Copyright © 1993 Garp Enterprises Ltd..All rights reserved.
TRYING TO SAVE PIGGY SNEED
This is a memoir, but please understand that (toany writer with a good imagination) all memoirsare false. A fiction writer's memory is an especiallyimperfect provider of detail; we can always imaginea better detail than the one we can remember. Thecorrect detail is rarely, exactly, what happened; themost truthful detail is what could have happened, orwhat should have. Half my life is an act of revision;more than half the act is performed with smallchanges. Being a writer is a strenuous marriage betweencareful observation and just as carefully imaginingthe truths you haven't had the opportunity tosee. The rest is the necessary, strict toiling with thelanguage; for me this means writing and rewritingthe sentences until they sound as spontaneous asgood conversation.
With that in mind, I think that I have become a writerbecause of my grandmother's good manners and--morespecifically--because of a retarded garbagecollector to whom my grandmother was always politeand kind.
My grandmother is the oldest living English Literaturemajor to have graduated from Wellesley. Shelives in an old people's home now, and her memoryis fading; she doesn't remember the garbage collectorwho helped me become a writer, but she has retainedher good manners and her kindness. Whenother old people wander into her room, bymistake--looking for their own rooms, or perhapsfor their previous residences--my grandmotheralways says, "Are you lost, dear? Can I help you findwhere you're supposed to be?"
I lived with my grandmother, in her house, until Iwas almost seven; for this reason, my grandmotherhas always called me "her boy." In fact, she neverhad a boy of her own; she has three daughters.Whenever I have to say good-bye to her now, weboth know she might not live for another visit, andshe always says, "Come back soon, dear. You're myboy, you know"--insisting, quite properly, that sheis more than a grandmother to me.
Despite her being an English Literature major,she has not read my work with much pleasure; infact, she read my first novel and stopped (for life)with that. She disapproved of the language and thesubject matter, she told me; from what she's readabout the others, she's learned that my language andmy subject matter utterly degenerate as my work matures.She's made no effort to read the four novelsthat followed the first (she and I agree this is for thebest). She's very proud of me, she says; I've neverprobed too deeply concerning what she's proud ofme for--for growing up, at all, perhaps, or just forbeing "her boy"--but she's certainly never made mefeel uninteresting or unloved.
I grew up on Front Street in Exeter, New Hampshire.When I was a boy, Front Street was lined withelms; it wasn't Dutch elm disease that killed most ofthem. The two hurricanes that struck back to back,in the '50s, wiped out the elms and strangely modernizedthe street. First Carol came and weakenedtheir roots; then Edna came and knocked themdown. My grandmother used to tease me by sayingthat she hoped this would contribute to my respectfor women.
When I was a boy, Front Street was a dark, coolstreet--even in the summer--and none of thebackyards was fenced; everyone's dog ran free, andgot into trouble. A man named Poggio delivered groceriesto my grandmother's house. A man namedStrout delivered the ice for the icebox (my grandmotherresisted refrigerators until the very end). Mr.Strout was unpopular with the neighborhood dogs--perhapsbecause he would go after them with the icetongs. We children of Front Street never bothered Mr.Poggio, because he used to let us hang around hisstore--and he was liberal with treats. We neverbothered Mr. Strout either (because of his ice tongsand his fabulous aggression toward dogs, which wecould easily imagine being turned toward us). Butthe garbage collector had nothing for us--no treats,no aggression--and so we children reserved our capacityfor teasing and taunting (and otherwise makingtrouble) for him.
His name was Piggy Sneed. He smelled worsethan any man I ever smelled--with the possible exceptionof a dead man i caught the scent of, once, inIstanbul. And you would have to be dead to lookworse than Piggy Sneed looked to us children onFront Street. There were so many reasons for callinghim "Piggy," I wonder why one of us didn't think ofa more original name. To begin with, he lived on apig farm. He raised pigs, he slaughtered pigs; moreimportantly, he lived with his pigs--it was just a pigfarm, there was no farmhouse, there was only thebarn. There was a single stovepipe running into oneof the stalls. That stall was heated by a wood stovefor Piggy Sneed's comfort--and, we children imagined,his pigs (in the winter) would crowd aroundhim for warmth. He certainly smelled that way.
