Animalania

“No More Pigs”

by David Hagerty

I shan’t reveal to you my name or any other identifying information for reasons that will soon become clear.  Suffice it to say that I am a robust, single man in my thirties, and that I live in a small American city, where I have worked for the past five years as a deputy librarian.  Despite my passion for the job, the event I am about to describe has persuaded me to change careers.  Currently, I am open to any reasonable offer.  

It began three months ago while I was on the reference desk carting returns.  I sensed someone looming over me and looked up to see a gangly seventy-something with a hooked nose and uncombed hair, a regular in my branch who favored the classics but wasn’t above the odd true crime or Western.  He flopped open a copy of Animal Farm and pointed to page 95 where a word had been blacked out.  

“Look,” he said.

I squinted but couldn’t make out anything beneath the thick magic marker.

“I see,” I said, even though I didn’t.

“What are you going to do about it?” he said.

He pointed again with a trembling hand, smudging the type but not the black box.

“Although some of our volumes are old,” I said, “we think they’re too important to retire.”

“Retire?  It ought to be burned like an old flag!”

I nodded (the closest I could come to admitting the decaying state of our collection) and waited for him to drift back to the stacks, but he wouldn’t budge.

“If you like,” I said, “I can order you another copy.”

“What about this one?”

“I’ll see about restoration.”

Across my desk, I eyed the white out and ball point that could solve all this in under a minute, assuming I could guess the expunged word.  Yet not even my parochial training in context clues would suggest it.

“Forget fixing it,” he said.  “It’s ruined.”

He fanned the pages in my face, so I could feel the draft and smell the mildew.  On nearly every one were more marks—on some only one, on others a crossword of black squares.  They were identical, covering three characters.  Someone had edited out a single word on every page.

“Which word?” I said more to myself than him.

The geezer folded his arms and leaned in so I could smell licorice on his breath.

“Pig,” he said.

#

Usually, when a book is damaged, we do what we can to fix it, although given the desiccated state of many volumes—their pages yellowed and brittle, their spines cracked, their covers torn—it’s little more than a tourniquet on a hemorrhage.  We piece them together with the tape and scissors of a field medic then press them back into service.  Our new book budget is only slightly more than that for cleaning supplies, and most of it goes to keeping up with “technology,” a polite term for the planned obsolescence of computers.  

Besides, anymore, no one reads.  Our customers que up before opening for time on our desktops and linger there until we clear them out at closing; they’d rather surf the web for hours than ask for help at the reference desk.  Meanwhile, our hardbacks molder.  Lately, I’ve had to dispatch the volunteers to aerate them.

Once, libraries were rightly viewed as repositories of public documents, the storehouses of history and the arts, a source of education and information, while the librarian was respected as a guide to all knowledge, ancient and modern.  Today, we are little more than incompetent computer repairmen used for restarting machines after users stumble upon Trojan Horse websites (although most of them wouldn’t recognize the reference).  Meanwhile, we hold onto printed volumes as though they were relics put into a time capsule alongside LPs and typewriters.

In this case, restoration would be impossible.  “Pig” appeared on 101 of 128 pages in Animal Farm (so said my concordance), and the censor hadn’t missed a single one.  Someone put time into this, and it was far too neat to be the work of an unsupervised child.

I checked the checkout history.  In the past six months, eight people borrowed that copy, including my whistle blower.  Most of the names weren’t familiar, but one was far too much so to ignore: Marty Bratwurst.  At least once a month I ejected him and his gang for eating, drinking, cursing, and their favorite prank, putting the monitors to sleep with pornography on screen.  Also, Marty was in seventh grade where Orwell is assigned reading, so I put a hold on his account and told the clerks to refer him to me.

#

“What the hell?” Marty said between chaws on a wad of gum.

It was only two days later, and he wanted to borrow the CliffsNotes to Romeo and Juliet for a report due the next day.

“What do you have against pigs?” I said.

His open-mouthed chewing distorted his pixie face.

“What are you on about?”

“I think you know.”

I pushed forward the damaged copy of Animal Farm.

He blew a large bubble, let it pop over half his face, and rolled off the residue with a dirty finger.

“I didn’t even read that crap,” he said, proudly.

He wiped his sticky hand on the underside of the reference desk.

“Just so you know,” I said, “I’ll be checking every book you’ve borrowed for the last month.  If I find any more damage . . .”

“Check yourself,” he said and walked off.  Before disappearing into the YA section, he tapped a computer keyboard, bringing to life a couple on the edge of ecstasy.

#

The next day, when The Pigman and Lord of the Flies came back equally defaced, I lost my certainty about Marty’s guilt.  Again, every reference to pigs had been blacked out—hundreds of them—but I could find no tie to the little miscreant.  Neither he nor any of his crew were on the list of borrowers, and the damage was too extensive to have been committed on site.  You’d have to read every word to catch all those references.

Again using my concordance, I discovered dozens of other spoiled titles on the shelves.  I stacked them on the filing cabinet in my office until they reached such a height that whenever I opened a drawer they toppled.  Still, I didn’t dare leave them in public for fear of copy-cat crimes.

