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July 24, 2005

Sunday Writers' Workshop

Western writers retell the Chicken Crossing the Road joke every Sunday here at Creek Running North.

Last week: Gary Snyder.

This week: Barbara Kingsolver.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

Her toes were cold, she realized, waking a bit. She'd been sleepily bending her knees to bring them closer to his warm legs, which weren't there. She burrowed into the layers of down and wool, bringing her face close up to that spot she liked in the hollow of his back, between shoulder blades; the one that fit her nose so well. But his back wasn't there either.

She woke a bit further, heard the fiery snap of piñon cordwood in the stove, a clatter of breakfast pans muffled behind the door. Light streamed in the frosted east window, scattering ice crystal spectra across the white stucco walls. Morning. She stretched under down and wool, wanting his company back but not wanting to brave the out-of-bed just yet. Luxurious torture, this pre-breakfast indecision in this Gila Wilderness cabin.

Arms retracting from her near-involuntary stretch, she felt an odd warmth on the other side of the bed. His heat, still radiating from the covers he'd left. She decamped for the warmer side.

It was warm, the slight depression he'd made in the old tick mattress. How did he stay so warm? He'd slept for three hours last night atop the comforter, as she shivered and the rime grew on the window and the dog moved from the cooling stove to the foot of the bed, and then under the covers. She had awoken, the dog pushing her into him with stiffly extended feet, to find him curled fetally and cool to the touch, snoring blissfully. She had thrown an edge of the duvet over him, waking him. "It looked like you were cold." "Actually, I feel fine, but you look like YOU could use some warming up." An hour later, the roused dog having long since crept back onto the foot of the bed, she fell warmly asleep in his warm arms.

Now she lay basking in his leftover heat, listening to the noises from the kitchen. Whisk on bowl. He must be making good on the omelet promise, and what's that? Chiles? Tomato? She sniffed for clues, but couldn't sense anything culinary over the smell of burning pinyon pine. Mmmmm. No use. She buried her nose in his pillow, smelling him instead. It was like being held: his heat, his scent. Even the little bit of sweat from the thick hair where his skull tapered into the back of his neck.

The sun, finally, lazily hoisting itself up over the shoulder of the Mimbres mountains, pierced her vision. Time to get up. She malingered a bit, tracing the worn grain in the bedpost. Genuine Santa Fake, he'd called it in the yard sale in Silver: gray from years of barn storage, and wobbly. Twenty dollars. She'd been sure it would never hold them both, but it had, with seventy pounds of dog too. He'd oiled it and screwed in a couple of angle brackets, but left it alone otherwise. She was glad they hadn't sanded it down like the old guy told them to. The ridges felt good to touch. She pictured the old, tight-grained ponderosa pine that had been felled to make the posts. Ring after annual ring laid down in the growing trunk, somewhere in the Rockies. Now, the soft summer wood had been eaten away by nothing more substantial than air and water. The wood laid down in harder months remained. She wondered whether she should remember that, whether it had some relevance to her life outside of carpentry. Probably. Hmmmm. Coffee. Time to get out of bed.

"Look who's finally up!" Steam curled in little wisps over the frying pan.

"I got cold."

He was silent for a moment, chopping green chile into near-microscopic slices. "You know..."

"Stop. Don't say it."

"OK, but I'm going to keep wanting it."

"But I don't like Tucson in the summer. And my job is here."

"And if I only get to see you once a month..."

She kissed the back of his neck. "Stop."

He tossed the chiles into the pan. A crescendo of spattering rose, thin acrid smoke to sting her eyes. The plant he'd brought her caught the sun from its spot on the windowsill. Maranta, he'd called it: a prayer plant. Its red-and-green-striped leaves folded in supplication, waiting for the day's warmth to unclasp them.

He took the smoked chicken from the refrigerator, chopped it into small pieces. A few moments with the chiles and onions in the frying pan, just enough to warm it, and then he slid chicken and company onto a plate. Four eggs waited in a glass, the fork he'd used to break the yolks leaning up against the rim. He poured the eggs into the pan. He looked at her.

