This Is Chicken Country
In the dusk of cool November that signals the winter to come, two boys and their mama stand at the tracks and ponder the ghost of a train. The younger brother catches a sudden chill, but instead of pressing up to one of the other two for warmth, he stands there, teeth chattering a little. The mama, whose big idea it was to return here in the first place, now feels shame that she thought her firstborn son might be a little off, so she says a silent prayer to the God she knows saved him. And the boy that they’re here for, Lendall, limps along the wooden ties of the tracks where people say the train hit him, and he thinks about a non-existent friend and the Jews and what he pretends he’s forgotten.
Lendall sat at the kitchen table reading his book while his mama fixed supper for him and his brother. He finished a chapter and laid it down with a sigh.
Mama pulled a fryer chicken from the fridge and carried it over to the sink to run it under the water. “What’re you reading?” she asked her son while she waited for the water to run clean with no blood.
“A book on the Holocaust.”
“Another one,” she said and shut off the faucet. “It for school?”
“Naw. Just because.”
His mama squinted at him. “All that death,” she said. “And violence.” She wrenched the legs off of the chicken, and Lendall could hear the bones cracking. “Now the King James,” she went on, pointing the chicken leg his direction, “you should read it. Nothing wrong with the Baptists at all.”
Lendall tried not to giggle and nodded his head in agreement.
Just then, his younger brother came through the door from where he’d been playing outside, making the most of the nice October evening. Sweating and smelling like a boy, Lendall thought.
“Guess what,” he demanded.
“What?” Lendall asked, like he didn’t really care to know at all.
His brother lunged at him and said, “I wasn’t talking to you, fart face.”
“Uh uh, Jerin,” their mama cautioned.
Jerin was clearly too excited to care about getting in trouble. He wasn’t the type of kid to mind such things. “The black people are moving in down the road,” he blurted out.
“Well, that’s something,” their mama said and went back to her chicken.
Lendall perked up. It’d been the talk of school ever since word got out that a black family was coming to town. Black people didn’t live in Polk County, and if they did, they didn’t stay long. It wasn’t so much that the locals drove them out, as they didn’t feel comfortable surrounded by all that whiteness. Supposed to be a girl around Jerin’s age and a boy in Lendall’s eighth grade class. For a kid who didn’t keep too many friends, Lendall was interested in somebody who might be treated different.
“Want to go check it out?” Jerin asked his brother, who was surprised by the invite. Sensing he’d manage to be left out as usual, Lendall quickly grabbed his book to take with him.
“Y’all stay out the way,” their mama called to them. “And be back in time for supper.”
They were both already out the screen door and running across the yard.
Four blocks later, the boys crouched behind a yellow-leafed mulberry tree in the yard of 2314 Crenshaw Road. Lendall was heaving, and it took him a minute to catch his breath. He stood hunched over with hands on knobby knees. “I thought,” he sputtered, “you said … was … just down the … road.” He coughed a little, and Jerin glared at him to keep quiet.
“Jeez,” his brother whispered, returning his gaze to a Ryder truck that sat in the driveway like it was cemented there, “you’re such a wuss.”
Lendall didn’t feel the need to comment.
Jerin reached over and grabbed the book out of Lendall’s hand and chunked it behind the mulberry tree. “What’d you bring that stupid thing for?” he asked, but before Lendall could protest or even ask what his problem was, Jerin had made a dash for the house and had disappeared behind the back of the moving van.
“Crap,” Lendall muttered and waited a second to see if his brother would reappear. He didn’t. There was no telling what Jerin was doing; one thing Lendall knew for sure was that it was something that would get them both in trouble. He took a deep breath, glanced at his book laying open on the grass, and stepped out from behind the mulberry tree. A few yellow leaves floated to the ground in delayed motion. Like a butterfly trying to find a place to light, Lendall thought as he walked toward the house.
The house was nicer than theirs, but it wasn’t anything too special. Red brick. Small garden beneath the front window. Garage. Lendall stopped and nearly fell over. Jerin wasn’t digging through the back of the Ryder truck like Lendall feared he would be; the kid was standing in the carport, chatting up a storm with some man.
