Lightning on a Chicken Fence
Kilroy Hubberd slammed the front door on his daddy's trailer, sprinted the eighth of a mile through the dusty pulpwood yard avoiding the guinea hens, jumped the ditch, landed on both feet, looked at me for a second, and then launched himself through the open passenger side door and over me, and landed in a ball in the back seat. Kilroy was a full head taller and thirty pounds heavier than me and James Gordon, and we were both six foot, and two hundred pounds and change, but he was nimble as a cat from years of dodging falling pine trees, and he liked to show off. He smelled like soap and his crew-cut, the crew-cut his daddy made him keep even though it was 1976, was sopping wet from his shower, but his black T-shirt was already showing the beginning of a good sweat around his armpits and in the cavity of his stomach. Bathing in an unairconditioned trailer in North Carolina in August was pretty much a waste of time and water, but Kilroy maintained the hope that one night he might get laid, and he didn't plan to let the chance slip by for lack of at least trying to be clean.
I rubbed my shoulder where he had kicked me diving into the car and turned full to face him in the back seat.
"Mother, if you don't stop getting in the car like that I'm gonna start riding in the trunk."
Mother was Kilroy's nickname, as in Mother Hubbard in the nursery rhyme, and I had never heard anybody call him Kilroy except occasionally his daddy. Mother's daddy, Erskine Hubberd, had been a career Army sergeant, among the first wave of Rangers to hit the Normandy beaches on D Day in World War Two, and he named Mother "Kilroy" after the "Kilroy was here" slogan painted on the rocks and fences and barns and burned-out buildings he saw in Europe during the war. He said Kilroy would always be welcome anywhere in Europe, just tell them his name was Kilroy and they'd probably give him a parade.
"So get in the trunk, if you feel that strongly about it," Mother said, "it's only about two hundred degrees in there. Or get back here and I'll ride shotgun."
Riding shotgun in the front passenger seat was a position of honor in our social circle second only to driving the car. James Gordon lived within sight of my house, so he always picked me up first, which gave me rights to the passenger seat. I wasn't about to give up the front seat and Mother knew it.
"No, thanks, I believe I'll sit right here," I said. "I'm just telling you that if you don't stop heaving yourself around like a goddam maniac you're going to end up about as pretty as your daddy."
The big saws of the lumber yard had taken all of Erskine Hubberd's fingers save one on his left hand and two on his right, and flying splinters had put out his left eye, but he always said as long as he had as much as one eye and a finger and a thumb he could hoist a Pabst Blue Ribbon and hold the steering wheel of a pulpwood truck, and see where he'd been and where he was going, and he'd be fine, don't you worry. In fact, he tended to spend a lot more time hoisting the Pabst than holding the steering wheel, and when he was drunk, as he usually was, he generally addressed Mother as "you son of a bitch" rather than by his Christian name, which didn't make Mother special since Mr. Hubberd pretty much addressed everybody else the same way.
Mother knew very little about the bitch he was supposedly the son of, except for some faded pictures of a pretty woman in a unused bible in his father's bedside table, pictures that his daddy said were of "your mama, Emma, before the TB got her". Mr. Hubberd was forthcoming to Mother about very little more of his family history except that his paternal grandparents were long dead, and as for Emma's parents, his daddy didn't know or particularly give a shit.
Mother had called James Gordon late this afternoon, exercised about something he'd seen at the river earlier, during his lunch, something up on the ridge where Mr. Hubberd kept some of his brood chickens and his fighting cock. Mother said he couldn't tell James Gordon on the phone, he wanted to tell both of us, in person. So as soon as I finished ribbing Mother about our relative seat placement he grabbed the front seat with both hands, pulled himself halfway over, and hollered in James Gordon's ear.
"You shoulda seen it. It was unbelievable, just un-goddam believable!"
James Gordon winced at Mother, put his finger in his ear, and stuck his head out the window as he pulled the old '55 Ford out onto highway 15. He brought his head in the car and looked at Mother in the rear view mirror.
"So you told me on the phone. For chrissake tell us what's so unbelievable and try to do without deafening all of us. And throw this out for me and get me a fresh one, if you don't mind, there're some in the trunk."
James Gordon handed Mother his empty Budweiser can, and Mother picked up the backseat floormat and dropped the can on the highway through the rusted-out hole in the floorboard behind the front passenger seat. It clattered away across the blacktop behind us.
Mother watched it bounce through the back window, saluted, and said, "Depth charge away, cap'n, time to reload." Then he pulled up the 6 by 9 speaker cover off the rear deck and reached through the hole in the fiberboard into the cooler strapped in the trunk. He splashed around for a second before he pulled out two beers. He handed one to me and one to James Gordon.
