Fried Chicken Fumes

 

by Naomi Rose

 

From Living in MotherWealth ~ Part II, "Presence" (Rose Press, forthcoming)

 

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My family lived for a time in a tenement in a part of town that was so impoverished that no trees grew, and people lived as much on the street as inside, for there was little inside to hold them. My family had, the year before, been torn apart and then been brought back together—my parents, separated, had reunited—but there was no longer the money to support us in the middle-class way we had been living. Being plunked down suddenly in the midst of obvious poverty, in a five-story walkup apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen, shocked me into silence. I did not have it in me to ask why we needed to be there, and when we might look forward to getting out.

This muting coincided with the dawning of puberty, so that there were already so many unexplained and unremarked-on changes going on inside my own body and the tides of my emotions from within that to have large-scale dramatic changes also going on outside in my immediate environment seemed somehow part of the same mysterious and unwanted fate. And “fate” it seemed, though I would never have used that word at the time, my parents being lifelong atheists who had long since convinced me that there was nothing beyond the physical running the show, no larger-than-human power or heart to turn to in times of distress or inexplicable yearning; even, that people who did seek a trans-human explanation, a “God,” were simply, pitiably, deluded, and needing a crutch to lean on that the more courageous, look-life-in-the-eye realists could not allow themselves because they could (or had to) bear the harsh reality of life as it was.

A shy and inward child early on, I might have remained so under more favorable circumstances. In the tenement neighborhood, however, this shyness turned to fear. Unprotected at home by parents who themselves were too shocked by “fate” to rouse much parenting, I was left to my own devices in our privacy-bereft tiny home and on the street. Because my young body was obviously blooming, no matter what my outer conditions, I took to hiding it from even the possibility of unwanted attention on the street by wearing dark, dull, drab clothing—thick, heavy, shapeless clothing was preferable, if the weather allowed—and thus dodging the catcalls and whistles of older teenage boys hanging out on the street, the tired longing looks of old men with lifeless rheumy eyes who sat slumped against the front stoops of their buildings. And so, by events and then by design, I became invisible. Indeed, that was my deepest wish: to be visible to myself, but not to others when I chose not to. The only thing I didn't realize in that equation was that the effort to become invisible to others would also make me invisible to myself.

To want, then—once I had muted myself enough to disappear in the presence of others—was no longer a simple thing. A want had, first of all, to make its way through my layers of not just protective outer clothing, but my layers of protective inner clothing as well. It had to telegraph me somehow that it existed: that something I did not currently have, or feel, or have access to, was desired enough to awaken a hunger, a yearning, an ache, a trust that the missing thing could be obtained. Somehow the financial poverty—the “we have no money”—though quite true, now lay on top of, or was inextricably interwoven with, some other unvoiced layers of impoverishment of hope that a desire would have to miraculously penetrate through, like the princess' awareness of the presence of a pea beneath enough mattresses to reach from floor to nearly ceiling. A desire was a quiet, fragile thing, hardly strong enough to brook and leap the chasm of muted despair.

 

  

One day, I was walking home from junior high school with my friend Janet. The sun was out, glinting blindingly off the pavement unshaded by any trees, and we had been talking about our “SP” class, the “special progress” class we both were in that would skip us directly from seventh to ninth grade, the eighth grade deemed unnecessary because we had all been gauged as more intelligent than the average. My being there sometimes seemed to me a mystery: I struggled painfully with math, and also gym (all those whistles shrieking, and people suddenly running here and there); but my teacher in sixth grade, the year before, had assigned our class a novel to write—and this so gave my confused heart (my parents then being separated and me living with my grandmother) a place to roam freely that I had given myself to the task a hundred percent, emerging with a novel about two best friends and their adventures and their loving families. My teacher, impressed and glowing, told me I was a real writer, and that he was going to recommend me for the “SP.” Grinning in near-imbecilic happiness at his pronouncement and attentions, I did not then realize that where I would end up going to the SP would be in the tenement neighborhood I was in now.

“I'm hungry,” Janet announced suddenly, breaking off her monologue that I found it hard to follow on petrie dishes and bunson burners (she was going to be a scientist someday). “Let's go to my mom's place.”

I looked at her blankly. “Your mom's place? You mean, your apartment?”

She stopped and turned her moon-shaped face to me. “My mom's place,” she repeated. “The luncheonette my mom and my stepfather own. They'll feed me there. It's about five blocks from here.” And she resumed walking, heading in a direction that didn't lead to me closer to home.

I could have said, “No thanks, I'll just go home.” But I didn't know what to do. “Home” held no lure for me—my parents, if home, might be sitting there depressed and ready to pounce—and yet what if I was being invited for a free meal at Janet's mother's-and-stepfather's luncheonette? I couldn't tell if this was an offhanded invitation, or simply a declaration that she was going, and I could accompany her if I wanted to. After all, she had said, “They'll feel me there,” not “us.” But I couldn't tell for sure.

