Chicken Shit Bingo

This is how you play Chicken Shit Bingo in Austin, Texas, on a hot summer Sunday.

You have to show up early if you want to get a table. Early will be about 3:30 p.m. or so. It will be hot on that stretch of Burnet (rhymes with “Durn It”), the ugliest stretch of unreconstructed Eisenhower romanesque proto-suburban landscape. To the south, they’ve repainted the strip malls and made them ironic, and buried the power lines under brick. Farther north, it is lowest bidder capitalism. Pawn shops. Liquor stores. Tile warehouses. Where you are right now is one of the preserved places between, tucked beside the gas station, in the parking lot of a honky tonk called Ginny’s Little Longhorn. On either side of the front door, the saloon advertises its amusements in bold red letters: “BEER WINE SET-UPS” and “POOL DOMINOES GAMES.” You are here for the games. You showed up early, so there are still legal places to park.

Go in.

It’s cool in Ginny’s. And dark. You don’t even see the pool table that’s covered with a plywood numbered grid to your left as your eyes adjust to the neon glow. Walk up to the bar, get a Lone Star long-neck ($1.50), wait for your friends.

Check out the crowd. Man, wife, two children, smiles on all their faces. Divorcees chat idly, clustered around a rickety table, hair stacked up high like it ought to be, their long-necks zippered up in high-tech thermal beer parkas. A smattering of hipster rednecks pose at the bar, sporting elaborate facial hair and starched work shirts purchased from the more fashionable second hand stores. The neighborhood joes start to arrive, all pressed western shirts and Sunday Wranglers.

Then your friends show up, and you grab a table.

You blink for a couple seconds as the door at the end of the bar opens, and the blast of concrete-and-tar-flavored Texas sun tunnels in. You squint at the man dressed in black leather vest, guitar and amp in hand, silhouetted against the fire exit. How can a man dress like that in this heat and stay cool? He can if he is Dale Watson.

The band — hotshot steel guitar man, red headed guitar slinger in bib overalls, and the roughneck drummer — sets up. Dale takes his chair and the show starts. Purest, distilled honky-tonk music. Dale Watson confesses that he’s “too country for country — just like Johnny Cash.” Dale has been manhandled by the cruelest instruments of fate: death, drugs, attempted suicide, divorce and Nashville record executives. But Dale still has the Texas baritone, smooth as anejo tequila, rich as Croesus. His voice charms the tar out of the sidewalk, squeezes a tear out of the rattlesnake.

Dale gives a quick nod to Ginny behind the bar, and sings a brief song about the two bowls of chili and the free hot dogs they set up behind you when you weren’t looking. Ginny smiles. She owns the place and she made the chili.

Help yourself to a hot dog or three: they’re free.

You hear the opening bars of “Green Acres.” Follow Dale’s simple yet accurate instructions if you want to play the game.

Get in line, have your two dollars ready, and when Dale asks, raise your hand so people can tell where the end of the line is, which may be out the back door. When your turn comes, get your ticket with the number on it from the man in the Cat Diesel Power hat by the pool table: the pool table with the green plywood with the grid of numbers on it.

The number on your ticket is seventeen.

Don’t blink — turn around — you missed it.

From nowhere, like some poultry ex machina, Dewey appears and gives you the chicken eye. He is a brown chicken and he is checking out the plywood grid. You must root for him to poop on the the number on board that matches the number on your ticket. This great gaming tradition emerged from the miasma of poultry farmer legend and home-brewed intoxicants. Variations of the sport are played in deep swampy Louisiana gin joints, biker rallies and tropical honeymoon tourist traps. Some call it the “chicken drop.” Like the games of chess and love, Chicken Shit Bingo takes only a moment to learn, but a lifetime to master.

Dale keeps playing. Whoops and hollers crescendo, and Dewey strides across the board, cool as a Monte Carlo croupier. He tilts his little chicken head, waiting for the spirit of fortune and the forces of nature to move him. Then, only then, does he shit, clean and square on a numbered square.

“Number 39!” shouts the man in the hat.

Check your number … damn. Check the numbers of your friends … damn. Buy another round of longnecks for your friends, for you are all chicken shit losers.

If you were a Chicken Shit Winner, you’d go up front. Dale would ask you what you’re going to do with all that money, and you’d tell him:

“Aw, shit, Dale, save some, of course, for the boat. And buy some beer for my friends!”

“Dale, my gal only wanted one thing today. To win at Chicken Shit Bingo! And we did!”

But no, you are a Chicken Shit Loser, so Dale dedicates his next song to you. Because this one is for the Chicken Shit Losers. It’s a heartbreak song.

Riding the longneck buzz, you become one with the suddenly dense crowd. The opening notes of “Sleepwalk” ring out across the bar, and everyone — the hipsters, the mechanics and the hairdressers — drag the one that brung ’em to the dance floor. It’s a Chicken Shit Bingo couple’s skate.

Yes, it’s your turn to get another round. And they are still only $1.50 a long-neck.

You play a couple more games. You lose them all; Dewey the chicken lets you know it is not your day. Some of your friends leave, others show up. And every Chicken Shit Loser song is sung for you.

You get up to the front door. The moon glows silver over the urban sky stained pink by street lamps. You realize that some eternal truths can only be conjured through a honky-tonk song and the caprice of a chicken.