With Clouds Between Their Knees

By Stacy Danielle Stevens

“It’s covered in chicken shit,” I observed.

“It was your father’s,” mom replied.

Was there a logical connection there?

“Wasn’t that mine?” I asked.

“Your father was never one for throwing things out, especially not perfectly good things.”

Did she realize the irony of what she’d just said? No, apparently not.

“Take it,” she added, proffering in her gloved hands the encrusted Radio Flyer Row Cart. I took it into my own gloved hands, scrutinizing the chicken shit, considering the best way to remove it without damaging the paint on the metal or the finish on the wood. I was assuming, perhaps with wild-eyed optimism, that avian fecal bacteria would be a perfect cleanser, and that dehydrated organic matter was the ideal preservative. I could see myself on camera, saying something like that to the appraiser, the guy with the glasses and the mustache, I think it is, who appraises antique toys.

Maybe this wasn’t an antique, and maybe there’d be nothing left by the time I brushed all the chicken shit off, but I took it to the keeper pile.

When I turned around, I saw that Mom was looking at it, and at me, and I noticed tears collecting at the bottom of her goggles and moistening her dust mask. Reclaiming things from an abandoned chicken coop involves reasonable precautions, to be sure.

She was thinking about a photograph album. I knew that, and I remembered almost as well as she did the two photos I knew she was thinking about. A black and white with scalloped edges showing Bobby Lou, as my father was known in childhood, taken with a Brownie Instamatic, and a color polaroid of Stevie, as I was known in childhood, taken with a Square Shooter. This same Radio Flyer Row Cart, without the chicken shit, was in both pictures.

* * *

I feel sorry for Mom at moments like that, when she’s face-to-face with the dissonance of incongruity.

In War and Peace, when Countess Rostov has a stillbirth, her husband goes into the the hovel of a serf family and takes a newborn from her mother, then brings it into his own house, telling his wife that her baby is alive after all, that the doctor had made a mistake. Of course, the Countess knew better, but she played along.

* * *

My father’s father had piloted a B-17 in The War, and I’m sure that’s why he gave his son a Row Cart. The front axle is mounted on a pivot, so you steer with your feet. The handlebar doesn’t turn, it goes back and forth, connected to a crankshaft on the rear axle, which propels you. This arrangement is very much like the rudder pedals and yoke of a B-17.

His first mission had been to a target in Germany, and on the return flight, his aircraft was shot down just inside the German border. With the help of French Communists, he made it to a village on the coast. A fishing boat took him to the middle of the English Channel, where air sea rescue picked him up. He flew twenty-four more missions, and after The War, returned to the family farm, which he managed successfully, despite his alcoholic tendencies, which surely contributed to his early death.

* * *

There had been a pantry cupboard in the chicken coop, and inside, where the chickens couldn’t roost, an accordion file stuffed with yellowed papers written in blank fountain pen or pencil. I didn’t have time to read them that day, so I brought them home with me.

* * *

Robert Choudalmelka
October 23, 1953

When I ride my jet pack, I must be careful.
“Don’t go too near the sun!” Daddy yells up at me.
I catch clouds between my knees and bring them to the corn.

* * *

It was that first mission I piloted. The sun in the west shining on the clouds behind us hid the fighters, and that’s how they tore into us. I was able to keep it steady while everyone else bailed. I guess that’s how I got separated. A farmer saw me coming down, and had a pitchfork in his hands, charging at me when I hit the ground. A tine caught my left hand as I pushed it away, then I grabbed it from him, and looking at it now, I know it was only later that I decided it had to be either him or me. At the time, I just had the pitchfork in my hands.

I’d seen chickens with their heads cut off before, and had cut their heads off myself, but that was only chickens.

After that, I thought I hated Nazis, and I was glad whenever we dropped our sticks over Germany, but now that I’m home and all that is
still not behind me, I realize what I hate is what I became that day, and what I am now: a man who wakes up in his own vomit and sees fresh bruises every morning.

* * *

To know all, they say, is to forgive all. I understand why Mom allowed everything of my father’s to be covered in chicken shit; why he allowed that to happen as well.

* * *

I spent years in therapy with a psychiatrist who was convinced my transsexualism was caused by the violence of my father and grandfather; he supposed that being a man was simply unthinkable for me, and tried to cure me of it. I finally realized that I don’t care why I’m transsexual.

* * *

I decided on a soft-bristled brush, then a mild solution of oil soap with a chamois. Underneath that patina, the paint and wood were both in excellent condition. I’ve never had it appraised; how could I think of selling a thing like that? On the other hand, where could I ever display it?