Luther

Cheep, cheep, cheep, the chickens come home to roost. Cheep, cheep, cheep, the sound imprints itself in your brain cells, wraps itself into the membrane of your mind, and just like that, you’ve crossed the human fowl continuum, you are now one with the chickens.

Where do you take this newfangled man/bird hybrid? Before Luther was part of it, to the uninitiated like him, they all made it sound glamorous, like they’d be helping out in the war effort except for there was this much more important work to do at the chicken packing plant. Day after day, the killing and the cutting and the packing, and somebody had to do it or all those people wouldn’t have anything to eat. Not everyone lived out in the country where they could raise and grow their own. And six bucks an hour looked like it was good money versus you worked in the field picking cotton or tobacco, or in a sewing factory for two dollar 75 cent. There were all these lines: the receiving line, the hang-‘em-up line, the eviscerating line after they’d kill them, the packing line for whole birds, the cut-up line, the deboning line… Who knew there were so many steps to killing and packing up a chicken so somebody could pick up a tray at the Readymart and take it home to throw the chopped up bits in a frying pan?

Luther’d lie in bed at night and try to think about something else but somehow those chickens would creep in beside him. He was trying to catch those chickens even when he was drifting off to sleep. The feathers in his pillow turned into chickens and the dripping in the faucet in the hallway down from his rented room turned into the pleas of baby chicks begging for their mommas to be spared, one plea every five seconds, regular as clockwork. Pretty soon his arms would start to flail to catch the chickens coming down the line, then he’d fall out of bed onto the cold hard floor. For a stunned second Luther thought he was on the slimy blood-soaked concrete at the plant till he realized with a start he was home, then he picked himself up, got back in bed, and the whole mess started over. Those lines moved so fast during the day and at the same pace in Luther’s mind at night. You worked chicken, you ate chicken, you lived chicken, you became chicken.

Nula

Almost as soon as she saw the temperamental South retreating through the window of the train when she first left home for college that late afternoon long ago, Nula thought about changing her name. Her name was attached to her soft Louisiana drawl and the crumbling ancestral home her daddy’s family had owned for eons, and the more physical distance she was able to achieve the more she yearned for a change. But old family names die a hard and painful death in the South. If she told her mother what she was about to do she would have been disinherited, even though the family had nothing much left. A huge fortune split and squandered in so many ways for so many generations doesn’t pass the test of time. But her mother knew that their last name — Fordham — still made a few scions of prominent old money sit up and take notice at dinner parties where marriages were even now surreptitiously arranged between courses, although the terrible family not-so-secret was that there was not much left in the bank or in the surveyor’s office that was anywhere near tangible.

So began Nula’s secret existence as Nancy in the North and Nula in the South, a split personality of family history that trailed her trips and led to a suffocating hypervigilance that became especially painful whenever she hovered around the Mason-Dixon Line. At any given time, she was only a part of herself, a fraction of the whole, her family story casting a shadow over her life before she’d even gotten started. These are some of the things she wanted to leave behind: the bad memories of her Uncle Lemon chasing her around his dining room table when she was thirteen and as the quaint term would have it, had begun to “develop,” the dodgy family ties and shady business deals, the aging aunts trying to hang on to their quickly vanishing youth with leathery winter tans and brassy bottled blonde hair that turned a faint greenish tinge in the kidney-shaped pools favored by the landed gentry of a certain generation, the cousins with names like Florida and Chance and Fountain, and of course the deep Southern drawl that only served a purpose at debutante balls and for bailing oneself out of unfortunate or sticky situations involving too many mint juleps and gentlemen who briefly forgot their place in the social pecking order.

Iola

When you’ve sucked on cancer sticks since you were twelve, there’s a good chance that the end, when it comes, will involve either a large tumor squatting petulantly in one of your lungs or a twinning of a lung with an oxygen tank in a buddy system designed to draw out the only obvious conclusion in an unpleasant, painful way.

