Escape from Hog Heaven

Dina Ben-Lev

During the summer of 1978, New York City garbage bags leaked and oozed in front of every building. The waist-high trash blocked access to the parked cars, and dogs were forced to urinate and worse against the stench-filled bags. After coming in from outside, I needed a few minutes of lying prone on the couch to regain a regular breathing pattern. One evening my parents suggested that I might benefit from a couple of months out of Manhattan. As the son and daughter of poor immigrants, they’d never had the chance to escape the odoriferous city heat. Perhaps, they said, I should breathe in fresh air, see some nature, and possibly learn French.

My high school required that I take several years of either French or Spanish. At thirteen I’d just finished my first year of French, and I’d barely squeaked by—my New York accent kept the teacher continually shaking his head. It was gibberish to me, and I kept failing the listening part of our exams. A friend of the family had suggested a program called “The Experiment in International Living,” and we excitedly filled out the application.

The concept was that for a fee a teenager could be sent to spend the summer with a family in a foreign country. As I was only thirteen, I wasn’t considered mature enough for France or Switzerland or any of the more exotic options. I was eligible for St. Marie de Beauce, a rural town in Quebec.

There were fifteen of us and a program director arranged our living situations. I was to live with a family who owned a pork farm. They fattened up a little over a thousand pigs, eventually selling them to a rendering plant that turned them into neatly-sliced Canadian bacon. The family, consisting of Monsieur and Madame LeDuque, their three daughters, aged eight, ten, and seventeen, and a son, fifteen, knew not a word of English. I would be forced to speak French.

When I heard there would be a fifteen-year-old son, I began daydreaming about the love affair that would ensue. We would use our hands to say all that we couldn’t manage with words. When I arrived and saw that Pierre was a skulking sort of fellow with mud in his hair and a permanent sneer, I let that daydream drop to my feet.

The daughters seemed happy enough to see me, and the parents, clearly up to their elbows in the tasks that keep a large farm running, tried to be solicitous and polite. I carried my pocket dictionary with me everywhere. I would point and one of the girls would tell me the word in French. I did a great deal of pointing, but Couchon—pig, was by far the most spoken word that summer.

It became clear to me by day two that this family, in allowing me to join them, expected great labor on my part. I didn’t disappoint them. Pigs that weigh around seven hundred pounds will produce prodigious amounts of fecal matter. Day after day the trampled turds oozed up and covered the ill-fitting work boots the family had lent me. I hated tying those crap-splattered laces each morning.

Raking out and spraying down the pigpens wasn’t difficult, but it took time and effort. Even the New York City garbage strikes hadn’t quite prepared me for these overwhelming odors. Afterwards, we filled the troughs with grain, cakes, and pies. The LeDuque family had a deal with the nearby Vachon Factory, a Little Debbie kind of establishment, to buy up all the returned or stale baked goods. It was a tedious effort, tearing open hundreds of little snack-sized packages of cupcakes and pies. I felt like a host at a birthday party for the phenomenally pushy and obese.

The two younger girls and I would wake up just before sunrise and work in the pigpens until lunch time. We washed our hands, of course, but ate our enormous hot meals wearing our splattered and smelly outfits. Our crap-caked shoes waited on a mat in the garage.

Lunch was the main meal of the day. We drank pitchers of fresh milk Madame LeDuque had just retrieved from one of the several cows. It was warm, but deliciously thick and frothy like a vanilla shake. We gobbled down slabs of ham and sausages. An assortment of fresh pies and cookies always awaited us for dessert.

In the afternoons the girls and I did laundry, peeled potatoes, picked vegetables from the garden, and acted as beer and coffee fetchers for Monsieur LeDuque, his son, and several young men who were building a new barn on the far side of the property.

In the evenings the parents and the two older siblings sat around smoking cigarettes and drinking Molson Golden Ale. An old television set was tucked away in a corner of the living room, but they rarely turned it on because only one station came in, and it was in English. Mostly evenings were filled with card games and Elvis’ greatest hits, the only record they played that entire summer.

