Short Story Of the Day, Devil’s Claws by Bill Chance

“ They came across a place where a lamb had died over the winter. Every year a few would not make it through the snowstorms, maybe trapped out in the field by quick forming drifts… and freeze to death. There were some leg bones, some ribs scattered around, and the tiny skull was already half-covered with red dirt. They kicked at the bones a bit.”

—-Bill Chance, Devil’s Claws

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#14). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 


 

Devil’s Claws

 

In the city, Sam Monaghan had been an elite baseball player – the offensive star of a select team, The Bombers. Not too bad of a pitcher either. He had to give up the sport in Coldgrove. That left a frustrating gap in his life, like a missing tooth in his jaw. The attackers had used his Bombers’ bat on his mother and he could not bear to hold one in his hands again.

They had lived in a brownstone in the old meatpacking district – they felt like urban pioneers. Until the one afternoon when Sam’s mother, Paula, came home from work to find the two tweakers that Sam’s father had hired to paint his little sister Brenda’s nursery waiting. After the attack on his wife that left her in a wheelchair, Sam’s father had moved the family out to the tiny rural hamlet of Coldgrove.

“Sam, I wish you would make some friends in the school here,” his mother said to him as he pushed her chair out onto the porch so she could watch the sun set.

“I know mom, I’ll try. I just don’t have anything in common with these kids.”

“What about Duane, dear? He lives on the next farm over, you can walk there whenever you want. He is only a grade below you.”

“I’ll see mom. I’ll see.”

“His mom says he plays baseball.”

Sam turned away.

She was talking about Duane Clankman, who was a year older than Sam was, even though Duane was a grade below. To Sam the whole Clankman clan existed somewhere out of time, as if they had been away from civilization for ages. Coldgrove itself felt out of whack for him.

Duane’s brothers and sisters were scattered all up and down the grades and you could pick them out of a crowd easy; the same thin, limp, blondish hair, homedone haircuts, clothes handed down from one to another, the same pale watery eyes, long faces, and the same blank, lost look.

Still, his mother protested and Sam could not resist her requests. Soon he was walking across the cow pasture, along the green algae-choked slough, to the Clankman’s farmhouse. They called the noon meal dinner and it was the best fried chicken he had ever tasted. He asked Mrs. Clankman for her secret.

“Oh honey, you just dip ‘em in milk, dredge in flour, salt and pepper, and fry ‘em in the ‘lectric skillet,” she said

“Then why is your chicken so good?”

“Oh honey, ‘cause an hour before you ate it that bird was runnin’ around in the front yard, eatin’ bugs.”

Duane’s mother wrapped a few pieces up and put them in a paper bag. A bit of grease made the bag translucent in places.

“You give this chicken to your mother, now,” she said, with a sad smile and a nod.

After dinner, Sam and Duane went for a long walk in the old west pasture. Sam’s mother had asked them to look for Devil’s Claws. The dry dark gray seedpods were scattered all over the pasture, hung up in among the prickly pears and clumps of sawgrass. She wanted to take a mess of claws, spray paint them gold and silver, and glue little plastic googly eyes on… decorate them up for a craft show the women were putting on down at the new library in town.

Along with the paper bag of chicken, they carried blue plastic bags from Wal-Mart to stuff the claws in. They were hard to carry even though they weighed almost nothing; the hooks tore at the cheap thin plastic until the claws would tumble out if you did not hold the bag exactly right.

They came across a place where a lamb had died over the winter. Every year a few would not make it through the snowstorms, maybe trapped out in the field by quick forming drifts… and freeze to death. There were some leg bones, some ribs scattered around, and the tiny skull was already half-covered with red dirt. They kicked at the bones a bit.

“Look at how the meadow grows here,” Duane said.

The thin brown grass of the old spent pasture was lush and green around the bones. Nourished by death, the body of the lamb.

Sam thought about why the grass was so thick and healthy around where the lamb had died. He thought about how the lamb had eaten the grass while it lived and now that it was gone, it gave everything back to the ground and to the grass that had nourished it.

“Duane?” Sam said, “You’re on the Coldgrove school baseball team, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, though I’m not so good. Just another body.”

“Do you think I could get on the team?”

“Yup, easy. Coach is always looking for players. Sometimes we barely put together a whole team.”

“Ok, then. I’ll need a new bat though.”

Babe’s Chicken Dinner House

On Sunday we met some friends for a late lunch and to exchange holiday gifts. They live on the opposite side of the Metroplex, so Candy chose a casual restaurant about halfway in between.

She decided on Babe’s Chicken Dinner House in Carrollton. There are Babe’s restaurants all over the place. One is only a couple miles from our house, in Garland. I first ate there in August of 2000 and wrote about it in my online journal.

Here’s what I had to say back then:

Gluttony is an emotional escape, a sign something is eating us.

—-Peter De Vries

Today, Candy took Nick out for his birthday dinner, a day late. Lee didn’t want to go and headed over to a friend’s house, Nicholas (of course) didn’t mind.

Candy called me at work when they left home and I drove to meet them. The place isn’t far from my work. It is Nicholas’ favorite restaurant.

It is called Babe’s Chicken Dinner House. It could be a joke, a satire on everything Texan – except it is serious.

