A former U.S. Foreign Service officer, Mark Jacobs has published more than 100 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, The Southern Humanities Review, The Idaho Review, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. He has stories forthcoming in several magazines including Playboy. His story How Birds Communicate won The Iowa Review fiction prize. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press, which won the Maria Thomas Award.
The property was happily situated, wandering downhill to the raggedy terminus of a gravel road the county would not soon get around to paving. Thanks to a screen of ancestral cedars, Emerson could not be seen on his front porch by the few drivers who happened down the road. A cheerful creek ran through his woods. Wild turkeys took their ease in his back yard, and vigilant vultures kept the neighborhood tidy. He had bought the place with the first tranche of settlement money from a car crash that cracked his back and left him walking in pain. He was not a wealthy man. He had just enough to buy the solitude that seemed to be his lot in life.
Most days he was satisfied with the company of a pot-bellied pig that went by the name of Big Bill, or William Howard, or sometimes just Tafty. Emerson possessed and valued and worked hard to hang onto a quantity of self-awareness. Let there be no illusions, he reminded himself. Big Bill was an animal, not a person who talked back or otherwise responded to what Emerson liked to call his inferior monologues. It was that self-awareness which propelled him, now and then, to venture a cruise on the sea of humanity.
Late November, late afternoon, the branches of bare trees a puzzle of black sticks against the sky’s ruddy glow. Heading to the barn, Emerson was overtaken by a pileated woodpecker. Its distinctive loping flight registered dimly on his preoccupied mind.
Big Bill was nosing around the straw in a fenced quadrangle alongside the barn, the space he most favored when the weather was pleasant. Emerson poured a measured scoop of feed into an aluminum bowl and watched the pig tuck into his meal.
Stick to the facts, Tafty, isn’t that what you’re always telling me? Okay. The facts. I spent the day in Arlington. I was engaging people, in my own idiosyncratic fashion. Hopped on the 3B bus and told the driver, somewhat breathlessly, that I’d just been robbed at knifepoint, would he let me ride for free? Had to get to the police. Sure, man; sure. I had his sympathy and the passengers’, too. Seven blocks later I signaled a stop and got down to find a middle-aged Hispanic woman on the sidewalk staring at the screen of her telephone. She was wearing a pink sweatshirt and had melancholy eyes. If you’re looking for a place to eat, I said, my best friend Morty just opened a restaurant. Two blocks up and turn left. Kind of a Mexican-meets-Middle Eastern thing. I’ve tried it, the food is really quite good. As she turned those woebegone shining eyes on me she was obviously thinking, Keep your distance from this one, there’s something wrong with the man. About face and beat a retreat.
It was that kind of day. My back ached. Some days it’s worse than others, as though my body is trying to prove I earned the insurance settlement. Part of me wishes I were still working. I had my niche at the archives and filled it quite nicely, thank you. You understand, don’t you, Tafty, that what I say to you is not altogether the same story I tell myself.
Later, I buttonholed a man with a mullet and a paunch to relate the heartwarming story of how my friend Hank became an astronaut after besting a rare childhood disease of the liver. We walked three blocks together before he mumbled his excuse and turned down a side street. A hundred yards on, I offered to carry an old woman’s grocery bags, but her glare dissuaded me from repeating the offer. Thought she might call the police. She likely had a phone, they all do.
Thereafter invention failed me, and I wound up repeating the anecdote of the knifepoint robbery to a teenage girl with multicolored hair and wonderful round breasts I couldn’t keep my eyes off. That was the signal it was time to go home, which was exactly what I did. Do you hear me? Are you listening? I apostrophize thee, Big Bill. Please pay attention. The insult of porcine indifference adds injury to the human.
That night Emerson picked up his violin. He did not play as well as he sometimes did. His nerves were unsettled. Afterward, he sat in a wicker rocker on the front porch watching a waxing moon cast porcelain beauty on the woods over which it rose. Images – a kind of shorthand history of the world, really – came to him: a Roman poet beneath a homologous moon, stylus in hand. Steam rising from the flank of a Mongolian war pony in a sleet storm across a Central Asian steppe. A rattlesnake coiled in the dream of a Mexican woman on the verge of an emotional breakdown. It all pointed toward new knowledge. An insight. But nothing came. Nothing linked the pictures his unhappy brain manufactured, and he went to bed in a state of dejection. He pretended it was only bewilderment, a byproduct of the pain in his back.
Perhaps if he got a dog.
In the morning a needle-pointed wind made the autumn air frigid, and the pig would not come out of the barn. Buttoning his plaid coat absentmindedly, turning up the collar, Emerson addressed the animal with the benefit of a fairly good night’s sleep. Since the accident, unbroken sleep was hardly a given. And now he had turned fifty.
Morning, Tafty. You ought to be proud. How many pigs of your acquaintance bear the weight of a presidential moniker? Your namesake, you will recall my informing you in a previous conversation, was governor of the Philippines before becoming T.R.’s secretary of war and finally president himself. He believed the Filipinos were incapable of self-governance, they needed a century of civilizing at the hands of White America before they could throw off the colonial yoke. Embarrassing, isn’t it? I mean how close in time we are to such a benighted consciousness. Taft, you see, only spoke the social consensus of his day. But please don’t feel that any of this is on you. I chose the name because our twenty-seventh president was a porker of a man, weighing in at three hundred twenty five pounds. Or so one reads.
