Earnest was in kindergarten when Jackie the Janitor got fired for “choking the chicken” in the girls’ bathroom. That phrase, along with his best friend Bradley Watson’s accompanying hand gestures, stuck in Earnest’s head so hard that whenever he looked at the thing between his legs, all he could see was a bald, pointed bird head, like the ones attached to the roast ducks hanging in the window of a Chinese restaurant.
He didn’t learn what “euphemism” meant until the third grade, and by then it was too late. His chicken had grown feathers and a beak. When it started to open and close its mouth, he asked his mother if he could take showers instead of baths; he didn’t want it to drown.
Bradley told him that penises weren’t really chickens, but every time Earnest tried to wish his chicken away, it would stare at him with its bright, beady black eyes and he would lose his concentration. After a while he stopped trying and was just glad he hadn’t heard the phrase “trouser snake” first.
As Earnest grew bigger, so did his chicken-headed penis. By ten, he had to wear two pairs of underwear to mask the soft clucking sound that came from his pants. At thirteen, while looking at pictures of naked women in feather boas that he found in his father’s sock drawer, he discovered that his chicken could crow. And spit. That was when he started wearing three pairs of underwear.
In his senior year, Earnest asked Dolores Schlunk to the prom. Dolores had a body like a cone of soft-serve ice cream, with droopy rolls of flesh that had a tendency to overrun the waistband of her too-tight waffle-yellow pants. Bradley said Earnest should take her up to Makeout Bluff. He said Dolores was a sure thing. He said that Dolores would go down on anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Bradley was wrong.
It took Earnest nearly an hour to coax Dolores to unlock the doors of his father’s Chevrolet and let him back in. He begged and apologized, tapping the window while covering the front of his body with the jacket of his rented tuxedo. An unseasonably chill spring wind blew through the gap of his naked buttocks to ruffle the feathers of his cock, while a mournful buck-buck-buck punctuated his pleas.
Once he negotiated his way back into the car and re-donned his discarded clothing, Earnest sat next to a sniffling Delores, unsure what to say. She hugged herself, pushing up the cleavage in her satin blue boat-neck dress. Her breasts formed a jiggly shelf that caught the tears as they squeezed past her closed eyelids and plopped down from her chin. Despite his discomfort, he felt the tickle of down stirring against his thigh at the sight.
“You think I’m a freak, don’t you?” The words surprised Earnest, because it was Dolores who spoke them, not him. She went on in a small voice, cloggy with snot and shame, “That’s why you asked me to the prom. To play a trick on me. ‘Cos I’m f-fat and u-ugly.” Her breath hitched on the last words, and for a second they both looked worried that she might melt into an oozy puddle of tears.
“You’re not ugly.” It must be confessed that Earnest had to search for that one bit of almost-truth; any other statement contradicting her would have been, alas, an outright lie. But once it was said, he began to see how right he was. Dolores’s skin was silken smooth, and she had the fat girl’s curse: a pretty face.
Dolores’s sniffle conveyed a mucous wistfulness.
“No, really, you’re not. Your hair looks nice with your dress.” Again, not a lie, though not something that had made an impression on Earnest until this very moment.
“Then why did you do that thing with the… you know.” Keeping her eyes averted, Dolores flapped a hand somewhere in the direction of the steering wheel.
“Bradley said it wouldn’t bother you.”
“I hate Bradley Watson.” Her lips quivered; her eyes filled again. “I wish he’d be nice to me,” she wailed as she toppled sideways toward Earnest.
He put his arms around her and petted her awkwardly. That seemed to soothe her, and the crying flattened into whimpers and then bubbly hiccups. They embraced for long minutes. Later, when he put the car in gear, she covered his hand with hers and, with a shy smile, said, “I’m sorry about before. I’ll kiss it if you want.”
But the bird was nesting, and Earnest thought it best not to agitate it.
In the following years of aborted encounters with women, Earnest came to appreciate Dolores’s straightforward, if somewhat mistaken, reaction. Her horror, in retrospect, had been refreshingly free of anger, contempt, or laughter, and as time went on, his memory of her became more beautiful.
