She lost all respect for him after the incident with the chicken truck, but she’d probably lost most of her respect for him long before that. The thing with the chicken truck was that it confirmed what she already suspected, that he could no longer afford even the pretensions associated with respectability. His wrecked vehicle was there in the front yard for everyone to see, little feathers still stuck to the bent steel and broken glass. Not that they had many neighbors in the first place, and not that anyone out here was overly concerned with property values anyway, but it was the principle of the thing.
The tow truck had dumped the Subaru off in the yard while he was still at the hospital. He could have been killed by the chicken truck, and she was grateful that he wasn’t hurt more than he was. He could have come out of the whole thing with a permanent disability, and nothing would have been more terrible than that. This way she could leave without the guilt.
When he finally did get home, his right arm was in a sling and she was gone. He knew she was gone, probably for good, because she’d taken her pillow and her toothbrush, among other things. She didn’t leave a note. But she’d been more or less telling him for a long time that it would eventually come to this. Frank didn’t want to linger on it much. He couldn’t remember the name of her boss anyway. Bob or Bill, something like that. That was the guy she’d run off with, he figured.
He sat down on the couch, turned the television on, and popped a pain pill. The insurance company wanted to total the Subaru, which sounded like a good idea to him. He’d have to figure out a way to pay for the emergency room visit, but it wasn’t like he had to worry about slow payments making his credit any worse. For now, he had food in the pantry and beer in the fridge, plenty of good pain pills to take and some time off work, part of it paid. He hadn’t had a vacation for years, except for the one time they visited her crazy brother in Indiana .
After a few days, the weather had turned warm and he got the idea that he might go fishing. He’d been out to the garage a few times to tinker with his long dead motorcycle, but there really wasn’t much point to hiding out in the garage anymore. So he brought some of his fishing gear inside and started practicing with a rod and reel in the living room, even though the ceiling was too low. The wrist on his bad arm was still in good condition, and he found he could use it to fling a cast with his ultra-light as long as he didn’t move anything from the elbow up. With his left hand and arm, he could work the reel and manage all of the other tasks required to catch a fish. As long as the sling stayed tight and his damaged shoulder stayed at home, he figured he wouldn’t have much trouble taking a few smallies from the stream.
He had to walk through the neighbors’ wooded backyard to get down to the river. Frank didn’t really know the Lubanskis that well. But Harold Lubanski was retired and he was always out back working on birdhouses. Harold’s wife, Loretta, liked to stay inside and bake things that smelled good.
“Howdy, neighbor,” said Harold. “Looks like you had an accident.”
Frank figured he might as well level with the guy. “Got in a wreck and my wife left me,” he said. “So now I’m going to do a little fishing.”
“I’m sorry to hear about all that,” Harold said.
“Well I’m in better shape than the Subaru,” Frank said, looking back in the general direction of the place where the wagon had been temporarily laid to rest.
“I noticed it in your yard, saw the tow truck drop it off, actually,” Harold said. “I’m just glad to see you made it out alive.”
That’s when Frank decided to tell Harold the whole story about the chicken truck. Harold was so interested that he put his paintbrush down and turned his attention away from the birdhouse he was working on entirely.
That morning, they had been in the middle of a fight about the phone bill when Trudy’s boss at the accounting firm called to tell her not to bother to come in on account of the ice. Frank said it was nothing and that he wished he had a boss who would write the whole morning off on account of a little ice. He worked at the college, where it was his job to sort and deliver the campus mail. The professors would get bent out of shape if they didn’t get their magazine subscriptions and various solicitations on time. Besides, he got paid by the hour.
It was the end of winter and Frank figured what ice there was on the road would melt off quickly. But his was a two-wheel-drive Subaru instead of the fancy kind, and the tires were worn. He’d bought the wagon used a few years ago from a college student who was looking to upgrade. Already late for work, he was trying to maintain enough speed to get up the first big hill on the interstate without going too fast. When he started sliding on some black ice, he figured it was just his luck. He knew not to hit the brakes, but he couldn’t get any traction and he was worried about going off the road and over a steep embankment or
crossing the median and sliding into oncoming traffic. There were two lanes going his way. He slid across the center lane one way, then the other, working the wheel back and forth without predictable results. It was all very slow and uncontrollable. Then he slid sideways, and that’s when he saw the chicken truck. The truck driver couldn’t stop and he was trying to slip the big rig by the Subaru in the right lane.
Frank figured he was a goner.
But after making contact with the chicken truck, the wagon went shooting across the ice like a vehicular hockey puck and then came to rest abruptly in the grassy, frosted median. One whole side of the wagon was crunched and most of the windows were shattered. The driver’s side door worked, but Frank didn’t know that. He dislocated his shoulder badly when he fell out of the window trying to escape like a stock car driver.
The driver of the chicken truck had pulled over on the shoulder of the interstate on the northbound side. “You almost slid right under me,” said the chicken truck driver when Frank finally made it over there to talk to him. The driver was leaning out his window. “I thought you were a goner,” he said.
