The Cockfighter (Frank Manley)

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  The boy and the cock were both still and unmoving. The cold crept over them both. They were both white in the moonlight, and the boy felt something drain away from him. All the warmth he had brought out of the house with him was slowly leaving his body and dissipating in the cold night air. But at the same time something else was flowing into him, filling him up. Something was spinning off the white sheen of the feathers and the cold translucent light of the moon and entering him, and he could not have said what that was either. The closest he could have come was that it was almost like praying, or worshiping something. The boy was white and ghastly looking in the moonlight. The bird was housed inside the temple, in the tabernacle itself. Half of it was in the light, the other half was in darkness. It was like a mystery. The boy knelt in front of it holding the wire with both hands.

Then he got up and ran as silently as he could back to the house. Soon it would be dawn, and the seed of light that the boy believed the cock had within it would flare in the sun, and it would start crowing.

Later the boy would take the same seed and set it on fire in the pit.

The boy woke a few hours later to the sound of voices buzzing in the wall beside his bed. He looked at the window. The sky was dark. The moon had set, and it was near day. He thought at first it was the TV. Then he heard his mother speak.

"I didn't know you gave it to him."

His daddy grunted the way he did.

"What did you do that for?"

"Because it's time."

"Time for what?"

"Time for you to let go of him, that's what."

"I'm not holding him."

"He won't get hurt."

"How do you know?"

His daddy didn't say anything for a while. Neither did his momma. He could hear himself holding his breath. He felt the thudding in his chest getting louder and louder.

Then his momma said, "Leave him be."

His daddy didn't say anything.

"You hear what I said?"

"I heard what you said."

The boy started to get up and put his ear to the wall to hear better, but he was afraid they might come in and catch him. It was getting him real tense. He didn't want to stay home with his momma.

"It's too rough," his momma said. "Men and women like that."

"Like what?"

"Drinking and whoring and fighting and gambling. I don't want my child there."

"He isn't a child. You seen his pecker?"

"Don't talk like that! Don't ever dare talk to me like that."

"How come? I thought you might be interested in that."

She didn't answer.

"I said, I thought you might be interested in the fact that boy got a pecker almost as big as mine is now. But you ain't interested in that, are you, Lily? Peckers never been high on your agenda."

"Not my son's."

"Husband's neither. You ain't much on peckers, Lily. Never have been. That's the main complaint I got about you."

"You don't have anything to complain about me. I've been a good wife to you, Jake. You get what you want to."

"What about you? That's what I mean. You ever get what you want, Lily?"

"We aren't talking about me," she said. "We're talking about Sonny."

"Don't call him Sonny. He don't like you to call him Sonny."

"You teach him that?"

"What? Hell, no! Listen--I don't have to teach him a thing. He's thirteen Goddamn years old."

"Twelve and a half."

"Who gives a shit? You know what I mean. It's happening, Lily. I don't have to do a thing. I just tell him where to point it, see it don't go off half-cocked."

He started laughing.

The boy laughed too. He had to put his head under the covers, he was laughing so much. He loved his daddy. Ever since a few months ago, when his daddy started paying attention to him, he loved him more than he loved anything, except Lion. It was as though his daddy was waiting for him to grow up. High spirits and high old times--that's the kind of person he was.

When he was little, his daddy had to leave him home with his momma.

That's the woman's part, his daddy said. They're supposed to take care of babies. But now you're grown up and getting balls on you, we're going to be buddies.

He thought to himself, That's all he wanted. There wasn't anything he wanted more than that. When he was a child, he thought like a child, and now he wasn't--like in the Bible.

He pulled his head out from under the covers.

His momma was saying, "Don't talk like that!" and going on about how disgusting he was, always talking dirty like that. She was trying to have a serious conversation.

"I don't want him to turn out like you."

His daddy quit laughing. Neither one of them said anything for a while.

Then his daddy said, "Like what? You mean disgusting?"

She said, "I'm sorry. I'm just upset."

"Like what?"

She didn't answer.

"Answer me, Lily. Talking about peckers, fucking, or what? Fucking upset you?"

"I didn't mean that. You know what I mean. He's just a child. That's what I've been trying to tell you. He's just a baby. You're rushing him too much. You're too rough."

"What you mean rough?"

"You know what I mean."

"You still carrying on about that? I told you about that. I'd been drinking."

"I didn't mean that. I meant all the rest of it."

"The rest of what?"

"The whole thing. The way you do. You're one kind of person, and I love you for it. I wouldn't want you to be any different. You believe that, don't you, Jake? You do what you do because that's what you are. I knew that when I married you. But he isn't like that. He's different from you. He's more like me. I'm the one raised him."

"I raised him too."

"You know what I mean. You were off carrying on. That's what I mean. You live rough, and it shows, Jake. Anybody looking at you knows that. Look how you look."

"What do you mean?"

"Look what you got on."

"What's the matter with it?"

"It's just rough, that's all. Nothing's the matter with it. It's just rough."

"It ain't dress up. That's what you mean. I ain't dressed up to go to a party."

"You aren't dressed up at all," she said. "You're dressed to go fighting."

"Damn right. You don't get dressed up to go to a cockfight unless you're Benny Easley, maybe."

Benny Easley was the county commissioner and the only man ever known to go to a cockfight dressed up in a suit and tie. He always said he had an appointment later--an important appointment.

An appointment with the undertaker, they said--Haw! Haw!

The men who said that might have been joking, but they still didn't like it. They didn't like Benny coming in there dressed up in a suit and tie. His daddy said it made them feel too rough.

"Benny Easley knows what he's doing," his momma said.

"If he ever got his head out of his ass, he might. I want some more coffee. It's about time to get going."

It was quiet for a minute.

Then she said, "You know what you look like?"

"Yeah," he said. "I know what I look like."

"You look like you're going hunting, that's what. You look like a soldier. What you trying to hide from, Jake?"

"Hide? That ain't hiding. That's camouflage, that's all. You know why I got these coveralls on?"

She didn't answer.

"It's cold in the pits, that's why. They're insulated. These are insulated hunting clothes. That's how come I got them on."

"You give him a gun?"


"I said, 'Are you going to give him a gun?'"

"If he asks me, I will. I won't buy it for him. I'll make him earn it for himself, but I'll go with him and pick it out. Then I'll show him how to shoot it. You know I will."

"I know you will."

"Damn right, I will. When the time comes, I will."

The boy could hardly believe his ears. It had never even occurred to him to wish for a gun, but now that his daddy mentioned it and his momma didn't seem to mind, that's all he wanted. It was like setting a fire to dry leaves. He already had a cock. All he needed now was a gun. Growing up was the most exciting thing that ever happened to him. Every day it was something new. Today him and Lion, next month a gun. He was going to work and get it. Benny Easley would give him a job. He owed his daddy. He didn't know what for exactly, but he knew he owed him.

His momma was still carrying on about something. He could hear her through the wall, but he wasn't listening. He didn't care what she said anymore. She was like a hundred-pound weight dragging him back. If she'd had her way, he'd be a girl.

That's what his daddy told him one time.

She always wanted one, he said.

The boy asked him, How come?

And his daddy said, Well, she don't like men.

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Excerpted from The Cockfighter by Frank Manley. Copyright © 1998 by Frank Manley. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.