Chicken's Gotta Stand It, by Jim Parks

The dawn was frosty on Birmingham's south side. It was a late spring.

These were the days that would make or break me, days of deci­sion, days of choos­ing between life and an igno­min­ious ear­ly death.

I had made the hard­est choice. I had cho­sen life, and, oh, baby, what a drag. That's what the bot­tle will do to you.

But I had made some friends, oth­er gen­tle­men losers with some use for me.

I was sleep­ing in a small cave on Red Moun­tain, a steep slope up the street that leads to down­town from the city's south side. On the top, a hero­ic size bronze of Vul­can, the pagan god of smelt­ing iron, an arti­fi­cer in bronze and brass, sur­mount­ed the dizzy­ing heights where the high­way pass­es over into Shel­by Coun­ty and its sub­urbs stud­ded with oth­er clas­si­cal water tem­ples and wood­land shrines ded­i­cat­ed to the fad­ed past. Their edu­cat­ed knowl­edge afford­ed those who once shook the hills and moved the banks and rail­roads to pro­duce coke and steel in the city's fur­naces glimpses of what the south could be or could have been if giv­en half an impe­r­i­al chance, I suppose.

In the morn­ings, I could grab a bite to eat in a res­cue mis­sion main­tained by a fun­da­men­tal­ist denom­i­na­tion. That morn­ing it had been left­over fried chick­en from one of the fast food outlets—half frozen, nat­u­ral­ly, and thaw­ing slowly.

A Yan­kee sit­ting at the oth­er end of the table complained.

"I nev­er heard of hav­ing fried chick­en for break­fast!" He kind of shout­ed it. "I thought you boys down south here had your fried chick­en and water­mel­on after church on Sun­days, huh?"

An old boy with a lean and hun­gry face, a goa­tee and a droop­ing mous­tache, said, dead calm­ly, "Then I guess you ain't from the south, are you?"

"Nah, man. I'm from Michigan."

"Well, look here, boy, you in the south now. Hear?"


"I don't want to hear none of yo' Yan­kee lip about it, now. Eat your fried chick­en and hush."

That did it. They were at each oth­er like two wild crea­tures, fangs, claws and paws. I watched as long as I could stand it, then I made my get­away, scoop­ing up anoth­er piece of chick­en and wrap­ping it all in a nap­kin. It was a mighty ugly scene. This was no time to hang around.

Trekking back uphill, I stopped at the old Mason­ic lodge at Five Points, locat­ed in an old red brick mansion.

It was cook­ie mon­ster day, the day the women sent their old men down with home baked oat­meal and choco­late chips.

I often went in there to swab out the johns, stock the coke machine, emp­ty the ash­trays, mop the floors, run the vac­u­um clean­er. You know, stum­ble bum stuff.

Good way to start the day. God knows, I was grate­ful to get it.

To tell you the truth, I kind of liked that old house. The brick was of the grade known as fire brick, hard enough to line a fur­nace or a chim­ney. The joints between each one were bare­ly an eighth of an inch wide—each one plumb, square and lev­el. Its three sto­ries perched on a knob over the street. I guess it would give you the pic­ture of what they mean when they describe some­thing as an "impos­ing edifice."

We main­tained the fic­tion that some day I would peti­tion the lodge for the mys­ter­ies of the craft, but as yet the day had not come. Nev­er­the­less, we were all friendly.

There's some­thing about those old boys that you just can't deny. When they can see a man is try­ing to make it, try­ing to work, they don't scorn him.

I knew enough to get lost when an awk­ward silence occurred. That meant they were going to review mem­o­ry work, some­thing that should not be repeat­ed in front of one who is as yet uninitiated.

About the time I was fin­ish­ing up and Buck gave me some chump change for my work, Char­lie H_______ came in the front door, loud, laugh­ing, throw­ing mock punch­es and pro­tect­ing his nut sack from retal­ia­to­ry grabass attacks from the brethren there assembled.

