The Purloined Pigs
by Dennis McFadden
Art by Allen Davis
When he was three or four his mam told him there was no such a thing as Santy Claus, nor Father Christmas, nor any of them. She told him Santy Claus was invented in the dark ages by Oliver Cromwell solely for the purpose of keeping the Paddies simple and deluded. His da disagreed, saying there was no way a Brit could ever be so clever, but his mam was nothing if not firm in her convictions, and the one time his da brought home a Christmas tree—a spindly wee orphan of a tree at that—didn’t his mam come in and pitch the thing straight through the window, tinsel, ribbons, and all. A brilliant enough event in its own right, made all the more so by the fact that they were living at the time in the third-floor tenement on Rutland Place, the tree narrowly missing old man McGonagall as it crashed to the cracked and dirty pavement down below. Up until now, that had been Lafferty’s most memorable Christmas.
Up until now. The snow falling on Blue Bucket Lane, a rare and fabulous thing, was only the beginning. Miraculous mightn’t have been overstating the case, not so much for being the first snow to fall on the village of Kilduff in any number of years, and not so much for happening on the very eve of Christmas, but for the nature of the transformation, Blue Bucket Lane going from a squalid stretch of brown mud, dead grass, and bland cottages into a wonderland of glitter and grace. Lafferty stood for a time in the doorway, watching the plump flakes float down dark and white through the lamplight, gathering on the berm of the lane and the dirty yards, clinging to the clusters of branches and limbs.
Miraculous too, the snowfall, for its timing. Had it come two nights earlier, it would have found your man shivering sleepless and homeless under his sodden old newspapers at the base of the Kilduff Cross on the green across from his turf accountant’s shop. Having finally been tossed out of her house for all and good by his wife, Peggy, the locks on the doors changed, the Gardaí forewarned and watching. The last straw—his extended visit to tend to the needs of the widow Reagan—having finally broken the back of the camel in question. So it was easy for Lafferty to look out now at the new snow, spotless as the soul of a baby, and imagine a fresh beginning. He was no spring chicken anymore, Lafferty wasn’t, turning the corner at forty before you knew it. Time to settle down, grow up. Time to try to make a go of it with Peggy. Hadn’t they once upon a time been crazy mad with the lust and the love for one another, two decades ago to be sure, but wasn’t that a feeling that might be recaptured, and wasn’t the snow falling so white and fresh a sign that slates could be wiped clean, that leafs could be turned, that lives could start over again.
Peggy came up to him in the doorway. “Move your arse, Terrance, or I’ll be after tossing it right back out in the snow again. My guests’ll be here any minute.”
“Yes, my love,” said Lafferty.
“‘Love’ my arse,” said she.
“Oh, I do,” said he, “I do,” and Peggy had to smile, at last. Having long ago grown immune to his charms and inveiglements, it had been awhile since she’d smiled at his clever bon mot, and he took the smile to be confirmation that the sign of the snowfall was true, that clean slates and turning leafs and fresh beginnings were all possible in God’s sweet world.
“The toilet needs scrubbing,” said Peggy, the smile run away from her face.
She was giving her Christmas party. She’d invited her friends and coworkers from St. Christopher’s, where she was a nurse. In addition to a pack of promises concerning the nature of his future behavior, which included gainful employment, it was the party, in fact, that helped him worm his way back. Not just the labor of the preparation, mind you, for appearances beyond polish and shine were important, the appearance in particular of a happy couple graciously, charmingly (this is where Terrance came in) entertaining their guests on a Christmas Eve. She cooked, he cleaned. And cleaned and washed and dusted and swept and mopped and scrubbed and polished, one chore after another, eager and uncomplaining, at least within her earshot. His mam hadn’t raised her son for physical labor, much less physical labor befitting a scullery maid, but a night or two in the cold and barren roads of Kilduff could fine-tune a man’s attitude, and nor had his mam raised a fool. Lafferty looked at the condition as temporary. He figured after the new leaf was turned, after the relationship was reestablished, then the labor would naturally sort itself out by appropriate role and gender, and the old order would eventually reemerge. All he had to do was keep his nose clean and his tool sharp. And though he doubted the old order would go so far as a move back to Dublin, who knew? He’d never wanted to leave the city in the first place, to move to a godforsaken village the likes of Kilduff, out in the heart of County Nowhere. When she’d told him she wanted to leave, to quit the city, to start anew in a small cottage in a little village, where perhaps she and Terrance could start over as well, without all the gambling and drinking and unsavory sorts to lead him astray, and maybe even have the child she’d been hoping to have, he’d told her by God he was staying. He was a Dublin boy through and through, born and bred. But once again the want of a roof over his head put the spoil to his best-laid plans, forcing a reconciliation, a reluctant move to the country. That particular reconciliation, like all those that followed, had faltered, and so Lafferty hoped—sincerely this time, perhaps—that this one might somehow fare better.
