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 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. The kids 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