This piece appears printed in the main book. In this piece, the audio begins mid-way through the text. From there on, the reader reads along as the audio plays.
I hadn’t thought of him in years. Then recently, on a dreary afternoon, I received an envelope from my parents. Inside was a note that said, “You might get a kick out of this!,” along with a copy of something I’d written as a child.
[written in a child’s unwieldy cursive] Piggy comes alive at night. He talks to me. He sleeps a lot. He is cold when you don’t notice him and warm when you pick him up. If you don’t love him he will leave and someone else who looks like him will come.
I haven’t been able to get him out of my head since: Piggy, this mascot of my childhood. I had fished the pink rubber squeaky pig out of a basket in my grandparents’ basement just after turning three years old, and days after watching my house burn down. My family lost all our belongings in the fire, so for a time Piggy became my only one. Among the many playthings in the tall wicker basket, he alone spoke to me. It seems to me now that in the moment I found him, the soul of the house and of all my lost possessions migrated into his body. As time went on, Piggy remained densely mine, a shelter I held. I slept with him and talked to him most nights of my childhood. He stayed near, sleeping always to the left of my pillow, a station from which he alerted me when I began rolling out of bed in my sleep. Our bond remained strong as my family moved into a temporary house and then, eventually, into a new permanent one. Breathing, squeaking through a hidden orifice on the bottom of his feet each time I squeezed his pink body, he offered guidance. “Is Santa Claus real?” I once asked. “As real as I am,” he answered like a trickster. Touché, Piggy. He became my authority on reality. And every night, if you had been standing outside my bedroom door, you would have heard something that sounded like Morse code emanating from a chew toy. In between my own hushed questions, however, I heard answers.
Piggy is a nudist, by the way, save for a yellow scarf he keeps hanging around his neck just so. He has no legs to speak of but stands upright on two feet, one crossed floppily over the other. Like the Mona Lisa in more ways than one, Piggy half smiles, and both his demeanor and the direction of his gaze appear a little different each time you look at him. But he is not so remote as she. His snout wants to smell the air; his protruding belly tells of an appetite. With eyes large and lashed, head tilting inquisitively, Piggy wants to know what’s on your mind.
When I was still a young child, my attachment to Piggy inspired derangement in others. Once, my usually kindhearted aunt attempted to kidnap him while I was spending the night at my grandparents’. My grandmother ran down the stairs and whispered, “Quick,” hurriedly hiding Piggy in a cupboard. My aunt was close behind. She proceeded, like a prosecutor, to lay out a case before Grandma, tracing ancestral lines and invoking customs of inheritance, as though Piggy were a valuable treasure, stolen from my aunt’s clan by the old wicker basket and sold to me illegally. Another day, my teenage brother, who usually acted as my educator and protector, grabbed a butcher knife and said, “I’m going to cut Piggy’s head off.” That time I hid Piggy myself, in the shrubs outside. So both these crises were averted, but the question remains: What motivated my family members? Had my aunt’s children, my cousins, put her up to this mission? Or did she herself suddenly find the trinket irresistible, now seeing how he shimmered in the light of my devotion? And did my brother have a particular lesson in mind, or was he simply in the throes of psychosis, hungry for my terror? Above all else, I wonder: Do I love anything so enviably these days?
I don’t think I do. I’ve spent my adult life in a system that’s falling apart—one long, frantic hustle, broken only by daydreams and an occasional season of hedonism. Plague, economic collapse—what’s next? The more uncertain of the future I become, the more I see his grinning face in my mind’s eye and pine for an oink of assurance. The heat of my new obsession rose to such a temperature that one morning, when I had an opportunity to pitch a TV program to some big-time network executives, I found myself suddenly scrapping the idea I’d prepared. “I’m thinking my old toy Piggy could host the show,” I heard myself announce instead. “He is a toy, yes, but also a god. It is a show about how to get rid of clutter in your life, as advised by Piggy… I will be the contestant and Piggy will eventually suggest I get rid of myself. So I do, and then… I’m gone! What do you think?” The ball was in their court, and, well, there it remains.
