“Why on the ceiling?” I yelled at my grandfather over the sound of the drill. I had both hands on the ladder, keeping it steady. At my feet, a small boom box, circa 1998 with CD player and tapedeck. Powder blue.
“It used to calm the chickens,” he said. “Hand me that thing, will ya?”
“I don’t get it.” I lifted the boom box up to him.
“Well,” he said, “when my daddy had a chicken farm, we used to play music for the chickens to calm them down when there were people in there—feeding or cleaning.”
I didn’t ask him any more questions as he continued to work. He’d been kind enough to let me stay with him since my parents and I weren’t getting along. He hadn’t blinked an eye when I basically moved my entire bedroom into his attic, which, as it happens, had been my father’s childhood bedroom. He retreated down the ladder, stepping back and admiring his handiwork. “Well, whaddya think?”
The boom box was suspended on four hooks, two close together under the handle and two further apart attached to the handle by cables so that they had the visual effect of tearing the boombox apart. The set-up looked sturdy and a little unreal.
I squinted at it. “Why the ceiling?”
“Well, honey,” Grandpa said, brushing his dusty hands on his pants, “chickens ain’t too clean sometimes. They also can’t fly.” He chuckled to himself. “Couldn’t wreck a radio on a ceiling.”
We stared at the suspended boom box with our arms crossed as if we were in a museum. “But I’m not a chicken, Grandpa. And I’m twenty.” Next thing you know the old man would be bringing a crib up here.
He looked at me and winked. “I know that. I just thought you might want a radio in here.” He reached into his back pocket and handed me the remote, then snapped the ladder shut. “You wanna help me carry this downstairs?”
That night, I spread a sheet out on the twin mattress and switched off the light. It was only ten and Grandpa was already asleep. One stipulation of my stay was that I wasn’t to go out on weeknights. I lay on my back and stared up at the boom box. It stared down at me, two speakers for eyes, gaping tape deck mouth. I reached over and felt my iPod on the floor and the hard plastic of the stereo’s remote next to it.
I pressed power and Louie Armstrong’s deep voice sang out The odds were a hundred to one against me. I tapped down the volume but the sound still filled every corner with sound. He’d set it to the same music he’d listened to as a boy, helping his dad on the farm. I closed my eyes, imagining the rows of chicken cages, the volume lowering from squawks to gentle clucks as Ella Fitzgerald’s voice came on, a duet, asking who’s got the last laugh now?
Kristin Fitzsimmons lives in Minneapolis, where she is a recent graduate of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.