Paper Jesus Among Swine

When I was a boy, my cousin Mike would take me after Sunday night church to a barbecue joint in the pinewoods outside of Orange Park, Florida. We went on a motorcycle that whined like a chainsaw and singed my bare leg if I wasn’t mindful to hold it away from the red-hot exhaust pipe near the peg where I put my foot. It made every trip tense.

The restaurant hid in the woods like a bootlegger’s cabin. At night from the highway you could see it glowing yellow between the trees, but if you didn’t know the way, you’d never find the roads to get there.  

Pierce’s Pit BBQ.

“It’ll pierce your pit alright,” my cousin would say.

Here’s what I remember about Pierce’s: too many pigs. Pig-themed pictures covered the restaurant walls. Cartoon pigs on a picnic. Civil War pigs leaning on split-rail fences. A fancy pair of arm-in-arm pigs in top hats and monocles. A hayseed pig in overalls demonically roasting a fellow pig on a spit. There was an old-timey advertisement with a buxom pig in fig leaves picking a bottle of sauce from a tree, a flirty leg up, her curly tail taut as a spring. It stirred something in me that I never asked to be stirred.

Then there was the legion of pigs crowded on a narrow shelf that ran like a monorail around the dining room. Every kith and kin of pig figurine: ceramic pig and tin pig and ragdoll pig and plastic piggy bank pig and planter pig, and on the rail above the swinging door into the kitchen: a fat iron sow with fake ruby eyes and her litter of ruby-eyed iron piglets.

I could feel a paranormal pressure in the room because of those pigs, a dark energy waiting in the herd above me as I hurried to finish my rib sandwich and hush puppies.

And if I sat on the wrong end of the room, I would have to confront the pig-sized porcelain pig standing on its hind legs by the cash register, watching for us to finish dinner and thus for me to have to draw closer to it when my cousin paid the bill. The pig wore a chef’s hat and a moustache and a thin grin. Its black eyes squinted. It held between its cloven hooves a platter of dusty butter mints that my cousin always asked me to take a spoonful of for the two of us to share.

Too many pigs, I thought.

When we left, my cousin wiped my mouth off with the back of his jacket sleeve, helped me snug my helmet strap, and got me safely arranged on the bike for the ride home. I still remember his attention and that moist night air heavy with the tang of pine and the smell of sulfur and the wood smoke from the pit that burned day and night.

After my cousin made sure I was tightly gripping the seat strap, he tilted the bike over, straddled it, and pulled it up level again. He’d give the starter lever a violent, downward kick, and while he raced the engine and pushed the lever back with the heel of his boot, he’d yell over his shoulder, “Think we can get us a discount next time if we bring ‘em a pair of pigs for that shelf?!”


You needn’t answer, a voice was telling me even then.  

And as the engine whined, as the motorcycle bucked whenever my cousin shifted gears, as the night air blew hard against my eyelids, as the pine tree trunks passed like pickets, as I kept my one leg bowed out so as not to touch it against the exhaust pipe.  

Goddamn that’s goddamn too many goddamn pigs, a different voice was saying to me.

Bird Report

Early Sunday. No one on my side of campus. I’m walking to my car. A crow on the sidewalk, cocking its head, taking the measure of a lamp post.