“Okay,” I said, and fell in with her. We walked the five blocks together, passing the usual sights: faded red-brick tenement buildings, liquor stores with curlicue iron railings, corner grocery stores with cigarette ads pasted on the door, clutches of old men and women sitting outside their buildings on the stoops, teenage boys trying to look cool and eyeing us quickly as we walked by.

The luncheonette came into view—not one I knew—and Janet walked inside it first with the totally proprietary air of one who had complete rights to it and anything it could bring forth. I followed, not sure if I were a guest or simply an agreeable shadow.

Stools covered in padded red vinyl formed a row in front of the counter, and I followed Janet's lead and sat down on one next to her. The wall in front of us was papered with signs with prices for hamburgers, French fries, Cokes—and to the right, an open area showed the kitchen behind: a refrigerator, a large stove with a griddle, and a man bending over it with a spatula in hand.

“Hey.” Janet's mother, a large round woman with glasses and her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail came out and stood before us behind the counter.

“Hi, mom. I'll have—“ Janet began. And she surveyed the kitchen with her eyes, thinking. Finally, she gave her order, with the unthinking confidence of someone who knew she could have anything in the place. “I'll have fried chicken, and gravy. And mashed potatoes and string beans,” she said. “And a Coke. And a piece of chocolate cream pie.”

I was astonished. That's the kind of thing you said and ordered in a restaurant, and here she was saying it to her mother as if she were at home. Who could say to one's mother, at home, “I want fried chicken, and mashed potatoes, and gravy, and string beans, and a Coke, and chocolate cream pie—and I'll sit here and wait while you make it for me?” It was unheard of. It was a form of magic.

But her mother was completely blasé. “Okay,” she said, and then turned her head to the right and yelled back behind her, “Tony, fried chicken, gravy, potatoes mashed, string beans, Coke, choc cream pie.” And the man with the spatula nodded twice.

I came out of my reverie just enough to realize that I was also hungry, also sitting there, and that I had no money. Janet's mother still stood before us, her white apron covering her blouse and skirt, and looked at me. She looked at me with a quizzical look, as if asking what I planned to do.

Suddenly I felt my throat close up. I had no money with me, maybe twenty-five cents. Was I going to be offered food as a guest, without paying? Or was I being viewed as a paying customer, just happening to come into the store with her daughter? She looked at me without much expression. I couldn't tell, there was nothing to read on her face.

If I was going to be a guest as Janet's friend, then I too wanted fried chicken with gravy, and mashed potatoes, and string beans, and maybe iced tea instead of a Coke, and chocolate cream pie sounded very good. Oh, so very good—just the thought of it made me suddenly ache with hunger for it. I would have been glad to accept, and grateful for, the gift of a meal in Janet's mother's luncheonette as Janet's schoolmate and friend. But I couldn't tell if it was being offered.

And if it wasn't—then I would have to pay for whatever I ordered. And I couldn't tell if that was what was expected of me.

I could hardly speak. How could I find out? What could I say? “If you're treating me, I'll have the same thing as Janet, and if you're not, I have no money and I won't have anything?” I couldn't say that. And still, Janet's mother looked at me impassively, no clues forthcoming. Not really like I was a friend of her daughter, though she had to know I was.

And finally, when not being able to tell had become just about unbearable—and my lack of money made me feel even poorer, under these circumstances, than I actually was—and not being able to tell made it impossible for me to just ask and find out, because when had I last asked for anything that had been then given? Hoping at the last moment that Janet's mother would rescind her silent look and reconfigure into a mother, as if I were at Janet's apartment and food was being set out on the table and naturally I would have been invited to have some, I waited for some sign. And when none came, I closed down into myself and said, with as much dignity as I could muster, “I'll have a glass of water, please.”

Janet's mother's eyebrows went up. “A glass of water? That's all? You're sure?”

But this no more cleared up the mystery of “was it to be a gift or a purchase” than before.

“Yes,” I nodded. “I'm sure.”

Janet's mother shrugged, went away a few feet, and came back with a tall curvy Coke glass filled with water, which she plunked down on the counter right in front of me.

“Thanks,” I said, and picked it up and took a sip, hoping to make it look like that was exactly what I had wanted. “Umm, good,” I nodded.

“I'll have the Coke now,” Janet announced. And her mother brought her a glass of red-brown Coke in the same kind of curvy Coke glass, which Janet picked up and drank from noisily.

We sat in relative silence together while her food was being cooked. It did not occur to me, as I sipped my water slowly enough to portion it out over time, that I could have gulped it down, thanked Janet's mother for it, and walked out the door to go home. I had been invited here, and I felt I had to stay until we were done. Meanwhile, the smell of chicken frying began to announce itself to me.

