Commonplace
-
www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 2 · January 2002
-

author

"He would draw nothing tonight. He would exert not one smidgeon of pain or skill upon recording the scene or its actors. There was no point."

The Hungry Eye, Episode 3
Joshua Brown

Episode 1: Chapter I | II | III | IV
Episode 2: V | VI | VII
Episode 3: VIII | IX | X
Episode 4: XI | XII | XIII

The Bandbox

After the terrier cornered the rat, all Padlin saw was a commotion of claws, paws, and teeth. The dog's rear tensed, muscles sheening through the short hair, and his head scooped up the rat, a sooty, glittering, legs-skittering sandbag in his mouth. The dog's lower jaw snapped up, a hard click, and the rat's head separated. Hitting the ground nose-first, it bounced and then rolled erratically across the floor until it glanced off of Waddley's shoe.

"Blast!" Waddley shouted. He bent down, gathered a handful of straw from the floor and wiped off the bloody smear. Still in a crouch, he eyed the rat's head. He pulled out a small pad from his jacket pocket and began quickly working out a sketch. A black egg shape in the foreground, the terrier behind with the dangling carcass between its jaws. "Get beside your dog, please," Waddley said, and the trainer obediently ambled up to his beast. He struck an awkward pose, bent over the animal, one arm extending his battered top hat in a Bowery-show stance. The terrier growled.

"The dog's name?" Waddley asked, his pencil forming the trainer, expanding his nose, shortening his arms, clipping his waist.

"Deadeye," the trainer answered. "He hates rats. Sees one, won't stop till he knows it's dead. Never misses."

"Deadeye," Waddley repeated, scrawling the name under the scene.

Padlin stood by, hands in his pockets, bone weary and amazed at his colleague's single-mindedness. Waddley. His partner. His nemesis. It had been bad enough when Quidroon had allowed the little bacon-faced runt to steal his sketch. It was now so much worse, Waddley forced upon him, his own personal leech. No, vampire. A much more appropriate image.

"What the hell are you doing?" Quidroon had demanded, interceding, while Waddley gazed anxiously at the block wavering over his head.

With Quidroon's shout, the murderous vision dissipated in Padlin's head. Lowering the block, he said: "Her face."

"Goddamn it, man, whose face?"

"The girl. The one in the morgue."

In the space of that brief, bloody reverie, as Padlin contemplated the impact of woodblock on skull, he had come to a realization. If he couldn't master the girl's face, if there was no hope, he had to bring the story to a close in another fashion. The East River morgue, the Points dog hunt, the dead girl's mad quest and demise--they all led to Sportsmen's Hall. Kit Burns's dog pit was the only place to go.

So, heart pounding, Padlin reached down into the limited resources of his invention and began to talk. It was a creative loquacity born of desperation and, most probably, sleeplessness. He told a story about a dead, cholera-ravaged girl, a girl he'd glimpsed in the Points, a notorious aficionado of the dogfights, surely struck down by her vices and the corruption issuing from the pits. Quidroon heard "dogfights," he heard "epidemic," and, undoubtedly, an attractively grotesque tableau floated into his mind, suitable for a double-page engraving in the heart of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. He dispatched Padlin to Kit Burns's waterfront dive.

But Padlin's insubordination could not go unanswered: "Yes," Quidroon smirked, "go to Sportsmen's Hall. Go tonight. But go with Mr. Waddley by your side."

Sportsmen's Hall, it turned out, was much less grand than its name implied: all makeshifts and mazes, narrow passages harbored by rude planks leading into large and small cubicles, straw strewn all over the floorboards. The foulness of the air was a palpable thing, a reek that stunned and then settled upon the senses, a weapon and then a shroud. The itchy sting of the straw couldn't hide the smell of breath wretched with alcohol's ravages, breath clotted with blood and meat. Smells of shadows, gaslight, and night. Padlin much preferred the morgue.

"Padlin." Waddley was grimacing up at him from his crouch. He adjusted his spectacles, a fidget to cover what Padlin was sure was a sneer. "I, of course, bow to your long experience in the field." Waddley's small, pearly teeth momentarily glistened. "But, Padlin, don't you think it would be wise to sketch as much as possible before someone here takes exception to our presence?"

They exchanged stares, Waddley's glasses upturned to hat-hooded Padlin.

"I'm not here to sketch," Padlin said and turned away toward the rumble and clout of the dogfight.

He would draw nothing tonight. He would exert not one smidgeon of pain or skill upon recording the scene or its actors. There was no point. Quidroon would never accept any of Padlin's sketches. Waddley had been dispatched as the instrument of his punishment, but Quidroon would reserve the final, fatal stroke for himself: the denial of the one desire he was certain Padlin cherished.

Except, Padlin thought as he walked through the passageway, rounding the jagged turns that moved from gaslight to shadow, gaslight to shadow, except Quidroon was on the wrong track. Padlin no longer pined for the morgue sketch--or any sketch, for that matter. He had a different plan.

