Moral Conviction

— Daniel Uncapher

Doc Thibaud spent Easter weekend drinking scotch in a cabin on a pig ranch in Texas. He paid a veteran named Geronimo $200 a night for the privilege, plus $1.50 for every pound of pig he killed. No one knew why he went all the way to Texas to shoot pigs, but he looked forward to it every year.

It was a wildly successful trip for Doc, the 1972 Louisiana long rifle champion. He shot his first pig through the self-adjusting scope on a 338 Lapua sniper rifle while slouched over his third glass of scotch at the cabin bar. The bullet blew clean through one side of the pig and out the other, taking the heart with it; the pig ran twenty more yards before collapsing.

The doctor gunned down his second pig from the back of Geronimo’s ATV with a laser-guided Sig Sauer. The 300-pound animal charged straight into the first four rounds and had to be put down execution-style, with an exploding bullet straight to the brain.

On Easter Monday Doc came back to Fudgetown with six 150-quart coolers of pork and hired me to help him sort it, for in those days I always needed money and Doc needed someone to give advice to. A week earlier I’d announced that I stopped eating pork because pigs are smarter than dogs and nobody listened to me, least of all the 1972 Louisiana long rifle champion. Doc won his first rifle championship at 16. When I was 16 Doc caught me reading Nature Conservancy and subscribed me to Playboy, on the one condition that I stop reading Nature Conservancy.

I found him that afternoon in the tractor shed. “Look at that,” he said, throwing open a cooler. Ribs, hams, shoulders and tenderloins lay in hairy soups of blood and ice water. “Look at all that,” he said. “How many ribs do you count? Ten ribs? I told the guy no ribs. I pay him $40 to clean each pig and tell him, keep the ribs.”

Doc explained that it took Geronimo twelve minutes to clean a pig, and that when he was done he dumped the bones and offal into a great pit with his private bulldozer. What unsettled me was to think that the pit of carcasses Doc saw wasn’t Geronimo’s first pit. How many pits has Geronimo filled up already? In March a team of Federal investigators caught the Fudgetown Chicken Co. dumping chicken offal in the Yocona River by the hundreds and thousands of tons. It was a sensitive topic in Fudgetown. The secret, I thought, is that the Yocona River wasn’t their first dump.

We put the worst-looking ribs, shot up and bruised with sprawling purple veins, into the smoker right away to make dog food for his terriers. The rest of the cuts we folded into 95-gallon trash bags, wrapped stiffly in duct tape and stacked in one of his meat freezers. I noticed that the bags came from a box with the phrase not food safe printed on it, so we switched to a brand that didn’t mention food safety at all. Some of these packages he was to give away, like to his neighbor, the prosthetist, or his drinking buddy, the retired pharmaceuticals salesman.

He saved the best ham of them all for his newest friend, the politician Jack Dawes, who pulled up Doc’s winding gravel driveway just in time to collect it. Dawes made national headlines only weeks before for standing up to the governor in Jackson, who’d just approved a bill legalizing discrimination on religious or moral grounds.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Dawes, stepping out of his truck and crushing a beer can with his hand. “The people in Jackson want me dead. They’re just gunning for me. I whipped twelve votes on Tuesday, but they got me. And the thing that gets me,” he said, his Cajun coming out, “what gets me is the language they used in the bill. It specifically says you can discriminate in this state for not only religious belief, but for moral conviction. That’s what it says: moral conviction.

Doc opened another beer and gave it to his friend. “I don’t know what church these folks went to,” continued Dawes, taking a drink. “But mine never preached hate.”

“I thought you left the church,” said Doc.

“I left the Catholic church,” said Dawes. “I mean it’s still my church. I’m a Methodist-Episcopal now.”

Doc nodded. “Me too,” he laughed.

