Thursday, June 23, 2005

Cornish Hens

Austin 1974

Tanner knocked on the screen door at the side of Beau and Darby's house, knowing that they were often in the kitchen. In fact, he'd seldom entered the house through the front door or seen anybody else do it, either. He was feeling good, really good for a change, and it showed. Darby, sitting at the kitchen table, cutting flowers for a vase on the table in front of her, put her cigarette in her mouth and waved him in. She noticed the difference right away.

"Damn, Tanner, what're you looking so happy about?"

"Good day selling on the Drag," he told her. "I've got loot pouring out of my pockets."

"Hmm, very good," she said, removing the cigarette from her mouth and waving the smoke away from her eyes. "Let some of it pour out over here, will you? Say, do you owe us any money? This sounds like a good time to get it."

"Uh—." Tanner was taken aback. Did he? He owed people money often enough that even though he always paid them back, he had to think for a moment.

"I don't think so," he said hesitantly. "Do I?"

"No, just kidding, silly, don't get uptight! If you owe Beau any money, I don't care, it's between you and him. But I don't think you do."

"Don't confuse me like that," Tanner said, wiping his forehead.

"You confuse too easy, anyway," Darby laughed. "Anyway, you had that good a day, huh?" she added, changing the subject.

"Leather goods have never been so popular," he grinned.

"What's that I see behind your back, anyway?" Darby asked.

Tanner brought forth a bottle.

"Ou-wee! Chivis Regal. Better than your usual drink! Celebration stuff, huh?"

"Yeah. A fifth of the good stuff. Thought y'all might like to get loaded on something decent for a change."

"I've drunk that stuff before," Darby laughed. "It is good. Just overpriced, you know."

"Usually, I'd be the first to agree. Not today. Where's Beau, anyway?"

"Out chasing down some damn dope deal, I think. Something went wrong, if I get the drift of things. He's not exactly talking about it, which is really all I have to go on to make me suspect something's wrong."

"True," Tanner nodded. "When things are going well, he talks his head off, doesn't he?"

"You got it," she said musically. "He's my babblin' fool!"

Tanner, who knew she was kidding, grinned. It was her usual way of speaking about Beau. Most of the time she seemed to like her husband about as well as anybody liked anyone else, as far as Tanner could see. Nonetheless, sometimes they fought so viciously in front of him that it embarrassed Tanner and he had to leave.

"Uh, we're gonna have Cornish hens a little later in the evening," Darby said. "You're welcome to stay unless Beau comes home with other plans. Okay?"

"Yeah, sure, that sounds great," Tanner said pensively. He was wondering what the hell a Cornish hen was and how come it took more than one. He was too shy to ask. "Thanks for asking me."

"Well, aren't you polite!"

"Sometimes I am, I guess."

"Mostly you aren't, though. I know you. The first time we all went out to eat with you, I was amazed that you were so polite to the waitress."

"Christ, am I as bad as all that?" Tanner asked in a perplexed voice.

Darby could tease him sometimes in the most discomfiting ways. He was often unsure sure where he stood with her. Like Beau, she was ten years older than he was, and though they had a lot in common, it wasn't uncommon for her to change suddenly from her usual amiable silliness to an annoyingly uptight and ugly older woman, representing an unpleasant "adulthood" that seemed prepared to hold everybody responsible for everything, particularly for whatever happened to annoy her. She was hardly the only one he'd ever known who acted that way—secretaries around the world behaved like that—but it made him nervous because he wanted so badly to get along with her. He really liked her, and he hated to see her act so unpleasantly.

Darby was a charming, handsome, very solid woman—that is to say, somewhat overweight. She was dark-haired and wavy-haired, neat yet robust, a woman who liked to eat as much as he and Beau did, which was one of the many things he liked about her. She was intelligent, saucy, inventive, all of which he considered amiable attributes. She sometimes even seemed to be flirting with him, which he took as being sort of complimentary, but he was certain that if he weren't imagining that part entirely, it was truly only flirting, and that nothing greater than friendship would ever come of it. Besides, there were the other times he wasn't even so certain of her friendship. Sometimes she liked to play "Grownup" in a way which indicated she didn't even like him and he could barely cope with that. If it was her period or some undeclared disease she suffered from, he wished she'd just say so and get rid of him. But about the time he was ready to leave at the drop of the next shoe, she'd say something nice and smile.

"Some women just like to flirt a little," one of his girl friends had told him once, "it doesn't always mean anything."

"Isn't that a little dangerous?" he'd asked her.

"Yeah, sure," she'd grinned. "You know it and I know it, but curiously enough, not every woman who flirts really knows it! Not about herself!"

