A Culinary Visit to the Belly of the Country


King of All Hogs by J G Lynas

We’d been driving for two days, unsure where we were in this land of grass and hard dirt, the world made liminal by the blur of the road, by the pleasant haze of our cigarettes. Inside the car, with me and Mark and a dash full of snacks, all was fusty, dusty, happy, and warm. We slept by the roadside, pissed where we pleased, honked the horn into the moonless night. Mark had heard about Guthrie Farm from his forum friends, strangers with names like Doggerel and Scumboy and Less, who were big on enthusiasm but light on geography. We were in what could only be described as a county, somewhere north of where we’d previously been. When other cars passed us, they drew their windows up despite the heat.

It was getting on for evening when we found the place, and the whitewash farmhouse glowed like candlewax. The barn to its side was thin and unpleasant, hardly bigger than a school bus.

“How many hogs could you fit in there?” I said to Mark. He never said pig, talked only in hog, in swine, in cutter and pork. He looked pleased with me, handed me the tobacco pouch like it was a bag of jellybeans.

“Not too many. That’s what makes them so special.”

“Artisanal,” I said.

“Oh yeah.”

“Artisanal hogs.”

The Guthries didn’t have a car in their driveway, only the skeleton of a quadbike, a few cannibalized engine blocks, layers of tarp weighed down by stones. There wasn’t any wind this far north, or possibly west—nothing stirred. No lights on in the house either, but I wasn’t worried—things had a way of working out for Mark, and he and I were fast becoming one and the same. I had even started walking on my tippy toes like he did, prancing like a gazelle around the car when we needed to stretch our legs. It was his idea to come out here, and then it was our idea together, and then we didn’t care whose idea it was, were both just happy to be doing something cool together. We were on the road. We were free and happy. We ate burgers for breakfast and instant noodles for dinner. We had sex in a roadside bathroom and bruised ourselves on the cistern doing something funky with our legs. Outside, someone knocked, occasionally cleared their throat.

Mark honked the horn and flashed the beams.

“Emissaries at the gates!” he said out of the window. I leaned over him and turned the indicators on, then the hazards.

“Yeah!” I said.

“Yeah!” he said.

We got out of the car, leaving the engine running and the lights streaming in through the Guthries’ curtains. Mark knocked twice, perfunctorily, and we made out like teenagers while we waited.

“Do you think they’re home?”

“Oh, they’re home,” said Mark. “Where else could they be?”

A light came on in the hallway. We nudged each other, held our breath, waited for something else to happen.

“Oh, they’re home alright.”

After another five minutes, the door opened, and Tom Guthrie appeared before us, old and smelling of dish soap. The corner of his beard was stained yellow from some mean tobacco.

“A pleasure,” said Mark, doing a little bow.

“You’re with them,” said Tom, looking at his feet. “From those message boards?”

From what little we could see through the hallway, the house wore its age well, the wallpaper peeling in tasteful strips. A lamp to Tom’s left was dented and tarnished in a way that indie coffee chains would die for. Mark stepped forward and shook Tom’s hand, pulling it up from where it hung limply at his waist.

“You’re an absolute celebrity there,” said Mark. “This is wild! Like meeting Sting or Cash!”

“Like meeting Bowie,” I said.

“Yes! Exactly! The Bowie of Swine.”

“David Bowie’s dead,” said Tom Guthrie, as if he still wasn’t quite over it. “This isn’t a good time. We weren’t expecting visitors.”

“It’s a great time,” said Mark.

“It’s our birthday, you see,” said Tom.

“Happy birthday!”

“My wife and I, it’s our birthday. It’s our day, you see.”

“Then you’ll let us cook for you,” said Mark, who still hadn’t let go of Tom’s hand, its veins standing out in milky blues. “You’ll prepare us a range of cuts, and we’ll have a slap-up meal and celebrate together.”

He led Tom into his own home, an arm around his shoulder, pulling his shoes off and leaving them by the sill. I followed at a distance, shutting the door to the loamy dark outside, the tin-can clatter of insects. I placed my shoes next to Mark’s.

