Taming of the Sow: A Story About a Father and Son
When I was eleven-years-old, my next-door neighbor Juan—a Cuban immigrant who had fled Castro in 1961—invited me to a pig roast for his oldest boy’s thirteenth birthday. Prior to that, pizza was about the most ethnic meal I had ever tasted, but that day I fell in love not only with that sweet, crispy pork, but also with the entire ritual—at least the part that I had seen in my neighbor’s back yard, which was basically spitting the pig and roasting it over a fire.
My twelfth birthday was only a few months away, so I asked my dad if we could have a pig roast for my birthday. I believe he responded with a “we’ll see,” which I now recognize as a tactic that parents use to avoid a commitment when their child’s request seems reasonable but they still hope that they don’t have to fulfill it. It might even have worked with the pig roast but for the fact that Juan had yet another pig roast on New Years Eve—just two weeks before my birthday. I think that both my parents were hoping that this second round of pork would sate my appetite for swine flesh long enough to take us all past my birthday, but instead it just reminded me of my earlier request. Now that my birthday was imminent, my parents were coming dangerously close to having to throw me that pig roast.
“You know what we can do? We can just go for a real nice barbeque dinner with some of your friends at a restaurant. Lot’s of pig there,” Dad offered.
“No,” I rejected, “It’s not the same. I want a fire and everything. We can’t hang out and throw a football at a restaurant.”
“Fine, but you know they’re going to kill a pig just for your roast, right?”
In fact, I did know this. I had heard the entire scoop from the neighborhood kids. The pig would be alive just hours before my feast.
“Yeah, I know. You go down to a place in Hialeah and pick a pig. Then they kill it for you so you can eat it. No big deal. Have Mom do it,” I suggested.
“You’re joking, right? Your mother is not going to do that. If you want a pig roast, you and I are going down to that place and you’re going to pick out the pig for your dinner yourself, tough guy.”
That last part got a laugh from me. I knew I was tough; the world just hadn’t caught up with that fact yet.
On the morning of my birthday, after eating a pile of blueberry muffins that my mom had baked for me, Dad and I set out in his red 1967 Plymouth Valiant towards Dade County. He had gotten the name of the place and directions from Juan, who was going to go, but had to work a double shift the night before. Dad drove us down to the general area easily enough, but as we got close to our destination, he kept pulling over trying to read the directions from the crumpled butcher’s paper that Juan had given him.
“I have no fucking idea what this says. I think we’re in Medley.”
I could see that he was losing his patience, and normally I might have said to forget it to avoid the blowup, but I had already told all of my friends to come over and get some roasted pork and hang around a cool fire. A change of plans now would cause me to lose face. I wasn’t going to be deterred.
After another few minutes of driving, we came across a hand-painted sign on the road declaring “pigs.” The only punctuation was an arrow pointing down a dirt road with an open rusty gate. By this point my father was mumbling something about how this wasn’t Juan’s guy, but as long as they had pigs it was fine. I said, “Yay, pigs,” and we drove in.
Nothing was like I had imagined it. The building was small, but it was much sturdier and cleaner than I had pictured it. There were no small pens, but instead there was an enormous fenced area that measured about 30×50 yards. Within this enclosure were a small pond, a mud hole and a feeding trough. About twenty pigs of various colors and sizes occupied the yard. The large marquee above the building announced that we were pulling into “Señor Lopez’s Human Pig Farm.” My father explained to me that it was probably meant to read “humane.”
Facing the parking area in front of the building was a rough, wooden counter that seemed like the place where business was normally conducted. On either side of the counter were two identical signs that read:
“A pig is the most loving, intelligent and loyal friend you can have. Try to remember that. This is a free-range, no cage, merciful kill facility. Please respect our four-legged friends.”
Dad called out a few times before I located a cowbell hanging from a nail just below the makeshift desk. I picked it up and rang it incessantly until my father removed it from my hand. Just as he was about to chastise me, a swarthy, mustached man in dungarees, a T-shirt and dirty cowboy boots walked out. He was smoking a cigar and squinted against the sunlight.
“Welcome to Señor Lopez’s,” he started with accented, but clear English, “I’m Lopez. May I interest you in taking home a pig?”
“Well, you see it’s my son’s birthday. He’s twelve today, and he told me, ‘Dad, I want to roast a pig.’ So, I tell him ‘fine, but you’re coming with me to pick it out.’” My father said all of this with a twinge of pride. I think he was pleased that I hadn’t backed down.
“Well, amigo, actually I won’t sell a pig unless the customer selects it and watches the quietus. I feel it’s important.” Señor Lopez glanced down at me as he said it.
I had no idea what “quietus” meant, but from his expression, I could tell that my father did and that he wasn’t sure what to do.
“What’s that?” I asked, “I’ll do it.” Eye on the prize.
“It means that you have to watch the slaughter, son,” Dad replied hesitantly. I wondered if he wasn’t getting a little squeamish about the whole thing.
“Dad, we have to have a party; I already told people we were having one. I don’t care. It will be good for me,” I argued.
“Eh yeah, okey. Grandpa grew up on a farm. Just don’t tell your mom. Next year we’re just getting Kentucky Fried Chicken or something.”
