ops told me I would be working with Farmhand today,
but Farmhand hadn’t showed yet. Farmhand’s name was
Phil but I called him Farmhand. He liked that I was cocky and
made nicknames up for everyone. He called me Schooney. Farmhand
had worked for us for years and Pops always said we couldn’t
find better help. I had been asking Pops to let me help with chores
but was ignored, except for last month when he called me into
the pig shed and sat me behind a pregnant sow. A stillborn was
stuck in her sideways and she would die if we didn’t get
it out. We couldn’t afford that. Pops said his arm was too
big and lubricated mine with Palmolive. My fist pushed inside
the dilated sow and she moaned. Wet warmth enclosed my forearm.
My fingers felt something like teeth or bone and I grabbed, pulled.
Bloody afterbirth strung from the lump cupped in my hand. It wasn’t
until Pops raised the bucket he was holding that I knew what to
first thing Farmhand said when he finally showed this morning
was that his wife shouldn’t say he was running around like
a chicken with its head cut off if she had never seen a chicken
without a head. Pops asked him where he had been and Farmhand
said he had to take her to St. Louis to see the doctor and that
she was fine now. I waited for Pops to scold Farmhand, but instead
Pops said he could have two chickens to take home to her. Then
Pops asked Farmhand if I could eat supper at his house tonight.
Farmhand wanted to say no, but instead he asked me if I liked
legs or breasts. “Both,” I said.
the back yard, pans of ice water lined a table next to the concrete
fire pit where water boiled in large buckets on an iron grill.
Flames licked above the grill and firewood popped inside the pit.
Pops handed me a small axe. He unlatched the door to a large cage
made of chicken wire and grabbed the nearest bird. He stretched
its neck across a wooden chopping block, its beady eye bulging
at me. “As close to the head as possible.”
chopped it clean. Pops said good job and patted my back. Before
Mother’s car accident, Pops always praised me, but lately,
when he was home, he only talked into the kitchen phone. The chicken
flipped and flopped. Farmhand waited then grabbed the legs. He
taped the ankles around a clothesline. We did four more like that.
the first one drained, Farmhand dunked it into the bucket of boiling
water with no-suds dish detergent, and stirred. The phone rang
inside the house and Pops ran. It was that woman. Sometimes Farmhand
and I called her Ring Ring. I had told Pops I didn’t want
to meet her, nor did I want a younger sister. She started calling
after Mother’s funeral and hadn’t stopped. Twice this
week, I had to eat supper at Farmhand’s. And Farmhand’s
wife couldn’t cook, not like Mother could.
Schooney?” Farmhand asked, reversing his stir.
I said. “I’m seven.”
are cool,” Farmhand said. He spit chew into the grass and
chuckled, wiped the string of slobber hanging from his lip. “Just
don’t marry ‘em straight out of high school.”
He raised the chicken, scalding water dripping in the bucket,
and plucked a feather from the leg. “She’s ready.”
He laid the bird on the table and madly pulled out each feather.
“Ever done this, Schooney?”
shook my head. “I love chopping heads off.”
grabbed a large kitchen knife and sliced down the back between
the bird’s shoulders. “Don’t cut the gullet
or windpipe,” he said. He grabbed the neck and twisted it
free before dropping it in a pan of ice water. He pushed a finger
along the side of the stub and softly freed the craw. “Look,
she just ate.” His fingers split open the sack and corn
kernels spilled out. I wondered what Pops could be talking about
for so long. Pops never said more than a few words to Mother,
other than what needed to be done around the house or what he
wanted for dinner.
stripped the gullet and windpipe from the skin, then wiggled his
finger alongside the backbone. “There’s a trick to
the heart. You have to work it loose before you cut it out.”
His hand disappeared into the body and took out the gizzard and
intestines. He wrapped them like a hose around three metal hooks
that lined the back of the workbench. “You watching?”
fazes you, does it, boy?” Farmhand held up the blade. “You
handed me the knife, and on his instructions, I cut loose the
heart and tossed it on ice. I knew Pops wasn’t coming back
to help. He would talk until it was time for dinner. Farmhand
took back the knife and removed the liver from the gall bladder
and the intestine from the gizzard and plopped them in ice water.
Emptying the gizzards while the other pieces chilled, Farmhand
told me his parents had too many kids and that he had a younger
sister who always got what she wanted while he got nothing. He
spit chew into the fire and made it hiss.
Farmhand’s, I sat across from the wife. Though the oven
had just been turned off, the kitchen was freezing. The table
was set with corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, green beans, deviled
eggs, and buttered bread. But instead of breast and legs, we had
gizzards and neck. On his way to fetch a beer from the fridge,
Farmhand kissed his wife’s cheek and said something in her
ear about being better off. She pulled away like I did once when
Mother tried to kiss me after a T-ball game. Earlier while Farmhand
and I washed up for dinner, he told me to compliment her cooking,
so when he reached for a deviled egg and she slapped his hand
away, I said the food looked like it was going to taste great.
Farmhand laughed but his wife didn’t.
been talking about me?” she asked.
the boy alone.”
looked at me hard. I didn’t care if Pops had Ring Ring in
the car with him or not, I wanted him here, now. To take me home.
I saw the axe chopping down over and over until I turned to the
wife and said, “Don’t marry chickens straight out
of high school.”
knew it!” she said. Her arm flailed and knocked the tray
of deviled eggs off the table onto the floor. She stood without
taking her eyes off Farmhand. He stepped back as she squatted
on her heels in front of the mess. She cried and scraped the eggs
into a yellow and white pile. I studied my gizzards and neck,
waiting for grace.