Joe Bob stood silent while his father bound the steel gaffs to the gamecock. He found it easy, today, to concentrate on whatever his father did.
Jack Thayer. Dad. Fighting gamecocks for the first time in fifteen years, the best damned chicken fighter in Tennessee back in action.
Jimmy June Carson held the rooster while Thayer deftly wound and tied the dental adhesive and string to its stumpy, sawed-off spurs. Jimmy June owned the ‘cock; in fact, he owned all the dozen roosters now housed in the half-rotted ‘cock house, the house you could pick out from the others because it had the girlie calendar from last year (1969) on the door.
But Dad worked with the roosters; got them in shape for the fight. Dad put up the entry fee, all five hundred dollars. And Dad will take them into the pit today.
Jimmy June is only the owner.
“There.” Thayer finished, backed a step. “Now give ‘im here.”
Jimmy June sneered. Jimmy June was always sneering. He wasn’t nearly as old as Joe Bob’s dad, but he was already half-bald and his face was drawn up as though the muscles underneath the skin were tied in hundreds of tiny half-hitches and square knots. “I don’t know if I should hand ‘im to you or not,” he said. “We haven’t been doin’ so good.”
Thayer’s eyes, usually brown, widened and shone almost black in the light of the single bulb. “What the hell are you talking about? We’ve won two straight today.”
Jimmy June spat on the straw-covered floor. “Yeah, but we lost three outta five yesterday. And hellfire, you know those two we just fought were lucky as hell to win. Competition was piss-poor; that’s all that saved us.” Jimmy June spoke in a hurried East Tennessee nasal that grated with hillbilly superiority.
Thayer’s bushy brows hunched and narrowed over his eyes. “Maybe. Maybe so. But today is another damned ball game. I’m handling these roosters. You need me to handle them and you need my Goddamned five hundred dollars. Don’t forget it!”
Carson grinned, showing silver teeth. “I can’t.” He presented the gamecock to Thayer with a smart-aleck flourish. “Here.”
Joe Bob’s dad took the rooster and, holding it in the crook of an arm, pushed a thick wave of black hair off his forehead with his free hand. He swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing. “Okay. Let’s go.” His voice was hardly above a whisper.
The three of them ducked out the door of the shack into the shade of several tall, old hickories. Here, in a grove that took a little of the fire from the mid-summer air, the cockpit management kept a number of rickety ‘cock houses for rent to the contestants. They were arranged in ragged rows, and most were ready to fall apart. Thayer was lucky. His was only four or five years old, and its electric bulb worked. Sure, it smelled of chickenshit and old corn shucks, but everyone who kept roosters was used to that.
Joe Bob fell dutifully behind his father and Carson as they picked their way among the trees and rocks toward the pit. He noticed that Jimmy June strutted even while stepping over a boulder. Thayer, on the other hand, kept his eyes on the ground, but whether he did so to keep from stumbling with the rooster or for another reason Joe Bob could not decide.
The parking lot was a violent change from the deep shade of the woods. Spots of color crossed Joe Bob’s eyes as soon as he stepped into it. They zig-zagged across the stony field, bouncing from the new Cadillacs to old Fords to the multitude of pickup trucks. Joe Bob blinked, rubbed his eyes. The sun was like a weight on his forehead, and he felt a sudden stream of sweat erupt between his shoulder blades to run trickling down his back.
I wish I were home, swimming. The thought was automatic, unbidden, and on its heels came others. There were so many better places to be. Swimming. At a cookout. Talking on the phone with a girl. Sneaking a beer with some friends. Hiking on a good trail. Even curled up under a tree with a good book. Joe Bob felt guilty. Here was where he wanted to be, fighting roosters with his father. Sure it was.
The “pit” was a barnlike building of cement and unpainted board. They pushed through the crowd blocking the main door, then through an aisle in the bleachers to the cockpit itself. The bleachers made a rough circle inside the barn, split into four parts by narrow aisles, like a pie divided into four quarters. The cockpit proper was in the center, upraised on a cement block base and surrounded by a metal fence and another aisle.
