Fred Towser left his California high-rise office one evening feeling dry and drained. Nothing new. His workday had become a monotony of paperwork, out-of-court settlements, and billable hours. He knew the law game. He played it as well as anyone, but lately he’d begun to fantasize about going home and taking off his Brooks Brothers suit, only to find another underneath and another and another. He imagined peeling away layer after layer without ever finding anything naked. He was losing himself. Or he was becoming his clothes. He wasn’t sure which.
Worse, his inner thoughts had turned cosmic. Sometimes he caught himself staring at nothing, while his mind contemplated the universe unwinding, the earth wobbling, the continents drifting, the dinosaurs coming and going. He didn’t like those ideas. They made him feel small.
In an effort to avoid such thoughts, he concentrated on keeping himself between the lines as he drove the freeway. He also kept the car radio turned up loud and tuned to an oldies station that featured less talk and more music. He literally be-bopped his way home.
His destination was three acres of California foothills crowned with a rambling ranch-style house that his wife had decorated. His contribution was paying for it. That’s how things went, more often than not. However, the property had come with an old ramshackle barn. It was a square, squat structure once red, now weathered. To his wife’s dismay he’d refused to tear it down. He couldn’t explain his attachment. It was as if that barn was the last real thing in his life’s landscape. She’d finally settled for planting a row of tall evergreens along the driveway to screen it from the house.
That evening as Fred drove up to his garage, catching glimpses of the barn between the shrubbery, it came to him that he needed something more closely tied to the land and his own sweat. That’s what was missing—what he needed to fill the void in his life. He’d never actually owned a barnyard animal, but his forefathers had been early settlers, homesteading pioneers, who’d come West for the land and raised all kinds of livestock.
His wife, Rita, was in the kitchen chopping vegetables. She was making hors d’oeuvres for a small dinner party that they were hosting that evening. She’d already set out the wine accessories—a basket for the bottle to repose in, a silver pouring spout to insert in the neck, silver bottle bottom cozies, silver coasters. Rita knew all the right things.
She gave herself the same detailed attention. She hadn’t spread an inch in seventeen years. Tanned, hair tinted, nails manicured, she wore sandals, a long silk hostess dress and a thin gold necklace studded with tiny diamonds. Most men would envy him. This was the “good life,” and Fred knew it. It just didn’t turn him on anymore.
Rita said, “The Howards and Lejeaunes are coming at eight. I asked the Ellsworths, but she’s staying in town to catch a concert.”
He popped a cherry tomato into his mouth and nibbled on a green pepper stick.
“Joey’s entertaining in the pool house. I told him he could invite friends over as long as he didn’t disturb our guests.”
Fred chewed on a carrot stick wondering why the kid couldn’t just go to bed early and leave his elders alone—the way Fred had been taught to do when he was the boy’s age. However, he knew better than to question anything having to do with their sixteen-year-old son especially since Rita had already chatted on to others things.
“And wouldn’t you know it, the pool cleaners didn’t show up. We’re having guests over—ours and Joey’s—and the pool hasn’t been cleaned.”
Fred reached for another tomato.
Rita jerked the plate away. “You better change before our guests arrive.”
Fred scooped a handful of cashews from a silver bowl and said, “I’m going to raise chickens.”
“Chickens? What are you talking about? Fred, I haven’t the time for this.”
“I am,” he asserted. “I’m going to raise chickens. I mean, why not get some use out of that old barn?”
“Why not tear it down, you mean.”
He shook his head slowly.
She paused long enough to engage his eye for half a second. “You’re serious?”
“Serious or not. You can’t do it.”
“Can’t?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow. “What’s to say a man can’t raise a few chickens?”
“The neighbor’s dog,” Rita returned.
Fred stiffened. His neighbor was a plastic surgeon named David Solomon. Besides owning a brown Doberman that messed on Fred’s lawn, he borrowed stuff all the time. Never mind that he made twice the money Fred did and could buy his own. Fred set his jaw. “If Solomon’s damned dog touches even one of my chickens, I’ll sue him.”
She shook her head. “If his dog got indigestion from one of your birds, he’d sue you. That dog’s got a pedigree longer than a queen’s.”
“No problem. That’s what I do,” Fred continued. “I put on my suit, I go to town, and I sue people. I’m really rather good at it, you know.”
She stared at him for a moment. “Why don’t you just take a vacation?”
A vacation wasn’t it. He needed to farm.
She continued, “Or better yet, why don’t you get out of that suit and get ready for the party?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m going,” Fred said, and that might have been the end of it except that on his way through the front hall, Fred was stopped by his cosmic thoughts.
