This is not a story about two birds.
It is a story about one bird that, for a short while, was imagined as a bird of a different feather.
That being said, it is, for the most part, a true story.
Some names were embellished, and some events were changed to protect those who are easily offended, or simply guilty.
This story takes place in and around Greenwich, Connecticut, a bedroom community outside of New York City. It begins about a month before Thanksgiving, in the year of our lord, 1985.
I was a production manager at a typesetting shop, heading up the overnight shift. Among the employees in my charge was a young woman named Leigh-Anne. Leigh-Anne was originally from North Carolina, and, although telling the whitest of lies would never occur to her, she had a very direct, no-nonsense demeanor about her.
Leigh-Anne had been raised on a farm, a true working farm with all the animals one would expect on a working farm. She had only been in the NYC area for a year or so, and as such still carried most, if not all, of her southern charm around with her like a worn out, oversize, over-the-shoulder jute satchel. Her emotions were not far from that satchel, either. Her absolute honesty and naivete kept her sensitized.
In the course of the year or so that Leigh-Anne had been working in my department, she had needed to return home to North Carolina on several occasions, to attend her grandmother’s funeral. Now, this particular October day she approached me and said that she needed, once again, to take Friday off to go home for a funeral.
I asked her, “Leigh-Anne, just how many grandparents do you have?”
Leigh-Anne was not small. But she was short, round, and usually made two trips when hauling ass. Atop her stout but rotund frame was a very round head, with close-cropped hair to accentuate her Michelin Tire Man appearance.
That round face gazed up at me, aghast; with tears welling up in eyes set too close together in her puffy round face, she blurted, “I started with elevum. But then things started a-gettin’ kinda bad…”
I could feel my mind beginning to twist and bend like a soft pretzel with mustard, and I knew that there was going to be more – much more – to this story. Rather than suffer through the horticultural history of her genealogy (I was pretty sure there weren’t many branches on that family tree), I simply said, “Okay, okay, you can have Friday off. See you next Monday.”
And so it was that Leigh-Anne was gone yet one more Friday, as her ancestry continued to dwindle one granny at a time.
At this time, I was living in a two-family, three-story house with a co-worker also named Mark. (We’ll call him Mark J., for differentiation.) The house was an enormous structure, built on the top of a hill. It had a garage and an oil-burning furnace located on the bottom-most floor. Also on that level was the first floor apartment.
Our apartment occupied the upper two floors, and was accessed by entering a door on the first floor then ascending a very steep, very narrow flight of stairs to the second floor. On that floor was the living room, kitchen, bath, and one bedroom which Mark J. used for various purposes, including sleep. Up another steep flight of stairs was my area: dressing room, sitting area, bath and bedroom. So was the house laid out.
Mark J. and I both worked nights, although my hours were such that I started and ended about an hour later than he. But most days, I’d be home by 7am or so, and we would drink beer and play guitar till noon, then sleep, and do it all over again the next day.
Now, Mark J. was a very unique character. Basically a flunky, he was nonetheless a good guy, an excellent musician; he had a quick wit and a bizarre sense of humor. Probably most notable among his traits was his ability to do damage – serious damage – to a case of Budweiser beer in cans. His expertise in this field of endeavor was beyond dispute. To his credit, he honed and perfected this skill set on a near daily basis.
Keep in mind that we worked overnights, Monday night till Friday night. Tuesday through Friday afternoons were spent sleeping, so as to be able to work that night. Saturdays, on the other hand, were an altogether different animal. These were usually spent like most other normal people – awake – and often imbibing in bubbly, sometimes malty, beverages as the day turned toward evening.
And so it was on that particularly memorable Saturday in question. I had opted to retire to bed by late afternoon, and thus declined to join Mr. J. on this momentous adventure.
It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and Mark J. had gone to one of the local watering holes to do his usual workout: right arm elbow bends. Now it just so happens that this particular pub was having a Thanksgiving turkey raffle that evening. The drawing was to be held at midnight, and in order to win, the lucky ticket holder needed to be present at the time of the drawing. Tickets were given away with each drink purchased that evening. Buy one drink, get one ticket. Buy another, get another.
You can probably see where this is going. My buddy, roommate, fellow co-worker and general cohort-at-large was determined to win that turkey. Believing not just in the luck of the draw, Mark J. figured that if he had more tickets than the other patrons, his chances of winning would increase. He was determined to increase those odds in his favor as much as he possibly could. And so he did.
