*Image: “Little Greens” oil on linen, 40.5 ” x 51″ by Nancy H. Taplin
by Amanda Pauley
Mom is as stunned as a hog after the first bullet when I tell her that Ray won’t be over until after Thanksgiving dinner. I say it to her in between the scraping sounds she makes sharpening her knife. She doesn’t put down knife number five but turns around with it in her hand to stare at my large belly I’ve draped a pink cotton babydoll blouse over. She looks sideways in the direction of the dining room where my three aunts set the table, plunking down the forks and plates as loudly as they talk.
“What do you mean after?” Mom whispers.
“I mean after,” I say.
“Why would anybody come after Thanksgiving dinner? Why would a husband not come to Thanksgiving dinner when his wife is carrying his baby? Carrying it a little too high for my own peace of mind,” she adds.
“What does one thing have to do with the other, Mom? I’ll carry my child high or low, but tell me what one has to do with the other.”
“A decent man would come to Thanksgiving dinner with his wife when she is carrying his child,” Mom says again. “Just what does Ray have to do? He can’t possibly be working at the store. It’s closed on a holiday, and we all know it. A store that sells alcohol and cigarette lighters and those trashy magazines should not be open on a holiday anyway. Your brother Sam will be sitting at the table next to his wife.”
“Ray is a decent man,” I say, hating to hear a bad thing about him. That Mom reveres the less than gifted and talented Sam and Regina and criticizes Ray is more than I can bear. At the same time I wonder if disliking Ray might make my family more willing to accept Sharon, but I know better, and I immediately feel guilty. Ray is a kind man. It’s not his fault I realized at a most inconvenient time that I loved Sharon, not him.
Outside, Dad fires off the first shot of the day. Mom drops the knife sharpener and grabs her chest. Thanksgiving is butchering day, and the hogs are shrieking. She bends over to retrieve the sharpener. One down. Five to go. Mom jumps or breaks something every time Dad fires a shot.
“We may cut back a hog next year. Since you got the notion to become a vegetarian, we end up with a whole extra hog’s worth of meat at the end of the year,” she says, and then, “Why don’t you call your house and see if Ray has quit the store yet?”
“He’s not at the house, Mom,” I say.
The second shot goes off. It usually takes two or three shots for each hog.
“Would you check the bird?”
She knows I can’t bend over. I’m halfway through my ninth month.
“If it gets too brown, Sam won’t eat it,” she says.
Two Saturday nights back, Sam went over to the Methodist church where the outdoor sign stated in block letters, ”The Best Things in Life Aren’t Things.” Having bought a pack of letters at Walmart just for a lowercase ”y,” he changed the sign to read ”The Best Things in Life Are Thingys.” I ran into Regina last week, and she told me about it. She giggled and said Sam slipped the leftover lowercase “n” and “t” and the little apostrophe in between two one-dollar bills when the offering plate went around before the sermon the next morning. Regina said it was especially funny since the pastor’s sermon that day was on the sin of homosexuality, as if the word, “thingy,” must relate to that. I am tired of their kind of humor. Sam has an entire repertoire of gay jokes. And I remember watching Regina steer her kids far away from two men in the mall, one of whom had an arm around the other.
So I do not care if the bird is too brown for Sam to eat.
Mom looks out the window, and I open the oven door an inch, which I can do without bending over. Without looking, I let it fall shut just to make the noise.
“It isn’t brown,” I say. “Not even close.”
I hear Sam and Regina’s kids fast approaching the house.
“Would you look at those kids! What a pack of darlings,” Mom says.
“I need some air. I’m going to help scrape,” I say.
“Would you take three or four big pots out there for them to drop the insides in?” Mom asks.
“Of course I will, Mom.” I’m very practiced at saying things through clenched teeth.
“Oh look, he looks just like his father,” Mom says of little Sam.
I go to get my jacket and one of the metal pots.
“Hey,” I say to Sam and Regina on the way out.
