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  • 17. Pig Helmet and the Wall of Life

    By Pinckney Benedict

    Pinckney Benedict’s character Pig Helmet is instantly imaginable and wholly unforgettable—a “man mountain,” a bounty hunter and big reader, “part one thing and part another and nothing that was whole.” The Wall of Life he stares into is less a wall than a window into potentiality and fate—that bracing wind-tunnel of choice we all confront daily and forever. This from his upcoming collection Miracle Boy and
    Other Stories, just long-listed for the prestigious Frank O’Connor Short Story Award!

    Pig Helmet needed to see the Wall of Life.

    I call him Pig Helmet because he’s the sort of fellow that, in olden times, you’d have been one of the Civilized People trying like hell, with fire and boiling oil and molten lead and such, to keep him and his kind out, and he’d have been one of the dreaded barbarians, he’d have been the lead barbarian in fact, climbing over your city walls by means of an improvised ladder, with his snarling face painted a furious blue, and something large and heavy and sharp-edged clutched in his massive fist, and wearing a pig for a hat. The head and hide of a boar, thick and knobby and naturally tough, hardened further by curing and the cunning attachment of metal plates and studs and rings, with the great toothy maw of the feral hog sloping down over his heavy brow, its tusks like upthrust sabers and its dead piggy eyes glinting dully above his own. Pig Helmet.

    Pig Helmet is a cop. He’s employed by the county sheriff’s department, and he lives down at the end of my road with his diminutive, pretty wife. Before that he was a “contractor” in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the money was good and the action was better, but his wife worried too much with him away. We tried to look after her as much as possible, my own wife and I, but we were no substitute for the ministrations of Pig Helmet, as you can imagine. He’s a dutiful and attentive husband. Before that work, he was a bail bondsman, a bounty hunter (he hates that term, silly movie bullshit he calls it), and one time a guy that had jumped bail threw acid in his face, trying to blind him, to avoid capture.

    The acid missed his eyes but crisped him pretty good otherwise, and the left side of his head is kind of a nightmare. The teeth show through permanently on that side, and the flesh is rippled and brown like old melted candlewax. He keeps pretty much to himself, does Pig Helmet, has some acreage and a few animals like we all do around here, following his hobbies in his off-hours, hand-loading cartridges and felling trees on his place and then turning the stumps into sawdust with his stump grinder.

    He loves the stump grinder. When I cut down a tree, he’ll bring the stump grinder over to my place and grind the stump into the ground, leaving nothing but a hole and a few roots and a mound of soft, warm sawdust. He’ll grind stumps for hours with apparent satisfaction. Sometimes in the fall he’ll bring over the loin from a deer he’s shot, and that’s good eating. His wife’s vegetable garden always produces plenty of tomatoes for them and for us.

    Pig Helmet is not a fellow much given to self-pity, as you can imagine, or even to much at all in the way of self-regard, but he had recently been through a bad experience, and he was feeling down and lost and deeply in need of an encounter with Life that would restore him to a proper sense of himself, which is to say, no particular sense of himself at all, except for a kind of exuberant well-being of the sort that would allow him, as of old, to grind a stump or love his wife or swing a truncheon with a deep-seated sense of pleasure.

    The bad experience that he underwent can briefly be described as follows: OxyContin addict, alcohol, family Monopoly game gone bad, shotgun deployed, multiple homicide. Topped off with suicide-by-cop. When Pig Helmet arrived in his cruiser at this lonely place to which he had been called, way out in the wilds of the western end of the county, the OxyContin addict was sitting shirtless and blood-spattered on the porch of the little frame house where he had just killed his brother, a cousin, his grandmother (can you imagine?) and an uncle. The house wasn’t an unpleasant-looking place, a neatly tended bungalow, with a pretty trumpet vine twining around the porch railing. The door stood wide open behind the OxyContin addict, the screen door too, the room behind it black as pitch; and he still had the scattergun in one hand, wouldn’t turn it loose no matter how loudly Pig Helmet yelled for him to do so. Most people, people even marginally in their right minds, do what Pig Helmet tells them to do when he raises his voice at them.

