The Dreaded Chicken Foot

I had intended to write about winning. Specifically how the Orange Horror averred, before his election, that we’d all get so sick of winning our heads would spin. But I could use a bit of levity just now, and give it slightly less than even money that sometime in the near future the Orange might exchange Horror for Jumpsuit.

Instead, I’ll tell you about the Dreaded Chicken Foot.

I figure I’ve been asked, “What’s for dinner?” in the neighborhood of 31,500 times (5 kids x 18 years x at least 350 times per year). When exasperated I always found it helped to reply with something sure to fall afoul of their sensibilities–something jellied, say, or pickled. Maybe even one of the pets. Naturally enough the kids always looked askance at this, eyebrows arched in reaction to my clearly departed wits. This was my cue to start speaking in rhyme. “I’m going to bake a steak in a cake,” I’d say. Or, “I’m going to cram some ham in some spam in some clam in some lamb in some yam in some salmon. And I’m going to toss some jam in. So–no famine!”

And then I’d suggest a postprandial game of backgammon.

More quotidian, though, was, “Meatloaf,” or, “chicken.”

You try to feed kids what you’re confident they’ll actually eat. There remains, however, the exception of a pork chop our son, Alex, once refused. “It’s guilty,” he said. I’m still baffled by this. At the time I merely told him, “That’s why I had it killed.”

This was when we were living in Cabo San Lucas, in 1995–before the advent there of supermarkets. I went into a carneceria one afternoon to get a chicken. Inexplicably, the carcass included a single dismembered foot.

“What the hell am I going to do with this?” I mused, using it as a prosthesis to scratch my chin. The Chief arched her eyebrows in reaction to my clearly departed wits.

Over dinner I told the kids–in those days aged eight, seven, five and one–the importance of being good and doing well in school. Keep in mind that this was still the time of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Also the Dreaded Chicken Foot.

“If you misbehave,” I told them, “the Devil will leave a chicken foot inside your pillow.”

Keep in mind, too, that they were really sweet kids. At that stage in their careers they almost never misbehaved.

In 1995 we lived in a big three-bedroom house on a hill overlooking Santa Maria Bay. A master suite was upstairs, above two smaller bedrooms. To keep a room open for guests–and to discourage any nocturnal balcony wandering–we settled all but the youngest in the inner room.

After dinner, and after homework was done, I placed the chicken foot inside our oldest’s pillow while we were all watching television together. Easily the most susceptible to anything scary, I knew I could trust Chuck to truly frighten his siblings.

But I could not make the foot too easy to find. There had to be that lull while they talked the day down and sleepiness drew in upon them. The foot’s discovery at that undefended moment would electrify the room.

That’s why the Devil puts it inside the pillowcase. Foot-side down, to boot.

The detonation, when it came, required about an hour’s time. During which I coolly read a book.

Initially–and for reasons I’ve never understood–they thought the foot was the amputated hand of our youngest. This angle never occurred to me, and normally would be terrifying a-plenty–if I were not biting a knuckle in silent laughter. I listened outside the door, rolling on the tile floor in diabolical glee. Then the lights came on, and what had been something of a hullaballoo grew in volume to a more frantic chorus of shrieking.

“It’s the Chicken Foot!” screamed one.

“We’re going to hell!” screamed another.

This was another wrinkle that I had not thought of, and it was all I could do to contain myself.

What ensued was a sort of Chicken Foot hot potato.

“You take it!”–“No, YOU take it!”–“Give it to Teddy!”–“No way! I don’t want it!”

Then the cacophony crashed suddenly to silence, and the following, almost a whisper, came through the door, “Do you hear Dad out there laughing?”

Maybe this column is indeed about winning. Chalk one up for the Dreaded Chicken Foot.

Joseph Oldenbourg

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