A HOG ON ICE
"Dear husband," Alice lied. "Pass the coffee carafe."
Moccus lifted it with his forelegs and pressed it into Alice's lap. He smiled like a baby with gas. Alice nodded her head in lukewarm approval but her eyes remained fixed on the antique gynecological speculum atop the mantle. The gleaming metal turned her reflection into a banana shape and excluded Moccus entirely. A pleasantness descended on the parlor between Alice and the giant hog.
"Thank you kindly," she said. But then Moccus let the snot drool from his snout. Alice pounded her wheelchair armrests. "Show some snazz, some elan, you gat-damned fat-guts!"
Alice kept an annotated mental list of Moccus' sins and peccadilloes. This one is Number Thirty-Nine. Number Four is the time he went all over the banquet table shortly before her book club guests arrived. Number Fourteen is the time he waited until the charming French boarder took off all her clothes to announce his presence in the canopy bed. When she threw her hair-tearing fits, Dr. Noyes out-and-out refused to listen to her. Sometimes he put his fingers in his ears and hummed Gershwin until she rascaled out of the room.
Alice hyperventilated in the wordless parlor.
Moccus scratched at his swollen side with a dewclaw. The first day of spring had come and gone; he was about ready to blow coat. He wanted to run out to the orchard, to rub against the bark until his hair came out in hunks, to fall into the newly thawed wallow and kick his hooves into the air. No. Alice wouldn't let him. She was ready for games.
"What about these bills?" Alice shook an imaginary piece of paper in the air.
"Alice - " Alice tut-tutted. "I mean, my sweets," said Moccus. "We'll pay them somehow."
"Your job at the tooth factory just isn't enough," Alice said.
"I thought I worked at the folding chair company?"
"No," Alice said, dropping her voice. "Remember? When we play husband and wife, you work in dental prosthetics. The folding chair company's when you're my pretend son."
"Oh, right. Good news. I heard Bronson talking around the water cooler. He told Clark that they're grooming me for a position in molars."
Alice shook until she almost fell out of her wheelchair. One of her slippers flew off and hit the Fragonard print on the far wall. Her face flushed so that her golden eyebrows stood out terribly bright and sharp. "That didn't happen!"
"You're right, dear. I don't know why I always lie like that. They fired me today. I didn't make my quota. I was ten mouths short," said Moccus.
"Grow some balls, Moccus!" She knew that Moccus was a barrow, too. His tensing legs rumpled the Oriental rug.
"Don't hit me." He was ready to bolt. It took will to remain by her side.
"I don't hit you when you're my husband."
"But now you're someone else."
The switch scorpioned out from underneath her lap-blanket and stung his nose. It drew a purple welt the size of a fat man's pinkie. It made his ass clench in pain. Moccus knew not to run. He bit at his own ears in anguish.
"Don't you flinch at me!" Alice said, braining him with the handle.
His eyes pleaded with her.
"You don't know how good you have it, pig."
She smelled blood in the water.
"I'd like to see you suffer like I've suffered. Like you've made me suffer!" Alice yanked her wavy blonde hair back into a bun. "Oh, I'd like to see that. I'd like to see your backside thicken and weep. Oh, what a world!"
Six months after her uncle Dr. Noyes created Moccus to save the world's nitrogen cycle, five months after Moccus' first word, two months after Moccus spilled jelly on her keepsake book and four months before the story begins, Alice fell down and couldn't stand up. She shrieked in pain and she shrieked for a thorough medical examination. Dr. Noyes obliged her. He found sores running up and down her spine. They looked something like rotten spots on a gone potato, but Dr. Noyes knew enough to keep that tidbit to himself. After a good palpation, he declared it "moist dermatitis of unknown cause," handed her a grocer's bag of Vicodin, and hunkered down to work on his other experiments. That just wasn't good enough for Alice. They argued until Dr. Noyes told her he'd put her out on the street like he always wanted to. She made herself cry. Dr. Noyes couldn't stand her unseemly sorrowing, so he caved.
