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Old Meats

FROM THE OUTSIDE it was clear that the building known generally as "Old Meats" had eased under the hegemony of the horticulture department. Its southern approach, once a featureless slope of green lawn, was now an undulating perennial border whose two arms embraced a small formal garden defined by a carefully clipped and fragrant boxwood hedge. In front of that, an expanse of annuals flowed down the hillside and spilled across flat ground in a tide of August reds, golds, and yellows. Here and there, discreetly placed experimentals tested the climate. Right up against the long windowless southem wall of Old Meats, someone, sometime, without benefit of application, grant, permission from administration or grounds crew, without even the passing back and forth of a memo, someone had planted, then espaliered, a row of apricot and peach trees. In midsummer, just at the end of summer session, they were seen to bear fruit--heavy burnished apricots and big peaches swollen with juice that later disappeared and never seemed to reappear on the salad bars or the dessert bars in any of the dorms or fraternity houses. Nor were they sold at any hort department fund-raising sale, the way apples, Christmas trees, and bedding plants were. They just appeared and disappeared, unnoticed by most though legendary to the few who had stolen fruit, who kept an eye on the seed catalogues, wondering when these cultivars, the Moo U. cultivars, might be introduced to the open market.

In fact, though it stood much in the way of foot traffic from the Bovine Confinement Complex, the Business College, the Chemistry building, the foreign travel office, and graduate student housing, and though, as generations of freshman geographers had found, it stood on the exact geographical center of the campus (unless you included the recently constructed Vet School two miles to the south, which threw everything off), and though it was large and blocky, Old Meats had disappeared from the perceptions of the university population at large. This was fine with the horticulture department, for certain unnamed members and their student cadres had just this summer laid out an extension of the perennial border to the east, curving in wanton floral revelry toward Old Meats' unused loading dock and Ames Road. So much, said the Chairman in private meetings with the rest of his faculty, for their assigned garden site, out by the physical plant and the bus barn, on a dead-end road that no one travelled unless lost. Guerrilla action, as he often remarked to the woman everyone including their children thought was his wife and whom he had met in SDS at the Chicago convention in 1969, was as protean and changeable as the needs of the people.

It was also true, however, that Bob Carlson, sophomore workstudy student, was as invisible to the horticulturists, though he passed them every day, as Old Meats was to the rest of the campus. No busy digger or mulcher ever noticed him unlock the door beside the loading dock and enter, though he did it openly and in full view, often carrying bulky sacks. To them, Old Meats was a hillock in the center of the campus, a field for covering with vines and flowers; to Bob, it was a convenient job, an extension of his life on the farm, but instead of helping his dad feed and care for a thousand sows and their offspring, Bob tended to only one hog, a Landrace boar named Earl Butz. Right on Earl's pen, Bob had taped up a sign that read, "Get big or get out." Every time Bob saw that sign it gave him a chuckle. It was just the sort of joke his dad would appreciate, even though, of course, he had agreed to tell no one, not even his dad, about Earl, Earl's venue, a sparkling new, clean, air-conditioned, and profoundly well-ventilated Ritz-Carlton of a room, or Earl's business, which was eating, only eating, and forever eating.

Just now, as Bob entered, Earl Butz was at the trough, but he noted Bob's arrival, acknowledging the young man with a flick of his ears and a switch of his little tail. Earl Butz was a good worker, who applied himself to his assigned task with both will and enjoyment. Already today he had cleaned the back end of his trough, and now he was working industriously toward the front, offering the lowpitched hog noises that expressed his suitability to his lot in life. Earl Butz had been eating for eighteen months, which was just exactly how old he was. He was white, white as cream cheese or sugar, and fastidious. Bob had noticed that every day, during his breaks from eating, he liked to nose and kick clean straw into a nice nest near the trough and far from the toileting area. Earl Butz also liked a bath, and had no objection to the lifting and cleaning of his trotters. He was an agreeable hog, and Bob liked him. At Christmas, Bob had purchased some large, sturdy red toys (a big ball, a hoop that hung from a ceiling beam, and a blanket) from a kennel catalogue. They had been Earl Butz' first toys, and he played with them when he could fit the time into his work schedule.

