual murder on city gang violence that has trickled into the rural community.”
The music resumed and I continued down the highway, passing the old truck, leaving it to rot. My eyes focused on the roadside sign: Chicago 120 miles.