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PIGS CAN'T SWIM, A Memoir

by Helen Peppe

Hardcover, $22.99 | $26.50 (Can.)

Published by Da Capo Press

An Excerpt from Pigs Can't Swim

My brother, the blustery-and-favored one who was older by nine years, once said that skin and vinyl stick together like dollar bills to a stripper. I didn’t know at the time what a stripper did or where the bills would stick, but I did know firsthand that vinyl car seats stuck to any skin that was bare. My blustery-and-favored brother’s knowledge of girlie shows was limited to the Maine State Fair, thirty minutes from our house. This fair drew furtive- and guilty-looking males from behind their Rotor tillers, hoes, and rakes to the only type of event that featured the only type of dancers who had the power to make my mother behave like herself in public.

“I’ll have no son of mine gawking at strippers. There’s no need of women dancing around like that, and I have half a mind to tell them so myself,” she snapped one late September evening between gritted teeth at the teenage son she dragged across the parking lot by the ear. She’d already pinched both his cheeks, and he wore her disappointment on his face like misplaced blush. “They’re nothing but tramps and hussies. Now get in the car before I wring your neck.” She slapped at his chest and shoulders in stops and starts.

• • •

The youngest of nine, I often watched my siblings as they received their lessons. Never sorry for anything but getting caught, they tensed their muscles, tucked their chins to their chests, and hunched their shoulders as they endured, much like apes in a tropical downpour. From my spot on the perimeter of the family in the days when I was still cute and innocent, I wondered about “need” and “knowing better” each time my parents shouted things like “there’s no need of that” and “you know better.”

I’d feel darts of shame for wanting to see what went on behind the plywood walls that were painted with pictures of jutting-breasted women who dressed as Wonder Woman might if she were going swimming. What did these tramps and hussies do that caused men to line up and wait, that gave these women so much power? I’d learned shortly after birth that men didn’t expect to wait for anything, especially their meals, their cigarettes, the bathroom, or the screwdriver they yelled for while holding pieces of metal or wood together. I wanted to know the difference between a hussy and a superhero, and I wanted to know why we sometimes found my father outside those walls, claiming when we’d found him that he’d gotten lost.