2009 Carol Bly Short Story Contest Winner, Miriam Karmel
Miriam Karmel of Minneapolis won the first Writers Rising Up Carol Bly short story contest with her story, “Happy Chicken.” Miriam will read her story on October 17th at the Anderson Center in Red Wing at an all day event remembering Carol Bly, A time and place for solitude: writing below the surface. The event features Carol’s writing partner Cynthia Loveland leading a seminar and friend and fellow writer Hamline Professor Patricia Kirkpatrick, who will conduct a workshop. Event details can be found at www.eventful.com and at www.writersrisingup.com. Miriam Karmel’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications including Bellevue Literary Review, Dust & Fire, Sidewalks, Passage, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual and Water~Stone Review. She is the recipient of Minnesota Monthly’s Tamarack Award for her short story, The Queen of Love. In 2007, she received the Kate Braverman Short Story Prize and the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction. Her story, The King of Marvin Gardens appears in Milkweed Edition’s Fiction on a Stick (2008). Nora’s Story, a collection of short stories which she worked on at Ragdale, was the May 2007 selection at www.bookwise.com. She recently completed a second book of linked stories, Being Esther.
By Miriam Karmel
Amos showed up carrying a bicycle wheel. He held it out, as if he’d come bearing flowers. “Where should I set this, Esther?
She bristled at the sound of her name. If only he’d given her the chance to say, “Call me Esther, please.”
The first time Bonnie brought Lenny home for dinner, he choked on the roast beef. Esther had hoped her daughter would come to her senses, find a man who didn’t wolf his food, talk with his mouth full, someone whose self-confidence put others at ease, a man at home in the world. Yet Esther had come to appreciate her son-in-law, even championed Lenny’s cause that time Bonnie made noises about leaving. Esther supposed that this Amos, who was wearing a yellow helmet and orange backpack, and had all the mannerisms of a rambunctious family dog, and who, her granddaughter had informed her, works in a bike shop, though he’s really a lawyer, she supposed he would grow on her, too.
Esther’s parents had had an arranged marriage, though her mother made no secret that as a young woman she’d been in love with another man—the Bondit, she’d called him, invoking his name perhaps at times when her own marriage felt tired or disappointing. What had he looked like? What had he done? How had they met? Esther never asked. To do so might have been a betrayal of her father. Even if she had asked, her mother might not have been able to answer. Over time, the Bondit’s looks, preferences, mannerisms would have faded until all that remained was a name, one that left Esther conjuring her mother’s first love as a cross between Jesse James and the Cisco Kid. The Bondit sounded dangerous, so unlike her father, whom Esther adored, but who had all the dash and swagger of a women’s dress shop proprietor, which is what he was. When Esther was younger, she’d felt heartbroken on her mother’s behalf. As an adult she became outraged by a custom that thwarted love for what she believed were the harsh economic motivations of tribal elders. Yet her mother had adored her father. And he worshipped her. Esther couldn’t say how she knew. It would have been easier to explain the swallows returning to Capistrano.
If only Esther could arrange a marriage for her granddaughter, she thought, as she told Amos to set the tire against the wall. He removed his helmet, revealing a mop of rust-colored hair, which he made no effort to rearrange. When he slipped off his backpack she saw that he was wearing a striped t-shirt, the kind she’d dressed Barry in as a young boy. The toddler’s apparel made Amos’s hands and feet appear abnormally large. Esther looked away to avoid thinking of those overgrown appendages in bed with her lovely granddaughter.
Suddenly, the bird let out a shriek, and though Esther yelled at it to pipe down, she felt grateful for the distraction. When it wouldn’t let up, Amos poked a finger into its cage and spoke in oddly soothing tones about a bomb that had gone off in a Baghdad market that day. “Two brothers left home in the morning to buy a bird,” he cooed. “Probably one very much like you.”
As the parakeet hopped onto Amos’ finger, Sophie shrugged and Esther smiled and stroked her granddaughter’s cheek.
At dinner, Esther ladled barley-bean soup into porcelain bowls, while Amos, voluble as the bird, chattered about his renunciation of red meat. “E-coli is only part of it. These days, you can get sick from spinach,” he declared. “Or tomatoes!” He talked about the conversion of rain forest to grazing land and overcrowding in cattle feed lots. He talked about waste running off into rivers and streams.
Esther nodded, rapt, as if she hadn’t heard any of this before. But it was the passion with which Amos spoke that captivated her. She was still nodding when he started talking about cows belching methane into the atmosphere. “Ninety-five percent of their gaseous output comes via belching,” he said, at which point Sophie set down her spoon with a clang. “Amos! Nonna doesn’t need to hear this.”
