“Where you going?” asked the guy that I would come to call Jack the Chicken Man.
“Mexico!” I exclaimed brightly. It was a beautiful October morning and we were standing on the sidewalk out front of a drive through espresso stand. (I had walked through for my americano.)
Jack scratched his maw and clucked. “Oh, you better be safe when you get down there. I’ve heard about some bad things that happened on the news.”
I thanked him for his concern. I was up in northern Oregon. Mexico was still a long way off.
We made brief small talk. The weather, the coffee. Jack struck me as pleasant and gay. Not in the happy sense. Well, also in the happy sense. But I noticed the lilt in his voice. He was in his late sixties, with a thick head of grey hair and an easy smile.
What did I care that he was gay? It had been a long, chilly night in my tent. I was just glad to have someone to talk with other than myself.
Then, conversation flowed towards…
OK, I led it straight to love.
This had been a recent brainstorm—a way to quickly make connections with strangers. And a way to deflect inquiries about my trip to something other than my ex-girlfriend.
(I had told myself that I left Sally behind on that long bridge over the Columbia River. I still believed that I wasn’t lying.)
“I’m walking across the country collecting people’s love stories,” I said. “What do you love?”
Jack furrowed his brow like this was the most interesting question he’d been asked in weeks. “Well,” he said finally. “I love chickens.”
I burst out laughing. Hence: Jack the Chicken Man.
Why did Jack love chickens? The story started when he was about six. His parents owned a farm on a flood plain in central Oregon. One day, sure enough, the river flooded.
“Almost all of our chickens died… except for this one hen that found her way up onto the kitchen table.” Jack cocked his head and brought his hand to his chin. “Now, I have no idea how she got up there, but somehow I got it in my head that I saved that chicken. So I named her Chickery Chick, after that old foxtrot song. Do you know it?”
I shook my head. Immediately, Jack burst out into song:
Definitely gay. Not that there was anything wrong with that. I had told myself that, if I was going to collect love stories, then I owed it to my future audience to collect as much diversity as possible.
I laughed eagerly next to Jack. We stood there clucking with one another in the warm morning sun.
“Anyway, I’ve been saving chickens ever since. I must have a thousand by now.” He puffed his feathers. “I keep them all in my house.”
“You have a thousand chickens in your house? How big’s your house?”
“Oh, it’s just a two-bedroom apartment. They’re not real chickens. They’re memorabilia. I’m a chicken collector.“
A chicken collector? I was a week into collecting love stories, and I’d already found my white whale. “Can I come to your house?”
Jack looked caught off guard. “You… You want to come to my house?”
“To photograph your chickens. And to record your love story!” I quickly unzipped my camera bag. In the outside pocket, I had stored a neat press clipping from a local newspaper on the Oregon Coast. I’d met a human interest reporter back in Astoria who took an interest in me and wrote a puff piece about my trip. Above the article, there was a flattering photograph of me wearing a bright green t-shirt, standing proudly in front of the long bridge. I shoved the clipping into Jack’s hands. He frowned as he read the article. Traveling storyteller…walking from Canada to Mexico…telling a Story about the universal similarities between people…
“Okay,” Jack said finally. He sighed and slumped his shoulders. “You can come over to my house and, um… photograph my… chickens.” The gayness was suddenly gone. “My home is… right this way.”
As I followed Jack away from the drive-through espresso stand, I started feeling the butterflies.
they weren’t exactly chickens in Jack’s apartment. Sure, there were a few hens and a handful of chicks. But mostly, they were roosters.
Okay, they were cocks.
Jack’s two-bedroom apartment was full of cocks.
Cocks on the coat rack. Cocks on the umbrella stand. Cocks in frames hung all the way down the short hallway that led from the entrance to a glass armoire that had cocks jammed to the hilt. There were crystal cocks and clay cocks, porcelain cocks, and wooden cocks. There were cocks of all shapes and sizes.
