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Hal Prize 2017 First Place Fiction: ‘Chicken’ by Scott Winkler

Clay and I milked the cows for the last time. Our mother insisted on being in the barn with her camera, switching out flash cubes between pictures of us washing the cows’ udders, slipping on the black rubber inflations to draw out the milk, dipping the cows’ teats in an iodine solution, and pouring milk through a filtered funnel into the large metal cans we toted to cool in the stone tub filled with cold water in the milk house. When she prompted me to smile, I had no difficulty in doing so. I wouldn’t miss them. The herd had been good to our family, but with my father gone, Clay leaving for Basic in two days, and my going to Madison in August, selling the cows to a trusted neighbor was the right thing to do.

Clay didn’t smile so easily, but then he’d never been the type to smile for photos. Pictures of him in our mother’s album showed the sternest face in America’s Dairyland – not angry or sour, just stern. She did capture a hint of a smile in one shot that day when she oohed and ahhed at his muscles while toting surge bucket of one of the milking machines.

After milking, we completed the morning chores but didn’t herd the cows to pasture; loading them in trailers was easier if we guided them from stanchions to the walled ramp at the barn doors. Melvin Zwijacz and his son Robert, eight years my senior and certain to one day take over his father’s operation, arrived soon after the chores.

Though we’d sought to make our job easier by loading from the barn, cows are cows – stubborn, prone to urinating or defecating without warning, massive, and dumbly strong. Not every cow presented a problem; Old Plug lumbered easily, her rear hips swaying slowly, without any prodding. Some, like the young cow we called She-Devil, proved difficult. She-Devil couldn’t be milked without positioning a large clamp, resembling an inverted horseshoe with a crank at its axis, in front of her rear hips. Cranked tight, the two halves squeezed to prevent her from kicking. We didn’t have the luxury of using the clamp for transport, and she did her best to do everything but what we wanted.

Eventually, though, with the aid of shouts and raised arms, of waving broom handles and pitchforks, we loaded and transported all the cows. The job took hours. The adult cows were easier to load than the heifers, who hadn’t entered the barn since we pastured them in the spring. We collectively worked to close in on each heifer individually, herding it toward the barnyard door. Smaller than the cows, the heifers had spring in their steps. 800 pounds of Holstein trotting toward collision prompted each of us to step out of a heifer’s path more than once, requiring us to begin again our efforts to herd the animal into the barn and trailer.

We didn’t stop for lunch. By three o’clock, we’d all sweat through our clothes and were covered to varying degrees with chaff, dust, and manure, but we’d successfully transported 42 adult cows, 24 heifers, and a dozen calves to their new home. Clay and I stood beneath the light pole near the asphalt shingled well cover. Clay, perched on the edge of the lid, didn’t look as tired as I felt. As Melvin spoke with my mother and tucked his check book into his shirt pocket, Robert approached us. “Thank you, guys. Dad and I couldn’t have done this alone.”

Clay shrugged. “It’s what neighbors do,” he said.

“Not a problem,” I said. “We’re happy to help.” I wasn’t going to miss waking up for 5am milking.

“We’ll take good care of them,” Robert said. “Your dad had a good herd.”

“He did,” I said. “He wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to have them.”

“It’s appreciated,” Robert said. “I’ve been hoping to grow our operation for a while now.”

I saw an excitement in his eyes I’d never felt and was happy for him.

“If there’s anything we can do,” Robert said, “to help you out. I know it can’t be easy with your mom being – ”

Clay interrupted him – not rudely, but coolly, in that way Clay had. “She’ll be fine,” he said. “We all will. Right, Walt?”

I looked at my brother. “Right,” I said. Several of our mother’s siblings still lived in Shawano, much closer than either of us would soon be. Peace of mind. “We will.”

After the funeral, I’d asked my mother if she wanted me to stay home that fall. She looked at me as if the sun had risen in the west that morning and made it very clear that I wasn’t about to abandon my hopes or her prayers for me. She said she hadn’t really thought about what she’d now do, but that her gardens always needed tending, that our church would never turn away a volunteer, that the new library might need someone to re-stack the shelves and read for preschoolers at story time, or that she’d discover an adventure waiting for her.

Melvin walked to us. Behind him, dark clouds gathered in the west. “Thank you,” he said. “Your father would be proud. You’ve taken good care of the farm, and we’ll take good care of the animals.” He shook hands with Clay and me. “Good luck at school, Walt, and Clay, do us all proud. Your father will be smiling down.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“I will,” said Clay.

Melvin and Robert walked to their truck. In their movements, I sensed the same weariness that had settled in my bones.

Mine surpassed the exhaustion of having worked since sunrise, though. If the last three years had beaten me down, the last month had drained me – but not drained enough to dismiss the thought that crossed my mind when walked toward the house and looked to the side yard, where the fruit of the cherry trees was just beginning to streak red. “Hey, Clay,” I said, “hungry for some chicken?”

“It’s been a while,” he said, “but you know me.”

“I do,” I said and went up the front stairs and into the mudroom for our gloves and a baseball.

