Bens father had his first stroke while chopping
wood. He said it didnt hurt at all. All he
remembered was raising the axe and having to stop
because he didnt know where he was. The axe
fell from his hands and sunk headfirst into the earth
behind him. Shit, he said, turned around and
recovered the axe. He split several more chunks of
wood before he went inside for breakfast. Once
inside, he took up the comics, read Garfield and
immediately started to cry. Bens mother turned
in alarm from the bacon she prodded with a plastic
fork and asked what was wrong. Bens father
looked up, tears streaming down his face.
Its really funny today.
Ben lived a hundred or so miles south of his parents
in a small city. Right out of college he married,
found work with an advertising firm and dreamed of
the day hed be promoted to company headquarters
in New York. His wife, Clarisse, soon bore him two
daughters and went to part-time at the doctors
office where she worked as a PA. Photos of the house
they bought impressed Bens parents who refused
to visit because of the city traffic. Ben jogged a
mile a day and did push-ups and sit-ups and leg lifts
and jumping jacks when he heard his father had a
stroke. He kept up this regimen for several years
until he went bald and Clarisse got fat from child
rearing and idleness and his daughters started to
call him baldy and stupid. Grasping the green bottled
beer resting between his thighs like some scepter
recovered, he told them hed never have called
their grandfather stupid.
Clarisses mother took ill while she was
pregnant with their second daughter Emily and their
first daughter Marisa was still in diapers. Clarisse
was from a family of means, of social prestige.
Shed been raised by a governess from Germany
who was small yet large-breasted and complained
constantly about Clarisses mother. Clarisse saw
her mother only at meals and had to remain silent as
long as there was food on her plate. She met Ben in
college and dated him as an act of rebellion. He was,
of course, from white-trash rurality with parents who
had never finished high school and made so little
money Ben had to sling hash in the dining hall to pay
for tuition. He was perfect. Ben and people like him
made her mother want to vomit. The fact she married
him, no matter what degree he had nor how highly he
ranked, meant Clarisse had to forego her inheritance
which, being young and idealistic, didnt bother
her in the least. It was because of this that she
changed her major from liberal arts to nursing,
something practical just in case Ben was the loser
her mother insisted he be.
But now, taken ill, her mother wanted to see them.
Yes, even Ben. Clarisse, on the phone with her father
(who she couldnt remember actually ever seeing
until her graduation from high school) trembled,
began to cry. Ben, holding Marisa, sweaty from his
run, put a hand to her swollen belly, asked what was
the matter. Clarisse hung up the phone. That was
Daddy, she said.
What did he say? Ben asked.
Mommys taken ill. She cried harder, leaned her
head against Bens sweaty shoulder. Through sobs
she said; She wants us to come out.
Clarisse lifted her head. Ben wore a mask of disgust.
When do I have time to go to Vermont?
Mommys not doing well, she explained. Marisa
looked on indifferently, tucking her small hand into
We didnt go up north when my father had his
Your father had a stroke and kept on chopping wood.
In his work Ben cultivated a simple, clear style that
made him a favorite of those corporations whose
target demographic was the less than educated, lower
middle class and below. Unlike his cohorts who used
depth psychology and propagandist tactics, Ben stuck
to the tried and true. For example, when it came to a
slogan for Philco Oil company of Mechanicville, NY,
he proposed Let Philco fill your house with warmth.
Needless to say, it was a big hit as well as the
slogan for a local brewery: Saratoga Ale: It just
After such successes Ben found himself out of the
cubicle rat maze and with an office on the fourth
floor. Instead of doing the grunt work of thinking up
slogans and studying demographics, he now coordinated
entire campaigns, approved slogans, read reports on
demographic studies. Now and then hed have an
idea hed share with his team at their weekly
meetings. To his amazement, his slogans were still
good, fresh, snappylike the slogan he thought
up for a labor union seeking help with PR problems,
the nurses union to which his wife belonged:
The CSNA: We work for you. It was brilliant. The
Saratoga Ale campaign had also gone so well they sent
him case after case of green bottled beer and he
never paid for heating oil or propane again.
Ben started by bringing two bottles of Saratoga Ale
to work with him in his briefcase. From the hours of
11:00 to 1:00 he took no calls. Before him he
unfolded the company manual. On page 497 were the
names of those whod made it to the main branch,
the names of those who sat in offices on the 15th
floor of the Pierce Building overlooking the madness
that he imagined was Manhattan. William Carothers,
Ernesto Faulkner, Donald Carson, Barth Hemingway, and
many more, names streaming down 497 and leaking onto
498. He toasted them. Soon, he took to toasting them
individually. This necessitated more than two beers,
but no more than a case. A twelve pack seemed
appropriate. In order to toast two full pages of
names he had to stop taking calls from 11:00 to 3:00
and cancel all meetings.
