Pirouettes
by ALYSSA BARRETT
All she wanted was to make the goddamn chicken. It was a Sunday, and Eleanor figured that’s what people did on Sundays. Downstairs, the neighbors were arguing again and the trouble with that was she and Manuel didn’t ever fight, so it made her uncomfortable. The neighbors were brutal about it. It was very distracting. She didn’t think it was envy. Who wanted that kind of violence? But there was something fascinating about the quantity and volume of their conflict, the way they realized their anger—if that was enviable, she craved it in so private a way that all she could do was talk about how awful they were to each other, how no one should have to live like that.

There was a portable radio that Eleanor brought into the kitchen. It didn’t get great reception, and she landed on whatever station wasn’t total static and tried to drown out the neighbor’s voices. Manuel was gone for only a week, one of his frequent trips for work. Eleanor used those weeks to pretend she lived alone. A practice-run felt necessary—just in case. It wasn’t that anything was wrong. They were really, really happy. Manuel would be back by Friday. But on the very off chance he didn’t come back—say, a plane crash or if he met someone else—or if something extremely weird and unexpected happened, like they fell out of love down the line, well, at least she would be prepared.

There were other things, of course, on her mind. At work, there was a rumor. She should’ve been one of the first to go but instead it was three people from the sales department on Tuesday. Wednesday, half the tech support guys disappeared after lunch, including the handsome one who always lingered after he’d fixed a problem. The ones still left joked that there was a vacation-flu going around and everyone was catching it. By Thursday no one was laughing. Eleanor was definitely going to be in the next group or the group after that, for sure. People could greet themselves, after all; the offices were numbered and there was a directory on the wall. The phone could go to voicemail; someone else could check it. She did nothing essential, she realized. Nothing that would save a life, or a company. She started to add up the bills that would accumulate in a single month—rent, credit cards, student loans. Manuel had a thing about debt; he didn’t believe in it. It worried her. Friday, everyone left in the office spoke in whispers until happy hour, when they all went out and got drunk and felt even worse. During rounds of karaoke, they were all thinking the same thing: what will we do next? How will we admit what’s happened? It was embarrassing to get fired, no matter what the reason. It would prove they were unnecessary. Saturday, Eleanor slept. And Sunday, well—Sunday she decided to make a chicken because it seemed like a regular, simple thing to do.

She cut the plastic off the chicken and pulled out the parts stuffed inside, the neck and organs, wrapped them in a bag and threw the whole thing in the trash so it wouldn’t smell when the innards warmed and began to spoil. The chicken’s naked body sat before her, waiting to be bathed in the kitchen sink. Just a carcass, really, headless and raw and full of germs. But it seemed so creaturely, so nearly still a living thing. Like if she propped its body up just right, the chicken could stroll across the counter on its own and tell jokes or sing a show tune. The radio was all commercials, bubbly voices and sales pitches. She tried switching to a different station, something with music, because a talk show seemed like the wrong kind of background sound for cooking a chicken.

What Eleanor knew about the man who lived downstairs was that he smoked and he liked to make toast. When it was just him in the apartment, she could hear his footsteps, heavy on the floor below, and the ding of the toaster, which he must have kept near the window. Because it was summer, everything rose up from his window to Eleanor’s: the smell of cigarettes or burning bread. The woman-neighbor didn’t come often, only once every month or so, and her arrival always marked by the stroller in the building’s common hallway. There was usually just enough time between visits to forget what it was like, to shake the feeling of having witnessed something horrible. What was starting to get to Eleanor was the guilt—there was so clearly something wrong, and yet, she’d done nothing. Manuel had ignored it, too. At night they heard the sounds of arguing and imagined it wasn’t as bad as it obviously was. They didn’t call the cops or even the landlord. They just listened. Why do we do that? she wondered. What is wrong with us?