“Hey,” Jerin called to his brother, and Lendall stepped cautiously forward. The man was tall and black and wearing a baseball cap with an ‘A’ on it. He somehow looked different than Lendall thought he would.
“Mr. Darvin, this is my brother, Lendall. Lendall, Mr. Darvin,” Jerin said, making the introductions as Lendall stepped into the garage. It was cooler in there, and boxes lined the walls. Jerin was being so fake, Lendall thought, but he couldn’t exactly call him out on it in front of Mr. Darvin.
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Lendall said, sticking out a hand. Mr. Darvin’s was large and warm and he had a firm shake, one of the things Lendall’s mama was always preaching to him about.
“Likewise,” said Mr. Darvin. “I’m sorry you boys can’t meet my children today. They went with my wife to get enrolled for school.”
Jerin nodded as if he knew all about that.
“Do you play baseball?” Mr. Darvin asked, looking at Lendall.
Jerin laughed too loudly. “He reads a lot.”
Mr. Darvin smiled. “Well, that’s great. World needs more readers. My son, Anthony, he’s your age, and he really likes baseball.” The man paused like he was trying to find something more to say about it. “Course, if he read as much as he thought about ball, maybe he’d be a little better student. You’ll have to help him out with that, Lendall.”
Lendall brightened. “Yessir.” He was getting the feeling like they were in Mr. Darvin’s way and was about to suggest heading home, when a maroon mini van pulled into the driveway behind the moving truck.
“Speak of the devil. There they are now,” Mr. Darvin said and took off his cap to rub his shaved head.
The three of them walked out to meet the minivan. A young girl stepped out first, looked to be smaller than Jerin and not nearly so dark as her dad. She seemed shy to see the strange kids in her new driveway, so she held back a little. Lendall wondered if she’d been adopted, then felt embarrassed when he saw her mother.
“Hello,” the woman said as she walked up to their little group. A couple of full Wal-Mart sacks dangled from her hands. She looked Mexican. “Have you made friends already, Johnny?” she asked her husband.
“We’re the neighbors,” Jerin blurted out. “I’m Jerin, and this here’s my older brother, Lendall.”
“I see,” she said as she looked over her shoulder to locate her kids. “Danielle, say hello. And Anthony’s back there somewhere.” Mrs. Darvin shifted the bags in her hands. “I’m going to run in and put these groceries away.” She started for the house but swung back around to the boys. Lendall thought she was the most graceful woman he’d ever laid eyes on. “You boys are welcome to stay for dinner. We’re grilling burgers.”
Lendall caught his brother’s eye to remind him their mom had a chicken on.
“Raincheck, ma’am,” Jerin said. “Our mom wants us back for dinner.”
She nodded. “Another time, then.”
Mr. Darvin tipped his cap at them and said he’d better help his wife. “You keep clear of trouble, now,” he told the kids.
Jerin turned to Danielle. “How old are you?”
“Ten,” she replied in a tiny voice that somehow sounded very confident. “I advanced from fourth to sixth this year, so I’m a year ahead.”
Jerin rolled his eyes a little. “I’m in sixth, too.”
“What grade are you in?” the girl asked Lendall as she squinted at him.
“Eighth,” he said, though it sounded shaky.
Jerin picked at a scab on his arm. “Does your mom work for Tyson?” he asked Danielle.
“Excuse me?” she said, placing a small hand on her hip. “Who’s Tyson?”
The scab started bleeding some, and Jerin put his mouth to it to suck the blood. He looked over at Lendall and gave him the nod like Danielle was slow or something. He dropped his arm at his side. “You know, the chicken plant over in Grannis.”
“Why would she work there?” Danielle asked.
Lendall hurried to stop Jerin from saying anymore. “My brother’s just confused is all,” he explained. “This is chicken country. He probably thinks everybody works at Tyson.”
