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Chasing the Dream

Stu eased the truck into second gear as he pulled out of the hotel parking lot.  The F-150’s engine shuddered, and then complied.  The baby blue and rust pickup had travelled two hundred thousand miles in its thirty two years.  They may be the same age, but Stu hoped he was in better shape.

Stu’s eyes flicked to the Motel 6 sign in the rearview mirror.  He’d stayed in the room last night and appreciated a warm shower and a night away from the kids.

His left hand cranked down the window and let in the morning breeze.  His John Deer ball cap kept his ear length brown hair out of his eyes.  The humidity had finally died down some, and east Texas finally started inching toward autumn.  The sun licked the horizon behind him and revealed a clear blue sky.  Not a bad day for a fair.

Stu turned on the radio and let some Brad Paisley song about a guy and his grandpa mix with the rattling of the pickup and the rush of air through the window into a cacophonous white noise.  He focused on who he was going to be today.  He’d had the motel, so he was primary.  He ran through his lines, his responses to crowd interaction or lack thereof, and a quick breathing exercise.

There wasn’t much traffic at a quarter to seven on a Saturday, so it wasn’t long before he reached the combined fairgrounds, convention center, twelve thousand capacity football stadium, and rose garden complex.  Based on what else he had seen here in Tyler, it probably hosted a church service every other Sunday, too.

He raised his fingers from the steering wheel in greeting to a pair of officers leaning on a cruiser at the entrance to the complex.  They raised their coffee mugs in return salute.  He always got along with the police, which made him smirk idly.

He pulled into the fairgrounds and slowly made his way around it.  He greeted those he passed.  This time of day, no one had time to dawdle.  With three hours until opening on a nice weekend, now was the time to work.

The horses and livestock all seemed to pick up on the energy of the morning.  Their steps were a bit livelier, and he heard a chorus of lows and whinnies.  He hoped the vigor stayed through the day.  Work was so much better when the crowd felt energized.

Stu brought the truck to a shuddering stop behind his trailer.  The door creaked open, and he stepped out onto the sandy parking area.  He wore his standard issue Gen-X cowboy outfit: brown cowboy boots, beat up blue jeans, and a black t-shirt in a half-tuck to show off his fist-sized Lone Star belt buckle.

From the grunts in the trailer, the morning’s excitement had spread here, too.  Before he could go see how everyone was doing, though, Jimmy came stomping around the trailer.  He also wore boots, blue jeans, and a ball cap to hold back his greasy blond hair.  His t-shirt came from his limitless supply of “Big Dog” shirts, and had a sunglass wearing sheep dog flexing in front of an American flag.  In large block letters it proclaimed, “THESE COLORS DON’T RUN.”

“What’s up, Jimmy? Why are you sweating like a turkey on Thanksgiving?”

“The manager came by and wanted to see our paperwork, Stu.  I didn’t have the receipt for the spot, so-“

“It’s no big deal,” Jim always got riled up over little stuff, “the receipt’s in the glove box.” Stu jerked a thumb at the truck.

Jimmy stood caught between frustration at being interrupted and relief at quickly resolving the dilemma.  Unsurprisingly, he went with the frustration.

“Damn it, Stu.  You know it’s best if we keep it all in the same place.”  He moved around to the passenger side of the truck and opened the glove box.  Paperwork exploded out of it.  “Damn it, Stu.” He growled.

Stu chuckled.  “Sorry, Jimmy.  It might be time to clean that out.  How’s everyone?”

“Fine. Sue woke up with some gunk in her eyes, but it’s cleared up.”  He rummaged through the papers.  “Stu? Who’s Steven Harrison?  Is that your brother? And why do you have his mail from… Gull-e-Ard?”

Stu frowned and crossed quickly to the passenger door.  “No, Steven is not my brother, genius, and that letter is-.”  He ripped the letter out of Jimmy’s hands and contemplated it.  It brought back memories.  He shook his head.  “Nothing.  It’s a letter to a person who doesn’t exist anymore.”  He folded the letter and put it in his back pocket.  Maybe this time he would throw it away.  “He disappeared about ten years ago. What kind of gunk on Sue’s eyes?”

“Ten years ago?” Jimmy asked absently as he went back to searching for the receipt.  “Isn’t that about when Marvin hired you?  And isn’t little Eli ten?  Just gunk, Stu.  Nothin’.”

“Yes, lots of things happened a decade ago.  Lots of things.  Good job.”  2000 hadn’t just been a busy year, but Stu had had one very busy day.  On the same day he had received the letter, Bobby Jo had called him and told him her news before he could tell her his.  He had been stunned.  He’d expected they’d marry and have a farrow of children, but not yet.  Not then.