It was the hot spattering oil in the back that sizzled the skin into fragrance. Its smell traveled from the back to the front, impervious to walls, counters, the possession of money or not. Lusty and adamant, it assailed my nostrils like a tease: “You want me, don't you? Too bad.” I took a sip of water.

And at length, Janet's food was ready, laid out on a large platter: three pieces of juicy fried chicken—the breast, a drumstick, and a wing; a mound of smooth white mashed potatoes with a little lake of brown gravy on top; a pile of canned string beans next to the potatoes. And on a separate, smaller plate, a large slice of chocolate cream pie.

Janet tucked her napkin into her collar, picked up her fork and knife, and began to eat.

 

It never dawned on me that the effort I had put into becoming invisible was working right now, in this moment. It did not compute that Janet's totally ignoring me sitting next to her while she ate this enormous meal served by her mother might have something to do with my removing myself from life's action, in fear and conviction that all action that noticed me would bring me some terrible harm. I knew only that I knew I was there, and she seemed not to, as she busily, noisily chewed her food, scraped the plate with her silverware, and speared another piece of nourishment to bring up to her waiting, confident mouth. And, watching her eat, smelling the fragrance of her food, I grew steadily more and more hungry.

And then it came to me. I could not make actual food come to me, could not order a plate like Janet's and have her mother bring it to me as a gift. But I could give my whole internal sensing apparatus to taking in the experience of being near this food, and in that way make it as much mine as I could.

This was not a thought-out plan: it was something my nose did, something my eyes did, something my ears did, something the pores of my skin did. Sitting next to Janet, watching her eat, smelling her food, listening to her scrape the plate and masticate the food, I began to experience the food as if I were eating it. The crispy brown crust of the chicken, wrinkled so appealingly, with the tender juicy white meat underneath became the focus of my looking, as I might look at something I loved or wanted to draw. The more I looked, the more I possessed it with my eyes. And her spooning up of the mashed potatoes, how her spoon tipped the white potatoes into the thick brown gravy so it coated it almost completely before she brought it to her mouth, drew me into the act as if it were mine, as if I were the eater along with her. Even the canned dull-green string beans, speared by her fork and brought wiggling into her mouth tasted good in my imagination. And every sigh, every lip-smack, every chew on Janet's part was now mine too, all distinctions of have and have-not erased. As she dipped into the chocolate cream pie, it wiggled and shimmered on her fork: and the drawn-out excitement of bringing it slowly to her mouth until at last in it went, exploding her and my taste buds in a riot of chocolate heaven, sated me completely. I was filled up.

Janet's mother came by and whisked away the plates, the glasses, the silverware, completely unaware that I too had eaten, even without any money. It no longer mattered that she hadn't offered it. Something unexpected and fairly magical inside me had found its way to having what I wanted without having to ask for it and take the risk of completely embarrassing myself by revealing the truth of my poverty, a poverty that went outside the lines of money to dimensions I couldn't even conceive of. I had fooled them both into thinking I did not need, in a spontaneous way that amazed me most of all.

“Okay girls, bye-bye,” Janet's mother said as we got up off the stools to leave, as if we had been visiting like friends together all along.

“Well, that was good,” Janet said, as we walked back to our respective apartments.

“Yes,” I said.

 

And I meant it. I had never before known that it was possible to become full and satisfied without actually eating; how much the imagination, dwelling on the sights and tastes and smells and sounds, could embellish the experience until it was one's own. There was a way in which I felt much richer than before, perhaps even richer than if Janet's mother had come right out and said, “You're our guest, what would you like?”

That she had not, smarted, of course; held in place my conviction that I was not sufficiently valuable to include, and also my conviction that one must never allow it to be made public that one did not have—money, supportive parents, whatever it was that ran the world and had somehow been left out of my inheritance. But even if it was the “booby prize,” a feeding on fried-chicken fumes instead of the real thing, it meant something to discover that right within me was a factory of elixirs: that my hunger and wanting, plus my focused sensory imagination, could bring home to me more potently than if I were actually eating all the internal accoutrements of eating, such that I felt sated.

It was a shame that the experience of internal impoverishment lasted longer and had more of a handhold in my cells and psyche than the astonishing accomplishment of the use of creative imagination to bring certain internal states about.

But now it can be told: the transformative element exists within. That same combination of totally concentrated desire and the senses that embody it—sight, smell, the texture of being so close you can “taste it”—can be put to use for more loving, more fulfilling purposes. Heart's desire is at our beckoning, if we will be present enough to receive it.

 

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Copyright © 2011 by Naomi Rose. All rights reserved.

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