I have brought the chickens. Two of them, siblings. The smaller one’s named Nancy because he’s a bit of a wuss, the other called Beak on account of his being the largest of the flock. They don’t race unless I prod them which is something I don’t like to do but I need the money. Who doesn’t. I was told to come at sunset and it’s just about that time judging by the rose-blue sky. Nancy and Beak sit still in their cage, the wire corner poking into my ribs as I walk toward the dark mouth of the sewer pipe. It’s lit inwards with fire or flashlights; I can’t see for sure out here under the bridge. I step inside where the water drips and pools, where voices come at me from the end. I wait, and listen, and consider turning back.
‘There they are.’ A slap on my back and a familiar voice: Ron. ‘The chickens!’ he says. ‘The headliners. Hey!’ and pokes two thumbs at his chest like Fonzie in his leather vest. Ron leans down making wet kissing sounds at the chickens now clucking. Beak struts in a tight circle kicking up seed behind him. Ron smacks my back again. ‘Right this way,’ he says. I commit and follow.
It’s one of the bigger sewer pipes I’ve seen with the right length and proper height. Pretty good for racing. Ron easily stands without hunching and he’s a big guy. ‘Are those things fast?’
‘They are,’ I lie. Last race was a fuss. Nancy wouldn’t run but Ron doesn’t need to know that. I’ve been working on them a little but they don’t come from fast stock. There’s only so much seed, only so many flyers I can make and competition’s getting tight. Chicken racing is a growing sport and I’m a newbie.
My palm is wet where the cage handle hangs. I consider dropping them, faking injury, but I think about the cash and hold out hope that this time could be different.
’So they’ll be the tiebreaker race, ok?’
‘After the big race. Only if Stevie and Don tie again.’ Ron gestures and that’s when I see the Cafe Racers I’ve heard about: small, fierce, covered in dirt. And still some parts gleam: the gold tank on one and the dirty white tank on the other with a bright pink stripe up the middle. But the bike bodies are solid black shadows that blend into these outer walls, where the concrete is aged and crumbling. It’s a shame to leave them here alone but Ron nudges me forward and the concrete morphs into aluminum ribs, whale- like. We go deeper. We walk toward the fire tucked up on a concrete pad. This is one of those sewers that branches off in spots. Still active. The main pipe a passageway of filth but there’s no rank smell. I rarely come underground and I stumble into stale water, no sea-legs. It gets more slippery on the scum-slicked sides. Ron greets an older man and woman with high fives and introduces them as Stevie and Don.
‘Don and Ron,’ I quip. ‘How will I tell you apart.’
‘I’m not the one on the bike,’ Ron says staring. ‘At least not this time.’ He looks at the woman then, a quick look but full. Of what I’m unsure. Maybe it’s the shadows down here but it feels secret the way she looks away fast and zips her black jacket to the tip of the collar and says ‘Oh look’ at the approaching boys.
The Cafe Racers are being walked toward us by these boys. Don and Stevie move toward them locking on their handlebars at the same time. It looks like a ritual, certainly not their first show. In my hand the cage is still. Nancy looks toward the fire and Beak’s nodded off, his head flopping, his red comb bobbing.
Don and Stevie mount their racers; she flicks her kickstand and balances on tiptoes. Slivers of grey hair blend with her bold brown curls, her helmet perched on top.
‘Glad you’ve got that, Don.’ She says raising her voice and poking his stomach with a gloved hand.
‘That. That fat gut. You can rub it for luck.’
‘You know it’s sexy,’ Don says leaning back on his seat.
‘Pfft,’ she says, popping a gold tube from her pocket and bringing it to her lips. When she pulls her hand away her lips burn red. ‘Prepare for a proper pounding.’
‘Always,’ he says loud then winks.
Stevie revs her engine. She blows Don a kiss then does a wheelie right down the centre of the pipe while water kicks at her heels. Don hops down hard on his starter and, that fast, is off. I watch them zoom out and ride on a flat dirt stretch under the bridge. From this angle, looking back, with the last light of day reflecting in the sewer water, the pipe mouth looks like a keyhole. Sirens pass overhead, fading into short baby-whines: wah-ah, wah-ah. We’re tucked down here out of sight, like veins hiding under tattoos. I can see nothing outside, just the glow, now, inside this pipe with the fire flaming behind us. We look like cartoons in this light with our features exaggerated, pulled and squished into shadows.
I back up into a concrete hollow where water drips from twin drains above forming a tidy network of waste, where greys meet rust blooming red and gold buds up the sides of the wall. There’s a concrete ledge that’s wet but large enough to stand on. I place the cage on the ground where wafts of warmth from the nearing fire startles and calms the birds in waves. Ron has joined the back-slapping talk around the fire, hitting everyone in turn and laughing, but he keeps turning, peering down to the pipe’s mouth that opens outside. Stevie and Don have cut their lights, their engines. Ron’s laughter is strained. I watch him while I wait. He’s half-hearing, laughing at all the wrong places of jokes told by a smaller, round man in khakis who squats and leans with his words. ‘Fish farts and Bullshit’ he says and they all laugh. Proud, the man in khakis watches the crowd while pawing at a pile of rubbish beside him, latches onto a handful of tinder and throws it on the fire while it catches and floats, too light to stay put. It rises, swirls, finds flight in the air pocket above me then crashes on the chicken cage. The chances. I lean and blow until the flame dies.