Also he had absorbed, by the uniqueness of hisretardation and by his proximity to his animalfriends, certain piglike expressions and gestures. Hisface would jut in front of his body when he approachedthe garbage cans, as if he were rooting(hungrily) underground; he squinted his small, redeyes; his nose twitched with all the vigor of a snout;there were deep pink wrinkles on the back of hisneck--and the pale bristles, which sprouted at randomalong his jawline, in no way resembled a beard.He was short, heavy, and strong--he heaved thegarbage cans to his back, he hurled their contentsinto the wooden, slat-sided truck bed. In the truck,ever eager to receive the garbage, there were alwaysa few pigs. Perhaps he took different pigs with himon different days; perhaps it was a treat for them--theydidn't have to wait to eat the garbage until PiggySneed drove it home. He took only garbage--nopaper, plastic, or metal trash--and it was all for hispigs. This was all he did; he had a very exclusive lineof work. He was paid to pick up garbage, which hefed to his pigs. When be got hungry (we imagined),he ate a pig. "A whole pig, at once," we used to sayon Front Street. But the piggiest thing about him wasthat he couldn't talk. His retardation either had deprivedhim of his human speech or had deprivedhim, earlier, of the ability to learn human speech.Piggy Sneed didn't talk. He grunted. He squealed, Heoinked--that was his language; he learned it fromhis friends, as we learn ours.
We children, on Front Street, would sneak up onhim when he was raining the garbage down on hispigs--we'd surprise him: from behind hedges, fromunder porches, from behind parked cars, from out ofgarages and cellar bulkheads. We'd leap out at him(we never got too close) and we'd squeal at him:"Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! OINK! WEEEE!" And, likea pig-panicked, lurching at random, mindlesslystartled (every time he was startled, as if he had nomemory)--Piggy Sneed would squeal back at us asif we'd stuck him with the slaughtering knife; he'dbellow OINK! out at us as if he'd caught us trying tobleed him in his sleep.
I can't imitate his sound; it was awful, it made allus Front Street children scream and run and hide.When the terror passed, we couldn't wait for him tocome again. He came twice a week. What a luxury!And every week or so my grandmother would payhim. She'd come out to the back where his truckwas--where we'd often just startled him and lefthim snorting--and she'd say, "Good day, Mr.Sneed!"
Piggy Sneed would become instantly childlike--falselybusy, painfully shy, excruciatingly awkward.Once he hid his face in his hands, but his hands werecovered with coffee grounds; once he crossed hislegs so suddenly, while he tried to turn his face awayfrom Grandmother, that he fell down at her feet.
"It's nice to see you, Mr. Sneed," Grandmotherwould say--not flinching, not in the slightest, fromhis stench. "I hope the children aren't being rude toyou," she'd say. "You don't have to tolerate any rudenessfrom them, you know," she would add. Andthen she'd pay him his money and peer through thewooden slats of the truck bed, where his pigs weresavagely attacking the new garbage--and, occasionally,each other--and she'd say, "What beautifulpigs these are! Are these your own pigs, Mr. Sneed?Are they new pigs? Are these the same pigs as theother week?" But despite her enthusiasm for his pigs,she could never entice Piggy Sneed to answer her.He would stumble, and trip, and twist his wayaround her, barely able to contain his pleasure: thatmy grandmother clearly approved of his pigs, thatshe even appeared to approve (wholeheartedly!) ofhim. He would grunt softly to her.
When she'd go back in the house, of coursewhen Piggy Sneed would begin to back his ripetruck out of the driveway--we Front Street childrenwould surprise him again, popping up on both sidesof the truck, making both Piggy and his pigs squealin alarm, and snort with protective rage.
"Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! OINK! WEEEE!"
