By Sharon Wootton
NOTE: “The Great Chicken Standoff” is part of a longer work about life on a small island with fictitious characters and events. The speaker is the owner of the Bent Spoon Café, the social center of Dollar Island. The deed to the island was won in a poker game on Piss Pot Island, West Virginia, when the soon-to-be ex-owner had only a silver dollar left to stay in the game but had five cards that couldn’t lose. Eventually, when poker’s good luck turned bad, the new owner made his way West to claim his island.
A never-ending skirmish was our version of a feuding David and Goliath, right-vs.-might, old-timer versus newcomer, downscale versus upscale conflict, guaranteed to make Dollar Island’s Gossip Hall of Fame. John and Heather Tucker had moved into their Safeway-size residence a year ago, a couple of years after buying Fanny Rice’s farm, which had been in the family for three generations. Fanny would never have sold it the Tuckers, who were corporate attorneys and Seattle residents, which counted as three strikes in Fanny’s book. But she was on life support at the time her brother used his power of attorney to sell the homestead.
The time between signing the papers and the Tuckers’ four-moving-van arrival had been taken up with a steady flow of big-city architects and skilled labor from a half-dozen sites in two states. It also meant John Tucker’s weekly inspections to compare the written update by the contractor to what actually existed. He’d fly his helicopter in low over the island, sowing noisy vibrations and raising the collective blood pressure a few points. Then he’d land his eggbeater on the only flat spot on his property, about seventy-five feet from Old Man Earl’s land.
Old Man Earl’s well-weathered, stone-gray, cedar-shingled chicken coop, made from cedar and split by his hands, was about twenty-five feet from his property line. Every landing caused the dust to rise and Earl’s temper to soar. Earl didn’t care about the noise since he rarely had his hearing aid turned up, but apparently it bothered the chickens. Seemed like after every landing, the hens quit laying.
When he heard about the hens’ reaction, Tucker laughed it off, but most of Earl’s pin money and all of his better characteristics were attached to those Rhode Island Reds. One was named Betty out of respect for his dear departed wife, who only became dear after she departed. So when Betty and her biddy friends quit laying, Earl got righteously indignant, which for Earl usually meant hostile.
Chickens aren’t terribly smart, of course. They tend to do dumb things in response to stress. On this particular helicopter landing, Earl was in the chicken house. Predictably the chickens panicked, only this time in full view of Earl, who was surrounded by flapping and squawking, irrational behavior and drifting feathers as they tried to get as far away as possible from the open door.
He found Betty smushed in a pile of panicked chickens trying to get out the east end of the chicken house, the end without a door. Earl lost it. The old man climbed the split rail cedar fence and went after Tucker, going toe to toe just as Tucker cleared the rotating blades.
Tucker actually looked a little discombobulated, unusual for a man known for courtroom smoothness. Old Man Earl was wearing a faded red night shirt that hadn’t been ironed or cleaned since Betty died two Easters before and a pair of barely blue jeans with holes in the knees, the kind of holes that were earned, not store-bought.
No doubt Earl reminded Tucker of one of the street people near his law office in the Seattle Tower. Earl was bald on top, hairy everywhere else, big and generally offensive looking. Tucker might have taken all that in stride but he was undone by Betty.
Earl had his wife’s dead and still warm namesake by the throat and was shaking her in front of Tucker’s face, yelling barely intelligible words through the thwack … thwack … thwack of the slowing propeller blades. Betty’s skinny little legs were dancing a sad airborne ballet. Several shakes into the performance, feathers started to fly, some of them sticking to Tucker’s cashmere sweater.
Tucker had recovered enough to start yelling back at his nearly-deaf neighbor. Betty’s beak bumped Tucker’s nose. Tucker swung and knocked Betty away from his face. Earl lost his grip. Betty flew up and caught a ride on one of the rotor blades.
In stunned silence they watched Betty, pinned against the spinning blade, go around and around and around, slower and slower until natural forces allowed her to plop into the dust a few feet away. The two stared at Betty. Betty stared back. Silently, Earl bent over, grabbed Betty by the legs and tried to smooth a few feathers. He went back to the coop with his prize egg-layer cradled in his arm, all the fight taken out of him.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of the matter. Tucker, mired in disbelief that he had been assaulted and embarrassed, began filing writs of this and that, cease-and-desist directives and restraining orders on poor Earl, whose only legal adventures in his eighty-three years were getting married and posting bail for his son, who during a party at the Moose Club on Falling Rock Island in 1948 had stolen the mounted moose head.
Earl didn’t know what to do with the avalanche of official-looking letters and he didn’t have any money for an attorney. He just knew the source of his problem and tried to solve it the Island Way, at least the way for those without financial resources.
He tore each official correspondence with its raised notary stamp and fancy letterhead on cream-colored paper into tiny bits, threw them into the compost pile and tossed a few shovelfuls of chicken manure on top.
Earl started sending handwritten bills to Tucker for the loss of eggs and occasional death of a hen, tallied with overdue fines and interest penalties, all figured out in shaky longhand at his 1950s’ style chrome kitchen table. Tucker never responded to any of them.
Every Saturday afternoon Tucker would land, the feathers would fly and Earl would fume. Every Monday morning, Earl would be the first one outside the post office. He’d fish around in the bottom of his right pants pocket, the one patched many times by his dear departed, for the exact change and buy one stamp for his envelope.
Now and then he’d mail a package. Envelopes and packages always went to Tucker’s law office. Postmistress Patterson would greet Earl with a few gossipy tidbits but Earl wouldn’t buy into her probing. She’d get a troubled look on her face whenever Earl handed her a package. Each one was just about the size of a shoe box and weighed maybe four pounds more … about the size and weight of a scared-to-death chicken.
Copyright Sharon Wootton 2009