Charlie Debunk drops two lead balls, plunk-plunk, into the flared mouth of his flintlock Blunderbuss. The balls tumble down the rusty barrel like fishline sinkers. He sets the antique weapon across his legs and picks up a red clay jug of cornjuice. He takes long happy drinks that scorch his gullet and muddle his head.
Charlie Debunk has been loading his Blunderbuss for a week and has yet to pull the trigger. He is waiting for something special to shoot. Five days and a hundred miles ago he and his two partners made a trade with a big lunking Polack who calls himself Big Polack. Big Polack gave Charlie the gun, along with a pouch of lead balls, a pouch of powder, a pouch of flints, a twenty-inch ramrod, and a pouch of gold nuggets easily worth five hundred dollars. Charlie and his partners, Eddie Plague and Skunk Brewster, in turn, gave Big Polack a ten-year-old aborigine girl they had liberated from a starving tribe of Chickasaws. Charlie figures they got the better end of the deal. The girl had not even been old enough to noodle and had whooped like a warrior when Charlie noodled her anyway.
Charlie pours powder into the long muzzle of the black-iron red-rust rifle, rips a piece of rag and rams it with his ramrod, in and out. It makes him think about noodling, which makes him think about Bitch Bantam, the fully grown woman he has chained to a tree.
Charlie’s youngest partner in the white slavery concern, Eddie Plague, is preoccupied with other things, none of which has anything to do with noodling the savage bitch. Eddie prefers people who are free of stink. He would no more consider physical relations with the bitch than with either of his two idiot partners. Very soon Eddie will be done with them all. They will sell the pit-woman, split the take and sever ties.
Eddie looks to the horizon. He has seen cityscapes in his years, but he has never seen what he sees now, camped here alongside the Backdoor Byway. On a backdrop of smokestack black, mysterious giant white rings of smoke float like fuzzy donuts up above the city. Spheres and steeples sprout from bridges and buildings above the tree line. Eddie smells sweet sewage, oil refineries, factories and steel mills. He smells poverty and waste, opulence and passion. Eddie soars into this fabulous city where other dandies like him have their own saloons, where gayblades and kinky babes appreciate Eddie’s good looks and groove to the same alternative beat, thump thump thump.
Other than the price that she will bring, Eddie Plague has little thought for the shackled woman at the edge of camp. The sooner they rid themselves of Bitch Bantam the better. Charlie Debunk takes another long drink of corn and feeds a couple more lead balls to the mouth of his musket. Makes sense to Charlie: just as each drink makes him feel a little better, the more gunpowder, lead and wadding he puts into the gun, the bigger hole it will blow. He rams his ramrod with passion.
Charlie has worked up an intense hankering for poon. Problem is, Charlie has an intense fear of Eddie Plague. Along with his clean good looks, Eddie Plague is intensely scary and Charlie does not want to piss him off. Maybe he should check with his true partner, Skunk Brewster. Maybe Skunk is wanting some poon too. Maybe together they can get some bitch nookie.
Charlie says to Skunk, “I reckon if we was to hold down Bitch Bantam jus right we could get us some mighty good puss.”
Skunk is smarter than Debunk. He is not as ready to follow his dick into a danger zone. He is not as likely to forget why this woman is worth more than any ten of the women they have sold in the past. Skunk does, however, agree with Charlie: Bitch Bantam would be mighty good poon. Skunk needs to give the situation some thought. “Hand me that there juga bugjuice,” he tells Charlie. “I need to think.” Skunk furrows his brow as though thinking hurts his head.
Unlike Eddie Plague, Skunk and Charlie are caked with filth. Charlie passes the jug and Skunk drinks a dizzying gulp. Charlie crams another load into his rifle. Skunk takes another drink and eyeballs the woman. She glares back from behind a jungle of ash-blonde hair, her eyes, through the tangled vines, opaque violet, firing blank rounds of antipathy.
Bitch Bantam has thus far spent her relatively short life in iffy, but still legal, servitude to others. Born nameless and fatherless in Joplin, Missouri, Bitch had been dumped by her mother and found by an enterprising gambler named Dicey Deucey. Normally Dicey would never have bothered with a two-year-old garbage-heap orphan, but Bitch was special.
