Chapter Ten- A chicken in hand is worth two in the bush
With each step our reverence grew and our spirits sank. The vision before us was anything but alluring. It rose up in the moonlight- daunting, ominous, eerie. We achieved the top of the hill and pounded on past the carcasses of rusted farm equipment, sunken and overgrown with weeds, tendrils of which, hung off chunks of aluminum siding. The path melted into gravel ten paces from our position leading past a barn, then the house, and eventually a route to roads unseen. The barn’s roof was partially caved in on the right side. It was leaning on the stone casing of a silo like a drunk on a lamp post. The structure itself, reeked of rot, decay and wet hay. It was dark and silent with no indication it contained livestock of any kind. It was however, abundant with the scurrying and fluttering of nocturnal activity and easily added to our angst.
Quietly we crept up to the house, with its twisted shutters and creaky weather vane. Its uninviting presence was cause for stealth and alarm. I’m sure we all felt the rising urge to scurry back the way we’d come. Nearby a chain hung from the whispering branches of an old oak tree, lonely for dog, tire, or hangman. The happy chirping of the crickets, evident in the field not long ago, had all but ceased to a suffocating silence. Inside the house, a light burned brightly from an upstairs window— surely the flickering tongues of some fire from the depths of hell.
We gathered at the foot of rickety wooden steps leading up to a pillared veranda and an entrance way. It was faded and veined in cracked paint hiding cowardly behind the ripped mesh of a dirty screen door. The veranda sported a worn swing-chair with a faded, banded awning and a wicker rocker next to which, sat a bucket of sand hosting a bonsai garden of cigarette butts.
“What do you think Wally? We just stand around here all night waiting for the owner to come out? Say I think I see three dark figures out there on my lawn. I should go out and say hello. Yuppers...that would be the friendly thing to do.”
“No need to rub it in Doc.”
“Who’s going to knock?”
“I will ya pansies!” Doc bravely climbed the steps. They groaned with every footfall. He rapped loudly on the screen door and it shook from his fist.
“Careful Doc. It looks like you might knock the damn thing down if you hit it too hard.”
Doc rapped once more with less force. The light upstairs was joined by one on the first floor. A voice from within gibbered. “Alright hold yer horses. I’m cumin, I’m cumin.” The door opened slightly and a curious hawk-like eye peeked out through a sliver of light beyond a link of a gold chain lock. “Whacha wantin at this hour?” The eyeball said.
“Sorry to trouble you sir but we appear to be lost. We were on our way to a recording studio. It’s near here– ”
“– Don’t know of any stew-dee-o and I don’t want no visitors.” The eye said and shut the door.
Doc rapped again shaking the frame this time. “Sir. We need help. Can we use your phone?”
“Watch the dang door!” The eye said, as again it opened a touch. “Don’t got no phone. Don’t need no phone. Can’t help ya. Go away.” Again the door slammed shut leaving us to our growing desperation.
Doc yelled out from our side of the barricade. “Is there a hotel, or restaurant near here?....Any place where we can get help?” There was no answer from within. “How about food? Do you have any food you can sell us? Chocolate bars, sandwiches, anything? We’re hungry. We have money.”
There was silence, and then we heard the sound of a series of chains being unlatched from their holders on the opposite side. The door opened wider this time.
I turned to Wally. “The almighty dollar wins again,” I said.
The eye had brought along a face and a body this time. The composition was one of age and suspicion. Rough calloused hands hung at the end of long, bony arms. A ragtag adornment of denim and flannel hung in folds around a skeletal frame to varicose lines of blue stretching from ankles to slippered feet. The old man had sandpaper stubble of grey surrounding his mouth, void of teeth. The gritty shadow traveled along his cheek bones to grassy ears beneath a bald cap of freckled spots. Bushy brows sat atop the ski-slope of a nose ending in a jutting configuration of nostril hair and cartilage.
“Do you have some food you could sell us?” Doc repeated trying to maintain eye contact beyond the nose.