It was in the very spirit of that reconciliation, in fact, that Lafferty went to the bother of procuring a gift, a Christmas gift, for the first time he could remember, maybe for the first time ever. In the thrift shop by Connor’s News Agent, he found a porcelain pigs figurine, forking over the last two bob to his name, two bob he’d worked hard to attain, a coin or two at a time here and there, beneath the cushions of Peggy’s sofa, in a little ceramic box in the corner of her dresser, scattered in the junk drawer of her kitchen cabinet. For didn’t herself collect pigs. If there was any irony in her penchant, Lafferty never looked for it. She had porcelain, pewter, stuffed, and plush, pigs of all sizes, shapes, and colors, on this shelf or that, this room or that, kitchen, bedroom, and parlor. The figurine he’d spotted amidst the junk in the thrift shop stood out head and shoulders above the other pigs, and he suspected it might be what Peggy might call adorable: six inches high, white in color with only a blush of pink, a mama pig and baby pig standing up on their hind legs, clutching one another as if in fear, looking up with four large and wondering eyes at the world at large. It came in a box that Lafferty wrapped in pretty paper he found in Peggy’s desk, and stashed the thing on the top shelf of the closet in the bedroom behind a shoebox and well out of sight to surprise her with come Christmas morning. He couldn’t wait to see the look on her face.
Guests began arriving, smiles as white as the snow they were shaking from their shoulders. Time and again, Lafferty showed his own teeth, as well as the jolly dimple in the middle of his own chin. They were nurses mostly, of either or indeterminate gender, with significant others and spouses, a receptionist or two, and technician as well. Some he remembered from this gathering or that, some he didn’t, though he’d have been hard-pressed to put a name even to those he did. He saw to it that all were hailed and well met, that a drink was in every hand, including his own, to be sure, nibbles within easy reach, taking their coats to brush off the snow and pile on the bed in the bedroom. The tree was lit up and sparkling, the music loud and choirful, the gas flame in the stove sputtering blue and red and yellow, a fine approximation of a Yule log. The chatter was loud as well, bouts of laughter frequent and earnest. An hour in, it was apparent the thing was going right as the mail, and when Lafferty looked at his wife talking up a big fellow with gold in his teeth and his wife who was skinny and pale, Peggy all smiles and ease, he figured the roof over his head was secure, at least for the immediate future.
A woman named Cassidy came, a woman known by all as Cassie. When Peggy introduced him he said pleased, and Cassie said she’d met him before, did he not remember, and Lafferty had to admit he did not. At the Commodore Pub, said she, the day they gathered to bring in the summer. If drink was taken, Lafferty explained, that might account for his failing to remember a face so pretty as hers, at which point Peggy interjected that with Terrance there was always drink taken, which might account for his failing to remember where he lived a great deal of the time. She’d a pretty face indeed, Cassie did, nose regal and thin, brown eyes hiding a quiet panic, her eyebrows, sandy and fine like her hair, set straight in a line beneath a forehead with an eternal crease of incomprehension. She appeared entirely unable to quite put a name to whatever it was she was watching. When Peggy told him from the corner of her mouth a bit later that Cassie, plump, lonely, and neglected, had “problems,” that her husband had left her, and Peggy had invited her mostly from pity, Lafferty took in the desperate and thirsty look of the woman and saw her for what she was: a mortal temptress God had placed on the path to his reconciliation. The flesh of her body, near as Lafferty could judge beneath her loose-fitting dress and sweater, seemed at the crossroads of aging, still firm enough to be enticing, ample and relaxed enough to be inviting.
He caught himself holding his breath. He neither meant nor intended to be judging the flesh of another woman. He meant to spurn temptation. He looked at his wife. Pretty, prettier, dark hair in thick waves and ringlets, fine fistfuls of flesh evident beneath the close-fitting clothes. She was the woman for him. Amen and case closed.
For a time Lafferty chatted up a fellow with the ugliest wife he could find. His name was Conboy, beanpole tall and lanky with a small face and square jaw, hair balding back across the crown of his head. He paused before every laugh to make sure, Lafferty guessed, that he got it. His wife, Angelica, was a frightful scramble of straight hair, chicklet teeth, and a wee nose buried by the heft of her glasses, but Lafferty loved her wit. When the topic turned to the lamentable earthquake in Turkey and the countless hundreds dead, didn’t she say, “Ah, sure, they probably all had it coming,” and Lafferty hoped he could grow up someday to appreciate a woman such as that. Passing through the parlor, he exchanged cowboy quick-draws with a big heavy fellow by the name of Quinn with tight curly hair and a roadmap of red veins and splotches on his cheeks, the big fellow clutching his chest like it was shot full of hot lead, and in the kitchen he fell in with Browne, a grave and studious man, the prominent gray hair of his eyebrows threatening to conquer his face altogether. Browne was espousing to his wife, Ginger, and a cluster of others his conviction that there was no such thing as the present, that the present didn’t exist, that the word itself should be stricken from the dictionaries of the world. Someone said what about now? Right now when they’re all standing about, weren’t they in the present, and Browne said certainly not, it’s in the past by the time the word leaves your lips. Someone said now quicker but Browne insisted it still existed only in memory, nowhere else, and for a time they stood about shouting now quicker and quicker, trying in vain to snatch the present and keep it from becoming the past. Lafferty saw Cassie standing at the fringe, feigning interest, trying to hide the confusion on her brow. She was standing directly beneath the overhead light of the kitchen, which lent her fine, sandy hair a metallic and reflective quality that Lafferty could have taken for a halo, if he’d been so inclined.
