The Hobby Farmer

It seemed to me that all the great adventures had gone out of the world, so a week after my wife left me I packed up everything I had and moved to Oklahoma. I had never been to Oklahoma before, or farmed in any manner of speaking, but I decided if this was going to be a true adventure I’d better do something right for a change and bought an old farm on a dry, windy piece of land. The first stock I purchased for my farm was chickens. Back in Ohio I had never really felt an urge to own poultry, but after the chickens arrived in the back of a big semitruck I started getting attached to the little featherheads. The way they walked around pecking at the bare ground for hours seemed very optimistic to me and I appreciated that, being somewhat in a funk over my wife’s desertion. The only problem was the chickens ran riot over the place, unchecked, so I asked around in town and got the number of a fellow everyone said was a natural born chicken handler, the best in Oklahoma.

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The handler showed up the day after I called him in an old white pick-up truck that was riddled with rust, some of the holes in it as big as medium-sized pizzas. He had two sleek looking border collies in the bed of his truck, their tongues drooling with the June heat. The handler was a stocky Mexican guy with a round, solemn face and round brown eyes. Despite the heat, he was dressed in construction boots, blue jeans, and a blue and green flannel shirt. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his shirtsleeve. “Are you the man who wanted help with his chickens?” “Yes,” I said. “Are you Panza?” “Yes.” Panza whistled and the collies leapt out of the truck bed, lickety-split. “The gray one is Lupe, the brown one Charlie.” “Charlie,” I said. “That’s a good name.” “Yes,” Panza said, shading his eyes with a plump, brown hand. “It is.” We looked over the farm together. First up was a faded red barn that smelled like old straw. I liked the way my new cowboy boots clicked across the concrete floor as I walked through the barn. Panza nodded at all the open space. “Good,” he said. We headed over to the chicken coop next, Lupe and Charlie at our heels as if they thought we needed herding ourselves. The chicken coop was a small, one-story building that must have been a visitor’s cottage during the farm’s long ago glory days. I had already put a wire perimeter fence around the coop, setting it thirty yards back from the old cottage to give the chickens plenty of room to roam. “Free range,” Panza said, nodding at the chickens too stupid to stay inside the cottage and out of the afternoon heat. “It’ll make them tougher to eat.”

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“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m really only interested in eggs, anyhow. We can tell people the chickens have a good life, free to run about as they please. We’ll call them ethically produced eggs.” Panza scratched his head. “You just moved to Oklahoma?” “Yes, sir,” I said. “From Ohio.” “You never farmed before?” I wiped my palms on my new, still stiff blue jeans. “No, sir. I used to sell electronics, but I sold the business last month and decided to retire early.” Panza scratched Lupe behind his ears, still looking the coop over. “You’re not going to make much money selling eggs.” “That’s okay. I just don’t want to lose much.” “Are you going to farm anything else? Cows, hogs?” I pulled my baseball cap closer over my eyes, trying to fight the white glare beaming down from the sky. “Maybe later I’ll get more stock. I’m going to see how the chickens take, then go from there.” Panza walked up to the perimeter fence and unlatched the wire gate. Inside the fence about a dozen chickens pecked around in the dirt, though you couldn’t see any feed remaining on the ground. Panza whistled and Lupe and Charlie ran inside the fence. The dogs started barking and within seconds they had the chickens rounded up in a clucking herd, the dogs corralling all of them back into the coop. Panza whistled again and the border collies returned, jumping the fence instead of going through the open gate. I smiled as the handler petted his dogs.

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“How would you like to work for me, Panza? You can stay in the guest room if you’d like. I can only pay you average, but the work shouldn’t be too hard. This farm is only a hobby for me, you know.” Panza closed the wire gate and latched it. He scanned the farm, humble as it was, and nodded. “Hobby farming,” he said. “Yes. I will work for you.” * For the first few weeks I let Panza handle the chickens while I worked on making my new house somewhat habitable. The house was a bungalow with a deep basement, as if the previous owners had expected nuclear war at any moment. I sledged down walls and raised plaster dust until it was everywhere, coating my eyelids, my bathtub, my cornflakes. I cut and hung sheetrock. I painted, gallon after gallon. It was hot work for June in Oklahoma, but I didn’t want to turn on the central air conditioning, worried that its filters would get clogged from all the dust and the unit would explode. At the end of each day, after the chickens were settled, Panza came inside. We’d open up the liquor cabinet and hunker down in the kitchen. I looked forward to our evening conversations, which usually revolved around the farm or my impending divorce. Panza, raised in a conservative Catholic family, was having a hard time understanding the situation. “So, after twenty years of marriage your wife left you to move to New York City?” “Correct.” “To live with a woman?” “Her lover.”

