ISSUE 30
Fall 2005

Sandra Giedeman

 

Sandra Giedeman Sandra Giedeman's poetry appears in California Quarterly, Pearl, Bellevue Literary Review (NYU School of Medicine), Critic, Press, and the current Mudfish 14, where she won the Mudfish Poetry Prize judged by Charles Simic.
Norco Blues


I'm four months pregnant, but I'm not showing. I don't feel happy like I thought I would. I feel like one of the chickens my husband Ray mates with his fighting cocks for breeding purposes. I've been thinking maybe I'm not as smart as I always thought I was.

When he was sober, my dad used to hand out compliments. For me, the oldest of five, it was, "I never worry about you, Kate. You can take care of yourself. You'd flip burgers if you had to." When I was older, I realized it was a back-handed compliment. I didn't know a lot except what the nuns taught us at St. Joseph's. You could say I was socially retarded in many ways. I heard my aunt, who hated dad, say once that we were raised by wolves. Mean as he was, the old man never laid a hand on us or ever hurt an animal. He drew the line at that.

I left when I was seventeen. I get lonely, but I prefer it. Out of sight, out of mind. I moved upstate to Shreveport then to Oklahoma.

Six years later I was working at the Iron Skillet, a truck stop in a little town filled with retirees, outsiders, and military types from the nearby army base. I met Ray when he came in for breakfast one day. God, I fell hard just on his looks. Most important, he didn't drink. He could do anything. I've watched him climb roofs, fix cars. You name it, he can do it. When he asked me to move in with him after a couple of months, I did.

He's always up at five to tend the chickens and his pack of Blue Tick hounds before he drives to his job at the medium security prison. Sometimes, on weekend evenings, we sit on the porch with nothing but crickets and a screech owl for company. Ray's friends in pickups with gun racks speed by calling out hellos. Six months ago, the night he asked me to move in, we danced barefoot on the cold linoleum floor. The only light was the flickering candle on the kitchen table.

I knew Ray went to the cockfights all the time, but I never wanted to. I figured out of sight, out of mind. One of those clichés to live by like my dad's, "What you don't know can't hurt you." But this night Ray said, "I want you to go to the White Swan tomorrow." I wondered why he'd waited until I was four months pregnant to ask.

"Too bloody for me," I said.

Ray smiled and hopped off the porch. "Life is bloody."

I shared the silence with the crickets for a minute, and then hiked to the back of the property with a flashlight to call to him. He was tinkering with a lock on one of the cock's cages. "What time do you want to leave?"

The White Swan looks like a concrete bunker to me. It's ringed with pickups, just off the two-lane near Horseshoe Lake. Horseshoe isn't a bass lake; it's olive green and shallow, filled with bottom feeding catfish and carp.

We parked and I felt my heart beating. Strange, because that's unlike me. Really, I'm pretty tough. Blue lights washed the front. I didn't want to go in and wondered why I'd agreed. This is Ray's thing, I thought. It's just a place, but I think it looks like a damn good place to gun the car and screech away, spewing gravel, excuse my dust. Hell, I left my own family. I could leave here. At this point, I guess you could say I was still in denial.

Ray was busy fooling with the tailgate, lifting out the birdcages. He handled the birds with such ease. I've watched him, how he pampers them with expensive feed and specially built cages. The cages are big, wood-framed and screened, set around the property, some on the ground, some higher up on tables.

There are Black Breasted Reds, Crow Winged Reds, Furnaces, Polecats, and Silver Blues. He never calls them fighting cocks. He calls them chickens.

"Why do you keep them separated," I asked one day.

"Because they'll kill one another," he said, smiling. "It's their nature."

The air inside the White Swan was bad, sweaty. Voices rumbled and dust motes sparkled in the air. The place was jammed with old people, little kids, teenagers. I felt like I was being watched, but none of the men looked at me. I recognized a couple of them. Joe, gaunt and high-cheeked, had come to our place to sell Ray a Blue Tick hound. I sidestepped a glistening glob of spit. There were maybe three women in the crowd. One of them grinned at me like we were conspirators.

A redheaded man in a blue work shirt threw a wad of twenty-dollar bills into a box for his bet. Then he yelled at no one in particular, "What the hell, it's only money, it ain't arms and legs." An old guy named Saggy stood sentry at the door. They called him Saggy because of the belly hanging over his jeans.

"He's keeping watch for the sheriff," Ray said. "Sometimes the sheriff shuts us down and sometimes he gambles with us."

I know that Ray and these people around here think about animals differently. They see them as food or working creatures, and that's it.

Ray opened his equipment case; pulled out silver spurs and strapped them to the bird's thrusting yellow claws. This particular bird, Beau, was his favorite. He handled Beau gently. "This is my special baby," he said. "It's a blue, got the smartest fighting style." The bird's reptile eyes blinked bright and hard as obsidian. Ray had trimmed its showy red comb. Beau's iridescent blue tail feathers looked as arrogant as a peacock's. The bird pranced with attitude, stopping a moment to preen itself. After that, everything happened fast.

"Time to ante up. Winner takes all," Saggy called. Ray and the other handler stepped up to the pit, each stroking their birds, kissing their heads. They held on to the birds, swayed rhythmically toward one another five times to get the cocks angry, and then set them in the pit behind lines drawn in the sand.

The birds flew at one another in a blur of feathers. I watched Ray's bird swoop above the other as the men yelled for whichever they'd put their money on. The cocks pulled back and circled one another warily. Then Ray's bird lunged, thrusting at the eye of the other in a flurry.

