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My First (Nonmechanical) Chicken

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Illustration by Jack Unruh  

I love summer, but summer doesn’t always love me. Surpassing 80 degrees sets off an evolutionary signal: Put away the gray ennui and the winter meds, all those anxious benzodiazepines, and get out the Penguin shirts and those little socks that make me feel like a 12-year-old.

Today I have laundered my summer shirts, tracing my fingers against their jaunty Penguin insignias. In an hour, I will venture into the thickness of the humidity, and I will let the weather hold me tight. New York summer is a love affair between a person and a weather pattern; like all love affairs, it ends in heartbreak. But how do you live without it?

I’ve written three books. The last two were set almost entirely in the summer, and the first one begins and ends in the hottest season. Why do I write about summer all year round? Because I was born in the summer. Because Leningrad’s sub-Arctic White Nights madness was the first form of madness I had ever encountered. Because as a typically asthmatic Russian boy, summertime was the only time I was allowed to romp through the fields and streams of nearby Latvia as a fully fledged alive person. Because my first crushes were formed in the summer, those tawny peach-fuzz-coated legs, those utilitarian, slightly masculine T-shirts on a new teenage frame. Because of rooftops. Because I climbed some kind of Fifth Avenue chimney—fear of heights and my own hairy legs, be damned—just to save face before some pretty high-school girls. Because when I walk down a summery Brooklyn street everyone is visible and highly human, and in Manhattan they are slower than usual, those stressed-out faces crowned with milky gelato smiles. Because of upstate, that great Subaru exodus up the Hudson, the threat of apple orchards and migrating burrito trucks, the Bard-ness of it all.

But there is the other summer. The summer that bites back. Or pecks back. As that asthmatic Russian boy bouncing through the season at a farm in Latvia, I ran into a chicken coop with my arms outstretched. You see, I collected mechanical-chicken toys as a child (years of analysis right there), and I believed the chicken to be a brave, colorful animal. I bent down to hug my first chicken. And the Latvian chicken shook its wattle, took one step forward, and pecked me. Out of political considerations, perhaps. But in any case, there was pain and betrayal and howling and tears. For what? I wanted to know—of the chicken, of the deceptively friendly summer, of God. Why would you hurt me like this, Comrade Poultry?

Summer is a Latvian chicken. We make foolish choices. We think we’re young again. We run with outstretched arms toward an object of love and it pecks us and pecks us until we’re standing there snot-nosed and teary in the middle of Astor Place and the sun sets fire to our Penguin shirts and all that is left to do is go to our air-conditioned homes and ponder the cruelty of our finest season. Autumn, on the other hand, is just fine.


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