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“Her lover, yes. Your woman loves another woman, and she has left you to be with her.” “Yes.” “That is the strangest thing I have ever heard.” “Stranger things have happened.” “That is true. Still, this is very strange. She no longer loves you?” “Yes, I think she does. But not in that way.” “Not in a sexy way.” “Sure. I guess you could put it like that.” Our conversations could go on for a long time like this, both of us drinking until we fell asleep at the kitchen table. I’d usually wake up a few hours after we dropped off and find Panza still snoring away, his cheek pressed against the dusty table. Lupe and Charlie would be asleep, too, spread out around their master’s feet. Probably dreaming of chickens, chasing them and herding them and protecting them from wild packs of wolves. I’d put a blanket over Panza’s shoulder and teeter off to bed, where I’d lay with the room spinning around me. I’d wonder how my wife was doing in New York. How peacefully she slept. * By early August the farm was halfway respectable. We’d purchased a rooster, a randy little bugger, and chickadees were popping out of the woodwork, nearly a fresh batch of them every week. I loved to hold each baby chick in my hands, feel its tiny heart beat between my fingers as they looked around and got a proper sense of things.

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“So little,” I said to Panza one day near mid-August. “Like a puff of air has come to life and started to chirp.” “Yes. That is why you must keep them warm and healthy. I have trained Lupe and Charlie to never bother the chicks unless they must.” The border collies dozed beside each other in the entrance to the hen house, farting softly in a patch of sunlight. Their furry bodies formed an effective barrier to the outside world, blocking the path of any hen still unaware that it wasn’t allowed outside in the afternoon heat. “Those dogs could kill every chicken in here if they wanted to,” I said. “How’d you train them so well?” Panza pointed at his temple. “Dog psychology. I once glazed a chicken with ant poison, and when the dogs ate the chicken, they got very, very sick. Since then, they do not want to eat any chickens. They prefer the dog food that makes its own gravy.” We left the henhouse, stepping over Lupe and Charlie in the doorway. It was only two o’clock, but we both felt like a beer. The air outside was very turbulent, throwing dust until it stuck in the back of your throat and coated the whites of your eyes. The sky was a funny shade of yellow, like a runny egg yoke, and when I pointed the color out to Panza he frowned, his dark mustache drooping. “I don’t like the looks of this sky.” “You think it’s going to rain?” Panza squinted and looked up, right at the sun. “Maybe more than rain. Anything could happen with a sky like this.”

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“Well, then, “ I said, opening the screen door. “We better get inside and have ourselves a drink.” It was cooler in the house because I had finally been able to turn on the central air conditioner, the plaster dust now being at a manageable level, and I washed my hands in the kitchen sink with plenty of soap. Chickens were fine, but you didn’t want the smell of them on your hands all the time, reminding you of endless chores. I had never owned so much as a hamster before, and often found the dependency of the chickens exhausting. It was like trying to raise hundreds of very stupid, very easily alarmed children. We sat at the table with our beer and drank. You could hear the wall clock ticking above the kitchen sink, evenly powered by its single AA battery. “Back in Mexico, I have a wife,” Panza said abruptly, something I had not known or thought to ask. “She is a strong, beautiful woman, but she has a temper like the Devil himself and so I only go home a few weeks each year. The rest of the year I am traveling and working on farms like this, making money to send home so she can have a nice house and nice things. Even though we do not get along well, if she left me for another I would miss her mucho.” I didn’t know what to say to that, so I remained silent. The silence stayed in the kitchen and threatened to grow into something uncomfortable. “Let’s listen to the radio,” Panza said. He liked this strange mariachi/hip hop station that came in from Oklahoma City. I was learning Spanish simply from the amount of time we spent listening to this station, so I nodded and Panza turned the radio on. There wasn’t any music, though, just this woman’s voice speaking really fast in Spanish. I mean, even faster than people normally speak in Spanish.