"I miss you."

"I know."

He grabbed the frying pan's handle, and flipped the eggs with a flick of his wrist. Back into the pan went the chicken and chiles, and a handful of the queso anejo they'd bought at the farmers' market in Silver. She put out plates and the cast-iron trivet, and he split the omelet between them.

For what seemed the hundredth time, she second-guessed her decision not to move in with him in Tucson. She had her old job waiting for her at Clinica de la Raza; Ofelia said so every time they talked. She could hike in the Catalinas, take outdoor naps with him in January among the palo verdes.

No, she said, almost aloud.

"What's that, babe?"

"Nothing. Just cold." She took a bite of omelet. The chicken was even better than it had been the night before; the redolence of green piñon and scrub oak from the backyard smoker had softened, smoke drifting through the chiles.

"Damn. I do believe this is the best chicken ever."

She looked up at him. He poked desultorily at his breakfast. Was he sulking? She could never quite tell. He was so remote sometimes. As opaque as the turquoise on his wrist, as bottomless as his obsidian eyes.

But a smile began to curl around his lips. and she relaxed a little. "No," he said. "This is the second-best chicken ever. I'll tell you about the best chicken ever."

He took a long pull from his coffee.

"It was back in Gloriosa when I was working for Phelps-Dodge, driving the ore trucks out of the mine. Back before the strike, you know, and before the Peruvians closed us down."

She remembered. A whole town gutted on something as ephemeral as world copper prices. A big strike in a place no one had ever heard of, and the next thing you knew the sheriff was there for back taxes to condemn the house your grandfather had built.

"It was August. It had been raining, and it was tricky getting up that haul road without getting mired. They had trucks and graders all up and down that road dumping gravel, but they couldn't keep up. We were carrying light loads because of the road, but this was in the old LeTourneaus, so "light" just meant fifty tons of ore instead of seventy.

"And I'm coming up the road toward a curve around the pit wall to the left, and thirty yards up I suddenly see this chicken jump from the rocks and run out into the middle of the road.

"And I'm thinking, 'What the hell?' And you know me, I can't even stand to see a butterfly hit the windshield. But if I slowed down on a three percent grade, I'd never get the damn truck started again, and I'd be facing a week's suspension for 'lost productivity,' what with all the shop rules we had back then before the strike.

"So I brace myself, but then I recognize the chicken. It's El Primo. It was my friend Pedro Flores Ortiz's champion fighting cock, and he'd been missing for a week. Pedro had been beside himself the whole time, partly because he had about seven hundred dollars he was going to lose that weekend if El Primo didn't fight, and partly because... well, it's hard sometimes for Anglos to understand this aspect of cockfighting, because it just seems barbaric to you, and I guess it is. But a lot of guys who breed cocks really love their birds, and Pedro was worse than most that way. When they'd lose and he'd have to put them down, he'd be no good for anything for about a week.

"So I cursed and geared down and the truck stalled out about six feet from El Primo, who stood just stock still, staring at the headlights. I put on my gloves and grabbed my jacket to throw over him. I wanted to keep my lacerations to a minimum. I climbed down out of the truck, and started walking toward El Primo, and all of a sudden my radio started squawking like crazy and the rooster was startled. He flew off across the road and into the pit.

"I headed back to see what the commotion was about, and heard control almost screaming at me to stop the truck immediately.

He took another sip of coffee.

"Just around that blind curve a whole section of haul road had given way. If I'd hadn't stopped to try to catch El Primo, there'd have been no way I'd have been able to stop. I'd have gone over, three hundred feet down with fifty tons of copper ore right behind me.

He shivered a bit, and chuckled. "Pedro never found El Primo. I gave him the seven hundred bucks. Now that was the best damn chicken ever."

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 24, 2005 10:35 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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