Throughout the pandemic, I lost a few more jobs and attempted to celebrate each loss: more free time! One day I realized I had lost all my jobs. That night, in the middle of a bad dream, I began desperately pawing around for Piggy on the floor. Here’s part of him, I thought as I picked up a sock and glared down at it deliriously, but where’s the rest?
I recognized then that nothing short of driving the ten hours back to my childhood home in Michigan to commune with Piggy would calm my nervous system. I see that appealing to a squeaky toy as an adult requires a certain extravagance and wildness of thought. But I don’t know what else to do: I can already hear him calling to me; I just can’t quite make out the words.
Press play to listen to the audio as you read along.
[Audio begins, with the conversation laid out on the page in the form of a playscript. In most cases, the printed text and audio correspond. The one exception is when Piggy speaks, which in the audio sounds like the squeaks of a play toy. The printed playscript translates Piggy’s squeaks into English.]
[Joseph] This is the ballad of Piggy! (I like to imagine an unseen chorus now repeating this same phrase, yet with a bitter insistence, as though introducing a tale of great import or hammering home some final, uncomfortable moral truth.)
This is the ballad of Piggy!
This is the ballad of Piggy!
[Joseph enters his childhood home, climbs the stairs, and opens a drawer.]
Look who it is… Hello! Aloha!
How good it is to see you. A virus has ravaged the world, and people have been sick and dying. I’ve avoided catching it so far, but I’ve been locked in an apartment under elevated train tracks for nine months, sinking into the sofa crevice, trembling like a spooked creature. I’m lucky, but beginning to feel a bit off.
Tell your Piggy!
It’s like when we first met. I’ve been ousted again from the reality that housed me.
This time there is no fire—it seems like everything exceptmy home is burning down—but still, like it happened then, the lives we once knew have suddenly become fantasy. It makes me think of the way adult life is a fantasy for a child; even drudgery becomes a pageant—you remember, we used to sit with a stack of paper, turning each sheet into a contract as we scribbled our names across it.
Yes, there were many games!… Are you hoping to play one now?
Ha-ha! God, you’re a breath of fresh air, Piggy. You know, two months into isolation, I tried interacting with some other objects—just casually. As I relocated a lamp from one room to another, for instance, I turned back to wink at the other lamps, as though I were a playboy ushering one girl into the bedroom while assuring the others they were my princesses too. “You’re very naughty,” I told a bottle of aspirin with a tricky lid. But, Piggy, none deigned to acknowledge me. To be honest, they appeared taken aback at being spoken to. I guess it’s a job for them; they’re not there to make friends. I was hoping for repartee, is all. They’re nothing like you, Piggy.
There’s only one meee! The others will never master my ways!
No sub for the original! That’s why you’re back? For advice! And to lie in my tiny piggy arms, for a minute, at least!
Well, yes! See, for a while I was happy to be alone. I found twenty-first-century life so nerve-racking already that when the pandemic hit, I welcomed a chance to slow down! I basked in solitude and convinced myself that six months of reclusion was a single ho-hum holiday weekend. As time drifted on, though, I began to believe I had slipped into some kind of afterlife, a spectral service road running parallel to reality.
Afterlife? Oh, no! Scary!
Yeah, voices of invisible loved ones floated through the phone. Parents, friends. Everyone in my life started to feel… imaginary.
They may be imaginary now, but still… There’s only one Piggy! The others will never master my ways!
How could they?
One morning I woke up and thought, Look at me. Celibate and godless, eating quesadillas under a train. It felt like I was living in a calendar, each day an empty square.I realized I’d forgotten to do what other people do—have a relationship, for instance, or a savings account. Is that wrong?
I’d rather go back in time. When you and I were best friends, life was simple. And anything that wasn’t, we sorted out at bedtime. So what do you say: Do you want to come back to New York with me?
But Piggy’s place is in your heart! And also in that drawer!
Okay. I understand. But maybe you can impart some wisdom? Give me something to take with me?
