Per Contra

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What I Omitted from the Official Personnel Services Report by R. T. Smith

 “Well, cockfighting and cocksucking,” she said, “but ‘hobby’ doesn’t quite hit the bull’s-eye.  More like – what do they say? – ‘avocations,’ though they don’t ever work out even, as one you always know is legal in two states, while everywhere the other goes by laws more difficult to figure, though both will put you on your knees.  Still, Colonel, you can actually practice the second all over the country without attracting much attention, so I do.”

By that point the interview was a cast-iron disaster, but I figured she wanted me at least to know she knew it.  When the Q-and-A veers around toward hobbies, most people realize there’s no hope they’ll be chosen.  At that point, I could understand she wanted to wrest control away from my framed diplomas, executive desk and pressed uniform.

“In the chicken business a woman is supposed to spectate and supply and support her man.  They can drink in their trailers, serve up the pulled pork platters and scream in the bleachers.  But in the pits?  The idea of a hen handling a cock, which seems natural as moonlight to me, well, it would send the old timers into hissy fits.  Nothing uglier than a throwback redneck geezer angry at seeing his territory fall into enemy hands.

“But I won out.  You see, at first I became a vendor, selling Ruff Tuff forks and gaffs, Ometol, band pliers, spur saws, whetters, boots, drops and black vitamins.  Carried a Puerto Rican line of wicked bayonets.  I was friendly and easy and had mastered more details than a poultry scholar.  I also carried Feathered Warrior magazine out of DeQueen, Arkansas, my home state, you’ll remember, and I gobbled up every issue from breeding to grooming and culling.  Pretty soon I knew which spurs were right on Roundheads (great cutters and high flyers!), how best to shurl a Kelso or Claret.  Even old-time cockers came to me for the inside skinny on short heel gaffs and slashers.  You see, I was working my way into being a trainer, which is how I got to the Blue Ridge, exercising and sparring grays in muffs for Aces Down Farm, studying up on ointments for scaly leg and lice, new Filipino blades and tackle – cutting edge, so to speak.  I was handy at dubbing and doping, treating bubblefoot and such.  I was holy hell in the exercise yard, flying the flock for hours, and I kept my boss Millard Ridgeway happy in the blue-trimmed Winnebago when his wife was hauling the “trouble twins” about town.  He was a banty fellow, easy to please and always tender.  Better than that shit-heels Morton I traveled for out of Loachapoka, Alabama.  I kept all Millard’s cocks, if you follow me, keyed up, on fire, happy to be mad.  Once he gave me full charge of two dozen white Zebra Kickers to get ready for a secret Ozark main, and we won big.  He told all his partners I was a genius with roosters, a world-class trainer who’d bring him prize trophies and tons of money from the official book and side bets.  And if you can train, well, you can go into the pit and handle.

“Of course, it was lucky I already had blow job expertise.  I had to lick and nip and flutter-kiss my way into the good graces of cigar-puffing powermen, and as a night-owl Chi-O in Fayetteville (root, Hogs, root!) I’d apprenticed and developed a keen ability early.  It’s how you make frat boys happy while saving your cherry for a better rate of exchange.  Not that I held out all that long.  But Sigma Chis and Tekes and even the jocks – they’re all just a bunch of stags, which is what we call over-eager yearling birds.  They like to crow loud to each other about getting their rocks off more than they enjoy actually doing it.”

I believe, by the way she relaxed and held eye contact, she had gotten over any hope of shocking me and was just yielding to some sudden urge to share.  We had fifteen minutes to kill, and I don’t think she ever really wanted to manage a museum for Old Dominion Military Institute or any other military or civilian college.  Her degrees didn’t quite rate as qualification, and her erratic work experience didn’t improve her chances.  She answered our ad because, I think, she was restless, though I don’t question her early answer that young men in uniform always seized her attention.  The way she sashayed across my office in that short skirt and shimmery blouse, those western boots, that hot handshake: It added up to a woman with an appetite for being seen, teasing and working an angle.  Not a presence I could, even with compelling credentials, bring to a campus that aims to adjust and strap down youth hormones about to explode.

