By Craig Reinbold
It was already mostly bone when he found it, the rooster, white ends picked clean, marrow exposed, sucked dry, bone still stuck here and there with pieces of feather, little strings of meat. The head was untouched, preserved, pristine, except for the eyes, which had been eaten.
Chickens will eat their own, once it’s dead, if it’s left, if it’s not cleaned, not disposed of. It had been there for days. He only found it then because she had driven off that morning and in the new quiet he had heard them—and remembered it had been a week since they’d been fed.
That was the morning. Now it’s night, a Friday in August. The air is warm, the sky is clear, and at this time, this far out from the city, there is nothing to do. He sits at the edge of the patio behind their house, a glass with more whisky than coke on the concrete beneath his hand. His feet kick at the dirt that will still someday—he hopes—be grass. He listens for something, but there is nothing to listen for and he knows that — this is what he wanted. To live next to nothing, and in doing so to have everything. That was the idea, his idea. The chickens had been hers.
He can barely hear them now, all their squawking, though there are a dozen of them twenty feet from the house, cooped up.
He thinks of sleeping, but doesn’t want to move. Stars, stars, trees, and darkness, and nothing in the world to do. He wonders when she will come home.
It was being offered cheap. The owners were an old retired couple. One had died, the other was put in a home. They had lived there less than a year. The house was almost new, but none of their family wanted to live that far out, better to sell it quick, get what they could for it.
The mailbox was one of those big specialty mailboxes, painted with a muscular bass splashing out of green water, an oversized hook caught in its lip.
The driveway was unpaved and lined on either side by a row of small pines. They parked the car, stepped out onto the gravel. Some small deciduous trees, it was hard to tell what kind exactly, were scattered around the yard.
“Someday these trees are going to be big.”
“Where’s the grass, George?”
“He said the yard needed some work.”
She surveyed their potential land. “Is the house at least finished?”
“He said it’s in perfect shape.” They looked towards the single-story saltbox house at the bottom of the driveway, light-blue, with a black shingled rooftop. “The yard’s why we can get it so cheap.”
He ran his hand along a branch of pine needles. “I think it has a lot of potential.” He looked around the yard once more. “There should be a key under a rock by the doorstep.”
“Under a rock?”
“That’s what he said. Probably not much crime in the neighborhood.”
“There’s not much neighborhood in the neighborhood,” she said.
He opens his eyes at exactly 7:45 to the sunlight breaching the turtle green curtains they’d hung from the window. For a second he thinks about going into work, but it is Saturday. The store is closed. He pulls the blanket over his head, cocoons himself there, until the heat finally makes his nest unbearable. Drops his feet onto the hardwood floor just before 8:30, and before he can ask himself what to do next he starts shaving, and draws water for a bath. He looks around for her bath salts, or the bubble bath he’s seen lying around in its pink bottle. When the tub is full he steps in, slowly, letting the skin on his legs settle in to the sensation of needles.
He remembers reading a story of a woman who spent days in a bathtub, nothing else to do. A bathtub with rose petals. He wonders if rose petals here, now, would change anything.
The hairs on his ankles, underwater, glide back and forth when he moves his feet—the hot water, the sensation of needles.
The front door was painted gray, contrasting the light blue siding. It opened into an anteroom, the walls a soft off-white, red stenciling by the ceiling. A wooden bench ran the length of one wall; a closet and a wooden coat rack were built into another.
“Not too bad.”
“The stenciling is a bit much,” she said.
They went from room to room. There were still some paintings and photos on the walls. Most of the furniture was still there, too, though a few big pieces had obviously been moved, had left sharp dimples in the carpet.
“I feel like we should take our shoes off.”
She nodded, walked into the dining room. “It’s like a museum. Their table is still here.” Covered with white linen. Also a China cabinet, and a small buffet. She brushed a wrinkle out of the tablecloth.
“The realtor said that whatever’s here the family didn’t want. We can take it or leave it. If we don’t want anything he said he’d pay for the movers.”
There were three bedrooms. One of them had an old looking wooden-framed bed, and two matching dressers. The other rooms were empty.
He stood in one of the doorways. “We could fit fifteen kids in here, ten easy.”
She walked past him, down the hall towards the kitchen.
It wasn’t big, or small. A door off to the side led to a laundry room. From there, another, heavier door led to the garage. A big mahogany table took up a quarter of the space, four sturdy, matching chairs set around it. He sat on one, eyed the ‘Peanuts’ magnet left on the door of the refrigerator.
