23 Chickens, 2 Chihuahuas

and the summer I spent in California

This is a true story of how I spent the summer of 2019 living with an older married couple. The house was claustrophobic, they argued incessantly, and they never threw anything out, so I would spend most evenings after work avoiding their hyper-concentrated space by lying in a park and reading under a tree with a Whole Foods hot bar dinner, and would go home once the sun had set. I had only a few chances to get to know them well: this was one of the best.

Almost nobody walks around in these suburban neighborhoods because there’s nothing interesting within walking distance, just houses and cars

             I like their homesteading. Is that what they call it when you own a $1.5m house in the Bay Area but it’s tiny, 800 square feet for a 3 bed 1 bath, your front lawn is overrun with stonefruit trees, overripe tomatoes, an inconveniently fruitful lemon tree, and weird plastic Costco tents for your two tiny Chihuahuas, and also you keep chickens in your back yard? Twenty-three chickens? Is that homesteading, would you call it that do you think? My age number of chickens? Twenty-three? An absolutely illegal number of chickens to keep here without the right licenses.

             There are several breeds of chickens here. I just tried to look up which ones I remember O telling me about on the Wikipedia page for “List of chicken breeds,” thinking it would be a short list and that I could probably recognize the correct name for the chicken she calls Marilyn, white and with a mohawk and feathers on her feet. Smaller than some of the other ones, the big beach-ball chickens, red like sun. But bigger than the very slim ones, elegant and mottled, laying delicate blue eggs. Those were the refined birds, comparatively speaking. However, the Wikipedia page was very long. 

            The point was, this weekend I’m on chicken duty. To be more exact, I am on chicken duty this evening and tomorrow morning, but after that it’s T’s job. I am flying home to my parents for the weekend and was obliged to pass on my chicken duties for Saturday and Sunday to T. Unfortunately, T is not a morning person (unlike me, now that I’ve started drinking coffee again). He told me that he has to call an Uber every morning to get him to his internship on time.

             The chickens wake up and need to be fed at around sunrise. Otherwise they cluck very, very loudly. T’s window opens directly into the chicken yard (mine opens to the front yard). The morning job is to unlock the greenhouse, take the feeders out of it and drag them into a spot under the apple tree. Then you can unlock the human door to the chicken run and prop it open for the day. I was shown that the chickens have a tiny door off to the side that stays open and that they can use if they feel so inclined, which reassured me that they can come and go as they please all night long, even though chickens are not very nocturnal as far as I know. Still, I like the idea of a lone insomniac chicken sneaking out of the run and pacing in the yard by the compost bin. I would also like to know when my tiny chicken door would be installed, please. 

             Other morning tasks include scooping poop off the coop (when O said this to me she said it with a big grin, I think because of how unpleasant the phrase sounds) and picking eggs to put in the wicker basket that hangs on a nail outside. Sometimes the eggs are still warm, and this feels like a reward or a blessing. I thank the chickens. If you’re feeling generous, there’s a bag of dried mealworms in the tin garbage bin next to the time-out zone/chicken jail, and you can grab a fistful of dried mealworms and throw them on the ground and the chickens will delight in pecking their beaks against concrete for a morsel of protein. Too much of a good thing would be bad for their kidneys, I think.

             In the evening, come by and say good night to the girls. They will start settling down as the sun sets. An easy routine: gather any eggs you see, drag the feeders back into the greenhouse and lock it, and close the people door to the run. This is what I did just now, and standing in the dark kitchen looking out at the setting sun coloring the window purple, and pink, bruising the trees and retreating, I felt very thankful to be here. I felt relieved of some burden once I had fulfilled my obligation to these birds, my responsibility in exchange for their warm little eggs. 

             I thought that it must take an exceptional person to wake up every morning and feed their chickens at sunrise, all year round. To know each of their names, and personalities, and to know who likes to be held and who is an ankle-pecker. I looked out into the yard and saw the mysterious objects, the roughly abandoned-like things that they keep around instead of moving to a better place, or to any place at all. A metal chair ten feet away from the rest of the outdoor dining set, for no clear reason. Planks of wood, some arbitrarily rotten. Tarps, buckets. A wheelbarrow tipped sideways with a bag of mulch, its label sunburnt. Coiled and uncoiled hoses. Flowers planted in interstices, growing and untrimmed. Lemons heavily hanging over the fence and dropping onto the top of an orange plastic tent that has been set up waist-high (for the chickens to have shade if it’s too hot). Several methods of composting with no apparent difference between their contents. Dirt. Tin garbage bins. Lids. A small bag of hay pecked open and spilling out. There are other things, and all of these things are accumulated in a way that seems like a message I can’t figure out. Staring out of this kitchen window is like how it must feel to fly over a field of crop circles. Kind of a cautious realization that even if there was a message, and even if the message was made by humans, the message wasn’t meant for you.  

             More and more of the world of O and B is making sense to me now. I learned that O gives prescription anti-anxiety medicine to her dogs, and was kicked out of her anesthesiology program for questioning protocol and being ill-collaborative. She seems to have beef with nearly every neighbor on our block. B emails me pdfs of statistics textbooks, has a hearty southern Indiana accent, and walks around in his underwear. He is older than O by 12 years. One time I walked in on him patching a hole in the seat of his jeans with duct tape. He offers me some of his coffee every morning, and I refuse because I do not understand how it is so black, night-murder black, and how he uses so many grinds that they pile up at the top of the filter in a layer two inches thick but he never seems to run out of coffee beans. They never seem to run out of anything. Every shelf, closet, metal rack, bookshelf in the kitchen is stocked to an avalanche amount. Food taken out of the fridge stays on the counter until someone eventually throws it out, because once you take it out of the fridge there is no way to Tetris it back. Packages to the house come delivered to Sugar Dinosaur (their nicknames for each other). Sometimes on weekends, when they are watering the tomatoes and peppers or moving the rack off the top of the car together, something happens and they argue, O yelling very loudly, and they call each other stupid or retarded. Every time they say they are reaching shocking new frontiers of how stupid someone can be. They say they hate each other so much they can’t believe it. But they seem very happy to be together on the whole. 

             I am happy that I am understanding them better now. I understand that they have cameras all over the yard and a livestream always running on the computer that you can see from the kitchen through the gapped open door into B’s study, and that they probably watched me stand in the middle of the yard and stare at the chickens for a very long time. I know that they go on evening walks with the dogs, and visit all their neighbors, and stop by and say hello and socialize their dogs and drop off eggs and exchange fruit or leftovers or things that were on sale that they bought in bulk because the deal was too good to pass up, and it takes them a very long time to do the rounds every night. They never entertain or invite anyone over, because after all the house is too small and all the living happens outside of it anyway. 

Your Aspirational Chicken Farmer,

N