Now, came the tough part. I had to go over to the yard and figure out which pig I was going to bring home for my birthday feast. I had no idea what I was doing. Some of these pigs were really cute, but some were revolting. I almost made my decision a half-dozen times before I chose. I would select an ugly one because I didn’t want to take one of the more appealing ones, but then would start thinking that the ugly pig had probably never caught a break before, so I would change my mind. Then I would choose an adorable pic, but remembered that I wasn’t bringing it home as a pet, and I would back off. Eventually, I noticed a medium-sized pink pig with a black spot on its right ear hanging by itself all the way in the opposite corner of the yard. It was standing, but not moving, and I got the distinct impression that it was holding perfectly still to avoid detection.
“That one,” I said pointing over the herd of swine. In the end, I had made my decision based on its lack of courage. If I had to be brave enough to pick one of these things, then these pigs had damn well better be fearless enough to stand and be counted.
“Your son has a good eye for pork, señor. Daisy, she’s a fine sow. Would you like to know a little more about her?” Señor Lopez asked both of us.
“No, I think we’d better get on with this,” my dad said.
“Of course. I can give you a price of fifty dollars an ear. That is a hundred total. If that is acceptable, our butchering facility is through here. Come on, Daisy. Soo-ee!” With that, Daisy ran into a four-foot high door in the side of the building. I wasn’t sure, but the other pigs looked mildly disappointed. I felt bad for Daisy, but also for the others for not being cognizant enough to realize that she was on her way to her final demise.
Señor Lopez led us into a dark room, but rather than switching on a light, he pulled out a Zippo and began lighting candles that were scattered about on various shelves. As the details of the room emerged from the darkness, I could see that everything was made from wood except for a large round bed in the center. The mattress was low to the ground; I wasn’t sure if there was a base or box spring at all. Daisy was standing near an aperture on the opposite wall. Señor Lopez walked over to her and quietly closed a curtain in front of the opening. He then went over to a portable Panasonic 8-track player and twisted the knobs. An unfamiliar, soft Latin song filled the room.
Señor Lopez then turned to my father and I and said, “Excuse me, but I have to remove most of my clothing. You may both remain dressed.”
“Is there going to be a lot of blood?” Dad asked.
“Oh no, señor, none at all. I just find that the pigs prefer it this way.”
When Señor Lopez stripped down to a pair of blue and black animal striped bikini briefs, he hung his clothes on a hook near the door where we had walked in. I was actually too worried about what I was going to see happen to the pig to talk. Dad must have been feeling the same way, as he was unusually quiet.
Señor Lopez then walked over to the bed, pulled the silk sheets down and laid on it. He propped himself up on one elbow and waved Daisy over. It wasn’t until the sow’s weight was on the mattress that I realized that it was a waterbed. Waterbeds were de rigueur in the 70′s; this was a very stylish pig farm.
When Señor Lopez got Daisy to lie on the bed next to him, he curled himself up next to her body, spooning her from behind. As he was doing this, he said quiet things to her in Spanish. Occasionally he would rub one of the sow’s ears or pet her shoulder. I couldn’t really be sure, but Daisy seemed very relaxed. When her breathing became deep and heavy, I noticed Señor Lopez casually drape one of his arms over her neck—she had been resting her head on the other. One of his legs then came around her body, so that he could wrap her into him. Daisy sighed contentedly, but then squealed loudly. Something was changing. I could see Señor Lopez’s dark-skinned muscles straining against Daisy’s pink hide. One of his hands now clasped the bicep of his other arm. His expression was now intense, where it had been serene only moments before. The farmer made a guttural noise as he called on his reserves of strength to squeeze tighter. Daisy’s hooves were flailing wildly. Finally, they stopped and her wiggly tail straightened and then went limp. Señor Lopez didn’t immediately release the sow from his death grip. He squeezed one more time for good measure and then released. For a few minutes, they just laid there as he gently sobbed into the back of her neck.
Neither my father nor I said a word. Señor Lopez finally rolled off of Daisy’s corpse and said, “It is done. She will be dressed and ready to go with you in thirty minutes.”
“When you say dressed, you mean—” Dad started.
“Cleaned,” replied Señor Lopez.
Señor Lopez went over to the hook to gather his clothing.
“Umm, that was quite unusual. I don’t know if I’d have wanted my boy to see that had I known in advance,” Dad said.
A look of anger swept over Señor Lopez’s face as he let his pants drop back to the floor.
“Let me explain something to you. I loved that sow. I love all of my pigs. The fact that she has to die for your bastard child’s birthday party causes me great pain. You come here in your fancy car and fine clothes wanting to buy a pig to eat, but not wanting to take part in the slaughter. ‘Let the stupid spick go kill the pig. I don’t care how.’ If I had my way, it would be the two of you and not her,” then turning his back to us he said, “But then why do you do it, Señor Lopez, why? Because you too have a family to provide for. So you sacrifice your lesser children to feed your greater ones. Take Daisy. Take her to your home and feed her to the friends of you nerdy son, but make sure you use all of her. Let nothing go to waste.”
As it turns out, Señor Lopez didn’t take the American Express card, so we just had to leave Daisy there. My dad bought my friends and I pizza and said that I could have something extra special for my birthday since pizza was cheaper than a pig. We had a fire anyway and made s’mores. Even though it didn’t go exactly as planned, it turned out to be a pretty great birthday.