This story first appeared in REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, Volume 31.2, Winter/Spring, 2007, 92-98.

JOB FAIR SATURDAY, JUNE 22, 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.

Choose hotel and restaurant management, bartending school, or institutional foods and nutrition. Learn the basics of food preparation and kitchen equipment needed for later advancement.

You catch the next chicken–hold it by its legs, well away from your body so it can’t peck you–and slam it down on the chopping block. You cut off its head with one swing of the ax and fling the body aside. It flops around, decorating the green of the grass with red speckles and ribbons all the way to its final resting place.

Taking the legs in hand again, you dunk the plump body into the ten-gallon bucket of boiling water. The stench of wet feathers and ammonia rises on the steam. You close your mouth and try to close your nose as well, plucking the wet feathers, piling them aside to wash later. Even so, when humid air lays on your skin like a blanket, the feather ticks will always smell faintly of chicken yard.

You gut the chicken, throwing the entrails into the hog slops, saving the heart and gizzard to freeze separately, setting aside the immature eggs (if there are any) and livers to scramble for breakfast. You singe off the pinfeathers over the flame of the stove burner, cut the bird into pieces, and pack it into a freezer bag.

You put up two dozen birds this way, clean up the kitchen, and retrieve the mountain of feathers. Bits of wet feathers cling to your fingers. You throw up behind the rosebush and empty the scalding-bucket over the vomit. Chickens are the worst. The hogs, the beeves, the veals, the lambs–your husband and sons, brothers and father-in-law kill them and dress them out. You only have to put them up. But killing chickens doesn’t take a strong arm–though a strong stomach helps.

That night you lie distanced in the bed, listening to the rustle of your husband breathing. Why did you have to start buying meat chicks? They’re fattened out in eight weeks. You can’t build a relationship in eight weeks, not even with a chicken. Sometimes they gain weight so fast that their legs can’t take it. I go out to feed in the morning and there they are, wallowing in the dirt with two broken legs. It’s cruel. He doesn’t answer your night thoughts.

Your father-in-law dies. The car has a flat tire and your husband has it up on cement blocks, changing the tire so you all can go to the funeral. The car falls, crushing his spine and windpipe. He dies, and so you have two funerals.

You shake the dirt of the farm off your feet and move to town, find an apartment, and microwave all your meals–Stouffer’s spinach soufflé, Lean Cuisine’s vegetarian lasagna, Boston Market’s roast beef with potatoes and gravy–anything that’s ready to go and doesn’t include chicken. But in your nightmares, you’re still on the farm. Night after night, roosters, fryers, layers, and baby chicks screech in your ears, fly at your face, and claw your eyes. Night after night, they peck you to death.

You testify at your trial that you were trying to commit suicide when you turned on the gas in your oven and ended up with a broken leg and burns. Ten other people were injured and three died. You tell the court that the blast that destroyed three floors of your apartment building took you completely by surprise because you didn’t know that gas could explode. “I knew gasoline could do that,” you say under oath, “but I didn’t know about a cookstove.”

Everything from carpentry and plumbing to interior design, for those with an eye for combining form and function.

When Louise agreed to marry Alan again, the plan was that they would sell both their houses and build a new one. Louise’s house sold the first day it was listed, but Alan’s house-the house he and Louise had built more than 30 years before-the house where he’d lived with both his intervening wives, and where his third wife and their daughter had remained till their daughter graduated from high school-that house needed a lot of work before it could even be put on the market. As the wedding approached, they realized that they couldn’t afford to rent a place to live, fix up the old house to sell, and build a new house, all at once. So they dropped their option to buy a lot. When they returned from their honeymoon cruise to Alaska, they moved into their old house. So much was the same-everything from the wallpaper and light fixtures in the bathroom to the harvest gold KitchenAid mixer. Even the deed to the house was the same: Louise’s name had never been taken off.

That was over two years ago. Many of the doorways and windows still need to be trimmed out. The stained rose carpet in the living room still needs to be replaced. There’s still clutter and filth in the basement, no garbage disposal in the kitchen sink. The bathroom is almost finished, but the harvest gold electric range is down to two burners and now the dishwasher is broken, too.

Today they are pouring one quarter of a concrete floor in the barn. Gravel for the foundation alone cost nearly five thousand dollars. They’ve ordered five and a half yards of ready-mix concrete, enough to do the first 16 x 30-foot section. The delivery is an hour late. When the driver finally pulls up, he says, “Where do you want it?”

Alan indicates the framed section in the far left corner. “Put her in there.”

