"CHICKEN (PART I)" APPEARED YESTERDAY.
IT'S ABOUT WORKING AT A KFC-TYPE RESTAURANT.
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The way the moonlight turns the asphalt silver. This car sits facing the freeway offramp and headlights swell and pass, lighting her face, the acne on her forehead and her high cheekbones. The restaurant is dark in the rearview except for a small glow from what you know is the back office where the night clean-up sits while the oil strainer recycles the contents of the pressure fryers.
Just out of high school, you're thinking I don't know what it means to be married. I don't know what it means to be divorced. She's saying how hard it was to leave. She's saying what it was like when he came back in off one of his five month Marine deployments, or whatever it was he did, and they had parties and she missed work and got fired. He spent the electric bill money on beer and the power was shut off. He held a steak knife to her throat. She left once for half a day and he didn't even notice. And she leans closer and says she never cheated on him, even the times he was gone, a total of ten months in the eighteen they were married.
She knows now that she just wanted to get away from this town. Now she's back.
Her skin is thin on her face. The moonlight makes her skeletal. Words are pouring out of her mouth, eyes, nose. Her whole body is communicating. She moves her hand from the shift knob to your knee. She turns a little in her seat and looks you straight in the face. You've got your back to the passenger door. Your legs are wedged under the dash. You've got nothing to add, but she wants to hear. She pulls words out of you until you tell her you've got a sister who's fifteen and you just graduated from high school and still live with your parents. Your mother tries to enforce a one o'clock curfew. The clock on her dash says one-thirty as you say that and she looks up at you as if you just gave her something. She says quietly it's been so long since she was with someone like you.
You don't ask what that's supposed to mean. You've never heard anything like that before. She wants things you're not aware of yet. She touches your nose with a bony finger. She asks where you want to go.
Shrug. "I don't know. Anywhere."
She turns the ignition and says her apartment then. She lives on Jefferson Street near the school district main office and a senior citizens home. The streets are empty. The doorway next to hers has a green doormat and a pink tricycle propped beside it. Her door has a small country-style sign that says welcome.
"I like having my own place," she says. You can't look at her without seeing the shadow of her husband standing beside her. The Marine. You ask what he was like and she tightens her shoulders a little -- she's unlocking the door, but she turns and says he was as tall as you. He had brown hair. He liked cars.
She says she loved him until he hit her.
It's that statement that hangs with you as she pushes the door open and goes inside. The doorway is dark except for the street lamp until she flicks on a light and the hallway turns yellow. The doorway to the kitchen appears, and the living room with cream-colored carpet and a sliding glass door colored by the dark outside.
She sticks her head out of the kitchen entryway and says Silly -- come in.
Her face looks fuller under the light. The skin on her hands isn't so tight. She hands you a beer from the fridge. You try and twist the cap off until she hands you a bottle opener and you say thanks. She takes a drink from her bottle, watching you. The beer has no flavor but it's cold.
This is her apartment. Standing in her space,
you look at the few pictures on the walls, the towel hanging from the oven's
handle, the dishes in the drying rack. She is five years older than you.
She has photographs held by magnets on her refrigerator. You tilt your
head to study them because you can't think of anything to say. Somehow
you know how lame it would be to talk about work and yet you don't know
what else to say. You've only been there since May. You don't know when
she started. She packs and unpacks the plastic container holding the buffet
condiments: the sliced cucumbers, mushrooms, green peppers and cherry tomatoes
that make up the salad bar. Once she cut herself slicing a cucumber and
you got her a bandage. No one else saw or thought to do it. You don't remember.
maybe it was just the two of you in the kitchen then. She took her finger
out of her mouth and you put on the plastic strip and she said thank you
and how sweet you were. She's an opener and you're almost always night
She points to the faces in the photos. Other girls with her in a bar. A picture of her niece with pudding all over her face. A picture of her mother. She asks if your parents are still married and nods when you say no. Her eyes make you uncomfortable.
She leaves the kitchen and turns on the stereo
low in the living room. She says I'd give you the grand tour but there
isn't much to see. Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom. There's a balcony, but it
just looks over the street. I can afford it. That's what matters. She asks
what you like to do. What your hobbies are. Your mind is blank. Your mind
is caught standing her in her living room looking at the decorative pillows
on her couch. She chose everything in the room. Each piece is her. This
is wholly unlike any other place you've been in by yourself, with a person
who invited you alone. Even the things in your own room were chosen by
your mother -- maybe you rearranged them or changed them somehow, but at
heart non of it's truly yours. And yet all this is hers. Her story is written
in all of it. You find
"You don't have any pictures of your husband."
She's looking through the CD tower near the stereo. She stands holding some CD case you can't see. She presses the eject button and the music stops and she inserts the new disc.
"Not out here," she says. "I'm trying to put that behind me."
She declares that she smells like grease. She can't stand the smell of the grease. You glance down at your white-crusted tennis shoes, your pants flour-whitened. She says she's going to take a shower. She leaves the room and reappears in a bathrobe with her hair down. From the bathroom you hear the sound of squeaking pipes and then water running. The door is open and she calls over the water, You can sit in here if you want.
The beer bottle is warm in your hands, empty. You set it in the kitchen sink and open the refrigerator. She has several boxes of chicken, soda cans, honey and butter packets and some salad dressing. A case of beer. You draw another bottle from the case and search for the bottle opener.
"Are you there?" she calls.
The bathroom is filled with steam. Her shower curtain is blue vinyl. You can smell Ivory soap. The counter is covered by things new to you. Conditioner bottles, lotion, make-up, lipstick, perfume, combs, a mashed tube of toothpaste. Her shampoo smells like peach. The steam carries it. The beer tastes ultra cold in the sauna. The mirror is dusted with steam. Trails of condensation make stripes on the silver.
"I want to ask you something," she says over the water. The sound of the water changes as she moves. You see the top of her head through the rings holding the shower curtain. She stands on her tip-toes and looks at you, the tip of her nose near the curtain rod. The water makes her hair black. The hot water makes her skin look red and healthy. She's talking about making love, what she misses most, sad to say. Her voice goes on.
"Tell me what you like best about it," she says. She's different because any other girl you know would say it with a lilt in her voice. She says it so seriously that you pause. She wants an honest answer and you haven't ever considered the question. You haven't questioned it. Thinking about it in terms of her voice, you don't know what to say.
"I like their skin."
"Women are going to use you," she says -- so quickly it seems she wanted to say that no matter what your answer.
She turns off the water and asks you to hand her a towel.
You ask how old she was when she got married and she answers nineteen. She felt certain then. She thought she knew him and that how she felt would last forever. Everything was an opportunity and not an obstacle. She liked feeling that way.
"Do you want to take a shower?" she says. "Now that I'm clean, you smell horrible."
She waits while you pull off your shirt and pants, and waits until you pull off your socks and underwear too. Her eyes go down your body as you straighten. Her eyes go directly into you.
"You look good," she says, as if you were asking her opinion on some clothes. You feel pale and underdeveloped. The water scalds your chest when it first hits. After the shower you find a pair of shorts and a t-shirt on the counter beside her deodorant and the styling mousse.
You hold them up and smell them. They fit fine.
When she asks if your mom will wonder where you are you say in the morning she will. She's almost always asleep when you get home.
"I doubt she is," she says.
She sits on her bed brushing her hair. Her bedroom is nearly bare but for the bed and a chest of drawers. The closet doors are closed. Her coverlet is green.
You sit down beside her and take the brush. She looks at you and then turns her shoulder so you can draw the brush through the damp length of her hair. She flinches.
"Careful," she says.
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