No One Heard a Thing the Night the Chicken Died
[Photo by Ryan Mercer]
The bulldozers came the summer before and pushed the orange field into hills and mounds. Men dug holes in the ground. They poured cement and made long winding paths. During the summer, my younger brother, Juan, and I sat out back, just on the other side of the fence, eating oranges. Past the chicken coop my father kept and between the avocado and grapefruit trees, beyond the old fence, the men built up the earth, stripping down the orange grove tree by tree. There were oranges everywhere, unpicked and rotting on the ground; the trees sagged with the weight of the fruit. Sawdust drifted in the wind, forming dunes and eddies on the sun-baked earth, filtering through our thin, wire fence and flecking our father’s grass. We watched as row after row disappeared, flattened into fairways, bunkers, and sand traps. Within a year our house, like all the others in our Long Beach neighborhood, would look out on the sprinklers crosscutting the El Dorado Country Club. For hours that summer we sat there feeling the ground vibrate beneath us, the chickens in the yard chattering over grass seed, and the sounds from our mother’s television drifting out toward us.
Strange things came out of the grove at this time. Possums appeared like ghosts from the shadows, rabbits burrowed into our yard from beneath, and snakes slithered along the edges. During these days our father came out and leaned against the fence, putting his arms down across the mesh wire where we had bent it to climb over. “You can almost feel the worms coming out of the ground,” he said, looking off into the thinning trees. The orange field had that feeling, like everything was in a rush to be somewhere else. Even our father’s chickens started favoring the opposite side of the yard, hopping and scattering at the crack of wood splitting and trees falling.
During those summer days our father cooed to them, clucking — half pigeon, half chicken — as if he thought he could coax them into accepting some part of their fate. A notice had come in the mail. It came in a slim manila folder, very official. Enclosed within was a cream sheet of paper regarding livestock within city limits. The new Long Beach city emblem pressed into the premium weight. The ordinance was thick as resume paper, as our father would say, his hands up over the fence watching the workmen in the field. He watched the bulldozers with disgust, their ever approaching tank treads signaling war in his own backyard.
“They’re trying to take away my chickens,” he often repeated while Juan and I rested our backs against the wire of the fence, hearing in the near distance another orange tree crack and split.
* * *
It was a wonderful time for Juan and me. We knelt next to the fence examining animal tracks in the dirt. “Gila,” I said.
In the distant sky, high up, a buzzard circled, looking down at the orange field, descending at times into the wrecked homes of field mice, snakes, and rabbits.
Juan had his eye on the dirt track. He looked at the trail of bird-like prints, and the thin line of the body between them all. “Monitor, I’m sure of it.”
“There’s no lizards that big in California.”
“Godzilla then,” Juan said, putting his little arms behind his back, smiling with mischief and looking out onto the field.
I traced the lizard track along the fence until I found something new. There were two small paw prints in the dirt. They seemed to come from nowhere, starting just inside the fence, with no origin or trail leading out toward the orange grove. “What do you think of this?”
“There’s no squirrels with feet as big as that.”
Juan looked from the fence to the ground, checking the distance between the two. “Maybe a rabbit jumped the fence?”
“Rabbits go under, not over.” I walked a few paces toward the chicken coop. There was another set there, a circle of them surrounding the wooden two-by-four base stretched over by chicken wire. “Look at this,” I said, motioning to the series of paw prints on the ground.
We cleared the leaves and grass away from the tracks. A chicken scuttled away across the coop. Juan put his hand down next to the track, measuring it against his fingers. “How old do you think they are?”
“A day or two, maybe this morning; you think it’s a cat?”
“A big cat,” Juan said.
“A mountain lion.”
I scuffed the tracks out with the sole of my sneaker. The dust rose into the air, catching in the sun. Juan stood there watching as I made my way around the coop, replacing each track with my own.
“Shouldn’t we tell Dad?” Juan asked.
“Tell Dad what, that a giant squirrel is circling his chickens? It’s probably just a gopher anyway.”
“A fence-jumping gopher?” Juan asked.
We both looked out into the shade of the thinning orange grove and wondered what existed out there, just out of sight.