    This guy just smoked his cigarette down to the filter and then kind of lazily (this is how Pig Helmet described it to me) stood up and swung the muzzle of the gun around to cover Pig Helmet. So Pig Helmet took him down, double-tapped him right in the center of his chest with the .45 caliber service pistol he carries, and the guy sat down again, hand still wrapped around the stock of the shotgun, and he died right there on the porch. Pig Helmet wouldn’t have felt bad about shooting the guy, he said, if there had been some utility in it; but the people beyond that open door were already dead as it turned out, and so there was nobody to rescue. There weren’t even any shells in the shotgun anymore. The OxyContin addict had used them all up on his Monopoly opponents and the grandmother, who hadn’t even, to all appearances, been involved in the game at all.

    “Fucking mess,” Pig Helmet said, and I believe him.

    So when he saw the sign for the Wall of Life down at the county fairgrounds, he was in the mood. He didn’t anticipate any trouble on account of the shooting, because the homicides in the bungalow had been so brutal, and everybody agreed that the OxyContin addict had needed killing. It was a good shoot. Being on administrative leave pending a formal inquiry, Pig Helmet had the leisure to do what he wanted, and he didn’t feel much like hand-loading any ammunition, and he didn’t feel like grinding stumps, and he knew that his wife’s sympathy and worry, while affectionately meant (she’s an affectionate woman, with Pig Helmet at least, though cripplingly shy around others, even those of us who have known her for years) would just make him feel worse. So he took himself off to see what the Wall of Life was all about.

    Pig Helmet on duty, wearing his Nomex gloves and his bulky body armor and his brown sheriff’s office uniform with its broad Sam Browne belt across his barrel body and his thick utility belt (flex cuffs, pepper spray, billy club, taser on the left side, service pistol on the right, plus radio and tactical flashlight and knife and other assorted gadgetry), can be a pretty unsettling sight. He’s a big fellow, as I say, a man mountain, well over six feet tall, two hundred fifty pounds if he’s an ounce, with a head shaved bald and gleaming and broad as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. And he’s got that nasty confusion of his face on the left side, which a person can grow used to, and even fond of, but not in a short period of time.

    Now, you know what the Wall of Life is, even if you don’t think you do. It’s just like the Wall of Death, the county fair attraction where a rider on an old motorbike roars around the inside of a big wooden cylinder, centrifugal force sticking him perpendicular to the sides. The crowd stands on a catwalk at the top of the cylinder, looking in while the guy on the sputtering motorbike apparently defies gravity below them.

    At the bigger, better shows, there are a couple, maybe even three motorbikes on the wall at one time, crossing one another’s paths, cutting down toward the bottom of the cylinder and then shooting back up to the top again, to cause the crowd to draw back in alarm, fearful that the biker will shoot out onto the catwalk and knock them over and kill them. Sometimes a pretty girl will stand at the bottom of the cylinder, in its center, gesturing toward the motorcyclists as they circle above her head, showing her faith in them, that they will not come unstuck from the walls and crash down on top of her. That’s the Wall of Death.

    The Wall of Life was just like that, only it was an evangelical preacher and his family who did the riding, and it was the preacher’s daughter who stood in the bottom. The Wall of Life was this preacher’s ministry, like an old time tent revival meeting but on motorcycles, and he went from town to town, fairground to fairground, setting up the Wall, running for a couple three days until the crowds let down, preaching at the people that came to see him ride and shout.

    When his work in one place was done, he and his family would tear down the Wall of Life into a series of short arcs that stacked neatly one inside the next, and stow them aboard the aged Fruehauf tractor-trailer his ministry moved in. There was a huge portrait of the Wall on the side of the trailer, the great wooden cylinder and crude human figures speeding along on motorcycles inside, with a giant Jesus stretching his hands out on either side, like he wanted to catch the little riders if they flew out. After he packed up his stuff, the preacher and his family would shove off for the next place he felt called to.