At home he began a ritual of roasting whole chickens
on his gas grill. By this time, Ben was protuberant
of belly with a red, wide face and his nose had begun
to strawberry. Every Sunday, while Clarisse and the
girls were getting ready for church, Ben was out
heating up the grill and spanking his bald, pink
chicken, dowsing it in his marinade contrived of
Saratoga Ale, oil, eggs, and poultry seasoning. On
their way out the girls glanced at him, shook their
heads, Marisa and Emily in high school by then and
graduated to more sophisticated terms of endearment
than baldy and stupid. Bye shithead, Marisa said.
Later dumbass, called Emily.
While they were at church, Ben spanked his chicken.
He spanked it all over. Beat it with spatulas.
Pummeled it with white knuckled fists. Hissed
obscenities at it. Youre gonna get fucking
tender, he spat. Beating the chicken took a lot out
of him. Once on the grill, Ben kicked back in his
green plastic captains chair and drank an ale.
On the pole of the umbrella which bloomed from the
center of the green patio table hung the wishbone
from the chicken the week before. Once relaxed, Ben
took the wishbone from where it hung and turned it
about before him. Brittle, dry flakes of grizzle fell
from it. Once in a meditation state, Ben formulated
his wishes. Then, as if his were the hands of two
separate people, one pro the other con this wish just
silently pronounced, he spread the legs of this
wishbone apart until it snapped.
Clarisse, attentive to her dreams, reader of dream
interpretation manuals, ponderer of the limitless
within, had a dream that forced her to fundamentally
alter herself. It would be called The Chicken Dream.
She dreamed that, instead of going to church one
Sunday, she stayed home to help Ben with his chicken.
It was a younger Ben whom she attended, the Ben who
wore a goatee, who read poetry, who listened to
Progressive Rock and hated Disco. This Ben spanked
his chicken with Ping-Pong paddles. Chicken roasting,
he lurched toward her and flickered a darting black
tongue like that of a chow chow. Dining room table
set with earthenware plates and saucers, the chicken
lay dressed table center, moist and golden brown. Ben
came forward to carve it, but the moment the point of
his blade came to ripple this chickens taut
skin the chicken jumped up, moved at first like some
drunken puppet, then took up a fork and pitched
toward her. The chicken chased her, waddling like a
decapitated infant, down an avenue lined with bags
full of raked autumn foliage.
This dream meant she could no longer eat meat. She
ignored Psyche Major Marisas Archetypal
interpretation of the dream (she did not want to eat
her children!) and began a new personal regimen. This
regimen included hiring personal trainer Olaf Johnson
who screamed at her the moment they met.
Youre fat and lazy! Screamed Olaf.
This was just the kind of encouragement Clarisse
needed. Not only did she become a vegan, but she ran
a mile every day, enrolled in aerobics classes and
kept a personal journal. By the time Emily graduated
high school, this journal was full of passages about
Bens drinking, his plans at a pig roast and
almost daily chicken roasts. Perhaps Mommy was right
about Ben, Clarisse often thought, running down
Pelter street imagining hordes of headless bald
chickens in chase.
It seemed Clarisses mother would live forever.
Chagrined, Clarisses father moved West.
Clarisse received letters addressed to Ben about the
wonders of the West. Clarisses father noted
flatness and warmth to be the defining
characteristics of the West. Kansas and Oklahoma were
flat and warm. Arizona and New Mexico were not quite
as flat but warmer. The Rocky Mountains were neither
flat nor warm, but he flew over them and found
himself in Californias sunny Sonoma Valley. In
the Sonoma Valley the land was warm but not all that
flat. But he soon found the people in the Sonoma
Valley were flat and warm and offered him their fine
wines at every turn. Being the kind of man unable to
refuse a glass of wine at every turn, Clarisses
father died. In his last letter to Ben,
Clarisses father wrote: Being the kind of man
who cannot resist a glass of wine at every turn, I
fear Ill soon be dead.
Hysterical with grief, Clarisse held aloft the letter
in a trembling hand and remarked upon the apparent
lucidity all men, including the father shed
seen only once in her entire life, achieve just
before death. Both Marisa and Emily called home about
the funeral arrangements and agreed the letter was
certainly creepy. Clarisse wanted to show it to her
mother but feared it might spell her doom as well.