He re-identified it as "a zoonotic variety of Erythema Multiforme." It's a common stress-related disorder among pigs that, according to Doctor Noyes, broke the species barrier and jumped from Moccus to Alice. He christened it the "Dipping Alice Syndrome." The notion of a psychosomatic reaction leaping from animal to man thrilled him. He prescribed penicillin and more opiates and assured Alice that he would do all he could to investigate this wild new phenomenon. In three hours he returned to the study of the "exhibitionist singularity," an imaginary physics anomaly of his own devising, and forgot that his niece was confined to a wheelchair. Needless to say, Alice blamed Moccus for everything. Moccus blamed Moccus for everything. And Doctor Noyes blamed the pernicious willfulness of nature, but no one asked him.
Alice did everything she could to distress Moccus. Even though Moccus weighed ten tons and shat dangerous self-denitrifying manure, Alice gave him the hinks something awful. True, that Alice was a cold bitch by any standard, but she had a special power over him. It's no surprise, then, that Moccus loved her.
When Alice couldn't stand his blubbering and vacuum chewing any longer, she sent him away to do chores.
That night Moccus squatted at his writing desk. He hunched over the sheaf of paper like a nauseous drunk. The very whiteness of the paper irked him. He would have much rather written on a black chalkboard or dug out his words from etch paper. There was something already there, at least. White was too empty. He wrote to spite it.
Cue the boy's choir. Tonight they're singing the opening from "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones. At least, that's what's playing behind Moccus' fleshy brow.
"Dear Diary, I know my relationship with Alice is just pretend," he penned, "but it feels right when she calls me sweet names. God, she can be so dear when she's faking it. Sometimes I even think she means it for real. True glimpses of her are as precious as the green flash on a sunset ocean. The Lord only knows what's real about her.
"Most of the time she's plain nasty. I know. I should learn to be a man. A man keeps his height in front of a woman, I'm sure. I should tower over her instead of cowering like a schlub. But Alice jellies my bones. She makes my throat feel shut up airtight. She makes my castration tingle and its phantom shrivel. Her awfulness is so great that, when she's gone, the thought of it makes me feel like a better person. That might be why I love her. Or think I love her.
"I went to Dr. Noyes and asked him about the heart mystery so he gave me a copy of Gray's Anatomy. I don't quite understand it all. It told me that the heart hangs in areas of dullness, both superficial and deep, and it has valves like the moon. A few bits did make sense, though. The heart's base is up and its apex down, it said; I can see that the heart is clearly turned round wrong. I hope that someday, with our modern science, we can correct it. But what interested me most was a thing called the appendix auriculae, 'so-called from its fancied resemblance to a dog's ear.' It's a terrible thought that there's a dog's ear in my heart, unscratched forever. I can feel it perfectly. There's just no way to reach it. I think about it whenever I dwell on Alice. If I asked her, I'm sure she'd break open my chest and scratch the inner walls of my heart. If I could only bring myself to ask her, she would."
After seeing what he'd written on the page, Moccus made a sour face. The words always took on a life of their own after they left his utensil. The night was tired and the day had been long, so he crumpled his entry and threw it into the wastebasket. And it was a fateful thing that he did.
The next day Dr. Noyes leaned against the ID dumpster behind his house while big Martha rooted through the garbage. Martha was the last in a series of tenants of the cramped room above Dr. Noyes' garage. Unlike the other boarders, she remained unfazed by the rampant experiments or the calcified suburban neighborhood surrounding. Martha was a survivor and no sentient fungal networks or echopraxic robots or anal-compulsive mall-contents were going to keep her from a good deal. Health and safety wouldn't keep her away, either, which is why she pilfered through the Noyes family refuse every Wednesday.
"What's this?" she asked.
"A scale model of the Chicxulub crater."
"Oh. What's that over there?"
"A candiru worm impaled on a geometric compass," Dr. Noyes said. Martha smiled, thinking the compass might be useful. It was a rare and yellowy moment when Martha smiled at anything other than the television. She had a reason for that beyond her dimness. Even through his welder's goggles, Dr. Noyes could see her damaged mouth.
