John Holman ~ The King’s Pigs

The young Shakespearean lived in a shot­gun house near the small town’s oak and cypress shad­ed lake, not far from the cam­pus where he taught.  He was excit­ed to host the vis­it­ing writer for an eru­dite evening of cock­tails.  He wore his crest­ed blue blaz­er, his maroon and yel­low pais­ley ascot, pressed grey trousers, and cor­dovan wingtips, the scuffed nub­by leather pol­ished over the lop­sided heels.

His col­league, the fic­tion writ­ing pro­fes­sor who had secured the fund­ing and invit­ed the writer, knocked with the guest just as the Shakespearean had arranged the black lac­quered tray of cognac and cham­pagne on the leather ottoman that served as a table between the thin sofa and chairs in his liv­ing room.  Behind them as they stood in the front door, he saw the sun set­ting over the lake, its brown water bright­en­ing gold, the twist­ed oaks fil­ter­ing light through pale hang­ing moss, and the shin­ing black cypress knees pro­trud­ing from the ancient-look­ing sur­face.  “Welcome, please,” he said, step­ping back, sweep­ing his hand toward the room of worn, sal­vaged rugs that cov­ered the rus­tic wood floor.  “I’m so hon­ored you’re here.”

His col­league, Rudy, intro­duced the guest, Damian, to the Shakespearean, Neal.

I’m afraid I’m under dressed,” said Damian, assess­ing Neal’s dap­per, lord­ly attire.  “My bags are still in Rudy’s trunk.”  He wore blue jeans and a cream-col­ored snap-but­ton shirt, his sleeves rolled to his elbows, reveal­ing curly white hair on is arms.  He was old­er than Neal and Rudy, who were bare­ly in their 30s.

No wor­ries,” Rudy said, as he shed his own jack­et and laid it on the back of one of

the chairs.  “Neal makes demands only of him­self to set a cer­tain sar­to­r­i­al standard.”

Indeed,” Neal said.  “Be com­fort­able.  Make your­self at home.  We know you’re going to din­ner soon with the Chair, but we thought you might like a drink and hors deourves before that offi­cial event.  I wish we had more time.  The Chair is a the­o­rist, and no one can under­stand him.  But we hoped a pre­lude with oth­er lovers of lan­guage for its own sake would suit you.”

Much oblig­ed,” said Damian.  “Are you expect­ing others?”

Well, I invit­ed a few but now it is just we three.  Obligations beyond my con­trol.  Have a seat, please,” he said, ges­tur­ing with a flour­ish first to the sofa, and sec­ond to the chairs, winc­ing slight­ly at the sight of Rudy’s lumpy jack­et, it’s frayed dull lin­ing turned out­ward.  He didn’t mind Damian’s trav­el­ing attire.  It gave him a nat­ty rugged­ness, like the author Neal imag­ined.  But Rudy nev­er dressed well.  “We’re serv­ing The King’s Pigs,” he announced.

Great,” Damian said.  As he and Rudy sat side by side on the sofa, Neal dis­ap­peared into his kitchen to fetch the plat­ter of canapes he had pre­pared.  Sliced black olives, sliced boiled egg, sliced cucum­bers, sliced straw­ber­ries on small sec­tions of bread smeared with cream cheese and chives.

When he returned, Damian looked up from a book he had pulled from Neal’s crammed shelves and said, “Those look beau­ti­ful.”  He set the book aside, a copy of  Mark Twain’s Puddin’head Wilson.

We were won­der­ing about the king’s pigs,” Damian said.  “I mean Rudy and I, not the roy­al ‘we.’” He chuck­led.  “Is that what these canapes are called?”

I assured him you don’t have actu­al pigs you intend to serve us, or for us to go out back and feed.”

Neal laughed hearti­ly.  “No. Oh, no.  The King’s Pigs is the name of the evening’s drinks.  It’s a British con­coc­tion of cham­pagne and cognac and bit­ters.  We will have to do with­out the bit­ters because I haven’t found a local store that sells them.  Still, we shouldn’t let the cham­pagne get too warm.”

While Rudy and Damian helped them­selves to the food, Neal uncorked the bot­tles and poured the drinks.  Then he pre­sent­ed each with a gold-rimmed flute of gold effer­ves­cence.  He smoothed his thin blond hair over his fore­head and pro­posed a toast.  “To Damian Wells, spe­cial guest.”  They formed a brief pyra­mid of touch­ing glass­es before sipping.

Why are these called The King’s Pigs?” Damian asked.

