Chicken Christl

By Martin Amanshauser

Translation Maria Fink

1 The Scent of Fresh Bread

Before I was kidnapped by a bunch of lunatics who wanted to make me their god, I went through a lengthy crisis. I knew Xenia was going to leave me, but I didn’t know when or how. I found the air around me too thin. Everyone was breathing in and out as if nothing was wrong –  only around me was there a lack of oxygen.

            Xenia was the first person to treat me like a normal guy. She didn’t care if I was the grandson of the President or of the Emperor of China. It didn’t make any difference to her whether I had five fingers or six. Though I would have certainly preferred to be the Emperor’s grandson or have five fingers like everyone else.

            My sixth fingers – I was born with twelve in total, which meant I was two fingers ahead of my fellow man – looked just like the other ones. I didn’t have a deformity like a hare lip, or a club foot. The sixth fingers were perfectly formed and fully functional. Nonetheless, everyone counted my twelve clean nails. People knew about my anomaly from pictures in the tabloids. I had inherited it from my grandfather, Major Koegl, and he had, after all, been President of the United States.

            Xenia’s beautiful five-fingered hands fit perfectly into mine. Sometimes I counted her fingers before falling asleep. The result, the basis of the decimal system, calmed me down.

            “If you want to stay with me, we have to move to another city,” she had demanded four years ago. She knew I would have moved to a different continent for her.

            “What’s wrong with Wilmington?”

            “This place is a dump. It doesn’t even have a good art house cinema.”

            It suddenly seemed ridiculous that I’d spent half my life in Wilmington, Delaware, a metropolis of 70,000 people at the southwestern tip of greater Philadelphia, in the second-smallest U.S. state.

 

We decided on Tacoma. It was on the other side of the continent, on the west coast, close to Seattle, and it had ten playhouses and twenty movie theaters. I hated both plays and movies, but it was good to know there were thirty different venues to choose from. We moved into the top floor of a building with a bakery. Early each morning, the scent of fresh bread filled the air.

            Our front window faced Mount Rainier. In the winter, it was covered in clouds. The last time this stratovolcano was active was two thousand years ago. Mount Rainier was named after a European officer who never set foot in the country. Everyone called it Mount Tacoma.

            Frequently, hang gliders drifted above the foothills of the Cascades. From where we were, they looked like flies circling the peak in slow motion. I would count the raindrops as they fell on the window while Xenia played her boring ambient music CDs. I always gave up at one hundred and twenty raindrops. A hundred and twenty raindrops were my personal limit. As soon as that limit was exceeded it meant that it was raining in Tacoma.

 

2 I Wish I Had my Problems

Sometimes I stare at my hands. They’ve never killed. They are immaculate. Nevertheless, they make me different from everyone else out there.

            The problem starts after my thumb and index finger: What are you supposed to call the next one, the third finger counting from the inside? Definitely not the middle finger, because it’s not in the middle. The ring finger would be next. You could just as easily call this one the middle finger. I don’t wear a ring. First of all, I don’t want to draw attention to my anomaly. Secondly, I’ve never understood why people decorate themselves with metal objects anyway. Next up would be the pinky. Mine is the size of a middle finger. My actual smallest finger is located next to it, the outermost finger, so to speak.

            I’m puzzled by the perfection of my twelve fingers. There are good reasons for each one of them. It’s utterly impossible to detect which of them is the intruder. The medical term is polydactylism; in my specific case, it’s called hexadactylism – a congenital anomaly from the standard pentadactylism.

            My parents and doctors didn’t consider amputation an option. Major Koegl made it all the way to being president with twelve fingers, so there was no need for his grandson to reject this special feature.

            “There’s no reason for unnecessary bloodshed, young man,” Dr. Petrosian told me on my fourteenth birthday. “You should be honored to take after a grandfather like yours.”

            Whoever it was I was taking after, Major Koegl was the strangest member of this misfit-ridden family. Despite our shared hexadactylism, he and I rarely spoke to each other. He generally didn’t listen when people talked to him, and he never made an effort to establish a relationship with me. At least his wife Christl held me on her lap and sang songs to me. She smelled like apple blossoms. The others said she was a nonsense-spouting nut, but I thought she was the only reasonable person around me.

            To this day, even though I have no evidence, I think it’s likely Christl was murdered. Whenever I have doubts about how she died, I write letters to her. They are addressed to a woman who married a man with twelve fingers, and they have one advantage: They don’t need to be mailed. The recipient is dead.

             “When you grow up, you’ll be a great president,” my parents would say.

            “I wish I had your problems,” my old girlfriends would say anytime I cursed my hexadactylism. “I wish I had your grandpa, too.”

            At the age of nine, I stuck my right hand into the meat grinder in the cafeteria at the Novgor Institute, but someone saved it. I was sent to a farm in Delaware. The psychologist they made me see explained that a bit of fresh air would cure my anxiety. A rail line crossed the farmland. I told the psychologist that I dreamed about putting my hands on the rails. I wanted the train to cut off two fingers, and I called my plan “The Koegl Sacrifice.” I was sent back to Wilmington. 

