SHORT STORY

The Coop

A story about trying to leave home

I wrote this piece as a way to discuss obligation and the innate human urge to resist it. While studying small farming communities in the Midwest and seeing how their place in today’s world is at risk of disappearing, I wanted to discuss how change is inevitable and yet never easy to accept.

PUBLISHED

Ohio's Emerging Writers, 2018

When Jen and I moved away six months ago, I fell out of touch with Tom. At first, I was just getting used to living in Chicago, and it never occurred to me to call. We had reached the age where I thought it was normal not to speak with a friend as close as Tom for a period of time and expect that, when I did reach out eventually, nothing would be any different between us. But when some months had passed and, every now and then, his name or face would appear in my head, suddenly and without warning, and I would remember how long it had been since I’d talked to him and I would remember the circumstances I left him to face alone.

The year before we moved, Tom’s dad was diagnosed with liver cancer. It progressed quickly, and he was forced off of his ranch and into a hospital for around the clock care. Tom asked me to come with him every time he went to visit his dad in the hospital, saying he was too scared to watch his health decline alone. I said of course I would go, having known his dad since we became friends in elementary school, and each visit seemed hopeful, like none of us were even aware of the situation or even that we were in a hospital at all. His dad looked the same as he always had, I thought whenever I went in the room, and he always mentioned before we left that he’d be out of there pretty soon and back on the ranch. But the last time I went, he was emaciated and pale and I felt like I was intruding on something private seeing him like that. We all knew something had changed, so I stood back for most of the visit and let Tom do and say what he needed to. At one point, as if he had forgotten I was there, he turned and waved me over to his dad’s bedside.

The muscles in Tom’s dad’s face twitched as if he had forgotten how to smile and the result was a look less of sincerity than of fear and confusion. He held out his hand for me to shake and I gripped his hand loosely, afraid that I might bump the tube coming out of the back of his hand that ran up to a bag of fluid. His skin was cold and hard and I had no idea what I was supposed to say.

I backed away and let Tom talk to his dad again, and before they were done, Tom was kneeling over the bedside, clutching his dad’s hand in both of his. I stayed quiet until he was done and said goodbye, and that was the last time I saw Tom’s dad.

It was around that time that I got an offer for a job in Chicago, and though I felt guilty for leaving Tom with all that was happening, I knew I had to take the offer for my own sake. I told Tom that we would keep in touch, but during the hassle of the move and getting used to my new job, I just forgot, and the longer I waited, the more uncomfortable I thought that call would be.

After Jen and I had been living in Chicago for about five months, I received a call from a friend of mine and Tom’s, just calling to see how I was, and he told me that Tom’s dad had died two weeks earlier, and he was surprised not to see me at the funeral. I told him that this was the first I had heard of it, and he didn’t press any more. He said that the funeral was small, and that Tom seemed to be doing alright with it. He said that Tom had sold his house and moved back onto his parents’ ranch. He was still single and wasn’t interesting in starting anything, at least not at the moment, which was something I admired in Tom. He took everything with a kind of steady patience.

When we hung up, I told Jen about what happened to his dad and she asked when I had spoken to Tom last. “Not since we left,” I said.

“You should call,” Jen said. “I hate to think you’ll just forget someone you knew so well.” She thought for a second and said, “You should see if he wants to get together sometime, like we used to. Ohio is far, but it’s not that far.”

That made me feel even guiltier, knowing he wasn’t far away at all. Tom used to come to our place, or we would go to his, and the three of us would make dinner and sit around for hours talking and drinking and laughing. He and Jen got along well in the way that they could have been friends even without my knowing Tom first. I had forgotten how much I missed those nights.

“It’s a shame it’s been so long since we’ve seen him,” Jen said, and I agreed.

It felt strange to call Tom right after learning that his dad had died, so I pushed it off. Jen asked me just about every other day if I had called yet, but the longer I waited, the more uncomfortable I knew the conversation would be. After about a month, she pressed me to finally do so. I called Tom for the first time since I left six months before, but he answered as if we had seen each other earlier that day.

“How’s everything?” he asked.

“Good,” I said. “Everything’s good.” I was afraid he would resent me in some way for leaving when I did, but if he did resent me, his voice didn’t show it.