Bob filled his trough, emptied and refilled his water reservoir, and scratched his back with a stick. He had been tending Earl Butz since November. He visited him five times every day, and Dr. Bo Jones, Earl's owner, said that he was the best caretaker they'd found. Bob took the compliment for what it was, a testament to the fact that he felt more comfortable with Earl than he did with anyone else he had met since coming to the university. He had his own reasons for not telling his dad about Earl Butz, and they all revolved around the worry his family would experience when they found out that although he was doing fine in his classes, and eating and sleeping well, he had made no friends among the twenty-four thousand other students on the campus, and spent the time he should have spent at parties and bars in his room writing letters to kids from his high school, five letters to girls for every one to a guy, since girls liked to get them and always wrote back, and guys, well, it was hard to tell about guys. They all, at their jobs and colleges, seemed to be partying hearty and getting lucky on a regular schedule.

It was this very knowledge, that all his old friends were having the time of their lives, wherever they were, that had finally kept Bob on the campus all summer. His dad, though he missed the help with the farmwork, couldn't sneer at the money--more than Bob would make at the A & W at home, and a real bite in the tuition bill. And, of course, it had never occurred to Dr. Bo Jones that Bob would even think of abandoning Earl Butz. The rapidity with which the two had become associated, even twinned, in Dr. Bo Jones' mind would have astounded him, had he thought about it. But he was not in the habit of introspection.

"Hog," he said, "is a mysterious creature, not much studied in the wild, owing to viciousness and elusiveness. Can't get the papers, you know, to take yourself to Uzbekistan, even if you had the funding. Never been a hog that lived a natural lifespan. Never been an old hog. Hog too useful. Hog too useful to be known on his own terms, you know. What can I do with this hog, when can I eat it, what can I make of this hog, how does this hog profiteth me, always intervenes between man and hog. When I die, they're going to say that Dr. Bo Jones found out something about hog."

What the doctor was busy finding out about Earl Butz was how big he might grow if allowed to eat at will for all of his natural lifespan. To that end, he was fed corn, alfalfa, middlings, wheat, peanuts, soybeans, barley, a taste of molasses, and skim milk powder on a schedule devised by Dr. Bo Jones and contained in a secret file labelled "i6TONS.Doc" on his home computer. Its companion file, into which he entered, late at night, the results of Earl Butz' weigh-ins and other tests, was labelled "WHTYUGT. Doe." Bob had never seen a printout of either file. He just received weekly instructions and turned in weekly test scores. It was a job. Dr. Bo Jones wasn't unlike some of the eccentric farmers you might meet back home. Bob considered that reassuring.

He spent about half an hour with Earl Butz. This time of day, Earl was pretty busy. Mornings he was more playful. By ten, when Bob always returned for a last check, Earl would have turned in, sleeping soundly, his mounded bulk rolled up against the orange metal slats of his pen as if for comfort.

Outside of Earl's pen, Old Meats was dim and empty. The classes in slaughtering and meat cutting that had once been held there were long removed to the purview of the junior college forty miles away, along with hotel cooking, barbering, auto mechanics, cosmetology, and everything else that Bob's dad and uncles would have considered respectable work. These days, no parade of animals marched to the holding pen and then, one by one, to the slaughtering floor. The meat locker was just a room now, its heavy door removed. The white enamel demonstration tables, still bolted to the cement in the stage area of the teaching amphitheater, canted dustily toward the center drain. No water ran from either spigot at the back of the area, nor from the faucets into the long, enamelled washing basin, nor had any use been found around the university for this equipment. Possibly it was not inventoried on any computer in any office, and had, therefore, ceased to exist.