‘Join us!’ Ron calls out but I don’t want to leave my ledge. The height here is good. I’m nestled.
‘It’s good,’ I say. ‘I’m fine,’ and he turns, shrugging. There are six of them, I can count them now that their backs are to me, now that they’re busy trying to breathe in that billow of smoke made from old bird nests and dead leaves. The pile beside the fire is what we call found fuel and it won’t last much longer. It’s made of light things, no bulk. No hearty dried wood. I look to the ground but the place has been combed clean of anything clearly flammable. I’ve seen stacks of twigs blown into sewers from storms but nothing here. We will wait in the dark if we have to.
I’m considering the crushed sugar in my pocket – whether I should slide it to the chickens now or just before they race, what speed it would give them – when a rattle starts low outside. I can hear it but the fire chatter is steady with the medium build of a new story. The rattle smoothes to a purr, then a hum and for the first time since entering here I get a waft of stench. It smells the way old sewage smells that’s hauled up in rusty pipes with that fermented blend of human waste and iron. Like old blood. I’m about to climb down from the ledge, away from the twin pipes above me when headlights flash and hold. The effect is cool. Their bikes must be touching, the headlights that close: two round eyes peering right at us. Then they flash in time, three quick flicks.
‘Looks like they’re done warming up folks!’
The hum of their engines shifts to a roar as they rev at the same time.
‘Ah this’ll be good! Last race they were canning it. Make sure the medic’s here!’ The medic is a guy wearing white bleached jeans. He lifts his hand raising a black duffle with a crude red cross stitched on the side and slowly gives Ron the thumbs up. ‘We’re good!’ Ron yells down the pipe to Don and Stevie. ‘When you’re ready!’ And with that they’re off racing toward us. Headlights wobble over the corrugated metal floor as they speed deeper into the pipe. Wind rushes toward us. They ride closer, faster, swerving toward then away from each other. Water rushes up their sides. As they get closer I can make out their frames hunched over the front ends, their backs flat, goggle glass shining from their headlights’ reflection. They’re so close. From my ledge they look neck and neck, not one a hair faster or slower than the other. And the rider on the far side speed wobbles, the front wheel turns sharp into the inner pipe and a fast black figure flies. The other rider crosses the finish line as the other lands with a thud, the bike sliding down the side wall. The medic grabs his duffle and rushes over, Ron not far behind. I’m locked on my ledge, stunned. The back wheel is still spinning; the rider’s facedown. Only then do I look at the finish line where the victor’s now turned to the wreck, still seated and motionless. It all happens quickly: Ron rolls the rider over and yells ‘Don! Don!’ then wipes blood off his mouth. The medic kneels, removes a towel, places his hand to the side of Don’t throat. ‘Don! Don!’ and something happens that makes the men exhale. Ron catches Stevie’s eye and only then does she dismount. The remaining audience starts walking over to the accident and I can see that the chickens are sitting tight together, their eyes wide, a pile of crap right in the middle of the cage. They’re not accustomed to noise like this.
‘We won’t be needing them now,’ Stevie says as she walks over unzipping her jacket and letting out a lungful of breath, helmet in hand. She looks older up close. Damp, wide pores, the make-up hovering over wrinkled skin. Our shadows get shorter with the dying fire and looking at our figures on the wall I see I was wrong before: we are not cartoon characters down here. We’re fleshy, wet. Our clothes are not drawn tight to us leaving no air between fabric and skin. Stevie bends and a breast pops out. Not fully, not to the nipple, but it’s there outside her shirt in a dimpled mound dotted with liver spots. She pokes her finger into the chicken cage and Beak emits a frightened chirp but doesn’t move.
‘Will Don be alright?’
She looks up at me; her eyes have a watery glaze. ‘He’s a fighter,’ she says looking off, silent, then snaps back to look at me again and smiles. ‘You know, let’s get these guys out after all,’ and she flicks the latch on the cage door. ‘This’ll cheer Don up.’ With a bird under each arm she walks over to the group talking in low murmurs. They make room for her and I follow, leaving the cage alone on the damp hollow floor. The fire behind us has burned to a crackle and the night air has moved in cold. Stevie kneels next to Don raising the chickens by their round bellies, crushing their feathers against her chest. ‘Hey Don.’ It takes some time for him to turn his head, but he does. He makes that effort. She leans in closer and I think they might kiss, the way they lock eyes, but with the birds between them she can’t reach his face. Instead she leans in so that the chickens are touching Don’s jacket, their little legs dangling. ‘You wanna race?’ The chickens start pecking at the dirt on Don’s jacket. Don lifts his head and nods.