I needed to make a rack for the back of my old green truck, so I bought these 2 X 12 boards, treated cedar, from the lumber yard. I was from Chicago, new to Arkansas, but I was learning my way around. We had been in those backwoods for a year, me and Clare and the two kids. Clare and I were fighting again, and she was pissed off at how expensive the lumber was. We were so isolated out there. A million things needed to be done and money always needed to be found. I wanted to kill Clare sometimes, but I never so much as slapped her. The kids either.
We had bought two young pigs when we arrived, and in that year’s time they were ready for the butcher. When we first brought them home we carried them in the cab of the truck. The kids held the piglets in their laps like babies. I warned everybody not to get too attached to them, because they were not pets. We were raising them for one reason. The kids knew what that reason was. They were old enough—my son was 10 and my daughter was 8—to know.
These hogs were now huge, and I knew I needed a good solid rack on that old truck or they would just bust their way through it on the way to the butcher. I had some 3 X 3 posts and stuck them in the holes in the walls of the truck bed. Then I took 6 inch bolts and put them through hand-bored holes and fastened the 2 X 12s onto them. The rack was 5 boards high, stacked one on top of each other like a fence, with an inch of space between each board. It was almost 6 feet tall when I was done, towering over the cab. It was heavy, very heavy, and not something that could be taken on and off easily, but I’d be damned if those hogs would make a fool of me.
When we first moved to Arkansas, we came with our best friends, Bill and Sharon, and their two girls. We camped out at first, had no electricity, bathed in the creek, and tried to tame the land with our mowers and chain saws. The idea was to live together and raise our kids together, have some animals and a big garden, live off the land, help one another. It was like a commune.
One day not long after we arrived in Arkansas I stumbled upon Sharon while she was bathing in the creek. Sharon was a knock-out. We had had a fling, years before, right after we were both married. To this day I wonder if their oldest girl is mine or Bill’s. She has my eyes. Sharon and I dove into each other that day at the creek. I remember being worried my boy was out there in the woods somewhere, watching us. It kind of spooked me, and I hurried and got dressed afterwards.
Life was fun for a while with all of us sitting around the campfire at night, while the children played down by the creek or caught fireflies, but soon tensions began to develop. It seemed, after a few short weeks, that Bill and Sharon were just waiting for an excuse to give up on the commune and go back to Chicago.
They left one night after they discovered my son on top of one of their girls. I didn’t see anything wrong with it, she was the same age as him, and anyway they weren’t actually having sex. But Bill and Sharon didn’t think that made a difference. They packed up their stuff and went back to Chicago to stay with her mother.
There was a big barn on the Arkansas property, and in the fall we moved into the loft. I planned to build a log cabin, completely by hand, on the hill at the other end of the property. It was the hardest place on the property to get to, but there was a hell of a view. Tree covered mountains overlapped and faded away into the distance. You could only see one man-made building from up there, off to the south, if you really looked for it.
I don’t know when it was exactly that I realized my job back in Chicago had been a decent one. I hated it at the time and wanted nothing more than to leave, leave the job, leave the city, leave the house we lived in, leave everything. But in Arkansas I looked back and that life in Chicago didn’t seem so bad after all. If I would have done some things differently. If I just would have told my co-worker Jill that I had to go home that night, and not gone to have a beer with her. If she just could have let things lie, instead of calling me all the time, instead of lying to me and telling me she was pregnant.
We left our families up there in the city. Our parents couldn’t understand why anyone would be taking such risks. They didn’t see the appeal. The clean air, the magic of the woods, the self-reliance. Clare’s parents warned us of the dangers we would face: scorpions, snakes, cougars, spiders, razorbacks, skunks, coyotes, rednecks. We were warned of every danger except the one that got us.
When the rack was finished it was time to load the hogs. I backed up the truck to the hog pen and the hogs immediately sensed doom. They squealed and ran to the very back of the shed we built for them. Pretty soon the whole family was down there in the mud trying to wrestle these 200 pound hogs up the ramp to the truck. The rack loomed above and the hogs had very low centers of gravity and were as strong as little oxen and we didn’t make any progress at all.
We gave up and sat down in the grass to think it over. I decided to take the boy and drive up to see Old Man Robinson who was our nearest neighbor a couple miles up the gravel road. We needed some advice from a long time Arky. We drove on down to see him. Old Man Robinson’s place was like an antique junk yard. Old cars, dormant farm implements, ancient and rusty bicycles, anachronistic tools, etc. lay scattered about the place. He lived alone in a two story dilapidated frame house that had once been white. He was 81 years old and extremely skinny. His dirty overalls hung off of him and he smelled terrible. His skin was falling off. He was like an old snake getting smaller instead of bigger each time he molted.
“Hiya, Mr. Robinson,” I called as we got out of the truck. He waved but was too old to call out.
“Hi’uns,” he said as we got closer.
“How ya doin Mr. Robinson?” I said.
“Jes’ fine,” he said, “thank’ee.”
It was not very hot outside but I was sweating. I always sweated. I sweated more than anybody I ever knew. Sometimes the sweat would pour off my nose, not drop by drop like most people, but in a steady stream.
“Boy,” Mr. Robinson said, looking at me, “if sweatin was sinnin, I reckon you’d be the devil hisself.”
