Workin'

By

I jogged beside Popa, my grandfather, to keep up with his long, even strides. I was nine years old and I figured that his habit of walking tall and fast began while he was a sergeant in World War I. I marveled that his baggy pants cinched by a curled belt never slowed him down.

For over 40 years he followed the same daily routine. Punctually, at 7 a.m., he came to the National City Stockyards to move his hogs to fresh pens.

It was a summer morning, and the steam was just beginning to wave up between the cobblestones. I breathed in short gasps, but I knew that later in the day the choice between breathing and smelling would be difficult. Rats and mice scrambled around the base of troughs of feed. Everywhere water trickled and the mud was inches deep. Through the fence railing I eyeballed the hogs. Most of them weighed between 200 and 400 pounds. From my view they looked like squealing , multicolored mounds of flesh.

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It was early, but the heat was creeping on the day. Popa's straw hat was already discolored with sweat. He marched up the uneven wooden stairs and I gripped the railing behind him. We stopped at his pens and he lifted me up to sit on the fence railing. I clung onto it and looked around me. The yards were a series of long, shadowy buildings dotted with flickering single bulb lights. The air was a mixture of animal noises, smells, heat, and the occasional accent of a train's screeching brakes halting at the nearby packinghouses.

Popa swung open the gate, swished the cane in his hand, and yelled, ''Soooweee! Soooweeee!'' I watched him move into the pen without hesitation, the way I walked into Jimmy's Doughnut Shop. He tapped, cracked, and intoned his hog call. They rolled along obediently in front of him.

I fastened my fingers around the railing and wrapped my legs under the second rail. I knew the hogs were coming right by me and into the fresh pen. What if I fell? I pictured being trampled or bitten or, worse yet, being covered from top to bottom with the slime on the pen floor. I thought if I sat very still and didn't breathe maybe they would never know I was there.

One black-and-white hog lay in the far corner ignoring my grandfather's commands. Popa snapped, ''Sooooweeee!'' across the pen right toward the hog. It jerked up like leaping fish. Popa waited, watched, and whacked his cane on the cobblestones. He zinged his call again. The hog joined the moving mass.

As the last hog ambled into the new pen Popa's hands slid automatically to the iron bar. He slammed and fastened the pen door and scrutinized each hog while he turned on the freshwater faucet. The clean water churned into the dry water trough. Healthy hogs meant a possible profit from his sale at the packinghouses.

I watched the back of Popa's head for the signal. I knew he was satisfied when he nodded and made a clicking sound with his tongue. The hogs knew this sound, too. They took it as a signal to flop in the dirt and put their personal touches on the new pen. I knew it meant he was ready to leave and the next stop on the way home was Jimmy's Doughnut Shop.

Usually, after this routine he turned around and remembered I was there. I tried to freeze my face so he couldn't read it and see how disgusting I thought it all was.

One day after closing the pen door, he stopped. Popa leaned on the railing and just looked at me. The silence hung between our eyes. He nodded and said, ''See Betty! Workin' isn't so hard if you find somethin' you like!'' A smile accompanied his nod and he returned to his routine.

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