But girls of a certain generation in the South thought that cigarettes made them look sexy and desirable, and since they were also immortal, what did those rumors of illness down the road matter?

Iola takes a breath, a rasping, wheezing breath that signals her store of air is winding down. It doesn’t really matter which she has, emphysema, asthma, lung cancer or fibrosis, because for all intents and purposes they are the same, all the air in the world will not help her now, her time is running out.

There’s a rap on the door, but it’s not the piper quite yet, it’s the doctor, and Nula/Nancy hurries to let him in, because even a moment away is a respite from the death rattle working its way to the top of the queue.

‘How’s she doing?’ Dr. Hixton asks. One look at Nancy’s face tells him what he needs to know. ‘She’s not using the oxygen?’

‘No sir,’ says Nancy, reverting out of deference to her momma. ‘Do I need to remind you how stubborn Iola is?’

‘Like a mule,’ Dr. Hixton grins. ‘That’s why I truly love the old bird.’

Luther

The very first day he set foot in the plant, there was a man cutting up the chickens and pulling them down off the line and he accidently cut his finger off right there in front of Luther and the finger slipped right down the drain along with the blood. Luther swore he saw it wriggle like a living giblet first, flashing silver like a minnow jumping through the air trying to find its way back into the water. As soon as it happened they all tried to catch the finger, not to help the man but because otherwise they’d have to stop the line for longer if it gummed up the works. The bosses ran the water all night long trying to flood the finger out, but they never stopped the line. They were willing enough to try to find the finger, but nothing more. If someone had rolled down there dead, they still wouldn’t have stopped the line.

Working on the line was hard enough, but the managers treated them all like they were dogs. Not only did they treat them like dogs, but sometimes they’d even stand there with dogs, and the dogs would watch them work the line. Even if you had a thought of taking a minute longer, forget it because those green devil-dog eyes would be looking at you all day long. Of course the line moved so fast, there wasn’t much time to think about anything else. The only way you could work that fast with the chilled pieces of chicken flying at you down the line was to pretend you were a part of the machinery. You’d tag ‘em and take ‘em and put ‘em in a box. You’d stand there, grab a piece of chicken, put it in a pile. You had to get them off the line before they got to the next person, or you’d cause a big pileup and then there’d be hell to pay with the big boss.

For a number of months when he first got there Luther tagged the birds. If there was a theme to the cut-up line, it was the quality of the meat. The wings, breasts, thighs, legs, quarters were all cut up, all had to be graded, and Luther and the others were responsible for getting the defects out. There was grade A, grade B, grade X. Grade X were the outright rejects that they’d sell to places that made pet food and such. They had to hold the sticky tags in their hands to put on the different grades. The line would go fast and you had to put those tags on. There were 25 legs a minute, that was about two seconds each, or if they were breasts you had to tag 15 a minute. Eight hours a day you were putting tags on. When you went home at night, you could still see those chickens coming up at you on the line, you would still be trying not to drop those tags. In your sleep you’d still see the chickens. They’d be part of your dreams, there was no escaping them. Up and around, up and around, a full frontal assault 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and there wasn’t anything you could do to turn off that line. Even when it was turned off, it was still running — running in your head. They turned each and every one of the workers into little discrete chicken factories, every man an island unto himself.

Iola

It’s Iola’s last stand, and she’s thought about it so many times that now it’s kind of like rearranging furniture. First you do it in your head—the bed here, chifferobe there, the rug like this, window treatments just so. Too much trouble to actually lug the darn things till you have a mental map. In her mind, feeling in her feet will go first, then the sensation will travel up her limbs till finally it will reach her neck. It will be something like being buried in the sand, like she was once when she was 9 years old at Mary Lee Seaton’s birthday. Her fear that the other girls would bury her and then abandon her to the tide was overcome by her desire to be one of the in crowd. And of course they did make her suffer, just a bit, because they let her stew there for a good half hour in the hot sand before Mrs. Seaton remembered her and ordered her maid to take a pail and scrape away enough sand to loosen her limbs and set her free.