It was no surprise to him that others began to notice Dolores’s better qualities as well. By the end of senior year, she had shed the mantle of social pariah, and she truly bloomed in college, where the value of kindness, compassion and a sense of humor rose in direct proportion with the distance from high school.
The evening that Maia Forster flounced out of Earnest’s dorm room, her derisive snickers echoing down the hall, he lay back on his lonely twin bed and gently stroked his chicken until it cooed, remembering how, long ago, Dolores had let him comfort her and how her bosom had pressed so softly against him. That night Dolores Schlunk walked into a third-year German study group with all the grace and presence of a prima ballerina, and her fellow German student, Bradley Watson, wondered if he’d been blind all his previous life.
Though smitten from that moment on, it took Bradley another ten years to convince Dolores that he was good enough for her. Less kind observers might have said it took him ten years to become good enough for her.
“You’ll be my best man, of course.” There was a pause on the telephone line, and Earnest could hear murmuring in the background. “I mean,” Bradley amended, “will you please be my best man? Dolores says I’m supposed to ask, not tell.” This time Dolores’s background laughter was clear.
Earnest hesitated. “I’d only be able to fly in for the wedding. Don’t you want someone closer? One of your big city friends?”
“Nah, I don’t care about that. But I can’t get married without my wing man.” The nickname made Earnest wince, but he couldn’t say no to the happiness in Bradley’s voice.
It was a rushed affair: the catching of the plane, delayed by snow; the last minute dash to the church, Earnest struggling into suit and vest while the cabbie assumed a world-weary, seen-it-all mien; the final screech and bump of tires on curb, accompanied by the squawks of fowl and driver. Earnest tumbled from the cab and zipped his fly, making it to the altar with minutes to spare.
As the music began, he turned to face the processional. A woman Earnest had never met before led the way. Her face was long and guarded, with an unwavering forward stare that lent her the stern air of an Easter Island statue. She wore a pink dress that sprouted lace bows like palm tree fronds, designed, as are all bridesmaids’ dresses, to bring out the loveliness of the bride. Earnest knew her name was Hope, that she’d been Dolores’s roommate and best friend and now maid-of-honor, and that she wasn’t much of a talker, according to Bradley.
The ceremony went off without incident, free of barnyard noises, although Earnest noticed in the middle that he’d neglected to brush away a few stray feathers that clung to his suit. As his hand flicked to a tuft of white fluff, he saw Hope glance his way, eyes attracted by the movement. Her expression held an aloneness that matched his own.
During the first obligatory waltz of the wedding party, Hope stood in the circle of his arms like a gondola oar, unbending while she rotated through the moves of the dance as if attached to a rowlock. It should have been easy to view her as dispassionately as an inanimate object, but his eyes kept straying to her soft pink mouth.
He resolved to keep his focus on the satin bow adorning her shoulder, so it wasn’t until the coda that he realized she was stealing glances at him as well. Embarrassed to have been caught, their gazes ricocheted off one another, zipping to opposite corners of the room. But when he dared to look again, she had the ghost of a smile pressed onto her lips.
“Champagne?” He led her to the bar and scooped up a couple of half-moon glasses, but she grimaced at her first sip and slid it back to the bartender.
“What kind of scotch whiskey do you have?” It was the most words she’d spoken in Earnest’s presence so far, and he was surprised to hear the faint lilt of a Highlands accent. Her voice, soft and grave, made the request sound like a librarian’s reference inquiry; he and the bartender shared a smile.
The bartender held up a bottle of Johnny Walker. She shook her head. “Single malt?” He hoisted a bottle of Macailan and poured her a glass, neat. When Earnest reached into his pocket for his wallet, she shook her head again and passed a twenty to the bartender.
“I’ll have the same,” said Earnest, though he rarely drank hard liquor. The alcohol burned all the way down, and he suppressed a cough when it hit his stomach. The warmth spread through his abdomen, and he found himself having another drink, and another, until his body felt encased in a down quilt.
Hope matched him drink for drink, and the more she drank, the more she spoke, although haltingly, as if she constantly expected to be interrupted. The scotch haze coalesced about them, a filmy bubble that hid the rest of the room.
