AFTER THE LAST BELL, MIKE BANGED HIS FIST ON A LOCKER, LET OUT A WHOOP AND RAN TOWARD THE GIRLS. It was Friday. His cowboy boots clacked on the scuffed brown floor of Bonita High and his gut bounced from side to side over a buckle. After finishing the season under .500 again, most of the boys from the football team were in Alvord playing in a basketball tournament, but Mike had only football. He lacked the grace for the enclosed spaces and hardwood floors of high school gymnasiums, and everybody but Mike knew Coach had only kept him on the football squad because he was a big, warm body in a small school.
“Oh God,” Esmeralda said, just before he grabbed the small of her waist and raised her up over his head and onto his shoulders.
“Why don’t we get drunk and screw,” Mike sang, holding both of her hands and spinning around in circles, two steps one way, one the other. “You and me got nothing better to do.”
“Put me down, stupid. I’m not playing with you.” Esmeralda banged on the top of his head as Mike kicked the big metal door open and stepped out, careful to squat low enough that Esmeralda wouldn’t hit her head. He danced over to a picnic table and let her down. “That’s not even the song anyway,” she said, smoothing her hair.
“Who said I was singing a song?”
“You’re retarded,” she said and yelled at her friends who waved and kept walking.
“Let’s go for a drive.”
“And crazy.” She hopped down. “Tough game last week.”
Mike turned around and leaned against the table, picking at a string on his letter jacket.
“Heard A & M scouts were there. You know what you’re doing next year?” “I got nothing but time,” Mike muttered, placing a hefty pinch of Copenhagen in his lip, tucking it in with his tongue.
“Sounds fun,” she said and began walking away.
“Hey, what are you doing tonight?” Mike grabbed her arm.
“Riding around being bored, probably,” Esmeralda shrugged. “We might stop by the American Legion Hall.”
“Save me a dance?”
“We might see you out.”
He spat and kicked dirt over it, considering the night, squishing up his massive face. Then he jumped atop the rickety table. Balancing himself, he cupped his hand and yelled to the other two girls who were already half way to the parking lot, “Find me later!”
The girls laughed, and one said something back. But they kept moving away, as different parts of one body. “See you,” Esmeralda said and ran to rejoin them.
Jared Christian, a wisp of a boy in a blue corduroy jacket, a cap, and glasses walked by. A mustache sprouted on his lip and pimples covered his nose. Usually he could pass by unnoticed.
“Christian,” Mike yelled.
The boy looked up from the invisible trail he seemed to be picking his way along, nodded, “Mike,” and went back to the ground.
“Hey man!” Mike said again and jumped down. He ran over and took the boy’s neck into his meaty elbow. “Where you going?” Mike squeezed his neck a couple of times, jostling him around before resting his arm on Christian’s shoulder, leaning heavily on him.
“Just going to feed,” Christian said, reaching around Mike’s arm to adjust his glasses.
“What are we feeding?”
“My pigs,” Christian said, still watching the ground and walking with the same pace, although no longer on a straight path to his truck because of Mike’s weight and pull.
“Soooooooey!” Mike said, clapping his hands. He ran around and opened the passenger door to Christian’s old Chevy and plopped in, rolling down the window and spitting on the car beside them.
Christian pumped the gas pedal and turned the engine over. On the fourth try it caught, and he tapped the pedal again to let the engine even out. “I’m going to the Ag’ barn,” he said. “Then I got to go home.”
Mike leaned forward and twisted the knobs of the radio.
“You need a ride or something?”
“Let’s go by Tune’s Store. Blind old bastard thinks I’m my dad.”
Christian scratched his head, sighed heavily, and put the truck in reverse. As they drove away, Mike hung his arm out the window, singing along with the radio. Christian turned up the heat and watched the road before them.
At Tune’s General Store, Mike walked out, grinning carrying two cases of Coors bottles. “Told you,” he said. “Old Man Tune asks me about the price of hay and shit.” He handed a beer to Christian and unscrewed his, taking a long drink. “I pay him and talk about how hard it is to keep a good Wetback.”
Christian put the beer between his legs but did not open it. “You want to go back to your truck or something?”
“What are you, Church of Christ?” Mike said, looking at the unopened beer and shaking his head. “Just drive.”
At the barn, Christian hopped out of the truck and untwisted the baling wire gate latch. “Twenty bucks I hit it,” Mike said and threw his empty bottle at the “Littering is unlAWFUL" sign across the road. Christian checked his rearview mirrors as he drove through to ensure he didn’t scrape the sides of the truck on the iron posts.
