4 Killing Chickens
Emelina’s was a pleasant, ramshackle place with animals, an old plum orchard and five boys. When I walked up the drive with my suitcases they were preparing to kill roosters. Emelina’s eyes and mouth drew wide and she looked briefly like a surprised fish. “Codi, this is Sunday, I thought you said tomorrow.”
“No, it was today, I’m here,” I said apologetically. I was glad I hadn’t waited any longer at the courthouse.
“Shoot, you look like a fifty-dollar bill. Where’d you get that haircut, Paris, France?” She gave me a hug and waved her hand at the driveway. “I’m sorry about this mess. We’ve just got the water boiled for the birds. Shoot.”
I’d just witnessed what I’d thought was going to be the slaughter of a peacock, so I laughed, but this time it was real murder and mayhem. The drive was lined with pails, paper bags, and a tragically stained wooden block that had been used before. Emelina’s twins, who were about ten, each held a fat white rooster by the feet. A younger brother was riding a tricycle precariously over the rocky ground. I put down my suitcases.
“Curty and Glen, look at you,” I said. “And Mason. You guys are getting too big.”
“Aunt Codi, look. If you hold them upside down they go to sleep,” Glen said.
Curty said, “No, they get hypnotized.”
“Well, either way it’s a handy trick,” I said. “You don’t want them to see what’s coming.”
Emelina looked dismayed. “Codi, we don’t have to do this now. What a god-awful thing to do in front of company.”
“I’m not company. You’re all set up, so do it. You can’t go out of your way for me if I’m going to live here.”
She rolled her eyes. “Go on back to the granny house then. John Tucker was supposed to sweep it out this morning before he went to his baseball practice but I’ll fall over dead if he did it right now, instead of feeding the baby. I’ll bet you fifteen dollars he’s laying in the house watching the MTV.”
John Tucker was Emelina’s oldest, but I couldn’t picture him old enough to feed the baby. I hadn’t yet seen the baby, since he’d only arrived six months ago. But over the years Emelina and I had kept up. I’d taped her kids’ school pictures to the woodwork of Carlo’s and my many ill-furnished apartments. Sometimes repairmen would ask if they were my boys.
I went around to the side yard and pushed open a wire gate that wouldn’t have kept out a determined hen. The guesthouse in the back faced the big ranch house across a huge brick courtyard that was wild and overrun with flowering vines. Every inch of space was taken up with fruit trees, painted flowerpots, and lawn chairs that looked like they’d been there since the last war. I could hear chickens clucking softly somewhere out of sight, and at the back of the courtyard a goat stretched its neck to get at a fig tree.
The guesthouse had a pink door flanked by pots of geraniums, whose crimson flowers stood out against the white walls like wine stains blooming on a tablecloth. Inside, the little house was whitewashed and immaculate. There were two brick-floored rooms: a living room and bedroom. The light pouring in the windows was stirred up by the motion of fig branches outside. The bed had a carved headboard, painted with red enamel, and a soft-looking woven spread. It was a fairytale bed. I wished I could fall down and sleep a hundred years in this little house with pale crisscrossing shadows on the walls.
I heard the goat moving around outside, munching loudly and bumping against the wall. I opened cupboards. Everything was spotless. The east window in the living room looked straight out onto the granite wall of the canyon a few yards away, a startling lack of view. Emelina’s place was the last and highest on her street, backed up against the canyon. The floorboards of her front porch were on a level with her neighbors’ roofs.
I took my time exploring. I savored the first minutes in a new home. Carlo would always go straight to unpacking boxes, looking for the sheets and coffeepot and swearing that we were going to get better organized, while I stepped stealthily over the bare floors, peeking around corners and into alluring doors, which generally turned out to be the broom closet. But there was that thrilling sense that, like a new lover, the place held attributes I had yet to discover. My favorite book as a child was The Secret Garden. It’s embarrassing to think I’d merrily relocated again and again, accompanying Carlo to the ends of the earth, because of the lure of a possible garret or secret closet. But it might be true.