For some reason, a memory came to me and I laughed. When Tom asked me what it was, I said, “Do you remember when we were little, maybe eight or nine, and we tried to ride the cows you had?”

Tom laughed. “Yeah,” he said, “and the damn thing freaked and shook me off and chased us around until we got back to the house.”

“I remember thinking before that that they couldn’t run, not fast at least, but that didn’t turn out to be true.”

We laughed again and Tom said, “I think about those times a lot. We got into it when we were little.”

“That we did,” I said. “Well, Jen and I were talking earlier,” I continued, “and we realized how long it had been since we’ve seen you, and we wanted to try to get together sometime. You’re more than welcome to come here, or we can go to you if you want.”

“That would be nice,” he said. “I know it’s a bit of a trek, but I’d love to have you two out to the ranch. How long has it been since you’ve been to my dad’s ranch? Must be back when were still in high school.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think that’s right.” It was difficult to think about the ranch without thinking of his dad, but I resisted the urge to bring him up, to apologize for his loss, feeling that a phone call was not the right place for something so heavy.

We settled on Friday evening. Jen and I would drive to the ranch after work and we would make dinner and talk in just the same way we always had.

 

On Friday morning, Jen and I took off work and left for Tom’s ranch. It was about a seven-hour drive from Chicago to Tom’s place in central Ohio, and I spent most of the drive thinking about everything Tom and I would almost certainly have to talk about, though I knew neither of us would want to. We got caught in traffic along the way, but we managed to get there before the sun had gone down.

When we pulled down the long gravel driveway and peaked a hill that hid the house and much of the property, we saw chickens wandering aimlessly about individually, their collective clucking forming a strange and comical chorale of sorts.

Tom came out of the house when he heard our car coming, and he waved to us. I rolled down my window and waved back. I had to stop in the driveway because a chicken had stopped in the middle, sorting through the gravel with its beak trying to find food or something else of value.

“Just keep driving,” Tom called out. “It’ll move out of your way.”

I drove slowly with my head out the window to make sure I wouldn’t run it over. When I got close to it, it let out a babbling sound and darted off the driveway onto the grass then settled down.

“My God,” Jen said, covering her mouth with her hand as she laughed. “They’re the strangest creatures, aren’t they?”

“They are,” I said, watching it walk in circles and clucking quietly like it was talking to itself in a stint of paranoia.

When we pulled up next to the house, we got out of the car and Tom greeted us each with a big hug. Jen gave him the bottle of wine we brought and he thanked us and invited us inside.

It was a great feeling, to be back with Tom and everything feeling the same as before. Once he had shown us around, pointing out what had changed since we were kids and what had stayed the same, we went to the kitchen and started cooking dinner, each of us working on a part of the meal. I peeled potatoes while Jen washed and cut vegetables and Tom readied fish for the oven. As we cooked, we drank the wine and talked, Jen and I telling Tom about Chicago and Tom reminiscing on stories of when he and I were kids and everything we got into then. The TV was on quietly in the other room, but we all felt we had so much to say that there was hardly ever a second of quiet between us.

When the sun started going down, Tom looked out the window and said as he quickly washed his hands, “Hey, come check this out.” We followed him outside where we stood watching the chickens emerge from every part of the property and convene on the coop that stood alone in the middle of a big field. They walked in crooked lines, seeming to get distracted every few feet, but eventually made it to the coop where they piled in through the door like people loading onto a subway car.

Jen laughed again. “They go in there on their own?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Tom said. “You know the whole, ‘chickens go home to roost,’ thing? Well, it’s true. The kid next door comes by in the morning and feeds them and lets them out, then at the end of the day they go back once the sun starts to go down.”

“Is there a fence around the property so they don’t get out?” she asked.

“Well, there’s the wooden fence,” Tom said, “but that was mostly for when there were still cows and all that. The chickens can walk right under that. But they always come back.”

“Why’s that?” she asked.

Tom thought for a moment then shrugged. “I don’t know the real reason, actually. I never really thought to ask. It’s just in them, I suppose. They just know to do it.”

We watched until they were all inside and Tom ran over to close their door.

“How strange is that?” Jen asked.

When Tom and I were little, we would sit along the fence most nights at sundown and watch them put themselves up. It seemed many of the pieces of wood had since rotted through, a few segments even missing altogether.

