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2006-12-12 - 4:06 p.m.

I was thinking today about a time when I was eleven, maybe twelve years old, when I was at my friend John's house in the country.

John's parents were friends with my parents. They had three boys and we had three boys: the ages roughly parallel. John and I were the same age, in the same grade, and we sat in the same seat on the bus ride into school. We were probably best friends for most of our childhood, but boys, I suppose, never talk about that. We were just good friends. We slept at each other's house a lot.

John weighed probably twice what I weighed at that age. When he slept at my house, the joke was my mom or dad would have to go out and get an extra gallon of milk, just for John. He did drink a lot of milk, it's true. When I stayed at his house, used to Cocoa Pebbles and maybe toast and jelly, I'd have to hold my nose to get through half of the sausage gravy-and-biscuits John's dad would serve his sons and me. What I'm saying is that John was big and that I was small. I'd read to John and his older brother Robbie sometimes: murder mysteries and cheap paperbacks they'd sneak from their dad's nightstand. Then again, John taught me, of all things, chess openings. He usually beat me.

Another thing is that they had a big house and a lot of land. They didn't own any of it, but they had a real spread. They were poor, I know now, but not skinny poor, and one of the things they did was keep a big garden, between the house and an old barn that the landowner still used. There was a cow pasture behind the house, and past that, the railroad, and past that, the Potomac River, and past that, West Virginia. They lived in the valley between the two ranges there, next to where the Potomac runs. They had good soil there.

Because they were friends, our parents, they let my dad do what he wanted with a corner of the garden. When I was a kid, he grew tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, lettuce, strawberries sometimes, and melons when he was adventurous.

So one summer day, John and I were sitting around his house, bored with TV. It would get hot in his house, a nineteenth-century brick thing with so many rooms they had to invent reasons to inhabit some of them. They were always fooling with the rooms: moving the TV from the big room at the end of the hall to a smaller, more comfortable one with carpeting, by the dining room. And the same with bedrooms. When it was cold, the brothers sometime shared a bedroom, if not actual beds, and in the summer, they spread out, John sometimes moving his bed downstairs and into what they'd call the library. The only thing permanent in the library was a suit of armor and an old upright piano that nobody ever played. John's dad was a petty officer in the navy and collected things.

Anyway, we got bored this day and John said we should go feed the pigs. The guy who owned the house and the land was a minor local Big Deal and also owned a restaurant on the other side of the house from the barn and garden. It was called Barton's Restaurant, after the Big Deal guy's last name. John's older brother Brian washed dishes at the restaurant, had since he was 13 or 14, and so John knew everyone who worked there. They sometimes gave him leftover sandwiches and rolls with butter. John was always hungry.

I asked John how we were supposed to feed the pigs. The guy who owned the land kept about ten pigs between the garden and barn. They were fenced in with chain-link fence. Their pen had a collapsed shed in the middle of it and troughs around the edges of the fence. The whole deal was about the size of a little league infield.

"We'll go to the restaurant and get their slop," John said, and since I didn't have any idea what he was talking about, I went with him.

Together, we carried a big plastic trashcan from the back of the restaurant to the pig pen. It was hot out and though I didn't look closely into the garbage can, I knew for sure that it smelled bad. I could hear it sloshing around. We set the garbage can down in front of the pig pen's fencing. The pigs knew why they were there. They rushed to the fence, climbing over each other, making their shrill pig noises, mouths chewing the air. John found a pitchfork, jabbed it into the slop, and dumped some into the nearest trough. They ate it up: white hamburger rolls, lettuce, lemon wedges, tomato slices, bits of brown meat, half-scraped foil packets of butter, half-eaten plastic single-serve containers of jelly, and a pink-brown broth that held it all together. John made it a point to scoop up a metal fork from the garbage can and throw that in the trough. One of the pigs scooped that up and I didn't see him spit it out. After a while, John let me do it a few times.

When we were out of slop, John decided that we should get in the pen with them. I said I didn't think that was a good idea, but John was already straddling the chain-link fence at a spot where it was sagging. His other foot was over and he was in. He leaned over and clapped at two or three pigs, cheering them on. I followed him. I stood next to him. The smell was twice as strong inside the pen. On the outside, at least we had the slop smell, which was bearable. The pig pen smell was concentrated and worse. There was nothing to cover it up here. We were standing in the smell.

John kept clapping and I kept an eye on the pigs. The loped over to us at first, sort of jogging. Then, after two or three got close to us, the other seven or so got curious and ran from the trough. The pigs were big. Bigger then me. Solid, mostly muscle, like a big St. Bernard, but rounder, with no fluff, and lower to the ground.

They ran faster. We backed up, toward the collapsed shed. The pigs ran faster. They got louder, snorting now. I turned and ran through the shed. John said, "Let's go!" and he followed me. We ran hard for about thirty feet, a sprint. We got to the other side of the pen, near the fence at a point where it was sagging, and I saw my dad's tall figure. The sun was behind him and so he was mostly dark, but he had on his garden hat, a beat-up thing that smelled like sweat. He had a round-nosed shovel in one hand and with he other, he was motioning for us to come to him. He was yelling something and he had a big expression on his face.

"Come on!" he was saying. I could hear the pigs behind me.

John was slower than me. I got to the fence first. I tried to climb the broken chain-link fence, but before I could get over it, my dad reached behind me and grabbed the belt on my jeans. He yanked me over the fence. I landed at his feet. He did the same to John. He came to a rest next to me, in the grass. We were breathing hard.

"Jesus goddamn christ," my dad said. "I thought for a second that I was going to have to dig two graves."

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