This time when Eleanor saw the stroller she felt the urge to kick it down the stairs, hard enough so it would break. Once the woman was there, it would start almost immediately, angry voices rising through the floorboards: “fed up,” “leaving,” “leave.” Slamming doors and sometimes screaming, and always, always, the child crying. Eleanor could hear the baby now, a young boy, almost a toddler, starting to scream. That was one thing—they were sure that the baby wasn’t being hurt, not physically. His sounds always came from the other side of the apartment, as they did now, than the back-and-forth of the man and woman’s voices. If they ever touched the baby, Eleanor was sure they would hear it, and that, well, that of course they wouldn’t ignore. She would call the cops in a second. Or maybe, she’d ask Manuel to do it if he were home. But they’d definitely call.

She’d seen a chicken made on cooking shows before and that morning, there was a recipe that ran in the paper. It was simple: rinse the chicken off, put it in a pan, put the pan in the oven. It was the kind of thing Eleanor might have already done a hundred times. But Manuel was gone and she was trying to do something as if it was unfamiliar. At the store, under fluorescent supermarket lights, she had lifted the plastic-wrapped chicken into her basket, paid the cashier and drove home, like anyone would. Except the whole time she was imagining she was alone—really alone—and okay about it. As if she were the kind of person who did things like that: just went to the store and bought a chicken. As if it were a project, something to do, as if there weren’t anything at stake. But the aloneness hadn’t felt quite complete enough. It was too hard to imagine what it would be like to be just her again, how she’d move through space and look at other people. She couldn’t imagine how it would ever end between them.

The skin of the chicken was pliable and the flesh felt soft and alive in her hands. She took the salt-shaker in her hand and started shaking until she looked at the recipe and realized she’d gotten ahead of herself. First, of course, she was meant to wash the bird. The radio went to a commercial and she noticed that downstairs, where there should have been the normal yelling, there was just an eerie calm.

Unable to find a better grip, she held the chicken up by its drumsticks under the faucet. How clean did it need to be? Its skin wrinkled under the pressure; clear water pushed through the center cavity and drained thicker and pink from the bottom. She waited, letting the water run longer than necessary. The chicken seemed repulsive, now. She didn’t want it to touch anything. The skin on her arms even tingled a little, like something was crawling up.

Downstairs, the man let out a single wail, like a weird battle cry, and shouted: “You’re an asshole, you bitch, you have to learn a fucking goddamn lesson,” and “I hate your voice, I hate all of this.” And from the other side of the apartment, or maybe the stairwell, the woman was sobbing, telling him “Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off, it’s over.” It was always over; one of them said that every time. Then there was the slam of the door, and then nothing. Eleanor thought she heard the ping of the toaster. She couldn’t hear the child. Whoever left must have taken him along. Poor, poor baby, she thought.

The phone rang. She held the chicken up for a moment helplessly. Both hands, at this point, were necessary to hold it. She considered wiping the germs off her hands with a towel, but then the towel would be contaminated. She had the absurd, momentary thought to lick her hands instead. How long would it take before she got sick? The cold porcelain of the toilet would press hard against her chest, and she imagined vomiting out the chicken, whole.

She could have just put the chicken down but the phone was still ringing and maybe it was Manuel, calling to say he was coming home early. She jammed one fist up into the cavity of the chicken and, conceding that she’d have to bleach the receiver later, answered the phone with her other hand.

“Did you forget?” came a voice, slightly annoyed. “I figure you must have forgotten.”

“Charlotte,” Eleanor said. “Shit.” She was meant to meet her sister and young niece, Lola, in the park that morning.

“Go ahead, sweetie,” Charlotte said, her voice clearly turned away from the phone. “Go. You know where it is, Lo—just down the hall there. Wash your hands.” Her voice came back. “El, we waited for a damn hour and a half. Lola takes things personally. Hell, I’m starting to take it personally. This is the third time.”

“I know,” Eleanor said. “I know. I’m really, really sorry. I completely forgot.” Her hand, still shoved inside the chicken, felt cold. She momentarily forgot about the germs and wedged the phone receiver between her shoulder and her ear. Then she felt the crawling feeling again on her skin, the salmonella and rawness of the chicken juice seeping in.

