کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 8

زندگی در چند بخش

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Most people in a divorce situation are forced to sell their houses in order to tabulate assets and divvy them up. We didn’t have that problem. The bank took our house. Banks do that when people stop paying their mortgages. Men came and put a large sticker outlined in bright red on our front door: a proclamation to our friends and neighbors, our community—a scarlet letter.

I saw the looks on our neighbors’ faces, somehow both judgmental and pitying. We were disgraced. Worse, we were forced to leave what comforts remained of our home. I had been under the impression all this time that we owned our house. I came to understand that the word own is often used loosely.

Amy and our mother went to stay with my paternal grandmother. My mom was still in love with my dad, so by moving in with his mother she thought she’d have a better chance of seeing him and perhaps even winning him back.

Meanwhile, one week into the school year, Kim and I were yanked out of John Sutter Junior High and shipped off to live with our maternal grandparents, Otto and Augusta Sell, both immigrants from Germany. Otto was a baker by trade, but now in retirement he had a small parcel of land where he farmed and raised some scant livestock. They lived in Yucaipa, California, in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. A quaint little rural town, but to us it was the boondocks.

My grandparents’ one-bedroom house was located right around the three-thousand-foot elevation level. Snow dusted the town several times a year. The lone attraction in the area was farther up the road at Oak Glen apple orchards—day-trippers would find a petting zoo, a kiddie amusement park, and the big draw: homemade apple pies, strudel, fritters, sauce. Pretty much anything made from apples.

Yucaipa was ideal for my grandfather, less so for my grandmother, but then it was the sixties, and they were Old World: the wife did as the husband pleased.

Neither could have been pleased to take on the role of surrogate parents to two boys in turmoil.

We were kids from the suburbs of Los Angeles. We bellyached: What are we going to do on a little farm?

The answer came quickly. Work.

Every day except Sunday we were expected to contribute sweat equity in exchange for room and board.

Our new next-door neighbor Danny Teeter had an egg ranch—a few acres of chickens cramped in small cages. Our day started there. We soon learned that setting a clock wasn’t necessary due to the cacophony of cock-a-doodle-doos at dawn.

Until that time, chicken shit meant someone who was scared to lie down in the street and let kids jump their bikes over him with a homemade plywood ramp. But now it had a whole new repulsively toxic meaning. A vividly pungent smell that haunted my clothes and hair hours after I’d left the coop. Breathe through your mouth, Bryan. I did that for a while, but then some kid at school told me that when you smell poop, actual tiny particles of that poop are getting into your nose. If that were true, my mouth-breathing solution to the chicken shit problem meant that I was actually eating poop. I went back to nose breathing.

Apart from being neck-deep in chicken shit, Danny was a good guy. He had Kim and me sell flats of eggs on weekends to day-trippers as they journeyed up the hill to the apple orchard. But the job Kim and I loved most was egg collection. Nearly every day, after school and after homework, Kim and I would hop the fence to Danny’s property and eagerly go to it. We drove flatbed Cushman electric carts up and down the aisles of the coops, two hundred feet long and just wide enough to accommodate the cart. Three chickens were housed in a twelve-inch-by-sixteen-inch cage. The cage’s floor was built with a slight incline so that when a chicken pushed out an egg it would gently roll toward the front of the cage and come to rest against a curved stop. Kim and I collected eggs from both sides of the aisle and deposited them into the flats on the front of the electric carts. A flat held thirty. We were taught to stack them about eight flats high. The cart held about six stacks. A lot of eggs.

When we reached our limit we’d drive to a cool, temperature-controlled room to unload. From there, each individual egg went through a washer—we thought of it as a mini car wash. The machine took the egg on a conveyor belt ride though pressurized cool water. No hot or warm water. You didn’t want to promote the process of decay. And then soft bristles scrubbed the fecal matter and urine off the shell.

One of us would place the eggs onto the conveyor while the other watched each one pass by a high-watt lightbulb, looking through the gossamer shell for blood spots, which indicated a fertilized egg. People don’t like to see blood spots in their frying pans when they make a western omelet in the morning. Go figure. Each fertile egg was taken out of the washer and placed in a flat under a warming lamp. Soon it would be transferred to the hatchery to help regenerate the coop with new chicks.

Once all the unacceptable eggs had been removed (there were some truly amazing freaks of the egg world), the remaining inventory was separated by size and placed in a cardboard container. Finally, we’d fill padded shipping boxes with the delicate cargo and place them all in a large walk-in cooler.

Twice a week, at five in the morning, we’d awaken to the combustive rattle of a diesel-engine truck arriving to pick up our eggs and take them to market. That sound gave me such a sense of satisfaction. Work I had done was of value in the world. People would be fed by my hand.

• • •

Grandpa Otto was a good neighbor, unfailingly friendly and helpful to those in need. To thank him, and as a bonus for our labor, Danny gave him chickens whose best laying days were behind them. Grandpa took them with delight.

We’d monitor the hens to see which still had it in them to lay with some consistency. The old, the feeble, the infertile: they weren’t so lucky.