"A veritable breeding pit of mutans streptococci and lactobacilli," Dr. Noyes said.
When she grabbed it, the compass needle bit into the meat of her palm. She sucked on the wound for a moment but then, seeing a half eaten pound cake, burrowed back into the trash. Maybe she'd find some Bactine spray or Neosporin.
"Animalcules. Dirty little animalcules that thrive on those googoo clusters you nosh and thank you by voiding lactic acid up and down your teeth," Dr. Noyes said.
She tried to keep her teeth hidden when she mouth-breathed.
"Oh, I don't believe in those," Martha said, extracting a frayed extension cord from the dust heap. She could use that for a tourniquet, perhaps.
"You should, my dear. That sort of thinking got me into the dentist's chair one day for some serious surgery," Dr. Noyes said.
"I don't want to recall it. They drugged me. It was just awful. The wickedness of nitrous oxide cast a pall upon my life." At the very thought, Dr. Noyes hid his face in the crook of his arm.
"I found a note," Martha said.
Dr. Noyes gunned his throat before beginning his impassioned speech.
"Its first effect was to peal through me with unutterable power the conviction that Hegelism was true after all, and that the deepest convictions of my intellect hitherto were wrong. That was only the beginning of my harrowing descent into intellectual flabbiness. I shudder to think what a freak synthetic fertilizer accident might do to the masses. It could set off an explosion of nitrous oxide, that's what it could do! A great cloud of unknowing would pass over the land. It would mean the end of all civilization. Curse you Fritz Haber (1868-1934) and your infernal Process! Curse you!" Dr. Noyes intoned.
"This handwriting looks funny. Like a kindergartener's."
Dr. Noyes snatched the note from Martha's grubby fingers. In an instant he knew that Moccus had written it; the improperly closed loops in the e's and i's smacked of his careless penmanship.
"Eureka! This is clearly the root of Alice's disorder!" Dr. Noyes said, dashing back into the house. "Carry on with your rummaging, my dear Martha. Oh, the places you'll go!"
Dr. Noyes found Alice answering correspondence in the picture window. She used a peacock feather quill and an inkwell shaped like a frog prince. While she wrote, she chewed on a chancre sore on the inside of her cheek. It helped her concentrate. She didn't hear Dr. Noyes' work boots or his rasping breath or the flap-flap-flap of the leather smock against his gut.
She startled when he said, "Hello."
"What do you want, Uncle?" she asked.
"I have discovered the etiology of your unfortunate syndrome," Dr. Noyes said.
Like a true showman, he paused a moment to let it sink in. When she smiled and began to thank him, he went for the coup de grace, "And I have devised a treatment."
Alice nearly fell off her perch when she tried to wrap her arms around his neck.
"Now, this is all still hypothetical, of course, but I believe that the root of your illness lies in my creation, Moccus."
"I thought so." Alice snarled her lip smugly.
"It is not, however, simply a zoonotic illness. Instead, it is a continuously projected psychosomatic reaction. Perhaps we'll call it a 'metempsychosomatic reaction.' I've tested it thoroughly with Zener cards and my orgone machine; I can almost certainly say that your syndrome is a contagious form of lovesickness, as it were."
"I don't know what you mean. I'm not pining at all!" Alice said.
Dr. Noyes pressed his pointer finger to his lips and raised his eyebrows.
"No, you aren't, but our companion Moccus most certainly is and his unfortunate emotional condition has somehow slipped the bonds of his freakish brain and infected you. Hence the porcine symptoms," Dr. Noyes said.
"What is there to be done?" Alice asked.
"It's simple. To make you happy, we must make Moccus happy. We must convince him that he has everything he wants. We must give him the object of his desire. In short, you must hoodwink the pig," Dr. Noyes said. "Imagine the experimental data!"
In the late afternoon Alice called Moccus into the parlor, this time to shine her Mary Janes. Moccus could discern the color of his eyes from their reflection - they hadn't touched the ground in weeks - but Alice insisted that they were smudged chalkboard gray. Moccus knelt at her ankles until his joints ached from buffing.
