My friend John and I shared a seat on Bus 77. I needed both arms and sometimes a leg to wrestle my trombone onto the bus, but John could manage it with just one hand. John signed my fifth-grade yearbook like this: “I hope I know you when you are an artetic and I am a bub.” He meant “architect” and “bum.” We slept at each other’s houses a lot. Ours was an orderly, brand-new split-level with a two-car garage. It had off-yellow vinyl siding, a washer and a dryer, a small deck out back. The walls were white. The carpet was brown and soft. The cabinets still smelled like wood. Our house was so new that it was without history, an un-scuffed blankness. When the breeze was right, it creaked and settled so much that when I was left alone I’d sit in the big TV-watching chair, an aluminum baseball bat nearby in case the creaks weren’t creaks. There were times when I was so full of pent-up nerves that I’d bite the insides of my cheeks until they tasted of metal.
John’s house was the opposite of ours. The story went that a slave owner had built the Miller place, but no one knew for sure. The place was old, and drafty. It felt like a house in an Edgar Allen Poe story. There was a servant’s stairway off the kitchen wide enough for only one person. You could hide in it, get dusty in it. There were things shoved under couches, piled on top of the mantels, in closets, in corners, everywhere. I remember stacks of old Polaroid photographs, forgotten yogurt containers, fishing rods, tackle boxes, wide-bottomed coffee mugs from U.S. Navy ships, ammunition of all kinds, porno magazines so thumbed over that the bindings were failing. The Miller house was all layers.
It had smells. It smelled like Copenhagen snuff and like people sleeping. It smelled like deer roasts cooking in pots with potatoes and onions. The bathrooms smelled of mildew, the dank earth of soccer and football cleats, and of John’s mom’s hairspray. John’s dad kept his velvet painting of a naked woman in a small, study-like room off the main hallway, and his scotch from Scotland that he never drank. But we tried it, and it wasn’t nearly as good as the blueberry schnapps. John’s dad had an old tin of powdered snuff from when he was in the Navy. We sniffed it, and I sneezed until my stomach cramped. I wasn’t there when he did it, but John shot the family’s living-room sofa. The story goes that when his parents burst into the room after the explosion, John looked at the hole in the couch, the fabric still smoking, and said, “It wasn’t me.” It was routine to steal a dozen eggs from the kitchen and throw them at tractor trailers barreling down Route 220. Once, a trucker slammed on the brakes and, engine running, leapt out after us. We hid behind bushes until traffic backed up and the trucker drove off, calling us little motherfucking cocksuckers.
John’s house was full of things you weren’t supposed to touch, but we touched all of it. In the summer TV room at the end of the hall, the Millers kept a replica suit of armor and an upright piano that needed tuning. I remember a crossbow. John’s parents gave warnings, but there was no one around to stop us from doing whatever we wanted. If there were ever consequences for what we did, they happened quietly, or when I wasn’t there. Even when John’s parents were home from work, the house was so big that we could lose ourselves. John and his two brothers, if they wanted, could each sleep in one room and keep their piles of jeans and boots and baseball gloves and fishing tackle in another.
The Miller house was a playground, a toy store where you could touch anything as long as you could reach it, as long as no one saw you, as long as you could put it back, as long as you didn’t bleed too much. John and I helped ourselves, stopping at night only so that John could teach me chess moves, so that I could read aloud from his mom’s paperbacks until my voice grew hoarse. We stayed up late, playing Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror, crashing hard and then waking to the smell of fried meat, John charging ahead and me following along because John was the foreman and I was just an employee. I was an excellent employee.
One day, John thought we should feed the pigs. Though the Millers lived in a farmhouse, on the edge of an actual farm, they were not farmers. There was a barn, and corn and sunflowers for the deer. Dairy cows pastured out back, and sometimes we pissed on the electrified barbed-wire fence. Because his parents were friends with my parents, the Millers let my dad work a corner of their big garden. He grew tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, lettuce, and melons. He’d go there for an hour after work, digging into the bottom-land soil with an old hoe. Next to the garden was a pig pen. Like a lot of things we did at John’s house, feeding the pigs was something I heard about long before I actually did it, like going up to the barn for a cigarette or, later, a huff of gasoline. I always considered myself too skinny for the things the Miller boys did, too fragile, somehow. John would put his forearm alongside my thigh, and they were almost the same size. He’d laugh, and I’d laugh, but they were different kinds of laughs.
This one summer day, up in John’s bedroom, we lay on the floor, hot, and bored just enough. John told me about the pigs.
“What are we going to feed them?” I asked.
“Slop,” John said.
“Stuff from the restaurant.”
The rich man who owned the Miller’s house, the land, the cows, the pigs, also ran the restaurant next door, called Barton’s. John’s older brother Brian had washed dishes there since he was a kid, and so the waitresses sometimes fed John rolls with butter or had the cook fry him a sandwich. When I pictured slop, I pictured boxes neatly stuffed with rows of cabbages, the words “from California” printed on the cardboard. John led us to the back, where the trucks unloaded food, and went straight for a big gray plastic trashcan. I smelled the slop before I saw it.