The first thing Dr. Hixton does is grab a-hold of Iola’s wrist to waltz with her pulse. He knows this might be the last time. Her dead sister Perley had been the midwife at his own birth. When he became a doctor, his first delivery was Nula. Their families’ lives were irretrievably entwined in complicated ways. Her younger brother Otis had accidentally run over Dr. Hixton’s young son while chasing a robber, and although the youngster had not been killed, he was now a paraplegic. All Dr. Hixton’s hopes and dreams for him had come to naught as the boy seemed to lose his direction the more narrowly his wheelchair defined his physical motion. The robber, on the other hand, ended up making good his escape and later went on to a rather lurid crime spree culminating in the deaths of seven staff members in the walk-in cooler at a fried chicken franchise somewhere in the Midwest. It was only many years later, after the crime was declared a cold case, that the robber’s—now murderer’s—ex-girlfriend, disenchanted with him once the sex became stale and he no longer spent money on her, blew the whistle on him with the cops. The murder had only netted 200 dollars. A few years after Iola’s younger brother had run over his son, Dr. Hixton had found her nephew at the school when he hung himself.

Iola’s eyes had already gotten the glassiness of the dead, when their thoughts brush the living aside and run backward through time in a brazen spending spree of accumulated sorrows. Lumpy, unwashed, lovelorn, the newly and almost dead hover in close proximity. Of course she’d already crossed that bridge of sudden and profound regret, that place of clarity where everything she’d ever done to hurt another suddenly and sharply came into focus, where it finally became clear how a careless turn of phrase, a thoughtless misplaced laugh or wrongly entrusted confidence had spoiled a day, a relationship, a lifetime. She’d seen how a sarcastic remark had pushed away a potential friend, how an inadvertent turn of phrase had soured a moment. There was a lot to review. Iola came from a family of ten, nine girls and one boy, all but her brother dead before her. Two by freakish childhood accidents, one from leukemia in her teens, one hit by a car the day after her fiancée proposed, one from breast cancer, one killed in a train derailment, one by her own hand after finding out her husband had cheated on her with three different women. Her brother Otis, the youngest, had just turned 60, while Perley, the eldest, had died seven years before at 78.

Now it was Iola’s turn to dance with death, her date with the grim reaper nigh, and here she was internally primping and posing like a schoolgirl. Would he like her? Would he think her a tease? Drifting in and out of this world, one toe dipped gingerly in the afterlife while the tiny bulk of her body perched on her not-so-comfy deathbed, because in truth it stunk a bit of old-lady leakage and not-so-fresh underclothes on a scotchin’ hot night, she had many regrets. She regretted the fact that her wealthy husband Mr. Fordham had left her in the lurch for dalliances with younger women when she turned 40 (an age at which she learned that wealthy men often tossed the original wife aside to start second groupings of offspring), and she had done nothing as she watched him siphon off their savings and a once-great family fortune, eventually leaving her and her children with next to nothing when he died prematurely from cirrhosis at the age of 57, still looking distinguished even in the coffin with his mane of thick wavy silver hair, his Roman nose, what would have been piercing green eyes had they been open and those full presumptuous lips. She regretted that she hadn’t done more to help her oldest son, Flay, the pride of the family, who ended up dying a drunk too but in a cheesy motel room, surrounded by self-help tomes because he thought he could escape the family curse of excess which like the wealth, the brains and the talent had geometrically dissipated over each succeeding generation. But most of all she regretted that when her sister Perley was dying, she had flinched and stepped away, knowing that she was next and not wanting death to cozy up to her sister as she navigated her last metaphorical steps. Instead, Iola sat at Perley’s bedside, not holding her hand or stroking her brow, not willing her own essence to accompany her sister as far as it could as Perley struggled with the last stage of pancreatic cancer, but chatting instead with her nephew Sonny Boy about how bad the traffic was on the two-hour drive to the hospital and willing herself to disbelieve that Perley could in any way still be conscious of what went on around her. Iola had felt a mild tug of guilt, thinking that perhaps Perley had some important last words, but clearly she had slipped into a coma, and one might as well help the time pass even if time passing meant that her sister was that many more hours, minutes and seconds closer to death.

