by David Larsen
Clay Gibson couldn’t watch when Frank and his father killed the hen—he just couldn’t do it—but the fresh, menacingly-dark blood on the gray tree stump and the axe that leaned against the side of the stump had some unyielding hold on his twelve-year-old mind. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t keep from glancing at, then quickly looking away from, the site of the slaughter, the first step in the preparation of the chicken and noodles, Clay’s favorite meal that Grandma Peck cooked, especially for him, whenever his family came to visit.
Unlike his mother’s chicken dinners, dishes prepared with chicken breasts that came from the A & P, rubbery pieces of meat, tidily wrapped in cellophane, his grandmother’s wonderful meals commenced with violence, a perfunctory carnage that occurred not more than sixty feet from the backdoor of the small, run-down shack on SW Forty Second Street, the dilapidated shanty his grandmother shared with Frank, her second husband, a whiskered, grizzled old man Clay adored.
The bird’s severed head was gone—his father must have removed it from the sacrificial stump—but white feathers, the reminders of the bird’s hopeless struggle, a match with a preordained outcome, were scattered all around the stump.
It wasn’t that Clay felt any kinship with the chickens. To the contrary, he hated the creatures; the disagreeable birds chased him around the yard every time he stepped out the back door; he was fed up with being terrorized by the hideous clucking demons. There was no love lost between them. Squeamish and, unfortunately, timid, Clay was intimidated by the petulant feathered oppressors; any terror the birds suffered in the preparation of his favorite meal, Clay looked upon as justice served. But he wanted no part in the administration of the retribution.
Clay knew the next steps in the process by heart: the chicken’s remaining feathers would be plucked, the insides of the bird would be yanked out, his grandmother would skillfully remove small hairs, or whatever they were, from the chicken’s flesh with tweezers, the chicken—what was left of it—would then be cleaned and torn into pieces, then placed into the large pot on the kitchen stove. The noodles, cut into strips from dough that had been artfully rolled out with a wooden rolling pin, would be added once the meat separated from the bones in the pot of boiling water, spices of some sort would be pinched into what would soon be the broth.
The outcome: one of the tastiest dinners anyone could ask for.
Clay loved devouring the bird and the thick, slimy noodles, even after all he had witnessed. There would be green beans from the garden and, the best part of the feast, the desert, a rhubarb pie from the stalks of the plants that randomly grew down by the cornfield Frank illegally cultivated on the railroad’s land, a couple of acres squeezed in between the switching tracks and his grandparents’ shingled hovel. It was all for Clay, his grandparent’s favorite grandchild.
And Clay was the Pecks’ favorite grandchild. More than once, Frank had told him so. The old man saved all of his prizes from the boxes of Cheerios, Wheaties and Corn Flakes for Clay—and for Clay only—when he came to visit. The bristly old man kept the trinkets—plastic rings, a tiny magnifying glass, miniature soldiers, a small boat that actually floated—stashed away in the top drawer of the mahogany chest of drawers in his bedroom. On the previous year’s visit Frank told Clay to keep these gifts a secret. “Don’t tell your cousins that I give you these,” he told the boy. “When Glen and Sharon come here, all they do is make fun of the way we live. ‘Why do you live in this small little house? Why do you have cows in your backyard? Why are you poor?’ You, Clay, you’re different. You seem to like it here. All they do is complain that there’s no TV. That there’s nothing to do.”
Being the favorite grandchild of the Pecks carried some pretty heavy responsibilities: Clay was expected to tag along with Frank when he walked Ma and Cherry, the old man’s two milk cows, over to pasture in a vacant lot a quarter of a mile away.
Pat, Frank’s three-legged, gray-whiskered terrier hobbled alongside the two as they thrashed through the high weeds. Clay loved that dog in spite of the mongrel’s wiry coat and horrible breath.
Another obligation—a treat, never a chore—was that he was expected to listen to Frank’s stories. Frank had done more in his life than anyone: he’d ridden with Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba, he worked on the canal in Panama, he was, at one time, the sheriff in Downs, Kansas, he’d panned for gold in the Yukon, he, when he was a young man, was a gandy dancer on a crew in the southern counties of Iowa. There wasn’t much the man hadn’t done.