Are you crazy? Tedford the Butler told Clarisse. That
old bitch will live forever.
Ben had wished death to page 497. Daily chicken
roasts that autumn gave him an ample supply of
wishbones to carry him through the winter. As he had
toasted this list, first collectively then
individually, he wished them death in reverse, first
ascribing to each some chronic condition and then,
realizing long, lingering death would do nothing to
help his cause, daily wished for some catastrophe to
befall them collectively. Colon Cancer, AIDS, and Lou
Gehrigs disease were quickly replaced with car
bombings, plane crashes and a terrorist assault upon
the Pierce building, that tall flat structure he
imagined vomiting Armani suits into the bedlam
Manhattan evening . . .
Ben stared across the boardroom table long and flat,
into Brodwins long flat face. Slick of hair,
clean of complexion, goateed, Brodwin moistened his
lips before he spoke. He was young, well studied on
his demographics and gifted at presentations.
Hed joined Bens team a year before, but
this was the first time theyd met. Ben took a
sip of what he said was ginger ale. The account was
for a window manufacturer whod recently
supplied windows for an elementary school.
Unfortunately, these windows didnt lock. During
a history lesson, a child called upon to pull the
blinds for a filmstrip fell thirty feet into a
permanent vegetative condition. Brodwin proposed:
Empire Glass: You can see right through us.
Bens team sighed with excitement, the way they
did in the Saratoga Ale days.
Ben called Brodwin into his office after the meeting.
Leaning back in his chair, Bens view of the
young man was obstructed. Ben poured himself a
Saratoga Ale. Brodwin stood to be able to see Ben.
Could we possibly move this? Brodwin asked.
What? Ben said.
Brodwin heaved on the keg on Bens desk. He
couldnt move it. Thats a keg, Ben said.
Oh, said Brodwin. Its heavy.
Go ahead, pour yourself one.
Thats all right, Brodwin said.
No, really. Ben said, leaning forward then with a
clear plastic cup inscribed upon which was Bens
now classic slogan for Saratoga Ale. Try one.
Ill just stand, Brodwin said. Brodwin stood
leaning an elbow atop the fat silver barrel-bellied
Ben took out the company manual. Have you ever read
pages 497 and 498? Ben thumbed through the pages.
Hmmm? Finally he found these pages and held the book
aloft, extending it toward Brodwin as if he extended
his dog-eared copy of The Word. Brodwin read
the introductory passage and then skimmed the long
list drizzling down 497 and leaking over onto 498. He
imagined a building made of names rising like a
smooth block of text from the schizophreniform
Manhattan sidewalk. He smiled down at Ben, seized the
Clarisses father could not be buried until
Spring thaw. Clarisses mother opted to hold off
services until then. Running down Pelter, her breath
rising vaporous before her and smearing back like
some windblown shawl, Clarisse thought of the body of
her father in cold storage. In her journal she wrote:
Its as if Daddy were in a coma. As if all I
need to do is press my lips to his for him to arise.
No naked chickens could run in this cold, so she
imagined penguins in pursuit waddling like midget
tuxedos animated, turned loose. There are even limits
to my most frightful imaginings, Clarisse reflected.
Such are the constraints of practical reality.
On their four-hour lunch each winter day, Ben and
Brodwin drove out to the Engels farm north of
the city. Theyd selected a pig for their Spring
thaw pig roast and paid this pig, named William
Ernesto Donald Barthes, daily visits. Through manure
reek of milking barn and sneezing through vapors of
hay motes swirling about in the cold, they came to
the pigpen where William lay in frozen filth awaiting
his slops. The pig was a marble of brown, white, and
pink, a continental drift of cartographer shapes.
Farmer Engel let these boys slop the pig, and while Barthes, William buried his snout in the slops, Ben
in green rubber waders climbed into the pen and
flagellated the pigs firm ass and flanks. This
fucking pig would be tender. Brodwin hoisted an ale,
cried a hardy farm boys cry to the effect of yee-haw! Bens eyes glazed over as he hammered
Ernesto Donald Barthes rib cage. When the pig
had had enough both of his slops and of his beating,
he turned and chased a scurrying, bald, red-faced Ben
out of its pen. I cant wait to eat that
sonbitch, Ben said. Brodwin concurred.