The driver backs up to the barn door but stops. The truck needs another inch or so of clearance. “Can you just chute it in?” Louise asks.

The young man scowls and shakes his head. “I don’t see how. I’ve only got these three four-foot extensions here.” He waves his hand toward the fat, flexible tubes used to funnel concrete from the revolving drum to distant drop points. He takes off his baseball cap and scratches his head. “I maybe could dump it into a wheelbarrow. You could take it in that way, in loads.”

Alan’s face looks like thunder. “Do you know how many tons five-and-a-half cubic yards of concrete weigh? Have you ever tried to wheel even one load of concrete over gravel?” He turns on Louise. “Didn’t you tell them the clearance? Didn’t you check that the truck would go through the damn door?”

Bright red blotches Louise’s cheeks. “I told them the door measurements-exactly. I told them we wanted it dumped at the back of a 30 x 60-foot barn. I assumed they would send a truck that would fit through the door. Or one with enough extensions to chute it in from outside.”

Alan faces the driver, fists on hips. “Well, I’m not gonna pay for this. I’m just not gonna pay for it.”

Louise notices Alan’s diction starting to slip. As if I needed a marker to tell me how pissed-off he’s getting.

The driver shifts from foot to foot and looks miserable. “Well . . . well, it’s supposed to be C.O.D. I don’t know what my boss is gonna say.”

Louise stares at the cement mixer. How long would it take to reschedule a delivery? Assuming I can even find a supplier with the right equipment. Maybe we could grade out the opening enough for the truck to back in. She glances at the blade still affixed to the front of the pickup truck. No, that would totally screw up the foundation gravel. And it would take too long. Oh, Lord. Alan is so upset. At this rate, he could have a heart attack. She says, “How about letting a little air out of the tires? Just enough to lower the truck an inch or so?”

The driver stands by the truck door, looking satisfied with himself as the concrete chutes into the designated area. Louise and Alan use square shovels to place it, careful not to disturb the foundation mix. The wet concrete sucks at their yellow rubber boots and they breathe hard just moving from place to place. They each take one end of the strike-off board-a 2 x 4, seventeen feet long-and pull it along the sixteen-foot width of the forms, sawing back and forth as they go, to remove excess concrete and bring the surface to grade. The mix is so thick that they can screed only three or four inches before they have to stop and dig out the excess. Alan tells the driver to add more water before he chutes in the next batch, but it doesn’t help much. The temperature is over 90 degrees. Sweat pours down their faces, stinging their eyes and dripping off their chins.

The driver leaves as soon as the last concrete is placed. Alan and Louise pant over the last few inches of screeding. By now enough concrete crusts the strike-off board to double its weight. Their sweaty hands slip and slide, grating their palms on the insides of their gloves. They throw the strike-off board aside. I suppose we’ll have to make a new one for the next batch.

Alan picks up the bull-float and starts smoothing and leveling the concrete while Louise runs a trowel between the concrete and the side forms. He says, “I can’t use this damn thing. It ain’t right.”

Louise straightens her back to look at the bull-float. The base is a 1″x 8″x 48″ board. On the edge of one long side, she’d nailed a rectangle of wood. Opposite that, one end of the old broom handle is attached to the board by a pipe strap, the length of the handle angled upward on the rectangular wedge of wood. “I made it exactly the way the book said.”
“Well, it’s takin’ longer than it should. And it ain’t gettin’ a real smooth surface, neither. It’s gonna take more time than I’ve got to finish it right with the steel trowel.” After that, they work in silence, bull-floating, finishing, edging, and jointing.

Alan leaves the barn first. He flops down in the shade of an old maple, flat on his back, face scarlet, chest heaving. What if he does have a heart attack? He isn’t as young as he used to be-or as slim. Louise looks from her husband to the barn that’s gotten along with a dirt floor for the last 30 years. She sighs. Maybe being a widow again wouldn’t be all that bad. Alan seems to have fallen asleep. Or passed out. Unbidden, Louise’s thoughts turn to how easy it would be to bash his head in with a rock. I could boil the flesh off his bones and then freeze the meat. I could get that garbage disposal he’s been promising me and dispose of him bit by bit. If I mulch the skeleton in his tree chipper, it would look just like the gravel in the foundation for the barn floor. If I call now, I could probably get the next load of ready-mix dumped next week.

Requires warmth, dependability, energy, and the capacity to get along well with both children and adults. Must be able to conserve resources and use them wisely.

