By Dick Cummins
This is the end of the chapter excerpt from Dick’s unpublished memoir. Read Part 1 here.
I’ll always believe that it was on purpose that my father decided we would have fried chicken for supper that night. My mother seemed anxious forking the sputtering pieces over in the frying pan, going on about her new recipe that had paprika and garlic salt in the egg batter and how this meal was going to be special. I’m pretty sure she knew that trouble lay in the chicken dinner road ahead and that the trouble was going to be me.
When she finally slid my plate onto the table I looked down at a crispy brown drumstick rocking back and forth next to a bed of steaming peas. And because it was about the size of Pretty Girl’s leg, I started to cry.
“We know how you feel Nicky,” my mother said. “People raise chickens and sheep and cows to eat—not as pets. Try to let bygones be bygones and take a bite, Honey—you won’t be sorry.”
“Eat your supper, son,” my father ordered. “Because if you don’t, you won’t get another goddamned thing ’til you do.”
“Please don’t be that way Russell. He’s only four-and-a-half. It’s a sensitive age. Starving the boy won’t accomplish anything.”
“Sensitive,” my father said, swiping his hand in the air as if to swat away such an unmilitary idea. And then, shouting without shouting, he continued. “It’s up to him, Elizabeth. Until he eats that drumstick like every other goddamn kid in the world would be happy to do, he doesn’t eat anything.”
“I’ll starve to death and you’ll be sorry,” I sobbed, arms crossed over my chest in solidarity.
“You get your little butt into bed without supper then,” my father growled, pointing toward my room with one hand and holding the other flat on his chest, as if the pressure would make his angina go away.
That night I couldn’t sleep and several hours later I heard him throwing up in the bathroom. My mother told me later that he’d tried to drink a beer for his heart, like the doctors recommended, but drinking alcohol made him sick. This because when he was a boy, when his father drank he beat him up and knocked his mother around too. That was why, my mother said, he’d promised himself never to strike a child or a woman and that he’d never take a drink of alcohol as long as he lived.
“He’s a good man Honey, just like General Simpson said at the hospital.”
The next day we drove silently into Marysville, me hungry because I turned up my nose at the warmed-over drumstick again, standing—actually sitting—on principle at the breakfast table. After selling most of the fresh fryers at a meat market and truck-stop restaurant, we stopped at the Cook N’ Pot for lunch. They specialized in broasted chicken dinners their sign said, and we sold out the last ten fryers to the owner by just showing him one, legs tied together neatly with string and wrapped in brown paper.
“I’m hungry Daddy,” I said while my father ordered the chicken special.
“That’s nice. You can order the broasted chicken plate if you want. Up to you.”
Soon I was watching him eat, using a soft bun with butter to sop up chicken gravy around the edge of his plate.
“Wouldn’t hurt to try a bite of this breast meat son,” he said, holding out a bite on the end of his fork. “Almost as good as your mom’s pan-fried. Go ahead.”
“You’re mean, Daddy.”
“And you’re obstinate, son. Think I’ll try this pie a la mode. The cherry sounds good.”
“I’m not hungry anymore,” I lied, trying to sneak a pack of individually wrapped soda crackers into my shirt pocket, but my father plucked them out of my hand and tossed them back in the bowl.
“I hate you Daddy!”
“Get in line, son. Doesn’t bother this ole NCO.”
“What’s an NCO?”
“The bastard that’s going to make you find out that hunger’s the best sauce,” my father said, finishing the last bite of pie crust, soggy with melted vanilla ice cream from the bottom of his bowl. “Hunger makes people flexible Nick—a great motivator, helps people to compromise.”
“At your age son, it’s seeing things my way.”
“That’s not fair, Daddy.”
“The world is not a fair place Nick. I’ll have your mom warm up that drumstick for you first thing we get home. A growing boy can’t go hungry forever.”
“Whatever you say Nicky. But I’d sure hate to see your pants start falling off when your belt doesn’t work anymore. Up to you, son. Completely up to you.”
