An Excerpt from Second Acts, a Novel by Tim W. Brown
out now on Gival Press
Thanks, yet again, to the good graces of Mr. Gallatin, I received my invitation from the Manhattan Civic Improvement Club to participate in their annual pig shoot. This was well and good, except I did not know how to shoot. To teach myself this manly art, I purchased a hunting rifle and bullets from a hardware dealer on Dock Street, near the waterfront, and I led Bunny on a trip each morning via the Broadway omnibus to the city’s northern fringe, where in a meadow we improvised a firing range so I might practice.
On a rocky outcrop, we set up discarded bottles that Bunny had scrounged early each morning from the refuse pile behind the hotel. I stood back perhaps thirty yards, loaded my weapon like the store clerk demonstrated, aimed, held my breath, pulled the trigger, and ... missed horribly. Six days and three boxes of ammunition later, I managed to hit a bottle two times out of every five shots, a forty percent success rate. Despite a second-straight-week of target practice, during which I played whatever mind tricks I could on myself to lie still, breathe slowly, and relax my muscles, I could do nothing to improve my technique and make this percentage rise.
Looking at me after another volley of shots widely missed their mark, Bunny said, concluding that my efforts were hopeless, “Bunny no can shoot bow and arrow. No can teach you.”
“I will just take along my gun and try my best. Surely, other men have gone away from the event without bagging a pig.”
“Potawatomi men call you woman,” Bunny said, describing what would happen if this scenario ever unfolded at one of her tribe’s hunting expeditions.
“They will not say it, but that’s what the men will think of me here, too.”
From this moment forward I seriously dreaded the upcoming hunt. Putting aside my poor shooting skills, I still was not convinced that if the opportunity arose, I could shoot a gun at a pig with the intention of killing it. What if I only wounded it, and it squealed in agony until someone, probably not I, shot it again to put it out of its misery? In the modern world, where meat arrives in your home already butchered, weighed, and wrapped in plastic, these images seemed positively grotesque.
Also, I felt pressure emanating from Bunny, whom I did not want to disappoint. She had formulated grand plans of serving a traditional Indian meal to Mr. Gallatin and me, with roast pig, a delicacy for her people, as the centerpiece. In her reasoning, I personally had to shoot the pig, because otherwise she would have to pitch in and prepare the feast for the polity, according to a recipe on which a majority of the cooks agreed. She required her very own pig to fulfill her vision, and I was appointed to supply it. Relating the opinions of the men in her tribe earlier, she meant to shame me into shooting better, which, in turn, would award her her prize.
To ready herself for the big event, Bunny prevailed upon me to take her to a cutlery store and purchase a set of steel white men’s knives. In Fulton Street, among waves of meatpackers hauling sides of beef and skinned pigs to-and-fro, we found such a store run by a man wearing a top hat and bloody apron — a gentleman butcher. From his impressive stock Bunny selected four carving knives of various sizes, a meat cleaver, and a sharpen ing stone.
As he wrapped her purchases in a scrap of burlap and tied the bundle with a length of twine, our gentleman butcher quipped, “I trust you’re not planning to use these knives to scalp your enemies! Ha ha ha!”
“Just getting ready for the annual pig shoot on Saturday,” I said. I glanced over at Bunny, who scowled at the man as if he were the only person in the world she meant to scalp. Bunny prided herself on being a civilized Indian, not only since traveling east away from the frontier with me, but long before we met, as the member of a settled, stationary tribe of farmers and woodsmen that had inhabited their land for generations. She distinguished her tribe’s situation from the restless, acquisitive Huron to the east and the nomadic, slovenly Sioux to the west. She considered neither bunch particularly civilized.
To encourage her improved behavior under Mr. Gallatin’s influence, I praised Bunny for not punching the gentleman butcher, or worse. She seemed pleased that I had recognized her restraint, and she promised to act like a civilized lady in all of her dealings. For the remainder of the week we looked forward, with varying degrees of relish, to the big pig hunt.
I was unprepared for the massive exodus from the city, which began at dawn and lasted the better part of Saturday morning. Omnibuses, freight wagons, and private coaches carted passengers heavily armed with guns, forks, and knives up the city’s three main thoroughfares, Broadway, Bowery, and Greenwich Street. A festive atmosphere reigned as hunters and hangers-on leaned out the windows of their conveyances, clutching pewter mugs filled with rum or beer and singing patriotic songs accompanied by fiddlers, banjo players, or accordionists. I heard lyrics slurred in no fewer than four languages, including English, Gaelic, Dutch, and German.