The first time I ever laid eyes on Francis, I fell so hard, I never even bounced. There he was, all curly red hair and freckles, flashing teeth and muscles. Afterwards, he said he felt the same way–like he’d been sucker punched. It didn’t matter one whit that he was already married to Thelma or that they had six kids. Hell, I was married to Harold, and we had six kids, too. Francis and me, we was just plain hotter than pepper sprouts–and we thought there was just one way to put that fire out. The next thing you know, I was havin’ another baby. I was pretty sure Francis was the father. I thought it would be romantic to name her Francie, and that’s what I done. By then it was clear that Francis would never leave Thelma. He said he’d promised to take care of her until death, and that’s what he planned to do. But we just couldn’t seem to help ourselves, and a couple of years later, along come Glenn.

Now, I was being a good wife to Harold all along. He never had cause to complain. I don’t know how long we all would’ve gone on like that if Glenn hadn’t been the spittin’ image of Francis. By the time he was toddlin’, he even walked like Francis. You couldn’t’ve missed it if you was blind in one eye and couldn’t see outta the other. Harold tumbled to it and put his foot down. He said he wouldn’t have Francis’ bastards in the house–wouldn’t feed ’em, wouldn’t clothe ’em, and wouldn’t put a roof over their heads.

After that, Francie and Glenn was with my mother for a spell. But then Ma called Francis and said, “You gotta do somethin’. These kids are pluckin’ my last nerve.” Well, Francis talked it over with Thelma, and she agreed to take them in. But she died soon after that. Social Services wanted to put the kids with family rather than with strangers. Harold still wouldn’t hear a word on it, so Francis’s sister, Virginia, took them. The good Lord only knows what I would’ve done without Virginia.

Maybe I should blush to say it, but I was lookin’ for a lawyer before Thelma was cold in her grave. I couldn’t find one to handle the divorce in Franklin County, but finally I got one down here in Lancaster. So Francis and me got married and had two more kids. By the time we was settled, and enough of my kids and his kids was out of the house that we had room for Francie and Glenn, Virginia had had ’em five years. And you know, maybe she should’ve just kept ’em, because it wasn’t long after that everything just went to hell in a handcart.

Starr–my oldest daughter by Harold–moved in with me and Francis. There we was, 13 all told, with only four bedrooms and one bathroom. But I could never turn away one of my own, you know? I had to feed ’em in shifts and put a ten-minute limit on the bathroom.

But we was gettin’ along fine, a nice big garden, and nobody sick.

And then the next thing I knew, Francis and Starr had two kids. I was just like Harold–didn’t know the first one was his till after the second one come along. I said to Francis, “It’s her or me.” He said, “I gotta be honest with you, Helen. I don’t suppose I could live in the same state with Starr and not act on my urges.” I suppose he would’ve stayed married to me till I died–just like he did with Thelma. But Thelma was one to just look the other way. I wasn’t anywhere near so tolerant. I threw ’em both out. I divorced Francis over Starr, and it liked to’ve broke my heart. I always thought that man hung the moon. The trouble was, pretty near every woman he ever looked at twice felt the same. So then Francis and Starr got married. It was a new-style wedding: the bride was seven months pregnant, and I heard she wore red. Altogether, they had nine kids. I thought, “Where’s your head, girl? You’ve got birth control now. Why don’t you use it instead of havin’ all them babies?” I didn’t say it, of course. We wasn’t on speakin’ terms anymore. I’d cross the street so as not to come face-to-face with either one of ’em. But I did kind of mourn for all them grandbabies.

Then one night, Starr called me up and said, “Mama, you gotta come be with me. Francis had a heart attack and I can’t stand to go to the funeral home by myself.”

At first I said, “What do you mean, by yourself? What about your kids? Besides, Harold Junior owns the place. Your brother’ll be with you the whole time.” But in the end, I gave in. I never could stand to have one of my babies hurtin’ if I could do anything about it. I went to the funeral home and helped her make arrangements. I went to the visitin’ hours, I went to the funeral, and I went to the graveside service. And all those hours, seein’ Francis dead, I decided I should make it up with Starr. I’d been real bitter for a long time–which anybody could surely understand. But now I say, “Life’s too short for that.” A body starts off down one road and ends up someplace else completely. But that’s the way life is, and you just gotta do the best you can.

The first Christmas after Francis died was the first Christmas the whole family had been together in more than 20 years. When Starr gave me her present, she said, “Mama, I want you to have this. I know Francis would have wanted you to have it, too.” It was the prettiest red pocketbook I ever saw, made from the hide Harold Junior had skinned off Francis before he buried him. Starr said, “And see? I got one just like it.”

Life is unpredictable. The world of work is constantly changing. If you don’t feel prepared, we want you! Welcome to our program for life-long learners!


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