Jack Thayer, with the rooster, stepped through a gate into the pit, while Carson and Joe Bob entered the circling aisle, hunting a place where they could kneel close to Thayer, yet not block anyone’s view. Joe Bob knelt as low as he could, trying to ignore the raucous, smelly crowd packed in the bleachers behind him. Much better, he thought, to concentrate on his dad in the center circle now. Never mind yesterday. Never mind what Jimmy June had said. Never mind the stifling Fourth of July heat that here, inside the building, had spread the sweat over him until it stuck like a filmy second skin. Jack Thayer would win today.
I know he will.
Joe Bob felt his throat go suddenly dry. He swallowed, but it didn’t help. Dad has to win.
He could not take his eyes off his father. Not that it was unusual seeing him the center of attention, but like this…
A rooster, rather than a briefcase, seemed out of place in his father’s hands; khaki work clothes, instead of a business suit, were equally unfamiliar, especially now that they were splotched with dark patches of rust-red blood. And now his father’s hair hung dark and dank and wet over his forehead, a far cry from the usual fastidious every-hair-in-place combing Jack Thayer insisted upon, for Joe Bob as well as for himself.
Why was Dad even here? Why had he sneaked off to a cockfight, even entered one, without telling his law partners? He said he missed doing what he and his father had done together twenty years ago, and wanted to see if he still could do what made the money that put him through law school.
But with Jimmy June Carson? The Jimmy June he’d gotten off for dealing pot? Joe Bob wasn’t sure he understood that. And what was that pistol doing here, tucked under a blanket in the ‘cockhouse? Joe Bob didn’t have a clue.
But despite the differences between here and home, one thing about Jack Thayer remained the same: There was still the narrow-eyed look of concentration, the sense that what was going on now was the most important thing in the world. Joe Bob had seen that furrowing of bushy brows cloud his father’s features so many times before. It was this expression, he suspected, that gave Jack Thayer a thin face despite his short, stock body. He had not noticed it today until now. A good sign. The tight, intense face was most common when Thayer was preparing a brief on an important case, preoccupied, heart set on winning, discarding tactics he regarded as useless, grasping anything to enable him to salvage something for his client.
But he always wins in court too… well, almost always. Just as he’ll win here today.
The crowd was noisier than ever; the betting had begun. “I lay a twenty-five to twenty.” “Hundred to eighty.” “Take a thirty to forty.”
Lord, I can’t think! But Dad ignores it. I’ve got to, too.
The referee stepped into the pit. Oh, God, it’s going to start. Please let Dad win.
“Get ready.” His dad placed the red rooster behind the short chalk line. The other guy, a strapping, beer-bellied fellow in a sweat-stained checked shirt, placed his own bird behind a similar line a few feet away.
The gamecocks’ feathers ruffled like steel collars.
“Pit!” The two birds flew at one another with a fury that never failed to shock him, and Joe Bob had been coming to the fights with George Hatcher, an old family friend for three years, since he was thirteen. He knew by now that it was all inbred, the way the birds flailed with their steel gaffs until the blood stained the dirt floor red and feathers had to be swept away by the ref.
He closed his eyes for longer than a blink.
And then, he thought, after they can’t walk or even see, they’ll lie in pools of blood and peck and peck until one of them can’t peck anymore and the other will be declared the winner. It was almost… almost as if each gamecock were an old and dearly hated enemy of every other gamecock. Or as though each, just by existing, reminded the others of something unbearably painful, something that must be destroyed.
The two birds broke high, wings beating, gaffs flailing. Pop, pop, pop; like hearing the lines hit in a football scrimmage. Then one of them–he couldn’t see which by the flickering fluorescents–hit solid and deep with a plop and a squish.
Thank God. It’s Dad’s.
Jack Thayer’s gamecock had hit the first good lick. If he were lucky, it would be the last good lick, too. The curved, bayonet-like prong of the gaff had sunk deep into the other man’s rooster, too deep for his father’s ‘cock to pull it out. A killing blow, Joe Bob hoped.
“Handle!” The ref intervened. The handlers, Thayer and the other man, rushed in to pull the roosters apart… slowly, so as not to aggravate the wound. The ref made sure of that.
