Fiction Friday: John Hornor Jacobs’s “Old Dogs, New Tricks”
Happy Day-After-Thanksgiving Fiction Friday, dear readers. Since today is also kind of a holiday, I couldn’t resist giving you an extra-special treat. John Hornor Jacobs’s story, Old Dogs, New Tricks, reached out and grabbed us by the collective throat here at Surreal South central, and wouldn’t rest until we put it in the book. Seriously, it stalked me. Scared the hell out of my own two dogs, who made me promise to never, ever take them to Arkansas.
Old Dogs, New Tricks (excerpt)
Six dogs were dead and two maimed, whining pitifully in their pens, when the truck came over the hill, headlights shining up into the pines and then dipping down, illuminating the mat of needles covering the forest floor. The truck wound its way down the path toward the pit, rumbling and coughing through the trees. It stopped with a clatter near the kennels and Issac Douglas climbed out of the cab and walked to the back.
The men watched, standing around the pit, smoking in the guttering kerosene light. Issac reached into the bed of the truck and grabbed a crate, sliding it out and onto the gate. Dressed in khaki work-shirt and pants, grease marring the elbows and knees, Issac lit a cigarette and drew on it heavily. His khaki clothes hung loosely, cinched at the waist, giving him the look of a withered navy officer.
Cigarette jutting from his mouth, he lifted the crate with a grunt. With the quick step of someone carrying a heavy load, he walked the crate over, setting it down with a thump, leaving a faint trail of smoke in the dark.
The dogs began howling and slavering, biting at the metal grills of the kennels.
“Hush now, dogs! Hush!” A man cried, kicking at the line of portable crates. The sound of growls grew frantic, more desperate. One of the men threw a bucket of water at the pens and the dogs quieted.
Turning back to the pit, the men—rough men all, field hands and laborers—leaned on the plywood and corrugated tin sides.
Kerosene lanterns hissed in the dark, throwing yellow pools of light onto the clay floor and the faces of the spectators. The men laughed and joked; money changed hands. One man, wearing a vest embroidered with the words Arkansas Warrior Kennels, adjusted a digital camera on a tripod, whistling.
Billy Cather, belly spilling over belt and sweating through his shirt in dark patches, hollered, “I got two on Luther’s terrier! Two hundred! Need a match. Someone match me!” A man raised his arm, waving, and joined Billy. They spoke for a moment then shook hands.
Cather walked over to his truck. He fished a beer out of a cooler and popped the tab. Returning, he passed Issac.
“You got another watch for me, Ike? I’m starting a collection.” He slurped his beer.
Issac sat on his crate, staring into the light of the kerosene lanterns with an abject, blank look. He pulled on his cigarette and blew a huge plume of smoke.
“Ain’t right what you did,” he said slowly, not looking at Cather. “Ain’t right.”
“What the hell you talkin’ bout, Ike? This is a goddamned dog- fight, not the Salvation Army.”
“That watch been in my family four generations. Grandaddy had it in the East Indes, and Daddy had it too in the Merchant Marines.”
“Maybe your land-locked ass shouldn’t have put it up on a bet. Ain’t nothing as sorrowful and nostalgic as a gambler down on his luck.”
“I told you I’d give you money for it last week. I’d buy it back. You know I don’t have no thousand dollars. Ain’t worth that anyway. It’s gold plate.”
Cather laughed. “You said it was priceless last week.” He leaned over, trying to look into Issac’s pen. “When did you start raising, Ike? You don’t have no kennel.”
Issac blinked slowly, not looking at the man. “I got a dog. Been training him all week. Found a little something to help in Daddy’s knick-knacks from overseas.”
Doubling over, Cather dropped his beer and held his gut in an exaggerated pose of laughter. He hawed like a mule, making his voice project across the hollow. Men encircling the pit turned to watch.
Gene Corso walked over and asked, “What’s the gag, Cather? We’re about to start another match.”
“Ike here says he’s got a dog. To fight. You better adjust your book for him, cause his dead Daddy been helping him train the thing.”
Corso squinted at Issac, cocking his head.
“That right, Mr. Douglas? You got a dog you want to fight?” He was over-polite, which felt to Issac like another form of rudeness.
“Well, we’ve got an empty slot. Miller took a pass, we need a dog for filler. So, you’re welcome to fight if you got the entry fee. Hundred dollars.”
Fishing in his pocket, Issac withdrew a wad of dirty bills and peeled off five twenties. Corso took a small black ledger from his back pocket, pulled a pencil from the spine, and flipped it open.
“Issac Douglas. Entry fee paid. Dog?”
Issac remained quiet, staring at the kerosene lanterns. He flicked his cigarette away, toward the trucks.
“Don’t rightly know if it’s male or female. I didn’t check.
And…after…I wasn’t gonna get close enough to check. But it’s a terrier.”
“Fine. I’ll mark it as terrier, sex…unknown. That’s a first. Color?” “Sorta gray, I guess.”
Cather laughed again. “Now that’s a breeder for you. Don’t know color. Can’t sex a dog. You sure there’s even a dog in there, Ike? Sure is being quiet. Maybe you accidentally put in a possum instead?”
Corso moved back toward the pit, bellowing, “Entrants! Get your dogs to the gates.” He looked at his ledger. “Cullum’s brindle versus Alexander’s black. Match starts in five!”
Men moved to the pens, grabbing individual crates and pulling them to either side of the pit. The crates jerked in their hands, dogs growling and shifting their weight.
When all was ready, Corso picked up a large electric torch and turned it on, shining it into the pit. The clay circle gleamed wet and red in the light. Two men, one for each dog, perched at either side, leaning forward, ready to unlatch the crates and loose the dogs.
“Ready?” Corso’s voice pitched upward and the crowd fell silent.