“Where’s Ray?” Regina asks.
“He might be here after dinner,” I say.
“Might? I thought you said he would be here after dinner,” says Mom.
Little Sam hugs Mom’s legs, distracting her.
I pat Alice on the head and let fourteen-year-old Clara feel my belly. Then I join Dad, his brothers and brothers-in-laws, and the boiling hog Dad is poking with a stick to keep under water.
“Where’s Ray?” asks Mom’s brother.
“Hey, Melinda. I’m loving that little beagle mix I got from your place,” William says.
“Glad to hear it,” I say.
This is my second week off from my job as assistant director of the local humane society. I am taking an early pregnancy leave, just to be safe.
“Lord, Melinda, you’re huge! Ought you to be out here like that?” asks Dad’s brother.
Two men stand up on the platform holding onto the chains that loop around the hog in the water. The other two are on standby with broken two-by-fours in their hands. Dad scrunches up his forehead, trying to see me. His glasses are solid white from the steam. I know he can’t see a thing.
“Isn’t she big as a house! Where’s Ray?” asks Dad. “He always gets a kick out of this part.”
Ray does not get a kick out of poking at a boiling hog. He gets a kick out of watching four men who all wear glasses and don’t have the sense to take them off before the steam from the boiling hog fogs them over. The only chance they’d have of seeing well would be if their glasses slid off of their faces and into the vat with the hog, which sometimes happens. Then they all poke around for the glasses while the hog gets overscalded.
“We had a pipe bust up at the house, and Ray’s working on it,” I say. “He may be here later this …”
“Time to roll him!” Dad shouts.
The two men standing on the platform move to straddle the rectangular boiler.
“Watch your feet,” Dad says.
All four of them squish their foreheads upward, tilt their heads back or forward, and strain to see around their fogged lenses.
The two with the chain wrestle the hog onto its other side.
“Get the end over!”
Water splashes, and the men grunt.
“Okay,” Dad says. “Let him rest a minute. Watch the thermometer.”
The thermometer is stuck through a small chunk of two-by-four and floats around in the boiling water like a little ship in a stinky sea. It bumps into the hog, then off the wall of the boiler, and then into the hog again.
“So you say Ray’s coming after dinner?”
“Well, he …”
One of the men drops a chain loop, and it clatters on the platform and slides down in the boiler.
“Damn it, Eddie! We got to find that quick!” Dad yells.
William has not been doing anything but leaning up against an old canoe propped up on a broken soda machine that Dad bought at an auction for no good reason. It doesn’t work and never has. At quieter times, you might see a mouse pop out of the Dr. Pepper slot and go back in through Mountain Dew. Dad busted his foot getting that machine off the truck by himself. He still has a limp.
William puts his coffee down and grabs a piece of two-by-four. He and Dad poke around in the water for the chain. They find it and have to hold it between the ends of the two boards to raise it out, looking like two men operating a pair of giant chopsticks together. It takes five tries.
“Now get him out!” Dad yells. “Get him out! Get him out!”
They pull the hog out and roll it onto the platform.
“All right, do it, and do it fast. It’s going to be a tough one,” says Dad.
Everybody gets quiet. The water stops splashing, and the steam subsides. The scraping begins. I remember feeling proud to do this as a child, proud to scrape until there was nothing left to scrape, proud of Dad’s approving nod. I grab a scraper and squeeze in with the others around the hog. It sounds like somebody is scratching his arm really hard, more like six people scratching loud and fast. Even William. Scritch, scritch, scritch.
I try not to bump my stomach against the platform and wonder what my baby is thinking about right now. Scritch, scritch, scritch.
Hair flies, and Mason jar lids scrape. The easy spots go first. The talk starts up again as we get to the harder parts, the folds behind the forelegs and around the tail.
“This is a tough one!”
“Need some elbow grease!”
“This is war.”
“There’s six of them and six of us.”
“Ray helped us with this part last year,” Randy says.
