Chicken's Gotta Stand It, by Jim Parks

The dawn was frosty on Birmingham's south side. It was a late spring.

These were the days that would make or break me, days of deci­sion, days of choos­ing between life and an igno­min­ious ear­ly death.

I had made the hard­est choice. I had cho­sen life, and, oh, baby, what a drag. That's what the bot­tle will do to you.

But I had made some friends, oth­er gen­tle­men losers with some use for me.

I was sleep­ing in a small cave on Red Moun­tain, a steep slope up the street that leads to down­town from the city's south side. On the top, a hero­ic size bronze of Vul­can, the pagan god of smelt­ing iron, an arti­fi­cer in bronze and brass, sur­mount­ed the dizzy­ing heights where the high­way pass­es over into Shel­by Coun­ty and its sub­urbs stud­ded with oth­er clas­si­cal water tem­ples and wood­land shrines ded­i­cat­ed to the fad­ed past. Their edu­cat­ed knowl­edge afford­ed those who once shook the hills and moved the banks and rail­roads to pro­duce coke and steel in the city's fur­naces glimpses of what the south could be or could have been if giv­en half an impe­r­i­al chance, I sup­pose.

In the morn­ings, I could grab a bite to eat in a res­cue mis­sion main­tained by a fun­da­men­tal­ist denom­i­na­tion. That morn­ing it had been left­over fried chick­en from one of the fast food outlets—half frozen, nat­u­ral­ly, and thaw­ing slow­ly.

A Yan­kee sit­ting at the oth­er end of the table com­plained.

"I nev­er heard of hav­ing fried chick­en for break­fast!" He kind of shout­ed it. "I thought you boys down south here had your fried chick­en and water­mel­on after church on Sun­days, huh?"

An old boy with a lean and hun­gry face, a goa­tee and a droop­ing mous­tache, said, dead calm­ly, "Then I guess you ain't from the south, are you?"

"Nah, man. I'm from Michi­gan."

"Well, look here, boy, you in the south now. Hear?"

"So?"

"I don't want to hear none of yo' Yan­kee lip about it, now. Eat your fried chick­en and hush."

That did it. They were at each oth­er like two wild crea­tures, fangs, claws and paws. I watched as long as I could stand it, then I made my get­away, scoop­ing up anoth­er piece of chick­en and wrap­ping it all in a nap­kin. It was a mighty ugly scene. This was no time to hang around.

Trekking back uphill, I stopped at the old Mason­ic lodge at Five Points, locat­ed in an old red brick man­sion.

It was cook­ie mon­ster day, the day the women sent their old men down with home baked oat­meal and choco­late chips.

I often went in there to swab out the johns, stock the coke machine, emp­ty the ash­trays, mop the floors, run the vac­u­um clean­er. You know, stum­ble bum stuff.

Good way to start the day. God knows, I was grate­ful to get it.

To tell you the truth, I kind of liked that old house. The brick was of the grade known as fire brick, hard enough to line a fur­nace or a chim­ney. The joints between each one were bare­ly an eighth of an inch wide—each one plumb, square and lev­el. Its three sto­ries perched on a knob over the street. I guess it would give you the pic­ture of what they mean when they describe some­thing as an "impos­ing edi­fice."

We main­tained the fic­tion that some day I would peti­tion the lodge for the mys­ter­ies of the craft, but as yet the day had not come. Nev­er­the­less, we were all friend­ly.

There's some­thing about those old boys that you just can't deny. When they can see a man is try­ing to make it, try­ing to work, they don't scorn him.

I knew enough to get lost when an awk­ward silence occurred. That meant they were going to review mem­o­ry work, some­thing that should not be repeat­ed in front of one who is as yet unini­ti­at­ed.

About the time I was fin­ish­ing up and Buck gave me some chump change for my work, Char­lie H_______ came in the front door, loud, laugh­ing, throw­ing mock punch­es and pro­tect­ing his nut sack from retal­ia­to­ry grabass attacks from the brethren there assem­bled.

