Authors: David Zimmerman
“I saw Jared today at the Piggly Wiggly. Anyway, they’re always out there. He told me Wayne’s brother was going to buy them some beer.” Dani hefted a breast in each hand and jiggled them. “I think they’re getting bigger. God, I hope so.”
“What else is there to do?” I said, actually hoping she’d have another idea.
Dani made a circle with her hands and looked at me through it.
ani’s dad sat in the living room drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boy and watching a PBS documentary about insects. As we passed the bay window, a huge brown spider chased down a mosquito tangled in its web and wrapped it in silk. Dani’s family had a projection TV and the spider looked as big as a Saint Bernard.
Dani worried her dad would hear the truck start, so we opted to hoof it out to Wayne’s barn. This meant a long walk through dark, empty streets and scrubby fields of kudzu and honeysuckle, the only sounds the screech of tree frogs and the twitchy hum of the streetlamps and the
tap, tap, tap
of the bugs making blurry halos above each pole. August nights in Metter smelled like jasmine blooms and garbage juice with a faint tang of creosote drifting underneath. Lightning bugs flashed yellow in the weeds along the road like tiny thunderstorms. Even though the sun had been down for hours, the air still felt as warm and moist as an armpit. We cut across the lawn behind the First Baptist Church to avoid any late traffic, but we didn’t see a single car until we got downtown. A light shone inside the old train depot and a shadow moved behind the window of Jenkins Hardware. Dani and me struck out along the train tracks that ran through the center of town. A cat appeared, eyed us sullenly, and scuttled away into the shadows. Above it all, a tiny red light atop the water tower flashed on and off, giving us quick peeks at the message painted beneath it:
METTER IS BETTER
. To me, this always asked the question:
Better than what?
Neither of us spoke. The quiet was too perfect to break with anything but the squeak of our shoes in the dew-soggy grass.
Right before we got to the gravel road leading down to the Keegan place, a car came up the hill behind us fast. A big engine with a deep-throated growl. Dani grabbed my hand and yanked me toward the stand of young pines beside the road, but we weren’t quite quick enough to avoid being spotted. The car slid to a stop on the sandy shoulder and idled for what felt an infinity. We froze, blinded by the headlights, two ditzy does. I scrutinized its silhouette, shading my eyes with a hand, but couldn’t tell if it had a cop-car top. But no, an old Buick Skylark with these horrible spinning silver rims pulled up. The window came down with a glassy squeak. Dani sucked in a breath and squeezed my hand.
“Where you two ladies going—”
Another person sniggered.
“—on such a fine summer night?”
The voice sounded familiar—in Metter, every voice is familiar—but I couldn’t match a face to it.
Dani could. She let loose of my hand and stepped up onto the shoulder, stumbling over a loose rock and holding out her arms for balance. “You scared the hell out of us, H.K.”
Now I knew. H.K. Keegan. This was Wayne’s older brother. Four years since he dropped out of Metter High and still wild as all get out. Every single one of the Keegan boys was trouble, but H.K. distinguished himself. I’d heard he spent three months in the county lockup for punching someone out in the parking lot of the Quick & Sleazy the year before. The man had told H.K. he liked his new tattoo. H.K. didn’t believe him.
“You need a ride someplace?” H.K. asked Dani. “You and your friend there?”
That dark someone in the car beside him mumbled a couple of
things. I heard the word “jailbait.” H.K. shaded his eyes and peered over at me.
“Well,” Dani said, drawing the word out a second or so longer than necessary.
“Aw, come on. Get your butts in here. I won’t have it said I’m not a gentleman.”
Again, that sniggering from the other passenger.
The door swung open and H.K. pulled himself out. He stood about five foot eight, but carried himself like a much bigger man. Stringy, hard muscles and tattoos on both forearms. I noticed a tattoo of Woody Woodpecker on his neck. He made a small bow and gestured us into the backseat. Dani bent to crawl inside and he patted her on the ass as she passed beneath his arm.
When I hesitated, he took my arm and helped me in back—his touch was gentle but had firmness underneath that said,
You ain’t going nowhere, girl
—then got in the front.
