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PLAYBOY MAGAZINE, APRIL 1974

THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS

BY LARRY L. KING

When a true son of Texas discovers they've closed down “the chicken farm” he takes his business to the free-lancers. man's got to do what a man's got to do

it was as nice a little whorehouse as you ever saw. It sat in a green Texas glade, white-shuttered and tidy, surrounded by leafy oak trees and a few slim renegade pines and the kind of pure dean air the menthol-cigarette people advertise.  

If you had country values in you, and happened to stumble upon it, likely you would nod approval and think, Yes, yes, these folks keep their barn painted and their fences up and probably they'd do to ride the river with. There was a small vegetable garden and a water­melon patch, neither lacking care. A good stand of corn, mottled now by bruise-colored blotches and dried to parchment by hot husky-whispering summer winds, had no one to hear its rustling secrets.

Way back yonder, during the Hoover Depression, they raised chickens out there. Money was hard to come by; every jack rabbit had three families chasing it with the stewpot in mind. Back then, in rural Texas, people said things like, “You can hear everthang in these woods but meat afryin' and coins aclankin'.” No matter where a boy itched and no matter how high his fevers, it wasn't easy to come up with three dollars, even in exchange for a girl's sweetest gift. And so the girls began accepting poultry in trade. That's how the place got its name, and if you grew up most anywhere in Texas, you knew at an early age what the Chicken Farm sold other than pullets. (Generations since mine have called it the Chicken Ranch. I won't argue the point.)

You might have originally thought it a honeymoon cottage. Except that as you came closer on the winding dirt road that skittered into the woods off the Austin-to-Houston highway on the southeastern outskirts of La Grange, near the bad curve sign, you would have noticed that it was too sprawling and too jerry-built: running off on odd tangents, owning more sides and nooks and crannies than the Penta­gon. It had been built piecemeal, a room added here and there as needed, as with a sod farmer watching his family grow. Then there were all those casement-window air conditioners—15 or 20 of 'em, Miss Edna wanting her girls to work in comfort.

Since the 1890s, at least, the Chicken Farm had been one of the better pleasure palaces in all Texas. You didn't have to worry about clap, as when free-lancing on Postoffice Street in Galveston, or risk your hide in machismo-crazed whore bars on Fort Worth's Jacksboro Highway, where mean-eyed, juiced-up, brilliantined, honky-tonk cowboys presumed themselves a nightly quota of asses to whip. Miss Edna, like Miss Jessie before her, didn't cotton to hard-drinking rowdies. Should you come in bawling profanities or grabbing tits, Miss Edna would employ the telephone. And before you could say double-dip-blankety-blank obscenity, old Sheriff T. J. Flournoy would materialize to suggest a choice be­tween overnight lodgings in Fayette County's crossbar hotel and your rapid co­operative leave-taking. The wise or the prudent didn't pause to inquire whether the latter opportunity included a road map. You just did a quick Hank Snow. Yes, neighbors, it was as cozy and com­fortable as a family reunion, though many times more profitable. Then, one sad day last summer, the professional meddlers and candy-assed politicians closed 'er down.

God and Moses, what a shock to the 3,092 residents of La Grange, Texas, to say nothing of Chicken Farm alumni around the world! Imagine corned beef without cabbage, Newcastle without coal, Nixon without crises. The Chicken Farm was an old and revered Texas institu­tion, second only to the Alamo and maybe Darrell Royal. History lurked there. Some claimed that La Grange had offered love for sale since 1844, back when Texas was a republic; which would put the lie to The Dallas Morning News's claim of being Texas' “oldest business institution.” For sure, the Chicken Farm traced, by document, back about 60 years. In a more primitive time, when there were fewer squirming concerns with god­damned imagery, the winning squad of the Texas-Texas A&M football game got invited by joyous alumni to the Chicken Farm on Thanksgiving night. Business­men and state legislators were comforted during their carnal wanderings; the wise telephoned ahead for reservations. Indig­enous hill-country Teutonics, Slavics and red-necks of many faiths brought their sons in celebration of maturities that an older culture more gently signified by bar mitzvahs.

Man, listen: The Chicken Farm was gooder than grass and better than rain. Registered with the county clerk as Edna's Ranch Boarding House, it paid double its weight in taxes and led the community in charitable gifts. It plowed a goodly percentage of its earnings back into local shops to the glee of hairdressers, car dealers and notions-counter attend­ants. It was a good citizen, protected and appreciated, its indiscretions winked at. They say that some years ago a young district attorney, who had made his own sporting calls to the Chicken Farm, sheep­ishly appeared at the front door as the head of a reluctant raiding party mobil­ized by crusading churchwomen. On spotting the young D.A., Miss Edna is supposed to have sung out, “Not now, George, the law has me surrounded!” And during Prohibition, an old sheriff called on Miss Jessie to sternly say, “I don't like to say nothin', but this drankin', now, has just plain got to stop”; when Miss Jessie died, her obituary identified her as “a local businesswoman.” Yeah, they had 'em a real bird's nest on the ground out there. Then along came Marvin Zindler.

