Fried Chicken

Here comes the murderer’s mother, Mrs. Polly Pegram. She walks to Food City every other day, then carries her paper bag of groceries home. When the boy at Food City says “Paper or plastic, ma’am?” as if he doesn’t already know the answer, as if he doesn’t know who she is, she always says “Paper, please,” and she always walks the same way home, past the tanning salon, past Lil’s Beauty, past the Baptist Church with its rosebushes blooming out front and its green Astroturf entrance and hymns floating out its open windows. She used to be a Baptist, years back. She used to bring Leonard here for Sunday School. He could sing like an angel, as a boy. Now he is 41 years old.

Leonard used to drive Mrs. Pegram everywhere, so she never bothered to get her driver’s license, she never needed it. She doesn’t need it now, though Miss Bright—this is the social worker who won’t leave her alone—keeps suggesting it. It’s true that Leonard’s red car is just sitting out there in the driveway. Sometimes when she’s working in her garden, she’ll rinse it off with the hose. But if she did learn to drive it, where in the world would she go? Miss Bright swears that the driving instructor from the high school will drive right up to Mrs. Pegram’s door to pick her up for her lessons. He will ring her doorbell, she’ll come out, and off they’ll go in the special car together.

The thought of this sets Mrs. Pegram’s heart aquiver. For nobody comes to this little house, nobody ever came. Her husband, Royal Pegram, did not like visitors, and Leonard did not like visitors either. Oh, she knows what they said about Leonard! Loner. Lives with his mother. As if it were a crime. Anyway, Leonard had plenty of friends. This is one thing that never came out in court, how popular he was, though he would never invite them over to the house, preferring to go out, as young people will. Sometimes Mrs. Pegram pages through the magazines as she stands in the checkout line at Food City, lingering over the cookouts. She used to wish Leonard would have a cookout, but he never did.

Mrs. Pegram unlocks her door and walks through the front room where the TV is, past the closed door of Leonard’s room, into the spotless little yellow kitchen where she puts the milk in the refrigerator and the two packages of cellophane-wrapped chicken out on the countertop. She buys Pick o’ the Chick, all breasts and legs and thighs, it’s more expensive but it’s worth it if you want to fix really good fried chicken. Mrs. Pegram knows that the girls behind the meat counter whispered to each other after she was gone, saying, “What do you reckon she’s going to do with all that chicken, now that he’s in the pen?” Well, they would be real surprised to find out, that’s for sure!

Leonard just loved her fried chicken, she used to fix it for him on Sundays and he would eat it every bit up, except for one piece which is all she ever ate. Mrs. Pegram just pecks at her food like a bird. She’s a tiny little thing anyway, hardly five foot tall and shrinking.

Mrs. Pegram takes the cellophane off the packages and rinses the chicken under running water. But before she gets started cooking, she’d better take off these nice shoes and put on her house shoes, fuzzy old things, and put on her apron too. Chicken spatters. She’s got to save her good clothes. Now that she’s not working for Mrs. Calhoun anymore, she won’t be getting any of Mrs. Calhoun’s old clothes which were actually not old at all, just things that Mrs. Calhoun had grown tired of. Well, most of them were too big anyway.

The awful fact is that soon after the verdict, in spite of all their years together, Mrs. Calhoun let Mrs. Pegram go. Oh, Mrs. Pegram saw it coming. She saw Mrs. Calhoun grow more and more nervous as the trial went on, acting exactly like she had when she was going through the change of life, or when her daughter Alicia was getting her divorces, or when Mr. Calhoun had cancer of the prostate. Mrs. Calhoun got to where she wouldn’t look Mrs. Pegram in the eye anymore, and she never, ever mentioned the trial.

Finally there came the morning when Mrs. Calhoun did not come downstairs at all. Instead, Mr. Johnny Calhoun sat waiting at the breakfast table, wearing his three-piece suit. “Natalie wants you to know how much she has valued her association with you over the years,” he said in his courtroom voice, “but she feels that with the children grown, we need to economize, and she wants to do some of the housework herself, for the exercise, and have a cleaning service come in once a month, which is all we really need. Natalie knew you would understand.” Then Johnny Calhoun handed Mrs. Pegram a check for a thousand dollars. During the years she’d been working for the Calhouns, his hair had turned from black to silver. Now he was a very distinguished man.