“I recognize you from somewhere.” He tugged at an earlobe and made a short study of me in the dome light. “Yeah. You’re Darla Sugrue’s daughter, ain’t you?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Your mama sewed up my arm one time.” He lifted up his arm to show me a thick, pink smear of scar tissue behind his elbow. “Ran a little three-wheeler into a rusty strand of barbwire. Bled like a gut-shot buck.”
“Must of hurt,” I said.
“I weren’t feeling no pain.”
“Where you all going?” the guy in the front passenger seat asked. He wore his hair clipped down close to his scalp. I thought he might be twenty-five. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. Planted squarely in the middle of his left eyelid was a small, pink nub of a wart. He winked and the wart looked to be waving at me.
“We’re heading over to you all’s barn, H.K.,” Dani said, “to hang out with Wayne and Billy and all them.” She grabbed my thigh and gave it a painful squeeze.
“That ain’t no fun,” H.K. said, wheeling out on the blacktop and away from the road we needed to take to get to the barn. “Believe me, I know. I’ve spent plenty of nights out there eating bugs and drinking piss-warm beer. Come on with us. We’re going to Bow Wow’s. It’s amateur night.”
“Don’t worry,” the second guy said, “it ain’t
kind of amateur night. You don’t have to get your shirt wet or nothing.”
“I thought Bow Wow’s closed down,” Dani said. “Anyhow, won’t we get carded?”
“Naw,” he said. “H.K.’s uncle Marty runs the place now.”
“That’s Ealey,” H.K. said, jabbing his thumb at old wart-eye in the passenger’s seat.
“Hi,” Ealey said, suddenly sounding shy. He wore a black T-shirt with the words
written in red across the chest.
“I thought your uncle was still—” Dani stopped, looking unsure, as though she might of crossed a line she shouldn’t of.
H.K. laughed at her. “He got out on Christmas Eve, and let me tell you what, he hit the ground running.”
H.K. tore through the gears, making the engine whine and cry uncle. Dark trees whipped past the fingerprint-smeared windows in a blur. Thin trash pines and palmetto bushes. On the curves, me and Dani went bouncing from door to door, sliding across the seat and bumping heads. Beer cans and take-out bags from Forkin’ Pork BBQ rattled between our feet.
“Can I have one of those smokes?” I asked Ealey.
He lit one with the tip of his own and passed it back over the seat. The filter was wet. He said, “Sorry if I nigger-lipped it.”
I’d driven past Bow Wow’s a thousand times, but I’d never been inside. It was an unpainted cinderblock building set back about a
hundred yards from the two-lane county highway under a droopy, old live oak covered in Spanish moss. Somehow, even the Spanish moss looked ratty. There was no sign that said Bow Wow’s out front. There wasn’t even a real parking lot, just a raw red clearing of packed clay full up with patched-together, primer-spotted trucks. Just beside the turnoff, a floodlight pointed at a sign with the words
AMATEUR BOXING TUESDAY NIGHT—$50 ENTRY/$500 PURSE
spelled out in black removable letters, like the kind they use on church signs to spell out Jesus slogans. We stepped out of the car. I could hear the screaming and the music.
H.K. nodded to the doorman, a huge guy with a glistening shaved head and a wifebeater stained with little brown blobs of what looked to be some sort of gravy. When the man gestured with his chin at us, H.K. counted four bills into his oven-mitt hand. The doorman smiled at Dani, showing her a mouth of teeth so perfect and white they almost seemed fake. Inside, a rush of smoke and beer-sour breath hit us full in the face. The shouting was such I couldn’t hear a word H.K. said until he yelled it right in my ear.
“Beer?” he asked.
It took a few seconds to get an idea of the place. Bow Wow’s looked twice as big on the inside. A long plywood bar set atop dented aluminum kegs ran along a good part of the left wall. Three bartenders raced about behind it, setting up Dixie-cup shots and pouring draft beer. Just inside the front door there were three pool tables with green glass shades hanging from the ceiling above them. Men with cigarettes screwed into angry mouths leaned over the red felt and slung their cues. A good hundred people were packed into the building. Mainly men, but here and there I spotted a brightly colored miniskirt. In the center of the room, set up about three feet off the ground, was a platform lined with double strings of yellow nylon rope. From somewhere up in the ceiling, several spotlights shone down on it painfully.
.K. came back with two beers and shouted something that sounded like, “Do you want to go to church?”
