Oliver sat in the locker room, a towel tucked neatly around his waist, next to a Smithfield rep who was slicing open packages of hot dogs and wrapping them individually in foil. Oliver did not have the manual dexterity for that job, and he also needed to mentally prepare for his performance. He stared at the floor, envisioning a successful performance, the way they taught him to back in the early days, when he was just a pig attending seminars and trying to break into the business.
The Smithfield rep was more of a boy than a man, a college kid in an entry-level job. He’d introduced himself, but Oliver had already forgotten his name. His experience with humans was that most of them under a certain age were named Josh. This particular boy had been assigned to Oliver for the next month, during which they would barnstorm various baseball stadiums on their dollar hot dog nights. Fifteen stadiums in twenty-five days. Every night, another ninety-six hot dogs. Some hijinks in the stands. A little mischief in the broadcast booth. A dance or skit with the home team’s mascot. High fives and hugs from kids, pictures with stoned teenagers. Probably he would do The Smithfield Shuffle, a ninety-second dance he’d invented when auditioning for the job. Then he would hop in the back seat of the truck for another interstate drive with this sandy-haired boy who would spend most of his time fiddling with his iPod or talking on the phone with his girlfriend.
“I guess we’re going to be partners,” Josh had said when he picked Oliver up at his apartment a few hours ago. He avoided eye contact and extended his hand in a practiced gesture of adulthood. Oliver dropped his hoof in Josh’s hand like a rock and clapped him on the back with the other hoof. “Oh man,” Josh said. “Oh wow.” He stared at the hoof. “That’s some serious cloppers you got there.”
The interns aren’t supposed to talk to him about pig stuff, have been informed that Oliver would prefer neutral topics or, even better, silence, but sometimes they can’t help themselves. They want to tell him about the time they went to a petting zoo, or how they loved Charlotte’s Web as kids. They sometimes want to ask questions about pig culture: what’s it like on the farm, what made you want to leave, who are your pig heroes, questions like that. “Do pigs sweat? Like, what’s the deal there?” Josh asked, as Oliver stepped into a cold shower. Josh meant well, but Oliver wished these kids would do some basic research before meeting him. It can grind you down always having to explain yourself. No one should have to feel like they’re on exhibit all the time. Still, innocuous questions were far preferable to the kid who had once ordered a BLT right in front of Oliver.
While Josh wrapped hot dogs, Oliver stepped out of the shower and into his company-issued overalls. Most of the clothes he owned came from the company. The first year on the job, he had no problem staying nude in the locker room, but over time he’s learned to feel uncomfortable about his body, to hate the staring, to worry about what bizarre things might run through the minds of the interns. The one time he had a female intern, she’d complained to HR about his nudity. He had to take a mandatory weekend class on sexual harassment and pass a test on toxic work environments. So now he played it safe. Even at home, he often kept a pair of sweatpants on. Last time the company allowed him to visit farm and see his family, he’d worn the overalls without even giving them a second thought. His father stared past him as if he didn’t exist. His mother shook her head like he’d come home carrying a football and eating a ham sandwich. What did they do to you? she asked.
They helped me, he said. They civilized me. They gave me a better life. His younger brother, Oswald, snorted and squealed and headbutted him, knocking him into the mud. While he lay there, his father trotted past him, squealing and whooping, followed by his other brothers. His mother bellied up to him and nuzzled him. She tugged on the strap of his overalls with her teeth and pulled him up. He followed her, walking upright. It was hard for him to get down on all fours anymore, after all the training. He needed his walk to look perfectly natural and was afraid of picking up bad habits.
Oliver glanced at the discarded packaging next to Josh. The VP of Publicity at Smithfield had assured Oliver that, like the past three years, they were selling all beef dogs, but the packaging did not say they were beef. Oliver was not a very good reader, but he knew some words. He knew what it meant when a package said 100% beef. He could trace those words on paper with his eyes closed, and none of those words appeared on the packaging. There had to be one hundred percent of something in there. They had to be made of somebody.
He knew better than anyone how the sausage was made.
People eat pig. Oliver wasn’t naïve. He knew there was nothing he could do to stop it. But he didn’t want to be part of the delivery system. He didn’t want blood on his hands.
Last time he was at the farm, he hadn’t recognized most of the faces he’d seen. Three of his siblings were missing, and he couldn’t find any of his old friends. You’re not supposed to ask what happened to someone, because everyone knows. During feeding time, the others all bullied up to the trough, and he’d stood behind them on his hind legs and wearing his overalls and feeling disgusted by their grunting and snorting and chewing; when he closed his eyes, he felt like he was inside a giant stomach being digested along with his family. His father had turned back toward him and said, Too good for trough? Oswald snickered and his mother had scooted aside to make room for Oliver. But he couldn’t bring himself to drop to his knees and eat from the trough anymore; it was a life that ended in one place. It was barely a life at all. The food in the trough wasn’t for them but to make them fat for humans. All they were doing was making it easier. He wants to go back to city and eat bacon, his father had said, and Oswald did not laugh this time. The rest of the pigs had turned their backs to him again and continued gorging themselves.
Oliver studied the packaging but found no indication that these hot dogs were made of beef, and then threw it in Josh’s face. He squealed and snorted and strained to form his mouth into the shape of the words. He understood their language—sometimes he thought he understood it better than they did—but didn’t have the requisite facial muscles to speak like them. The one time he’d asked for a pen to help him communicate, they’d denied the request. So he strained and concentrated and said: “Is pig?”