Dicey found the thirty-pound tot already so toughened by life that she sat gurgling and cooing amid a pile of savagely exterminated and partially eaten terrier-sized rats. The kid had a talent for killing.
Dicey Deucey took Bitch under his wing and went to work, setting her up as the first ever pit-bitch. Initially he pitted her against as many as ten rats at a time, drawing such enormous crowds that soon, along with the wagering, he began to charge admission. As Bitch grew, she graduated from rats to cocks (thus the name Bantam) to pit-bulls and wild hogs.
At twelve years of age, Bitch was five-nine, one hundred and fifty pounds. Her baby teeth had been replaced with a set of permanent choppers Dicey had filed to sharp fang-like points. Her fingernails were long and hard and sharpened like daggers. In a pit against anything short of a grizzly bear, Bitch was likely to bring even money.
The thing Dicey Deucey never figured was that Bitch was not just a dumb woman; she was smarter than he and she held no loyalties to a man who would lash her with a horse whip, kick her like a dog and call her a worthless skank. The thing that always puzzled Bitch was the surprised look on Dicey’s face when she leapt from the bloody guts of a dead Arkansas razorback to ringside, where she ripped out Dicey’s throat with her teeth and nails. Dicey Deucey looked at her as though his best friend had turned on him. He had expected eternal gratitude for his guidance and care. Dicey earned his violent death and was too oblivious to know it before taking his final breath.
Afterward Bitch ran from the crowd, hoping to hide away in the woods, make her way to another town where no one knew who she was. Unfortunately, her escape brought hysteria to the townsfolk, as though a full-moon werewolf was stalking their young.
The local sheriff, along with a gun-toting posse and a kennel of hysterical hounds, hunted her down, chained her and put her in a cage. The sheriff was a law-abiding entrepreneur; slavery had been abolished yet he found legal ways to hawk feminine wiles to a buyer’s market.
It took seven of the sheriff’s men to hold Bitch down and force her hand to sign an X to a contract. The agreement was a ditto of the forms the sheriff used in his China-girl whorehouses. The girls were employed at a dollar a day. They agreed, unknowingly, to pay back a week’s wages for every day they were sick. A woman’s nature is to bleed a few days each month and this, according to the contract, was classified as an illness keeping them from work. The girls were thus indentured by debt for life, which mercifully was usually short.
Now Bitch Bantam is twenty-years-old. She has grown six-feet high. She is hard, cut like a superhero. She conceals great pulchritude beneath a curtain of dirt and animosity. The contract means nothing to her. But still she is chained, when not center ring, and sold and traded time and time again. She is legally the property of Brewster, Charlie Debunk, and Eddie Plague who keep the nine-year-old contract, with Bitch Bantam’s squiggly X, folded up in an oilcloth haversack along with their pouch of gold nuggets and Bitch’s clothes.
Bitch is accustomed to indignity but these three shitheads are the worst yet. Skunk, Charlie, and Eddie have clubbed her, stripped her of clothing and dragged her chained and naked halfway across America. Much of her time is whiled away with castle-in-the-sky fantasies. At this moment, however, Bitch Bantam is plotting escape, murder, freedom.
Charlie Debunk stands, torques his skinny frame and points his musket at Bitch. Bitch knows what Charlie wants. All she has to do is get him close enough to grab. Chains or no chains once she puts a grip on Charlie Debunk he will never buy or sell another woman. Bitch sits butt on heels, balls of her bare feet in the dirt. She opens her legs to Charlie.
“Looky there, Skunk,” Charlie says. “The Bitch is in heat.”
Skunk is not so sure. “I ain’t so sure. I doan think we oughta be gettin too close. I think maybe we oughta club her down a little first.”
Charlie takes a couple of baby steps toward Bitch. “Hell’s bells, Skunk. We club her first, she woan do no humpin.”
Bitch is shackled, at the wrists and ankles, with maybe two feet of play in the heavy chains. She begins to growl deep in the back of her throat.
