We called him “Chicken George” because he had a verbal tic. You might call it “Tourette syndrome ” today, but we didn’t know about that then. What he was really saying was “fuck ‘em” but he said it like a rooster might say it, “Buhcaw, buhcaw, buck ‘em.” When he got nervous, he said it more, “Buck’em, buck’em.” If there was someone who filled the role of village idiot, it was George. He was always on the street somewhere in downtown Hazard.
I was the only 14-year-old allowed in the City Café and Pool Room because I delivered the newspaper. I had to go into the dives to collect my $.65 for the weekly subscription to the Courier-Journal. It was a paper out of Louisville, a world away, but it was the only source of news of the outside world for Perry County. I had the downtown paper route in Hazard. Because of that, I knew everybody: the judges, cops, whores and bootleggers. It was a great job – never a dull moment, as they say.
It was a rainy Wednesday afternoon that day in October when I went into the City Café to collect my $.65. I found Junior, the manager, to get paid. He said, “I didn’t get a paper Friday.” I assured him that I had left him one. He paid me the full $.65 somewhat reluctantly. I had delivered his paper but somebody stole it. It happened all the time downtown.
That was back when you could smoke anywhere, and the blue haze of smoke hung like a rain cloud through the bar. The floor boards were blackened with fifty years of beer and spit and gawd-knows-what. “Save the Last Dance for Me” by the Drifters was playing on the juke box.
There was a disturbance around the #3 pool table. A couple of men were mouthing off at each other. It was Chicken George and Shirley Combs. George was going, “Shirley… that’s a girl’s name. Buck ‘em. You a girl, Shirley? Buck ‘em.”
“Shut up, George,” Shirley snarled. He shanked a shot on the 9-ball and straightened up. It was a particular perversion of that generation of parents up in the mountains, but they named a bunch of their boy children “Shirley.” Shirley Combs was hard man. He worked in the mines. He was lean and muscular with hands like iron from years of working with heavy tools. “Shut the fuck up, George.” Shirley had been dealing with the girl thing since grade school, and he was way past tired of it.
“Buck ‘em,” George said with his flat empty eyes staring off into space. He probably didn’t have the brains to see what he was doing to Shirley. “Buck ‘em girls.”
“STOP IT, GEORGE,” Shirley was yelling now.
Junior set his beer down and headed toward Table #3. I followed him. Junior was as big as three other men. He carried a revolver in his pocket. You didn’t mess with him. Shirley was up in George’s face, yelling at him. Junior said, “You guys take this outside.” He stepped between them and pushed them apart. “Take it outside.” It seemed that we moved like a single organism, a dozen men and one 14-year-old oozing past the pool tables onto the sidewalk outside. It was still raining and the sidewalk was wet.
“Bucke ‘em girls. You a girl, Shirley?” George would mess with you, and it was usually harmless, but he didn’t know when he was irritating people because he wasn’t playing with a full deck. We used to tease him to get him going, but now I wished that George would just shut up, let this go. “Buck ‘em girls. You a girl, Shirley?”
There was something boiling up in Shirley, “Shut up, George.” I looked at Shirley’s eyes and they were fixed on somewhere a long way away.
“Buck’em girls. Buck’em, Shirley.”
Shirley coiled like a snake and struck, his iron fist smashing into George’s face. This was lights out. George fell straight back. He didn’t catch himself, and his skull smashed onto the sidewalk. I stood there, a fourteen-year-old and watched a man’s blood spread from the back of his head onto the rainy sidewalk. He died. Junior called an ambulance and they took him to the hospital but he was already gone.
Shirley got twenty years for manslaughter, but he was out in two because the judge was his uncle. My family moved away from that town in time. When they got into George’s apartment above the hardware store, they found thousands of boxes of matches. Matches covered the walls and every flat space. George collected matches.
Note: This story is substantially true. Some elements have been fictionalized. The man who hit George was not named “Shirley Combs.”