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Ralph The Rooster:Part 2

In The 60's on October 9, 2015 at 12:38 am

Ralph The Magnificent!

Does it come as any surprise whatsoever, that having a rooster did not actually turn my life into a fairy tale?

Oh- there were the good times, yes indeed. Like waiting for a few minutes once I was put to bed- until the coast was clear, then throwing back my lavender chenille bedspread, and eagerly springing out of bed to play with the baby rooster in my closet. (Yes- he lived in my closet like a gay person in the military during the Bill Clinton years.)

To get to the closet in the dark, I felt my way blindly through the familiar braille of my bedroom furniture, (still somehow stubbing or banging something) arms outstretched until I reached the closet door knob. Bingo! Pulling open the door with a creak I turned on the closet light which spilled out across the shiny wood floor in a glorious golden cone, a stage light of sorts in which Ralph could ideally prance around.

Rubbing my hands together in anticipation of releasing Ralph from his  wooden crate, and peeking through the slats I’d try and locate him. The top was covered with chicken wire for security, and a towel to ‘put him to sleep’ according to my mom.

Peeling off the towel, then wire, I’d reach into the box, grabbing Ralph as gently as I could. Roused from sleep, he would startle awake and peck at my hand, and in turn I would squeal and drop him. The scene would repeat itself until I finally could lift him out of the crate, and quickly place (read: drop) him on the floor.

He was impossibly delicate and soft. I had to be careful not to crush him, his tiny body mink soft, his bones as fragile as the glass-blown set of fawns I’d gotten for my birthday (unfortunately, the doe was already sans one leg and half an ear). Once Ralph was free, I would smile with pure delight, and  watch as the tiny ball of feathers hopped about my room. He looked pissed off most of the time (and I wondered if it was because I took him away from all of his friends and/or frenemies) but I felt confident I would win him over in the long run.

I tried to be as quiet as possible, but at seven, my ability to follow a ruse through from start to finish still needed to be honed. I’d had a few successful nights, and then got sloppy. Since Ralph was limber and quick, and my room was large, I would chase after him as he headed under my bed, or vanity, or back into the closet.

My bedroom happened to be right above my parents room so any move I made could be heard and frowned upon, by my parents (though I did not, as of yet, put two and two together. Rather, I thought them psychic.)

The first time I heard my father’s feet thundering up the stairs (muttering ‘god dammit’ all the way) I jumped frantically,  slamming shut the closet door  and flew back onto my bed, pulling the bedspread up and over my head,  my heart beating like a tom-tom.

When my father opened the door, there couldn’t be more evidence of ‘fowl’ play. The closet light still glowed around the edges of the door. Once opened, Ralph’s cage looked as if it had been ransacked, the towel on the floor in a pile and the chicken wire cast aside. The taut bedspread completely covering myself from head to toes was also telling. As was Ralph himself- gallivanting about the room, squeaking peep, peep, peep…..tirelessly running in circles on the floor.

“ANNIE! WHAT THE  HELL ARE YOU DOING UP HERE?” my father bellowed, switching on the bedroom light.

I froze, stick straight and wound tight under the bedspread. There was a muted purple glow from inside my flimsy cocoo.

 My father’s footsteps slapped the bare wood floor as he approached my bed. He pulled the cover off of my head quickly, like a magician pulling a tablecloth and leaving the plates intact. I squinted my eyes and feigned just waking up. ‘What? Huh?’ I said, thinking I could fool him. I was such a greenhorn.

“WHAT IS THE DAMN CHICKEN DOING OUT?!” he wanted to know.

“Rooster” I corrected, causing his face to turn red. 

He spoke slowly,  with a soft menace, his teeth gritted.

“I don’t care, if it’s a god-damned Bluebird! GET HIM!”Dad yelled,pointing in the direction of the cage.

“NOW!” he bellowed.

I jumped out of bed as though sprung by a slingshot. I scanned the room, but couldn’t see Ralph right off. Then I heard a faint peeping under the ruffly, lavender skirt of my vanity. I dropped to my knees and reached through the curtain slit, grabbing Ralph, who was standing on top of a ceramic sheep outside the manger I had procured from the Christmas Ornament Box in the crawl space adjacent to my room. The manger I was forbidden to play with, and which I played with everyday. I was careful to not let my father see.

I stood, holding Ralph up, hoping that seeing him would soften my Dad up. I began to pet his head and almost coo, but an impatient “HURRY UP!” put an end to that. I ran over to the cage, deposited Ralph inside, secured the top, and covered it with the towel- a little lopsided in my haste, but suffice for now. 

I jumped back into bed, careful to take the route opposite the side where my father ominously cowered.  I pulled the covers up to my chin, closed my eyes with all of my might and waited for punishment. I heard my father walk over to my closet and flick the inside light off. Then I felt his presence as again he stood over my bed, his anger visceral.  He said nothing for about a minute. I felt a phantom tingling on my butt, in exactly the spot I assumed the Fanny Whacker would land.  

Finally he spoke:

“IF….I… Hear……A Peep Out of Either One of You……(Of course, Ralph peeped at this exact moment, but my father pretended not to hear)…I Promise You…..I will come up here…….with……..The…. Fanny Whacker!!….(cue psycho theme here)

When I was seven- the Fanny Whacker, a wooden paddle used for spanking, was the equivalent of modern day waterboarding, a cartoon Karate Chop, or an Anvil straight from Acme dropping on one’s head. I’d no more get out of bed again than give my father the middle finger while yelling out swears.

He stomped back down the stairs, muttering, as I whispered ‘shhh!’ to the peep-happy, wide-awake, Ralph, now pacing in his cell thanks to my wake-up call.

After my father’s ultimatums (repeated over the course of several weeks) I kept myself in check at night and went back to reading books with a flashlight under the covers. I occasionally whispered to Ralph, who rarely replied.  Meanwhile, Ralph grew, and grew fast. He became more silver and black, with a beautiful sheen.

One day when he was an adolescent rooster (who still hadn’t sprouted his comb or wattle) my brothers and I were playing ‘war’ (basically, peering out of our respective rooms, and throwing stuff- Hot Wheels, Barbies, anything durable- at each other ,using slamming doors as shields) Ralph ran out into the fray and was clocked with a mini rubber football, which sent him scurrying sideways, where he went sliding down the varnished staircase.  There, he rounded the corner, scaring my mother, who had a white  hob-nailed milk glass vase of freshly picked brown-eyed -Susans in her hand, which she dropped after being startled by the wild-eyed rooster. The vase didn’t break, but there was water everywhere, and we were picking up Susan petals for days. Ralph was banished to his cage until further notice.

Meanwhile, at the supper table, my father had taken to calling Ralph ‘Shake’n’Bake’. “One of these days…..” he’d say, and then he’d shake his wrist “We’ll be having Ralph for dinner!”

“Oh, Bob….stop!” my mother would say. Which I didn’t understand because I pictured Ralph sitting at the table, not on. “Are we gonna get him some clothes?” I’d ask. I mean, it would be rather rude to come to the table naked, as my brother Rob had learned one night fresh out of a Mr. Bubbles bath.

“The Shake’N’Bake will be all the clothes he needs!” my father said, laughing, but I still didn’t get it. Until one night when I was about to bite into a drumstick and he said “Ralph sure tastes delicious tonight!”  holding up a chicken leg with a crescent moon bite in it.  

All at once it hit me- chicken, rooster, dinner. I dropped the chicken leg I was holding onto my plate, and tears welled up in my eyes. My dad was going to eat Ralph- maybe we all were! Maybe this was Ralph! 

“OH, Bob!” my mother scolded, ‘don’t tease her like that!”

My brothers- smelling blood in the water, began to taunt me “Ralphie! Ralphie!”, chanting like the Flying Monkeys from Oz (only not as cute), marching their drumsticks across their plates, the bony ends clanking against the porcelain.

 I scooted out of my seat and ran for the stairs. My heart beat in fear as I charged into my room and ran to Ralph’s cage. Thankfully, Ralph was there, clucking safely in his cage.  I was overwhelmed with emotion for my bird. I told him how much I loved him, while downstairs my parents loudly argued about what was and wasn’t appropriate to say, while using words that fit both categories.

 

From then on I covered Ralph’s stormy eyes whenever ‘Shake’n’Bake’ commercials came on on the upstairs black and white tv, often getting myself hella pecked in the process.