He lived in Stratham--on a road out of ourtown that ran to the ocean, about eight miles away. Imoved (with my father and mother) out of Grandmother'shouse (before I was seven, as I told you).Because my father was a teacher, we moved intoacademy housing--Exeter was an all-boys school,then--and so our garbage (together with our non-organictrash) was picked up by the school.
Now I would like to say that I grew older and realized(with regret) the cruelty of children, and that Ijoined some civic organization dedicated to caringfor people like Piggy Sneed. I can't claim that. Thecode of small towns is simple but encompassing: ifmany forms of craziness are allowed, many forms ofcruelty are ignored. Piggy Sneed was tolerated; hewent on being himself, living like a pig. He was toleratedas a harmless animal is tolerated--by children,he was indulged; he was even encouraged tobe a pig.
Of course, growing older, we Front Street childrenknew that he was retarded--and gradually welearned that he drank a bit. The slat-sided truck,reeking of pig, of waste, or worse than waste, careeredthrough town all the years I was growing up.it was permitted, it was given room to spill over--enroute to Stratham. Now there was a town,Stratham! In small-town life is there anything moreprovincial than the tendency to sneer at smallertowns? Stratham was not Exeter (not that Exeter wasmuch).
In Robertson Davies's novel Fifth Business, hewrites about the townspeople of Deptford: "We wereserious people, missing nothing in our communityand feeling ourselves in no way inferior to largerplaces. We did, however, look with pitying amusementon Bowles Corners, four miles distant and witha population of one hundred and fifty. To live inBowles Corners, we felt, was to be rustic beyond redemption."
Stratham was Bowles Corners to us Front Streetchildren--it was "rustic beyond redemption." WhenI was 15, and began my association with the academy--wherethere were students from abroad, fromNew York, even from California--I felt so superiorto Stratham that it surprises me, now, that I joined theStratham Volunteer Fire Department; I don't rememberbow I joined. I think I remember that there wasno Exeter Volunteer Fire Department; Exeter hadthe other kind of fire department, I guess. Therewere several Exeter residents--apparently in needof something to volunteer for?--who joined theStratham Volunteers. Perhaps our contempt for thepeople of Stratham was so vast that we believed theycould not even be relied upon to properly put outtheir own fires.
There was also an undeniable thrill, midst theroutine rigors of prep-school life, to be a part ofsomething that could call upon one's services withoutthe slightest warning: that burglar alarm in theheart, which is the late-night ringing telephone--thatcall to danger, like a doctor's beeper shockingthe orderly solitude and safety of the squash court. Itmade us Front Street children important; and, as wegrew only slightly older, it gave us a status that onlydisasters can create for the young.
In my years as a firefighter, I never rescued anyone--Inever even rescued anyone's pet. I never inhaledsmoke, I never suffered a burn, I never sawa soul fall beyond the reach of the safety bag, Forestfires are the worst and I was only in one, and only onthe periphery. My only injury--"in action"--wascaused by a fellow firefighter throwing his Indianpump into a storage room where I was trying to locatemy baseball cap. The pump hit me in the faceand I had a bloody nose for about three minutes.
There were occasional fires of some magnitudeat Hampton Beach (one night an unemployed saxophoneplayer, reportedly wearing a pink tuxedo,tried to burn down the casino), but we were alwayscalled to the big fires as the last measure. When therewas an eight- or ten-alarm fire, Stratham seemed tobe called last; it was more an invitation to the spectaclethan a call to arms. And the local fires inStratham were either mistakes or lost causes. Onenight Mr. Skully, the meter reader, set his stationwagon on fire by pouring vodka in the carburetor--because,he said, the car wouldn't start. One nightGrant's dairy barn was ablaze, but all the cows--andeven most of the hay--had been rescued beforewe arrived. There was nothing to do but let thebarn burn, and hose it down so that cinders from itwouldn't catch the adjacent farmhouse on fire.