Marvin Zindler was a deputy sheriff in Houston, enforcing consumer-protection laws, until they fired him. Not for ineffi­ciency or malfeasance—Lord, no! Mar­vin wore more guns, handcuffs, buckles and badges than a troop of Texas Rangers; he brought more folks to court than did bankruptcy proceedings. Some folks said Marvin would jug you for jaywalking; it's of record that he once nabbed a drugstore merchant for failure to stock the kind and size of candy bar at the price the merchant had advertised.

Marvin got fired for being “controver­sial”—which meant that he couldn't, or wouldn't, make those fine distinctions re­quired of successful politicians. After all, Marvin's boss was dependent on public favor. Nosir, the law was the law to Marvin. Soon Houston merchants were screaming of how they received fewer considerations than did common pick­pockets or footpads. They howled when Marvin tipped off television stations where he would next put the collar on a chamber-of-commerce member ac­cused of selling fewer soap flakes in a container than its label claimed, and they were outraged when—a time or two—Marvin lurked around the maga­zine rack while television cameras were established and then made his collar. A lot of good people, long goosed and flum­moxed by many avid practitioners of free enterprise, dearly loved and cheered Marvin. But fellow deputies judged him insufficiently bashful when it came to personal publicity, and his superiors grew tired of bitching merchants. Per­haps, too, the more sensitive wearied of daily contact with Marvin's ego, which may be approximately two full sizes larger than Howard Cosell's. Marvin keeps scrapbooks. He dresses like a certi­fied dandy in his 200 tailored suits and has bought himself two nose bobs; he does not permit his own family to view him without one of his silver hairpieces and he has a house rule that kinsmen must never enter the bathroom without knocking. Anyhow, they fired Marvin. Who landed on his feet as as television newsman for Houston's channel 13.

Marvin approached news gathering with the same zeal he'd brought to badge toting. Not for him Watergate values: The law was the lam. So Marvin began telling folks out in TV land how a whorehouse was running wide open down the road at La Grange, which was news to Yankee tourists and to all Texans taking their suppers in high chairs. Even though people yawned, Marvin stayed on the case; you might have thought murder was involved. Soon he repeatedly hinted at “organized-crime” influences at the Chicken Farm.

One day in late July, Marvin Zindler drove to La Grange and accosted Sheriff Flournoy with cameras, microphones and embarrassing questions. The old sheriff made it perfectly clear he was not real proud to see Marvin. Later, the sheriff— a very lean and mean 70-year-old, in­deed—would say he hadn't realized the microphone was live when he chewed on Marvin for meddling in Fayette County affairs; perhaps that explains why the old man peppered his lecture with so many hells and goddamns and shits. Mar­vin Zindler drove home and displayed the cussing sheriff on television.

Then Marvin called on State Attorney General John Hill and Governor Dolph Briscoe: “How come yawl have failed to close the La Grange sin shop down?” Those good politicians harrumphed and declared their official astonishment that Texas had a whorehouse in it. Marvin told them they'd have to do better than, that. Governor Briscoe issued a solemn statement saying that organized crime was a terrible thing, against the Ameri­can grain, and since it might- possibly be sprouting out at the Chicken Farm, he would call on local authorities to shutter that sinful place. If they didn't comply, the governor said severely, then he per­sonally would employ the might and majesty of the state to close it. Me, too, said Attorney General Hill. Veteran legislators, many of whom could have driven to the Chicken Farm without headlights even in a midnight rainstorm, expressed concern that Texans might be openly permitted loveless fucks outside the home.

Old Sheriff Flournoy was incensed: “If the governor wants Miss Edna closed, all he's gotta do is make one phone call and I'll do it.” The sheriff may be old and country, but his shit detector tells him when grander men are pissing on his feet and telling him it's rain. The governor didn't have to bother with the telephone charade. Soon after the story hit the national news wires, Johnny Carton was cracking simpering jokes about it and every idle journalist with a pen was en route to La Grange. They found the Chicken Farm locked and shuttered, a big closed sign advertising a new purity. Miss Edna and her girls had fled to parts unknown, leaving behind a town full of riled people.

       

Sheriff Flournoy was extracting his long legs from the patrol car, with maybe nothing more on his mind than a plate of Cottonwood Inn barbecue, when this fat bearded journalist shoved a hand in his face and began singing his creden­tials. Startled, the old lawman recoiled as if he'd spotted a pink snake; for a mo­ment it seemed he might tuck his legs back in and drive away.

But after a slight hesitation he came out, unwinding in full coil to about six feet, five inches. Given the tall-crowned cowboy hat, he appeared to register near­er to seven feet, three and some-odd. Flournoy is a former Texas Ranger who looks as if he might have posed for that bronze and granite Ranger statue guarding the Dallas airport lobby. You sense that he knows how to use that big thumb-busting revolver thumping against his right leg as expertly as legend insists. The fat bearded journalist also sensed that the old sheriff may have done plumb et his fill of outsiders asking picky ques­tions; he suddenly remembered that the third wave is the most dangerous one when beaches are assaulted, the first two waves having stirred things up and put the locals on notice. So he was real real polite and friendly, grinning until his jawbone ached, and careful to let all the old native nasal notes ring, in saying he sure would admire to talk a little bit about the Chicken Farm situation, and would the sheriff give him a few minutes?