Stu hadn’t talked to Jo about the letter.  He had been happy to hear her news and told her he was on his way to see her.  He hung up the phone quickly.

During his four hour drive from Austin to Abilene, he had thought quite a bit.  Jo would hate New York.  Her family lived here.  They couldn’t afford tuition, living in New York, and a baby.  Not if he were in school.

But this was Juilliard.  They actually wanted him.  Over a thousand people applied for only eighteen spots, and they wanted him.  All of his training, study, and work had been to get him to this moment.  Actors from Juilliard went places.  Growing up and being an actor was the dream of a boy, though.  Stu knew fathers couldn’t afford to chase after fairy tales, dreams, or hopeless careers.  Fathers had to be men.

By the time he drove into Abilene, he had made his decision.  He stopped and bought some flowers, balloons, and a cheap ring on credit.  Then he went and proposed to Bobby Jo.  They had celebrated all weekend with both of their families.  He had never really looked back, but he hadn’t thrown away the letter, either.

Stu had immediately sought employment.  Fair work had been a quick and temporary solution.  It had stopped being temporary at some point.  Stu didn’t really know when.

“Ah.  Found it.”  Jimmy interrupted Stu’s thoughts.  “You really should clean this thing out more often.”

“Good.  Thanks for the tip.  Take that to Hank.  I’ll go check on Sue.”  Without waiting for a response, Stu walked up the back steps and into the dimly lit trailer.

The musty smell of fifteen pigs greeted him.  It wasn’t rank, as he had expected all those summers ago.  He and Jimmy kept them clean.  The smell had a warm, moist, earthiness to it that filed the nostrils, but didn’t provoke nausea.

As Stu walked down the aisle between the rows of kennels, the swine all grunted in excited recognition.  He knelt in front of one kennel in the middle of a row.  A pink snout stuck out and quiveringly sniffed his face.  He grinned.

“Hi, Piggy Sue.  Everything OK?” He used to laugh at Jimmy and Marvin for talking to them, but all of the pigs genuinely responded to conversation.  Even better, they never asked in questions in return.

Stu threw the clasp on the metal kennel door and opened it.  He reached in and grabbed the mature, black furred, twenty-pound sow.  She snuffled at his face as he examined her.  Her snout and eyes were both clear.  He lifted the flap of one ear and then the other.

“You’ve got a bit of wax build up, Sue,” Stu said warmly. “We’ll have to tend to that before your first show.”

She grunted in response.

Stu spent the next couple of hours lost in his work.  Jimmy had taken care of the morning cleaning, but there was plenty of setup yet to do before the day’s work began in earnest.

He cleaned ears and performed necessary grooming, made sure everyone had enough food and water, swept the track, and resecured the fence.  He sang while he worked.  Jimmy always called him gay for the constant barrage of show tunes, but the pigs enjoyed them.  They especially liked stuff from Into the Woods, so he obliged.  He had seen a flier for a local production last night, but wasn’t able to make it.  This was almost as good.

Ten o’clock arrived quickly enough.  Their first show wasn’t until ten thirty.  They liked giving crowds time to circulate to them.  He spent the thirty minutes before show time the way he always did.  He was now Stu Swinely, Portentous Pig Peddler and he introduced himself as such.  Pun and alliteration were the mortar and pestle of any respectable pig racer.  They aren’t the magic, but they are tools that help make the magic.

Stu encouraged passersby to come and sit on the metal benches.  He encouraged those sitting on the benches to buy plastic “swine snout” masks or “pork pooper” key chains that looked like defecating pig rears when squeezed.  Moms sighed, dads chuckled, and boys and girls begged for money to buy them.  He often found himself watching these interactions wistfully.

For Stu Swinely he emphasized his drawl and increased the raspiness of his voice.  People needed to hear the cowboy in his voice.  Suburban raised college educated types did not announce pig races.

By ten thirty, a good sized crowd had formed.  Show time.  Stu put on his headset and turned on the sound system.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and porcine purveyors of any particular persuasion.”  Stu greeted the crowd.  He projected enthusiastically at them.  They responded lukewarmly, which was not unusual.

“Wait, wait, wait.” Stu braced himself against the racing fence.  He held up a hand toward the crowd and shook his downturned head.  “That’s not going to work.  For me, it’s fine, of course.  But the pigs.  It is well documented pigs are pretentious prima donnas.  If they hear me say, ‘good morning’, and y’all don’t shout back a big east Texas ‘Good Morning’ right back, they may not deign to dignify us with their dramatic dashings.  Let’s try again.”  He repeated his original greeting and the crowd responded much more energetically.  Kids yelled at the top of their lungs, and parents played along.  Good.  It may be a standard fair trick, but it was standard because it worked.

