by N.T. Brown
It was a sweltering July day in 1989, and I had a shovel blade pressed against a chicken’s neck. The bird had thrashed when my father picked it up, but now it lay still under the shovel, twitching occasionally, waiting for this particular procedure to end, just as the wing-clipping had ended, so it could go back to pecking in the dirt. My sister hovered nearby, hands over her mouth. “Step down hard,” my father said. “Don’t hesitate. Do it clean.” Behind me, the other hens clucked. A plane droned overhead. I licked my lips. “Go ahead,” my father said. “Step down.” The bird blinked up at me, and I looked into its eyes. Then I stepped down hard.
The head stopped blinking and just lay there. But the body got up and ran around the yard, spurting blood, like a weird cartoon come to life. It flopped in the dirt for a minute and then lay still. This was Lindsey’s favorite part. She approached the white carcass, its breast feathers covered in blood, and then leaped back with a squeal when it twitched one last time.
“Are you sure it’s not in pain?” I asked.
“When you cut something’s head off, it’s dead.”
“I read somewhere that people stay alive for thirty seconds after getting beheaded. The executioners turn the head around and let it face the body so the person can see their own bloody neck.”
“That bird’s dead,” my father said. “Now go toss the head over the fence.”
That seemed disrespectful somehow—even for a chicken. Instead, I went into the woods and dug a hole with my hands, and placed the head in it, eyes still open. Maybe, I thought, it would help fertilize a tree.
Every morning, I went out to the coop and collected eggs. It wasn’t the sterile environment I’d anticipated. My father had built nests out of wood and hay, but the hens didn’t follow orders—they dropped eggs anywhere they wanted. Most of them were buried in mud and shit. I had to wash them under the hose before bringing them in.
One Saturday, my father suggested I set up a table by the road. “You could sell these eggs,” he said. “We got more than we can eat.”
“You mean like a lemonade stand?” I said.
“That’s right,” he said. “Except this is something people can use.”
“How much should I charge?”
“What sounds right to you?”
I thought for a moment. “Dollar a dozen,” I said.
My father nodded. “Good enough.”
I carried a table out there, along with a folding chair and an umbrella. A cardboard sign read “Fresh eggs 12-4-$1”—which, in retrospect, probably resembled the bovine scrawling of a Chik-Fil-A billboard more than I realized. The eggs sat in a cooler on ice. I read a Jughead comic and waited.
Summerfield was just that: a series of pastures, dotted with the occasional grandfather oak. I could see a mile down the road in either direction. Trucks shimmered far ahead, got slowly larger, and then rushed by in a whoosh, only a few feet away. I didn’t count on anyone stopping.
The first customer was a middle-aged woman in a mini-van. She spoke to me like an adult. “What kind of eggs are these?”
“The chickens are Rhode Island reds, if that’s what you mean,” I said.
“And how old are they?”
“Pretty young. Less than a year, I think.”
“I mean the eggs,” the woman said. “How fresh are these eggs?”
“Collected them this morning,” I said. “Might’ve been laid last night.”
“Give me two dozen,” the woman said, handing me a five. I placed the eggs in a paper bag and counted back three ones.
“This is a great find,” she said. “You out here every week?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Later, an old farmer pulled up, and left his truck idling while he stood there. He wore overalls and boots. “Lemme see them eggs,” he said.
I opened the cooler and showed him the cartons.
“That ain’t bad,” he said. “You got your own little farm back there, or what?”
“It’s not really a farm,” I said.
“Shit,” he said, in a good-natured way. “Gimme a dozen.”
The farmer paid with a five, but didn’t want change. I held the bills out to him, but he got in his truck and drove away. Something inside me didn’t feel right. I was insulted, offended. He had treated me like a child. No one would refuse change in a grocery store.
After that, I couldn’t concentrate on Jughead, and was staring across the fields, wondering what to do with these four dollars that weren’t mine, when a shiny black car came to a stop before me. It didn’t even pull off the road. The passenger window came down.
A man in a tie sat there. Cold air billowed out. “Whatcha got there?” he said.
“Eggs,” I said, without getting up.
The man seemed delighted. He glanced at the trailer behind me, the fields. “Real, home-grown eggs?” he said.
“Dollar a dozen,” I said.
The man held out a bill. I got up, walked around the table, and took it. “How many you want?” I said.
“Oh, none,” the man said. He kept looking around, as though he was at an amusement park, or a zoo. I was confused.
“Did you say nine?” I asked, but the man laughed, and made a face like he pitied me, and said, “No, no,” and the window went up and he drove away, leaving me with a ten-dollar bill and the feeling that I was nothing but a museum piece in the white-trash diorama. My sweaty, dirty reality was a Norman Rockwell painting to him. “Those poor hicks,” he would say that night to his wife, lying on silk sheets in their condo. “Actually selling eggs on the side of the road! Can you believe it? Like a time machine!”