Fortunately, the van door slammed shut right about that moment, and Anthony sauntered toward them. He had his father’s height and his mother’s looks, and once Lendall got over the initial disappointment of him not being very black, he knew he and Anthony had to be friends.
“Hey,” Anthony said to them, nice enough. His eyes were brown with flecks of gold.
Jerin made the introductions again, and when Anthony found out he and Lendall were in the same grade, he asked, “You like video games?”
“I do!” Jerin practically shouted, and Anthony looked to size him up.
“Y’all come over sometime when I get my game cube hooked up,” Anthony said halfheartedly.
Danielle shook her head. “Great,” she muttered. “We’d better get in and help put things away.” It sounded more like an excuse.
Anthony shrugged, and they started in to the house. “Catch you at school, Lendall,” he called without looking back. Lendall stared after him, his own name said aloud echoing in his head. His heart swelled like it might burst through his rib cage.
When the boys got home, their mama ordered them to wash up because it was almost dinnertime. In the bathroom, Lendall took his time lathering the soap and thoroughly cleaning down to the spaces between his fingers. Fastidious, a teacher had called him once when she’d found him sweeping pencil shavings from his desk, one by one, onto a coarse brown paper towel to neatly wrap up and throw away. Lendall looked the word up later. He didn’t like what he found.
Jerin just ran his fingers under the water real fast and stood there watching. “He don’t want to be your friend, you know,” he said, looking at his brother’s reflection in the mirror.
Lendall rinsed the suds down the drain. “We’ll see.”
At the dinner table, their mama said grace then went through her usual dinnertime conversation routine. “So, how was school today?” she asked as she folded her napkin neatly into her lap and commenced to cutting pieces off her chicken leg.
“Fine,” said Lendall.
“What are you learning about?”
Jerin stabbed at a carrot with his fork. “Same old stuff,” he said, shoving orange into his mouth.
“Mmm hmm,” said mama. “What about you, Lendall?” Her knife poised in mid air.
“Short stories in English. Osmosis in science. The Civil War in history.”
Mama shook her knife at him. “Now there’s a war to learn something from. You learn all about General Lee and what he did for the South, baby?”
Lendall sucked in his breath. “Sure. I guess.” He took a bite of mashed potatoes and let their warmth slide down his throat.
Finally, their mama got around to asking. “So, how are the new neighbors?”
“They’s two kids. The dad’s black, and the mom’s a wetback,” Jerin announced as he heaped some more mashed potatoes on his plate.
“Mama!” Lendall said. “Do something about him.”
Mama laughed then covered her mouth with her napkin. Lendall couldn’t believe it.
Jerin tried to look all innocent, like he didn’t know what ‘wetback’ meant. “Now son, don’t be using that word. You know they like to be called Hispanics.”
Lendall pinched at the tip of his nose and closed his eyes.
“That’s something that might be hard for her these days,” mama said, looking sympathetic as she started in on a lecture, “being married to a black man. It’s hard on children being mixed.”
“So’s divorce,” said Lendall. Jerin’s eyes widened.
Mama quietly placed her napkin beside her plate. “You’re done with your supper,” she said.
Lendall got up and left the table.
Once he’d had a bath, pulled on pajama pants, and settled down to do some reading, Lendall realized his book was still laying there on the ground in front of Anthony’s house. He slid out of bed and slipped down the hall, tiptoeing past mama’s room, where he could hear her T.V. going. When he made it out the back door, he saw there weren’t any shoes out on the stoop, but instead of going back in and risking his mama discovering him, he decided to make the walk barefoot.
The houses were spaced pretty far apart because not many people wanted to live near the tracks. It was too noisy. Lendall knew this was true because as long as he could remember, the midnight train would come through and jar him awake. As he walked in the dark, he thought of Gerda, the Jewish teenager he’d been reading about who was saved by a pair of snow shoes that her daddy had made her wear when she was sent to the work camp. The dried out grass crunched under his feet, and Lendall took some pride in thinking that not even bare feet could keep him from his mission.