“I got chicken if yer interested?”
“How much do you want for it?”
“How much ya got? It’s a whole chicken.”
The art of negotiation: Lesson #1- Get the other person to establish monetary value first.
“How about ten bucks?” Doc began.
“Forty dollars? No way,” I protested.
“Fifteen,” Doc offered.
The old man began to close the door slowly.
The art of negotiation: Lesson #2- The person who is willing to walk away has the upper hand.
“Twenty.” The door closed further.“Twenty-five but that’s our final offer.”
“Done!” The old man said, swinging the portal open again.
“Wait Doc. Sir is the chicken cooked?”
“No it ain’t. You have to cook it.”
“How the hell are we going to do that? None of us smoke. We don’t have a lighter. What are we supposed to do, rub two sticks together?”
“I’ll sell you some matches, but it’s my last pack. If the lights go out, I’m in the dark. You’d have to make it worth my while.”
The old man scoffed. “Five bucks? Don’t insult me. I may have been born yesterday, but I wasn’t born last night. — Twenty.”
“This is madness,” I proclaimed. “Twenty for matches? Shit, even five is way too much.”
“We’ll give you seven and not a penny more,” Doc insisted.
The old man looked at Wally. “That’s a nice yellow shirt you got there boy. — Ten plus the shirt.”
The art of negotiation: Lesson #3- Always ask for something extra in return with each counter offer.
I couldn’t believe the balls of this flimflam artist. “I’ve heard of giving the shirt off your back, but this is ridiculous.”
“Doc, I can’t do that. What will I wear? I’ll be ringing the dinner bell for the mosquitoes. They’re already sucking me dry as it is now.”
The old man said nothing and stood clutching onto the security of door behind the screen.
The art of negotiation: Lesson #4- The loser is usually the one who will break the silence.
“Doc just give him the twenty and lets get out of here.”
“Sold!” The old man clavered. His happiness was duly noted.
“Sparky! Shit! Fine! Twenty for the matches.” Doc looked back at me. “Where did you learn to haggle?”
“Do you really want Wally walking around without a shirt?”
“You boys drive a hard bargain, but I’ll get you what you need.” The old man closed the door and hooked up all the chains, leaving us in the darkness while he went to retrieve our purchase.
“Where does he think he lives, Fort Knox?” I blurted with dissipating tolerance.
“OK guys. Fork it over. We need forty-five dollars.”
“I hope there’s nothing else we need to buy? We’ll be broke,” I said. I reached into my pockets and tossed a twenty in Doc’s direction.
“I had everything under control until you spoke, Sparky.”
“Sure you did. — Twenty-five dollars for uncooked chicken.”
Wally grunted, as he handed over a ten to Doc. “You said this weekend wasn’t gunna cost me anything Sparky.”
“Stop bitchin’ Wally. Does your car need of a new radiator?”
The old man returned and opened the door with agonizing deliberation. Doc handed him the money and he gave Doc a small pack of wooden matches. He also passed out a burlap sack apparently with our poultry. Doc handed both items to Wally. The bag slipped through his fingers and thudded to the veranda. It made a noise. Baaawk
“Whadafuc?” Wally retrieved the bag, untied it, and I peered in. “There’s a live chicken in here.”
“You sold us a live chicken?”
“You asked for something to eat. I said I had chicken. You said ok. I obliged. Our business is complete. Goodnight boys.” The old man slammed the door shut and began his Houdini routine of fastening all the chains one last time.
“You old fuck! Open this door right now! We want our money back. — Son of a bitch we’ve been pooched and hood-winked.” Doc pounded away while we all screamed obscenities. We heard an upstairs window open. We moved off the veranda so we could look up and scream some more. The old man was there leaning out on the ledge with the black steel casing of a shotgun pointed directly at us.
“I said our business is complete! Now get off my property, unless you want to buy something to kill the chicken with? In which case, I have a rusty razor I can sell you for fifty smackers.” The old man began to cackle in a hideous tone. Effectively, it told us we should leave before we got some added buckshot for our trouble. One free shot in the ass with every chicken sold.