Everyone in Fudgetown is Methodist-Episcopal, of course, except for the Baptists, Pentecostals, Catholics, Jews, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Methodist-Episcopal ticket elected a social-liberal millionaire like Jackson Dawes to office. It’s easy to see how a low country Baptist could hate the members of our so-called intellectual oasis, I thought to myself. We gave a meddling ex-Catholic Methodist-Episcopal like Dawes access to their political machine, and now national papers were running his name right up against the governor’s.

Moral conviction,” cried Dawes. “You saw how my filibuster went. The Speaker just wants to shoot me,” he laughed. “He just wants me dead. They call me the hill country Democrat. Well I’m just giving them hell, and I love it.”

Doc told me once that Dawes made his first fortune in a class-action suit against a Cajun oil company. Before that he’d been fired from nearly all possible jobs, including an honorable discharge from the Marines. All of Doc’s friends are veterans, but Doc is a born civilian; naturally Doc is the gun nut. He defended a young woman once from a gang of Mexicans with a revolver outside of Charity Hospital in the 1970s, when he drove a Camaro, and ever since then he held a firm conviction towards firearms. Once, when drunk at a crawfish boil, he lit into Jack Dawes: “You’re worth twenty million dollars. You just sold your first jet. But you don’t have a single gun in your home to protect your wife and children. Let me give you one. One gun to protect yourself.” He gave him a pump-action shotgun.

Statistically, of course, Jack Dawes will kill himself or his children before he defends anything from anyone; but then again, there are outliers. They’re already outliers in plenty of ways. Doc told me once that a mandatory stint in the military would do everyone good, and for the duration of our conversation I agreed with him. As a child I’d fantasized about working in intelligence like my Nazi-killing grandfather. In reality I’d go into shock, leak sensitive military information to a Swede, and change my gender; that’s just the thing I’d do, and Doc could never approve of me then.

“What do you marinate them in? Pineapple juice?”

Doc shrugged. “I throw mine in the smoker. Just put a little rub on them and throw them in.”

The rub was a special blend of spices from all over the world made available for sale on the internet. Doc had cases of the stuff in sealed buckets under his floor in case society collapsed and something should happen to the global supply chain that made the rub available on the internet.

If society collapsed Doc would be fine. He’d be equal measure fine and responsible, just like Dawes and Geronimo. They’ve bleached the reefs but that doesn’t affect them. The newspapers use the passive voice, writing that the coral reefs are bleached. Everyone knows better; we bleached the coral reefs, which is to say Doc, Dawes, Geronimo, and even I bleached the reefs. Fudgetown has worked in perfect concert for the last hundred years to bleach the reefs, I thought – a perfect conspiracy.

More ominous still, a man named Geronimo packs pig offal into the earth with a bulldozer while the Fudgetown Chicken Co. dumps chicken parts undisturbed into the storied Yocona. A country like Texas has no bestiality laws, I thought, and pigs are understood to have skin much like a human’s, soft and translucent and altogether very beautiful. The difference between people and pigs is a short one, I thought, but we already knew that. It’s all in the providence of the Methodist-Episcopal God. In the kingdom of the Methodist-Episcopal God moral conviction is an aesthetic phase, and aesthetics are a moral conviction. Human beings look up baby names on the internet while algae abandon the coral reefs, coastlines drown in the South Pacific and whole islands disappear. White people are killing themselves in record numbers and the survivors have the permanent smell of wet dogs on them, I thought; not to say they don’t deserve it. Neither the pigs nor the white people stood a chance, I thought, not from the moment they were brought squealing into this country. The problem is that America is a perfect environment for pigs, and Fudgetown is practically pig city; no one knows why Doc goes all the way to Texas when Mississippi has so many pigs, but that’s his prerogative.

I dragged the coolers behind the tractor shed and poured them out into the ravine. Wisteria blossoms bobbed stupidly in the hot wind as the sunlight broke through the white-budded dogwoods; the red water babbled quietly through the ivy and plunged like writhing worms back into the earth, and the earth got a little bit warmer.

 


 

Daniel Uncapher is an MFA candidate at Notre Dame whose work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Wilderness House Literary Review, Posit, Chantwood Magazine, Neon Literary Magazine, and others.