* * *
Over dinner our father said things like, “Chickens are acting skittish,” or “Something’s gotten into those birds” He taught math at Fullerton then and had the summers off, which made it worse on us, and worse on our mother who wasn’t used to seeing him around the house as much. Our mother worked nights at Long Beach Memorial and didn’t care about the chickens the way our father did. Some nights when she was away, a single chicken screamed out, then they’d all go crazy, the sound of their wings and legs beating on the ground and against the wire of the coop. Our father came through our bedroom then, almost over the top of my bed, cupping his hands to the window, whispering, “You hear that Raph — you hear that?” looking back at me to see if I was listening. “There’s something spooking the chickens.”
Those were wild nights my mother never truly understood. We didn’t tell her how he used to make us sit up with him, drinking beers in his lawn chair till he fell asleep, the sound of crickets and the shifting wind in the air around us. How we sat for hours, playing silent games of cards on the brick patio, his sudden looks towards the coop and the field behind. He kept a flashlight on him at all times and flipped it on at the slightest sound, spotlighting bushes, sections of the fence, and sleeping chickens.
I was ten, Juan was six, and these birds had become a sort of third brother in the family. At times it seemed to Juan and me that our father might have even loved them more than us. We could see the chickens out there in their life raft of a coop, the winds tearing at the shingles like waves. Our father held the flashlight, the storm growing overhead, until he could feel it on his skin, the air dampening and his wild looks toward the chicken coop — a structure of two by fours and chicken wire — flashlight on, one chicken looking back.
* * *
No one heard a thing the night the chicken died. We slept right through it. Earlier, Juan and I had been playing a game of king of the hill with the Vasquez boys from down the block. We could see into the backyards of all the neighbors from on top of the dirt mound, which would become the 14th hole. A woman we did not know was watering her rhododendron, some girls from our elementary were running through a sprinkler five houses down, and my own father worked in the backyard, filling in rabbit holes with a shovel. We played for hours. The three brothers were bigger than us, but we had the high ground, pushing them down the mound of upturned dirt until their shirts were black with mud.
The golf course was halfway done at this point, the orange trees almost all gone, only a few lonely trees far off at the edges, the fairways and greens already defined in shape. There was still no grass, only curving cement paths and large cement ditches where the rainwater collected. The construction workers were putting in sprinkler systems on the other side of the empty field, and didn’t see when Eddie Vasquez nearly blinded me with a clod of dirt.
I saw the brief shadow of brown earth in the air just before it hit me. I closed my eyes and went down on my knees. Everything was black. I only had time for the briefest relief when I forced open my eyelids to see Eddie and his brothers charging up the mound in our direction. I heard Juan’s mouth open and the sound of a whimper or even just the exhale of a breath go flat with the force of the Vasquez brothers on top of us.
When we stopped rolling, Juan lay on top of me, and I lay in the dirt at the bottom of the mound. The dirt smelled like orange peels, citrus-like and pungent with the smell of rainwater and worms. My eye still hurt. My pride more wounded than anything, I looked up at the top of the hill and gave Eddie the finger with my free hand.
At home the noise of Juan and me in the bathroom woke my mother. When she came in, we had used four towels and two washcloths to get the dirt off. Our clothes lay in a pile by the toilet and Juan was up on the stool with his head under the faucet, the coffee colored water coming out of his hair circling the drain. The white towels nearby were as dark as our skin. I still held my eye and only half saw her standing in the doorway with her mouth fully open.
I remember the cool feeling of our bed that night, the lightness of the sheets and the weight of the wool blankets we used in the winter. But most of all I remember the silence. Our mother had left for work, our father — tired from shoveling all day — had gone to bed early. It was just Juan and I in our bedroom. My skin still felt the chill left over from standing in the yard with the cool water of the hose washing across my body, the sun going down over the golf course.
“Juan,” I said, waiting in the darkness of our room for a reply. The moonlight came through the window, reflecting off our white sheets and blue blankets up onto the ceiling. “Juan,” I said again, now louder, but still really only a whisper — I didn’t want to get into trouble again. He didn’t reply, his body turning over away from mine. I waited, watching the mound of his sheets across from me. “I know you hear me,” I whispered. He pulled his sheet up around his shoulder, not turning over or looking at me. I closed my eyes then, still waiting for a reply and feeling more alone than I had in a long time. Even the chickens outside were quiet when my own sleep came.