Midnight came around, and the few patrons still left in the place gathered anxiously around the big fish bowl that held all the tickets accumulated through the night. The bartender began to draw the tickets. The interminable waiting was exacerbated by the fact that the first sixteen or seventeen ticket numbers belonged to folks who had already left.
But finally a ticket was drawn that could be claimed by a patron still present in the bar. And yes, it was, of course, Mr. Mark J., now the proud owner of a free Thanksgiving turkey.
Thankful for having been chosen to receive this hard-won prize, Mark J. bought a round for everyone still in the bar. The bartender, meanwhile, went to the kitchen to fetch the bird.
Visions of a sumptuous holiday feast replete with all the fixins washed over him like pan gravy poured over mashed potatoes, stuffing and sweet yams, surrounding slabs of tender turkey breast, plated aside crunchy-on-top green bean casserole, cranberry sauce and warm rolls fresh out of the oven.
Noises from the kitchen drew him back from his reverie, and he could hear the bartender approaching. Mark J. wondered if the turkey was fresh, or frozen. “Not to worry, either way will be fine,” he thought.
However, when the bartender reappeared from the kitchen, Mark J. wished for frozen. Matter of fact, he wished for a frozen TV dinner.
The turkey was not frozen. Nor was it, strictly speaking, fresh. Nor was it butchered yet. Nor was it even dead. Nor was it a turkey.
In his arms, the bartender held a crate. A very heavy wooden crate. Inside the crate was a very nervous, very aggressive creature. A bird, for sure, but not a turkey. No, not a turkey at all. The bartender placed the crate atop the bar, and everybody gathered ‘round to see just what Mark J. had gotten himself into.
The crate measured approximately two feet long by one-and-a-half feet wide, and was about 18 inches tall. Made of wooden slats nailed to a frame, with a trap door on top, it was not quite big enough to comfortably accommodate its contents: a rooster. A very large rooster. The biggest rooster any of these fellows had ever seen. And now, having been so rudely wrenched from sleep, a very agitated rooster.
Mark J. looked at the bartender, who, seeing his expression, declared, “Oh, no, no. You won it, you take it. No do-overs, no opposite pole, no way, no how. Congratulations, sir, you now own a rooster. Last call.”
This all happened around midnight, Saturday before Thanksgiving, in a small bar near the Connecticut-New York State border. Bars in Connecticut closed around 1am; bars in New York State were open until 4am. So Mark J., a couple other guys from the bar, and the rooster headed across the state line to fulfill their newfound lifelong mission: get loaded with a crated rooster in tow, and see who they could persuade to take it off their hands.
I was having a nightmare. I was stuck inside a box of corn flakes at some construction site I’d never been to. The noise was deafening: bang, bang, clunk, crunch, ouch, damn, stop that, crash, bang, boom, rattle … ark-a-rook-a-roo, ark-a-rook-a-roo … crash, clunk, thunk, stoppit you little mofo, there, whump, aaarrrk-a-roook-a-roooo.
Slowly, I began to awaken. Now there was laughter coming from downstairs, drunken laughter. Then, “Hey, get back here … what the … arrraaahhh … lookout … holy sh… whoa!”
I ventured gingerly down the stairs, craning my neck to look around the wall into the living room.
What I beheld made me wish I was still dreaming. There was a wooden crate in the middle of the living room floor, what appeared to be its lid nearby, feathers of various colors everywhere, and Mark J. crouching beside the sofa, bleeding from a plethora of wounds on his arms, neck and face.
When he saw me, he urgently slurred, “Closhe all the doorsh. I think I can catshh shhim.” Um, okay, whatever you say.
As I rounded the corner to secure the door to the downstairs bath, I saw the creature. I looked at it. It looked at me. Neither of us had the look of love in our eye.
What it beheld was, from its point of view, most likely just another human, this one in sweat pants, sweat shirt, and slippers. And afraid. Very afraid. And it was right.
What I beheld, on the other hand, was the biggest, rattiest, ugliest, meanest looking rooster I’d ever seen. And I was right, too.
Pterodactyls and Foghorn Leghorn came to mind, but this was no silly cartoon. This was one monstrous rooster, and it was glaring at me with obvious malicious intent. “Um, yo, Mark J., do we have a Plan B?”
