Puercos Gordos, fiction by Michael Gills

She was a year younger than me and semi­fa­mous.  I’d seen her all through high school, and then on the hood of a white Corvette as Miss Lonoke in the Soy Parade, a dis­tinc­tion that sent her to the Miss Arkansas pageant where she’d been first run­ner up to a raven- haired Miss Texarkana. She’d won a schol­ar­ship to some kind of mod­el­ing school, but by that sum­mer she was back with her par­ents, clerk­ing for old man Jol­ley at Lonoke Phar­ma­cy and Drug.

This was Arkansas sum­mer­time, the heat was bru­tal, and my deliv­ery truck was unair­con­di­tioned.  Kim­ber­ly inhab­it­ed the cool inside the pharmacy’s dou­ble doors, a flu­o­res­cent-lit delight to the flesh and blood.  I’d already hit Lowman’s, Mr. Templeton’s IGA and Knight’s Gro­cery, with its ten-foot tall suit of armor.  It was Fri­day after­noon, pay­day, my labor was almost done.  I had tick­ets to the All-Star game that night where Elvin Floyd Tay­lor was slat­ed to suit up in Jackrab­bit pur­ple.  It was a good, good time to be alive.

I car­ried a forty-pound bun­dle in past the soda bar.  The air was fresh with the sprays of dis­play per­fume and med­i­cine.  She stood behind the counter in a white sun­dress, the spaghet­ti straps of which lay over tanned shoul­ders where spilled hon­ey-blonde hair all lit up by the most extra­or­di­nary hazel eyes.

Hi Joey,” she said.  “You set those over there.”  The sweat between my shoul­ders was cold.

For lack of any­thing bet­ter, I said, “Hey.  Look here,” and point­ed at my byline under a front-page sto­ry about a pig farm con­vert­ing to ethanol.  “That’s me.”

She laughed, a sin­gle note ring­ing. “What’s funny?”

Puer­cos Gor­dos,” she said, and tapped my arti­cle three times with a fin­ger­tip.  “Las Higas des pun­tas.”

The pic­ture above my name was of three spot­ted hogs, snouts stuck in a trough.  Snorkey’s corn will be turned into a new kind of gaso­line… the cap­tion said.

I’m the author.”

She said, “Oh,” and nod­ded her head at me, nar­row­ing beau­ty queen eyes.  “I see.” “Want to get together?”


Tomor­row night.”


She’d had a boyfriend, I remem­bered.  A B‑team line­man named Joel or some­thing, though the dirt of their sto­ry escaped me.  Her father was a famous drunk, an amputee who’d once been a foot­ball star.

Maybe I’ll write a sto­ry about you.  Take a pic­ture of your trophies.”

She said, “Okay.”


 The next after­noon I drove out Mt. Carmel Road, past the Con­fed­er­ate Ceme­tery into the coun­try­side with its lush green hills rolling off into pas­tures where farm­ers had just mown and raked hay into long rows that shone acre after acre, and I remem­bered work­ing for a man named Guess, haul­ing up a bale with a sliced in half king snake dan­gling from a wedge of green.  This coun­try was in my blood, where every house had a veg­etable gar­den grow­ing up to its back door, and dead ani­mals lit­tered the road­side, opos­sum and rac­coon, squir­rel and car chas­ing dogs.

Every few miles was a school­bus stop, where com­mu­ni­ties had con­struct­ed tin-roofed shel­ters over rick­ety bench­es, like the one Kim Bur­gin sat on that sec­ond, her hair yel­low like a fire, wav­ing me into that ripe Sat­ur­day evening in June, when the air we breathed seemed blessed and golden.

Look­ing for somebody?”

You.”  When I opened the door she slid in beside me, and we drove real slow up the grav­el dri­ve to where her Dad­dy, a dou­ble amputee, sat fid­dling with a ham radio hooked to an orange exten­sion cord that was duct taped across the front porch.

