When they started cackling at two in the morning, I woke up, but when their cackles got louder, a chill rushed through me and I tried not to make the mattress shift as I edged myself out. I looked and Wirt slept, his t-shirt hiked halfway up his stomach, his mouth open. God, let me get out there and back, I said to myself, and when I got to the back door, I ran like mad toward the girls, my flip-flops nearly falling off me as I went. It was black outside, but my eyes adjusted. Then I saw her.
Ruthie lay dead just outside the pen. She always flew over it and roosted in the Russian olive tree at night. Stupid coyotes, it couldn’t be anything else. I picked her up, holding her like a baby. What was left of her wasn’t much so either the coyote wasn’t that hungry or it got scared. My own legs felt weak as the chickens cackled, and I slid to the ground, still holding my Ruthie. She had been the only chicken who laid colored eggs, the brown kind. One a day for three years, that’s how it had been, and now she wasn’t coming back and I’d have to bury what was left and go back to bed and pray to God in heaven that Wirt would keep sleeping. Please God, let him keep sleeping.
The alarm went off at five-thirty, and I pretended to sleep. Wirt rolled out of bed, and cleared his throat for awhile, like he did every morning. Sometimes he’d wake me up and tell me to get to the kitchen and make him coffee, sometimes he didn’t. You never knew with Wirt, but I wanted to know because it’d make the waiting easier. This morning he must have decided to let me sleep and I didn’t open my eyes until I heard the front door shut, the old truck engine start, and finally the sound of nothing but the girls cackling and then the crowing from Kernal, and then I knew it was OK. For now, I was OK.
I looked down, and my heart jumped. My shirt. It was covered in blood. My Ruthie, my poor Ruthie. I showered and stuffed the shirt into the pile of clothes in the corner of the bedroom, so Wirt couldn’t see the blood. When the clothes were high enough, I’d go to Maydell’s Laundry. We used to have a washer until Wirt traded it for a piece of machinery he never used, and that was two years ago.
And stupid Wirt, he made coffee. He rarely made coffee in the mornings, unless it was a special occasion or he went and did something he felt guilty about and it was his way of making it up to me. This morning, I didn’t care because I still felt the sting of losing Ruthie, something Wirt would never understand. I poured myself a cup of coffee, drank it fast, and then I took my time with the second cup. From the kitchen window, I could look out and see the girls scratching around in their pen as if nothing happened, as if they never lost their sister the night before, as if nothing unordinary occurred. But that’s how chickens are, you know, it’s in their nature, that’s all. They know they’ll be fed soon, and if I don’t give them their grain then sooner or later the grasshoppers will make their way into their pen and that’ll be their breakfast. That’s the way chickens are.
I sat down at the kitchen table and ate a piece of pizza from the night before. Usually, I try not to think about stuff but for some reason I couldn’t stop thinking about my life as I looked around the dark kitchen. Just an ugly, old kitchen in a rattrap of a trailer Wirt inherited from his grandmamma before she died. That’s all it was. When I first moved in, though, I thought it was gold and every evening after work I’d sweep the floor and vacuum, and when Wirt came in at night he’d see the clean house and tell me how I could work all day and come home and work some more was beyond him, but he loved it and he married one hell of a woman, and I’d smile and we’d eat our dinners in front of the TV, just the two of us. It was always the same way, and then things started changing after my girls came along.
Wirt said it was my fault for how things changed, that I spent too much time with the chickens, and I said he was wrong, and didn’t he like fresh eggs? He helped repair the door to the coop, but said the rest was up to me because he hated chickens, but if I liked the girls then fine, and did I want to get married next Thursday at the courthouse? That was his proposal, and all the while, he was standing in front of me, unshaven and tired looking, and I only noticed my girls and how happy I was to finally have something that needed me. I don’t remember saying yes, but when we were in his truck the following week I was too scared to say no, because by then I was scared of Wirt and it was too late to tell him no.
I never cooked his meals right, never folded his socks as he liked, rolling them just a few inches and aligning the heels up just so. His underwear was always the same brand, and it had to be white, folded twice. It was funny because he wasn’t like a well-dressed guy by any means; he just liked his socks and underwear like that. And for his t-shirts, he didn’t care if they were wadded up and stuffed into the drawer, or folded, for that matter. When I was working, these things Wirt liked didn’t seem to take up my energy nearly as much as it did now that I was home full time. As he grew meaner, I grew quieter, because there wasn’t much to say. I just prayed he’d like the way I folded his clothes so when he reached into his drawer he’d say, “Well, now, Ella. You done good.” And he’d give me a wink and I knew things would be OK that evening, and he wouldn’t strike out at me with his tongue dipped full of poison. But he didn’t hit me, not yet, and I had the girls.
Things might have been different, had I kept working. It was just that when we found out I was pregnant, we decided it was best for me to be home with the baby so, into my ninth month, I quit. The baby was stillborn and I still can’t forgive myself, and neither can Wirt, and even though that was over a year ago I haven’t gotten the courage up to get another job. All it seems I’m made to do is tend to the chickens and Wirt. Next month, I tell myself, I’ll get a job. I should ask around who’s hiring in town. But I never do. It doesn’t happen. I just head for the chicken pen, making sure all the wires are secured so nothing can get in and my chickens can’t get out. Occasionally I’ll nail a few boards into place, but mostly, the chickens take care of themselves and they’re a lot more fun than Wirt could ever be.
Then Ruthie died, and I felt guilty because I should have clipped her wings so she couldn’t fly out. I knew she loved roosting in that old tree, so I didn’t have the heart to clip her wings, that was all.
