ARNIE, SVEZ AND LIZ
Arnie stood outside the pigpen, arms crossed and rested on the top rail of the fence, and studied a dozen shoats as they grunted and shoved up to the feeding trough. One aggressive young boar alternately ate and snapped at the others, and they gave him the space he demanded. Arnie hit him on the head with the pail and watched his reaction. Selecting a few more at random, he repeated the process until he felt satisfied.
“Which one do you think?” Svez approached and being taller stooped to settle alongside Arnie.
Arnie paused. A direct answer might damage his imagined thread of authority over his younger brother on whom Arnie depended for his existence. He nodded toward the boar he had chosen. Svez would approve because selecting animals for breeding was Arnie’s specialty.
The years eroded each of their unique physical differences. Aging slightly loosened the skin on Arnie’s more rotund face, while excess flesh sagged around Svez’s once taut cheeks and neck. Arnie usually shaved near the end of the week, even though he stayed home Saturday nights and seldom went to church on Sundays. Svez shaved often and kept his small mustache well trimmed. Arnie’s hair changed from auburn to snow-white while Svez’s turned medium gray. Both men wore Oshkosh overalls, Arnie’s jacket was buckskin and Svez’s denim.
Arnie rolled his tongue over his upper gums and dislodged a flake of tobacco from the space between his two front teeth. “Him.” The end of his finger extended from a gnarly knuckle and pointed at an angle missing its intended target. “The one with the spot over the side of his face.” The eye in the center of the spot briefly met Arnie’s, and then the pig continued to chomp into a mixture of ground oats and kitchen scraps. “He’s too busy eatin’ to care when I hit him. I think he’s the one who chewed the ear off the solid one.” An all-pink pig, smaller and missing half an ear, had been squeezed out by two larger boars as they stuck their front feet into the trough. Failing to nose his way back, he wandered to the end of the line. With his good ear erect, he entered the trough with all four feet and ate his way forward and backward, his snout reaching the corners neglected by the larger animals.
“He’s too smart.” Arnie frowned, and slanted lines etched toward his drooping eyelid. “Hard to keep a boar like him penned up.” The skin across his forehead tight and shiny as the jacket he had rubbed smooth with the palms of his hands. “Gotta keep one what just eats and fucks.”
“Remember to separate him from the rest after he’s castrated.” Svez pushed himself from the rail but continued to lean slightly forward as if denying his full height. “Gotta get some weight on ’fore we butcher him.” He put his hands on his hips, momentarily stretched and then resumed his normal posture. “I’ll get the boys to move the one with the spotted eye to the barn so they don’t castrate him by mistake. Jake’ll be good for one more season, and then this one can take over.”
Since childhood, Arnie named many of the animals, especially those kept for breeding. He felt sad for the old boar he called Jake in honor of the hog buyer from Iowa who tried to cheat Svez.
“You got a name for this one?” Svez asked.
Arnie produced a tight half-smile, turned his head and looked up from the rail. “How ’bout Reinhardt?”
“The priest? Liz would kill both of us. You don’t gotta go to church with her like me and the boys. I’ll bust out laughing every time he climbs into his pulpit.” Svez paused and faced the house. “Every Sunday lately.” He shook his head. “She wants me and the boys to go to church every Sunday.” He shrugged. “You gotta think up a different name.”
Arnie considered Svez’s oldest son, George, who bragged about getting served moonshine in the back room at Bud and Emma’s Café but changed his mind. “How ’bout Buddy?”
“Good idea. It’ll get a laugh whenever George says he’s going to have a few drinks with Buddy.” Svez glanced down. “And when Herman and Ralph get the notion, they’ll be nosing up to Buddy’s pig sty like boars at a trough.”
Arnie reflected on the pig with the missing ear and thought about Svez’s youngest son, Iggy, trying to squeeze between his brothers. Would Iggy figure out a way to fit?
“The baby?” Arnie didn’t finish his question but waited for the furrows to deepen across his brother’s forehead.
Svez continued to stare into the hog trough. “Liz’s sister’s baby. Freddie.”
Arnie remained quiet.
“He’s here to stay.”
Arnie grimaced. He already assumed Freddie moved in, but wanted to hear his brother admit it. His hernia, not the new baby, bothered him, and he needed to get his truss tightened. He left Svez standing at the hog pen and walked to the house.
Although separated by a span of ten years, the two brothers had been close since childhood. They worked on their father’s farm until he died, and their oldest brother took over the family homestead. Svez and Liz became free to marry and move to their own farm.
Arnie, then a forty-year-old bachelor asked, “What about me?”
Liz said to her husband, “Let’s take Arnie with us to our new home.”
