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Authors: Bernard Cooper,Kyoko Watanabe

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BOOK: The Bill from My Father
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And all the allegations
Including sigh and cry
Each of them now Florence's
Parents do deny
.

And for the further answer to
This impassioned plea
We would remind rash Peter
That he should clearly see
A child of sixteen is too young
To claim a mate for life
Without consent of her guardians, thus
Can only lead to strife
.

My father could moon and June with the best. The marriage was annulled.

Because he was such a laconic man at home—his all-purpose grunt meant yes and no, hello and good-bye—it astonished me to read about the verbal acrobatics with which he so often bent the law to his whims. How else but through supernatural powers of persuasion could he have made a boy's love poem seem like a brick hurled through a window, or argue that a freshly baked pie was the cause of a husband's sexual deprivation? Apparently, if Dad insisted the grass was blue, he leadeth you beside blue pastures.

The marital conflicts I read about in my father's scrapbook weren't
much different from the fights that broke out every day on the baseball diamonds and jungle gyms of my elementary school playground—“Cheater!” “It's
my
turn!” “Stop looking at me funny!”—but enriched and twisted beyond all proportion. Was wedlock simply a larger playground? Were lawyers bullies paid by the hour?

I overflowed with questions in those days because I was certain the world operated according to some hidden system that, sooner or later, an adult would explain in the same patient way that Mr. Wizard, the science teacher who hosted an after-school TV show, explained the wonders of water displacement or the magic of static electricity. That adults were wiser than children wasn't just a homily as far as I was concerned but a belief more tolerable than the prospect that both children and adults were as dumb as rubber balls. Because if no one knew how or why things happened, then no one could stop bad things from happening or make good things happen—a human helplessness I was hard-pressed to accept. Although my father may not have given me the answers I sought, I felt sure he possessed them, just as he possessed a knowledge of the law and would one day give me his grudging guidance.

Only once did he take my future in hand, hoping to impart a lesson for my betterment. I would have soaked it up in a second had I understood what the lesson meant. He called me into the living room one Friday after coming home early from court. He'd propped our Bell & Howell projector on the coffee table, the reels threaded and ready to spin. Across the room, balanced on a wobbly tripod, stood the home-movie screen, its gritty opalescent surface sparkling in the afternoon light. Dad's hands were clasped behind his back, his shoulders squared.

Before entering the room I had to remove my shoes because the carpet was still new and my mother, who hadn't yet discovered clear plastic rug runners, was determined to get her money's worth of pure, untrammeled, glamorous white. My father wore black dress socks—men's
hosiery,
they were called in the department stores—and his feet looked as dark as holes in a snowdrift.

“Your father,” he announced, “wants to show you something.”

This was the first time I'd ever heard him refer to himself in the third person, and it piqued my interest, implying as it did that my father was out of the room and the man standing before me was not who I assumed. But who else could he be? I was a late child, fifteen years younger than the youngest of my three brothers—all of whom had moved away from home by the time I turned ten—and my next thought was that Dad was going to tell me he wasn't my father but my fourth and oldest brother. What had happened to my real father wasn't clear in the fantasy, which came over me so fast there wasn't time to account for his whereabouts. I figured he must be out there somewhere, happy and unharmed.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” my father asked.

“I don't know.”

“Well,” he said, “have a seat.”

The couch (my mother called the color
salmon,
my father,
lox
) was so plush that it took me a moment to sink down to solid matter. Meanwhile, my father walked toward the picture window, each padded footfall adding to the hush. Even under normal circumstances, closing those drapes was something of a ceremony, for they were heavy as bedspreads and printed with a pattern of mortar and bricks. When Dad pulled the cord, bricks swooped together like the halves of a wall and the room went dark.

Light shot from the lens of the projector and burrowed through the room. It flickered over the furniture and gave the dark a restless depth. I watched dust motes whirl and collide in the beam, and this bright turmoil, this erosion of countless powdery grains, was proof of a fact I knew all along but hadn't grasped until that moment: the world was being ground to bits. I was still transfixed when I heard my father tell me to snap out of it and pay attention to what was on the screen.