    Pig Helmet wasn’t a particularly religious man. Like most of the rest of us he grew up in a Baptist household, and he had been saved at a certain point in his boyhood because it was expected of him, and he had given testimony at various times for much the same reason, but none of it—as he has told me—touched his heart very much. As soon as he moved out of his parents’ house, he stopped going to church, more through indifference than any animosity toward the institution. When he met and started courting the pretty girl who would become his wife, he took up going again, because it was what she wanted, it was one of the few places where she came out of her shyness a little and felt at ease among people; and her beauty and kindness and gentleness toward him did touch his heart, and so he went.

    Pig Helmet has told me about a tribe of savage Germans whom he particularly admires, that lived back in Roman times. These Germans, it seems, were converted to Christianity sometime after the reign of the Emperor Constantine. This is the sort of thing Pig Helmet knows about, though to look at him—the truculent set of his jaw, the heavy forehead, the glittering left eye that peers out from within the folds of scar tissue—you would never expect it. He reads a lot of nonfiction books about obscure tidbits and peculiarities of history, and other books about the oddities scattered throughout the galaxy: singularities and quarks and quantum theory and gravitons and the like. He says these things just naturally catch his interest.

    In the book about Christianity, when these great big hairy Teutonic warriors were baptized, when the Roman priests led them down into the cold rushing water of the river that ran near their home village up in the Black Forest, they willingly pledged themselves to Christ and dunked themselves under. All except their sword arms. Their right hands, palms horny and hard with callus from years of wielding their long blades, those they kept dry above the fast-flowing current. The rest of them might belong to gentle Jesus, but their strength and their killing skills—they still belonged to the god of battle.

    Pig Helmet told me that was what he always felt like: some kind of a half-breed monster, a chimera, part one thing and part another and nothing that was whole. He had felt that other piece of him—the sword arm, held up above the current—when the OxyContin addict brought the shotgun to bear, the muzzle yawning wide and dark, and when Pig Helmet, without so much as thinking or deciding, sent a pair of 230-grain Speer Gold Dot jacketed hollowpoints into the guy’s chest at nine hundred feet per second.

    He had stood there for a moment, pistol in his hand, the pistol reports, so closely spaced they might have been a single sound, echoing off the clapboard side of the tidy bungalow. He’d been around death plenty of times, working for the creepy little bail bondsman in Craig County, in the Middle East, and while serving mental hygiene warrants and issuing subpoenas and such for the sheriff’s office; and he could sense it now, boiling off the punctured corpse of the mutt with his shotgun, percolating out of the dark doorway of the bungalow behind the slumped body.

    Death dwelt in the house, he knew, and probably had for years, for decades, just waiting on this day, on this combination of drugs and rage and cheating, to take down everyone inside. He could tell it was there, crouched inside the doorway like a lurking beast, but he couldn’t see it.

    He said he might as well have been naked out there in that little yard, with a couple of dusty chickens pecking in the thin grass around his feet, and the branches of the trees creaking and talking in the light wind that had sprung up. That empty doorway, with its moronic dead guardian, it called to him. It yearned for him. All of his body armor, his pistol and his taser and his years of training—worth nothing. He knew that, if he walked into that place alone, he was finished. When backup arrived, he would be gone. He could cross the yard and step over the OxyContin addict and past the threshold and on into the dark. He even took a step or two in that direction.

    And then—this is his take on it—a miracle happened. A woman called his name. At the time, he thought it was his wife. It was definitely a woman’s voice. And it wasn’t his regular name that she called, it was his secret name, a name no one knew him by. It was a name that he himself didn’t know he owned, or that owned him, until the second he heard the woman’s voice speak it. He wouldn’t tell me what it was, no man should know that about another man, but he said the moment he heard it, he knew it as inescapably his. It was like she was saying it into his ear. He imagined that his wife must be praying for him, a thing she did regularly throughout the day when he was on duty, and that her prayer was what halted his progress toward the door of the bungalow. He imagined that the name she called him was how she referred to him when she spoke with God.