The house was one story, every room branching off from the central hallway with the kitchen at its terminus. The light was buttercup warm, the bulbs the kind they don’t let you buy anymore, running so hot they scorched the ceiling. Everything smelled like cooked dust, like a radiator turned on for the first time in years. Little side tables had pictures of a younger Tom and his wife—swimming by a creek, standing in front of the house, holding a freshly dressed deer by its antlers—always posed the same, their hands barely touching. A phone rang from the living room, but nobody went to answer it.

We seated ourselves around the breakfast table. Outside, a security light came on that hadn’t when we arrived.

“Are you going to keep your car running out there?” said Tom, but Mark just waved his hand in a way I knew well, which made me smile into my hands.

“How about a coffee? A cup of joe for the birthday boy! Will Mrs. Guthrie want one too?”

“She’s resting. She doesn’t drink coffee,” said Tom, looking at me for perhaps the first time. His eyes were remarkably clear, those of a man much younger and in control. “Who are you?”

“I’m Mark Swain. It’s such a pleasure.”

“Is that a joke? Like a play on words?”

“No,” said Mark, placing down three black coffees. Tom pushed his away a few inches, pinching his nose. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to meet you. The guys on the board just can’t stop talking about your meat.”

“How much did they tell you?”

“Not much. Just that you’re the man, you know? You’re the guy.”

“And who’s this? Mrs Swain?” said Tom, waving a hand not so much at me as at my aura, the general idea of me.

“I’m with Mark,” I said.

“She’s with me,” said Mark, planting a fat kiss on my forehead, his stubble like the stroke of a doormat. “So, how about some food? Anything in the fridge?”

He opened it up, but there was only a furry slab of butter, a receipt for an air fryer.

“We don’t keep much in,” said Tom. Mark and I looked at him for a long moment as he rapped his knuckles on the table.

“Hm,” said Mark.

“So,” I said.

‘I . . . can get some cuts from the barn?” said Tom.

“That would be best,” said Mark. “That would be just great, Mr. Guthrie.”

“It’s our birthday, is all. My wife and I.”

“And we’re just thrilled to be spending it with you. Babe, aren’t we just so psyched to be here for Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie’s birthday?”

“Thrilled!” I said.

Tom Guthrie closed his eyes, crossed himself, and made for the back door.

“Please don’t touch anything,” he said before leaving.

Mark settled into a chair with a worn pattern of butterflies, rolled us each a cigarette and smiled.

“Is he going to slaughter one? Just for us?” I said.

Mark waved his hand again, blew smoke up into the busted alarm, as if daring it to sound.

“He doesn’t seem happy to see us.”

“Trust me, he’s just fine,” said Mark. “The guys on the forum said it would be like this. This is pretty normal. It’s kosher.”

“Well,” I said.

“Well,” he said, springing up and dragging me along. We walked through the house, following grooves in the carpet from Tom’s slippers. Mark touched a phone book, a porcelain dog with no eyes. I took one of the picture frames and turned it facedown, without having any idea why. The living room looked as you’d expect it to, only with a distinctly modern flatscreen TV in the corner, swept clean of dust. They had a bookshelf, but the titles didn’t stick in the mind, their browning covers forcing the eye away—A Walk in the . . . Songs for Rainy . . . Keeping Up With . . . This and That. A daguerreotype on the wall showed an old man standing in front of the freshly painted barn. He could have been Tom’s father, maybe the wife’s—he was a father to someone, that was for sure. He oozed dad.

“He can’t sell much. With the barn so small.”

“He doesn’t sell the meat,” said Mark. “That’s not how it works here.”

“Did they say on the forum how they found this place?”

Mark took me in his arms and kissed me four times, like a bird pecking seed.

“Good things have a way of being found,” he said.

Good things have a way of being found, he said.

Outside, something sounded. A long squeal, pitching higher and higher until we couldn’t hear it anymore, somewhere between animal and shearing metal. The buckling of damp wood, faintly spongy. Mark held me tight and looked me in the eyes—he was waiting for me to ask a question, but then it felt like the time for questions had passed without my noticing.

Tom Guthrie entered the living room with a tray wrapped in cling film, the meat glistening beneath like polished marble. He held it at arm’s length, waiting for Mark to take it.

“Oh,” said Mark, stepping closer and sniffing deeply, prodding it through the film. “Still warm.”

