Saturday, May 12, 2012

"Chicken Coop" by Edward Massey

Two by fours waved up and down, inching their way past Ebby’s kitchen window. It surprised her none when her husband showed up midway in the lumber, balanced on his left shoulder, right hand carrying a sack of cement.

The pies in the oven of her wood stove needed more urgent attention than the question of what was that man doing now? She took a special pleasure in baking. She liked its precise rules, careful measurements.

The Ford’s knocking motor interrupted her count as she cut the cold lard into her pie crust. She glanced out the window above the simple wooden table.

Boards of all descriptions and sizes, tied to top and sides, covered the Ford as it crept across the yard behind the house. The truck’s slow crawl drew to a stop with screeching brakes.  Her husband leapt from the driver’s side, some urgency punctuating a need that only he knew. Mark Willford Simms hadn’t the nature to discuss it when he had to do something. He just took it on and Ebby found out about it by watching.

It took him three trips to untie and stack all the boards -- right in her vegetable garden. She unlatched the window and pulled it back to the hook screwed into the ceiling. 

“Hey, mister,” she called, “that’s my garden you’re traipsing through.”

“Winter planted,” he barked. “Nothin’s up yet.”

True. He was too practical to destroy a bearing vegetable garden, but she was about the only one in the county who could order him around.  She half took the job seriously and she whole loved to tease him. Besides, it was the afternoon. Whenever she saw him in the afternoon, she wanted to be playful.

A lot of good that does. This man is in a mood. He’s not about to be playful today.

She wiped her hands on her apron and sidled over the two steps to open the screen. His mood made it all the more challenging. 

Willford hefted a keg of nails he had retrieved from the back seat atop his neatly stacked wood pile, largest and longest on the bottom, smallest on the top. From the front seat, he grabbed another sack of cement to stack on top of the one he had carried earlier. 

“Well,” she crossed the little wooden stoop that made the transition from house to dirt path to vegetable garden and moved in close to him amidst the building materials. She could not resist the mood, “I guess you have decided to build something.”

He had built the cabin the year they married, out of simple logs, chinked up to keep the walls solid and the wind out. He had built all the additions, too. 

“Yep,” he said.

“Care to let me in on the project?” she asked. She could feel the little thrill of her will coming up.

“Might’s well,” he said.

“Well?” She knew this was going to be fun. “The house can’t suffer comparing. Leastwise not to another outbuilding.”

He straightened up and looked at her. Considered a moment. She held his look. He tossed his head.

“Building a chicken coop.”

He started pounding stakes in the ground at what would be the four corners.

“You know how to do that?”

“Built the kitchen, didn’t I? Pa taught me.”

“He taught you how to build a chicken coop?” she repeated. She was now sitting on one of the stacks of lumber, barely stifling a laugh. “Where’d he do that? I never heard of chicken farmers in your family.”

She let go a giggle. A simple, little girlish giggle.

“Don’t need to be.”

“Now, there’s a truth,” she said.

Mark Willford held a square in his hands. She recognized the right triangle with the hypotenuse missing.

“Where’d you get all this stuff?”

“Bought some, borrowed some.”

String up, he took the shovel and started digging a trench under each string.

“You fixin’ to do this all by yourself?”

“Might’s well,” he said.

That came as no surprise. When had he asked anyone for help?

“What’re you going to do once this chicken coop is built?”

“Raise chickens.”

“No doubt,” she said. He was a little exasperating. “And do you plan to raise these chickens all by yourself?”

“Don’t see why not.”

“Me neither. Except for one thing - they need constant care. Somebody’s got to get up every morning and somebody’s got to clean up after them and somebody’s got to feed them and somebody’s got to fetch the eggs.”

“That’s okay by me.”

“Do tell,” she said. “It’s okay by you, but are you going to do it?”

“Sure am.”

“And are you going to kill them?”

“Sure am.”

“Must have been something real troublesome,” she said.

She waited. When she got no response, she went back to the chickens.

“I guess you’ll even cook them.”

“Might’s well,” he said. The thought was so absurd to him, he broke into a big smile. He could go one on one with any man in the county, but he could not go on very long with this little thing sitting on his lumber. “Aw, Ma, you know you’ll do that.”

“Do tell,” she said. She knew her husband very well. She knew this chicken coop wasn’t about raising chickens. “Seriously, how are you going to take care of them?”

“Let ‘em perch.”

“Where’s the windows?”

“Don’t need no windows. A long, sloping roof and I can have several rows of perches set up at different heights. I’ll build the nest boxes down the wall.” He waved his arm to describe a roof sloped down low to a wall rising four feet from the ground. “On the opposite wall, I’ll have enough room to store supplies and even stand up straight from time to time.”

He must have found some pamphlet down at the agriculture extension. There was no reason for him to know all this. If he was determined to do it, maybe she should just help him.

“Lots of birds can’t lay eggs in nest boxes. They lay them on the floor. They’ll get eaten by the other birds or all fouled. You know, with bird do.” 

“Won’t be too much to clean up. I’ll be out here every day.”

“You gonna let em wander?”


“Around my house?”

“Naw. I’ll build a little run. I gotta put the pop-holes in when I build the wall, but I’ll keep ‘em covered till I build the run.”

“That’s big of you.”

