I’m a vegetarian. Sort of. Occasionally I eat fish, but I don’t eat cows or pork or lamb or chicken. Ever. I wish I could say it’s because I think of the environment first and foremost, but I have no morals when it comes to food. The fact that I’m helping the planet in some small way by avoiding meat is merely the cherry on top. The truth is I don’t eat meat because the thought of how those animals are raised and killed gives me the willies. You’ve seen the pictures, thousands of chickens cramped and crawling all over each other in dark, dirty cages waiting to be slaughtered. I can’t not think about it while I’m eating. I’ve tried, because protein is like, important. But my imagination is too vivid.
So, I don’t eat meat. I also never lived on a farm or in the country. As a kid, I didn’t go to a farm-like camp, nor did I participate in any farm-like activities. Pretty much a city girl, through and through. I did grow up with dogs, so when I was in graduate school 15 years ago and needed extra money, I house-sat for friends or neighbors and took care of their dogs. I was also about a year sober.
One of my first jobs was for a couple I’ve known since childhood. The house sat proudly at the top of a hill with stunning views of the Pacific to the west and the LA basin going east toward downtown. The couple offered me the master suite and told me to help myself to the hot tub, laundry and cable TV. Their golden retriever was adorable and low maintenance as were the hummingbirds that drank the red sugary water from the feeder hanging outside the kitchen window. After a quick tour and to-do list, the couple headed out the door and climbed into their shiny red SUV. Just before they drove away the Mrs rolled down her window and said,
“Oh, I almost forgot. You’ll need to feed the chickens and bring in the egg once a day. It’s really easy…”
And they were gone, down the street and around the corner out of sight.
Excuse me? Wait, um, chickens? But…I don’t do chickens, I heard myself say meekly and almost under my breath, because I was the only one within earshot who gave a damn. Then came For fuck’s sake! which I’m certain even the chickens heard.
Sure enough, right outside the garage in the side yard, inside a very roomy chain link coop, stood two very lively, very chicken-like, chickens. They had left me with chickens. I stood there staring at these two feathered creatures, who were most definitely looking right back at me, which for a chicken means their heads were cocked sideways and one of each of their scary little eyes was glaring at me.
As we checked each other out, there were no words, no movements, no sounds. I held my breathe and I’m not sure if chickens can do that, but if they can, I’m certain they were, because it was really quiet. I also don’t know if chickens are very smart because their heads are very very small, but I think these chickens knew enough to know that I was Freaking Out on the inside, because all of a sudden they started gawking and flapping their wings and running around in circles poking each other. I promptly turned around and went straight back into the house.
After catching my breath and throwing cold water on my face I decided I needed a plan. My first thought was actually I needed a drink, but my second thought was most definitely about a plan. So, there I was, ready to throw 11 months of sobriety down the proverbial toilet for two noisy critters in a coop, when I decided to call someone and have a chat. That’s what we’re told in early sobriety. Call first, before you take a drink.
I dialed my sponsor who, at the sound of my shaky voice gasped, “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“Yes, no, well, I’m not in an accident or like, drunk or anything. But there are chickens.”
Silence on the other end of the phone.
“Hello? Carol? Are you there?”
“Chickens,” she repeated calmly. Then again, “Chickens?”
We discussed my options, which were: 1) leave the house immediately and fake my own kidnapping so the couple would have to either return home early or hire someone else to take care of the chickens; 2) bribe the gardener to do it; or 3) keep my sponsor on speakerphone while I bucked up and performed the required duties myself. We decided on option 3 after a lot of inhaling courage and exhaling fear. Then she said,
“Call me in the morning when you’re ready. Now stop thinking about it and go to bed. It’s just a chicken.”
“It’s two chickens,” I quickly responded.
She wasn’t one to mince words or entertain my whining for more than like, 17 seconds, so she ended the conversation.
“I’m hanging up now. Sweet dreams.”
I hung up the phone and said under my breath (again, to no one except maybe the dog), “Dreams? Nightmares is more like it – nightmares of chickens.”
The next morning I pulled on a pair of boxers, a grey beefeater tee and my flip flops and called Carol. With the phone clutched between my shoulder and ear, I made my approach. On the count of three…1, 2….and I slowly opened the coop, crept inside on my tip toes, searched around for the token egg, all while giving Carol a play by play of my each and every move and observation.
Then I saw it. The egg! It sat simply and solely on a bed of straw. I picked it up using just two of my plastic baggie-covered fingers, then very carefully I backed out of the coop, scurried inside and into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator door and put the egg ever so gingerly on the top shelf. And closed the door.
