William J. Francis

Tastes Like Chicken

“Where’s Dick?” Cookie asked from his seat at the head of the table.

Mom didn’t answer. I stared down at my plate in the silence, taking inventory.  A heap of mashed potatoes.  Wax beans peppered with marbled ham.  A biscuit as big as a man’s fist.  And that. I shifted my weight from one side to the other. My butt always went numb sitting in the hard straight-backed chairs that crowded my grandparents’ kitchen table.        

“Richard,” said Mom at the exact moment I decided she wasn’t going to answer the question at all, “won’t be joining us.” I looked up as she began sawing through the width of her biscuit with a butter knife.

A thin sheen of perspiration dotted the back of my neck. Summer was off to an early start and my grandparents didn’t believe in air conditioning. Instead they carted a rusty old box fan from room to room, strategically balancing it on the sill of an open window, blowing outward instead of in to “suck the hot air out of the room”. It worked about as well as the x-ray goggles I ordered from the back of a comic book, which is to say not at all.I tugged at the stiff collar of my shirt.

I hated that shirt. I hated all my church clothes, but especially that itchy button up white shirt with its choking collar and puffy pocket. I considered spooning a big dollop of lumpy brown gravy onto the shirt. Maybe then Mom would reconsider the wisdom of forbidding me and my sister to change before lunch.

Cookie furrowed his brow and grunted what sounded like disapproval to me. His broad forehead creased over thick smoky eyebrows; he looked prehistoric. Whether the grunt was meant to dissuade me from my plan to paint my good shirt with gravy or was in response to what Mom had said about Dad not joining us, there was no way of knowing. I played it safe and put down the spoon.

“Cookie, would you like some honey for your biscuit?” Gramma asked.

“I want some honey,” said Maggie. I turned to face my little sister and crossed my eyes until at last I felt a little dizzy. She hated when I did that, and when she didn’t make the slightest protest I wondered if she had even saw me from behind the tangle of blonde curls.

“Why don’t you slice me up one of those sweet onions,” Cookie said. “And if these biscuits are so dry I’ll need honey just bring that loaf of Wonder bread to the table too.”

Gramma stood up from her place opposite Cookie and made for the pantry. The floor creaked as she passed the sink—both times. I heard the clatter of the silverware drawer and then the thwack, thwack, thwack of her good knife on the cutting board.

I watched Cookie shovel mashed potatoes onto his fork. Cookie. I had yet to work up the courage to ask a grown up why everyone called Grandpa, Cookie.

I did once discuss it with my sister. She suggested the nickname was a result of our grandfather’s love of peanut butter cookies. Talking to Maggie about anything usually proved to be a waste of time and this was no exception. She was eight which meant I had known Cookie four years longer than she and I couldn’t recall ever seeing our grandpa eat a peanut butter cookie or any other kind of cookie for that matter.

“You better eat, Allen,” Gramma said to me. She returned to the table with a plastic sack of store bought bread and a saucer piled with thick onion slices. The saucer and its contents made me think of the communion plate at mass earlier that morning.

“Don’t forget the butter,” Cookie said without giving Gramma a chance to sit down.

I inspected my plate. “What kind of meat is this?”

“Tastes like chicken,” Cookie said, not bothering to wait till he finished chewing.

The thing on my plate looked crunchy—fried shiny and brown—and if I didn’t look directly at it, I could pretend it was a piece of chicken. Maybe a thigh and a bit of the drumstick. I picked up the “chicken”, held it under my nose, and took a whiff. It smelled like a fried egg, but then everything that came out of Gramma’s black iron skillet smelled like eggs.

“Everyone, there is something I need to just come out and say.” Mom’s voice sounded wrong. I let the greasy thing that smelled like breakfast and looked a little like chicken fall back to my plate still intact. Everyone stopped eating. Everyone except Cookie. Cookie held a white onion slice in one weathered hand and a tall glass of milk in the other.

He brought the wafer to his mouth and took an enormous bite. I could hear him chew from where I sat. Krump. Krump. Krump. He swallowed the mouthful of onion then knocked back half a glass of milk. For a finale he plunked the glass down on the table, sloshing a little onto his sandpaper knuckles.

“Maybe after dinner, dear,” Gramma suggested. “I’ve made a cherry pie. We don’t want to spoil dessert.”

“Don’t, Mom. This is hard enough.”

I had never heard my mom speak that way to another adult. I recognized it as the tone she used the time I tried to tell her the school was conducting an experiment in progressive education and wouldn’t be sending home report cards any longer. Suddenly I found the starched shirt collar unbearable and I gave it a savage tug.