I tried out the two very old chairs in the living room. They had rose slipcovers and were comfortable. In a corner near the window was a beehive fireplace, and next to it, a clay vase of peacock feathers. Every home in Grace had one of those; it was a local feature. You could pick up half a dozen peacock feathers on any given day, in the orchards, as you went about your business. When the vase was full, you took them to one of the old women who made real-feather pin~atas, and then you started your collection over. The practice had not been allowed in our house because Doc Homer said the feathers were crawling with bird mites; he dreaded to think what those old women’s houses were harboring in the way of microorganisms. It became Hallie’s and my joke. Whenever he unreasonably forbade us to do something, we’d look at each other and mouth the words “bird mites.”
The bathroom and kitchen must have been added on about mid-century. The refrigerator looked prehistoric, but worked. It contained a loaf of fresh bread in a paper bag, some tomatoes and figs, a block of goat cheese, and a six-pack of Miller Lite. Emelina’s estimation of the bare essentials. I popped open a beer and went back around the house in time to witness the demise of the second rooster.
“Is it okay that there’s a goat loose in the courtyard?” I asked Emelina.
“Shit! I’m going to tan John Tucker’s hide. John Tucker!” she yelled. “Get your damn goat out of the garden, please, or we’ll have him for dinner!”
There was a noise from inside and the back door slammed.
“You don’t really want to watch this, Codi,” she said. “But I guess you see a lot worse in your line of work.”
I sat on the porch rail. I was no longer in the doctoring line of work. It’s true I’d been educated to within an inch of my life, and had done well in medical school. My mistake was assuming medicine was a science like any other. If it’s carburetors you know, you can fix cars, I reasoned; if it’s arteries and tendons you fix people. For reasons that were unclear to me, I’d learned the science but couldn’t work the miracle: I’d had a crisis while trying to deliver a baby. My problem turned out to be irreversible. Emelina knew all this. I was here, after all, with no more mission in life than I’d been born with years ago. The only real difference between then and now was wardrobe.
“Tell me if I can help,” I said.
She ignored me. “Okay, watch your hands, Curty. Keep them way back.” Emelina was small, but didn’t give that impression. Her jeans had “Little Cowboy” stitched on the label, and undoubtedly belonged to one of her sons. Emelina and I graduated from high school the same year, 1972. Under my picture in the yearbook it said, “Will Go Far,” and under Emelina’s it said, “Lucky in Love.” You could accept this as either prophecy or a bad joke. I’d gone halfway around the world, and now lived three-quarters of a mile from the high school. Emelina had married Juan Teobaldo Domingos the same June we graduated. Now J.T. worked for the railroad and, as I understood it, was out of town most of the time. She said it didn’t bother her. Maybe that’s as lucky as love gets.
Curty laid his hypnotized rooster on the block and held its feet, keeping the rest of his body as far away as possible. It never regained consciousness. Emelina swung the axe over her shoulder and brought it down on the mark. The pink, muscular neck slipped out of the collar of feathers as if the two parts had been separately made. The boys hooted and chased after the body as it thrashed across the dirt. But I was fascinated by the head: the mouth opened and closed, silently, because the vocal cords were in the part that had been disconnected.
“That’s the way, Curty,” Emelina directed. “Don’t get blood on your brother. Dip him all the way in. Now pluck him quick or he’ll go stiff on you. Start with the wings, see how Glen’s doing?” She wiped perspiration out of her eyes.
I was amazed by the muscle definition in her upper arms and her easy command of the axe. Her hands stayed surprisingly clean through the whole operation. She reminded me of Hallie, the way she could do things. Though of course Hallie would never decapitate anything.
“I can’t believe you’re watching this,” she said when both boys were settled down to plucking feathers. She went inside and came out with a beer. She sat down next to me on the wide wooden rail, knocking the heels of her sneakers against the crossbar like a child. I was very conscious of my height. Sometimes I had an acute feeling that small women were better put together somehow, more in control of their bodies.
“You used to have a hissy fit when we’d go over to Abuelita’s and she’d be killing chickens,” Emelina said. “Remember? Even when we were big, twelve or thirteen.”