In fact, all the friends and relatives who had stopped in to the hospital room that last day of Perley’s life did what they could to avoid staring death in the face. It would come soon enough for them, no need to put out the welcome mat. But Iola had regretted it ever since, and now it was her turn. Nula was there to stay, she knew, and Dr. Hixton would linger as long as he could. But her brother Otis was in Malaysia working on a bridge project, and it was clear that she would never see him again.

She could no longer talk, but she could hear every word they said, their boring Northernized accents sending her off in a big last downplayed Southern hurrah. That was a big revelation. So all that time as she had blathered on about traffic, her sister Perley had heard her. Too bad your last revelation came too late to make any difference, though maybe that was the point, the final slap in the face, the final rude awakening, the final sit-up-and-take-notice. Yet the words Nula spoke now to Dr. Hixton, while audible, were only a counterpoint to the tumult that was going on in Iola’s own head. She thought it would be calm, her final exit, but it wasn’t. Not really thoughts, more like a fluid, a rush of sensation, of sounds and sights and smells from the time she was born until now, as if she was carried buoyant on a river of memory. Down, down the river she went, and there was her son who had forgiven her, and her dead parents and sisters waving and welcoming her to join them, a hundred hands of friends and neighbors and long-forgotten teenaged boyfriends and elementary school teachers and acquaintances from the grocery store who had gone before, all beckoning to her. Further on there was the pain of childbirth and the sweetness of turning 16 and the magical feel of Brick Williams’ nervous fourth-grade lips as he graced her with that unforgettable first kiss. Her mind broadened to accept and include everything in the world, and far from feeling overwhelming, it was as if her whole life had been about love and soft landings.

‘Do you think she knows what we’re saying?’ asks Nancy. ‘Can she hear us, but maybe she just can’t talk?’

‘Most likely it’s a sort of hypnagogia,’ replies Dr. Hixton. ‘She might be hearing or feeling something, maybe some kind of an inner voice, maybe poetry or music. Or like you know when you’re on a boat during the day, and at night you feel like you’re still on the waves? It’s like a little chimera when you’re neither here nor there, a dream inlet that you visit before you fall asleep or before you wake up, when you’re kind of conscious but it’s all translated into something that touches only peripherally on reality.’

Perley

And that’s when Perley comes to visit, amidst all this talk of dreamlets swirling at the edges of reality. It feels like a radio show almost, but she sees Perley sitting there as clear as day. She sits on the edge of the bed, and Iola feels the sag at the edge of the old mattress where Perley puts her once substantial weight. While Nancy and Dr. Hixton speak their dignified, educated words about metaphysics and such, Iola’s sister Perley stops by for a pre-mortem chat, and there is in fact a lot to talk about.

‘Hello, little Sis,’ Perley says.

‘Is it you?’ asks Iola, incredulous. ‘Or am I imagining things?’

‘Sure, it’s me,’ Perley grins. There was an odd luminosity to her, but once Iola gets used to that, she doesn’t think twice about it.

‘Momma and Daddy send their best love to you, little Sis, and say they’ll see you soon.’

‘I can’t believe it!’ Iola says. Inside she’s jumping up and down like a little kid, she’s so excited. After all, she was only five when her daddy had died. For a long time she would take out one of his hand-knit wool sweaters that she had hidden under her bed, and put her face in it to inhale the pungent blend of cheroots and bourbon that probably gave him a good head start into the afterlife. After that came the difficult reign of her new stepfather, Percival Harold Ransome, Jr., who unfortunately liked little girls almost as much as he liked her momma. He only lasted a couple years till two of the older girls spilled the beans and her momma finally realized that what she’d initially seen as a kindly fatherly nature was really step-fatherly lust. But those two years saw the birth of the twins and Otis. After Percival got run out of town her momma had changed the name of the father on their birth certificates to Daddy’s, not wanting Percival to lay any claims on her or hers.

