The Afterlife Road by Brice Austin.
Publication Date: 6/15/2012
A high school girl nearly drowns during a bicycle “tour for the cure” for breast cancer. A father checks his mentally ill son into the emergency room. A lawyer reexamines his past and present in light of a horrific car crash that killed three high school classmates. These long and short stories all focus upon events which transcend the characters’ day-to-day existences, events which move them towards new states of understanding or being, towards new lives which will emerge to take the place of the old.
The Afterlife Road
Brice Austin was born in Nashville, Tennessee and holds an undergraduate degree in English Literature and Portuguese from Vanderbilt University. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing M.A. program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he won a Henfield/Transatlantic Review award for fiction. He has since published short stories in a number of literary quarterlies, among them The New Orleans Review, Owen Wister Review, Dickinson Review, and High Plains Literary Review. He lives in Broomfield, Colorado with his wife and three children.
His new novel, Must, was recently named one of 5 finalists for the Jackson Daughtery Literary Award. Details here>>
The Afterlife Road is available from Follett Library Services, YBP, Coutts, Brodart, Baker & Taylor, and Ingram Book Distributors.
The NOOK version of The Afterlife Road is availabe from Barnes & Noble>>
Remember that you’re not just selling chicken; you’re selling your story. That’s what Daddy always used to tell us around the dinner table on Sun- days, while we were eating his product. And looking back now maybe that’s why I never was too successful at the family business; I never was all that sure what my own story was. He never had any doubt about his, and could tell it to you in just a few words: how he rose from nothing, a fatherless boy in a shack, to become the King of American Chicken. That’s the short version, anyway, the one that’s been trimmed and dressed and set out on a chilled shelf for sale. There’s a longer one that’s a bit more complicated and less widely known, though some variation of it can be recited by heart by anybody who has ever belonged to the inner circle at Tasty Bird Farms. I like to call mine:
Miss Mimi’s Legacy
Jim Dawson was born in Bootlegger’s Hollow in East Tennes- see, and raised by a family that made its living off moonshine. That might seem like a liability on the face of it, but just the opposite is true: there’s nothing more marketable to the American public than a respectable man who got his start doing something roguishly illegal. It doesn’t hurt much either that his daddy got shot during a business transaction; that just adds the little bit of tragedy that’s as necessary to a great man’s story as the first frost is to a ripe persimmon. The way he always told it he had no choice then but to step up and be a man; he had a mother and sister and brother who were all depending on him. That moment when he grew up is for- ever etched in his memory, but what’s interesting is it wasn’t the moment you might think it should be. It wasn’t the sheriff’s car pulling up in front of the shack to tell him that his daddy was found dead in the hollow, and it wasn’t his daddy being lowered into the ground. It was him having to kill his favorite chicken, Miss Mimi, so his family would have something to eat for what otherwise would have been a hungry Thanksgiving.
What he never told anybody but did tell me once when he’d had way too much to drink was how he chased Miss Mimi three times around the shack, crying every step of the way; how her white feathers flew up in a cloud when he caught her; how she cried out in terror like it was somebody else who had a hold of her instead of her trusty Jim; how he could barely see as he stretched out her neck and cut it in two with an axe; how blood spurted all over his face and hands; how when he let go her body still tried to make a run for it while her eyes on the block looked up at him like they were looking at Judas, not with hate but with a sad love that said she understood and forgave him. That part of the story never was meant for general consumption, though; what he usually told people instead was that it was then he found both his balls and his calling; it was then he founded the empire that would later be called Tasty Bird.
It wasn’t anything like an empire at first; it wasn’t much more than a dream. He got his start in the late 1930s, driving a few live chick- ens to local markets in his daddy’s Ford truck, the same truck his family had used to run moonshine. I remember that truck myself because it was still around fifteen years later, sitting in the side yard at our house like a monument, the open cab black and boxy, the oak stake bed in the back looking like a cage. My sister Sam and I used to climb all over that truck, even though Momma kept chasing us off, kept warning us that it was a nest for snakes. Sometimes we pretended it was the German prison camp where Daddy spent a few months during the war, other times that we were along for the ride on one of his by-then-legendary chicken runs, the bed full of live birds that were squawking and flapping all the way to Kingsport or Johnson City or Knoxville, what would later come to be called the Tri-Cities.
At the start that’s as far as he could get, the Tri-Cities, given that the roads were so bad and a certain number of birds liked to die along the way, but it didn’t take him long to devise a system for watering them en route, using a rubber hose that dripped a little every time he went over a bump, which according to him was about every eight or ten feet. That brought places like Winston-Salem and Chattanooga into range, and once he’d improved his design a little Nashville, and even Atlanta. By then his brother Ed and sister Myrtle had joined him in the business, and they’d made enough money to move Grandma out of the shack in Bootlegger’s Hollow into the house where she lived until she died, in Corinth. Myrtle raised some of the chickens herself but bought most of them from farm- ers around the region, while Jim and Ed split the country in two with their deliveries: Jim took what he called the Mason side, north of the Tennessee line, while Ed took Dixie. I still remember Daddy telling me how one time he ran into some thieving off-duty police officers on the Cincinnati side of the Ohio River, how they tried to confiscate his chick- ens by reciting some made-up poultry law, how he chased them off with a pistol he kept in the glove compartment. And I guess it was stories like that one that had me, growing up, thinking of him as some kind of out- law-hero, like Clyde Barrow or Robin Hood. If I’d have been born back then maybe I would have followed in his footsteps the way he always wanted, because that part of the business sounded a lot like fun, but I didn’t come along until a good while later.
His story goes on like that for a while: he kept buying and moving more and more chickens, every few years figuring out a better way to feed or water or deliver them. It wasn’t long before he and Ed weren’t doing the driving anymore; they hired other folks to do that. Instead they spent their time improving production, lining up growers and feed dealers and financing, anything they had to do just to keep hens moving along the line. The first big change came when they decided to start New York dressing their birds before they shipped them out; from then on the chickens were slaughtered and de-feathered before they ever left East Tennessee, packed in ice with their feet still attached because that was how butchers liked their customers to see them. That opened up markets as far away as Philadelphia, but if you ask me it took some of the charm out of the business. After that, the story isn’t about a boy driving truck- loads of live chickens across country to feed his poor family, talking to the birds sometimes just to calm them down throughout the long night; after that, the story turns a bit grisly, full of ice trucks and dead, naked bodies. Yes, I do know the chickens died either way, but I can’t help thinking that it was along about here that the business lost its innocence.