Fiction by Colin Brightwell
Quitting time at the slaughterhouse is the worst. That’s when that hard rust smell hits my nose and suffocates me. When there’s no more heavy sounds of machinery to drown out the cries of cows not knowing when it’s coming. A hard day on the killing floor, all the sweat and blood and yelling, and at the end of it is just bad pay and animal screaming. The next day’s cattle lined up. All of them looking at me as if I can just let them go. My hands, stained light red, no matter how hard I wash them. The walls painted with blood and when I walk back to my truck I gotta see those scared cows watch me. They grunt and bellow so goddamn loud. I think they know they’re next.
I look away and stuff my hands in my pockets.
After work I drive to the Keg, have a few drinks at the end of the bar. I can smell the soap from my hands. I stay here till closing times these days. I can’t face Shelly alone back home. I can’t do anything for her. Can’t make her cramps go away, can’t look at the blood stains on the toilet. Can’t talk about trying again. I just think about all the cows I killed that week and the things me and Shelly were supposed to have. I used to believe in God as a boy but now I ain’t too sure. I told that to Shelly but she just turned away from me. Nights when I reach over to touch her, I feel her tighten up.
I’m watching the Royals manage to win against the Yankees when Rick pulls up on the stool next to me. He ain’t a local, though he talks to folks like he is. He orders a double Beam and Coke and tells Harry to bring me a new drink, his treat.
“Bruce,” he says. I feel his big hand slap my back. “How’s Shelly?”
“She’s feeling better.”
Harry brings our drinks. Rick downs half and wipes his lips. The Royals slam another homer and the folks watching in the bar yell at the TV.
“How’s our bitch doing?” Rick says.
I take a quick swig of my beer and fumble my thumbs. “I don’t think she’s doing too good.”
“I don’t want to hear that. Not when there’s a fight tomorrow. You told me you trained her to win. That’s what I want.”
“She’s been acting all lethargic the past week.”
He finishes his drink. “You waited until now to tell me? Jesus Christ, Bruce, I paid you a thousand bucks to whip that bitch into shape. I paid for a fighting dog.”
“She’s won a handful. That’s a shelf life longer than most dogs. You got your money’s worth.”
I turn away to watch the Royals. The Yanks are down four runs and while I know this season is already shot to hell, it’s nice to get a win.
Rick grabs my shoulder and turns me around. He’s taller than me but I outweigh him by a good fifty pounds. In a dog fight, weight makes all the difference. And I know Betty’s gained some, and it ain’t muscle. Rick looks at me. Violence behind those dark eyes and nothing much else. He gets close to my face and I can smell the liquor on his breath. I can take him, but it’s what he could do to me that scares me. Just a few calls and the cops show up at my house.
“You fucking country boy think you can rip me off? That bitch is bought and paid for. I don’t care how tired she is. She fights.”
“Ain’t no one ripping you off,” I say. I push him away and he falls back onto the stool. Harry eases up and heads to the other end of the bar.
“Then she fights,” Rick says. “Or I’ll come over and drag her to T-Bone’s myself.”
I know he ain’t kidding about that. For a Kansas City lawyer, Rick plays the street tough act well. Maybe it’s the booze, or the money at stake. If Betty wins, Rick can make ten grand easy. I get thirty percent for handling and training. I think about Shelly and doctors that say that can maybe fix her and the bills already piling up. All the money they want. I look back at the Royals. They’re in the clear. I down the rest of my beer and turn towards Rick. I have to look up at him, but I’m bigger. That makes all the difference.
“Fine. She fights. But this time I want half. You don’t like that, I’ll put her down myself before you touch her.”
Rick grins and flags Harry down for another round. “That’s what I like to hear. Have a drink.”
Harry pours Rick another Beam and Coke. He’s relaxed now. He turns to me, raises his glass. “Here’s to Betty.”