“Mr. Robinson, I’ve got a problem, I’m trying to get my hogs onto my truck and I can’t seem to. . .”
“Thasser mighty fine rack you got there,” Mr. Robinson said, looking at the truck.
“You know some’uns would just make a flimsy rack,” he went on, “somethin that’ll fall apart in a windstorm.”
“That’s true,” I laughed.
“But that’s a gooden strong rack,” he said.
“Well, yes, but I have this problem. . .”
“Kindly burns some fuel don’t she?” he said.
“That too,” I said. The cost of gasoline was one of the things Clare and I argued about. “But, the thing is,” I went on, “I have these hogs and I have to take them to get butchered.”
“Whyn’t you jes’ slorter em yerself?” he said.
“I would,” I said, “but, well. . .”
Everything I knew about living out there, about homesteading, I learned from books. We had already tried to butcher a small goat and it turned into such a bloody mess my girl still says she has nightmares about it, although I don’t really believe that. The whole scene was pretty gruesome, though, I have to say, with that damn billy goat screaming and kicking and whining. Jesus.
“A mat squeamish?” the old man said, this time to the boy. The boy just looked at him. He was a strange kid. He never talked much. He spent hours, whole days sometimes, running around in the woods by himself. He would come home wild-eyed, like an animal. Eventually he would calm down and something human would return to his eyes, like when Clare offered him some toast with homemade gooseberry jam. I always feared he would go off one day and never come back. Sometimes, though, I almost wished he wouldn’t come home. It’s horrible what goes through your mind. I can’t explain it. One less mouth to feed, one less mouth to complain, one less set of eyes to judge you.
“I just don’t have the time to butcher them,” I said.
“Wayell,” the old man said, “yer rack looks like she’ll hold.”
“But we can’t get the hogs into the truck.”
“Hayell, son,” the old man said, “they don’t want to die no more’n you.”
“They’re strong bastards.”
“Ah done heard.”
He stood up slowly on his cane and headed for his screen door. “You’uns won’t some lemonade?” he asked.
“No thanks,” I said. I was thirsty but I had tried Mr. Robinson’s lemonade before. We waited for a few minutes. I stood there in my shorts and work boots. An old chicken came up behind me and took a hunk out of my calf. I turned around and tried to kick it. It fluttered away with that disapproving gurgle, cocking his head this way and that.
Mr. Robinson didn’t come out so I walked to the screen door and yelled inside. “Can you help us Mr. Robinson?”
“Watcha need?” the old man squawked from inside, “I’m kindly busy makin’ lemonade.”
He came out with his glass and sat back down.
“Do you know how,” I said, “to get those hogs onto the truck?”
“Wayell,” Mr. Robinson said, “no, not rightly. Never had any hogs misself. Never could stand the smell.”
I walked with the kid back to the truck in dejection.
I didn’t want to go back right away so I pulled the truck off onto an old logging road and went up to a little place I knew. I had no idea whose property it was. There were no fences out there, no signs, nobody living anywhere, just occasional deer paths and old logging roads from 100 years ago. I parked the truck where there was a little view of the mountains. I turned to my son.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something,” I said. He looked straight ahead. I could tell he was nervous, we didn’t talk much. But Clare had told me I should have a talk with the boy about sexual matters.
“I know you’re getting to that age where you are thinking about girls,” I said, looking off into the mountains and rolling a cigarette. “When the time comes and you think you want get married, I want you to promise me something.” I looked at him. It’s strange looking at a child and knowing he’s yours, knowing he came from you. “I want you to promise me before you get married you’ll take at least ten years to think it over, to really think the situation through.”
He didn’t say anything. “I want you to promise me,” I said.
The kid gave a laugh and then looked at me. “Ok, dad,” he said.
By the time we got home Clare had made a discovery. If you put an empty slop bucket over a hog’s head, in an effort to get out of the bucket the hog will walk backwards wherever you guide it, even right up a ramp onto a truck.
Instead of trying to bust through the rack the hogs just settled down into the straw we threw in for them. They looked at us like they knew something was going to happen but there was nothing they could do to stop it. I could have made a rack out of clothesline and it wouldn’t have mattered. All four of us piled into the cab of the truck. It was a 5 speed and the gear shift shot up from the floor about 2 feet. The boy sat next to me and when I shifted gears I hit him in the knee. Clare and the girl were both crying. Those hogs had become like family, no matter that we knew from the beginning the purpose for their existence. I myself felt about like those hogs. It seemed very clear in that moment that nothing was going to work out like I wanted it to.
It was a thirty mile drive to the butcher. We hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards when we met a black snake crawling across the gravel road. It was so big it stretched all the way across the road like one of those hoses that dings at the gas station. Black snakes are the friendly kind, not like the copperheads and the moccasins and the rattlers, but still, the whole thing just seemed like bad luck. I stopped the truck and we sat there while the snake crossed. It took a while. He was slow and looked like he’d recently eaten. We were all hungry. I let the truck idle for a few minutes until Clare glared at me, reached across the kids and turned the engine off. And then it was just real quiet while we sat there.
Mather Schneider is a 40-year-old cab driver from Tucson, Arizona. He is happily married to a sexy Mexican woman. His poetry and prose have appeared in the small press since 1993. He has one full-length book out by Interior Noise Press called Drought Resistant Strain and another full-length coming in 2011.