Dead Darlings: The Cockfight Cut from The Leavers by Lisa Ko

by Lisa Ko


Dead Darlings is a series in which writers share and reflect on the darlings they killed the text they cut from their work along the way to publication. 


"The Leavers is a dual narrative about Polly and her son Deming. Leon is Polly’s boyfriend and Deming’s stepfather during the years they live together in New York City. He works in a slaughterhouse as a meat cutter. I wrote this scene in which Leon and his friend Quan go to a cockfight early on the writing process. They bet on a rooster, hoping to win enough money to afford to see an immigration lawyer after Polly goes missing. I grew attached to it and wrote a few more scenes from Leon’s point of view, but it was soon clear that it no longer made sense to have the point of view only briefly shift to his in this chapter, as the bulk of the novel was from Deming and Polly’s perspectives – it was their story, not Leon’s. Plus, I realized I was only holding onto it because it had been fun to write. I liked writing from Leon’s point of view, the visceral details, his bad decisions and misguided attempts to deal with losing Polly. But liking the writing wasn’t enough of a reason to justify keeping it in the book." - Lisa Ko  


From The Leavers:

The room was ripe with sweat, and Leon didn’t want to be here, among these tattooed men in a semi-circle of folding chairs, talking in Spanish, English, and Vietnamese. At the back of a low brick building, goose-stepping over plastic toys and empty beer bottles, Quan had exchanged words with a man in English and handed over the money. 

Half the profits, fifty-fifty. This was Quan’s way of doing Leon a favor, Quan’s way of giving Leon the money without making Leon think he was charity.

“Didn’t you quit gambling?” Leon asked.

“It only counts if it’s at a casino,” Quan said. 

They were going to bet on Roden’s rooster and Roden’s rooster would win, and then there’d be more than enough to pay the overdue rent and the loan shark, maybe even the lawyer. Roden, a flabby man with a wormy line of beard demarcating his jaw, had a special sauce for his rooster, a cocktail of steroids and hallucinogens that made the bird extra mean. Leon didn’t know how Quan could be so sure that the other men didn’t have special sauces, too.

Leon imagined telling Polly about tonight. This man had a beard like a shoelace. The room smelled like unwashed ass. When she came back. When she gave up on Florida and acknowledged that she was better off with him and Deming in New York and apologized for leaving. He booted the thought of Polly away, but it always bounced back to him, an eager puppy with a ball in its mouth. Forget me? the puppy’s eyes said. How could you forget me?

He missed her. How she was different than other women, she could cuss him out and then they’d laugh and cuddle up. Now Polly was gone, and seven, eight, nine beers in Leon would think he saw her in the crowds, until there was nothing left for him to do but drink more, bet on horse races like all the other sad sack bachelors, letting the money slip through his fingers because that’s all there would ever be: not enough money. Last Sunday night, he met a sliver of a girl with a limp ponytail who worked at a noodle shop on Eldridge, a girl who looked nothing like Polly. He waited for her when she finished her shift and she took him to the boarding house where she lived by the Manhattan Bridge. The sex was like moving underwater – no sound, no light, what feeling? – everything slow-motion and numb. Not like Polly. He fell asleep despite himself, waking up to a thin light slipping through the part in the curtains. “You want coffee?” the girl asked. She was sitting up and sipping from a cup of instant. He declined. The girl had a squeaky mattress with a squishy part in the middle, and she was shocked that Leon had been in New York for so long and still had such crappy English.

“You ever think of going back home?” she asked.

Leon shifted on the musty mattress and felt the muscles tighten in his lower back. Why was the girl trying to get rid of him so easily? Wasn’t he supposed to be the one running out on her?

“Back where? The Bronx? I’m going to leave soon, I have to work later.”

“No, China,” she said. “It’s better there these days. You haven’t heard? Lots of people going back.”

She was missing several teeth, dark gaps where her back molars should be, and her neck and shoulders were dotted with what seemed like tiny moles, but upon closer inspection were really tags of loose skin, flapping like the pre-torn slips of paper with phone numbers on signs all over Chinatown, advertising apartments for rent, English lessons, babysitting services. When he left the room she looked like he’d sliced her heart out and ate it for lunch, and when he got home it was fully morning.

He couldn’t remember having changed the sheets since Polly left, couldn’t recall ever changing them. Had five months passed since his bed sheets were washed? Maybe the scent of Polly’s hair, its familiar, scalpy oils, still lingered on her pillow. He pushed his face down into the pillowcase until the fabric was damp with his breath but that was all he smelled – stale beer, morning rank, furious and fungal.


In the Bronx basement, Leon and Quan sat, then stood, waiting for the first bout.

The men were moving closer, emerging from corners, opening metal cages, cloth sacks, and cardboard boxes. They coaxed out the birds and placed them gently on the center of the sawdust-coated floor. The roosters posed, bobbing and strutting, and sussed out the competition, curved steel blades tied to their feet. “These guys feed their birds better than they feed their own kids,” Quan said, pointing out a meaty giant with long tail feathers and an arrogant walk.

A shout from the referee. The birds circled each other, wider to closer. Their necks pulsed, eyes beady, and they combed their feet on the sawdust, bumping chests.

Leon jumped up, shouting for Roden’s bird. He shouted until he could hear himself echo, as if his voice was the only one in the room. Then there was just noise. Men yelling, feathers flapping, birds screaming, the sharpness of blood and chicken shit.