“Nope. Notch chyet.”
And so it came to pass that we had our very first pet. With the aid of a lasso, some corn flakes for bait, heavy leather gloves and a great deal of physical dexterity combined with nerves of steel of which a combat veteran would be proud, we managed to contain the rooster and get it safely re-incarcerated in its crate.
Seems that the escape was the result of Mark J. figuring the bird was hungry (true), and wanting to feed him some cereal (nice), but rather than just tossing some flakes through the slats in the crate (seems reasonable), Mark J. put the cereal in a bowl (why?) and, because the bowl wouldn’t fit through the slats, he opened the trap door on top (dumb), and when the rooster stood up to full height, he dumped the cereal onto the bird (dumber), screamed, further agitating the bird (dumber still), dropped the lid out of reach (maximum dumb) and ran for cover (pretty smart).
And what of all that noise in my dream? Well, remember the layout of the house. Very narrow, very steep stairs coming up to the apartment. And Mark J., up for a day and a half, setting an apparent record for making twelve-ounce Budweiser cans nearly as light as air, arrived home, crate-full-of-rooster in tow.
The side-to-side clearance of the stairwell, because of the banister and handrail, measured about 24 inches. When carried by the handles on the side, the width of the crate measured about 24 inches. Not much room for the hands there, so he carried it lengthwise.
Now it fit, but with no purchase on the outside of the crate, his fingers were wrapped inside the openings between the slats. And the weight of the crate (just under twenty pounds) combined with the weight of the rooster (well over twenty pounds) made for a very precarious trip up the stairs.
His efforts produced lots of side-to-side sway between the walls of the stairwell (bang, thud), significant stop-and-go, forward-backward jerking motions (whoa, thump), and a whole lot of pitch and yaw as the crate tipped this way and that (arrk-a-rook-a-roo). None of this pleased the rooster, and when he could, he would nip at Mark J.’s exposed fingers (yow, ouch, stop that).
But being diligent as he was, Mark J. did indeed finally negotiate the stairs, manage to place (whump) the crate down, and then, of course, release the bird. Hence the noises in my dream. And together we did manage to get the bird back in his crate. Hence my aversion to poultry to this day.
So now what, you may ask. Well, I’ll tell you.
Johnny was our friend. He liked Michelob brand beer, in bottles. He also liked fast cars. Johnny came over later the next day, Sunday, in his new Camaro, to help brainstorm with us about this rooster situation. Johnny knew a guy in rural New Jersey who lived on a farm. And Johnny figured we could take our rooster there, too. And everybody would be happy. And so it was.
Now, Johnny’s new Camaro wasn’t really new, per se, but new to him nonetheless. He’d only had it a few weeks, but he really loved that car. Which is why it is both easy and difficult to explain precisely why he chose to drive that fateful night. On the one hand, a sane person would not want a rooster in his new car, especially a wild, spiteful, agitated monster of a rooster who’d not had the best of days. On the other hand, Johnny wasn’t sane. And he loved to drive. So a trip down the Jersey Turnpike seemed like just the right thing to do, at the time.
Later that evening, Mark J. and Johnny loaded up the Camaro. Johnny took the driver’s seat. Mark J. rode shotgun. There was no room for me, as the back seat was filled with a case of Budweiser in cans, a case of Michelob in bottles, and a crate of rooster in a snit.
Off they went, heading down the New Jersey Turnpike, Johnny sipping Mich, Mark J. tipping Buds, and the rooster snorting and crowing. An hour or so into the trip, Mark J. asked if perhaps they should have called Johnny’s friend. “Nah, and anyway, I don’t have his number,” replied Johnny. “And besides, if he knew why we were coming, he might not let us in. So I figure it’s better just to show up, give him a few beers, and beg for his help.”
“Oh, great,” said Mark J. “And just what do we do if he’s not even home?”
“Oh, we’ll just drive down the road ‘till we see another farm, and drop the rooster there.”
“Oh, great,” said Mark J., imagining himself in front of the Group W Bench, for littering or some such.
Needless to say, upon arrival at Johnny’s friend’s farm, no one was home. So down the road they went, hunting for a likely farm to drop the rooster, all the while drinking their respective beers and trying not to appear suspicious. However, something about a hot-rod Camaro with two hippie-looking guys, driving slowly and apparently aimlessly down infrequently traveled country roads, does indeed arouse suspicion, and when the State Patrol car lit them up, Johnny handed Mark J. his beer and said, “Here, hold this.”
