“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.
Per Contra Fiction - Winter 2006