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Collected written works  |  Gary Marx

Fighting Over Chicken Feed

My brother and I were dressed in shorts and summer tans, squinting into the sun and smiling for the camera. We were squeezing chickens to our bare chests.

I remember that day well …. I can still feel the heft of that bird and the prick of its feathers. I can still feel its body shiver. Mine, too. We both wanted out.

“Hold tight,” Mom said. “Don’t let go.”

She took the photograph. We put the chickens back in their pungent coop and closed the door on another Kodak moment in the early days of the suburbs.

We weren’t farmers by any stretch. We were urban transplants, trying to homestead half an acre of unincorporated land just outside the corporate limits of Chicago. If you visit that area today, you’d have to use your imagination to envision coops of chickens and large truck gardens. You’d have to go almost 20 miles west to find an acre of open ground now, but back then we were pioneers in Cook County. Bumbling pioneers, perhaps, but pioneers just the same.

We lived in a house that Dad built, which we heated with oil. We pumped water from a well and had a big garden that provided all sorts of green things that Mom and Grandma jarred for winter. The chickens were an experiment. We thought we’d get a few eggs and generate some fertilizer for the vegetables.

I don’t know where they came from, those chickens. From a neighbor, perhaps, or a guy Dad met on the job. And I don’t know how long it took for us to figure out that those chickens weren’t going to provide us with any eggs. I think it was the cock in the doodle-doo one morning that tipped us off to the gender misidentification. So, instead of omelets in the morning, we had a couple of dinners in the evening. And Mom stuffed a small pillow.

I wasn’t a witness to the beheadings, but I understood what went down. I don’t recall feeling distraught about it. They weren’t pets. We hadn’t named them or anything. Just the same, while they lived, my brother and I had each claimed one for our own. He chose the bigger, fatter one. I liked the skinnier one, which looked to me, somehow, to be more intellectual. As it turned out, he wasn’t smart enough to keep his mouth shut in the morning.  

That’s how it went with my brother and me. Al was two years older, but by the time we quit wearing shorts and started wearing shirts, we were similar in size and appearance and were sometimes mistaken as twins. This ruffled both of our feathers, and I think we intentionally looked for ways to accentuate our differences. We made choices, stating our preference as if staking claims. I liked blue and said so. He chose red. He craved chocolate so I chose vanilla; he cheered for the White Sox and I suffered with the Cubs; he liked Mary Ann and I liked Ginger. And so it went, dividing the spoils of our culture as we grew up.

Our differences became more pronounced with age. We argued about politics and religion and all those things we were told never to talk about in polite company. But between brothers, there was no sense in being polite.  

My brother absorbed my parents’ views and values, but those ideas were old and rigid in my eyes. He had fallen pretty close to the tree and stayed there, but I hit the ground rolling and didn’t stop until I was all the way down the hill.

When I look back, it baffles me how we could be so different when we shared the same formative experiences. We were virtually twins at one point. The chickens we clutched were almost identical.

Perhaps it’s natural for younger siblings to rebel for the sake of rebellion, to act as if we had something to prove. Perhaps, because we’re the smallest voices in the family, we’re compelled to shout. Whatever it was, I intentionally looked for alternatives and reasons to embrace the opposite. By the time I was a teenager, Mom and Dad were becoming concerned that I was about to leave the nest and fly away for good.

“Hold tight. Don’t let go.”

In many ways, I was already gone.  

Somewhere along the way, and in spite of myself, I matured. My parents and I grew closer as they aged. And my brother and I did, too. I didn’t alter my political or religious views; I’ve just come to accept our differences and I’ve quit thumbing my nose at his opinions. Except the really stupid ones.

Oh, I’ve changed in little ways. I’ve learned, for instance, the value of chocolate and I root for the White Sox these days. I have occasionally embraced the color red, although not in the voting booth, and I’ve discovered in the reruns, much to my surprise, an attraction to Mary Ann.

Some of the things Al and I bickered over were pretty darn silly. The high ground we tried to hold turned out to be fairly low, and the lines we drew in the sand quickly drifted over. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Depends on the time of day and the season of the year. It depends on your perspective: Is it from the window or from a look in the mirror?  

I hate absolutes. For that reason I try not to argue anything too strenuously, with my brother or anyone else. Because at the end of the day, the hen I’m holding is just as much a rooster as yours.

“Magazines all too frequently lead to books and should be regarded by the prudent

as the heavy petting of literature.”



  Saving Tommy

A Football Drama

    in Three-Quarter Time

  Me & My Stanley

  In the Valley of the

      Living Dolls

  Of Anchorages and    

      the Sisters

      of St. Francis

  Mom & Apple Pie

  Raise a Toast

      to Poplar Street 

  Broken down

      in Gilman

  The Word for Winter

  Say Goodnight,



The pieces collected in “A Hat Full of Rain” first appeared in the magazine Good Living. The collection borrows its name from a line in a Tom Waits song: “Long Way Home.”