I’m so attentive to the Sunday Times crossword that I don’t see the man in the pig costume approach. It’s not until he settles his hams beside me on the stoop that I take notice. Then, once I do, I do my best to ignore him. I mean, the costume is lame—a ratty full-bodied puke-colored piggish outfit, like something a temporary BBQ employee might wear to flag down prospective pulled-pork aficionados. Or something donated to Goodwill by a down-and-out Halloween store—not that I’ve ever seen many pigs going door to door on that holiday, snorting “Trick or Treat!”
Anyway, the pig has scooted up against me and is looking over my shoulder at the puzzle. I can feel a certain amount of human heft beneath the bulge of his thighs, but there seems also to be a considerable amount of loose airy padding as well, the flimsiness of foam and fiber-stuffing pressed against my terry cloth robe. The skin of the costume is faux hide, some kind of cross between felt and suede. But what most draws my attention beyond the folded and sparsely inked newspaper on my left knee are the pig’s hocks bunched loosely above a pair of silver Air Jordans that poke out where hooves should be. As I turn to give the pig a glare or sneer of personal space violation, I find his snout—and goofy pig eyes and ears the shape of dog chews—sits high on his forehead like a farmer’s hat that’s been pushed back in perplexity. The man in the pig costume is looking through the open neck hole at my crossword, which he seems to be studying with decidedly purposeful attention. His man eyes do not meet mine.
“Excuse me?” I say, drawing out of what are meant to be civil words a tone of dissatisfaction. It is a widely understood gesture, manifest in the blatant sarcasm of overwrought TV humor.
“Sorry,” says the pig, yet all that moves is the air of his warm breath, which smells like a subway tunnel.
I’m more irritated than surprised. This “neighborhood”—a gentrified term for a gentrified block of re-mortared and false-faced brownstones—has been designated by the city as one of “historical” significance, its history rife with more than architectural modification and development. The three-block area of revisionist “cool” exudes a certain nostalgic flair and thus attraction for bohemian types—artists, actors, musicians, poets, and the such—quirky, theatrical sorts, with little aversion to self-expression or aberrant lifestyles. The pig hunched beside me is not likely the first porcine ever to roam these brick-lined and spindly-treed streets (the arbor-de-jour being hybrid linden). But gentrification these days is also cast with the virtualization of “neighborhood,” where technologically astute but socially inept Millennials tend to avoid real-time face-to-face, tend to keep to themselves. I came out to the stoop, that is to say, for a certain amount of privacy. Sitting in the open in my bathrobe pretty much assures that not one of my neighbors will approach or disturb me. I’m considered the odd one.
But now here’s a pig. Grunting and snorting at the few answers I’ve inked over on the crossword, as if trying to decipher whether 37 Across is supposed to be deter or defer, and what that might mean for 19 Down: “Source, e.g.”
He leans slightly, hovering above the folded section of the newspaper I’ve flattened upon the hardcover book balanced on my left knee. The book is Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which I’d acquired from the Friends of the Library book sale last summer. I stumbled across the novel—if it’s possible for eyesight to “stumble”—on the Classics, Literature, and Miscellaneous table; it looks brand new, its spine never flexed, though it does wear the library’s plastic jacket and call number and has an intake date of 10/2013 stamped on the flyleaf. I intend to read it eventually, if not for its literary relevance, then out of curiosity: Why add to the library’s collection a 19th century novel long out of favor and popularity only to discard it a year or two later? Perhaps by reading the thing, I’d be able to figure it out. Besides, it was only fifty cents.
But I haven’t gotten to it yet. Instead, I’ve found its size and stiffness to be a perfect lap table for newspaper puzzles: crosswords and Jumbles and Crypto Quotes.
The pig hovers. There is a musty, unwashed odor emanating from the costume now, a “slovenly” stench, if there is such a thing, the word slovenly typically less specific in terms of how “careless” or “untidy” a person or job might be. Yet smell or not, “slovenly”—it suddenly occurs to me—fits at the top right corner, 8 Down. I ink it in.
