County Fair

Content Warning: Imagined animal death.

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Because she was new, she didn’t know that nobody ever sat in that first seat right behind the bus driver. If you did, sooner or later, Mrs. Johnson would catch your eye in that big mirror overhead and start asking you what church you went to. If you didn’t have a good answer ready, she’d be asking if she could ask your parents if she could take you to her church sometime. So I always sat at least another row back and looked out the window.

But she dropped herself into that first seat in front of me. She pulled out a fancy cell phone with rhinestones on the cover and just kept her head down, poking at it like crazy. I don’t remember ever hearing it ring, though.

I was the last dropoff on the afternoon route till she came. She lived in that new subdivision they built on the Millers’ place about a mile farther down the road—Wheaton Fields, they called it, even though Miller only ever grew mostly soybeans. Soybean Acres doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? She was really pretty, with this silky curtain of hair that combed back perfectly smooth. I don’t know how some girls do that—mine goes all lumpy and furrowed like a cornfield when I try it. She was wearing a gauzy fluffy kind of skirt and black canvas sneakers that laced all the way up to her knees. I thought it must take forever to put them on and get them off, till I saw the zippers up the back. It seemed like cheating.

Anyway, Mrs. Johnson caught my eye in the mirror because there was no one else to talk to, and asked me how my pig was doing.

“Good,” I said.

“Growing good?”

“Yeah, I think so, pretty good,” I said.

“You going to the fair then this year?”

“Yeah, probably,” I said. The new girl was looking at me.

“You have a pig?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Like for a pet?”

“No, pigs aren’t pets,” I said.

She twisted around in her seat towards me. “I know that,” she said, “but I mean you have one certain pig that’s yours? Not just like part of a…a flock?”

I had to laugh. A flock of pigs?

“Yeah, we don’t keep hogs on our place. But I got this one in the spring, and I’m raising it myself.”

“Is it a boy or a girl?”

“A boy. Well, he’s castrated.”

She giggled.

I explained, “He’s called a barrow. Like a gelding. Or a steer.”

She lifted her eyebrows. “So that’s what a steer means. A neutered bull. What do they call a spayed pig?”

She had me there. I never heard of anyone spaying a sow.

“What’s his name?”

“Um, I pretty much just call him Pig.”

“Oh, come on, he must have a name!”

I shook my head. I didn’t think it was a good idea to give your market pig a name. Not that a pig would answer to it anyway.  I saw Mrs. Johnson smiling at us in the mirror. Oh, how nice, she was probably thinking, Janey and the new girl making friends.

The girl said, “Well, my name is Bree. That’s b-r-i-i, not b-r-i-e like the cheese.”

B-r-i-i? I didn’t know there was a cheese called Brie. We mostly just had Colby or muenster.

“That’s cool,” I said. “Is it, like, short for something?”

She rolled her eyes. “Brittany Isobel Ingalls. I don’t know what my mother was thinking. In my kindergarten class, there were like three other Brittanies. So I took the Br from Brittany, I for Isobel, and I for Ingalls and got Brii. Of course, everyone wants to pronounce it Bry, like dry.” She looked like she enjoyed that, so she could correct them.

“How old is your pig?” she asked.

“Four months. Almost.”

“Ooh, he’s a baby! Can I see him sometime?” We were almost to my driveway stop.

“Sure,” I said, in a hurry. “But wear jeans and boots or something you don’t mind getting crap on.” She waggled her fingers at me, and I got off the bus.

The very next day she got on the bus wearing skinny jeans and these black boots, like motorcycle boots. She did a little pose like a fashion model and said, “Are these good enough pig clothes?”

“Sure,” I said, “I guess. You want to see him today?”

“Yeah, can we?”

I didn’t really think she’d follow through, let alone right that day. But, okay, she must really want to. So in the afternoon, we got off the bus at my house. My dad was on the phone in his office, and he just waved to us. He farms, mostly, but sells insurance and deals in seed too. My mom is a nurse and works funny shifts sometimes, so she wasn’t home. I put on my barn boots.

When I shoved open the barn door, the sparrows all burst up from the floor to the roof. Brii jumped. She looked up into the dusty rafters and said, “Wow. It’s like a cathedral in here.” She’d never been in a real barn before.