The old sheriff's face reddened alarm­ingly. He stared across the hot shimmery Texas landscape, as if searching for men­aces on the horizon, and he rapidly puffed a cigarette; the hand holding it trembled as if palsied. Then he said, “Naw! I'm tard a talkin' to you sons a bitches.”

Well. Uh. Ah. Yes. Well, the journalist had come a fur piece; he had a job to accomplish; he'd hoped the sheriff might—

“You hard a hearin', boy?”

The journalist cupped one ear and said, “Beg your pardon?” He didn't want to leave any doubt.

'The old sheriff spat. He said, “My town's gettin' a black eye. All the TVs and newspapers—hell, all the mediums— they've flat lied. Been misquotin' our local people. Makin' 'em look bad.”

Had the sheriff himself been mis­quoted?

“You goddamned right.”

To what extent?

“About half of it was goddamn lies.”

Well, sheriff, which half?

The sheriff put a hard eye on the visi­tor. Puffing the trembling cigarette, he offered a long look at his face. The sight was no comfort. You had time to concen­trate on his mountainous great beak, de­ciding: If he ever gets in a wide-nose contest with Nixon, he'll fair threaten the blue ribbon. More terribly, however, the visiting journalist recognized bed­rock character and righteous anger, know­ing, instinctively, that T. J. Flournoy was the type of man described years ago by his father: “Son, you got to learn that some folks won't do to fart with.”

Then the sheriff said, “It's pure horseshit what they say about that being a multimillion-dollar operation out yon­der. Hell. Goddamn. Shit! Them people was just scratchin' out a living like every­body else. The mediums, now, you god­damn people reported Edna running sixteen girls. And in all my years, I never knew more than nine. And it was all lies about organized crime.”

Had the sheriff . . . uh, you know . . . received any er—ah—gratuities for serv­ices to Miss Edna?

The sheriff put a hand on his gun butt—Oh, Jesus!—and fired twin bursts of pure ole mad out of his cold blue eyes. “Listen, boy, that place has been open since before I was borned and never hurt a soul. Them girls are clean, they got regular inspections, and we didn't allow rough stuff. Now, after all this notoriety, this little town's gettin' a bad name it don't deserve. The mediums, the shitasses, they been printin' all kinds of crap.”

Had the sheriff talked to Governor Briscoe or to the attorney general?

“Naw. No reason to. The place is closed.”

Would it stay closed?

“It's closed now, ain't it?”

Yes. Right. And, uh, what was the pre­vailing community sentiment about the Chicken Farm's future?

“I ain't answering no more questions,” the old sheriff said, stomping his ciga­rette butt with a booted heel. Two or three hot August Texas centuries limped by, while the visiting journalist vainly sought an exit line.

The sheriff said, “Just you remember we got other things than Miss Edna's place. This is as clean a little ole town as you'll find. Hard-workin' people. Good people. That fuckin' Marvin Zindler, if he'd start cleaning up Houston today, why, in about two hunnert years he might have him a town half as clean as La Grange. I'm a-gonna go eat my supper now.” The old man wheeled, lunging away, stiff-gaited and jerky. At the door to the restaurant, he turned and paused to stare his tormentor out of sight.

• • •

The fat bearded journalist opted to permit La Grange 24 hours of cooling time. In truth, the salty old sheriff had unnerved him. For years the crazed back part of the journalist's brain had whis­pered that he might one day be riddled by rural lawmen, as had happened to Bonnie and Clyde: a penalty his mind paid, perhaps, for growing up in rural Texas during the violent outlaw days of the Thirties. There had been lynchings in his home county and backwoods feuds and short tempers: His paternal grand­father, in 1900, had died of an old indis­cretion complicated by a shotgun blast.

They tell a story in La Grange of how, years ago, a bad nigger rejected a deputy who came to arrest him by throwing down on the deputy with a shotgun. When the cowed deputy reported failure, old Sheriff Flournoy first fired him and second drove out to face the same shot­gun: Flipped up his pistol, by God, it still in the holster, now, and drilled that mean nigger smack 'tween the eyes. Well, who knows? There were no eyewitnesses; maybe it was just another case of Texas brags. The journalist was in no position to judge the yarn's veracity; one of his ambitions was never to be able to. Be­sides, the journalist had an unfortunate habit of trick driving late in the day: Ob­viously, if even slightly demented behind the wheel, it would profit him little to encounter an aroused Sheriff Flournoy on the sheriff's back-roads domain.