“Nice,” says the pig. He leans closer, tilts his head a little, as if indeed the man in the costume has the eyesight of a pig, which I’ve read is predominately lateral (eyes on either side of the head) and not so good “binocular” or straight on. It’s hard for pigs to judge distance, and it strikes me than that the man in the pig costume is maybe not trying to figure out what I’ve written in (and over) the boxes of the puzzle but is having difficulty reading the clues. There are more and more mornings—at my age—that I have the same trouble. He grunts, the sound of a just-plunged waste pipe, as if confirming my suspicions.
Or perhaps the pig is just clearing his throat, which is engorged with the head of a man, a distinctly rude individual in this case. I turn and scowl at him: His eyes, I see, are small and far apart, beady—like pig eyes—but his nose is wide and fat, a brown toad on the bark of his unwashed face. His lips are negligible, pursed perhaps, a thin flaky gouge among short stubbles of facial hair. Again, he does not acknowledge my gesture. He stares at the puzzle.
Then the pig sifts his bulk, slightly, and I hear the wheezy whistle of air being forced through the tightly stretched mouth of a balloon. A noxious smell follows. Someone has passed gas—as they say—and it wasn’t me.
“Do you mind?” I turn the paper over, the puzzle side down, and face him. This time he sits back and meets my stare. He appears dazed and uncertain. His lips bunch and open; a bluish tongue moistens them.
“Lou,” says the pig.
“Lou,” he repeats. He gestures, his right, hoof-shaped glove asking to be gripped.
“Paul,” I say. But I draw the line at a handshake. As the old joke goes, You never know where that hock has been.
The pig’s head waggles. “No,” says the man, his voice gargling from the throat slit like a voice box. “56 Down. L-i-e-u. ‘Another place, with of’.”
I flip the paper back over, smooth it on Butler’s book. Lieu fits in 56 Down, making 60 Across (“Surroundings”) environs.
Pigs, they say, are even smarter than dogs.
I begin to consider what word might satisfy the clue for the v of 60 Across, the more rarely used letters often easier to connect, when another rumble levitates the stoop, growling through the canyon of our street like an armed convoy. This time it is not the pig. Looking to the east, I can see at the end of the block a cement truck, barrel grinding, pass on the cross street. On a Sunday? What other oddities might appear?
No sooner does the thought escape than I see coming around the corner and heading our way what appears to be a dog walking a dog. I mean, a person in a dog costume taking a morning stroll with a toy-sized creature on a leash. I suddenly wonder if the circus is in town.
Behind the dog walker the light of early morning—early for an urban environment—envelopes the vision in a kind of aura, as if the cement truck had left in its wake a carbonation of yellow light, a kind of breakfast cocktail for the city, hung over from its dark revelry—a revelry I had hoped to avoid. It is not the morning light of my rural Midwestern childhood, which addressed the dark fields and windbreaks with first a grayish nudge and then—cock-a-doodle-doo!—the sudden brilliance of secondary colors come alive—greens and oranges and violets. Rather, a city sunrise is more subtle, a slight modification in the gray-yellow street lamps flicking off as the sky above the drab roofs of the next block lightens a few shades, often imperceptively. Looking into such light, it is difficult—especially as one ages—to delineate the features of passersby, until they get close.
The dog walker, I can see now, is a wolf: long pointy snout, the mouth agape, as if overly full of brutal, predatory teeth (tinted, in places, in red?), the ears of a German Shepherd, the tail of, well, a picture book wolf. He is tall—a wolf’s head or so taller than the pig beside me—and I cannot help myself from feeling a little afraid for the pig, what with the myriad tales of wolf-pig encounter swirling from the depths of my childhood memory, until I figuratively slap myself back to reality.