“Can you take it? I need to check on my wife. It’s her birthday, after all,” said Tom.

“Babe, take this to the kitchen, would you? There’s something in the car I need to get. You’re going to love it, Mr. Guthrie. You’re going to go just wild for what I have to show you!”

Tom passed me the plate, only letting go when he was sure I had a good grip on it.

I sat with it a while in the kitchen, trying to admire its color, to tell the difference between this and the other cuts of pork Mark had shown me. I lifted the cling film, but all I could smell was the blood, a light tang of manure. There was movement behind the Guthries’ bedroom door, a scratching and a fidgeting. Somebody sighed, cleared their throat, sighed again. My coffee was already cold, though it was fresh only minutes ago. Mark honked the horn outside, revved the engine a few times.

Tom stepped into the hallway, opening the door just wide enough to squeeze through before shutting it again. He saw me in his kitchen and jumped.

“You’re still here,” he said.

“Sure am!”

He took the cups and tipped them into the sink, rinsing the basin with cold water until it ran clear.

“Is your wife okay? Will she be joining us?”

“She needs her rest. Things have been hard. The weather, maybe.”

“It’s been a hot one,” I said, and he looked at me suspiciously, as if I might be pulling his leg.

“It’s crazy that you share the same birthday. What are the odds? The curveballs life throws at us.” I had a feeling that my birthday must be coming up in the next few weeks, but I couldn’t quite recall.

“They’ve been coming here for years, people like Mark,” he said, looking out of the window, at the barn hunched in shadow. “Before the forum was a forum. I want you to know that, so you can measure your options. They’ve been coming for a long time, to the farm.”

“It must get lonely out here, you two on your own. You must enjoy the company when it comes.”

“I just needed you to know.”

He looked as if he might be about to cry, but instead he burped, a hint of acid on his breath. Mark returned to the kitchen holding four party hats.

“I’ve had these in the car for years!” he said, placing one on my head, then Tom’s, then his own. “What are the chances? Like it was fate, Mr. Guthrie! Now it’s a real celebration. I’ve even got one for Mrs. Guthrie here.”

He set the fourth on an empty chair, as if she might spring from it at any moment, like a rabbit from a top hat. In the living room, the phone rang again.

“Are you going to answer that?” I said, but the two of them started unpacking the meat into different groups instead—loin, hock, tongue, and back. Together we set up the grill, an old George Foreman, and heated a pan for the bacon.

“Do you cure it yourself?” said Mark.

“I’m not sure,” said Tom, scratching the elastic band at his chin, an ugly red mark already forming. “I’d need to check that.”

“There’s no oil,” I said, opening cupboards to inspect the dust and crumbs, the occasional yellowed receipt. “No salt and pepper even.”

“Oh, baby,” said Mark, taking me in his arms and kissing me the tender way, the rare and slow way, the little-too-drunk-for-sex way. “We don’t need any of that. We’ve got everything we need right here, with you and me and these folks here on their birthday. My God, isn’t she just great, Mr. Guthrie? Isn’t she the best you’ve ever seen?”

“You seem like a nice girl,” said Tom. “Truly. I wish you would leave.”

“Mr. Guthrie,” said Mark. “We are so blessed to be here. We are so thankful. We wouldn’t dream of leaving, what with dinner half-cooked and with it being such a special day for you both. Please, just enjoy yourself!”

“That’s right,” I said.

“Exactly,” said Mark.

The room filled with the smell of cooking meat—earthy, bloody, lovely, lovely. The loin, hock, and tongue sizzled on the grill, spitting fat onto the splashboard. The bacon gave off just enough moisture to cook itself in the pan, going an even red and brown with no char, no fuss at all. My vegetarian days, when I was with Stig or possibly Andrew, seemed like a thing of the distant past. Even before then, I never much liked pork, could have lived quite happily without it. But being with Mark was like being stripped of all my ragged years, like damn brand-new skin.

Tom pretended to fall asleep in his chair, but his eyes shot open every now and then, checking our progress.

“Okay, time to plate up,” said Mark. “‘Mr. Guthrie, would you go and get your wife for us so we can sing Happy Birthday?”

“She’s resting. The weather.”

