“Chicken,” Michelle Reale
We stood under fluorescent lights in a long, snaking line waiting to order. My father still had his work chinos and boots on which I though he looked so tough in. My mother stood slapping the tops of her thighs as if she were keeping time to music, though there was none.
My sister stayed as far away from all of us as possible. She stood in line for her own food and sat at a table by herself. She was tall and thin. Her eyes bulged a little, but I thought they were so pretty, rimmed in thick black lines and dusted with sparkles. She hunched over a chicken leg and nibbled at it lightly, tearing off bits of the crispy, greasy skin. Her lips were shiny. I watched my mother watch her like a rival. I tucked into my own food.
I whipped my mashed potatoes in their little Styrofoam container round and round and added some gravy until they were smooth and creamy like ice cream. “Are you going to let her play with her food like that?” my grandmother asked. “She shouldn’t be eating this shit anyway,” she said. My father leaned his hands on his knees and sighed.
Some kids from my sister’s class came in, making noise. My sister’s hair fell like a curtain across her face. They scanned the place from corner to corner. One of the girls said, “It ain’t happenin’ here, that’s for damn sure.” My grandmother swung her head around to see the girl who said it.
“Who you lookin’ at,” the one with the black lipstick said to my grandmother, who sat ramrod straight.
My grandmother’s face turned burgundy. My father told the girl to mind her own damn business. He leaned in and told my grandmother to do the same.
“They’ve got a bit of the drink in them!” she said, like the Queen of England. My mother hissed, “Leave it!”
I could feel something gathering speed. They nudged each other and loud bursts of laughter sounded like small explosions of napalm. “Fat piece of shit” was what I heard. I saw the back of my sister out the door.
On the way home my grandmother broke the silence by swearing on the soul of her dead husband that my mother winked at one of the boys, whom she called a “rowdy.” My mother said, lighting a cigarette, her hands shaking, “I am not going to dignify that statement with a response!” My father gripped the steering wheel.
Later, I was in my bedroom with my sister when I heard my mother whisper through the crack in the door, “Sorry baby.” I started to pry off the big toenail of my right foot.
My sister hadn’t said a word about what happened. It was too quiet, so I peeked out from under my comforter. She was twirling a little wish bone between her fingers. I could see tiny bits of meat still attached. She held it out to me. I held my breath. My toenail came off completely with one clean tug.