There is a correct way to kill a chicken. Otto taught us. Grab it by the legs with one hand, collapse the wings with the other. Then secure the legs and wings with one firm hand. Next, lay the chicken on the block of a tree stump. Don’t let go. Pick up the hatchet with your free hand. With one clean, strong stroke, drop the blade onto its neck.

The head will fall to the ground and the hatchet will be wedged into the block. Let go. Hold the chicken’s body with both hands over a blood bucket until a couple of pints of warm blood have drained away. The chicken doesn’t know it’s dead just yet. The central nervous system will respond to the sudden loss of a brain with jerking and shaking. Steady. Once the blood is drained, toss the carcass into the dead-chicken tub.

Grandpa had already killed several chickens that day with a deftness and a stoicism that left us in silent awe. This is how it’s done, boys!

Neither Kim nor I wanted anything to do with murdering chickens, but we knew we were going to be expected to pull our weight. We stood there, impassive but steeped in dread. We had no choice. We had to absorb Grandpa’s lessons and do the deed ourselves.

Thank God Kim was older, so he was up first. It never crossed my mind to call him out for being nervous. I knew: I was next.

Kim grabbed his chicken correctly, let out a short, terrified breath, closed his eyes, and swung the hatchet. Instead of landing on the chicken’s neck, he hacked right into the comb. A chicken’s comb is like human hair; getting it severed feels like getting a haircut. This was one rough haircut. Kim let go of the chicken in shock, but its comb was still fastened to the chopping block by the hatchet. The animal knew this wasn’t just another day of pecking seed. It flapped and clucked and sent its feathers flying in distress.

“Oh, for crying out loud!” Otto said and pushed Kim out of the way, grabbed the animal, pulled the hatchet out of the comb, and decapitated the chicken with one chop. He drained its blood and tossed it onto the tub of other dead chickens. Easy peasy.

Kim balled his fists and willed himself to do it again and do it right. He succeeded. A few times.

Kim had proven himself. Now it was my turn.

I filled my lungs with air that I hoped also contained minute particles of courage along with chicken poop. I understood that this was some kind of test. If I passed, I would be welcomed into manhood. I used to pity our friends and neighbors, the Baral boys, having to endure the rigors of memorizing passages from the Torah in preparation for their bar mitzvahs. Now I envied them. Reciting Hebrew was a cakewalk in comparison to this rite. I aggressively reached down and grabbed my first victim. The bird squawked, but I paid no attention to its discomfort; I was too concerned with my own.

I remember saying a silent I’m sorry to the creature. I was its executioner. Dead hen walking.

I hooked my left hand around one of the chicken’s spurs, the sharp underdeveloped opposing digit that comes out of the back of the ankle. It dug into the flesh of my hand. I wasn’t going to let that slow me down. I quickly gathered the wings and legs in one hand. I yanked the hatchet out of the stump with my free hand and plopped the chicken’s head in its place. I was focused. No way was I going to wince and shut my eyes and miss my target as Kim had on his first attempt. No way.

The chicken struggled to free itself from my grasp. Not a chance. I raised the hatchet well above my head and brought it down with a ferocious swing. The head plopped lifelessly to the ground. Clean. Dead. I’d done it. And I’d buried the blade deep into the chopping block.

No time to revel in the glory. Once the head was off, the animal’s central nervous system sent out emergency signals, and the carcass convulsed. I held steady, watching the dark red stream of blood drain into the nearly full blood bucket. But the violence of the shaking surprised me, and soon one of the wings was loose from my grasp. As I struggled to get the wing under control, the other one worked free. Blood was still flowing. I wasn’t about to let it drip outside of the bucket, and catch a furious “What da hell!” from my grandfather. I pressed the bird downward. Not a drop of blood hit the ground.

But its wings flapped mightily, plunging deep into the bucket, sending streams of blood upward. Suddenly blood was in my nostrils, ears, and mouth. Oh God. I wore it. I tasted it. I drank it. But I didn’t let go, by God. I should have, but I didn’t.

I had blood in my eyes, so I couldn’t see. I tossed the carcass in the direction of the bucket where its brethren lay. I missed. The moment it hit the ground, the bloody, headless creature rose to its feet and ran around the yard, ricocheting against whatever obstacle it encountered.

I tried to wipe off my bloody face, but there was blood on my hands. Kim later told me he stood in awe, switching his gaze from me to the chicken, the chicken to me. One bloody mess to another.

The chicken finally collapsed, and I hung my head while Kim rinsed me off with a garden hose. No way Grandpa was going to let me use the only indoor bathroom to clean up. That was reserved for Grandma. Kim and I were relegated to the outhouse. (Grandpa even tried to teach us how to separate our waste for fertilizer. Good times.)

Later that night I had to relive the “blood boy” experience as Grandpa, now finding the event very amusing, told the tale—with some embellishment—to Grandma. She was less sympathetic than I had hoped. I remember her laughing heartily. Everyone laughed. I guess it must have been funny.

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