To see Momma again is beyond her wildest dreams. Momma, a little slip of a woman with a powerful voice and two arms that could crush you in a bear hug if she could reach you, had a personality that wrapped you and roped you in. You might be a head taller than she was, but there was no denying her every request. She could bat those long, long lashes and ask you sweetly, or narrow her lids slightly and add a drop of sternness to her voice and you didn’t dare disobey. She never had to raise her hand or even her voice, they were all that well trained, and it wasn’t just them either, complete strangers often came away amazed that they had done this petite woman’s bidding despite their every intention.

‘What’s it like, Perley? Have you seen Little Luther?’

Now, ordinarily Iola would never have asked her sister about Little Luther, in fact the subject hadn’t come up for years when they’d both had their feet firmly planted on the planet. But now it didn’t seem out of bounds to ask about her sister’s long-gone boy. In the days after it had happened, Perley had sealed off that part of her heart and kept it private forevermore. See, there had been so little work in those days, and not everyone had thought to get an education to escape the few miserable, menial jobs there were. Little Luther had been a bright kid, Perley and her third husband Dwight had had high hopes for him, but Little Luther didn’t see it that way. He apparently horsed around with the wrong crowd, and before you knew it, he’d dropped out of high school. After that his pride got in his way. Once he realized his mistake it seemed he was too proud to go back or get his GED, no, he was going to make it on his own. He took up with an even rougher crowd and landed in jail, and this time Perley put her foot down, much as it hurt her. When Little Luther got sprung, he was on his own. No handouts, no place to crash, no backup, just him making it on his own, with Perley and Dwight holding their breath to see if this time would be any different. Had they spoiled him? Been too firm? Encouraged him too much or too little? It was like they had to take a fresh college entrance exam on morality every morning for the rest of their lives. Every morning they’d wake from a restless sleep, hit with anxiety like a punched fist to the gut, wondering if today would be the day they’d get a call that Little Luther had been found dead or even worse, had killed someone in some drunken brawl. Drink, drugs, it was all the same to him, anything to escape today.

What made it worse was that Dwight was an evangelical, not the happy clappy kind, but one with a dark side that was dipped in chapter and verse and glazed in speaking in tongues. So although sinners were allowed to transgress so that they might be forgiven, there was an odd overall lack of forgiveness, a catch-22 of a fall from grace that Little Luther found his way to again and again like he was a bird dog chasing a squirrel in a maze.

Dwight also owned a dry goods store, and when Little Luther had been younger and still in Dwight’s good graces, he’d hang around the store nights and weekends to help out. That’s when he first met the chicken packers. Although it was mostly women, there were some men there too. He could never understand why they did what they did, but soon enough Little Luther found himself joining their ranks, once he’d run out of alternatives. It was that or live on the street—you know, here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?

Luther

After the chickens got graded, they moved onto the styler. A styler made sure that when the chickens came down the belt, no bits of thighs or legs or breasts were hanging out of the tray. That was 32 birds a minute, no pieces hanging out of the trays. And then the chickens would move on to the wrappers to get sealed into their little plastic tombs. If the wrappers didn’t work fast enough, the trays came together and started to buckle, 32 birds a minute. You never got used to how fast they moved, it was always hard to keep up. You just had to work fast.

