The following is an excerpt from Wynne Hungerford’s story “Different Pigs,” which appeared in Whitefish Review’s summer/fall issue #22, The Stories We Tell. Hungerford, who attended the University of Montana as an undergraduate, is an MFA candidate at the University of Florida whose work has appeared in Epoch, The Normal School, The Boiler, Okey-Panky, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places.
Imade my dad take me back to the zoo a week later to see if Goober had recovered. I’d been upset because I didn’t like to think of his insides being messed up and hoped he’d had enough time to get better. I ran down the path to where all the farm animals lived, praying that Goober would be waiting. Hay and mud and dry poop — that was Goober’s smell. I wanted to see him running circles around his wood hut, and I wanted a breeze to cut through the heat and make his fur move in the wind. My heart was working hard as I flew over the path to his pen and even though it hurt my chest. I kept going. My dad tried to keep up. I turned to say, “Hurry!” and that’s when I saw him fall. It happened in front of the monkey cages. I ran back to him. I was afraid he was dying.
I said, “Daddy?”
He put a hand on his heaving chest and I put my hand on top of his.
I said his name again.
When the EMTs came I could see the embarrassment in his eyes and I assumed it was because they were struggling to get him on the stretcher. That wasn’t it, though. He was focused on something behind me. I turned around and saw a golden lion tamarin watching the scene with a tiny hand covering its mouth. My dad was embarrassed because his heart attack had been witnessed by the most beautiful monkey of them all.
At the hospital, the doctor told my dad that the heart attack had not caused permanent damage. The surgeon got two stints in. It was a miracle. There were tubes coming out of my dad’s nose and a machine taking his numbers. The machine kept beeping. My mom looked at the machine like she wanted to push it out the window. The beeping was supposed to be a good thing because it meant he was still alive but it was also a bad thing because it reminded everyone in the room that we were in a hospital. And every beep of that machine poked at him. Fat. Fat. Fat.
The doctor said that my dad’s diet had to change or else he would be bringing “it” on himself. The doctor said getting healthier together was in our best interest. Before all this happened, I had never wondered what my family might have looked like from an outside perspective. I bet that when the doctor looked at us in that sad white room he just saw different kinds of pigs.
We tried vegetables. We chewed our broccoli and faked smiles. For dessert, I got out my flavored gum, but that was a disappointment because cheesecake-flavored gum didn’t taste like cheesecake at all. I blamed myself for everything. I was the one who wanted to return to the zoo and see if Goober had recovered. I had been running down the path and my dad had been trying to keep up. His heart wouldn’t have stalled if it hadn’t been for me. Nobody specifically said it was my fault but I went ahead feeling guilty anyway. The guilt made me do things I’d never done before. I washed clothes, took out the trash, and made sure all of our shoes were in a neat line on the front porch. When my parents were watching a TV show about aliens one night, I even took off one of my socks and used it to wipe the dust from the dirty screen.
My mom was petting the hair on my dad’s arms. She said, “Fix us a snack?” I knew she was talking to me, even though she didn’t take her eyes off the screen.
I remembered the doctor’s warning. I also remembered how, when my dad was in the hospital, a nurse had thought I could use a distraction and showed me the meditation garden outside of the hospital. There was a bench and a sundial. Carrots grew in a raised bed of soil. It was funny how that little green garden couldn’t even be seen from the windows above, only the parking garage.
I said, “Carrot sticks?”
“No,” she said. “You know what I really want.”
I knew, but it wasn’t part of the plan.
My dad grinned. “It couldn’t hurt.”
I knew it wasn’t the right snack, but I wanted to make him happy.