In a wood-paneled office, a stout black woman sat across a desk from a white man, whose bony hands were folded atop an ink blotter. A pen holder slanted in his direction, and next to it a name plate identified him as a judge. His lips moved nonstop, but the film was silent and I couldn't make out a word he was saying. All the while
he stared into the camera with the unnatural expression of a person who'd been told to act natural and not stare into the camera. The woman paid respectful attention, leaning forward once or twice in a futile effort to interrupt. She clutched under one arm a leather-bound book that was either a Bible or a volume of the
Encyclopaedia Britannica
. On the desk beside her lay an overstuffed purse.

The judge was still yammering when the purse, without so much as a twitch of forewarning, stood up, wavered on two spindly legs, and walked toward him, though “walked toward him” suggests that the purse had a particular destination, whereas its halting progress was more along the lines of two steps forward, one step back. For a moment I wondered whether it was a marionette, though I couldn't see strings, and besides, who in their right mind would make a marionette that looked like a staggering handbag? No, the purse's senselessness hinted at the possibility that it once possessed sense and now was trying to get along without it. This was animal motion, too reflexive with muscle and nerve to be anything inanimate.

The judge's mouth stopped moving when the scruffy whatever-it-was lurched into his line of vision. He gave it a wary, sidelong glance, ready to react should something unexpected occur, which, considering what had occurred already, would have to be inconceivably strange. That's when the camera slowly zoomed in, moving as if it, too, were an animal, a predator hunting its unsuspecting prey. It slid between the woman and the judge, intent on the mound in the middle of the desk. Feathers slowly came into focus. Wings bristled as the creature breathed.

“What is it?” I whispered.

“Watch,” said my father.

He had been a witness to the actual event, but because I didn't know this yet, his
Watch
was like a magic command that caused what happened next to happen. A stump emerged from the thing's right side, which until that point had looked identical to its left. The stump pivoted toward the camera and paused long enough to reveal its severed end. A tunnel of tendon and pearly bone led inside the creature's body, the sight no less gruesome in black-and-white.
The woman's fingers descended into view, holding an eyedropper by its rubber bulb. She squeezed until a bead of clear liquid glistened at its tip, then angled it toward the cavity. The stump strained upward.

The idea of watching the creature being fed made me speechless, queasy. How much closer would the camera zoom? What kind of contractions would swallowing involve? That blind, groping, hungry stump was the neediest thing I'd ever seen. Leaving the room was out of the question; my father would view my retreat as rudeness, or worse, as proof that I was a delicate boy unworthy of paternal wisdom. I couldn't have fled anyway; sunk in the possessive depths of the couch, I could barely move.

The droplet wobbled.

“Sugar water,” said my father.

Not until later that night, after unsuccessfully begging myself to please stop thinking about the gaping wound, did I realize that
sugar water
referred to the solution in the eyedropper. At the time, however, my father might as well have said
spoon clock
or
hat bell
for all the sense his comment made.

The pendulous droplet fell into the stump. Then another and another. For all that creature knew it had started to rain, and the rain tasted sweet. As the woman doled out the final drops, words scrolled up the screen:

There is hope for you too
when you see how divine power
keeps Lazarus alive!
Mrs. Martha Green's decapitated fowl
lives to become
THE MIRACLE CHICKEN!

This 20th century wonder brings a possibility
of new life and new healing
to an army of believers.
It's all TRUE!
This movie is AUTHENTIC!

The woman's purse was a headless chicken. I might have uttered this fact aloud since it came as such a great, if short-lived, relief. My father had used the phrase “like a chicken with its head cut off” to describe all manner of frenzied activity, applying it to bad drivers and harried salespeople and even to my mother, who cooked dinner in a state that could be described either as motherly gusto or stifled rage. Every time I heard the expression, I pictured the figurative chicken running around a barnyard in circles and spurting a geyser of blood before dropping dead in the dust. Dropping dead
forever,
I should add, because it never occurred to me that a chicken might survive its execution, give hope to humans, and star in a film. Wasn't a head indispensable?

