Tim Conrad’s story “Knuckles” is the 5th and most recent winner of our annual Hamlin-Garland award. Contest judge Bonnie Nadzam, author of the novels Lamb and Lions, had this to say about the winning story:
“Knuckles” is tender and terrible and heartbreaking and lovely on the language level, and fresh and lovely in scenes. It’s the kind of story I wish I hadn’t read because it’s indeed so haunting and I can’t shake it.
When I was fifteen, my brothers and I stole our father’s pet buffalo, but before I get too far into that, I need to start with the case against my father:
1. My father loved Knuckles—that was the buffalo’s name—more than his children. I have four brothers, but in spite of our number, we filled the landscape around the buffalo like cheap sideshows. My father’s primary energies were devoted to its care. He even built an addition onto the house (Knuckles was housebroken at an early age), and the picture that adorned his desk was not of him and his sons on a fishing trip or at a baseball game or even of him with our mother. Rather, it was of Knuckles, seated at the kitchen table on his third birthday, his bowl of dry cereal spilled out before him, a party hat on his head.
2. My father was fond of botched idioms, such as “When the tough get going, wear it” and “If the shoe fits, make hay.” His favorite: “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw shit at fans.” He often quoted these in the presence of company.
3. My father was incapable of small talk without giving unsolicited advice.
4. My father turned our small ranch into a tourist attraction.
5. At stock and western shows, he often waxed his mustache and wore a t-shirt that read: MY DANCE PARTNER IS HAIRIER THAN I AM.
6. Three weeks before we took the buffalo, my father skipped the twins’ final high school football game to tend to Knuckles, who was sick with flu-like symptoms (although the veterinarian assured him it was probably a simple case of dietary indiscretion). It wouldn’t be that noteworthy, except that it was the playoffs and we lived in Texas.
The night of the game, I remember hoping our father would show up. My mother was there, but as you’re probably beginning to see, this isn’t really about her.
I am the youngest of the brothers, preceded in order by a set of twins, Adam and Aaron, and two middle children, Ben and Chris. We all have ordinary names, and in our own unique ways, have probably spent years trying to overcome them.
At the time of the game, I was a freshman, but due to my size, I was starting on the offensive line. Back then, I weighed in at just shy of three hundred pounds if I’d eaten a light lunch, and I was useful not so much for my ability to wrangle opposing speed rushers, but for my sheer girth. I posed an obstacle. My brothers filled more glamorous positions—fullback, tight end, linebacker. We weren’t outstanding, but we played with abandon, and on most evenings, we were worth watching.
I won’t bore you with the details of the game, although I remember most of them. We ended up losing by a fourth-quarter field goal. But it was our father I meant to tell you about. Throughout the game, I kept looking into the home stands, hopeful that he might materialize, but when Central’s quarterback took the final knee, he was nowhere to be seen. He had missed all but two games that year, mostly for Knuckles-related reasons. On senior night, he came but brought the buffalo and stood off the far end of the track, grazing him. The children flocked from both sides, and the state troopers helped corral traffic like Christmas elves.
After the game, I patted the twins on the shoulder pads as we headed off. They kept glancing toward the stands. I looked down to where our silhouettes made slanted X’s on the track in front of us. Adam, no. 53, looked back at me and said, “Motherfucker.” Nothing else.
As I try to trace the idea of kidnapping Knuckles back to its genesis, the football game is where I end up, but I know it had long been building. In my history class, I was learning about the French Revolution, about how 18th century France was ripe for bloodlust. And in natural sciences, I was learning that geysers are created when a bottom layer of subterranean water is superheated and constricted until it pushes to the surface and explodes in a cloud of steam.
I was barely pulling Cs in both classes, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t learning anything.
Why everyone loved Knuckles:
1. He danced. My father had taught him somewhere early on, although he refused to admit it. He said that Knuckles naturally loved it and pointed out how he pouted when my father didn’t oblige. We often came home to them dancing—as we did after the playoff game. His hooves were up on our father’s shoulders and there was music playing. All our father said was, “Look who’s feeling better.”