It is a strange moment, to be sure—odd, bizarre, crazy, delusional (call it what you will)—the pig sitting next to me, prompting me with answers for the Sunday New York Times crossword, which I do tend to have troubles with, a pig appearing out of the blue, say, like an angel—after all, it is Sunday—and a wolf, strolling along my quiet, gentrified neighborhood as if a morning regimen, a small Pekinese (I can see now) at the end of a leash studded with what I can only assume are ruby-colored beads of plastic. Strange, for sure. But still just a couple guys in costumes—for whatever reason—obviously pretending, nothing more than a theatrical tremble in the tectonic plates of my weekly routine. Actors. Nothing more.
The pig’s head raises a bit as the wolf passes, the man inside the pig costume sort of eyeing the wolfish spectacle straight on. I can feel against my leg the muscles beneath the Fiberfil tense. But the wolf, having stopped momentarily for the dog to lift its leg and piddle urine at the base of a cement flowerpot two buildings over, just nods as he passes, a neighborly acknowledgement of early risers sitting on a stoop, reading the Sunday paper together.
“Lou,” says a gruff, distinctly male voice from somewhere in the wolf.
“Fred,” says the pig, with a nod of his own.
They must be familiars. For a moment I’m speechless. I turn again to the pig, who has refocused his attention on the puzzle.
“Lou?” I say.
“56 Down,” repeats the pig.
I decide not to pursue it. Instead, I follow a sudden gust of wind as it sends two dry leaves and a scrap of sales circular skidding along the paving bricks. A small breeze of what smells more like a barnyard than the typical car exhaust, spoiled cabbage, and cat urine musses what thin tufts of hair I still have.
“Par Avion,” says the pig, suddenly. “77 Across.”
“Way to send a Nice letter?”
“Neese,” says the pig. “As in France.”
“Ahh,” I say. “Good one.” It fits.
For a while we sit in silence, bent over the paper on my lap, neither of us able to make anything work. When I begin to write in obbligato for 31 Across, the pig grunts, swings his loose snout back and forth. I scribble lightly over the letters I’d already penned in.
The sun, or something like it behind the morning haze—something round and bright and hot—has pushed itself up on the buildings at the east end of the block. It’s going to be a warm day, and as I consider shedding my robe I think how uncomfortable the pig must be getting. I begin to imagine I can smell his sweat—more the scent of locker rooms at the gym than barnyard. I’m wondering if beads of perspiration are running off his fleshy back and pooling around his curly tail when he speaks again.
“Pencil would be better,” he says. “My father used a pencil. Sharpened it with jack knife he carried in his suit pants.”
“Jack knife?” I say. There are two k’s in the middle of 43 Across. I double check the clue.
“Carried it everywhere,” says the pig. “Refused to fly, when airport security wouldn’t let him take it on a plane. We buried him with it.”
“Buck knife,” I say, writing it in.
“Exactly,” says the pig.
The pause that follows is pregnant. I suppose the pig deserves a response of some kind; he is being helpful after all, despite the grotesque attire.
“My father,” I say, “always used a pen. Claimed it wasn’t sporting without. Said we should learn from our mistakes, not hide them.”
The pig grunts, as if in contemplation.
“He could be arrogant and difficult at times,” I continue. “But he was a wiz at crosswords.”
The pig grunts again. “Mine as well,” he says. “A real martinet.”
“M-a-r-t-i-n-e-t,” spells the pig. “82 Across. ‘Disciplinarian’.”
“Good one,” I say.
“He whipped my older brother with a shaving strap,” continues the pig. “Made us younger kids watch. Said it was a lesson we’d not forget.”
“Ow,” I say, in a tone meant to sound both incredulous and sympathetic.
“No kidding,” says the pig. “He killed my brother, made us watch.”
“What?” I say and suck in a breath. I look over at the face bulging out of the neck hole in a ratty pig costume and wonder if I am meant to be the brunt of some practical joke. But the pig hasn’t moved. No tremble of restrained laughter. The man’s small eyes are locked on the newspaper that The Way of All Flesh supports.
“Well,” the pig corrects, “he claimed he didn’t mean to. Said he didn’t know about my brother’s weak heart, and all that. But the damage was already done.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, for lack of any other response.