“No, that was Hallie. She’s the one that had such a soft heart. We’ve always been real different that way. She’d cry if she stepped on a bug.” I drained my beer. “She’s still like that, except now she cries about bag ladies. I swear. She gives them quarters and then she wishes she’d given them a dollar.”
I stared out at the treetops and the leaf-green gables of the roof on a house below us. The shingles were an odd, elaborate shape like the spade in a deck of cards. I wondered in what decade they’d stopped making shingles like that, and how this neighbor might repair the roof after a bad storm.
“You really do look great,” Emelina said. “That’s a terrific haircut, I mean it. You’ll stand out in a crowd here till you get your first cut down at Beth’s Butcher Shop.”
I ran my fingers over my weedy scalp, feeling despair. I’d spent my whole childhood as an outsider to Grace. I was willing to march downtown and submit myself to butchery this minute if that would admit me to the club. I’d led such an adventurous life, geographically speaking, that people mistook me for an adventurer. They had no idea. I’d sell my soul and all my traveling shoes to belong some place.
“I always forget you have so much auburn. Doc Homer had the same coloring, didn’t he? Sort of reddish before he went gray?” She fingered her own shoulder-length hair. “Speaking of him…”
“Speaking of him,” I said.
“Have you talked to him?” She looked apprehensive. Emelina was my informant. When he started getting lost on his way home from the drugstore, she was the one person in Grace who thought to call me, rather than just draw him a map.
“I’ll go up and see him tomorrow.”
“And where’s Hallie gone? You told me, but I forgot.”
“Nicaragua,” I said. “To save the crops. Cross between Johnny Appleseed and a freedom fighter.”
Emelina laughed and I felt disloyal. I hadn’t meant to sound glib. It was just hard to put Hallie into the context of regular life. “I guess it’s really dangerous,” I said. “But she’s excited about it. She’ll be happy.” I was sure of this. Hallie didn’t have my problem. She belonged wherever she was.
Emelina nodded. She watched the boys, who sat cross-legged on the driveway, transfixed by the importance of their task. They were dappled with blood and looked like they’d been through a strange war themselves-a children’s war.
A scarlet bougainvillaea covered the front porch. In fact, it was so overgrown that the wood of the vine seemed to be supporting the structure over our heads. The breeze coming up the valley felt like a warm liquid against my arms and face. I held the sweaty beer can against my temple and watched the bougainvillaea arms swaying around us like seaweed under the ocean.
“No,” Emelina said after a while. “I’m sure it was you that had a fit over the chickens. You’d start, and then Hallie would do it too. She always followed whatever you did.”
“No. Hallie? We’re chalk and cheese. Somebody ought to do a study on us, if they want to know how kids in the same family can turn out totally different. She was born with her own mind.”
“Maybe she was, but she copied you like a picture,” Emelina said. “She used to get so pissed off at me because I wouldn’t go along with your boycott of Abuelita’s chicken and rice.”
I didn’t remember organizing boycotts. “Well, you’re the witness here. Blood all over the driveway and I didn’t faint.”
“People change,” she said. “Not everything stays with you all your life.”
I sat watching my suitcases for a good fifteen minutes, as if they might become inspired to unpack themselves, and then I went into the bedroom and lay down for just a minute, letting my shoes drop one at a time onto the brick floor. I tried to think how far Hallie might have gotten by now. Guatemala. Maybe farther. It was frightening to speculate on specifics; I’d been rationing my thoughts about her, but now I was exhausted and my mind ran its own course. I thought of Hallie at border crossings. Men in uniforms decorated with the macho jewelry of ammunition. No, not that far. I pulled her back to Tucson, where I’d seen her last and she was still safe.
She’d come by the 7-Eleven, all packed up, at the end of my graveyard shift. She knocked her knuckles on the plate glass to get my attention. I locked the cash drawer and took off. Sparrows were ruffling themselves in the sheets of fresh rain on the asphalt. As I walked her across the parking lot to her truck I could see just how we’d look to somebody, hanging on to each other by the elbows: like two swimmers in trouble, both of us equally likely to drown.
