Kansas Q/Arkansas Review 26.1-4
I had my first real pain at age 21 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where I had gone for awhile to avoid some things in New York. I was staying with this guy Linden who was a friend of a friend. He was renting me a spare room in his house for $10 a night. Linden repaired marine engines to make money, and when he wasn't doing that he bred and trained fighting cocks.
Cock fights were illegal. They were held on Sundays in a circular open air arena up in the hills at the east end of the island. My first Sunday on St. Thomas, I went to the cock fights with Linden and Twyla, the woman who was living with him.
Twyla had two little kids from a first marriage. She was a thin, pretty woman, nervous and intelligent, and I wanted her badly. I was sure she wanted me too, but we were both afraid of Linden who carried a hard edge of anger with him most of the time.
On Sunday morning I walked with Linden down the hill from his house to the coop where he kept the fighting cocks. It was unseasonably hot and the Trade Winds, which usually blow across the island from the east, had died to nothing. With the sun at our backs, the Caribbean spread before us like a sheet of beaten gold, broken by a scattering of small black volcanic islands.
Linden withdrew a white rooster from the coop and began to smooth its feathers and talk to it in a soft crooning voice. He removed a small leather hood to reveal the bird's fierce, attentive head. Fresh scars were visible through the ravaged feathers on its neck and chest.
"I have to keep them hooded in the coop. Otherwise they'd hurt themselves trying to get at each other. This is El Capitan. He fights today."
Linden thrust the warrior bird into my hands, grinning as I held it awkwardly away from my face and body. One of his upper right teeth gleamed gold as the Caribbean below.
"He won't hurt you. Hold him like this."
He reached forward and gripped the bird firmly. His strong tan hands were flecked with tiny scars.
"He won't hurt you," he repeated, but what I thought he meant was this: he won't hurt you, but I will, and badly, if you lay a hand on Twyla.
* * *
I got the psilocybin mushrooms from a psychiatrist in New York who ordered them from a farm in California and sold them to his patients and friends. I had taken one mushroom and all I could see were Gecko lizards. They were on the walls, the plants, in the dust in front of the house, everywhere. It was clear they had been there all along, and I just hadn't noticed them.
Linden's Jeep was open sided with a roll bar behind the front seats which I gripped as we humped and twisted over the hills on the left (British) side of the narrow, pitted road. Twyla said she'd keep an eye on me at the cock fights because of the psilocybin. She said she'd let me know if I started acting weird. I was sitting behind her, leaning back to avoid looking down her halter top.
Linden, who was driving, told her I didn't need looking after. He said a man shouldn't take anything he couldn't handle, and he didn't assume I had.
I thought: How do you know if you can handle something before you try it? And then: Will the psilocybin make my lust for Twyla transparent ?
* * *
The cockpit was a wooden ring about 3 feet high and 15 feet across set on a dusty plateau high above the Caribbean. A crowd of about 200 had assembled for the fights, mostly blacks and Latins, almost all men. Their Jeeps and trucks sprawled in a rough semicircle around the pit. Cold beer and barbecued meats were sold from a tent to one side.
The few women present showed the early wear of tropical life, like fruits beginning to darken and split in the sun. In this company, Twyla was the exotic -- pale and slender, with streaky blonde hair. As we moved among the crowd, I watched the men's dark eyes shift to her body and then away. Linden was excited and happy. He tucked El Capitan into the crook of his left arm and walked briskly to the official's area beside the pit where the birds were being weighed and matched.
To verify weight, the birds were dumped unceremoniously head first into an open ended leather funnel connected to a scale. When two fighting cocks were matched in weight, their hoods were removed and they were held close to each other to judge their degree of mutual animosity. If sufficiently strong, a match was made, the names of the birds were posted, and betting commenced.
Once the match was made, the natural spurs on the back of the cocks' legs were cut to the quick with a pen knife to insure that they could "feel" the hollow steel spurs which were then strapped in place over the sensitized flesh and bone. These spurs hooked out to a razor point one and a half inches from the leg shaft.
The rules were simple. The birds fought until one died. An owner could step in to forfeit a match and save a bird's life if he thought the bird could recover to fight well again, or even for sentimental reasons. It was a tough call sometimes, because with those spurs, a bird that looked defeated one minute could turn the fight around with a single well placed kick.
El Capitan was fighting first, against a black and brown rooster named Toro who looked larger, probably because he had lost less plumage in prior fights. With his hood removed and his spurs strapped on, El Capitan looked fiercely agitated, genuinely combat ready, although the odds were running 3 to 2 against him.