Bunny and I rode in a private coach that I had hired for the occasion. Closed within the passenger compartment we were happily insulated from the insults, rocks, vegetables, and spittle hurled between wagons hauling rival ethnic groups or gangs like the Bowery Boys and Plug Uglies. Clearly, more than just the Three Hundred attended this event; they may have received the official invitations, but the rest of the city was crashing the party.
Around eleven o’clock, after crawling up Broadway for about three hours, we reached Hamilton Hill, the meeting place for the hunting party. But for the masses of people and acres of parked buses, buggies, and coaches, Hamilton Hill presented the visitor with a bucolic setting, consisting of farm fields, orchards, pastures, cows, creeks, and ponds. A tent beside a flagpole flying an oversized American flag with twenty-four stars indicated the site from which we would embark on our hunt for runaway swine. Already, I heard gunshots in the distance. If you were unaware of today’s event, you would think that a war had started.
Mr. Gallatin stood in the center of the tent, dressed much less formally than I was accustomed to seeing him, in hunting breeches, boots, and a deerskin jacket. He carried a rifle under his arm while he assigned newly arrived hunters to parties of four and instructed them to fan out in varying directions. Winking at Bunny, he pointed her in the direction of the women folk, who assembled in back of the tent around tripods of beans, potatoes, and biscuit dough heating over wood fires. I was placed in a group of three other men, one of whom had a peg leg. His name was Hebediah Barron. He introduced me to the man next to him, his business partner and good friend, Ezra Fripphouse. Both men carried primitive-looking blunderbusses that I associated with the Pilgrims of Plymouth. The fourth member of our party was a young student named Sam Tilden. Like me, he carried the latest model of hunting rifle.
As we traipsed westward along a creek toward the Hudson River, our quartet got acquainted. Barron and Fripphouse owned a business that imported English china, French crystal, and Chinese porcelain to the United States. Their success at marketing these goods to the Three Hundred had enabled them eventually to join the exclusive group. Having just turned twenty, Tilden stated that he was presently reading law at the firm of Bigelow, Strunk & Cushman. He expected to be admitted to the bar in an other two or three years when his apprenticeship was through. He was at tending today’s festivities in place of Mr. Bigelow, who had stayed home in his Park Row mansion, being sick with gout.
After we had gone perhaps a half-mile, Barron requested that our party pause to rest. I understood his need perfectly, for it must have taken a lot of energy to limp this far on one good leg. Moreover, Barron was grossly overweight and this caused him to lose his breath easily. Just as men in the twenty-first century sat on their sofas and watched television all day and got fat, without the excuse of missing a leg, so too had inactivity led Barron to grow quite rotund.
We sat on fallen logs and passed around a flask of whiskey to quench our mounting thirst. “You’re wondering how I got this peg leg, aren’t you?” Barron asked, looking my way.
His remark embarrassed me, because in fact I was trying my hardest to ignore his artificial leg, but, fascinated, my eyes kept roving back to it. “Yes, I suppose I am,” I answered.
“The story is really quite humorous if you can look past its tragic dimension.”
Tilden and I sat forward with our ears pricked.
“It was 1828 or ’29, was it not?” asked Barron of his friend.
“1829,” said Fripphouse uninterestedly.
“At this self-same event in 1829, I had an accident which required the surgeons to amputate my leg below my knee.”
“That’s horrible!” I said. “What happened?”
“Do you wish to answer, Mr. Fripphouse?”
“No, you tell the story,” replied Fripphouse, resigned to being the butt of his partner’s oft-told joke on yet another occasion.
“We were blundering (needless to say we were drunk) through a patch of ground like this one, along a babbling brook lined with birch trees. Suddenly, a young pig bolted across our path. Startled by our presence it froze in its tracks, not five feet from my left foot. Would you estimate around five feet, Mr. Fripphouse?”
“Three feet,” said Fripphouse, who had memorized his straight man’s lines in Barron’s well-rehearsed routine.
“‘Hold still,’ Mr. Fripphouse whispered to me. I held still while my trusted friend shot at the pig. Unfortunately, his bullet missed wide, precisely three feet wide, and blasted my foot instead.”
“Yikes!” I said.
“Ouch!” exclaimed Tilden.
“Did the doctors at least try to save your foot?” I asked.
“Save my foot? Tell them what my foot looked like, Mr. Fripphouse.”
Fripphouse looked annoyed now that he was being forced to relive the incident, over which he must have felt immense guilt and shame. “Nothing. I told you it looked like nothing.”
“To reassure me, Mr. Fripphouse informed me that the injury to my foot looked like nothing. That’s because it was completely gone! There was nothing where my left foot used to be!”