Here is where I think I’ve gone wrong. I have assumed all this time that my excursions to the city fulfilled a purpose. They kept me connected to my fellow man, my fellow woman, the occasional child. Some sort of instinctual imperative was at work, a self-defense mechanism asserting itself to anchor me in the fleshy bosom of humanity. However wacky they proved to be, I did have connections with people. Real, flesh-and-blood people. And, truth to tell, I have enjoyed those outings. I got a kick out of telling my stories to the people I bumped into, getting a rise out of them. Even, now and then, setting their teeth on edge. I was connected. Connected.
Nonsense. I see that now. What I have had is, at best, a parody of connection.
Before my head hit the pillow last night I accepted the truth. I’ve been fooling myself, and by extension you, with a pathetic rationale for my eccentric behavior. So where does that leave me, where does that lead me? Answer me that, Bill. Answer me, William Howard.
Of course he did not really expect a response from the pig. He was lonely but he wasn’t nuts.
The day was off kilter. He seemed to be slogging uphill through the minutes, the dreadful hours, fighting gravity. He could not get a purchase on the earth, could not attain a level spot to catch his breath. He changed the oil on his tractor, a job that needed doing. But then he sat motionless in the barn on a three-legged stool staring into the plastic bucket of old oil thinking about dead dinosaurs, about rapacious men with gleaming cufflinks, about the practical cast of mind that came up with the internal combustion engine in the first place.
Why give a man a personality if he didn’t know what to do with it?
Something about the question prompted him to sit down and write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. The Chronicle was known for its casual grammar and sloppy copyediting. The subject of Emerson’s letter was the proper use of the semicolon, which called not so much for a rule as for taste, and a sense of rhythm. He rummaged through his desk until he found a stamp, then tramped down the driveway and put the letter in the mailbox. Lifting the metal flag, he felt the sense of accomplishment already fading.
That evening the pig was resistant to conversation. As happened occasionally. But this time it hit Emerson hard. He waited until Big Bill finished his meal before offering him an apple. The animal ate the hard fruit readily enough but nothing about Emerson’s day changed for the better.
I’m lonely, Tafty. That’s the plain truth. I am out of the habit of human company. And for the first time I seem to be aware of a defect in the design of me. A piece is missing. It’s an important piece. A fundamental cog. The worst of it is, I don’t believe they make a replacement.
At those words the pig lifted its tiny eyes as if something had registered, and Emerson walked back to the house aware of the pain in his back the way one was aware of the air around him.
On the back cover of the little yellow phone book he had received in the mail he found a list of government numbers. Crisis counseling meant, he assumed, suicide prevention. He sat at the kitchen table, oddly conscious of his boot heels on the linoleum floor, and dialed the number.
It was a waltz. The thing about waltzing was how predictable it was. The woman who answered his call had a calm and caring voice, as one would expect. It made him think of the hive in a hole in the trunk of a beech down by the creek from which he had extracted clover honey a couple years back. But she was reading from a script, or more likely had memorized it. The predictability of her responses made him self-conscious, and then confused, and finally he found himself reading from a script of his own. He told her a story. The story was absurd and credible. When he hung up he had promised her he would not kill himself.
Not that he had ever intended to. What he wanted was a connection. Somehow he knew – knew it down deep in the marrow of his aching bones – that he would make no more excursions to the city, tell no more fabulous lies, disconcert no more imperfect strangers. His isolation was complete. He had cut himself off from humanity because he was clumsy with people. Because of how it felt to be laughed at. Because no woman would have him, no neighbor sought him out, no acquaintance wanted to become a friend. Because his back would not stop hurting. Now, now, he had to face facts. There was no way back in.
So, this was it. This was the new knowledge toward which his undermind had been driving him ever since the moment when sun glinting on the red and blue and green strands of the teenage girl’s hair in Arlington had confirmed his isolation. It had taken everything he had, not to reach out and cup her beautiful breast. He could not run such risk again.
He played a Mozart piece that night. It came out better than anything he had attempted in a long time. His fingers were dexterous, his ears were unbound. Why was that, when desolation was overwhelming him? No answer, no idea. Then, miracle of miracles, he slept through the night.
A dusting of corn snow lay on the ground when he woke, teased into curling shapes by a steady wind. He made his way to the barn and fed the pig. He had nothing to say to the animal. It was not his taciturnity but a sense of desperation that led him to do what he did.
He opened the door of Big Bill’s stall.
Come on out. You’re free to go.
He watched the pig shuffle up to the open door. It seemed to peer out into the vastness of an unknown world, vistas stretching before its piggy imagination. Wonderful. Exciting. New. Emerson backed away into the morning gloom of the barn so as not to influence the animal’s decision. He held his breath.
For the first time in as long as he could remember, Emerson was surprised. Because Big Bill didn’t want to leave. It was as though his legs suddenly lost the strength to hold him. He plopped down and lay on his side on the straw, exhaling air in a tremulous low moan. He closed his eyes. His breathing was regular, it was reassuring. It marked, for all practical purposes, the perimeter of the possible.
Something needed to be said. Emerson was not quite sure what. It was cold in the barn. Winter was here. Still, there was no hurry. He had all the time in the world to compose and then speak a few cogent sentences. The first one came easily.
I’m a lonely man, Tafty.
At the sound of his name, the pig shifted in the straw. It seemed to be, in its modest way, a kind of connection.