Book Excerpt – Chicken on a Leash: Lessons in Strength of Mind
Chicken on a Leash: Lessons in Strength of Mind
by Dorothea Grimes-Frederick
Publication Date: Mar 17, 2003
List Price: $25.95
Format: Paperback, 608 pages
Publisher: Author Solutions
Parent Company: Najafi Companies
Copyright © 2003 Author Solutions/Dorothea Grimes-Frederick No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.
Even Dogs Cry
August 25, 196
The only thing bad about living next door to a rent-subsidized house is the constant shuffling of people in and out. By the time we warm up to the newcomers, they are ready to move someplace else. Never fails. In for a few weeks and then out, without so much as a clue before the house is suddenly dark again.
The latest residents of the small but tidy house include five children whose ages range from eighteen months to eight-years-old. We secretly envy the new kids because they get to stay outdoors well into the night.
These newcomers are from deep down in the country. Jason is the oldest; he and I go the same elementary school. Jason’s parents are hardly ever home. The principal introduced Jason around school his first day. Jason is cute. Sometimes it is tough to see his cute face through all the crud from his nose. Jason has never had a clean nose. Come to think about it, Jason and clean are strangers. Neither are any of his siblings much cleaner. Nonetheless, they seem happy and free.
Jason and his siblings frequently stray miles away from home unsupervised. My two older sisters use Jason as an example of why our mom should loosen the strings on them. A very long exaggerated pause covers Mother’s face whenever they bring it up. There is something more about Jason than adults say in our presence.
After stringing together bits of stolen conversation between my parents, and through tidbits of teachers’ gossip, it is obvious that something major is up with Jason.
What’s soon to be up in Jason’s unsuspecting life is the school principal, Mrs. O’Jack. Her complexion is a funny green hue covered in complex patterns of spider veins. Her hair is carrot orange and long. O’Jack sprouts hair from the back of her neck right down to her hairy unshaven legs.
Behind O’Jack’s back we call her ’Caballo,’ which is Spanish for horse. Her teeth protrude out of her head at a ninety-degree angle, and the huge gap between her two front teeth makes room for when she spits fire. O’Jack’s green complexion has also earned her the name ’The Green Demon Lady.’
Mrs. O’Jack is dangerous. Once she made us stand out in the one-hundred-degree Louisiana sun at high noon for ten minutes as punishment for fooling around in the lunch line. She would have lined us up in front of a firing squad had she been able to get away with it.
Every child fears the Green Demon Lady. She even claims to be able to see through walls, which makes a trip to the bathroom a frightening journey. Nobody wants a Green Demon Lady watching you pee. Many a day it is better to risk wetting my pants rather than visit the girl’s room.
O’Jack is the scariest bitch you dare to cross with or without her big friend, the two-by-four. For the unfortunate kids whose parents believe in whippings, the school gets paddling rights as well. And it makes the Caballo’s day.
Mrs. O’Jack is especially hard on the boys. Leans them over the radiator and beats them until their screams give out. The sounds of the big stick being put to use reverberates all through the school’s heating system. Besides the indignity, the worst of it is being beaten senseless by a strange woman who you have absolutely no connection to besides the school.
Mrs. O’Jack is anything but a woman. She is a radiator jockey with a particular dislike for Jason. Each day that the Lord sends, we have to endure the screams of Jason in the clutches of Mrs. O’Jack. The vicious beatings in the name of constructive punishment are relentless. Still, where is the angry visit to the school by Jason’s parents? Even if Jason keeps it a secret from them, they must see the bruises on his behind when he bathes.
Everyday, I hold my ears and fight back my own tears and pray for him. Finally, our teacher, Mrs. Hardy, attempts to explain why the Green Demon Lady lashes out at Jason so harshly. ’Mrs. O’Jack has a clean policy. Every child is expected to brush teeth, bathe, and wear clean clothes every day.’ Then Mrs. Hardy glances around to see if we all pass the visual spot test. ’Well,’ she continues, ’Jason is missing the message. He comes to school untidy everyday. While we don’t expect you children to wear the best clothes if you can’t afford them, cleanliness is next to Godliness.’
The O’Jack rule of cleanliness is standard fare for most of our households. Who knows why Jason is different. Later one night after O’Jack had given Jason a beating, having counted endless sheep, my eyes finally shut’although my soul was admittedly still concerned about Jason.