Clay knew, once they returned to the house, with the cows safely staked in the grassy vacant lot, there would be an afternoon’s session of sitting beside Frank, in the shade on the wooden steps that led to the house’s backdoor. He listened intently to the recounting of the exploits the man had survived, back before the Midwest had been totally settled, back when there were still adventures to be experienced, back before men, like his own father, merely went off to work and came home every day. Before the every-day drudgery of the fathers of Clay and his friends.
The day was already sticky hot, the temperature in the upper eighties, a scorcher for central Iowa this late in August. Grandma Peck would more than likely stir up a pitcher of Kool Aid for the two to gulp down as they whittled away at “just-the-right-size” branches from the red elm out by the storage shed. The old man and the boy would talk, man to man, about the triumphs Frank had achieved in his breathtaking life.
This day was shaping up to be another great one for Clay.
“Back in Kansas I had a run-in with the James brothers,” said Frank. His raspy voice added to the tales he told. “They were a couple of tough boys.”
Frank’s knife took a foot-long curl of bark off the side of his chunk of the elm.
“You knew Jesse James, Frank?”
“Knew him?” Frank looked off across the rows of corn south of the back yard. He squinted one eye, hesitated, for effect, then spoke in his best down-home drawl. “I used to run with those two, Frank and Jesse, both of them…before they went so bad.”
“Did you rob any banks?” Clay hated that his own voice had risen to a high pitch, but this was a truly remarkable admission, even for a man with Frank’s experiences.
“No, no. I knew them when they were still okay. Once they went bad, I joined a posse that went after that gang. Even though we’d once been good friends, I had to help put an end to their rampaging.” Frank sniffled heavily and took a swig of the orange Kool Aid. He paused again, then continued. “I never went in for breaking the law, but I knew the likes of the James boys all too well.”
“What was Jesse James like?” Clay also took a hearty gulp of the Kool Aid.
“I guess you could say he had a mean streak, even before all the robbing and killing. But, shoot, when I knew him, he was just trying to get enough money to buy a farm. He used to tell me ‘Frank, when I get my farm, I want you to be my partner’. Well, I guess that would have worked out just fine, but then he took to getting ideas about getting rich quick. That’s when him and me split up. The next thing I knew I was riding after him with a bunch of other fellas.” Frank spit a stream of brown tobacco juice into the grass off to his side of the backdoor steps.
Clay struggled with his pocket knife, a gift from Frank two years earlier. The bark on his stick wouldn’t come off easily. “Was this when you were a sheriff?”
“No, that came later. I was still pretty young when we went after Jesse. We never caught him though. Some say he was never really shot. That he lived to be an old man. I just know we could never track him down and take him in.”
“That must have been something. Knowing Jesse James.”
The old man tossed his smooth, shucked branch into the yard. He stood and stretched.
“We’d better go and get Ma and Cherry before someone steals them,” said Frank. “Why don’t you run in and tell your mother that we’re going to go and bring those two bossies back home? And, Clay, while you’re in there, see how those noodles are coming along. I’m getting pretty hungry, aren’t you?”
Before Clay went inside, he ran off to the outhouse on the edge of the cornfield. As his brother had warned, the plumbing inside the house was on the fritz again. Clay’s teenage brother, Carl, never came to the Pecks’ house; he thought they were just a couple of rubes.
Luckily, the privy wasn’t unbearable. Number one wasn’t so bad in the outhouse; number two, on the other hand, was an entirely different story.
Inside the house his mother and Grandma Peck worked, side by side, in the small kitchen. Two Berthas, mother and daughter, going about their business as if they’d been born to it. His father was on the glider on the front porch, his eyes glued to the latest issue of Time magazine.
“Mom,” Clay asked, “did you know that Frank knew Jesse James?” He was puffed up with pride and wanted his mother to share the joy of it.
“I didn’t know that.” His mother said absently. She was intent on stirring something into the heavy, black and white speckled pot.