Cocks all over the kitchen too. On the hand towels and the tea cozy, the oven mitts and the sugar container, the fridge magnets, soap dispenser, salt and pepper shakers, serving spoons, and the plate surrounding the light switch. Just beneath the ceiling, a set of Norman Rockwell-esque decorative plates, every plate featuring a prominent cock.
“You really like roosters,” I deadpanned.
Jack shrugged. “I’m a bit of an addict.”
I followed Jack into the adjacent sitting room. Plenty of cocks in here too. “You can sit here,” he said, gesturing to a love seat. (Cocks on pillows, a handsome cock on a quilted throw.) “We can do the interview after I make a phone call.”
Interview? Now I was the one fluffing my feathers as Jack disappeared from the room. Instinctively, I reached into my pocket for Paul’s crystal. Paul was also a storyteller; he made movies and TV shows. His recent documentary was screened at the White House for the Obamas; he’d once won an Emmy. Was I going to be at the White House too? How would Barack react when I regaled him of the tale of Jack the Chicken Man?
Faintly, I could hear Jack’s voice from the other room. “Hullo, pastor? You know how you told me that I should call if…”
But I couldn’t hear the rest of the sentence.
For an addict, Jack’s story was remarkably pedestrian. At least, at first. It took a long time to get anywhere—and it lacked the buoyant energy from when he was singing cha-la, cha-la back in front of the espresso stand. I asked straightforward and open-ended questions. Jack gave me straightforward and closed-ended answers.
If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was uncomfortable.
Jack’s primary cock supplier was a collectibles company called Lenox. He leaned forward to spell out the name into my iPhone, which was sitting on the cock-themed ottoman between us. I was perched on the edge of the love seat. Jack was settled into a La-Z-Boy.
“And I’m a sucker because they’ll call me up—Andrew is the fellow’s name. He’ll say, Jack, we’ve got a new chicken. Why don’t you let me send it to you? If you don’t like it, you can just send it back.” Jack sighed dramatically. “Well, guess what, I don’t send them back. I never send them back. I really should work on that. My…” He hesitated and made eye contact with me. “What do you call them again?”
“That’s right.” He shrugged his shoulders. “They end up in storage. I’m paying storage on chickens.” He paused. “Do you think that’s crazy?”
“No!” I lied. “You’re just… remarkably passionate!”
Jack slumped his chin onto his fist. He didn’t seem remarkably passionate. But I didn’t want to seem like I was making him feel uncomfortable.
By coincidence, the latest cock from Lenox had arrived just the other day. “I haven’t opened it yet. So I might do that while you’re here.” I told him that sounded cool. “It’s… Actually, it’s in my bedroom. There are some other roosters in there, too. Um. If you wanted to see them.”
I hesitated. “Sure. I’d love to see them.”
Jack straightened up out of the La-Z-Boy and turned wearily from the sitting room.
On the way to his bedroom, I noticed some kind of framed certificate from the Church of Latter-Day Saints.
“Look at them all,” he said, once he was in the room. (I politely decide to stick to my perch at the doorframe.) Jack began to point around the room. “Rooster pillows. Lamp roosters. I’ve got a blanket down here. A hen sitting on a basket down there. They’re everywhere.” He flopped his hands helplessly, then put them on his hips, shaking his head slowly. “Roosters! Roosters, roosters, roosters. It’s crazy. It’s just crazy.”
He slid open the mirrored closet door. Packed full of boxes. “Egg plates.” He bent down, offering one to my camera. “My mother gave me my first one. I thought, well, that’s cool. So I started looking around on the computer. That was a big mistake. Now I’ve got hundreds. Those are magnet holders. Those are aprons. These ones, I think are…” He peeked into a flap. “Miscellaneous kitchen chickens. I have no idea what’s in there.”
I was trying to figure out whether to feel sad for the guy, while also trying to envision Barack struggling to contain his laughter.
Finally, Jack settled on the right box. It was the size of a microwave and still wrapped in plastic, though I noticed that it had already been opened. He straightened up and turned to face me. He shuffled left. I shuffled left. He shuffled right. I shuffled right. I stepped back into the safety of the sitting room, and Jack entered after me. We resumed our same seats, facing each other, love seat to La-Z-Boy. Jack hefted the box onto his lap.