The most striking thing was the fact that there were no books in the house, not even school texts, which they must’ve borrowed during the year and returned at the end of the term. The only book I ever saw was a little red Bible on the coffee table in the living room, but it was so yellowed, I was afraid to touch it, certain that it would crumble in my hands. And maybe it would have, for I never saw anybody attempt to pick it up.

Aside from my pocket-sized Cassell’s, I’d brought only two books with me, assuming that all my free moments would be spent chatting happily in French. Well, during my month with the LeDuques, I read Picture of Dorian Gray and The Good Earth, three times each. When you spend all day working until the veins in your arms ache, apparently you don’t feel like talking. You feel like sitting and looking into space or playing a hand of cards. Still, I was learning French at a furious pace, even if it was a Quebeçois dialect.

After a month I had begun to dream in French, and I lost that heavy New York City intonation. In all respects, the “Experiment in International Living” seemed to be a success. I hadn’t made life-long friends, but the girls and I spent time amiably side by side. I’d conquered my fear of French and gained an appreciation for the physically consuming life of a farmer. In fact, up until my last week with the LeDuque family, there’d been only one thing that had, well, made my stomach do flip-flops: their attitude towards death.

When you have a large farm with over a thousand animals, it’s inevitable that some will die. Piglets were sometimes born malformed, chickens fell ill, and Monsieur LeDuque routinely drowned litters of kittens as there were more than enough cats around the property.

But for some reason the dead animals weren’t buried. Maybe that would’ve been too time-consuming, or they thought bacteria would leech into the shallow ground water; I’m not sure. Instead, feathered, furry, and pink-colored corpses were piled up on top of each other where they rotted in the sun. Every few days new corpses were added to the pile. The smell of decomposing flesh is like no other in the world; it makes the most vomitive fecal odors seem palatable. It pushes you to the darkest dungeon of your mind. It pulls at the trap door of your throat. God forbid, if you had even one screw loose and were forced to stand in the breeze of rotting corpses, you might seriously try to tear off your nose.

The pile of dead animals was about four feet high and about three hundred feet from the house, which was way too close, if you asked me, but nobody did, and I learned to hold my breath and walk by with my hands over my ears. The buzzing of what sounded like a billion-some flies was more than I could bear.

I was also poorly prepared for the way human deaths were discussed. On the two occasions we visited some neighbors, photo albums of the deceased and their funerals were brought out for me to see. One family had a white satin album that covered their son’s fatal motorcycle accident—pictures of the bloody scene, the boy’s broken body. A leg had been severed and was lying in a bloody pool twenty feet from the bike. The mother slowly turned the pages, to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

There were pictures of the funeral, the open casket, and finally, pictures of her son’s gravestone. Although it must have been incredibly painful for this mother to be reliving this event, especially with a stranger, she chatted happily with Madame LeDuque while I did the best I could to mask my horror. Later, another neighbor showed me an identical album, this time of her son’s car accident. The pictures from the accident scene were no less gruesome than those I’d viewed previously. I’d told both mothers how sorry I was, and both had answered that their sons were “better off up there with God.” The LeDuque family explained that it was customary to have Death Albums; they were a tribute to the deceased.

If the two popes hadn’t died that summer, one right after the other, I don’t think we would’ve gone to church. As it was, one Sunday Madame LeDuque handed me one of her skirts and told me we were going to visit the basilica Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. I welcomed a change in the routine. Monsieur LeDuque had unveiled and washed a raspberry-colored Cadillac. Up till that point, I had only seen their muddy, sputtering old truck. We were certainly on our way to something special.

In a vague way I knew the family was religious. There were crucifixes nailed in corners all over the house. Sometimes Madame LeDuque would cross herself as she passed one of these, but that was the extent of the family’s religious practice as far as I saw.

Madame LeDuque and the two older daughters cried during the newscast about the first pope’s death, and they had looked at me and said, “C’est triste, c’est triste, non?”

