The Big Chicken Dinner

         It was loud; too loud, so Lowe turned the radio off. The thudding bass

and raucous rhymes ceased. There were too many words, too many thoughts not his own. The blare of a broken manifold boomed as he ground his heel into the floorboard, pushing down on the pedal. It reverberated from beneath the body and enveloped the truck, but it was a different kind of loud. The blare was mesmerizing; so loud and consistent that it drowned out thought. For Lowe, it was quiet. Timmy, his partner, huffed in protest, but Lowe paid no attention. He pulled the cap down over his eyes and steadied the wheel as the truck lurched up the hill; the tires tore at the brown rutted trail that ran between the pastures. The sky was blue but with wisps of white; the grass was green but scarred from frost. Across the valley and over the lake, a storm was coming.

         “Hey, yo, I was listening to that,” Timmy spoke.

         “I’m tired of your noise,” Lowe growled. “We’re listening to nothing, now.”

         “Nothing except that busted-ass muffler.”

         “It’s a broken manifold.”

         “You oughta fix that, yo, or the man be giving you a ticket.”

         Lowe stopped the truck at the crest and shut the engine down. The herd was a hundred yards away, off to the left, grazing at the property corner beneath the double oak, right where the old man said they would be. Lowe opened the door and let his leg hang out as a surge of cold wind filled the cab of the truck. Timmy put his feet on the dash; the unworn soles of his white shoes left crisp footprints upon the vinyl. He sipped slowly from a half-empty forty that lay between his legs. When Lowe looked at him, Timmy looked like a baby, like a little white whimpering baby nursing on a big brown bottle. He hated this kid because he was loud and stupid. Television taught him how to walk; music taught him how to talk. His short wide nose supported a pair of thin-frame glasses and his posture produced a slumping slouch. He adjusted his gray headband, pulled up the hood of his black sweatshirt over his slicked-back hair, and complained about the cold to no avail. Lowe didn’t respond. Instead he left the door open and watched the cattle chew their way downhill, noticing the cow the herd had left behind. She lay at the fence line beneath the bare branches of the broken oak. The clouds hung low and moved quickly across the sky, blocking the sun for brief moments of overcast.

         “Yo, it be so cold,” Timmy said, slamming the door. A clump of rusted metal fell from the rocker panel. “Why it got to be so cold?”

         “This is the North Country. Maybe you ought to dress warmer, Timmy.”

         “Yo, my look is off the hook. My style gone wild, child. I keep it clean, yo. Check these trousers: white! Moms be using bleach. These are the colors of the city: black for the asphalt, gray for the concrete, white for my boys on the corner. Ain’t no shame; my name be in the game. Straight outta Bridgeport, fool.”

         “Connecticut?” Lowe scoffed.

         “Bridgeport tougher than Baltimore, yo. You best recognize, son.” he quipped.

         “Well, you ain’t there no more, kid.”

         Lowe woke up this morning with the dread. He always awoke angry, but today the ill-will towards the world was so broad, so vast, that he could hardly focus. He had moved back home to this town in upstate New York, hoping for a fresh start. He thought he could scratch up some money and buy a cheap lot on the water. But now there was no way out. He worked hard when there was work, but winter was coming, the rendering plant was slowing down and the money would begin to get leaner. Lowe hated the job, but it was the only place that didn’t ask a lot of questions and didn’t care or know who he was. Do the work and get paid under the table. He was on time with the rent, even though he knew it was too much for a trailer in the outskirts. He couldn’t afford a place in town. The old duplexes had all been bought out by the rich down-state city folk who flocked north because of the lake and the low property prices. They started snatching up the lots on the water, the abandoned acreage of old farms and anything in town that resembled a bargain. They pulled the trailers off the shoreline, paid the owners in cash and put up big houses with big windows, one right next to the other, only a few feet apart. They bought up the old pastures, knocked down the centuries-old post and beam farmhouses and raised two-story pre-fabricated modular homes. Seeking a bucolic lifestyle, one of pastoral simplicity, they brought with them the civilization of the city. For a place in town, Lowe needed the first and last month’s rent, a security deposit, a list of references and a co-signor. He had none of that. Their idea of money was different than his. Their idea of home was different than his. So he trembled as he tied the laces of his boots; he bit his lip and grabbed the truck keys. He had to go to work.

         “Why are you here?” Lowe asked.

         “What you mean?”

         “You. Why are you here, at this job, today, yesterday and the day before that? Shouldn’t you be at home playing video games?”

         “Fuck you, honky. Don’t judge me. My old man did this when he’s my age, says it taught him the truth of the world: life and death. Now he be running shit. I ain’t gonna be here long, yo. I got shit to do. But I gots to learn the truth, first.”

         Lowe reached beneath the seat for the six-shot forty-five. He didn’t care about carrying the thing; he felt better with it. It was the tool of the trade; having a gun and a truck meant he had a job. It had to be a big gun and a truck he didn’t mind ruining. He knew the trouble that could come if they knew he had the gun. If they wanted him, they knew where to find him. They knew he lived in the trailer park and he worked at the rendering plant. They knew what he was doing, but they didn’t know he was out in fields. He figured they figured he wouldn’t be so stupid. It wasn’t for everybody---going out to the farms. But he wanted to be outside, away from the grinder. It was too loud in there.