 

Xenia was the first person to understand my sadness. She called me her “little monster” and invented names for each of my twelve fingers. At night in bed, as we watched clouds and colorful hang gliders, she gave me her hands to play with. I admired their perfection.

            “Some people don’t get enough, you got too much,” she said comfortingly.

            “I wish I had my problems,” I replied, then we laughed, and I felt like crying.

            At the Seattle University library, Xenia and I dug up everything about the most famous monsters of literary history. Cyclops, Quasimodo, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. I read medical treatises about primary structural effects and knew more malformations than names of U.S. states.

            I busied myself with the duodecimal system in the reading room. Some radicals were suggesting a worldwide switch to the power of twelve. It was much easier to calculate with the number twelve because it was divisible by multiple numbers. Did my problem have to do with numbers? I was overcome by a strong dislike for the number six and its multiples. As long as five fingers were the norm, we’d never make any progress towards the duodecimal system.

            I was infuriated by my dexterity when leafing through the books. My fingers worked with the swiftness of a cripple, while anyone with a library card was entitled to stare at them. Just my luck. Aside from faces, hands are the only part of the human body that are always exposed indoors.

 

3 Marilyn Monroe’s Legendary Six Toes

When I wasn’t counting raindrops, I sat in front of InDesign and Photoshop creating imaginary marketing campaigns for Hewlett Packard or Häagen Dazs. But I was just messing around.

            “You should try freelancing,” Xenia suggested. “As long as you talk about your work seriously, you can mess around as much as you want.”

            Before my thirtieth birthday, my life was in chaos. I could have lived on my grandfather’s savings for decades, but I wanted to see if I could be like everyone else. I had a job interview with Public Crazy Wardrobe and got my first contract.

            My name, my face, and my fingers attracted attention. Some coworkers would stare at my hands to see if the presidential grandson was using all twelve fingers to type. I devised a campaign for a hazelnut yogurt. I developed a logo for a coal transportation business. Even though we basically agreed, I argued with a young coworker about the holy war between those who used QuarkXPress and partisans of InDesign.

            It was in Tacoma that I considered surgery for the first time. It would be difficult, however, to find a doctor who understood and had compassion for my weak heart. For sensitive patients, getting the right dosage for the anesthetic was a tightrope walk. I was afraid the anesthesiologist would either let me suffocate during intubation or apply insufficient anesthesia.

            Xenia thought what she called my “slightly hysterical disposition” was an ideal protection against surgeons seeking to make a name for themselves by treating the presidential grandson. Like all reckless people, she lacked all empathy for heart phobias. She laughed when I brought up my irregular heartbeat. Nonetheless, with the help of our general practitioner Dr. Tabor, she got me an appointment at the university hospital in Seattle.

            Dr. Oberkofler of the department of plastic surgery, a wiry man with an unusually high-pitched voice, knew immediately which finger was the superfluous one.

            “We’ll amputate the sixth ray of each surplus formation,” Dr. Oberkofler suggested. “After a week, you’ll leave the clinic with ten fingers.”

            The wound would heal fast, but two “convex bumps” would remain visible on the outside of my hands.

            “Your hexadactylism will still be noticeable,” Dr. Oberkofler pointed out as he took a sip of his latté, “but hardly anyone will ever detect it.”

            I wasn’t so sure. Certainly, the best-known plastic surgeon in Seattle only wanted to take a stab at Major Koegl’s grandson to impress the hand surgeons on the east coast. On top of that, nobody could tell me if I’d be able to cope with ten fingers.

            Previously, Xenia had been skeptical about the idea of surgery. She said I should decide for myself whether I wanted to embrace my ancestry, or deny it. The nearer the moment of our break-up drew, the more pragmatic her arguments became.

            “If you aren’t comfortable in your own skin, have the operation.”

            That sounded nothing like the days when we compiled examples of successful hexadactylic forms of existence – Marilyn Monroe’s legendary six toes and the polydactylic breed of Maine Coon cats. We had long stopped speculating about autosomal dominant inheritance with variable expression, which is to say, about the reason why Major Koegl had passed on his twelve fingers to me.

            We had led the life of many couples before they have children and accidentally get entangled in a different life. I would have taken the risk, but when Xenia was fourteen, she had had chronic tubal inflammation.

            “The oviduct, that’s what you call the tube, you know, the connection between ovary and cervix, got clogged.” That’s how she explained it. “Ever since then I don’t have a place where the egg and sperm can meet.”

            I sometimes wondered if she really needed to tell this story to everyone.

            My only friend in Tacoma was Lagonikakis, my karate coach. He ran a Greek diner at the edge of town. His specialty was Japanese philosophy, maybe because he made cheeseburgers. He liked the thought of training a karateka with twelve fingers. I appreciated Lagonikakis’ lack of interest in my family. We had discussions about karate and the interpretation of the seven dojo oaths, and I helped him design the new menus for Lagonikakis’ Diner.

            I never went out with coworkers. I despised those art directors in their Helmut Lang suits. My life consisted of Public Crazy Wardrobe, karate and Xenia, who, unlike me, met new people.