Beer Belly was beaten, Joe Bob was sure of it. He could see the man trying to nurse his bleeding charge, blowing on it, dabbing its head with a sponge from the trainer. And he could hear, “Twenty to ten on the red rooster!” from the crowd. There were no takers.
That settles it. Those gamblers know their stuff.
The red rooster in his father’s arms knew he had won, too; knew it as surely, perhaps more so, as any of the gamblers. He was breathing hard while Thayer sponged his head, but not hard enough to keep him from crowing. He was not, as far as Joe Bob could see, cut at all.
“Re–ady… pit!” The big man’s rooster collapsed as soon as he set it down, fluttering weakly as Thayer’s gamecock danced and hit around it. Danced and hit and flew–but couldn’t kill it.
The red seemed to lose interest in the other bird, walked away and crowed. Meanwhile, the wounded gamecock continued to flutter and peck. As long as it could keep up that pecking, the other guy had a chance.
“God damn it to hell!” Thayer said. Only Joe Bob and the ref heard him. Dad, don’t lose your temper.
“Handle!” The wounded ‘cock had another respite now. Thayer jerked his bird up hard, so hard its head bobbed crazily. Joe Bob winced.
Shouldn’t have done that, Dad; makes `em nervous. Joe Bob remembered the way George Hatcher handled his roosters. Gently. So very gently. George wasn’t such a good chicken fighter, but he knew how to handle a bird. And Dad used to. They said he did.
There were two more pittings before Thayer’s red bothered to hit the last, fatal blow. When it was over, Joe Bob’s dad was beet-red from the neck up. The loser tried to congratulate him on the way out, but Thayer pushed past him to the gate.
Joe Bob stood. Now how do I get out of here? The moment the fight was over the aisle between the stands and the pit had filled with pushing, shoving, smelly bodies wanting to get outside. Joe Bob decided to follow his father through the main exit. Jimmy June had already bolted.
Joe Bob pushed his way through the crowd to the opening leading to the exit. Hard work, because many, especially the old men, wanted to stand around and talk. Joe Bob hated the way they acted like they had a right to get in his way, and he hated to ask them to move. He breathed easier once he was outside.
Dad and Jimmy June were already removing the gaffs from the “red” who had just won. Thayer now held the bird as gently as he would a baby, resting its battered head in the crook of his right elbow. With his left hand he held the ‘cock’s legs, gently but tightly, while Jimmy June Carson unwound the dental adhesive and string holding the gaffs to its stumpy, sawed-off spurs.
Joe Bob knew better than to speak and upset the rooster. If this one started cackling, so would all the others, and they were already irritable enough. So he waited until his dad had put the red into one of the little coops and fed it some milk and mashed-up bread.
“Dad,” he said then, “we got it knocked. One more fight…”
“Shoot, boy, that rooster didn’t fight no better than the others,” interrupted Jimmy June, running his drawl into one long slur. “He was lucky again, that’s all.”
Thayer was nodding. “That’s right,” he said, pushing his hair off his forehead again and leaving his hand to scratch his head. It was a white smooth hand, not brown and calloused like Jimmy June’s, who worked in a rubber plant. “The last rooster we met was no account–fat as that bastard who owned him. The other two were runners. We ought to have eaten `em alive; but no, hell no, we took four goddamned pittin’s with the last one… Shit.” He shook his head, rubbed the long thin nose Joe Bob had got in fights over when he was small. “I thought I had `em in shape.”
“You thought,” Jimmy June sneered again. “But you didn’t.”
“God damn you, Jimmy June, from now on you let somebody finish a sentence! I’m not going to put up with that shit anymore.” The whole building shook, and the birds squawked as through a fox were after them.
“Take it easy, Jack,” Jimmy murmured. “Don’t get `em all upset. I didn’t mean no harm. I was just sayin’ all those birds were two, three time winners–most of ’em in one pittin’, too.”
“Yeah,” Thayer said, rapping his knuckles on the unpainted wall. “Yeah, I know. Joe Bob, let’s go get a Coke.”
They walked to the pit together. The small earth arena was called the pit and so was the main building; that had confused Joe Bob at first. Jimmy June stayed behind to clean the gaffs.
Joe Bob had never heard his dad curse so much before, not in sixteen years. Nor had Jack Thayer refused to accept congratulations–at least, he never had in court. And his father just didn’t go around hitting things when he was mad, as he’d hit that row of coops.