Mr. Bur­gin looked up and nod­ded, then went back to his radio.

Dad­dy.  This is Joey.”

Hey Joe,” Mr. Bur­gin said, and the radio let out a stat­icky cackle.

He’s com­ing to supper.”

Mr. Bur­gin regard­ed me.  His tee shirt was sweat stained and there was tobac­co juice on his left shoul­der.  His pants were tied in knots below his knees.  This close, he remind­ed me of Mama’s peo­ple, col­or­ful, nobody’s fool.  He wheeled my way and I shook his hand, try­ing not to look.  Kim was radi­ant at his side–I have to tell you.  There was noth­ing fake about her in the least–she was real to the bone.  And I could see she had his face, the fine bone and shin­ing eyes. “Well,” he said, “we could do worse.  Tell me when.”

Inside, food was cook­ing, pur­ple hull peas, it turned out, corn­bread and ham.  A black­ber­ry cob­bler steamed on the stove where a mess of okra drained on paper sacks.  I was fed a fine coun­try meal with sliced toma­toes and crook­neck squash, lemon squeezed in the tea.  Kim’s moth­er said the prayer, then set a hot plate­ful in front of me.

But­tered bis­cuits got sent around the table, along with a jar filled with syrup and mashed butter–poor man’s jel­ly.  Across the room, a wood­stove sat below a man­tel where pic­tures showed Mrs. Bur­gin with a baby in arms, dad­dy Emile stand­ing beside them with a big wide smile.

You was a run­ning back, no?”

Kim looked at me, and Faye got up for more tea. “Yessir.”

Num­ber 45,” he said.

That was me.”

I was back oncet too,” he said.  “But I ain’t nev­er fum­bled on no one yard line in a play­off game.  Ha,” he said.  “Ha, ha.”

Dad­dy.”  Kim grinned and I could see that she loved this man.  This all hap­pened thir­ty years ago when I had no notion what­so­ev­er how daugh­ters loved their fathers.

It was wet,” I said.  My senior year, I’d lost the ball, and in turn the game, one rainy night against Baux­ite Pirates.  You’d think foot­ball was God or Jesus or something.

Mr. Bur­gin passed the cob­bler, said “S’Okay, and looked me straight.  “You be nice to my girl.”

I said, “I will.  Promise.”

The Bur­gins sent me home full, with a paper sack of toma­toes and crook­necks, a jar of mus­ca­dine jel­ly and some chow-chow.  Coun­try peo­ple will give you the soles off their shoes if you let them.  I drove away with the gifts in the front seat, and the taste of Kim Burgin’s lips on mine.


Next day I looked up the his­to­ry of how Emile Bur­gin lost his legs.  He’d been an ath­lete, all-Dis­trict the year the Jackrab­bits went 10–0.  He’d been offered a full ride at Arkansas Tech in Rus­sel­lville and accept­ed the Wonderboy’s offer.  The week before he was to report for sum­mer two-a-days, he took a job with Alfred Tip­ton man­u­fac­tur­ing as a night shift super­vi­sor, where they turned out mobile homes for poor whites who set them up in cow pas­tures from But­lerville to Vilo­nia.  Report-in day came and went at Tech.  That’s where he lost both legs, at Tipton’s, when a pre­fab truss machine grabbed him into its works.  Only Mr. Tipton’s lawyers twist­ed it so it was Emile’s fault, a pint whiskey bot­tle that mate­ri­al­ized in his lock­er was fol­lowed by neg­li­gence charges.

The case between Alfred Tip­ton and Emile Bur­gin was set­tled out of court when the for­mer agreed to allow the lat­ter to take own­er­ship of a new­ly man­u­fac­tured home.  Kim was just a girl, a tod­dler, when Faye took over.  There were the month­ly dis­abil­i­ty checks and a hol­i­day ham every Christ­mas from Tipton’s.  A series of DWI’s almost got Emile jail time, and it’s fishy how he skat­ed clean.  He built a front porch on the house trail­er on a piece of land he’d inher­it­ed from his peo­ple.  He took up the ham radio, long dis­tance con­ver­sa­tions that blurred his nights into morn­ings, when Kim would crawl out of her bed and turn the radio off, cov­er her father where he lay, and put the bot­tle back in its place.  That’s the sto­ry, the best I could make of it.