So, safe in Austin's familiar comforting precincts, he rang up old associates to enjoy what proved to be a 14-hour lunch. There was Brett Haggard, the freewheel­ing lawyer, who has often visited jail for purposes other than counseling of clients. And Egbert Shrum, successful novelist and playwright, who semiheavily dopes. Willowy Kasha, who fucks good and often and has no visible means of support, and who, for all of that, is a fine human. Babs, the visiting schoolmarm from Atlanta, with the great bone struc­ture and the $99 smile, who, curse it, ap­peared content in the company of a scraggly bearded advertising man named Bubba Pool. As events progressed, we would be joined by Egbert Shrum's tasty young wife, Darling—Oh!—along with assorted actresses, musicians, free-lance writers and dopers, a retired prostitute and other social marginals. Originally, however, when they gave us a humorless ejection from the Driskill Hotel bar, there were just six of us. We were at that stage where we felt momentarily uncon­querable, to say nothing of how much we knew: Is anything better or more beguil­ing than the whiskey smarts?

We repaired, hooting, to a dark motel lounge on the banks of the Colorado River. Egbert Shrum, crazed by oven temperatures, many young Scotches and periodic deep sniffs of his Methedrine in­haler, flopped out his dingus in request­ing that Kasha give him head. As the cocktail waitress was then approaching, Egbert had much help in storing his din­gus. When it came his turn to order, Eg­bert said, “Would you mind very much if I smoked a joint in here?” Well, Jesus, you haven't heard such general shushings since John Dean told 'em at the White House he had the truth in mind! The cool young cocktail maiden said, “It's fine with me. But somebody else might come in.”

Egbert said, with unimpeachable logic, “They might not, too. You ever think of that?” Then he fired three joints of the killer weed; everybody puffed mightily in hopes of reducing them to harmless ashes before the crazy bastard got us ar­rested. Texas courts take doping real se­riously; better to steal a cow.

Somebody suggested an orgy. Believe me, it was inevitable: Austin's a great town for flaky sex; if you ain't doing it in multiples, you ain't doing your best; La Grange would not believe what variety is available in Austin. Sweet Babs and Bubba offered their two-bed motel room upstairs. Lawyer Brett Haggard said ex­cuse him, please, but being more thirsty than horny, he preferred to drink: He wouldn't mind watching, however, should we guarantee bartender service. The fat bearded journalist moved toward fulfill­ing an old secret fantasy in suggesting that Darling Shrum be invited. Kasha telephoned her. Darling said, “I'll come drink and dope, but I won't fuck.” Many boos greeted her message.

Husband Egbert complained, “Never marry a narrow-minded woman. It'll cost you too much strange.”

When Darling arrived, pushing her 36-Cs ahead of her, she asked, “How far wrecked is everybody?” Her husband re­sponded by asking whether she'd brought any cocaine; he was despondent that she had not. As the cocktail waitress again appeared, Bubba Pool clinically de­scribed what all he'd like to do to her with his very own tongue. Intrigued, she explained how she wouldn't be free for two nights because her boyfriend was flying in from Baton Rouge: Meanwhile, how about one of them joints? Bubba traded one for her name and phone num­ber and a free pinch of ass. Lawyer Haggard laid his head on the tabletop and gently snored; he failed to respond when Babs and Kasha attempted to re­vive him with wet ear kisses. The fat bearded journalist suggested that Babs and Kasha accompany him upstairs for a nap, volunteering to sleep in the middle. Kasha said she preferred making it with Babs alone. Babs said well, she'd never done that little ole thing—and perhaps this wasn't the day—but one day. . . .

Four innocent strangers entered. Eg­bert Shrum loudly inquired whether they might be from La Grange. No, Ohio. Boardman, Ohio. Shrum revealed the closing down of La Grange's public shame, asking the tourists to join a vic­tory toast to God, Nixon and clean liv­ing. He denounced sin in the aggregate. “Would you tolerate an open whore­house in Boardman?” he demanded. He launched a lengthy speech asking who had promoted Peress and defending Watergate rascality on the grounds of national security. Very shortly we again had the lounge to ourselves.

Many hours past dark, the luncheon party moved to the Soap Creek Saloon, in Austin's rural hills. A folk-rock band crashed and banged its damnedest, turn­ing conversations into face-to-face shout­ing matches; the average customer appeared little older than prep schoolers: hairy young hippies and their braless ladies. Egbert Shrum passed around his Methedrine sniffer. Under the table­cloth's cover, Babs stroked Bubba's most private territory; she offered to share with the fat bearded journalist, who, de­clining, got called a gutless chauvinist sexist. Egbert, spotting a young mother breast-nursing her child, was reminded of how one Christmastide he'd made hisself eggnog from a visiting mother's milk. He claimed that her product shamed Carnation.

Around midnight a dozen hot, crazed children of lust, drugs and drink milled about an unpaved parking lot. Egbert Shrum, having cornered a trio of edgy youngsters, railed at them that he was Governor Dolph Briscoe, by God, de­manding they support his closing of godless whorehouses where red-blooded daughters of Texas, some of whose great-granddaddies had martyred themselves at the Alamo, were being held in white slav­ery by agents of the Kremlin and Marion Brando. In the background, while Babs assisted his gadget, Bubba took a big splashy piss into scrub-oak trees. Salli Ann, the ex-prostitute, professed how much more fun it was to give it away than to sell it: The difference had driven her into retirement.

