Household Poisons | Thomas King

        I stand before the Pink Room preschoolers and waggle my wing as Dr. No-No starts his spiel on dangers lurking below your average kitchen sink. One of the kids punches me on the kneecap and squeals with delight and I start scratching at the ground with my chicken legs to pretend it doesn’t hurt. The advantage of this getup is they can’t see my expression behind the foam beak and smiling plastic eyes. I say Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck into my mask and hope they think I’m clucking.
        It helps to think I’m just living this way until I’ve finished my service hours, but I look over at Dr. No-No and I think about where I’m ending up. Part of me wants to screw the head off my uniform and tell the kids that the woman playing the part of Safety Chicken just fucked Dr. No-No in his wife’s Corolla before setting up the presentation.
        He points to a bottle of bleach and asks the kids to name it. They’ve been instructed to yell Yuck! whenever we point to one of the poisons, but they aren’t catching on. I raise my wings and shake my big chicken head from side to side, but there’s no response. Part of our arrangement is that we handle each situation delicately when the kids don’t cooperate.    Dr. No-No grapples with anger problems, so I have the go ahead to step in when things look dire, but The Safety Chicken isn’t supposed to speak because it scares the children. So I get behind him and smooth the shoulders of his lab costume with my wingtips and he rearranges the bottles on the table. This calms him and we continue, the kids looking up at their real teachers and the teachers looking out over the kids.
        After the session Dr. No-No and I crash the teachers’ lounge because teachers tend to leave food around. We flash our visitors passes and shave polite slices from an abandoned birthday cake, avoiding conversation. Not that the teachers are dying to introduce themselves anyway. They’ve been notified in advance that I’m completing my alternative sentencing with Dr. No-No’s agency.
        He’s certified to work with minor lawbreakers—speeders and drunks mostly—but by the way they avoid me you’d think my misdemeanors were contagious.
        After finishing all three schools on our schedule, Dr. No-No and I go for a drink where someone he knows tends the bar. They let me in even though I’m still wearing the lower half of my chicken suit and I have to stand behind the stools because my tail feathers don’t allow me to sit. Dr. No- No feeds me drink after drink, but I know where this is headed and eventually I tell him to stop, that I’m not going to bed with him. His buddies laugh and turn away and I make him drink both of our whiskies while I watch.
        He has his spots he’ll take me. This one’s good because it’s open at the right times and there’s no mixing of worlds. I almost like the place, the way you can see how everything’s nailed together. The things they have to plug in, you can see the plugs. Like once I pulled the jukebox out from the wall after Dr. No-No put five dollars toward playing “Satisfaction” over and over. We get talking about his wife so I give up and decide to start drinking again. It’s the kind of bar they fill your same glass up round after round, so the guy takes my old highball and drops ice into it and around it. He’s careless with the ice, and the booze too, so I end up licking free Jack from the back of my wrist.
        This is out of control, I say. This is me getting drunk in daylight in a costume.
        You could be stabbing trash beside the highway instead, he says. You could go on the lam.
        The choices I have left: household poison ed or litter maintenance.
        The choices I have left: where to go?
        The guy lets us leave without putting down any money because he says he knows pretty well when we’ll be back. He says, I know you’re good for it. He wipes the inside of my highball and places it back in front of the others. Then the phone rings and he answers it, so there’s nobody for us to tell goodbye.
        On our walk to the car Dr. No-No asks what I’m thinking.
        I’m late, I say. I think we’re having a baby.
        No you’re not, he says.
        But what if?
        We don’t even slow down. He pushes his long fingers against the bottoms of his lab pockets, watching orange leaves fly around his feet.
        When we reach the Corolla he says, I like to pick out one boy every session and pretend he’s my son. I think of things I know I can teach him. I give lessons in my head.
        He unlocks the passenger door and stays in my way.
        It’s unhealthy for us to pretend this together.
        A few hours later Dr. No-No calls my place. He’s worried about what I said on our walk, about the baby. He asks me, Are you sure that’s a joke?
        He says he’s working on this new thing with his wife and it’s going pretty good, so if it’s no joke we have a problem.