"This bird has heart, this bird has valor!" Linden was holding El Capitan aloft and shouting above the rising babble of voices as the betting drew to a close.
I put $10 on El Capitan because I had held him warm in my hands and didn't want him to die.
The birds attacked each other immediately on release, smashing together at the center of the pit in an explosion of dust and feathers. Then they fell back, circled, and exploded again. At each explosion, the crowd made a collective noise, somewhere between a grunt and a scream.
The kicks and pecks were too rapid to be seen individually but the results were evident. Within two minutes Toro was listing to the left, dragging a wing and bleeding from the chest. Then El Capitan emerged from the next flurry walking backward in a small circle. Blood was flowing from the left side of his head. He shook his head as if to clear it and the droplets flew like a small red spray.
El Capitan was disoriented. Toro moved in to finish it but he was also badly hurt and his attack was sluggish. Linden stepped into the pit and scooped up El Capitan as the crowd roared their disapproval.
"Where is the valor?" someone screamed. "Your bird is a maricon!"
Linden looked for the screamer in the crowd. "Your mother is a poor companion in bed," he shouted. "Even worse than your sister."
El Capitan's breathing was rapid and shallow. His left eye was hanging by a thread from the side of his head. Linden brushed the eye away with a flick of his hand and began to apply disinfectant and antibiotic salve to El Capitan's empty socket and other wounds. He worked slowly and gently with clean cotton swabs. As he worked, he stroked El Capitan and praised him in a crooning, singsong voice.
I left the pit and went into the beer tent. My skin was prickly with sweat and I could taste breakfast in my nostrils. I ordered a beer I didn't want. The smell of roasting meat was heavy and sweet, and it quickly drove me out of the tent. Twyla was on her way in. I handed her my beer.
"Are you okay ?" she asked.
"I think it's the psilocybin. I feel...off."
The mushroom hadn't really changed anything, but it had put some definite torque on reality. Twyla's nipples jutted beneath her halter top. I wondered how they stayed so hard in the heat. I wondered if the cock fights excited her. I was sick with violence and longing.
"You don't have to watch," she said. "You can go for a walk. I do that sometimes." She took a pull on the beer. The smooth muscles of her throat worked as she swallowed.
"He's beginning to drink rum," she added.
What I thought she meant was this: you don't have to watch for me.
* * *
I walked the nearby hills, hallucinating mildly and trying to think things through about Twyla. It seemed to me she had conspired to run into me alone several times over the past five days, but my loneliness was so deep that I wanted — required — an unequivocal invitation from her. It came to this: I would risk Linden's wrath to bed Twyla, but not his wrath plus the possibility of rejection.
When I returned, the last fight was in progress and Linden was drunk. He lost his last bet, which didn't please him. Twyla insisted on driving, which didn't please him either. In the Jeep, Linden turned to me. His eyes were in flames.
"Sorry you didn't enjoy our local diversion. Must have seemed ...crude to you. Or maybe you prefer other blood sports. Boxing, maybe. Bullfights."
"I think the psilocybin got to me." It was a weak answer. We had already discussed how real men didn't take what they couldn't handle.
"Some people think cock fights are brutal," Twyla volunteered.
"Button it up, Sister," said Linden.
We drove west, into the sun, wrenching around curves and battering over potholes. Finally, Linden turned to me again.
"El Capitan was... beautiful today" he said. "Fought bravely for what he valued most. Didn't try to steal it from anybody."
* * *
Linden continued on with the 151 proof rum when we got home. I walked down the hill to the narrow white powder beach by the water's edge and lost my mind in the complex clarity of the Caribbean. After a while I imagined Twyla sitting beside me. Then I imagined her naked and open in front of me.
Then I saw myself as an old man, angry and alone.
It was dark when I returned. The kids were asleep, Linden was passed out in bed, and I was straight. I ate some leftovers and helped Twyla clean up the kitchen.
"Linden told me some heavy shit went down in New York before you came," she said.
"He told me about your girlfriend."
"Do you think what happened was her fault?"
"No. I got her involved. But it finished us. There's a court order forbidding me to get anywhere near her once she's out."
"Do you mind talking about it?"
"I'm sorry. It just seems funny. We both wound up here after other disasters."
Twyla shooed a lizard gently from the counter top.
"I haven't been to New York in five years," she said. "I'd love to see it again."
"You're welcome to stay with me any time I'm there."