Everyone had gloves and aprons. Luther was close to the 20-degree room. It was so cold that every time you opened your mouth to talk, smoke came out of it. And then when he took his 15-minute break, it took over half his break just to get all the protective clothing off, the cotton gloves and rubber gloves and apron and the earmuffs he wore on his icicle ears because it was so loud — you had to holler just to hear the person standing next to you talk — the extra sweaters and coat you wore to stay warm. Then at break once he got all the clothes off, he had to stagger to the bathroom on his stiff popsicle legs and then run back and get suited up again or they would write you up for being late. You’d work eight hours a day, sometimes more than eight hours if there was more chickens that day, or if it was a holiday and there was no shift coming in after yours, you just had to stay until whenever all the chickens was finished, even if it was fifteen hours till every chicken was processed. And finally, finally that dark side of Dwight was happy, because if Little Luther was suffering, then it must be good for Little Luther’s eternal soul. It must be shaping Little Luther up into a strong young man, and Dwight could relax his vigilance just a tad, he could ease up on the reins because now perhaps Little Luther would find his way. But Dwight had no idea about the random mob chaos of those chickens, the way they insinuated themselves into your brain like cheeky beaky thought tumors that hang out like rubberneckers watching your every move, latching on to every thought flotation device and calibrating eye flutters to calculate what you’ll do next. It was a bloodbath in there with those chickens in the inner sanctum, that’s what Dwight couldn’t understand, even when Luther got promoted to supervisor which you’d think would be a good thing to make his stepdaddy’s chest puff out with pride, but that was a hard thing for Luther because then all the responsibility was on his shoulder and his shoulder alone. His floor manager coerced him into it and he thought if nothing else it would get him in good with Dwight, but what he didn’t realize was that he couldn’t win. He had responsibility for the line and all the people on the line. If he didn’t have enough people on the line, the line was still gonna run as fast as it would if he had everyone on the line. And for him, that was such a hard, hard thing. That really got him down. When he went home, nights, he carried it with him, the unfairness of it all. Even after he went to bed, it got him down. It got so’s he couldn’t sleep, trying to figure out how to beat that line, and yet he knew that there was no way. At night he carried it with him, in the day he carried it with him. When he woke up, it was still with him, and when he went to work, it got him again. Because it was hard to take some of the things he saw. The floor managers had the power to slow down the lines, like when the big bosses came from headquarters. They’d turn down the line some and make it look more humane than it was. Everything had to be in tiptop shape when corporate company came. Everything had to be nice and neat, and all the workers had to have smiles on their faces, just for show. But the truth of it was that the floor managers thought more of those chickens than they thought of the people. As soon as the visitors left they’d speed it up so’s it was even worse than it was before, just to make up for lost time. One girl urinated on herself because she couldn’t walk off the line and she couldn’t hold it in anymore or she’d get fired and there was nothing Luther could do. You just could not leave your post and even though he was a supervisor now, there was nothing he could do for her. That really made him feel helpless and worthless.

Perley

Surprisingly, Perley no longer minded talking about Little Luther. He was happy now, she told Iola, and the thing that made him happiest was that his stepfather Dwight was no longer breathing scriptures down his neck. Little Luther had a nice house with a white picket fence down the road from hers where he raised dairy goats and all sorts of chickens: Appenzeller, Australorp, Brahma, Buckeye, Buttercup, Catalana, Cornish, Cubalaya, Dominique, Dorking, Dutch, Japanese, Java, Jersey Giant, Sabelpoot, Transylvanian Naked Neck… You get the picture. It was his domain, his sovereignty, his fiefdom of fowl where he could spend eternity making amends.

