Meatpaper four

Deep Freeze
If a 14-year-old chicken breast could talk

by Paul La Farge
JUNE, 2008

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 parents’ other 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.

That same 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 frost.

Jim came back to take his things out of the apartment. Dan’s 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 up again.

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.

Photo: Sasha Wizansky