I’m going to be so late for work! Back home, I had it all mapped out. Up at five thirty, out of the apartment by seven, catch the 12th street metro, up through the plaza center and into the Klaxin and Brothers lobby by seven forty-five. Grab some coffee from the Bumble Bean and upstairs, in my chair by eight.
Back home. Back in civilization. Not here in this bumfuck excuse of a hick town in the middle of Pennsylvania. Sitting on a bus bench that was probably made during the Roosevelt administration, waiting for… I don’t know, I’m assuming it’s a bus. Could be a horse wagon for all know. All I can see in one direction is a two lane concrete road with a few houses set back in the brush. The other direction, well, a large barn and that’s it as the road curves around it, blocking my view. It’s rustic. It’s classic. And it’s boring.
Not that Cokerton couldn’t be a nice little town. It probably is during the height of the season. Whatever that season might be. The old bed and breakfast I’m staying at is okay, I guess. I never was really into those places, bed and breakfasts. It’s like staying overnight at the house of a relative you don’t really know but feel obligated to visit when you’re in town. They smell of old. That’s the only way I can describe it. And the people who run them are far too cheerful for my taste, especially early in the morning when they try to force ten pounds of homemade chicken and eggs into you. And, like a good visiting relative, you feel as if you should just finish the plate.
The coffee is good. I’ll give them that. Not quite as good as the Bumble coffee, but better than the office java at Klaxin. But Klaxin didn’t pay me to drink coffee. They paid me because I’m a phraseology expert. Some would say I’m an appearance consultant. Some would say that I’m a marketing genius. Truth is I am, but that’s only because I like words. I like the way you can use them to manipulate feelings, to create an awareness of things that were obvious, but not appreciated. Klaxin’s clients pay good money so I can take something as boring as aluminum siding and turn it into some sort of a metaphor for eco-friendly beautifying of personal space. And, yes, I actually did that. Botol Aluminum increased their profits by almost three hundred percent after I was done with them. Words are my plaything, sentences are my playground. Give me something obvious and I’ll turn it into a revelation. It’s all about connecting the dots and creating symbolism.
I’ve got lots of ways to express my feelings on this trip, though. You couldn’t pay me enough money to turn this shit into shine. Well, you could, but it would be a lot.
I look over my shoulder and glance at the Patriots Keep Inn, the aforementioned bed and breakfast. The firm booked it for me, thinking I would appreciate the peace and quiet. No one thinking that the company I had to work with was thirty miles away and, of course, there was no need to pay for a rental car, heaven forbid! “They have a bus that stops right out front of the B&B and takes you directly into the city!” Parker had told me as she handed me my plane tickets.
And peace and quiet? I guess it depends on what you mean by “peace” or “quiet”. Certainly Cokeston lacked the heavy sound of traffic at night or the familiar sirens heard now and then outside my window. Truth is, I had long since gotten used to those things, including the occasional helicopter floodlight illuminating my curtains at night. Yes, Cokeston definitely wasn’t home. But quiet? Not even by comparison. Who knew cows mooed at night? And dogs, they all let loose at the same time, at the slightest sound. Every possible thing, creature, denizen or anything that could rub two molecules together did it all, right outside my window.
I fucking hate crickets now. God, I hate every last one of them.
The daytime isn’t any better. I had heard the truck pull up just as I was refusing the fourth slab of hash browns from Mrs. Denison, the proprietress of the Patriots Keep Inn. Terry, the truck driver, entered the dining room with the familiarity of a local, which he was. “Wec’me tah Godz count-raye,” was all I could make out. He ran the local propane gas canister company. Oh, I didn’t mention the propane gas? The hissing sound of perpetual flame? The smell of perpetually leaking gas vents? “Gawt yar canz outside, mizzuz, fifthteen of thum” he proudly proclaimed to Ms. Denison. She wiped what I can only assume was oil and butter left over from the fried chicken on her rather large apron and gestured toward a chair. “Sit down, please! No, no, I insist! You can bring them in later!” I got the distinct impression there was a greater story to be told about her courtesy toward him, but I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know. What I did manage to discover was just how much opportunity there was in the propane canister business and how much safety training it takes just to get a license. All of this was offered by Terry between mouthfuls of chicken steak without any request from me. I smiled politely, but I just wanted to finish my job here and get back home.
So, I’m sitting here, trying not to get splinters in my ass, waiting. Terry waves to me as I look back at the house. Apparently finished with his meal, he’s moving the large canisters from his truck into the kitchen door, clanging them together with every movement.
I look at my watch and wonder how much more time it will take before that damn bus shows up. This was supposed to be a major county road, but all I’ve seen so far is Terry’s truck and an old El Camino on blocks in the yard of the rustic home across the street. I can make out a pair of legs sticking out from underneath the hood. The occasional grunt of forced effort tells me someone is working on his pride and joy.