“He did.” Clay insisted. “And he used to run with him before Jesse became an outlaw.”
Grandma Peck smiled at Clay, then looked at Clay’s mother through the coke-bottle-thick lenses of her wire-framed glasses. The old woman clunked across the linoleum floor in her old-fashioned, thick-heeled, lace-up shoes. In her home-sewn dresses she looked like Eleanor Roosevelt. Clay had seen the dead president’s widow on TV when he watched a little of the Democrats’ convention with his father. His father liked keeping up on stuff like that. To Clay, it seemed awfully boring, but he knew, that like his father, he was a Democrat, as was his mother. His family liked Ike, but voted for Adlai Stevenson.
Finally, his mother set the spoon on the stove. “Clay, sometimes Frank’s stories are just stories. He makes things up, just to make your afternoons with him exciting.”
“No, Mom. He really knew Jesse James.”
“Clay.” His mother sighed and put her hands on his shoulders. “Jesse James died a long time ago. Probably about when Frank was born. Frank couldn’t have known the man. He was a baby back then. You just have to take his stories as fun. They aren’t always meant to be real.”
Grandma Peck chuckled. “Clay,” she said, “Frank’s an old man with a wild imagination.”
“I’d bet he did know Jesse James,” Clay pouted.
He slammed the back door as he stumbled out of the house. Frank stood at the edge of the cornfield. In his old-fashioned felt fedora with sweat stains enhancing its band, his plaid flannel shirt and overalls, he looked like a scarecrow out there all by himself.
Somehow, in the ten short minutes Clay had been inside, everything had changed. He couldn’t explain what exactly was different. The yard he had always loved to play in, his favorite place in the entire world, looked the same, only smaller and disheveled. The rope clothesline his grandmother hung Frank’s faded overalls on was still there, but sagged sadly, almost apologetically. Out by the outlaw cornfields, the outhouse still tilted, as if it could tumble downthe hill at any moment. But how many people still used an outhouse? It all appeared terribly shabby.
Everything was wrong, things he’d never noticed before: how shoddy the whole property really was, how downtrodden and poor his grandparents must look to those who didn’t know and love them as he did. Clay hated himself for thinking such thoughts. He felt ashamed, not only of the two old people, but also of himself for feeling the way he did. To be embarrassed by the people he loved was unforgivable.
“Did you tell your mother that we’ve got to go and get Ma and Cherry?” asked Frank.
Clay looked at the old man. Then at the clay at his feet. “She told me I couldn’t go.” His voice trembled. “You’ll have to go without me, Frank.”
After Frank had sauntered off across the field and into the knee-high, thick weeds of the vacant lot, Clay sat on the steps and whittled by himself. He grumbled and took his frustration out on the stick.
He looked across the yard and noticed that most of the dead chicken’s feathers had blown away…or been gathered up. Cautiously, he walked toward the stump. The blood had dried, only the dark stain remained, and the axe had been removed, probably placed back in the shed.
Two mangy cats sat in the shade of the elm, the chicken’s head between them, its eye fixed on the afternoon sun slipping to the west in the cloudless sky. Neither of the cats had any use for the bird’s head, but neither was willing to concede the useless prize to the other.
Clay stood for a minute and studied the bird’s head, its red comb, its yellow beak, its red wattles. About the ugliest creature in all creation. But everything seemed ugly to him.
When he’d seen enough, he whirled around and with a shriek ran toward the eight chickens that were busy pecking around the section of the yard where Grandma Peck tossed their feed every morning. The arrogant rooster that strutted in front of the coop, as if he owned the place, saw the boy coming and scampered inside the dilapidated wooden structure.
Kicking and shouting at the top of his lungs, Clay charged right through the rest of the jabbering monsters. When he reached the wall of the deteriorating coop, he turned and yelled “A-h-h”. He wanted to pound his chest…like Tarzan.
Again, he yelled “A-h-h,” and made another attack on the squawking, scattering birds. “Stupid chickens,” he yelled. “Goddamn, stupid chickens.” To his surprise, he discovered that chickens are quicker than twelve-year-old boys.