The Byrds slammed out a high-decibel version of how they liked The Christian Life while the luncheon party moved by stereophonic Ford camper to a private home. A half-dozen revelers gasped and pawed at one another from a mattress laid in the rear, nothing much satis­factory happening, though a fair amount of wine got spilled. Arriving, the party found lawyer Brett Haggard slumbering under a fine old tree and guarded by a mean-tempered, spitting and humping cat. “Brett brought his own pussy,” some­body laughed in the moonlight.

Inside, the air soon knew Mexican boo-smoke pollution; pipes and home-rolled objects passed around the circle along with Methedrine inhalers, amyl-nitrite caps and doses the fat bearded journalist was not yet chemist enough to identify. Prone on a soft furry white rug, he discovered himself experiencing seri­ous time lags. In the midst of Willie Nel­son's singing from twin speakers about Los Angeles smog, it would become ap­parent that Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys had somehow thrummed halfway through Sold American. Or his brain would stubbornly fight to grasp that which Egbert Shrum was shouting into his face, and then he would blink and open his eyes to find that he was alone or talking to any number of other people about a like number of things. The room reeled; his brain crackled and burned; he was aware, dimly, of distant desperate merrymaking shouts.

At an unknown hour he was aroused from a nap he had not been aware of tak­ing: Shrum had popped an amyl-nitrite cap under his nose, causing him to greet consciousness with his ear lobes on fire, his head expanding as if with a winter cold and his throat full of senseless humorless drugged giggles; his heart pounded fit to burst through skin. Can­dles had burned down. Three or four in­distinct inert figures lay like grain sacks in the gloom.

“They're having a small orgy in the back bedroom,” Egbert Shrum said; he was on his hands and knees. Well, was it any good? “I don't remember if I joined in,” the fractured novelist said. “I meant to, I assure you. But I think I forgot. No, wait: I ran into Darling, yeah, that's it. And she spoke evil of my participation.” He rolled over from all fours, snuggled into the furry rug and quickly went night-night. Sleep on, faithful husband. . . .

Finding the kitchen, the fat bearded journalist gasped and wheezed in sousing his head under the water spigot. Everything in him hurt, sizzled or jangled. He wished much to throw at a Nixon dart board on the wall but knew the motions would cost excessive pain. He thought about Hemingway's final solution, won­dering enough about whether ole Hem had had the right answer that he was glad no firearms offered themselves.

Kasha, sleepy and moody and tousled, materialized to drive him to his motel. She did ugly to him for a bit, he permit­ting her to do the main work, while he drifted toward sleep, at once begging her pardon and muttering thanks....

La Grange, in the morning sun, ap­peared as pure as rain water; the aching journalist closed out its splendors with dark glasses. At noon, Buddy Zapalac, ordering another beer, recalled the Chicken Farm of his youth. He is a gleeful 50ish, of iron-gray hair, a stubby heavyweight's torso and a blue-ribbon grin. You see him and you like him.

“In the Thirties,” Buddy said, “they had a big parlor with a jukebox, see, that they used to break the ice. You could ask a girl to dance, or she'd ask you. And pretty soon, why, you could git a little business on. Three dollars' worth.” He laughed in memory of those good old days when Roosevelt pussy had been cheaper than Nixon chicken.

“You couldn't get any exotic extras. Miss Jessie—she ran the farm back then— she didn't believe in perversions. They had wall mirrors in the parlor, see, where' the girls could sit in chairs and flash their wares. But if Miss Jessie caught 'em flashing a little more than she thought was ladylike, she'd raise nine kinds of hell.

“Miss Edna, who was thirty or forty years younger, was a little more modern. I've heard you could get anything you'd pay for: ten bucks for straight, fifteen for half-and-half, twenty-five, I believe, for pure French. The girls wore smart sports clothes for day trade and cocktail dresses at night. They tell me each customer was urged to buy a Coke for himself and one for the girl, see, at fifty cents each. Miss Edna, counting the bottles, knew how much trade each girl had done. I under­stand each girl kept half of her earnings and donated the rest to the house. And the house paid room and board.”

Buddy Zapalac owns the biweekly La Grange Journal. When the Chicken Farm got busted, he was widely quoted as saying he intended to lend editorial sup­port to the farm.

Over Cottonwood Inn beer he admits: “I didn't do it. Lost too many of my sup­porters. Businessmen, even a couple of preachers, told me in private they'd back me up. But people in a little town can't stand much heat. As the publicity built up, see, people started calling up or slipping around to say they'd decided against going on record. I didn't even run a news story.”

How about early reports of outraged La Grange housewives' taking to the streets with petitions, howling how Gov­ernor Briscoe, must permit the Chicken Farm's services?

“Ain't we in a nutty business?” Zapalac chuckled. “Exaggerated. Nothing much to it. Oh, yeah, some people circu­lated a petition. At one time, I heard, they had over four hundred names. Then people had second thoughts and took their names off. They ended with about a hundred and twenty-some names, tops, so they junked the petition. Too much heat, see.”

