by Peter Byrne
And I chiefly use my charm
On creatures that do people harm,
The mole and toad and newt and viper;
And people call me the Pied Piper.
—Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin
(Swans - January 14, 2013) Three family men, householders, heavy-handed and mean, went out on the town. Manner of speaking, however. There wasn't a town within a day's drive. As anyone with a nose could tell, they were yokels on whom Mother Nature had worked her revenge. Piling their piggery waste high and wide, Harry Pits, Dick Loaf, and Tom Cat had become one with its stench. The place they lived and called Hamlet fumed with the same pervasive stink.
Brought up in the skills of hog care, Hamlet males abounded in empathy for the most uncouth subjects of the animal kingdom. Another bond between these rough men of the polluted soil was a taste for carousing at night in some other crossroad heap of half-finished dwellings. The place they chose as the theatre of their pleasures was of necessity very much like Hamlet, except for not harboring their own wives, offspring, and pigs. Harry, Dick, and Tom would crowd into a spit-and-sawdust bar and begin running off at the mouth. Naturally they talked about pigs -- that was them. They would seamlessly move on to women, though rarely their wives. Parental authority would come up and be placed on a pedestal much like a butcher's block. Piggery matters, however, would always snout their way back again.
This night, as always, loutish violence simmered beneath their unmistakable odor. Harry Pitts, embroidering on one of his mythic lays, looked up to see the bartender grin. It wasn't in the spot where the story called for a laugh. Harry had, he assured them, pumped the bitch a half dozen times and her cries for mercy were awaiting Harry's quotable rejoinder.
"You know what she told me when she came to?" said Harry, his voice rising with drama before a panic pause over getting the words right. "She says...."
"Oink," said the bartender.
"Jesus," said Harry, incredulous at the outrage.
He sat back thinking how to react, never a quick operation in Harry.
Dick didn't like the slur on Hamlet, but figured Harry had it coming. Like a man of the world, he changed the subject to pig shit as fertilizer. He described a miracle beanstalk he'd entrusted to his little woman to tend.
"I get her out there at daybreak, digging it in around the roots. She squats down on her haunches by that stalk, patting the nitrogen in with her rump."
That grin flashed again from behind the bar.
"She's cheatin' on you, boy," said the bartender, "havin' a morning crap on your big stem."
Dick thought no faster than Harry, and he was dealing with more than a simple oink. He'd been challenged pointblank by an assertion. It took several silent seconds for the self-satisfied smile to dim on his face. Then he leaned back, somber, and began wrestling with the nature of the insult.
Tom liked women. He liked pigs. He held the reins tight on his family. Harry's fantasy sex life bored Tom. So did Dick's boasting about all the work he got out of his old woman. So Tom pretended not to have heard the bartender and took over the conversation,
"My eldest screwed himself up tight and came to me saying he was old enough for the odd shot of booze," said Tom, and the listeners all knew who would come out on top in his story.
"'You think so, do you,' says I. The kid flinches afraid I was going to clip him one. But I'm thinking and say, ' We'll have to see.'"
"After spreading the evening swill, I go back to my tool shed and look over the bottles gathering dust between the paint-remover and the snail-bane. I fix up a pint of something and bring it in at supper. The eldest is feeling pretty pleased with himself, lording it over his little brothers. 'Care for a nip,' I ask, helping him tip the bottle up. Well," and Tom couldn't help smirking as he remembered, "he let out a howl that came right up from the soles of his shoes. Guess now what I'd poured down him?"
He looked hard at Harry and Dick's faces. They were properly in suspense and keying up for a laugh. Then Tom spied the bartender out of the tail of his eye. That grin again! Shit, he said to himself, and knew things had gone wrong, but that there was no turning back. This time his voice squeaked as he asked,
"You know what it was?"
"Sure," said the bartender, "hogwash."
Harry, Dick, and Tom broke the place up. What else could they do? Repartee was all very well, but you could wait and wait and the words might never come to you. In the meantime a snotty kibitzer would keep grinning and maybe let loose with a hog call. The other men from Hamlet backed the three up. Anyone who raised pigs knew you had to speak up for your own kind.
Back at Hamlet, it had also been a momentous evening. At sunset a black youth done up in leather zoomed in on a white motorbike. It was a mild evening and all the women and children were outside. As soon as his motor died and he could make himself heard, the stranger asked,
"What's dat mother of a pong? Pee-eu!"
"That's just Hamlet," they said.
The question surprised them. Didn't the whole world smell like that?
"No kiddin'? Well, my advice to you is to follow me over the hill and faraway from littl' ole Hanlet." He said Han and not Ham because he was holding his nose.
The stranger started his bike, rode as slow as it would go, and started to sing. They all held their noses like him and followed. His song was hard, staccato, and commanding. It rhymed. He sang of the battery farm where he worked. The chicken shit that didn't smell. Equal pay for women and children. Feathers that plucked themselves. The extractor fan that played music while it turned.
The mothers, sons, and daughters began to hum along and formed a great tail to the kite of his bike that, sure enough, flew over the hill and farther and farther away. Ah, yes, never to return.
The bruised breadwinners got home so late and sloshed they simply slept where they pulled up in their scarred pickups. At dawn you could see them all hanging on the car doors, swinging themselves awake. Hamlet men, no matter what happened the night before, made it a point of honor to be stirring the trough, up to their kneecaps in pigpen business, when the sun rose. But they were comatose to a man.
"Christ, my head," said Tom.
"That's my head, you dickhead," said Dick.
"Got both your friggin' heads of hair in my mouth," said Harry.
Amongst their fellows, stirring was also slow. Nobody sang. Nobody whistled.
Only gradually, with the sun, a murmur rose. When it was louder than the grunts and snuffling of the feeding animals, all the men rushed out of the pens. Harry put the bad news into words,
"The women and kids have run out on us!"
"The thankless lot," said Dick.
"After all we done for them," said Tom.
A general wail went up. The pen gates had been left open. The pigs came out to see what all the fuss was about. The men, busy bemoaning their fate, weren't mental acrobats and could envisage only one problem at a time.
"Has no one any idea what to do?" said Tom, Dick, and Harry.
No one did, for a very long while. The men thought so hard they drove away other considerations. The pigs went over the hill and faraway.
At length, Tom, Dick, and Harry said,
"We're gonna sit in our pickups."
This was hailed as a breakthrough. And sure enough, after a half-hour's cogitation behind their respective wheels, the three of them came up with a plan. They still spoke in one voice:
"Let's drive around. If we find them, we'll beat the shit out of them."
What was left of Hamlet found that brilliant. And so they drove off and for all anyone knows are driving still.
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