“That’s not true,” Esther said, inclining her head toward her granddaughter’s boyfriend, who sat wedged between the two of them at the crowded table. “I knew about e-coli. Mad cow, too.” She paused. “But all those emissions? That’s a whole new angle. In fact, it never occurred to me that cows do,” she paused again. Having been schooled in the notion that certain topics are off limits at the dinner table, she wondered how to phrase what came next. “It never occurred to me that cows. . . . That cows.” She stopped and started. “That cows. . . That cows belch.” There! She’d said it. And nothing happened. Well, not nothing. She felt lighter, freer.
And then she smiled, which was all the encouragement Amos needed to continue his discourse on the ecological nightmare spawned by, as he put it, “Our insatiable demand for Big Macs.”
“Amos, please,” Sophie sighed. “This isn’t dinner talk.” She gave him a baleful look, then turned, seeking her grandmother’s approval. But Esther’s gaze was fixed on Amos. “This is fascinating,” Esther said. Leaning over, she stroked the base of his wine glass. “Don’t stop.
“Do stop. Please!” Sophie cried, clapping her hands to her ears. “Can’t we please change the subject?”
Amos held up his hands in mock resignation. “I guess that’s enough of that,” he declared, grinning at Esther, at which point she leaned even closer and in a stage whisper said, “I’m certainly glad we’re having chicken tonight.”
Amos laughed. “I hope it was a happy chicken, Esther.”
This time, she didn’t bristle at the sound of her name. “Happy chicken? Why should a chicken be happy?”
“Oh, Nonna,” Sophie whined. “Not that.” She glared at Esther with mismatched eyes—one green, one brown.
“Not what?” Amos turned from one woman to the other, grinning, exposing perfect teeth, big teeth, overgrown as his hands and feet. Once again, Esther was forced to think of something other than Amos in bed with her granddaughter. “Not what?” he repeated.
“Oh, nothing,” Sophie snapped.
Sophie, who translated poems from Italian into English for a former professor, whom Esther suspected she’d slept with, grudgingly acted as interpreter. “My Nonna doesn’t think anyone is really happy. ‘Who’s happy?’ It’s like her mantra.” She turned to Esther. “Right, Nonna?” Then to Amos, she said, “She’ll defy you to name one happy person.”
“George W. Bush,” he blurted, beaming.
“You’re so right,” Esther said. “That man.” She set her hand on his forearm. “Pardon me if I can’t say his name.” She laughed. “But that man gives new meaning to the notion that ignorance is bliss.”
Then Amos started talking about what they already knew—that earlier in the day more than forty people had been killed, a hundred wounded, in an Iraqi bird market. “A young pigeon vendor, Ali Ahmed—don’t ask me how I remember that—told a reporter that it had been a beautiful day, and people, taking advantage of a lull in the fighting, had flocked to the outdoor market and the last thing Ali remembered, before waking up in the hospital, was seeing bodies of the dead and wounded mixed with the blood of animals and birds. And feathers. Feathers everywhere.”
Esther was wondering whether Amos had considered the incongruence of the bloody bird market and the roasted chicken on the blue ceramic platter in the center of her crowded table, when Sophie, who might have sensed her grandmother’s displeasure, hijacked the conversation.
“Speaking of chickens,” Sophie said, and went on to describe the pamphlet on the butcher’s counter at the natural foods co-op where she shopped. “It says the chickens get to roam about. Or range. I can’t remember. Roam. Range. I’m not sure I understand the difference. But the point is . . . ” Her face had grown flushed, her eyes bright, like a feverish child’s. “The point is they’re supposed to be happy. The pamphlet actually calls them happy chickens.” Her voice trailed off. “Though how would anyone know?” Sophie paused. “That they’re happy, I mean.” Then she slumped back in her chair, as if sensing that she’d talked herself into a corner.
Esther wanted to pat Sophie’s hand, console her, explain that it wasn’t her fault, that she was wired to stop conversations. It was a knack she’d acquired, like her mismatched eyes, from her father. Poor Lenny. He could talk until your eyes glazed over, then go right on talking. On the other hand, he never talked down to Esther, though lately more and more people did just that, as if age had shrouded her in stupidity.
They ate in silence, the only noise coming from the intermittent clink of cutlery on china and the bird’s occasional outbursts. The table was so small there wasn’t even the need to speak up for the salt to be passed.