By Mid-Summer’s Eve, Kim and I had tak­en to meet­ing in an old barn two pas­tures over. I’d dri­ve out after dark, park on the road­side in black­ber­ry bri­ar, and sneak through the barbed wire and out to the barn, where the door hinges would squeal and there’d be Kim on a bed of straw, lit­tle white streaks of moon­light pour­ing through the board cracks onto her bare skin.

Once on a full moon, she brought a drug­store- scent­ed can­dle in and lit it.  Then, thrown up large on the barn wall, our shad­ow.  She was preg­nant.  We talked about elop­ing to Mem­phis, Kim­ber­ly and me, putting the Mis­sis­sip­pi between us and Lonoke County.

And you think that would be enough.

There came a night when I was sup­posed to tap on her bed­room win­dow, load a suit­case and dri­ve off to our new life.  But the truth is, I chick­ened out and went on back to col­lege.  What did I know?  I was afraid, and that fear dogged me for a while, and then it went away.

So it was with mild sur­prise, not so long ago, that I found the stamped let­ter in my mail­box, care­ful writ­ing on a scent­ed enve­lope.  Joey, it said.


This is a sto­ry about qui­et and what breaks it, the hour after Mama’s lain down for the evening and the light bulbs from Daddy’s radio throw a blue sheen on his face, and if you don’t get here this sec­ond I’m going to kill you. A liquo­ry voice speaks time to time and Daddy’s eyes flut­ter.  He has an ongo­ing fight with this Mexican–Daddy thinks he’s a Mex­i­can. They call each oth­er fat pig and son of a whore in Span­ish and I believe the Mexican’s drunk as Daddy–these nights.   The oth­er qui­et is the wait­ing for the far-off crunch of grav­el, cicadas thrum­ming and a whipporwhil’s lone­ly call and the starlight on the white bed­spread Mama cro­cheted, new-washed for tonight and smelling of June sun­shine.  You’ll be past the mail­box now, the moon throw­ing your shad­ow past the toma­toes and bush beans Mama’s hoed, up past the well-house where Dad­dy peed my name in last spring’s snow. Are you decid­ing whether to walk away from me, to for­get what we’ve promised each oth­er, that I’m not worth it.  Even though our rings are bought, bright shin­ing this sec­ond in Mama’s old suit­case under my bed, even though our course is plot­ted and new life aches for us to join it out there round the bend. Our baby?  You walk away from me now?  Get in your car and dri­ve across the riv­er bridge and leave me and him stuck in Lonoke Coun­ty for the rest of our lives?  Hell with you.

Hey, higo de pun­ta?  Are you lis­ten­ing, my broth­er?”   The Mex­i­can slurs every­thing. The words reach and touch Dad­dy in that place he goes to these nights when we’re all in bed and he takes it straight.   “Puer­co gor­do?”

Joey’s saved four hun­dred dol­lars from his news­pa­per job, and he’s been work­ing up a port­fo­lio to show around Mem­phis, once we get there and find a place to hang our hats.  I’ve got just as much down there in the suit­case, plus the crisp $50 Mr. Jol­ley hand­ed me from the reg­is­ter when I told him I was quit­ting.  He cried, the old sil­ly, “We’ll miss you around here.”

He waved a hand so dust twirled round a shaft of light.  “I’ll send a let­ter of good stand­ing with you. You’ll need that,” he said and low­ered his brow.  Then he went off sniffling.