* * *
The dead chicken was in the refrigerator when we woke up. We heard our father outside filling in another hole, the shovel hitting rocks as it pushed through dirt. The sound came to us through the open kitchen window. The skin of the bird was clean and picked of feathers. Juan poked it with his finger, and watched as the whole thing moved in one mass towards the back of the refrigerator. The dead bird sat on the lowest rack, one leg torn up, as if something had been pulling at it through the chicken wire. I tried to imagine a wild gopher attacking a chicken through the wire. I imagined Juan was thinking the same thing over. Juan and I had been playing a game with our father, not letting him know what we had found. But now, it seemed that it didn’t matter, these tracks too small for anything that could have caused this type of damage.
Over dinner, neither my father nor my mother said anything about the mess we had made the day before. My father talked only about the chicken we were eating for dinner and the revenge he was going to have on the perpetrator of the crime.
Our mother put a piece of chicken to her mouth and began to chew, looking over at our father. “What are you going to do?” she asked.
“Get a gun.”
“You’ll shoot the chickens before you shoot whatever is out there.”
“What am I supposed to do, just keep filling in holes and hope that will stop it?” Our father put his knife and fork down on his plate and I saw Juan give me a look across the table.
“You’re not getting a gun.”
“The hell I’m not.”
“You’re going to wake up the whole neighborhood.”
“Wake them up? They’ll probably give me a parade when I shoot this thing.”
Our mother sighed. “No one’s giving you a parade. Besides, you’ve got a week till school starts.”
“The boys will help.” Our father motioned to us as we both slumped farther under the table, trying to become invisible.
That night we went back to sitting out on the patio with our father. For the first thirty minutes we were silent, not even daring to whisper, watching the boxes our father had booby-trapped the yard with. It was comical to see him — sullen and angry — sitting there with long lines of string laid out in front of him, each string leading off toward a box, waiting to fall on anything that came along. Under each box was a plate of ground beef. We watched him test his traps a few times, the dowel at the end of a long string pulled away and the box falling. They weren’t big boxes, only big enough to catch a weasel or a cat, but our father kept a bat next to his chair in case of something bigger.
“What if it’s a bear or a coyote?” Juan asked.
Our father glowered at the boxes, not looking at us, “It’s no bear or coyote, nothing that big could get past the fence.”
Juan and I both looked over at the flimsy wire fence bent at the top where Juan and I climbed over it every day.
“Who ever heard of a bear on a golf course?” our father laughed to himself, then got up and went inside, the solemn mood he had been in broken. He returned soon after with a beer and the cards.
* * *
He never caught anything that week, and the next week he was too tired from school to spend whole nights waiting for his revenge. Still, if a chicken cried out in the night our father would run through our room, his flashlight ready in his hand to catch the murderer. But as the first semester dragged on, and Juan and I both returned to school, these nights of dread decreased to once every two weeks or once a month. Holes kept appearing beneath the fence, but no chickens died, and the construction workers continued their work.
By December the golf course was finished. Although there wasn’t a clubhouse yet, golfers were allowed to go out onto the greens. To us, their game became known as death from above. Every day after school we were supposed to go home and let the chickens out of the coop, but this became dangerous with the golfers out there trying to finish up their games before sunset, which arrived earlier and earlier as winter closed in.
The construction workers planted a line of palm trees all around the course to block balls from hitting houses or veering off the course. But these trees were still small, and every few days a ball would appear in our yard, until we had a quarter-filled bucket of balls. Our mother told us how she could hear balls bouncing off the roof in the day, and how on one occasion she found a dead crow in the backyard and could only assume that it had been hit by the golf ball lying only two feet away. This was all a bit absurd, but the evidence was there. The balls kept falling, and we kept saving them and putting them in our bucket.
By the end of December we had a half-full bucket of balls; down the block, the Vasquez brothers had a full bucket. It was Eddie who figured out how to sell them to the golfers as they passed by the house. Standing at the fence with our bucket, we would call out, “Golf balls — twenty-five cents!”
