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There’s not much logic in any of this, I know. Until someone brings us back home, we don’t know what we’ve done, and then we’re as shocked as anyone.
- Naoki Higashida, ‘The Reason I Jump’
It’s hot as blazes by the grill but the chicken smoke is dense and deep and I stand in it like a Hollywood creation. Charcoal fires wrap a man in something superficially true and noble. The scent- combined with your own baby hippo hunger/ and the fact that you are probably drinking/ or if you’re not drinking, fine/ but you are still probably not at work, because you are at a BBQ, and that means that you’re more than likely in a pretty good mood, all things considered.
So, you place a man/ an average man/ average build/ average looks/ average achievements/ average worthwhile qualities as judged by the naked eye/ a simple man with deep complex emotional undercurrents that batter him up against the docks of decency/ roll him around in the tight backwater lagoons of Hurricane What-the-Fuck/ spread him across the lawns of the post-apocalyptic seashore town courthouse with all it’s once brights whites and lush greens now dripping with ancient dredged-up clam shit and fish shit and seagull shit/ mud glaciers shattering the property value/ but still: there he goes: standing in the oaky, musky, manly chicken smoke and you, in the sweet end, don’t really give a flying rat’s dick about if he is somehow hurting under all that mid-life flabby bullshit because: CHICKEN, BITCHES.
The chicken smoke is angel dust.
And that is all there is to it. Vegans may run and vegetarians may fall in the rolling mist of my tale here, but for the most part, if you are like me or other people who look down onto the chicken grease on their fingers and at a lightly-burnt thigh that once walked the yard in that unhip ultra-hot inhumane yard of slow-rolling Mississippi death/ a chicken standing there packed in between the shoulders of thousands of other chickens/ not a prayer in the world/ fate sealed/ his or her bones to one day rest in my fingers on a Monday evening in late Pennsylvania July/ if you like that or know it or that’s you too, Chickeneater, then I blow my smoke up your nose and I appear out of the wisps of smoke.
And I could have you if I wanted you, such is the pull of this old time country dope I’m peddling.
Daddy-O in the backyard.
Give me your wallet. Sign this right here. Draw it deep up in your face, my friend, my chicken smoke don’t play, you know.
Daddy-O slinging that Old Testament tragedy.
I’m melting into you now. And you’re watching me do it from a vintage metal patio chair. Freshly-painted. Turquoise. HeyYa!
Anyway, that’s me the other night. Emerging slowly out the chicken smoke.
He had a dream/ and boy it was a good one….
If you would have seen me. Drank the scent. Cried fat chicken smoke tears, oh mercy. Oh my stars. You poor son-of-a-bitch.
You never would have had a chance.
I would have taken everything from you.
Don’t be afraid of me and my words, okay? I mean, just between you and me, I’m not playing around here at all. This is all very serious stuff I’m shoveling at you and we both understand that. I know you know. And somehow, you know that I know that you know. And thus this whole shit salad: we keep sharing it. Feasting side-by-side at the same bowl.
You with sideways glances at me/ wondering about trust.
Me/ face buried in the food/ trying to eat your share before you can get to it.
But this is love.
I mean, what the hell else could it possibly be?
This is love.
At long last.
After the BBQ, we let the kids do the piñata that Arle got at Walmart. It’s a flashy pink and blue number with big cones coming out of the center kind of like some cliche starship or something, I guess. I don’t know. Who designs the piñatas for Walmart? How the fuck do I know? The other choice was a turd emoji. It was a tough decision.
“What’s this piñata supposed to be?” asks Charlie, 7, my youngest.
I stare at him a second as I pull my dirty work bandana down over his eyes. It smells sour, gross. Whatever. I don’t care; I kind of like it actually. Lawn mower hogboy sweat/ I push it in his eyeball. Eat my work, son.
It makes me feel big. Accomplished. Like a man for a moment. But in the next moment I understand that these are the little conversations that I have with myself that are just all little lies. And man, do they add up to the sky. A mountain range of incessant silent chatter/ anxiety-lightning blowing up the ridge line silhouette/ magnificent fucking nature!/ look at that!/ look at me/ talking to myself in such electrical form/ shooting goddamn lightning out of of my mouth out into the purple green tornado evening/ and watching it turn on itself/ slam right back into my skull from a thousand miles out in space!
Like a man for a moment. Hogwash. Hogboy chicken smoke.
The question hangs between us as I touch Charlie’s forehead above the black bandana and feel his beating heart through the soft white skin of his brow. Such a beautiful child. Such a wonderful perfect little kid. A poster for summer’s purpose, he is. A billboard for the meaning of life if there ever was one.
I spin him three times as he starts tightening his grip on the beatdown stick in his hand. It’s covered in rainbow crepe paper. From Walmart. The whole thing disintegrates before your very eyes, a little more with each passing kid that squeezes it.
“Covid,” I whisper into his ear as I stop the spin, grip his shoulders and point him slightly towards the old White Pine hemorrhaging more sticky sap than the piñata filled with Smarties and Starbursts and Fruit-by-the-Yard.
The piñata looks kind of like the molecular make-up of Covid.
Somewhere out there in the fading dusk/ a piñata maker is sitting in his humble window/ watching the street below/ aware of something shifting in the atmosphere/ smiling/ giggling/ then cackling to himself like the Joker as a three-legged dog pisses all over itself down by the dumpster outside the taco stand where a ghost made of chicken smoke is holding her arms wide open so as to embrace the entire fucking world.