I turn away. It’s the seventh inning now and we’ve blown it. Another season down the tubes, makes me glad I ain’t a betting man.
Rick starts going on about the money Betty can make. T-Bone’s fights get lots of folks out of the woodwork, and they just love betting against this city slicker. I drown him out. I feel my pocket vibrate and pull out my phone. Shelly messaged me, asked when I’ll be home tonight and if I can pick up some milk on the way. She doesn’t say I love you and neither do I when I ask if she wants whole or skim.
Rick claps my back again and I shove his hand away. I pull out my wallet and throw two twenties on the bar for Harry. Rick tries to get me to stay, one more drink. Talk about the fight.
“I got nothing to say. I’ll see ya at T-Bone’s.”
Outside with the sun down that Midwest summer air sticks to my skin. In the neon light of the beer signs, my whole body has a pink tint and when I look at my hands, I can’t even tell what’s blood and what’s light. I stuff them into my pockets and drag my feet to my truck. I guess I’ll surprise Shelly and pick up skim.
The house is dark when I pull up behind Shelly’s hatchback. The “baby-on-board” sticker still there. I reach over to the passenger seat, grab the sweating skim milk jug and get out of the truck. Cicadas hiss in the trees and through the drawn blinds the only light I can see is the faint blue from the TV.
Walking towards the porch steps, I stop at Shelly’s car. The sticker yells at me with its bright yellow and fat letters. With my free hand I pick at the sticker. I manage to tear away half. I stuff that into my back pocket and head up the stairs to the front door.
I try to be quiet unlocking the door in case Shelly is sleeping. But when I walk in, she’s sitting up, watching some dumb action movie. Explosions and muscles and guns. I turn on the light by the door and she turns away.
“Keep that off.”
I switch it off, walk into the kitchen, put the skim milk in the fridge next to week old leftovers. I pour Shelly a glass of water. I hand it to her and she looks at it, then goes back to the TV. I set it on the TV tray in front of her and sit in the recliner on the other side of the room. I pull my work boots off, rub my feet.
“How was work.”
“They’re talking bout layoffs. Say small time houses are dying.”
“The doctor’s office called today.”
“What they say.”
“That it wasn’t my fault.”
“I thought we already knew that. I knew that.”
“Your mother seems to think it was.”
“Don’t you listen to her. You know how she gets.”
“They asked about money.”
“I asked them why we gotta pay if they say it was natural.”
“I’ll have the money, Shelly.”
“How you getting that.”
I can’t look at her when I say it. She takes the money but hates it. “Fight tomorrow at T-Bone’s. Rick’s throwing Betty in the ring. Betting large.”
“She’s sick. You can’t fight her the way she is.”
“Don’t you think I know that. But we need the money. That hospital bill ain’t cheap. And if there’s an operation to fix—”
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“I didn’t say it was.”
She reaches for the water and drinks. She puts it back where it was and lays back down and I can see her wince in the hazy light. I get up and toss a blanket over her. I lean down to kiss her but she turns her face away.
“I can’t believe you’re fighting her.”
I stand over her in the glow of the television. I want to reach out to her but I don’t know how. I’m afraid if I try she’ll turn around and bite me. Or that I’ll bite her.
The morning is already hot and sticky. Shelly showers and doesn’t say two words to me. I put on dirty jeans and a white shirt and head to the back yard.
Betty’s doghouse is beat to hell and I keep meaning to build her a new one. She’s lying on her side in the doorway. I stand back a few feet and watch her breathing. Her belly moves slowly. Her eyes meet mine for a quick second before going back to nothing. Her scars are visible from here.
She’s something else to watch in the pit. There are two kinds of fighting dogs – ones that give up, and ones that go all the way. Betty never gives up. She once tore Bill Meade’s mutt so bad he had to put him down on the spot. That was months ago. I know she’s reaching the end of her fighting days. Happens to every one of them.