Josh looked startled. “Shit. You can talk? They didn’t tell me you could talk.”
“Is Pig?” Oliver said. His voice was strained and gravelly and high-pitched, and Josh winced when he spoke.
“Look, man, I don’t know what’s what.”
Oliver stood. He picked up one of the last unwrapped dogs in his hooves and smelled it, and he knew for sure. A pig knows the smell of another pig. He envisioned the giant meat factories the humans own, and he saw row after row after row of pigs confined and forced to eat drugs that kept them complacent so they wouldn’t fight back and he heard their cries at the moment of their butchering. For every pig there would be a moment of recognition just before the slaughter when he would suddenly become aware of what was happening. When he saw his own blood spilling onto the floor and could do nothing about it. Oliver pictured his missing siblings, his old friends, even his idiot brother Oswald in that moment of recognition. He pictured his mother’s sorrow at producing so many children just so they could be fed to fat humans who needed to wrap everything in bacon. Oliver spiked the hot dog to the floor and stood over Josh. “I pig,” he said. “I pig no eat no pig.”
Josh scooted away from him. “I mean. You don’t have to eat it,” he said.
Oliver shoved Josh off the bench. “I pig no eat no pig. No eat pig.”
Someone knocked on the locker room door. “Need the pig out here in five minutes,” a voice yelled.
Still lying on the floor, Josh called for help. “This fucking pig is losing it!”
The door swung open and three humans ran in and stepped between Oliver and Josh.
They heard the sound of cheers in the stadium. In just a couple minutes, they would try to force him to go out into the crowd and shoot hot dogs from a gun into the hands of gluttonous humans. To take the harvested organs of pigs and deliver them to the sort of people who would fight one another to catch an old food that had been fired from a gun. Humans condescend to pigs but even pigs have their limits.
One of the humans in front of him was Dave, the team’s publicity spokesperson. He’d been very nice to Oliver over the years. He was one of the only guys on the tour who treated Oliver like an equal. Sometimes after games they would play checkers and have a couple beers. They didn’t talk much; Dave knew how to enjoy silence without squirming or forcing conversation. This year, he’d promised to take Oliver on a drive around the city at night, so he could see all the sights he’d missed on his trips between hotel and stadium.
“Is this like some kind of Muslim thing?” Josh said.
Dave ignored him. “Look, Oliver,” he said. “I know you’re upset.”
“I pig.” Oliver pointed to his chest. “I.”
“Do you think we would do this to you on purpose?” Dave said. “Obviously, there was some kind of mix-up. We’re not monsters. Remember, we’re the ones who saved you in the first place.” He stepped closer to Oliver and placed a cautious hand on his shoulder. “It’s too late for tonight, though. What’s the first thing they teach at mascot training? The Mascot smiles for everyone. Right? We’re not paying you to have ethical dilemmas.”
Oliver looked at the pile of hot dogs at his feet. He wondered whether anyone would miss him if he didn’t perform. What was his function anyway? What did he add to the proceedings, besides distracting children for a few seconds? Wasn’t there some less barbarous way to keep children entertained? Josh and the other workers were busy stuffing hot dogs into the gun.
“No eat pig.”
“I understand,” Dave said. He checked his watch. “But we have about ninety seconds to get our asses upstairs and put on a show for the people.” He gave Oliver’s shoulder a light squeeze that was more menacing than reassuring. “If you don’t, then there’s no telling how Smithfield will handle it.”
If he got fired, he would end up on a regional circuit somewhere, or dancing on the dugout for a minor league baseball team. There are no office jobs for pigs. He didn’t have any friends like himself, and he’d been on the road so long his apartment didn’t feel like a home so much as a poorly furnished motel room. There was no room on the farm for him anymore. When he left, his mother hadn’t even said goodbye. She’d been crying in the barn, having shed more tears for him than she ever had for the sons she sent off to slaughter the natural way. His father had tried to tear the overalls off of him as he walked back to the company car, biting a hole in the calf.
Oliver looked at the hand on his shoulder and felt like he was shackled. Dave’s voice was friendly, but his manner was threatening. He clasped Oliver’s other shoulder and squeezed again, a little to remind Oliver who was in charge here and what was at stake. Humans treated him fine most of the time, but even the good ones had no problem reminding him of his place on the food chain when they felt he was getting too comfortable.
Oliver bit down on Dave’s hand and tried to tear his fingers off like five little hot dogs.
All he remembers of that moment is a flash of white rage and then screaming and distant organ music and applause and more pulsing white, and then a silent blankness like the universe before the Big Bang.
Later, he will tell the other mascots he was drugged in that moment, that they injected him with something, because he can’t think of any other reason he would have gone out there. It’s a lie he tells often enough that he begins to believe it. It’s a lie that says he had no choice but to go on the field, that he wasn’t in control of himself. It’s a lie that says he didn’t really want to be a mascot in the first place, that the job meant nothing to him. But the lie exposes itself in his eyes, the joy he takes in recalling the cheers while he does Smithfield Shuffle at home plate, and above them he is on the JumboTron, smiling widely, his incisors stained with human blood, as he loads another dog into the gun and points it toward the upper deck.