The old man cocked the rifle. “Go on and git! Right down to the road and don’t stop. I’ll be watchin’.”
“But we need to go the other way,” Wally whispered.
“Just do as he says,” Doc responded. “Alright we’re leaving!” Slowly we backed away following his instructions and started down the gravel road. Once we were out of range, the gun retracted and the window closed. There we stood; three hungry idiots with a box of matches and a burlap bag with our chicken inside. Baaawk.
“We have to get back to the Honey wagon.”
“And walk past that crazy old ass again. No way.”
“What do we do now Sparky? Je-sus this is all your fault. I told you your directions were fa-kucked.”
“We’ll have to lay low for a while before we can double back. Who knows how vigilant that old kook is going to be? I propose we continue down this road, find a clearing and build a fire while we wait it out.”
“You’re not suggesting we actually kill and eat the bird are you Sparky? I’m hungry but I have to draw the line . . . ”
“Have you seen that scrawny little thing Doc. If we wait another ten minutes it’ll probably die from old age.”
“I’m hungry. I’ll kill it.”
“Shit, Wally. You had subs and Chinese four hours ago. Doc and I haven’t eaten since this morning. Plus a bird as ancient as this one would be tough as hell.”
“All the more reason. I’ll just keep it in the bag and whack it over a rock. Quick and painless.”
Doc spouted. “Wally, I’m sure you’re a fine woodsman and the School of Woodsology taught you quick-kill techniques and all that, but I will not stand here and be apart of some inhumane slaughter.”
“Wally, Doc’s right. Let’s build a fire to get warm, but we’re not going to die of hunger if we don’t eat tonight. Face it. We got shafted by an octogenarian. There’s no need to try to justify it by killing the poor chicken.”
“It means he’s old, not that he has eight arms.”
“Then just say old Sparky. Geesh! Why you always usin’ hunerd dollar words when a ten cent one will do?”
We followed the road by the pale luster of a now white moon, away from the crazy old fart and his trigger finger. The road led us to a crossing splitting off in various directions.
“Great. The maze continues. I’m going straight. I’m already beginning to forget how to get back to the Honey wagon. No more twists and turns for me.”
“Fine Doc, we’ll go straight.” Eventually we found a clearing not far from the other side of the road where we felt comfortable enough to build a small fire without fear of burning woodland or alerting the old man we were still in the vicinity. In fact, the area looked like a rest stop. It had a wobbly picnic table and there was a small metal grill jutting out of the ground on a post of iron.
“We can start a fire in that.”
Doc shook the side of the grill. The bottom disintegrated and fell to the ground in crumbling flakes of decay. “I’d think again, Sparky.”
“We can still build a fire with our twenty dollar matches. We’ll just make a buffer-zone with rocks. Help me find something to burn.”
Doc and I took the flashlight and went to gather wood. We left Wally to make a circle of rocks to contain the fire and made him give us his solemn oath he wouldn’t kill the chicken in our absence. Within minutes, Doc and I returned to the site. We dumped two arm loads of wood beside Wally. “What kind of circle is that Wally? Looks more like a pentagram.”
“Well I can’t see Doc. The moon went behind some clouds. You took the only flashlight. I did the best I could in the dark.”
“It’s fine Wally. Doc get the fire going.”
“Yes, hurry up I’m getting eaten alive by bugs.”
“That’s because mosquitoes can smell color and you’re wearing the loudest shirt,” Doc reported. “You’d been better off giving it to the old kook.” He started angling sticks against one another in the center of the circle.
“Hey, I don’t hear the chicken,” I noted suspiciously. “Wally don’t tell me you . . . ”
Wally grabbed a nearby stick and poked the burlap sack with it. A weak noise emerged. Baaauk.
“Je-sus, open up the damn bag and let the poor thing breathe.” Doc nagged.
“I’m no vet.”