        I hold my breath for a beat and then ask, Did you hear that? That was the phone on my belly. That’s little man kicking.
        The phone dies.
        He calls right back and says, That was close, he thought he heard his wife coming in. It’s hard for him to hide me because she’s found evidence. In the car. On the lab coat. He’s talking soft right into the receiver.
        But really, he says, but really.
        During the next day’s only session Dr. No-No can’t control the class. The regular teacher’s sick and the substitute lets kids move around the semi-circle, drawing attention away from the presentation. Our tape of choking noises continues to play but no one’s listening. We can’t even make it through powdered detergent before everything goes crazy. The three of us—the substitute, Dr. No-No, and I—look around in turns waiting for one of us to step up.
        The kids see we’re lost and one girl starts to cry loud into her hands. Dr. No-No looks ready to break. I could do my thing with the wings, to smooth him out some, but I let him try to work through it alone. He tugs at his stethoscope and looks back at me like he doesn’t know what to do next.
        I let things go like this for a minute.
        Then I give him our signal and do the emergency routine around the screaming kids. It’s where I stick my wings out like a plane and weave through the circle. It’s a move he taught me in training, but it’s a last resort, and it means the session’s through.
        I look back to see Dr. No-No and the substitute gathering up our bottles. The kids are just scared enough to get quiet and watch me move, but we all know this is evasive action.    This was bad for the kids. Today’s performance won’t look good on our evals.
        After we pack our things in the box and leave, he starts in on me. He asks me how could I do that, how could I leave him in the lurch? He says, You know how I get, you know what I need.
        I say, Do you know what I need? Do you know what I need?
Instead of answering he runs his hand down my wing. Then he squeezes the hand in there like it means something.
        We walk to the parking lot and I wait for him to offer me a ride. A car full of kids drives by and one of them squawks at me through the open window. It’s nothing new.
        I’m okay with what happened in there, he says. I’m not angry. I just thought you knew me better.
        We meet at a different place, one that’s better for nighttime. Nobody knows us here, not even the bartender. It’s only our third or fourth time.
        He buys beer and I choose a booth away from people because I don’t know how this will go. I want him to do the talking and I say so right away. I say You asked me to meet you here now what’s the story?
        He flicks a coaster and it spins into a sphere. Our booth is quiet like he hasn’t had time to think about what to say. I try to drink my beer fast so he has something to do before long, something other than not talk.
        When he gives me nothing I start up. I tell him about my prospects, that I’ve got some family around here that can find me work. I tell him more than I want to, down to how I’ll miss him. I stop talking and finish the last of my beer.
        He comes back with fresh drinks and says, What about the baby. What are we going to do about our child?
        He’s freshly showered and smells like bar soap. I wonder if he knows where he is. I think to myself, It goes so fast once you’re grown.
        I say, There is no child.
        It’s my next to last day with Dr. No-No’s agency and we’ve been placed at an elementary that’s away from town. He picks me up in the Corolla and asks me to stuff my costume in the trunk because he’s just cleaned the whole inside, vacuum and chemical rags.
        If I told him I was sick he’d let me go, let my final hours slide. He’s already found a girl to fill my place. A reckless driver. Dr. No-No’s letting her put off service until my spot opens.
        On the passenger seat is a bottle with a stick-on bow. It’s a gift. Compared to nothing, it’s a good deal. I can’t even pretend I don’t want it. It’s in my bag before I sit down.
        Here’s where he says the wrong thing:
        I was ready to leave her for you, he says. I was ready to start our new life. We had work cut out, but I had some ideas. I had some.
        I stop him talking. There’s still time for me, I say. I’m just beginning.
        So I get out of the car and walk back up my stairs. Inside my door is the bag I keep packed, everything I need to get away. It’s time for me to find some family.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | autumn 2007  
Household Poisons | Thomas King
It Begins when the Leaves Turn | Grace Wells
The Intolerable Nature of Yearning | Katie Kidder
Figure 2 | Lindsay Bell
Egressive | Amy Groshek
Kampala 2012 | Damian Dressick
Today, October the Ninth | Allison Shoemaker
This House | Edward Mc Whinney

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