Even from far off, we could hear the chickens as they jostled in the tight space. The coop sat peculiarly in the middle of the property on top of a small hill and, from the house, it was the only thing in view.

Even from far off, we could hear the chickens as they jostled in the tight space. The coop sat peculiarly in the middle of the property on top of a small hill and, from the house, it was the only thing in view.

 We went back inside and finished making dinner then ate and talked more and drank more wine. When we were done, we sat in the living room for a long while, the TV still on in the background, and Tom filled us in on his life, what little there was to fill us in on, he said. The living room itself had not changed since we were kids with the exception of the TV being upgraded from the black and white box his father bought that was old and outdated even then. Tom said work was steady and he was happy with that part of his life. He had still not mentioned his dad dying, but he mentioned moving to the ranch and deciding to sell most of the livestock.

“Why’d you keep the chickens? Jen asked.

Tom shrugged as if to say he had never even considered doing so before. “I think I’m just used to it,” he said. “Since I was a kid, we’ve had chickens and I always liked having them around. They’re fun to watch. And besides, they’re easy to take care of. They don’t need much, you just need to feed them and let them out in the morning then close the door at night.”

“Can you eat the eggs they lay?” I said. “I mean, do you have to do anything to them first like wash them or something?”

Tom shook his head. “No,” he said. “They’re good right out of the coop. They’re fresher than anything you can get at the grocery store, too. The yolks from these are bright orange—not yellow like the ones you buy.”

“They’re orange?” I said. “What makes them orange?”

Again, Tom thought for a moment then shrugged. “I’m sure I could tell you once, but I haven’t thought about it in so long. I’ve only had store-bought eggs a handful of times and I can’t even look at them anymore.”

He finished the last of his wine and stood from his chair. “I’m going to get something else to drink, do you want something?”

“If you have more wine, I’ll have that,” Jen said.

“Oh, I don’t know if I should have anything else if I’m going to be driving back later,” I said.

“Well, if you want,” Tom said, “you two can spend the night here. I don’t want you to have to drive back so late, and besides, I have the extra bedroom upstairs that no one ever uses.”

Jen and I gave each other a look and I said, “If you’re offering, that actually sounds like a good idea.”

That freed us up to drink more, and in a minute Tom came back into the living room holding a bottle of wine under one arm, a bottle of whiskey under the other, and a wine glass and two short glasses in his hands. He poured wine for Jen and whiskey for the two of us and we continued on talking and drinking more and more as the night went on.

At a certain point, Jen excused herself to go to the bathroom and when she left, a framed picture on a shelf caught my eye and I went over to get a better look at it. I assumed the two people in the picture were Tom and his dad and that his mom had taken it. Tom looked to be about twelve, and he wore a red flannel and squinted through the sun at the camera. I recognized the man standing behind Tom with his hands on Tom’s shoulders as his dad, but I couldn’t believe how different he looked compared to when I’d last seen him in the hospital. He was still a slim man, but he seemed somehow fuller in every sense. He wore a white thermal shirt and blue overalls and he smiled proudly at the camera.

“It’s funny,” Tom said, “how everything blends in around here. I haven’t even noticed that picture in years.”

I blushed a little, feeling like I had reminded him of something he didn’t want to remember. “It’s a good picture,” I said.

“Yeah,” Tom said. “It’s one of only a few that I have with him.”

I sat back down on the couch. “Hey, listen,” I said, then paused trying to find the words. “I heard what happened. I’m really sorry.”

He smiled and nodded. “I appreciate you saying that,” he said.

Jen came back in the room and the three of us continued talking and drinking, the conversation fortunately unmarred by the mention of his dad. By the end of the hour, Jen had finished the second bottle of wine by herself and Tom and I had each had a good bit of whiskey. Jen said that she needed to lie down for a bit and went up to the bedroom, hugging Tom and saying she was glad we came before she left the room.

For a little while longer, Tom and I talked, but eventually something changed. We seemed to have less to say and the talk faded out then stopped altogether. We sat in silence for a few minutes, swirling the ice in our glasses and sipping the drinks, when Tom leaned forward in his chair and gave a look like he was struggling to say what he needed to say.

 “When did you hear about my dad?” he said. I must have looked taken back because he followed with, “I’m just curious.”

I put the dates together in my head and then spoke hesitantly. “About a month ago.”

He nodded like he was making his own calculations.

“I should have called then,” I said. “I know I should have—”

He put his hand up and smiled. “I get it,” he said. He made a face like he was gearing up to say something else, something big, but again he nodded and said, “I get it.”

We went a long while without saying anything. I had nothing to say he didn’t already know. I felt like Tom blamed me in some way, not for his dad’s death of course, but for leaving him alone when we both knew it was coming. But I felt that, after going so long without mentioning it, any apology or explanation I could give now would be diluted by time.

Eventually, when the silence was too much, Tom put his glass down on the coffee table and asked if I wanted to go outside. I said yes and followed him outside.

We walked with our feet heavy and our chins tucked low into our chests. We knew that to consider anything between us normal again would mean something completely new and altogether different. Tom stopped in the middle of the field on top of a hill near the one on which the coop sat. He sat then leaned back looking up, the lights from the house far enough to not obscure the view of the sky, and I lay down next to him.

Whether it was the whiskey or something else, the guilt subsided and I felt an overwhelming surge of peace in that moment. The dry, brown grass scratched the back of my neck and arms and the taste of whiskey lingered like gasoline fumes in the back of my throat, and yet I was with an old friend again after what seemed like a lifetime apart. If there ever was a feeling that could surpass this, I didn’t want to know it.

“Why’d you call?” he asked suddenly.

“What?” I said.

“Why’d you call?” he repeated. “After everything you’ve heard that’s happened, why call now?”

I didn’t have an answer and so I sat up and looked down at him and the guilt came back larger than ever.

“You knew my dad was dead for an entire month,” he said, “and you didn’t call, and now for no reason you call and pretend like nothing’s changed? Why? I just don’t get it.” There was a sadness in his voice I could tell had been growing for quite some time and I didn’t want to lie to him anymore.

“I don’t know either,” I said, and in a way, it was as true an answer as I could have given.

“You don’t know?” He shook his hands at me as he spoke and I could hear he was about to cry.

“I just want things to be like before. I didn’t call because I thought you might have been mad at me.”

“I was mad,” he said, “and I still am. You didn’t have to leave when you did, you could have done it any other time. You left knowing what you were leaving me with. My God, at the very least you could have called me when you found out my dad was dead.”

“I didn’t know what to say,” I said. “I didn’t know what I could say that would help.”

Tom sat up and looked towards the sky as if to tell me I still wasn’t getting it. “Do you really think there is something you could have said—something anybody could ever say when someone dies—that would make things any better? Do you think something you could have said would change the fact that I’ve lost both my parents and the only friend I trusted enough to take to the hospital to see my dying dad?” He stopped talking abruptly, then closed his eyes and took a breath to collect himself. “I didn’t need you to say anything,” he said. “I just needed you to be with me.”

When he stopped talking, I could feel the guilt surrounding me, consuming me. It was like he had stopped talking to give me time to realize the magnitude of what I had done to him.

“I haven’t come out here since we were kids,” he said eventually, his voice low and creaky against the chirping of crickets. “I used to come out here a lot when I was little, once my parents were asleep, and just sit here and not think about anything. It was nice to be alone. Not anymore, though. It’s harder now, being alone. When my dad got sick I thought I would be okay with it, you know, because I had to do the same thing with my mom a few years before. But it was different somehow this time. When he died, I just felt like I needed to come back here, to keep something going. But now everyone who has ever known this place is gone and I’m still here. And I know I’m never going to leave.”

He was quiet again. Everything was quiet. He had said his piece and was done. I wished I could have had something more to say, something that would change what had happened between us, but I knew nothing would. We lay in the grass for a long time and I thought about my life and about Tom’s life and about how there was a time long ago when something between us changed and became something more, and made it so our lives could not be talked about without talking about the other’s. I thought about how I’m to blame for losing that, and how things were never going to be like they once were. Behind us, I heard the chickens rustle in their coop and I thought about how in the morning we would eat eggs with orange yolks, and how, for Jen’s sake, we would act as if nothing had happened, and how I knew that no matter how far I could go, I would end up coming back.

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