“Double or nothing,” Mike said; then he hitched up his pants, ran across the road, and licked his finger and held it to the air. He threw the bottle again, this time point blank. When it shattered, he slapped his hands upon his thick thighs, bent over, and laughed while Christian retwisted the wire and pulled on the gate to make sure it was closed tightly. The wind whistled through a nail hole in a piece of tin, and Christian pulled his cap down and turned up his collar, squinting at the sun.
“You can pay me later,” Mike said, short of breath, climbing over the fence. He let down the tailgate and plopped himself on it, opening another beer and drinking deeply.
The barn was long and rectangular, made of tin and iron pipes, painted orange and black in school colors. Horse and cattle stalls lined one side, and half of the other side housed small livestock. The rest of the barn stored bales of hay, old oil drums turned feed barrels, shovels, pitchforks, and various ointments and halters. A shelf lining the feed room held dusty trophies and ribbons. A poster of two little boys in overalls looking out at a field of cattle hung on the wall, FFA: Invest in Your Future. Buy Stock Early.
When Christian stepped back out of the truck, two pigs—one white and one black with a white stripe around its belly—roused themselves from where they slept in a sunny corner of a pen. They trotted up to the fence with their ears perked, oinking and wagging their tails. Christian handed each pig a carrot. Then he knelt down and scratched the white pig under the chin. The striped pig he scratched above the tail. He talked softly to the two animals.
Mike leaned his arms on top of the fence railing, taking a swig from his beer. “They think they’re dogs.”
“But they’re smarter.”
“My ass,” Mike said.
“Didn’t you read Animal Farm?” Christian stood up and stretched out his back. He walked under the shelter of the barn and disappeared into the dark, the pigs following him.
“Bullshit,” Mike muttered over the clanking of the iron gate closing. He put another wad of snuff in his lip and spit at the barn.
In a few minutes, Christian came back with a bucket of grain. He walked to the truck where he took out his warm beer and opened it.
“About time,” Mike said, getting another for himself.
Christian poured half the beer into the bucket, leaving a swirl of white foam on top of the grain.
“What the hell you doing?”
“Good for their skin,” Christian said, taking a drink from what was left in the bottle, grimacing.
“A lot of vitamins and minerals. I give them some every now and then.”
“No more of mine you don’t. Unless they’re going to do it up right, get into a fight, make a little love or something.”
“Ain’t going to get the chance for that,” Christian said, dropping the bucket in the back of the truck and taking up a shovel that leaned against the fence. “Trying to get them in the Fat Stock Show in Ft. Worth, where the big money is. Then my Girl and Boy’s going to a table, ain’t that right, pretty pigs?” Christian patted the pigs and began to scoop piles of shit into a wheelbarrow.
“Making me hungry just thinking about it.”
When he finished mucking the pen, Christian leaned the shovel back on the fence and pulled two brushes out of his back pockets.
“You’re going to brush hogs?” Mike said, shaking his head.
“I got to get them ready for the show.” He tossed a brush over to Mike. “We’ll get out of here quicker.”
“I ain’t touching no stinking ass pig.”
“Pigs are clean. Gentle as little babies, ain’t you, Girl?” Christian said, kneeling to brush the female. Both animals crowded around him.
Mike finished his beer and got a new one from the pickup, carefully setting the empty in the case with the others. “You call them “boy” and “girl?” he said, unlatching the gate and walking in, staying to the far side.
“Called the last one Major; reckon I got real attached, had a hard time selling him. This time I figured I’d keep it simple. Old Major afforded me these two.”
Mike nodded and slowly knelt down on one knee. Christian pulled a carrot from his jacket and tossed it to him. When the white pig ran over, Mike dropped the carrot and hopped up on the fence. He laughed a little and checked to see if Christian saw.
“He’s fine. Just knock the dust off of him, talk to him, and pet him a little bit. They need to be handled.”
“Hell, I was just checking out the view’s all,” Mike said, getting down, dusting off his pants. “Barn’s fine.” He knelt down and stiffly patted the pig on the back.
Boy began to rub back and forth beneath his hand, scratching his back.
“I went down on the river with my uncle last year and killed one of them wild boars. Put the dogs on it; son of a bitch was meaner than a gar. Had big old tusks, looked like something out of a movie.” Mike began to brush the animal slowly. “Cut up a dog pretty bad.”
“Pigs turn wild faster than anything else. A sow’s first set of babies out there’ll have long tusks, longer hair than their momma. Next babies won’t look nothing like Boy or Girl here.”
