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a peaceful protest

I was 16, and the thought of being forced to mention God as part of the pledge of allegiance was too hypocritical an act for me to play along with. Each day of high school began with this mundane recitation, as most people just stood with their hand jutting from a hip, the other dangling across their chest as they counted out the seconds until they could sit back down. They leaned against desks, and talked through it about what party and where it would be, if there would be a keg or a bonfire in the woods. I recited the words, omitting the "under God" part as a sort of half-baked protest. I was raised to flaunt my family's ramshackle atheism, as a choice of smug pride. We knew better, was the prevailing logic.

But one day, I could not stand and say any of it. It felt so rote, so hollow, so devoid of choice. There was no law that said I was required to say it. I knew this was my right, a form of free speech. My homeroom teacher was a legendary drinker, a trash-talking re…

faithful chickens

There is something redemptive about knowing who I buy my pork shoulder from, even if I do not know their names. The men offer brutal expressions on stubbly faces, that flash of acknowledgement, the fair price. If E is with me they strike up a conversation, asking her if she likes my cooking, if she will go back to New York soon. Her face turns in when they ask her about America, not understanding she was two when she was there last, that the cities live in her imagination fueled by my anecdotes.

Next, one of the vegetable ladies. She is Tajik, her round face tottering over a round body in a blue smock. She does not oversell to me. If I want a kilo of plums I get a kilo of plums not one and a half with a sad face full of manipulation. Her son is dancing around her, with a small watermelon in his arms. He buzzes in her ears, asking for something. She waves him off, giving me the good cucumbers with the tiny yellow flowers still at their tips.

I stare across the aisle at the Parni c Kuritsei (guys with chickens or chicken buddies) window and there is a sign there, something I cannot make out from the scribbles but obviously they are closed. I have used them for years, even though the quality has not been the best for some time now. I walk around the corner, feeling like I am cheating on them but we need a small roaster for tonight. The curtain is pulled aside and I recognize the blonde woman in her ripped jeans. She used to be at Parni c Kuritsei  but I assumed she had gone on vacation or moved back to her homeland. She makes a big face, showing me that I am easily remembered. I ask why she is not around the corner and she waves her hand around, saying now she is here, that around the corner their meat is terrible. I lean forward, whispering dramatically, "You know, it really is not good." I explain I was faithful to her, even when she was not there and she cracks a smile, a rare thing in Moscow.

She chatters away, and I ask her to speak slowly, guessing at half of what she says grasping at things out of context to give answers. I try to explain what has happened in the last two years, she nods, wrapping the small chicken in one bag and then a second one, showing me the price with the numbers on her calculator instead of making me interpret the amount. I can be bad with spoken Russian numbers over forty.

I sling the bag across my shoulder, heavy. It is heavy, thumping against me in the afternoon sun.
At least I have this - I tell myself. When I go to buy a chicken they know who I am.

I try to tell them stories, to make them laugh a little. Maybe they speak Russian as terribly as I do. maybe they nod and fail to understand what the hell I am talking about. I don't really know. Maybe it is all an act, but the chicken is really good.


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