Eddie Plague is getting irritated, distracted by his imbecile partners and their penis-motivated hijinks. Eddie is tall and muscular, his face is symmetrical and his nose is perfect. Eddie is a literate sociopath with homicidal tendencies and a loud whisper voice. He packs a cutthroat razor and a two-shot derringer in his polished boots. He carries a bottle of patchouli oil with which he douses himself two or three times a day. His pants’ pockets are filled with peppermint drops which he sucks nonstop. He wears a black slouch hat with a low brim that grays his hypnotic blue eyes with shadow.
Unlike his idiot partners, Eddie is only eighteen. Skunk and Charlie have been slavery vendors since back when it was legal. Eddie entered the flesh trade as a barefoot preteen selling suck jobs to a trail of horny yokels expanding westward. Soon he added gigolo to his résumé then pimp and from there built a stable where he sold and bartered in fine quality boys and girls. But Eddie wanted more culture and so teamed with Skunk and Charlie as a means to travel east to BigCity. Now, he just wants to get back on the road. He wants his partners to leave the woman alone. Bitch Bantam could dispose of Charlie and Skunk with a well-placed bite. Yet, these idiot associates are risking life and limb for a space between her legs. Eddie would like to kill Bitch Bantam, Charlie Debunk, and Skunk Brewster, but that is not what he does.
“Leave the woman alone,” Eddie demands. “If you don’t, I’ll shoot her dead. Get your things together. It’s time to go.”
Skunk hasn’t slept well since Eddie joined them. Eddie gives Skunk creepy dreams. Skunk screws up his courage. “Crud sake, Eddie it ain’t nothin personal. Sides, ifn you shoot her we ain’t gonna be able to sell her no more, an ifn I club her we still got our vestment intact. An, me and Charlie ain’t had us no real poon since forever. We ain’t ready to go yet.” Skunk is hoping Charlie will back him up.
Charlie’s fear of Eddie is also well developed, just not as developed as his craving for poon. Charlie’s peter has gone stiff and he’s thinking maybe he can poke Bitch while Skunk is clubbing her. That way she will be jerking around and such. It might make it more better. He takes another baby-step toward the woman.
Skunk is up now. He and Charlie have silently voted to ignore Eddie and go for the woman. Skunk removes his rosewood truncheon from under his canvas bag. He ventures within a few feet of Bitch Bantam.
Bitch knows what is coming. She flexes her body and the tight iron bracelets cut into her skin. She watches the men, closely.
Skunk takes a quick step forward, swings the club, which bounces hard across Bitch’s shoulder blades. She winces and grabs at the polished cudgel. Skunk jumps backwards and gives a whoop.
Eddie Plague is disgusted, he doesn’t like his partners, but he hates Bitch Bantam, hates all women. He wants assurances that she will not enjoy Skunk and Charlie’s assault. Eddie’s opinion being that bondage and rape are enjoyable experiences.
“Give me the club,” Eddie tells Skunk.
Skunk grins, shrugs like an idiot, and hands the club to Eddie. He pulls down his grimy pants and long-johns and calls first dibs. His peter is stiff and curved like a boomerang.
“Shit,” Charlie says, “It was my idea, I oughta get first dibs.”
Eddie readies himself to crack the woman’s skull when he notices that she is no longer looking at him. She’s looking beyond him up to a hilly crook on the dirt byway. Skunk Brewster, Eddie Plague, and Charlie Debunk turn together and look up the road at a most unusual sight.
Slab Pettibone and his bear FuzzyWuzzy have materialized from around the bend. Slab is singing and playing a ukulele. FuzzyWuzzy is dancing along in a four-footed two-step.
“My Lulu hugged and kissed me,
She wrung my hand and cried,
She said I was the sweetest thing
That ever lived and died.”
Slab Pettibone and FuzzyWuzzy stop in the middle of the rutted road and look down a hundred yards at the three men and the shackled woman. FuzzyWuzzy stands on his hind legs to his full six-foot height to get a better look and taste the air.