Chicken ball was a silly and, to be honest, dangerous game Clay and I had played since we were boys. Standing at opposite ends of the side yard – Clay near the outhouse that went unused since my parents installed indoor plumbing and I near the sprawling lilac bush whose lavender flowers perfumed the air each May – we lobbed high, soft tosses to loosen our arms. Once loose, we each took a step closer. Easy lobs became faster pegs, and as the distance decreased, velocity increased. We repeated the process: another step closer when we agreed it was right, sometimes with a word, but more often than not with a gesture or a nod. Ultimately, we stood no more than thirty feet apart, throwing the ball as hard as we could, aiming for a shoulder or shin, a knee or even a crotch, daring one another either to trust hair-trigger reflexes or to flinch and bail – to chicken out.

As we took our places on either end of the yard, the clouds drew closer. Lightning briefly flashed, followed several seconds later by thunder rolling. Clay’s first toss was high and lazy, and I could easily see the slow rotation of the red laces as it dropped from the darkening sky. Though exhausted from the day’s work, I limbered up quickly. Muscle memory took over. Clay and I had played chicken ball more times than we could count, and for as ludicrous as the game was, we loved it. Clay and I were so different in so many ways, but this – this we shared: a link, however tenuous, to my kid brother.

As we played, I wondered about my brother’s reaction to our father’s letters to us. I wasn’t surprised that we hadn’t spoken of them; it wasn’t the only subject floating between us that we couldn’t bring ourselves to voice, and I wasn’t going to force the issue. My openness with Meg and Tom and even my mother was counterbalanced by the silence between the men in my family. With each other, we’d always been detached. When frustration, desperation, or anger forced a moment to its crisis, we resorted to shouts, resentment, and uneasiness writhing like something electrical.

Another step closer.

Clay couldn’t have felt what I did when I read my letter. It was impossible. We may have spoken little, but history told me that much. He had his own dreams, and I could only imagine the measure of pride that filled him when he read our father’s thoughts about raising us to serve and be better men than him.

Another step. Higher velocity.

He had to be proud, embracing our father’s ideals, that he’d become the man our father envisioned when squinting through the mists of time for a glimpse of his sons in the future…

Another. Faster.

… that he – not me – was on the cusp of fulfilling the dream closest to our father’s heart, repaying the debt I’d never see as anything but a liability.

Thirty feet. Terminal velocity.

And all that – was okay. We chose targets with impunity. More lightning, more thunder. Clay’s next throw was low and hard, a beeline for my right ankle. I speared the ball just above the grass.

I loved Clay. I returned his throw, left shoulder, snapping my wrist for maximum backspin. And it wasn’t simply blood. His throw streaked toward my left knee, my mitt swallowing it before it struck me. He was a hell of a ballplayer. Right shin. I wished the scouts had swayed him. I saw Clay as misguided, but his beliefs were his; I wouldn’t change them. The knee again. Rain began to fall. I was afraid for him. I knew he’d live through Vietnam, knew that as a soldier he’d carry his body with the same preternatural grace he exhibited on the diamond, treading lightly, gliding through razor grass, over paddy and trail without triggering a mine or allowing an unseen soldier to draw a bead. I threw sidearm, changing the trajectory of the ball, making it rise toward his throat. He snared it with nonchalance. I wasn’t afraid for his body. I feared for his soul.

The rain fell in sheets, but we didn’t stop. Our mother called from the porch, but I couldn’t hear her voice over the thunder. The knee a third time. I couldn’t remember my last win in chicken ball. I might have been nine, maybe ten. A long time ago. I whipped the ball toward his chest, hoping in the act of catching it he’d hear. Not a word now. It’s okay. He’d even won when one of my throws had skipped just before reaching him, catching him in the mouth and snapping a front tooth cleanly in half. But someday. Angled away from me, I threw at Clay’s heel. You’ll talk. His left hand reached downward, snaring the ball and transferring it to his meat hand as he pirouetted to return the throw. You’ll need it. I caught the ball a hair’s breadth above the bridge of my nose. I’ll listen.

As I gripped the ball, the hair on my arms stood on end. A concussion sucked the air from the world for a heartbeat. The butternut tree whose limbs hung over the cows’ path to pasture exploded in a flash of smoke and splinters. A thick limb groaned and dropped to the ground, pulling away the bark, exposing a white gash. Our mother screamed, but her voice came from somewhere far away, too far away to reach us. Clay, his smirk situated between amusement and wonder, crouched as he would in the field, motioning for my throw. I did, trusting I’d neither flinch nor bail.

 

Scott Winkler is currently a high school English teacher whose unflagging belief in the power of words and ideas guides both his pedagogy and his writing. Scott’s publication background is varied and diverse. His academic work has previously appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture and Aethlon, and his short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications. His book The Wide Turn Toward Home, a collection of seven short stories and the title novella, was published by Pocol Press in 2008.

Judge’s Comment

How amazing to evoke a whole world in a small space, which “Chicken” does so masterfully. The dignity and the strong bond of this grieving family are rendered with compassion and warmth. It’s also a quite admirable “brother story,” which I am always a sucker for, and contains an earned moment of (actual!) electrical magic. – Nonfiction Judge David Haynes

 

For a complete list of 2017 Hal Prize winners, click here.

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