Snor­ka, snor­ka.  Fat pig­gy?” the Mex­i­can says.  “I have nice slop for you. Here pig, pig.” Through the half-open door, conked out in the reclin­er, Daddy’s not fazed. But I know that if I walked in there and turned the thing off he’d yell. Besides, when Joey Harvell taps on mywin­dow and I crawl out of this house for good, maybe that radio will mask us.

Daddy’d played foot­ball, too.  I’ve seen the pic­tures of him run­ning on the green field, throw­ing stiff arms and fore­arm shiv­ers, div­ing over the line for the end­zone. Then he went to the Tip­tons. “They’ll get you from me too one of these days,” Dad­dy says.  He’s got this car with knobs so he doesn’t need legs and he’s got this rid­ing mow­er rigged up too, though he uses it most­ly to dri­ve out to the mail­box by the high­way, to see if the check’s come so he can make the trip over to the coun­ty line and restock.

What I’ll car­ry from my life here?  Soon I’ll feel it kick­ing to get out, just like me. I haven’t thought of names, they just won’t come, but I’ve read in the Health and Well­ness sec­tion at work that babies nev­er for­get the air their moth­ers breathed while they were in the womb, that it above all will be sweet­est to them and they can nev­er ever be hap­py until they fill their lungs with it for good and ever.  So you-know-who can nev­er have him.

Son of a whore–you answer me.”

For a while I walk the back pas­ture after dark, sneak through the barbed wire and out to the barn, where the door hinges would squeal to where he used to be.  I knew noth­ing about life or mon­ey or how things get accom­plished in this world, I didn’t know that I’d get stabbed in the back, or that I’d stab back.

I kissed and he kissed back.  We’d mar­ry, find some old farm­house and make a house­ful of good-look­ing babies.  The fall chill’d come and we’d dance alto­geth­er in the front yard when a good rain came.  We dreamed our­selves grown old in love, and swore to one-anoth­er that no mat­ter what, there’d always be this, what the can­dle flick­ered on the cedar wall–and it didn’t take a stretch of the imag­i­na­tion, then, to feel the life we’d made find heartbeat.

Si Bueno?”

The Mex­i­can, where does he get off?  Daylight’s com­ing, I can see it out the cor­ners of my eyes, like the mon­ster you see slink­ing under your bed when you’re eleven and the qui­et comes on and you don’t dare dan­gle a hand off the side of the bed to the floor that’s cold to the touch, even though it’s June, and you’re eigh­teen now, and a new life is out there round the bend, fat­ten­ing on the quiet.

Señor?  It is good with us then?”

This is a sto­ry about qui­et and what breaks it, Joey.  I wait­ed.  God­damn you. For a long time. This mat­ters.  I’m seri­ous.  How could I tell him about you, how his eyes are the same blue and why he was faster than the rest?  Why I loved him like I’d die?  Here’s his foot­ball pic­ture, num­ber 45, just like you. The wreck wasn’t his fault–it was some drunk, we nev­er found out. There’s a plaque out­side the sta­di­um with his pic­ture on it, and two oth­er boys from the State Cham­pi­onship team.  We were there for the memo­r­i­al.  Eddie Stutt’s dad­dy broke down. I said some words.  Well, that’s all from here.  Still love, k.


The let­ter sits now in a box on my chest with a news­pa­per page from the Star Her­ald that announced the engage­ment and com­ing mar­riage of Miss Kim­ber­ly Lynn Bur­gin, daugh­ter of the late Emile and Faye Bur­gin to DeWayne Tip­ton of Lonoke, son of Alfred A. Tip­ton of Lonoke. The bride and groom are soft­lit, and old Lamar’s giv­en them the pre­mier place on the page, what youth and beau­ty will get you when love turns chick­en­shit.  Tip­ton adopt­ed the boy.  He com­fort­ed Kim on the sun­lit day of the funer­al last June, that’s all I know.

But all this is nei­ther here nor there.