    So he found himself at the Wall of Life. After the search of the bungalow revealed the extent of the slaughter (Pig Helmet couldn’t bring himself to go inside even after other units from the sheriff’s office arrived), after the arrival and departure of the county coroner, after the ambulances had borne the body bags away—after all that, as he drove homeward, he passed the county fairground, and he saw the tractor-trailer with its garish illustration on the side, and beyond that the squat cylinder of the Wall of Life itself. That word, Life, written in letters of orange flame on both the semi-trailer and the Wall, captured and held his eye. Death clung to him. It was on his clothes, his hands, in his nostrils. Life.

    He pulled the cruiser into the near-empty parking lot, paid the old lady at the foot of the stairs that led to the catwalk along the top edge of the Wall. As he handed her his money, he thought briefly of the grandmother who had died, cowering in one of the narrow back rooms, her hands held up beseechingly before her. The other deputies had described her to him in almost loving detail. “The show’s already in progress,” the old lady at the Wall told him in a voice like the chirp of a bird, and he nodded at her. The board stairs under his feet trembled with the unmuffled roar of the motorcycles, and the entire Wall shook with their passing.

    There were maybe half a dozen spectators atop the Wall. It was the first show of the day, a light crowd. In the evening, under the unearthly glow of the sizzling sodium lamps, there would be more. The few who were there at the catwalk’s railing drew back when they caught sight of Pig Helmet ascending the stairs. He was used to that reaction to his size and his marred face and his uniform, so he hardly noticed. A couple of the people held dollar bills out over the void, so that the motorcycle riders would come up near the edge of the Wall and snatch them. With Pig Helmet’s arrival, the dollars and the riders were forgotten. Pig Helmet strode to the edge of the platform and looked down.

    Easy enough to imagine what he saw as he looked into the well, which was poorly lighted, just a few strings of dingy Christmas bulbs clinging to the safety railing against which Pig Helmet leaned his weight. What else could a man like Pig Helmet see? The stench of exhaust flooded his nose, but it seemed to him to be the smell of burning cordite. He was looking into the muzzle of a great gun. It was the muzzle of the OxyContin addict’s shotgun. It was the muzzle of every gun he had ever stared down. It was the muzzle of his own service pistol, pointed straight at his face.

    Easy enough to imagine, too, what it was like for the preacher and his people, his family, when Pig Helmet appeared above them, his Neanderthal head silhouetted against the light of the lowering sky, his exposed teeth gritted, his expression (what they could see of it in the dim light) filled with mortal terror, the other spectators on the catwalk drawing back from him, their offerings suddenly out of reach.

    Near catastrophe as one motorcyclist, flames crackling from the straight exhaust pipe of his aging Indian bike, dove unexpectedly low on the Wall, nearly colliding with his younger brother, while their father, the preacher, fought to avoid running over them both. The preacher was shouting out above the roar of the engines the text of the gospel of James—he had just gotten to “There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who art thou that judgest another?”—and he lost his place momentarily, dread and fascination drawing his attention upward to Pig Helmet’s looming head and shoulders, the gleam of his shaved skull, the puckered flesh of his scars. His speed dropped as he braked to avoid his boys, his bike wobbled nauseously, and he nearly toppled off the Wall and to the floor.

    Pig Helmet’s vision quickly adjusted to the changed light. Now he saw more clearly. In white letters two feet high, just below the lip of the wall all the way around, ran the legend “In my name shall they cast out devils. They shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents.” Pig Helmet was standing just opposite the word serpents, so he could only see the end and the beginning of the quote, . . . shall take up serpents. In my name they shall . . . , but he was a good enough student of the gospels from his youth up to know what was hidden from his gaze. The floor of the well seemed to be alive. It was moving, shifting, shining in the blasts of fire from the motorcycle exhausts: iridescent scales, eyes, flickering tongues. It was a snake pit. Adders, vipers, harmless bright green ribbon snakes like blades of grass, the undulating lozenge pattern of diamondback rattlesnakes, the warning sizzle of their tails drowned out in the cacophony of the bikes.

