Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Nineteen—A Roundelay of Rust and Rot

A month later Maggie’s baggage arrived. Theo Arsenault called Pen Harrington, “There’s ten cartons here, strapped with filament tape. They’re addressed to you.”

“Me.”

“You. And a pet carrier. The stuff came spread out over three different Atlantic BusWays out of Quebec. The baggage claims match. Your lady friend’s... you know.”

“Be right over.” Pen set the phone down.

Maggie was all smiles. “Oh, wonderful, now we’ll know.” She performed a series of dance steps, wrapping a dishtowel around her hips.

“Arsenault says it’s your stuff. Here. Addressed to me and sent before you left. But we never met until you arrived.”

“Pen Harrington, don’t be an old sourpuss. Trust me; these are the imponderables.”

“Yeah. Well, but...”

“Ten boxes, wow. I must have been moving in for the long haul. I must have known you’d be here.”

To Pen this sounded weak, but Maggie’s eyes held a look of trust and innocence. There was no room for deviousness there. “I’ll call Harry. He has a truck. He’d be happy to do us a favor.”

“Harry Pease. What a wonderful idea; he’s got all that room.”

“Your stuff... take it to Harry’s?”

“All of it. In case there are questions later.”

“I thought this was all about finding out who you were.”

“Silly, don’t you get it yet? I don’t want to know. Not now. I am just happy here with you. I don’t want it to stop.”

“Arsenault said there was a pet carrier. You have a pet cat?”

“Pig. Harry lives alone, he’d just love a little piggie for company.”

“Pig? No one said it was a pig.”

Pen dialed Arsenault back.

“Yeah, it’s a pig all right. A real survivor if you believe the dates on the waybills. Cute little critter. She’s made a regular conquest of Gerry MacKechnie, the night manager.”

*  *  *

Even though it was his day off, Gerald Bronson MacKechnie was back at Arsenault’s for an afternoon of video poker. Sheila had chased him out of the house and he was feeling low. He leaned on the baggage counter waiting for a roll of change. This was a losing day.

“Hiya, buddy. Want to do a girl a favor?” Gerry looked around. The voice was coming from a pet carrier up front and at eye level on the baggage shelves. He didn’t recall it being up there the night before. “I’ve been holding it since Montreal.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Unlatch the door of the pet carrier, there’s a good fellow.” Out of the fiberglass and nickel plated latticework of the pet carrier, a black and white spotted snout poked itself in his direction.

Gerry started backing away.

“No, no, no,” said the voice. “None of that, no apoplexy, no seizures. Just do as I say. Pretend I’m Sheila. Right now I’ve got to pee something fierce.”

“You’re a pig.”

“Pigs don’t pee? Come on, make it snappy. There’s a pile of newspapers under the desk. Spread them on the floor. And turn your back.”

Gerry thumbed the spring latch and a black spotted pig jumped down. She stretched then vigorously shook her head. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Turn your back.”

“Uh, okay.”

Behind him the muted trickling went on for a considerable time.

“Gerry.”

“Uh, yes.” The pig knew his name. Well, why not, it knew his wife’s name.

“I’m through. Pick up the papers and put them in the trash, then we’ll have breakfast. Wash your hands first. And be sure to come back, I don’t like being stood up.”

Gerry stood for a long time, holding his hands under the blow-dryer, turning them over and over. What the hell, he had nothing else on today. He went back to the pig.

“Took you long enough. I’m famished.” The pig nodded toward the luncheonette. “No pork fat and a side of cole slaw, please. Cheeseburgers will be just fine.”

Gerry pulled a quarter-folded ten-dollar bill from an inside jacket pocket. He unfolded it with an apologetic expression.

“I get it. You’re broke,” said the pig. “No problem, just take a cruise by the video poker on your way.”

Gerry did as he was told. The pig was here, too, superimposed on a flashing screen of rampant royal flushes. The machine spoke. “Here’s the funds.” It whirred and a winning chit for two hundred dollars was ejected. “For your trouble. Here’s for the food.” Twenty shiny gold loonies slid into the tray. “Make that double cheeseburgers and hold the pickles,” said the machine.

*  *  *

Harry Profitt Pease pulled into the bus stop in Loupe du Jour vaguely wondering why he had come. The phone call from Pen Harrington had been quick and cryptic. What the hell, he owed Pen a favor.

He left with the pig riding next to him in the front seat.

After drinking all day, every day, for twenty-five years, that Pen’s girlfriend’s baggage might contain a talking pig made sound sense to Harry. “Stop here,” said the pig.

Harry hit the brakes.

“I like that about you, Harry. You are ready for anything.”

“Uh, yeah. But why are we stopping?”

“Because I say so. You have money?”

Harry took a swallow from the wine bottle under his seat and pulled a scrunched-up wad from his overall pocket. “Fifty dollars.”

“Fine. Rent some videos.”

“Huh?”