The best descrip­tion I ever heard any of them give on Char­lie was that he was just plumb eat up with it. Friends, he was plumb eat up with it.

When you looked at Char­lie, you saw the essence of the per­son­al­i­ty of a Babe Ruth or a Mick­ey Man­tle, maybe even old Ty Cobb with all the mean­ness gone out of him—maybe. I guess you'd have to get an esti­mate on that.

But def­i­nite­ly Dizzy Dean. 

Char­lie was a good old boy through and through.


Washed-up pro­fes­sion­al base­ball pitch­er and proud of it.

Now that he's dead, I guess I don't mind say­ing that I loved Char­lie because he loved me. We just seemed to be broth­ers deep in our souls and in our hearts.

I guess I could tell you about the time Char­lie went crazy and start­ed talk­ing Indi­an talk like old Mr. Hem­ing­way, then switched to writ­ing every­thing down in a lit­tle pock­et note­book he would stick in your face if there was some­thing he want­ed you to know.

That didn't last long. Some of them got him laugh­ing, and the next thing you knew, he was telling the kind of sto­ries you would hear in a min­ing camp, a log­ging show, or on a fish­ing vessel.

Oh, Char­lie was a troop­er. But he liked to hoo-raw and grabass more than any­thing else. He lived for it. 

One day, we had been in the Safe­way get­ting the mak­ings for gua­camole. We'd been all over town try­ing to get some cilantro, which they don't have much call for in Birm­ing­ham, so we struck out on that.

But it was just after church and all these lit­tle old blue-haired ladies were wait­ing in line with us, giv­ing us the fish eye.

Char­lie said, "Let's act like we're drunk, man."

Why not?

Over­head, the music speak­ers were play­ing the plain­tive war­ble of that coun­try dis­co hit, "Look­ing For Love in All The Wrong Places" and Char­lie sud­den­ly jerked off his glass­es and pulled his false eye out of its socket.

Then he burst into tears.

Now, here's this big old lunk—I'm sure he weighed over three hun­dred pounds because he was eas­i­ly six-four or five inch­es tall and built like a bear—blubbered up and cry­ing at the top of his lungs.

He said, "You know, Jim, I ain't got but one eye?"

I told him, no, I didn't know that. 

Baloney. It was the first thing you noticed when you talked to Char­lie. The miss­ing eye didn't track the real one.

The truth was that he'd been sent down to the minor league just below the one he was play­ing in for the Los Ange­les Dodgers and he was mean­er than hell and mad at the world about it. He was sup­posed to be work­ing on his stuff.

He brushed an old boy back twice. That's when the old boy stuck a line dri­ve in his eye and his career was over.

The end.

Any­way, the lit­tle old blue-haired ladies by this time were total­ly out­raged at this hoo-raw. He hand­ed the glass eye to me and point­ed to the emp­ty sock­et, which he held open with the fin­gers of his oth­er hand.

"Yeah, man, eye's plumb gone."

"God dog, Char­lie, I had no idea," I said, try­ing hard to sound like this old boy on tele­vi­sion who played a very dumb, very hill­bil­ly Marine.

"You know what hap­pened to me, Jim?"

"I give up, Char­lie. What?"

"I got gon­or­rhea in it!" 

There was a fresh out­burst of tears. The blue-hairs began to stir and mut­ter their outrage.

"Ah was a'lookin' for love in all the wrong places!"

That's when all the blue hairs got out of our line, and we sailed through alone with our avo­ca­dos and chips.


He sold min­ing equip­ment, which, he said, meant just lis­ten­ing to their bull­shit and find­ing out what they want­ed. From there, he said, the engi­neers and the bankers took over, any­way. That meant he trav­elled all over those moun­tains of north­ern Alaba­ma and south­ern Ten­nessee, some over into Georgia—you know, the red dirt coun­try where they get the coal and the i
ron ore.

