By Daniel Adler
Ciara finishes chopping the red onion, tomato, avocado, squeezes the lime and mixes it in the tub so Nikki can pack it; grabs a green juice for tomorrow’s breakfast and clocks out. It’s already after two-thirty and Chicken’s waiting.
This, Ciara’s third day of her breatharian diet—no water, no food, just ether, as the ancients called it—is easier than the first two days; the initial discomfort of hunger and thirst have tapered off, and she’s now in that higher state she’s known in the past through her use of cannabis sativa; it’s what her friend Jerika calls “essential accordance:” when life happens through you, not to you—when you’re completely in accord with your soul’s essence and everything you do is done almost unconsciously.
It was in such a state that she first associated with this unique brand of fatalism the idea of herself as an alien come down to earth as a human. The inspiration of her origins returns to her as she drives down Garner’s Ferry and her mind rolls through what she has overcome: her mother’s cooked ham hocks—which her mother still feeds Chicken when she can, much to Ciara’s chagrin; the years of canned vegetables, processed in an enormous factory by a government-subsidized corporation; her aunts and uncles surrounding her with oversweet sugar water they call juice which they use to wash down cheap corn snacks full of fake dyes and high-fructose syrups; in a way, better than the leaded tap water found in her neighborhood. The difference between now and then is akin to how as a child she followed Maya Thigpen on the playground to bully Delexica Something-or-other for her perpetually-loose braids.
These habits are hard to break, even when we know they do not behoove us. And so, feeling their effects and intuiting the outcome, we await our limits: a moment of clarity, reflected in another or bubbling from within.
The accretion of such limits has led Ciara to feel like an outsider, a pariah even, in her community. Never mind diet, though the two vegan restaurants (two more than there were ten years ago) are an indicator of how short this city falls of her expectations—look at the attempts at reconciliation between different races in this state: she has observed and been the subject of various prejudices which we won’t even go into right now; and then the estranged father of her son as well as a number of other young men she has been intimate with over the past few years have been less than willing to aspire to leave this city, let alone pursue a career or line of work which could contribute to the growth and development of a family.
Ciara wonders if it’s especially bad here, and if it’s really that much better in Florida—Tampa, Clearwater, whose name implies all of the ethereal purity she associates with the Sunshine State—Clearwater, where her aunt lives without concern for being stereotyped or deviating from the norm, where she can be herself, which is exactly how to reach those highest levels of consciousness—to move there to be with her fellow aliens—as soon as she has saved enough to make it happen, as soon as she’s saved enough, she’s gone.
As Ciara pulls into the school parking lot, sun warms her arm through the window, and the heat is so real and dreamy, her skin on the warm leather, she could almost take a nap even though she slept well last night. The car’s off as she closes her eyes, leans her head back, and expands her mind into space for three seconds to gather the strength to open the car door and cross the parking lot. The March sun is heavy like a stuffed purse, burdensome, yet full with what she needs.
Chicken stands beside Ms. Savier and as Ciara raises her hand, her bracelets run down her arm and she is surprised by their weight in the heat. Chicken’s arms are folded and when he sees his mother he holds up a small palm low. Ms. Savier’s jaw is hard-angled, her string of fake pearls and her loose violet polka dotted blouse distract the eye from the stoutness of her upper body, which bespeaks the contours of middle age and the luxuries of the American middle class.
“Ms. Hinds, can I speak to you for a moment.”
Chicken’s pout and the look in his eyes evoke her sympathy. Ciara takes Chicken’s hand so she’s between him and his teacher, a shield.
“Today at recess, Hammond was bullying one of his classmates,” Ms. Savier frowned portentously. “Now, I know Hammond lacks a male authority figure at home, and it may be that this is why he’s been acting out—talking during reading time, screaming during break, having trouble focusing at lesson. But today, he hit one of his classmates and Ms. Hinds I’ve been teaching for seventeen years so when I see these symptoms—” she drops her voice as if to prevent Chicken from hearing—“there’s usually either a problem at home or the child may have ADHD. Have you ever taken him to a therapist? You—”
Ciara’s immediate reaction is of anger grounded in defensiveness: that Ms. Savier should diagnose the origins of Chicken’s behavior seems presumptuous; to suggest Chicken need medication seems a quintessential response of their culture, in which prescription pharmaceuticals, despite all the good they do, are seen as a panacea. But Ciara notices instead the power lines that stretch behind the school and continue for however many hundreds of miles in either direction—and between the second or so she spends focusing her gaze on the current flowing through those cables, she’s able to return to what Ms. Savier is saying and mutate her own sentiments into empathy for Ms. Savier, whose concern for both Chicken and the class as an entity, if what she said is true—which Ciara could only assume it is based on the trustworthiness and lack of favoritism most of the educators of our youth display—Ciara recognizes as requiring a more logical reaction than her instinctive one, which, while likely characteristic of many parents, would hardly improve the circumstances. Ciara notes the thinness of Ms. Savier’s lips, the makeup-filled lines around her mouth, the pallor of her skin, as the manifestation of years of stress and dedication to educating young girls and boys like Chickie and she knows exactly what to say to ameliorate the situation.
Ms. Savier, having concluded, pauses expectantly.
Ciara begins: “Hammond and I will have a talk tonight and I will look into an appointment with a specialist. I appreciate your concern, Ms. Savier, thank you.”
Her hoop earrings bounce against her cheek as she shakes her head. “I’m not sure what’s gotten into him. I am so sorry. And I really, really, appreciate your concern, not just for Hammond but for the class as a whole.”
There is, in the air, an acrid smell of meat. Ms. Savier’s mouth tightens, puckers. “I only want what’s best for Hammond and the class. If there are problems I—”
“No I totally understand. Hammond and I will have a good long talk tonight. Won’t we, Chickie?”
“Yes ma’am,” he mumbles, staring at his Jordans.
“Okay.” The teacher’s face hangs loose as she gulps and says, “Thank you Ms. Hinds.”
“Thank you, Ms. Savier. Come on, Chicken.”
Ciara can still feel Ms. Hind’s surprise on her back as her heels clack the blacktop, Chicken’s hand in hers.
“So what happened today?”
“I hit Jason because he said I’m a bastard.”
“Chickie, you know you shouldn’t listen to boys like Jason. You’re not a bastard. The fact that Daddy and I aren’t married doesn’t relate to you. And even if it did, that doesn’t mean you can hit people. Are you having trouble focusing at school?”
“No. Ms. Savier doesn’t like me.”
“Honey, of course she does.” She opens the car door and Chicken crawls in. “She just has to make sure everyone’s treated equally.” She buckles him in his car seat.
“Well I don’t like her.” He pouts and crosses his arms.
Ciara gets in front, adjusts her rearview mirror to study her son, his frown, his shorn skull. Her own but smaller. At six years old, he remains so malleable. She turns the key. “I think maybe what’s upsetting you is all that nasty meat Granny feeds you.”
“Granny said you’re crazy for being vegan.”
“She did?” Ciara reaches up to adjust the rearview mirror so she can see her son, oversized in his car seat. “Well, I’m going to have a good long talk with Granny. Besides, why would I need to eat meat when I have my little Chicken?”
Ciara reaches behind her to tickle Hammond’s leg and he squeals in delight. It lasts but a moment—the exertion pulls Ciara’s breath out of her and she pauses before she throws the car into reverse. Then, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other grabbing behind the passenger seat, she checks no cars are behind her and recognizes her own grin on Chicken’s face.
“I like meat! I never want to be vegan!”
Ciara adjusts her rearview mirror to look at him.
Copyright 2021 Adler