It took Alice a full tell minutes to summon up the moxie to run her fingers through Moccus' thicket of hair. The oil clung to her fingers like Vaseline.
"You're," Alice said. She looked down at his mud-spattered snout. It was as broad as a snow-shovel and bristled with plaque-caked tusks. His nostrils quivered expectantly. The word broke in her throat like a sucked eggshell, "Nice?"
A single tear trailed through the sleep around Moccus' eyes. She hadn't been playing a role. More tears came until his face deformed with weeping. He tossed his head left and right.
"You're so kind, Alice. So kind," said Moccus.
He sounded like the Elephant Man when he cried.
"No, you're - "
Moccus buried his head into her lap and wallowed in her unmoving thighs. Alice's face made a silent scream that she dared not let Moccus see. She raised her hands to spare them the naked touch of that moaning pig.
"Compose yourself!" she snapped.
Moccus daubed his tears on her lap-blanket. His posture straightened but shudders still threatened it. As he gazed at Alice, a soulful look of hope took his little red eyes. She instantiated his dreams.
"What game are we playing today?" asked Moccus.
"No game, this time. We're just going to talk."
At first their words were outnumbered by silences but, as afternoon faded into evening, they struck common interests. They were tenuous at best but these fragments were all Alice had to shore against her awkwardness. They reminisced about disastrous experiments, mostly. There was the time that Dr. Noyes tried to cure world hunger with nano-replicators and instead transformed the koi pond into creme brule. The best part was the splattering sound the carp made when they dashed themselves against the shell as they suffocated. That still got a chuckle out of everyone. And then there was the time that his second-best monkey suffered from outer space radiation and one of its keloids grew to the size of a hot air balloon and absorbed some of the neighbors. Dr. Noyes almost cried when neighborhood planning struck down his plans for a solarium in retribution for the growth's killing spree. They could go on for hours and they did.
"With all these catastrophes, I'm surprised you've stuck around," said Moccus.
"I'll leave someday; I can't stay forever. I've always said that, once I find a husband, I'm moving out. Maybe to the city."
"The dating scene is the worst these days. So the television told me."
"You don't know the half of it," Alice said.
"Do you think I'll ever go amok or awry like the other experiments?"
Alice looked down at her folded hands.
"Who knows? Maybe you already have. Maybe it'd be a good thing. To go against your creator's will, you know. Assert yourself."
"Perhaps, but it's still nice to think that I have a purpose and that I'm fulfilling it."
In a distant room, Dr. Noyes whispered, "You don't know the half of it," and cackled quietly to himself.
Little did they know, the antique gynecological speculum was actually a wireless sensor transmitting their video live via the Internet. Or that the roaches underneath the floorboards were actually biomechanical drones serving as recording devices. Or that Latah the Robot was listening by the keyhole. Or that one of the windowpanes was actually a crystalline entity Dr. Noyes recovered from the Mariana Trench and flattened until it looked somewhat like a windowpane. Unfortunately, he had yet to figure out how to communicate with the entity, but all of his other spies worked just fine.
Every morning Moccus sat in his spot in the breakfast nook. He ate a brimming bathtub of Ross Mill Farm's Champion Premium Pet Pig Food. Dr. Noyes usually refused to eat with the rest of the family and instead had a toaster strudel in his study while he read trade journals and academic papers to wake up. This morning, however, he sat next to Moccus with a tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and a chummy smile.
"Top of the morning to you," Dr. Noyes said.
"Good morning, sire."
"I trust you slept well?"
"Well, actually, my sleep apnea's been bothering me. I have only myself to blame; I probably need to lose a few pounds. Thank you for caring, sire."
"Oh, do you need your metabolism tweaked? Maybe a gastric bypass? It'd only take a few hours. What do you say - you and me in the lab like old times?"
"No thank you, sire. I wouldn't want to bother you and, well, burning the fat myself will probably build character or willpower or what have you," said Moccus as he inhaled more slop.