    Standing in the midst of the snakes, ankle deep in them, her feet bare, was a young girl, her face turned upward toward Pig Helmet, her expression delighted as though she was glad to see him. In each of her small, pale hands she grasped, just below the spearpoint head, a struggling pit viper. Her eyes were wide and bright, and Pig Helmet realized that she was not looking at him at all. She was gazing past him at something just over his shoulder with that rapturous look on her face.

    Her eyes weren’t unfocused or dazed. They had the concentrated aspect of the eyes of someone who has caught sight of something precious and vanishing—a lover who has spotted the ghost of a long-dead darling; a sniper to whom a target has just offered himself up for a head shot—and who can hardly bear the intensity of the vision, but who doesn’t dare to look away lest it be lost forever. There was something behind him, above him, Pig Helmet knew, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn around, to see what it was. The girl was seeing it enough for both of them.

    The men on the motorcycles, the preacher and his sons, had speedily recovered their composure, and they swung back into rhythm, racing their bikes in swift ellipses around the interior of the well, now at the top, now at the bottom, weaving across one another’s paths at measured intervals, as though they were performing an intricate dance. They were a handsome family, fine-boned and slender, their faces similar, old, young, younger, like the same man appearing in a series of photographs taken through the years. The preacher found his voice again, this time calling on the psalms, as though perhaps to ward off Pig Helmet with his perpetual unintended sneer, whom the preacher might have suspected of being not altogether human, not altogether benign. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” he called out to the crowd on the catwalk.

    Pig Helmet saw that the girl wasn’t quite as young as he had first taken her to be. She was exquisite, her head tilted, her hair light as silk, her back slightly arched, her breasts pressing against the thin white cotton of her shirt. From his vantage point above her, Pig Helmet could see down into the neck of her blouse, could see the small hollow at the base of her throat, the sheen of perspiration that collected there. He could see the soft swelling of her breasts, the lacy edges of her bra. He loved his wife very much. And, in that instant, he wanted simultaneously to protect the girl in the snakepit from all the death that was in the world and to screw her silly. Her lips were moving, revealing glimpses of her healthy gums, her small even teeth, her glistening tongue. He couldn’t hear her voice, but he knew that she must be praying. He wondered what her prayer was.

    The preacher’s voice was still audible, and the crowd had begun offering their dollar bills again. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,” the old man declared. Pig Helmet had a couple of dollars in his wallet, and he thought about holding them out so that one of the riders would snatch them from his hand, and perhaps his fingers would brush against Pig Helmet’s fingers, and in that brief contact Pig Helmet would feel what he needed to feel, would know what he wanted to know. Life.

    It occurred to him that he might even, under the guise of holding out his offering, grab a passing motorcyclist by the wrist. Who among us, faced with that moment of failed equilibrium, the man teetering on the edge of the icy step, the woman the heel of whose shoe has caught in a steel grating, hasn’t entertained, however temporarily, that temptation to reach out and, gently, almost lovingly, push? Just to see the expression on the face of the one who might have been rescued but who has been doomed instead. Pig Helmet told me it was like that feeling. Would the rider be jerked from his bike and swing there, dangling by the wrist in Pig Helmet’s grasp until Pig Helmet dropped him into the writhing snakes? Would the weight of the man and the hurtling bike jerk Pig Helmet’s shoulder clean out of its socket, might he be dragged bodily off the catwalk and into the well?

    The motorcycles were running in unison, stacked like the rungs of a ladder as they raced around the Wall, and the girl had begun singing, her voice a thin piping that barely reached Pig Helmet’s ears. A woman near him on the catwalk had begun clapping her hands together and shouting “Hallelujah” while the men beside her looked slightly chagrined. The boards thrummed like a vast heart beneath Pig Helmet’s feet, and the voice of the preacher, in constant flux from the Doppler effect as he came near and went past and away again, beat at Pig Helmet’s ears. “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” he called. The snakes flopped and coiled at the girl’s feet.