It came to him that wanting to raise chickens on his suburban acreage was no more absurd than any other human activity undertaken on a small obscure planet wobbling its way through an unwinding universe. He pulled out the phonebook, turned to the yellow pages, and located the nearest farmer’s supply store. On the advice of the clerk, he ordered three dozen Orpington pullets and six goslings to be delivered the next day.
Of course that meant he couldn’t sit down with Rita and their friends. He had work to do. He put on old clothes and went down to the barn. He had to figure out how to make a home for his chickens. He was whistling when he left the house—the first time he’d whistled in years. He’d almost forgotten that he knew how.
Fred stopped whistling, a couple of weeks later, when his chickens started disappearing. Everything went fine for the first week and a half. Then one morning when he went down to the barn to feed and count his chickens, he had fewer than he’d had the night before. And fewer still the next morning and the next morning and the morning after that. Fred bought a gun and waited. Meanwhile, his chickens continued to disappear by twos and threes without a trace.
Then it happened. He was reading late one night when he heard a disturbance in the barnyard. Immediately he ran to the garage, grabbed the gun he’d hung above the back door, and switched on the lights. To his surprise, instead of his neighbor’s brown Doberman, he caught sight of a gray-coated coyote, lean, mean and yellow-eyed, jumping through the shrubs along the driveway. Two dead pullets dangled from its fang-filled mouth. Fred was so amazed he failed to fire his weapon. He hadn’t anticipated having to defend his chickens from a ferocious beast. The idea warmed him.
He went up to his son’s room. Joey was playing a video game—one of those first-person shooters where the player pretends he’s armed and shooting his way into an elaborate, labyrinthine fortress. If there was a goal to these games, beyond killing everything in sight, Fred didn’t know what it was. He closed the door so Rita wouldn’t hear. Then he sat on the bed next to his son and said, “Want to do some real hunting?”
Joey was blond, blue-eyed and better-looking than Fred—characteristics Fred considered unfortunate. Joey would probably slip into the country club set and slide through life without much effort. Fred was self-made, only three generations removed from his pioneer roots. In fact, Fred’s father had been a “blue-collar worker,” a term Fred doubted Joey understood in even the textbook sense.
Still concentrating on the TV screen and the “shoot-button,” Joey managed to screw up his nose and say, “Hunting? Real hunting? I don’t know. What do you mean?”
“Don’t worry,” Fred said. “I’ll teach you.”
“Teach me what?”
“How to handle a real gun. First we have to build a blind and get some scopes and . . .”
Joey paused his game. “What are we talking about, exactly?”
“Protecting our barnyard from a marauding coyote.”
Joey grunted. “Oh, that’s what’s getting the chickens.”
“Killing our chickens, you mean. It’s killing our chickens,” Fred emphasized.
“Yeah, and that’s what coyotes are supposed to do,” Joey returned. “You’d shoot it for that? How is that fair?”
“Fair-shmair. We could have ourselves an evening. Get some excitement around here—real excitement.”
“Mom says . . .”
“Mom says,” Fred growled. “What are you? A mama’s boy?”
“Dr. Solomon says the same thing, that you can’t going around destroying things for no good reason. Coyotes are part of the ecological balance.”
“Dr. Solomon!” Fred exploded. “What does he know? He only works three days a week. But do you know what would happen if I didn’t drive into town everyday? Believe me, we’d have more problems than one coyote. The wolf would be at our door. Do you understand? The wolf. Now, are you going to go hunting with me or not?”
Joey shook his head. “Sorry, Dad, it’s just not my thing.”
And Rita wouldn’t hear of it either. Hunting in their neighborhood!
That meant Fred had to resort to other means. He tried building bigger and better fences. He drew up the plans himself and hired a contractor. The contractor suggested alternatives that he claimed were proven against coyotes, but Fred wouldn’t listen. He was sick of negotiations and compromises. His whole life was about negotiations and compromises. For once, he was going to get what he wanted—an eight-foot fence, double-layered and fully electrified, top and bottom. That night, the coyote only got one gosling, but three pullets electrocuted themselves in their fright.
Next day he drove down to the county library and read that the Bureau of Land Management had poisoned coyotes until an executive order ended that form of predator control. By then Fred was beyond rules and regulations. He was engaged in a war. It took several phone booth phone calls and a clandestine meeting, complete with hat and trench coat, but Fred finally found a black market source for the poison. Next night he laced a butcher shop rabbit and laid it out. He repeated the procedure three nights in a row. Each time the coyote snubbed the bait in favor of a pair of chickens.