From what sources?

The editor spread his hands, shrug­ged. “Everywhere. Nowhere. Anywhere. People tend to believe, see, what they read or hear or see. Or, at least, to be influenced. So they ran.

“Yeah, sure, I'm for the Chicken Farm. I grew up with it, and I never once felt corrupted. When we were kids—big ole bunch of rough Czechs and Germans, natural rockheads—we had a lot of fist-fights. But never at the Chicken Farm. It was traditional to be on your good be­havior out there. You honored unspoken rules. See, if a local man got sweet on one of the girls, they'd ship that girl out in a New York minute. They never hired a local girl. Most of 'em came from Austin, Houston. Everybody always took care to keep the townsfolk and the girls from mingling off the job.

“Those gals put a hundred thousand dollars or more into this little town's economy. Every year. Outside money, mainly. And I read in a chamber-of-commerce bulletin that each tourist dollar is really worth seven dollars, the way it cir­culates locally. By that formula, Marvin Zindler ran off about seven hundred thousand dollars' worth of business. Not many of us feel like thanking him.

“People treated those girls good. Went out of their way to be friendly. Let 'em come to the beauty shop, or any store, and they got the red carpet. Having 'em marry and mingle was one thing; being plain courteous was another.”

Deep in his craw, would Zapalac per­sonally miss the Chicken Farm?

He laughed. “Hell, I haven't been out there in years. Except, you know, to take some visitor who had his curiosity up. But, yeah, I guess so. I guess I'll miss it. It's been there since my memory has; it's a landmark. Some people, you know, they're talking about getting the Texas Historical Society to put up a marker out there. And, yes, I'd be for that.”

• • •

It was unspeakably hot and stuffy in the La Grange telephone booth; all the journalist accomplished was breaking into a rare honest sweat. No, said a testy minister, he had absolutely nothing to say about the Chicken Farm and, if quoted, would surely sue. Samey-same, more or less, when you reached business­men, the community's semiofficial histo­rian and a suspicious old justice of the peace. Well, screw research: Fall back on perceptions.

In the cool dark Longhorn Lounge, where Tom T. Hall warbled from the jukeb6x of old dogs and children and wa­termelon wine, he discovered four beer-drinking middle-aged men in sports jackets and business suits, and an older citizen in khakis.

“Hail,” one said. “La Grange has a lot to offer besides the Chicken Farm. There's Monument Hill State Park, as purty a place as you'll see. You can see the river from there. Go up there! Ac­centuate the positive!”

The old nester in khakis belched and said, “That shitass from the Houston TV, he didn't say a goddamn thang about our boys' winnin' the state base­ball championship.”

Winking, one of the locals said, “That place has been shut down before. Back in the Sixties, when Will Wilson was attor­ney general and got it in his craw to be governor, he closed 'er down.” Winks. Pauses. Sips beer. “Yeah, for about two weeks.”

Over the laughter he said, “They put up a big ole 'Closed' sign out front. Newspaper people came and snapped pictures. But if a regular customer went out there, he knew what back road to park on and the girls slipped him in the back door.”

Yeah? Anybody slipping in the back door now?

“Nawsir. No way. Been too much pub­licity. Edna and the girls, soon as the story got reported on national TV, they shucked on out.”

Where were they?

“Well,” one grinned, “I doubt you'd lo­cate 'em in a nunnery. Likely they went on the regular red-light circuit. Big towns. Houston. Dallas. San Antone.”

The old nester said, “Galveston, too. Yeah, and Corpus. That Dallas, it's got more thugs and prostatoots than New Orleans. You recollect Jack Ruby?”

What of Miss Edna?

“Rumor is she's got an old man over in East Texas. Owns a farm. Some say she's hiding there till this blows over. Don't anybody know, for sure, unless maybe our sheriff does. But ole T. J., that stub­born cuss, wouldn't tell if you held his feet to the fahr.”

Well, come on, now, fellers: Whose offi­cial palm did Miss Edna grease for the pleasure of operating?

Shouted disclaimers: The journalist had overplayed his hand. In some heat a silver-haired man in a natty sports coat, who may have sold for Allstate, said, “That wasn't necessary, understand? That place paid good taxes, friend. It was clean. The girls had good manners. The prices didn't hold you up. Friend, they never so much as gave a hot check out there! I had a buddy, he was overseas during the Hitler war, and one of the girls out there, she mailed him cookies. Regular.”

“Only people around here ever tried to close Edna down,” the old nester said, “I guess you could call 'em religious fanat­ics, they quit after people stopped talkin' to 'em and they woke up to find garbage and suchlike dumped on their lawn.”  

Well, now, what about that? Didn't it show some long-range, perhaps less than gentle influence of the Chicken Farm on the community and its standards?

“No comment,” the khaki-clad one snapped, as if he'd waited a lifetime for the opportunity; his companions nod­ded agreement.