The receiver dropped from her shoulder, its cord short enough that it hovered just above the floor. She kept her hands at a distance from her body, got to her knees and placed her face beside the dangling mouthpiece.

“Crap,” she said. “Are you still there?”

“Christ, El. What’s going on?”

“It’s just my hands are all gooped up and—”

“Your hands? I thought something bad happened or something. I called this morning, too, and left a message on your machine. I thought you’d forget. Did you even get it? Is Manuel away again?” Eleanor recognized Charlotte’s tone as their mother’s—the voice she had scolded them with when the girls had stolen money from her wallet for popsicles or magazines. “Listen, I know you’re feeling down and all with work—but do you mind just giving me a call next time? This was just a really bad day to not hear from you, El. I feel horrible, the dog shit inside again, and I’m about this close to just lighting the whole place on fire, I swear. I thought you might’ve been able to take Lola to ballet after the park. Her class is at three. She already missed pirouettes, for Christ sakes, when the car broke down last week, and won’t let me forget it. The other girls will show you, I tell her, but you know. Twelve. Your life is ending every single damn day, and of course it’s always my fault.”

Eleanor heard the door slam again downstairs—the woman returning, most likely. The neighbors—when they were home, it was so consuming it felt like there was nothing else: no peace, no hope, no end to the weightiness of it all. It was frustrating, to say the least, and it was also starting to terrify her.

“Eleanor? Are you still there? Mom is out of town or you know I would have called her first—she’d have been thrilled to have an excuse to do something with her granddaughter. Lola is a great kid, you know. You’re lucky she wants to hang out with you still. Me, I’m the enemy, but you—you’re a goddess, no matter how many times you flake. Could you at least call next time? Jesus. It’s raining like crazy out there, which doesn’t help. But what do you think? Can you swing it—the ballet, I mean? It would really help.”

Out the window, the sky was a monochromatic gray. Fat raindrops fell past the windowpane. Those same drops, the fattest ones, might pass the window directly below Eleanor. Maybe the awful man was sitting downstairs, brooding over toast about his awful wife and awful child. Maybe he would see the same rain, if he looked outside.

“I would, Char. But don’t think I should leave, and this chicken—the oven—”

“You’re making chicken? Now? Why can’t you drive? You’re drinking? Is that it? Shit, if I weren’t a mom, I’d be drinking midday, too.”

“No,” Eleanor said. “Not that.” Downstairs, there was a series of thumps and the child, who had either been there all along or returned with the woman, began to scream. Eleanor knew her sister’s next question would be, What is going on with you? What is this about? It wouldn’t matter what she said; she could list the things, but it wouldn’t mean anything. “I just needed something to do,” she said. Her voice rose, making it sound like a question. She put her hand on the chicken, which now rested on the counter, sloppy in its own juice.

“Wow.” There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Really? I mean, okay. Yeah. Impressive. I really thought—I guess, well. If it’s chicken, it’s chicken. Glad to know where you stand.”

Both women stayed quiet for a moment. The child downstairs was still crying, and the man’s voice was there, too. Eleanor couldn’t make out the words, but the cadence of his voice rose with the force of someone throwing punches. She should really, really do something.

“What’s wrong with you?” Eleanor asked.

“What?” her sister said.

“You said you’re sick—what’s wrong?”

“Oh, it’s just a flu or something, I don’t know. My head feels like concrete. Between Lola and Lou, they bring home an entire school’s worth of germs, that’ll all.”

“I’m sorry,” Eleanor said. “I wish I could help.”

“Well,” said her sister.

“I’m sorry,” Eleanor said again. “I’m really sorry about the pirouettes. Will you tell Lola?”

“Oh yeah,” Charlotte said. “You bet. Top priority. I’ll be delighted to.” She hung up before Eleanor could speak again.

Downstairs, everything had become quiet again. Maybe they’ve all left, Eleanor thought. That would be nice. She placed the chicken down in a baking pan, relieved to finally get it off the counter. There was a flopping, thudding sound, and the bird moved slightly as its weight spread, as if it were settling into sleep. She sopped up the wetness on the counter with a sponge and then threw the sponge in the trash. Using paper towels, she patted the surface of the chicken dry, pressing her knuckles into the flesh to feel its resistance, forcing the useless wings to flap. She found a hidden spot of fatty skin with a few feathers still attached. It wouldn’t tear easily, and she had to hold her other hand where the neck used to be in order to get a good enough grip.

There was still more to do, but she couldn’t quite remember what came first. She thought about Charlotte’s accusation that she was drinking. It wasn’t a bad idea, really. Better than lighting the whole place on fire. She took a beer from the fridge and popped it open. It was too early, probably, for this, but she poured the beer into a glass, drank, and poured more. She noticed that on the answering machine, two messages blinked—she hadn’t thought to check it when she got home from the supermarket. One message would be from Charlotte, she knew, reminding her of their plans. Eleanor pressed the “play” button with her elbow. The first message was from Manuel. He said he missed her and loved her and that he had to stay an extra few days for work, but he’d be back by Monday, for sure. Of course—this was always how it went. Why did she ever expect anything else? Eleanor deleted the message and Charlotte’s voice came on—just to hear it again pissed Eleanor off and made her feel terrible all at once.

But what was so bad, really, about any of it? So the neighbors fought. Manuel went away a lot. Maybe she’d get fired and Lola might miss pirouettes. These weren’t the worst problems. Why, then, did she feel like everything was starting to close in? And what was it, exactly, about this goddamn chicken that was making everything feel so difficult—the peculiar recognition she felt for the chicken; the thought that she, beheaded and plucked, might not look so different? The warmth and finality of the oven could be either of theirs. It wasn’t like cooking an egg or a piece of formless meat. The chicken used to hop around, pecking the earth for food. It was whole—whole enough, at least.

She looked at the recipe she had torn from the newspaper. She tried to be methodical: onions, sliced in half; an orange, pierced, because she’d forgotten to buy a lemon; herbs, left whole; salt. Some butter spread over the skin. Was that it? She finished the beer and opened another; this one, she drank straight from the bottle.

Eleanor looked at the bottle in her hands and realized she hadn’t washed them and now the beer was full of germs, too. She had touched almost everything in the whole kitchen, she realized, with her raw chicken hands. It was hopeless. She came to her knees. This hadn’t been a good idea. Sure, she could put the chicken in the oven but it wouldn’t mean what she wanted it to, that something had changed. It didn’t mean, necessarily, that she could do it—just that she had done it. She wasn’t prepared for anything. If she got fired, she’d be broke. If she were broke, maybe Manuel would leave. If Manuel left her, what would happen—would she be crushed, or freed? Either way, she’d probably never, ever call the cops and save the poor child downstairs, who was getting his life wrecked by his horrible parents. Lola would never forgive her for missing pirouettes. There was something very, very wrong with her, Eleanor thought. Something a chicken couldn’t begin to help solve.

Eleanor, her hands still sticky and sickening and germ-ridden, left the apartment and went downstairs. In the hall, there was the empty stroller. She took it with her contaminated hands and dragged it down the stairs, through the front door of the building. Outside, the rain came down quickly. Eleanor gripped the soft rubber of the stroller handle in both hands. She walked quickly, as if with a destination. One of the front wheels kept spinning out in odd directions. In the kitchen, the oven warmed and the chicken sat dressed and bare on the counter, waiting.




ALYSSA BARRETT holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, where she has also taught. She received a Pushcart Prize nomination and her work has appeared in The New Guard Review and is forthcoming in Opium Magazine. She is originally from western New York and has also called the Adirondacks, the Hudson Valley and southern Vermont home. She now farms, writes and teaches in Washington State.