"Like I said, I'm up on the ridge over the river," Mother said as he reached back into the trunk, got himself a beer and carefully replaced the fake speaker grille. "Behind the trees next to the chicken barn, behind the coop with the fighting cock Daddy's so proud of, where it hangs out over the river, you know where I mean?"
"I know where you are, it backs up on Uncle Norwood's farm," James Gordon said. He popped the top on his beer and suds poured out. He rushed it to his mouth too late to avoid getting the spewing foam all over his face back to his ears, and up his nose, and he snorted and spit out the window. "Damn, this beer's getting almost too hot to drink. Anybody got any money for ice? I bought gas yesterday and I'm broke as the Ten Commandments. Bam-bam, you got any cash money?"
Bam-bam was me, Lawrence William Hite, nicknamed by my older sister Susan, who said that as a baby I was a big, drooling mess who didn't do anything but scream and beat on things, like a boy in a cartoon. I didn't like to be called Lawrence, which is what my parents and teachers called me, so I stuck with Bam-bam.
I was fifteen, and James Gordon was seventeen, although he was only one grade ahead of me because he got held back, and like all the other boys our age in rural eastern North Carolina, except Mother, we got spending money in the summer by working in the tobacco fields, picking the prime leaves and loading them on the big drag sleds for the mules to haul to the barn. We primed for James Gordon's Uncle Norwood, and made precious little money doing it, so our usual arrangement was to pool our cash and split expenses between the three of us. James Gordon handled the gas, which made sense since he was the only one of us with a car, and me and Mother split beer and ice. The problem was, even though Mother was eighteen years old and had dropped out of school two years ago to work full-time, the full- time work he got was driving a pulpwood truck for his daddy and his daddy seldom paid him, not so much out of meaness as due to the fact that they didn't make any profit to speak of. As a result, Mother always owed me for his share of beer and ice.
"Yeah, we need ice bad," I said, "I got five dollars. I'll get a bag at Porkchop's, if Mother'll promise to catch me up later, and I'll get a six pack of cold beers. These hot beers are killing me."
Mother leaned over the front seat again and he had a pained expression on his face.
"Shit," he said, "will you two quit going on about the damn ice and listen to me?"
James Gordon eyed me and said, "Alright, Mother, go ahead."
Mother took a long swallow of warm beer, gagged a little and shook his head, and sat back.
"Ok, anyway, I'm up on the ridge over the river. I snuck away during lunch while Daddy was taking a nap, I figured I'd smoke a joint real quick before we went back to the trucks. I'm sitting up there in the trees, just watching the river. I fire up a joint of that horseshit homegrown Porkchop's selling as pot these days, not a flower bud in it, and it smells like you're burning a wet dog. I figure I'd have to smoke a half a ounce to get a buzz, and I only got a joint, which is probably just as well since I got to drive wood all afternoon. I'm sitting there when I hear a rumble like lightning off to my left and I creep out on the ridge and look up the river, you know, since that's where the weather always comes from when it's this hot. Sure enough, way off east I see what looks like a wall of rain, but it don't appear to moving too fast so I figure I'll just lie on the ridge and watch it awhile while I smoke my joint.
"Bam-bam, James Gordon, all of a sudden the sky right over my head turns orange, not bright orange but kinda orange-red, but not dark, not like it's going to rain. Scared the shit out of me and I hustled back under the trees lickety-split....."
I interrupted Mother in mid-sentence.
"Mother, you got a death wish? You don't get under a tree in a thunderstorm, you'll get your ass electrocuted."
"Jesus Christ, I know that," Mother said and looked at me, disgusted. "I was born at night but it wasn't last night. What I'm telling you is it didn't look like a thunderboomer, it looked like, I don't know, maybe the beginning of a tornado or a hurricane, whatever that looks like. A kind of a sick orange color, but not cloudy."
We hit a straightaway where highway 15 cut a path between two huge fields of tobacco, the rows spreading out almost endlessly to our east and west, the regularly placed plants looking like a million columns of dwarf Indians in matching green headress marching in perfect order toward the distant pines. As I looked out across the vast expanse I felt the pressure of changeless decades of planting, and growing, and picking, and dying, the pressure of boredom and tiredness and dust sitting on the fields as heavy as the August heat.
