Still Life With Chicken: A Writer's Journey by the Forward

Still Life With Chicken: A Writer's Journey

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August 1985

Dusk falls in Iowa. I sit around the back-porch table with Tobias Wolff, Geoffrey Wolff, Lazar Wolf, Wolf Blitzer, Richard Brautigan, Leonard Michaels, and Gordon Lish, all my mentors. The pages of my first workshop short story sit in front of them. They all stare at me, mouth agape, near-tears, except for Lish, who smokes impassively.

“I….I can’t believe how good this is,” Blitzer, who I call “Wolfie,” says to me.

“Just beyond reproach,” Michaels says. “Lean and technically perfect.”

“I wrote it for all of you,” I say. “Because you are teaching me how to be a writer, and how to be a real man.”

In the kitchen, all their wives prepare a delicious seven-course feast, silently and without protest. Someday, I hope to find publication, and tenure, and a woman who loves me enough to feed my genius. That would be nice.

Raymond Carver, or the ghost of Raymond Carver, appears at the screen door, holding a bottle of cheap whiskey, or cheap ghost whiskey.

“Room for one more?” asks the mentor of my mentors.

“Always for you,” Toby says, standing to give up his chair to his mentor, as a man does when he’s being a man. I learned how to be a man from that manly man and all the manly men who wrote and drank and were good.

“Those women had better be making chicken,” Carver says.

October 1989

Time passes. I move to an apartment in Chicago and marry a woman who bears my first and second children while she’s also working a full-time job as a night nurse at an insane asylum. Meanwhile, I toil over stories. One, I sell to a small magazine based in an ignorant Southern state, another, I publish myself and distribute around the college campus where I teach hopeful young sophomores who I also sometimes impregnate. Authorship has its privileges.

My mentor comes to visit, along with his second wife, who joins my first wife in the kitchen to make dinner, and also tomorrow’s lunch.

“It is harder than I thought,” I say to him. “Being a writer.”

“Life is not a bed of cherries,” he says. He is drunk.

He turns toward the kitchen, where our wives work namelessly.

“Dear,” he says. “This chicken tastes delicious!”

He is gracious, as a man should be.

November 1991

The recession hits hard. I’m forced to move to California to take a real job, working with people who don’t understand my talent. The work is useless and so are my co-workers. Some of them act ungraciously, which I begin to realize is how people behave in this world when they aren’t gentleman writer mentors.

Later That Month

I divorce my wife and marry another wife, who bears my third child. Then I divorce that wife and marry again, becoming a father for the fourth time. This wife is a lawyer for a major toy company, not to mention a total knockout. She earns money and raises our children while I work on the novel that will make my reputation.

A Few Days After That

One of my mentors visits while on his book tour, which will end in a visiting professorship and the publication of another volume of award-winning stories. He continues to inspire me, well into his early fifties.

“I’m hungry,” he says, like an overgrown man-baby.

“Honey, do we have any chicken?” I ask my wife.

“Cook your own damn chicken,” she says. “I’m sick of serving you pretentious jerks.”

I divorce her and immediately marry another woman. This one declares her willingness to cook in the service of literature. Her chicken is merely adequate, but she can learn.

March 1996

I receive yet another book rejection. That night, the ghost of Raymond Carver appears to me in a dream, which lasts 18 hours. I sit with him at a kitchen table in heaven as he drinks cheap whiskey.

“What did I do wrong?” I ask him, sobbing.

“Didn’t eat enough chicken,” he says.

I wake up sweating and weeping.

“What is it?” says my seventh wife, who is also my eighth wife, or “sister wife,” as my neighbors say in Utah, where I now live, teaching composition at a community college to toothy white people.

“It was horrible,” I said. “I dreamed that I will never be published and that I have no talent.”

“Oh, dear,” she says. “Let me get up and make you something to eat.”

She’s a keeper, this one.

May 1999

I’ve moved to New York State and am buying my mentor’s house.

“But I don’t want to sell,” he says. “I like living here.”

“Too bad,” I say. “I claim it through eminent domain.”

To support my writing, I’ve become a commercial real-estate developer. It’s a surprisingly easy way to make money, once you figure out who to bribe in Albany.

There are tears in my mentor’s eyes. Mine too, and also my wife’s, because she is making spicy chicken. These, we all later agree, are tears of gratitude. How lucky we are, we feel, we are so lucky. We have had the luck to be lucky enough to have been mentored. Lucky duckies, that’s us. This man has made me a better person, if not necessarily a better writer. Now I will tear down his home and build a strip mall. “Please don’t do this,” he says.

He’s a better version of me, more dignified, less selfish, and he’s published books, something I’ve never been able to manage. And now he is also going to have to move to a crummy apartment. Someday, I hope to be just like him, except that I will live in a nice house with a spacious kitchen where I will eat but never cook.

“Would you like to read my manuscript?” I ask.

He sighs.

“Of course,” he says.

What a good, kind man.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “My wife will make us chicken soon.”

Neal Pollack is the author of “Repeat” and “Keep Mars Weird.”

Still Life With Chicken: A Writer's Journey


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