Dr. Noyes took a drink. He could feel the pulp on his tongue. He rolled it against the roof of his mouth as he tried to think of more conversation. There was something unsettling about talking to his creation. In a way, he thought, it was like talking to himself but he never had long pauses when he talked to himself.
"Are you otherwise in proper working order?" Dr. Noyes asked.
"I believe I am, sire. You built me well."
"Have you been depositing your manure in the garden like I told you to?"
"Yes, sire. Every piece of it. And I've made sure that there isn't a lot of run off into the neighbor's yards, just like you said."
Dr. Noyes turned his head like a turret and fired, "That's dedication, there, especially since Alice keeps you so busy."
Dr. Noyes locked his eyes onto Moccus' like a retinal scanner. His lips almost moved as he formed his analysis of the pig's expression. He measured the expansion of Moccus' iris, the perturbation of his features, and the rate of his breath and found their variance to be statistically significant. Dr. Noyes determined all of these by eyeballing him and did it before Moccus could even respond. He was that good.
"You shouldn't expect anything less of me, sire."
"What do you think of Alice?" Dr. Noyes asked. He had a new mind control device in the works, so he wanted to cut to the chase.
"She's gracious?" said Moccus.
"No, what do you really think of her?" Dr. Noyes asked.
"I'm awfully fond of her," said he.
Dr. Noyes clapped his electrician's gloves together and laughed. Before Moccus could wilt under misperceived ridicule, Dr. Noyes shouted, "That's wonderful! She seems to have taken a shine to you, too!"
Moccus blew bubbles into his chow. He nearly choked. Without pulling out of the food, he looked at Dr. Noyes. The man's expression didn't change. There was no, "Gotcha!" A vertiginous dread climbed up Moccus' ribs, rung by rung. Now he had something to lose. Now things were serious. The situation seemed as delicate as the meniscus his snout interrupted. The slightest shift ended it. Moccus withdrew.
"Is that so?" asked Moccus.
"That's my boy!" Dr. Noyes said, hitting Moccus' shoulder with his knuckles. "Now, then, I have some schizophrenics to taunt. Today I think I'll psychically transmit that I'm a Zionist conspirator. How does that sound?"
Moccus was about to say, "That sounds lovely, sire," when a whoop from upstairs cut him short. Dr. Noyes dashed upstairs and Moccus bounded after him. It was all Moccus could do to not break the staircase or the banister as he went.
Alice stood on the landing. That's right, stood. Her steps were not faltering or halting; she seemed to slide through the air. Alice shined in an almost post-coital glow of exultation. In her white nightgown she looked like some sign in the heavens presaging a long-awaited revolution. Her eyes were blue jets piercing the ionosphere. Her cheeks were sundogs. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" rang forth from her bedroom door.
Moccus thought that the wings of a swan might emerge from the gown's folds at any moment until she said, "Get out my way, you dirty fucking swine! I'm going for a walk on my own."
Alice pushed past him, cringing as she touched his unavoidable gut. Her clouds obscured his vision. Moccus saw it was a blizzard coming. It tumbled through his skies, eclipsing her sun. The wildmen of his thoughts banged pots and pans, yawped, keened, killed each other with the jawbones of their dead as the hearth fire of his mind smoldered out. The snow queen blew kisses. Drifts overwhelmed the wildmen. Glaciers dug up their burial sites, broke their bones, scattered their potsherds, drove their black kindling into another state entirely. Seeing the pig's ruination, Dr. Noyes stepped away.
Moccus heard the front door open. Cold scared the blood and feeling from his limbs. It dried his eyes and mouth. Imagine his nervous system as a bare deciduous tree snapping underneath the rime. Its popping and cracking accompanied the bubble wrap sound of sores erupting and liquefying along his toughened backside. Then the peculiar sting of ice water in an open tooth cavity rushed down his spinal column. Absolute zero.
When she fell again, Alice cracked her tailbone on the front stoop.
about the author
J.S. Carroll is a senior at the University of Louisville and a columnist and the focus editor for the Louisville Cardinal. He also inherited a bookstore in New Jersey. Contact him here.