The place is located in a run-down strip center in northern Garland. It shares the NorthStar Center with the Mu Do Martial Arts Academy, the Celebration Bible Church, Second Look Beauty Supply, the Begin Again Thrift Store, a handful of vacant storefronts, and three different burger joints.

I arrived before Nick and Candy so I sat awhile outside, enjoying the sultry evening with the day’s heat reradiating off the partially melted asphalt in the parking lot. They have a row of chairs out front, some made from old steel tractor seats crudely welded to triangles of rebar. A cable runs through them all to discourage theft. A surprisingly powerful outdoor speaker blared out Elvis (Kentucky Rain) and Willie Nelson (an odd version of Deep in the Heart of Texas).

I didn’t have to wait long before Candy and Nick arrived and we went in and ordered. The menu is simple: Fried Chicken, Chicken Fried Steak, Pork Ribs, Pot Roast, Fried Catfish. You get a huge serving of meat and unlimited sides. They keep bringing and bringing, tray after tray. Massive bowls of mashed potatoes, biscuits, heavy cream gravy, creamed corn, stewed tomatoes and okra, green beans, that sort of thing.

“Want anything else with that honey?” our waitress asked, “Tabasco, A-1, Jalepenos?”

“I’ll have a few Jalepenos,” I replied.

The waitresses are young voluptuous local girls in impossibly tight jeans or older battleaxes that look like they’ve been rode hard and put up wet too many times. They all have that tough down-home serious look about them. So do the customers. All stiff, proper, not-too-well-off folk. Mostly families. Everybody looks hungry. One large table was full of burly firefighters, all in blue shirts and burr haircuts. A huge ladder truck and ambulance were parked outside.

The decor is beyond tacky. Lots of wood, mostly concealed with country style bric-a-brac. Hand painted signs everywhere with earthy wit – “Life is too short to drink cheap beer,” “Never squat with your spurs on,” “Work is for people who don’t know how to fish,” “Speak your mind but ride a fast horse,” “Don’t steal the government doesn’t like competition.”

Even more bizarre signs adorn various dead animals stuck on the wall here and there. A stuffed Raccoon is inexplicably labeled, “Just say NO to raccoon.” An armadillo is spray painted gold and boasts, “Roadkill Only.” A swordfish has been painted black and white, spotted like a cow, mounted above a piece of plywood that says, “No sushi.” I guess all this is supposed to improve the appetite.

Nick loves the place. He had the child’s plate – only a chicken leg. He ate the side dishes like a lumberjack, though. Mostly the creamed corn and the biscuits.

In the center of the restaurant is a massive display case filled with huge pies. Lemon, chocolate, coconut cream. The meringue flows across the top like a toasted ocean – tan peaks flicking pointed into the valley far below. I was so stuffed I couldn’t even look at them.

Now I feel sick. There is no way I can go into that place and not eat too much. No way.

Near the exit a small plastic pet carrier sits on a pedestal. “Babe’s Groundhog,” is spray painted on it, along with warning not to feed the groundhog, to keep your fingers away, that sort of thing. On the way out I couldn’t help but look inside. Nestled in a nice little bed of hay is a tube of Owen’s Sausage. Ground-Hog… Get it?

Many things have changed greatly in the almost-a-dozen years since I wrote that. Many things have changed greatly. Babe’s Chicken Dinner House is not one of them. Only a few details around the edges – the crowd is now much more diverse – the Metroplex is more of a worldly Cosmopolitan place now. The menu has added smoked chicken, so it is a little bit healthier.

The restaurant in Carrollton is a bit more upscale than the one in Garland – it’s an interesting architectural hodgepodge built from an old lumber yard and chicken coop with a nice patio that holds a giant firepit sort of place to sit around, watch some wood burn, and choke on the smoke. It is trimmed out in raw cedar posts – which are beautiful and unique. The humor is as tacky, though – on the ceiling over our table was painted a huge blue oval, with duck feet, bottoms, and a few duck heads poking down through the blue. The idea was that we were sitting under a pond and these ducks were swimming around on top of the ceiling, peering down through the water at us. I guess….

One interesting thing about that old journal entry was that it would always get a huge number of search engine hits. I had a good stats server then and I discovered that those searches were all coming from Norman, Oklahoma. Apparently Oklahoma University students loved to eat at Babe’s when they came to the Big D for the Texas-OU game. I guess….

So I had the smoked chicken, but ate too many mashed potatoes – so I ate ’til I was sick. We all sat around the fire pit and talked, until my winter cold congestion revolted against the woodsmoke and I had to beat a hasty retreat into the fresh air so I could breathe.

So I wave goodbye to Babe’s Chicken Dinner House for another year. I feel sure it will be back again next year… as delicious and tacky as ever.

The odd fire pit outside at Babe's Chicken Dinner House in Carrollton, Texas.

Links to other blogs talkin’ bout Babe’s:

Just Me Saying

Donna Cooks

Regular Joe’s Guide

Arlington Insider

Food Network “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”

NewsOK – Here’s those Oklahoma folks again

Dude Food

Southern Living – Where to Eat at the South’s Best Fried Chicken Restaurants