The best descrip­tion I ever heard any of them give on Char­lie was that he was just plumb eat up with it. Friends, he was plumb eat up with it.

When you looked at Char­lie, you saw the essence of the per­son­al­i­ty of a Babe Ruth or a Mick­ey Man­tle, maybe even old Ty Cobb with all the mean­ness gone out of him—maybe. I guess you'd have to get an esti­mate on that.

But def­i­nite­ly Dizzy Dean.

Char­lie was a good old boy through and through.

Jock.

Washed-up pro­fes­sion­al base­ball pitch­er and proud of it.

Now that he's dead, I guess I don't mind say­ing that I loved Char­lie because he loved me. We just seemed to be broth­ers deep in our souls and in our hearts.

I guess I could tell you about the time Char­lie went crazy and start­ed talk­ing Indi­an talk like old Mr. Hem­ing­way, then switched to writ­ing every­thing down in a lit­tle pock­et note­book he would stick in your face if there was some­thing he want­ed you to know.

That didn't last long. Some of them got him laugh­ing, and the next thing you knew, he was telling the kind of sto­ries you would hear in a min­ing camp, a log­ging show, or on a fish­ing ves­sel.

Oh, Char­lie was a troop­er. But he liked to hoo-raw and grabass more than any­thing else. He lived for it.

One day, we had been in the Safe­way get­ting the mak­ings for gua­camole. We'd been all over town try­ing to get some cilantro, which they don't have much call for in Birm­ing­ham, so we struck out on that.

But it was just after church and all these lit­tle old blue-haired ladies were wait­ing in line with us, giv­ing us the fish eye.

Char­lie said, "Let's act like we're drunk, man."

Why not?

Over­head, the music speak­ers were play­ing the plain­tive war­ble of that coun­try dis­co hit, "Look­ing For Love in All The Wrong Places" and Char­lie sud­den­ly jerked off his glass­es and pulled his false eye out of its sock­et.

Then he burst into tears.

Now, here's this big old lunk—I'm sure he weighed over three hun­dred pounds because he was eas­i­ly six-four or five inch­es tall and built like a bear—blubbered up and cry­ing at the top of his lungs.

He said, "You know, Jim, I ain't got but one eye?"

I told him, no, I didn't know that.

Baloney. It was the first thing you noticed when you talked to Char­lie. The miss­ing eye didn't track the real one.

The truth was that he'd been sent down to the minor league just below the one he was play­ing in for the Los Ange­les Dodgers and he was mean­er than hell and mad at the world about it. He was sup­posed to be work­ing on his stuff.

He brushed an old boy back twice. That's when the old boy stuck a line dri­ve in his eye and his career was over.

The end.

Any­way, the lit­tle old blue-haired ladies by this time were total­ly out­raged at this hoo-raw. He hand­ed the glass eye to me and point­ed to the emp­ty sock­et, which he held open with the fin­gers of his oth­er hand.

"Yeah, man, eye's plumb gone."

"God dog, Char­lie, I had no idea," I said, try­ing hard to sound like this old boy on tele­vi­sion who played a very dumb, very hill­bil­ly Marine.

"You know what hap­pened to me, Jim?"

"I give up, Char­lie. What?"

"I got gon­or­rhea in it!"

There was a fresh out­burst of tears. The blue-hairs began to stir and mut­ter their out­rage.

"Ah was a'lookin' for love in all the wrong places!"

That's when all the blue hairs got out of our line, and we sailed through alone with our avo­ca­dos and chips.

Done.

He sold min­ing equip­ment, which, he said, meant just lis­ten­ing to their bull­shit and find­ing out what they want­ed. From there, he said, the engi­neers and the bankers took over, any­way. That meant he trav­elled all over those moun­tains of north­ern Alaba­ma and south­ern Ten­nessee, some over into Georgia—you know, the red dirt coun­try where they get the coal and the i
ron ore.