So I just smiled mildly, touched my cheek with the cap of my gel pen and nodded: “I see.”  She was blonde to the roots, large-eyed and buxom enough to strain her buttons, so I kept my eyes trained just to the side, where I could see the Stonewall Jackson portrait squinting at me from the wall.

“Regular sex, especially oral:  It’s just the college culture, you know, plus women’s freedom, and even a history geek like me wanted status and a wild time now and then.  One year into that little old fuck-school whirlwind, my roommate said, ‘Shawnee, you’ve got to slow down.  You’re getting a reputation.  You know, you don’t have to get on your knees for every mama’s boy with a Range Rover and a Brooks Brothers blazer.  These weekly prayer meetings have got to stop.  Simmer down.’  I had to tell Tammany, though, that I liked it – the rush, the flush of color, the way they tasted and shivered and moaned.  Then they’d turn soft right before my eyes, so to speak, and it did lift me out of the vicious cycle.  You know, the world celebrates the cocks and eats the pullets, no matter what their talents.  I liked the idea of turning the tables whoopsie-down.”

When a professional interview deteriorates to this kind of chatter, you don’t want to encourage the applicant to keep digging her already-deep grave deeper, and our institution’s standard of gallantry dictates you should protect any candidate from her own excesses, but I could discern she wasn’t done, that she would not be content till she had finished what she had started.  And after all, I knew little about sorority life, and to this point in my own existence a gamecock was mostly a South Carolina sports fan.  So I was learning something.  Also, as her narrative grew increasingly exotic, I have to confess I found it a little exciting after three dull dialogues that afternoon.  Though all prudence and protocol said “resist,” my discipline was waning.  It was easy to leave the door open, as I knew by this point an interested silence was all she needed to press the attack.

“You do anything a lot – studying, working birds, touching the reared-up male member till it fires off – you pick up techniques and excellence.  Then it gets more thrilling.  My daddy sent me to school in Fayetteville to feed my mind.  He was crazy to see world-class grades, and I could do that right off, but my body felt neglected.  I came to see was missing life.”

While she spoke, she began to lean her neck back and run a hand through her hair, as if she were not conscious of it, and glow from the lamp caught her highlights, but I could also see how thick the make-up was applied.  Though the application form said “34,” I began to doubt it.  The flaws and crow tracks, everything else pointed to forty, though I figured such a rough career might lead to early decline.  By now, I guessed this façade and brassy recitation might be a kind of flirting.

“Men have always loved to let animals fight for them, but the humane society has convinced forty-eight states to become ‘civilized.’  You figure in Louisiana it’s the Cajun vote and in New Mexico the Hispanics that won’t be tamed.  But it’s not just in their culture.  Andy Jackson pitted chickens in the White House, and the French still run fancy derbies with hundreds of entrants.  England? Now, most folks don’t know that ‘cocktail’ was a stimulant the British gentlemen fed their birds before a bout.  They have now found wall paintings of fighting roosters in that Pompeii mess, and most every state these days has rogue Battle Royals in the boonies or deep in the private grounds of country manors.  Even deputies forced to make a raid are sympathetic and ask non-stop questions about bloodlines and training routines.”

“But do you really like it, the matches, all that bloodshed and roughness?”  I asked.  I admit, forty or not, her attempt at allure was almost working.

“Oh you should see them!”  She leaned forward, and her eyes locked on mine.  I couldn’t help returning the stare as she continued.  “The way two primed fighters – say a Pruvell and a red-eyed Arkansas Traveler – throw themselves into it, all noise and speed and wildness, you couldn’t stop them, and they light into each other like two wheels afire colliding, their bodies a blur of colors from ripe pumpkin to icicle and cranberry and emerald stone.  And the feathers float out and hold still in mid-air like magic.  Even though the people are screaming like hyenas, everything gets simple and clear, and the birds show more grit and go than any human man.  More heart.  And if they’ve got the wallop – and most do, else you’d have wrung them and deep-fried them back at the farm – they will fight past the count and die for you and rise and try again.  Lazarus birds, kind of, and with all that whirl, you know it’s just like the big bang of science, the whole universe being born violent, but in a glory.”