2. He made you feel guilty. I’ll admit he was cute in his strange, buffalo way, but the power was in his eyes; they contained volumes of history. When I was young, I learned about the great slaughters on the Plains and about how you could follow the railroads, hopping from one carcass to another, without ever touching the ground. Knuckles was a living memorial.
3. We lived in Texas, a land of mythical scale and appetite. Its people do not fear superlatives. My father hung a wooden sign above Knuckles’s door proclaiming, HOME OF THE LARGEST PET IN NORTH AMERICA, and people came to see it. They toured his room and fell in love with the idea that he was part of our family. They laughed at my father’s description of how Knuckles sometimes stayed in his room all day and only came out “to potty.” Then they laughed again as he added, “Just like all my other teenagers.”
4. He was photogenic. In addition to the picture on my father’s desk, when the tourists came, we would dress Knuckles up in various tailored costumes. You could get your picture taken as his bride, or as his Indian hunter, or even—for a limited time—as his little brother.
5. He was a celebrity, and after a certain point, that alone is enough to win over a good many people. There was even talk of a television special at one point, but it was to be done by a low-budget network that got bought out.
As with most crimes, the abduction of Knuckles was a crime of opportunity. Shortly after football season, my father made the decision to expand Knuckles’ enclosure. The old fencing was battered and needed to be replaced (Knuckles tended to be hard on it, especially during mating season). But since he couldn’t bear to sequester the buffalo entirely within his room, he planned it to coincide with a small country and western exposition in Amarillo. It was a small affair—one that he’d been to several years running and thought we could handle. “Give them the typical spiel, but don’t demonstrate the dancing,” he said. “We need them to come out here to see more.”
Here is the scene where my brothers and I conspire around a bonfire:
We had been making s’mores and complaining about Knuckles—as we were prone to do.
“What I don’t get,” Aaron said, “is how he’s not making more profit off that stupid thing. He spends everything he brings in on the buffalo. Why can’t he expand the house for us?”
The twins were still sharing a room, even though they were seniors.
“Motherfucker,” Adam said.
“And it’s not like we’re getting anything from him,” Chris said.
We catalogued the injustices. Ben was still bitter that we couldn’t ski behind him (as we’d done for one glorious day the summer before when we found water skis at a local yard sale and made Knuckles pull us around the pasture). Our father had declared that, due to our size, it exhausted Knuckles.
Chris complained that our mother always allied herself with our father, with Knuckles. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Why did they have us if he was always going to be their favorite?”
Everyone looked at me as though I had something to add. I couldn’t help but feel a little flattered. Even though I played football with them, it had only been recently that they’d included me in their bonfires, their weekly retreat from all things buffalo. I thought about how a buffalo in captivity was likely to live only about twenty-five years.
Instead, I said, “I hate him.”
“Me too,” they echoed.
“Motherfucker,” Adam said again, as though this decided something.
For the show, our father gave us full use of the truck and trailer. He gave us money for gas and a motel room and wished us well. As he watched, we gently led the buffalo into the trailer.
All of us insisted on going, and our father supported it. I think he imagined that the trip would be a sort of bonding. The truck was a quad-cab, but with our collective size, it left me—the youngest—to ride in the back and keep an eye on the buffalo. Amarillo wasn’t that far away. Had we gone there, it would have only taken a few hours, but the plan was to go beyond it, to take him to a slaughterhouse across the state line.
As we drove, I lay down in the bed, putting my legs just to the side of the fifth wheel. It was still early in the day, and the wind that whipped over the top of the cab was freezing. It’s a popular misconception that big people don’t get cold. I had a couple heavy blankets and a thermos of tea, but it hardly helped. I envied Knuckles’s coat. While we’d arranged a code for me to communicate when I got too cold or tired, I didn’t want to use it, but instead hunkered down to listen to Knuckles shift his weight around in the trailer.