Oh yes, I assured them, being the diplomat, so very, very sad. For days the TV was kept on, and each evening the family continued to watch those crowds of mourners at the Vatican, crying under umbrellas. Given their belief, I couldn’t figure out why everyone was so devastated; didn’t they think that a pope would be sitting up in heaven’s version of a La-Z-Boy, bathed in the happy glow of God?

I went back to reading The Good Earth with its starving Chinese peasants. I wondered whether Pearl S. Buck made herself ravenous, writing about those who were grateful to suck on strands of grass.

But here we were, all of us bathed and wearing our so-called Sunday best. Raised an atheist Jew, I’d never been inside a church before. Since there were only two hundred people living in that region and the nearest general store, a mom-and-pop kind of establishment, was a half hour away, I expected to see a small, frail wooden structure, one like I’d seen in a documentary.

When we pulled into the parking lot, I was completely unprepared for the breathtaking stone cathedral that stood before me. Twin spires soared several hundred feet into the sky.

On entering the building, the LeDuques dabbed themselves with water from a wide stone bowl. I followed suit. The church could easily have seated three thousand people, but there were only about a hundred of us. There was kneeling, some silent praying with eyes closed, and then the service began. Several men wore long robes, and one spoke into a microphone—in Latin. We listened for what seemed like an eternity, not understanding, kneeling, standing, sitting, and waiting for it to end.

Then we rose and did something I later learned was called communion. That was where my trouble started. I drank my wine and chewed my cracker as soon as it was given to me. I didn’t know I was supposed to wait for some kind of signal in order that we could all do it together. Glares came from several members of the family. Apparently, you were supposed to let the wafer sit on your tongue for a while, and loudly crunching it between your teeth was bad form.

When we got home, Madame questioned me. “Do you go to church at home?” she asked as we set the table for lunch.

“No,” I stated matter-of-factly. “Today was my first time.”

Madame and Monsieur looked at each other.

“Your parents don’t go to church?” she asked.

The three daughters and the scowling son were silent, awaiting my answer.

“No, we’re Jewish,” I said. I might’ve have said “non-practicing Jews,” but that was too much of a leap for my limited French. When I said the word Jewish, all eyes fixed upon me like I’d just coughed up a cup of phlegm.

Immediately, Monsieur rushed out of the room with his son. The three girls continued to stare at me in a state of disbelief while Madame questioned me further.

“What about your nose?” she asked. “You had an operation to change it?”

“No,” I said.

“Jews have big noses. You fixed yours so you could fool people, so they couldn’t tell?”

I began laughing. She couldn’t be serious.

“Not all Jews have big noses,” I said. “None of my Jewish relatives do.” I thought that would be the end of the discussion. These farmers didn’t read books, and they never met Jews or anyone other than the two hundred folks who lived in their town. I wouldn’t judge them for thinking all Jews fit a physical stereotype. After all, I’d assumed they belonged to a little, rickety run-down church, not a glorious architectural wonder. I certainly didn’t think of complicating matters by telling them I was adopted. At that time I assumed (as it turned out half-correctly) that I came from Jewish stock.

But this wasn’t the end of the questioning; the interrogation had just begun. The eight-year-old daughter, Lisette, started sobbing and ran from the room. I was left with Madame and the two older daughters.

“So where’s the money?” Madame asked.

“What money?” Now I was confused.

“The money you stole from us!” She hissed, her face trembling and red. Monsieur and Pierre came back into the kitchen. They spoke to Madame at a break-neck speed. I didn’t catch many of the words. However, I heard the word voleur, “thief,” several times.

Madame turned back to me. “Money’s been missing from our room —now we know you stole it!”

I’d only been in their bedroom the first day I’d arrived, as part of the tour of their home. Since there’d been no place to spend money while on the farm, my hundred dollars’ worth of American Express traveler’s checks remained neatly tucked away in their paper envelope. I told them the truth. “I didn’t steal any money,” I said. “And I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Jews always steal money!” Monsieur growled.

Madame grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up the flight of stairs to the room I shared with her daughters. She dragged my suitcase out from under the bed and yelled at me to open it.

The son and daughters came in and stood in the doorway.

