by Rachel Howard
Clapboard house on a straight lane with no trees, no sidewalks, edge of the road crumbling into mud. “Yes, I remember!” the bulldog-chested man shouts, rushing across the yard, when I explain I’m the woman who called about his Craigslist ad last night at 10 p.m. Behind the chain link fence, a woman in a head scarf is tossing a Nerf ball with her sons. “It’s just you guys right now, but I tell you, I never seen anything like it!” the husband says. “All day they call, all day they come, 50 chickens in five hours, phroom, gone!”
Two boys run up, one bright-eyed and four feet high, the other a gangly teenager with bad skin but a sweet smile and a hand extended. “Boys, I told you!” the father shouts when my husband steps back. “No touching, not even elbow bump!” He waves a hand in apology, talks low: “I’m sorry, I try to teach them about this virus, I know it is serious, serious! Boys!” He claps. “Take your customers back.” Then the father asks us, “Do you have a crate?”
We have no crate. We have an electric vehicle that marks us as wannabe homesteaders; we have a coop kit purchased twenty minutes ago in a Tractor Supply store. We have Clorox wipes, we have hand sanitizer. We used both, compulsively, as we purchased the coop kit, waiting six feet back from the cash register, but still we have fear, reasonable, warranted fear. As of yesterday, California is ordered to shelter in place. And here we are, 50 miles from our home, buying chickens. A last act before lockdown.
“No problem, we’ll find a box!” the teenager says, and sends his brother for the duct tape.
In the backyard, beneath sagging nets, the boys chase the squawking flock. I corner the big-breasted one with the bright red wattle, astonished to feel soft wings enclosed within my arms. The other two have broken beaks, shrunken combs. No time to be picky; more customers from far off suburbs are pulling up the gravel drive, more chance for viral contagion. The box is the size of a crock pot, but the birds shoved inside are silent as we pull away.
My husband is a thin, pale man in his fifties; his genetic disease, which requires him to swallow prescription drugs just to digest food, qualifies him as part of the “vulnerable population.” He has undertaken this final fool’s errand per my request. He loves me too much to deny my less rational impulses.
“If we come down with the virus because of this,” he says as we merge onto the near-empty I-80 and head towards higher elevations, “I’m going to be really disappointed.”
My husband plays piano every night. Well, electric keyboard; we can’t afford a real one. I suppose the music is the reason I married him. Back on our early dates, back when we met in Oakland, we weren’t clicking, until he mentioned that he could play the old songs I’d been learning to sing at a dive piano bar down on Grand Ave. These days, under the shelter-in-place order, I feel more certain than ever that I married him for the right reasons. Because tonight, as I cook dinner, and my daughter watches dishy makeup tutorials on YouTube, Dave is playing “Midnight Sun.”
The flame of it may dwindle to an ember, and the stars forget to shine . . . I sing as I sauté, calling out: “You do know, right, that’s Harold’s song?” Harold, ninety-one when I met him at the piano bar in Oakland, ninety-seven when he died, too young. Everyone thought he’d make it to 113. Harold who I continued to call every other day after Dave and I fled the rising Bay Area rents for this half-acre in the foothills seven years ago. Harold who I called in November 2016, back when the whole world had just unimaginably changed, a craven amoral would-be autocrat crowned president by the electoral college. We had a little fight about that election on the phone, Harold and I, because Harold couldn’t work up any concern, told me the world has always been full of evil. He would know; he lived, with his Yiddish-speaking family, through World War II. And what did I expect from him on that election night, as he was about to die from heart failure? But I fought with him because I still had the sense, the night, that Harold would live forever.
Now, as Dave plays, the onions are burning. I always get distracted and ruin them. Still I sing. But oh my darling always I’ll remember . . .
“I always sang that as my last number before we left the bar,” I call out to Dave. “Because that’s the song Harold used to sing to his wife. When she was dying. Didn’t I tell you that? Don’t you remember?” But if I ever told my husband, he doesn’t.