The clock read one a.m. when the sirens got closer. Noises in the background grew frighteningly closer, too. Our father rushed out of bed and headed outside. Soon afterward, the voices of the neighborhood men were all gathered together outdoors. A split second later the sounds of yells, cursing, fussing, and crying forced their way through my bedroom window. It is the sound of grownups fighting. ’Don’t hit me no more. You can’t beat on me. Don’t keep hitting me.’
It was Jason’s mother. Jason’s parents are a peculiar couple. He stands six feet tall and is all skin and bones. She is at least six feet tall, two hundred fifty pounds, a huge butt, and even bigger breasts.
After the air got still, a neighbor joked about how the bony man could handle this big lady. Though the grownups disapproved of what was going on, the men all seemed to side with Jason’s dad, at least in theory.
People whispered about Jason’s mother. They said she entertained young men when Jason’s father was at work. Some say another man fathered Jason’s sister and, ’Another man has an arm or a leg of Jason,’ one of the men said snidely. They all said Jason’s mother put one over on the father.
Soon, all the screaming was muffled by the anxious sounds of the crickets and cicada awakened by the disturbance. But the sounds still traveled to my room. The steamy temperature was a good excuse to ever so gently open my window to improve the airflow and, of course, the sound quality. But that was barely good enough; a close-up of the goings on was in order. I tiptoed to the back patio where several of the neighbors gathered with my parents to gossip.
My eyes were deceiving me. It was a sight unfit for a young formative mind. Jason’s mother had climbed up into a huge pecan tree to get away from Jason’s angry father who was swinging a baseball bat. The majestic old tree had seen a lot in its one hundred years but probably never anything this weird. Jason’s mother was perched about six feet above the ground on a flimsy branch. Her gargantuan naked butt hovered on the edge. Floppy breasts rested on a cluster of leaves. Size ten bare feet clung to a branch. She was clutching on to the big tree with a bear hug.
She yelled down to Jason’s father, ’You son of a bitch you. Just wait ’til um down from here. I’m goin’ta knock you out, fool. Just you wait ’til the po-lice get here. You’ll see… .’
Poor Mrs. Jason. Why hadn’t anyone told her that the police are slow to come to this neighborhood? She was up there reading Mr. Jason his rights from on high, making idle threats you might say.
For his part, Mr. Jason stood quietly at the bottom of the tree waiting for his wife’s descent like a bear waiting for a frightened hiker to tire and fall into his path. Sweat poured from Mr. Jason’s forehead. My parents and the others said he really put a beating of a lifetime on Mrs. Jason. The anger on Mr. Jason’s face was unmistakable. If she came down, he was going to finish her off. Judging by how she was hanging on to the tree, Mrs. Jason knew it as well.
By then, there were ten or so partially-dressed adults mingling around in the middle of the dimly lit street. Cigarettes started to light up and the smoke wove a pattern into the night sky. With nothing to do but wait for things to calm down, the adults started to weigh in with their own stories.
The women in the crowd were especially vocal. ’Honey, that lady better learn to stop climbing trees and lead with her right. Right between his eyes.’ Followed by an affirming, ’Oh honey, what you talking ’bout? She needs to stump his lanky-ass down,’ from another woman in the crowd.
Then the real storytelling began. ’Oh let me tell you,’ the tall neighbor with the red hair started. ’I stopped Frank dead in his tracks the day he fooled around and hit me. I grabbed his Wiener schnitzel and took him on a whirlwind trip around the entire back yard. When I was done with him, he knew the score. And you better believe, the Lord cured him of whatever sent his fool-ass into war with me.’
Loud laughter broke out the way it sometimes does’even in times of tragedy. Next to speak up was a pretty lady in a pair of red short shorts. God only knows why she was wearing sexy clothes that time of night but at least she had the legs for it. Her name was Chloe. We kids called her ’Madame Chloe’ because she was Creole and speaks French. Madame Chloe chimed in about the time she gave her husband Ed, the pot.
According to her, Ed started up cussing and fussing after a night of drinking with his bar buddies. ’I don’t care if he was drunk,’ Madame Chloe explained. ’All the more reason to knock him senseless. Grabbed on to the biggest pot in my kitchen and bam. Right up side his big head. My girls came running into the kitchen talking about, ’Mummy, please don’t kill Daddy.’ Y’all know what? I told them to shut up; this is between your father and me. Let me tell you, when the pot swinging was over, the man’s ears were ringing so bad he had to take time off from work. But I tell you one thing, do you think he comes in my house disrespecting me anymore? What do you think?’