“It must have been a large-diameter ball to cause that kind of damage,” said Tilden.
“A densely packed ball of grapeshot spat from the mouth of the very weapon you see there,” he said, pointing at his partner’s blunderbuss.
“What happened next?” asked Tilden.
“What do you think happened? I tipped over and lay prone suffering from blood loss. Mr. Fripphouse sat with me until a surgeon could be found. In one of my more lucid moments...”
“Delirious moments,” interjected Fripphouse.
“Lucid moments!” responded Barron.
“In one of my more LUCID moments, I raised my head off the sod and promised Mr. Fripphouse that I would repay him for blowing off my foot — someday, somewhere, when he least expected it. It might take me months or even years, but I would return the favor. ‘An eye for an eye, a foot for a foot’ would become my motto.”
“Then what happened?” asked Tilden.
“I fainted. When I awoke later in my bed, my leg ended in a stump just below my knee, and the oaken apparatus you see here had been installed in lieu of my shin, ankle, and foot.”
From about fifty yards to our northeast, a series of gunshots, number ing about six, rang out. We all ducked instinctively.
“Someone must have run across a bunch of pigs over there,” I said.
“Either that, or there is one pig that has six bullet holes in his arse!” jested Tilden.
Our party stood and cautiously crept toward the source of the shots.
“You did not finish your story, Mr. Barron,” said Fripphouse.
“Pray, finish it,” said Tilden.
As we trod across a rocky trail, Barron continued at a lower volume. “Well, my fine young man, ever since the accident, Mr. Fripphouse has lived in dread that I will blow off his foot. I might, for example, sneak up on him one night as he sleeps in his bedroom. Or I might greet him one morn ing at our offices with paperwork to sign in one hand and a gun aimed at his foot in the other. Or I might elect to have my revenge one of these years at this pig hunt, on the anniversary of my maiming. He does not know from one day till the next when I will pounce.”
“Five years have passed, proving your words are idle boasting. I have nothing to fear from you anymore,” said Fripphouse.
“Unless I select a time five years hence to seek my revenge!”
“Bah!” grunted Fripphouse.
“Why are you still business partners if you hate Mr. Fripphouse so much for doing this to you?” I asked.
“Hate Mr. Fripphouse? I don’t hate the man. I love him like a brother. We have been through thick and thin together. We have survived boom-and-bust economic conditions. We have weathered the sinking of ships containing thousands in inventory! It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that we are like an old married couple, as comfortable together as a pair of old wool socks.”
At this moment, four or five pigs darted out of the brush in front of us. All but one scampered away before any of us could take aim and shoot. The last pig lingered, evaluating which direction offered the best escape route. Hot in pursuit were two groups of huffing and puffing men, with whom our party united in surrounding the creature. A couple of men raised their weapons, intending to shoot.
“Halt! Gentlemen, hold your fire!” shouted a man from one of the other foursomes. “We are in a circle right now, and if we open fire, we will cut each other down like a Hessian firing squad.”
“Yes, it is better that we form a ring, which slowly contracts until we are able to capture him by hand,” said one of his companions.
At this man’s signal we all took a step forward, then another, then an other, as the noose tightened. The pig responded by running this way and that, attempting to pierce our defenses, but finding himself foiled at each turn as we scrambled to close gaps he tried to exploit. Yet, he was a fleet little bugger and nimbly evaded our efforts to grab him by the leg or tail. After a few minutes we ceased our exertions, finding ourselves in a frustrating standoff between twelve grown men and one diminutive pig.
“What can we do?” Tilden asked. “We can’t shoot him. We’re unable to catch him. Are we supposed to just let him go?”
“NO!” responded a chorus of eleven voices.
“I have an idea,” I said. It was a risky plan, for if I failed I would look like a complete fool, and word of my folly would spread as gossip from the day was exchanged at the feast later. I decided to proceed despite the risk to my reputation. I uncoiled my whip, twirled it above my head a few times to gain velocity, and, with a tremendous crack, lashed the dirt only inches away from the surprised animal. I wound up and cracked my whip again, and this time I succeeded in striking the pig and knocking him off his feet.
As the pig lay still at the center of our circle, we closed in to investigate the damage my whip had wrought. “Did I kill him?” I asked, suddenly feeling nauseous at the thought.
“No, you only stunned him,” answered Tilden, who knelt over the animal. “He’s still breathing and his legs are twitching.”
“Shoot him, for God’s sake, before he wakes up!” Barron urged.
