by N. T. Brown
My mother once saw two bulldogs take down a cow. They got it by the neck and forced it to its knees. The cow tried to shake them off at first, but their jaws had locking mechanisms—my uncle had to wedge a steel bar between their teeth to make them let go. By then, the dogs were just as trapped as the cow. They would’ve sat there forever, jaws locked, unable to release. The cow was pretty much decapitated.
I was maybe a year old when that happened. The two dogs belonged to my father. Out back, behind the barn, he kept them in rows, chained to posts with no room to move around. They lay in their little plywood houses, and lapped from water bowls, and rolled in the dust. But they couldn’t touch each other. They stretched their chains as far as they could, snapping at one another, but their jaws closed just a few inches apart. It was maddening to them. They had no toys, nothing to do but eat and sleep and pace back and forth until they’d worn their little areas down to dirt, which turned to mud when it rained. The only time they left that place was to train, one at a time, or to fight.
Fights might take place anywhere. One time my father brought a dog named Champ all the way to New Orleans to take on another undefeated dog. Champ lived up to his name, and scored my father over ten thousand dollars. The old man retired him after that.
Not long after I could walk, he took me out back between the two rows of dogs—probably a dozen animals in all, six to a side. My father held my hand as we walked down the middle. Just as they couldn’t reach each other, the dogs couldn’t reach us, but the margin wasn’t big. They snarled and lunged at me from both sides. My father told me all their names. Champ, old and scarred, didn’t snap at us, but just sat there blinking his tiny black eyes, as though he knew his fighting days were officially over. Several of the others were his offspring. One of these, Squat Low, so named for her peculiar way of pissing, was a mean, thick-headed, tawny-colored bitch who continually brought in large sums of money. Next to her was a black dog my father called Nigger.
Finally, at the end of the row sat a new dog, a pup, maybe six months old. Black with a white spot on its side and a white diamond on its forehead. You want to name this one? my father said. This one here’s gonna bring in some real money.
I had been watching cartoons all morning. Spiderman, I said.
My father laughed. Spider, he said. Yeah. Spider. Good name, son.
* * *
We had a swing set in the yard: monkey bars, bucket seats, teeter-totter. One morning I sat poised at the top of the slide, ready to go headfirst into the grass, when something at the bottom stopped me. A long, crooked, yellow form, almost like a stick, with a pale pattern along its back. A snake.
Rather than slide down, I went back the way I had come, giving the snake a wide berth, and ran inside to tell my mother.
She stopped vacuuming and came outside with me. There it is! I said, pointing. The snake hadn’t moved.
Mom went to the garden and grabbed the hoe. She stalked forward like a bird, the wooden handle held over her head, but the snake saw her coming and shot away into the tall grass.
It was just a chicken snake anyway, she said. She leaned on the hoe handle. There’s no way we’ll find it out here. Our yard was thick with trees and bushes, so that you could barely see the trailer from the road. You did the right thing, my mother said. You did exactly the right thing. Anytime you see a snake, you come get me. Next time it might not be a chicken snake. Next time it might be a rattler.
This was a small incident among many others during those dreamlike pre-kindergarten years. But it stands out in my mind. I had done the right thing. It was the first time I ever remembered feeling proud.
* * *
One night my mother came home from visiting her parents and found the inside of the trailer covered in white chalk. My father and his brother Percy sat there sweaty, exhausted. Late August and hot out. The trailer’s flimsy air conditioner didn’t do much.
Plastic bags lay everywhere.
What’s all this?
Me and Percy just finishing up. My father went to the sink and started washing his hands, lathering them up to the forearms.
The front of his pants had a dusting of chalk. Chalk was everywhere. The room smelled like McDonald’s french fries, and indeed, an empty McDonald’s bag sat on the couch.
My mother shifted me to her other arm. I’d been the hit of the day over at granny and grandpa’s. Finishing up what? my mother said.
Just working on some business, my father said. He wouldn’t look at her. Percy offered a weak smile. He wore cotton shorts, the kind a football coach might wear, and a tight-fitting Go Noles! t-shirt. When my father finished washing, Percy did the same.
My mother noticed, under the table, five or six duffel bags, stacked on top of each other, zipped tight as though full of laundry. Or bricks. Then she realized: the chalk was cocaine. My father and my uncle had been chopping it up, pounds of it—that’s what they’d done all day while we were at granny and grandpa’s. Apparently Percy knew someone who knew someone, and for a small amount of money they got their hands on a raw shipment from Colombia. All they had to do was cut it up, package it, and find somebody to buy it.
My father had mentioned this plan earlier in the year, when he couldn’t find steady work and grandpa had to pay our electric bill.
But Mom never thought he was serious.