Suddenly, Esther felt tired. Perhaps the wine had hit her, though she’d had only a few sips. She took another, before breaking the silence. “Chickens are stupid,” she declared. “When it rains, they hold their heads up to the heavens, open their beaks, and drown. There’s nothing happy about that.”
“Turkeys, Nonna,” Sophie said, setting a hand on Esther’s arm.
Esther regarded the hand as if it were a cat walking across the table. “What do turkeys have to do with anything?”
“They drown in the rain,” Sophie replied, squeezing Esther’s arm for emphasis. “Not chickens.”
The young couple exchanged a knowing glance. Was there also a hint of triumph in Sophie’s face, the way it opened to Amos, as if to say, I told you she couldn’t stay on track for long? And you were so charmed by her.
Esther had the urge to tell them that growing old was one of the most surprising things that had happened to her. She hadn’t given it any thought. Then one day, she was eighty-three. Old. Not just old, but an object of derision, pity. Was there any use explaining that she was still herself—albeit a slower, achier, creakier version of the original?
“Turkey. Chicken,” Esther said, trying to control the tremor in her voice. “Big bird. Little bird. What’s the difference?” She paused. “And tell me this: How does anyone know the chicken was happy? Of all the nonsense,” she said, with a dismissive wave of her hand.
Esther wanted to add that she would never fall for a marketing gimmick like that, never pay extra for a bird with a brochure. She was about to say that in all likelihood they were eating an “unhappy” chicken, when Sophie, didactic as her father, said, “The idea, Nonna, is that the chicken lived well until it died. It was fed properly, and treated humanely, to the end. In other words, it was happy until it died.” Clearly pleased with herself, she smiled and said, “You could even say it died a happy death.”
Esther observed that the knuckle of the index finger of the hand Sophie was using to cut her chicken was smudged black and blue. A tattoo. How long had that been there? Suddenly she wondered how long Sophie and Amos would be here? She was tired. She was tired of all the talk about death. She was tired of having to prove herself, of having to demonstrate that she could follow a conversation, even one as inane as this. She was tired from the dinner preparations. Once, she could fix a meal without any effort. Now, most evenings, she made do with peanut butter on toast, or when she has energy, tomato on toast with a soft-boiled egg. She was tired of having to engage with a young man who, despite the fact that he was a good talker and enjoyed second helpings of everything, hadn’t bothered to remove the bicycle clips from his pants and who, in all likelihood, will one day walk out the door with his tire and helmet and break her granddaughter’s heart.
“Happy death,” Esther snapped. “Sounds like an oxymoron to me.”
“Oxymoron?” Amos cocked an eyebrow.
“It means . . ..” Esther started.
“I know what it means, Esther.”
For the second time this evening, she bristled at the sound of her name.
“But why,” Amos continued, “can’t the two be used in conjunction?” Then he launched into another spiel, this time about his plans to die at home. “In my own bed.” He spoke of his grandmother, tethered to tubes in a noisy hospital room. “She had the roommate from hell. All day long, ringing for pillows, juice, cookies, blankets, ice cream.” He told them that each time the roommate hollered for something else, he’d recite, under his breath, a Buddhist Lovingkindess meditation. “But by late afternoon I was at the nurses’ station threatening to put a pillow over the old bat’s head.”
Esther recalled sitting at Marty’s bedside, holding his hand. It had felt hot and dry. Leaning closer, she whispered in his ear. “Let’s go to Mexico. Just the two of us. I’ll drive. You’ll sit back and enjoy the ride.” Marty opened his eyes. “It’s a long drive, Essie.” Then he closed his eyes and when he fell asleep she thought of putting a pillow over his head. Sometimes she thinks about putting one over her own. She’s got no stomach for guns, not like Peppy Greenberg, that fellow who worked at her brother’s shop. Harry got to work one morning, found Peppy slumped over in the office along with a note apologizing for the mess. No. Esther could never use a gun. Or a rope, like that sweet Mia Craig, from down the block. At the memorial service, when Mia’s psychiatrist got up and explained that she’d had an illness as real as leukemia or a deformed heart, Esther thought she couldn’t have done that, stood there and faced down a gathering of mourners who were probably blaming him for dereliction of duty. It took a lot of nerve standing up there, but not half as much as standing on a chair in the basement with a rope around your neck. No, a pillow sounded just right. Almost like dying in your sleep.
“In my own bed,” Amos was saying, as if he’d read Esther’s mind. “That’s the only way to go.”
Esther looked at the couple, so young, so sure of themselves, so full of answers. She wished for Amos a peaceful ending, but first, a long life, though not, she realized, eyeing the bicycle tire propped against the wall, the yellow helmet on the counter, a life with Sophie.