The Guitar Man – Part 4: Mister Piggy and Me
After his brilliant short story series ‘Dogbite’, Chris Adam-Smith has written a new series featuring the adventures of The Guitar Man. The first installment in this series can be read here.
Part 4: Mister Piggy and Me
We were sitting on the sundeck of the Mary Belle, sheltered beneath a large white canvas canopy to protect our heads from the hot sun. It was early afternoon and the air was at peace from the mosquitoes which would later force us into the township of New Orleans and away from the river. Harry Coen was reading a book and drinking Dixie beer while I was quietly strumming my guitar and feeling a little heady on Tequila shots. The paddle steamer was laid up with boiler trouble and would be out of action for a few days. We wanted to move on but the captain, John Hook, persuaded us to stay the request came with an offer of free grog and grub for the entirety of the repairs. He didn’t want to lose us, Harry, me or Harry’s partner Georgiana Brody, we were popular on the muddy old river and, as we had worked for him over several past summers and as we enjoyed a drink or two, we agreed to drop anchor alongside him.
Harry looked across at me over the top of the wire-framed eye-glasses he had recently taken on. I wasn’t sure if he wore them for some sort of imagined effect or he needed them to read the open book sitting on his lap. I thought maybe it was the latter as he was a very handsome man and really didn’t need any help from a pair of wire-rimmed glasses.
‘I have long been meaning to ask you how you obtained such a fine Martin guitar?’
I looked down at the Martin, it really was a special instrument, polished maple glistening in the sunlight. ‘In a very roundabout way,’ I said. ‘Mister Piggy gave it me.’
‘Sad name for a fat man?’
‘He wasn’t a fat man, he was a real porker, a pig, and it is the full use of Mister, that was his name, Mister Piggy.’
‘Dare I ask how Mister Pig came to give you such fine instrument? He go shopping? Was it a birthday present? Or maybe the two of you were in love,’ he said smiling. ‘I have heard of such unions.’ He looked down at his book again not expecting a reply.
‘In a way, maybe love had a great deal to do with it but, as I said, it was only in a very roundabout way.’
He looked over at me expectantly, waiting. I thought why the hell not? I don’t like digging back into the past where the happy memories tend to get a little muddled up with the unhappy ones. However, it was a hot day, the tequila was getting to me and I was in the company of a very real friend. Perhaps it was time to look back and put it all into perspective. I set the guitar down on the deck table and leaned back in the chair, my glass full…
‘I was ten years old, an orphan and sent to live with my alcoholic uncle when my parents were taken from me with cholera. Uncle Charlie lived on his two-by-four ranch in South Texas, just outside of a small township named Orville. Charlie didn’t bother much with cattle, only the two milk cows he kept handy, raising drinking money from the sale of their milk. Mostly he kept pigs and that’s how I came by Mister Piggy, the runt of the last litter. He was for the chop but I spirited him away, took him up to my secret place, a run-down line shack long ago abandoned by the previous owner of our home. I made him a little enclosure and a shelter inside. Set him up with a giant water bowl filled by the still working pump, hand fed him apples and milk-soaked bran. He thrived well but it was clear he was never going to make a market porker, so I kept him for myself. My best childhood company ever. I would sit upon a hay bale dragged up from our neighbour’s field and Piggy he’d curl up beside me. Like all pigs, he had that little pig smile on his face, and would go to sleep whilst I tickled his belly. Much like a cat really and only a little bigger. We spent a happy first summer together.
‘Miss Jessica Jones, our two- day- a- week school teacher, schooled me on how to play the old and battered school guitar three nights a week and on Sunday, after church, she also taught me to sing the hymns and gospel songs with the church choir. I always loved gospel music, so inclusive.
‘Miss Jones was beautiful with raven black hair and dark eyes, I sure enough I fell in love with her. And then one Sunday after church I went down with a virus, she and the doc insisted I stay at her place for five long happy days.
‘When I got the all clear I rushed home but Mister Piggy was gone. His pen had been smashed up and the water bowl turned over. I ran down to the house, Uncle Charlie was not there or in the pigsties at the back of the house. Eventually I found Piggy in the barn locked into a tiny wooden cage, he was white and dying, without food or water. I broke him out of the cage but he showed no reaction to my presence. I filled a tub with cold water and he showed little interest in that until I took off my bandana, soaked it and wiped his face with it. Then he drank until I stopped him, too much too soon. I fed him bran mixed with buttermilk straight from the churn. In hour or so he had perked up, seemed to know me and that piggy smile had returned to his face. He got to his feet, staggered a little but followed me into the barn and a hay filled stall. I fed him bits of apple and watered him some more then, suddenly, Charlie was there, drunk and with a large butcher knife in his hand.’
‘”You little bastard,”’ he had snarled at me. “‘Stealing my pig, I’m going to whip your backside raw.”’
