By Ruben Rodriguez
The chicken bobbed about the small wired enclosure, shooting its twiggy right leg forward before dragging the left back under itself. Arturo’s older brother, Fabian, called this move the chicken’s tard-trot, but Arturo considered the bird a G. The kind Fabian always talked about, the kind that rule the block and keep it real all day. Everything about Barnaby screamed gangster, from the chicken’s lean, to its missing left eye, and the way he stood in the pen’s corner for hours, only showing life when one of the other chickens passed. He’d charge chest first—a flurry of flapping feathers. Arturo knew that being a G was all that anyone could ever want to be.
“Your father wants chicken,” Arturo’s mother said. “We’ll use the scrawny one.” She handed him a freshly sharpened knife.
Arturo took it and moved toward the kitchen door. “The small one,” he mumbled.
“No, Arturo, the scrawny one with the one eye. That janky thing don’t even make no eggs.”
“Maybe it’s cooking up a big one,” Arturo said, his eyes stuck to linoleum.
“I doubt it.”
Arturo released the door handle and turned back into the kitchen. “But, Ma, Barnaby’s mine. We can’t eat him.”
“I told you not to name ‘em, Arturo. I told you they’re food, not pets.”
“But he’s the one that keeps the others in check, Ma. If we kill him, the others will run crazy. We’ll have one of those chicken frenzies in the backyard. The kind the farmer told us about. All blood, clucking, and feathers. Remember?”
“I don’t know about any chicken frenzies, Arturo, but I do know that I’ve told you to do something and you’re not doing it.” She gave a grave smile and tilted her head away from him. “When your dad gets home, he wants chicken. We know how that man is when he’s hungry.”
Arturo’s shoulders drooped before his chin hit his chest. His hand rose to the doorknob.
A stretch of cracked cement ran the short course of the yard from the back step to the garage. Patchy grass grew uncut to the right and the small wire enclosure covered the left. Upon renting the home, the family found the small wired-off section, and the boys questioned what it might be. Fabian suggested it as a room for his younger brother. Arturo could only shake the wobbly fencing and respond by mumbling, “A room for you.”
His father slapped him in the back of the head to stop his fussing and grunted, “It’s for chickens,” then walked toward the garage to complain about the clutter left there.
The enclosure stood empty through the school year. During that time, all Arturo thought of was chickens. He’d bombard Fabian with schemes to get a chicken, abductions and traps, things of that sort.
Fabian stared into the mirror, running his fingers through his thick hair. “Chicken-boy. Chicken-boy. People are starting to talk, little bro.”
Arturo watched his brother from their bed, his mouth open.
Fabian turned to him. “Once you lose your rep, Chicken-boy…” He sliced two fingers across his throat and turned to leave.
“Where you going?”
Fabian hopped around and crouched with his fists up near his chin. He shuffled his feet forward to come face to face with his brother. “I’m going to crack skulls and tap ass.” He slapped Arturo’s cheek and spun away.
“What’s that mean?”
Fabian clicked his tongue and moved out of the room toward the front door.
At Laundryland, while waiting with his mother for their loads to finish drying, Arturo found a flyer stapled to the corkboard by the door. It read, Free Chickens, and showed an outline of a chicken, and had precut tabs with a phone number for people to take. Arturo tore off a tab and took it to his mother. She sat in a row of women on a yellow plastic bench, their backs to a giant window, hypnotized by the rotation of jeans and towels and underwear.
“They got free chickens!” he said, shoving the tab in his mother’s face.
She pushed his hand away. “Not now.”
“Look, the sign.” Arturo pointed to the corkboard. “Free Chickens! Free Chickens! Free Chickens!”
The line of women snapped from their trance to look at the chicken-boy, then to his mother. She stood and took her son by the neck, guiding him to the corkboard with her hand.
“It’s a con,” she said.
With scrunched eyebrows, Arturo looked up at her.
“No one gives nothing away for free,” she answered.
