Two things happened in August, 2002.
1. My wife of 11 months left me for a boy she met playing Internet counterterrorism video games, transforming me into a wretched mess in desperate need of human contact.
2. My younger brother Alex went to the county fair and came home with a tiny, peeping chicken.
The chick was so small and so adorable, my parents allowed Alex to keep the bird in a shoebox in his bedroom. In the mornings, he would let Captain Bojangles, as the chicken came to be called, out of her box, and he would play games with her. They played soccer and tennis, and on days when the weather was bad, my brother taught the chicken how to play a variety of board games. Bojangles became excellent at Monopoly and Stratego, the latter a game I myself have never understood.
But eventually, as happens with all farm animals raised in shoeboxes in the suburban bedrooms of adolescent boys, Bojangles became too large to remain inside. When, one morning, my brother opened the box and was presented with a full-sized chicken sitting on a nest filled with delicious eggs, my parents were forced to make a difficult decision. What were they to do with this animal? My father turned to the internet, and discovered that there is a huge community of web-savvy suburban chicken farmers. He downloaded a set of instructions, and set about building Bojangles a beautiful new home in the backyard.
Very quickly, Captain Bojangles and my father became best of friends. In the morning, my father would descend to the backyard and let the chicken out of her coop. He would harvest the eggs she had laid the previous evening, and feast on their delicious contents. He would then return to the yard for a day of hard work in his vegetable garden. And while my father sweated, grunted, and tanned, Captain Bojangles worked alongside him, eating snails, slugs, and other garden pests. When they were done with the day's work, my father would sit on the little bench in his garden, snacking on a cluster of vine-ripened grapes. Bojangles would sit on his lap, and my father would feed her grapes. She would coo, and so would he. When the grapes were gone, the chicken would hop to my father's shoulder and peck at his eyes, which look to a chicken very much like vine-ripened grapes.
They were happy, and the world was at peace. For a while.
When my parents learned of my divorce, they decided that the only thing that would solve my bottomless grief was to fly me home for Thanksgiving. "We'll have a lovely meal," my mother said. "And you will be able to cry your eyes out while your family watches in horror."
"Sounds great," I said. "And I sure could eat me some turkey."
"Ah," she said.
"What?" I said.
"Well, we've got this chicken, you know."
"Yeah?" I said.
"And we really love this chicken. I mean, your father really loves this chicken."
"So?," I said.
"Well, we've, um, we've decided to have a vegetarian Thanksgiving this year."
"But it's a chicken," I said.
"Oh, don't be speciesist," she said. "It'll be fine. Everyone likes the stuffing more than the turkey anyway."
I disregarded my mother's plain ignorance of the fact that what makes stuffing so good is that it is stuffed into the corpse of a dead animal. Thanksgiving without turkey is like Ebert without Siskel, or Sublime without Bradley Nowell: fat, hairy, and ultimately pointless.
It was with this in mind that I ventured out of my tear-soaked house on the day before Thanksgiving to find myself a hearty serving of Thanksgiving turkey. At 10am, I left the house and went to a barbecue restaurant. I ordered a three pounds of smoked turkey, an amount I considered to be totally reasonable. I consumed it in 15 minutes. My stomach became painfully bloated, and I found it difficult to move. To deal with the pain in my stomach and the pain in my heart, I consumed an elaborate concoction of substances, both legal and illegal, and got, as they say, very, very high. By the time I boarded the plane for my ride home to Washington, I felt like a million dollars.
This is the funny part: I discovered, when I arrived at my parents' home, my entire family huddled around the dining-room table, puffy-eyed, snotty, and drooling.
"What happened?" I said.
"Bojangles!" cried my father.
"Oh, Bojangles!" cried my mother.
My brother put his hand on my shoulder and led me into the backyard. "Look," he said, pointing at the chicken coop.
A jagged hole had been torn in the chicken wire. Feathers hung from the sharp edges.
"Bojangles got out?" I said.
"Look closer," he said.
The inside of the coop was a mess – hay and feathers and chicken feces strewn all about. It looked like an earthquake had struck my parents' yard. In other words, it looked perfectly normal.
"LOOK!" screamed my brother, and he pushed me into the dirt, down onto my hands and knees. From the ground, I could see into the inner sanctum of Captain Bojangles' bachelorette pad. And what I saw there was horrifying. Bojangles' decapitated body lay in a pool of blood. Her body had been ripped open, torn, chewed – I wouldn't be surprised if portions had been sliced off and wrapped in Saran wrap, to make sandwiches later on.
"A fox!" said my brother. "A sly fox snuck into the yard and took our Captain Bojangles away from us!"
Hours later, when our tears of sorrow had dried, we went back into the house and into the dining room. My mother, always the strong one, was busy in the kitchen, preparing our Thanksgiving dinner.
My family sat around the dinner table, resigned to spend the evening together in mourning for our dear, departed friend. After an hour, my mother came out of the kitchen and told us that dinner was ready. We took our plates off the table and lined up to accept our portions of mashed potatoes, green-bean casserole, and meatless stuffing. But what we saw when we entered the kitchen changed our lives forever.
Sitting in the middle of the serving table was a huge, steaming bird. Garlic had been pressed into its flesh, and fragrant herbs had been slipped under its skin to flavor the meat. It was the most beautiful and delicious-looking Thanksgiving turkey I had ever seen.
"What is this?" said my father. "It doesn't smell like tofu."
"It's a turkey," said my mother.
"But!" said my father.
"But nothing," she said. "If a fox can eat Captain Bojangles, we can eat a goddamned turkey."
What my mother had discovered that morning is, though Bojangles was a loving and character-filled animal, and though the pain from the loss of the family's most useful and non-destructive pet would be felt for a long time, poultry is delicious and healthy and a much better source of protein than tofu. For protein was what everyone would need to deal with me when I sobered up and remembered that my wife had left me for a video game.