“Hey, pig!” I called. There was a shuffling and stirring and some grumbly little grunts. The pig stood his front feet up on the boards of his pen and looked over the top at us. He was looking pretty good. Brii stared at him, with this look of amazement.

“You can pet him,” I told her, “he’s friendly.” She patted the top of his head, like someone who never even had a dog.

“So where’s your little guy?” she asked.

“That’s him.”

“But he’s so BIG! I thought he’d be like a little pink piglet, like a puppy.”

“He was like that when I got him, but they grow really fast. He needs to be about 250 pounds by the fair to qualify.”

“How much does he weigh now?”

“Around a hundred? I need to measure him. You want to help?”

She nodded. “He’s so clean. It doesn’t even smell or anything,” she said.

“He better be! I clean his pen every day. They like to be clean.”

“I thought they liked to wallow in mud and stuff.”

“He does that too. He can go outside when he wants to.” I pointed to the door leading out of his pen, into his outdoor paddock. “We can run the hose out there and make him a mudhole, and he can get in there to cool off when it gets hot. He needs sunscreen too, so he doesn’t get burned.”

She was scratching under the pig’s ears now, and he leaned into her fingers with a happy little groaning noise. “He feels all bristly. What does he eat?”

“Purina pig chow,” I said.

“No, really, does he eat garbage?”

“He would if we let him. He gets special growing pig chow and I put vitamins and stuff in. I’ll tell you what he really likes though,” I said. I had the tape measure out. “He LOVES vanilla wafers.” I handed her some. “Come on.”

We climbed into the pen, and the pig scurried around all sideways and silly. I wrangled him into a corner and told Brii to distract him with the cookies while I wrapped the tape around his chest. Then I measured from the back of his head to the root of his wringing tail. Brii fed him vanilla wafers like mad. She laughed and squealed louder than him.

“OK, now we multiply out these numbers…” I said. I got the notebook off the shelf by the vitamins. “He’s thirty-seven inches around, and twenty-seven and a half long. I can never remember how to do this… OK, here, I wrote it down. Square the thirty-seven…”

“Thirteen sixty-nine,” said Brii. “Then what?”

I multiplied it out on paper, and she was right. “Then the thirteen sixty-nine times twenty-seven and a half.”

Brii squished up her mouth for a second and frowned at the pig. “Three seven six four seven point five,” she said.

“And divide by four hundred.”

“Ninety four point one something,” she said.

“How do you DO that?” I cried.

She shrugged. “I can just see the numbers,” she said. “It’s just something I can do. So he weighs ninety four pounds?”

I nodded. “He needs to start gaining more,” I said. “The fair starts August 23rd.”

Brii squished up her mouth again and said, “He needs to gain like a pound and a half at least a day to make 250 by then. More vanilla wafers for you, buddy! Can he have more?” And she dumped another handful out of the box and dropped them in his trough. He purred and snarfed, then I gave him his chow and added another scoopful. Brii brought over the wheelbarrow, and I forked manure into it. She examined the poop.

“It’s like little marbles,” she said. “Huh. It’s hardly like poop at all.”

She dragged the hose over and filled up his water buckets. She patted his head again.

“You are a very fine pig,” she announced. “Janey, he really needs a name. We can’t keep just calling him Pig.”

We? “As long as it’s not Wilbur,” I said. She looked puzzled. “You know, Charlotte’s Web?”

“Is that a movie or something?” she asked.

“It was a book,” I said, “and a movie.” Then I said, “But it has a sad ending and you probably wouldn’t like it.” She didn’t need to read it now if she hadn’t already. And besides, whose pig was he?

“I’ll think of something!” she said.

Her mother picked her up on her way home from work. Her mom was an attorney. She pulled into our driveway in an SUV the color of a pearl. Brii grabbed up her backpack and loped out the barn door, calling, “Bye!” over her shoulder. I couldn’t see her mom through the glare on the windshield. Brii got in the car, then suddenly tromped back out around to the rear. The back hatch slammed, and she came hobbling around over the gravel in pink and gray striped socks. I guess the pig boots weren’t allowed in the front of the pearl-colored SUV.