The heavy truck only had superficial damage, a few scrapes. The chickens were visible through open spaces in the trailer. They were stacked and secured tight in big metal crates. A few of the jailed chickens were making low squawking or screeching noises and some white feathers were still drifting through the air. Mostly, though, it was strangely quiet. Incredibly, one chicken, a ball of white, had somehow managed to escape during the mismatched confrontation between the big truck and the little wagon and that chicken was
moving slowly back down the hill, a surreal and determined refugee. Frank figured it would either get hit by a car or get eaten eventually by something coming out of the woods. He figured the chicken was better off in the long run, no matter which way it turned out.
The chicken truck driver was a black guy. His wife was riding along in the back of the cabin. They told Frank to come on up and they’d give him a ride into town, seeing as how their rig could handle the road conditions. They let him use their cell phone to report the accident and to call a tow truck and call work. He tried to call Trudy, too, but he had to leave a message when she didn’t answer. The truck driver’s wife poured Frank some coffee into a foam cup out of an old thermos, and she said she was just glad that nobody
got hurt. Frank said his shoulder hurt pretty bad but that he knew what she meant.
The truck driver and his wife were heading to St. Louis with the chickens. Apparently all of the big chicken processing plants in the southwest part of the state were taking on as many chickens as the Mexican workers could process and, besides, the people who lived by the processing plants were starting to raise a stink about the constant stench coming out of those places. Now there was a new processing plant in an old warehouse near St. Louis, across the river in Illinois, actually, where there were already lots of interesting
industrial and organic smells and where people were less likely to complain or less likely to have their complaints heard.
“Nobody from my outfit wants the East St. Louis run, so they keep giving it to me,” said the chicken truck driver. “What do you think about that?”
Frank said he didn’t know what to think about it.
They exchanged insurance papers and agreed that the accident was the weather’s fault and that it definitely wasn’t the chicken truck’s fault. Frank thanked them and wished them luck when they dropped him off at the emergency room.
He took extreme care in descending to solid ground. As the truck started to roll away slowly, Frank found himself staring straight into the pink eyes of one of the chickens. It was just one of hundreds, maybe thousands, and that chicken looked mad as hell. “Jesus Christ,” Frank said.
Frank’s neighbor didn’t laugh at any part of the story. When the storyteller got to the part about Trudy running off with what’s his name, the guy actually put a hand on Frank’s good shoulder.
“Do you really think you ought to be fishing?” Harold asked.
“I’ve got it all figured out,” Frank assured him.
He’d tied on a small plastic worm back at the house. That was the hardest part. When he got down to the little river, he flipped a cast into a little hole and immediately caught a little smallmouth. The hook came out easily and he released the fish, and the best part was he didn’t have to use his bad shoulder at all. The water in the stream was cold and it was flowing pretty fast in the shallow riffles, but Frank risked wading a few feet down to the next hole. He caught another smallmouth out of that hole and was feeling pretty good about
things. Let someone else deliver the mail for a while, he said to himself.
But as he tried to move on through another shallow stretch of running water, he slipped on a wet, moss covered rock. Unable to catch himself, he got swept up by the seat of his pants in the current. He lost his rod and the river rocks were punishing his backside, but he didn’t try to fight it. The current quickly dumped him into a pool of water about five feet deep.
He wasn’t about to go back the way he came, so he cut his losses and waded over to the bank and reached for an overhanging tree limb with his left arm. The first limb broke when he tried to use it for leverage. But the second one held and, with much difficulty, he was able to pull himself up.
Dripping and cold, Frank made a new trail through the woods and finally emerged into Harold’s backyard. He must have been a sight. The old man looked up from his birdhouse and didn’t know what to say.
“Caught two,” Frank reported.
Harold didn’t laugh or anything. “Are you okay?” he finally asked.
“I figure I’ll live,” Frank said.
The good thing about the incident in the river was that Frank, though sore all over, didn’t do any additional damage to his shoulder. It was still in place and all. While he was taking a hot bath, he thought he heard the door bell ring. By the time he finally got changed and went to the front door to check, somebody had taken the Subaru away. Apparently the insurance company had towed it away to wherever they kept totaled vehicles. Frank thought it would make a nice addition to their collection.
Standing in his doorway, he looked down and made another discovery – a bag of Loretta Lubanski’s homemade peanut butter cookies and one of Harold Lubanski’s hand-made birdhouses. There was also a little note and it just said, Hang in there, neighbor.
Frank thought he might cry.
Later that afternoon, he called the phone company to make arrangements on his bill. Then he called his brother, who had an old car Frank could borrow for a while. Next, he called his boss and told him that he’d be back to work the following week and that he might be interested in some overtime, assuming that kind of thing was even available. Finally, he thought about trying to call Trudy. He got the phone book out and put it on the kitchen table next to a ceramic bowl with fake fruit in it. He didn’t know if she’d be back to get the
rest of her stuff or if she’d already taken everything she wanted.
He ate a peanut butter cookie and then he got a beer out of the fridge and sat down to think some more. He thought about the caged chicken with the pink eyes, the one that had stared right through him, and then he thought about the chicken that got loose on the highway. He even considered the meaning of birdhouses.
He took a long drink of beer and smiled. Her boss’s name was Bill Cooper. That’s what it was. Not that there was anyone to listen anyway, and it might have been a failure of imagination on his part, but Frank couldn’t think of a bad thing to say about the guy.