Nat­u­ral­ly, he worked for his broth­er-in-law, but he was okay about it. In fact, it made him all the bet­ter.

But it was a good day to run into Char­lie. I mean, after watch­ing those two act like a cou­ple of ani­mals where they had put some­thing out at the back door for them to feed on and they had to bare their fangs and go animalistic—whew.

Who wants to be remind­ed of his true sta­tion in the world?

Char­lie had a way of mak­ing you for­get that.

Any­way, there he was, big as the side of a house and dressed in a sharp top­coat and wool suit, wingtips spit shined like mir­rors, his old glass­es pol­ished like the chan­de­liers in the governor's man­sion.

He glad hand­ed me and asked me what was going on.

So I told him about break­fast, how it wasn't quite suit­able for that Yankee's palate, and the like.

He threw back his head and howled.

"Well, the old boy from the south didn't tell him any­thing wrong, man. We eat fried chick­en for break­fast around here. I've had it many a Mon­day morn­ing and many a morn­ing when there was a death in the fam­i­ly. It's what peo­ple bring after church or to funer­al din­ners. The hell with him if he can't take a joke."

At that moment, I flashed on a barn yard in a south­ern holler, on a farm, and real­ized that free rang­ing chick­en was prob­a­bly a good bet for eggs, for fried chick­en, for what­ev­er.

We got to talking—viztin', as he called it. He told me the damnedest sto­ry about fried chick­en I ever heard.

You know, it's an old south­ern cus­tom to kill a hen and have fried chick­en when you know com­pa­ny is com­ing. Even when you don't know they're com­ing and just show up, folks do it because they want to. We're talk­ing sliced toma­toes, fresh sweet corn, fried okra, mashed pota­toes and gravy.

"Shut your mouth," Char­lie said. He threw back his head and roared. He did a lot of roar­ing. It punc­tu­at­ed his con­ver­sa­tions.

He said he was once on a sales trip way up a holler in Ten­nessee, about half lost and in no hur­ry, and he stopped in at a lit­tle cross­roads store to have a Nehi and a Moon Pie.

"Hell, man, I was about to starve to death back in those days. It was right after my eye got put out. In fact, I ate so many Moon Pies my ass liked to gone into total eclipse."

Char­lie liked to eat, even more he liked to talk about food and eat­ing.

Any­way, back to the sto­ry of the cross­roads store.

While Char­lie was there, a wid­ow and her son came to the store to get a few things. She told the man who was keep­ing store there to kill a chick­en and butch­er it for her. She had com­pa­ny com­ing.

You see, he didn't have much in the way of refrig­er­a­tion, so he just kept the fry­ers and hens alive until they were need­ed.

So the old boy told his son to go kill the chick­en and pluck it. They wait­ed and wait­ed. Then they wait­ed some more.

Now, this storekeeper's son, accord­ing to Char­lie, was obvi­ous­ly kind of retard­ed. He was bare­foot­ed and naked under his over­alls and he had the kind of vacant expres­sion many men­tal­ly chal­lenged peo­ple affect.

Final­ly, the man called him and he came around to the front of the store with the chick­en in his arms.

He was try­ing to pluck it, all right. The prob­lem was that the chick­en was still alive.

Exas­per­at­ed, the store­keep­er had told him, "Son, that chick­en can't stand that."

"Chicken's got to stand it," the boy said. Char­lie used those dull, unin­flect­ed tones to get the point across.

We all fell out laugh­ing.

Why was that fun­ny? You know, it sure as hell tick­led all us old boys.

I don't know, but on that frosty morn­ing in Birm­ing­ham when I, near­ly naked myself, des­per­ate­ly poor and lost in a nation—and let's make no mis­take about it, the south is still a nation, still defeat­ed by war and deprivation—burst into hys­ter­i­cal laugh­ter, joined by Char­lie and a half a dozen oth­er good old boys with noth­ing but time on our hands.

I guess we didn't know any bet­ter.

Jim Parks

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