As time went by, he'd seen that she was pretty much right. Besides, however attractive Darby was as an "older" and "sensible" and deliciously intelligent woman, she was married to a friend of his. Not that that made her proof against Tanner's desires, but he had no desire for a confrontation with her husband and his Smith and Wesson. Beau was by no means a bad guy, but Tanner figured he wouldn't be a good guy to cross. Of course, there was also the money. Between Beau and Darby's legitimate business of handmade jewelry and Beau's dope deals, they had plenty of money, and Tanner knew he couldn't compete along those lines. It was all too fast for him. Still, it often felt good being around her (just as it was good being around Beau, when he wasn't taking his dope deals too seriously). The "fun" of being around Darby, of course, was always contingent on whether she was being congenial and silly, or her awful "grownup" self instead. When she put on her disagreeable "adult" mask, he usually just scrammed.

After a while Beau came home and acted as if he was glad to see Tanner, but also seemed nervous. Tanner guessed that maybe the dope deal wasn't finished yet or else hadn't gone well. Tanner didn't really want to know; he figured if he ignored it, it would just resolve itself without him having to be involved or know anything. He had a couple of other friends who dealt pot and he never wanted to know anything about them, either. It was a fucking crime, after all, and he wasn't making any money off of it, so why know!

He and Darby and Beau drank and talked about preparing the hens. Darby's teenage daughter from a previous marriage, Sue Darla, came home from next door and went in and out of the kitchen, trying to remember what she'd forgotten. Then two visitors arrived who were obviously associated with the dope deal. Beau went into another room to talk to them, and Tanner did all he could to tune them out.

Beau was a hard-nosed, good-humored, long-haired (but going bald), transplanted Louisiana boy, a drug dealer who sometimes now carried a gun on business, yet who only two or three years ago had sworn to Tanner that he'd never deal dope.

"It's just stupid," he'd said, confident of his powers of perception. "I can make plenty of money the regular way, without the risk."

Later he became one of the most businesslike purveyors of pot in Austin. Sitting by the telephone now, waiting for news about the drug deal that seemed to have gone sour, Beau oiled his Smith and Wesson and reflected.

"The older you get, the more these goddamn revolutions take out of you," Beau said.

"Well, it's not as boring as the real world, apparently," Tanner said.

"Sure, it is. You just don't realize it yet."

Years later when he no longer lived in Austin, Tanner would think of that conversation from time to time. By then, everyone he knew was a little or a lot more boring than they used to be, including himself, and everyone he knew, except himself, was in the stock market. Only rednecks and rock stars were wearing their hair long any more. Country music has become so popular that Tanner has begun to get the impression that most of the new rock stars were rednecks. Or was it the other way around?

"Christ," he thought, "I've become a reactionary!"

Beau was getting irritable, but tried to distract and calm himself with the preparation of the Cornish game hens. He drank some beer. He'd fixed the barbeque pit and started the hens when the phone finally rang. Beau hung up and left in the middle of cooking. Darby, now drunk as a coot on the Chivas, undertook to finish cooking the hens, but couldn't seem to get a handle on it. Maybe she didn't really know how long it took. The hour got later and later, but the hens refused to cook. Darby, out of patience, brought them inside and put them in the gas oven.

Sue Darla observed quietly, "Mama, it's real late."

"It's real life?" Darby asked stupidly, thinking that Sue's remark was stupid, not having heard it very clearly.

The hens got served, still not quite cooked. Darby ran to the bathroom, and after a while to her bed, and then to the bathroom again. She was looking terribly sick and ghostly.

Sue Darla remarked shyly to Tanner, "Mama gets sick sometimes in the heat".

Why do children imagine that other adults can't tell when that child's parent is drunk? Tanner kept playing with the hen, but it didn't look or taste cooked and he didn't dispose of much of it. Sue Darla tried, too, but she too found it couldn't be done.

Beau was still hung up doing the dope deal and nobody had any idea when he'd return. Sue Darla and Tanner yearned to finish eating.

Darby returned from the bathroom, lurching. "Sue Darla, go to bed! Haven't you finished eating? Well, hurry up."

Darby ran back to the bathroom, sick again. Tanner continued to sip his whiskey and wondered when it'd ever be over. He spoke a bit drunkenly to Sue Darla, who started to look somewhat delectable to him until he remembered that she was only 13 years old. He realized he might be in a stupid, possibly dangerous position and, pretending to be more drunk than he way, left her alone in the house with her mother, driving away with a sign of relief. On the way home, he stopped at an Arby's for a roast beef sandwich. Recalling those huge horrible inedible Cornish hens and realizing he no longer had to try to eat them, his mouth began to water for food again. He bought two of the beef sandwiches instead of one. It took a lot to kill his appetite!


Current draft: 06/21/05
©1989 Ronald C. Southern

"If your parents never had children, chances are you won't, either." — Dick Cavett

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