“Some videos. Anything. Love, war, you know. I have a lot of catching-up to do. And Harry...”

“Yes.”

“I forgive you.”

Harry stared at the pig. He was trying to think and drive at the same time, a bad accommodation. “Forgive me? Forgive me what?” He pulled into Customs on the U.S. side.

“I forgive you for being a murderous, self-centered, unthinking son of a bitch.”

“Huh?” Harry’s foot confused the brake and accelerator pedals and he slid into a crosswise stop across both lanes. The truck stalled, blocking access to the customs shed. With an airy gesture of a trotter, the pig indicated herself. “And you may call me Lady.”

“Lady...”

“Lady of the Wild Things. I have now introduced myself. If things go further between us I shall have other names. For now, plain Lady will do.”

“You are a pig.”

“And you are a dirty old man. Don’t belabor the obvious.” The pig rummaged in the truck’s glove box and, coming up with an archival Mars bar, settled herself comfortably in the passenger’s seat.

The immigration agent waited, radiating forbearance for as yet unspecified crimes, as Harry jerked up even with him using the starter and battery power. The government man slid his window half open. The truck kept going right on through and stopped six feet past the shed.

“Oh, great.” Harry fired it up again, flooring the accelerator. He fiddled with the gearshift, trying to get into reverse. The motor flooded and died. Fortunately, there was no line and a familiar face was on duty.

The man walked over to the truck and leaned on Harry’s window. “Hiya Harry. Bringing anything back?”

“Yeah. Personal baggage. Mercy run for Pen Harrington. Customs declarations already on em.”

“The pig is yours, right? A pet?”

“A pet. Yes.”

Immigration shrugged him through and walked back to his shed; the window slid shut. The motor caught and Harry eased his cargo into America. He turned to the pig with a harsh, raspy aside. “What have I ever done to you that you should have to forgive me?”

The pig curled over in the passenger’s seat and licked her crotch. “Oh, Harry, dear, you sound so eager and raring to go. Passion is for later, first the movies.”

*  *  *

Harry’s place.

The trip had taken a little over an hour with stops for video rentals at two crossroads groceries. A low tide smell grew ever thicker as they mounted a series of hills and dips announcing the ascent of a precipice; the haphazard grading of the town road ended just before it ran out of dry land. There was a maneuver with downshifting, brake and accelerator as Harry aimed for a pile of gravel. He jerked the wheel hard right and killed the engine as the truck nosed over into a precarious thirty-degree drop. A practiced yank on the emergency brake brought a squeal of rusted brake cable, and the pickup lurched to a stop against a raised hummock. The stop left them listed over on the passenger’s side. Harry wobbled the shift lever a few times, making sure he had it securely in second where it was less likely to pop out.

The pig propped her trotters against the dash. “Nice ocean view—straight down. Next stop, Nova Scotia. You do this all the time?”

“Every time.” Harry jumped down and chocked the back wheels with a pair of bricks. “So far.”

The stack of movies that filled the seat between them had scattered over the floor. Harry reached in and gathered them up. He headed to the house with a double armload. “Pit stop. I’ll be right back.”

“Yes, you will.” The pig curled up on the seat

*  *  *

When Harry Pease had been drinking, which was all the time, he saw the world differently from the accepted norms. Harry Pease was a gentle eccentric whose only affront to the social code as defined by Elizabeth Profitt Pease, his sister, was that his toilet gurgled over the edge of the ledge on which his house rested, and the law offered Elizabeth, known as Libby, no relief. Harry’s solids went through a pipe straight into the ocean. That Harry Profitt Pease’s wastewater, the gray and the effluent, fed the fish was an embarrassment to her. As she stood on line at the Red and White supermarket she was asked, “How’s Harry—still going over the edge?” That this might be a double-entendre escaped Elizabeth Pease. Harry’s straight pipe was protected by law as long as Harry lived uninterruptedly at his present address and performed no major repairs. This was likely. The town’s sewers would eventually catch up with him, but until then... A shrug at the Dept. of Public Works. Floating a bond issue so some geezer on the ledge could join the Twenty-first Century was not in the cards. Harry’s house had the best ocean view in Willipaq. “So goddamned beautiful you could just shit,” Harry had said, popping a Seadog one fine fall morning.

Harry returned, hitching up his suspenders. “Where’s the boxes to?”

“Beg pardon?”

“The boxes: where do I put them? Your pet carrier got left in Canada.”

“Assuming I am in charge, aren’t we, Harry? Well... correcto, I am. But this is your house, after all.”

“Just asking.”

“Well put. Count them first. Tell me what we’ve got.”

Harry unchained the tailgate and skidded out the first two. “What looks like a computer—new, still has the factory tape.”

“And?”

“And eight others.”