I want my Scrooge moment… You know, reviewing life choices, then getting handed another chance at Christmas. He runs back into the world screaming, “I’m a baby!” Remember?
Do you think you can give me some sign? A clue? Open the door to another life, or hand me a key to unlock the one I’m in?
Please, teach me a new word, Piggy. I’m a baby too. [Come on, Pigs. Piggy … Piggy … Piggy …]
[Thunderclap] [An organ plays chords from the reckoning scene in Don Giovanni, a gong is struck. Low humming voices underscore Piggy.]
“Revelation of the Piggy”
[The playscript swaps now, representing Piggy’s squeaks on the page, while in audio Piggy suddenly speaks in English. In a lofty, high-pitched voice, he intones:
“Piggy of the decades. Piggy, the undead. Lives in a drawer, and still has cred.
How long I’ve wished to please, I’ve long remained alert. So long since I’ve been squeezed, now it almost doesn’t hurt.
I’d really like to help you, but as Socrates once said: ‘I’m just a little pig, with an empty head.’”]
Squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak!
Squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak!
Squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak.
Squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak,
Squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak! squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak… squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak.
Squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak,
Squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak:
“Squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak!”
[The Chorus echoes Piggy’s final line and proceeds.]
[An accordion rings out. Chorus sings with a raucous spirit, as though performing a drinking song: “He’s just a little pig with an empty head! An emp-uh-tee empty head!” The sopranos call “An emp-uh-tee empty head” and the baritones respond, “an emp-uh-tee empty head!”]
[The Chorus, still gathered, delivers us to our story’s end.]
[Throughout this section, multiple voices occasionally speak sentences in unison, as they might in a community theater production of Dickens, while a grandfatherly male voice narrates most of the text by himself, gently, as though delivering a bedtime story.]
Having wrung a cheap miracle from his toy, Joseph descended the creaking stairs.
Hmm, he thought at the landing, didn’t Piggy used to say stuff that was… profound? Or… of some use? As he sat down to dinner with his mother and father, he grew troubled, recalling the admonition of his childhood entry:
If you don’t love him he will leave and someone who looks the same will come.
It must be that I’ve neglected Piggy, and that’s some faker up there now, Joseph thought in horror. The reality is, you just can’t be a child your whole life—no more than you can smuggle a souvenir out of a dream. But it wasn’t the first time Joseph had tried to stir an empty pot, and we regret to predict it won’t be the last. To our surprise, though, a sensible notion did course through him for a moment: Maybe that magic belonged to another time; maybe I must listen to some other part of myself now. Then he looked down at his plate and took another bite.
Meanwhile, Piggy, the same Piggy he’d always been, had retired to his chambers in the dresser and was happy to be alone again, so daunted was he by the recent charade. He shook out his scarf and threw it back around his neck with an imperious flick of the hoof.“I shudder to think that the perfect fool who just stood before me was the same child I so delicately reared!” he declared. “Then again, I’ve never cared much for the grown.” In the darkness of the drawer, Piggy didn’t bother to measure the time that had passed since his last encounter with Joseph, as time was no object to him, and, like a spirit of the woods, he possessed a poor sense of it. “If he dreamed of contracts so much, he should go sign some—leave me out of it.” Piggy laughed.
[Multiple voices of the chorus hum a simple melody in a major key, fading out as a meditative drone fades in.]
“Why doesn’t he go find someone real to love?” he added, easing back into place among the linens.
Joseph Keckler is a singer and writer who has been presented widely at venues including Lincoln Center, the Centre Pompidou, and Opera Philadelphia, on Adult Swim, and as the national support act for Sleater-Kinney in 2019. Once crowned New York’s Best Downtown Performance Artist by the Village Voice, he has received a Creative Capital Award, as well as other honors. His writing has appeared in publications including Literary Hub and VICE, and his essay and story collection, Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World: Portraits and Revelations, was published by Turtle Point Press in 2018.