At a gas station partway there, I told the others that I needed to defrost for a while, and Chris offered to swap with me.
“New plan,” Adam said once we were on the road again. “We’re going to sell him.”
I waited for more details, but that was pretty much it.
And I want to say at this point that while my brothers aren’t heartless, I’ll concede they’re sometimes dense. I finally got from them the sale location—an interstate rest stop near the Oklahoma line. It was a famous tourist trap and featured two things of note: a 30-foot high statue of a rodeo cowboy aboard a bronco and a Texas flag that was so large it couldn’t properly be flown at half-mast without dragging the ground. I’d been there twice before, both times with my father.
Things I told my father from the pay phone at the rest stop (with my brothers hovering near my shoulder):
1. Knuckles has been taken. (Aaron’s words)
2. You never cared about finding us before this. (Adam’s words)
3. Things are going to be different from now on. (Ben’s words)
4. Do you have any final words for Knuckles? (Chris’s words)
My brothers had elected me to handle the call because, as the youngest, they felt I had the least to complain about and could relay messages without getting worked up. They circled around me as I talked, and I shielded the receiver from them. I had expected the conversation to be more fraught with tension like the ransom calls in movies, but we had no clear list of demands. We merely wanted our father to know that we were ridding our family of Knuckles and that there was nothing he could do about it.
For the most part, he received the news calmly, although I could tell by the silences between questions that he was upset. He wanted to know where we were and what we were up to. He said, “Texas isn’t as big as you think.” When I repeated this to the others, Adam let out a hoot. “Motherfucker!” he said. “It’s on.” Ben grabbed for the phone and began to mimic an auctioneer selling a buffalo, but I shrugged him off. I was—at least for a moment—glad to be physically bigger than my brothers. I told him he was an idiot, and remarkably, the others agreed. My father said, “Please don’t harm Knuckles,” and there was a long silence on the other end of the line. For a moment, no one said anything. My brothers leaned over me trying to hear, but with the interstate noises beyond us, their efforts were useless. When the silence continued, I realized our father might be crying, and while I couldn’t have said why, this angered me. I looked at my brothers, mere inches from me, and felt emboldened. I shouted into the phone, “Why didn’t you see this coming?” and hung up.
My brothers laughed and clapped me on the back. When they asked me what he had said, I told them that he was going on and on about how he knew every buffalo rancher in the tri-state and how, if we didn’t knock it off, he was going to call the police. The twins found it funny. “I would love to see the police get involved in this,” Aaron said.
The truth was that none of us quite understood how to go about what we were doing. We were open to suggestions.
The tourist trap helped. They kicked us out soon after we parked outside the lines and up against the curb, and we were forced instead to set up shop one exit down in an abandoned lot next to a gas station. There were no trees, just high grass and a perimeter of brightly-colored campaign signs. Guy for Sheriff! one read. Ben insisted on keeping that one standing, but we took the rest down and fashioned a couple of our own that read, Yes! The buffalo is for sale.
We parked the trailer in the middle of the lot and stood by its side like bowling pins. We waited, but no one stopped.
“Do you suppose Knuckles needs a walk?” I finally asked, but no one moved.
I opened the back of the trailer and grabbed Knuckles’s lead. He was surprisingly agile. Buffalo in general appear much clumsier than they actually are, but even so, I hadn’t expected him to be capable of such power and grace so soon after confinement. We took a couple laps around the lot before stopping for a bathroom and snack break near the gas station dumpsters. At the pumps, a few people stared and took pictures, but most were nonplussed. He ate for several minutes, creating a clearing in the grass. I remembered from school what our teachers had said about buffalos being nomadic, about their need for constant movement.
After he finished, I picked some stray chaff out of his beard and we took a few more laps before Knuckles pulled me back toward his captors, who were busy playing poker like a set of rodeo clowns.