“Hell, boy, you got bugs?” Cookie’s voice sounded severe but when I looked at the old man he winked at me.

Feeling uneasy, I picked up the piece of chicken and brought it to my mouth. Something bristled against my upper lip. Reflexively, I yanked the thing away from my face and held it out for a closer inspection. A hair! Not a soft blonde hair like my mother’s or even the dignified silver of my grandmother’s. This was a short, brown, coarse hair, and to my horror it had not merely fallen on the thing I held in my hand but rather sprouted from it.

“This chicken has a hair growing out of it!” I exclaimed.

“I said it tastes like chicken,” Cookie answered.

“I’m not eating it.” I dropped it back to my plate. After an instant of hesitation I took the hairy chicken off my plate so it didn’t contaminate anything else and wrapped it in my napkin.

 “Goddamn, Al, it’s just a hair. Some of the best things I ever ate had hair on ’em.”

At Cookie’s declaration, Mom inhaled sharply and fixed Gramma with a glare that made me want to slide under the table and slink out of the room on hands and knees.

“Cookie,” Gramma said. “Don’t use the lord’s name in vain.”

“Christ,” Mom said. “Why does everyone walk on eggshells for that man?”

I flinched. Beside me, Maggie was trying to coax Sparky to the table for a piece of ham she had picked from her beans. The dog, a lazy beagle, had only one rule imposed on him: he was not to be in the kitchen when the family was eating. Truthfully, I didn’t care if Maggie fed the dog or not, but I wanted desperately to derail this thing I felt I had somehow set in motion.

“Maggie’s trying to feed Sparky,” I belted out. The beagle, who had managed to maneuver all but his back right paw over the kitchen threshold, snapped back into the adjacent room like a Slinky.

“Am not!” shouted Maggie. She threw up her chubby hands in a gesture of innocence. The gristly piece of ham she had been proffering the canine made a grand appearance as it sailed from her tiny palm in a wide arc and stuck to the lip of Mom’s glass.

Cookie looked out over his milk, tossed the remains of the onion slice on his plate, and stared at Maggie until she squirmed in her seat. I felt a little bad ratting her out, but after what seemed like forever, Cookie grinned. “When pigs fly,” he said and slapped his knee. I glanced at Mom and then to Gramma. Neither looked amused, but Maggie looked positively smug as she picked up some of the mystery meat from her plate and tore off a stringy strip with teeth that seemed to big for her small mouth.

“Well, I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who appreciates good eatin’,” Cookie said. The old man picked up a piece of the meat from his own plate and took a bite. I had a hard time pretending the thing Cookie held between his fingertips looked anything like chicken—unless there was some exotic breed of chickens that had knobby little knees.

“Knock it off you two.” Mom dabbed at her glass with a napkin. On the wall behind her, a small blue plaque read: c’ m’ wangs? m’ r’ ducks.

“We don’t feed Sparky from the table child because he has a sensitive tummy” Gramma added. “When he eats people food his stomach gets to bothering him and before long that poor hound don’t know if he’s a coming or going.”

“Kids,” Mom tried again. “I need to tell you something about your dad. Well, your dad and me.” She had her elbows up on the table—something Mom never did and in fact, for which she once sent me to my room without letting me finish dinner. A part of me wished she would banish me from the table right then. But she just kept twisting her wedding ring round and round her finger. I held my breath. Whatever she had to say, I didn’t want to hear it.

“Well don’t that beat all,” Cookie said.

All heads turned from Mom to Cookie and I saw the old man holding up something between his thumb and forefinger. The object was dull and looked squashed, like a wad of chewed gum if chewing gum were gray. I tried to think of a flavor of chewing gum that might be gray in color and came up with nothing.

“What is it?” Maggie asked.

“Yeah, what is it?” I chimed in a little sore that my kid sister had beaten me to the question.

“It’s the shot,” Cookie answered. “Its good luck to get the shot.”

“I wish I had got it,” Maggie said.

“Me too,” I added, though actually I was pretty sure that was a lie. Especially after Cookie dropped it onto his saucer and I heard the way it clanked on the ceramic plate.

“Lucky?” Gramma asked. “Do you have any idea what it costs to take one of these kids to the dentist? And Richard has good insurance. I don’t know how people can afford to have kids without insurance these days.”

“Did I ever tell you kids about the time me and Bob Robertson and Jim Jones went up to Canada to goose hunt?” Cookie asked.

“Mom, does he even hear me?”