It seemed to Earnest that a scent wafted from Hope, mysterious and irresistible, and though he knew it was not true, his smaller brain whispered to his larger one that it was the aroma of roasted corn and birdseed. When he surprised a laugh out of her, the sound burst forth, loud and raucous. She clapped her hand across her mouth and looked around in embarrassment, perhaps too startled to register the answering cock-a-doodle-doo muffled by his pants.
“Would you… that is… maybe you’d like… or rather, I’d like…” Earnest’s long atrophied desires tangled his words into a rubber-band ball, while his chicken urged him to mount her in a flurry of feathers and beak, pecking at her neck until she submitted to his fowl lust. Earnest willed his chicken to shut up.
Hope looked at him with owl-eyes. “I…” she paused, head tilted to one side as if taking counsel from her inner voices. “I have a room. Here.” Again that little pause. “I mean, here in the hotel.”
“Shall we?” He couldn’t quite bring himself to articulate the words, but she answered with an “Oh… yes.”
When the two of them stumbled into her room, he absent-mindedly turned on the light by the door, then wondered how he might turn it back off without appearing odd.
“No, leave it,” slurred Hope, and he thought her voice reflected his own feelings, all breathless alcoholic delight tinged with panic. She reached over and flicked the switch, leaning towards him so that he could kiss her on that mouth that had so fascinated him all evening. Between his legs he could feel his chicken swaying drunkenly, and he had a moment of terror that the stupid cock would fail to rise on this, its best shot ever at a public performance.
But as soon as it was freed from the confines of his clothing, pants and drawers pushed hastily to his knees, it rallied and stood at attention. Never breaking the kiss, he guided Hope backwards to the bed, tipping them both down onto the soft mattress, her dress hitched up above her waist like pink sea foam. She clapped her hands to his ears, holding his face to hers, making the blood echo in his skull. Dimly aware that at any second his chicken might begin to cluck, he returned the gesture, and then positioned himself above her, poised at last to experience what he had only dreamed off.
“Holy Hell, it’s a giant chicken,” said a man’s Scottish brogue.
Clinging to him, Hope whispered, “Ignore that. Don’t stop, please.”
“Lassie, I tell ya, it dinna going to work. This is a wee little vessel and tha’s a great big chicken,” said the Scottish brogue.
Earnest rolled to the side and turned on the bedside lamp.
“No, don’t turn on the light!” pleaded Hope, but it was too late. She pushed her dress down, but not before Earnest saw something that took his breath away.
“Was that…?” he said.
She nodded miserably. “It’s my little man in a boat.” She sat up, shoulders slumped in a protective hunch. “Maybe you should go now.”
“Wait.” Earnest turned onto his back and lifted his shirt. His chicken tilted its head and stared at Hope, blinking rapidly.
“Oh my god, it really is a chicken,” she said.
“That’s what I told ye,” said her little man in a boat, muffled by her dress.
Earnest pulled gently at Hope, drawing her down and kissing her again. Much later, after the crowing of his chicken had been joined by a lusty rendition of a Celtic aria, she murmured into the quiet aftermath, “I didn’t even know he could sing.”
They were married six months later, and a year after that Earnest stood beside Hope’s hospital bed, holding her hand, while a Scottish brogue screamed, “Aye Captain, she’s going ta blow, and not all the dilithium crystals in the universe will save her!”
They’d been worried, but their daughter Faith was born perfectly formed: ten little fingers and ten adorable toes and all the bits and pieces that would be expected in a baby girl and none that weren’t. And from the moment she could talk, they made sure to explain the facts of life to her as clearly and honestly as possible.
But schoolyard myths and the romance of magical thinking can overpower even what we know to be true. When Faith’s brother came along, Hope and Earnest found the baby on the morning of his birth, under a cabbage leaf.
Ao-Hui Lin spends a lot of her time pondering the nature of motherhood and hopes that when her sons are grown, they won’t wonder why so many of her stories about mothers end in tragedy. Her work has appeared in Jersey Devil Press Magazine, Drabblecast, Everyday Fiction, and the anthology Daughters of Icarus. She infrequently appears online at http://aohuilin.blogspot.com and @cookiesandzen.