But the boots, the heavy hard hat (with your ownnumber), the glossy black slicker--your own ax!--thesewere pleasures because they represented akind of adult responsibility in a world where wewere considered (still) too young to drink. And onenight, when I was 16, 1 rode a hook-and-ladder truckout the coast road, chasing down a fire in a summerhouse near the beach (which turned out to be the resultof children detonating a lawn mower with barbecuefluid), and there--weaving on the road in hisstinking pickup, blocking our importance, as independentof civic responsibility (or any other kind) asany pig--was a drunk-driving Piggy Sneed, headinghome with his garbage for his big-eating friends.
We gave him the lights, we gave him the siren--Iwonder, now, what he thought was behind him.God, the red-eyed screaming monster over PiggySneed's shoulder--the great robot pig of the universeand outer space! Poor Piggy Sneed, near home,so drunk and foul as to be barely human, veered offthe road to let us pass, and as we overtook him--weFront Street children--I distinctly heard us calling,"Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! OINK! WEEEE!" I suppose Iheard my voice, too.
We clung to the hook-and-ladder, our headsthrown back so that the trees above the narrow roadappeared to veil the stars with a black, moving lace;the pig smell faded to the raw, fuel-burning stink ofthe sabotaged lawn mower, which faded finally tothe clean salt wind off the sea.
In the dark, driving back past the pig barn, wenoted the surprisingly warm glow from the kerosenelamp in Piggy Sneed's stall. He had gotten safelyhome. And was he up, reading? we wondered. Andonce again I heard our grunts, our squeals, ouroinks--our strictly animal communication with him.
The night his pig barn burned, we were so surprised.
The Stratham Volunteers were used to thinkingof Piggy Sneed's place as a necessary, reeking ruinon the road between Exeter and the beach--a foulsmellinglandmark on warm summer evenings; passingit always engendered the obligatory groans. Inwinter, the smoke from the wood stove pumped regularlyfrom the pipe above Piggy's stall, and from theoutdoor pens, stamping routinely in a wallow ofbeshitted snow, his pigs breathed in little puffs as ifthey were furnaces of flesh. A blast from the sirencould scatter them. At night, coming home, whenwhatever fire there was was out, we couldn't resisthitting the siren as we passed by Piggy Sneed's place.It was too exciting to imagine the damage done bythat sound: the panic among the pigs, Piggy himselfin a panic, all of them hipping up to each other withtheir wheezy squeals, seeking the protection of theherd.
That night Piggy Sneed's place burned, we FrontStreet children were imagining a larkish, if somewhatretarded, spectacle. Out the coast road, lights up fulland flashing, siren up high--driving all those pigscrazy--we were in high spirits, telling lots of pigjokes: about how we imagined the fire was started,how they'd been having a drinking party, Piggy andhis pigs, and Piggy was cooking one (on a spit) anddancing with another one, and some pig backed intothe wood stove and burned his tail, knocked overthe bar, and the pig that Piggy danced with mostnights was ill-humored because Piggy wasn't dancingwith her . . . but then we arrived, and we saw thatthis fire wasn't a party; it wasn't even the tail end of abad party. It was the biggest fire that we Front Streetchildren, and even the veterans among the StrathamVolunteers, had ever seen.
The low, adjoining sheds of the pig barn appearedto have burst, or melted their tin roofs. Therewas nothing in the barn that wouldn't burn--therewas wood for the wood stove, there was hay, therewere 18 pigs and Piggy Sneed. There was all thatkerosene. Most of the stalls in the pig barn were acouple of feet deep in manure, too. As one of theveterans of the Stratham Volunteers told me, "You getit hot enough, even shit will burn."
It was hot enough. We had to move the firetrucks down the road; we were afraid the new paint,or the new tires, would blister in the heat. "No pointin wasting the water," our captain told us, Wesprayed the trees across the road; we sprayed thewoods beyond the pig barn. It was a windless, bittercold night, the snow as dry and fine as talcum powder.The trees drooped with icicles and cracked assoon as we sprayed them. The captain decided to letthe fire burn itself out; there would be less of a messthat way. It might be dramatic to say that we heardsqueals, to say that we heard the pigs' intestinesswelling and exploding--or before that, theirhooves hammering on the stall doors. But by thetime we arrived, those sounds were over; they werehistory; we could only imagine them.