The book was still there beneath the mulberry tree at Anthony’s house. Lendall bent to pick it up, then slid all the way to the ground and leaned against the tree trunk. He watched the house. The faint glow of a light from somewhere deep within showed through the front window. Lendall wondered if it was Anthony’s room, and he stayed there with the bark of the tree jabbing into his back and waited to see if something might happen, holding his book against him.
At school, Lendall anxiously awaited each class period to see if he shared it with
Anthony. By lunchtime, they’d had no classes together, and Lendall knew the boy he’d pegged for a new friend played sports, so he doubted they’d share any in the afternoon.
In the cafeteria, Lendall stood in the shortest line, something with some sort of meat patty
shaped like a teddy bear. He held the tray in front of him as he walked around in search of
Anthony. The heat and noise of restless children made Lendall slightly nauseated. And the smell of fatty meat mixed with dirty mop water odors didn’t help. The same old fear of having to be around so many people he sensed cared nothing for him crept up, but Lendall kept looking for Anthony. He figured he’d be at a table by himself, so Lendall was surprised to finally find him sitting with a group of eighth graders, talking and laughing. Lendall waved at him, but Anthony just gave him a head nod. Someone said, “Who’s that?” and Lendall, who’d long ago realized his mark as an outsider, took off, afraid of the response of someone who knew him.
All week was the same, Lendall on the lookout for Anthony, only to find out Anthony didn’t need looking after. He seemed fine in the popularity department. People accepted the new boy, and it made Lendall want to scream because he’d found him first. They should stick together, no one else. He was so worried about Anthony that he’d abandoned the book about Gerda and her boots and moved on to one called Inside the Vicious Heart, about when the Americans came and liberated the war camps. It had pictures.
Halloween night, Lendall was curled up under an afghan on the couch, reading. Like most Halloweens, it’d come the first cold snap of fall, and like most Halloweens, Lendall was inside, alone. Jerin had gone out trick-or-treating with buddies, and their mama was off at Wal-Mart. She’d left the porch light on so Lendall could hand out goodies, but he wasn’t surprised that no one had come by. He was reading the section of the book where Curtis Mitchell, a photographer, visited Bergen Belsen for the first time since British control. When Mitchell saw the mass graves, he grew sick, then came to think those dead Jews weren’t people anymore. “You had to keep saying to yourself, these are human beings,” Lendall read aloud. He flipped back a page to look at one of the photographs and tightened the afghan around himself. It was a picture of a mass grave, bodies piled on top of each other so you could hardly tell what was what. But one man reclined gape-mouthed in the middle of the pile, the only body fully facing the camera. He was naked, where most had on clothes to hide their thinness. And there was something about the way he stared out that Lendall couldn’t shake, like the skeleton of a man was trying to stand up and say something.
When the doorbell rang, Lendall was almost relieved to take a break from those pictures. He bookmarked the page, unwrapped himself from the afghan, and went to the door with a plastic dish of the orange and black wrapped peanut butter candies mama had left for him. To his shock, he opened the door to Anthony and his sister. Danielle was wearing a number on a card around her neck and carrying a trophy. Anthony looked normal in jeans and a sweatshirt.
“Hey,” Anthony said, peering around Lendall. “Whatcha doing? Why aren’t you out trick-or-treating?”
“I’m a little old for that, don’t you think?” Lendall asked nervously.
“I hear ya,” said Anthony. “I’m just taking Danielle around because my dad said I had to.”
“I’m the Scripps spelling bee champion,” the girl explained.
“Surprised you’re not out with all your new friends,” said Lendall.
“The ninth grade guys on the team are throwing a party at the old mill. Mom would shit a brick if I went.”
Lendall laughed, and Danielle glared up at her brother. “I’ll ignore that if we can just go,” she whined.
Anthony made a noise through his teeth. “Anyhow, my mom told me to see if you and
Jerin wanted to go trick-or-treating with us, but if you’re busy, that’s okay.”
