Christmas in Brownsville

It wasn’t often that I made it home, so when my friend Victor invited me over to help his family make tamales from scratch, I said yes. Soon I was staring into the eyes of a 120-pound pig.

WE WERE ON OUR THIRD BEER when the pig finally showed up that morning. Someone had built a fire in the back, and we were all standing by the pit, trying to wake up and get warm at the same time. The burning wood seemed to be the only real light in the neighborhood. A mesquite hung heavy with scrawny icicles that were losing their courage with the approaching sun. It was cold for Brownsville, even for a Christmas Eve. My friend Victor had invited me over to his parents’ house, and now we were waiting around the fire with his two younger brothers, a nephew, and some friends of theirs I hadn’t met until that morning. The women were waiting in the kitchen, warm and dry. His family did this every Christmas—the men killed a pig and the women made tamales with the meat.

I hadn’t been over to Victor’s old neighborhood since high school. After graduating, he had moved away and gone to college but had come back a year later, married, and trained to be a surgical tech at the hospital. He and Maggie eventually bought a nice house, the highlight of which is the Cowboys Room, a shrine with a jumbo-sized TV screen and more Dallas Cowboys memorabilia than you’ll find anywhere south of Irving. I’d stop by when I was in town, but it wasn’t that often that I made it back. I was living in Austin, and over the years I’d made new friends at the ad agency where I worked. There were times I skipped Christmas in Brownsville and spent the holidays traveling outside the country. Maybe I’d visit my parents in the spring or summer, when the weather was nicer and I could go to the beach. I’d been traveling, on business, when Victor called my apartment and left a message on the machine. “Are you coming home this year or not, bro?”

This wasn’t the first time he’d invited me to his parents’ house on Christmas Eve. Since back in high school, every year I’d come up with some excuse why I couldn’t go, but mainly it was because just about anything sounded better than getting up at six in the morning to kill a pig. It was the same thought that crossed my mind when I saw the truck backing up into the driveway.

The pig was standing in the back, tied to the front corners of the bed with two ropes that didn’t look thick enough for the job. To call the pig a pig and not a hog was to flatter the animal. According to the farmer who sold it to Victor’s older brother, the animal weighed just over 120 pounds, which seemed kind of light whenever it shifted its weight and the truck rocked side to side. It was all white, though the patches on its haunches made it seem as if it had been darker once and over time had faded. Its feet and legs were caked with mud and something that smelled a lot worse than mud. One of the ears flopped forward, while the other stood rigid and perked up, as if it were listening closely, trying to understand what everyone was saying.

I was standing near the truck when the pig turned its head and looked straight at me. It was more of a glance, only a second or two, but the calmness of its eyes told me the animal had no idea what was going on. Then it cocked its fat head and the ropes went taut and looked ready to snap. About that time, someone made the first pig joke, one I can’t remember now, though I had the sense that it was the same pig joke in a series of pig jokes they’d made the year before and the year before that and so on, the same anytime a pig happened to arrive in the back of the truck. There were jokes about how the pig looked like it could be related to one of the friends. There were jokes about how the pig looked like a girl one of the guys had slept with once. There were jokes about how the pig looked a lot better than the girl one of the guys had slept with once, especially around the mouth. On and on, until it was time to figure out how to get the animal off the truck.

Victor’s two younger brothers dug out a pair of long planks from underneath the house. They rested the boards next to each other on the edge of the bed and let the ends crunch into the icy grass. The guys split up, one on either side of the truck, and the rest of us stood a few feet from the tailgate, forming a gauntlet that led toward the backyard. Victor and his older brother undid the ropes and led the animal to the edge of the bed, but when it reached the planks, it stopped and wouldn’t move any farther. It took a couple of tugs and some prodding from behind before it stepped onto one of the planks, felt the wood begin to give, and hurled itself forward with the grace and poise of a 120-pound pig. Its front feet hit the ice first, causing it to slide a bit to the right before it was able to correct itself and trot along into the backyard.

The pig seemed content to root around in the grass. A wooden table stood

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