What’s the matter with him today? Must be Jimmy June; he’d get to anybody.
“Dad,” Joe Bob said when they broke out of the trees into sunlight, “that Jimmy June sure has got his nerve, I mean talking to you like that, like it was all your fault.”
The hand his father placed on Joe Bob’s shoulder was firm, gentle. The grip he’d used when untying the rooster’s gaffs a moment ago. Not the kind he’d shown in the pit. “I know, son, but you gotta overlook Jimmy June sometimes… Listen, I know where he fought all those ‘three-time winners’–at little, backwoods pits where there’s no competition. Well, though, at a derby like this”–he waved at the hundreds of cars–“they get people from Texas and Ohio and Mississippi–big time chicken fighters. I knew we’d probably have trouble with Jimmy’s roosters when I said I’d come up here… of course, ” he sighed, said softly, “of course you remember, too, that this summer’s the first time I’ve fought in, God, I guess twenty years… maybe I am outta practice…” He kicked at a rock, missed. “Damn!”
“No!” Joe Bob shook his head vigorously. “I’ve watched George Hatcher train and fight for three years now; you’re better’n he is. I can tell.”
His father’s low chuckle didn’t carry much humor. “I’ve done better.”
Joe Bob knew his father was right. He had done better before. It was common knowledge that twenty years ago, before Joe Bob was born, Jack Thayer had been the best chicken man in Tennessee. Then he’d taken his wife and son to Knoxville so he could go back to school. After Thayer had come away with his law degree, he’d quit fighting chickens… until this summer, no longer needing the money to bury himself in his law practice, he’d gone back to the fights. He still remembered how it was done; people said he was still good. Yet this was his first big derby in a long time. How much had he forgotten? Joe Bob remembered how his father had jerked his rooster’s head. Perhaps… but no. He has a right to be out of practice.
The dark, stifling heat inside the building was more oppressive then the bright heat outside, and Joe Bob decided he hated it. There was much, he reflected, that he was learning to hate today. Jimmy June, the crowd, the heat outside, the heat inside. And, to top it all, there was the mystery that was his father to bother him. If he knew why–oh, better forget it.
They stood in line at the snack bar, sweat dripping from under their arms, sticking to them, soaking them, for what seemed a long, long time. They had to pay a quarter apiece for two small Cokes, but, for the moment, the price didn’t seem too great. Curly Johnson, who owned and ran the pit, had put a soft- drink cooler, a refrigerator, and a stove in one corner of the pit. There, his wife and his two ugly, stringy-haired teenage daughters sold soft drinks and half-raw hamburgers at ridiculous prices.
“One lesson you gotta learn,” his father told him, taking a long drink of his Coke, “is that this is the only way to really make money fighting chickens.” He nodded at the counter. “Own a pit and fleece everybody. But you can’t do that unless you’re in solid with the law, like Curly here.” He grinned. “I’m a lawyer and I know. Curly’s like a brother to the sheriff and, hell, the State Patrol doesn’t even set foot in this county unless they have to. Remember that.”
Nodding, Joe Bob turned up his Coke bottle. The cold numbed his throat. That’s the difference between Dad and some of these other guys. He’s so much smarter, sees everything. George and some of them–it’s just a sport to them; they clown around too much. And they don’t do as well.
Still, all those trips with George and the gang had been fun n none of this Jimmy June Carson, just pulling for your rooster and letting it go at that. But as his father had drilled into him so many times, you must pay a price to win. Maybe, today, Jimmy June was that price.
“Jack. Hey, Jack.” It was Curly Johnson, the pit owner, tall, stoop-shouldered, wearing a cowboy hat and boots, smoking a vile-smelling crooked cigar. Curly’s face was just a bit too bland, too good-natured to suit Joe Bob. He could have bet that face was a lie, not for real. No one could be as loose as those jowls, as jolly as that grin.
“Jack,” the grin muttered around the cigar, “I found out who you meet in the next round. We just got the pairings out.”
“Well, who is it?”
“Horse Hemphil… Tough luck, ain’t it?” He removed his Stetson and began to fan his wet dingy red curls. “Lord, ain’t this heat enough to kill a man?”
