Billy versus the Chicken
Billy was driving west and he was not in a good mood. His dog had run off, again, chasing deer, and this time the sheriff had fined him for recovery and impoundment costs. "Don't blame me," the sheriff had said, "He was digging up a garden at the house of a new lawyer couple. They said they were watching how things were handled around here, so this all has to go on the record. Anyway, how's your friend Becky? I haven't seen her lately." The leak in the roof of the hayloft had reappeared. When he had driven to a town past the other side of the mountain and east, at the edge of what everybody called the city, to get lunch at a diner he hadn't visited for a while, he discovered that it had been turned into a 99 cent store named 99 Cents Loco Loco Loco 99 Cents. He also found out that, if you parked your truck there and bought some underwear, which cost more than 99 cents, someone would steal your antenna and rear view mirrors.
Back home, a section of fencing had rotted and collapsed on the low side of the field when the creek flooded. Another developer was calling with "the best and last offer" for his little farm. The tiles on the kitchen counter edge had fallen off to reveal a suspicious-looking mold behind. Pranksters had spray-painted something he couldn't read on the side of one his cows. One local paper, the County Democrat, had reported that the latest executive housing development, despite previous analyses, did, in fact, require new water and sewage lines, necessitating a tax increase. Another paper, trumpeting the increasing diversification of the region, had noted that the latest arrivals had brought unexpected numbers of the same along with them, at the ratio, perhaps, of 1/25, mainly old people and children, necessitating increased spending in social and medical services, and special education programs and elementary school expansion, the result being a tax increase, which would also help to pay for the new multilingual program called, in the part which Billy understood, "Tolerance and Cultural Understanding," to be held at the armory on Wednesday nights. All residents were strongly encouraged to attend, $5 donation at the door. And the water heater was leaking.
Billy put the visor down against the setting sun, turned to his recently recovered dog, and said, "You just can't win." The dog took his head out of the open window and turned towards Billy. "I mean," Billy continued, "You really can't. Look at you. Aren't you supposed to man's best friend? You're nothing but trouble lately." The dog stuck his head out the partly opened window again, with his mouth wide open and his tongue flapping against his head in the wind.
Billy pressed the scan button on the radio. He listened to the local college station until he heard a song that ran something like: Make love not war said the wizard to the witch. Make love not war said the demonic horde. Make love not war said the weary traveler. Make love not war said the little people (the last bit in chipmunk voices). He turned the radio off in disgust just as the dog saw something on the side of the road and tried to jump out after it, getting wedged halfway in the truck window and halfway out. Billy pulled him back in with some difficulty and leaned over to roll the window up until it was nearly closed.
He had slowed down considerably, and the driver of a Mercedes two feet off his rear bumper was blowing his horn in irritation. Billy waved, and sped up to 15 miles per hour above the speed limit. Billy grunted. The Mercedes continued to tailgate. When Billy reached the next little town, he pulled into the deli parking lot to let the car behind him pass, and let the dog out to run around. Then he went inside the store.
He stopped to look at the bulletin board and was reminded by a garishly old-timey poster, that the county fair was starting that evening. Goats, he thought, just think of the goats that'll be there. Billy loved goats and talking about goats and talking to goats. Smarter than dogs, he maintained, and good neighbors. What harm could there be, he reasoned, in stopping off at the fair on the way home to see some goats? The very thought of seeing some of these prize-winning animals restored Billy's customary good humor.
He poured himself a coffee and went to the register to pay. Instead of the usual high school girl at the register, there was an obviously new guy.
"Hi, just a small coffee," Billy said, and handed him a five dollar bill.
"Yes, sir, what are you buying?" said the clerk.
"A small coffee," said Billy.
"What else, sir?" asked the clerk.
"Only this, a small coffee," explained Billy. The clerk put the change on the counter despite Billy's outstretched and open hand. Billy looked at him, then at the change.
"Isn't that 50 cents?" he asked.
"Yes, 50 cents," the clerk answered.
"I gave you a five."
