By Robbie Imes
When I was little my dad kidnapped me all the time. It was criminal in my mind. The work of a real sadist. All he had to do was lure me with the promise of a toy and I’d fall for it. Candy from a stranger. Except he wasn’t really a stranger, he was my dad. I got into his work van, it smelled of oil and cigarettes, and before I knew it we were halfway across town on some country road, the tools in the back rattling like an ominous soundtrack.
“I just need to make a quick stop,” he said.
“What? I want to go to the toy store!” I shouted, the grim reality all too real.
We pulled up to a pristine house where one of his old lodge buddies waited outside, suspenders, white shirt. It was the same routine every time, always some old geezer’s place in the middle of nowhere, woods, cicadas, and heat.
I let out a groan and begged for him to take me back home, drop me off on the side of the road, kill me. Anything but this.
“Oh, cut it out. I’ll just be a minute.”
He was never just a minute. A ‘quick stop’ always turned into an hour or more.
If I went inside I’d have to hang out with his friend’s wife, an old Southern lady who wanted to play Gin Rummy.
He disappeared into the house. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons played on the oldies radio station and though I didn’t like their music I didn’t care enough to change it. I settled in for what I was expecting to be a long wait. But before Walk Like a Man had ended, something miraculous happened; my dad reappeared from the peach-colored house.
“See? I was only gone a minute,” he said lifting himself into the van. He was proud that he’d told me the truth this time.
I shrugged. He smelled like grease, likely from the air conditioning unit he had just fixed.
“It’s Saturday,” he said. “We can go anywhere you want now.”
“Come on. We’ll go wherever you want. It’s your day.”
I gave it another moment. I wanted him to sweat out my answer.
“I want to go to a fair.”
His face lit up in that goony, childish way it always did when he got what he wanted.
“You got it!”
Little fairs popped up all over the place that time of year. You couldn’t drive for more than a couple of miles without passing one. Parking lots, roadsides, any place they could erect. A sea of balloons, BBQ pits and loud country music. Something beautiful lived in the chaos of it all, the cotton candy, the rickety Ferris Wheels, bumper cars, and clowns. My favorite was the petting zoos.
I didn’t like farms, but I loved the animals. The cows, chickens, and ducks were so much more exotic than my mom’s little poodles. Farm animals wore glasses in storybooks and seemed wise. The matter-of-fact old goats that got the kittens safely to their destinations, the donkeys in a tulip hat with more gumption than the mare. I wanted to see them all.
It didn’t take us long to find a fair in a grocery store parking lot, far from the cool interiors and automatic doors. The heat kept most people home that time of year and the place was practically abandoned.
I squeezed my dad’s hand as we approached. The smell of horse crap and duck feathers, goats, and crunchy hay beneath our feet, was a thrill. I’d forgotten all about the toy store.
“Look!” I shouted.
The magical farm animal for me was always a pig, and a little pink snout painted on the entryway sign told me that I’d find them here. Their oinks made me laugh, their funny noses, strange skin, and odd curly tails. There was something sad and pensive about them, maybe in the fact that they always had their faces to the ground.
The animals plodded about in the humid afternoon, slow, pudding from a spoon. I fed the horses and the ancient horned goats, all stinking in the heat. Their wild tongues on my hand made me giggle, but there were no pigs in sight. No snouts, no Q tails. I needed to see them, and patience wasn’t something I was afforded in this life.
“Are they coming out soon?” I asked, brushing sweat from forehead.
My dad knew my love for these animals was bigger than I could handle. If they came on TV, when we saw anything with pigs on it, say a dish towel, I made sure my parents knew how happy that made me.
“Funny you ask,” he said, and turned me around to the opening pigpen doors.
“Daddy!” I shouted as the little babies wiggled out in a pink fan formation from the gate, all going their separate ways. The piglets scuttled by our feet, grunting and blowing up dirt. There must have been a dozen of them.
Two, three of them whizzed passed me and my outstretched fingers connected with their weird flesh. They were on a mission for food and probably escape, and I was no match for their speed.
“You want to pet one?” my dad asked.
I shook my head yes. Petting them had become the single most coveted thing on earth. While I had seen many real pigs in my life, I hadn’t recalled ever petting one. They were always behind fences, too big to consider. These little babies, however, were perfect sized just for me.
Another one scampered by us and my dad reached down, narrowly missing it by an inch.
The ticket taker laughed, air rasping from his smoker’s lungs.
“They’re faster’n shit, ain’t they?” he called out, toothless.
I laughed because yeah, they were faster than shit.
Another came my way. This time I was ready. I kneeled down slowly, so as not to spook it, and just as it came toward me, just as my hands clasped to capture it, it veered to the left and out of reach. Another little girl in the pen tried the same move with the same results. The zoo keeper laughed harder.
The little girl’s face fell and I thought she was going to cry. I moved toward her, not really knowing what I was going to do, but she looked sad and I wanted to comfort her. I wanted to assure her that before we left we’d get to pet them, no doubt. And that’s when I heard the sound.
It rose out of nowhere, reaching into the pit of my stomach. It was the sound of something being cooked alive.
“Here you go!” my dad yelled.
In his hands was one of the little pigs.
I didn’t know what to do. The pink blob writhed, squealing. I was frozen.
“Pet the damn thing!”
I wanted to appease him, to appease myself, complete the mission, pet the pig, but as my hand made contact with its wiry-haired skin it thrashed against my palm, letting out another scream.
I jerked back in horror, hot tears filling my eyes.
“Put it down!” I yelled. “Put it down, you’re hurting it! Put it down!”
“I’m not hurting it! It’s just mad. Pet it!”
“No! Put it down! Put it down!” I begged.
I no longer wanted to pet the pig.
When he let it go it hit the ground with a thud. For a moment it wiggled on the hay, twisting to get back on its feet, then ran far from us.
“It’s ok, son. I wasn’t hurting it. He just wanted to get away, that’s all.”
“I don’t like it!” I said between sobs.
He laughed a little, and reassured me again that the pig was ok.
“See, it’s fine,” he said, pointing toward the gate. I didn’t see the pig, but for some reason I didn’t believe him. That pig wasn’t ok. It didn’t want to be touched, and we touched it, and I hated that.
As we left the fair I saw the little girl I meant to comfort. She sat on a bench and her mom held a pig in her lap. The pig was calm, though not still, as the little girl pet it gingerly and with caution. A pang of jealousy poked at my gut and I turned away, eager to forget the pigs.
By the time we reached the van I’d calmed down. I didn’t want to think about the petting zoo anymore, nor the little girl, and especially not the pigs. It was hot. I wanted to go home and watch TV.
“I just have another quick stop to make,” my dad said to me as he started the van. “I won’t be long.”
Copyright 2019 Imes