“Oh, I know it!” I say and fake a smile without looking up from the knee I am working on.
“How big is the bird?” Eddie asks.
“I haven’t seen it,” I say, which is true. “I’m sure it’s big enough.”
“We’ll have to save some for Ray,” Dad says.
“Well he may not …”
“All right. Hang him up. We’re behind. Who wants to shoot the next one?” Dad asks.
Randy claims this one, and Dad hands him the rifle. Dad asks me to get some more bullets out of the truck.
The truck is parked beside the other pens where the rest of the hogs wait to die. Three Chester Whites. Two Yorkshires. I wish that I could say it’s a courtesy on Dad’s part that they don’t have to watch what’s happening to those slaughtered before them. Keeping them out of the way is more of a practical necessity.
I get the bullets out of the glove compartment, while Dad lets a Yorkshire into the main pen. Randy pretends to point and shoot a couple of times. I hand the shells to him. I’m wishing I could lie down.
“Right between the eyes this time, Randy,” Dad says.
My baby kicks. I take one last look at the hog and cover my eyes. It is not the loud shot that bothers me. It is this crapshoot that goes on every year. No matter that all five men are grown men with years of practice, or that they finally take the time to wipe off their fogged-up, dirty glasses. Not a one of them is able to put a hog down on the first shot. They’re very excited when they get it on the second or third. I don’t watch now as I did when I was little and curious. Too many things can go wrong. Don’t ask me what those things are, because I refuse to think back on that. Some traditions just need to end.
The rifle rips off a shot, and I am already dragging myself toward that place, the one I created years ago, where I become numb to what is going on around me. Last year it was difficult for me to find it. This time it doesn’t work at all. I wonder if this has something to do with Sharon.
“Lord have mercy, Randy!” shouts Dad. “Give me that gun!”
The squealing begins. My mind begs me to keep my eyes closed, but that stupid old, old curiosity pries them open.
I look out at a one-eared hog. Relief. I remember worse.
“I’ll get him,” Dad says. He waits for the hog to quit running.
I look up at the trees, rest my hands on my belly, and think about Sharon. Then Ray. But mostly Sharon. She wouldn’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here anymore. Next year will be different.
Another shot rips, and I know Mom has dropped something inside the house. One year it was a bowl full of gravy. It smashed on the floor, and she lost it all. Stuffing and rolls and mashed potatoes all served dry that year. We were still picking dried gravy out of the linoleum cracks on New Year’s Day.
I look down and see that Dad has winged the hog through his left side. Blood is everywhere. The hog is down. Then it is up again and running for its life. Something about the way its eyes look when it runs by me makes me think of the look on Ray’s face the first time we made love.
Dad hands the rifle to Randy, jumps the fence, and tries to corner the hog so it will stand still. It lies down for a second, and Randy just stares at the whole mess.
“Shoot him, damn it, shoot him!” Dad is exasperated and spitting when he shouts now. Killing hogs is the only thing that really rattles him.
Randy finally points at the hog just as it stands up and takes off. I say a quick thank-you that Randy did not get a shot off in time, since Dad is only a few feet away.
Something gets into the hog. Never mind that he is still losing blood from two places. All of a sudden that hog has more enthusiasm for life than he ever did in the whole six months he’s already lived. He bucks and kicks and flips. It is as if he knows moving is the key to staying alive.
The hog’s revival keeps us all in a trance for a few seconds before Dad starts to move in. Randy is still pointing the rifle. Dad yells over to William and Eddie who are still trying to hang the first hog up. Dad cannot see them, but I can. William is finally pulling his share, but something has gone wrong. Usually you just drag the hog to the edge of the platform and hook his feet into the hangers. Then you jack it up with the handle and watch it swing in the air. One of the hangers is unhooked, and William is supporting a lot of that hog’s weight on his back while Eddie tries to raise the foot that has come loose high enough to hook it.
“Get over here and help me hold this hog down,” Dad shouts.
