Chicken Heaven

Up at Clifton Terrace, all the kids in a certain fourth-floor apartment used to just be waiting for their ma to come home. She had a job at Popeye's; she'd start on the late afternoon shift and work into the night. All those kids would be getting hungrier, laughing, telling jokes, and licking their lips thinking about chicken. And then Ma would come in the door with her arms around one of those big boxes of chicken: drumsticks, wings, whatever you wanted. And they'd all sit around chomping, tearing off the spicy skin and sucking the bones, until they couldn't eat anymore. Then they would tumble asleep, happy.

Chante was little then, maybe 6 or 7. It was such a happy time, those few hours when first the kids would be thinking about chicken and joking, and then they'd be eating it and licking the little bits from their lips, and then they'd be full and sleepy. It was chicken heaven.

Later were the saddest times you could think of. That's when Clifton Terrace really went downhill, first with PCP, then with crack. In the yard, skinny people shouting at each other. Knives and guns. Boys so nervous they'd shoot you if you looked crosswise. Police going 'round and 'round the block. Some folks slept outside under a bush rather than go back where maybe some dude had taken over their apartment and was selling crack out of it. People peeing in the hall and sick in the stairwell, and you didn't dare take the elevator even if it was working.

One place Chante could always go was her grandfather's. He never said no, he always had room for one more, he was the kindest man alive. That was up on 14th Street, near Irving. Sometimes there were five people staying in his one-bedroom apartment because they didn't want to go back to Clifton Terrace. When the manager caught on, he would threaten to evict the old man, and then Chante and everyone who was there would hit the street again, go stay with someone else, get to doing another thing. Later, when they needed help, some place to stay, they'd drift back, one by one.

OK, here comes the happy part: There was a restaurant near her grandfather's place called the Smorgasbord—one-price, all you could eat. On Thanksgiving, Grandfather would take whoever in the family was around to the Smorgasbord. Chante would be thinking about that for at least a week before Thanksgiving, and then the day itself would come, and she and her aunts and sisters and brother would be joking, fooling around, and then at a certain time Grandfather would start down the street with maybe six or seven of them in step together, their mouths watering as they got closer, and then looking over the tables of food, the most delectable stuff you ever saw, and eating it down to the last crumb, and then getting one plate more, and then one more. It was chicken heaven all over again.

Grandfather had been a porter on the Great Northern Railroad—his route was clear across the country: Chicago, the watery states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, then the train plowing through the North Dakota and Montana plains and pulling up over the Rockies to drop into the Columbia River gorge and shoot through the green pines to the Pacific. He had amazing stories.

But for all Grandfather's traveling stories, no one else in the family wanted to take up that roaming way of life. Chante just wanted a safe and friendly place to stay. Every time Chante left the District—school in Baltimore, the Job Corps in Pennsylvania—she was lonely. Strangers were afraid of her: She had been at Clifton Terrace in its wild years, and a glance would tell you she could defend herself. What strangers saw was "get out of my way." It was only with her family that her big heart showed. So no matter where she was sent, before long she'd be knocking at her grandfather's door.

Grandfather died of old age and tuberculosis. There is no safe place anymore. At the age of 21, plagued by asthma, Chante cannot hold a job for long despite her high-school diploma, excellent reading and math skills, and swift intelligence. She moves from one person's home to another, helping with the little children, running errands, trying to stay out of the way and eat very little and not be sick. She roams not the way her grandfather did, with purpose, excitement, adventure. No, she roams entirely against her will. She hates the roaming life.

Chante would like to be her grandfather, someone who opens doors instead of knocking on them. Her place in the District would be full of friends and family. Chante would bring big buckets of chicken home to fill the tummies of the little ones. On Thanksgiving there would be all you can eat, and then one plate more.

Chicken heaven. Can she get there?CP

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