In the Spring, in the Suburb of Ballston, a
village-wide yard/garage sale was held, and along the
main streets peddlers of all kinds set up various
tents and booths to display their wares. With her
daughters home for her fathers funeral later
that week, Clarisse and Emily moved among the crowds
swarming Main and First and Galton Drive. Emily was
soon to be married to a young man from Albany with
whom she lived in Syracuse, and was sure, since
theyd had nothing but unprotected sex for three
years now, that she couldnt bear children. Clarisse, whose hand never veered from the pulse of
such things as fertility, assured her she
neednt worry. But, taking a turn onto Landau
and walking the avenue on each side bordered with
table after table of garage sale/ Spring cleaning dreck, Emily became tearful and bent her head to her
mothers shoulder to cry. Clarisse'd had no idea
how upset this idea of infertility had made Emily and
felt Emily's suspicion needed exterior repudiation.
On Galton Ave. in a red tent a Palm Reader had set up
for business, a young, good looking man with a large
head of thinning hair and a neatly trimmed beard. As
they passed a few times, Clarisse still deciding
whether or not she should consult him, he followed
them with deep, piercing gaze and Clarisse felt as
though she were being probed by an X-ray or CAT scan.
He sees right into me, Clarisse thought. Such are the
powers of the great unknown.
Soon, Clarisse talked weeping Emily into consulting
the Palm Reader. For $5 they would receive a full
reading and a consultation. Through him their futures
would become concrete and relatable and hence
malleable. With a word he turns the hard wall of
destiny into silly putty, or Play-Do, or a clay
ashtray not yet fired one might want to transform
into a vase or a cereal bowl, Clarisse thought. Such
is the power of the Clairvoyant within the confines
of our ephemerality.
As he read Emilys palms, Clarisse stood outside
the tent leaning in to hear through the entrance.
Outside a wind picked up and blew the tent flap like
the faint stirrings of the paracletes wings,
moved Clarisse within as if all of nature at that
moment had conformed to her vision of the movement of
spirit within the confines of this physical universe.
Soon, crowds moved in a black and white newsreel
footage of rapidity; a cloud covered the sun; a
unicyclist wheeled by in clown motley conveying to
her a sense of the comic exploding into this world of
darkness and death, breaking the pale of mortality
like so many vessels of clay. Fires burned from BBQ
grills; smoke rose from them like offerings. She
heard the soft voice of the Palm Reader say: Two
girls and a boy, and her heart swelled and she felt a
breeze fill her skirt, a warm breeze that entered her
like a speculum and opened her up. At that moment she
felt the first stirrings of her third child, Rusty.
Ben stalked the dawn-lit rooms of their empty house
wearing his beer hat, smoking a cigar and
incidentally, wondering where Clarisse might have
fallen asleep. From the beer hat, fed by two
overturned silver cans of Saratoga Ale, two clear
plastic hoses like catheters oozed the ale slowly
into Bens reeking mouth. He searched the
girls rooms, then the living room and summarily
the kitchen and the den, stubbing his little toe only
three or four times and finally found the light on in
the half-bathroom off the cellar entrance. From this
golden rectangle of light he soon heard the sound of
Clarisse sobbing. Obviously, she was thinking about
the funeral of her father the next day. Ben stood
framed within that light-traced rectangle; took a
long gurgling draw of ale, then leaned forward and
tapped on the door.
You all right in there?
Her sobbing suddenly ceased; then a loud sound of
snorting as if her only problem were a head cold.
Fine, she said.
You sure? Ben drew gray smoke from his cigar, let it
billow from his mouth. Somewhere he heard a clock tick-tocking, shredding the moment. You OK?
Im all right, she said, still on the toilet
staring down at the plastic stick upon which a plus
sign had just appeared.
All right, he said. He took a step back. The smell of
his cigar reminded him of his mother and father and
of wood burning and of several more or less
inconsequential events from his poor, unhappy,
disadvantaged childhood. Ok, he said.
To Clarisse it seemed as if the door were speaking,
white, tall, angular and blank; the door speaking and
smoking and gurgling down an ale. The door that
hadnt shaved since Friday morning nor washed
nor stopped mumbling wishes or some such to himself
in empty rooms. How do you introduce this door to the
stick in her hand? to the meaning of this plus-sign?
the meaning of this pink intersection?
There was a long silence, both waiting and waiting
for the other to speak, to say something, to explain
this silence away and make it ok, and, finally, as
Ben was about to say something to the effect of
Im going to leave now, go down in the basement,
Gonna roast me a chicken before we go to Vermont,
Clarisse blurted it out: I missed my period.
You still have periods?