Stu clapped his hands and rubbed them together.  “We have for y’all a swift swine show unlike anything you’ve seen today.”  A few smiles and chuckles responded.  Stu only paused for half of a beat and then continued, smiling.  “We have three races, each better than the last, but before we begin, I’ll remind y’all of what we’ve already covered.  As pretentious porcine, boars beg bellows that bring down the house.  We’ll split y’all into four sections.  Y’all’s job is to cheer with every fiber of your being and encourage your porker.”  As Stu spoke, his eyes searched the crowd.  He made eye contact with those whose minds wandered, and he smiled at everyone.  He winked at a few of the most engaged.  He watched dad’s tussle their son’s hair and watched the kids’ anticipation grow.

“We’ll need cheerleaders for each section.  Volunteers?”  Boys and girls aged six to ten were the most excited at this point.  He made a small production out of choosing each section’s cheerleader, and encouraged each section to cheer for its leader.  The crowd cooperated, and by this point, he knew the show would go well.

“Okay. First up is our piglet division.  These rookies have yet to really cut their little pork chops on racing, so they really need your help.”

Jimmy let the piglets out of their kennel, and they ran out of the trailer and down the ramp.  They arranged themselves into the four metal starting gates.  Jimmy draped colored cloth on each one.  The pieces of cloth had large numbers on them, so the sections knew which one they cheered.

Stu introduced them.  “Our piglets all like action movies, so their racing names are taken from the silver screen.  In lane one, we have Arnold Swinenegger.” He emphasized the pun and gave a tiny laugh break.  If the laugh break were too small, the audience wouldn’t laugh at anything for fear of missing something, but if it were too long a break, they would reflect upon how unfunny and ridiculous the puns became.

“In lane two, Pigolous Cage.” Break. Laughs.

“In lane three, Chuck Boaris.” Section three applauded loudly.  Someone whooped.

“And in lane four, Mel Pigson.” There was a Jewish joke in there he always passed, but he watched a few husbands grin and whisper to their wives.

“Cheerleaders, are y’all ready?” They cheered and jumped around.  Good.

“Sections, are you ready?” The sections cheered with pleasing volume.  Very good.

“3, 2, 1…” He flipped a switch and opened the staring gates.  The pigs all knew what that meant.  There was a single Oreo cookie awaiting the fastest of them only fifty feet away.

Stu called the race with the energy, speed, and opacity of an auctioneer.  “Chuck Boaris leaps into the lead; here comes Mel Pigson. Oh, Pigolous Cage is surging. He’s running, running, running. Arnold Swinenegger cuts inside and- Arnold wins! The Oreo has been terminated.”  It was all over very quickly.  The crowd cheered loudly and enjoyed itself.  People smiled and clapped.  The winning section more so, but the losing sections were not dejected.  The beauty of a pig race is even the losing fans get to watch pigs run in a circle for a cookie.

Stu examined the crowd.  Fathers smiled and hugged children either in congratulations or faux sympathy.  Mothers smiled and patted constantly bouncing heads.  Toddlers grinned, bewildered by it all.  Grandparents laughed and pointed.  Stu beamed back at them all.

Stu guided the crowd through the next event.  The sows ran well, and with a bit more contact than the piglets.  Everyone enjoyed that, too.  Now it was time for Sue.

The racing track circumscribed a twenty foot long metal trough filled with water.  Stu direct the crowd’s attention to it.  “Next, we have Piggy Sue.  She is our Star Sow Swimmer.”

Kids looked to parents for explanation but were mostly encouraged to turn back around and watch.

Jimmy let Piggy Sue down the ramp.  She knew she was something special, and she strutted out to take center stage at one end of the trough.

“OK, everyone.  Piggy Sue needs your help.  She’s a little nervous, and she needs y’all to count to three.”  He raised an index finger. “One.” The crowd yelled the number in unison, with parents helping out some of the younger children.  “Two.”  He raised another finger; the kids yelled louder, now.  “Three.”  They cheered.

Piggy dutifully jumped in the cool water and piggy paddled to the other side.  She held her nose high the whole time and climbed out to raucous applause.  People just flat out love a swimming pig.

Jimmy scooped her up in a towel, raised her high to more cheering and applause, and took her back in the trailer to dry her off, while Stu ran the last group of hogs.