“Now this one is supposed to be a soup tureen or something like that. Something to put on the table. He opened the flap without comment and thrust his hands into the box. I felt like the ceiling had descended seven inches.
“This is so exciting,” I said, trying to make a joke. My voice cracked. “It’s like Christmas!”
Jack looked at me and frowned.
The soup tureen was about the size of a basketball. It was ceramic and glazed a nice, crisp white; it was intended to be a lifelike representation of a rooster. From my perspective, I thought the workmanship was pretty good. But immediately, Jack was dissatisfied.
“Oh, no,” he clucked. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. “You see, it looks fine from this perspective.” He turned the cock so I was looking at it in profile. “But look what happens when you turn it to the side.” He twisted the cock. The problem was the rooster’s legs. The tureen had a triangular pedestal that was required by its serving function. But the pedestal was making the legs splay out at an awkward angle.
Jack seemed despondent. I wanted to be helpful. “It looks like he’s spread open.” Immediately, I felt my cheeks redden; I couldn’t believe that had slipped out of my mouth. I tried to save myself. “It looks like he’s sitting on the toilet!” It didn’t work.
Jack didn’t appear to notice the double entendre. He was too focused on the legs. I watched the vein in his forehead pulse before he sighed and returned the cock to the Lenox box. “Oh, well,” he said evenly. “I guess this one is going to end up in storage too.”
I swear that my intentions at the time were pure and genuine. This was a quality I had observed plenty of times in Paul; I was desperately trying to inculcate niceness in myself, too.
Remember Paul’s movie? The one that screened at the White House? The Story goes that Paul went down to Mississippi in 1964, not long after the murder of three young men—Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney—who were volunteering with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as part of the Civil Rights movement. Paul, a young Jewish man from Toronto, had been inspired to throw his hand to the cause; he may have already had his future career in his imagination. Paul’s father was Canada’s first on-screen weatherman, and Paul had been a featured guest on the CBC since he was a teenager. Paul’s letters home from Mississippi had been published in Canada’s national newspaper.
Drama struck immediately. Days after he arrived in Mississippi, Paul was attacked at a town meeting by a man whose father had assassinated the civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Years later, Paul decided that he would go back to Mississippi in order to find his attacker—and make a movie about the power of reconciliation. Paul was in Mississippi researching that film when he caught wind of another story. There was a high school in a small town that happened to be the home of the actor, Morgan Freeman, that was still holding segregated proms in the mid-200s. Paul contacted Morgan and talked him into offering to fund an integrated prom; their film about the effort debuted at Sundance. It was notable for Paul’s compassionate perspective, which was what had attracted me to him when we first became friends, three years before I started walking.
Truth be told, when Paul invited me out for a chai latte (he never drank coffee), I worried that he was grooming me. He was an older man who spoke easily about his emotions; naturally, I assumed he was gay. But Paul was into women. That first day, he told me he’d slept with hundreds of them. “But they were all very loving,” he assured me.
This was before he told me the Beatles story. Once I heard that, I fell head over heels.
I could feel Paul in the room with me as I kept up the conversation with Jack. I’d been in his apartment for nearly an hour; I was still trying to tease out a Story. I was kicking myself for not getting out my phone quicker, back on the street, because I really wanted to make content out of that cha-la, cha-la.
But Jack was morose. I was trying to counter his discomfort with my best impression of Paul’s compassion.
This was also one of my favorite pastimes.
Then, out of the blue, Jack said the word, divorce. Instantly, my ears perked to attention.
Jack scratched his neck. “That’s the down side of my life rather than the upside.”
“The chickens being the upside?”
“And my family.” He gestured toward a family portrait on the wall—Jack surrounded by his brood of seven children. Family? I thought. Maybe Jack’s like Paul? Maybe I’m the one who’s jumping to conclusions? “But if you turn that phone off, then maybe I’ll tell you a little more about the other stuff too.”