We avoided looking directly at each other. I excused myself as soon as the cleanup was complete and went to my room.
* * *
I awoke at 1:00 A.M. with a sharp pain in my right side, bearable but constant. I put on my Jockeys and walked down the hall to the bathroom for some aspirin. On my way back I met Twyla walking toward me wearing a thin night shirt. Another chance meeting. We both stepped in the same direction to avoid each other and collided softly.
But we didn't disengage. Not immediately. Her head came around and up. She took my face in her hands and gave me one slow, soft kiss as rich and warm and salty as the whole Caribbean.
"We can't," she whispered, and spun by just as my arms were reaching reflexively forward to grip her and crush her against me. I watched her step into the bathroom and close the door.
Back in my room, I wanted to think about that kiss, to conjure with it, but the pain in my side was building fast and beginning to radiate in hot waves. I heard Twyla flush the toilet and walk down the hall. I heard a noise, as if she had tripped on something, followed by a soft curse. Then a grunt from Linden, and then this, clear as day:
"Sister? Why are you out of bed? Did you betray me, Sister?"
The talk dropped off low then, she sweet and placating, he deep and rumbling. The bed groaned. Twyla began a series of small, soft cries. The pain was growing like a screaming siren in my side, like a hot, molten drill bit grinding into my side.
I leaned over and vomited in the corner of my room. I vomited food, then bile. I vomited until there was nothing left but dry heaves. I thought I was dying.
I wanted to die in a hospital but I couldn't interrupt Linden while he was fucking the woman I loved.
Finally Linden made a noise like a shout. I limped down the hall, doubled over, and knocked on their half open bedroom door.
"I'm...sick. I need...help."
The room was lit by candles and smelled like sex. Linden lay at ease with his arm around Twyla, who pulled the sheet up over her small breasts as I knelt, doubled over, at the foot of the bed.
"Pain...in my side...very bad..."
"Had your appendix out, sport?" Linden was grinning. His gold tooth gleamed in the candle flame.
"Yes...it's not that...please..."
"Could be food poisoning. Maybe from the magic mushroom. Want to wait a little and see if it lets up ?"
Linden sighed. "Guess I'll run you into town." He rose with the naked ease of a man comfortable in his home and habits and began to pull on a shirt and pants. He moved neither rapidly nor slowly. I lay on the floor, shivering, moaning and rocking. Twyla crouched beside me, wrapped in a sheet, her hand on my shoulder.
Linden hit every pothole as the Jeep wound through the hills and down into Charlotte Amalie. Every one, and there were plenty. The bastard's doing it on purpose, I thought. Each jolt felt like it was going to kill me.
I made a real racket at the hospital. I was completely out of control. All restraint was gone. All courage. All dignity. I blacked out shortly after the second shot.
* * *
I opened my eyes in an immaculate white room. I was in bed wearing a hospital gown under a crisp white sheet. I felt clean and safe and completely free of any physical pain.
The total absence of physical pain was like a gift. Everything seemed soft, cottony, floating.
Then my comfort was pricked by a wave of shame as I remembered my behavior the night before. It was incomprehensible. If the pain had been that bad, how could it be totally gone today? Last night's events seemed distant, unreal.
A young Asian woman in a starched white lab coat walked into the room. She was petite and perfectly formed. Her complexion was honey rose and her teeth were small, white, and even. The blue plastic tag on her crisp cotton breast read : DR. LING.
"Good morning," she said cheerfully. "I'm your doctor. You had a nasty renal colic last night. Took quite a bit of Demerol to sedate you. "
"I had...what?... you're my..."
She rested her small boned, elegant hand lightly on my hip.
"A kidney stone. On your side, please." Her voice was soft and musical.
I rolled on my side. I heard the smack of a rubber glove. She lifted my buttock cheek, probed expertly, and gently inserted her lubricated finger.
I wondered about this beautiful young Doctor, who she was. I very much wanted to engage her on a personal level, as a peer, but I could not think of a thing to say. She touched something sensitive, and I shifted in discomfort.
"Just relax," she said. She was very professional. Gentle, even warm, but still very professional.
"Isn't it amazing?" she said. "That terrible, unbearable pain, and then the next day, no pain at all."
"It's amazing," I said.
* * *
A few minutes later, Twyla walked in, fresh and radiant in a short yellow sun dress. She stood by my bed and took my hand.
"How is your pain?" she asked.
I looked up into her lovely oval face and sea green eyes.
"No pain at all," I said.
"It's amazing," I said.