By deep summer, Ralph was almost full grown. He still wasn’t crowing, or looking like an adult rooster, but he was confident and bossy, and he practically took over my room. He could get out of his crate in two seconds flat, and I was often awakened by the sound of his guttural clucking and spindly claws scratching across the wooden floorboards.

He once wandered into the crawlspace (which spanned across to my brothers room) and went missing for a day and a half, only to be found roosting on my baby brother’s butt (David slept face down, butt up)-in his crib.  This is when my father declared “Ralph’s moving out!”-and by ‘out’ he meant: ‘Outside’.

I wasn’t at all happy about this turn of events, but I helped (read: stood by) while my Dad built a makeshift pen on the side of the house for Ralph. With cast-off lumber from the garage, and more chicken wire, the pen was quite large and impressive. There was a dog-door sized opening, through which Ralph could enter, but nothing that would actually lock him in. This worried me.

‘Check out my new crib, Home Slice!”

“Annie!” my Dad assured me- “Chickens can wander around, but they will always come home.” He said this with the surety of a scientist turned farmer.

“But Ralph’s a rooster!” I said, alarmed.

“Even better!” said my Dad, who- naturally-being a white male product of the  50’s-was positive males were naturally superior to females in every way.

Once the pen was completed, we brought Ralph out (this involved my mother, some cussing and a broom) and led him to his pen, where we had placed bowls of feed and water.

While my mother went about popping a bottle of champagne in the kitchen, celebrating some unclear event, Ralph strolled into his new pen, like a king to his castle, and after a minute or two at the food bowl, he paraded back out.  He then headed across our back yard, into the Terrusa’s backyard, across the Smith’s and beyond. He was ecstatic- pecking and  bobbing – not even  bothering to look back. My father watched, smiling-I think he may even have waved and mouthed ‘Bu-Bye!’- and I remained concerned, arms folded across my chest, a frown on my face.

“What if he goes too far?” I whined.

“He’s just going to check out the neighborhood!” dad insisted.

I pouted.

“Let the guy live life, for Chrissakes, Annie!” he told me.

Hmmm. Someone else might think my father was actually encouraging Ralph to get lost, but I still trusted that my Dad knew best. I also figured that Ralph would come back, because he didn’t have his stuff packed into a bandanna hanging at the end of a stick like all of the animals that went on long trips in my story books. 

I missed Ralph dearly for the first few nights. I couldn’t even look at the lonely, empty space where Ralph’s crate had been for several months, though I did notice my room smelled remarkably fresher.

As for Ralph- he loved his new digs. He seemed to adopt a confident, new- dare I say- swagger? And every morning, like clockwork- there was Ralph, strutting around the back yard, just waiting for us kids to come out so he could run away from us.

One sweltering summer morning Ralph wasn’t in his pen. It was strange because we had such a dependable routine going. I decided to take a gander (so to speak) around the neighborhood to see if I could find him.

Since it was the late sixties, I was allowed to wander around freely, as long as I stayed within a ten or fifteen mile radius of the house, and my mother was perfectly fine with it.

I started my search at the perimeter of Muffin Lane, then decided to go over the wall, into the outer reaches. Ralph wasn’t at my best friend Becky’s, so I methodically checked  the houses behind hers, until I came upon one that had actual chicken coops and chickens. I climbed over the stone wall and peered through the pen’s fence, cupping my hands over my eyes, scanning for Ralph. There were many white chickens, but no Ralph.

I turned and looked towards the house on the large property. I decided to knock on the door and ask if anyone had seen Ralph. Maybe he was in the house, maybe he was nostalgic for the feel of being inside and running atop the furniture again, leaving broken ashtrays and knick-knacks in his wake. My mom always said he enjoyed aggravating her, so maybe he missed it.

I was almost to the house, when I heard a tinny version of  “Groovin” coming from a transistor radio. I looked towards the sound and saw a lady stretched out on a blue and white webbed lounge chair.  She wore a big, beige straw hat and a black and white striped bathing suit. She was smoking a cigarette and holding an aluminum foil reflecting board under her chin. There was a small plastic table sitting beside her, which held an open can of Rheingold beer, a pack of Viceroy’s  and a pink, tattered copy of a book my mom had “Valley of The Dolls’. (What a dream! A valley full of dolls! Why wouldn’t mom let me read it?) 

