Dust and gravel, gravel and dust. Hot, dry air and nothing else. The road ahead is arrow-straight and tires rumble on the dirt surface. In the rear-view mirror a huge rooster-tail rises and hangs behind his car, a beacon of progress visible for miles for a solitary traveler on a forsaken back-road.
The gas gauge is pointing left – about an eight of a tank remaining and according to the map it will indicate empty well before the next crossroads, town or any chance of a fill up.
The only other traveler today – one vehicle, a flat-bed farm truck going the opposite way at the turnoff a hundred miles ago. Letting the chips fall where they may and throwing caution to the wind might not have been the right idea.
It’s getting late – the sun is behind him and it will sink behind the hills soon. After that – it’s a long walk anywhere.
There is a silo on the horizon – a solitary spire at the edge of the earth and a labyrinth of maybe opens in his mind. He watches for a crossroad or any kind of access from this side of the land. A simple break in the fence – old tire tracks from the ditch will do.
He slows, knowing a lesser rate won’t make the fuel last any longer – it’s a nod to superstition, nothing more.
A possible left turn – north – an unmapped crossroads and the decision is academic. Another ‘maybe’ – but the only maybe in sight. He swings the car onto the shoulder and creeps the road.
Slow pace – if there’s machinery at the silo, there’s the possibility of fuel; and if anyone is around he doesn’t want to announce his arrival with an airborne dust cloud.
There is a house. Clap-board siding, tilted porch. He stops at the dirt-track entrance to the land. The fence rails around the property are dry, shaven logs – silver-gray wood – years of bleaching in the sun.
What the hell. Give it a try.
He idles the car to an open space midway between the barn and the home and stops. A tin water trough is attached to the barn frame – shade side, and there are large pigs at it, or near it, snuffling at the dirt and grunting their opinion.
Life. Who feeds the pigs? There are humans around somewhere.
He exits the car and stands in the settling dust.
The air is dry as a sun-bleached bone. The hogs at the trough are now still and gazing at him.
There are three of them and two are missing a leg each. Tripods – one is actually standing on two real legs and a pair of improvised posts strapped across it’s shoulders on the front and cinched beneath, an odd animated footstool with most of a pig at the other end.
There is no thinking that can make sense of it.
Busy calculating the limb total, and dividing by the number of whole pigs he’s startled by the approach of the girl.
‘I’m Etta, Loretta actually. You lost?’
She’s configured like a barrel – wearing overalls, a bandana at her neck and smiling, friendly eyes.
‘Out of gas. Almost. Wondering if you can sell me a few gallons. Hi – I’m Hal. Halford,’ he extends an invitation to shake hands.
She grips and shakes – sturdy. Confident.
‘Well, dad’s just coming out from the silo. He’s going to insist you stay for supper and put-up overnight. Doesn’t like people driving away in the dark – or hungry. Mom will gang up on you too. We don’t get many visitors.’
From a thief to a guest in seconds flat.
At the door of the house a woman appears. The screen-door held open, other hand wiping down an apron, she barks, “Etta, who the hell is that? Where’s your father?’
‘That’s mom. She’s almost blind. Cooks like a Goddamn though.’ She turns toward the porch, ‘It’s a traveler ma. Gonna have some dinner with us and borrow some gas.’
‘I was hoping to get back on the road.’
‘They won’t have any part of that. And you won’t get your gas unless you eat first. Guaranteed.’
‘Well, bring him up Etta. We can serve up a plate for him. Just one?’
‘Only one of him ma.’
He looks over the property, into the entrance of the barn. It’s listing to the right – away from the water trough. Dry silver wood in the sunset – open doors off their tracks – outside corners settled into the dirt.
And from fifty feet away the smell of hay, grease and urine.
‘Let me park the car. I’ll come up.’
Inside the front door, pleasantries are exchanged. Dad has come through the back, and a sibling – Jimmy – is missing but announced as ‘picking up the pieces of the day’ and ‘should be in presently.’
He washes up in the bathroom, drys his hands and face, looks into the mirror and remembers a string of jokes about traveling salesmen, fathers, daughters, and barns.
Not one of them features peg-legged pigs.
The table is set and the scent of cooked food, a pot of potatoes, a tureen of stew, fresh bread, and beets awakens his hunger.
‘Set here Hal,’ Etta motions to the seat beside her, ‘Mom will serve.’
He slides the chair out and tries to gain breathing room by inching it away from the girl, but the table settings are tight. Resigned, he sits and slides forward, centers himself on the plate.
Her knee describes a welcome on the outside of his pant-leg.
It may be out of respect, and it might be fear – but he makes a point of limiting his reply.