Nat­u­ral­ly, he worked for his broth­er-in-law, but he was okay about it. In fact, it made him all the better.

But it was a good day to run into Char­lie. I mean, after watch­ing those two act like a cou­ple of ani­mals where they had put some­thing out at the back door for them to feed on and they had to bare their fangs and go animalistic—whew.

Who wants to be remind­ed of his true sta­tion in the world?

Char­lie had a way of mak­ing you for­get that.

Any­way, there he was, big as the side of a house and dressed in a sharp top­coat and wool suit, wingtips spit shined like mir­rors, his old glass­es pol­ished like the chan­de­liers in the governor's mansion.

He glad hand­ed me and asked me what was going on.

So I told him about break­fast, how it wasn't quite suit­able for that Yankee's palate, and the like.

He threw back his head and howled.

"Well, the old boy from the south didn't tell him any­thing wrong, man. We eat fried chick­en for break­fast around here. I've had it many a Mon­day morn­ing and many a morn­ing when there was a death in the fam­i­ly. It's what peo­ple bring after church or to funer­al din­ners. The hell with him if he can't take a joke."

At that moment, I flashed on a barn yard in a south­ern holler, on a farm, and real­ized that free rang­ing chick­en was prob­a­bly a good bet for eggs, for fried chick­en, for whatever.

We got to talking—viztin', as he called it. He told me the damnedest sto­ry about fried chick­en I ever heard.

You know, it's an old south­ern cus­tom to kill a hen and have fried chick­en when you know com­pa­ny is com­ing. Even when you don't know they're com­ing and just show up, folks do it because they want to. We're talk­ing sliced toma­toes, fresh sweet corn, fried okra, mashed pota­toes and gravy. 

"Shut your mouth," Char­lie said. He threw back his head and roared. He did a lot of roar­ing. It punc­tu­at­ed his conversations.

He said he was once on a sales trip way up a holler in Ten­nessee, about half lost and in no hur­ry, and he stopped in at a lit­tle cross­roads store to have a Nehi and a Moon Pie.

"Hell, man, I was about to starve to death back in those days. It was right after my eye got put out. In fact, I ate so many Moon Pies my ass liked to gone into total eclipse."

Char­lie liked to eat, even more he liked to talk about food and eating.

Any­way, back to the sto­ry of the cross­roads store.

While Char­lie was there, a wid­ow and her son came to the store to get a few things. She told the man who was keep­ing store there to kill a chick­en and butch­er it for her. She had com­pa­ny coming.

You see, he didn't have much in the way of refrig­er­a­tion, so he just kept the fry­ers and hens alive until they were needed.

So the old boy told his son to go kill the chick­en and pluck it. They wait­ed and wait­ed. Then they wait­ed some more.

Now, this storekeeper's son, accord­ing to Char­lie, was obvi­ous­ly kind of retard­ed. He was bare­foot­ed and naked under his over­alls and he had the kind of vacant expres­sion many men­tal­ly chal­lenged peo­ple affect.

Final­ly, the man called him and he came around to the front of the store with the chick­en in his arms.

He was try­ing to pluck it, all right. The prob­lem was that the chick­en was still alive.

Exas­per­at­ed, the store­keep­er had told him, "Son, that chick­en can't stand that."

"Chicken's got to stand it," the boy said. Char­lie used those dull, unin­flect­ed tones to get the point across.

We all fell out laughing.

Why was that fun­ny? You know, it sure as hell tick­led all us old boys.

I don't know, but on that frosty morn­ing in Birm­ing­ham when I, near­ly naked myself, des­per­ate­ly poor and lost in a nation—and let's make no mis­take about it, the south is still a nation, still defeat­ed by war and deprivation—burst into hys­ter­i­cal laugh­ter, joined by Char­lie and a half a dozen oth­er good old boys with noth­ing but time on our hands.

I guess we didn't know any better.

Jim Parks

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