         They strode intently across the pasture. In the distance across the valley, they could see that it was snowing. Lowe said nothing while Timmy barked a series of verses to himself. The clouds moved in fast from the southwest and covered up the sun. As they moved closer to edge of the herd, the cows lowed and moved further away. “Yeah, you best be moving, or we be capping all y’all,” Timmy screamed at the herd, waving his bottle in the air. Lowe walked off towards the cow that lay upon her side. She struggled to get up, but her legs didn’t have the strength. A steady stream of mucous ran from her nose as she snorted and grunted against the pain. Lowe produced the cannon from out of his waistline. He cocked the hammer, breathed in and pointed the barrel at the weak point above her eye. He thought of everyone he hated. It always helped. There were so many. He thought about his platoon sergeant and how he hollered when announcing that he was bringing Lowe up on charges after a failed piss test. He thought about the scumbag who talked and ratted him out. He thought about the major in charge of the brig who made sure Lowe shaved everyday even though they both knew that his military career was over. He thought about the adjutant officer who handed him the paperwork for a bad conduct discharge, a BCD. “The big chicken dinner,” laughed the lieutenant. He hated that name. They made it sound like an honor, like a retirement banquet. He had to leave and took the long way home. He hated the New York state trooper who screamed and drew his weapon after Lowe wrecked his car. He didn’t mean to run, but he thought he had a chance against the chase. He hated the car; he hated the loan officer. He hated losing the gun, but it always came back. This time it came back unlicensed, unregistered and with a felony. He hated his parole officer for telling him what to do. He thought he could come home and merge back in, but no one wanted anything to do with him. His parents had been bought out and moved south. He hated the people who moved into his town. He hated their high-priced station-wagons and their luxury sport utilities. They kept enough farms to make it look like it was, but it wasn’t like it was. He hated the townies that stayed and catered to these people. He hated all these people because they made a lot of noise.

         “Pow. Pow. Shoot the cow,” Timmy interrupted. “Do it, Lowe.”

         Lowe exhaled and eased the hammer forward with his thumb. He put the pistol back in his belt and stepped away. Snowflakes began to drift down as the wind picked up. Raising his arms in disbelief, Timmy stepped forward and put his foot on the cow’s neck. He drank the last sip from the forty then smashed the empty bottle on an old stone wall at the base of the oak. The cow snorted and a thick gob of green shot forth onto Timmy’s leg. He jumped back, wiped his leg then spit upon her.

         “Yo, cap that fool,” Timmy hollered. “The bitch just blew sickness all over me!”

         “Let the herd move on,” Lowe yelled. “The snow is coming; they’ll move back to the barn.”

         “I got shit to do, yo. Anyway, you just be making its misery last.”

         “As you do to me,” Lowe whispered to himself. He plucked a milkweed pod from the pasture, ripped it open and felt the softness of the seed casings. He pulled them loose and threw them into the air. They blew away as the wind picked up. They shimmered with the snowflakes that scattered through the sunlight. Lowe thought about whom he hated the most of all: the old man in the desert. He hated it over there because he didn’t want to die there. The idea scared him; lying in the sand, thinking his last thought, getting cold amidst the heat. He didn’t want to die in another man’s arms, or in a flash of commotion, or in a hospital among others like him. Clean air and loneliness: that was the death he desired. Lowe was on his way out after eighteen months. So when the old man stepped into the road as his herd of goats tried to cross, Lowe didn’t stop. Thinking it was a trap, he didn’t slow up; he pressed down on the accelerator of the five ton and the old man fell with a thud. Lowe watched as the rest of the herd ran off.

         “You a chickenshit motherfucker,” Jimmy called out through the wind. “You soft, man; can’t make up your mind to kill a fucking cow. That’s dog food, man. Puppy chow. Mr. Hendershot ain’t going to be happy, knowing he got himself a fucking flower picking faggot to go out and shoot dog food. Shoot the fucking thing. Put it out of its misery.”

         “Hold on.”

         “Motherfucker, give me that gun and I’ll go at it. Be-dap-bap. Pow. Done. Once the old man hears the shot, he be bringing up the pay-loader and we be home. Teach that fucking steer a lesson, getting hurt when I got shit to do.”

         “Hold on. Let the herd move away.”

         “Don’t be talking to me like that. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. You ain’t my old man, you don‘t know where I been. Nobody knows you; you come in and don’t say a word. You can’t even do your job right. Somebody ought to put you out your frigging misery.”

         “You think so? I guess we got something in common. It’s a lot different than shooting a cow, Timmy. A lot different. The cow didn’t do nothing; she don’t deserve it. She kept quiet, got old and lay down. She knows enough to want the peace of dying silent and alone. But mostly with a man, he just keeps running his mouth until someone can’t stand to listen no more. Until the price of silence don’t seem so high and he’s willing to pay it.”

         “What the fuck? You taking me out the game?”

         Lowe removed the revolver from his waistline and turned quickly. Timmy shrieked and turned to run. It was loud, real loud, and then silent for a second before the herd perked up and began to trot off. Timmy lay prostrate on the bristled grass; his head turned to the side in a patch of cold, dying clover. Snowflakes fell upon his face and melted. Lowe walked out into the field and sat down. He was alone. He fired five shots straight up and waited. As the wind died down, the blizzard began. The snow fell soft; the bullets fell hard. It was quiet.

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