Mrs. Pegram looked at him until he looked away. “I understand,” she said. Of course he was lying through his teeth, Natalie Calhoun would kill herself before she’d touch a can of Comet. She didn’t even know where the dust rags were kept. But who could blame Mrs. Calhoun, after all? Who could blame her for firing the murderer’s mother, for not wanting the murderer’s mother to be the one who knew where she hid her Xanax in the false bottom of her jewelry box, who knew that Johnny Pegram required clean sheets every single day and wanted his underwear ironed, who knew that their daughter was an alcoholic? Who would want a murderer’s mother to know these things? Mrs. Pegram can’t blame her.

Of course she was disappointed, because she had thought Natalie Calhoun was her friend, too, though Leonard had snorted at this idea. “Mrs. Calhoun is a bitch, Ma,” he’d said. “Don’t kid yourself.”

For years Leonard had been after her to get a better job, but this was what she knew how to do, wait on people, take good care of their things. At least she still has Mr. and Mrs. Joyner two days a week; they’re so out of it, poor souls, it is possible they don’t even know about Leonard’s case.

Mrs. Pegram puts flour, salt, pepper and paprika in a plastic bag and shakes it. She puts Wesson oil in the skillet. She used to try to get Leonard to eat baked chicken the way she fixed it for the Calhouns, but he wouldn’t have it. He liked it fried. Mrs. Pegram knew this was bad for him because he was such a big boy, she was sure his cholesterol was real high, but he wouldn’t even get it checked for free in the booth at the mall.

You couldn’t do a thing with Leonard when it came to his habits. For instance he wore the same outfit to his job at Lowe’s warehouse winter and summer, a flannel shirt and army work pants, and he had to have the same thing in his lunch box every day too—three bologna sandwiches with Miracle Whip on the bread, two packages of Little Debbie oatmeal cakes with cream filling. Then he’d buy himself some chocolate milk at the 7-Eleven to go with it. Mrs. Pegram wished that Leonard would reduce and dress better so he’d have more of a chance with the girls, but actually he never showed any interest in nice girls or in marriage, either one. She always acted like she didn’t know about the pile of nasty magazines in his closet, but so what? Plenty of people buy those magazines, there’s a stack of them under Mr. Johnny Calhoun’s side of the bed right now. Plus, Leonard was interested in plenty of other magazines, too, such as those military magazines. Mrs. Pegram has always felt it was a shame that the Army wouldn’t take Leonard, it might have been the making of him.

Mrs. Pegram shakes each piece of chicken up in the plastic bag, coating it with the flour mixture, then slips it into the sizzling pan. This is the part where you have to pay attention, you want to get a nice crispy coating on all sides, but you can’t let it burn. Mrs. Pegram stands close to the stove, turning the chicken frequently in the big old iron skillet. Royal Pegram hit her once with this skillet, years ago, she can’t even remember the circumstances.

Mrs. Pegram is still not sure how it happened that Royal turned so mean. She’d met him in the little church up on Piney Ridge when she was not but sixteen, and him the same. He’d come into the county with a logging operation run by his older brother. Maybe it was because he was a stranger that she took to him so, since she didn’t know anybody in the world that she hadn’t been knowing her whole life long. They fell on each other like they were meant to. Looking back, Mrs. Pegram thinks of the young Royal Pegram as a different person from the one she was married to for so long. That boy had black hair and black eyes and a sweet, dreamy way about him. He was from West Virginia and proposed to go back over there to work in the mines, and proposed to take her with him. Go, her mama said. Go on while you’ve got the chance, for there were seven more at home and this would be one less mouth to feed.

It was the first time she’d been out of the county, not to mention the state of Virginia, and at first it was fine, he mined for the company and she got a job keeping house for the company doctor’s wife, a tall sad woman from Alabama who taught her how to set the table and polish silver with a toothbrush and slice ham real thin.

During those days Royal used to sit on the front porch and pick his guitar while she was stringing beans on a Sunday. He used to wear a straw hat with a feather stuck in the brim. Sometimes they went fishing in the river, and once he took her to the West Virginia State Fair. Then she had the baby, Rose Eliza, who was sickly, and Royal didn’t like her whining and crying so much because he was working the night shift, and needed to get his sleep. But Rose Eliza cried and cried, and did not grow. She had something wrong with her blood, and there was nothing they could do about it, and she died right before her third birthday. She was buried in a little pine box on a mountainside that was later strip-mined.