Or maybe only one of us was holding on for dear life. It was hard to believe I’d once been the one to strike out bravely for college, leaving Hallie crying in front of the Baptist Grocery. Now it seemed like I was the baby of the family, the one with no firm plans who’s allowed to fiddle around forever keeping everyone young.
Hallie was headed for a war zone. She walked straight through the puddles, dragging me along, and I had to stretch out my legs and drench my shoes to keep up with her. When Hallie was intensely excited she had a wild-animal look to her that could stop people in their tracks. A vibration came from her skin, like a bell that has just been struck. Her hair was long and reckless, curling wildly in the humidity. Every part of my sister could stir rebellion. I was thinking that if anything happened to her I wouldn’t survive. I couldn’t see that there would be any method, or any point.
As long as I held Hallie’s arm she would still be here, she wouldn’t be climbing into the truck, turning the key, driving south through Arizona and Mexico and the perilous places farther on, wouldn’t be stopped at a roadblock by men who might blandly shoot her in the head for being twenty-nine years old and alone and female, wearing blue jeans, carrying antihistamine pills in her glove compartment. It seemed like a chain of events I could hold back, there in the parking lot, with the bones of her elbow securely gripped in my hand.
Her little beat-up pickup looked impossibly loaded, like the tiny burros you see in postcards carrying elephant-sized burdens without complaint. I wasn’t worried about the truck. I asked where she’d put her antihistamines. We knew of a photographer who’d been shot, ostensibly for running drugs, because he had a baby-food jar of aspirin and vitamin tablets in his camera bag.
Hallie said her pills were no place easy to find.
I put my head on her shoulder. “What if our houseplants die?”
“They won’t,” she said. Hallie knew I wanted easy answers.
I lifted my head again and she stared at me, thoughtfully. The sky had cleared. The early-morning light behind her head was orange, making her hair glow, and she looked like an angel. She never had any idea how she looked to other people; she thought she was plain.
“If the flea beetles start getting at the ones on the porch,” she said slowly, “dust them with Celite.” Hallie worked for the Extension Service and answered the Garden Hotline, 626-BUGS. For a period of years ending on that day, garden pests were her life.
I hugged her with all the strength in my arms. “Hallie,” I said, “could you please just change your mind now and not go?”
“You really love me, so you want me to stay here and keep the suburbs safe for geraniums.”
“I know how I ought to feel,” I said. “I just don’t.”
Her breath expanded her chest against my arms, and I thought of the way a tree will keep on growing after a fence is wired around its trunk. The unbelievable force of that expansion. And I let her go.
She started up her truck and waved from the corner, not a mournful gone-forever wave but a chin-up wave like you see in the World War II movies, where everybody is brave because they all believe in the same thing. I told myself because I had no other choice that Hallie would do all right. That we were both going to live.
I walked the six blocks home under dripping trees and a sun that was already too hot. Across the street I heard a woman say to her companion in an odd accent, “It’s the Desert Museum. I had understood him to say the ‘dessert museum,’ and obviously I was expecting something quite different.” I thought: this is how life is, ridiculous beyond comprehension. What I felt wasn’t pain but a hollowness, like a drum with the skin stretched tight. It took me five minutes to get our front door open, because everything in Tucson with moving parts gets cantankerous in the rainy season. Hallie had meant to put graphite in the lock before she left.
A white balloon left over from her going-away party followed me from the living room into the kitchen. It was the size of a head, and had lost some helium so it hung at eye level, trailing its string along the floor like a tired old ghost. Static electricity drew it along behind me. I swatted it away from my head while I plundered the refrigerator. I found some red bell peppers that had been absurdly expensive at the health-food market, and washed one and ate it standing up in the kitchen. After that I found a paring knife and went to work on a cucumber. I didn’t feel like cooking breakfast just for myself. Carlo was at the hospital and I had no idea when he was due back.
The phone rang and I jumped, I suppose because I felt guilty for standing in the kitchen eating costly vegetables. I was afraid it was going to be somebody with garden pests, but they’d already turned off the Garden Hotline. It was Hallie calling from a pay phone this side of the border to tell me she’d forgotten to graphite the lock.
