Pema, Francis, Ruby and I spilled into the kitchen from the courtyard, appropriately nicknamed the Mud Pit, outside. The heavy odor of hot oil clung to the air, like the slick grit on our boots. I rubbed my hands together, which had turned red when the chill retook the night air. The kids variously tossed jackets and boots onto the floor, while I shouted halfheartedly for order. We had been anticipating this moment for the last hour, as the sun dipped below the horizon and the last light of the day drifted into darkness.
Four of my housemates were in the kitchen, and three different meals were in various stages on the counters and stove. Dana, a slim and demure vegan, had a spray of green and purple vegetables arrayed on the island, and was, as usual, holding court over the Vitamix. Next to her, in the corner, a slow-cooker bubbled, rattling the ill-fitting metal lid in a staccato rhythm befitting our chaotic entrance. The addition of another adult and three little bodies made the room feel crowded, like a goat pen at feeding time.
“Blender!” Dana shouted, loud enough to be heard above the ruckus, her way of indicating an imminent loud noise. Pema and Francis immediately cupped their hands over their ears, looking at each other with the familiar expression of expectancy and the fondness of intimacy. Dana hit the switch, and the room was instantly filled with an electromagnetic grow. Ruby, who had till then remained decidedly casual, suddenly imparted a shrill look to her eyes, and quickly brought her hands to her ears, copying her friends, all three of whom giggled voraciously.
“Pork neck!” Kerim shouted, in answer to an unheard question from Brant, who was collaborating with him over the contents of the crockpot. Kerim’s booming voice, partly the result of his hearing loss, partly the blender, is in fact largely due to his rampant egocentrism. He knows exactly how the words “pork neck” land on a person, whether you’re in the context of the conversation or not. Standing by the sink, a soapy mug in his hands, he smiled revealingly towards Brant, a twinkle in his eye, not unconscious of the rest of us. The gaps in his yellowing teeth were boldly on display, an expression as full of meaning as the words he had just uttered, and his mane of beautiful white hair draped loosely over his shoulder. Half-Cuban, half-Turkish, Kerim was raised in Georgia during the civil rights era, and his is a special sort of ill-fitting grace.
“Alright bro,” said Maurice as he slid gently into my awareness, “I set some pieces over there for you.” In Maurice’s left hand he held a plate of fried chicken and pumpkin-orange sweet potatoes. With a fork in his right hand, he pointed to the wire colander on the counter that was now dripping oil onto the plate below. The largest man in the room, a head above all of us, Maurice has a way of folding into the environment so that he’s almost invisible. But he was the reason we had come in that night. It was my birthday, well almost, and Maurice had promised long ago to make me fried chicken.
Two days before, as I rushed through the kitchen juggling groceries, two kids, and a week’s worth of tasks in my mind, Maurice eyeballed me in the kitchen, calmly swerving his long black limbs into my attention. “Hey, bro,” he said, placing a hand on the refrigerator door. I already knew what he was going to say, but I was at the end of a long day and I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
“Yeah, man,” I said, looking him briefly in the eye as I moved past to the second fridge, where I dropped my groceries. “Pema!” I shouted into the next room, “Can you get your jacket and backpack and bring them to the Buffalo Room!” I was listening, but my whole body expressed impatience with the expertise of thirty-some odd years of practice. I’ve given this performance hundreds of times.
“I went to Cid’s and got some organic chicken,” Maurice went on, knowing that he had at least a tether onto my attention span. He calmly emphasized the word organic, as if revealing the crystals inside a geode. Maurice is a very thoughtful person, but he’s also very frugal, even more than me. As I stashed vegetables and a gallon of milk in the fridge, I thought to myself - dude, that chicken ain’t organic. It may have been bought from the natural grocer, the same one I had just come from, and was probably free range and hormone free, but it wasn’t organic. Not that I really cared, but I was tired and getting picky.
I am well steeped in the lore of organic food, both in the USDA’s legal sense of the word, and the social feelingness of the concept. The chicken, who had probably not been fed with organic grains, and therefore was not certified organic, was nevertheless an expensive treat for Maurice, whose means are spare. Typically, he’d shop at Smith’s, the conventional grocery store, artfully deciding between a small piece of salmon, his favorite, a box of Krusteaz blueberry pancake mix, and a modest can of GMO popcorn. Put succinctly, he was offering the chicken to me with all of his heart. These are the kinds of gifts you cannot refuse.
“I’ll make it tomorrow night, bro. Will you be around?” Maurice asked, his voice still calm and entreating. Tomorrow! My mind cringed, and I could feel the uncomfortable expression blooming across my face. After two busy days of endless kids, I would be dropping Pema off with her mother in the morning, working through the afternoon, and I had planned to have the evening quietly to myself. Quietly. Alone. I had a big party planned for the following week, and I didn’t want to do one more thing. I stopped placing my groceries in the fridge and finally gave Maurice my full attention. “Hey, man,” I said, “I’ll be here tomorrow, but I’ve got to be honest, I don’t even want to talk to someone tomorrow.”