I folded up the umbrella and hauled everything back inside. For some reason, my father was hanging around that day, watching a western on TV.
“Out of eggs already?” he said.
“I don’t want to do it anymore,” I said. “It’s hot out there.”
“You make any money? I saw a few cars.”
I showed him the seventeen dollars—at age nine, the most money I’d ever personally owned.
He sat forward. “You sold seventeen dozen eggs?”
“No,” I said. “Everybody overpaid. They won’t take change.”
“Well, they’re just being nice,” my father said. “But you don’t want nobody’s charity. I can see that.”
“The sign said dollar a dozen.” My voice was shaking, and I felt my face get hot. But if you’d asked me what was wrong, I wouldn’t have been able to say.
“Son,” my father said. “Let me tell you something. You want everything to be equal and fair, and that’s good. But life ain’t always equal and fair. There’ll come a time, someday, when you deserve something, and you won’t get it. So when somebody wants to give you something extra, just take it.”
I sat there for a minute, and then said: “Who’s gonna keep me from getting what I deserve someday?”
My father laughed and said, “Probably a goddamn woman.”
Three or four years later—when I was around twelve—I made friends with a kid named Willy Lopez. He lived in Summerfield too, and we sat together on the long bus ride home. He had brown skin, a big nose, and a rat tail down the back of his neck. His notebooks were decorated with drawings of Galactus and She-Hulk. When he saw me reading an Archie comic, he sat beside me.
“You like Archie?” he said.
“I guess,” I said.
“I don’t know.”
“Check this out,” he said. He pulled out a black-and-white magazine called Hate. I skimmed through it. The artwork was intricate, crowded, vulgar, and scary. It represented some nihilism I didn’t yet understand. It had naked people and curse words. He had other books too, with names like Eightball and Hen’s Tooth, as well as some old issues of Mad.
“Don’t you have any normal comics?” I said.
“Faggots flying around in tights?” he said. “Yeah, I got plenty of that shit.”
“Listen,” I said. “I’ve been working on some characters. Let’s get together and make a book. You can do the drawings.”
“Not that Archie shit.”
“Nah,” I said. “Something weirder.”
A kid in front of us turned around and said: “I’ll give you a quarter to draw Storm and Jean Grey doing it.”
“Fifty cents,” Willy said.
“Okay, fifty cents. Make their titties big.”
“How you want them doing it?” Willy said.
“Just doing it,” the kid said. “Hurry up. My stop’s almost here.”
That week, I got permission to ride the bus to Willy’s house. I brought my box of art supplies, and some of my sketches. Willy wanted to re-name most of my characters (“You can’t have a knife expert named Steel,” he said), but he liked the stories I came up with. One followed a crew of time-travelers trying to prevent WW4; another was about magic objects buried under a volcano.
“These are good,” Willy said. “Better than that Archie stuff.”
“What’s so wrong with Archie?” I said.
Willy laughed. “It’s chickenshit,” he said.
His house was half a mile from the bus stop, and as we approached, it looked more like a compound than a home. Tall board fence around the yard, wall of oleander inside that. We entered a foyer with the smell of old tobacco and Lysol, and some other, deeper scent I couldn’t name. Someone spoke Spanish down the hall.
Willy’s room had posters of Soundgarden and Public Enemy. He showed me his collection of comics, and ranted about artists I’d never heard of: McCay, Eisner, Crumb, Hernandez. I asked how he knew so much.
“My older brother, mostly,” Willy said.
“Nevada,” Willy said. “He’s on drugs.”
We hadn’t been there long when the door opened without a knock. A man stood there with a white fedora and a cane. He wore shades that covered facial scars. I almost jumped back: it was Paco, a man I had met years before, a man who used to have a running feud with my father. He had once showed up at our trailer and given me a threatening message. I always suspected my father had slept with his wife, or the wife of one of his brothers. He didn’t seem to recognize me now.
“Guillermo,” he said in a raspy voice. “Come out here. Bring your friend. The pelea de gallos is about to start.”
The Lopez backyard had a dirt ring in the center. A dozen members of Willy’s family were back there—cousins, uncles, little girls. I was the only white person there. A man with a goatee said, “What’s your name, kid?”
“Sam,” I said. My legs were shaking. These were the men who had beat up my father years ago.
“He’s cool,” Willy said. “Shit, he does pelea de gallos at his house.” He turned to me. “I seen them old chicken coops you got out back.”
“Is that right?” the man said. “What kinda birds you got?”
“We got rid of them,” I said.
“What you know about chickens?” he asked.
“I know they taste good,” I said.
The man laughed. “Guillermo, where’d you find this kid?”