No clue,” Neal said, sit­ting in the chair vacant of the coat.  He thought briefly of hang­ing it up but dis­missed the idea because his guests would have to leave for din­ner soon.  “British irony, per­haps.  Or maybe some king actu­al­ly served it to his pigs.  Can you imag­ine?  I wouldn’t put that past a king, real­ly.  Excess and arro­gance.  I learned the recipe from my father.”

Where in England are you from?  Or is your father from?”

Oh, we are not.  I wish, obvi­ous­ly.  My prep school was no Eton, and my uni­ver­si­ty is in Nebraska, my home state.   I did do a Fulbright at Cambridge and an under­grad­u­ate exchange at Duke.  Hence, my father calls me the Duke of Nebraska, which I quite like.  I rather have aris­to­crat­ic aspi­ra­tions, slog­ging out here in Alabama.  Don’t be fooled by my accent.  It’s affect­ed, you know.  I am as I desire to be.”

The crest on your pocket?”

I found this on a coat in a thrift store and had it sewn onto my blaz­er.”  He tapped his hand on the fab­ric light­ly.  “It suits my image of myself.”

I guess we all make our­selves up as we go through life,” said Damian.  “I am cer­tain­ly not as I was born.  I come from Virginia share­crop­pers, the only white folks with­out prop­er­ty until my grand­fa­ther hitched a ride with a trav­el­ing car­ni­val and lat­er mar­ried the nurse who tend­ed to a wound he got from being on the wrong end of a knife-throw­ing act.  Next he worked at weld­ing ships.  My father sold floor wax door to door and my moth­er sold fried fish din­ners from our kitchen on Fridays.  Imagine the odors of our lit­tle house, a struc­ture sim­i­lar to yours, by the way.  I was the first to try col­lege, for a cou­ple of years.  I sold some com­ic poems to a news­pa­per in Baltimore and got hired on to write some fea­tures.  I pre­tend­ed to be a writer until I was con­sid­ered one.  I see you have some of my books.  From my Colorado days.  Proof that some­times a per­son can invent himself.”

Rudy said, “I guess I’m a fab­ri­ca­tion, too.  I mean I make up sto­ries all the time, but to think that those sto­ries cre­at­ed me as a pro­fes­sor is weird.”

I love your sto­ry col­lec­tion,” Damian said.

Rudy, blush­ing, said, “Thank you.”

We seem to have ven­tured into the realm of spec­u­la­tive real­i­ty now,” Damian said.  “But tell me, what’s new with Shakespeare?”

Lots if you look.  I’m fin­ish­ing a paper that chal­lenges the notion of the self-addressed solil­o­quy.  I posit that, sim­i­lar to the point of our dis­cus­sion, they are meant to con­vey what the speak­ers want to believe about them­selves, but more than that, to pre­scribe what oth­ers should think of them.  They are spo­ken with aware­ness of whomev­er is lis­ten­ing, or of whom the speak­er imag­ines is listening.”

Rudy said, “Is that new?  And how do you prove that?  I always believed that voic­ing thoughts to your­self mere­ly gave solace about your existence.”

I address that idea, too, but you will have to read the paper to judge the proof of my thesis.”

To be is to be, am I right?” said Damian

It’s not not to be,” said Neal. “To speak is to be among beings.”

I love it,” Damian said.

Rudy pulled a watch from the front pock­et of his chi­nos and arched his eye­brows upon read­ing the time.  “I have to get Damian to his B&B before the din­ner, which is in 17 min­utes.  This was too short.  Next time, I hope the bud­get can sup­port more peo­ple for the din­ner.  But this was nice, Neal.”

They stood and put down their glass­es.  Rudy had drained his and Damian left a quar­ter of his that caught slosh­ing light from the lamps.  “Extraordinary,” he said.  He bowed.  “Will I see you tomor­row at the reading?”

Yep,” Neal said.

Damian laughed and then smiled, and he and Rudy walked out into the night to Rudy’s Jeep.  When they were gone, Neal lin­gered in the door to watch the moon light the mist that had set­tled over the lake.  He imag­ined the wispy fog was ghosts com­muning with the alli­ga­tors out there.  “One day,” he said, “I will be tenured at a cam­pus of actu­al ivy-cov­ered tow­ers instead of this dingy goth­ic swamp school.”  He closed the door and won­dered what impres­sive non­sense the Chair would bring up at din­ner.  They had eat­en most of the canapes, but there was a lot of liquor left.  He did so enjoy The King’s Pigs.  He lift­ed the cognac to mix anoth­er for him­self.  Then he noticed that Rudy had for­got­ten his ugly jack­et.  He’d have to endure the awk­ward­ness of Rudy’s quick return, and he so abhorred anti-climax.


John Holman teach­es writ­ing at Georgia State University in Atlanta. His lat­est book is Triangle Ray.