I get closer to her and squat down. She pants with fury. I reach to pet her and she growls. Fighting dogs are trained to be mean, and we work them hard, but they love us. Growling at me is what makes me worried. I ignore her and pet her back. I sweet talk her, make her know it’s just me.
“It’s okay, baby. Everything’s okay.”
I look her in the eyes – no redness, no scratches. No bites or cuts on her legs. Reaching for her belly, she barks at me and I shoot my hand back. She doesn’t get up, just growls and lays her head down. I don’t know how, but she’s pregnant. I think about calling Rick, tell him the fight’s off. She’ll be useless. But that hospital bill goes through my head and I don’t want Shelly to keep worrying about that. I want to move on. I want her to hold me again.
I head back inside to get the leash. Shelly’s at the table drinking coffee, reading the newspaper. I hurry past her.
“What’s wrong with her.”
“Nothing,” I say. “She’s just tired.”
Back out with the leash, Shelly squats over Betty, petting her. Betty’s eyes are closed, loving Shelly’s touch. I walk to them. Shelly doesn’t look up, just bends closer to Betty and gives her a kiss on the head.
“You aren’t fighting her today.”
“Shelly, baby,” I say. “We need that money.”
“I can go back to work,” she says. “Figure the sub has about had it with those kids. David said I can come back anytime.”
I stand over them, Betty’s eyes open and look at me. She pants and Shelly keeps stroking her head. “You ain’t ready to work,” I say.
“You don’t know anything about it.”
I lean down to put the leash on Betty’s collar, but Shelly slaps my hand away.
“She’s not going anywhere.”
“Jesus Christ, Shelly,” I say. “She’s my dog.”
“She’s pregnant and you wanna fight her.”
“I don’t have much of a choice.”
I move past Shelly, push her out of the way, and clamp the leash on the collar. Betty knows to move now. She slowly stands and leads the way. Shelly follows us to the front of the house.
“Give her to me.”
I open the door to my truck and Betty struggles to hop in. I lean down and pick her up, place her in the passenger seat. Shelly pushes past me and reaches for Betty.
“Knock this shit off, Shelly,” I say. “She’s fighting.”
Betty watches us like a child. Shelly stares at me, her eyes angry and red. She slaps me hard. She turns around and heads up the porch. She stops and turns to look at me.
“I’ve put up with a lot, Bruce,” she says. “But not this.” She heads back in the house, slams the door.
I close the truck door and look up at the half-ripped sticker on Shelly’s car. I tear the rest off and get in the truck. I reach over to pat Betty’s head but she barks. I crank the engine and back out.
T-Bone’s farm is already crawling with spectators and trainers. Over the sound of tires crunching over gravel I hear dogs howling and barking, Johnny Cash trying to drown them out on loud speakers. The hoots and hollers of good old boys that’ll hang around after matches and make a quick sell of crystal. At least I stay off that stuff.
Rick’s Cadillac is parked by T-Bone’s shed. It’s out of place among the rusted pickups with Don’t Tread On Me stickers. I’ve had to save his ass from a few beatings, but now I see him talking and laughing with T-Bone, chugging beers with him. I park off the gravel, away from other trucks. I want Betty to be calm when I walk her up.
I lean over to pet her. Her tongue hangs out and she pants. I stroke her head and get out, walk over to the passenger side. I open the door and lean over Betty. She looks up at me with those angry sad eyes and barks, slobber all down her jaw, ready to bite.
I reach out and snatch her snout, clamping her jaw shut. To remind her who’s in charge. I lean closer to her, feel the warmth from her breath.
“You don’t bark at me,” I say. “Ever. You little bitch, you get mad at them, not me.” I shake her until her growls stop. I let go and kiss her head, scratch her chin.
I give her leash a tug and she hops out of the truck. She moves slow. Walking her over to the crowd, I look at the other dogs – alert and ready to bite any-fucking-thing that moves. I look down at Betty, her head down and body sagging. I stop her and think about turning back to my truck, take Betty back home, let Shelly know that I didn’t fight her. But Rick hollers my name, waves me over, shaking a beer. Betty needs to be tugged to move.