“As you wish,” said Tilden. He stood, aimed his rifle, and with a single shot dispatched the pig to swine heaven. In my queasy state, I was extreme ly glad that I had not been called upon to perform this act. He stuffed the body into a leather quarry bag, which he walked over and presented to me, saying, “There’s only a small hole in the neck, a very clean kill. Had these other gentlemen with their antique guns done the deed, we would be having pork hash for supper.”
I slung the bag over my shoulder, and the other men came over one by one to congratulate me for my resourcefulness. Pride swelled in my chest, replacing the nausea that had churned my stomach. After sharing a celebratory sip from Barron’s whiskey flask, our groups parted company and re turned to the hunt. Only one other man in our party, Fripphouse, succeeded in taking down a pig that afternoon. As Tilden had predicted, the grapeshot from his blunderbuss shredded the poor animal, and we judged its corpse too damaged to eat.
As the sun sank closer and closer to the treetops, we headed back to Hamilton Hill to merge with the hungry, exhausted rabble. Already, pigs were everywhere roasting in pits and turning on spits, and their organs stewed in large kettles stirred by Negroes. I said goodbye to my fellow hunters and searched for Bunny, whom I found assisting a crowd of butchers with skinning and gutting, and I laid the bag at her feet. More excited than I had ever seen her, she ripped open the bag and yanked out my catch.
“White and black pig taste good,” she said. “Better than pink.”
I rather doubted that one color of pig tasted better than another, just as men from the white, black, or yellow races probably tasted exactly the same to a cannibal. Still, I was relieved that Bunny had found this attribute to praise, and she refrained from making fun of the animal’s size, which was smallish, actually closer to a suckling pig than a fully mature one.
Faster than I could undress a woman in the heat of sexual attraction, Bunny peeled off the pig’s skin and threw the rubbery inside-out likeness away. With a “Ching-ching-ching-ching-ching” of her cleaver she chopped off its feet and tail. With a quick twist of her knife and a wet “schlupp!” sound she gutted it. As I watched the pig’s entrails pour out onto the ground, I felt woozy and had to walk around for a few minutes, praying that I would not vomit.
When I returned, the pig, including snout and head, was arranged in a smoking pit along with whole potatoes, yams, squash, carrots, leaks, and turnips. Bunny stood over the pit and sprinkled from a deerskin pouch a mixture of crushed leaves, nuts, berries, seeds, and twigs over the pit. “Special Potawatomi spice,” she explained. Next, she covered the pit and its contents with a layer of rocks, I presumed to seal in the juices and lock in the flavor. “Pig cook one hour,” she announced, whereupon we joined Mr. Gallatin at his table and drank fine French wine from his wine cellar while we waited for dinner to cook. Bunny got tipsy after one goblet, and she tittered at her mentor’s flirtations, which he delivered in Potawatomi. I am not precisely sure what he had said, but I could tell that Bunny was hugely charmed by his words. After an hour’s time, Bunny excused herself to apply the finishing touches to the food she was preparing.
A few minutes later, Mr. Gallatin’s butler, a distinguished-looking, white-haired Negro named Archibald, rolled a serving cart across the grass to our table. First, he set our places with silverware and china so fine that I would hesitate to take them out of their drawers and cabinets, much less out of doors. Next, he poured us soup from a mirror-polished silver tureen. “Dat Indian squall of yours, she don’t know nothin’ ’bout servin’ no soup course,” he complained. “Ol’ Archibald, he cook de soup and bake de pie you be havin’ fo’ dessert.”
Mr. Gallatin excused Archibald, and we supped our soup in the civilized circumstances of a handful of other attendees dotting the hill — under a yellow tent, at a table covered with a checkerboard tablecloth, lit by candelabra. Beyond the invisible walls of our tent, bawdiness and drunkenness generally prevailed, while the picnicking masses shouted, laughed, swore, bragged, argued, cried, mocked, snored, teased, threatened, and sang as they devoured the day’s kill.
Bunny and Archibald returned as Mr. Gallatin and I were finishing our soup, a bland beef broth with barley that I did not believe tasted so special. Archibald had donned an apron, and he carved us steaming slices of roast pork, which he gently laid next to vegetables that Bunny had art fully arranged on plates. Such presentation made the food look marvelously appetizing, and I nearly forgot about the serving pan containing remnants of what could still be recognized as a pig.
My hunger outfought my scruples, however, and I promptly tore into some of the most delicious pork I have ever tasted. The seasonings that Bunny had incorporated into the dish pleased all four taste buds simultaneously. Each bite imparted a slightly different flavor, sometimes salty or sweet, sometimes bitter or sour, and sometimes a mixture of two flavors, as in bittersweet or sweet and sour. I suspected that, in addition to specially harvested seasonings, she had included in her recipe a certain amount of magic, what her people called “medicine,” to combine such a remarkable range of subtle flavors into a single dish.