Technically, FuzzyWuzzy is an American Black Bear, Ursus Americanus, but FuzzyWuzzy’s hair is not black. FuzzyWuzzy is a rare bear, an Ursus Americanus Kermode, known as a Ghost Bear. FuzzyWuzzy’s fur is buttermilk yellow.
Slab Pettibone has no legs. Years ago they were cut off, mid-thigh, a couple of inches above a hungry gangrene monster. FuzzyWuzzy serves with honor as Slab Pettibone’s legs. Slab is harnessed to FuzzyWuzzy’s back, just above FuzzyWuzzy’s front shoulder bones. His hair is long and silver. He has a gentleman’s face with a curly triangle of chin hair and a thick handlebar moustache. He wears a black tuxedo coat with long tails and a red sombrero hat. When FuzzyWuzzy stands on his hind legs, they look to be nine feet tall.
FuzzyWuzzy smells the gathering of humans, their scents a cartoon jet stream of windowsill pie. The woman’s bouquet is tastier than the usual odoriferous stench of homo sapiens, almost like a she-bear. She is naked and in chains. Before Slab Pettibone, FuzzyWuzzy had been in chains. It is an image that bristles his scruff and lays back his ears. He curls his lips in aggravation and issues a low moan from the back of his throat.
Below them, at the campsite, Charlie Debunk and Skunk Brewster seem frozen in incredulous mouth-breathing stares, as if neither has the brain power to digest the song and dance team of Slab Pettibone and FuzzyWuzzy the bear.
Charlie is the first to break the spell. He picks up his musket and grabs for his flints and powder horn. He puts powder in the firing cup and two flints under the hammer. Charlie has shot people before and he has shot animals before. But he has never shot anything like these two. Charlie Debunk is about to shoot himself the trophy of a lifetime.
Slab Pettibone takes in the scene, the woman in chains, the man with a club, and the other man with an old-fashioned blunderbuss, pointing at them. He tweaks FuzzyWuzzy’s ears forward, the command to hit the deck. FuzzyWuzzy irons-out flat like a fluffy beige carpet. Charlie Debunk pulls the trigger.
The old flintlock’s hammer clicks, sparking the flints which ignites the spoon of gun powder, which lights up the nine loads of powder, wadding, and lead balls, which explode the barrel, the stock and Charlie Debunk’s head. Charlie’s headless corpse lists from side to side. He takes three rubbery steps like a vaudeville comedian’s drunken pantomime then collapses to the ground.
Skunk Brewster’s pants are still at his ankles. His peter has deflated. He goes for his pistol, a thirty-eight-caliber small-frame automatic which unfortunately is not loaded. Skunk frantically digs bullets from his drooping pants’ pocket and shoves them into the five-shot cylinder.
Eddie Plague is ahead of the situation. He knows all about Slab Pettibone and his pet bear, FuzzyWuzzy. They are nothing to run from, just another ten-cent pulp novelty, white-hat heroes not known to strike the first blow. Eddie steps back a couple of feet to avoid splatters of Charlie Debunk’s blood and bone-fragments. He’s calculating his cut of Bitch Bantam now that the take has changed from thirds to fifty-fifty. Eddie forgets for a moment that he has moved closer to the woman.
Slab Pettibone looks up from FuzzyWuzzy’s furry back and assesses the situation. While it is true that Slab and FuzzyWuzzy never start a fight, getting shot at is deemed a challenge. Slab gives FuzzyWuzzy a command, “Go get em, FuzzyWuzzy!” FuzzyWuzzy takes off like a fubsy rocket. Slab holds onto his hat and yells, “Yaaa hoop hoop hoop yahooey!”
Skunk has two shells loaded and no time for more. The bear/man is closing in at an alarming rate.
Eddie Plague backs slowly away from the action, closer still to the pit-fighting woman. Bitch Bantam grabs him by the ankle, pulls him to the ground and takes a bite, through his cotton twill pants, out of his thigh. He struggles to hit her with the billy-club. She grabs an arm and an ear and pulls his face close enough to kiss. She spits his hunk of thigh and tattered pant’s fabric in his face then bites off his nose.