“We can’t,” Eddie yells. “This hog’ll fall in the dirt. We’re stuck.”
Dad says something about idiots to the hog, right before he jumps on top of it. The hog goes over, and Dad is standing on it, riding it like a surfboard and holding onto the fence behind it for balance. It’s all he can do to keep it down. One end flops up then the other.
“I need some more weight,” Dad shouts.
I look at Eddie and William wrestling the dead hog and the hanger, then at Randy aiming at Dad and the hog. I can’t take this anymore. I want this to end once and for all. For the animal’s sake. For my sake.
“Come on Randy,” I say. “Get in here.”
He follows me to the gate. I unhook it. Randy latches it behind us. Dad is still on the hog, barely. I step up on the back end after it comes down from a flop. It is still.
“Now shoot him Randy,” I say. Randy points from about six feet away.
“Not from there, you idiot!” Now, I am exasperated. “Get up here and hold that thing ten inches from his head, and angle it away from us!”
He does, and the hog is dead. Everyone stands still for a minute. Clara comes around the barn just then and stops on a dime.
“Hey, honey,” I say and step off the hog.
“You shouldn’t call Uncle Randy an idiot,” she says.
I am incredulous that this is the only thing she notices about the stage before her. I am horrified that I am, again, a part of this. I look at her and think about her Dad. Sam. My brother. She has enough to deal with.
“You’re right, sweetie. Randy, I’m sorry I called you an idiot.”
I walk through the gate and start for the house. I really want a Diet Pepsi right now. Or some chips. Maybe some cornbread. I resent the fact that the kitchen is located inside the house. In there I feel the pressure of that looming, inevitable conversation.
Little Sam is in the yard blasting away with a toy machine gun. He makes the noises with his mouth. Alice is sitting in a pile of leaves playing with a Barbie and a Ken. She holds Ken in a sitting position with Barbie’s face in his crotch. Knowing Sam and Regina, I’m not surprised.
“Alice. Can you comb Barbie’s hair?” I ask.
“Okay. Shoes dirty,” she points.
I look at my bloody shoes. Something about the presence of children makes my anger subside.
“Ooo! They’re nasty, aren’t they?” I wink at her. She giggles.
“Whoa, Sammy! Looks like you killed another one,” I say.
“I’ve killed a hundred already!” he shouts.
“That’s really good,” I tell him. I’ve given up on encouraging activities other than Barbies for girls and soldiers for boys.
I wash my hands at the outside spigot with the hard green Lava soap. On the porch I lean on the wall with one hand and push my shoes off one with the other.
I open the door and smell a turkey that is definitely done. The men have not even shot the third hog yet. They will have to stop work and clean up to come in and eat, and then get back to it, and this will irritate Mom. She likes for them to be done with it all before they eat.
Mom and two aunts are chopping and stirring things on the counter. Regina and Sam are in the living room, watching the parade on TV with their arms around one another and stupid looks on their faces.
“What in the world are you doing out there in your condition?” asks Aunt Lorraine. “You should lie down and put your feet up.”
I am so tired. I think she might be right, but I need food. I get some Cheerios out of the cabinet and put them in a bowl.
“Let me get you some milk for that,” Aunt Ellen says.
“No thanks, I just want to eat them dry,” I say.
“And don’t you worry about Ray. We’ll keep plenty of everything warm until he gets here,” Charla says.
“Well if you ask me, he should already be here,” Mom says.
“What time do you think he’ll come? Is it the store again? Lord, he keeps so busy there,” says Lorraine. “I don’t know how you two keep a marriage together, him with the store and you with your job.”
I wonder what they would think if they knew I haven’t talked to Ray in a month. Rather, he hasn’t talked to me since the day he found out about Sharon.
“How long you get off from your job?” Lorraine asks me.
“Six weeks. They let me have some unpaid time off before my official maternity leave,” I say.
“Of all the things you could have been,” Mom says, “and you want to hand out puppies for a living. You were great at English, decent at math. You know computers, and you love science. You can’t cook worth a hoot, but you could have taught anything you wanted to.”