Reasons for not running away from home:
1. We all loved football.
2. We believed we needed each other, and our collective mass created something we didn’t think we could move.
3. In spite of the hoopla surrounding the buffalo, the wooden gate at the end of our lane still read Lewis & Sons and loomed as a distant promise.
4. The presence of injustice and oppression.
5. Our adolescent fascination with such themes and our eagerness to define ourselves against them.
We waited through the midday heat without much success. We were growing sweaty and bored. My brothers tried to strike up the old conversation about how much we hated the buffalo, but it fizzled after a couple of minutes. One man finally did stop by. He wore a cowboy hat with the word STUD stenciled across the front. He was young and curious if the sign was for real. When we confirmed it, he laughed, said “Right on!” and moved next door to pump some gas.
For lunch, we sent Chris to buy a pile of snack food from the convenience store. He came back with three bags of potato chips, a few boxes of Little Debbies and a case of Dr Pepper. We sat and ate in silence. The soda was warm and unsatisfying. I kept watching for our father but decided after a while that scrutinizing traffic is the sort of activity that can make a person go insane. A couple of sheriff deputies passed by, but they didn’t seem to consider us any kind of nuisance.
Toward evening, a serious buyer did arrive. Rather than pulling through the driveway, he hopped the curb in his pickup. It felt like an announcement of intentions. We all stood up and flapped our shirts in unison. Knuckles continued lounging on his stomach.
From here, the story is hard to tell. I’ve concocted other happier or more poetic endings:
1. Our father through intuition and love for his buffalo—which acts as a homing device in such moments—arrives at the lot to a charging Knuckles. We and the buyer are in his path, and our father is forced to shoot his beloved buffalo to save his other sons.
2. The buyer is an American Indian and we sell the buffalo to him with the confidence that somehow what we’ve done has been redeemed, that we are noble and in harmony with the universe.
3. Bored, we tell the buyer that the sign’s a joke. He laughs—like the stud did—and we all return home.
If you like one of those, you can stop here, although none of them happened. Our father did eventually arrive, but I might not get to that part. Instead, I give you the scene with the buyer:
The man dismounted his pickup and looked our way. From a distance, he called out “Howdy” but kept his eyes trained on Knuckles as he walked closer. When he reached us, he shook each of our hands without giving a name, as though we’d already reached an agreement.
“That’s a pretty docile buffalo you have there,” he said.
“It is,” Aaron said. “Domesticated even.”
The man grunted. He rolled his lips around in a way that suggested he was accustomed to chewing and spitting things.
For a moment, none of us said anything. Everyone stared at Knuckles and watched him swish his tail in the heat. Then, as if sensing his cue, he rolled onto his back, threw his legs in the air, and ground his shoulders into the dirt. A cloud of dust blew our way, and we all turned away or covered our faces—everyone, that is, except the man, who kept watching. After a minute or so, Knuckles settled back onto his belly, somehow satisfied.
“How much for the hair?” the man asked.
My brothers and I looked at each other. “Say again?”
“The hair. The pelage.” He stepped forward and gently ran his hand through Knuckles’s coat. Up close, the man smelled like tobacco and corned beef.
Somewhere I’d learned that dogs are capable of at least a hundred expressions, and although I was conflicted about Knuckles, I believed he was intelligent, capable of at least twenty. I looked to him for clairvoyance.
Before I could say anything, Chris asked, “Why don’t you want the whole buffalo?”
It lingered as an accusation until Aaron said, “Five hundred dollars.”
The man laughed. It sounded nothing like the stud. “I’ll give you ten dollars a pound.”
“Okay,” Adam said, “What do we need to do?”
We followed the man to a nearby ranch. We weren’t scared at this point and had no reason to be. We were pretty big, and in spite of the man’s cryptic intentions, we were finally accomplishing something that resembled our original intention.