We want to unload it all at once, he told her. I’m not going around town selling this shit door to door. One deal, one time.
My mother paced back and forth in the bedroom, nervous, incredulous, her mind racing.
I didn’t do any of that shit, my father said. I wouldn’t put that shit up my nose. I just want to sell it.
But it’s everywhere, it’s everywhere, it’s in the baby’s food!
We’ll sweep and mop the whole place tomorrow.
What he meant was, my mother would sweep and mop the place tomorrow, while he worked the dogs on the treadmill and installed a new wench on the back of his truck. The next week he unloaded all the duffel bags to a man in another town for eight thousand dollars, which he split down the middle with Percy.
* * *
I’m four or five years old, standing in my father’s “office,” an extra room built onto the barn. Desk, file cabinet. Calendar on the wall. Treadmill. I stood in there while he worked dogs—he ran them on the treadmill to get in shape for fights. The dogs panted, they seemed happy.
Years later, in college, I read a novel by Harry Crews called A Feast of Snakes. In the novel, a bitter, racist old dogfighter tortures his dog, Tuffy, on a treadmill. The old man makes the dog run for hours, until the dog vomits blood. The scene is particularly disturbing because Tuffy is rarely mentioned—while he runs, the characters sit back and talk about other things. But the reader is acutely aware of Tuffy the whole time. Tuffy lingers in the back of your mind.
I watched my father work dogs on the treadmill. I read the Sunday funnies. I colored in coloring books. My father brought in his dogs one at a time. He ran them on the treadmill. The dogs panted, they seemed happy.
* * *
Middle of the night. Squat Low won’t stop crying. She won a fight three days earlier in Jacksonville and seemed fine, but now she’s howling. My father stands in his underwear at the back door of the trailer.
Goddamn you, shut up!
Squat Low quiets down, but as soon as my father gets into bed, she starts up again.
Frank, there’s something wrong with her.
There ain’t nothing wrong with her.
She’s hurt from that fight.
Me and Percy looked her over. She didn’t get cut that bad.
Maybe she’s hurting inside.
I’m the one seen the goddamn fight. I know what happened to her and what didn’t. They had a little brown dog in there, wasn’t even a full pit, that thing couldn’t do nothing to Squat Low. Squat tore her to pieces.
Did they have to put her down?
I don’t reckon they killed her, but she probably ain’t fighting no more.
My father goes to the back door again. Shut up, goddamn you!
Back in bed. He farts. His belly is big and squishy with beer fat. My mother keeps to her side as much as possible. (Where was I that night? In a crib, perhaps, or in my first big-boy bed. Maybe I wasn’t born yet. I don’t know. These memories cannot be entirely trusted.)
A moment later, Squat Low starts howling again. My father swings out of bed, grabs his shotgun, and stomps down to the barn in his underwear, with his boots on. My mother rolls over and squeezes both pillows over her ears. It still doesn’t block the sound. Squat Low abruptly stops whining. A minute later my father is back in bed, out of breath and clammy to the touch. It’s October.
Getting cold out there, he says.
* * *
Big fight in Macon. Over a dozen participants and ten times as many bettors. Almost like a round-robin tournament. Five grand entry fee, thirty thousand dollar prize. My father and Percy drove up in Percy’s lime-green Oldsmobile, with two dogs stuffed in crates in the back seat. This opportunity had come at a particularly good time. Ghost, a blindingly white dog with blue eyes, had just come into form—my father couldn’t wait to unleash him on something. He and Uncle Percy expected to clean up.
Just over the Georgia border, around Valdosta, one of those no-nonsense good-old-boy state troopers pulled them over. Wide-brimmed hat, reflective shades. Spoke in a long, distinguished drawl, different than the twangier accent of cowpoke Florida.
After he inspected Percy’s license, the cop took a long look in the back seat.
Where yall going with those dogs?
We’re breeding them, Percy said. I got a cousin up here and we’re fixing to breed with his pups.
The cop didn’t say anything for a long time. It was hard to tell where he was looking because of the shades. Finally he said, I know where you boys are headed. I know where and I know when. If you’re going where I think you might be going, let me warn you against it. That particular event will be subject of a raid tonight, gentlemen.
The state trooper walked away without giving them a ticket. My father and Percy sat there, on the shoulder of I-75, trying to decide what to do.
We already invested five thousand in this, my father said.
Shit, man, you want to go to jail? It’s all busted up now.
He could be lying.
Is that a risk you want to take?
He never named the location. He’s just bluffing us.
Why the hell would he do that?
Hell, man, these Georgia cops ain’t got nothing better to do. They try to fuck with you any way they can. They don’t know nothing about no damn dogfighting.
