The row of mailboxes in front of the Tewa trailer park in Tesuque, New Mexico, reads from left to right: W.C., Mr. & Mrs. Chicken, Joy Vanderloo, T.J. Apodaca, Santi Chun-Mogul, the Orcistas, Esquibels, Benscooters, Justice, and E. Eagle. An “E-normous” and wholly intact spiderweb extends from the plastic lip of W.C.’s receptacle and connects to the corner of a cinder block several feet away. Shoved inside the cinder block’s cool arches are the spider’s previous attempts to conquer the distance, balled-up practice sessions of dry, white discharge. At least a million fire ants roam the park, slinging gravel, dead ants, and food. The surrounding yellowed soil is stained with miles of their invisible language. Sagebrush, chamisa, and other brittle-stemmed shrubs bend upon contact and perfume the air, but otherwise the flora shows no signs of change from season to season. Only E. Eagle’s mailbox, swaybacked and half ajar, gives an indication of the passage of time. The mail carrier stacks E.’s weekly magazine, sheathed in black plastic, on top of his box, and since E. Eagle collects his mail but once a month the pile-up is a good indication how far into the month it is. On the Chickens’ mailbox, the letters “+Mal” have been scribbled on the face in a harried stroke, as though something special would fail to be delivered if written any slower. The Chickens’ box, as well as the Benscooters’, is missing the red flag for outgoing mail.
By order of his mom, the neighborhood is off-limits for Malchicken, even though she secretly lusts after all of it—the whole eight blocks from Roget’s to Sven’s—for she knows every man there is wearing a jumpsuit.
Beyond the Chickens’ trailer park is an empty lot that marks the beginning of what locals call “Auto Row,” where what started several years ago as one store selling leather conditioner and piñon-scented car freshener gradually turned into an entire community of auto repair and auto parts/junk shops. By order of his mom, the neighborhood is off-limits for Malchicken, even though she secretly lusts after all of it—the whole eight blocks from Roget’s to Sven’s—for she knows every man there is wearing a jumpsuit. Each shop along the Row has a different animal mascot, and a fierce competition takes place thirty feet above ground, in neon. Roget’s badger wears a black beret, and he’s smoking an unattached mouse’s tail in one hand and strangle-holding Marson’s little mouse head in the other. Every time the badger pumps his biceps, the mouse’s bent whiskers light up in sequence. Malchicken’s dad used to say the proximity to Auto Row was a good thing, and that the lights were there to make ordinary days seem like holidays. His mom used to argue that it was so bright she could see the screws coming down on the lid of her coffin.
The buzzing from Roget’s neon sign stings the back of Mal’s head, just underneath the wide cup of his skull. A similar tone comes out of the television speaker when Malchicken’s mother shuts off the DVD player but forgets to power down the TV. The screen turns gray, and the letters DVD appear in mainframe green, matching hue to tone. Malchicken doesn’t have to be in the room to know it’s on. The two sounds together make his skin feel like it’s being pulled off in sheets.
Recently, Marson’s Lube and Oil has installed a new neon sign in which his French mouse, donning an apron and smoking a thin cigarette, is clubbing poor Roget’s badger with a rolling pin. The fall of the badger in lights is beautiful to watch—a crumbling arc of green and brown dotted with droplets of blood—but the real treat is watching the three doughnut-shaped puffs of dirt rise as the body collapses on the ground. Malchicken has heard that Marson originally wanted the badger to fester into little shapes that curled into croissants, but the sign company said it was too difficult. Though Malchicken loves the new sign, he’s harboring the hope Roget will fight back with something better, if not a little quieter.