“Wally just do it.”
“All right! This is not what I bargained for, ya know. I thought the days of you guys always riding me were over?......Anyone wonder what he was doing with a live chicken in the house in the first place?”
“I’d rather not speculate,” I said. "And now, I definitely don't want to eat it.
Doc finished his tee-pee of twigs and dried leaves. He set the pyre to light. The flame grew and soon we had a nice crackling fire going. We sat around gladly receiving its warmth and lamenting our misfortune. Wally had opened the bag a touch to give our egg-laying friend some much needed oxygen, but our guitarist had sat still in the aftermath remaining unusually quiet for the longest time.
“What’s wrong Wally? Look I’m sorry I accused you of murdering the chicken OK?”
“It’s not that. I don’t feel so good.”
“Is it any wonder with what you shovel down your gullet?” Doc blurted. He wiggled a stick into the embers releasing a flock of sparks into the night.
“I have to take a dump.”
“So go into the woods and do what you have to do, nature style. Just make sure you’re far enough away from the camp fire. I don’t want to step in any surprises if I have to go.”
“I can’t go in the woods, Doc. That’s why I feel awful. I’ve been holding it in since the Honey wagon.”
I laughed. “I’d like to say, that for a slow sub it certainly got through your system fast enough.”
“It’s not funny Sparky. I’m all cramped up.”
“Je-sus Wally. Why didn’t you say something?”
“I thought the studio was around the corner and I could go there. I just can’t go in the woods.”
“You Wally? Mr. Fisherman, Mr. Outdoors, Mr. Survival? What do you mean you can’t go in the woods? Just take the flashlight, find a nice sturdy tree and unload.” Doc hooted off into the darkness with a hand upside his face. “Bombs a-way!”
“I am not wiping my ass on a bush Doc. And I am not giving the mosquitoes another target to feast on. Oh friggin’ hell. My anus!”
“Use the outhouse then,” I told him.
“There’s one in the bush. I saw it with the flashlight when Doc and I were out collecting wood. It’s about a hundred yards off to the right. That way.” I shone the flashlight at a tree.
“What if I wander off and get lost, and you don’t find me until my bones turn up years later and then someone makes up some creepy urban legend and— ”
“— Stop complaining. Come on. I’ll show you. I have to take a piss anyway.”
I got up off of crossed legs and led Wally into the darkness of the tree line. Branches snapped beneath our feet as we shuffled through the dead underbrush. I stopped to relieve myself. I trained the flashlight on a wooden structure off to the right of our location. It was close to another picnic area with a grill in worst shape than the one we’d left behind. The outhouse looked more like a coffin turned upright than a comfort zone for bowel evacuation. There was a half-moon carved into the door and it leaned slightly to the left. “See I told you. Now go do your business.”
“I’m not going in there. It doesn’t look safe.”
“For heaven’s sake Wally, you’re in them every frickin’ day. It’s an occupational hazard. It’s what you do, isn’t it?”
“I’ll have you know, the cubicles I service, Sparky, have maximum volume vent pipes, non-porous interiors and at least eighty-five cubic feet of space. That thing doesn’t even have an occupied door indicator.”
“I promise I won’t try to come in and look. It’s a little rickety I admit but— ”
“— Yes and that’s why I don’t think it should be used. It’s probably structurally unsound?”
“Are you just going to suffer all night? Don’t be such a baby. Look, I’ll show you. You have nothing to worry about.— Structurally unsound my ass!”
I murmured to myself as I trudged forward to the door of the contraption swinging it open with a creak and a smack. I shone the light inside to the bench with its round black hole. Outside of a few spider webs and a musky wet stench exhaled from somewhere below in occasional breaths, it looked safe to me. I stepped inside and turned to Wally. “See you moron. Nothing to worry about.” I hopped up and down a few times. “Solid as . . . ” There was a snapping crack of lumber and I felt
the floor open to a fissure beneath me. I clutched frantically for something to grab onto. It was too late. I was falling into blackness.