“If he turned back to an ape, I guess. Don’t know how those babies in her belly would know they was going to have to survive on their own.”
As the sun lowered and started spreading along the tree line toward town, the two boys brushed the pigs and soon began to talk about what winter had in store and the coming spring.
Christian walked the pigs around outside the pen with a show stick, making them stop and turn, hop over buckets.
“They don’t run off?” Mike asked.
“I ain’t fed them yet.”
After Christian put them back in, he pulled one feeding tub to one corner of the lot and put the other far away in the opposite corner. He poured half the beer-soaked grain into the first tub, and both pigs ran at it. Christian jumped aside, and the male rammed the female with his snout. The female pig squealed and retaliated, slashing at the male with her teeth. Christian banged the male with the bucket and kicked him with the side of his leg, yelling until the pig backed away. Then Christian led him to the other tub with the food. At last the pigs paid no more attention to him, settling into their meal, kicking up dust, grunting and knocking the tubs with their snouts.
“Thought they was buddies,” Mike said when Christian put the buckets and brushes away.
“Hell, don’t matter when one’s got something the other wants.”
Mike handed Christian a beer and opened another for himself. While the moon gathered to rise behind them, both boys leaned on the fence and drank, watching the pigs eat.
“What are you about to do,” Mike asked when they got back in the truck.
“Probably head to the house.” Christian tapped the gas pedal and pulled to the gate where Mike hopped out and let him through.
“You want to drive around and drink some beer?”
“I might drink a few,” Christian said and turned onto the dirt road.
The headlights bounced over potholes and the two boys listened to country music on the radio. For a while they did not talk much, but laughed now and again at the disc jockey. Mike chased a possum into the ditch, but let it go. When he got back in the truck, Mike talked about girls and asked Christian what he knew. Christian shook his head; he had not had any. Christian talked some about his plans to put away money for a farm, get his mom out of the rent house in town and on some land. Mike told Christian he should go to work for his dad. Christian changed the subject to the sky and pointed out the changing colors of the moon. The short winter evening deepened to night quickly, and both boys were quite drunk when they pulled back to the school parking lot on the edge of town.
“Where you headed,” Mike asked.
Christian sat for a minute, pulling on his mustache; then he turned the truck off. “I don’t know. Home.”
“Night’s just getting started, man.” Mike leaned back in the seat and forced a laugh. He took a drink, then picked at the label. “Let’s go by the American Legion, get some girls.”
“I ought to go home.”
“I’ll drive. You can go whenever you want.” Mike got out of the truck. “There are girls there, and they’re lonely. Come on, Christian. Don’t puss out on me now.” Mike slammed the door and winked through the window. Christian rubbed his eyes and wiped his face with his palms.
Mike revved his engine, and when he took off, he flung gravel on Christian’s windshield. He stuck to the back roads and Christian followed him across town.
There weren’t many cars in the lot of the American Legion Hall; a few old men talked smart, leaning into ice chests or up against their farm trucks. Mike waved at Old Man Tune and grinned, with Christian a step behind him. “The party’s here,” Mike yelled when they walked in the door. Nobody heard him over the music. A DJ in a green visor sat at a retired school lunch table, and two couples danced in the center of the room on a dark concrete floor. Christian stayed close to the doorway. Mike grabbed him by the shoulder and squeezed hard. “There’s the girls.” Then he walked across the room, with Christian following.
Esmeralda and her two friends sat on top of a long table drinking wine coolers through straws from large Styrofoam cups. Before Mike could say anything, Esmeralda stood up, swaying a little one way, then the other. “Jared Christian? What are you doing here?”
Christian adjusted his cap on his head and kicked pig shit off the toe of his boot. “Mike brought me.”
“Ain’t that cute. Mike brought Jared to his first dance,” Esmeralda said. Her friends laughed.
Mike’s eyes danced from the girls to Christian and back. He tried to laugh. “We just figured you girls was getting lonely’s all.”
“I’m kind of tired,” Christian said, backing away.
“Mike you don’t mind if I dance with your date, do you?” Esmeralda took Christian by the sleeve.
He tried to pull away, but she held tight and dragged him to the middle of the room. The song was slow and sad. Another couple brushed against him. He looked over his shoulder at Mike and shook his head. The other two girls had gone back to talking to one another and Mike leaned against the table, arms crossed.
Esmeralda interlaced her fingers with Christian, and pulled his arm around her waist. She moved his leg with hers, showing him the steps. Christian looked at Mike again and shrugged his shoulders. Esmeralda took his face in her hands and turned him to face her again.