“It’s not too bad,” she said, walked to the sink and looked out the rectangle window into the backyard. She turned the faucet on. Clear water shot out. She turned it off. “Got to do something about that yard, though.”
“A lot of people use sod these days.”
She leaned over the sink. “Looks like there’s a patio.”
“We can work with that.” He stood up to look.
“And a giant bird cage.”
He pressed his face to the window next to hers.
Her pink razor is still on the edge of the tub, by his feet. She took nothing with her. That thought gives him some comfort. He’s used a razor like that one before, on her, shaving her legs for her back when they would sit in the tub together, crowded but warm, his hands roaming her soapy legs. After the first time, they had made love, wet, on the tile floor.
He pulls the plug, feels the water suck against his skin until it’s gone and he is left in an empty bathtub, still wet, getting cold.
They left the house through the garage, stepping past old shovels, an axe worn smooth, a hoe, a push-mower missing a wheel, some outdoor furniture, a table, some white chairs.
They walked behind the house. Sure enough, past the patio was a cage, wide planks around the bottom and top, wire mesh strung between. Two by fours stood for pillars. The roof was plywood with a layer of shingling.
Neither of them had been inside a chicken coop. The ground was covered with straw, discolored and damp. The smell of mildew and feathers. He pulled his head out into fresh air. “I guess they took the chickens with them.”
He’s out back when he hears the phone, reaches it on the fourth ring.
“Yeah.” Her voice is steady, clear coming through the receiver.
“Where are you?”
“In town. Where I said I’d be.”
“I called Karen’s. You weren’t there.”
She exhales into the phone. “I come and go as I please, George.”
“Of course. I didn’t mean…”
“Why did you call anyway?”
“I wanted to talk. You didn’t answer your cell phone.”
“What did you want to talk about?”
“You know what I wanted to talk about.”
“No George, I don’t.” A pause.
“I wanted to know if you’d done it yet.” He thinks he can hear his heart beat in the quiet, the soft static of the phone line.
“It’s not too late. We can still …”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“I don’t want you to do it.”
“It’s not up to you, George.”
He listens to the small, distant, breathy sounds she makes. “What did you call me for?” Tries to remember feeling that breath, warm, on his neck, his face.
“I don’t know. I’ll call back later.” The line clicks, goes to a hum.
He goes to the fridge, takes three beers out of a six-pack. Drinks the first quick, takes the other two outside. Drinks the second feeding the chickens. Has the third when he finishes.
He passes the day this way, waiting, for the sun to go down, for the digits on the stove to tell him it is okay to go to sleep. He waits for his wife to come home, to find out if he is still going to be a father.
They walked around the coop, kicking up dust from the uncovered dirt. He stepped on a golf ball, picked it up, threw it towards the trees at the back of the property. It made it about a fifth of the way.
She stuck her fingers in the wire mesh and rattled the cage. “Seems solid.”
They sat on the patio. The dirt was littered with rocks, some big enough to see from fifty yards away. There was another door leading from the laundry room to the patio, the doorframe was the same gray as the doorframe in the front.
She picked up a handful of dirt, let it fall, wiped the dust on her pants. “It’s going to be some work. But I think we should do it.”
He put his arm around her. “Nothing we can’t handle.”
“And I want to get some chickens.”
“Just a few. I figure the hard part’s already over.” She kissed him, just above his collar.
“We’ve already got the coop.”
She comes home while he’s throwing corn to the chickens. The sun is getting high—in another hour the air will be hot.
With a jerk of his wrist he throws a handful against the back wall of the coop. The kernels fall to the floor, ring like hailstones against the wood. He drops a handful by his feet and the chickens turn, push their way towards him. He throws another handful to the back, waits for them to run that way, then drops another handful by his feet. They run back. It’s a game he likes to play.
That’s when he hears the engine of a car in the driveway.
He opens the back door to the laundry room just as she opens the door from the garage. He follows her into the kitchen.
She draws a glass of water from the sink. He sits at the table, stretches his legs across the linoleum. She finishes the water, faces him.
“I’ve made a decision, George.”
He sits up. “Please do tell.”
She walks towards the table, puts her hands on the back of a chair. “I’m too young to start a family.”
“We are a family, Sarah — the two of us.”
“You know what I’m saying. I’m too young for kids.” She looks at him. “I don’t even know if
I want them. At least not right now.”
“And you decided this when exactly?” He rubs his eyes, sets his palms on the tabletop.
“Just now. Yesterday. After I talked to you.”
“Yesterday?” He spits out that word, yesterday.
“I was never sure.”
She walks to the sink, fills another glass of water. “I’m not ready for this. Maybe I thought I was, but I’m not.”
