By Sean Jacques
Raised as an only child, on the outskirts of a rural town, I shared the first few years of my life with imaginary friends. I spoke to them, listened to them, and we never argued. Best of all, whatever hero I dreamt myself to be, whether it was Daniel Boone, Zorro, or a Cherokee brave, they would always choose to be the villain and let me win the day. Then upon turning five, I entered Kindergarten and met Claude Black. It was the first time I saw loneliness.
He was wearing a soured yellow t-shirt and pink hand-me-down corduroys, two-sizes too big, with the bellbottoms bunched over an old pair of scuffed boots. His wild black hair looked as if it’d been chewed-off by a saw, and his body smelled like pee. But it wasn’t his pitiful look and stink that made me suspect that he was a different sort. It was his eyes. Translucent gray, like two dime-size fogged mirrors. And they were perpetually shifting. It was hard to tell if he was staring at you or was crossly trying to decipher the world’s mean intent.
On the playground during those few weeks of school, I learned how lines were drawn and mobs were shaped. Most of the girls bonded by slapping patty-cake, while most of the boys established a pecking order by tussling. Since I was small and not much of a wrestler, I had a hard time making an impression, but after I proved to be a fast runner, a few of the boys acted like they wanted me to be their friend. But not Claude. He would keep off to himself under the Big Oak Tree–the tallest on the playground–picking off its bark with his clawed fingers and staring at only God knows what with his spooky gray eyes. Whenever I bothered to notice him, I found myself wondering why made him so strange, but I couldn’t ever put my finger on it. That is until Tyler Mann, the stoutest boy in our Kindergarten gang, educated the rest of us on Claude’s natural-born peculiarities.
“He’s an inbred.”
“A what?” Junior Barnes asked.
“What’s that?” inquired Wayne Henderson.
“Means his mom and dad ain’t supposed to be havin’ no kids.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Cause they just ain’t,” Tyler replied with a snark. I took it that he didn’t like his leadership being questioned, so I veered my eyes away from him as he went on. “My brother is in fifth grade, and so is Claude’s older brother, and he says his older brother comes to school every day stinkin’ like pee, and he don’t hardly talk to nobody either, same as Claude does.”
“So inbred means they’re retarded?” Junior Barnes asked.
“Kinda like it, yeah,” Tyler answered. “My brother says it’s like bein’ born a donkey from a daddy mule and mama horse.” We all gaped at him, hungry for more explanation, but he didn’t seem to have any other examples for us to grasp what he meant.
“Or maybe like bein’ the runt pig?” Randy Buxton chimed up.
“Yeah, like that,” Tyler responded, laughing. “Like a runt pig.”
The rest of us got to snorting and giggling too, and we all gawked at Claude standing off in the distance beside the Big Oak. He was kicking its trunk like a clumsy Kung Fu fighter. At the time, I still wasn’t altogether sure of Tyler’s explanation of what an inbred was, or why mules and horses or runt pigs had anything to do with it. Still, even as a five-year-old, I understood that Claude must’ve come into the world as something not quite right with nature.
“Hey runt!” Tyler threw his hand in the air and yelled out at him. “Suuueee! Suuuee!”
All of us laughed and joined in. “Suueee little pig! Suueee! Suueee!!”
Claude spun his spooky gray eyes at us and then went back to booting the Big Oak. And that was the way we came to calling him Pig.
And so it went during our early grades in elementary school. Pig passing his days as a friendless outcast, while the rest of us kept sprouting up within our fated lots. In first-grade we figured out early on that Ms. Walker was sloppy with discipline, so we ran wild as monkeys and disregarded her hollow threats. Except for Pig. He stayed so buttoned up and gentle, Ms. Walker deemed him as her special pet, and hardly a day went by that she didn’t ask him to sit next to her desk, while she forced the rest of us to practice our addition and subtraction or to read the silly exploits of Sally, Dick and Jane. Then in second grade, the tables turned. Most of us tamed our unruliness, out of our fondness for kind old Mrs. Smith, but Pig had gotten so spoiled by Ms. Walker, he went to back-talking and raising a ruckus with the girls. Mrs. Smith was sweet enough, but she wasn’t a pushover, so she would make Pig stand in the corner or clean her erasers at recess, and if none of that worked, she would send him to Principal Snead’s office. All the while, Pig never did learn letters or how to figure numbers like the rest of us.