After Rose Eliza’s death, Royal would not allow her name to be mentioned in his presence, and he burned her clothes and the two pictures they had of her, so that now Mrs. Pegram has none, and sometimes she wonders if she ever had that little baby girl at all, just as she wonders if those slow sweet days over in West Virginia right after they got married were some kind of a dream. Because it all becomes a blur after that, her life a kind of a whirlwind. Then the mine fell in, and Royal got trapped for a day and a half next to a dead man, and so they left there and went to another mining town, and she had the twin boys Roger and Royal Junior, and Royal got laid off and started drinking pretty bad, and then they moved again. And again. Finally she got to where she never unpacked the boxes, and she learned to stay away from him when he was drinking, and never to answer him back. Leonard was born at a free clinic over in Kentucky.

Everywhere they ever lived, Mrs. Pegram had a job keeping house for somebody, because she had a nice genteel way about her and she was quiet, and she knew how to do things right. The homes where she worked were a comfort to her, the shining windows, the orderly flower beds, the pale expanses of wall-to-wall carpet. At her own place it was nothing but yelling and broken things, except for Leonard.

Leonard was the joy of his mother’s life. And he was certainly not retarded, no matter what anybody says now. When he was not but five, he’d play Chinese checkers with his mother by the hour. He loved Chinese checkers. He always picked the blue marbles to be his, and to this day Mrs. Pegram cannot see the color blue without thinking of her little boy, fat and serious, with the eyes as round and as blue as those marbles. Leonard knew the words to all the popular songs too, he’d sing right along with the radio. He especially liked “Kaw Liga was a wooden Indian,” which they played on the radio a lot then. There was nothing retarded about him!

Now Mrs. Pegram puts a tablespoon of water right into the hot grease and turns the heat down and covers the pan quickly, to trap the steam inside. This is the real secret of good fried chicken, this is what most people don’t know how to do. This is what makes the meat tender, so it just melts in your mouth like it ought to. After ten minutes of steaming, Mrs. Pegram takes the lid off the chicken and turns the heat back up and fries it some more, turning it constantly, so the nice brown coating gets crispy again.

People who are so quick to judge ought to know that Leonard was the one who ran his daddy off finally, as soon as he got bigger than Royal Pegram. The other boys were long gone by then, and who could blame them? It was the day after Christmas and Royal had been on the wagon—he’d bought her a new car coat for Christmas, and a Schwinn bike for Leonard, sometimes he could still be real sweet—but then he’d started up again and by the time Leonard came in the house from riding his bike, she was on the couch crying, too dizzy to get up. Leonard was thirteen years old then and they wanted her to sign the papers to send him to the special school but she wouldn’t, she needed him at home too bad, though of course she couldn’t explain this to his teacher.

“Ma?” Leonard called, coming in. Then he came over and looked at her and then he went in the kitchen and then he came back and sat down in the ladderback chair by the door. She kept falling in and out of sleep. When Royal came in, Leonard hit him in the face with a ball-peen hammer and then kicked him in the side when he fell. He kept kicking him. Leonard would have broken every bone in Royal’s body if she had not gotten up and gotten in between them finally. By then the neighbors were there, and the police came.

The upshot of it was that a judge sent Leonard off to the special school, and when Royal got out of the hospital, he moved back over to West Virginia and died there several years later of cirrhosis of the liver. His sister wrote to Mrs. Pegram that Royal turned yellow at the end, and spoke her name before he died.

After that, Mrs. Pegram kept to herself. She worked steadily and lived frugally and paid off her little house. When Leonard came back from the special school, she was glad for his company, though he didn’t talk much. But it was a steady life, a good life, hers and Leonard’s. Leonard was nothing if not dependable, regular as a clock. He kept things fixed around the house and watched The Newlywed Game every night after supper. You could set your watch by Leonard. This was such a comfort to Mrs. Pegram after all those years of uncertainty and constant moving. And though she was never one to put herself forward, Mrs. Pegram made quiet little friendships all over town. Besides the people she worked for, such as the Calhouns, of course, and the Joyners and the Streets who moved away, she came to know Mr. Harris the pharmacist, Betty at the bank, Lil who did her hair, and the Banner sisters who ran the fabric shop and took her out to eat at the Western Sizzling on the bypass, though Leonard didn’t really like for her to go.

Now, since the trial, Mrs. Pegram has been wishing she lived in a big city, so she could be anonymous. Here, everybody knows her. Everywhere she goes, they’re whispering behind their hands, “Look! Here she comes! It’s the murderer’s mother!” They all think it is somehow her fault. Even when they pretend to be nice, such as when the Banner sisters asked her to go to the outlets with them or when Preacher Rose came by to invite her to prayer meeting or when Margie Niles from next door brought her a piece of red velvet cake, Mrs. Pegram did not respond. She heard what Hubert Liles, the manager at Lowe’s, said about him at the trial. She knows they are only acting out of pity, all of them. Or perhaps they are acting out of curiosity, perhaps they are all just dying to know what it’s like to be the murderer’s mother! Well, she will not give them the satisfaction, she will give them the cold shoulder instead. Completely alone now, the murderer’s mother feels somehow exhilarated, exalted, singled out.