“You open it!” I cried. The accusation, the simple hatred in their eyes, the boredom and frustration I’d talked myself out of on a daily basis all welled up in me, and suddenly tears began slipping down my cheeks.

“Open it!” I yelled. “I don’t have your money!”

Madame dumped my clothes on the floor. Monsieur kneeled and pawed through them. He opened the envelope with my traveler’s checks and threw them down.

They looked up at me, confused.

Madame spoke next, yelling something I didn’t quite understand. “Dis-moi, où as-tu caché tes cornes?”

“Tell me,” she had said. “Where have you hidden your . . .”

“Cornes?” I wondered. What are “cornes?” I knew she didn’t think I’d stolen corn. I knew the word was plural. I searched my mind and came up blank. Apparently, that word hadn’t been pointed to during the past month.

I told Madame I had to check my dictionary. I flipped quickly through the pages. There it was, “Cornes” translated as “horns.” Where had I hidden my horns? My mind raced—horns? Why would I hide horns?

And then it hit me, and I held my hands up to my head, like make-believe antlers.

Instantly, the lot of them stepped back. Madame began praying under her breath. Now it was clear, this family truly believed I was a devil, that all Jews were devils, and as such, I would, by right, have a pair of horns.

I wanted to laugh. Nothing in my New York City upbringing had prepared me for this. I’d run from muggers, flashers, sounds of gun-shots, but here was an entire family stepping back in fear of a thirteen-year-old me!

I spoke in English for the first time that summer. I told them they could all go to hell with their pigs and cigarettes and stupid pile of corpses. I’m sure my unfamiliar English sounded like the devil’s own language.

They stared at me with hatred, and I stared back with anger. We were at a stand off.

I began to wonder just how one supposedly dealt with a devil. Was Monsieur ready to club me with a crucifix? Would I be photographed for a so-called satanic death album?

“Please call the Program Director,” I hastened to say in French.

And that’s what Madame did. As she went into the hall to dial the phone, I ran past the rest of the family, down the stairs, and out of the house. I proceeded to run down the dirt road, hoping I could get to the next neighbor’s house where I could wait until I was driven away from this nightmare.

I hadn’t run more than a quarter mile before Monsieur drove up in his battered truck.

“Get in!” he yelled.

“Screw yourself!” I answered in English. I kept running, but eventually he got out of the truck, held my arms behind me, prisoner-style, pushed me inside, and drove me back to the house.

I sat sullenly on a plastic lawn chair for two hours until Shelly, the Program Director, arrived.

Madame had packed my suitcase for me. Shelly, the Program Director who’d assigned me to this family, was a Jewish woman in her late twenties. Soon after we’d met, she’d confessed that she was still recovering from a breast-reduction job. “Back-breaking boobs are a Jewish woman’s burden,” she had said, obviously not looking at me.

I have no idea what transpired between Shelly and the LeDuque family, and I didn’t care. When she and I drove off in her Volkswagen bug, I took my last glance at that farm, at the enormous barn where the pigs were happily resting, having snorted down cakes and pies, and I, who had yet to believe in God, silently thanked the heavens for saving me.

I don’t remember anything else that happened that summer. I know my parents shook their heads when I told them the story. My dad said something about the “idiocy of the countryside” and that civilization outside of New York City was iffy at best.

Back at school, I began getting A’s in French, and the language would follow me to college and then to universities where, in order to earn advanced degrees, I had pencil in irrefutable answers to prove proficiency. So French and I were clapped together from time to time like ambivalent relatives waiting for the occasion to end. And as I sit here typing, I know how ludicrous it is to blame an entire language for the bad aftertaste of one unfortunate summer. I have long ago forgiven the LeDuques, but I may never forget those French words accusing me of hiding my horns.

What I also remember are some of the last words my grandmother said before her heart gave out. She sat me down on her bed in Brighton Beach and handed me yellowed pictures of friends and relatives who’d been incinerated in the ovens of World War II. She said, “Sometimes when I’m walking up to the subway and the wind blows a little soot in my mouth, I think I can taste them.”