Mark smacked the spatula onto the skillet with a big old clang. There was that look in his eyes I didn’t so much like, the one I saw him sometimes give to strangers when he thought my back was turned.

“Mr. Guthrie, I’m tired of all this naysaying. You both need to keep your strength up. My forum friends said that Mrs. Guthrie always joined them for dinner. It’s important for her to be here, with us, and for things to be fair and balanced.”

“They lied to you,” said Tom, energized by Mark’s look rather than cowed into silence. He looked for a moment like the man in the daguerreotype, made of stronger stuff.

“Forum friends don’t lie! We don’t lie, do we, babe?”

“They don’t lie,” I said. “They made a pact. It’s part of the rules.”

“That’s right. Now come on, Mr. Guthrie, we’ve gone through all this effort. We’ve got all this food right here that we made just for you, and frankly I’m yet to hear a word of ‘thank you, Mark,’ ‘you didn’t have to, Mark.’ Go and get her. I insist.”

While we portioned everything up, Tom went into the bedroom. We could see his feet beneath the door, unmoving.

“Can you believe that? The thing he said about lying?” said Mark, playing with his knife and fork. “Can you imagine Doggerel ever telling a lie? Or Blisstime?”

“Let’s not let it ruin our day,” I said, pinching the gristle between his index and thumb.

“You’re right,” he said. “God, you’re always so right. You always know the right thing to say. I’m a lucky guy. I’m such a lucky man.”

“Mark,” I said, and all sorts of words about the way he made me feel tried to force their way up, in all kinds of ways, like a scream. A question came out instead. “Is it my birthday soon?”

“It’s whenever you want it to be,” said Mark, and he stroked my inner thigh.

When Tom returned, he’d sweated whatever strength he’d mustered out into his shirt.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Swain,” he said. “She’s just not well enough. She sends her apologies.”

Mark got up from the table and embraced Tom, breathing deep into his neck and making man-hug noises, the noises men make when they hug.

“Tom, I forgive you unconditionally. My lady here showed me the error of my ways, and I feel just awful for snapping at you like that. On your birthday, no less! I think we’ll all feel so much better after we’ve eaten something.”

“I don’t want any trouble.”

“We’re not in the business of causing trouble, Tom. That’s not what we’re about.”

They talked for a moment about the forum, but it slid away from me like those book covers, left me bored and a little antsy—where we go . . . star-falling . . . no greater . . . passively drowning. I had a prodigious sense that the words were simply not for me. Once, when we started dating, I asked Mark what the forum was about.

“We really like a good ham,” he said, and that was good enough for me, good enough for a long, long time.

Instead of listening, I watched the barn as a band of moonlight stretched over it, revealing its gnarls and twists, its patchwork charm.

Instead of listening, I watched the barn as a band of moonlight stretched over it, revealing its gnarls and twists, its patchwork charm. It looked like it had been there forever, as natural as the shrub grass and dumb gray rocks beside it, shedding its skin every century or so to keep with the fashion, its business its own. There was something marvelous in that, in something so entirely untouched.

They were seated at the table again, party hats on, each with their plate of unseasoned, sizzling meat. Mark took our hands, closing his eyes and breathing long.

“In this, the King bears his bloody snout,” he said. “In this, our covenant is known.”

We paused, unsure when to break the chain of our hands.

“Okay,” said Tom.

“Good job, babe,” I said.

“Dig in!” said Mark.

And Tom did, with little fanfare, cutting his meat into cubes and ingesting them like a machine—five chews on the left, five on the right, swallow, repeat. I waited for Mark, who kept his mouth open, edging the bite closer and then back like foreplay.

“Are you ready?” he said but didn’t wait for an answer. He took a bite of the loin, sinking back in his chair. I opted for the hock, because it is important to keep your own inner life, separate from those you love, no matter how dearly you love them. Stig told me that, or possibly Andrew. It was dry, a little overcooked, I thought. It tasted brown, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It wasn’t necessarily anything.

“Oh wow,” said Mark. “Oh, babe, wow.”

“I know, right?” I said, and I did kind of know, in the sense that it was pork, and I was eating it, and if Mark thought it was good, then it truly had to be. He brought the mouthful out onto his tongue, gray and fibrous from all the chewing, as if to let it breathe with him. I did the same, and it did maybe taste a little better when I sucked it back in.