“I knew you’d call about that.” I was filled with a strange joy because she felt the same way I did: that we couldn’t survive apart. I just stood still for a minute, giving Hallie’s and my thoughts their last chance to run quietly over the wires, touching each other in secret signal as they passed, like a column of ants. You couldn’t do that kind of thing at international rates.
“There’s a library book, too,” she said. “Those Baron M"unchhausen stories. I found it in with my books when I was cleaning out my room.”
“I know. I saw it. I’ll take it back today.”
“That book’s got to be overdue, Codi. You were reading it in the car a month ago when we drove to Bisbee.”
I took a bite out of the cucumber and chewed before answering. I wanted this phone call to last forever. I wanted to recall every book we’d ever read aloud together while driving. “You’re right. It’s overdue.”
“Take it back and pay the fine, okay? Libraries are the one American institution you shouldn’t rip off.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Miss Patty Hearst the Second.” I heard her trying not to laugh. Hallie was intellectually subversive and actually owned a copy of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, but by nature she was perversely honest. I’d seen her tape dimes to a broken parking meter.
“Apart from moral reasons, they’ll cancel your card.”
“I don’t know why you think I’m such a library outlaw. I’m all paid up over there.” I munched on the cucumber. It wasn’t that different from eating an outsize apple, say, or a peeled peach, and yet anyone looking in the window would judge me insane. “Don’t worry about me, Hallie,” I said finally. “Just worry about yourself.”
“I’m not worried about myself. I’m the luckiest person alive.”
It was an old joke, or an old truth, grown out of all the close shaves she’d walked away from. Bike wrecks, car wrecks, that kind of thing. I’d always been more or less a tragedy magnet, but Hallie was the opposite. One time she started out the door of the old science library at the university, and then turned around and went back in because she’d left her sunglasses by the microfiche machine, and two seconds later the marble facade fell off the front of the building. Just slid straight down and smashed, it looked like Beirut.
Hallie didn’t believe she was invulnerable. She was never one of those daredevil types; she knew she could get hurt. What I think she meant was that she was lucky to be on her way to Nicaragua. It was the slowest thing to sink into my head, how happy she was. Happy to be leaving.
We’d had one time of perfect togetherness in our adult lives, the year when we were both in college in Tucson-her first year, my last-and living together for the first time away from Doc Homer. That winter I’d wanted to fail a subject just so I could hang back, stay there with her, the two of us walking around the drafty house in sweatshirts and wool socks and understanding each other precisely. Bringing each other cups of tea without having to ask. So I stayed on in Tucson for medical school, instead of going to Boston as I’d planned, and met Carlo in Parasitology. Hallie, around the same time, befriended some people who ran a safehouse for Central American refugees. After that we’d have strangers in our kitchen every time of night, kids scared senseless, people with all kinds of damage. Our life was never again idyllic.
I should have seen it coming. Once she and I had gone to see a documentary on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which was these Americans who volunteered without our government’s blessing to fight against Franco and Hitler in the Spanish Civil War. At that point in U.S. history fascism was only maybe wrong, whereas communism was definitely. When we came home from the movie Hallie cried. Not because of the people who gave up life and limb only to lose Spain to Franco, and not for the ones who came back and were harassed for the rest of their lives for being Reds. The tragedy for Hallie was that there might never be a cause worth risking everything for in our lifetime. She was nineteen years old then, and as she lay blowing her nose and sobbing on my bed she told me this. That there were no real causes left.
Now she had one-she was off to Nicaragua, a revolution of co-op farms and literacy crusades-and so I guess she was lucky. Few people know so clearly what they want. Most people can’t even think what to hope for when they throw a penny in a fountain. Almost no one really gets the chance to alter the course of human events on purpose, in the exact way they wish for it to be altered.
I loved her for feeling so strongly about things. But I’d watched Doc Homer spend a lifetime ministering his solemn charity to the people of Grace and I’m not sure whose course was altered by that, other than Hallie’s and mine, in a direction we grew to resent. It’s true that I tried myself to go into medicine, which is considered a helping profession, but I did it for the lowest of motives. I did it to win love, and to prove myself capable. Not to move mountains. In my opinion, mountains don’t move. They only look changed when you look down on them from a great height.