I reached for the phone and turned off the voice recording function. Then, I flipped it over and tossed it on the cock. I regretted it immediately. Something shifted in Jack’s expression; it felt like the roof had dropped another foot. In a flat tone of voice, Jack told me that he had been married into his fifties. He had a job working for a big company based in Salem, the state capital.
“Every couple of weeks, I’d have to drive down to Southern Oregon for work,” he said. “Medford. Ashland. Hippie towns. Plenty of hitchhikers.” He hesitated. “I remember, one day I picked up a hitchhiker and he had… What do you call those marijuana cigarettes?”
Jack’s whole body seemed to sink into the recliner. “That’s right. A… joint.”
The first time Jack smoked a joint, nothing happened. “A few weeks went by before I picked up another hitchhiker who also had a joint.” The second time, nothing happened either. “But the third time—”Jack shrugged—”we ended up in bed together. Pretty soon, I was picking up hitchhikers and going to bed with them all the time.”
Suddenly, it was like the whole world caved in. I looked up, catching my reflection in the glass of the framed certificate from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. I hadn’t shaved my beard in five weeks. I was carrying a fifty pound backpack. I was… Jack’s type.
“Say,” he said. “You don’t have any marijuana. Do you?”
I shook my head so hard that the words wouldn’t come out.
Suddenly, I felt like I was in that scene in A Clockwork Orange—eyes peeled open, hands cuffed to the love seat—as Jack took me step-by-step on his descent into the underworld. When his wife found out about the hitchhikers, his marriage fell apart. When pot didn’t get him high enough, he passed through the gateway.
“I ended up on Skid Row in the Midwest,” he said, unflinchingly. “I had a relationship with a married man. He used to thrash me within inches of my life. We would do everything together.” He hesitated. I couldn’t look away. “Marijuana, hashish. Meth. Crack. I loved him. I needed him. And I would do anything for it.” He looked me right in the eyes. “Anything. And you know what they say: the thicker, the harder, the better.”
There was a small voice whispering in my ear. It was saying,
JORDAN, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING GET OUT OF HERE RUUUUNNNNNNNN!!!
But I also felt obligated to Jack. I kept asking myself, What Would Paul Do? I told myself that Paul would listen compassionately and earnestly, asking good questions, allowing this sad and lonely old man to be unburdened of his most shameful Story.
I wasn’t sure that was what Paul would actually do, but it seemed to make sense in the moment. So I nodded and smiled eagerly as Jack continued.
“Say,” he said. “Are you okay? Your face is white.” I squeaked that everything was fine. “Do you want to take a shower? My shower has really good water pressure. And I’ve got excellent towels.”
JORDAN, STOP FUCKING AROUND RUUUUNNNNNNNN!!!
“No, thanks,” I lied. “Everything’s fine. I’m alright.”
What can I say? I’m Canadian.
Finally, Jack’s Story began to turn towards its inevitable, heroic conclusion. His mother got ill; Jack moved home to care for her. She helped him get sober, get back into the church. When she died, he moved into her apartment.
“There she is.” He gestured to a portrait that was sitting across the TV. “I see you there. Watching me. Hello, mother.”
I was half-listening. I was trying to plot my exit strategy.
Say Jack did make a move. To my right, there was a glass sliding door that led out into the garden. I couldn’t see if the door was locked, but if I needed to, I could be outside in less than ten seconds. But my backpack with all my camping gear was by the front door, and to get there, I needed to pass the La-Z-Boy. Jack was twice my age, but for all I knew he was carrying a weapon. And who had he called earlier? His “pastor”. What if “pastor” was a code word for some sick, twisted friend? Was it the Gimp? Was I in Pulp Fiction? What had I walked into?
As my thoughts spiraled, they inevitably returned to that familiar self-defeating, self-pity. I recalled that I was the one who had asked to come to Jack’s house. Was I responsible for all this? Was it my fault? I was the one who had agreed to hear about the “downside” of his life. I should have been better, I should have been stronger, I should already have been more like Paul.
