Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Chicken and Rice

Lisa Mason


“Stay out of the chicken house,” George said. “I’ll work on it later.” He narrowed his steel gray eyes, and his white eyebrows furrowed. “I mean it, Billie Jean.”

Billie turned the burner off under the peas. “I got plenty to do ’round here without doing your work, too.” She heaved the steaming pot from the stove and poured the peas into a colander balanced in the sink.

“I got peas to put up,” she continued. “And washing and ironing to do.” She pushed back a thick wave of gray hair that had loosed itself from the tight bob low on her neck, and then patted her face with a dishtowel that was slung over her shoulder.

Billie filled the pot with water again and put it back on the burner. She sensed George’s eyes boring through her and turned around. “What?” she asked.

“I have to go to Shreveport to get that tractor part, and I know you’ll go in that chicken house and fix it just to spite me.”

Billie took the colander of peas from the sink and poured them onto a towel she’d spread across the counter. She ran her hand back and forth, smoothing the pile until there was one thin layer of purple hulls covering the towel.

“I don’t know why you don’t just let them mail the part to you. Save yourself a trip,” she said with her back to him.

“Cause they’ll charge me an arm and a leg postage. Then if it ain’t right, I’ll have to mail it back or drive to Shreveport anyway.”

“Cheap old coot,” she whispered, still fussing over the peas.

“Hard-headed old woman,” he mumbled back.

Before the screen door slammed George yelled, “Stay out of the chicken house, Billie!”

By noon, Billie had put forty bags of purple hulls in the freezer, brought in the ripe tomatoes, making sure to get some green ones for frying, and finished the laundry.

She sat in her chair by the window and worked on an afghan she’d been crocheting while she watched the news. Her gaze wandered to the chicken pen. Her hands slowed to a stop as she studied the lopsided little house in the corner of the yard. “Probably just needs a nail or two,” she said. “Two by fours in there is rotten. And we got all that brand new wood. . .”

The dog at her feet looked up at her with liquid brown eyes. He stretched in the dappled sunlight that fell across the rug, sighed, then rested his head on his paws.

“Don’t be trying to talk me out of it now, Roy,” she said to the dog. “You heard the weather report just like I did. What if that house blows down tonight with all my hens in there settin’? What’ve I got then? A tractor part come special delivery from Shreveport, that’s what.”

Billie tossed her afghan onto the table. The old hound scrambled to get out of her way as she headed to the bedroom to get into her working clothes.

Billie always wore dresses. That’s the way she was raised. She did her cooking and cleaning and harvesting from the garden, all in a housedress and apron. But for hard work, like clearing the garden, and in this case, fixing the henhouse, she’d put on a pair of George’s pants.

She rolled a cuff in a pair of tan work pants, and then tried them on. George was a good six feet tall and Billie topped out at four eleven and three-quarters. Baggy—yes, but they’d do. She put on one of his shirts and finished off her outfit with her floppy straw hat.

Leaving the bedroom, she caught a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror on the back of the door.

“Yes,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “I do look like I been swallowed whole. But only you and me knows about this, Roy, and if you tell George, I’ll have your hide.”

She found George’s hammer and filled her pockets with an assortment of nails. Roy shuffled behind her. Billie ignored him as she dragged one long two by four and then carried an armload of short ones to the chicken yard.

Hens scattered, flapping their wings and stirring up a cloud of dust as Billie marched through the yard. Inside the henhouse the air was thick and smelled of mildew, no doubt due to the leaky roof that George had also promised to fix, but hadn’t.

She brushed the hay from the ledge and laid down the hammer and a handful of nails. It was dark and cramped in the corner where she had to work, and she leaned back at a precarious angle over the nest box to see what needed to be repaired.

“That don’t look so bad,” she said to a brown hen sitting at eye level in a nest next to her. “I’ll have you gals fixed up in no time.”

“I’m gonna make a little noise, ladies,” Billie said. “But y’all will be dry tonight.” She gave the wood a whack with the hammer. It didn’t move. One more blow, then another, and still, it didn’t budge.

“Not as rotten as I thought,” she said. “But it’s gotta go.” Billie braced herself against the ledge and raised the hammer, landing a blow at the base of the wood where it met the ledge.

In one splintering crack the wood gave way and folded under the larger beam above it, trapping Billie’s arm between the ledge and the two by four. Roy bolted from the chicken house, returning seconds later to eye her sheepishly from the doorway.

“Yes, I know,” she said. “Now I’ve done it. George is gonna get riled for sure.”

Billie heaved with all her strength, but the wood didn’t budge. She leaned back, hoping her arm might slip from its hold, but the only thing that gave was the shirtsleeve. “Something else for me to mend,” she said, adjusting her stance and pushing the wood again. Nothing.