In Padlin's exhausted mind, it bore no name but possessed a form--but not even that exactly. It was a sensation, one composed of relief and a light feathery brightness, a vision that grew in breadth and somehow became a landscape of deliverance over which Padlin could soar. He could do nothing about his mother's pinched deathmask, but Padlin was determined that the girl would not haunt him as well. Padlin would leave Sportsmen's Hall only when he knew he would never, never think about her again.

Driven forward by this inexact ambition, Padlin stepped into the heart of Kit Burns's Dog-paradise, the packed and heaving fighting amphitheater. Seventy-five, one hundred, a horde of men (peppered with a selection of the establishment's whores) squatted on tiered bleachers, bodies cascading down to a low plank fence. Padlin was greeted by their vocal flatulence, full-throated and unreserved, bellowing bets and threats into the pit. He stopped in the narrow passageway between the bleachers, his head even with the top seats, arses squirming to his right and left. Listening to the encouragement impossibly mixed with abuse, he watched the two creatures wriggling in the dirt.

The dogs tore at each other, wrapped in a tight ball. They rolled, legs occasionally flailing, slashes of movement starkly outlined in the glare of a four-headed gas jet perched over the pit. Just beyond their embrace, their handlers pawed the ground, growling and barking on their hands and knees, held at bay by double semicircles etched in the dirt that demarcated their sides. In the pumping noise, Padlin suddenly realized one sound was missing. The room was filled with human rants. The handlers yelped in their corners. But the dogs kneaded and tore one another in absolute silence.


click to enlarge

Suddenly, the animals broke apart, a bloody latticework stretching from their mauled heads until it snapped in a splutter of gore. The bleachers shuddered with the crowd's stamping feet. Swinging cracked top hats and crushed caps, spurting shrill whistles, the spectators hollered encouragement. Get 'em, Daisy! Anodyne the bastard now, god damn it! Rabbit! Her leg, crack her leg! Rabbit! Rabbit, go for her throat! Her throat, y'fucking brute! But Daisy and Rabbit were having none of it; they wobbled at either end of the pit, snuffling at the dirt, wearily eyeing one another and ignoring their handlers who frantically gesticulated and screeched behind them. Both dogs' muzzles were ripped and bleeding, the smaller one with no ears--Daisy, Padlin guessed--exhibiting a nasty gash across her rippled back.

"No heart. They don't have no heart."

A boy peeked up from under the bleachers. A boy with a caked head of hair and crusty upper lip who Padlin, amazingly, at first could not place.

"The fight's over. You'll see."

Padlin recognized the kid and a cold flash ran through him, a piercing sense of panic. He didn't move, he just gazed down at the boy.

Padlin's petrification seemed to reassure the boy. He didn't work his way into the aisle, he didn't want to get too close to Padlin just yet. But his eyes were fixed on the pad protruding from Padlin's jacket pocket.

Daisy and Rabbit hadn't moved either. The room was rocking with miserable explications and enraged curses.

"Time, gentlemen!"

A stone--no, it was some fruit--arced into the pit and scattered the dirt between the dogs. Each startled backwards into the arms of its handler. The men immediately set to blowing on the dogs' trembling hides, administering frenetic slaps alternated by caresses. They nuzzled the bloody bodies, pressed their faces against the curs' shorthaired skulls, exhaling remonstrances and reassurances into the ruined ears.

"Ready!" shouted a man dressed like a Broadway swell. A jewel twinkled from the scarlet cravat puckering up out of his vest. His bearing, though, was all waterfront: his short-waisted slab of a torso designed to absorb bare-knuckle assaults. He bent over the pit wall, cupped his hands around his mouth.

"Go!"

The handlers threw the dogs in the turf, walloping their hindquarters. Daisy and Rabbit didn't move. Groans and oaths poured down but the two curs just wobbled in place.

The referee dramatically pulled a watch from his vest pocket. Disgust crumpled his long mouth, an upside-down "u" exaggerated by a goatee that covered his jaw like black ink. He turned to his right, he turned to his left, he turned about, eyes squinting in the kind of gestural dare usually displayed by villains on the blood-and-thunder stage.

"Stalemate!" the referee pronounced. He turned back to the pit and adamantly folded his arms against his chest as the abuse fell. The handlers hurriedly retrieved their exhausted beasts and trotted out of the ring, shielding the shamed contenders from the crowd's wrath.

"What did I tell you?" The boy slowly straightened up, sidling his way out of the bleachers, his back grazing the rough wood construction. He continued to stare at Padlin's pocket.

Then he looked up under the rim of Padlin's hat, into his eyes, and a canny expression jittered the boy's cheeks. He looked like an apprentice sharper, trying to perfect a three-card monte smile. "If you draw me a picture," he said--nervousness suddenly undermining his brashness, one dirty hand picking at the tatters of a shirtsleeve--"if you draw me a picture, then I won't have to tell Kit about you."

