Warning: Contains profanity, mildly grotesque imagery, and an infant in peril.
Backyard barbeque, Fourth of July. My family and I are deep into a game of asshole chicken.
The only rule of asshole chicken: First one to talk loses. At the professional level, asshole chicken is an art form. Awkward silence doesn’t matter. Heat pressing on all parts of your body doesn’t matter. Questionable potato salad bubbling in your belly doesn’t matter. All that matters is that sustained, combative silence. To win at asshole chicken, you have to be a pitiless asshole. But do I have what it takes?
My opponents are arrayed in a line of folding chairs, facing me like a review board:
- My older sister has settled into a fluttering rhythm of brief glances that, if they could be picked up on audio, would sound like “you suck, you suck, you suck.”
- My mother is flooding the area with earnest disappointment over her good boy gone wrong. (I’m thirty-four.)
- My father has sprouted inch-long eyeteeth for ripping into my neck when I inevitably flinch.
- My older brother is sitting just behind my father and slightly to the left. Together they form a two-headed Doberman, each head with its own unsympathetic, unmoving unibrow.
The heat is ruthless. There’s no breeze to sway the treetops. Also, my face is melting. I’m worried it’s going to give way and flop onto the plate on my lap. I can imagine my sister getting up and irritably picking through the pile, going, “Is this coleslaw or face?”
What are my chances of winning? Thing is, none of them are talkers. Neither am I, really, but that’s on them. We never talked growing up. Or, if we talked, we’d talk all at once, which is the same thing as not talking. And they have an unfair advantage: None of them, as far as I know, are trying to stifle an urge to confess.
Do they know what happened last week? Is that what started the asshole chicken in the first place? When I got here an hour ago, I was sure to be casual about it. I told them Janie’s at her grandmother’s place, but I didn’t tell them why. Was I suspiciously casual? Or has somebody squealed?
For today's game of asshole chicken, there’s one spectator:
- Next-door neighbor Tony Something stands in the distance behind the review board. He’s using a long pole to scoop leaves from his above-ground pool in his oak-shaded backyard.
Tony looks like a regular guy. Gray-haired, serene, easy in his skin. Probably some decent crow’s feet from all the genuine smiling he’s racked up over the years. Tony looks like a guy who knows things. Like he knows how to cut down a tree. (How to “fell” a tree?) He’s a good guy, Tony. Tony’s somebody I could talk to.
Like I could say to Tony, “Tony, how’s it hanging?” And Tony would say, as if he were the first to use the expression, “Lower’n it used to, bub.”
In fact, I could walk uninvited to the fence line, and Tony would give me a brief, respectful handshake. Guided by some uncanny Tony instinct, he’d ask me how the family was. He’d remember their names—Janie (the kiddo) and Maggie. I’d dip my head, and he’d pick up on something amiss.
“Everything okay, bub?” he’d ask.
I’d want to spill my guts right off the top, but that wouldn’t be fair to Tony. So I’d say, “It’s Janie.”
“How old is she now?”
“Like eight months.”
“No, it’s not, Tony. It’s really not.”
“You’re right, bub. Eight months is bullshit.”
“Anyway, she had a scare last week, and now they’re both staying over at Maggie’s mom’s place. I don’t know how long.”
With this, Tony would nod sagely. He wouldn’t judge. And he wouldn’t say that I should scoot back to my asshole chicken or that the rest of them seem pretty well positioned to win. If he mentioned asshole chicken at all, he'd tell me I still had a chance.
I’d say, “So I put Janie in her car seat for a trip up north—”
“Sorry—just trying to picture it. So you put her in this self-driving car . . .”
“We were headed up to her grandmother’s place. It’s like a half-hour. Actually, closer to an hour. And she was fine, Tony. Fed. Sleepy. New diaper. One of those deep-dish deals. Like astronauts could use them. And there’s air-conditioning. So I put her in the car, that rear-facing car seat. And she wasn’t even that fussy. Everything was all packed, and I was about to hop in next to her.”
“Didn’t hop in next to her. I shut the door and let the car drive itself away. I even waved for some reason, like it was Janie driving.”
Tony wouldn’t respond verbally to this. Tony would be somber.
“I didn’t plan to do it, Tony. It just happened. I didn’t even know it was happening until it had happened. But she was safe, Tony, and I had the tracker on my phone. I watched the little blue car move up the map. I just wanted some time to myself for once. It’s been so hard. And I had a bunch of things to do around the house. So they won’t talk to me now. Maggie won’t talk to me, I mean.”
“I don’t blame her.”
“Jesus, Tony, whose side are you on? I told you she was fine. The door was locked. She was probably zonked out by the time she even got to the highway.”
“The car get there okay?”
“It got there. Kind of. It parked in the wrong driveway. I gave it the right address, though. It’s up in Fallow on South Esker Road North. Or it’s South Esker Road South. I thought I’d pasted it in from Maggie’s text. In fact, now that I think of it, maybe she gave me the wrong address. I’ll have to check.”
“So what about Janie?”
“She was sitting in the driveway awhile. The people weren’t home. I guess a guy walking his dog heard her crying, so . . .”
“That’s some fucking story, chief. You must—”
“You think I did the wrong thing?”
“Doesn’t matter what I think.”
“But I’m asking you, Tony.”
“I think you can’t undo it, that’s what I think. All you can do is move on from here.”
I’d slowly nod.
I think I nod in the real world as the game of asshole chicken wears on. I may also be lightly sobbing. I blink, briefly knuckle my eyes, and see real-life Tony drinking a soda on his shaded deck over there.
The review board has not faltered. My sister’s still broadcasting that I suck. My mother is drained. The younger head of the two-headed dog drowses over a cell phone (which feels like cheating) while Head the Elder trains his eyes on me.
Somebody’s ratted me out, I’m sure of it now. This kind of silence—the unbreakable, righteous kind—can only come from knowing.
But does it matter? I can’t change it now. It happened. Past tense. The car drove away, accelerated, stopped at lights, signaled, turned, got up to highway speed, merged. Granted, there are some outstanding questions. Like did people notice a baby whizzing by them? And what went on in that car? Did Janie kick the whole way there? Grab at the seatbelt? Did she know she was alone? Seeing her father recede in the back window, did she cry so hard that her throat became dry and swollen? On the other hand, will she even remember it when she’s older? Isn’t it the remembering that gets you?
I’m pretty sure I’m sobbing for real now, right in front of the review board. They’re shifting in their seats, stretching their sore muscles, smugly glancing at each other. They know they’re about to win.
They’re right. Somewhere deep in my chest, a word forms. It inflates to a certain volume and then rushes up like a beach ball from the bottom of a pool.
“Tony!” I yell. It’s all I can think to say. I make a gulping sound and yell it again: “Tony!”
It’s a humiliating defeat. But at least it’s over now. I don't say anything else. I get up, put my plate in the trash, and head home.
In the car, I have plenty of time to think. I imagine what I might say in a postgame interview. I’d be candid about my loss, even humble. I wasn’t playing at a hundred percent, I’d say, and I let a lot of people down. The heat was a tough break, and the potato salad wasn’t doing me any favors. So maybe it’s time to take stock and really look at myself in the mirror. Maybe I’d even retire from asshole chicken altogether. Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s not my thing anymore. Maybe I’m just not that kind of asshole.