“You ain’t so smart and you ain’t so pretty,” Momma says. “You got this round, flat face, and you’re built like a refrigerator.”
Carla nods. It’s the plain truth, and nothing but. She doesn’t like to be reminded of her short-comings, but it’s best to just agree with Momma.
A Virginia Slim, white and clean, bobs between Momma’s lips. One good tug and a quarter inch of the cigarette flares red and drops away to ash. Smoking is a special treat, and only for grown-ups, who have troubles. Momma has lots of troubles and she deserves her smokes, no matter how poor they are.
“Take my advice, Carla,” Momma says. “Marry well. A rich man is your only chance to get out of this poultry factory.”
Carla nods again. Momma seldom speaks directly to her, and when she does Carla listens, drinking-up the words, memorizing them, and repeating them over and over. Valuable stuff, Momma’s words, needed knowledge. Sometimes the truth is hard, but Carla wants to know things.
Long ago, it had been decided—by shadowy, sweet smelling people with sympathetic smiles—that Carla wasn’t smart enough for school and no one else bothers to talk to Carla, because she takes too long to decipher the real meaning behind their fast-talking lips. Carla often wonders why people don’t say exactly what they meant. She wonders, but she knows she’ll never figure it out. Thank Goodness that Momma speaks in simple sentences. Momma’s thoughts filled the social void in Carla’s life.
Momma brings the clever down and whacks off the chicken’s head. Carla waits, until Momma puts the sharp tool down, before scooping the head off the wooden block and tossing it into the plastic trash bin. Momma picks up the knife and splits the chicken from sternum to tail. A quick twist of steal and an expert grip brings the entrails out. Carla shuttles these remnants into her pan, and begins the task of sorting the heart, liver and gizzards from all the other inners. The darkest organs are the gizzards, and they go into the tin pan with a black dot. Next comes the liver, purple and shaped like an anvil; it goes into the pan with the purple dot. Finally, and most important to Momma, Carla separates the bruised heart from all of its attachments. Carla inverts the heart and squeezes it with her thumb. An ounce of blood, suspended in the last moments of the chicken’s life, dribbles away. Carla grabs her small pen-knife and pares away the extra fat. Hearts go into the pan marked with a red dot. At the end of the shift, Carla will carry the chicken hearts home. Once the hearts are breaded and fried, they aren’t terrible grub, not as bad as gizzards, which Carla can’t stomach, at all. Carla gets tired of eating the same thing every night. She never complains. Momma has enough troubles, and when Momma’s troubles get too bad, she deserves a fifth of whiskey. Carla doesn’t like whiskey, even though she has never tasted it. The dark brew makes Momma mean.
And so it goes, day after day, year after year. How many chicken hearts does she eat? She can’t guess; the number seemed as big as the sky. On her seventeenth birthday, Momma brings her an unusual gift—a husband. The intended one turns out to be—surprise of all surprises—old man Henderson, owner of Henderson’s Poultry, Inc. Carla doesn’t know what to say, so she only nods her head, like she always does when Momma says something has to be done. At the ceremony she barely manages to shyly whisper out the words that Momma has repeated over and over. ‘I do.’
On Carla’s wedding night and in the privacy of old man Henderson’s bathroom, she strips off the two-piece pants suit that Momma picked-out and bought in a wild, no-expense-spared shopping spree. Momma even helped her slip into the fancy thing, although slip isn’t the right word. As Momma put it, struggle was a better description of her prenuptial garment arrangements. Carla folds the suit neatly and lays it carefully on the marble sink.
Momma advised her on what to do and how to do it. This sex thing seems terrible invasive, improper and rude, but Momma says it has to be done. Momma’s suggestions—all excited and resigned at the same time—have only made her more nervous. She wishes that Momma was standing right here in the bathroom with her, repeating the instructions over and over. Carla likes repetition.
Carla cracks open the door and scans the room. Old man Henderson, her husband now, is already in the bed. He stirs something foamy in a glass of water and drinks it down, but then he grimaces, as if the fluid tastes nasty. Why would he drink something bad, she wonders. Surely, he could afford to buy all the soda-pop he wanted. Carla loves soda-pop, but seldom gets to drink it. She lets the thought flitter away; people often do things that she can not comprehend.
Carla steps out, naked as a plucked bird. Cold air gushes over her body. The room is air-conditioned. She’s never felt artificial air before, and it makes her skin erupts in chilly-bumps. She mashes her eyelids closed and readies herself for the insults; verbal abuse is always easier to take when her eyes are closed. She can almost make herself go deaf, if she thinks about a happy song on a radio that’s turned all the way up—like the grainy transistor radios that the truck drivers play down at Henderson’s Poultry. She especially likes Mexican music—she doesn’t have to know the lyrics—even Momma doesn’t understand the words of Latino-lingo, and Momma’s a whole lot smarter.
Ralph stirs in the bed and stares at her a very long time. Her eyes are closed, but she can feel him looking and sense him smirking.
“You really are a stupid thing,” Ralph says, breaking the self-imposed trance that she’s created.
“What?” Carla asks, snapping her eyelids open. She had expected him to sally forth hurtful remarks about her flat butt, her hairy legs or her poochy stomach, but not her intelligence.
“I’m flattered,” he says, “that you think me capable of consummating our marriage.”