Since the pages were piling up, I had to find a way of skipping to the ending.  

#

When Officer De Farge arrived, I took him back to my office.  It was tight and overstuffed but private.  No sense starting the volunteers gossiping.  After seeing the desecration, he jotted a few notes and thanked me.

“That’s all?” I said.

He was no older than I was and only a little bigger, with a freckled face that wouldn’t intimidate a preschooler, but he tried to compensate with a scowl.

“We’re already investigating a number of major crimes,” he said.

“But this is destruction of public property.”

“It’s barely vandalism.”

Resigned, I resumed my own research the next morning.

#

First, I consulted Noah Webster to ensure I knew every definition of pig.  Besides the obvious ones, I found a couple intriguing entries:

1Pig \’pig\ n. often attrib {ME pigge} (13c)

3. one thought to resemble a pig–usu. used disparagingly

4. a crude casting of metal (usu. iron)

5.  an immoral woman

6.  slang: policeman—usu. used disparagingly

Numbers four and five seemed too obscure to relate, but three and six had potential.  Would a person who’d involuntarily acquired the nickname pig find solace in Xing out the word, or would he seek vengeance against the police in such a fashion?  I needed to consult someone who understood the vandal’s instinct.

#

“Told you I didn’t do it,” Marty said.

He extracted a handful of potato chips and chewed them open mouthed, letting the crumbs fall on my desktop.

“I’ve already apologized,” I said.

“Doesn’t excuse you being so uptight.”

“It’s a professional hazard.”

He surveyed the book carts in my packed office for other items to damage.

“Any ideas?” I said.

“Google it.”

I tried not to grimace and implored him to share any playground gossip.

“I’m not snitching,” he said.

“I’m not asking you to.  I just need a hint.”

He thumbed a stack of rare books, leaving greasy fingerprints on the spines.

“There’s a kid in my sex ed. class.  His tag is pig.”

“Could it be him?”

“No way.  Messing with tags is a dis.  Somebody’s punking him.”

“So, who’d do him like that?”

Even in middle school I hadn’t been hip, but I recalled Tom Petty using the phrase, and it seemed appropriate.

“Can’t say,” Marty said.

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Same thing.”

#

When I called the police to inquire after juvenile delinquents using the tag “pig,” I got a crusty sergeant who told me they had no time to cross reference graffiti.

“Really?” I wanted to say.

In our town, vandalism was the most serious crime I ever read about.  Sure, if you left your bike or your car unlocked, you could expect them to go missing, but other than your own stupidity there wasn’t much to worry about.

Instead, I suggested to the sergeant this could be someone with a “dangerous anti-authoritarian streak” who’d be prone to other acts of civil disobedience.

“Ya think?” he said.

I ignored his sarcasm and said I’d check back later.

#

Meanwhile, rumors of the desecrations circulated through the stacks like flies.  The first week I got two emails and a note in our suggestion box.  By week two I had patrons questioning me.  I denied any knowledge and referred the calls to the police; perhaps that would inspire them.  Our weekly newspaper also ran a letter to the editor from one of our “concerned” regulars, but it was short and buried next to the sections for “Lost Pets” and “Love Lines.”  

The damage didn’t escape my boss’s notice, though.  Usually, Agnes Marlquist was a “hands off” manager, meaning she preferred dining with city council members to soiling her hands with ink, except where money was involved.  Then she wanted everything itemized (probably so she didn’t have to fill in the orders herself).  When Aggie, as I called her, saw all the volumes I wanted to replace (forty-seven, of which thirty-eight were unsalvageable and the other nine unintelligible) she squinted at my figures (too vain to wear reading glasses in public) and asked for a full, written report.  I composed one, but the next day she gave me an alternate ending.

“Tell people to fill in pig and keep reading,” she said.

#

One evening, while I was restarting all the frozen computers, a new page flipped open in my mind.  About six months before, neurotic parents started a letter writing campaign to have “unwholesome” materials removed from the library.  Apparently, some naive child had checked out Go Ask Alice thinking it was a sequel to Alice in Wonderland and was shocked at what she had learned.  So the morality police issued an edict condemning a dozen titles.  All were typical targets (included on the American Library Association’s top 100 banned books), and I was neither surprised nor worried.  

Bless her, Agnes handled it well, I thought, advising the parents that they were better monitors of their children’s reading matter than some uninformed librarians.  (Just, the way she phrased it, though, you’d think we were pharmacists dispensing condoms).  And that was the end of it.

Except that five of those titles were among the damaged: Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Clockwork Orange, A Day No Pigs Would Die, and The Pigman.  The outliers were children’s books (like Charlotte’s Web and Fairy Tale collections) or items no one would object to (like encyclopedias and dictionaries).  Still, I sensed a subtext.

So I retrieved one of the protest letters (which I’d posted on my bulletin board, complete with grammatical corrections in red) and called the author, a Mrs. Victoria Strain.  It was past closing, and Aggie was probably off somewhere politicking, but I wanted to be sure of my privacy.

“Blessings to you,” Mrs. Strain answered.

Her voice was deep and breathy, the antithesis of a prudish censor.