“Motherfucker!” Adam yelled out the window to passing traffic.
Aaron drummed on the dashboard and revved the truck at stop signs.
Ben and Chris grinned like idiots.
At his ranch, he had us lead Knuckles into a loading chute that dead-ended into the side of a pole barn. Knuckles was so used to being handled that he didn’t object. The rancher tied Knuckles’s muzzle to a bar above his head and tethered his legs to the sides. He asked, “Ever shaved him before?”
We said we hadn’t.
“It’s November, so the pelage is as thick as it’s going to get. After we do this, you’ll probably need to slaughter him or keep in a barn the rest of the winter.”
A couple of my brothers laughed. “Can we help?” Adam asked. And the rancher was glad to let us.
Reasons you should never shave a buffalo:
1. There’s a lot more hair than you probably realize. It’s messy and time-consuming, even with several helpers. There’s over a foot of hair on a buffalo’s head and over eight inches on the breast (the rancher measured). The tail has almost twenty inches.
2. Only a professional should do such things, one accustomed to the buffalo’s fidgeting and discomfort.
3. It’s not natural.
4. In shaving, you may see a side of your co-workers that frightens you. My brothers worked with sloppy glee, cutting large chunks from the flanks and hindquarters. As it fell onto the tarp below, they laughed and worked faster. And they shaved the beard and head, even though the man said that hair was too coarse for his purposes.
5. A buffalo’s coat is its glory. Without it, a buffalo looks pathetically bovine and dispossessed. When finished, its bare hump will look like a burden, and its inability to raise its head above its shoulders will suddenly break your heart.
When we were finished, and the hair had been gathered up, it was late. The rancher offered us the old bunkhouse for the night, and we accepted. “We can sell the buffalo tomorrow,” my brothers said and helped brush the hair off each other.
I tried to sleep but kept thinking of my father. I imagined him alone in our house, or alternately, out somewhere on the road, anticipating a reunion with Knuckles. I imagined him straightening the furniture and readying his bed, caring for the animal even in his absence. It was a compassion I was only now beginning to understand.
Somewhere in the night, taunted by my brothers’ enthusiastic snoring, I gave up and went back out to the barnyard. The moon was full, and it was easy to find my way. Knuckles was still contained in the makeshift arrangement where we’d left him. The rancher hadn’t wanted to test his fencing. “This ranch was built for horses and cattle,” he said, “not beasts.”
I approached from behind and Knuckles tried to turn his head so he could see me better, but the chute was too narrow. I climbed up to where I could untie him. I squeezed in front of him and slowly backed him down the chute. With no hair surrounding them, his horns stuck out like forklift prongs, less than a foot from my body. Growing up as I did, I’d heard stories of people being gored by buffalo, even ones they’d raised from infancy. And for that reason, my father had seldom let us get too close to Knuckles. He wanted to protect everyone involved, including himself.
So when Knuckles nudged my back mid-walk, I nearly panicked. I had a brief flash of my death, of how gruesome and appropriate it might be. I knew I was powerless. I tried to put it out of mind, but when he did it harder a moment later, I dropped the lead and backed against the fence, squaring off with Knuckles. “It wasn’t me,” I said but knew this wasn’t true. I was complicit. I had hated and condemned him. I had sinned against my father and now this beast would enact whatever vengeance was due. I closed my eyes.
His silence was more menacing than his horns. There was a long pause before Knuckles began coming toward me, but he didn’t charge. His hoofs scratched the dirt, and I heard his breath as he drew close. As the first hoof hit the fence behind me, the rails shook and Knuckles grunted. Even though it was becoming clear what he wanted, he seemed to be asking. I opened my eyes and felt his weight shift onto my shoulder. I could’ve helped him with the second hoof, but I didn’t. Instead, I braced myself against the fence and waited. And although I’d danced with girls only a handful of times, I somehow knew what to do. When he was ready, I reached out and accepted his generosity.