This is a writer's lesson: to learn that the soundswe imagine can be the clearest, loudest sounds of all.By the time we arrived, even the tires on Piggy'struck had burst, the gas tank had exploded, thewindshield had caved in. Since we hadn't been presentfor those events, we could only guess at theorder in which they had taken place.
If you stood too close to the pig barn, the heatcurled your eyelashes--the fluid under your eyelidsfelt searing hot. If you stood too far back, the chill ofthe winter night air, drawn toward the flames, wouldcut through you. The coast road iced over, becauseof spillage from our hoses, and (about midnight) aman with a Texaco emblem on his cap and parkaskidded off the road and needed assistance. He wasdrunk and was with a woman who looked much tooyoung for him--or perhaps it was his daughter."Piggy!" the Texaco man hollered. "Piggy!" he calledinto the blaze. "If you're in there, Piggy--youmoron--you better get the hell out!"
The only other sound, until about 2:00 in themorning, was the occasional twang from the tin roofcontorting--as it writhed free of the barn. About2:00 the roof fell in; it made a whispering noise. By3:00 there were no walls standing. The surroundingmelted snow had formed a lake that seemed to berising on all sides of the fire, almost reaching thelevel of heaped coals. As more snow melted, the firewas being extinguished from underneath itself.
And what did we smell? That cooked-barnyardsmell of midsummer, the conflicting rankness ofashes in snow, the determined baking of manure -the imagination of bacon, or roast pork. Since therewas no wind, and we weren't trying to put the fireout, we suffered no smoke abuse. The men (that is tosay, the veterans) left us boys to watch after thingsfor an hour before dawn. That is what men do whenthey share work with boys: they do what they wantto do; they have the boys tend to what they don'twant to tend to. The men went out for coffee, theysaid, but they came back smelling of beer. By thenthe fire was low enough to be doused down. Themen initiated this procedure; when they tired of it,they turned it over to us boys. The men went offagain, at first light--for breakfast, they said. In thelight I could recognize a few of my comrades, theFront Street children.
With the men away, one of the Front Street childrenstarted it--at first, very softly. It may have beenme. "Piggy, Piggy," one of us called. One reason I'ma writer is that I sympathized with our need to dothis; I have never been interested in what nonwriterscall good and bad "taste."
"Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! OINK! WEEE!" wecalled. That was when I understood that comedy wasjust another form of condolence. And then I startedit; I began my first story.
"Shit," I said--because everyone in the StrathamVolunteers began every sentence with the word"shit."
"Shit," I said. "Piggy Sneed isn't in there. He'scrazy," I added, "but nobody's that stupid."
"His truck's there," said one of the least imaginativeof the Front Street children,
"He just got sick of pigs," I said. "He left town, Iknow it. He was sick of the whole thing. He probablyplanned this--for weeks."
Miraculously, I had their attention. Admittedly, ithad been a long night. Anyone with almost anythingto say might have easily captured the attention of theStratham Volunteers. But I felt the thrill of a rescuecoming--my first.
"I bet there's not a pig in there, either," I said. "Ibet he ate half of them--in just a few days. Youknow, he stuffed himself! And then he sold the rest.He's been putting some money away, for preciselythis occasion."
"For what occasion?" some skeptic asked me. "IfPiggy isn't in there, where is he?"
"If he's been out all night," another said, "thenhe's frozen to death."
"He's in Florida," I said. "He's retired." I said itjust that simply--I said it as if it were a fact. "Lookaround you!" I shouted to them. "What's he beenspending his money on? He's saved a bundle. He setfire to his own place," I said, "just to give us a hardtime. Think of the hard time we gave him," I said,and I could see everyone thinking about that; thatwas, at least, the truth. A little truth never hurt astory. "Well," I concluded. "He's paid us back--that'sclear. He's kept us standing around all night."
This made us Front Street children thoughtful,and in that thoughtful moment I started my first act ofrevision; I tried to make the story better, and morebelievable. It was essential to rescue Piggy Sneed, ofcourse, but what would a man who couldn't talk doin Florida? I imagined they had tougher zoning lawsthan we had in New Hampshire--especially regardingpigs.