Charlie’s first swing smashes the piñata, but doesn’t break it. Which is good. Other kids need to have their turns.
All is well over here.
It is my stepdaughter, Milla’s, 10th birthday and that’s why we got the piñata and Arle’s people are here and I smell like Chicken Smoke.
Because I am Chicken Smoke.
The Man. The Myth. The Legend.
I scorch their skin with my conjured flame and they scream silent across the dividing wall. Them over there. Me and us over here. Them where there is no Mississippi anymore. Me and us over here where we still have it. I could drive there later this morning if I wanted to. Take a couple days, but still.
I sit on the porch swing hanging from the frame we have out there on the grass by the church parking lot and I sip a glass of wine. Back and forth I keep dancing with the drinking. My own bag/ my cognitive dissonance. The warmth in my chest feels sublime and sympathetic that first sip. You know what I mean/ I know that you do.
But then it fades gradually. I slip into a different skin. I sniff my shirt for Chicken Smoke as I watch the kids eat the candy that fell out of the shattered and torn cardboard Covid I had hung up there from a pine branch with one of the dog’s leashes/ and I smell it but also other things now too. Different scents. Various whiffs that come and go in the momentary drag.
I smell shame. Despair. Sadness. Lust. Joy. Regret. Hatred. Freshly cut grass. Garlic powder. I smell myself as the alcohol does its thing, freight trains in and out of my heart in tunnels even the smallest woodland gnomes can not navigate/ and I smell that all-to-familiar smell of my own dispossession.
It smells like the banged-up shards of a once freshly toasted hot dog roll. I see it in my head as soon as I taste it balanced there on the rim of my consciousness like some YouTube volcano walker out for big numbers/ big hits/ big views. Laying there on Charlie’s yellow paper plate, the hot dog gone, but the torn-up roll like a blown apart soldier/ laying there on the BBQ chips/ on this crushed smashed late-summer cornfield/ his head torn off/ his one leg over there/ his whole dream of heading back home/ like Inman/ like Cold Mountain/ down dusty country roads between walls of sweet magnolia and Agapanthus/ passing by cascades of Salvia/ dense gatherings of Lavender begging him to simply fall his body into their soft angel arms at the edge of someone else’s property/ but fuck it/ it’s gone now/ his traveling home dreams are nothing but breezeless heat now/ his visions of her standing in the farmhouse window holding a hot strawberry pie in a shaft of late-morning sunshine is flapping over there like a page out of a book next to his scrambled brains.
I smell it all down on my shirt. My beautiful son. My lovely stepdaughter. My wife by my side, relaxed on the outside. Take this moment to breathe, my darling, for all that you have earned and shown me and experienced and sensed in the sour smell of my dried sweaty shirt you see me sniffing, like a kid smelling his own pits.
No shame in my shame.
They call me Chicken Smoke.
What’s your name?
Just like you.
Happy birthday to your daughter.
This looks like a hell of a battle happened over here by the baked beans. Poor kid. Poor soldier.
Anyway. Life goes on.
Do you come here often?
The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which— once, twice, and again—he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.
- Ambrose Bierce, ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’
Somewhere out there in the night, between the waking up and reaching for the phone and touching it to make it come alive and the seeing that it’s 2:22am and the bottomless drop that accompanies that simple sad understanding, a shadow figure roams the land, searching.
In the quiet dark yards of homes gone silent, the figure observes from afar but can see within. Sleeping faces. Dogs in dream. Ghosts hovering between walls, not far from you, from me. The figure watches all of this standing on the dirt. Amidst the potato chip crumbs and candy wrappers of birthday parties just passed, it stands like a headstone staring up at the house. At the home. Like a killer in the night, I guess.
But without malice.
Everybody has a job to do, you know.
And someone… or something… has to stand in our yards under the stars, when nothing seems alive.
Someone has to watch over me while I’m up there trying to figure this all out, even in dreams, even in sleep. I am the world’s greatest lover. The highest jumper. The weaver of tapestries I thought up in my mind, the actor upon the stage saying my lines. I catch fish with unbaited hooks. I touch her long fingers in the heart of the endless night and I am awake while she sleeps and I know I am not alone and I understand that I am timed/ marked/ melting even as I stare at the streetlight beam on the wall like a sign.
The luck of a man, his burning desire to be everything when he is nothing much at all. Where does it end? Or how? And why?
So in love with you, I lay there, sweaty/ gross/ headachy/ sipping warm blackberry seltzer from a can by the bed. In the dark.
We are living in a poem but I need to get it right.
Outside in the yard, I hear the figure whistle once/ so loud and sharp and clear/ I hear it climb up over the AC wall and drop down into my side like a ninja or a murderer.
Dogs begin barking up by the race and my heart is beating so hard.
Is this terror or is this wonder or is this beautiful excitement or is it everything at once?
Oh man. Here I am. Once again. Sitting up in our bed/ your Sleepy Breath swirling up into my Chicken Smoke. The air conditioner truck engine roars. The ghost in the wall behind the bookshelves taps lightly. Five times. One…Two…Three…Four…Five.
You… know… this… is… love. (5 taps)
I feel like someone else is in this house, an intruder and a bandit or a slayer.
I am thrilled beyond recall.
Love is here.
Chicken Smoke gets up in the night to piss/ to face the music/ to walk the battlefield/ to confront the shadows/ to touch the tender foreheads in the silent dark/ to return to the heat of her body in their bed/ to meet her resting fingertips with his wide awake fingertips/ to let the iPhone go dark as the whole thing goes light.
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