They ran the same fifteen minute show every hour at the bottom of the hour.  Some families, dragged by excited boys or girls, returned for repeat viewings.  Crowds packed the fair all day, and people wore smiles constantly.

Stu couldn’t stop himself from noticing the numerous boys who reminded him of Eli.  He often picked them to be cheerleaders.

By dusk Stu, Jimmy, and the pigs were all exhausted.  Stu took a break from his end of day chores to go sit in his truck.  He pulled out his phone and called Bobby Jo.

“Hey,” she answered.  His chest relaxed from an unnoticed tension.

“Hey, how was your day?”

Jo sighed on the other end of the line.  “Eli won’t do his homework.”

“Have you-”

“Yes,” she sighed again. “I warned him.  He doesn’t listen to me.”

Stu felt the tightness begin to return to his chest.  He gripped the steering wheel and stared out at the rose garden nearby.

“Well, put him on.”

“Fine.” Rustling sounds came from the headset.

“Dad?” a high pitched voice asked cautiously.

“Eli.” Stu lowered his voice and projected his dad from similar conversations two decades ago.  “Did I ask you to help your mother?”

“Yeah, but-”

“What was that, son?” Danger crept into his tone.

“Yes, sir. I mean.” Eli mumbled.

“Did I ask you to do what your mother told you?”

“Yes, sir.” The fight over mumbling would have to wait for another day.

“Did she ask you to do your homework?”  They both knew how this would play out, now, but the script had to be read.

“Yes, sir”

“Did you?”

Silence.  Then, “no, sir.” Tears leaked into the edge of his voice.

“I expect better, son.”  Then he asked something he hadn’t asked in awhile.  “What do you want to do when you grow up?”  He figured he’d use that trick, too.

“Work the fair,” Eli replied meekly.

“What was that?” Stu’s stomach dropped onto the brown carpeted floorboard.

“Work the fair.”  This time Eli used more force.

The silence of the cab drowned out the background laughter and music from the fairgrounds outside.

“I… We’ll talk about that when I get home, son.  Do your homework first.”

“OK, dad.”  Everything returned to bright lights and corny dogs on the other side of the phone.  Then there was rustling, again.

“What did you tell him?” Jo asked brusquely.

“Nothing.”  Now Stu mumbled.  “Look, Jo, I’ve got to go.  Jimmy needs help with the pigs.  I love you.”

“He isn’t going to clean pig shit for a living, Steven.”

“I know, dear.”

She ended the call.  Stu held his phone and stared at it.  After a moment, he returned it to his pocket, heaved open the truck door, and stood from the battered old pickup.  The full moon shown down from a clear sky onto a full fairground.  Families laughed, played, and squealed together.  Here, behind the pig racing trailer, the sounds were muffled and the light barely reached.  In the gloom, Stu reached into his back pocket.  He held the decade old letter for a moment; his thumb absently caressed the school logo.  He leaned back into the cab of the ramshackle Ford and reinterred the envelope in the glove box.  He straightened, took a deep breath of cool night air, and returned to cleaning pig slop.

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  1. Studnougat
    October 6, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Critique: The only area I didn’t like was Stu’s background. Him getting a letter of acceptance from Juilliard feels a bit contrived. The rest of the story seems very real and honest by comparison. This tension was obviously needed for the story, however, I think it would have been much more interesting to be more realistic. For example, what would be Stu’s equivalent to Juilliard? UT, Rice, SMU, etc. I think even more interesting would be what if Stu’s ‘Juilliard’ was not so clearly perfect. For example, he kept a letter from a local theater troupe saying they would take him on, but not pay him. For me, that would open up even more possibilities for internal tension. Has Stu been lying to himself for all these years or is he completely oblivious to the fact that he surely would have never made a living or even really liked what he ‘could have done’.

    • October 7, 2010 at 10:18 am

      That’s a really good point. Juilliard is clearly the optimal choice, so by putting that in, I’ve made it the extreme. Life is rarely that extreme. To adapt some of your ideas, what about an unpaid Broadway internship. There is some greatness there, which is a part of the issue, but it comes at too great a cost. Of course, even an unpaid internship at the Houston Alley theater would be a huge break and represent some of the same problems. Of course, part of ‘Juilliard’ for me was the going away. The added struggle of taking one’s family to a far away place. To your point, there are plenty of good schools that are far from Abilene, TX that aren’t the ‘perfect’ Juilliard.

      I also like the separate component of him lying to himself. Instead of actually being accepted to something, he gave up before he ever even found out, and now just tells himself how things would have gone down. That’s pretty good, too.

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