While eating dinner, Arturo told his father about the sign, the chickens, and the tabs. When his father didn't shut him up or turn away, he showed him the tab he’d pulled. His father studied it as if phone numbers could be stared down. Without a word, Arturo’s father stood and picked up the phone. He dialed. The family waited.
“How much for the chicken?”
Arturo sat up and leaned in at his father’s words.
“But what do they cost?”
Arturo’s face sunk at the idea of his father buying a chicken. Cost meant money, which meant no chicken. He looked to his mother who nodded her head and mouthed A con.
“You give ‘em to anyone?”
Arturo’s eyes darted back to his father.
Arturo looked to his brother to share the excitement. Fabian sat plopping beans onto a tortilla. No one had said anything about his freshly shaved head. The prospect of a chicken outweighed the giant egg in their midst.
“Yeah, okay. Seven-one-seven-one Cooper.” And Arturo’s father hung up.
Arturo bounced in his seat anticipating the news.
“Stop it!” His father barked.
That Saturday, a young man in cargo shorts and a ponytail showed up at the front door with a huge metal cage and box of feed. In the back yard, he went over the basics of keeping chickens. Arturo listened intently. Fabian not at all. The man kept looking up at Arturo’s mother in the kitchen doorway, but her crossed arms and scowl pushed his attention back to the boys. Twice Arturo took his eyes off the farmer to check out the giant cage crammed with chickens. A chicken with its head pressed against the wire stared at him with one eye.
When the man left, Fabian went to hang out with his friends and Arturo’s mother went inside, leaving him to tend the chickens. The man had made it clear that the chickens would need a coop, and Arturo planned on building it himself. With his bundle of chickens corralled, he dug through the garage where he found three wooden boxes filled with records his father had flipped through on the day they moved in. Bunch of crap, he had said.
Arturo took the records out of the boxes and stacked them neatly in the corner. On their sides, the boxes looked like cubbies. He needed nesting material. The man had said straw was preferred, but that shredded newspaper worked. There was no newspaper, but Arturo found a box labeled books and tore away the tape to look inside. They were musty and old, a perfect substitute.
Outside, Arturo wiped the boxes clean with his hands. He tossed two books into each box and carried the loads individually to the pen. Arturo sat on one of the boxes and watched the chickens. They clucked and wondered, all but one, a skinny mangy thing. When it turned around, Arturo saw a hole where a second eye should have been. He sat back and nearly fell off the box. The other chickens kept their distance, too, scattering to one end of the enclosure, leaving nearly half the space to the skinniest chicken that didn't move.
The coop was to be built facing the house. Arturo grabbed a box and shimmied into the pen. He worried the skinny chicken might make a run for it, but it stayed put, watching with its one eye as Arturo latched the gate. He took a deep breath, knowing that he had nothing to fear though he wasn’t exactly sure how many chickens it took to take a boy down and pluck out his eyes. He walked amongst the chickens, expecting them to rush to the other side, but they didn’t. They hopped to dodge his feet, but stayed with him on their side of the pen. He tucked the box into the far corner and began building a nest. Page by page, he went about his work, first tearing the pages from the book then tearing the sheets into strands. He piled the scraps on the floor of the overturned box. The strands of paper came out uneven and curly. He kept at it, crouched beside the box, occasionally looking over his shoulder as the chickens inched closer.
With one book down and another to go, the chickens became aggressive. They hopped and clucked around his ankles. The confusion stopped Arturo’s hands and he dropped to his butt in the frantic uprising. He felt something peck at his ankle and the boy squealed. His hands flailed around his feet, but the chickens were not frightened. They snapped at his fingers, drawing a speck of blood on his pinky. Just when Arturo was sure a blood-frenzy would begin, the one-eyed-wonder arrived. The others had lost track of him. He slid in amongst them, flapping his wings, knocking other chickens with his body and head. He barreled his way to Arturo, sending the attackers to the opposite side of the cage. Gathering himself in front of Arturo, he guarded the perimeter.
“Wow,” Arturo said. “You are a G. I’m gonna call you Barnaby G.”
