Dusk. I was in a nine-mile traffic jam. My dog was in the passenger seat, chewing a pig ear. The phone rang.
“Hi, Sean,” he said, “my name is Brady.”
“Hi, Brady. Any relation to Mike and Carol and Marsha?”
I need better material.
“Am I interrupting anything?” the young man said.
“No. I’m just sitting in a traffic jam.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be, unless you work for the Florida Department of Transportation.”
I waited for him to state the reason for the call while watching my dog gnaw the ear. When he didn’t say anything, I prompted. “What’s up, Brady?”
He sounded mid-twenties. “Well, my mom got your number from a mutual friend, I read your column every day, and I just…”
Long awkward pause.
“The column’s that bad, huh?” I said.
“No. It’s just… I’m going through some depression right now. Least, that’s what the doctor told me.”
He sounded like he was going to cry.
He added, “You’ve been through depression before, right?”
I switched the phone to my other ear and turned off my stereo. “Through it?” I said. “I don’t think anyone is ever through depression.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I’m doing fine right now. But that’s right now. I’m still human.”
Over the phone, I could hear the sound of a dog barking in the background. Actually, it sounded like many dogs. My dog heard this, too. She quit chewing her pig ear and lifted her head.
“I volunteer in an animal shelter,” he said. “Sorry, it’s gets loud in here.”
My dog whimpered.
“I lost my dad when I was twelve,” he continued. “And ever since, I’ve been getting these panic attacks…
“Sometimes, I don’t feel like anyone understands me. I’ll be out in public and see kids who’re living normal lives, they’re eating in restaurants, laughing, and everything’s great for them. And here I am, all screwed up. I keep trying to figure out how to get better, but… I’m broken.”
My dog resumed chewing. Traffic still wasn’t moving.
I couldn’t have been any more unqualified for this phone call if I’d been born a hamster. Not long ago, I was the one asking these questions. In fact, I still ask them.
“Brady,” I said. “Where are you calling from?”
“What’s it like up there?”
“Right now? Cold. Nineteen degrees where I live.”
“You have no idea. My mom has to open the refrigerator just to heat the house.”
Oh, yes. I liked this kid.
“What was it like growing up, Brady?”
“Me? Well…” Long sigh. “I dunno. Good, I guess. I live on a farm. I used to show hogs, when I was a…”
I interrupted. “Wait. You showed hogs?”
He laughed. It was a nice laugh.
“Well, I really like pigs. And when you show pigs competitively, they become part of your life. You really get to know them. Pigs are so great. Everybody thinks showing pigs is about taking care of them, but it really all starts with genetics.”
“Yep. You gotta research your breed, talk to the breeders, make sure everything’s good. Then you gotta start thinking about how you’re gonna feed’em. Feeding is a whole ‘nother issue.”
“Do go on.”
“Well, for starters, pigs are prone to disease. Like, super prone. They can get sick all the time. So you have to make sure their immune systems are built up with good nutrition.
“It’s not cheap. Bought my first starter pig when I was nine, and I had to give him medicated feed. My mom said I was gonna land us in the poorhouse, a starter pig eats about twenty-five pounds of feed a day.”
“And that’s just when they’re little.”
I could tell the kid was getting into this conversation. His voice was now lively. Before I knew it we had passed twenty minutes and I hadn’t said more than a few words.
“And then,” he went on. “You gotta train your pig, too.”
“Train a pig?”
He laughed again. “You have to build up his stamina to get him ready for a show. That’s the most important part. So you gotta take him for walks every day, train him to turn right and left by tapping his shoulder. But that’s nothing compared to the grooming.”
“Grooming pigs? Surely you jest.”
“Gotta make sure their skin is healthy and give them daily brushings so their hair doesn’t tangle when you clip it. If you have a dark-colored pig, you need to get him out in the sun every day for his color.”
“I had no idea.”
“Most people don’t. They think showing hogs is kinda dumb. But it’s involved, and the people you meet are great.”
We talked for nearly an hour about swine. I’ve never talked about pigs so much in my life. Finally, our conversation came to a lull. The young man said, “Gosh, I didn’t mean to get off on pigs.”
“I’m glad you did.”
Traffic was moving slowly now.
“I think I see what you were trying to do here,” he said. “I think I get it.”
“I wasn’t trying to do anything, Brady.”
“Yes you were. You were trying to get me to talk about things that make me happy.”
“You’re giving me too much credit.”
“Well,” he said. “Thanks. I actually enjoyed this conversation.”
“Me, too, Brady.”
“Will you keep praying for me?”
After we hung up, I removed the pig ear from my dog’s mouth.
“We’ll be buying no more of these,” I told her.