“I’d like to follow up on your complaint,” I said.

“You spurned it.  What more is there to say?”

“Do you still favor a book ban?”

“As long as even one child could be exposed.”

“Have you taken further steps?”

“Such as?”

The way she said it, all airy and husky, you’d think I’d propositioned her.

“Say, calling the city council or the police?”

“My prayer group has taken it up.”

She sighed heavily enough to qualify as obscene.

“I’m not trying to be antagonistic,” I said.  “Even though we disagree officially, some staff here are sympathetic.”

“What would you suggest?”

“In other cities, people destroy offensive books.”

I held my breath while she inhaled the suggestion.

“That would be ungodly,” she said.

“So you oppose civil disobedience?”

“Of course, what do you take me for?”

The libertarian in me wanted to say “a heretic,” but I held my tongue.

“What about other members of your prayer group?” I said.

“I’m sorry, who did you say you were?”

I hung up before she could ask again.

#

Three weeks in, my investigation had reached a cliff hanger.  Perhaps it was too much late night mystery reading, but I sensed I’d missed something.  On the back of our note paper (really, retired 3x5s from the card catalogue) I wrote the clues, then reorganizing them chronologically and thematically.  Still, I saw no order.  If no single person had borrowed all the volumes, and they were otherwise under our control, how could someone have done so much damage undetected?  It had to be an inside job, which meant either the staff or the volunteers, so I tracked down their ring leader.  She was a tall, elegant matron who had no need to work and contempt for those of us who did.

“Do any of your volunteers have an animal fetish?” I began.

She looked at me as though I’d just labelled her progeny as retards.

“My people give far more than they take,” she said.  “Without us, this place would have shut down years ago.”

“Anybody new on your staff, teenagers doing community service?”

She raised a finger to scold, then held it aloft as she considered.

“There’s Chet.  He showed up a few months ago.  Said he’d been laid off and needed something to do.  I assigned him to story time, but he’s always hanging about.”

She pointed me to the children’s section, where I found him acting out a saga about a rabbit that could fly.  While he finished boring the three youngsters in attendance, I studied him.  He didn’t look like most volunteers—his skinny jeans, t-shirt and messy hair suggesting the computer industry more than retirement—but neither did he fit my image of a vandal.  After he’d finished, I complimented his reading. 

“I’ve been practicing,” he said.

He seemed delighted to have been noticed by someone over age ten, leaping up to shake my hand.  As though suddenly aware of his appearance, he tried to repress a few stray hairs with a damp palm.

“You like animal stories?” I asked.

He looked confused, clutching the book to his chest, then scared.

“I’m not the pig man,” he said.  “I love this place.  I want to be one of you guys.”

“Why?”

“I’ve got to get ready for retirement.”

From his looks, that was at least 20 years away, and I said so.

“That’s why I need to get in the system now,” he said.

So he was another victim of the private sector looking for a cushy civil service sinecure.

“You’ll need a master’s degree first,” I said, “or an in.”

“Could you help?”

“If you help me.”

In seconds, his expression moved from sad, to confused, back to sad, and finally to optimistic.  Then he leaned in so closely I could see the ring around his collar. 

“Last night, after closing, I heard scratching in the back office,” he said.

“What was it?”

“I couldn’t see, but it sounded like a felt tip.”

I thanked him and promised to keep him informed of any job openings.

#

That night, I hid in my office with the door cracked and listened to the building at rest.  After the heater breathed its last gasp and the library timers extinguished all but my desk lamp, I grew bored and picked up a book.  I’ve always been partial to the tough-talking private i’s who bed their clients then deduce their guilt and have to choose between justice and lust.  Ten pages in, I heard scratching, close and squishy.  I eased open my door to find Aggie in the hallway, a cookbook in one hand and a black marker in the other.

“It’s you,” I said.

She squinted at the volume, then replaced it on a cart, only out of order.

“I was checking it for damage,” she said.

I picked up the book, which lacked a dewey decimal number on the spine.

“You find any?” I said.

“I didn’t finish.”

She reached to remove her reading glasses, stopped herself, and turned away.  As she fiddled with other volumes, I skimmed the pork recipes and found the usual black boxes.

“Why pig?” I said to her back.

“Why what?” she said, her voice wavering.

“Why do you cross out pig?”

She twiddled the marker between her fingers like it was a baton, then turned.  

“That’s what they call me.”

“Who?”

“The councilmen, every time I ask for money.  ‘Look, the greedy pig needs more slop,’ they say.”

“You think damaging public property will help?”

She lowered her glasses and stared at me triumphant.

“You haven’t heard?” she said.  “Tomorrow night, the volunteers are going before the City Council to demand more funding.”

“So you’re sacrificing books for politics?”

She ran a finger along the tattered paperbacks waiting for reshelving.

“You don’t understand,” she said.  “You all act as though this place is a museum, here for the public good.  It’s not.  It’s . . . a quagmire.  Ignore politics and we’d be . . .”

She couldn’t find the words to finish the thought, so I did.

“Out of print.”

No More Pigs / Hagerty / 3

No More Pigs / 2

Comments

comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *