Ev and I pass a chicken pecking at the wood chips by the swings on the way into his daycare. I figure this chicken comes from that house on the corner, the one inhabited by a band of twentysomething punks into urban farming. The other day Ev and I saw the punks out front in their spiky jackets planting red cabbages to detox the soil. I don’t have time just now to walk to the punks’ house and ask, “Hey, is this your chicken?” because I’m supposed to be opening up the preschool classroom with extra craft stuff for Valentine’s Day. I’m stressed, too, about Ev. He won’t lay off Susie Byrd, this lispy brunette he’s been crushing on since last Wednesday. He’s not too young to get his heart broken, and there’s nothing I can do to save him. Not as his teacher.
We go inside, flip on the lights, put away our jackets. I pull out three tables and today’s sensory experience: a giant tub of diluted dish soap with plastic bubble blowers floating in it. Ev sheds his jacket, reaches into one of our toy bins, and grabs a Hot Wheels. “Look, Dad,” he says, then he throws the Hot Wheels in the soapy water.
I make the grunting noise that tells him I looked, then I let him keep picking up the Hot Wheels and dropping it back in the bubbles. Nobody else can see us. This is our interval, before the day starts, and I have to treat him like any other kid. Here and now, I’m still me, a man who doesn’t care if technically the Hot Wheels are a dry toy.
My co-teacher Field huffs in twenty minutes late. Field is this groovy master’s student in early childhood development. She gives Ev a hug and says, “The tracks iced over. I had to call an Uber.” She smells just the tiniest bit like marijuana, but then again I used to toke up, too, before Ev. I could get Field written up by the daycare’s director, Pam, but I won’t, because I sympathize, and because I like how her cheeks turn pink from the cold.
“No worries about the time,” I say, waving away the apology she didn’t make. “Nobody’s here.” People are here, of course, in the baby and toddler rooms. What I mean is our boss isn’t here. Pam is spending the morning at some conference.
“Did you see that chicken?” Field asks. “Should we do something?”
“I think it’s from the lunatics on the corner. With the farm stuff.” I feel bad as soon as I say this, because Field once told me she grows her own tomatoes. I don’t want her to think I’m calling her a lunatic.
I’m about to say we should call Animal Control, but then Field notices the Hot Wheels in the bubble soap and makes Ev follow her to the sink to wash it off and dry it. Parents start streaming in with their kids slung over a shoulder or clinging koala-style to their chests or dragging behind them in tears, and we sort of forget.
For free time we let the kids hop between activity stations while Field and I control the madness. I used to hover over Ev for this part until Pam told me I couldn’t. Home is home and work is work, and all I can do now is follow him with my eyes, pretending I care as much about any other child. I’m making pasta turkeys with Olivia, the newest girl, when out our bay windows, I spot the chicken still crawling all over our playground. The kids have been into barnyards lately, so what the hell, I point to the fowl and we all gather at the window. Ev taps on the glass. The chicken presses its beak on the window and locks eyes with Susie Byrd. By this I mean they stare openly, Susie and the chicken, like people in a movie who are about to kiss. They stare the way I’d like to stare with Field. I’ve never heard of chickens being this social.
Susie and the chicken commune for a whole minute while the other kids stew in their envy. I ask Gabby and Ally and Olivia—the girls in the classroom being most devout about the barnyard thing—if they’ve ever been so close to a chicken before. A live one. Not like grocery store chicken your mom makes for dinner. Then I see Ev sneak around behind Susie. I can’t prove he’s about to pull anything, so I don’t say anything. An act of loyalty. That and I can’t punish him for something he hasn’t done yet, even if I know he’s about to do it.
My attention moves to Field next. She’s wincing. She’s a vegan, so not equipped for all this talk of chicken dinner, and she’s probably concerned about the girls. Last time I brought up how people eat dead animals, Gabby had a crying jag and a pee accident, and Ally refused her snack, just in case baby carrots used to be puppies.
Me, I’m wishing Field would cut the wincing when out of the corner of my eye I catch Ev again. He’s leaning into Susie’s personal bubble from behind, letting a string of drool hang from his mouth.
Now I really do have to intervene. “Nope,” I say. “Nope, bud,” but I’m not even sure he hears me. He stares straight ahead as he deposits the drool on Susie’s shoulder. He leans back. Susie feels something wrong and touches the wet spot. Now Ev’s spit is all over her hand.
Ev waits for a reaction with clenched fists, but Susie wipes the spit off on her jeans without even looking my son’s way. Her chin wobbles and her eyes water, but she’s not all the way upset, not yet. Field didn’t see the spit thing, but she does notice Susie’s predicament now, and comes up with a diversion. “How about we start story time early?”
Everybody says yes, including me. I’m always down for story time. I hate to toot my own horn, but I have what they call a gift. My assistant teachers always insist on my performance. My comic timing on Strega Nona and The Big Orange Splat is unparalleled.
This one time Field asked if that was it, the reading, if that’s how a guy like me got into early childhood education. I said no, I picked the major in college because it had a high female-to-male ratio. For example, I probably wouldn’t have landed Ev’s mother, my ex-wife, if we hadn’t been student teachers at the same Head Start. I could tell even back then she wasn’t fully into me, that we got together because I was there and some other guy wasn’t.
Field looked at me funny when I explained this, so I told her I was kidding. That children are miracles and I love each one of them indiscriminately, and my ex and I get along great. I’m not sure Field bought it, because later on I asked her if she wanted to come over and have dinner with me and Ev that weekend and she said she had a thing with her boyfriend.
I bet Field’s boyfriend sucks. I bet he’s not a good reader, whereas I blow everybody away with my rendition of Sheep in a Jeep. The kids gather around me on the brown carpet. I’m not sure if they notice, but each sheep has its own accent that I practiced at home with Ev. Susie crawls into Field’s lap with Ally just to the side. I can hear the girls whisper to each other about how much they wish their parents would get a sheep so they could hug and kiss it every day.
Usually Ev sits up front, but today he’s in the center of the group, within reach of Field, and I’m thinking, Jesus Christ, I hope he’s not about to escalate. But sure enough, I’ve just reached the part where the fifth sheep piles into the car when Suzy flies off Field’s lap and kicks him in the shin.
“Not fair not fair not fair!” Ev screams.
“Don’t be sad, Evan,” says Dougan. “Your daddy’s here.”
I open my arms wide so he can run into them, but he just stomps his foot some more. I inch my way over facing him and rub his shoulders. We have done this so many times, mostly since his mom left. It has never failed to comfort him, but life changes. Any day now he’ll tell me the shoulder rubs are no good. I’m really trying.
“Why’d you get up, Susie?” Field asks. “Why’d you just kick your friend?”
Cole, whose doctor mom lets him wear a Superman cape every single day, raises his hand. “Evan started it. I saw him touch Susie’s hair.”
Someone should tell Cole Superman isn’t a snitch. Instead, Field thanks him and hauls Ev into the quiet corner for a talk about boundaries. She always gives the boundaries talks, because, she insists, he’ll understand better from someone who isn’t his parent.
There’s a hanging phone in the quiet corner. I ask Field to please call Animal Control while she’s at it.
Susie looks shaken up. “I wish Evan would be nice,” she says. She sits there in a fetal position with her head between her knees. Ally has a hand on Susie’s back. The other kids pick nervously at the carpet. Dougan excavates his nose sagely.
I tell Susie how sometimes when boys like you they can be intense about it, and then I ask if she could see her and Ev being best friends someday. She shakes her head emphatically, and my heart sinks for my son.
“How about we read some more, guys? Help you feel normal.”
All the kids ignore me. Gabby points out the window and says “More chickens,” and sure enough, we’ve got two more chickens now. They aren’t about to get back into my sheep.
Field brings Ev back over. “Did you get Animal Control?” I ask. It’s neat for these city-based preschoolers to see real farm animals, I get that. It’s just all my activities and the sensory experience and even story time have been derailed by these stupid birds.
“Straight to voicemail,” Field says. “The outgoing message says they’ll call back within an hour. I left a message with our address. And I’ll talk to Pam when she gets in.”
“You really think they’ll show up?”
“Yes, it’s what they do.”
This is the thing about Field that gets me. One second she’s this stoner ditz and the next she’s being productive. One second she’s countercultural and the next she has faith in the tiniest office of our local government. She believes men in Tyvek suits will scoop the chickens away by this afternoon. She believes Pam will have a clue what to do about our visitors. This helps me believe, too. Otherwise, I swear, I’m going to scoop up these birds and walk them home, give the punks a talking to.
Normally after story time we have outside time. The toddlers and babies skip outside time as soon as temps dip below freezing, but us, we do it in snowstorms and rainstorms and a few memorable, muddy floods. Parents are paying us to wear out these monsters. Dougan’s mom, for instance, will drop him off in the morning and say, “Just make him stop screaming,” and Field can’t help but smile her coy smile, because Dougan’s so good when he’s here, nose-picking aside. All it takes is not being the one who gave birth to him. All it takes is Field putting on Blood on the Tracks and asking Dougan to dance to Bob Dylan’s nasal whine. She’s really something.
Outside time. It’s making elephant noises and swinging and running around in their parkas. Our magical balm for what ails the kids, our gift to the Dougan’s Moms of the world. But I’m unsure about outside time with the chickens. Hand to god, all three birds are staring at us from the windows. Menacing.
“I feel like Pam would tell us to stay put,” says Field.
“Maybe just do valentines?” I ask, and she gives me a thumbs up.
“Valentines!” I yell toward the station where Ev and Dougan and Cole are drawing Spiderman giraffes. “Valentines now!” I yell toward the girls still by the window, mouthing words at the chickens.
“Yay!” yell seven children ages three and a half through five. “Valentines!” Field corrals them while I retrieve doilies and construction paper, markers and glue, glitter and jewels, stickers and safety scissors and feathers. I deposit this bounty on two of our low wooden work tables. Already, Ally and Gabby are slapping my thighs. “Where are the pipe cleaners?” Ally asks.
“Oh yeah,” says Cole. “I super remember we had pipe cleaners last year.” Olivia is fiddling with one corner of Cole’s cape while Ev rubs another between his fingers. Everybody likes that shiny nylon that disintegrates in the washing machine. I don’t even know how many capes Cole’s mom has gone through.
Personally I’m annoyed by the Superman stuff. “You don’t super remember jack, Cole. Memory isn’t one of Superman’s powers.”
Cole makes a face like I pissed in his cereal. Field, who is already sitting down at the other work table, shakes her head, and not in a friendly way.
“Am I wrong though?” I ask. “The point is more his physicality. Superman is strong, Cole, don’t get me wrong, but his mind is as average as they come.”
“Cole, come sit at my table. Girls, I’m sorry there are no pipe cleaners this year.” There’s something brittle in Field’s voice. When Ev’s mom used that voice it meant she was about to sneak off for a quickie with a guy she met at her ballroom dancing class.
Instead of acknowledging Field’s tone, I get down to business, laying down red construction paper at my table, pouring out a glue cup with popsicle stick applicators. Ev tries to follow Cole to the other table, but I say, “No way, bud. You’re with me.” I smooch his cheek hard, the way I know he won’t let me in another year.
Dougan and Gabby and Ally join us. Olivia goes to Field’s table.
“Wait. How come I’ve only got two?” Field sounds panicked now, which is misguided. Yes, Susie Byrd should be over here making valentines with us and is not, but it’s not like these kids have anywhere to escape to. We’ve got alarms up the wazoo. Pam made it so all the doors have to stay shut and locked or else the alarms go off and a spooky voice comes over the intercom telling us to do a headcount. The alarms are part of what makes this place fancy, along with the cute little chairs and a play kitchen we use to bake muffins on special occasions. This fanciness has always attracted me. Not for myself, I mean, but for Ev. I work here because I liked the idea of him going to a fancy place, and I couldn’t have afforded it otherwise.
As it turns out, Susie’s still at the window, palms flat to the glass. The birds lean in with their beaks. It’s like Golden Retrievers waiting to pounce, like they’re about to lick her face clean.
Nobody’s left the room, so no alarms, no reason for Field to freak out. Just Susie being weird.
“Let’s give the chickens a break,” says Field. “Come make valentines with me.”
“Evan can’t have one.” Susie yanks herself from the window and the chickens disperse, scratching the wood chips, eyeing our frozen herb garden. The change is instant, like she gave them some sort of cue.
Then Ally yanks on Field’s arm, which is a habit we’ve been working on. “Can I have more glue?” she asks. “I’m going to make a card for Gabby and she’s going to make one for me. We love each other.”
Once everybody’s settled at her table, Field whips her cell phone out—even though we’re not supposed to keep them on us at work. She dials a number and says, “We have a problem with the house off Medford.” Short pause. “Yeah, they do wear a lot of leather.” She must be talking to Pam.
I can tell the kids are absorbed in their art from the way they ignore Field’s conversation. Gabby and Ally are hunched over the table making each other cards, Susie announces she’s making one for the chickens, Olivia is making one for Cole, Cole for Dougan, Dougan for Ev, and Ev for Susie.
“Have you considered playing hard-to-get?” I ask.
Ev shakes his head. Secretly I’m proud he hasn’t given up. His stubborn pursual of Susie Byrd makes me think about Field, the possibility of wearing her down. I think about my ex-wife, what would have happened if I’d refused to sign the divorce papers.
The next thing is my fault, because I pat Ev’s head instead of forcing him to start a new card. Hell, I even take his example and pretend Field didn’t rebuff me twenty ways to Sunday when she mentioned that boyfriend. I cut out a big red construction paper heart. I use the popsicle stick to smear I-L-O-V-E-F-I-E-L-D on top in glue, and dust white glitter over that. I’m worried she’ll still pretend she doesn’t get it, so I add in a hot pink gel pen: Let’s go on a date.
“That’s so sparkly pretty,” says Gabby. She and Ally are gluing colored feathers to their construction paper sheets. Ev draws a stick figure with a blue marker, which comes out purple on the red paper.
Field says goodbye and puts the phone back in her pocket. “Pam’s going to knock on their door.”
“Good, good.” I nod awkwardly. Gabby sticks a neon pink feather in her mouth, and I take it away without even turning to look straight at her. “Our mouths are for food, Gabby.”
“Eating feathers is a bad decision for your body,” Field agrees, then to me, she adds, “Pam also says no going outside till she gets here.”
Big surprise. Pam’s a big fan of allergy charts, incident reports for every minor scratch, the maze of structured activities that has taken over my job. All kids really need is someone to pay attention to them, but Pam is convinced they need schedules, chore wheels, a doctor’s note for each tube of Chapstick. In Pam’s head, I’m guessing, unplanned chicken encounters are always fatal.
Ev is still bearing down with his blue marker, giving his stick figure long curls that look suspiciously like his mother’s hair. I tap his shoulder. “Can you take a break, bud? Give this thing to Teacher Field.”
I hand him the glitter heart. Ev grips the card by the side, careful not to put his fingers in the still-wet glue, and does his lurching kid-walk to my co-teacher, who is not impressed.
“Dude. Really?” says Field.
“What?” I give her my winningest smile, the one I save for the end of Sheep in a Jeep, the one that made Ev’s mom agree to couple’s counseling when all she wanted was her ballroom-dancing friend.
Field doesn’t care about my smile. She looks around the table at her group of kids. Olivia is sketching a robot. “Don’t do this,” Field whispers over the girl’s bowed head.
“It’s just a joke. I love you like a friend. If you think there’s anything else, you’re imagining it.” I stand. My child-size chair falls back with a satisfying crash. All the kids look up.
“Outside time,” I say.
Field stands in front of the outside door. “What’s wrong with you? Pam says no.”
“Pam says no to everything.” I go to the corner, where the kids are putting on jackets and boots. My waterproof Patagonia hangs from a hook over the computer. Ev’s jacket is a smaller version. He likes it when we match.
“I’ll call her again.” Field stomps her foot, and when she sees me zip Olivia’s hoodie, she stomps right out of the room. Now I’m glad things aren’t working out between us. For somebody named after grass, she sure takes herself seriously.
Regulations say I’m not supposed to be alone with all seven kids, even if one of them is Ev, but if I can get them outside, they don’t really need much from me. I help Cole fit a parka over his cape and I let Gabby and Ally do each other’s galoshes. Susie Byrd runs straight for the door without putting on anything extra to keep warm, and I think, fine. She can freeze if she wants to. Ev is so quiet—that girl has him down.
Once he’s dressed, I lift my son up and he wraps his legs around my stomach. This is how I trick him into hugging me lately, by carrying him through every doorway.
The other kids filter out.
There’s a rooster now. Four chickens and a rooster. But it’s not as much of a problem as you might think. Little children are all talk. Here, outside, with no barrier to protect them, Dougan and Cole and Ally and Gabby and Olivia and Ev are shy about the wildlife. They climb the wooden structure and jump on our shaky bridge. They push each other down the slide and climb back up, and pretend the chickens aren’t there.
I let the screaming wash over me. The chickens and the rooster group at the edge of the yard, by the fence that separates us from an old age home and the Landerville Community Path—it’s that kind of neighborhood, a community path neighborhood. The whole damn brood, plus the rooster, must have found their way here via the path, with its curving bike lane and its semi-regular piles of dog shit.
In my head, I’m already composing the speech I plan to give these misguided young people whenever they come to pick up their livestock, but Susie spoils my idyll. She walks up to and peeps and bocks at the birds like they’re family. The birds peep and bock back. Everybody’s having a perfectly creepy chat.
“Come away from there,” I say, and as I say it, I see Field and Pam by the door. Field with her skinny jeans and Pam in one of her giant Christmas sweaters, red-faced like she ran all the way over here to yell at me.
“Everybody inside!” Pam shouts. Her face is purple and round, an overripe tomato. “There are more grownups coming to get the chickens.”
The kids ignore her.
“Candy!” shouts Field. “For the holiday.” She waves her arms in a circle, as if to offer each child as much candy as they can carry. They stop what they’re doing and mass toward the door.
Except Susie. She’s still chatting with the chickens, her back to all the grownups.
“Susie, honey, please,” says Pam.
Susie turns around with a spooky grin on her face. She looks straight at me and sticks out her tongue, and then the birds charge me. The hens shriek as they run. The rooster, bringing up the rear, lets out a cockledoodledoo.
At first I think it’s not a big deal. I can just hold the rooster up by the neck and the hens will fall back in awe. Thing is, when I reach out the rooster goes wild, flipping over on his back and peddling his legs. I keep trying to get him by the neck, but it’s like wrestling a tomcat. One second, I think I’ve got the son of a bitch, and the next he rips a hole in my jacket sleeve with one of the red spurs that protrude from the back of his ankles. My hand is covered with pink ridges. The hens are not awed, but crowd around me, clucking, undeterred. They peck at my jeans, hard. I feel a tug and hear the sound of denim tearing. One hen has a swatch of blue material dangling from her beak.
I have clearly underestimated the poultry situation. Now, I recognize the deadly intent in these animals’ eyes and I’m not too proud to run away. I haul ass up the playground structure, but the birds climb the rope ladder with their gnarly feet in slow-motion pursuit. I try the jungle gym but that’s also a bad move. They can’t fly, but they can hop up the metal bars.
I think I hear someone, Field or Pam or both, asking me what the hell I think I’m doing.
I leap from the jungle gym and sprain my ankle in the landing, then I kick at a couple incoming birds, but when my foot connects, the sprain throbs. Soon I am able to feint and dash toward the swing set. What’s happening must be Susie’s fault, but I can’t tell her to call the birds off because Pam and Field are watching, and they’ll think I’ve lost it. Pam might tell me to see a shrink. That’s what she did after my ex split for good and I didn’t show up to work for a week. Or she’ll just fire me, I won’t be able to provide, and my ex will end up with Ev. She wouldn’t even know what to do with him.
I’m still kicking, but my ankle hurts like crazy. I try to put my weight on it and kick with the other side, but that’s even worse. Is Animal Control coming, are those the grownups Pam was yelling about? I can’t tell where Susie is, but I can see all the non-Susie kids, the normal kids, gathered just inside the open classroom door. Field and Pam put their arms around Ev, who watches me run laps around the playground, a failed man. A walking loss of dignity, the losingest of all the dads he’s met.
Between me and the door, the rooster paces like a ticked-off goalie.
I want to return to this morning and start the day over. I want to lobby for local ordinances forbidding the raising of any birds—parakeets or chickens or cockatiels, I don’t give a shit—within city limits. I want a free membership for one of those internet dating deals, and I want a babysitter to take care of Ev while I’m out wining and dining his new mom. I want a life and the right to wring these birds’ necks with my bare hands and child support from my ex. Human connection, and help.
Help. This is what I’m thinking, or maybe I say it out loud, when a pair of black-clad figures with foot-high mohawks dash up to the community-path edge of our fence, when one of the figures shrieks, “Stop kicking our birds.” When I hear sirens, and when the biggest hen makes it past my poorly aimed kick and stabs her beak at my ankle and claws her way up to my hip. When I feel the greasy blood on my leg. When my eardrums are pierced by Pam’s scream and the door alarm, because they’ve left the thing open too long.
I hear Ev then. “What’s happening to my dad? Is my dad going to be okay?” I can’t tell if anybody answers him. It feels like she’s got teeth, the way this last hen bites into my hip and wiggles her head back and forth. The other birds have backed off, but to where? I can only see the punks. They hang back, looking guilty from the other side of the fence as their pet savages me. I’ll sue them to pieces.
The sirens are so close, but not close enough. I feel nothing but the searing pain on my right side. So I go for it. I dive to that side. The ground jumps up and gives me a hug, and there’s blood all over my pants and the grass and the hen’s white head, which is poking out from under me at a weird angle.
“Evan’s daddy just killed the bird friend,” Olivia says in a stage whisper. Why on Earth hasn’t Pam taken the kids inside? I’ll sue her too.
“Shut up,” Ev says. I love him more than this stupid life. When this is all over and we’re home, I can be Dad again. We can spend the whole weekend eating Cheetos and watching Dora the Explorer. He can watch me change my bandages. I will impress him with whatever gross injury I’ve just sustained.
For now I stay on the ground. Half my body is killing me. The sirens keep getting louder and I maybe lose some time. All I know is eventually, an EMT hovers over me, a medical professional in a sexy blue jumpsuit. At first I think she’s leaning in to kiss my forehead, but then she hoists my shoulders up and tells me I’m in shock, which sounds about right. The hen is still lying there where I crushed her. I see her body as the EMT slides me onto a stretcher, like a normal bird’s body with the neck stretched out, painted with swatches of red.
What can I say? I’m not a bad man, but I’m not sorry either. Not right away. Not for killing a living creature or anything else that happened today, though I can hear myself telling my rescuer I am, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I tell this strange woman I’m just so unbelievably sorry, and after I’ve told her a dozen times, only then do I start to feel it. I say I’m sorry over and over until it might be true, and then I allow myself to be carried away.
Cady Vishniac is a translator, writer, and Endelman/Gitelman Fellow at the University of Michigan. Most recently, her stories have appeared in New England Review, Glimmer Train, and New Stories from the Midwest, where she won the anthology prize.