When he saw me frowning at him and obviously not understanding what the hell he’d said, he grabbed my free hand, the other being firmly connected to Dani’s nervous palm, and dragged us across the room. Ealey had vanished into the crowd, an easy trick since everyone looked like him. H.K. took us over to a door marked private at the end of the bar. The noise dimmed a bit when he shut it behind us, and I went completely blind. It took a few seconds to see we were in another room about half the size of the one in front, and instead of a raised platform in the center, there was some sort of pit lined with yellow sand.
He handed me and Dani our beers.
“It’s where they fight the dogs,” H.K. said. “You want to see something that’ll blow your little girly minds, come to one of these dog fights. Shit, man, they’re vicious as all fuck.”
“Do the dogs die?” Dani asked.
“Them dogs love it. Believe me. They live to fight,” H.K. said, warming to the topic. “I’m thinking about running a couple myself once I get the money.”
“Do those terriers fight with the rats here?” I asked.
He grinned. “How’d you know about that?”
“Rats?” Dani’s mouth shrank down to a pink, lowercase
“Places like this, Dani, they put these fierce little dogs down
there in the sand along with a mess of rats.” I pointed to the pit. “People bet on how many rats they can kill in a certain amount of time.”
“Ewww,” Dani said, making a face like she’d just licked the floor of the room out front. “How
you know about that?”
H.K. made a snarling dog out of his hand and nipped Dani’s neck with it. She squealed, jumped back and bumped me, knocking both our beers to the ground. H.K. shook his head.
“Don’t go anywhere. I need a fresh beer anyway.” He put his hand on the door. “I’m serious. Don’t move.”
When the door swung open, you could actually see smoke and oniony armpit fumes roll in like a dirty wave. Dani apologized, something she only does when she’s nervous.
I was about to say maybe we should make a run for it, but then a different door opened, on the wall behind the dog pit. Dani made a soft, high-pitched sound and grabbed my wrist. Before she had a chance to really get scared, I pulled her over to the corner and down behind a stack of folding chairs. Three men came out of what looked to be some sort of office on the far side of the room. Dani breathed fast against my neck. The office door opened again and a fourth man came out. When these men stepped into the light, I saw one of them was Hayes. I gritted my teeth and pushed myself as far back against the wall as I could, which wasn’t much.
Please don’t see me. Please don’t see me
. The words ran over and over in my head until they became nothing but sounds.
A second, smaller lamp went on in the other corner of the room, and a cone of dusty, yellow light lit up a long, rectangular card table I hadn’t seen before. Set up on top of it was a giant jar of pickled pigs’ knuckles. The kind you see in little country gas stations sometimes. Chairs scraped cement. Hayes and two of the men sat. The biggest of the three, a balding guy with a big, bushy mustache the color of a carrot and a nose that resembled a beet root, leaned
forward in his chair and held a bag of something up to the light. From where I crouched beneath the stack of chairs, the rest of his features were just a smear of shiny pink, but his shoulders were broad and thick and his hands were each the size of a boiled ham. The man’s body looked to of been put together using huge portions of various foodstuffs, a meat version of the cars parked out front.
“Hungry, Hayes?” this man asked, sounding cheerful and good-humored. “Get you one of them knuckles. Burns here tells me the first four hairs on his ball sack sprouted out directly after eating one. Don’t care for them much myself.”
“No,” Hayes said, in a strangled voice, “thank you.” He sat directly under the light and I could see him more clearly than the others.
One of the men laughed. “I’ve heard it said human meat tastes a good bit like hog flesh.”
Hayes’s face was red, going on purple. He looked like he was holding his breath.
“Shut up, Travis,” the big man said. His voice wasn’t loud, but it carried clearly across the room. He breathed noisily through his mouth in an unpleasant way. The room went quiet for a moment, then he slammed his hand against the table three times. “What the fuck are you trying to pull here, Hayes? Huh?”
“What?” Hayes said, jerking in his chair as though startled out of a doze.
The big man flicked the Ziploc bag with a meaty finger.
“It’s bulk,” Hayes said, in a meek voice I’d never heard come out of his mouth before. “That’s how they keep it in the hospital. When they need to use it, they dissolve it in distilled water and load it into needles or IVs or some shit.” He said the word “shit” so quietly I barely made it out.