The grand finale of all the wives’ tales came from the least expected in the crowd. Mrs. Jack is the elder stateswoman on the block. She is every child’s ideal granny; dyes her hair silver blue to match her crisp ruffled apron with embroidered butterfly designs and lace. Mr. Jack is without doubt the most important person in the entire community because he drives the ice cream truck in the summer.
According to Mrs. Jack, ’It was the first day of spring but unusually cold. Jackie came home ranting and raving about hating to work for the white man. Next thing you know, he done worked himself up into a rage and starts to draw the window shades closed.’ There was an edgy look on the wives’ faces because they knew where Mrs. Jack was heading with this story.
’When we were first married and both very young, whenever things went bad for Jackie he would take it out on me. Whenever he had a bad day at work, things ended with me beat to my knees. The ritual of the beatings start with Jackie carefully drawing the shades closed to prevent the neighbors from seeing inside. No amount of pleading on my part could calm Jackie or prevent what came next.’
By now Mrs. Jack was beginning to frighten me as her voice changed from that of a nice old lady to a trembling child. Her story kept going. ’The louder the screams, the harsher his response. I begged Jackie on my hands and knees to stop hitting. ’Jackie,’ I said, ’Don’t do this to your wife. Why do you do me this way?’ ’Awe shut up foolish woman,’ Jackie would say. ’You brought this on yourself.’ Jackie didn’t take on any alcohol either. Nary a drink. Had to be the Devil pure and simple.’
Impatient for the final climax, my mother hurried Mrs. Jack along. ’What did you do next, Hendretta?’
’Oh, honey child, Lord Jesus,’ she began. ’By the next day after Jackie would sleep off the rage, he always promised me, ’never again.’ But they were idle promises. He broke my nose twice, fractured my arm, and to this day I don’t see right out my eye ’cause of Jackie. Yet, time after time he promised no more whippings.’
Somehow Mrs. Jack survived, with the birth of their four kids and passage of time. ’Jackie just grew out of that terrible phase,’ she recalls. ’At least until another cold spring day when something ignited the monster in Jackie. But what Jackie overlooked was all those years pinching pennies to make ends meet, keeping it a secret from him, all the while chasing bill collectors off, had made me strong. Honey, this old lady was a different woman from the one who had let Jackie treat her like a dog for years.’
Every woman in the crowd was now leaning into a circle around Mrs. Jack. ’The moment Jackie came in and started drawing the shades, I jumped up and started closing them, too. Started closing window shades faster than he could keep up. Then when we had them all just about closed and the entire house buttoned up, I walked over to the closet, opened the door, dug deep into the back, and pulled out my baseball bat. Same bat I borrowed from our son to chase bill collectors.’
The story was getting good and the women closed in even tighter in the circle around Mrs. Jack. She returned their interest by adding more drama to the story. Arms crossed tight across her chest, stance shoulder-wide, chin tilted up in a victory profile, Mrs. Jack got to the climax everyone was waiting for.
’The sight of his old lady swinging a bat nearly scared Jackie’s ass to death. This gray-haired old lady even assumed the battle position still swinging my bat and doing some warm-up stretches. When Jackie seen me ready to do battle, doing deep knee bends and carrying on, the fool headed for the door. He wanted to get some daylight between my bat and his head. Instead of closing window shades, he trying to pull them open.’
The other women were nearly rolling on the ground in laughter but perhaps more as a way to salute Mrs. Jack’s bravery. ’Old Jackie couldn’t get out the door cause he already locked himself shut in with me. He knows an ass whooping is eminent. He starts begging, ’Come on, baby, don’t do me like that.’ ’Awe shut up foolish man,’ I tell him. ’You brought this on yourself.’ No ’mount of begging could erase my broken nose. The battle drums done already sounded the moment Jackie drew them first window shades. So, by the force of the Lord, the bat got to swinging.’
In the words of a very animated Mrs. Jack, ’I swung in as many directions as the good Lord made air. By now, Jackie done made his way out the door. Honey, y’all listen. I jumps out of them shoes and chase after him. Out the door he goes running, panting, and out of breath. Then he just disappeared into the sunset, cause he fully expected me to put a bat up the crack of his black ass. It took me three hours to watch my soaps and calm myself down. Standing up for myself put an end to Jackie’s fighting days.’