I go elsewhere in my head. Mom’s little song no longer means anything. She would never get the obvious, that the direction I chose was entirely based on a deep, internal need to help animals. Instead I think of what Sharon and I will cook together for dinner tonight. She will sip wine, and I will have ginger ale, and we will watch a movie. I’m going to let her choose the baby’s name. I’ve tried to talk to Ray about the baby and about Sharon, but whenever I go to the store someone else is there. He makes sure to lock the door the minute it’s closing time. He sleeps in the store at night. I can’t blame him. I am at fault here.
Charla eyes me with concern. “Do you need to lie down?”
“Yes,” I say. I leave them and head for the back room, which I know will be empty because there is no TV in there.
The back room has an enormous couch. The most comfortable thing in this whole house. The closet door is open. It’s empty except for one coat hanger, which makes me think of the hog hangers in the barn. The rifle rips off another shot in the distance, and I sink into the couch, legs crossed, to eat my Cheerios. I can’t see my legs, just the tips of my knees jutting out past my belly. I’ve forgotten a spoon, but I’m not going back to the kitchen, so I put my face into the bowl and chew like I did when I was a child.
Lorraine comes down the hall and looks at me.
“What in the world are you doing?” she asks.
She takes the bowl from me, and some Cheerios hang from my lips. I stick my tongue out and get those. I can feel my eyelids getting heavy.
“Child, you have got to rest properly. Here,” she says.
She grabs me by the feet, pulls me out flat, and props my feet up on the couch arm. She takes my socks off.
“Would you look at your feet! You don’t have any ankles at all!”
I raise my head to see. She is right. My legs run straight into my feet, no stopping, and make two fat points in the air. I notice a smear of blood on my pink shirt.
“You need to soak your feet,” she says and disappears.
She goes away, and I close my eyes. A part of me is thrilled by their caretaking, even if overdone and pushy. I know it will disappear in a heartbeat after they learn the truth. I may lose as much as I gain. My baby kicks me just then and, thankfully, I am reminded of the gain. An open and truthful life. A different kind of world for my child. I feel bad for Ray and hope he will get to know his son. I know Mom and Dad will never look at me the same. I remember the face Mom made when she saw two women kiss on a TV show, her gasp of disgust, her head jerking back as she squeezed the remote to turn it off. There is no chance they will want to meet Sharon, which is a shame. She is a gentler, softer version of myself.
A second shot blasts, and then everything is much quieter. In a minute someone comes in and sets something on the floor. I am too tired to open my eyes.
“Your pants are too tight. That isn’t good for the circulation.” It’s Charla’s voice.
Someone is undoing my pants and another someone is tugging at my pant legs, but I am too exhausted to care. I think I can see shapes in the darkness of my eyelids. I hear Mom’s voice.
“Mercy! You haven’t been able to bend over to shave your legs, have you? What does Ray think of that? We can take care of that right now. Lorraine, bring me a razor and some cream out of the bathroom.”
Someone reaches out from the shapes in my eyes. Maybe I am asleep now. It is a man. Not a good-looking one, but a large one. His skin is pale, and his voice is high-pitched.
“My name is Chester,” he says. “Chester White. And I am here to help you.”
Someone is sliding the thing on the floor closer to me. I feel steam on the skin of my arm closest to it.
“Okay, so get on with it,” I say. “Help me. Make them understand.”
“Ray is not coming, is he?”
“No. What do I do? When do I tell them?”
Chester laughs until he snorts.
“I wouldn’t tell them just now. They’ll string you up faster than me.”
“I’m exactly what they expect me to be.”
I feel hands on me, turning me, pushing and lifting.
“I can hope,” I tell him.
“Hope is for children,” he says.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
“Children are happy,” I say.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
“Children are ignorant,” he says.
My baby disagrees with a burst of hard kicks, and I know he is on my side.