“Don’t be. It wasn’t your father. It wasn’t a person who used a pen. It was a person who erased his mistakes, as if they never happened. He lived a long life, my father, solved hundreds of crosswords, sharpened his pencils with a jack knife his eldest son had given him the Christmas before he died.”
“Jesus,” I say, invoking the word as an expletive.
“Pray all you want,” says the pig. “But He won’t raise my brother from the dead.”
Lazarus, I think. 101 Down, in the corner. Then spaz, aura, and erdu across. I ink neat letters into the boxes. The pig snorts appreciatively.
The air stirs. Again, the pig shifts on his haunches. Three of the four corners of the puzzle are beginning to fill in, but a few strings of boxes in the middle are still blank or lightly scribbled on (so as to write over them if I need to).
The faint w-h-e-e-e-e-l-l, w-h-h-e-e-l, w-h-e-e-e-e-l sounds of roller skates causes the pig’s head to swivel. What looks like a shorter, stockier, gray-white version of the Big Bird character from Sesame Street has come around the corner from the west and is navigating the cracks and canine excrement of the sidewalk on the other side of the street. No human face shows; one can only guess by the shape of the orange-Spandex legs what gender the bird is. Its shiny, possibly plastic feathers ruffle like sequins from the left-right-left movement of its thin, ballet-dancer legs. As she passes—without acknowledgement of either the pig or me—I can see that the costume is meant to be a swan or goose, with a long, curved neck and headpiece wired onto the skater’s hat. At the end of the block the bird slows and circles repeatedly, until a bluish nondescript car goes racing past, honking. Then she disappears around the corner.
“Leda,” says the pig. “Queen of Sparta.”
I find the blank boxes back toward the top. L-e-d-a fits. But something about the answer doesn’t seem right.
“It doesn’t make sense,” I say.
“Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan.”
“I understand that. So—” I motion down the block where the skater had disappeared. “—that was supposed to be Zeus?”
“What?” says the pig, craning his fat neck and squinting his beady eyes. His gaze follows my gesture.
“That skater in the bird outfit, which actually looked more like a goose . . .” I feel my synapses snap. “Like Mother Goose!” I shout. “Of course! That would explain you and the wolf.”
“What skater?” says the pig. “What goose?” His tone is flat, unconvincing. Someone is obviously messing with me, and the pig is in on it. I shake my head and return my attention to the newspaper. Better just to play along.
“When I was a kid,” I say, “my grandfather raised pigs on his farm. Slaughtered them himself. Made us kids watch.”
The pig grunts.
“I’ve loved pork ever since—bacon, ham, hocks . . . Once my grandfather roasted a whole hog on a spit in his backyard, called it a luau. Invited all the neighbors. Some dressed in Hawaiian shirts, a couple girls made grass skirts out of corn stalks and mimicked a hula. There was even a baked apple in its charred snout, a wreath of garland—dill probably—encircling its piggy head. It was great fun . . . and very yummy.”
The pig nods but does not make a sound. The man in the pig suit is staring at the crossword with an intensity that rivals competitors of an international chess tournament. Either I’d gone too far, or he’s pretending not to hear.
“All I’m saying,” I say, with a final poke of my verbal knife, “is that I can understand the wolf’s point of view.”
“Water-under-the-bridge,” says the pig. “I couldn’t care less if you don’t believe me. My brother is still dead.” There is a different tone in his voice this time, one of bitterness and denial. So he had been listening. And I had gotten his goat.
The pun makes me chuff a laugh: the goat of a pig. Still, the man in the pig suit does not look my way. He waves his hoof-gloved right hand over the puzzle. “57 Across.”
“57 Across?” C’est la vie, to a river?
“W-a-t-e-r-u-n-d-e-r-t-h-e-b-r-i-d-g-e,” spells the pig.
“Ah,” I say. I ink in the letters.
“And just so you know,” continues the pig. “Fred’s a prick.”
He’d lost me, until I recall the dog walker.