                      

Lloyd Kolbe. Lean. Well barbered. On the rise. Mid-to-late 30s. Quick to smile even when his eyes retain calculations in judging the moment's worth or risk. The quintessential Young Businessman: no bullshit, now, what with children to edu­cate and two cars to feed and status to climb.

The owner of radio station KVLG in La Grange, Kolbe is large in civic clubs; he rarely misses the weekly Lions Club fellowship luncheon, where, should you fail to call a fellow member Lion Smith or Lion Jones in addressing him, the club Tail Twister will fine you two bits while everyone whoops and heehaws. On Kolbe's desk, yes, is a picture of about 30 men in drag: startling, until he explains that it depicts local civic leaders in the Rotary Club's Womanless Wedding, staged, like the annual Lions Club broom sale, purely for purposes of charity. Close.

“I'm a native,” Kolbe said, drumming fingers on a polished desktop. “I grew up knowing the Chicken Farm was out there—no, I don't remember how early, it seems I just always knew. As kids, we joked about it, though it didn't preoc­cupy us; didn't mark us, didn't make any grand impression. You noticed as you grew up that adults didn't joke about it. Outsiders, speakers at the chamber-of-commerce banquet, and so on, they joked about it. Local people, you actually didn't hear them mention it until the big bust.”

Like—and no offense, Lloyd—but like, maybe, those good burghers who didn't know what went on at Auschwitz and Da­chau? Knowing it was a grossly unfair comparison, though nagged by the worry that somehow it might be relevant, the journalist couldn't translate the thought to words.

Kolbe was saying, “Some people think the Chicken Farm discouraged industry from moving here. I don't think it did. And if it did, was that truly bad? We're progressive, and all that, but why should we ruin our pure air and clean streams and pretty farms? Industrial rot and blight... do we want to trade for a paycheck? People all over America are looking for La Granges to raise their families in.

“My own children, I've watched and listened to see what effect the Chicken Farm might have on them. And I can't see that it's had any. They accept it, as I did—it's just there, it has nothing to do with them or their lives. We talked about it one night right after the bust.

“On the other hand, I can't believe the town's lost significant revenue. I doubt if those girls spent anything like a hundred thousand dollars a year. And, hell, even if they did, that's no money. You take three or four little ole Mom and Pop stores, they'll equal that. The economic factor has been greatly exaggerated. Probably not over six or eight merchants benefited from the Chicken Farm.

“The thing I hate is that La Grange is now known nationwide as a whore town. And we're better people than that.”

After the bust, Kolbe proposed that three each pro and anti Chicken Farmers debate on his radio station: “But it fell flat. People who privately favored it sim­ply refused to go public. We settled for two programs where people called in. They could identify themselves or not. Most didn't. And those who did, well, yeah, I've erased their names from the tapes. I don't want to take advantage of people.”

He flipped a switch. The tape brought the quavery voice of an old woman: “I was borned and raised in La Grange, and I've always been proud. But when we traveled to other states, people would say, 'Oh, that's where that Chicken Farm's at.' And it was embarrassing. You didn't have any answer. Yes, I pray the thing is shut and stays shut.”

A high school girl: “It's been here for about a hundred years! And I doubt the Mafia's been in La Grange any hundred years, don't you? After Marvin Zindler cleans up Houston....”

A housewife: “I'm definitely for the Chicken Farm. Those girls got regular examinations. You knew, if your hus­band went out there, why, at least he'd likely come home clean.”

A dissenting housewife: “Talk about regular inspections, it was no more than weekly. How many times you think they might've been exposed to syphilis and gonorrhea between inspections?”

Another housewife: “It's been a dis­grace. Our kids, when they went off to college, were ashamed to name   their home town.”

The Englishman: “I'm relatively new, from England, and I've observed the hazards of street prostitution. It's bad. Young girls—sixteen, eighteen, twenty— live the most sordid lives. I think the Chicken Farm was the best thing that ever happened, a true community asset. You've had no rapes, no murders, no dope. . . .”

Old woman: “I'm from over here in Schulenburg. We don't have rapes and murders over here, and we don't even have a Chicken Farm! So I don't think you need it.” (Lloyd Kolbe, chuckling, broke in: “You mean, ma'am, that no­body drives the whole fifteen miles from Schulenburg to visit the Chicken Farm?”)

Local businessman and civic honcho: “I think Edna ran a real nice clean place. . . . I've traveled more than anybody in La Grange. In places like Chattanooga or Georgia or Illinois, I was proud when people knew about the Chicken Farm; they spoke well of it. In my business place here, a fine-looking lady walked in one day with her son to ask directions out there. Her son had been sent by a specialist doctor to the Chicken Farm for his health—'cause that's what he needed! I say bless the place. It should receive a medallion as one of the best-known his­torical spots and recreational facilities in the United States.”

Old nester with prime Texas twang: “I'm from a neighborning town, and I never heard nobody was hurt by the Chicken Farm. If I didn't have no more faith in my sheriff's department than some of you people, why, I'd just move on down to Houston with the gay fellers....”