"By now I was back under the trees," Mother went on, and he snapped my attention back from the tobacco field, "a little way from the river, and the sky over the river was a getting to be downright weird looking. The brood chickens were behind me in the big chicken house, but daddy's fighting rooster was in the pen in front of me to the left, and he was out of the coop, and I swear, he was sorta looking at the sky, and shifting on his feet, not arguing with the chickens in the big pen or feeding like he usually does, but he looked calm-like, leastways calm for a fighting cock that's seen as many tussles as him.
"The rain is still way down the river, and it's hell-a-shus hot on the ridge and seems to be getting hotter by the second. The sky over the rooster has gone yellow, but with red streaks in it, rheumy like daddy's eyes after a bender, and the wind starts to kinda whirl around, but there still isn't a cloud in the sky. By now I'm pretty good scared and figure I might crawl on back down the hill and make a dash for the trailer before the heavy weather sets in."
Mother is sitting up now, and his voice is rising.
"I crawl backwards about three feet, when it gets darker fast, and I hear an explosion like a train wreck, and a godawful flush of heat, and the force of it flipped me slam over flat on my back on the ground. I'm flat on my ass and I see the yellow sky with the red swirls flowing around in it, and I figure I'm dead, I been lightning struck, but it seems like I must be alive because I hear a crackling sound and it don't seem to be coming from me, it's about twenty yards away, toward the river.
"I got my wits, sat up and what I saw like to made me pass out, because it looked like God had opened the gate to hell, spitting fire and brimstone between me and the river, and I thought now for sure I was a dead man and I felt myself to make sure I was solid and wasn't on fire. The rooster's coop was blown all to cinders, and balls of flame were rising off the smoking ground from where it had been and were floating into the sky like big fiery balloons, musta been three or four, and they were the size of this car.
"The crackling that brought me around was the chicken fence; the goddam metal was on fire, and orange and blue flame was streaking up and down and around and around like a circus ride made from lit lighter fluid, and it was sputtering and crackling and throwing sparks in the air and acting like something alive, something alive and pissed off. The fence posts had almost burned black, but everytime the fire whipped around past one of them posts it would send up a puff of smoke, like blowing a smoke ring, and make a little sighing noise, sort like spitting on a hot skillet, and I almost felt sorry for the posts, it seemed like the fence was killing them, the way they were acting."
Mother slid back into his seat. He took a deep breath and another slug of beer, but he only washed this one around in his mouth, then leaned over and spit it out the window.
"Well, this goes on for a while," he said, "the fence sputtering and flashing like it's possessed, seems like ten minutes, but it's probably only seconds, until finally only single squares of the fence flash blue every once in a while. Then all of a sudden the fence posts give up the ghost and collapse, and the weight of the posts pulls the whole fence in on itself easy as folding down a tent. The sky clears, the sun is shining bright and normal, like nothing happened, only there's a big circle of charred smoking ground in front of me, like somebody took off in a flying saucer. I wait a few minutes, I figure I'll let things calm down a bit more if they need to, then I kinda crawl up toward what's left of the pen. Nothing else happens, so after a minute or so I go ahead and stand up and walk over the fence, which is burned completely to hell and breaks up into metal toothpicks when I step on it, and into the pen, and you won't believe what's happened in there."
"What?" me and James Gordon said together.
"Daddy's fighting rooster was in there and he was standing up, only he wasn't alive, nothing could have lived through that explosion, and there was no sign of feathers, but he was standing up, burned black right through, a chicken cinder, and his head was turned like he was looking out over the river at what hit him. I was standing there looking at him standing there looking at the sky, dead as a doornail, when the sky got dark for real and the rain from up the river hit hard, and in a second I was standing there looking at a pile of black mush on the ground that used to be chicken, and I hauled ass down the hill to the trailer before I got the same treatment."
He finished his beer in a gulp and threw the empty out the window.
"I been feeling a little, I don't know, funny since then," he said quietly.
"I ain't surprised," James Gordon said.
"Just funny, that's all," Mother said and he stared through the back window of the Ford at the far thunderheads gathering, as usual, in the late afternoon heat rising over the river. "Like I ain't all here," he said to the clouds.
"Lord, have mercy, that's somethin'," I said. Mother turned to face me.
"Say what?" he said.
"I said 'Lord, have mercy'," I repeated.
"Maybe," Mother said softly, and he turned back to the window.
James Gordon steered the Ford into the parking lot of Porkchop's Qwik Mart and we climbed out of the car in front of the country store and went in.
Except for Mother. When I looked back through the glass door I saw that he had jumped the ditch and he was standing in the tobacco field beside the river, silhouetted against the storm clouds, his head cocked to one side, looking.
Calm, and just barely shifting on his feet as he watched the dark swirling sky move toward him over the water.