He was already retreating back under the bleachers, head collapsed into the bony shelter of his collarbone, when Padlin answered, calmly, barely audible in the hubbub: "Go ahead. Tell him about me."

A moment's hesitation, a smudge of confusion spreading across the boy's blunt features. He quickly recovered himself, though, forever adaptable thanks to the slipperiness and serendipity of the Points. "I will." Padlin turned away to gaze down at the empty pit.

"I'll tell Kit about how you sent Mollie Maloney looking for him. Oh," the boy's canny smile shivered with effort, "he ain't going to take kindly to that."

The mention of the name, the long-unknown caption to place under the terrible engraving, the title that would complete the coroner's report, the enunciation of Mollie Maloney burst something in Padlin's head: a calcium-white cough of light that sapped his will and determination. Padlin's mind became cluttered with Mollie Maloney's uncaptured features, static sketches fluttering across his gaze, obscuring his vision, making everything before him unfocused, without depth.

Suddenly weary, Padlin barely noted the increased uproar of the crowd. Then the referee vaulted over the fence and landed heavily in the center of the pit. The referee paused to return his shining top hat to its previously jaunty angle, he tugged at the tails of his jacket. He raised his arm, the hand dipping from the weight of the rings adorning every finger. Padlin heard but did not follow the referee's words, his shout-shocked voice rasping: "Gentlemen! The main contest is at hand!"

The raucousness answering this pronouncement drowned out whatever the kid said next. Padlin caught the high-pitched timbre, a sharp point piercing here and there through the crowd noise, pinpricks that admitted leaky chirps.

"The contenders," the referee bellowed, pressing down the hubbub, "the two opposing champions, have been properly prepared for their match. This will be a clean, fair fight, gentlemen. Kit Burns guarantees that." His chest puffed balloon-like out of his jacket, the referee paused to allow the thunderous response (which included a fair share of derision).

"All the rules have been observed," he continued. "The contenders are equally matched. Weighed in one hour before this match at twenty-eight pounds each, ears cut, tails on. In the last half-hour, corners was determined by the toss of a coin and the champions then was bathed according to Bandbox rules. One," the referee popped a finger out at the crowd, "washed in hot water with soda and Castille soap. Two," he enthusiastically forked the fingers, "washed in fresh cow's milk. And three, the all-important test. The red-pepper test, gentlemen! Each trainer was permitted a taste of the opposing champion. And, as a final, incontestable test, I, Kit Burns, licked each dog myself!"

Cheers and oaths tumbled from the bleachers. Padlin stared at the blocky figure in the fighting ring. Recording the thick torso and foreshortened legs upon a mind's-eye sketchpad, Padlin worked the shapes and relationships into cartoon exaggerations: Kit Burns. Padlin felt none of the dread the name had previously evoked; the amorphousness of his fearful imaginings, a vaguely formed yet threatening ogre, had gained flesh and lost its menace.

"And, gentlemen, gentlemen." Burns's hands tamped down the racket. "Let me just say, each of them, oh, gentlemen, each of those two marvelous beasts tasted soooo good!"

The place clamored in appreciation, the bleachers palpitating as boots beat a myriad of tempos upon the planks and arses bounced up and down on the rough seats.

"I'll tell him. I will!"

The kid's words abruptly emerged. Padlin peered around, catching the boy crouched farther back underneath the bleachers. He was barely visible in the gloom. "I will," he repeated and, still receiving no response, he said: "I'll tell Kit you was the one sent her. I'll tell him you was the one that tried to steal Butts."

Burns whistled, thumb and forefinger poked in the corners of his long mouth. "Place your bets, now's the time!" He composed his stance, squaring his bulky shoulders, hands propped against his crotch like a preacher ready to receive the converted. "Gentlemen," he intoned, "I give you, hailing from Philadelphia, Moyamensing's own magnificent," (Burns dramatically swept his top hat from his head right toward Padlin), "Crib!"

As the room resounded with cheers and hisses, a man brushed past Padlin, heading for the pit. He had the rolling gait of a sailor, one arm levered out to counterbalance the weight of the blanketed bundle burdening the other.

"Crib's opponent," Burns shouted, "is the Bandbox's pride. I give you, gentlemen, the amazing, never-beaten and forever unbeatable--Butts!"

An approving roar overawed the smattering of hoots and hisses, and Padlin found himself hurtling down toward the fighting ring. Butts.

Padlin stumbled into the pack of bettors clustered at the waist-high fence. The dog sketches flapped within his head, canine cartoon after canine cartoon, types of dogs but no dog in particular. Padlin shoved through the packed bodies, his hat smacked right, left by the tangled foliage of outstretched arms and the thrusts of fists clenching cash. Butts, a belligerent fart of a name, repeatedly popping in Padlin's ears.

She had called him Jakesy.

prev next this issue home

Discuss this article in the Republic of Letters

-
-
Copyright © 2002 Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved