This is the story of Clarence, my first pet as a married and all grown up woman.
It was the summer of 1970 and I was 19 years old, pregnant and lonely. My husband and I made our first home in a garage apartment in Idabel, Oklahoma. It was a tiny thing with a steep stairwell leading up to the two small rooms we called Home Sweet Home. Actually, it was three rooms, if you counted the errrrrrrr, bathroom. The bathroom was really an appendage of the apartment and a very tentative one at that. It hung suspended over the ground, one story up, on stilts. There should have been a warning sign, “Enter at your own risk, you FOOL!” posted at the door to that bathroom.
The two “real rooms” consisted of a small kitchen with a little table and two chairs tucked in a corner and a “great room” (see the visions of grandeur I had a age nineteen?) that made up the living room/bedroom. The living room area had a small couch and an even smaller black and white television that picked up two stations on a good day. (To tell you how long ago this was; Erica Kane was still in High School on “All My Children.“) The bedroom area had a bed that was prone to crashing down in the middle of the night, thus pitching the occupants out on the floor. But, we were young and foolish, so we learned to sleep with the mattress on the floor many nights.
As I said before, I was lonely in that little apartment. Ralph worked all day and I was alone. I’d been out of high school only a year and in that time, had moved to Oklahoma, gotten a job at Gemini Coffee Shop as a waitress making 35 cents and hours plus tips, and moved in with my cousin Saundra and her whirlwind of a 3 year old son.
It was at the Gemini that I met my husband Ralph. He and his co-worker George would come in for breakfast each morning and I would wait on them. Did I mention in that time, I’d gotten engaged ? Yeah, ok, I was engaged more or less to a kid I’d met a few years before when I was visiting my Mother in Oklahoma. I was never one to let grass grow under my feet. Now that I am writing this, it seems I did a lot in that short time, huh? Oh well, back to my rambling story. Yeah, yeah, I know this is a story about Clarence, my first pet. Keep your shirt on. I’m getting to it!
When I met Ralph in August, I had been out of high school for 2 months. Of course, I was taken, so he held no interest to me. He was just another one of the guys who ambled in and out of the coffee shop each day. He was a lousy tipper too!
By the time Fall came, I was officially unengaged and looking, I am sure, like I’d lost my new puppy. It was 1969 and in those days, getting married and having a children seemed the thing to do. Ralph was beginning to look better each day. Not that I noticed or anything. It was really all George’s fault. Ralph mentioned to him that he was going to ask my cousin Saundra out on a date. In George’s fateful words...”Nahhhh, you need to ask that little chunky one out.” Chunky being a nice word for fluffy little ole me.
Well, he asked me out. We had our first official date on Thanksgiving weekend. He must have had it bad for me, since he left deer camp to take me out. No God fearing Okie Bubba leaves deer camp unless it’s either an act of God or an Ignorant Flash. I’d prefer to think it were the former, thank you very much!
We went to a glamorous restaurant...ok...I lied...It was a hole in the wall that served the staple diet of all good Okies. Chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, deep fried okra and the greater part of that smothered in heaps of country gravy. Of course, I was too nervous to eat. I sat there, looking as delicate as a chunky teenager could while he ate and my stomach growled.
The more I thought of it, ole Ralph was looking more and more like a prospective husband and Daddy in Waiting. I’d been out of my own Daddy’s house just long enough to get a small rebellious streak. One of the few things Daddy had warned me of was to, “Never marry an Indian.” Don’t even ask where he got that nonsense. My step mother had added her southern belle warning to, “Nevah marry a ma-hun with them awful tattoos! “ That one always puzzled me, since Daddy had a few stray tattoos from his stint as a Marine in WWII.
Anyway, Ralph was both Indian and had a plethora of tattoos. Why not throw caution to the wind and marry the first tattooed Indian I could find? It made perfectly good sense to me! On that first date, Ralph was a dumb as I was. He made the fatal error of opening his mouth. “Any wife of mine will have to live right here in God’s Country.” I thought for maybe ten seconds and said, “Okay!” Six weeks after our first official date, we were standing in his aunt and uncle’s living room with good ole George and his “chunky” wife Judy as our attendants. The pastor just shook his head and gave us six months. The deed was done. We were married. That six months has lasted 34 years so far.
Now, back to being lonely and Clarence. By summer’s end, I wasn’t walking. I was waddling. No one told me I needed to practice birth control. When I found out I was pregnant, I was blissfully and deliriously happy. Who needed a brain when you could have a baby instead?
I had to quit working when morning, noon and nighttime sickness took over. It was a 24 hour, seven day a week job just to make a run for the nearest toilet bowl. The worst of it was when Ralph would insist that we drive 100 miles each way every weekend to see his parents. I’d scream to stop the car and while I’d hang out one side, barfing my toenails up, Ralph would do the same on his side. Ain’t married life grand?
As summer progressed, my belly grew and grew and alarmingly, grew some more. I would lay on that couch and watch that little black and white television for hours while my ankles swelled to monumental proportions. All I craved was fried chicken legs and soda pop. Big Red, Chocolate Soldiers, Dr Pepper. I’d tank up on those and make a run for the bathroom 5 minutes later. Getting into that tiny bathroom had become quite the challenge by then. Before my Pre-Preggy-Belly, I could sidle in sideways. By this time, by sideways was broader than my front-ways. It sounded something like a champagne cork when I “thwocked” my way in there.
I was getting depressed. Here I was, chunky beyond belief , barfing my brains out, and no one to talk to all day. I waddled to town now and then, trying to act grown up, but still being a teenager. My rude awakening came in a record shop. A group of giggling cheerleader type girls were there with a gaggle of cute football type boys. One of the girls was showing a new cheer and in her enthusiasm, kicked me in the shin. “Oops! I’m sorry Ma’m!” Ma’m???? Just who was that? Oh, that would be me. God knows, I wanted to yank her perky little red bows out of her perky little pigtails, but instead I waddled back to our little apartment in the sweltering summer heat and in the recently acquired knowledge that I was no longer a teeny-bopper, but a “Ma’m” and I darn sure wasn’t perky.
Maybe Ralph saw I was lonely. Maybe he knew I needed companionship. Maybe he was being sensitive to my needs....No, scratch that one. Anyhow, here he came home for lunch one day with a surprise. A fluffy little bundle of joy just for miserable chunky ole me. He brought me a chicken.
Now I ask you this; What am I going to do with a chicken in a garage apartment? I asked him and he looked wounded and bereft. Okay, I’ll keep the chicken, but it had to have a name. It was cute after all. Just a tiny little thing with fluffy baby yellow chicken feathers and it needed a Mommy. How do you know if it’s a boy or girl chicken? What the heck. We called “it” Clarence and hoped if it was a Clara, we wouldn’t have to put it into Chicken Therapy later in years.
Now I at least had company. Clarence took to me immediately. By that first night, he was perched on my shoulder, plucking at my hair and nuzzling under his Mommy’s version of her chicken wing and chirping in my ear in baby chicken talk. We had bonded.
Clarence was easy to take care of. As long as you kept a box of tissues handy and walked behind him, cleaning up his “deposits,” he was the perfect child. Alas, like all perfect children, Clarence was growing like a weed and going into the chicken version of the terrible two’s.
In a short few weeks, Clarence began to lose his fluffy yellow feathers. He looked like a mangy dog until his white, big boy feathers started coming in. He pretty much had the run of the place. For some strange reason, Ralph and Clarence began to bond in one of those Okie Bubba rituals. Ralph would come home from work each afternoon and pop the top on a cold brew. One day, he found a jar lid and poured Clarence a drink. Clarence took to it like...well, like any self respecting Okie chicken would! By the time Ralph polished off a couple of beers, Clarence had plowed his way through several beers of his own. He would get a beak full of beer, throw his head back and make a gargling sound. After 3 or 4 lids of his favorite brew, Clarence would stagger off under the bed and sleep it off. As you can tell, we were very short on entertainment.
I suppose it wasn’t very nice of us as a responsible chicken Mommy and Daddy, but one day, we pulled the old switcharoo on Clarence and instead of beer in his little lid, Ralph put Vodka. Clarence had this goofy little dance he did when he saw Ralph open a beer. Ok, he begged like a dog. Greedy little bugger that he was, he dove right into what was supposed to be his beer, tossed his head back to gargle and instead, nearly strangled to death before our very eyes. Bet you didn’t know that chickens have facial expressions, did you? After a fit of hacking, Clarence glared at us and waddled under the bed to pout for a few hours. To say the least, he was very cautious of what was in his lid after that.
Clarence wasn’t a picky eater. In fact, he was quite the connoisseur. I had to be very careful with what I left out on the kitchen counter. I learned that after he managed to polish off a huge chunk of hamburger I had laid out to thaw. But, his absolute favorite meal was chicken. Hey, no one told him he was a chicken! I heard him clattering around in the kitchen one day, so I trundled off the couch only to find him hauling a chicken carcass across the floor that had formerly been in the trashcan. That boy! Such the cannibal!
His other favorite food was dill pickles. He’d lay down his feathery little life for one good shot at a crunchy dill pickle. By the way, we missed Chicken Nutrition 101. Clarence ate what we ate.
By the middle of summer, we had been house shopping and found a little home we could afford. There was only one problem. Clarence had turned into a big rooster and couldn’t live in the house with us anymore. At first, I deluded myself into thinking he could live in the storage room off our garage. After a few days in there, it was apparent we had to do something to make his and our life more tolerable.