My pants were the last thing I was worried about when a man in the next booth, wearing a green and yellow cap with a tractor on it, lit a cigarette. He exhaled a long plume of smoke that drifted over at us and my father glowered at him for a moment, like he’d just said something insulting, then called for the check.
“The path to hell is paved with bad habits,” he said mysteriously as we walked to the car. I didn’t know what that meant really, but knew it had something to do with smoking because it was what the doctors told him never to do again.
At home, because my father hovered around us so my mother couldn’t sneak me anything to eat, I went out to play along our irrigation ditch. I walked up the bank watching small trout on the pebbled bottom, nosed into the current in the clear water, wriggling just enough so they didn’t drift backwards. I wondered how they slept.
To try and stop thinking about food, I stood on tip toes and looked down into the 55 gallon drum full of soggy, stinking feathers—at the gallows spattered with dried blood and the noose and the bloody shears on the gutting table. Then the smell of singed chicken feathers began making me sick to my stomach.
My father whistled at the back door for supper, a supper I would die before eating, but opening the screen door, I could smell new fried chicken, not the old warmed up stuff. I don’t think I’d ever smelled anything so wonderful. Sitting next to my father at the dinner table, my mother slid a huge new drumstick under my nose, brown and crispy.
“You know, Honey,” she said. “That new drumstick must be ole Zoot Suit’s because he was so big. Wouldn’t that make a difference about all this?”
I poked the big drumstick and watched it rock back and forth as a puddle of saliva made a pond under my tongue. Eat Zoot Suit? I never liked the way he bullied the hens, jumping on their backs and squashing them into the ground while he pecked the back of their heads. And my mother was right—this was going to change everything.
“If you don’t eat it this time son, I will,” my father said, feinting a grab toward my plate.
I snatched up the drumstick, grasping it by the bone end like a pump handle so my father couldn’t take it away. Inches from my face the aroma finally overturned conviction and I tore off a piece of crusty brown skin with my teeth. Then, almost without chewing, I swallowed and in less than a minute I’d devoured the rest, gnawing the bone back and forth like a cob of corn.
“Can I have some more?” I asked my mother, pushing a mound of delicious peas onto my fork with a finger and shoveling them into my mouth.
Soon we were all packed up, a trailer hitched to the back of our four-door ‘46 Ford and we bumped down our dirt drive to make the turn onto Highway 70, heading south for Monterey. Looking over my shoulder at what my mother had started calling “Camp Cranston” the first day we moved in, at where the chicken coop and gallows and oil drum had been before my father hauled them away, I decided not to wave goodbye and just start thinking about what it was going to be like to live next to the ocean.
An hour later, just outside Sacramento, we stopped for gas. My mother had been going on non-stop about finding a little house near a good neighborhood school. And she’d seen pictures of Monterey and wanted us to get a place that had a view of the bay maybe. Not too far from the Army hospital at Fort Ord, though.
It was a one-way conversation as usual and usually my father just smoked, nodding occasionally, saying “uh-huh” now and then. But today, without his smokes, it looked like her one-way chattering was starting to get on his nerves as he pulled in front of the pumps. After the attendant finished filling our tank, my father disappeared into the station and when he came back he had a bag of Bull Durham in one hand and a package of Zig-Zag rolling papers in the other.
“Please don’t Russell,” my mother begged. “You’ve made it this long. Don’t you want to be around for us? The doctors know best—please don’t be so obstinate.”
There was that word again.
Ignoring her and scowling, he pulled a rolling paper out of the packet and shaped it into a little canoe, then shook out a hill of tobacco and with the string tab in his teeth, he pulled the bag closed. Then smoothing out the tobacco with his finger he twisted the ends tight and licking the paper seam back and forth, he poked the perfect cigarette into the corner of his mouth. Opening the glove compartment, he dug out his old Army Zippo, like he’d planned on using it again all along and thumbed the scratch wheel, snapping the loose lid closed with a clack.
Pulling out of the gas station, both hands gripping the wheel like it was trying to get away, he sucked in a long drag and began coughing violently, head down, spears of smoke jetting from his nose, our aging dragon in decline, paving his path to hell.