What Brii really liked was when we walked him. We took him out into his outdoor pen and opened the gate into a bigger part. I had a long thin light whip like the horse people use, and I showed her how you just tapped him a little bit on his shoulder or cheek to steer him. I’d pretend to be the judge and tell her where she should walk him, and he’d buck and get goofy and she’d chase him.

Sometimes, he’d get wedged in the corner and she couldn’t get him out. Then I’d work him a little bit, and he’d be better because I was more used to doing it. But he was nuts for her. When she came over, she’d call out “Hey, Cochino!” and he’d squeal, scramble up, and peer over the pen waiting for her. Of course, she brought him apples and carrots and bananas and oatmeal cookies, but we agreed I had to approve whatever she brought. He loved it. She’d decided to call him Cochino—it means pig in Spanish—or just Chino for short.

Once school was out, she’d ride her bike up to my house to see him and play with him. One day she brought a bottle of skin cream with sunscreen in it, and we painted it all over him. He smelled fabulous, and his skin got all silky. My mom saw the bottle in the barn and nearly died.

“Do you have any idea how much that stuff costs?” she cried.

I shrugged. “Brii said her mom didn’t like it.”

The pig got bigger. With us walking him and working with him, he muscled up really nice and learned his manners. Brii taught him tricks, even: when she said “watch me!” and pointed at her face, he’d stand there and gaze at her with this shiny, longing look in his eyes till she gave him the vanilla wafer she had hidden in her hand.

“You can pose him in front of the judge,” she said. “Look how handsome he’ll look!”

“You can’t bring cookies in the ring with you,” I said. “The other pigs would go nuts.”

“We’ll give him a whole bunch when he comes out, then,” she said. “I always heard pigs were smart, but he’s a genius.”

The day he measured out to 249 pounds, we screamed and high-fived. It was a week out from the fair, and he was ready. I’d sent out my market letters to our friends and neighbors and some of my dad’s customers and business partners, telling them what a fine pig I had. I told them how I hoped they would like to bid on him at the fair. I didn’t show the letters to Brii. I figured she’d want to fancy them all up on her computer with pictures or write them like the pig had written them. She knew I was raising this pig to sell, but we didn’t talk about it. It was just something that was going to happen at some point.

The day my dad loaded him up into the truck, Brii arrived with a nameplate for him. A wooden pig silhouette, with “El Cochino Magnifico!” laminated on it in fancy script.  While I was spreading straw in his pen at the fairgrounds, she hung it up on the gate.

“We need to wash him again!” she said. “He got poop on him on the way over.” We trundled him over to the washrack, then hosed him and scrubbed him up.

“No, he can’t have the conditioners or anything this time,” I said. She stuffed the bottle back in the duffle bag.

“Why not?”

“Show rules. Only plain old soap and water—no oils or anything else on his skin.”

“But those kids are!” The boys down the aisle from us were powdering the white parts of their hogs, and rubbing conditioner into the black parts. Shit.

“Different class,” I said. “For showmanship, you can. They’re judging how you make your pig look and how you handle him. We’re in the class where they just look at the pig and his conformation. They have different rules.” She wouldn’t know the difference. Those guys had sows—they would be taking them home to breed.

“That’s okay,” she crooned to the pig. She brushed his damp bristly hairs down smooth along his spine. “You’re still the best-looking pig here. Don’t need all that fancy-schmancy stuff, do you?” He burbled, sighed, and went to sleep.

“Hey,” she said to me. “What if next spring I got a pig? Could he live at your barn, and I could raise one too? He and Chino could play together, and if you got another one too we could each have our own to show. I could use my Christmas money to buy him, and the feed and everything.”

“I don’t know… I don’t know if I’ll do another pig next year or not,” I said.

“What are you going to wear in the ring tomorrow?” she asked, jumping up.

“Just a shirt and jeans, whatever,” I said. It hadn’t occurred to me.