“How’s my girl today?” he says.
He squats down, spills some beer, roughhouses with her. She growls and shows her teeth. Rick laughs, backs up and stands.
“Not feeling good my ass. This bitch is ready to go.”
T-Bone lights a joint, wipes his nose with his shoulder. He looks Betty over.
“She’s gonna have a tough time with Scoot’s new bitch.”
“What about it?” I say.
“She’s a mad one. Saw it tear a groundhog to bits last week. Scoot’s been workin her tough. Just might be the meanest fuckin bitch I ever saw.”
He grins a yellow smile at me, scratches his rugged beard. His Iron Cross tattoo visible just under his sleeve. Rick shrugs him off, tells him Betty is a fighter to the end.
“Isn’t she, Bruce?”
“Yeah,” I say, looking down at her. “She sure is.”
Betty looks up at me, that same look of every cow I’ve put down. Sad, scared, knowing and not knowing what happens next. My hand light pink in the sunshine. Betty pants and lays down at my feet.
T-Bone checks his watch, takes a puff. “Time to get the show rollin, boys.”
Everyone gathers around the five-by-five makeshift square T-Bone rigged up. Planks of wood and scrap metal make up the borders, the ground in the middle worn to dust. Blood stains on the walls. Men surround the ring, beers in hand, the dogs’ barking and growling buried under cheers and whistles.
The first match is Scoot’s new bitch with some newcomer. The boy looks too young to be here, and I know he’ll be walking away with empty pockets and a ruined dog. The dog ain’t special either. Too small.
T-Bone’s in charge of betting. He goes around, taking them down, stuffs crinkled and greasy bills in his shirt pocket.
Scoot comes up with his dog. It’s a monster pit. Scoot throws her into the ring and she already flashes her teeth before the other dog comes in. Her legs are tight and muscular. When the new kid tosses his dog in, the fight doesn’t last more than a minute. Scoot’s pit mutt grabs hold of the other’s leg, pulls him down, tears through the muscle, shows some bone. His yelping makes Betty look around; ears perked.
Everyone cheers and shouts when the match ends. A few guys walk away saying fuck it and pay T-Bone. The new kid walks away with his yelping ruined dog. T-Bone comes over to me and Betty.
“You’re up, buddy,” he says.
Rick waits by the ring for us. I have to drag her over, all the time Betty going from growling to whimpering to barking. Rick gets down to her level and smacks her on the snout. I let go of her leash and grab him by the collar, pull him up.
“Don’t hit her.”
“Jesus Bruce, I’m trying to get her ready.”
I let him go and undo Betty’s collar. Scoot’s bitch waits in the rings, snarling.
My eyes meet Betty’s. I hold her head. She growls at me but stops. I pet her back and scratch her ears. Everyone shouting for me to toss that bitch in, let’s fucking go. Rick over by T-Bone making his bet. Scoot standing behind his mutt, his eyes sunken from years of meth.
“It’s okay, baby. Everything’s gonna be okay.”
I pick her up, place her in the ring. Scoot’s dog gets low to the ground. The blood from the last dog muddied up the middle of the fighting floor. She barks at Betty and Betty gets low and defensive.
Scoot’s bitch makes the first strike. He raised a mean one, and she attacks mean. Goes right for Betty’s neck. Her jaw wraps around Betty but Betty knows to go for the legs. She snags a bite at the front right leg, Scoot’s dog yelps with pain, lets go. She licks her wound, looks back up at Betty’s. The fur of Betty’s neck already red and soaked. Rick stands by T-Bone, his face unimpressed. Betty hangs her head down, lowers to the ground, belly sagging to the dirt. She doesn’t lunge, and I know that ain’t a good sign. She’s a fighter. She’s tired.