Exasperated, the old man sighs. “My prostrate is the size of a basketball. Cancer, they say. And even if my prostrate wasn’t killing me, the medication that I’m on would prevent any scanky-panky.” Carla blinks at him and he sighs again. “No fucky ducky, okay?”
“Then why did you want to marry me?”
“I hate to hit you with the worst thing first; but, perhaps, that’s for the best.”
Old man Henderson, owner of Henderson’s Poultry, Inc., Momma’s boss, the long awaited rich man, her new husband flings the covers back and points at the very spot that she dreads the most.
“It was a long ceremony,” Ralph Henderson says, “and I’m afraid that I need a new diaper.”
And so it begins. Ralph’s needs are many, and Carla works very hard. Eventually—through repetition—they work things out. Years pass and it turns out that old Ralph doesn’t have prostrate cancer after all. He lives; he lives for a long time.
Washing his papery skin and rushing to the sound of his bell becomes Carla’s routine, but…is it worse than palpitating chicken hearts, she asked herself from time to time. Yes and no. She has more leisure time to think, now, and the fact that a question could have both a positive and a negative answer really amazes her, but she can never follow that idea all the way to the end.
Sometimes, when she is changing her husband’s diaper, she dreams about babies; sometimes, she pretends that she is cleaning her own baby. That helps, a little. Sometimes, when she bents over him to do her wifely duties, Ralph reaches out to jiggle her breasts, and that’s as close as the old man ever gets to consummating their marriage. Momma says that it’s a blessing, but when his knobby hands—rough as wood chips—are kneading her, she can’t pretend that he’s a baby. She wants to jerk away but never does.
In the midst of the ordinary days, they both grew older, and somewhere along the way she catches the liveritis and the herpes and then the PID. The doctor never says, but she knows that she catched these diseases from Ralph, because she didn’t have them before and that’s the plain truth. Once a nurse—a kind and misty eyed lady—starts to tell her something important about gloves, but then the nurse changes her mind and says that it is too late to worry about that now. Momma says that there is a price to pay for everything, and Carla nods her head, as always.
Then one day—a day like any other—Carla’s changing yet another dirty diaper, when Ralph stretches out his frozen, rock-like claws and begins to twirl her breasts. She yanks the pillow from behind his head and holds it over his face. She grips the ends and mashes down hard. Ralph struggles. He’s weak and no match for her. Like a chicken, the most dangerous thing about him is those long, nasty talons. He manages to scratch her shoulder and rumple the bed sheets, but that’s all. Soon he is still, but she holds on a long time. She never planned it, never meant to do it, but she has done it and she doesn’t want him to wake up—not ever again.
The whole experience makes her walk around it a daze for a while. Bumping into walls and forgetting to comb her hair. She holds her breath every time someone speaks to her. She asks them to repeat everything.
“What?” she says in a very loud voice. She knows that someone who’s really smart will figure it out, but no one does. She’s afraid that if they find out, they’ll chop her head off just like a chicken, only not at the poultry factory. People pat her on the back and hold her hand. They don’t say much and neither does she. She never tells anyone the plain truth. They tell her that she’ll get over it, and she does.
Momma says that her daughter is a widow now, and isn’t that grand? Momma moves into the mansion the day after the funeral, without a second glance at the rusty, dilapidated trailer where Carla spent her childhood. After the move—which doesn’t take too long, because Momma doesn’t want any of her old stuff—they both go on another wild shopping spree that leaves them both exhausted.
“Pretty feathers make a pretty bird,” Momma says.
Carla ain’t so sure about that, and for the first time Carla thinks that maybe Momma doesn’t know everything. She thinks that they are both still pretty ugly. Things are nice for a short time, but then Momma realizes that she can drink all the whiskey that she wants. Momma, poor Momma, only enjoys a few glorious weeks in the big house with many bedrooms and plenty of toilets to go around. She spends most of her time cursing at the servants, which Carla would never do, and for the first time Carla is embarrassed by her Momma. The shoe is on the other foot, she tells herself, and that’s the plain truth.
After a second funeral in less than two weeks, everyone thinks that Carla will flip-out. They talk to her very softly. Carla feels very little when Momma dies. Maybe, it’s because this time there is no quilt, no fear of capture and no chopping block in her future, or, maybe, it’s because death is not a fearsome thing to her. After all, how many quivering hearts has she held between thumb and forefinger?
Carla goes down to Henderson’s Poultry, Inc. She struts back and forth. Up and down the wooden blanks she goes in her shiny, new pumps, just for something to do. She likes to reminisce about the old days; she likes to think about being young again. She can almost see Momma hunkered over her table in Stall #13, but that’s a little spooky.
There’s a new fella there called Caesar Mendez. He ain’t too smart and he ain’t too pretty, but he talks nice and respectful. He tells her that he’s a widow, too. He tells her that he has five motherless children, and that’s just about the saddest thing that Carla’s ever heard.
“Someone should do something about that,” Carla says to Caesar. “It just ain’t right for kids to live without a Momma. Who will advise them?”
“Would you like to be their Momma?” Caesar asks.
“Yes,” Carla says. “I’ve always wanted to be a Momma. Do you think I’m smart enough?”
“We’ll work it out,” Caesar says and winks at her. She’s never had a man wink at her before.