For Iola, it was good to finally talk about Little Luther again so that she didn’t feel weighed down. She had been the favorite aunt when Little Luther had been a boy. He’d been close in age to Flay and Nula because he was from Perley’s second husband Jonathan the Third, not the scion of a wealthy family but the progeny of a poor family with aspirations to grandeur. Of course her children and Little Luther had taken a different path, since Mr. Fordham had sent Nula and Flay to the finest private schools while Little Luther had floundered in the local dump. He tended to be delicate and so the huskier boys had made fun of him. When he walked his toes turned out like morgue feet and when he talked he stuttered like a lawnmower with a dirty carb. He had barbed-wire curls at a time when straight was in. His prom date was Nula in her third-wearing prom dress and if he had any hope that the others wouldn’t guess who she was that hope was squashed when someone started whistling the music to Kissin’ Cousins. When his blush matched the color of a Mortgage Lifter ripening on the vine, Nula took pity on him and whisked him out for coffee and then home so that Perley wouldn’t ask too many questions about why they were home so early. In those days she had a bit of a drinking problem herself since Jonathan the Third had been gone for four long years and the single-mother thing was wearing thin. Dwight was still hat-in-hand respectful to Perley and Little Luther and so everyone was on their best behavior out in public, while at home things continued to decay.

Dwight

Here, chick chick chick. Here, chick chick chick. Don’t wanna count my chickens before they’s hatched, now, do I? Come on, son, I won’t hurt you. We’re all just good plain country folk here. Course I’m no spring chicken anymore, but you, you’re something to behold, aren’t you? As it says in Proverbs 20:29, ‘The beauty of young men is their power, and the splendor of old men is their gray-headedness.’

Nancy

There was something in the look of that kid the night her momma forced her to go to the prom with him. He was like a dog who’d been beaten, hanging back with his tail between his legs, but she knew that Perley would never lift a finger against her only boy. Had the bullying at school been that bad? They teased him, but it seemed more like good-natured ribbing to her. Still, she was more than happy to take him for coffee instead of hanging around the prom.

Iola

When Flay had died it was like God had punched a hole in her chest and ripped out her heart, then squeezed as hard as he could till it shattered and all the pieces scattered in the breeze. She sat by Flay’s bed after they found him, and although he had been dead for several hours they let her stay with him for a bit. She held his hand and tried to feel the life she had given him but it was gone. She was distracted by the marriage of the smell of his turning flesh and her own remorse. When he died alone, was anyone there to ease his panic? The memory overwhelms her and tears well up. The light flickers once and she’s gone to a better place.

Little Luther

Sometimes when I started I put four or five inserts on just one chicken because you couldn’t keep up, it was impossible. Your hands were so cold. You got the gloves on, you had to keep your hands warm, it was so cold in there, but you couldn’t touch those chickens.

You could see the chickens all wobbly way up there on the line. They were swinging back and forth. They were waving, it was like they were waving at you, you knew the line was going fast, and then they were gone. You had only one chance to get it right, and then they were gone. Like mutant chickens humming some sort of singsong twaddle.

Move along, now, looky lous, nothing to see here. Maybe I fell down the stairs because my boots were greasy and I slipped. ‘Foolishness is tied up with the heart of a boy; the rod of discipline is what will remove it far from him,’ Proverbs 22:15. Yes, Dwight made me his chicken, he put my heart in a shoebox, he made me hide everything, for years he made me swear not to tell anyone. They took me to the hospital but I said the bruises were from falling down the stairs because otherwise it would be even worse. Even the broken leg didn’t stop him.

I had the doctor’s note that I couldn’t work because of the cast so I wouldn’t get into trouble and the locks at the school never did stop anyone who was at all determined. It was easy enough to move one of the long tables in the science lab under the fan and a chair next to it so I could get up. I always liked that room because Mrs. Wilson had a soft spot for me. The fan wobbled when it turned on, it never vented properly in that room which you think they’d care about since students might be breathing in something toxic. But as I found out later in life, adults don’t always care about what you think they should care about. Chain, cord, it really don’t matter much, and I learned how to do a lot of different fancy knots in boy scouts when my real daddy was still in the picture. I moved the table and climbed up from the chair so I was just on the rim, did my knot by feel with the cord from the fan, then the rest was easy.

It was just a little jump and jerk to clear the edge.

Anyone who is honest will tell you that it’s good to be free.

JUDITH COOPER lives and works in Chicago. Her short stories have appeared in The Normal School, New Stories from the Midwest, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the recipient of a fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council.