You’re that confident, Frank? I’m not. I don’t want to get locked up in no damn Georgia county jailhouse for six weeks, waiting for a hearing, just over these damn dogs.
It ain’t for the dogs, it’s for the money!
There ain’t gonna be no money! That trooper did us a favor. Let’s cut our losses and go home.
Goddamn it, my father said. Five thousand dollars, Percy. Ghost would’ve won.
They turned around and went home.
A week later, my father got a postcard from a Hispanic man, someone he had never met. The man had been one of the participants at the Macon fight. It hadn’t been cancelled or raided. The man knew about Ghost and had anticipated my father’s arrival. On the postcard he wrote a taunting note about how Ghost was afraid of his dog, the winner, Camille. No one was sure how he got my father’s address. That man took home thirty thousand dollars.
* * *
Downtown Tampa, Ybor Strip, four a.m. My father and Percy and two dozen other men gather around a five-by-five-foot square. Dirt floor, low lights. Cigars and money. Ghost has another dog cornered, but that dog won’t lay down, despite its wounds, which are many. The dog spurts blood at an alarming rate. No man is willing to step in between them. My father has another five grand riding on this.
Then: Shouts. Commotion at the door. Bright lights from above. A crash. Police. Chaos. My father stumbles into the shadows.
Pandemonium erupts. Owners try to gather dogs, bettors pocket money and run. Spectators bottleneck into the low-cut back door.
Most of the dogs are muzzled, but Ghost, fresh off his win, struts around the ring unattended. The other, injured dog doesn’t move. Police stalk like faceless specters through the room, hidden behind their lights, shouting, grabbing people and trying to handcuff them. For my father everything goes silent. He runs from the bright lights, comes face-to-face with Percy in the dark, and together they squeeze through the back door with everyone else. In the confusion they lose track of Ghost.
They pass through another room, and then down a dark corridor with booming music on the other side of the wall. After a few twists and turns, they come to a staircase that leads to a locked door. My father has no idea where he is. He and Percy pound on the door. It’s the back entrance to a Cuban restaurant, and a white-aproned cook lets them into the kitchen. He can figure out what happened. Get the hell out of here, he says.
My father and Percy emerge onto the pre-dawn street, several blocks from where they parked the Oldsmobile. Let’s take the long way around, Percy says. Look like we’re coming from the other direction.
What about Ghost? my father says.
They can’t trace him back to us. He ain’t got no tags or nothing on.
But we left him down there.
They’ve got him now. They’ll turn him over to the pound. You know what’ll happen. The pound ain’t keeping no fight dogs alive.
Maybe he escaped out the back.
Maybe he did.
The two-hour drive back home is mostly silent. My father has to accept, once again, a five thousand dollar loss, plus the loss of a prime dog. I wonder whether he’s boiling hot or icy and despondent. I wonder if something inside him has shifted.
Percy drops him off at the trailer, where my mother and I sleep inside. I can’t be older than four. The sun rises as my father steps inside. He’s been drinking tequila all night, but now he chugs almost a full gallon of water. He splashes some on his face. He peeks into the bedroom where mother is sleeping. My room, he doesn’t bother.
From the fridge he takes a package of uncooked ground beef. From the rack in his room he takes the shotgun. He walks down the lane, past the barn. The clouds are grey and frozen. It’s January. The dogs poke their heads out of their houses at the sound of my father’s footsteps. He approaches each one and pats it on the head, gives it a little raw hamburger. While it eats, he shoots it in the back of the head. He goes up and down the rows and executes every dog this way. Each dog is too stupid to see it coming. All they can think about is the hamburger.
Did the gunshots wake my mother? Maybe they did, but later her memory blocked them out. Maybe, since she never expected them, she slept right through them. I know I did. I also know that I never received an explanation, nor did I ask for one, about the disappearance of the dogs. It was like I never noticed. By the time I thought to ask about them, they were long gone, a flickering memory.
* * *
Sometime during that year before I started kindergarten, I sat poised at the top of the slide. It was a fall day and pine needles covered our yard. Just before I pushed off, to slide down, something at the bottom caught my eye. It was a black dog, one of my father’s, sprinting towards me. It had a white diamond on its forehead. Spider. I shoved off, zipped downward, and landed right at the dog’s feet. It bounded up to me. My mother saw from inside the window and started screaming, running outside with dish soap on her hands. Even my father, from up the lane, came jogging forward, simultaneously telling Spider to heel and me to get back up the slide.
But Spider never would have hurt me. Just licked me. Licked me and loved me.
About N. T. Brown
N. T. Brown has owned almost every type of animal: cows, horses, pigs, chickens, rabbits, gerbils, parakeets, turtles, fish, ants. He currently has a dog named Seven and a cat named Mrs. Mia Wallace.