“This is next level,” said Mark, gripping Mr. Guthrie by the shoulder. “Thank you, brother.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“Thank you, Tom.”

We moved on to the tongue, which I had never tried before, and which went down with only a touch of gagging. It had the consistency of leather, but hadn’t the pioneers eaten their leather boots when they were starving out on the plains? And didn’t only some of them go insane and kill their brothers and/or wives?

“Holy shit,” said Mark. “Excuse my language, Tom, but holy and holier shit!”

Next, the bacon, its rind of fat as thick as an orange peel. No matter how much I chewed, it found the gaps between my teeth, managed to keep itself whole.

“Oh man, oh man,” said Mark. “Babe, are you feeling this?”

“I’m feeling it!” I said, taking his greasy mitt in mine. I closed my eyes, felt the warmth between our palms like one continuous rope of fat, unbothered by teeth. I could feel in that touch a future unburdened, in which this was the best meal I’d ever had, in which we sat on the hood of Mark’s car, remembering this table, this touch, our hands down each other’s pants as we ate a pack of thin-slice ham we picked up at the service station. When I tried the loin, I could feel what it would one day be to me, and the future was almost the present, was the past.

“From this does convergence bloom,” said Tom.

“What’s that, Mr. Guthrie?”

“I said would anyone like a drink of water?” He threw his empty plate into the sink.

All our plates were empty, actually, though it seemed we’d hardly begun.

“Nothing for us!” said Mark. “I don’t want anything else in my system. I just want to let that settle a while. Honestly, Tom, I could eat that every day and never get bored.”

Tom’s back tensed, bringing his neck low into his shoulders—I got the sense that this was his usual posture, that he had been putting on a good show for us all this time. He smothered what could have been a sob, or another burp.

“Now, Tom,” said Mark, taking our plates and waving his hand at me as if to say, no bother, though I hadn’t moved to stop him. “I think it’s time for us to see where the magic happens.”

“I really don’t think that’s necessary,” said Tom.

“It sure is! It’s very important to see how your food is made. Don’t I always say that, babe?”

“They all do. It’s like their motto,” I said, really wishing I could have that glass of water.

“It’s not pleasant in there, not after . . . you know,” said Tom. “I don’t think Mrs. Swain would appreciate having to see that.”

“She can wait outside. Right, Mrs. Swain?” said Mark, winking at me.

“Whatever works best for you,” I said. It didn’t seem right to disagree, and besides, I quite liked the ring of it. It sounded like something you might find at a county fair—Mrs. Swain’s Homely Marmalade. Mrs. Swain’s Famous Homely Pecan Pies.

Together, half-dragging Tom Guthrie between us, we exited through the back door towards the barn. The security light didn’t come on, leaving us sinking occasionally into puddles of muck or tripping over machinery. The barn stood out by its absence, by the black lack of starlight it cut away. Before we reached its closed double doors, Mark took me to one side.

“Babe, I just want to check you aren’t feeling excluded,” he said. He sniffed my hair, and though I hadn’t washed it in a while, I knew that I liked his funk and he liked mine, that it was more of a collective, convergent funk from all our time on the road.

“No! You’re so sweet for asking, though. I’m fine just hanging out.”

“You don’t mind?”

“I really, truly don’t,” I said, and it was wonderful not to lie, to mean it unconditionally. We kissed in the dark and knew just where to place our lips.

“You know, we should do something like this for our birthday,” he said. “It’ll be in just a couple of weeks, won’t it?”

“Something like that,” I said.

“I know I’ve said it before, but what are the chances? Us being born on the same day? The world sure does throw some curveballs, that’s the truth. Okay, Tom,” said Mark, strolling back over to the barn, “show time!”

They each took a door and heaved. From the side, my view was blocked; I could only see the light glancing off them after Tom flicked a switch. He looked so frail. If his photo was taken at that moment, I’m not sure a camera would even pick him up. He was more like a smudge, one of those tricks of the light that people used to call ghosts, which they now call imperfections, which is somehow so much worse. Mark had never looked more handsome.

“Jesus,” he said, trying to hide his smile and keep an air of measured awe.

“So now you see,” said Tom.

“It’s so much more than I ever imagined.”