"You know," I said, "I bet he could talk--all thetime. He's probably European, " I decided, "I mean,what kind of name is Sneed? And he first appearedhere around the war, didn't he? Whatever his nativelanguage is, anyway, I bet he speaks it pretty well.He just never learned ours. Somehow, pigs were easier.Maybe friendlier," I added, thinking of us all."And now he's saved up enough to go home. That'swhere he is!" I said. "Not Florida--he's gone back toEurope!"
"Atta boy, Piggy," someone cheered.
"Look out, Europe," someone said, facetiously.
Enviously, we imagined how Piggy Sneed hadgotten "out"--how he'd escaped the harrowingsmall-town loneliness (and fantasies) that threatenedus all. But when the men came back, I was confrontedwith the general public's dubious regard forfiction.
"Irving thinks Piggy Sneed is in Europe," one ofthe Front Street boys told the captain.
"He first appeared here around the war, didn'the, sir?" I asked the captain, who was staring at me asif I were the first body to be recovered from this fire.
"Piggy Sneed was born here, Irving," the captaintold me. "His mother was a half-wit; she got hit by acar going the wrong way around the bandstand.Piggy was born on Water Street," the captain told us.Water Street, I knew perfectly well, ran into FrontStreet--quite close to home.
So, I thought, Piggy was in Florida, after all. Instories, you must make the best thing that can happenhappen (or the worst, if that is your aim), but itstill has to ring true.
When the coals were cool enough to walk on,the men started looking for him; discovery was a jobfor the men--it being more interesting than waiting,which was boys' work.
After a while, the captain called me over to him."Irving," he said. "Since you think Piggy Sneed is inEurope, then you won't mind taking whatever this isout of here."
It required little effort, the removal of thisshrunken cinder of a man; I doused down a tarp anddragged the body, which was extraordinarily light,onto the tarp with first the long and then the shortgaff. We found all 18 of his pigs, too. But even todayI can imagine him more vividly in Florida than I canimagine him existing in that impossibly small shapeof charcoal I extricated from the ashes.
Of course I told my grandmother the plain truth,just the boring facts. "Piggy Sneed died in that firelast night, Nana," I told her.
"Poor Mr. Sneed," she said. With great wonder,and sympathy, she added: "What awful circumstancesforced him to live such a savage life!"
What I would realize, later, is that the writer'sbusiness is both to imagine the possible rescue ofPiggy Sneed and to set the fire that will trap him. Itwas much later--but before my grandmother wasmoved to the old people's home, when she still rememberedwho Piggy Sneed was--when Grandmotherasked me, "Why, in heaven's name, have youbecome a writer?"
I was "her boy," as I've told you, and she wassincerely worried about me. Perhaps being an EnglishLiterature major had convinced her that being awriter was a lawless and destructive thing to be. Andso I told her everything about the night of the fire,about how I imagined that if I could have inventedwell enough--if I could have made up somethingtruthful enough--I could have (in some sense)saved Piggy Sneed. At least saved him for anotherfire--of my own making.
Well, my grandmother is a Yankee--and Wellesley'soldest living English Literature major. Fancy answers,especially of an aesthetic nature, are not forher. Her late husband--my grandfather--was inthe shoe business; he made things people reallyneeded: practical protection for their feet. Even so, Iinsisted to Grandmother that her kindness to PiggySneed had not been overlooked by me--and thatthis, in combination with the helplessness of PiggySneed's special human condition, and the night ofthe fire, which had introduced me to the possiblepower of my own imagination . . . and so forth. Mygrandmother cut me off.
With more pity than vexation, she patted myhand, she shook her head. "Johnny, dear," she said."You surely could have saved yourself a lot of bother,if you'd only treated Mr. Sneed with a little humandecency when he was alive."
Failing that, I realize that a writer's business issetting fire to Piggy Sneed--and trying to savehim--again and again; forever.