When third grade came around, we were sentenced to serve in the prison room of mean old Mrs. Robinson, who treated us all with equal spoons of vinegar. We figured out the first week that she would scold any one of us for any transgression, and so we quickly adapted to sitting tranquil with our heads straight, our eyes wide, and our ears perked. Except for Pig. He would doze in class. Break his pencils. Pester others. Doodle stick figures on his desk, which was the biggest no-no. Then came a day when he upped his surliness. It happened right after first recess, when our spirits were running full throttle. Mrs. Robinson had instructed us to read silently, and then she went to napping behind her desk as she commonly did. But after a few minutes passed, her eyes snapped open to catch Pig slumped over his chair and daydreaming.
“Claude,” she cried out. “Stop that lazy slouching and get to work!”
Pig didn’t move. He kept staring at the floor, transfixed by the frayed carpet.
“Claude Black! I said get to work!”
Again he ignored her.
“Leave me alone,” he mumbled.
“Wha–” Mrs. Robinson swallowed her sound. She jerked upright from her seat while the rest of us raised our eyes toward what was fixing to happen.
“What did you say young man?”
“I ain’t gotta mind you none.”
Mrs. Robinson exploded from her desk, marched over to him, and clawed onto the back of his neck with one hand, while her other hand pinched his ear. She yanked him up from his slouch, nearly ripping his head from his neck, and dragged him out into the hallway–him twitching like a catfish out of the pond and hollering the whole way–and when the door slammed, we stayed sat in shocked silence, half-way believing that Pig was headed for slaughter.
“Pig’s gonna get it this time,” snickered Junior Barnes.
“Be quiet!” Lori Roy shushed us. “You’re gonna get us in trouble.”
“Shut up, four-eyes,” Wayne Henderson barked back at her.
We all hushed, but not for snooty Lori Roy, rather we wanted to listen to what was happening in the hallway. All we could make out was Mrs. Robinson’s muffled speech. But then a few minutes later Principal Snead’s gruff voice was heard growling with mad words. After that came the loud whaps of a hickory paddle blistering across Pig’s behind, and each one of us cringed in our seats and privately counted the licks until they ended at five.
“Oh man…” Junior whispered, for us all.
In the aftermath, one would think that we would’ve praised Pig for standing up to mean old Mrs. Robinson, as none of us carried the courage. This was my own sentiment at the time, yet instead of praise, the other boys only grew more encouraged to get violent with Pig, no differently than Principal Snead had done. Tyler and the bigger boys began to shove him to the back of the lunch line, and knock school books out of his hands, and trip him to the ground when he wasn’t looking. It felt wrong, but strangely enough, instead of fighting back, Pig just snorted whenever they picked on him, acting as if he was getting a big kick out of being the victim of their cruelty. The way he begged for more made me want to join in their riotous fun, but I was still the smallest of the bunch, and my worry over getting hurt held me back.
Then one day at lunchtime recess, Tyler asked Pig if he’d like to play smear the queer–the favorite game of us third-grade boys. We’d not yet become aware of what queer meant, no more than we’d known what an inbred was in Kindergarten, but we did know the only real rule to the game was to punt a rubber kicking ball into the air and the player who happened to catch it–recognized as the queer–had to run like the dickens before everyone else chased and caught and pummeled him to the ground. Sort of like wild-born pups honing their kill skills with one another outside the den.
“All I gotta do is tackle who gets the ball?” Pig asked us.
“Yeah,” answered Tyler. “You see us play all the time. It’s easy.”
“And when you catch it, you just gotta run till you get caught,” said Wayne.
In the past, we’d all shared an understanding that no one would get marred too awful, other than whelps and bruises and maybe a busted lip. Like everyone else, I’d take my turns of being the queer, confident that I’d get pummeled in a pile, but in the end, it was all in good fun. This time though, I spotted the others signaling to one another to purposely not catch the ball, and after six tries of Pig snatching it out of the air on every turn, his ignorance led to us tackling him harder. Wayne kneed him in the nuts. Junior ripped his shirt collar. Tyler took him down in a choke-hold. Even I felt compelled to hold his face down in the dirt. All the while, Pig took our licks like they were inviting gestures of allowing him to be a part of our rugged pack.
When the bell rang to end recess, Wayne hollered, “One more.” Pig grinned at him and punted the ball into the wind and it came falling down into Tyler’s hands. Our stout leader shrugged and sprinted off with little chance for any of us to catch him, but Pig went ahead and took chase all the way across the field.
“Sick him, Pig!” Junior egged on. “Sick him!”
When Pig got within reach of snagging Tyler’s arm, Tyler spun around and started running backwards–taunting and teasing–then he stopped on a dime, and with no advance warning, hurled the ball straight into Pig’s face. Even from a distance, the sight and sound of the impact was brutal.