I could feel Maurice wilt, all seventy-eight inches. Two-hundred and six bones. His lips, previously enervated with a patient expression of excitement, slowly relaxed into dull acceptance, like the limp, raw meat he held in his hand. He understood. I looked at him for a second, my tongue pressed against my teeth. We held each other like that for two, maybe three, seconds, my thumbnail rapidly flicking, tap, tap, tap, between the nail of my ring finger and the soft flesh beneath.
“Dad!” Pema shouted from the other room, “I’m thirsty!”
A deep breath exhaled my body, and I softened my gaze. “What about Saturday?” I said, searching his eyes.
Ruby and Francis took chairs at the corner table, kicking the cushions onto the floor, as they always do. “Pema,” I said, picking up Ruby’s pink jacket and rearranging the kids’ boots by the door, “Can you sit in the corner?” She had just begun that reckless body flop, swaying her hips and shoulders precariously as her arms flung limply, an indication that Ruby and Francis had, in her mind, made the best choices and now she was stuck with one of three other chairs, all perfectly suitable, that were, nevertheless, not good options in her mind. “Pema, come on,” I said, pleading, “Can you sit next to Maurice in the corner?”
“Here you go, Princess,” responded Maurice, in the scratchy falsetto tone he reserves for the kids. He is a huge man, and it’s hilarious. He stood up to let Pema by, making a graceful sweep of his arm to indicate her passage. Suddenly, the corner chair seemed perfect, though she added, “We’re bears, not princesses.”
“I’m a princess!” Francis shouted, ogling us with his eyes. He was standing on the chair opposite Pema and, pleased with his exultation, glanced first at Ruby and Pema, then crooned his neck round to me. A princess, to his mind, is a sexless and undifferentiated concept, hardly distinguishable from a bear, or a chicken for that matter. It is a being something, and he was definitely going to be something.
Smiling, I picked up two pieces of fried chicken from the counter, a leg and a thigh - just like I asked for - and took the seat, formerly occupied by Francis, that was now vacant. Francis, who had moved to the next chair over, eyed the chicken greedily and shouted, “I want some fried chicken!” “I want some fried chicken,” Ruby said, as if annoyed. Maurice, who had to that point, assumed it was more or less him and me, was starting to realize that this birthday celebration included three little runts. “Is that sweet potato?” Francis asked Maurice. “It is sweet potato,” Maurice answered, in that same lilting tone, and he stood up to get three small plates. “Why?” asked Francis, suddenly in all seriousness.
I laughed. “Why is it a sweet potato?” I said to myself. What a great question. I knew that he meant something more like “tell me about that,” but my inescapable rootedness in language made me chuckle. Why is it a sweet potato? Lord.
I began to cut my chicken into pieces for the kids, who leaned into my plate and eyed the chicken with increasing impatience. Ruby’s hands kept reaching toward the plate and pulling back. Her body twisted and wiggled in anticipation. I knew she wouldn’t just grab a piece and run away like a hungry dog, but she could only barely hold herself back. Francis leaned so far over my plate that I couldn’t see my hands working. “Francis, for goodness sake, can you move your head a little?” I asked him. But I knew he’d be patient, and I was having a good time.
Pema and I are, obviously, not vegetarians. But we seldom eat meat. I eat it so rarely that I choose to simply eat a piece of chicken, or a burger, at a restaurant here or there, or, more commonly, the hot foods section of the grocery store. The kids know this, and though they love the fatty, salty texture of chicken and beef, they also know not to expect it from me. So this was a big treat on a Saturday otherwise filled with apple slices, muesli, homemade bread and fresh roasted peanut butter.
Maurice had, by now, made a small plate of chicken and sweet potato for Ruby. As I handed a small piece of chicken to Francis, Pema said, “I want some,” whining, as if she was concerned that she would not get a share. “I know, pup,” I answered, “Just give me a second.” Once the kids had a few pieces to satisfy their immediate lust, I held up the leg - not to hot - and took a greedy bite of the skin and flesh. The oily meat oozed between my teeth, and I smiled sideways at Francis, who was still standing in the chair next to me. Not too salty, I thought. Francis, his mouth buried behind the piece of chicken he worked at eagerly, widened his eyes as if to concur. “Mmmm…” he said, still chewing, a sound that wasn’t the letter M at all. It had no lips to it. It was the throaty, vulgar sound of a human in passion.
“I want more. I want more,” Ruby said, recalling the same anxious tempo and intonation of, “I have to pee. I have to pee!”
“I want more too!” Pema pleaded, still working on her first piece, afraid Ruby would gobble it all up - not an unreasonable concern.
“Dude!” I said, boldly looking Maurice straight in the eye, “this is the best fried chicken I have ever had,” drawing out the last few words for emphasis. He smiled, not just with his lips, but the corners of his eyes. “I’m glad you like it, bro,” he answered, giving a subtle nod of his head, a gesture that, I knew, said more than anything else.
“Blender!” Dana shouted. The kids, unwilling to drop their chicken to shield their ears, shrieked gleefully as the motor, connecting instantly to an ancient source of power, whirred mechanically, and the room filled with the sound of death releasing itself into life.