Across the seat of our full-sized sedan, I see my father, George Newton Funderburg, grow more energetic with each mile. He looks out the passenger-side window as big-box malls trickle away, replaced by pine forest and signs for barbecue. My father is a handsome man. I tend to look at him through a lens in which surface and shape hardly register, except as conveyers of emotion, but I can see that at 77, he has barely a crease in his skin, much less a wrinkle. He is still in the vicinity of his peak height, 5 feet 11 inches, and his close-cropped hair, never grown long enough to complete a kink, is slightly more salt than pepper. His face and body are well-proportioned, except for the large-belly/no-posterior dilemma that plagues many men after a certain age, and his gray-blue eyes and meticulously flossed, brushed and later-life-orthodonticized teeth sparkle with charm and good humor when the spirit moves him. Down here, most people look at his skin, the color of faded parchment, and call it “high yellow.” Up north, most people assume he’s white.
Dad interrupts his own reverie with projections: how we’ll occupy ourselves on this trip, what changes we’ll encounter, what will have stayed the same. He anticipates, accurately, that we will find his 126-acre farm-cum-vacation home in pristine condition, thanks to the attentions of Troy Johnson, a friend and fellow retiree who watches out for the house and three ponds, the ancient grove of pecan trees that yield seemingly on whim, and several well-manicured pastures Dad rents out to the cattle-farming Howard brothers, 48-year-old identical twins named Albert and Elbert.
Down south, spring has advanced. Pear trees are in full bloom, naturalized daffodils stripe the just-greening pastures with yellow, and deep red camellias dot walkways and yards, sentries at every door. Sweaters need to be kept nearby but not on, windows are cranked open to ensure a cross breeze. We make good time from the airport to the farm, just over an hour, and Dad and I don’t bother to unpack before we turn our attention to the two items on our agenda: roasting a pig and getting him some chemo.
First, the pig. In January, my father read a newspaper article that chronicled the author’s experiment with cooking a 70-pound pig in a Cuban-American–designed roasting box called La Caja China [kä-hä che’-nä]: a simple plywood cart lined with metal and designed to suspend coals above rather than below the meat. The outcome, sweet and savory, succulent and crisp, earned the paradoxical moniker “pig candy.”
My father has always displayed a fascination for crafty mechanics, for improved ways to clean and fix and open and close. Clever inventions and well-prepared food both make my father’s list of favorite things. Together they are irresistible. Dad instantly ordered the largest model Caja from its Miami manufacturer and had it sent to the farm.
In Monticello, population 2,500, with its intertwined bloodlines and relationships, word gets around. Dad tells everyone we run into about La Caja China, or “pig box,” as we have come to call it. He informs anyone he can corner that he’s looking to find a whole pig: that he needs it dressed and delivered and preferably 100 pounds, which is the box’s stated maximum capacity. He mentions this to Connie, the cashier at the Tillman House Restaurant. He inserts this into small talk when he’s charging wigglers and deer feeder pellets at Monticello Farm & Garden. He broadcasts it at Eddie Ray Tyler’s barbershop, where one or two men sit in the defunct shoeshine stand that serves as a waiting area whether someone’s in Eddie Ray’s cutting chair or not.
Dad mentions his pig quest to Marshall Tinsley, a handsome man close to 60 with a strong, open face and a brilliant smile, despite a few missing teeth on the bottom row. Marshall is a mason twice over: by trade and also as a 33rd-degree Free and Accepted Mason of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia, for which he serves in the office of Worshipful Junior Grand Steward. Marshall’s first visit to Dad’s farm was to fix a screen door. His skill and thoroughness caught my father’s attention, and now Marshall comes to Thanksgiving. One time, he even brought the turkey, which he’d deep-fried at three minutes per pound.