I felt myself begin to panic. Then, I began to feel the strangest sensation rising inside of me. It was this intense pulsing sensation, and it was centered—there’s no polite way to put this—directly on my cock.
Basically, as I listened to Jack’s horrific addiction story, my cock was throbbing.
This terrified me most of all—more than the thought of the Gimp or of Jack having a weapon. Why the fuck was I getting turned on? I wasn’t into men, and if I was into men, I would have liked to think that I would have picked a better-looking guy than this strange, sixty-something-year-old fuck. The pulsing was building. My mouth was dry. I was barely in the conversation; I could feel myself nailed to the couch, it was as if someone had hammered an immense nail directly through my skull and all the way down my spine and right through the cushions of the love seat. Jack spread his legs ever so gently, and I couldn’t stop myself from glancing down at his fly. What the fuck! I tensed up, then I did it again when he spread his thighs wider. The throbbing was overwhelming, and all I could think about was needing to reach down, to touch myself, to confirm whether or not I had an erection. But Jack was looking at me—I didn’t dare give myself away, so I sat there, frozen. Anything could happen. I began to imagine what anything might be. The corners of Jack’s lips trembled. I saw him smile for the first time. I began to realize that the end was inevitable, there was only one way I was going to get out of this situation. The idea circled my mind a few times before it began to settle. Soon, it had become an inevitability. I wondered how it would start. Was I supposed to stand up and approach him? Was he the one who was supposed to initiate? Would he come over to me? Would I go over to him? How would we position ourselves? Was I supposed to give or receive? Was there a chance I would like it? How was it going to feel when I got on my knees closed my eyes opened my mouth and Jack
The knock at the front door sent me flying off the love seat. I knew who it was: the Gimp! When I landed, I made eye contact with Jack. He seemed as shocked as I did. Was the Gimp coming for him? Was he coming for me? Was he coming for both of us?
We sat there, looking at each other, in pin-drop silence.
“Hullo, Jack?” said a muffled man’s voice. “Are you in there?”
Jack closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath. He glanced at me, but he didn’t say anything. Slowly, he rose from the La-Z-Boy and disappeared around the corner.
I leaped to my feet.
But if I ran, I knew I would never come back. If I ran, I knew that my trip would be over, and I felt like I was only just beginning.
I didn’t run. I stood frozen as I tried to eavesdrop on Jack’s conversation.
It sounded like there were two men at the door. They greeted Jack familiarly. By his voice, I could tell that he was trying to shoo them away. By their voices, I could tell that they weren’t going anywhere. Finally, Jack invited them inside.
As the footsteps approached the sitting room, I felt my heart rate rushing past maximum. Every cell in my body was in its own individual fight or flight, I was a biological clusterfuck, when the two men entered the room, I couldn’t stop myself from ejaculating in laughter.
They were wearing matching outfits: dark slacks, white button-downs, black nametags that read Elder Smith and Elder Miller.
They were two twenty-one-year-old Mormon missionaries.
I had never believed in the divine as intensely as I did in that moment.
There was a moment of confusion in the room. The missionaries looked at me. I looked at Jack. Jack was looking at the Foghorn Leghorn clock on the wall.
“And you are?”
“Jordan… Walking… Mexico…” I could barely form a sentence, but I grabbed for my camera bag and fished out the clipping from the local newspaper. Elder Miller studied it with a frown like he was an agent in the Mormon FBI. Jack was casually whistling.
“You’re walking to Mexico collecting love stories?” he said finally. “Wow! That’s amazing!”
There were two more missionaries at the front door, and in an instant, the room was full of naive and reverent Mormon energy. After a few minutes of small talk, I saw my opportunity to leave—with my stuff, out the front door.
As I was tying my shoes, Jack said, “Oh, how rude of me! I forgot. Can I offer you a Book of Mormon for the road?”
When I looked at him, something passed between us that I could barely understand.
I shook my head and reached for the door handle.
“Bless that you will travel home in safety!” cried out the missionaries in unison.
Without looking over my shoulder, I raced out into the blinding sunlight.