For a few moments I am penning in rather quickly. The water-under-the-bridge answer has opened up several possibilities going in other directions. Words begin falling into place, as if they’d been trained, as if I have nothing to do with it. A rather disturbing thought, given the morning’s events. But now the puzzle is coming together more easily, and if the pig does not soon heft his bulk to standing and continue on his piggy way, I will excuse myself and go back inside. I don’t have any bacon—seldom eat it, in point of fact—but talking about it had given me an appetite, and I remember that I’d only begun to assemble breakfast before coming out—Raisin Bran, applesauce, a banana . . .
Then we’re stumped again. I twist the stiffness out of my neck and glance up. What looks to be cows—or maybe a cow and a bull—are plodding up the sidewalk. One is pushing a baby stroller. This time I nudge the pig with my elbow and nod in the direction of the bovines. The brown, heavy shouldered one—a bull or steer, it appears (from the pronounced horns and lack of udder)—guides the three-wheeled baby vehicle with uncommon deftness for a creature of its size. A black and white Holstein, its teats flapping back and forth with every knee-thrust, walks beside. For all practical purposes, they could be a young family on their way to church.
Curious to see what the stroller holds, I’m straightening up for a better view when the cow couple comes to a stop directly before us, as if to show off their “baby,” which turns out to be nothing more than five or six gallons of milk in squat plastic jugs.
And just when I was beginning to think it couldn’t get any stranger.
The pig doesn’t look up. He hadn’t moved when I nudged him. He sits motionless, hunched over, staring at the crossword.
“Morning,” says the bull.
“Morning,” I reply.
“Looks like it will be a warm one,” says the cow.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, it does.”
I’m not sure what else to say, having no interest in small talk. I don’t want to encourage them; I would prefer to be left alone. At the same time, I don’t intend to be impolite. I mean, I’ve tolerated the pig’s violation of my privacy, and have even come to understand how, in the grand scheme of things, strangers can be helpful. How, in fact, the strangeness of the whole surreal morning has been satisfying and even—as if my life were nothing more than crossword puzzles—an entertainment. A diversion. But enough is enough. I’m getting tired of the performance. I have no wish to participate in the cows’ casual interrogation. I will not raise the social ante.
a-n-t-e: 87 Down. I ink in the answer but then keep my head bowed, as if distracted. To dissuade them. And so the cows, after some awkward hesitation, continue on their way. But I no sooner look for the clue of the long string of empty boxes toward the bottom—99 Across—when I hear the bull returning up the sidewalk, scrapes of hooves shuffling and a thin scream of a stroller wheel rubbing against something. Maybe the brake’s on.
“I say,” says a muffled, somewhat foreign voice, coming from below the shaggy neck of a creature that stands before us like the Minotaur, the actor inside no doubt sighting us through the gauzy black netting at the bull’s throat. “What’s with the costume?”
I laugh. So it is a joke! And now it’s being taken to the extreme: the pot calling the kettle black. Or, in this case, a man in a cow costume calling to the Reality mat—so to speak—a man in a pig suit. This should be good.
The pig doesn’t move, doesn’t take his eyes off the puzzle. He doesn’t reply.
“Well?” says the bull.
“Well?” I echo, my voice raised in anticipation.
The pig grunts. “He’s not talking to me.”
“He’s not talking to me.”
“I’m not talking to him,” confirms the bull. “I mean, what’s with the bathrobe? The slippers? What kind of animal are you meant to be?”
Me? I am flabbergasted. And two things come to mind simultaneously: these characters don’t belong here, in the city—they are creatures of the barnyard, all of them, except for the wolf—the lone wolf, so to speak—and flabbergasted may be the answer to 99 Across.
That’s when I excuse myself and return with my pen, the puzzle, and The Way of All Flesh to my apartment, where I fix myself breakfast. I peel a banana, spoon applesauce into a bowl of raisin bran. All the while the pig has remained on the stoop, chatting with the bull; their voices drift up to the window.
So now I’m sitting in my dim kitchen waiting for them to leave. Once they’re gone, I’ll open the curtains and maybe let in enough light to consider the rest of the clues on my own.