It was also Eddie’s idea to split the profits sixty-forty, since there were three of them and only two of us. This didn’t seem fair, but selling balls was Eddie’s idea in the first place and we still came out of it with a few dollars a day.
Midway through January we ran out of balls. To see Eddie those days was just sad. The money bug had bit him hard. Every day it looked like a golf ball had killed his cat. At the bus stop he kept to himself, his lips mouthing silent calculations, his hands stuffed into his sweatshirt pockets. He didn’t talk as much, not even about the Dodgers, which was his favorite subject back then, nor did he care that I had found two golf balls in one day.
There was definitely something bothering Eddie. While his brothers moved on and Juan spent his money on stupid things like candy bars at the corner store or a soda during lunch, Eddie kept doing computations in his head. I knew something of his depression since we were planning on buying the same thing with our money. Until then I had spent most of my money on comic books and Eddie had spent his on baseball cards. But spring was coming and so was little league. There was an unsaid competition between us over who would be able to buy the Wilson Pitcher’s Glove first, imagining it would make all the difference. I was lying in bed, a week after we ran out of balls, when Eddie showed up at my window. My mother had left for work already and my father was sure to be in his room by now reading a book or going over his students’ homework. Juan lay turned over in his own bed, facing away from the window. I had the shades drawn and all I remember was the dark shadow of Eddie’s shoulders and head against the window. I was scared at first, my hands frozen under the covers and the dark shape of somebody beyond the shades. It had been a few weeks since the last chicken called out in the middle of the night. I thought first of the bear my brother had once asked about, then I thought about the city officials my father was always so worried about, although I wasn’t sure our flimsy fence could have protected the chickens from anything larger than a rabbit.
As Eddie knocked on the window, I watched his nervous head turn in either direction. It was at least two hours since his mother had called him home and when I opened the shades he stood in the backyard with two buckets, wearing a pair of his father’s large black rubber boots. I opened the window up and he raised the buckets. At first I thought he had stolen the balls I was collecting, but both buckets were empty. “Come on Raph, I figured it out,” he said, a thick smile of teeth across his face. “We’re going to be rich.”
I put on my shorts and a sweatshirt and jumped out the window. It was still warm out, maybe in the fifties, and Eddie was dressed in a pair of similar shorts and a long-sleeve shirt. “You figured what out?” I said.
“The golf ball problem.”
“What problem?” I closed the window and looked back at where my brother still slept.
“Leave him, he’ll just spend his share on soda and candy, it’s better if we work together.”
I looked down at the rubber boots on his feet and the buckets in his hands.
“Come on,” he said, “we have to be quiet” Eddie started off toward the fence, keeping to the shadows around the edges of the yard. He stayed as far away from the chicken coop as possible and when he got over to the fence he handed me the buckets and lifted himself over. “Now give them over,” he said.
I looked back at the house, only a single light on in the kitchen, then handed the buckets to Eddie and pulled myself over. I had to run to catch up to him. Eddie was running out along the fairway, right down the middle, the buckets swinging on their handles. The moon shone enough to define the dips in the grass, and the streetlights out on Stearns were orbs of light beyond the palm trees that surrounded the golf course. The grass took on a weird yellow glow from the street, and every once in a while as we ran down the 14th fairway, I looked over into people’s dens and living rooms and saw them in there watching tv. They didn’t notice as we ran up the hill to the green and the flickering white flag of hole 14.
Eddie didn’t stop when we got to the top, but went right over the side, down the hill toward the water hazard. He was halfway into the man-made pond when I caught up to him. I heard the hollow plunk of balls hitting the bottom of his plastic bucket. There was the sound of his boots too, and the water pushing out in front of his calves. I heard the plunk of another ball and knew Eddie was right about the money. I waded into the water with my own bucket.
The pool was two feet deep at most; we could walk right across the whole thing. As we dipped down into the water at its deepest point, our arms skimmed across the bottom and our chins just barely touched the surface. By the time we filled all we could carry, the adrenaline was gone and we sat, wet and happy on the banks of the water hazard, talking about the gloves we would surely be able to buy in the next few months. The glow was back in Eddie’s eyes, like it had been before when we stood at the fence calling to the golfers as they went past.
