CW: Allusions to cockfighting
When Kent Scroggins turned eighteen his senior year, his mother handed him a wooden box the size of a pack of Marlboros. Inside, on red velvet, were two tiny, curled knives made of silver, each about the size of a man’s pinkie.
“What the heck are these?” he asked.
His mother then explained what they were, but not before making something clear: “I’m ashamed and disgusted by all this, but I gave your granddad my word on his deathbed that I’d hand these over to you on your eighteenth birthday, so that’s what I’m doing.”
And what she then told her son was this: these little silver scimitars had been his grandfather’s prized gaffs.
“He was the best chicken man in West Texas. His cocks made him fairly rich, too, at least for a while. Those are the gaffs he tied on their spurs. They were handmade by a Navaho out in New Mexico. Daddy liked to say that they’d cut through more breasts than a Hollywood plastic surgeon.”
After promising his mother that he wouldn’t do anything more with the gaffs than maybe set them out on his dresser for show, Kent promptly slit his thumb wide open just as soon as she left his bedroom. He’d wanted to see if they were still sharp.
For six months or so, he stayed true to his word, but the way those gaffs kept glinting at him in the moonlight began to drive him a little bit crazy, and so he sent off for a few books on cockfighting, which led him to then subscribe to Grit & Steel and The Feathered Warrior. He had to always make sure to be the one to get the mail, but it was worth the risk. He was tired of living such a boring life. From his reading, which he did at night after stocking shelves at Flatland Grocery all day long, he learned all about how to condition and spar gamecocks, even though he didn’t have any gamecocks of his own to condition or spar. He learned how to dub the comb and the wattle to reduce the chance of bleeding and injury during a fight. He learned about corky flesh, which was good, and dunghill fowl, which were not. To make cocks aggressive in the pit, he also learned that you should add garlic, onions, and shotgun powder to their feed.
Soon enough, he started begging the old men at the Chaparral to take him to a cock fight, because he figured that if anyone would know anything about the whereabouts of such things, it would be them. For a while they played innocent, pretending like they had no earthly idea where to find one these days in these parts, and besides, as they reminded him, cockfighting was illegal.
“Hell,” Jack McTeague said, “Just getting caught in the general vicinity of one will get you an automatic Class C misdemeanor nowadays. You don’t want something like that on your record, now, do you?”
But Kent wouldn’t drop it, so one Friday night Jack drove him out to a dark corner of nearby Howard County. Had he not done that, maybe Kent would’ve eventually moved on to other, safer interests, like maybe arrowhead collecting. But he didn’t. He got sucked in by the competition and the gambling, not to mention the blood and the feathers. When folks heard about his arrest years later, no one had seen him in a good while. His mother blamed Jack, and nobody could fault her for that, but she also could’ve kept those gaffs to herself, no matter what she’d promised her daddy. Sometimes it’s just better to go back on your word, no matter how hard that can be to stomach.
Kevin Grauke is the author of Shadows of Men (Queen's Ferry Press), winner of the Steven Turner Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared (or are forthcoming) in journals such as The Threepenny Review, Bayou, The Southern Review, Quarterly West, and Columbia Journal. He’s a Contributing Editor at Story, and he teaches at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Twitter: @kevingrauke