I barely notice the man who sits next to me on the bench. I give him a glance and I know his type immediately. He’s obviously in the same situation as me. I have no idea if he is also staying at the Patriots Keep Inn or one of the other Inns in the area, but like me, he’s out of town, he’s here on business. Like me, he is dressed for business and so incredibly out of place. He pulls his briefcase closer to his side, looks at his watch, then up the road. Yes, I nod to myself, he’s my competitor. Most likely, he’s heading into town to meet the same people I’m meeting. To convince them that his deft talent with metaphor and analogy, his crafting of verbal imagery, will blow away anything I might bring to the table. Good luck, fellow. You have no idea who you’re up against.
But, still, he is a fellow spirit! Another stranger in this strange land! Somehow, that makes me feel a bit better, as our commonality gives me familiar comfort. He glances over at me and smiles that curt city smile and nods his head. I do the same and we both go back to staring ahead aimlessly. If we were the kind of folk who lived in this kind of town, we’d probably engage in some sort of banal conversation about crops or fishing bait. But though we are both strangers here, we adhere to our city code of non-engagement social boundaries. We understand, we know we understand, and that is enough. I return to the tending of my impatience by looking up the road and memorizing this hell.
That’s a chicken. I squint my eyes to lessen the sun’s glare. Definitely, a chicken.
It’s a hen, actually, the female of the species. It’s walking along the other side of the road, in the dirt next to the concrete. I’m thinking that it’s interesting that this bird, this hen, would be taking a nice walk in the morning. I idly wonder whether it’s something it always does at this time. Playing games in my head to pass the time, I imagine that this chicken had been told by its chicken doctor to exercise more. So, every morning, it takes a walk along this road before… before what? Doing chicken things? Aside from ending up on Mrs. Denison’s table, what is it that chickens do all day?
It finally gets to a point almost directly across from me, it pauses and looks…. yes…. across the road. I feel a slight smile lift my lip on one side; you have to be kidding me. The age-old question, taking place right in front of me. The hen’s head turns sideways, left, then right, as if contemplating her next move.
Do it! I urge mentally.
The hen cautiously extends its… foot? I have no idea what you call a chicken’s foot, but the hen pauses for a microsecond before planting it down on the concrete. The man next to me lets out a small exhale of amusement. He’s watching the hen as well. Well, why not? Could life get more cliché than this?
The chicken has apparently answered the question that has mystified mankind for eons, at least for herself, and begins her journey across the road toward us. Confident, assured, with no hesitation. Whatever the answer is, it is definitive. I chuckle out loud.
The brown late model Volvo rounds the curve and, bam, the chicken goes down. The man next to me jerks in surprise. The driver doesn’t slow down, I doubt that he felt anything as the car abruptly ended the life of the hapless bird as it sped down the road. The chicken remains, lacking its head, which, I assume, is still affixed to the bumper of the Volvo.
A couple of involuntary jerks, and the decapitated hen stops all movement. I look at the man next to me, he looks back. We both shrug; what is there to say?
But somewhere, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about the irony. That there’s some sardonic commentary to be made about what we just saw. Something…. I just can’t figure out how to phrase it in my head. And that’s annoying, to say the least.
The man nudges me and nods up the street. I look and, damn, it’s another chicken. Another hen, walking up the road, just as the previous one had. Carefully keeping to the dirt, its head bobbing with each step. It moves to the point across from us, exactly where the other chicken stopped, and it, too, stops and looks across the road. Now I’m thinking there must be some sort of invisible chicken cross walk drawn in a spectrum of light only poultry can see. Like the previous hen, it extends its foot and plants it firmly on the concrete, following it with another decisive step.
I’m transfixed. The man next to me, I can tell without looking at him, is just as riveted. The hen proceeds across the road until it comes to its unfortunate sister, lying lifeless in a pool of its own blood and entrails. It pauses, it turns its head back and forth, examining the body. It’s either going to turn back, taking this sign as a warning to give up on its dreams of the other side of the road, or continue on to its destiny, underlining the durability of the ancient riddle.
Or it could start to eat. Which is what it does! It starts pecking at the corpse, tapping against the concrete as it seeks out the tastiest portions.
Again, my mind is backing up with the irony, thinking that, again, there is some greater commentary to be made about all this! Something pithy yet powerful, a statement on life and harmony. An analogy, perhaps, or a metaphor. At the least, a great ice breaker at difficult parties or meetings with arrogant people who think they have seen and done it all. There is a statement here! But what that statement is, I just can’t quite get it. It dances just outside of my rationality, teasing me with its obviousness, but pulling back into the darkness of incredulity the moment it seems within my grasp. It’s becoming a challenge to me.
The rooster comes out of nowhere. Well, not nowhere, but I was oblivious to it until it was already in the street. It crosses from the other side where the invisible chicken walk is located, and approaches the feeding hen. It’s a large rooster, red and imposing, and walking with the confidence that created the word “cocksure”. The feeding hen ignores him as he approaches, concentrating on her cannibalistic feast. Bigger and stronger than the hen, as nature had intended it, he was sure to chase the hen off and take the prize for himself.
Or, he could just start fucking the hen. While it’s eating. Eating the dead hen.
That’s what he starts doing. In the middle of the road, the rooster mounts the hen. She barely moves as she concentrates on her meal. The rooster flaps his wings for balance, rustling the feathers on the road remaining from the dead chicken. The chicken that started this entire cosmic show.