Out in the twilight, Bob saw that the horticulturists had retreated for the day. Shadows lengthened across the lawns toward a warm August dusk. Where a woman was walking alone from the Ames Road parking lot, within days thousands of students and hundreds of faculty would be traversing the paths and sidewalks. Bob was looking forward to getting to know the new apartment-mates he had found in May, but maybe he preferred this sight. The woman's dark, thick hair was piled in a loose bun. She wore a vibrant orange and yellow skirt, long and fluid, a crisp white sleeveless blouse with a sharply pointed collar, and orange shoes tied around slender ankles. Her summer tan stood out against the white of her blouse, and she didn't look like any T-shirted undergraduate or crisply permed sorority girl Bob had ever seen on the campus. He wondered if she knew how she looked, if she had planned to look that way, or if, as often happened to him, she might come upon a mirror or a plate glass window and surprise herself with the way her dressing effort for the day had turned out. At least she would be pleasantly surprised. Bob's usual experience ran quite the other way. She opened the door to Stillwater Hall, and disappeared inside.


More Than Seven Thousand
New Customers Every August

UNDERGRADUATE CATALOGUE, 1970-71: The experimental dormitory, Dubuque House, offers freshman students new and enlightening responsibilities for living, studying, and socializing in an unusually well-integrated and modern living situation. At Dubuque House, white students and Afro-American students plan meals together, share housekeeping duties, and largely govern themselves, free of the more customary houseparents. Most importantly, these students learn to respect each other, and to find common ground for lasting friendships. Because students prepare their own meals and maintain their own grounds and living quarters, the college is able to offer a 5 percent rebate on tuition and room and board expenses.

UNDERGRADUATE CATALOGUE, 1989-90: Unique to universities of this size and type, Dubuque House offers undergraduate women the opportunity to experience multicultural diversity on a daily basis. Activities and house governance promote debate and self-determination--no rules are imposed by the university administration except basic rules of conformity to campus-wide standards of upkeep. Originally a beautifully maintained and elegant mansion that predates the university itself, Dubuque House is a uniquely homey and noninstitutional place for undergraduate women to live, but more importantly, it is a place for women of all ethnicities and backgrounds to come together in cooperation and respect. Physically challenged students will find that Dubuque House is well suited to their special needs. Because students prepare their own meals and maintain their own grounds and living quarters, and because the university is deeply committed to the ideals of multicultural diversity that Dubuque House represents, a 20 percent rebate on tuition and room and board is offered to Dubuque House students. Assignment is on a first come, first served basis.

IN SPITE OF the detailed Let's Get to Know each Other booklet that the university had sent to each student on the fifteenth of July, the only thing Mary Jackson really knew about her roommates and the other Dubuque House students was that they probably couldn't have afforded the university if they didn't live in Dubuque House. Certainly, she could not have. Living in Dubuque House lowered her expenses below even what they would have been at the University of Illinois, where she would have had in-state tuition, and so she was here, sitting on her bunk with her suitcases, watching her roommates arrive and smiling every time one of them or one of their parents looked her way. Her bus from Chicago had gotten in at seven a.m. but she tried hard not to show the effects of her long night--four hours in the bus station because her sister had to drop her off before going to work, then ten hours on the bus next to a very small white man in dark blue Keds who stared at the ceiling with his eyes open and kept his hands folded in his lap the whole time, even when they stopped for a snack and a rest-room break. His likeness to a corpse had been contradicted only by his occasional giggles, unaccompanied by movement or change of any kind, and toward the middle of the night, Mary had begun to wonder if he were some sort of a robot or mechanical man being sent secretly from one lab to another, more cheaply on the bus than by UPS Next Day Air.

Without seeming to, disguised by apparent perusal of the catalogue, Mary was glancing at Keri, Sherri, and Diane, who bustled back and forth as if they owned the place already, and knew each other already. In fact, Sherri's mother unconsciously claimed all three of them as her daughters, because she called each of them "honey." To Mary, she had said, "Oh, you're Mary. From Chicago. Hello, dear."

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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