“Sure is… God damn it.” Apparently Thayer’s reply was to both questions. He looked down, kicked at a rough spot on the dirt floor.
Curly noticed the discomfort. Joe Bob thought he saw the man smile, just a little bit, at the corners of his mouth. Bastard. The Stetson waving continued in silence, then: “Yeah, I wouldn’t trade places with you. It’s tough, having a derby entry. That’s why I got out of it–pressure got to me. An’ I wasn’t makin’ enough money… That’s what I believe in–huntin’ the opportunities. If sumpin’ don’t work for a man, hell, he oughta get rid of it. Throw it out the window. An’ get sumpin’ better. Right, Jack?” As though for emphasis, Curly dropped the stub of his cigar, ground it brutally into the red clay, and kicked it among the other debris under the bleacher.
Thayer remained silent.
Again: “Ain’t that right, Jack?” The mouth-corner smile, repeated.
Thayer looked away from the cigar. “Yeah… yeah, sure. Come on, Joe Bob, we need to get back to the ‘cockhouse… Thanks for tellin’ me, Curly.” This last over his shoulder.
The pit owner waved and continued his fanning… slowly, carelessly.
Outside, Joe Bob said, “Horse Hemphil’s gonna be hard to beat, isn’t he?”
“Why hell, yes, of course he’ll be hard to beat. Did you think he’d be easy? What a question!”
“What’s the matter, Dad?” Joe Bob tried to ask. “Dad… ?”
“Don’t bother me, son, can’t you see I’m trying to think?” Thayer stopped, grabbed Joe Bob’s arm and held it too tightly. “Your God-damned mouth is the closest thing to perpetual motion I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Sorry doesn’t do any good. Just shut up.”
Joe Bob swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
Jimmy June sat on a carrying case smoking a Camel cigarette. “Took you long enough.” His slurred sneer again.
“I talked to Curly Johnson,” Thayer said, and while Jimmy June was taking another drag from his Camel, added, “God damn, Jimmy, how can you stand that damned cigarette smoke in here?” He coughed. A fake cough, Joe Bob thought.
Jimmy’s skin wrinkled even tighter than usual. “What’d Curly say?”
Thayer leaned against the rough wood of the door jamb, passed his hand behind his ear and down the side of his jaw. “He said we’d meet Horse Hemphil.” He swallowed, licked his lips. “I was, uh, thinking… we might want to do some business.”
Jimmy’s squinty eyes widened for a moment, then folded back into his face smaller than before. “You mean sell the fight? What in hell for?”
Thayer made a fist, almost hit the coops again but stopped himself. “Damn it, Jimmy, think. We can’t beat Horse Hemphil. You said yourself our ‘cock’s ain’t fightin’ worth a damn. I think we oughta sell because that’s the only way to get my damned five hundred dollars back. It’s the only chance we got to come out.”
Jimmy ground his cigarette stub into the table that held the gaff case. “But good lord, Jack, we still have a chance to win the damned money. This sellin’ is a tricky business, you know that. Sometimes it’s hard as hell to throw the fight without gettin’ caught, even with those damned trick gaffs of yours.” Thayer had a pair of gaffs whose prongs were curved so far that it was next to impossible for a rooster to strike a killing blow with them. “I think we oughta stay in as long as we got a fighting chance.”
Joe Bob found himself nodding. “I think so, too. I mean… why throw the money fight? It doesn’t make sense.”
His dad wheeled, stuck a finger about an inch from Joe Bob’s nose. “Who the hell asked you? I’ll tell you one thing–oh, forget it… Look, both of you, you’re acting like this was a one-day fight. It’s not, it’s a two-day derby, and neither of you has ever been to one before. You’re forgettin’ a lot of things.”
“Such as?” Jimmy lit another Camel. The match flamed bright in the corner, lighting up dust motes. There was an instant’s impression of those motes, shining as a galaxy of miniature suns, whirling around Jimmy June and the open gaff case. Then the match went out.
“Such as,” Thayer was saying, “Horse Hemphil has won six straight fights. That makes him eligible for the whole ball of wax, not just the day money like we can get.”