Dishes are passed, mom serves from the side of the table nearest the sink and stove, he becomes aware that he’s leaning toward the front door, away from Etta and tries to open some kind of conversation.
‘I’m grateful for the meal. And the hospitality. Sure hope I’m not putting you out – I’m glad you can spare some gas.’
‘Well, it’s farm gas, so it’s marked, but nobody’s going to drain your tank to see if you’re illegal. We’re happy to help.’
‘I used to run purple gas over in Saskatchewan. I don’t mind.’
Jimmy appears from the back hallway, a lanky denim-clad apparition – sparsely bearded with eyes set close together beneath a wispy uni-brow. He limps to the table – utters a guttural ‘howdy’, sits and settles immediately into his meal.
Dinner goes by with the odd injection of pleasantries and he takes his time, but he needs to have a question addressed.
‘Say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen pigs with peg-legs before. I’ve spent a little time on farms. Not a lot. But I can’t find an explanation. Is there a congenital issue with that breed? Do they have circulatory problems?’
‘Not a bit!’ Dad jumps on the subject. ‘Never seen healthier or more sturdy hogs in my life. Them are the best damned pigs in the county. I swear. Used to win ribbons with that breed – back in the 60’s. Nothin’ can beat em for size or sturdy.’
Looks are exchanged around the table. He’s not sure if the knee movement on his right is affection or warning.
‘Not to them. But they’ve got some stories, sure enough.’
‘Hell yeah. That black was the one that saved our barn last year. There was smoke in the hay and he warned us before it was able to properly light or spread. Damned fine pig. And the year previous to that – the sow – the squat one with just two legs – well she let us know about Jimmy being pinned by the tractor. Year before, she saved ma from sunstroke. Damned fine pigs – all of em. Come from a great line. Pigs is smart ya know.’
‘Ya can’t get the best of a clever pig, I’ll say,’ Etta offers from beside him, adjusting her leg.
‘What about the other one.’
‘Ran off a drifter was tryin’ to steal outta the shed. Chawed at his leg I figure, and his hand too. Was a bit of a shoe and a finger left on the ground over by the pump. Blood – lots of it. Didn’t see it happen but the remains told that tale – his track over the fence too. Likely a fast mover. Was no clothes left over or bones so he must have got away. Shelly’d of et him – but there woulda been leftovers – pig can’t eat a whole drifter – not at one sitting.’
‘That sow is named Shelly.’
The stew is delicious. Rich and thick with heavy bread and ice water – it goes down salty and satisfying.
‘We’ve had good years and bad years around here. Dry years and bountiful. Them pigs has carried us through most of ‘em.’
‘Except ‘06.’ Ma chimes in. ‘That was a bad year. That was a bad year all ‘round.’
Everyone looks away. Dad makes a fist on his fork. The conversation dies and mother gets up, folds her napkin – takes her dish to the sink.
‘Peg-leg Jimmy. That was a Goddamned bad year,‘ Etta offers.
“Loretta! No need.’
He looks to the woman at the sink, back to the Father and meets Jimmy’s eyes across the table. He’s at his food, but looks away and mutters through a mouthful, ‘It wasn’t nothing. I was OK with it. It’s OK ma.’
Dad puts down his utensils. Pushes out his chair. ‘Well, finished or not, I’m done with dinner.‘
He doesn’t know how to offer anything into this alien air, ‘Listen, I… I hope I didn’t…’
‘No, it’s alright. Let me get you settled with a few gallons of gas. That’ll get you to Havre up by the border.’
The gas gurgles from a Jerry-can, its dull gray nozzle inserted into the fill-neck. He can smell it, mixed with a hint of sweet alfalfa and the ripe, farmyard scent of dirt and manure.
He gains his seat and buckles the belt over his stomach, Dad, hands on the open window sill, pushes the door shut until it latches – a firm farewell.
‘Thanks for the help – I hope you and your family…’
He can’t finish. He didn’t have an idea where that was going when he began.
‘All good mister… Hal. Drive safe now. If you take a left at the gate you’re on the right track. That road’ll get you to the secondary. The one you came up ends apiece past the hills. Don’t use that one.’
He decides to satisfy his curiosity. He’s in the car. It’s started. It’s all over but the driving away.
‘You never did say why you’ve fit the pigs with wooden legs – kept them around.’
The man raises his eyebrows. Reluctantly decides to bring light to the ignorant.
‘Don’t know where you’re from Hal, but ‘round here, a pig that good, you don’t eat all at once.’
This piece came as a result of searching for a solution to being stuck. I was watching “Buster Scruggs”, the Cohen Brothers piece on Netflix. I love the idea that each of their scenes has a punch line. They all resolve into some kind of ‘aha’ moment. So —tell a joke – get unstuck. I fished out a favorite old one and this is the result.