Next Fred bought two automatic searchlights. He set them up to sweep his barnyard, creating a crisscross of beams every ten seconds. That worked well enough to keep his losses at a chicken a week. But Fred still wasn’t happy. His chickens were his chickens and when he counted them, he wanted them all there.
About that time Rita suggested that he get a medical check-up. She’d heard that a chemical imbalance could affect men of his age. Fred thought the world had a chemical imbalance. He won an important case. There were photographs and interviews. He enjoyed fifteen minutes of fame, while everyone acted like everything he did was important and wonderfully brilliant. He knew better. Mostly his job consisted of rearranging things that didn’t need to be rearranged, like people’s lives.
Then one evening he was nursing a drink in a downtown bar. The television above the bar, which usually played sports or news, happened to be showing an old Roadrunner cartoon. Fred watched with some interest as Wiley Coyote blew himself up, fell down steep cliffs, and got caught in his own traps. Not once did that cartoon coyote come close to the Roadrunner. That’s when it occurred to Fred that he’d been doing it all wrong. What he needed was the right kind of chicken—a real roadrunner, so to speak.
Several weeks later, Rita followed him out to the barn. “Thing is, they keep making funny noises,” she said. “Loud, funny noises.”
Not having considered the broad cosmic perspective, the way the universe unwinds and the world wobbles, she thought his hobby had long gone beyond the embarrassing. In fact, some time ago, she’d given up complaining about his chickens in favor of complaining about his growing signs of craziness, meaning that she rarely visited the barnyard. However, that changed when his chickens changed.
“What bothers me is the noise they make,” she went on, repeating herself. “It’s getting worse. Surely you’ve noticed that.”
He opened a sack of Purina chick starter, scooped out the mash and scattered it along the feeders for his newest broodlings. “They’re always the loudest when they’re being fed,” he told her.
“That’s not it. The pitch is changing. It’s like a whooping click or a . . .” she stopped, seemingly lacking the vocabulary to describe what she was trying to describe.
Fred enjoyed seeing her speechless.
He said, “When they’re bigger, I’ll let them loose. Spread over the whole acreage, you won’t notice it.”
“Won’t notice it?” she repeated. “But I thought that was the point. I thought you said this kind of chicken was better than a watchdog.”
Fred sighed. She knew what he meant, but like the guys at the office who had to have everything in writing, she had to have him say it. “Of course, when there’s something to squawk about, then you’ll hear them.”
“I hope you’re right,” she answered in a tone he recognized as meaning she neither hoped nor expected that he would be right.
“When’s dinner?” Fred asked. “I’ve got a meeting later.”
“We’ll eat as soon as Joey gets home.”
Fred groaned. Joey was always late, a feat beyond Fred’s comprehension, considering that the kid drove too fast, but discussing Joey was more than Fred wanted to do in the short time before his meeting. With a shrug, he resigned himself to waiting for his supper.
Finished, he set the feed sack inside the barn and turned to see Dr. David Solomon and his brown Doberman ambling across the yard. The doctor was tall, tanned, athletic-looking, and only came calling when he wanted to borrow something. Fred braced himself.
“How are things?” the doctor asked peeking through Fred’s double wire fence. “I swear this cage could hold a gorilla. Got anything in there besides those itsy-bitsy chickies?”
Fred said, “They’re keets.”
“What’s a keet?”
“A baby Guinea hen.”
“Good god!” the doctor exclaimed looking closer at the fluff balls that were just beginning to sprout dark speckled feathers. “Those are Guinea chicks?”
“Keets,” Fred insisted. According to the books he’d read, that’s what they were properly called. “You’ve heard of them?”
The doctor nodded. “When I was a kid, growing up down south, I knew an old widow woman who kept a couple as watchdogs.”
Fred turned to Rita. “Told you they’d be good watchdogs. Didn’t I?”
The doctor shook his head. “But you must have fifty.”
“Why would anyone want four dozen Guinea hens?”
Fred said, “And why not? The more the merrier, they say.”
The doctor shook his head slowly, while he stared at the keets for a long while—long enough it made Fred fume. After all, what could he know? Fred was the one who’d read up on every domesticated fowl currently available in America. He was the one who knew that a fully-grown Guinea hen was just smaller than a wild turkey and that not only could it screech whenever a coyote came around, it could fly. In fact, Guinea hens preferred to roost in trees. Since Fred’s acreage had a fair number of trees, he was sure he had hit upon the perfect bird. So what was his neighbor—this high-priced quack smirking about?
“What’s so funny?” Fred asked.