Pig collapsed to his knees and covered himself with his hands, while Tyler strutted away from his dirty deed as prideful as a morning rooster. When Tyler reached us, he slapped high fives with Wayne and Junior, and as the others praised him for his mean trick, I felt a strange sickness roll inside my guts–some fast-moving plague that was burning into my chest and climbing to my throat. All the while, I held my sights on Pig, watching him rise and stumble toward the Big Oak. Then I began to creep in his direction.
“Where you goin’?” asked Wayne.
“To see if he’s okay.”
“What for?” asked Tyler.
“Mrs. Robinson will send us to Principal Snead if we’re late,” Junior yelled out.
But I didn’t say anything back to them. I just kept walking towards Pig. And one by one, they trotted back to the classroom, like a pack of guiltless wolves.
As I neared the Big Oak, I heard Pig bawling. He was squatted against the trunk with his head buried between his knees, and when his face lifted up, tears were raining down his cheeks, and a mixture of blood and snot was dribbling down his nose.
“Get outta here!” he yelled.
I stopped, mid-step, a little fearful of him.
“Leave me alone!”
His face fell between his knees again and he went to whimpering. I wasn’t sure what to do, what to say, so I stood there in dumb puzzlement.
Finally, I said, “I’ll go tell Mrs. Robinson you fell off the teeter-totter.” I waited for his agreement, but he just kept whimpering. Eventually, I just left him alone and headed to the classroom, wondering if the fib I was going to tell Mrs. Robinson was to save Pig from shame, or to save myself from trouble. But I would never come to know the answer, as after that day, we stopped playing smear-the-queer, and for the remainder of third grade, no one ever spoke to me about the reason why.
By the first week of fourth grade, we’d already rated Ms. Hodge as a boring stiff, and so from August until May the success or failure of our daily learning bordered on our own enthusiasms, which see-sawed in degree from hour-to-hour. She was so dull, we were dull, and if it were not for Pig’s exploits, I probably wouldn’t have remembered much about fourth grade at all.
He had come to school that year with his spooky gray eyes shifting at a more intense pace than before, and the rebellion within himself had risen a notch. On the third day of school, he slugged Junior in the jaw over a disagreement on whose turn it was at the water fountain. The week following, Wayne took one on the nose because he’d poked fun at Pig’s smallish ears. I remember how all of us had come to understand that Pig’s turn to violence was his way of warning us to leave him alone, and as it turned out, staying clear of him became a fairly simple task since he was gone a great deal of the time. Sometimes it would be because he’d been in another fight and told to stay home. Other times we’d heard he’d come down with a sickness. Plus, it seemed that every other week Principal Snead would pull him out of class for reasons we would never know.
After the dull year of fourth grade with Ms. Hodge was over, and fifth grade rolled around, we got our first man teacher, Mr. Hill. But having a man bossing us was the least of changes. On the first day, I noticed how the other littler boys in my class had grown taller over the summer, while I had remained stuck as the shortest, and I was also baffled by how the straight-as-a-board bodies of some of the girls had magically curved. Plus, without anyone prompting us to do so, we were now freely spouting nasty words the older kids had once taught us, adding “mother fucker” and “eat shit and die” to our playground conversations. But the biggest change was that Pig would no longer be with us. He’d been held back to redo fourth grade on account of him missing so much school.
In some ways, not having Pig in our classroom was a relief. We felt like we’d won the war against him, and even got to calling him “Flunking Pig” as a way to celebrate. Still, his absence left a hole in our regiment of childhood unkindness, so it was only a matter of time before we set our sights on a new victim: Pig’s little sister, Doris. She was in second grade and bore the same spooky gray eyes as her big brother, though they didn’t spin like pinwheels in the wind. She also smelled like pee. To us, she became a game of disease, and the only cure to avoid her cooties was to weld an “x” with our index fingers whenever she came around. Some of us even inked “x” on our wrists and shoe soles as a permanent vaccine. Such is the way we treated her. No better, no worse, than we did Pig. But then, all of the fun and games came to a rolling head of thunder one day at lunch in the cafeteria.
We were all sat along the lunch tables, scarfing sweaty hotdogs and guzzling chocolate milk, when Tyler hollered, “Hey, look out, Doris is comin’!” As usual, we crushed ourselves up against the edge of the table to avoid her deadly strike, but by now, she’d become used to our games, and so she walked down the line and patted our backs, one-at-a-time, while we howled as if our spines had taken flame. Then out of nowhere, here came Pig rushing from across the room, his eyes twitching, his arms pumping, his jaw dropped–and he crashed head-on into Tyler. The two went to wailing on one another, busting lips, reddening cheeks, scratching necks, and puffing eyes. Mrs. Robinson hurried over and tried to yank them apart, but Pig threw out his arms and whopped her in the eye, and the scrap kept going on for a while longer until Mr. Hill came to the rescue, gripping Pig into a headlock and barking at Tyler to stay on the floor.