Many invoked the Bible. Others awarded brimstone to Marvin Zindler and Governor Briscoe. The majority cited the town's prosperity and cleanli­ness in objecting to publicity “recogniz­ing us for just one thing.” The topper was a salty-sounding young woman: “I'm one hundred percent for the Chicken Farm. And I think we ought to have a studhouse for the women.”

Lloyd Kolbe shut off the tape, laugh­ing: “Boy, we sure 'nuff had some phone calls requesting that lady's name.”

Journalists are predators and vultures; they will rut around in anything, includ­ing trash and garbage, seeking firmer un­derstandings or, perhaps, nothing more than cheap titillations or a lucky spin of the wheel.

When the Chicken Farm closed, to judge by its trash bin, Miss Edna and her functionaries shredded their personal pa­pers in the manner of diplomats under siege in a disadvantaged embassy. One surviving letter, addressed to April and signed by Gene, spoke first of the weather, laundry chores, onion planting and other mundane matters before addressing the human condition:

“I had been toying with the idea of skipping our August get-together and planning a longer one for Sep­tember. But, when I heard from you, I couldn't see not coming to see you next weekend. April, please let me know if there is any chance of your coming to New York with me for a weekend on my vacation. If it is just wishful think­ing on my part, please let me know so that I can make plans. Please don't leave it hanging in the air, like seeing you at the beach, until the time is past. . . . I don't expect you to write every day. I realize you have problems in that respect. You asked me to be pa­tient with you, and I sure will try. But I hope that you can be patient with me also: After all, remember when I gave up a weekend of girl watching in Wichita Falls to be with you? I will be happy to wait for you, but you have to let me know from time to time that you want me to wait. There has always been the possi­bility that your interest in me was purely professional. I haven't really felt that was the case, and if I ever do, I will probably become conspicu­ous by my absence. . . . You are a very wonderful person, and I am glad that I met you, April, and I hope to keep that feeling for a long, long time....''

There was a little row of purple Xs representing   kisses, in the traditional code of lovers, directly below a carefully drawn solitary heart and a single flower.

         

I got drunk that night in Austin, thinking of the wretched seeking bastard who, if he went to La Grange as planned, found April gone and his surrogate home shuttered. An old friend—a lawyer who daily sees the seamy side in trade—shook his head at the Chicken Farm's fate. “I went over there back in my law school days,” he said, “and it was so goddamned proper I felt out of place. It was just too damned wholesome for somebody with a hard pecker hunting raunchy sin and eager to whip up his old Baptist guilts! And right over here”—he jerked a thumb— “just a few blocks from the capitol building, there's a place where fags in drag—transvestites, wearing cosmetics and false titties—will take you upstairs and do anything for money that you can get done in Tangier. And down around East Sixth and East Seventh, there are bars where you can make the same sick deal. And even with all the fine amateur stuff floating around—on capitol hill, at the university, all the hippie girls, divor­cees and horny wives—you can buy a woman, if you insist on paying, of any color or creed. You've just got to know the right little ole crummy hotels or motels.

“Probably the girls who tour the regu­lar Texas circuit are owned by some syndicate. Anybody capable of reading knows that organized crime profits down here, but I'll be goddamned if I can see any Godfather tracks around La Grange. A guy who knows Marvin Zindler tells me that Marvin really believes that or­ganized-crime horseshit with respect to the Chicken Farm—but, he says, Marvin's idea of organized crime is two nigger pimps hauling four or five gals from town to town between beating on them with coat hangers. And it looks as if our fearless governor has the same notion of it.” (Well, if he does, the governor may pick up a recent issue of The Texas Observer, a liberal crusading biweekly, and learn that Carlos Marcello's gang is moving into Houston, that old buddies of Meyer Lansky are disputing the Dallas spoils with a senior gang having Chicago roots, that the Syndicate is prospering in Galveston and Corpus Christi and that in Dallas, one newspaperman—writing on local heroin traffic—was shot and a sec­ond newsman there has received death threats for his probes into organized crime.) Get 'em, Dolph, you fearless bastard. . . .

I woke in my Austin motel room to Sec­ond Coming headlines: In Houston, an hour's swift drive down the road from the Chicken Farm, had been discovered three monsters who routinely forced young boys into homosexual acts, tor­tured and abused them until the mind refuses to think anymore of their proba­ble final horrors, and then shot or stran­gled them to death. Twenty-seven bodies would be discovered; with each new find, people argued in bars over whether the total represented a new national mass-murder record.

The remainder of the newspaper told of Watergate figures who resent investi­gations, of illegal Cambodian bombings, of five Austin kids busted for pot, of shortages and inflation and many balloons gone pop. I gazed out the motel window, toward the capitol dome taking the morning's sun, and thought of Charles Whitman, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby; soon, softly, I began semisinging the song they taught me in first grade, back in Putnam, all those eons and other lives ago:

“Texas, our Texas! All hail the mighty state!

Texas, our Texas! So wonderful, so great!

Boldest and grandest, withstanding ev'ry test;

O empire wide and glorious, you stand supremely blest. . . .”