“Oh, great,” said Mark J., imagining himself in front of the Group W Bench, for beating his best friend, Johnny, to a senseless pulp.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?” asked the Statie. Like all New Jersey State Police, he was really decked out. Crisp blue uniform, pressed slacks, pressed blouse, braided gold cloth lanyard strung through his epaulet, shiny gold badge, mirrored sunglasses hung from the loop on his blouse (even though it had been dark for hours, the sunglasses were apparently a required accessory to his uniform), wide flat-brimmed hat perched atop a crew cut, and a very, very stern expression on his face.
Johnny looked around the interior of his car.
“Well, do you?” barked the Statie. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Um, frankly sir, it could be anything,” Johnny replied.
The trooper shined his flashlight throughout the inside of the car. Now I suppose what he saw in that car could have been an factor that influenced what he did next – or not. Johnny was sitting placidly in the driver’s seat, both hands resting atop the steering wheel. Mark J. was in the passenger seat, a can of Budweiser between his legs and a bottle of Michelob in his hand. The rear floor was littered with empty cans and bottles, the back seat held the remainder of the cases of beer, and, of course, the rooster was in his crate, periodically throwing menacing glances at the trooper.
“Either of you boys been drinking?”
“He has,” said Johnny, gesturing with his thumb toward the passenger seat.
“Oh, great,” said Mark J., imagining himself in front of the Group W Bench, for murdering his ex-best friend, Johnny.
“Would you boys mind stepping out of the car, please?”
And so it went. Now, the cop knew that Johnny had been drinking, even though he didn’t admit it. And the cop knew that Mark J. had been drinking, even though he didn’t deny it. Because the cop knew for a fact that no one can drink both a Budweiser and a Michelob at the same time. It just wasn’t kosher. And because of what the cop had seen in the car, he figured he’d better play this one safe. He called for backup.
“Either of you boys have any weapons on you?”
“Nope, not us. But the rooster’s packing heat,” said Johnny.
“Oh, great,” said Mark J., imagining himself in front of the Group W Bench, for committing suicide in public.
Moments later, backup arrived: four Staties and two Locals, all with sirens screaming and red lights flashing. Instinctively, both Johnny and Mark J. placed their hands behind their heads and interlocked their fingers. And just as they were about to get on their knees, Statie Number One said “Hold it right there! Don’t move!!” And so they didn’t.
The upshot of this episode is that the cops made them dump out the rest of their beer, put all the empties in the trunk (actually the hatchback), and drive a little faster on their way out of town.
No one will ever know for sure, but looking back, we could only assume that it was the rooster that kept the cops from initiating roadside maneuvers and arresting them both, one for DWI and the other for public intoxication. Simply too much paperwork, and if they arrested them, the Camaro would have been towed away. And that would have left one ornery rooster to be dealt with. And, as we know, a sane person (even a decked out New Jersey State Trooper) would not want a rooster in his car. Especially that rooster.
So Johnny and Mark J. drove off, still feeling the effects of the adrenaline dump from being pulled over, and cursing their bad luck: New Jersey did not sell beer on Sundays.
So they headed toward the New York state line, where, if they hurried, they could still catch an open beer store. They figured they’d worry about the rooster later. Priorities, you know.
As luck would have it, they made good time. Just over the Tappan Zee Bridge lay Tarrytown, NY, a quiet burb on the banks of the Hudson River. With a rich historic past, Tarrytown boasted a pleasant lifestyle, many mansions, and at least one famous museum. And a beer store just on the outside of town, that stayed open late. Oh, yes, life was good after all.
Until the taxicab slammed into the back of the Camaro at the toll booth.
Now remember, this was 1985. Many taxicabs still in service in the New York area had been made by the Checker Cab Company. Sometimes yellow, sometimes not, those big, heavy, round-fendered, all-metal tanks were virtually indestructible. And this was one of those cabs.
Newer Camaros were compact, light-weight sports-car thingies with lots of plastic, thin cheap steel and a sloping back window that covered the whole hatch. Johnny’s was one of these Camaros.
Clearly, this was not a fair fight. We’re pretty sure it was the rooster-in-a-crate that saved both Johnny and Mark J. from sustaining major injuries, perhaps even certain death by encrushment.