“Um…Hi?” I said loudly, from a few feet away. She jumped a little, then adjusted herself, resting the aluminum board on her stomach. She lifted her Jackie O sunglasses- which made her look like a beetle- and took me in.

She looked confused,eyebrows furrowed, trying to register the strange seven year old in her backyard who had appeared out of nowhere. She had dark red hair in a flip and a beauty mark on her cheek. In my memory she is Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.

She looked me over, while taking a long drag off of her cigarette.

‘Can I help you, kid?” she finally said in her Suzanne Pleshette-like voice, smoke pouring out of her nose and mouth like a cartoon bull getting ready to charge.  She smashed her cigarette into the ashtray and took a swig of  beer. 

“Yes, please” I said….”I’m looking for my rooster, Ralph”

“What’s he look like? Is he black and gray?” she asked

“Yesss!” I said, excitedly.

“You mean that chicken, right?

“No…No…Ralph’s a rooster!” I said.

She described him again- perfectly.

“I got news for ya, kid. That was a chicken!” she insisted.

I was starting to not like her. “She’s been coming around here a lot, disrupting our hens” she said. Disrupting? More like trying to make friends, I thought.

And then-God strike me down- she casually said: “The boys shot him yesterday afternoon with a bow and arrow”

What?!

The whole world seemed to fall off its axis. I felt faint. I knew this lady wasn’t kidding. 

 I was began to tremble, and my eyes filled with tears, but I was determined not to cry in front this woman. I felt it would be rude to her if I showed my distaste for what had happened, I owed it to her to play it casual. It was a pattern I would repeat over and over and over in my life, to hide my emotions in the real world,  to not to be perceived as weak, or a sissy.  To ‘stop my blubbering.’

The radio was now playing ‘Homeward Bound’ by Simon and Garfunkel, and that’s exactly where I needed to go.

“OK! Bye!” I said pleasantly, a fake smile on my face for her benefit as I turned to run. She yelled something but I couldn’t make it out. I ran past the coops, past trees, bushes and staked tomato plants and scrambled up the high stone wall, fearlessly holding my head back so the heavy tears which pooled in my eyes wouldn’t spill. I jumped over to the other side, landing in the Corbett’s back yard, and ran towards my house.

I was sick to my stomach and barely able to see through the blur. I ran so fast, through yard after yard, tears whooshing off my cheeks into the tailwind.

‘Oh my god!’ I thought, picturing my proud, funny friend Ralph pierced through the chest by an arrow!  I pictured horribly heartless people laughing at him as he lay slowly dying, as he wondered what he did wrong. Ralph was  all alone in the end, maybe crying out for help, calling for me… but I wasn’t there for him. 

 

I ran up the back porch stairs, ripped through the dining room, screaming for my mom. She was ironing, but immediately stopped and sprinted to meet me. I barreled into her, burying my face into her cherry print apron and sobbed, letting my tears flow as if from a faucet.  I was hysterical as I blurted out the story, gulping through a tearful stutter. My mother comforted me as best she could, wiping the tears and snot from my face with her apron.  She ran her fingers through my hair to try and soothe me. She told me everything would be alright. I eventually stopped crying, exhausted and spent.  I remained solemn and distant for the rest of the day, not eating, not talking.

 The waterworks began again at 5:15 when my Dad came through the door. Although I believed he genuinely felt for me, when he tried to tell  me he would miss Ralph too, I sobbed “But you were gonna shake and bake him….” to which he laughed, then caught himself.

My father went to the lady’s house (the murderers) that evening to find out what happened. The  story had changed. Yes, Ralph was killed by the teen boys with an arrow, but ‘by accident’ and ‘they were really sorry’.  And of course, Ralph should have been kept in his pen, like their chickens. I never saw that lady again or her ruthless, faceless family nor did I forgive them, regardless of the fact that we had let Ralph run free and were absolutely, positively the ones at fault. 

 Recently my Dad broke some more news to me. Ralph, he told me-some 40 years late- was not a rooster.  She! was a chicken after all, and better suited to a name like Rose.

The truth is, the world was a tough place- even tougher for animals than people, a place where bad things happened no matter how much you wished they didn’t. I cried at stories like the Little Match Girl and the song ‘Puff, The Magic Dragon’ but this was my first direct hit.  To this day, when I visit my hometown and drive past ‘that lady’s’ house, I think of Ralph with both sadness and a smile.

 

 

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