I don’t know why it’s all come back to me now, giv­en the turn of events, Renee’s mother’s pass­ing and the grief and sor­row that’s come down on us all over that.  Only some­thing hap­pened dur­ing Renee’s vis­it to Flori­da, just before the hos­pice, when the bed scenes with her moth­er got the most intense–the very end of it for them.  I was home with Lara in Utah.  There was a night about half-way through it all when I’d cooked Lamb Cur­ry, mea­sur­ing out the hap­py-hour bour­bons that took the edge off.  And this one night, the one I’m think­ing of, my daugh­ter and I watched a movie togeth­er on the couch, some sil­ly-ass love sto­ry or anoth­er, doesn’t mat­ter, and it got me think­ing about Kim and her now dead father, Emile, the per­son that I’d been once, and how things could have turned out dif­fer­ent.  So I mis­tak­en­ly nursed this rem­i­nis­cence with anoth­er whiskey until, well, until I woke up with Lara cry­ing on the tele­phone, her moth­er dis­traught, long-distance–on the oth­er end.

It’s okay,” I had said.  “I just fell asleep.”

On the fuck­ing liv­ing room floor?  Joe? We put moth­er in hos­pice today.  They’ve removed food and water.”

I’m sor­ry,” I said.  “I’ll do bet­ter.  I love you.”

When the phone went dead, Lara took the receiv­er from me and placed it in its cra­dle.  “Time for bed, Dad,” she said.


In June, I deliv­ered the eulo­gy for the Rock­er­son fam­i­ly at the Epis­co­palian ser­vice.  We’d rent­ed a place right on the ocean and, after­ward, in the ungod­ly heat, Renee, Lara and I burned sage near the surf at a spot where sea tur­tles land­ed night­ly to lay eggs.  We took Lara to Dis­ney­world, and that made her happy–she loved the faux New Orleans haunt­ed house best, the spec­tral images that laughed and drank wine in the old house splen­dor.  So all the oth­er busi­ness, that’s over with now, we’re mov­ing on to a new chap­ter of our lives.  Lara’s near­ly twelve, she’ll come of age soon.  It’s hap­pen­ing already.  Renee’s final­ly through the worst of her change, and, after the oper­a­tion, the end­less bleed­ing and night sweats have let her be.  We move for­ward.  The Cap is com­ing for Thanks­giv­ing, and I’m plan­ning to fix up a room for him in the base­ment, though, after two-hip replace­ments, he bare­ly gets around.  I’ll lay in that handrail we’ve need­ed for so long, rip up the old stained car­pet for new.  We’ll track down a bird as big as a barn and light the hol­i­day can­dles.  I’ll lay in whiskey and a good stash of wine and we’ll watch the bowl games on a wide screen.  The first hol­i­day after is always the worst.  We’ll take out the old pho­tographs and laugh and cry and con­sole, play the old songs and pre­tend we’re not crooked to the god­damn core, every one of us.

In hon­or of the new­ly dead, so help me.


Michael Gills was McK­ean Poet­ry Fel­low at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas and Ran­dall Jar­rell Fel­low in Fic­tion in the MFA Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na-Greens­boro. He earned the Ph.D. in Cre­ative Writing/Fiction at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Utah. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Oxford American,Verb 4, Shenan­doah, Boule­vard, The Get­tys­burg Review, The Greens­boro Review, Quar­ter­ly West, New Sto­ries From The South and else­where. Why I Lie: Sto­ries (Uni­ver­si­ty of Neva­da Press, Sep­tem­ber, 2002) was select­ed by The South­ern Review as a top lit­er­ary debut of 2002. A 2005-06 Utah Estab­lished Artist Fel­low­ship recip­i­ent, Gills is a con­tribut­ing writer for Oxford Amer­i­can and a board mem­ber for Writ­ers @ Work. He is cur­rent­ly a pro­fes­sor of writ­ing for the Hon­ors Col­lege at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Utah, and is pro­mot­ing a sec­ond col­lec­tion of sto­ries, THE DEATH OF BONNIE AND CLYDE, and a nov­el GO LOVE..


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