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 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