Her eyes were gleaming an icy green, and her face had gone scarlet, but suddenly she seemed to catch herself, to feel a sense of limit.

“Look, I’m sorry, Colonel Stevens, but people don’t understand it.  It’s not about blood or money.  When the handlers are billing the birds in the ring, it gets intimate.  Mystic.  They are one with the bird, and everybody there is a kind of tribe celebrating how brave those creatures are.  They’re not just barnyard trash, and bleaching the ground white like a snowfall is not the way they make the best beauty.  Not in a bucket from the Colonel, either.  Noble, I think, like ancient knights trained to sacrifice themselves.

“And don’t forget in most American places it’s illegal.  The pull of the forbidden, like Eden’s apple – it raises the stakes.  Life and death, big money moving, ducking the law, having a secret:  That gets you up in the morning and keeps your own blood running.  Did you know the eagles beat out gamefowl for our official bird by two votes?  Just two.  There’s a reason.  And it’s not just a coincidence in me, cockfighting and cocksucking . . . .”

Holding my hand up, palm facing her, I said, “No, Miss Burton, you don’t need to go on.”

“But I do, I do.  You see, once you fall, you’ve got to go down to the bottom before you can rise.  You’ve got to sink.  You’ve got to sin your way back to innocence, to drown yourself in it, and it can save you.  You surrender to the thrill until you’re fed up.  You don’t know what it’s like for a girl.  It’s hard, and here’s another thing you likely don’t know.  When two birds get hung up – maybe one’s a blinker now, his eyeball hanging out on a thread and the other one staggering but neither yet a cupple – and the referee says, ‘Handle,’ and they’ve got one more chance to find some reserves in the bird, they will put the injured animal’s head in their mouth and blow, and their breath might revive the wounded fighter.  They are giving the kiss of life, and I do that, I give it, I do. . . .”

She was sobbing, and the running tears were wrecking her make-up.  I offered my handkerchief, and when I leaned over to hand her the water glass, she grabbed me by the shoulder, pulled my face close to hers.

“In the yard they strut and preen and scratch like dandies, but you know what?  Hawks won’t mess with them.  They are fierce as razorbacks.  That’s what I need to see again and again to believe in this world – creatures giving their whole selves to one thought, one hunger, all heart, every damned inch and ounce to the moment that will flash and be gone and never come back.  Can you blame me?  Can anybody?  Don’t you wish you could live like that?”

But then she collapsed back into the chair, and her looks caved in with her.  I had to intercom Glenda and say we’d be another five minutes so the poor woman could compose herself, and when she had settled down and dabbed her eyes and worked with her compact mirror, she was almost presentable.

“Well, I can see there’s no future for me here.  Beak to spur, this has been a bad half hour, but don’t you feel bad.  It’s not on you.  The world is like the cockpit with a place for all kinds – the fancy fighter, the dancer or rough scrapper.  I’ll get by.  I’ve got an interview next week down in Jupiter, Florida, where an old movie star is starting a museum and needs some spirited girl to run it.  I think his set-up might be more suited to my skills and tendencies than this place, anyway, and it’s in an area where I know I won’t have to kick my old habits.  Or hobbies or whatever you want to call them.”

I saw her to the door, and with it open, next applicant in a gray suit smiling up from her alumni magazine, Shawnee Burton gave me a wink and leaned to kiss me lightly on the cheek.

“Remember Lazarus,” she whispered,  “Keep your craw empty before a fight, do fly-ups to build wing strength, don’t run, don’t back up.  Survive.”

I have to admit, a part of me regrets having to sign the obligatory “thanks-for-coming-in” letter two days later, and I added a hand-written note saying just, “Never quit.  Thanks.”  This place could use a spark like hers, I know, and so could I.  Her cell number is still in the official file, but it’s sealed; I’m sworn never to look, and I hope I won’t.