Billy disliked confrontation. "Well," he said with studied patience, "there's only $3.50 here."
"Yes, sir," the clerk said with even more patience than Billy. Neither of the two said anything for a moment.
Billy took a breath and went on, "The change should be $4.50. The coffee cost 50 cents. I gave you five dollars. Five dollars less 50 cents is $4.50 where I come from. You still owe me a dollar."
The clerk was now obviously irritated. "You have your change now, sir, now please go."
"You still owe me a dollar. I only had five when I came in here, I bought a coffee for 50 cents, and I'm not going to leave with $3.50. That's a dollar short."
The clerk remained motionless, studying the newly fascinating countertop.
"Look," said Billy, "I don't have the extra dollar!" Billy emptied his pockets on the counter, depositing a wallet, which he opened to show that it was empty, a comb, a folding knife, two mystery keys, a variety of nuts, bolts, and screws, a pack of matches, a broken pencil, a combination watch and compass, several ATM withdrawal slips, an old Ben Franklin fifty cent piece he carried for luck, several spent .22 cartridge casings, and a tangled mass of string.
The clerk stared at the pile of objects cluttering the counter. "Why do you carry string with you?" he finally asked.
"To catch crabs with. All you do is tie a piece of chicken or hot dog to it, drop it in the water, and haul them up."
"Really? I love these crabs, but they sell out quickly at the Grand Union supermarket."
"They taste even better if you can get them fresh out of the water, and they're practically free. What about my dollar?"
A middle aged woman, the manager, walked out of the back room to say, "Hey, Billy, you're out late. What's going on?"
"Hi, Gayl. I got a call to pick up the dog and was thinking that I would go to the opening night of the fair, stopped off for a coffee, and got stuck trying to get the change right. I'm owed another dollar."
Gayl glanced at the stuff strewn over the counter, and said, "Give Billy a dollar." The clerk shrugged, and put another dollar on the counter.
"You've hired a tough one here," said Billy.
"Ranajamanajanatma works like a maniac. Early, late, or both. He's trying to get his engineering license in this country, and I know how you are always trying to get things to work better. You'll get along great. You should take him fishing."
"Maybe," said Billy, doubtfully.
"Perhaps sometime," said the clerk, dubiously.
"I guess I'll get a Slim Jim, too. The dog loves them. How much?"
"One dollar," said the clerk.
"Just happen to have one right here," Billy said as he handed it over. "Goodnight, all."
"Goodnight," they answered, the clerk adding, "Sir."
On their drive to the fairgrounds, they passed by the Motor Vehicle Services Inspection Station Number 39, an old tavern where the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty used to meet, the site of a Revolutionary War massacre, the diner where Billy met the farrier for breakfast every Saturday morning, the one-time Amish farmers' market, now closed, the theater where Billy and his friend Becky went to see movies on Tuesdays, when it was Date Night and half-price (along with her retarded little brother Doug, who always got in for reduced admission), and, out in the game preserve, a buried pirate treasure. The story ran that, since the treasure was blood money, and since blood is a special substance that attracts undesirable company from the nether regions, whoever tried to profit from it would attract a legion of tormenting demons, with madness, death, and damnation being the inevitable result.
They reached the fairgrounds without incident, and parked. Billy let the dog jump into the truck bed, then tied a rope to the dog's collar and to the truck's back bumper. "I'll be back in fifteen minutes, so behave yourself," he said, and tossed the rest of the Slim Jim into the bed as he walked off. The dog sniffed the snack. When he realized that Billy was abandoning him, he rushed to the end of the rope to follow, choking himself and barking harshly through his constricted windpipe. Billy kept walking, thinking, That idiot dog is going out west C.O.D. tomorrow morning.
The entrance led right into the Midway, the center of the fair's noise, light, and activity. He immediately noticed that there wasn't as much farm equipment around on display as there had been in the past. Billy hadn't seen anything like it since his visit last year. He didn't count his recent trip to the city to see an old neighbor, who had been sent to a hospital there for specialist care. He had been too worried to pay much attention to the surroundings, and what he mainly noticed was the relentless traffic and how the people on the sidewalks between the train station and the hospital looked grey and lifeless, sicker than his friend even, and how they constantly bumped into him, despite his best attempts to get out of their lurching and irregular progress to someplace or other.