“Holy shit…” I hear the man next to me muttering under his breath. “Yeah,” responds a voice that I recognize as my own. “This is like…” he starts to say, then pauses. He’s lost as well. “Yeah, I know,” I reply. “It’s like… I mean, it’s kind of like…” He nods, snapping the fingers on his hand to prompt those portions of the mind that need prompting from snapping fingers. “I know!” I exclaim, as if that is, in itself, the conclusion to his thought. “Synchronicity?” he ventures. “Yeah,” I respond, then immediately reject it. “No,” I shake my head. “Not that, but something…. something kind of...” Dammit, this is my JOB! Why can’t I connect the dots?
As I look at the man I see the next car as it rounds the corner. A part of my brain processes it faster than the rest of my mind and I can mentally see what will happen next before it occurs.
Fucking rooster, cannibal hen, dead chicken, bam, all gone in an instant of exploding blood, flesh and feathers, exactly as it played out in my head. Like the Volvo, the car drives on, oblivious.
“HOLY FUCK!” the man screams as he stands, pointing to what is now just a red smear in the center of the road. “I KNOW!” I yell back. My fingers are now snapping unconsciously as I try to put the pieces together. There is so much commentary to be made here! This would fill philosophical books for ages to come! The man is way ahead of me, he’s almost giddy with emotion. “No, no!” he points again to the smear. “You know what this means? Do you realize what this really means???”
I hate this man now, not because of who he is, not because he might be my competition, but because I can tell he’s figured it out. He has the analogy or metaphor or whatever it is that has escaped me. Dammit, he knows the symbolism! I rack my brain quickly, trying to figure it out. Chicken crosses road, hit by car, eaten by chicken which is fucked by chicken which is hit by car, almost every aspect of life, right in front of me, and I’m lost on how to put it all together into that quaint, precise phrasing that I’m so well known for! The diagrams of connective tissue fill my head, the lectures I’ve given and the papers I’ve written on subtext and social manipulation, echo helplessly in the face of such a monumental convergence of coincidence that, by its very random nature, MUST MEAN SOMETHING!!!
The man grins at me. He knows… Goddamn him, he knows he has it over me. I can sense his pride in accomplishment as he stands upright and takes a deep breath. He moves toward the smear and points down at it again, with strength, and turns his head toward me. “This, my friend, is exactl –“
The bus doesn’t even slow down as it hits him. Yes, it’s the bus we’re waiting for, but I get the impression the driver didn’t really expect to see anyone at this stop. It comes around the corner at full speed and slams into him, grinding him under the front left wheel, and sending the other portion across the road where his blood mixes and merges with the red smear, now lost in the organic muck.
Too late, the bus driver hits the brakes and comes to a quick halt. There was no mistaking that he hit something. This was no chicken, this was a human being. The door opens and the beefy driver heaves himself outside, his face a mixture of fear and anticipation. I can tell he’s hoping against hope that he’ll find the man sitting on the road, dusting himself off from a minor tap of the bumper. The bus driver clutches the hair on the side of his head as he sees the carnage. He stands over the remains, turning slowly, looking about in confusion. “Oh, my God, what just happened? What was he doing? What was he doing in the street?” the driver looks to me, awaiting an answer. My mouth is moving helplessly. How in the world could I possibly explain what just happened?
I start reflexively at the sound of screeching tires. The bus driver looks up in shock as the semi-truck obliterates him and sideswipes the parked bus, pushing it off the road and into Terry’s truck in front of the Patriots Keep Inn. There is a slow motion ballet to the way the remaining canisters in the back of the truck collide against each other and explode, giving credence to Terry’s insistence that safety protocols were important to licensing his business. I barely hear Terry’s scream from the other side of the truck as the kitchen is engulfed in flames. A burning figure flails in the doorway and, by its size, I can tell it isn’t Terry, but probably the former mistress of the Inn.
A loud whistling within the explosions and an errant canister launches itself, like a rocket, across the street, slamming into the El Camino, exploding on contact, destroying it and, presumably, the man working beneath it. The remaining gas in the El Camino’s tank ruptures and the house behind it quickly ignites, the front becoming a sheet of flame almost instantly.
Fuel pooling in the road from the bus and semi ignites, my bus bench now an island in the middle of a river of Hell’s fire. I pull my feet up on the bench, clutching my briefcase to my chest. The inferno rages around me as my mind desperately attempts to grapple with sensory overload!
“What does it mean? What does it all mean?” I scream to the heavens.
But I am in shadow. The heavens are obscured by a large object, above me, in the sky. Huge, majestic almost, as it pushes through the clouds. Strangely exotic, it calls me back to a time when I would read science fiction novels about visiting aliens, it’s a spacecraft! Its circumference enlarges as it hurtles toward the earth! It doesn’t seem to know we’re here, it completely dominates the sky as its edges begin to burn away at the atmosphere, heading toward the inevitable collision with my tiny, unimportant planet. As the ozone crackles around me and my ears begin to bleed from the compression of the atmosphere, I begin to laugh as I finally realize what it all means!
It means I’m going to be so fucking late for work!