I waited to see how Gramma would respond to Mom’s question, but it was Cookie who answered.

“I heard you, Grace. I was just tryin’ to tell the kids about goose hunting up on Ontario, but if you got a bee under your skirt then by all means you best get it out.”

“Tell us about the geese,” I pleaded.

Cookie looked from me to Mom and after a few seconds of silence passed between them he continued.

“We had got up at the butt crack of dawn. It was me and Bob Robertson and Jack McCoy. Did I already say that? Anyway, it was the three of us. Well four if you counted Sparky. I always take Sparky when I hunt.”

At the mention of his name, the dog’s ears perked up.

“Sparky was there?” Maggie asked.

“It was a different Sparky,” Gramma said.

“No it wasn’t either,” Cookie said.

“It was, Cookie. It was the last Sparky. The one that died on Allen’s fifth birthday. Remember? The kids all thought the dog was asleep so we left him laying there on the ottoman until everybody was gone.”

Died on Allen’s birthday? I hadn’t realized there had been more than one Sparky. How could Sparky have died and been replaced without me realizing it. This was like something right out of one of my sci-fi comics. And if it could be done with a pet, could the same dirty trick be pulled with a person? I felt light headed.

“Another Sparky?” I asked holding onto the edge of the table.

“Yes, another Sparky,” Mom answered. She blew out a long breath. “Your grandpa has had a beagle named Sparky ever since I was a little girl. Always the same kind of dog, always the same name.”

“It was this Sparky,” Cookie said. “Ain’t that right you old flea bag?” The old man looked back at the dog and the animal’s tail whipped around in a tight circle, picking up speed with each pass until I wondered if the poor mutt might be trying to fly out of this mad house before he met the same fate as his predecessors. “So, as I was a sayin’ it was me and Bob Robertson and Eddie Lee and Sparky and we got up before daylight and loaded up our shot guns and paddled out onto that big lake in a john-boat the size of a shoe box. It was colder than a witch’s tit outside and that good-fer-nuthin dog kept a whining until we finally paddled back and stuck the little shit in the cab of the truck.”

“Language,” Gramma said.

Cookie winked at me for the second time that afternoon then continued. “Fine. No sooner did the three of us get back out on the water when the biggest flock of geese you ever laid eyes on took flight off the bank. It was total chaos. Feathers and flappin’ and honkin’ and us good old boys from Ohio got so excited we all three stood up in the boat at the same time and fired. Kaboom!” Cookie clapped both of his hands together and everyone seated at the table jumped. “Three blasts, all at exactly the same time. It was like a cannon. Enough to blow your eardrums out.” He looked at me. “Do you know what happens when three 12-gauges fire at the same time?”

I had no idea, but it sounded like the sort of thing a boy should know.“What?” I asked.

“Three 12-gauges recoil at the same time and three grown men get their tally-whackers all wet. The whole boat flipped over and our shot guns sank and we had to swim to shore. Believe you me that lake is as icy as your Great Aunt Annabelle’s honey pot and as wide as her backside and the only one of us with brains enough to stay in the truck was Sparky.”

I laughed and Maggie laughed and Gramma laughed and even Mom laughed. But Cookie laughed the hardest of all. He laughed and slapped his knee until his face turned purple and he started to cough so fiercely I thought he might choke. And still he kept laughing until finally he finished off his glass of milk and when that didn’t prove adequate he reached out and took the milk carton from the center of table and drank a big swig right out of the container.

All that laughing made me hungry. I was still grinning when I unwrapped the thing I had rolled up in the napkin and took a small bite on the side opposite the hair. It sort of tasted like chicken.

When Cookie finally got himself under control he turned to Mom. “Now my lovely daughter,” he said. “What was it you wanted to tell us?”

I watched Mom pick up her spotty glass of water and bring it to her thin lips. I watched her neck bob as she swallowed. Once. Twice. She sat the glass down and looked at us. At me. At Maggie. At Cookie. Then she cleared her throat and turned to Gramma and asked: “How about some of that pie now?”

“Whatever you need, Sweetie.” For just an instant, I thought Gramma looked terribly sad. Then she noticed me staring at her and she smiled her warm smile and I realized I must have been mistaken.

William J. Francis began his writing journey at the age of 9 when he wrote and read an outrageous story about being abducted by aliens to his 3rd grade class and was immediately sent to the principal’s office. Since then he has published fiction in several small press magazines and anthologies including Main Street Rag and Black Petals. His non fiction work has been featured in CBS Techrepublic and Forbes. Currently he resides in Parker Texas.