On our own walk back along the fairway, my shoes were heavy with water and Eddie’s boots slapped against his calves. We paid little attention to the people moving around in their houses or the way the light filtered out across the golf course. We were both in a dream state where our legs kept going and our minds, filled with ideas, trailed off far behind. That was how we left each other mid-way down the 14th hole, Eddie taking the right that led off to his house and me continuing on toward my own.
I carried half the balls in my bucket and Eddie the other half in his. The night chill was getting to me then and the lights from the houses were going out little by little. The golf course did not seem as clear as it had during our run across the fairway, the dips in the grass now dark holes in the earth. Something like a cat or a dog moved off in the bushes to my right and I shuddered with the cold, squinting into the shadows of the bushes nearest the fence. I stopped completely, listening to the night. Like any other night there were the far off sounds of cars passing, crickets, and the wind. But nearer was the sound of leaves being pulled apart and the ground rummaged through. I looked deeper, taking a few steps toward the noise until it stopped suddenly, and I — caught off guard — stopped as well, the bucket of balls hanging useless in my hand.
I waited there, listening to all the things I had expected to hear, the low electric hum of streetlights, the wind over the grass, a car moving over cement out on my street. Nothing moved in the bushes, and it was far off down the fairway when I saw what I was looking for emerge from the bushes and trot out onto the grass a hundred feet in front of me. The animal stopped there, its pointed ears adjusting to the night. It turned to face me. A small fox. It took a few scattered steps toward me. Its black feet padded quickly over the grass. I did not move, only looking back at this thing looking back at me, until I made a clicking sound with my tongue, as if I were calling a dog. The fox startled, looked at me, then took off in the other direction.
* * *
The next few months were good to us. Spring was coming and we had saved nearly enough for our gloves. After school we stood next to the fence and sold our balls to the golfers that passed by on the course. My father seemed to have forgotten about the ordinance concerning his chickens, although with the manicured flatness of the golf course stretched out behind our house, his livestock were as foreign as a fox roaming the links of the El Dorado Country Club.
Usually, we went out into the water just beyond the 14th hole once a week and got our balls back. I carried slices of bologna or leftover sandwiches from lunch, and it got to be a habit of mine to put them down in the middle of the grass and wait for the fox to appear and eat them. Some nights I waited an hour in my soaking clothes, watching the bushes. It got to be that I could hold the snack meats in my hand until the fox appeared, then have him approach to the point of ten feet before he became skittish, bobbing his head back and forth and pacing in front of me with his nose to the ground. I either threw him the meat or placed it on the ground and backed away.
I liked to look at the fox, watching the muscle move under his fur. I watched his jaw, the way his neck moved in beats as he slid the meat back into his throat and chewed. There were small canine teeth running down either side of his mouth, yellow and black at the gums. I liked the way his coat caught in the light, the oils in his fur making it seem like he was all one thing moving together. After a while I could sit without startling him and watch from only ten feet as he picked the meat up and ate. Always looking around at me and then at the ground after he finished, with his nose he would comb the grass on either side of where the meat was. He might stay like this for a minute or only a second, looking me over then darting off in that way he did, with all of his feet moving together in quick little bursts.
There were never as many golf balls as there were on that first day, but we did all right, considering we only sold balls for twenty-five cents in the hour or two between school and sunset. But by the time our spring break came around, we were desperate again. Eddie was feeling that itch. Now he wanted to hit every water hazard on the course and spend every day of spring break selling golf balls. His desire was about more than the glove at this point; it was about something else. Our urge to get every single hole was about the next year, and the summer, and the following spring; it was about ice cream and clothes for school, comic books, new bikes, and things we didn’t even know we wanted yet.