I never saw the car, but I’ve heard about it. Remember the empty bottles and cans the cops made them put in their hatchback? Remember that sloping back window? Remember the rooster in the back seat? All of these factors combined to make a horrific mess.
Upon impact by the cab, glass and metal and feathers were strewn about everywhere. The rear of the car was crushed, crumpled right up to the passenger compartment, stopped only by the rooster’s heavy wooden crate (which, by the way, sustained no damage at all).
The rear window exploded, tiny chunks of tempered glass spewing in every direction. Many of those glass chunks would have struck our heroes had they not been intercepted in mid-flight by the mass of floating feathers blanketing the interior of the car.
The noise, too, must have been utterly incredible: the screech of tires, the crunch of metal, the shattering of glass. Then the ominous silence as the horrible reality sank in. Then the god-awful screech of the panicked rooster. Which went on for the next forty-five minutes.
The tow truck came. The rooster crate was pried out of the car by the jaws of life. Johnny’s new Camaro, now totaled, was hauled away. As the taxi cab driver replaced the lens on his turn signal and straightened his license plate, Johnny and Mark J. wondered just how they were going to get home now. And what time was it, anyway. The beer store closed at midnight.
Sudden inspiration hit, and just as he was about to drive off, Johnny hailed the taxi cab that had hit them. The ride home was uneventful, except for getting the rooster crate back up the stairs into the house.
At work the next evening, Monday, Mark J. and I were talking with some folks about this rooster and our adventures. Leigh-Anne overheard us, and asked if she might be able to help with this situation. Since it was Thanksgiving week, she’d be driving home to North Carolina, and her family still had the farm. She said she’d be ever so happy to take our rooster along. It would have just a delightful new home with all the other chickens, and they could all run around and play and scratch and peck at the ground and do all the things that chickens like to do.
“Fine,” said we. “Take it.”
“Oh, and by the way,” Leigh-Anne said to me, “Since the shop is always slow during the holidays, and since I’m taking your cursed rooster with me, and since it’s such a long drive and I want to be home for turkey dinner on Thursday, would it be okay if I left a day early?”
“You mean you want Wednesday off?” I asked.
“Well, I guess that’s okay with me. But I can’t pay you for that day.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “Just so’s I get the day off. I don’t really care about the money right now; I’m due for another inheritance. Gramma died.”
Life had pretty much normalized since the rooster was gone. The following Monday, Leigh-Anne returned to work. She had a pained, excited, almost angry expression all about her.
“You know that rooster you gave me?”
“Um, yeah,” I said. Trepidation began to set in. Hard.
“You won’t believe what that critter did. I took him out to the chicken coop, to introduce him to the rest of the birds, and everything seemed fine, so I went back in the house. ‘Bout an hour later, I hear a ruckus fit to beat the band, so I goes runnin’ out. Every creature in the barnyard’s a-screechin’ an’ a-hollerin’ an’ a-runnin’ ‘round like they’s some kinda evil out there.
“So I look around an’ what do I see? I got three she-hens jus’ a-sittin’ in the yard with their faces all dazed an’ confused-lookin’, jus’ sittin’ there like they cain’t get up an’ don’ even know it. I got two more she-hens walkin’ ‘roun’ like they’s got a board stuck up their you-know-what all sore an’ such, jes a-staggerin’ about. And my two prize roosters are layin’ in the yard wif their eyes pecked out. Your damn rooster near kilt my whole henhouse!!”
“Ohmygoodgollygosh, I am really sorry,” I said, imagining the carnage. “Is there anything I can do?” Horror and hysteria welled up inside me simultaneously. Hysteria was winning.
“Well, no, it ain’t your fault. I shoulda kept a better watch on ‘em anyhow. An’ we got more birds, so it’s okay. ‘Sides, I shot him with Gramma’s twelve-gauge.”
“Are you sure? I mean, that’s terrible, although not entirely surprising.” I really did feel kinda bad, but the imagery was too much. I bit back a chuckle.
“No, don’t worry about it. And thanks for the day off. We had a great Thanksgiving dinner, then went to the funeral. Oh, and yeah, I almos’ forgot. Here, this is for you. I made it myself while I was down home. Hope you like it.” And she handed me a tupperware container.
“What is it?” I asked.