“No,” Lendall said hurriedly. He tossed a few of the peanut butter candies into Danielle’s sack, and she made a face. “I mean, I was only reading. The Jews just got liberated.”
Anthony raised an eyebrow. “So, where’s your kid brother?”
“He’s already out. We’ll probably run into him.” Lendall held up a finger and started walking off. “Let me get my coat.”
“Hurry up,” Danielle called after him.
In his bedroom, Lendall grabbed his only coat, a too-small leather jacket lined with sheep’s wool. He glanced at himself in the mirror, tall and gangly, his white wrists showing before the short sleeves. Then he ran out to meet his friend.
The threesome walked along in silence for a while, Danielle’s pace quickening to urge them to nicer neighborhoods. Lendall kept his hands shoved in his pants pockets. When they got to the first home with a porch light on, Lendall and Anthony hung back while Danielle went to the door.
“So,” Anthony said, breaking the night’s silence. “How come you’re reading about WWI? It for class?”
Lendall looked at him and grinned. Nobody’d ever noticed what he was reading, even if Anthony did have the subject matter wrong. Mama was the only person who ever said anything, and that was just because she didn’t understand. “Actually, it’s WWII, the Holocaust,” Lendall explained.
“Oh, right,” said Anthony. Danielle walked toward them with her loot.
“And it’s not for class. It’s because it was the greatest atrocity ever committed against people.”
Anthony turned away from Lendall. “Hey, Dan, what’d you get?”
“Snickers,” she said, sighing. “Want it?”
“Hand it over.” Anthony unwrapped the bar and broke it in half. Caramel strands connected the pieces, and he had to stretch his arms out so the gooey yarn curled around the ends. He handed a piece to Lendall. “Here you go, man. Don’t know why I have to take her trick-or-treating. She doesn’t like much candy, anyway. Weird kid.”
Danielle was already making her way up the drive of the next house. A witch and a princess walked by to join her. After letting the weight of the candy rest in his hand for a moment, Lendall raised it to his mouth and bit into the bar. The sweet chocolate and caramel glued to his gums as he chewed.
Anthony looked thoughtful. “History’s cool,” he said with his mouth full. “But I don’t see why you’d read about it for fun.”
Lendall swallowed. “It’s not exactly for fun. It’s so it doesn’t happen again, I guess.”
As they chewed their chocolate and waited on Danielle, a truck full of boys, some hanging off the tailgate and whooping it up, drove by. One of them hollered, “Nice girlfriend, Anthony.”
Lendall felt something smack his back and slide down his jacket. He looked at Anthony while he reached behind him, and as his fingers hit what had to be yolk, his friend just stood there, not saying a word.
The next day was Saturday, and Lendall was shoving stuff in a bag for his monthly visit to his dad’s. He’d had to throw in a couple of old sweatshirts, since the egg-stained jacket lay in a useless heap, stinking like sulfur on his bedroom floor. He put Inside the Vicious Heart on top of everything and was zipping the bag up when mama called, “Lendall, that neighbor boy’s here to talk to you.”
She poked her head in the door. “He finds out who threw that egg and ruined your coat, you tell me. They’ll pay money for it, I guarantee.”
When Lendall got to the door, Anthony was picking at the leaves of a plant on the porch. “Hey,” he said, letting green fall to the ground.
“Hi,” said Lendall as he stepped out, pulling the door to behind him. He worried that his mama was going to come up and say something embarrassing. “What do you want?”
“Uh, well, I didn’t say much last night, but I figured I should tell you I was sorry about what happened to your jacket. I didn’t have any part in it.”
Lendall stayed quiet, the weight of his bag pulling his arm at the socket.
“You going somewhere?” asked Anthony.
“Yeah, to my dad’s in a while.” Lendall dumped the bag on the concrete porch.
“Your parents divorced?”
Lendall looked over to his shoulder and stepped off the porch. “My dad won’t be here for another hour, so I could go on up to Texaco for a Coke or something. Want to come?”
Anthony hesitated. “Alright. I mean, I guess.”
