The Chicken Lady
by Jerine P. Watson
Rose Ann was totally unaware she was about to commit a crime. She rocked with a vengeance, chewing the big wad of Juicy Fruit gum in time to the monotonous thump of the chair. Her mother’s old rocker had developed a bumpy list through the years. It could handle slow-rocking without acting up, but heavy-decision rocking made it creep across the room like a crab, sideways, gathering the rug into varicose wrinkles under itself.
Rose Ann never knew she was inching across the rug until she bumped over the heavy braid trim that still held on to the fringe. She eventually had to straighten the rug and put the chair back in the middle. Frowning, because now she could feel the lumps getting bigger, she deliberately shoved at the floor with both feet as hard as she could.
The chair made a crazy backward lunge, almost tripping over on its side. Rose Ann sat very still, holding on to the balding wood arms, her body and the rocker angled on a slant, her feet straight out in front, stiff like wooden boards. She wished she had some new house shoes. Her old blue felt things smelled bad, and she was tired of the Indians printed on the tops. She couldn’t make out the feathers on the Indian’s headdress anymore, and the cat had chewed off most of the pinked-edge trim. Everything else in the room was either orange or yellow. She hated both colors and she hated the chickens that were everywhere.
Rose Ann’s mama had loved chickens. And roosters. Mama Ethel had spent the last twenty years of her life cutting chickens and roosters out of every magazine she could scrounge and had glued them on everything she could reach. They pranced and puckered across the walls, the doors and the tabletops, adhering relentlessly.
Once, after Easter, Mama Ethel had found a prize: a picture of fourteen yellow baby chickens, each stepping out of its cracked shell. Painstakingly, she cut around the tiny three-toed feet and the wispy, yellow down feathers and now the fourteen baby chickens trimmed the only window, seven on each side. Mama Ethel said she liked them better than a curtain, even though most of their toes had curled away.
Dominating one whole wall of the apartment was the biggest “chicken” of them all. A rooster. Mama Ethel had spent months sticking dried beans and corn to an outline she had traced on an old burlap sack. The edges were raveling and, ever since Mama Ethel had died, Rose Ann had pried a little of the rooster off every day, to get even. The only thing Rose Ann liked about the rooster was the color of the green thumbtacks holding him up. Mama Ethel had not been able to find any orange or yellow ones.
Focusing on the vanishing rooster between the faced Indians on her feet, Rose Ann grimaced, deciding the beak would come off next. She was a big woman, paunchy, and bending over to pull the rug taut sometimes made her wheeze. She had learned to pull it slowly in order not to disturb the dust. Having to stay bent over longer made her face flush and sweat but, once she started wheezing, she wheezed all night long.
Placing the chair back in the center of the rug, she wiped her hands off, down the sides of her housedress. They felt gritty. Looking at them through the lower part of Mama Ethel’s bifocals, Rose Ann saw several cat hairs clinging to her palms, and she picked them off carefully, watching them drop and disappear back into the oblivion of the rug.
She missed the cat, sometimes. Even the cat had been orange and yellow, but it died when Mama Ethel died. Thinking about Mama Ethel dying made Rose Ann mad all over again, and she began to work even more fervently on the yellow corn-beak of the rooster. Mama Ethel had told her, over and over, ever since she could remember, she would always be there to take care of her. Mama Ethel had even helped her take a bath when the rusty tub filled up with enough water. Most times, the water pressure was so weak Rose Ann could talk Mama Ethel out of it. The older Mama Ethel got, the fewer baths Rose Ann had to take.
There. The beak was all gone, the corn scattered around the floor with the beans and dust and cat hair. Rose Ann smiled at the snub-nosed rooster and took off Mama Ethel’s eyeglasses. She was beginning to get the headache again. Folding the crooked wire temples together, she put the glasses on the radiator, next to Mama Ethel’s gray wig. She lifted the hairpiece with her forefinger and stood before the bathroom mirror, adjusting the wig over her short, dark hair. She smiled at herself and began to chew her gum rapidly, remembering the big decision she had been working on in the rocking chair. Rose Ann was going to rob a bank.
Mama Ethel and Rose Ann had moved to The Plaza Motel thirty-five years earlier, when Rose Ann was twenty-eight. The Plaza was no longer a motel and hadn’t been for as long as Rose Ann could remember. Some of the old-timers used to talk of better days, when the Plaza was a nice place to stay, close to the water as it was. There had been a long pier way back then that had blown away in a hurricane, long before Ethel and Rose Ann had moved there.
Now there weren’t any old-timers left, not that Rose Ann knew about. The owner of the place never came around. He sent Mr. Garcìa, another one of the tenants, to pick up the rents. For a while, during those early years, Mama Ethel would clean for the other people, taking Rose Ann with her as she worked. Then her rheumatism got so bad she dropped things and eventually none of the tenants could afford to pay anything to a cleaning woman anyway.