‘I stared at him. He was pure hillbilly now, knife wielding walking towards me, slurred words coming from froth laden lips. Wild-eyed, out of control. I got between him and the pig, but he tried to push past me and I belted him in the face as hard as I could. He rocked back on his heels, laughed and cursed me with words I did not know. He came at me again and I grabbed a three tined hay fork and pointed it at him, he just laughed again and lunged forward. The tines sank into his chest almost to where the wooden handle joined the rusty metal. I had not stabbed at him, he had run at it and the long handle was jammed behind me against the side of the barn, the hickory embedded in the soft earth, an immoveable object. I let go of the fork but he just stood there pinned to it, waving his arms, his lips moving without sound, blood coming from his mouth and wrapping around his bad teeth. Suddenly he gave a deep rasping sigh and leaned sideways against the side of the stall and stood there propped up by both the timber and the fork. His head sank onto his chest and he was dead and gone.
‘Grabbing Mister Piggy, I ran to town and burst into the sheriff’s office. He was an elderly, friendly man, as I recall, always kind to me, one of the few who sometimes used my birth name. I was crying as I told him what had happened. He listened carefully and after securing Piggy in one of the cells, he saddled his horse and, with me riding behind him, we headed back out to the ranch.
‘Uncle Charlie was still propped up supported by the wooden side of the stall and the jammed in hay fork. The sheriff looked down at me and ruffled my hair.’
‘“A bad thing to see, Johnny, you go on outside, I’ll see to your uncle. He was one mean sonofabitch for sure.”’
‘”What will happen to us when I’m in jail?”’ I asked, thinking of Mister Piggy.
‘“You won’t be going to jail, son. A clear case of justifiable homicide. Self-defence, you always remember that, boy, always, self-defence, nothing else you could do against a grown man. Now you go outside and let me work, and don’t you worry none, we’ll sort something out for you.”’
‘Later, back at his office and after he had summoned the undertaker, he took me to the café, bought me a soda and talked to me quietly like I was a grown man and as if nothing had happened that wretched day. He was very gentle and I was suddenly unbelievably calm.’
‘‘‘What do you want happen to you, boy?”’ He asked.’
“‘Miss Jones is teaching me to sing and play the guitar,”’ I said, ‘”and I want to marry her when I grow up.”’
‘‘‘Ambition. I like to see that in a boy but I think Miss Jessie is a tad too tall for you.”’ ‘He was smiling.’
‘“We’ll see, you will see, I will grow.”’
‘And that, Harry, was it really. The Huckabee’s, our neighbours, a kindly elderly couple, took me in and more or less adopted me. The bank claimed the ranch which was heavily mortgaged, the livestock sold off and I got to keep Mister Piggy, had his company for four years before a fever hit the pigs in the valley and he passed away in my arms with that little pig smile on his face. During those happy years Miss Jones continued with the music lessons on the old school guitar and I got to be good enough to play and sing with the church choir, mostly gospel music, like I said, I loved that gospel music and still do.’
Harry looked at me a look of expectancy on his handsome features. ‘An interesting story, my friend, but somehow I do not recall the getting of the Martin. Or did I miss that?’
‘That’s an even sadder story.’ I said. ‘Several years later I heard that, out of school times, Miss Jones had taken up with a wealthy politician and planned to marry him, they were set on leaving the valley, heading east for a rich new life. I felt betrayed, my dreams gone like smoke in the wind.’ I stopped talking, thinking back.
’Go on?’ Harry said, impatiently.
‘After I learned of that, I cried myself to sleep for three whole nights, and one Saturday, a few days later, a Surrey drove up to the Huckabee’s front yard. I was sitting in the stoop feeling sorry for myself. Miss Jones stepped down out of the rig, helped by a very tall, good looking fellow. She walked over to me while he waited patiently by the Surrey. She reached out and gently touched my head., I turned away, I was too old to be seen crying.’
‘‘‘I am leaving today,”’ she said, quietly in that honey sweet voice of hers; ‘“We are going east, getting married. Sheriff Baker told me how you felt about me all that long time ago and, yes, you are a lot taller now, but still much younger. You will find another Miss Jones, a younger Miss Jones, I promise you that.”’
I got to my feet turning my head away from her.
‘‘Wait,” she said, and signalled her companion, who reached into the carriage and brought a large black guitar case over to her, he smiled down at me and turned back to the Surrey. Miss Jones handed the case to me. “Something to remember me by my lovely young Guitar Man.” She reached down, lifted my head and kissed me fully on the lips. “‘Something else for you to remember me by.”
‘And then she was gone. But that sobriquet stuck, and the memory of that kiss is with me yet.’
‘And the Martin was in the case?’ Harry Coen gave me a strange, sad look.
I nodded, a tear drifting down my cheek. ‘It’s never any good to look back too hard for too long when you have been drinking, Harry.’
Harry Coen got to his feet, went to our cabin and came back with his own guitar and a fresh bottle of tequila. ‘Thanks for sharing, Guitar Man. Now, let us play one or maybe several for Mister Piggy and the beautiful Miss Jessie Jones.’
And we did just that for most of the afternoon quitting only when driven to cover by the rising Mississippi mosquitoes, some of them as big as butterflies.