If a 14-year-old
chicken breast could talk
by Paul La Farge
I AM THE OWNER of the oldest
continually frozen skinless chicken breast in Northern California.
Well, actually, I do not own it. It is not in my possession.
Someone named Mary has it — she lives in San Francisco.
But it is my chicken breast all the same, in the way you might
say that a neighborhood is my neighborhood, or your
child is my brother.
Time had no power over it. It was
proof that we could hold on.
Allow me to explain. The chicken
breast arrived at a time when I was not quite living in San
Francisco. That is, I had moved everything I owned to San Francisco,
but I was not living there yet. I had gone away for the summer,
and my room was occupied by a person whom I’ll call Paul.
That is his actual name. There were other people living in
this apartment, two friends named Jim and Dan, who occupied
the living room and the dining room, respectively. I had the
only bedroom, or rather, Paul had it, a nearly octagonal room
with a bay window that looked out on a street traveled very
frequently by buses. It was a beautiful room. Its ceiling curved
down to meet the walls. It had a kind of chandelier, a loopy
metal thing that was painted in faux wood grain, like many
other surfaces in that apartment. Even the wood surfaces of
the apartment were painted to look like wood; it was confusing
and beautiful. I left the day after I moved my things in, and
already I knew that I never wanted to leave.
After the summer,
I came back to the beautiful apartment, and it was as good
as I remembered, but things had changed. Dan was no longer
living with us. He had moved to another apartment in San Francisco.
There had been trouble with Dan. He liked to buy expensive
ingredients and cook them using many pots. He left bills and
dishes for other people to take care of. Also, he didn’t
like living in the dining room, which was dark and connected
to the living room by a sliding pocket door. He was sexually
active, or maybe he was thinking of being sexually active.
He didn’t — I am guessing — like
the idea that if he were to be sexually active in that apartment,
Jim would hear him through the sliding pocket door. Anyway,
Dan left the apartment, and Paul, who had not planned to stay
after the summer, moved into the dining room, where he would
live for several years.
Jim and Paul and I smoked cigarettes
at the kitchen table. We cooked meals that mostly used only
cheap ingredients, although now and then Jim would cook a meal
that used expensive ingredients. He did not ask us to pay for
them, however, unlike Dan. We experimented with clove cigarettes
and drank a lot of beer. We knew just how much because we kept
the bottles on the landing of the back stairs. We kept newspapers
there, also. We kept a lot of things. We kept some weights
that Dan hadn’t
taken with him when he left, and also Dan’s baseball
bat. We kept a sofa that some friends had given us because
they couldn’t stand it anymore. They had found it in
their apartment, left behind by the last people, who couldn’t
stand it anymore, and they had it for two or three years before
they couldn’t stand it, either, and gave it to us. We
kept the chicken. It was in our freezer when I came back from
the summer. Dan had bought it, apparently. It was an ordinary
skinless chicken breast on a yellow Styrofoam tray, from the
Safeway on Market and Dolores. The label said that it should
be sold by August 26, 1994, but it was frozen solid and we
couldn’t imagine that it had gone bad, not in September
1994. We left it in the freezer.
That fall we had a big dinner
and Jim fell in love with a woman who lived in another city.
Paul fell in love, and his girlfriend came to see him in the
dining room. I wrote a book, then fell in love with a woman
who lived in another city, and she came to San Francisco and
spent many days in the beautiful apartment with me and Jim
and Paul and Paul’s girlfriend. Then
Jim’s girlfriend came to visit and there were six of
us living there. We showed our girlfriends the chicken, the
oldest continually frozen skinless chicken breast in Northern
California, we said, although we weren’t sure. There
might have been other chicken breasts, frozen in the bomb shelters
of right-wing nuts in the north of the state, or the south.
Our girlfriends tolerated this oddity in us, kindly.
year, or was it the next year, we took out the bottles and
the newspapers. Some of them were so old they were beginning
to be interesting again. Paul’s girlfriend broke up with
him and Paul moved out. Jim’s girlfriend came to California
and Jim moved out. Tina was looking for a place to live, so
she moved into the living room, and certain things were thrown
away to make room for her. The chicken stayed, although it
disgusted her then-boyfriend so much that he refused to keep
any food in the freezer. He was sure that the chicken breast
had become toxic. It looked the same to me as it always had:
a purple triangle of fleshy stuff, increasingly covered by
Jim came back to take his things out of the
things were mostly gone. Paul had left nothing behind. The
chicken and the sofa were the only survivors of the first days
when I had lived in the beautiful apartment. The chicken especially:
It was in suspended animation; time had no power over it. It
was proof that we could hold on. Then Tina’s boyfriend
broke up with her, and I broke up with my girlfriend for the
first time. Tina and I sat in the kitchen and smoked cigarettes.
We were all right, though shaken. It seemed as though everything
could go back to the way it had been. But it turned out that
the chicken was the only thing that time could not touch. I
left the beautiful apartment the next winter and moved to New
York. I took over my girlfriend’s friend’s apartment,
which overlooked a highway. My girlfriend was going to follow,
and she did, but by the time she reached New York we had broken
It has been a few years now since I saw the
beautiful apartment. I don’t know if anything I remember
is still there. I know the sofa is gone — Tina gave it
to her friend Amanda before she left for Berlin. Tina’s
furniture is gone: the wobbly kitchen table, the little plastic
animals. The russet stains are gone from the walls, and the
green and blue lightbulbs that used to shine in the dining-room
ceiling are gone, too. Even the signs we put up, at the end,
saying what things were, the Historic Sofa, the Wood Painted
to Look Like Wood, and so on, are gone. But the chicken is
safe with Tina’s
friend Mary, whom I have never met. Like the rest of us, it
is waiting for the thaw.
Paul La Farge
is the author of
three books: The Artist of the Missing (FSG, 1999), Haussmann,
or the Distinction (FSG, 2001), and The Facts
of Winter (McSweeney’s, 2005). He is
working on a project about flight in America.
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Four.