The bird lifted its wings defensively, twisting its head to peck at Ray's bird, but missed, jabbing at the air instead. Ray's bird jabbed repeatedly at the other's wings and blood spurted in an arc. The bird hopped about like a broken toy, one wing brushing the ground, its eye closed in a bloody slit. Ray's bird lunged again and again. Finally, the dying bird dropped and laid gasping, nothing but a pile of colored feathers. Ray's cock hopped on the back of the nearly dead one, thrust out its chest and lifted its head in a silent crow.

I watched Ray from across the ring as Saggy slapped him on the back and cackled, "Best damn cockfighter in Oklahoma." The front of Ray's shirt was speckled with blood. I looked at him, but he didn't see me. He was busy shaking hands, grinning. I swear to God, at that moment, the baby kicked for the first time. I took it as an omen of some kind. I held my stomach and watched Saggy pick up the dead bird and toss it into a cardboard box.

I ran outside and stood between two dusty trucks, feeling like the kind of stupid woman with big hair that would sing "Stand by Your Man."

"You're awful quiet," Ray said on the way home. "How'd you like it?"

I looked out the window to avoid looking at him. "I guess I'll get used to it," I said. Fucking liar I am.

"I made enough money to get the truck fixed," he said. When I remained silent, he said, "They're just chickens. You don't seem to mind eating chicken."

We passed a tree with what looked like a tumor growing on its trunk. Ray braked and hopped out to cut the thing off, a wild mushroom on the shade side of the oak's trunk. The mushroom was filigreed; layer upon layer of beige and gray edged in brown. At home, he painstakingly cleaned it, sautéed it, and handed the plate to me.

"No thanks," I said.

"Don't know what you're missing."

I piled dirty dishes in the sink. Ray came up behind me and pushed the tip of his tongue into my ear. He put his arms around my waist.

"I'm really tired," I said. Really tired.

Ray backed away. In a wheedling tone I hadn't heard before, he said, "Could you drive down to old man Lopez's to pick up some breeding eggs for me tomorrow? It's in Norco, about an hour from here."

"Who's Lopez?"

Ray's tone was reverent. "He breeds the best fighters in the world. Norco Blues."

"Okay," I said. Seemed like the least I could do, seeing I really wasn't in a mood for sex and didn't think I would be for awhile.

"These eggs set me back two weeks' pay. You'll like Lopez. He's a good man."
 


I rolled up the car window to block the stench of chickens. I had to be near Lopez's place. The air was heavy enough to touch. Blinding light reflected off the windshield from the sun. I saw the address on the mailbox and pulled into the driveway of a small house almost completely hidden by a pepper tree.

An old man walked toward the car, pulling off a hat banded with sweat. I quickly rolled down the window, and he leaned in close.

"I'm Kate. Ray sent me to pick up some eggs."

"So you're Ray's wife. Howdy," he said, motioning me to follow him. He wheezed as we walked into a spare living room with a gaudy painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and not much else. He started to cough and coughed until his face was purple. "Emphysema," he said. "Quit smoking ten years ago, but it wasn't soon enough. When's the baby due?"

"September."

"Something to drink?"

I shook my head and he opened the screen door. Rows of cages lined the green yard. Tall cages, stacked one on top of the other, quiet except for low clucks from the birds. Pink and purple fuchsias hung from baskets near a huge old apple tree. Lopez paused to pick up some garden shears. He absentmindedly snapped three heavy apples from the low branches of the tree and plopped them into a basket. "You'll have to take some of these apples back with you," he said.

He pointed to the cages. "These are my birds. They're the best fighting birds in the world. Norco Blues. I ship them to Mexico, Singapore, Berlin, the Philippines."

One large cock crowed loudly, pacing the length of his enclosure. Lopez slapped the cage with a stick. "Quiet," he yelled, setting off another coughing attack. He picked up an empty egg carton from a stack in a wooden lean-to, opened a cage and reached in, plucking eggs from the straw. He held each one up to the light before gently placing it in the carton. "There. A dozen even," he said.

I wrapped the carton in a piece of flannel and gave him a fat envelope of cash. I put the eggs on the front seat beside me, suddenly feeling as wobbly as the slinky toy I played with when I was a kid.

"Tell Ray to let me know how many hatch," Lopez called out.

I glanced at the flannel-wrapped bundle.

"Get hold of yourself Missy," I whispered. This is my mantra when rattled. The land zipping by the window was bare. I saw a buzzard on a telephone wire, its wings spread to dry, head so small on the barrel chested body. It perched stone still, and I suddenly had the feeling that it was accusing me with its silence, like a black god up there on the wires. Lights came on in the houses along the road, flickering like slow candle flames.

I floored the accelerator. I had known when it was time to leave home. I was sure then. There was a nice wide shoulder in the road ahead and I pulled into it. The place was deserted except for a cottonwood tree. I could smell sage and I thought it was a wise smell. I inhaled and thought this is me. This is where I am. A woman standing in a field with a cottonwood for company. A woman with a belly getting bigger by the day and a baby inside kicking to get out. I started to sing a stupid song I heard on a jukebox once. I remember laughing because I thought it summed up my life. The words were something like, “My life is just a “B” movie and I keep forgetting my lines.”

I took the carton off the front seat and put it under the tree. I got to the car, stopped, then walked back and picked up the eggs. I opened the carton and lifted one from its cradle. I held it up as Lopez had, between thumb and forefinger, and let it roll into my palm. It felt smooth and cool. I closed my fist around the egg. Ray could take himself and his ten acres and shove it. I pitched the egg against the tree. Then I pitched all of the eggs against the tree. One missed and splashed on the ground. The trunk of the tree glistened yellow.

After that I sat in the car, finally switching on the headlights. I turned on the radio and staticky voices crackled across the landscape. It turned cold and my teeth chattered.

 

 

 

Sandra Giedeman: Fiction
Copyright © 2005 The Cortland Review Issue 30The Cortland Review