September 27, 2009


Inspired by Susan Orlean's fascinating and funny article on raising chickens, "The It Bird", in The New Yorker this week, I dug through my personal archives and pulled out a short story I wrote in the early '90s that was also part of my Master's thesis. It was inspired by a true encounter with a neighbor's chicken in my suburban childhood, although the story's been heavily fictionalized to fit in with my planned story cycle, The Betty Stories.



My name's Jeff -- I'm eleven, almost old -- and I'm telling this story. My frenemy Betty, who lived right down the street, had a chicken named Victor who lived on her front lawn, running around back and forth like he had nothing else better to do. He was funny, so white with that red wattle thing hanging under his head, running across the completely green lawn. I always wanted to dance with him, jumping over Victor, wiggling my legs, listening to him cluck as he ran. But Betty wouldn't let me; she thought it was stupid.

A couple of months before, before Victor showed up on Betty's lawn, I tried to hatch chicks for a science experiment for fifth grade. I built an incubator out of a big Styrofoam beach cooler. I cut out a front window and covered it over with Saran Wrap, and in the Styrofoam cover I hooked up this light bulb and cord I broke an entire lamp for. There was a long thermometer on the bottom that I took from my school's science lab so I always knew the temperature was right. It took two whole days to get the temperature right. Ninety-two degrees exactly, or the chick embryos would turn black and die in the shells.

My mom drove me upstate to this little farm to buy fertilized eggs, from a really tired woman in a polka-dot dress with a son who watched us the whole time and refused to say anything. We bought twelve, and they weren't expensive, but I don't remember exactly what was the price. For two weeks I turned the eggs over two times a day, watching the temperature. I read everything there is on raising chickens. If you held an egg right up close to a light, but it had to be bright, you could see everything inside. It looked sort of like a red spider web inside, like a red wooden wagon wheel, until they started to grow.

Only one of the eggs made it all the way to hatching right. This little brown chick took four hours to peck and crawl out of the egg, and he made so much noise, peeping like crazy. I held him, petting him, the whole day after he hatched, feeding him mashed-up popcorn and water. He was the best thing, friendly and funny, with a black head and white wings, but the most important part was that he imprinted on me, thinking I was his mom. That was the part I most looked forward to after reading all about in the books. He would try to hide in my hand or under my leg for protection. Instinct!

He was still peeping in the incubator when I went to sleep that night. The next morning he was too quiet. He was dead, curled up stiff. Goodbye, Stanley, in heaven. I hoped it wasn't because of how much I held him.

I guess Victor really belonged to Betty's mom. I didn't like Betty's mom too much. She made Betty go to the doctor to check for bronchitis any time she coughed at all, and she never let us be inside playing Lego when it was sunny out. My mom said Betty's mom soaked Betty's socks in bleach all day, that's why they were so white every time. But Betty's mom fed Victor bird seed every morning, and it was mainly because of her he stayed after he showed up on their lawn.

One day after school I went over there and Betty was out jumping rope in the driveway like she always does, forever and ever. She wants to be famous, a famous Olympic jump roper. I didn't see Victor on the lawn like usually. "Where's Victor?" I asked.

"We played Whack the Chicken and now he's hiding," Betty said. She jumped the rope, skipping, and counted, "600!" Whack the Chicken was this game Betty and her sisters Heather and Doris made up where they get this huge yardstick and chase Victor around trying to hit him. A very mean game, in my opinion.

Looking around the corner of Betty's house, I saw Victor hiding behind the pine bushes. He kept tilting his head sideways and making nervous clucks, taking a step backwards.

I got some seeds from Victor's bowl on the front steps and pushed my way behind the bushes, avoiding the totally poisonous mushy red berries, making clucks to keep Victor calm.

When I brought the seeds up to him, he tilted his head sideways at them, finally making up his mind to take some. His beak felt strange and hard digging into my hand when he went for the seeds. I smoothed down a patch of feathers that were sticking up on his back, feeling the layers and layers of the alive softness. When I ran out of seeds I went back out to Betty.