Billy pressed though the people, hardly paying any attention to the Midway's diversions and challenges. He didn't hear the hawkers insult him as he walked past. He was not tempted by fried dough and funnel cakes. Balloons popped in the shooting galleries, rings clanked against milk bottles, but Billy did not hear them. Lights blinked and midgets walked on their hands and the prizes to be won in the games of skill and chance were everywhere on view (along with some pretty weird-looking people of the sort you usually only run across at Motor Vehicle Services), but Billy saw none of them. He was intent on getting through the Midway and to the heart of the real fair, the animal barns. Then, at the far end of the Midway, by the exit, he saw it, and stopped.
It was called a Thinkin' Booth and held a rooster. The signs read: Animal Shows Are Air Conditioned, Please Do Not Tap On Glass Or Tease The Animals Thanks, Bird Brain takes O. You take X. Deposit Twenty-Five Cents.
Billy stared at the Thinkin' Booth and its occupant. He looked back out beyond the Midway, into the relative darkness to the part of the fair with livestock and agricultural exhibits. His eyes narrowed slightly as he watched the rooster behind the booth's glass. Billy had never liked chickens. Noisy, always underfoot, stupid and dirty, he maintained, perhaps unfairly, as he would admit if asked, but the simple fact was that he didn't like chickens, whatever the reason. He had never visited a therapist to find out why. He walked over to the Thinkin' Booth, dropped a quarter in the slot, and let the chicken go first. O. X. O. X. O. X. O. Game over. Chicken wins.
He slid another quarter into the booth's slot. O. X. O. X. O. X. O. Game over. Chicken wins. Billy pushed back his cap to scratch his head. After a few moments of consideration, he dropped a quarter in to try a new strategy. O. X. O. X. O. X. O. The game ended with the chicken victorious once more.
Billy was nonplussed. He walked around the Thinkin' Booth to check for coaches or any other sort of outside interference in what should be an honest game of skill between man and chicken. He could find nothing suspicious. He put his face to the glass to examine the chicken, to make sure it wasn't a robot or wired in some way. The rooster strutted around inside its booth, then approached Billy. Billy looked in its blank eyes and into its empty chicken soul and bird brain. The rooster pecked the glass once, with force, trying to reach Billy's face. Billy jumped back startled, and considered whether or not he should take on the chicken once more. The rooster ruffled its wings and crowed.
"You aren't losing to a chicken, are you Billy?" asked a familiar voice at his back. Billy turned and saw that it was his friend the farrier, with a teenage girl clinging to each of his arms. They were both loaded down with a variety of stuffed animals, large and small.
Billy blushed with embarrassment, and said, "Hi, Yancey. Maybe I am. It looks like you've been doing pretty well, though."
"Well, you know me," said the farrier, adding, "By the way, call me Clancey from now on. The law is closing in, and you can't be too careful. Right girls?" The girls giggled. "What do you say we get out of here and get back to my place?" The girls giggled again. "See you at the diner tomorrow, Billy," the farrier called back over his shoulder as he left with his escorts.
"OK," said Billy.
The farrier released himself from the girls and returned to Billy, who by now was once more regarding the rooster in its booth. "Listen," said the farrier, "Let me tell you something. Stick to shooting basketballs or busting balloons with darts while you're here. This game is hopeless. The chicken always wins. Did you get that? The chicken always wins." He laughed, slapped Billy on the back, and returned to the girls, who were waiting impatiently. All three made their way to the exit.
Billy stood where he was for a while, and considered his options. There was the chicken, and over there were the goats. He thought that maybe he didn't feel like seeing the goats anymore, and might as well see how the dog was doing and get on home. Tomorrow, he would meet the farrier for breakfast at the diner. He sure would have a good story to tell.