Using the same kind of rolling pin as the mouse, Mal has created in the kitchen a miniature city made of puff-pastry cylinders. As heat penetrates the structures, the layers of dough will rise to towering heights with anally plumb walls, barring any shortcomings in craftsmanship. The Chickens’ oven does not have a light and as the pastry swells, the glass steams over, preventing even the faintest glimpse of how the construction is going inside. On the bottom of the window is etched the word PERMA-VIEW, and the glass is cracked from top to bottom, which produces a fragment the shape of New Hampshire. Or Vermont. Mal can’t quite remember the ditty he learned from Lernie the Online E-tutor at school about how to tell the two states apart. Which one points up and which one points down. Sealed tight inside the turrets of puff pastry, Malchicken has installed a savory stew made of chicken and beans. It’s wet-battered and egg-glazed so the surface will finish on the rich side of amber, the girlie side of brown. Though he’s added a few cherries for color, he knows at the end of the line the stuff is going to come out brown. The bowel end of the line. The brown end. Auto-chromatically. Brown, brown, brown. And now he’s got the mini camera to prove it. It’s regal, it’s pizzazz, the way it works, and real spirit-fueling.
At the sound of a hiss in the oven, Malchicken begins to fret. He knows the sound is telling him that liquid inside the pastry is drilling its way outward and falling to a carbonized hell. It’s a sign of shoddy workmanship. Working with previously frozen chicken parts and dried beans, it’s hard to control the moisture. The hissing may also be a wicked ploy taunting Mal to open up the oven door—do it do it do it—a reckless action that will release the heat trapped inside and end in disaster. It’s a bread-knife-to-the-sternum type of experience, the hissing, the wanting to know, the splintery edge of sawed bone. His best bet is to leave the kitchen and let the baking run its course, to retreat to his room’s darkness, disturbed only by a lukewarm moon. Setting the egg timer, which sounds out each painful second, on the sill, Mal pulls open the curtains, spraying beads of condensation diagonally across the glass. He takes a shy finger to the window, outlining shapes and cross-hatching them in with fat little squiggles. Freshly moistened dust tickles his nose. The bleating of the egg timer is steady.
Malchicken takes his head to the pillow, unbuckling his pants as he reclines. By the side of his bed there’s a wire he can pull which causes a mobile hanging above his head to spin. His body is a doughy exaggeration of an obese child’s. Born without the well-sectioned Chicken neck, Mal’s head-to-torso slope makes him a true pyramid-shaped American, according to FDA standards. Golden brown hair from his long pin head graces the tops of his shoulders, where the tips bounce with princely charm. His wads of fat are segmented and move independent of each other, colliding to form peaks and valleys. The color of his skin is that of unfired porcelain with undertones of scarlet and lavender. Next to his skin the threadbare fabric of his underwear appears velvety, sophisticated, and magical in hue.
With a yawn, Mal rolls over and pulls out from under the bed a jimmy-rigged little VCR and B/W monitor. The two are connected to each other via a fat black cable that he fondles awkwardly. The video he’s about to watch is a Malchicken masterpiece. It was shot using a mini self-leveling camera now tucked away inside a flannel pouch he keeps on his nightstand. The camera’s original use—fastened to a metal skid and attached to two hundred feet of cable, through which was pushed twelve gallons of water per minute from the back of a Santa Fe County sewer truck—was to go headfirst into clogged sewer systems and record the journey into darkness. Mal considers sending the camera into the kitchen to peer into the oven and laughs. He would be single-handedly responsible for improving the camera’s worldview. It’s perspective. From poop to pastries. He cups his head between his hands and sets the video to Play. Seconds pass before an image comes into focus.
The Chickens’ septic system had always been a “ball breaker,” and the way it “worked” had all three of them practicing the ancient art of inhalation and retention before crossing the threshold. Even without the contributions of Mr. Chicken over the last few years, the tank “kept its own way of thinking,” and Mrs. Chicken tried everything (short of liquefying the load before sending it down, and Malchicken had to threaten her with a kitchen knife before she conceded to let go of the blender) to keep the flow moving. She learned how to tighten up a loose-lipped plunger, and the importance of a flexible rod. Again and again she replaced the water-stained poster behind the seat showing two hands clasped in prayer and the words “Easy Does It” written underneath. Yet still the rebellious commode had difficulties swallowing, and a string of plumbers started coming up the aluminum steps of the Chicken trailer, until one by one they started to stay—later and later—until they showed up at breakfast taking their coffee black and their toast dry, their rolls having been slickly buttered all night.