By the time Eddie met me outside my window, we had been on this trip over twenty times. We had been so many times that I could get the fox to come up to my hand and eat what I held out to him, using my other hand to pet him. I don’t know if it was the times before that had made him this way, or if it was living around all these houses, but he was almost tame, startling only when I moved too fast or did something unexpected. He was much smaller than me, only about two feet in length and a foot tall. He reminded me of some of the dogs I saw the girls walking around the neighborhood. I had a name for him the way girls had names for their dogs. I called him Torch for his red fur, and after Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four. But unlike the girls who walked their dogs around, I kept Torch a secret, even from Eddie.
Over the week leading up to spring break, Eddie put together a collection of buckets, bowls, pots, duffle bags, and cloth potato sacks, even a few t-shirts tied at the sleeves and around the neck to act as bags. He kept them in the bushes near my house. It was earlier when I left the house this time. There was much more to do and, the way Eddie made it sound, we were going to be at this job all night long, raiding every water hole on the course. I paused at the window looking back at my brother, who lay like he usually did with his back turned, and the light from the hallway and the bathroom beyond coming in under the door. I left the window open slightly, leaving room for my fingers to reach in and slide the rest of it open. My father was probably sleeping now or grading the tests he had given before spring break. When I reached the fence and pulled myself over, I looked back, seeing the familiar light from the kitchen in the darkness of our yard. My father’s birds were already asleep and appeared like white cotton balls behind the chicken wire, their feathers ruffling as the wind shifted above and the night cooled.
I kept a few pieces of bologna in a plastic sandwich bag in my pocket. The work was quiet and efficient; we moved from hole to hole until the bucket, pot, or bag we were using was filled with golf balls. As I worked I kept the sandwich meat on the shore nearest our supplies and kept an eye out for Torch. It was still early and I had never been on that part of the course. I didn’t know where he would be or if I would see him that night, but I kept the snack I had brought dry just in case.
I was back by the bushes, unloading a heap of golf balls and grabbing another bag when one of the chickens screamed and the rest, startled by this lone bird, joined in with the sound of their wings and their harsh, flustered calls. I was standing about ten feet from the bushes, the only sound in the air from a jet high up, passing in the night, and the constant wind. The chicken called out; there was a rush, a metallic bounce of wire and the quick sound of animal feet coming across the grass. Torch ran by me without looking, moving out low and fast over the grass, a white egg suspended between his teeth. It startled me to see him like this, caught in my father’s chicken coop with the evidence between his teeth as he went by. I stood stunned on the grass with the newly planted palm trees around me and the sound of chickens scrambling around in the coop, watching as Torch passed low and fast over the grass.
I called out to him like I had done on the first night, making the clicking sound with my tongue. He swiveled, unsure of himself, pausing to look back at me from across the space of thirty feet. I had the meat in my hand, coaxing him back to me, holding it out like I had done so many times before. I said, “Here boy,” clicking my tongue, “see what I brought you.” I waved the meat in the air and he followed the movements of my hand, the egg still lodged between his teeth.
He seemed unsure of what to do. He looked me over, looked back towards the house, looked out into the darkness of the golf course and then turned back to me. He put the egg down lightly on the grass. He came toward me, his feet so fast and the red of his coat shining in the moon above. The meat was right there in front of him, hanging from my fingers, and the way he cocked his head to the side and his ears rose up reminded me of his wildness and all the things I didn’t know about him. It was involuntary when I pulled my hand back. I was afraid, moving the meat and my hand away from him. Torch took the few remaining steps and bounced like a dog onto his back legs, rising into the air below my chin. There was a snapping and I felt the meat leave my hand.
It all seemed so fast.
There was the touch of Torch’s small body against mine, the sound of his feet coming down amidst the grass and then the silent whistle of something heavy passing through the air with enormous speed. I heard the crack of metal against bone, hollow and confusing, not knowing yet what was happening. I heard the yelp Torch let out and the quick sob and gasp of his breath as he lay just to the side of me. The blow had come across his back.
My father raised the shovel again, high up into the air where a jetliner passed miles above, where the branches of the newly planted palms shuffled in the wind, and brought down his weapon once more. We stood there on the windswept fairway, a fox lying dead on its side and my father huffing over this body. What he had done had everything and nothing to do with Torch. I stood watching my father and Torch, both remnants of the orange grove. They were pieces of a past life that all this time had been circling, like a buzzard over carrion, waiting for its time to land.
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