“The computer is yours. We will learn to play games together. The others are mine. Unload them, please.” The pig sauntered toward the house where she inspected the washing machine he had promised Alma Nightingale. It stood where he had left it—on the porch, connected by lengths of green garden hose and an orange drop cord to the necessary utilities. “Ah—the epiphany of a major appliance.” She circled it, inspecting. “Unprepossessing. Like you, Harry. Who could have guessed?”

The remaining boxes were identical in size and weight, about twenty pounds, give or take. Harry slid them off the tailgate and lined them up in two rows, four deep. The pig returned and circled the rows, a tour of inspection. “Frankly, Harry, your house is a mess; it needs a woman’s touch. I arrived in the nick of time to save you from prodigal disorder.”

“As you said, this is my house.” Harry Pease prided himself on his rough-and-ready housekeeping, and he felt he needed to defend himself.

“The boxes. Cut one open and dump it on the ground.”

Harry unsnapped his belt sheath and brought out a folding knife. The plastic strapping gave with a pop, curling back around the box. “Dirt. It’s full of dirt.”

“Ballast. Just when I thought El was committed to a slipshod performance, he surprises me. He has made up the difference of Tom Winkelman.”

“Tom Winkelman?”

“Just a name. You may forget it; he no longer exists here. Pour away.” Harry poured. All eight boxes held finely sifted gravel. From the next to last box an agate sphere separated itself from the gravel and rolled under a wild rose bush.

“Ah! Jack’s marble has made it through. An oversight by my quondam consort, but Lamprey would be pleased.” The pig circled the mound of dirt approvingly, then picked her way up the little gravel hill and sat, studying Harry. He was tall and spare, with a full facial inflorescence of lordly beard giving him the mien of an Old Testament patriarch. “Your full name?” she asked.

“Thought you knew. You seem to know everything.”

“Mmmm. Maybe. I want you to know.”

“Pease. Harry Profitt Pease. Pease the patronymic, Profitt my lady-gift, from my mother’s people.”

“Prophet, profit. You live up to your name in looks, not in business. I’d say most of your life between binges is scavenging junk from house to house and picking over the dumps.”

“Now, that’s not entirely fair.” Harry did a brisk trade in pipe frames and springs for the bed-and-breakfasts.

“And you kill pigs.”

“That I do. Uh, used to do.” Harry looked away and ground a toe into the dirt.

“I have forgiven you, but I am curious. What has driven you to murder is clearly bad influences in the home. This...” she gestured expansively, “roundelay of rust and rot has driven you to savage deeds. Why did you kill the pigs?”

“Thirty-five dollars, I’m good at it. And no one else will.” Harry thought of his gun, leaning in the corner by his bed, next to a metal softball bat. The household armory—if this pig was here for revenge. He quickly put the thoughts away. “A boat. I have a boat.” He pointed to a thirty-foot lobster tender on blocks in the yard.

“You have a boat. Good. This will take us places we have not been before. Like straight to the bottom. The seams are open, showing daylight. Might this boat be another instrument for my assassination?”

“No, no.” Harry felt a trickle of sweat down the back of his neck. “I mean we could fix her up. One-lung engines like this haven’t been made regular since World War II.” The engine had a plaintive, evocative sound. Chunk, chunk, chunk. To go from forward to reverse you stopped the engine, then restarted it, spinning the flywheel in the opposite direction. Harry did this sometimes, there in the yard, when the Seadogs had caught up with him.

“An antique, it might someday be valuable. Like you, Harry. You are valuable. And thank you for putting by your musings of violence... and voluntarily, too.”

The pig had been reading his mind.

The pig smiled, lips curled back to show capable tusk-like canine teeth. She nodded. “Yes, I have—your thoughts, that is—but not all of them. That would be prying. Let’s get this straight. You have, with your boat, taken the pigs to the Mother Sea to bathe them prior to sacrifice. This is proper; I approve. Pig! That is so generic. Call me Queen of Heaven, Lady of the Wild Things. Or just plain old Morgana, that is so much more friendly. Sit still, you little bastard! Not you, Harry, the flea.” She doubled back on her haunches, nibbling fiercely at the base of her tail. “You were trying to distract me, I believe. Please continue. You kill lobsters, too?”

“No, I don’t catch lobsters. The boat has been parked, high and dry, for fifteen years.”

“You have, then, in the past, taken pigs for their last rides in this boat, like your gangsters. You drown them, too, with cement on their feet?”

“This is a lobster boat.”

“The lobster, as the pig, is sacred to me, likewise the colors white, green, blue and scarlet, the periwinkle and the scallop, and the spotted fish that sing like thrushes in my honor, for I am a horny old trout. You have eaten them, these lobsters?”

“Well, yes.” The question held an implication of cannibalism. “Everybody does—when they can get them.”

“Harry, Harry, what am I going to do with you? You are freed of the sin of lobster boiling. We shall bring the pot to judgment, and not the cooker. We shall be lovers, but later. Bring the videos.”

“You are a pig.”

“For now and here, yes. Come along.”

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