The doctor’s barely contained mirth had forced him to pull out a handkerchief and dab at his eyes. When he could more fully control himself, he said, “Those birds will not only make the most God-awful noise you’ve ever heard, they’re going to drop mid-air bombs the size of cowpies.”
Rita paled. “Fred! What are we going to do? I’ve got a lawn party planned.”
“It’ll be dark,” Fred told her. “Chickens roost after dark.”
“That won’t solve the problem and you know it, if . . .”
She was cut short by the sound of crunching, slipping gravel. Joey had turned his car off the highway going twenty miles per hour too fast. Fred figured this was it. The kid had been lucky so far, but Fred had known for a while now that it was only a matter of time before Joey put the car through the garage door before the automatic opener could get it out of his way.
However what happened next was not exactly what Fred had anticipated. Instead of hitting the garage door, Joey skidded the car between Rita’s shrubs and into the chicken enclosure. The result was a gaping hole in both layers of fencing.
“Look what you’ve done,” Fred screamed as the stunned teenager emerged from his car shaken, pale, and looking just like his mother.
Rita shrieked, “My baby, my baby, are you hurt?”
“I don’t know what happened, ” he kid answered. “It never did that before.”
“It’s all your fault,” Rita accused Fred as she gathered the boy under her arm and hurried him off to the house. “Joey could have been seriously hurt on that stupid chicken cage. This is too much. Beyond crazy. When are you going to give up and get real? You’re a family man.”
After they were gone, the doctor clapped Fred on the back. “If you’re smart, you’ll let that coyote clean out those nasty keets and charge it to your insurance, along with the rest of the damage.”
“If you give that kind of advice at your office,” Fred retorted, “I can understand why they’ve doubled your malpractice premiums.”
The doctor shrugged. “Only trying to help. Can I borrow your rototiller?”
“You know where it is.”
The doctor nodded. “Sure thing. Thanks.” Then whistling for his dog, he strode up the driveway and around to the garden storage shed.
Fred backed Joey’s car away from the fence and surveyed the damage. Both layers of wire had been pulled off one post and punched in. If he skipped dinner, he’d have time to re-stretch the wire and fasten it down before his meeting, he decided. With that in mind, he went up the driveway and opened the garage to get his hammer.
Daylight settled into that fifty-fifty state in which there are no shadows and yet not enough darkness to bring out the bright eyes of wild things. That, of course, favored the coyote. By the time Fred saw it, it was already inside the chicken yard.
Keeping his eyes on the beast, Fred reached above the back door and felt for his gun. On his first try, the gun only cleared the muzzle end of the two brackets that held it in place. On tiptoe, Fred bumped the stock to free it, as well. Still it wouldn’t come and still he refused to take his eyes off the fearsome foe stalking his keets. He bumped the gun harder, struggling against time and some unseen hang-up. He hit it a final frustrated blow and the gun freed tipping down and discharging.
Fred looked from the coyote in his barnyard to the small, round hole in his shoe.
That ought to hurt, he thought, but it didn’t. There wasn’t even much blood. But there was a clarity, as if the cloud of confusion that had befuddled him of late, had suddenly lifted. He smelled the gunpowder and tasted the dust. He even had time, and consciousness enough, to spot a tiny spider hanging suspended by a gossamer thread from the edge of the open garage door.
With that steady detachment, Fred raised the gun to his shoulder. He aimed at the animal circling the chicken cage. He had it in his sights, but, just as he squeezed the trigger, the back door flew open, smacking him from behind. His shot went wild, lodging somewhere on the broad side of the barn.
“Wha-what happened?” Joey asked. Then seeing a trickle of blood roll out of Fred’s shoe, his eyes widened and he screamed, “I’ll go for a doctor!”
With that stated intention, he jumped into Fred’s car, fired the ignition, shoved the transmission into reverse and screeched backward up the driveway and onto the highway.
“There’s a doctor in the backyard,” Fred started to say, but by that time, the coyote had escaped, his keets were loose, his wife had come out yelling that she’d always known those chickens would be their ruin, and Fred’s own shock wore off.
The universe unwinds. The earth wobbles. The continents drift. The dinosaurs come and go. And pain, conceived by a blow so severe it’s benumbed at first, always returns. Grasping his newfound clarity amid a blaze of hurt, Fred’s understanding suddenly cleared. He saw what the Indian shamen, formerly inhabiting these same California foothills, had known all along—namely that the world is coyote kissed. Trickster created. His own antics, measured against that knowledge and the broader cosmic background, suddenly fell into place. Without giving it a second thought, Fred jumped up and down, danced all around, and screamed, “This isn’t funny.”