Mike spit on the floor and licked his lips. Then he walked past the dance floor back outside. Old Man Tune and Manny Hernandez were trading pulls of bourbon at the back of Tune’s truck; they waved at him. Mike nodded his head at their pleasantries and took their bottle. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand; his breath rose around him like smoke. Inside, the song got faster. Mike could hear the bass swelling against the thin walls of the tin building, keeping steady time for the night. He took another drink and walked back inside to the sound of fiddles.
Christian and Esmeralda were the only ones on the floor now. She was spinning him around, and he was laughing, dizzy. When they came back together, Christian held tightly to her to keep from falling and rubbed his forehead on her shoulder. Esmeralda saw Mike watching and waved. Then she winked.
Mike walked out to the dance floor and grabbed Christian by the shoulder. “You need to pay up. Forty bucks. I hit the sign, fair and square.”
Christian held a hand out to Mike. “I didn’t…”
“Forty fucking dollars. Now.”
“Lying sack of shit. Fucking mooch.” Mike smacked Christian’s hand down.
Esmeralda pushed Mike. “Leave him alone, Mike. He’s not hurting nobody.”
Mike reached around her and grabbed Christian by his jacket.
“Mike you stupid son of a bitch, leave him alone.” Esmeralda pushed him again. “Nobody wants you here.”
Mike let go.
“Just leave,” she said.
Mike turned and walked out the door, and Christian ran after him.
“You alright to drive, boy?” Old Man Tune yelled, but Mike’s tires were already throwing gravel, skidding onto the highway. Christian tried to catch his breath as he watched Mike’s lights disappear.
Mike turned the radio off and drove out of town with the window down, shivering. He gripped the wheel tightly past Tune’s General Store, turned left, then right, bouncing over the dirt roads he and Christian’d just come from. At the Ag barn, Mike slammed his fist into the dash, and his knuckles began to bleed. He sucked the blood from his knuckles and got out of the truck. He unwired the latch and drove through, rewiring the gate before he pulled to the barn.
The pigs trotted up to the fence when Mike stepped out. “Hey, Boy. Girlie,” Mike said. The boy looked down on the pigs, crying. He opened the gate, and the pigs ran up to him with upturned snouts, expectant. Mike kneeled down on the ground and wrapped both arms around the white pig, leaning his face against its back. The pig let out a short squeal and hopped aside.
“It’s alright,” Mike said, sniffling. The pigs rooted around, smelling his pockets. When he did not produce a carrot, they wandered outside the pen and began sniffing around the truck. Boy put his front feet on the bumper and smelled the air.
“I don’t have any fucking food, pigs.” Mike stood up. “I ain’t got nothing.” He walked over to the pigs and kicked at a clump of dirt. “Now get back in here.”
The pigs shied away, but stood close by, looking at him, light reflecting from their eyes. “Come on, Goddamn it,” Mike said, wiping his eyes.
The pigs did not move. “Come on!” Mike yelled and grabbed the shovel leaning against the fence. He raised it high over his head and brought it down on Boy’s head with all of his weight. The pig squealed and stumbled to the side, falling on one leg, shaking his head. “Please, just come here,” Mike said again, this time swinging sideways, hitting the pig in the gut. The blade made a thick slapping sound against the pig’s flesh. The handle broke, and the pig bled from a gash in his side. Girl ran toward the tree line on the other side of the pasture.
Boy stumbled again, both front legs collapsing before he jumped to his feet and hobbled away to the far side of the barn where it stood looking around the corner, its head hanging down. Blood dripped from its snout now. “You stupid fucking pig,” Mike yelled. Spit flew from the corner of his mouth, and his eyes were red. He threw the handle across the pasture and jumped into his truck.
“Fat son of a bitch,” he yelled out the window and reversed the truck, headed toward the side of the barn where Boy stood. Then he straightened the wheels out and stomped the gas pedal. Boy did not move out of the way. He stood there, with his head hanging down in a peculiar way, his eyes, somehow fixed on Mike. The jarring in the truck rocked Mike, bounced his head into the truck ceiling. He backed up again and pulled forward again and again until there was hardly any difference at all.
“Stupid son of a bitch,” Mike said and got out of the truck. He walked around to where the pig lay, one eye shiny still, reflecting the sky. He could see himself there, distorted in the pig’s eye. He stared at Boy until the eye clouded over. For a few minutes, he looked almost as tall and as big as the moon