Mother lived in the country and she had chickens just like Clarence. It was decided that poor hapless Clarence would be better off in the country with his kind. He would be free to rule the roost among a hundred or more hens. I had visions of Clarence, something like Foghorn Leghorn, seducing all the little lady chickens in his domain. He was going to lead a life of luxury once we moved him.
So, with heavy hearts, we drove to Mother’s house. Clarence sat in my lap the entire ride and never made a peep or squawk or cock-a-doodle-doo all the way there. He loved going for a ride, so this was fun. Once we got to Mother’s, the entire tribe of chickens ran to greet us. Clarence recoiled in sheer horror. “What are THOSE?!” Ok, so he didn’t actually say it, but a Mommy knows her children.
I had brought along a dill pickle as a sort of consolation prize. I put him down among the other chickens and watched him. He panicked completely and tried to fly up into my arms. There he was, dancing in a panic among all of those chickens. I laid the pickle at his feet and over 100 pickle loving chickens descended on it. Clarence chased us to the truck, begging to get back in and go home. Ralph had to drag me away, crying for Clarence. Ok. so I was 19, pregnant, having hormanal surges from Hades and missed my Clarence! YOU try dealing with that!
I was up all that night, bawling like a baby for my “son.” All the next day, I paced the floor...Ok....I waddled the floor, worrying about poor little Clarence. Was he happy? Was he getting to know his new chicken friends? Was he scared? Were tiny little chicken tears falling down his tiny little chicken cheeks? By the time Ralph got home the next afternoon, I was in full blown hysterics. “I want Clarence,” I wailed. Like any good husband who values his sanity, he drove me back to Mother’s.
I was wringing my hands all the way there. How would we find him among 100 other chickens who all looked like clones? I need not have worried. We drove up and like a little white missile, there he came, rocketing through the thronging masses of chickens. He flew up to me and started his little dance. Sobbing as only a Mother can when reunited with her Prodigal Son, I held him near my heart all the way back home.
That weekend, my brothers came to help us build Clarence a real chicken coop. Finally it was finished. A bachelor pad that any self-respecting rooster would love. He even had his own little house in his fenced in yard. Yeah, it was really a doghouse, but no one had the heart to tell Clarence that.
Clarence didn’t like being banished from our house, but he adjusted. He learned how to crow like a real man, errr, rooster. He would stand on top of his little house and crow his little heart out. He only had one problem. Clarence had bad timing. He enjoyed his morning crow at around 2:00 a.m. To say the least, the neighbors were not amused. In fact, they came over on a quite regular basis to complain. What was I to do? Have his cock-a-doodle-doer removed?
By the end of summer, I was a wee bit preoccupied. I woke up after being in labor for 12 hours. Woke up I say, because they knocked me out just before I delivered. “We have twin girls!” Ralph was hovering over semi-conscious me, saying things that made no sense. I was supposed to have one baby, no more, no less. After telling him where he could go, I promptly passed back out. Now Clarence had two baby sisters and I was somewhere off in La-La Land.
It was 3 weeks before we could bring them home from the hospital. For 3 weeks, I was a blithering idiot. My babies (the real ones) were several hours away from me, in a neonatal nursery for preemies. Clarence was about to get another rude awakening called Sibling Rivalry. He was no longer the baby of the family and his preferred treatment status took a steep nose dive. Now, he was just Clarence the Chicken. Mommy had her plate full with 2 human babies.
Clarence took a turn for the worse. Maybe in chicken years, he was now a rebellious teenager. Clarence, that little ingrate, got mean. By the next summer, the twins were toddling. When we would go outside to visit their big brother Clarence, he would fly at the chicken wire with both feet, trying to spur them. Oh, he was green with jealousy. I threatened to make chicken and dumplings out of him, but he persisted. All we could do was pitch his food over the fence and stay clear of him. Even a dill pickle couldn’t quench his jealous fits of anger.
To make matters worse, we got a dog. That sent poor Clarence into a frenzy. How dare we haul two children in and then, insult to injury, add a dog? Clarence set up a ear shattering racket in protest. So did the neighbors. He was crowing morning, noon and night and even attacking me, his dear, beloved Mommy!
It was a cold winter morning when Ralph walked outside and quickly walked back in. Clarence was dead. I rushed out to see for myself and sure enough, there he was, stiff as a board. To this day, I don’t think Clarence died of natural causes. I think that pesky neighbor did him in. “Clarence the Chicken, Murdered in His Own Home. Headlines at 10:00.”
In the end, we had a little chicken memorial service and buried poor Clarence in our yard. He would have been proud. It was all I could do to not burst into a rousing version of the Chicken Dance. Instead, I shed a few tears for that first “child” of mine. I could feel him, sitting on my shoulder, burrowing under my hair, chirping to me in baby chicken talk. If there is a Chicken Heaven, I know Clarence is there, crowing his little heart out and waiting for Mommy to bring him his beer and a dill pickle. That boy!
Allison Chambers Coxsey
©2002 ~ All Rights Reserved