“Here it is,” John said. He kicked the trashcan.
“We’re going to feed them trash?”
“Not trash. Slop.”
It smelled like the bottoms of shoes, like food that had been mixed together and left out in the sun. I looked inside. The stuff was moving around, like soup. It made a heat that I could feel on my face.
“Get closer,” John said.
I held my breath. At first, all I could see was the glint of a pink-brown broth. Then I could make out lettuce, lemon wedges, slices of tomato, bits of brown stuff that looked like burnt meat, half-scraped foil packets of butter, half-eaten single-serve containers of jelly, and, bobbing on top, the bleached white of the undersides of hamburger rolls.
We each took a handle. It was heavy. The slop sloshed in the can, and I kept trying to get my T-shirt to cover my nose. We took breaks. John would say things like, “How far, really, would you walk for a Camel?” My arms burned. It took us a half-hour. When we got to the pen, the pigs rushed to us, climbing over each other, making their shrill pig noises, mouths chewing the air, snouts sticking through the gaps in the fence. John found a pitchfork, jabbed it into the slop, and let some slide into the nearest trough. Immediately, the pigs erupted with a deep screaming that seemed to compress my chest. John laughed at them. He dug into the trashcan and made it a point to scoop up a metal fork before he dumped that into the trough. One of the pigs took the fork into its mouth, and I didn’t see it come back out. It was past noon then, and the smell of shit was hot and strong. I scooped some into the trough. I was glad to be doing it.
But boys get bored. When we were out of slop, John said we should get in the pen. I said I didn’t think that was a good idea, but John was already straddling the fence at a spot where it sagged. Then his other foot was over, and he was in. He clapped at two or three pigs, to get their attention. When he clapped again, I went over the fence. The shit smell was twice as strong on the other side. I saw that my new, white Nikes were ruined.
John kept clapping. I watched the pigs. At first, they moved from John to me and then back. Then, after two or three got close, the rest got curious and, soon, they were all running. The squeals grew louder. John slapped one on the side. I slapped two of them. They were muscular and hairy. They were bigger than me, like St. Bernards, but rounder, thicker, lower to the ground. One grazed my leg and nearly knocked me over.
We both felt it happening. The pigs began running faster, back and forth, kicking up mud and shit. Slowly, without talking about it, John and I moved toward the fence. The pigs ran faster. They got louder, snorting now. Then they all turned on me and I ran, toward the garden. John said, “Go, go, go!” We sprinted. Everything was loud. I couldn’t see straight. I saw a tall figure. Everything was happening very fast and I was confused. It was a man. I wasn’t thinking, only running. The sun was behind the man and so he was silhouetted, but I could see he wore a beat-up baseball cap that was fraying at the brim. It was my dad. He had a round-nosed shovel in one hand, and with the other, was motioning wildly for us to come to him. He was yelling. He ripped the hat from his head and threw it to the ground. We kept running. “Come on!” Dad yelled. I heard the pigs behind me. I felt their gallop. They were snorting. I’d never heard pigs sound so much like pigs before.
I got to the fence first. I tried to climb it, but before I could get over, Dad reached behind me and grabbed my belt, just above my butt. There was a tremendous jerk and then my feet were off the ground, my hands were off the fence, and I was almost flying. Then he let go and I fell to the ground. He did the same to John, who came to a rest next to me, in the loose earth of the garden. We were breathing hard.
“Jesus goddamn Christ!” Dad screamed. He picked up his shovel and jabbed its nose into the soil. His eyes were huge.
John and I looked at each other. John smiled. I tried to smile, but couldn’t, because though things like pigs happened all the time at John’s house, pigs did not happen at my house, would not happen. I did not belong with the pigs. I was a citizen of another place, where the walls were white and where there were no pigs. I could not smile back at John. Or, I tried, and the smile came out all wrong.
“I thought I was going to have to dig two graves,” Dad said. He was yelling.
I wanted to throw up, to hide in a dark place, to run away from home. Dad was angry with me, very angry. And what would those pigs have done? Knocked me down, and then what? Would they have tried to eat me? Would I have seen my flesh in their mouths? Would I have seen, while I was still alive, my own bones? Dad was from West Virginia. He knew about pigs. Yes, they would’ve eaten my thigh, and they wouldn’t have cared that I was skinny. The last thing I’d see would have been my thigh bone, which I knew was properly called a femur, long and thin and white, streaked in my own precious red.
Seth Sawyers’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baltimore Sun, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Crab Orchard Review, Fugue, Ninth Letter, The Baltimore Review, and online at The Morning News, The Rumpus, and The Millions. He teaches writing at the University of Maryland and lives in Baltimore.