The bird stood silent.
“Fabian’ll be jealous that I know a real gangster.” Arturo stood and finished tearing up the book.
The chicken coop was complete. The torn shreds of text looked like a puzzle. Arturo used the colorful book covers to decorate the tops of the nests. Three perfect circles. A beautiful place, Arturo thought, for a chicken to poop an egg.
When Arturo’s father returned home, he found Arturo looking in on the birds through the wire.
“How many?” he asked from the doorframe.
“Seven,” Arturo answered.
With that, his father disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a large knife. Arturo backed away from the fence. His father stepped past him and over the wire to stand in the center of the cage. The chickens retreated to the corner nearest the garage. Arturo’s father put the blade in his left hand and hid it behind his back. Methodically, he stepped toward the grouped chickens, his footsteps quiet, his upper body a statue. Barnaby stood equally still, unnoticed behind Arturo's father.
“They’re like women, Arturo. Move slow. Get a few in a corner and pick the one you want.” A hand sprung forward and grabbed a chicken by the head. Arturo’s father turned to him. “You listening?”
Arturo nodded, but could not tear his eyes away from the flailing bird in his father’s grasp. The fuss of feathers was hushed when his father held the bird in front of himself and snapped his wrist like cracking a whip, forcing a pop from the bird’s neck. His father stepped back over the fence and held the bird out to the boy. Arturo stumbled back. His father shook his head.
“Watch, Arturo,” he said, kneeling to the ground. With the bird positioned on the slab of concrete, he sliced through the neck and sawed through the flesh.
Arturo looked on, his stomach queasy with the scene, his eyes obedient and forward.
“Your mother’s got a bucket of hot water. Go get it.”
Arturo stood, unable to look away from the beheaded bird.
“Now,” his father said.
Every morning Arturo’s mother woke near dawn to pluck eggs from the coop. Before work, she made her husband a burrito with eggs, beans, and chile, and for her sons, eggs, ketchup, and a folded tortilla on a plate. They ate chorizo and eggs three nights in a row. The family’s plates filled with rice, beans, and more tortillas.
Arturo didn’t like that he felt sweaty after the meal, and on the third night, he used his fork to create a gap between the chorizo and eggs and the rest of his food. His fork scratched and squeaked until his father pounded his fist onto the table. The clatter stopped Arturo.
“If you’re going to play with your food, I’ll have your mom start serving you dirt.”
Arturo looked to his mother. The bang had surprised her too. She looked at Arturo.
“Just eat your food, babe. It’s expensive and that noise is awful.”
Arturo scooped a forkful of beans and rice, ate it without much chewing, and said, “It’s a good thing that man gave us those chickens.”
The table stopped with his words. Arturo’s father put down his fork and breathed heavy through his nose. Everyone else kept their heads down and stayed perfectly still. When his father began eating again, he did so quickly. Clearing the plate in a couple minutes, he stood to leave the table.
On his way to the backyard his father called, “I want chicken tomorrow. I’m tired of this pig shit chorizo.”
Now, the chicken they would eat would be Barnaby, and the knife had been handed to Arturo. He slumped his way through the back door out to the pen. He went straight for Barnaby, holding the knife behind his back. The chicken stood still and was snatched up. There was no fight. Arturo held the bird out in front of himself. He was afraid at first, but remembered what his brother said: All real G’s die young.
He snapped his wrist like his father, but nothing happened. He tried again with the same result. Barnaby only bent and shuddered. Arturo decided the chicken was too gangster to have his neck snapped. He left the enclosure with the chicken tucked against his body, he knelt on the cement, and placed the bird between his knees. With it secured, Arturo placed the blade to the chicken’s neck. Barnaby turned and looked up with his eye. Arturo began to cut.
Ruben Rodriguez is learning at CSUSB. He is the fiction editor of The Great American Lit Mag. You might find him painting or searching for treasure amongst the racks at local thrift stores. He has stories floating in the Internet through Black Heart Magazine, theNewerYork, and Literary Orphans.