“We’re gonna make a comic together,” Willy said.
“Still reading those funny books,” the man said. “You better grow out of that. You’re gonna end up just like your brother.”
“I ain’t nothing like him,” Willy said.
Two roosters were brought out and placed in the ring. Their combs and wattles had been removed. As soon as they saw each other, they spread their wings and started into threat displays. Everyone gathered around.
“This is just a practice session,” Willy said. “In the real fight, they’d use spurs.”
The birds came together in a storm of feathers. They tore into each other. The men cheered and shouted in Spanish. The little girls watched with their fingers in their mouths. The birds came apart, made horrible noises, and went for each other again. After about five minutes, someone stepped between them—something I would’ve been terrified to do—and deftly leashed them. Drops of blood soaked into the dirt, but neither bird seemed injured. They strutted on their leashes. Then the men took them away, behind the shed, to some other part of the yard. Everyone drifted inside. A girl ran by, blushing, and gave me a lollipop.
One day at school, I came around a corner and bumped into a circle of people. In the middle were two boys: Brock Sanders, wearing a backwards cap and a Miami Dolphins t-shirt, and Willy, who seemed tiny and frail in comparison. Brock had thrown his books down and had his chest pushed up against Willy, who stared at the ground.
“Say it again,” Brock said. “Little spic.”
“I don’t want to fight you,” Willy said.
“Talking all that shit,” Brock said. “Come on. What are you, chicken?”
Willy tried to walk around, but Brock pushed him into the crowd, which caught him and pushed him back into the circle. They jeered and shouted. There were no teachers anywhere.
Willy kept a poker face, but his eyes went glassy. “I was just kidding,” he said. “I don’t want to fight.”
“Well, I do,” Brock said. “So come on, chicken.” He flapped his arms and made rooster noises. “Wittle Willy’s a wittle chicken,” he said.
He was still flapping his arms when I hit him. Everyone gasped. Brock stumbled, more surprised than hurt, and I was on top of him like a wildcat. The fight lasted about ten seconds. I managed a few shots before he overpowered me, flipped me over, and busted me right in the face. He would’ve done worse if Mr. Glavis hadn’t come running and pulled him back.
I grinned up at Willy from the ground, but he didn’t meet my eyes. He just slouched back through the crowd. I ended up with a three-day suspension. He got nothing.
On the bus home, he stared out the window. He never thanked me. He seemed embarrassed by the whole thing. I clutched my pink slip, which my mother would have to sign, and tried to formulate the best way to tell her. All sorts of philosophical ideas swirled in my brain. Why had I jumped to Willy’s defense so readily? Why hadn’t he jumped to mine? Why didn’t he want to talk about it? Had I implied that he was weak and needed saving? What did he say to Brock in the first place? Did he deserve to get beaten up? Had I done the right thing?
When we arrived at my stop, I stood up and said, “Well, see you in three days, man.”
“Yeah,” Willy said. “See you.”
Willy’s a landscaper these days. A few years ago, visiting Summerfield, I saw his family truck go rumbling by, loaded down with hedge-trimmers and weed-eaters. Maybe it was him behind the wheel. Maybe it was one of his brothers, or even his son. Now that decades have passed, it’s hard to tell.
Willy and I never became enemies, but for some reason, we stopped being friends. We drifted apart. The comic book never happened. Willy found some older guys who gave him a ride to school, and he didn’t take the bus anymore. Later, in high school, he started playing guitar, and developed a reputation as a long-haired stoner death-metal guy.
I think about him from time to time. In medieval days, we might have fought a blood feud; our fathers hated each other. We could have easily kept it going. But we had common ground. We both lived with the land, with animals. Neither of us fit in. We had fathers we didn’t respect and brothers who lived on the margins of society—the society of Summerfield, Florida, in the early 90s, anyway. We were poor and neither of us wanted any fucking charity.
Eventually I realized why Willy never thanked me, or tried to come to my aid. Behind those glassy eyes was the same emotion that had swirled in me when I took that ten-dollar bill: shame.
Mom was surprisingly empathetic about my suspension. I explained what had happened, and while she wasn’t exactly proud, she seemed relieved that I had the courage to do it.
“However,” she said, “you’re not just gonna sit here and watch TV for three days. All that chicken wire, rolled up back there, from when your father had those chickens? See if you can get back there and untangle that mess. We need to mow back there.”
“There’s probably snakes back there,” I said.
“Just some old chicken snakes. The yellow ones. They won’t hurt you.”
Behind Mom, something fried on the stove. Lindsey sat at the table with her Barbies. I sat down, too, and said, “What’s for dinner?”
“Hamburgers,” Mom said.
About N.T. Brown
N.T. Brown lives in Orlando with two dogs and a cat.