“It’s a lot to take in.”

“She’s beautiful, Tom. She’s a marvel.”

“I do the best I can.”

“You could have something so much larger, there could be so much more. I know a guy, lots of guys, actually, who could help. It’d be no bother.”

“I’m not interested,” Tom said.

“And if you let her out, let her go free range?”

“That’s not an option.”

“So it’s just her.”

“She’s all we need.”

“And how long does it take?”

“For what?”

“For it to grow back.”

“Not long. Not long at all.”

Deeper in the barn, something made the same high pitching note as before. In the distance, a dog yelped, though there were no houses for miles.

“Can I approach her?”

“Can I stop you?”

Mark laughed, and Tom showed maybe the barest hint of a smile. They walked together into the barn, and something shifted, weight settling into the walls, the note of that cry a ringing in my ears, just beyond perception. I sat looking at the light streaming out, shadows moving hugely, obscurely.

The phone was ringing again.

I returned through the kitchen, our plates stacked in the sink, the air pleasantly greasy. Past the Guthries’ bedroom, past the turned-down picture frame. In the living room, the daguerreotype glowered, and I reached for the telephone.

“Hello? Grace?” said a voice.

“No. Are you looking for Mrs. Guthrie?”

“What? Jesus, Grace, is that you?”

“I think you might have the wrong number.”

“Hello? Just stay on the line and tell me where you are. We can sort this all out. Is Grace there? Or maybe Helen?”

The line hummed a moment, something rustling on the other end.

“Helen, are you there?”

“Who is this?” I said.

“It’s Carol. Carol . . . Flank.” The voice was a woman’s, faintly southern.

“Carol Flank?”

“Or Garstang. Helen Garstang. Grace, just listen to me. There’s some kind of group. Some grouping.”

“Look, I don’t think I can help you. My name is Mrs. Swain,’ I said, placing a hand over my mouth to stifle a laugh. “I’m here on a visit. My husband and his friend are outside, in the barn.”

“Helen! Helen, who is in the barn?”

“Mark. Mark and Mr. Guthrie.”

“Is Carol in the barn? Oh God, is that what happens when they—”

The line went dead. I looked around the room for pictures of daughters in overalls and white smocks, but couldn’t see a trace, just the old man, just the Guthries with their hands almost touching. I twirled around the room, touching things as I pleased.

Back in the kitchen, Mrs. Guthrie’s plate remained on the counter, the food still hot enough to give off steam. The security light came on, washing away the shadows pouring from the barn door. There could be anyone in there, or no one.

“Did the phone ring?” said Tom from the back door, giving me a start.

“Yes. Wrong number.”

He nodded, unconvinced.

“Do you judge me? For what I’ve done?” he said, reaching down beside me to pick something up.

“What? No! I think you’re just great. And Mark really likes you.”

He looked at me like I was a hand grenade.

“You should consider it,” he said, and made his way back out to the barn, taking the fourth party hat with him.

I took the plate of meat to the bedroom, knocked, and waited the amount of time they wait in movies before opening (which is to say, not as long as I should have). The light was on in the room, the bed empty and unmade. No wind came through the open window, the curtains unmoving. Just broiling heat. Nobody home. I put the plate down on the bedside table and climbed into the bed, pulling a thin sheet around my thighs. With the heat, with the smell of cooked hog, I felt that the future was just around the corner, waiting to shed its skin. I think I dozed a while until I heard the back door open, heard Mark speaking low and excited. I wondered how long it would be before he found me, tucked up in this stranger’s bed, but I wasn’t worried. He was talking about the weather, about how unseasonably cold it had been, and I felt the truth of that in my bones, creeping in through the window.



View Original Source Here

You May Also Like

Spotify Adds Audiobook Feature in U.S.

Spotify subscribers will be able to find one new feature in their…

IMDb TV, home to the new Bosch spinoff, launches in the UK

IMDb TV, Amazon’s new premium free streaming service, launched in the UK…

Book Riot’s Deals of the Day for May 10, 2022

Today’s Featured Deals In Case You Missed Yesterday’s Most Popular Deals Previous…

Book review of Divine Might by Natalie Haynes

Comedy and classicism might seem an unusual pairing, but Natalie Haynes has…