Sounds easy, right? Well, remember, there were two bug-eyed, very lively chickens in that coop who didn’t know me from Adam and probably were a little perturbed at being bothered by a stranger with plastic baggie hands. They made all sorts of chicken noises and flapped around, which I thought a bit rude, actually.
Day one then rolled into the next and I was feeling quite confident about my chicken-sitting prowess. I actually thought the feathered critters had taken a liking to me. So I was surprised the next morning, day two, when I approached the coop and only one of the chickens was up and greeted me. I looked at my watch – 7:25am – almost 45 minutes later than the previous morning’s greeting. Maybe they had a late night and one was enjoying a little extra zzzzz?
Wait a minute, I thought. Did chickens sleep? And if they did sleep, how did they sleep? Standing up or sitting down or on their side or…? I had never seen a sleeping chicken. For fuck’s sake, I wasn’t even sure if chickens slept! All I knew was only one of the damn chickens was currently awake. I started to panic but only a little because it really looked like how a sleeping chicken might look if chickens slept.
While I pondered the sleeping rituals of chickens, the other very awake chicken wouldn’t shut up. If I had to guess, I would’ve guessed the awake chicken looked a little bit like a freaked out chicken. I moved closer to the coop to get a better look. The awake chicken came right up to me as I opened the coop. I tip toed in and leaned in really close to the sleeping chicken. It occurred to me that maybe I could wake it up, give it a poke or a nudge. So I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and did just that.
I poked the chicken. Then I screamed, really really loud. The chicken didn’t move or wake up because the chicken was not asleep. The fucking chicken was DEAD.
Now, I’d never seen a dead chicken except in the grocery story, but I can tell you as sure as I know the sky is blue, I had a dead chicken on my hands. I was horrified, mortified, beside myself. Panic set in. What had I done wrong? Did I give it the wrong food, or scare it somehow into having a heart attack? Chicken neglect. What would I tell the couple who had counted on me, the couple who weren’t scheduled to return home for another 6 days? My head spun so fast I had to sit. No, I stood up instead and walked inside then wanted to be sure I had diagnosed correctly so I returned to the coop and sure enough, dead is dead. The remaining chicken looked so alone and scared as it scurried around its companion. I almost felt sorry for it, the still alive chicken.
I was lost in my head and wandering around the house when, thank god, Carol called. I ran for my phone and told her the news.
“One of our chickens is dead!”
“What? Really? How?”
“I don’t know, it just IS!”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure! I poked it and it’s hard, stiff or whatever. What should I do?”
Carol was quiet for a moment then said,
“You have to call the owners and ask them what to do with it. You have no other choice.”
This sounded reasonable but I knew there was no way in hell I could do it.
“Right sure. Just call them and say ‘Hello, it’s Kim and I killed one of your chickens. I couldn’t keep your chickens alive for a measly seven days while you were on vacation.’ No, I can’t.”
But I did. I had to do something before the other alive chicken had a heart attack from distress. It was still running around the coop making horrible noises and circling the dead chicken.
Somehow I dialed the numbers and got the words out but I couldn’t tell you what I said. It’s a blur. But I absolutely remember what she instructed me to do…because to this day I have no idea how I did it. There aren’t words to describe my horror at the entire process. I was shaking inside and out, unable to speak or protest. I knew if I stopped to think about exactly what I was doing, I’d never get it done.
This is what I did: Found two large Hefty trash bags from the kitchen; placed one bag on the floor of the coop; picked up the dead chicken with both hands and maneuvered around so I could place it in the bag on the floor of the coop; double bagged the dead chicken and wrapped it up tight. Then I put the entire thing inside the freezer, and I don’t mean the extra freezer in the garage. She told me to put the dead chicken in the kitchen freezer.
“There should be space but if not just move stuff around,” were her exact words.
Just shove the frozen peas and Stouffer’s dinner over and stuff the chicken right in there between the Rocky Road and veggie patties. For fuck’s sake.
For the record, dead chickens are hard and flat like one of those weird black things that slide along the ice in the winter Olympics. You know, the strange game that no one understands? Curling. A dead chicken looks and feels like one of those, but with feathers. In case you were wondering.
So that dead chicken stayed in the freezer for the next six days while I slept and ate and made coffee and went about my business house-sitting and feeding the remaining chicken and taking care of the dog. And yes, at least once a day for each of those six days, I checked the freezer to make sure it was still there. And still dead.
image via pierre bedat