Mama Ethel tried other places nearby, but it soon became easier to do with less and wait for the Social Security check. When Mr. Garcìa told them the rent was going up, Mama Ethel got very frightened and that was one of the few times in Rose Ann’s life she had been left alone. Mama Ethel had rushed out to talk to some of the other tenants about the rent. Pearl, two doors down, was a strong-minded woman and wasn’t afraid to speak up, which she did, in a loud voice.
When Mama Ethel got back, she was smiling and she and Rose Ann could hear Pearl yelling at Mr. Garcìa about the rats and the backed-up, corroded plumbing and the radiators that didn’t work anymore. When Pearl got to the part about the City Health Inspector, Mr. Garcìa shut up. He never mentioned raising the rents again. Mama Ethel wondered later if he had planned on keeping the difference all along. She told Rose Ann he had bribed someone at the “city inspection place,” wherever that was.
Mama Ethel would never tell Rose Ann what Pearl and her ‘visitors’ were doing, but Rose Ann knew it had something to do with The Ugly Thing. When Rose Ann was four, Mama Ethel had caught her perched on the edge of the bathtub with her white broadcloth panties swinging from her ankles, rocking back and forth, faster and faster, until the good feeling got there. Mama Ethel doubled up an old belt and beat Rose Ann mercilessly, insanely, stopping finally when Rose Ann defecated all over the bathroom floor.
Later, when Mama Ethel could breathe better, she straightened her glasses and told Rose Ann that The Ugly Thing was never to happen again. She tried not to leave Rose Ann alone after that, even shoving a heavy bookcase against the bathroom door to keep it open all the time.
Rose Ann vaguely remembered a nice-smelling lady talking to Mama Ethel about a place called ‘school’. It sounded like a place Rose Ann would like, but Mama Ethel shook her head and said words like ‘fits’ and ‘craziness’ and ‘retarded’, lowering her voice to a whisper so Rose Ann couldn’t hear. But Rose Ann heard.
As Rose Ann grew older and began to mature, the Ugly Thing became stronger and harder to hide. Sharing the same bed with her mother, Rose Ann learned when very young to pretend she herself was sleeping, breathing evenly and regularly, until Mama Ethel began her muffled snoring. Only then could Rose Ann do The Ugly Thing before she actually went to sleep. Mama Ethel had told her it was the Devil’s work, and Rose Ann knew the Devil was the biggest Evil around. She had wondered if the Devil ha also made her mama’s hair fall out.
Mama Ethel had found the gray wig in a garbage can, during one of their daily excursions. She brushed and combed and pinned it up and back, and wore it every day, all the time, even sleeping in it. When she wouldn’t wake up that morning, Rose Ann poked at her wig a few times. That usually made her get up in a hurry. She didn’t like even Rose Ann seeing that she was completely bald now.
Mama Ethel wouldn’t wake up. She slept through that whole day, and Rose Ann had done The Ugly Thing three times, rocking in the rocking chair, and Mama Ethel hadn’t even noticed. Rose Ann fed the mewling cat one of the rotting chicken necks they had found along the edge of the marshy bay, but there were only three left and she hated to go get chicken necks. The kids from all around called Mama Ethel “The Chicken Lady” because of the old bony pieces of chicken she brought home in her sack. Sometimes the butcher would save them some fresh backs and necks and they’d have chicken soup. Rose Ann loved to suck that white tube out of a nice, fat chicken neck.
The neighborhood hoodlums called her mother ‘The Chicken Lady’ for another reason, too. Somebody, maybe Pearl or Mr. Garcìa, had seen the inside of their room with all those chickens on everything. Mama Ethel had even embroidered chickens on their pillows, right on the soured ticking. Rose Ann hated them almost as much as she hated the rooster, because they scratched her face.
On the second day Mama Ethel wouldn’t wake up, Rose Ann started to get mad. The orange and yellow cat ate two of the orange and yellow chicken necks and threw up all over the floor, crying louder and louder. Mama Ethel had made a pot of soup two days earlier, but Rose Ann wasn’t about to give any of that to the cat.
She kept pushing at Mama Ethel’s wig, finally shoving it off the bald head, laughing at how funny Mama Ethel looked without it. Her old face was ashen and she’d begun to swell. That was the first time Rose Ann put the wig on her own head. She liked the way she looked suddenly old, in the mirror.
The cat kept yowling, weaving in and out against Rose Ann’s ankles, demanding, pressing, and she kicked the cat in a sudden fit of temper. The furry body bounced against the side of the bathroom wall, but even that didn’t stop the determination of hunger. Back it came, louder than before, teeth glinting, eyes slit-closed, aggravating, insistent. Rose Ann had put up with that noise as long as she could stand it. She grabbed the cat by its scrawny back and, holding the squirming body firm against its protesting mid-air crawling, she slammed the toilet lid on its neck, with its body dangling on the outside.
The yowls were even louder coming from inside the toilet bowl. Rose Ann swung herself over the lid and sat down as hard as she could, watching the wiggling thing between her legs scratch its claws against the porcelain sides. The cat finally hung limp and quiet. Rose Ann was relieved the noise had stopped. She raised herself and then the lid, tossing the cat over near the bookcase, where it lay obediently still with a broken neck.
Copyright © 2019 by Jerine P. Watson