American Culture

Summer in the country

by Terry Hargrove

When I was young, summer always began with Memorial Day. Since I have a few moments between filling out applications, I thought I would enlighten the world with this sad but true tale of chickens and summer madness.

When we were kids, my brother and I had to sacrifice one week each summer to visit dad’s folks. That’s what we called them: dad’s folks. We did not look forward to the trip, because things are different out in the country.

In their middle years, dad’s folks were baked by the Great Depression, and they came out of that furnace overcooked, tough and hard. They used an outhouse, a decrepit structure I refused to enter. When people ask me why I’m so anal, I assure them there’s a reason. They drank well water that smelled like sulfur. They didn’t have a television, a car, a book, or anything else that could provide escape.

What they did have was chickens so tame you could carry them around like cats. My favorite was a hen called Old Brownie. She would come running to me in the morning, and I’d carry her around all day long. She would eat corn out of my hand, and nap with me in the afternoons. I loved Old Brownie.

One June day in 1961, I was walking around the back of the house with Old Brownie in my arms, trying to teach her the alphabet song. Dad’s mom came out and looked at all the chickens. They backed away from her hard eyes, and I wanted to join them. I struggled for something to talk about with her.

“What’s that on the roof?” I asked her.

“Acorns,” she replied without looking up.

“But there ain’t any trees around here,” I said. She ignored me. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Thinkin’ ‘bout supper,” she said.

“Well, momma likes to make meatloaf on Mondays,” I said.

“Ain’t got no beef,” said dad’s mom. She reached down and began to pat Old Brownie’s head. “Let me hold that hen for a minute,” she said.

I handed Old Brownie over. Dad’s mom looked at the old hen eye to eye, then spun Old Brownie upside down and carried her inverted form toward the house. Old Brownie began to flap her wings frantically, as if an upside down trip toward the house was a trip to be avoided.

“You’re holding her wrong, dad’s mom,” I protested. “She don’t like that. She don’t…”

Then the horrors began. Dad’s mom swung the bird in a great arc. The hen’s neck hit the edge of the tin roof with a dull wet thud. The head came off cleanly. It rolled a few feet, before it bounced off an acorn. But it wasn’t an acorn. It was a chicken head, mummified on the tin roof by Tennessee heat. The whole roof was covered in tiny, grinning chicken skulls and heads. Old Brownie was looking at me, and seemed to be asking why? Why?

It got worse. Dad’s mom lifted a 40-gallon gray washtub, flipped it over and threw Old Brownie’s headless body under it. The wings were still flapping, the legs pumping. Old Brownie’s extremities were obeying the last order they ever received from a desperate brain, and that message was run away from the upside down house!

“Stand on this tub and come get me when it stops running,” ordered dad’s mom. I did. When dad’s mom disappeared into the house, I began to cry. Old Brownie’s headless body was thumping away at the walls of the tub, and I blubbered above the incarnation of a saying I’d heard a thousand times: running like a chicken with its head cut off. That’s when my brother Glenn came around from the front of the house.

“What’re you doin’?” he asked. I couldn’t answer. “What’s under the tub? Did you catch a rabbit?” I sniffed and wheezed, ran a hand under my dirty nose. Glenn, being the type who desired direct responses, knocked me off the tub, bent down, lifted it and peeked under the edge. The headless, bleeding, body shot out of the opening, ran up the length of Glenn’s frame, hung upon his head for a few seconds like a Visigoth’s feathered helmet, then flapped aimlessly down the road.

Glenn screamed and screamed. That made me feel a little better.

Later, we said our formal good bye to Old Brownie. With gravy.

“I’m glad you boys came this week,” said dad’s mom. “I can’t catch em like I used to. Chicken’s have gotten faster. Or smarter. Terry, I want you to get to be friends with that big black and brown hen. Preacher’s coming over after services so I got Sunday plans for that one,I do.”

Glenn, knowing how fond I was of Old Brownie, made a big deal of how delicious she was, and offered me one end of the wishbone. My wish didn’t come true since I opened my eyes and Glenn was still there, washing down Old Brownie with a few gulps of sulfur water.

Did I eat any chicken that afternoon? Hey, I was out in the country and things are different out in the country. For the rest of the week, as I wandered around the front yard with Calico Cara resting in my arms, I reassured her that maybe the preacher preferred pork. But no matter how we tried, we couldn’t shake the feeling that all the lonely acorns were looking for us through a mirage of summer heat rising from the low tin roof.

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