    Pig Helmet no longer felt as though he was looking down, into the cylinder. He suddenly knew himself to be looking up. It came to him that he was staring into the barrel of an incalculably large telescope, one with greater power even than the ones they mount on the high ridges, far from the cities and their polluting lights. He knew himself to be watching through it something distant and ancient, something akin to the circuit of the planets, old, young, younger, near, far, farther, around and around in their endless courses; and the weak little Christmas lights were the surrounding stars; and the girl, the infinitely desirable girl clad in white at the very center of it all, singing and praying, and now she’s even laughing, laughing breathlessly, her mouth wide with joy, her eyes half-closed, her nostrils flared, a viper grasped tight in each hand, her feet sunk in the unfathomable twinings of the serpents—At what is she laughing?

    At him. At Pig Helmet. He’s speaking, he’s crying out in the command voice he’s been taught to use on suspects, in the irresistible voice with which he directed the OxyContin addict to put down the shotgun. He doesn’t understand the words he’s saying. They’re bubbling out of him like water from a busted spigot. The woman next to him is swaying, gaping at him worshipfully, shouting “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” for all she’s worth.

    They’re the girl’s words that pour out of him, Pig Helmet knows, the words she was speaking earlier but that he couldn’t hear. The words of her prayer. Her body is shivering and shaking, pulsing like a quasar in one of Pig Helmet’s peculiar books, a quasar at the far distant end of the universe. The girl in the pit, the stout woman on the catwalk beside him, they’re dancing the same dance, binary suns, quivering as though they’re demented with some awful fever. Pig Helmet’s hands are spread wide. He cannot understand the words of the prayer, but in the midst of them he hears her say, once, clear as a bell, his secret name. It was not his wife at all who called him. He tries to make it be his wife, who has known him in his most intimate moments, and who wants nothing more in the world than to save him, to keep him safe and beside her forever. But no matter how hard he tries, it is this girl who knows the name, who calls to him in his most secret places.

    “Put down the weapon.” It was a prayer, what he had said to the OxyContin addict. He knew that. “Lay down on the ground.” It was a prayer. There was no way for the OxyContin addict to divine what Pig Helmet truly wanted. Pig Helmet didn’t hold the key to his understanding. The words of Pig Helmet’s heart must have sounded like gibberish in his ears, and it didn’t matter how loudly Pig Helmet spoke them, or how beseechingly he meant them. He couldn’t imagine the OxyContin addict’s secret name; he couldn’t save him. We are so distant from one another, impossible to know. “Don’t make me shoot you.” An unheard prayer.

    Pig Helmet’s hands are open. The motorcycles continue to circle above him, hanging precariously over his head—who knows what astonishing force keeps them there?—but the screaming of their engines is muted, it no longer reaches his ears, his brain. He speaks in tongues, and spittle flecks his fleshy lips.

    He’s reaching outward, upward, straining toward the whirling constellation of men, motorbikes, snakes, voices. He’s reaching for the girl who knows his name, and she has stopped dancing. She stretches out her slender arms toward him, her skin shining with sweat. She stands on tiptoe among the snakes. He’s a tall man, but she’s far away. Faster and faster the motorcycles go, and her prayer rises continuously from his lips, unmediated. The Wall of Life is an intricate machine built by men to show him this girl at the other end of space. The door of the little bungalow yawns behind him, and the slain OxyContin addict is the doorman, he’s the concierge with the disconcerting smile, holding the portal wide, gesturing Pig Helmet inside with a generous sweep of the scattergun. It’s an easy door to enter, the door to that house.

    What lies before Pig Helmet’s eyes is likewise a door, a hard entrance, a long narrow tunnel of infinite length. Pig Helmet thrusts his killing hand, his unbaptized hand, out toward the girl. She is far away and getting farther, but she extends her hand toward him as well, and her lips shape his true name. If Pig Helmet is strong enough, if he strains far enough, if the motorcycles spin fast enough, and if he keeps stretching out his unclean hand forever, he will reach her.


    © by Pinckney Benedict. From the collection Miracle Boy and Other Stories. Coming in May from Press53. Used by permission of the author.

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