            “You were awfully quiet tonight,” Xenia said one evening after her so-called friends had come over.

            Donna, Jane, and Joan, who all worked in the same film production company as her, drooled over guys in suits just like the ones my art directors wore.

            “Conversations like that bore me.”

            “Conversations are only as boring as the people having them. Why don’t you come up with something else to talk about?”

            According to Xenia, in public I acted more like a dictator’s grandson than a democratic president’s. She and her friends started meeting at a Cantonese restaurant. One night I had a dream that she wasn’t spending her evenings with Donna, Jane, and Joan, but with one of the art directors at Public Crazy Wardrobe. When I walked into the restaurant in my dream, they were kissing each other under the table.

            Xenia was going to leave me: at first, it was just an idea. I asked her about it. She denied it. A muscle on her cheek twitched. Xenia was as good as gone. She was simply pondering how she was going to do it.  

 

4 Money is Like an Algae Outbreak

“The name my father gave me, by itself, was supposed to lead to great things,” Major Koegl, my grandfather, told his biographer Mr. Heckenwallner. “To be honest, I’m relieved he didn’t name me ‘Professor’.”

            Major Koegl was born in 1900 in Philadelphia into a second-generation Austrian immigrant family, who thought his twelve fingers were a sign. When I was born sixty-seven years later, my family had already gotten used to this kind of deformity.

            Unlike my grandfather, I was never interested in my roots. Unlike Major Koegl, I would have never gone back to Europe as a young man to support my ancestors.

            At the beginning of the 1920s, Major married Christine Nittnaus, the youngest daughter of a big farmer in Podersdorf, a small town in Burgenland, Austria’s poorest province.

            “The open-top Stoewer Gigant convertible glided across the promenade,” a witness reported to Heckenwallner the Biographer at Saint Urban restaurant, “and everybody thought an American film star was in town. But it was just young Koegl.”

            My hands get in my way a lot. Yet whatever my grandfather’s hands touched turned to gold. In Podersdorf, Major Koegl started the biggest broiler hatchery in all of Burgenland. He got the nickname “the Yankee,” and they never called Christine Koegl (neé Nittnaus) anything but “Chicken Christl.”

            In 1934, the Yankee and Chicken Christl sold the hatchery and started their first chicken farm in Wilmington. Soon they owned twenty-four farms in two states. The Democratic Party of Delaware beat the Pennsylvania Democrats to the punch, and Major Koegl gladly joined their party.  

            “I now knew the difference between the continents as well as those between the individual states,” he explained to his biographer. “Money multiplies everywhere in a similar way. Money is like an algae outbreak: If you don’t stop its growth, it’ll cover everything!”

            At Saint Urban restaurant in Podersdorf, people continued talking about Chicken Christl’s beauty and her skills in avoiding the local bachelors. Later, more and more men would come forward claiming they’d had affairs with my grandmother.

            When under tragic circumstances Christl Koegl became First Lady at the beginning of the 1970s, the number of her purported lovers had climbed into the hundreds.

 

In 1943, my mother Margarete was born in Philadelphia. My grandparents made sure that she came into contact with chickens as little as possible. They themselves had ceased all physical contact with the animals and handed over the day-to-day business to their employees.

            “I love chickens,” Major Koegl told Heckenwallner the Biographer. “We process them, we make money off them. They give us so much. In return, we can offer nothing but our unconditional admiration.”

            My grandfather was fond of sweeping gestures. Whenever he picked me up in the bathroom, he would smile at himself in the mirror.

            “One can prove entrepreneurially,” he explained to his biographer, “that with a good system in place, maximum profit equals maximum chicken happiness.”

            Heckenwallner’s biography contains a lot more information about the technical and philosophical details of chicken breeding than the president’s hexadactylism. His fingers were just a folk tale; they weren’t part of his image.

            “Hard work, from dawn to dusk,” Koegl told Heckenwallner. “What others couldn’t grab with ten fingers, I sure could with twelve.”

            After 1945, Major Koegl became assistant chairman of the Burgenland-Society. At the end of the 50s, he was the Wilmington Democrats’ second man. He didn’t neglect his business, but he did gradually begin to delegate. In 1959, he met a scientist, Teddy Novgor, thirty-two years his junior, at the dog show in Selbyville, a small city at the southern end of Delaware.

            “It was just like with Watson and Crick before their discovery of the double helix,” Major Koegl told his biographer, to show that he was well-versed in the history of science. “Teddy and I went to the Selbyville Piano Bar, ordered two ciders and decided to get a project going.”

            In 1961, Margarete finished school and Major Koegl, with the help of his advisor Novgor, became Vice Governor of Delaware. In 1962, Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The same year, a lifelong dream came true for university employee Teddy Novgor: He opened the Novgor Institute in Wilmington.

            Without their encounter, the history of this country, science, and chicken farms would have taken a different path, and, as it happens, so would have my story. I’ve always considered the Selbyville dog show an unnecessary event.

From Chicken Christl.  Deuticke Verlag, Vienna, 2004.