“You like?” she asked Mr. Gallatin. His mouth was full, so he could not answer, but he enthusiastically nodded. “You like?” she asked me second, which hurt my feelings somewhat, because I was her employer and protector, although I realized that Mr. Gallatin was the dominant figure in her life at present.
“Very much,” I said, motioning to Archibald to serve me a second helping of meat.
“Yes,” said Mr. Gallatin, pausing to pat his lips with a napkin. “A most extraordinary recipe. You must help me write it down, so I may include it with the other materials we have collected.”
Bunny fairly beamed at all of the compliments she was receiving for her cooking skill. This made me realize — to my shame, because I had been ignoring this yearning to flex her hands and mind — that she longed for her own sphere, a well-appointed kitchen or a shallow barbecue pit, where she could practice the domestic arts that she had studied since childhood. Thus far in our travels, such an outlet for self-expression had been largely unavailable to her, and she needed it as much as her daily conversations in Potawatomi with Mr. Gallatin. Living in hotels, she had watched as hired women cooked our food and cleaned our rooms, leaving her feeling as if she were engaged in forced hibernation. I resolved to press the developer to expedite the construction of my new home, where I would install Bunny as queen of our household.
Archibald cleared our dishes when we were through eating (his apple pie was much more agreeable than his beef barley soup), and we drank the last dregs of wine. During dessert, Bunny busied herself with burying all of the bones and waste from our meal, and she spread dirt over her barbecue pit to extinguish any trace of flame. Looking from atop Hamilton Hill, I saw that the crowd below had thinned considerably; when Bunny rejoined us, we asked to be excused from Mr. Gallatin’s table, and we strode arm-in-arm down the hill to our waiting coach. As we walked I congratulated Bunny out loud and myself silently for triumphing so handily in our first foray into New York society.
We waited awhile beside our coach for traffic back into the city to thin out. Periodically, men I had never met before stopped and asked to shake my hand; evidently, they had heard stories from Barron, Fripphouse, or Tilden, or a combination of all three, of how I had subdued a pig with my whip. They held my exploit in greater awe than even the most amazing shots delivered by marksmen. In their minds, I was like an expert swords man; we both used primitive weapons that demanded a higher degree of skill and fortitude than a gun fired at a target from a cowardly forty yards away. It was supremely ironic: here I was attending an event where a man is measured by his skill at shooting, and yet I had never fired a single shot. I had received the highest praise from my peers for successfully wielding a weapon that I had recently taken up as a lark.
Second Acts is a comic historical novel set in 1830s America, a time of great social upheaval and reform fervor, not unlike the 1960s. The novel tells the story of a young man, Dan Connor, who has followed his wife Rachel and her lover Bruce Bilson, aUniversity of Chicago physics professor and the inventor of time travel, into the past. In his journey he obtains a mystical sidekick, a Potawatomi transvestite named Listening Rabbit (aka Bunny), and he befriends historical figures such as Albert Gallatin and Samuel J. Tilden. Rachel and Bilson maddeningly stay one step ahead of Connor. But as time moves forward, Connor’s fortunes rise while Bilson’s fall, and Rachel attains fame as a lyceum speaker, the Oprah of antebellum America. Second Acts refutes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notion that “There are no second acts in American lives.”
Based on 10,000 pages of historical research, Second Acts describes 19th century life and culture while it satirizes timeless aspects of the American character with the same biting candor, dry wit, and laugh-out-loud moments as Brown’s earlier novels Deconstruction Acres, Left of the Loop, and Walking Man.
ContributorTim W. Brown
TIM W. BROWN graduated summa cum laude with an American studies degree from Northern Illinois University. He is the author of three novels, Deconstruction Acres (1997), Left of the Loop (2001) and Walking Man (2008). His latest literary effort is Second Acts, a comic historical novel set in 1830s America. Brown's fiction, poetry and nonfiction have appeared in over two hundred publications, including Another Chicago Magazine, The Bloomsbury Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Chelsea, Chiron Review, Colorado Review, The Fiction Review, The Ledge, Main Street Rag, New Observations, Oyez Review, Pleiades, Poetry Project Newsletter, Rain Taxi, Rockford Review, Slipstream, Small Press Review, and Storyhead. A long-time resident of Chicago, where he was a fixture in that city's literary scene as a writer, performer, and publisher of Tomorrow Magazine (1982-1999), Brown moved to New York in 2003. He currently earns his living as a writer at Bloomberg.