The jump rope was alone on the lawn at the side of the driveway. I guessed Betty went inside. I walked around the back to see if she was on the porch, but I saw their yardstick with this huge wad of mud on one end. I went back to the bushes and picked up Victor, my arms around his stomach. He was sideways in my arms and I couldn't believe how warm he felt.

Somehow I got him home without anybody seeing anything, every minute expecting my mom or Betty or Betty's mom to be there when I took the corner up the stairs to my room. But I was sure nobody saw.

I laid Victor down on a pile of my clothes in my closet. I moved my good Sunday shoes over to the side to make room for him, so he wouldn't be all cramped up.

As I eased the closet door shut, I watched how Victor became grayer as it got darker, but he didn't make any noise. He was a fat baby angel, picking at the feathers on his back. Right then someone was at the front door. It had to be my mom. She was right on time for coming home.

I waited for her at the top of the stairs, leaning back, pulling the black metal banister. She smiled at me when she came up. "Hi," she said. "How was your day? How was school?"

"Fine," I said. "Good."

"Learn anything? And don't say 'nothing.'"

"We did math a lot. Just math all day." I walked after her into the kitchen.

"Sounds awful," she said, putting her work briefcase down on the table. She looked at the clock, then she looked at the refrigerator. "What should I make you and your father for dinner? What tonight?" She dug into the freezer, moved things around, and pulled out frozen meat for hamburgers.

Later, after dinner, I took hamster food from our pantry which used to be for my hamster, Johnson, who was dead more than a year but we still had the food. It was seeds and green chunks of mashed-up cereal stuff and I figured it would be good for Victor. I spread it on the floor, in my room. I shut my door and set Victor free from the closet. He walked right out and I moved to the bed to give him space, and so I could watch. I saw he'd gone on my Sunday shoes in the closet, but I didn't care. He circled the food, looked up at me, and then started to eat. I just watched from my bed, rocking back and forth, staring at him as he cleaned the sunflower and mixed-up seeds off the brown rug in a big hurry.

"Jeff!" my father called from my parents' room. "Telephone!"

I sort of threw Victor into the closet and shut the door before he had any chance to settle his feathers down. "Sorry," I whispered. "I'll be right back." He was angry at being stopped from eating.

"Hello?" I said, on the kitchen phone.

"Jeff?" It was Betty.

"Yeah," I said. "Hi."

"My mom wants to speak to you. You're so dead. Wait."

I heard them switch places on the phone. "Jeff? This is Agnes."


"Hi. You know our pet chicken, Victor? You wouldn't happen to know where he is, would you, honey?"

"Why? Is he missing?"

"Well, yes, actually. Have you seen him? Betty said you were the last to play with him."

"No," I said, changing ears on the phone. "He was behind the bushes when I left. I left him back there."

"Are you sure? Betty said something about seeing you carrying him to your house this afternoon."

I couldn't call Betty a liar, not to her mom, but there was no other way. "It's not true," I said. My tongue was all tied up.

"That may be," Betty's mom said. "May I speak to your mother?"

"She's not home," I said. I hoped my parents weren't listening to me from their room. The walls were not fixed sound proof.

"Where did she go?" Betty's mom asked. "I can see her car in your driveway from my window. May I speak with her?"

"No." I hung up the phone.

My heart was beating too much so I pushed on my chest. I moved fast to my room, putting up the chair behind the door. The phone rang again and I thought, who will answer? My mom or my father? I shut the light off, dropped to the floor, and crawled over the seeds digging shapes into my hands, over to the closet.

I shut us in the closet, me and Victor. I pulled shirts, sweaters, and coats down from the hangers on to us in the dark, moving them around into place, getting them right.

Victor was making these scared clucks and I petted him and petted him, feeling his fluffed-out feathers, breathing in the wool of the sweater on my head covering us, touching the edges of his feathers, their pointy parts.

Victor was calming still but I held him. I held him close. I heard his heartbeats, soft, like a drum from far away.


paul magrs said...

Love this story! I love how palpable and vulnerable Victor is. I want to read more of the Betty stories!

how do i link to this from my blog, btw?

Citysqwirl said...

Thanks, Paul! To link to the story, click on the time stamp at the end of the post, which will give you the URL of that entry. I've added your site to my Blogroll, btw. Cheers!