These pandemic days have taught us, again, the elasticity of time. Seven years since Dave and I left Oakland for the foothills, five years since we adopted our daughter. For seven years we’ve told ourselves we’d eventually get chickens, just needed everything else in place so we’d be ready—the garden, the fruit trees, the modest savings buffer. Seven years during which the project of homesteading gradually lost its novelty, during which I slid towards spending fewer hours with the compost pile and the raised beds and more hours on the real estate websites, fantasizing about a return to the city.
Now, in one day, we’ve purchased the galvanized aluminium water tank, the pine chip bedding, the feed; now, in 30 minutes, as the sun set behind the ponderosa pines and the sky occasionally pelted thick drops of rain, Dave has electric-drilled wood panels to wire, erected a four-foot high, asphalt-roofed shelter. Now, these creatures with scaly yellow legs like the earth’s first creatures cling to the roosts.
When we first moved to these hills—this was before our daughter, before these orders of fifth grade “distance learning,” back when I spent less time helping her write a state report and more time on lonely cosmic pondering—I asked Dave how long the sun would shine. He took a piece of brown grocery-list paper and turned it sideways, penciled a timeline: 4.6 billion BCE, SUN on the far left, proceeding through EARTH, LIFE BEGINS, DINOSAURS, HUMANS, and on the far right side of the line, 2.8 BILLION CE, SUN DIES.
I hung that timeline on the bulletin board above my desk as a test for the imagination. Perhaps it worked. This pandemic has not shocked me. It has, in various moments, struck a kind of inner chime that the Buddhists might call “birthright sadness”: the emptiness of those vast metal shelves that once held loaves of bread; my daughter so cooperatively rising for home school because she seems to know, too young, that the only alternative is despair. But nothing has shocked me; nothing—yet—has felt surreal.
More often than Harold, these days, I think of my grandmother. Edna was born in 1929, the year an economic catastrophe equal in magnitude to our current reality hit. She fled the Dust Bowl as a baby, loaded onto a donkey-pulled cover wagon with her single mother and two sisters. She kept chickens, in her yard amid almond orchards in Central California; she cut off chicken heads when necessary, and for that reason, as an adult, my mother would only eat chicken processed into small, disguised pieces. I grew up on Costco meat nuggets, vacuum packed frozen vegetables, Disneyland vacations, cineplexes and malls. And now this pandemic has brought me back to my grandmother’s existence in this little yellow house, with garden beds and a laundry line on metal poles, with chickens. But not fully back, not yet.
If these chickens don’t lay eggs, I will keep them as pets. Beauty, Lulu, and Esmeralda: They offer a little extra motivation to wake up these mornings, which is probably more than half the real reason we bought them. I rise to the alarm, not at 5 or 6 as my grandmother would have, but at a relatively lazy 7. I wake my daughter for the blur of fractions worksheets that now counts as “school.” I take out my phone with breakfast; I read of broken ventilators and lonely deaths and over-run morgues; I see the red eyes above dirtied face masks on the tiny screen. I sit with the suffering over coffee. Then I remember that I have to teach my daughter today. So I rise and head out back to the coop, scatter the scratch.
Right now, as the number of coronavirus cases in the US rises above 336,619, and the deaths above 9,631, the spring days are growing longer. Right now, our sun’s place on the timeline still stands a long way from 2.8 billion CE. Right now, every morning, I wake up knowing that my husband still has his essential medicine, and my daughter still has a state report to work on, and the chickens will still rush to me on those scaly prehistoric legs.
Yesterday I raised the lid of the nest box to shovel out the droppings, and I gasped. There it was, our first, small and brown and delicately speckled. More than any pandemic headline, this beauty shocked me. This daily persistence. For now.
About the Author:
Rachel Howard is a writer of fiction, personal essays, memoir and dance criticism. Her debut novel, The Risk of Us, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2019.