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“What’s she talking about, Panza?” Panza stared at the radio and his brown eyes widened. I looked out the kitchen window and a huge gnarled ball of tumbleweed rolled by, like in an old-time Western. “Wind’s picking up,” I said. Panza turned to me. “Tornadoes.” “The hell you say.” “All over the state.” “Well, I’ll be damned.” I finished off my beer and got another out of the fridge. “Let’s go out to the porch and see what’s up.” We took our drinks outside. Lupe and Charlie came trotting over to us from the coop, looking worried. The yellow sky was too dim for four o’clock in August and dark, purplish clouds rolled in on the horizon. “This cannot be good,” Panza said, taking a swig from his beer. Lupe and Charlie lay down at our feet, whimpering as the wind picked up. “Tornadoes or not,” I said, “this is going to be one hell of a storm.” Panza set his beer down and stepped off the porch. “I should check on the hens. They are unhappy about bad weather.” “That might be a good idea.” As Panza started across the yard, the wind died down. My skin tightened. In the distance, maybe two miles off, a funnel cloud broke from the sky and touched the earth. It was the sort of harrowing sight you had no true idea about until you saw it for yourself, and by then you wished you were somewhere else. Panza turned from the funnel cloud and sprinted towards the coop. I followed as fast as I could in my cowboy boots, which were stiff and awkward as hell to run in.

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Inside the coop, the hens must have known what was up because they were flapping and clucking like mad and even the barking dogs couldn’t restore order. Feathers flew everywhere, swirling around so much I wondered if we were too late, if the tornado was already on top of us. But it wasn’t and the dogs went to work organizing the hens, barking and nudging and if necessary carrying them loosely in their jaws. I grabbed a cardboard box, stuffed some hay into the bottom of it, and began scooping up all the chickadees I could find. I had to move quickly with finesse, catching the jumpy chicks without squishing them. Finally I caught all of them (though they were pretty uncomfortable, I’m sure, bunched up over each other and chirping to beat the band) and closed up the box. Panza and his troops had rounded up the hens and one very excited rooster and we all rushed towards the house now. In the distance the funnel cloud had grown immense, as bloated as a beehive as it tossed dirt and trees into the air. “Goddamn!” I shouted. “Would you look at that son of a bitch!” Panza had his hands full with three or four reluctant hens and didn’t hear me as he continued towards the house with his short legs pumping. The wind picked up again and I stumbled backwards, almost dropping the chicks. Thrown gravel stung my eyes, so I lifted the box in front of my face and kept walking, somehow making the front porch without tripping over anything. Panza held the door while the dogs ushered the hens into the house, their muzzles foaming with the effort. I gave a few hens a kick myself and soon we were all inside, trembling as we piled into the basement. * “I guess we made it,” Panza shouted above the general clamor. I set the cardboard box down on the basement floor and the chicks went silent, unsettled by being

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abandoned at such a time. I opened the box and patted their fuzzy heads. I lied and told them it was all right, that the sky wasn’t falling, before folding the box shut again. “I can’t believe you got all those hens down here so fast,” I told Panza. “You and those dogs are miracle workers.” Panza blushed and waved a hand at the dogs. “They love their work.” “You’re telling me. This must be their Super Bowl.” “Yes,” Panza said, smiling. “This is their Super Bowl of poultry herding.” The roaring outside grew louder and it was almost here. Even the clucking hens fell quiet at last, as if realizing the game was over and they had better say their chicken prayers. I looked around the basement and licked my lips, wishing I had brought some more beer down with me. “Thanks for your help, Panza. Sorry about this.” “De nada,” Panza said, and even as he smiled reassuringly the house exploded above us and we were thrown to the floor. I heard metal screeching and the chickens clucking all around me. I looked up as the ceiling rolled off. Replacing it was darkness and wind and I could feel the funnel tugging at me, trying to lift me off the basement’s concrete floor, but it was the chickens that went first. They lifted into the air like a hundred tiny, squawking airplanes, rising up into the funnel’s center and looking miserable as they tried to flap their useless, stunted wings. I glanced over and saw Panza hugging both dogs to him, pressing all three of them to the floor with his round body. In the middle of the room the box full of baby chicks trembled, about to lift into the air. I imagined those tightly crammed chicks, open

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mouthed and shaking. Shouting something even I couldn’t hear, I crawled over to the cardboard box and held it in my arms. The tornado pulled hard at the box and I felt lighter than I had ever felt in my life. I closed my eyes and wondered what my wife would say about this last action, if she’d think I was brave or stupid. My legs lifted behind me, my cowboy boots sliding off my feet. Then an airborne toaster smacked me in the head, and I was out. * The next thing I knew Lupe and Charlie were licking my face. I pushed the dogs away and stood up. “Are you okay?” Panza said, pointing at my head. “You’re bleeding.” “I’m fine,” I said. “It was only a toaster.” We each took a deep breath and surveyed the basement. The hens and their rooster lover man were gone but the cardboard box was still here. Inside the box the chicks peeped among themselves, feeling each other out. “You saved the chicks,” Panza said, opening the box to inspect them. “Good job.” I picked a chick up and held it in my hand, stroking the top of its soft head until its rapid heartbeat slowed. “We survived,” I told it, “and that’s what matters.”

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