He’d been part of the family nearly a quarter century.
Liz had been darning socks in the front room when Thelma stopped snapping beans and yelled from the kitchen, “Ma, Arnie’s standing in the porch in his underwear.”
“He probably needs help with his truss.” Liz wanted him to have an operation to repair his hernia, but he found an ad in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, his source for all items not available at Cunningham’s Implement or York’s Mercantile in Bovine. Arnie, who seldom bought anything in town and never went to a doctor, asked Liz to order it for him. She joked about the cute nurse shown in the ad not part of the order. She teased that it belonged in the women’s clothing section. She reminded him that his rheumatism and arthritis would make it difficult for him to reach the straps in back. But, he remained determined.
When the truss arrived, Arnie managed to get it on but couldn’t apply the necessary pressure to hold his hernia in place. Liz realized it embarrassed him to ask for help, so she offered to take the place of the nurse in the ad. From then on, Arnie came to the house, waited for Liz to help him, grunted approval and headed back to the barn. At night and in the morning, he managed to remove and replace the unit or, as Liz suspected, slept with it on.
Liz faced Thelma through the archway to the kitchen and said. “Help him.”
Thelma glanced out to the porch and grimaced.
Liz decided to spare her daughter this embarrassing task. She scooped up Freddie from his crib near the kitchen stove and yelled to Iggy who had sneaked into his parents’ bedroom searching for Christmas gifts. Liz started buying and wrapping presents early, right after Thanksgiving, and Iggy couldn’t keep away from them.
“Arnie needs help. See what you can do for him.”
Iggy stepped out of the bedroom clutching a long slender package. “Ma, you gotta do it.”
“I’m holding the baby. Besides, this is a man’s thing. It’ll be your chore from now on.” Since talking to Martha’s doctor, Liz had been slowly delegating more and more tasks to other family members, mostly to Thelma. Iggy set the present on the couch and groaned all the way through the kitchen and out into the porch.
Arnie muttered, “Yank on the strap,” unconcerned about who did it.
From the kitchen, she watched Iggy tug and run outside, apparently forgetting about the Christmas gifts.
Still holding Freddie, Liz waited until Arnie hooked the straps on his Oshkosh overalls and then went to him. “I hope Iggy did okay with the strap. I’m sorry my hands were full, and,” she lied, “Iggy wants to be more useful around here.”
Arnie gazed at the child.
“My sister’s baby.” Liz waited for his reaction and it surprised her.
“When Svez was a baby he had dark hair. Ma said I had yellow hair like Martha’s baby. But now it’s white.”
Liz considered the differences between Freddie and her children. All four boys had dark hair, narrow faces with thin lips and small pointed noses. Freddie’s face was round with a small flat nose, similar to Thelma as a baby.
“I guess all children are different, Arnie, but this one’s special.” Liz wanted to continue their conversation, hoping it would encourage him to accept the new member of their family.
“Ma called me her special child.” He reached and pulled back the blanket half-covering Freddie’s face. “Not special no more.” As he walked away, he mumbled, “Not special, just different.”
Liz followed him with her eyes all the way to the barn. “I bet you were her special child.” She reflected on Iggy and said under her breath, “All my children are special.”
Iggy appeared from behind the large oak tree in their front yard and wandered back into the house. “Ma, I don’t wanna help Arnie no more. Let Thelma do it.” He returned to the front room and picked up the curiously shaped Christmas present. His eyes bright with anticipation and his breathing accented with a guttural sound, he shook it and pointed it toward the ceiling.
Liz decided he was a little more special than the others. Same as Arnie? What did Arnie mean, not special, just different? Had he used those differences to survive? She remembered her mother-to-son talk after Svez caught him masturbating. Would Iggy turn to Ida? Her older boys went there and gave a ridiculous excuse about her chores. Could Father Reinhardt save him from Ida? From abusing himself?
“Please don’t make those noises. They make you sound like Podue.”
“Pa says George, Herman and Ralph are tomcats. I don’t wanna be one of them.”
“I’m sorry I compared you to a puppy. Your brothers aren’t tomcats either.”
Iggy clutched the package under his arm. “Is this one for me? I think I know what’s inside. Is it mine?”
“We’ll see.” Liz pointed toward her bedroom door. “Now, put it back where you found it.” She placed Freddie in his crib and returned to her darning. Could her son learn something from Arnie? Could he gain strength from his differences, maybe even power? Or had he already figured that out?
She glanced up at Iggy still standing in the doorway to her bedroom. “Helping Arnie with his truss is your job from now on. You guys all have to pitch in and do more of the work around here.”
“It feels like a shotgun. Is it mine?”