Dad towered beside the projector, his figure awash in flickering light. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar. “There's your old man,” he said, pointing to the screen.

A crowd dressed in Sunday finery milled around the front lawn of a clapboard house. People stepped aside to let my father pass, a sea of hats parting before him. Mrs. Green trailed in his wake. She cradled Lazarus in her arms, careful not to let the bird be jostled and also not to hide it from view. Making his way through the crowd, Dad cast frequent backward glances to make sure Mrs. Green and her bird were behind him. Photographers jockeyed to get a good shot. Reporters frantically scrawled on their notepads. Men and women craned their necks, some letting children straddle their shoulders to get a better look.

Mrs. Green refuses to hand Lazarus over to the S.P.C.A. despite a court order from Judge Stanley Moffatt.
Her attorney, Edward S. Cooper, claims the bird is
“an act of providence
for the benefit of all mankind.”

The throng of spectators, two or three people deep, waited behind a listing picket fence as my father escorted Mrs. Green into a yard overgrown with blooming hibiscus and bougainvillea. She
seemed at home there, so I supposed the yard was hers. It may have been an effect of the grainy eight-millimeter film, but this ramshackle Eden glowed with an ancient, paper-thin light, as if the screen had turned to parchment. It wouldn't have surprised me if one of the bushes had burst into flame and spoken in a holy baritone.

My father carried his monogrammed briefcase by his side. He and Mrs. Green walked to a small table that had been set up on a patch of grass. They glanced nervously at the camera, humbled by the expectant crowd. Black and Caucasian faces looked on, soldiers in an army of believers. Mrs. Green gazed almost sorrowfully at the bundle in her arms. Hesitant to let it go, she inhaled a bracing, duty-bound breath, then gingerly lowered the chicken onto the table. Its feet dangled like scrawny tassels, and once his legs touched the table top, they buckled without a hint of resistance.

I'd learned over the years to heed my father's impatience as one would a storm warning, and watching him stand there on-screen, I recognized signs of impending anger as he glared at that motionless bird. A prominent vein bulged on his forehead. His grip on the briefcase tightened. I could almost hear him thinking,
Of course this would happen. What did I expect? Just when things were going my way, fate sticks out its leg and trips me
. He and Mrs. Green stood side by side and I thought I saw him nudge her with a silent ultimatum:
Do anything you have to do, but get that goddamn poultry to move! You want people thinking this is some kind of hoax?
I felt the weight of his briefcase in my hand, his hot collar encircling my neck, his heart thumping inside my chest. “What if it doesn't move?” I asked. Meaning if it didn't, would we both be ashamed?

He looked worried in the movie but not in real life. He smiled faintly and crossed his arms. “That bird's as alive as I am,” he said.

Silent concern rippled through the crowd; a few people used their hats as fans or consulted hefty, gilt-edged Bibles. Mrs. Green patted her forehead with a hankie. The twentieth-century wonder looked about as wondrous as a feather duster.

What were my father and Mrs. Green to do? They couldn't rouse
it by snapping their fingers or waving their hands in front of its face. Maybe they could communicate to the bird through touch, the way Annie Sullivan had tapped the word
water
on Helen Keller's hand. Of course, it wouldn't look good if my father and Mrs. Green started poking at the chicken; you can't badger a miracle to happen and then expect people to marvel when it does.

I gasped when the chicken sprang to its feet, wings thrashing the air. Feathers bristled when it stretched its stump. The camera pulled back as if rearing in fear and astonishment. People in the background flung up their arms in a mute
hallelujah
. Mrs. Green's unbounded joy caught my father off guard; he swayed in her embrace, eyeing the chicken over her shoulder. Big letters bellowed from the screen:

Cock-A-Doodle-Do!

My father's high, delighted laughter rose over the sound of the projector. “Is that chicken something?”

BOOK: The Bill from My Father
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