“No, come on, let’s fix you up! You have to match up with this hunk of pig you’ll walk in with! You have this great thick hair, let’s pile it up with a clip…” She gave me a lacy trimmed camisole and let me wear my chambray shirt over it, but unbuttoned it then knotted it around my waist. “Oooh, great belt. That buckle shows off your belly. Now let’s tuck the jeans into the boots.” She walked around me critically and pronounced me fit to show my pig.

He was a 252-pound star. Trotted jauntily around the ring, ignored the other pigs, swung left and right with just taps of the whip. I had dared to sneak one vanilla wafer into my shirt pocket, just in case. When the judge called me over, I went for it. I stopped in front of the judge, stepped around in front of the pig, and said, “Watch me!” Bless his heart, that pig stood and stared into my face, waiting, waiting. The judge laughed out loud as he strolled around, sizing up that pig. Then he shook my hand and said, “Congratulations, young lady. That is one heck of a pig. Nice job.” I stuffed the cookie into the pig’s mouth before I even said “Thank you.”

Brii was jumping up and down, screaming and clapping. She hugged my mom and dad, who were grinning and clapping too. She hugged the pig and shoveled vanilla wafers into his mouth, then hung the ribbon on his pen.

“We’re going to make you a huge special dinner when you get home!” she told him. “All your favorites!” My mom and dad looked at me, and at her.

“Janey,” my mom said. “We’re supposed to meet one of your dad’s customers over in another barn. We’ll be back in a while.” They left.

“So tomorrow is the last day,” Brii said. “This has been great. And he won! He’ll be glad to be back in his own cozy pen, though, I bet.”

“Brii, tomorrow is the auction.”

She went still.          

“Tomorrow?” she said. “You mean… you have to sell him tomorrow?” I nodded.

“But you mean they bid on him, and then you take him home to get bigger, to get… finished, isn’t that what you called it? And then they come get him. And that’ll be, what, a long time, right?” I shook my head.

“No. They bid on him tomorrow and buy him tomorrow. The packers bring a truck and they load them up here.”

“Packers.” She stood facing me, her face washed out and eyes huge. I didn’t know where to look—anywhere but at her, or at the pig. “Are you saying, are you saying that tomorrow they will put Chino on a truck and take him away to kill him? Tomorrow?” Her voice rose and people were looking at us. I walked away from her, out of the barn. She came after me.

“You didn’t tell me!” she howled. “How could you not tell me?”

“What do you think pigs are for?” I hollered back. “Where do you think your ham and bacon and pork chops come from?”

She was crying—hard. “From pigs,” she choked, “I know from pigs! But this… this is Chino!”

“Chino’s a pig! Out of millions and thousands, he’s a pig!” I hated her, hated her ignorance, hated her stupidity, hated hated hated her. I screamed at her.

“But, but, he’s Chino! He’s himself! We trained him! He… he looked at us!” she sobbed.

I know that. My god, I know.

She turned and ran, hitting herself in the face with her sleeve against the tears. I told my parents she didn’t feel good and had called her mom to come get her. I fed the pig, filled up his water buckets, and we went home.

When school started a couple weeks later, she sat in the very back row of the bus. Mrs. Johnson looked back and forth between her and me in the mirror. One day when Brii didn’t take the bus home, she asked me if we weren’t friends anymore.

“No,” I said. “I guess not. We kind of had a fight. She just didn’t understand.” Mrs. Johnson shook her head and said it was too bad.

“How’d your pig do at the fair?” she asked.

“He was champion market barrow,” I said.

“Did he sell well?”

“My dad’s boss at the insurance agency bought him for $2.45 a pound.”

“Not bad,” she said.

“Six hundred seventeen dollars and forty cents,” I said.

“You going to get another one in the spring? Maybe you should get two.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I said. “My mom and I were thinking maybe we’d get some beehives and try that instead.”

I did see Brii the other day. She was sitting at one of the outside tables at McDonald’s with Steve Solowski. He’s really cute and very smart—president of the math club, I think. They were having hamburgers.

Sometimes I think about watching Chino jostling up the ramp onto that truck with all those other pigs. And him looking around in the truck and wondering what was going on, and running out of the chute into a room where someone runs an electrical jolt through his brain and hooks a big hook through his back legs and him hanging there bleeding and being carried off and scalded and scraped and hacked into pieces. I try not to think about it.

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