When the time came for party pieces they congregated around the tree, great flakes of snow still licking at the window from the darkness outside. Ginger Browne went first, encouraged by the crowd who’d heard her first-rate voice before, giving a grand rendition of “O Holy Night,” hitting the high notes with gusto. Song after song followed, three nurses in a fine bit of diddlyi, Lafferty concluding they must practice in the ward when they ought to be healing people, and a little man named Enright offering a quavering version of “Wild Mountain Thyme,” making the most of a voice that was mournful and thin. Will you go, lassie, go, sang every voice in the room, except for that of a dark fellow by the name of Adams who’d been sulking behind his close-cropped beard since the moment he arrived on the outs with his wife. When it came time for Lafferty’s own piece, he demurred, glancing at Peggy, who knew that his usual was a rousing rebel song, “The Boys of the Old Brigade,” far from a favorite of hers, and he’d not had enough drink taken at any rate, wasn’t in the mood, too busy being the host, too busy minding his p’s and q’s—a redundant effort on his part, as Peggy was minding them too. When they urged and insisted, Lafferty stepped to the middle of the room, cleared his throat, and recited,
“Eggs and bacon, eggs and bacon,
If you think I’m going to sing it,
You’re sadly mistaken.”
The rhyme was well received and Lafferty was off the hook, and he opened himself another bottle of stout, and looked at the clock on the mantel. Another piece or two ensued, till it petered out over a sad effort by Mr. and Mrs. Quinn, who stumbled through a Bavarian folk song they picked up on German holiday. Lafferty noticed his own cheeks had got sore from smiling. A sad state of affairs. In an evening at the Pig and Whistle with his mates, didn’t his smile last twice as long, and didn’t his cheeks never grow weary of it. There were different qualities of smiles, those that came easy and those that did not, those that took place, say, for instance, at your wife’s Christmas party with a passel of partiers you hardly knew, and with the keen eye of your wife forever watching for the smile to be sure it was there and sincere, and which required all the more toil to maintain. Cassie was one of the first to leave, fetching her coat from the bedroom and carrying it with her out into the snow, pausing only to say a few words to Peggy passing by. Lafferty thought she’d have slunk out undetected if she’d been able, and he was relieved to see her depart, taking with her the fleshy temptation, seeing it as the first step toward an empty house, which was to say toward an empty bedroom in which he and his wife, Peggy-o, could at last consummate their reconciliation. For wasn’t your man growing all the more randy with each passing stout, each passing hour, the longer he’d looked upon the temptation, having been celibate now for so many days. Five at least, going on six.
But weren’t his hopes to be dashed. For after the last guest had finally straggled out into the snowfall, after your man had made a conscientious and conspicuous effort to tidy up the desperate litter of bottles and ashes and saucers and such while herself only sat in the quiet and rested, didn’t she go into the bedroom then all alone. And tell him through the closed and locked door that he’d earned his way back into her home, but not yet back to her bed.
There was always the pigs. His ace in the hole was the pigs up his sleeve. Lafferty, disgruntled and randy and lonely, stood for a time with his simmering blood in the dark of the living room looking out through the window at the flurries still chasing one another around the lamppost. The ground was covered and glistening, the tree limbs gleaming as well. Two nights ago being warm and dry and sheltered from the snow would have been plenty enough, but now it seemed scant consolation. You always want more than whatever you have, a truth he was born with. He considered for a time tapping on her door again and telling her of the pigs, of the gift he had for her that couldn’t wait till morning for her to open. See what else it might open. But in the end he did not. Best not to press the issue, best not to hurry the woman. In the end he decided to wait. He was certain she’d adore the pigs once she’d laid her eyes on them, and the morning would come soon enough. Love in the morning was a favorite of his. In the end he was content to take the little wool blanket from the shelf in the hallway and wrap himself up on the sofa safe from the snow and the cold, listening to the warm hum of the flame in the stove, savoring as he fell asleep the pleasant anticipation of delayed gratification.
As soon as he heard her next morning with the kettle he was up and into the bedroom, and straight to the closet shelf. But there was nothing there but empty. He reached deeper. Still nothing. He knocked aside the shoebox, the other boxes and what-nots and bric-a-brac, searching with increasing anxiety for the gaily wrapped parcel of pigs. He looked on the floor of the closet, in the rest of the room, on the shelves with the other pigs, everywhere there were pigs, to see if she’d discovered the thing and placed it on display. It was nowhere to be found. The pigs were missing entirely. . . .
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"The Purloined Pigs" by Dennis McFadden, Copyright © 2013 with permission of the author.
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