Her arm was numb under the wood, and she tried to move her fingers, but couldn’t tell if she was moving them or not. She wanted to scream out for help, but the farm was thirty-five miles from town and ten miles from the closest neighbor. There was a chance that an unexpected visitor could free her, but that wasn’t likely. At two o’clock Lester would bring the mail, but he would only come as far as the mailbox a mile away unless there was a package to be delivered.

If George had only had that part mailed—“I wouldn’t be in the henhouse to start with,” she finished out loud.

Billie rested her head against a nest box. The hen behind her rustled in the hay, then clucked before settling again. Billie looked at the torn shirtsleeve. “There’s gonna be more than this shirt to mend when George gets home and finds me stuck in this henhouse.”

Flies and gnats buzzed her face, and her forehead beaded with sweat as the afternoon wore on. She heard the squeal of Lester’s brakes when he stopped at the mailbox and continued down the road.

Her stomach rumbled and her mind wandered. What if her arm was broken? Would she go into shock soon? Pass out from the heat? Get snakebit and die before George got home?

Ah yes, when George got home. The humiliation was more than she’d be able to stand. It’d be months before she could put this henhouse thing behind her. Maybe there was a way to smooth it over, make him forget what she’d done.

“Chicken and rice,” Billie said. “I’ll make chicken and rice for supper. He’ll be so happy he won’t remember to be mad.”

Chicken and rice was George’s favorite dish, but she hadn’t made it since they’d taken up irritating each other as a hobby. Fifty years ago when they were newlyweds, she made it often. George would come in from the field and hang around like a hungry hound waiting to have his plate served. He’d stand behind her at the stove, wrap his arms around her waist and kiss her neck. A chicken and rice supper was good for at least a week of sweetness on George’s part.

Roy lay down at her feet. Billie inventoried the contents of her kitchen in her mind. Yes, she had everything she needed. George would come home, find her out here, and set her free. He’d lecture her something terrible, and then he’d smell supper, and it would all melt away. He’d smile and forget all about the mess she made in the henhouse.

Maybe she could even make it look like she was just gathering eggs, and all this was an accident. In a rush, she brushed the nails off the ledge, but then saw the hammer on the ground out of her reach.

Roy looked up at her. “Yes, and I guess these clothes are a dead giveaway,” she said.

No, she’d get caught, but the chicken and rice would win him over. She might even turn the radio on like they used to. And after supper, with the soft sunset light streaming through the windows, they’d get lost in the sounds of Henny Youngman and the shuffling of their feet across the hardwood floor. George would be so enamored by the meal and the evening she created, he wouldn’t have the heart to scold her.

After supper when they’d go out to the porch, George’s belly full of chicken and rice, he might even tell her he loved her. Billie knew he still did love her—and she loved him too—it’d just been a while since either of them had heard the words spoken.

She closed her eyes and a wide smile slid across her face. Yes, chicken and rice would fix it.

Through the open kitchen window the phone rang. She’d turned up the ringer and the answering machine when she went to the garden earlier.

“Hey, Billie,” it was George. “I’m gonna stay over in Shreveport tonight. The part ain’t in, but it’ll be here first thing. I’m staying at Jack’s. See you sometime after noon tomorrow. And Billie, stay out of the chicken house.”

Billie slumped against the wall. She’d been out here at least five hours and now she had another eighteen to go. “Dang it,” she stomped the loose floorboards.

She was getting out of the henhouse, and right now. Billie used her foot to nudge a piece of wood toward her. After several attempts to raise one end by stepping on the other, she succeeded and was able to grasp it. She shoved it between the boards close to her arm and leaned on it with all the strength left in her.

“C’mon, just a little,” she urged. Roy whimpered. “Raise it up just a bit and I can slip my arm out. There.” Billie was free.

Her arm was bruised and stiff, but nothing seemed to be broken. She picked up the hammer and nails and then hauled the wood back to the porch. Covering her tracks inside the henhouse with hay and swearing Roy and the chickens to secrecy, Billie left the chicken yard.

The next afternoon she heard the rumble of George’s truck coming down the road. She stood at the stove stirring dinner and smiling.

The screen door slammed and George called, “You fix that henhouse?”

“No,” she answered, her smile twisting into a crooked grin.

George stepped into the kitchen. He sniffed the air and stood behind her, peering over her shoulder at the pot on the stove. “Smells great, what is it?”

Billie patted his hand lovingly as she turned from the stove, and in the sweetest voice she could muster, said “Pot roast.”

***

Lisa Mason was born in Louisiana, but has resided in Texas for more than thirty years. Lisa’s literary genre fiction and poetry have been published in college magazines, e-zines, and literary periodicals, and she has won awards for both poetry and short fiction. Her writing reflects the charm of the southern traditions of her upbringing.

© Lisa Mason

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012