The laughter that followed could have summoned the dead. But Mrs. Jack was dead serious. In the middle of the laughter another lady used hand signs to communicate. She, her husband, and their young daughter are profoundly deaf. Everyone in the neighborhood can communicate a little bit with them by signing. Her name is Nana. Nana is as pretty as they come: tall, clear complexion, long brown hair, almond eyes, and a beautiful soft smile.
Her husband has an inherited birth defect that deforms his hands, legs, and arms. The cruel kids call him ’turtle man.’ People say a turtle frightened his mother while she was pregnant with him. Anyway, we don’t really notice his features anymore. Rumor has it a young woman is chasing behind Nana’s husband trying to pull him out of his marriage. We see the other lady in church pretending to put on her pious look. Even so, Nana seems to love her husband faithfully.
On this fateful night, Nana anxiously tried to contribute to the chatter and war stories. She signed the words for smoke and voodoo. Waving her hands in the air and bulging her eyes to represent the fear of voodoo. We all figured out what she was trying to describe. Certain women in the neighborhood practice roots and magic on their misbehaving men.
The smell of incense burns through the fog wherever the voodoo women live. Matter of fact, as a young child, one comes to appreciate the familiar odor because the neighborhood is a bit safer from demons when the voodoo ladies keep watch over things. But mostly, they use their voodoo to keep their men folk close to home.
I remember when Dad’s friend vomited green stuff for days before finally going to the emergency room to have his stomach pumped. The doctors were clueless as to what strange chemical caused his sudden illness. The word around town was that his wife did roots on him. He nearly died.
Then there was the time the neighborhood floozy nearly scratched herself to death courtesy of an especially unforgiving itch potion. She picked the wrong woman’s man to flirt with. The wife put an itch spell on the flirt that put a stop to her promiscuity.
Every family has a person with special powers. In our family, it is my aunt. Mrs. Eddy, our recluse next-door neighbor, swears by her powers. Even wished up a snake in her next-door neighbor’s bed one day. Said the lady had sinned; got herself pregnant by a first cousin. Next thing you know, a poisonous snake had crawled up into the sinner’s bed out of nowhere.
Auntie, on the other hand, successfully put her little brown wiry hair voodoo doll to use before. Seems it only works on stray dogs for now. With Mrs. Jason still perched in the tree, I heard Mrs. Eddy tell everybody about how my auntie tested the voodoo doll on one such dog that kept leaving poop on their lawn. After cleaning up behind the stray dog for the third time, Auntie took her doll out of hiding. Held it tight, stroked her wiry hair, and said the magic words, ’Wish what you want; want what you wish.’ Sprinkled Louisiana red-hot chilly pepper on the doll’s rear end. The wretched dog and its abandoned poop disappeared. ’Wherever that damn dog is you can bet it will be dragging its red-hot tail on the ground trying to put the fire out,’ according to Auntie.
The women’s laughter faded in harmony with the men tapping out their cigarette butts. The yelling had stopped and the insects had quieted down, too. A kind of sudden peace came into the background as police sirens finally arrived. A fire truck arrived right behind the police car. No doubt, the raincoat-clad firemen expected to find a cat stuck in a tree. Instead, they got a half-ton, naked, colored woman in a tree. They lowered Jason’s trembling mother from the tree by ladder. Jason’s father looked on as though just another bystander.
The white policemen snapped out of their car, slammed the car door shut with extreme aggression, and rushed up in high-speed motion. They were preceded by their testosterone’hands fondling their gun holster, chests puffed out, and grimaces on their faces.
My mind spun out of control into a daydream about all of us getting shot up by the police. But we all breathed a sigh of relief, as they were the local police. It might have been a different story had the State Police shown up because they are notorious.
With Mrs. Jason safely out of the tree and Mr. Jason’s anger under control, the policemen gave them both a good talking to. Then the men in uniform drove off burning rubber as a show of force, followed by the fire truck still flashing its red lights.
After all the excitement our house returned to bed’with me still worrying about Jason. No doubt, Jason would get his share of beatings at school the next day just as his mother did that night. It was doubtful whether Jason got to bathe this night.
Predictably, the horror of Jason’s screams the next day ruins another school day for him’and for me. Another day covering my ears trying to understand why anyone could hurt a child who smells of urine when his mother spent the night in a tree.
The next night, sounds of sirens getting closer and closer send a chill up my spine. Soon, the neighborhood dogs begin to howl and cry. I don’t know why dogs cry but it is probably instinct’when one dog cries they all join in. Even dogs cry for each other. Why then is there no one to cry for Jason or his mother?