It was by far the fiercest fist-fight any of us had ever seen, and a heated debate arose over who had won the battle. Both had scored punches. Pig would wear a scar over his left eyebrow, and Tyler’s smile would bear a chipped front tooth well into his manhood. The grownups kicked Pig out of school for two weeks, while Tyler had to spend five days after school to pick up trash and sweep floors with the janitor. But the way I’d judged it, and the way I still remember it, anyone who was willing to stand up to Tyler was a winner. I said as much to Junior and Wayne, and it was the last time either one of them would speak to me for the rest of the school year.
The summer following fifth grade, I began to grow. I remember how my leg bones would stretch at night, and wake me, the ache so sharp my mom would have to rub them until I’d fallen back to sleep. Still, whatever pains I had to bear, they could not match the thrilling thought that I would now be able to meet my friends eye-to-eye. It was the first summer I’d looked forward to its end, and I remember counting down the days until school started again, when I would rise into sixth grade and become a top dog on the playground.
Then it happened.
Two days before the first day of school.
The whole town felt it, as it had happened right there in public view. The story went that Pig’s mom had suffered a heart attack at the Black’s house way back in the woods. Pig and Doris were there, but they couldn’t do anything but call 9-1-1, as the only other grownup at home was their daddy, who had suffered a stroke a couple years earlier and couldn’t speak or drive. A deputy sheriff and an ambulance rushed out to the Black’s home, but it had taken a while on the crooked log roads, then right after they got there they’d turned around and hauled the whole family back to Dr. Sawyer’s clinic in town. Pig’s mom died along the way. Around this same time, Pig’s older brother, Steve, who was sixteen now, had learned of his mother’s heart attack while he was working his summer job at a sawmill, and he’d hopped into his pickup and sped to meet everybody at the clinic. He must’ve been traveling pretty fast, as when he hit the town streets, his truck barreled through a four-way stop, he lost control, and the truck flipped over and crashed into Hanger’s gas station. He was killed instantly.
After my parents had finished telling me the sad story, I conjured up question after question about the reasons why, and I still remember the anguish on their faces as they tried to summon impossible answers. They could only say that the Black family were good folks, just simple people trying to survive as best they could, but they’d suffered a long run of bad luck. I heard my mom say it was shameful that it took their deaths to gain the town’s sympathy. I heard my dad say that what had happened was no one’s fault. And as they saying all of this, I began feeling the same sickness that had swelled within me the last time we’d played smear the queer on the playground. Like before, it birthed itself inside my guts and snaked upward into my throat, but this time it was choking me, and the only way to breathe was to cry.
When school started the next Monday, I was still troubled over what had happened. None of it made any sense. At recess, Pig was nowhere to be found on the playground, so I sat down beside the Big Oak, whispering to him, like I’d once whispered to my imaginary friends. Tyler and the others soon walked up. Heads down. Bodies slumped. I didn’t like them bothering me, but I allowed them to share their say.
“You seen Pig?” Tyler asked.
“You mean Claude?” I shot back.
“Well have you seen him or not?”
“I don’t think he’s at school.”
“Did he tell you anything about it yet?”
“How would he?”
“Thought you were his friend.”
I looked away. Then they left me alone again.
Over the next few days, we tried and failed to fall back to our old ways, back to our old structures, back to our old routines. But our hearts didn’t seem to be in it. We were broken, and without saying it, we all privately placed our faith into Pig’s return so he could tell us the answers that none of our parents could provide. Instead, we were to learn from our sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Banks, that Pig and Doris had left town to stay with relatives who lived far away. We would never see them again. When she told us the news, I saw everyone’s faces fall. Some started sniffling. I suspected they’d caught the sickness too.
About the Author: Sean Jacques is a fifth-generation native of the Missouri Ozarks. Currently, he teaches English Literature in Los Angeles, while writing new noirs, westerns, and country-gothic tales of woe. His most recent work can be found at Across the Margin, Dead Fern Press, Cowboy Jamboree, Punk Noir, and A Thin Slice of Anxiety — plus, more upcoming works will soon be hitting the pages of Pulp Modern Flash and 34 Orchard. He can be found on twitter @SeanJacques10.