I step into the ring, grab Scoot’s bitch by the scruff of her neck. She barks at me and tries to bite my arm. I toss her out of the ring.
“The fuck is this horseshit?” Scoot says.
“Fight’s over,” I say. “You won.”
I squat down beside Betty, the bloodied mud caking onto my jeans. She looks up at me with those eyes full of fear. She breathes hard, her fur wet and her hind leg twisted and torn, bone sticking out. Her belly bleeds, the ground under her a dark pool. I pet her head and feel her warm blood in my palm.
“She’s done bad, Bruce,” T-Bone says behind me. “It’s a sad sight. She fought good, though.”
I pick Betty up, she yelps and growls at me but I whisper and coo in her ear and she starts panting. Someone hands me a dirty rag and I wipe the blood away. I wrap it tight around her and the bleeding slows. She looks at me with glassy eyes and I push past T-Bone and head towards my truck.
She’s heavy in my arms, her blood soaking my shirt. I place her in the passenger seat and pet her head gently. Sweat falls down my face. Another fight has started, the barks and growls and yelps and cheering loud and aggressive.
“Sorry about Betty,” Rick says behind me. “She put up a hell of a fight.”
I turn around. He’s got one hand stuffed in his nice jeans, the other holding a sweating Natty Light. Dirt all over his nice lawyer’s shoes.
“I told you she couldn’t fight. She’s ruined now.”
He looks down, kicks at gravel. He pulls his hand out of the pocket, holds it to me.
“Wasn’t a total loss. And we can get another dog.”
“The fuck is that for?”
“You said you wanted half. Here it is. Threw in a little extra.”
“She lost. I took her out.”
“Scoot’s bitch didn’t. T-Bone gave me good odds, since Betty never lost a fight.”
I take a step toward him. Can smell the beer and weed on him. My hand takes the money. I stare at it, crisp bills mixed with greasy ones. I ball the money in my fist and I swing it across his nose.
Rick drops his beer; it splatters on my jeans. He brings his hands up, the blood gushing out between his fingers. I grab his collar and hit him again. My hand screams from hitting bone, the pain rippling up my arm. He falls back. I’m on him before he can even try to crawl away. He’s taller than me, but I’m bigger. That’s all that matters in a fight.
Guys gather around, watch me as I keep hitting Rick’s face. T-Bone tries to pull me up but I throw him off and keep at it. Rick’s eyes swell shut fast. The skin on my knuckles tears. Rick gags on his blood and that’s when I stop myself. I stand up, look down at him. I spit on him and wipe my hand on my jeans. My hand throbs. I open it up and the money has splatters of blood all over. I throw it over Rick and get into my truck.
In the rearview I watch T-Bone and others drag Rick away, putting him into another car.
I sit there and look at my hand. I crank the engine and pull back on the highway as quick as I can. Betty whines so loud not even the semi-trucks drown her out.
It’s a little after one when I get home. Shelly’s car is gone and the house seems dark even in the daylight. Betty struggles to get out of the car. She has a slight limp and she licks at her leg. She’ll have to go to the vet. I worry they’ll put her down but then remember it’s all my fault. I wonder about the pups. If she has them, I’ll make sure they go to decent families. They ain’t going to see a killing floor.
I lead Betty into the house. She moves so slow it hurts me to see it. We get into the house and the air feels stiff. There’s a half-eaten sandwich on the kitchen counter. I can’t see a note anywhere. I bend down to Betty and take her leash off. She limps into the bedroom. I follow her.
She goes to the bed and sniffs around. Hangers litter the floor, the closet half empty. I take off my muddy and blood-stained clothes and get in bed. My hand throbs and my head hurts. Betty sits up. The rag is red now. I reach out to pet her but she growls and jumps down. She heads for the closed door and scratches at it. Her whines for someone else fill my ears. She starts barking, barking for Shelly. Barking for a life I did not give her.