This chicken is perfect. Mrs. Pegram lifts it out of the frying pan and puts it on paper towels so it won’t be greasy. Suddenly she recalls Royal Pegram telling somebody, years ago, that he married her for her fried chicken. She blushes hot all over for a minute, remembering this. Then Mrs. Pegram takes off her apron and her house shoes, and puts her good shoes back on. She goes in the bedroom to comb her hair, powder her face, and put on her little black hat. She looks nice. Anybody would know, just from looking at her, that she is a nice woman. That girl was not nice, this certainly came out in the trial, ditto those other girls who came up to testify against him, just look at the way they were dressed. Look at the way she was dressed, of course he didn’t have to do what he did to her. Mrs. Pegram pushes these awful thoughts out of her mind. She never, ever, thinks about it. And today, she’s got places to go! People to see!

She goes back in the kitchen and lines a basket with more paper towels, then carefully transfers the chicken to it, piece by piece. The phone rings, startling her, just as she finishes putting tinfoil over the top.

“It’s Heidi Bright,” the cheerful voice says on the other end of the phone. This is that pesky social worker. “It’s such a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I thought you might like to go for a drive with me. Maybe we could drive out to the lake.”

“Thank you so much,” Mrs. Pegram says, adopting the tone Mrs. Calhoun always used when she wanted to get rid of visiting Mormons, “but I’ve already made plans.”

“Oh, you have!” Miss Bright sounds encouraging. She’d really like to know, wouldn’t she, just what kind of plans a murderer’s mother makes!

“Yes,” Mrs. Pegram says, “I’ve got an appointment. Thanks so much for asking, though.” Then she hangs up, before Miss Bright can say another word. An appointment! She likes the sound of it.

Mrs. Pegram takes her basket and her purse and steps outside, turning to lock the door behind her. It is a beautiful day, Indian summer they call it, lovely warm sun and the leaves just beginning to turn. Leonard never appreciated nature at all. Still, he was the cutest little boy, hair so blond it was white. Mrs. Pegram walks past the Baptist Church, Lil’s Beauty and the tanning salon, past Food City which is real busy now, on downtown past the bank and all the closed shops, past the Presbyterian Church which the Calhouns attend, past Hardee’s.

She goes into the big new Trailways bus station and sits on a bench to wait for the new bus from Charlotte, due in at 3:30. It’s 3:25. Mrs. Pegram peers around. She has never seen the man behind the desk, a good-looking young man with a moustache, she’s sure he’s not from around here. She doesn’t know him, he doesn’t know her, and he would never suspect of course that such a nice-looking little woman could possibly be a murderer’s mother. Not in a million years! Then the bus from Charlotte comes in, a flood of strangers. The young man calls out connections for Roanoke, for Atlanta. People go this way, that way. It’s exciting. Mrs. Pegram watches the crowd.

Finally she moves over to take a seat beside a tired-looking young blond mother and a squirmy little boy. Sometimes it’s a mother with several children, sometimes it’s a child traveling alone, sometimes it’s a whole family.

“Where are you going?” she’ll ask pleasantly after a while, and the young mother will say Atlanta or Norfolk or Richmond or Washington, even L. A., it could be anyplace, and then Mrs. Pegram will ask where they’re from, and the young mother will tell her, and then Mrs. Pegram will say, “My goodness, that’s quite a trip,” and the young mother, warming to her, will tell all about it, why they’re going and how long they’ll be there, and sometimes it will be a long story and sometimes not. The little boy will be climbing all over his mother, eyeing Mrs. Pegram’s basket. Finally she will say, “I’m just taking my son some fried chicken, it’s real good and I’ve got plenty, would you like a piece?” and when she takes off the tinfoil, the heavenly smell of fried chicken will be everywhere as she offers it to them. The mother will eat a breast, then a thigh. “It’s so good!” she’ll cry. The little boy will eat all the drumsticks. His eyes are as round as a plate, he’s so cute, he is the most important thing in the world to his mother, he is her whole life. The good-looking young man will call their bus. Mrs. Pegram will wrap up two more pieces in tinfoil and insist upon giving them to the mother as they hurry to get in line. It’s okay—she’s got plenty of chicken left. Plenty! Mrs. Pegram clutches the basket to her beating heart, and waits for the next bus to come.