“Got to keep ‘em moving to keep ‘em from peckin each other’s feathers.” He laughed a little and winked. “Come to think of it, it ain’t much different from other hens. First pecking feathers, pretty soon it gets right on to cannibalism.”

“Wilf,” she said, her voice soft. He had hammered up a flat box and started to pour in cement from one of the sacks. Her voice said stop and listen. He stopped. “Why are we taking on a chicken coop now?”

“I had the time extra. It’ll all be done today.”

“You know I meant. Why are we taking on chickens right now? You got two jobs. I have the children to look after and the garden.”

“I figure I can make some money. All it takes is a little bit of grain and maybe let ‘em peck around the yard for the rest. Those that don’t produce, I’ll just kill. That oughta keep ‘em laying. We’ll have chickens to eat. That’ll save money. And we can sell eggs. That’ll make us some money. It’ll all help.”

“I never wanted to marry no farmer.”

“Chickens ain’t farming.”

“Sure is. Has been since all time. Next thing you’ll want cows. Dairy farming and chicken farming go hand in hand,” she said.

“You can make fun, but you know we can use the money. I’ll sell the eggs and maybe even a roaster or two, down to Bullock’s or even to the neighbors.”

“Sure will look good. The Sheriff out selling eggs,” she said.

“Won’t bother me none. Wait and see. It don’t cost nothin’ to get started. I got the wood here to build the layer house and the nests. You know I can fix up the feed and watering equipment. Don’t take much. They’s a man says he’ll sell me young pullets ready to begin producing eggs. They’re already sixteen weeks old, so I got to get this built and check the litter is dry and all the feeders and drinkers are in good working order before they arrive.”

“My goodness, how many you figure on having? You’re digging up trench enough for Lord knows how many birds.”

“Hunnerd-fifty maybe two hunnerd, but not right off. All works out, might get to that. Figure to start with two dozen. The chicken coop is the only thing I got to build big. I can put in the watering equipment for two dozen birds. Well, maybe not so much the troughs, but at least the cups and nipples. Then the nests’ll be down the wall. Birds don’t lay eggs at the same time, so I don’t need but a quarter the number of nests that I got hens.”

“And light? You know light’s what stimulates pullets to lay eggs.”

“How you know all this?”

“You forget my first job. Candling eggs. You learn this stuff.”

“Nothing to it,” he said. “We got electricity. I’ll run a wire out here and hook up a bulb. Turn it on when I get up and turn it off when I get home.”

“Well, you got it all figured.” She wondered if she needed to know the real reason he was doing this. Did it truly matter? No. “I just hope you don’t get us no diseases, traipsing in the house from this coop.”

“Naw. There might be a bird die now and then, but I’ll find ‘em every day. I’ll keep it clean. That won’t let nothing run on.”

“Now just tell me again, why you doin’ this?”

A direct question wouldn’t hurt.

“I got responsibilities. I figure we need the money.”

“Well, raising chickens in your back yard … ,” she struggled with the need to say what she really thought, that he wouldn’t have a money problem if he didn’t take on that second family. She repeated a lifelong habit. What she feared seemed best left unsaid. “… could cause a certain amount of disturbance.”

“Not if I buy the right type of chick. That’s important, you know.”

“Think the right ones will be quieter, do you?”

“No, Ma. By Jove, you’re an exasperating woman. Got nothing to do with quiet. They’ll just give us more fresh eggs and maybe even a little personal pleasure. Who knows, maybe even some profit. We ought to get seven - eight hunnerd dozen eggs a year. That’ll bring in couple a hunnerd bucks or more. God knows we need it. It may not sound like much compared to ninety bucks a month, but it’ll grow. It wouldn’t surprise me if it gets up to pretty near half of what I make.”

“And the cost? Did you figure that in?”

“Not much. I’ll have to pay for the pullets, sure, but that probably won’t be but every other year. Rest of it’s feed. I think I can get chicken feed pretty cheap. For chicken feed, so to speak.”

He delivered this last line with his signature monotone, daring her to laugh. She was up to his tricks and outlasted him. Finally, he spoke again:

“We ought to make a hunnerd-fifty bucks or more. Clear.”

“You’ll be lucky if you make fifty. You got to sell them to the store at half the price you’re figuring.”

“Maybe. You’re a wise woman, Ma, and I ain’t about to dispute your judgment. My pa held down three jobs, only he was a better man than me. Two families and three jobs.”

“You don’t have two families, Willford.”

“Sure I do, Ma. That’s just it.”

She moved right up against him and put her hand on the barrel that was his chest. 

“So, that’s what it’s about,” she said.

Willford smiled. She was always making him smile, even when she was catching him out.    

“You figure you have me all figured out,” he said.

“You’d be surprised,” she said.

“What’s that mean?”

“People around here seem to want to keep me informed. Seems like your doings is fair gossip.” 

“Gossip’s got nothing to do with it. You know I got responsibilities.”

“That you don’t need to take on,” she said. She admired his need to help the new widow, what with her husband drowned last year and her boy not but six months old, but he couldn’t take care of everybody.

“I have to do something. I can’t stand around and do nothin’.”

She got down off her perch on the lumber. She walked over to him and stretched up to kiss him on the cheek.

“It just don’t make sense to me,” she said.

“Crazy sense, maybe. Whenever I hear ‘there is nothing I can do,’ that’s when I got to do something.”

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