“And what about us?”
She drinks half the glass, wipes the water away from her lips with her sleeve. “Some time apart.”
He nods. “You decided this yesterday, too?”
“I’ve been thinking about it for awhile.”
He doesn’t say anything to that.
“It’s for the best, George.”
“For your best?”
“Our best, George.” She dumps the rest of the water in the sink.
He sits forward like he might stand up, but he doesn’t. “You could still have the baby. Give it to me. I won’t ask for anything else. Just give it to me.”
She faces the window over the sink. “It’s not that simple. You know that.”
He presses the palm of his hand to his forehead, squeezes his temples until it hurts. “Why are you doing this to me, Sarah?”
“This isn’t about you, George.”
“You don’t have to raise your voice to me.”
“Well, you … don’t … seem … to hear me.”
“Well, what if I never get another chance, Sarah? What if this is it for me?”
“There’ll be plenty of chances for you, George. If I’m worried about anyone, it’s me. But this is what I need to do now. I know that for sure.”
She faces him. “I’m not doing this to hurt you, George. I need you to recognize that.”
“But you are, Sarah!” His fist comes down hard on the mahogany. The movement catches them both by surprise; she jumps; his eyes widen at the sudden pain in his hand. He takes a breath, lets it out. “Have the baby, Sarah. Have it, leave it with me, and go do whatever you want. Please.”
She stands up straight, closes her eyes, opens them, looks at the clock above the stove. “I have to go. I told Karen to pick me up at 12:30.”
“You’ve got it all planned out, don’t you.”
She drags her eyes over to him. “Just leave it alone, George.”
“And that’s it? That’s everything. You leave, and I sit here.”
“You can do whatever you want, George. Just like me.” She looks around the kitchen. “I’ll be back for everything later. I don’t want to deal with it now.” She takes a step towards the door, stops, turns around. “I want you to know something.”
“What?” Doesn’t look up from the table.
She runs a hand along doorframe. “Nevermind. Goodbye, George.” She walks out. The door closes and she’s gone.
Suddenly he’s thirsty. He stands, moves towards the sink but finds himself opening the door to the garage, walking past the shovels, old, rusted, discarded, past the crippled lawnmower. His hand falls, unthinkingly, on the hoe, its wood handle smooth, its head sharp and angled.
She stops, turns halfway around, freezes.
He feels the weight of the hoe in his hand, fingers curled around the wood, the oil from his skin and the pressure of his fist working the handle imperceptibly smoother.
A hot breeze sweeps across the driveway blowing a cloud of dust onto them. A fine brown powder settles on her hair, is absorbed into the drops of sweat rolling down his face.
The gravel scrapes under his feet as his weight shifts.
Her breath sticks in her lungs: the dust, the heat, the reflection of sunlight in the dull shine of metal. She turns her back to him, raising one foot, setting it down, raising the next, slowly, delicately. Gulps a breath. Another breath. Another step.
He watches her, the hoe in his hand. He watches her quicken her pace until, finally, she reaches the road. He watches a black Sedan meet her. He watches the door open, close, watches her disappear. A second later the car is gone, then the sound of the car.
The wind blows against his face, its heat drying the dust to his skin. He drops the hoe. The blade strikes the ground with a tinny sound, and bits of gravel scatter.
He walks back into the house, into the kitchen, thinks about pouring a glass of water. A second later he’s back outside watching a string of clouds slide across the sky. The only sound is the distant squawk a chicken makes, when it’s left wanting for attention.
They sat together on the patio, elbows rubbing, feet kicking at the dirt that would someday be grass.
Kissed her neck, her skin warm to his lips. “It’s nice isn’t it?”
A squawk from nearby breaking the silence.
“Listen to how loud that thing is.”
He looked from her to the coop to her. “All your idea, remember that.” She pinched him and he laughed.
The first chicken managed a more piercing pitch. The others joined him, spitting out loud, unintelligible things, a cacophony of chicken sounds.
“They’re going to need to be fed,” he said, finally.
“Let them fend for themselves tonight. They’ll be fine.”
They stood up and looked at their world — dark patches of soil, sprinkled with seed, covered with straw, the occasional stone glinting in the starlight, in the distance a line of Evergreen trees, and above them a billion stars. In the foreground stood the chicken coop, emanating the sharp sounds of a fowl language. Rooster words asking for nothing, he supposed, and wanting nothing, but to survive. He followed her into the house, closed the door behind them. They could see everything through the thin pane of glass, but from where they stood, the bestial noise had been reduced to nothing. VS