Slab Pettibone and FuzzyWuzzy screech to a standstill in front of Skunk just as he raises his thirty-eight. FuzzyWuzzy rears back on his hind feet and roars a challenge into Skunk’s face. Skunk turns white. He smells berries and grub-worms from FuzzyWuzzy’s lunch. He attempts to point and shoot but his hands are shaking out of control.
FuzzyWuzzy has been given the signal for a round of fisticuffs. With the heel of his right front paw, FuzzyWuzzy rabbit-punches Skunk in the chest.
Skunk lands hard to the ground. He sees above him an enraged beast poised for attack. He comes to a rash and irreversible conclusion: death by a bullet is easier than death by mauling. Skunk Brewster grins up at Slab and FuzzyWuzzy. He puts the pistol to his head and pulls the trigger. The gun pops and Skunk drops dead. It is the most peculiar thing Slab Pettibone has ever seen.
Eddie Plague has used the truncheon to successfully batter his way free of Bitch Bantam. He is discombobulated and he scuttles onto the road and keeps going until sometime later when he falls unconscious into the brush.
Slab Pettibone diverts his eyes from the two dead men. Slab hates when all manners of creatures die, even no-account slave-traders like Skunk Brewster and Charlie Debunk. Slab is as well embarrassed to look at the naked woman. He is shy around the opposite sex, they make him nervous. And, this woman is not only naked, but she’s the most magnificent gal he has ever seen. She’s near big as FuzzyWuzzy. Slab Pettibone embarrasses himself with his thoughts. He flushes red behind his whiskered face and his heart thumps his head. He averts his eyes from everything outside of the back of FuzzyWuzzy’s crown and begins to sing.
“If you monkey with my Lulu gal
I’ll tell you what I’ll do
I’ll carve your heart out with my razor,
I’ll shoot you with my pistol, too.”
FuzzyWuzzy sways with the song and sings along in a low slow soulful bellow. He looks at the woman and senses a primitive kinship. He wonders if she will wrestle with him. FuzzyWuzzy loves to wrestle and this feral woman is just the right size. He bows and does a do-se-do.
“I seen my Lulu in the springtime
I seen her in the fall
She broke my heart last winter
Said, Good-by, honey, that’s all.”
Bitch Bantam watches the shy singing legless man and the dancing bear. She smiles at the bear and cannot remember the last time she smiled at anyone, man or beast. It feels strange and happy on her face. She spits Eddie Plague’s nose into the dust and wipes his blood from her lips.
SCOT SOTHERN (b. 1949) spent forty unsettled years hustling freelance photography. Scot worked in department stores, churches, bowling alleys, sports events and high school proms. He worked in a cave at a tourist-trap in Missouri, making and selling photo mementos. Traveling with a portable studio, knocking door-to-door in suburban America, he made and sold children’s portraits and novelties–photo buttons and key-chain viewers. Scot shot model’s portfolios, head-shots, and nude magazine layouts. He spent three years in Tallahassee, Florida, with a photography studio, three seasons with a high school yearbook studio in Los Angeles, and has been employed in three different cities as a darkroom technician. Forced into commercial retirement by the crippling byproduct of a motorcycle mishap, Scot now writes books and has continued making photographs. In 2010 Scot’s first solo exhibit, lowlife, was at the Drkrm Gallery in Los Angeles. In 2011 Lowlife, the book, photos and text, was published in the UK by Stanley Barker. Scot has since been in solo and group shows on both coasts of the US as well as Ottawa, Canada, and London. His work has been reviewed and lauded in the US and in numerous publications throughout Europe. In 2013 Scot took a two-year stint writing biweekly columns, Nocturnal Submissions and Sothern Exposure, for VICE Magazine. Scot’s memoir, Curb Service was published by Soft Skull Press, July, 2013. An American Lowlife, a digital photo book was published, by Powerhouse books, in July, 2013. Streetwalkers, stories and photographs was published by powerHouse Books in February 2016. Writer, Jerry Stahl, called it “An absolutely amazing and essential book.” BigCity is Sothern’s first novel.
Adapted from Big City, by Scot Sothern Copyright © 2017 by Scot Sothern. With the permission of the publisher, Stalking Horse Press.