It was pretty nice out, the sun warming the air from the night before. The boys walked along the tracks, skipping gravel against the rails and watching the crows gather ahead of them then fly off when they got close.
“How long your parents been split up?” Anthony asked.
“Must be cool to go to two different houses.”
Lendall sighed. “I guess. We don’t really see my dad all that much. He lives outside of Little Rock.”
Anthony walked astride of him, just slighty ahead, and Lendall could smell the boy’s deodorant.
“Do you ever think about being somebody else?” Lendall asked.
Anthony kicked at the gravel. “What do you mean?”
“You know. Ever wish you could be somebody that other people won’t let you be?”
Anthony shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess. I mean, like, my dad wants me to read more and shit.”
Lendall flinched, and Anthony saw.
“Hey man, not like you’re not cool cause you read.” He playfully punched Lendall’s arm, and the contact surprised and delighted the boy. “It’s just not for me. You feel?” He bent to pick up some small stones.
Lendall did. He looked in Anthony’s soft eyes, and he thought he finally saw what he wanted. His mouth opened before he could stop the words from coming out. “Are we friends?” he asked.
Anthony stayed quiet for a few seconds. He tossed the handful of gravel at the tracks, and they made sharp pings when they hit the rails. “Sure, man. Course we are.”
In that moment, Lendall didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to show Anthony how much he cared and how good it felt to finally fit somewhere. Without totally realizing what he was doing, he reached down and grabbed Anthony’s hand, lacing his fingers through the boy’s.
“Faggot,” Anthony said, quickly and lightly—as if it meant nothing to him—then he
wrenched free and ran away.
Lendall sat down slowly on the tracks, where the cool of the steel rail seeped through his pants and ran up his spine. He was aware of the cold, but seemed to not know how to move. Chalky gravel dust coated his hands, and he didn’t attempt to wipe it off. Anthony was long gone, out of sight. Finally, Lendall stood from the rail. He felt numb as he walked the tracks. Then he grew embarrassed, and finally scared. He knew Anthony would go home and tell his dad what had happened. Everyone would know. Surely mama and daddy would be ashamed. Jerin would probably find some kid to beat him up. Worst of all, Anthony would hate him.
When the noon train came blasting through, Lendall didn’t move from the tracks. A big old crow lit on the rail ahead of him and opened its beak to holler “Caw.” Still, Lendall kept on his path. That train was calling his name. And suddenly, in the middle of that hurt in his brain, all he could think of was the Jews. The last sound he heard before the world went dark was the squawking of the crow over the squeal of the brakes.
A miracle, they say, two weeks later. Doctors pat each other on the back. Mama tells the newspaper about all the cards and letters Lendall got while he was in the hospital, some from kids who didn’t even like him. Anthony had signed the card from the seventh grade class, and under his name had simply written, “Nice knowing you.” Daddy bought him a used Playstation and a war game at a pawn shop, let him keep it at their mama’s house, though Jerin was the only one who’d actually played it. Back at the tracks for the first time since what folks call the accident, Lendall’s mama and brother wait to see how he’ll react. A stranger drives by and rolls down his window to holler out, “Y’all get off them tracks. It’s dangerous. People get killed that way.” Mama looks at Lendall then waves off the man and smiles nervously. Jerin wraps his arms around himself and walks twenty feet away to a couple of indentations in the ground, roped off by police tape. “Guess this is where your shoes hit,” he says, lightly tapping the earth. In fact, it’s not. It’s where Lendall’s body smacked the ground, bounced, and hit again, leaving two small craters. But Lendall doesn’t care to look because he’s busy walking along the tracks with his arms outstretched, softly calling “Choo, choo.”
Originally from Arkansas, Jessica Pitchford holds an MFA from McNeese State University and a PhD from Florida State University, where she was awarded a University Fellowship to support the completion of her dissertation, a novel titled Can’t Walk Out. Recent fiction appears or is forthcoming in Extract(s), Gris-Gris, storySouth, New Delta Review, and the Arkansas Review. She teaches creative writing at Wayne State College.