I looked at the laundry and remembered the bloody shirt so I decided I should do something about it. When I got to town, it was half past twelve and I was able to get three washers in a row. Maydell came over, chewing gum. Asked me how I was and I lied and said fine, and how was her daughter? Did she come home from beauty college? And Maydell said yes, and then she saw the bloody shirt as I stuffed it into the washer.
“My chicken died,” I told her. My eyes flooded, not so much now because of Ruthie, but because of this. Here I was, standing in a little laundry mat in a town I didn’t even like, married to man I hated, and all I did was fold his socks and underwear. Pretty soon I broke down and started crying, and Maydell took me in her arms. I imagined she was my mother, if I had one, and it made me feel a little better. When I finished, Maydell got me a cola from the machine and told me to sit down.
“Are you happy?” she asked. Before I could answer, she continued. “I think the answer’s no. How old are you?”
“Why don’t you get a job?”
“I can’t. Ever since the baby, you know.”
“Does he hit you?”
“No,” I said. “I’m scared of him, but he doesn’t hit me.”
“And you’re alright living with him the rest of your life, tending to your chickens?”
No, I wasn’t OK living with Wirt but the chickens were OK.
“It’s his place. If I left, who’d keep the chickens for me?”
“I would. I knew your mama before she died, don’t you forget that, and I told her I owed her one, and this is it. I’ll watch your chickens if you ever decide to leave Wirt and get yourself a job. Or just get yourself a job and keep Wirt. Go. I’ll watch the clothes for you, while you drive around town and ask about jobs. Just do it, Ella. Just do it.”
I shook my head, and Maydell shook her head, too. Her eyes misted over. But when I left the laundry mat, I remembered we were out of chicken feed and so I stopped on the way home at Benito’s. After I bought the feed, I asked Benito if he happened to be hiring. The words just came out. I never planned asking him.
“You looking for work?” he asked. I said yes, and he said to be here tomorrow at nine. It all happened so fast I didn’t believe it was true, not at first.
When Wirt got home that night, I thought I should tell him about my job, but he was in a bad mood and now wasn’t a good time. He was throwing things around the kitchen, complaining. Said John, his boss, got all over him today for something that wasn’t his fault, and he felt like quitting and just might quit, some day. Our old dog, Coon, lay under the kitchen table and just because, Wirt kicked him, and Coon cried out in pain. I felt my insides start to boil, and I wanted to kick Wirt. Coon was old, and didn’t deserve to be kicked, old or not. I stared at Wirt a little too long and he snickered at me, gulping his beer.
“Blasted dog got in my way,” he said. “Get me another beer, Girl. It’s been a long day.”
I pulled a can from the refrigerator. If I were braver, I would leave, just leave. But I wasn’t brave, and I hated myself for it.
“Here’s your beer,” I whispered. I didn’t want to say too much, or not enough. The fact that I had a job seemed to feed me, invoke inside something powerful, which I hadn’t felt in a long time.
“You gonna tell me about your chicken?” asked Wirt, his eyes narrowing. “You think I didn’t notice or something? That I’m dumb?”
“No,” I replied, turning around to do the dishes. “I just didn’t think you cared about the chickens. How’d you know about the chicken?”
“Ruthie was worthless. She didn’t just perch in the tree at night. She’d go find my truck, my truck, and crap all over the hood. Did you know that about her? Worthless bird.”
My stomach hurt. I turned towards Wirt.
“You killed Ruthie?” I felt the tears coming.
“You betcha I killed Ruthie.”
That explained why he made coffee this morning. To help soften the blow.
“You knew I loved her,” I said. “Wirt, she was a chicken. You act like she messed up your truck on purpose.”
Wirt laughed, and it scared me.
“Get over it. It’s one less chicken to worry about.”
I wondered when he killed Ruthie. I must have been asleep. Maybe there was a coyote, too. I just didn’t know. But he killed her and…
“I washed my truck today. It better still be clean, come morning.”
Turning back to the sink, I finished washing dishes. All the while, my head hurt, and I had a sick feeling in my stomach, like you get when you know something’s going to happen but you’re not sure what it is. The feeling held me all night, and stayed for a long time. Finally, five-thirty came and Wirt got ready for work.
And as for me, I was going to get ready and go to work, too.
Benito said he needed someone three days a week, but it could be full time soon. He needed someone to work the cash register, keep things stocked and the store had to be clean. His last worker had been there over a year but took a better job in Alamogordo. Benito knew me, and I was thankful he gave me the job.
Right away, I knew I’d like working in the storeroom way more than running the cash register. There were stacks of grain, chicken feed, and alfalfa pellets in the storeroom, giving off this nice, earthy smell that made me think of wet weeds after a rain. On my first day, I rearranged the horse supplies, making a nice display of saddle soap, bridles and brushes so striking that Benito couldn’t help but stop and tell me what a nice job I did. That comment fed me something, filling me up, and I wanted to do more. At five, Benito said I could go home and maybe he could use me tomorrow, same time.
“You work hard,” he said. “You must like the job.”
“It’s nice to be working again,” I said. I was sure Benito knew about my baby. This was a small town, and everyone knew. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
I was barely at home five minutes before Wirt drove up. Dinner wasn’t cooked, and I wondered if now would be the time to tell him about my job. But the thought of having money, money I earned, stopped me from saying a word. Wirt would be mad if I told him about the job or not, so it didn’t matter. He’d find out. I prayed he’d find out later, not sooner. Then again, he might be glad I was working, but I knew the money would be gone. I kept quiet about the job, quickly made dinner, and prayed for the night to move fast. June meant longer days, longer day light hours, but for Wirt it didn’t mean he’d lift a finger outside. Not that we had much of a lawn, but I was the one to mow it. When things broke, Wirt might fix it when it got bad enough, but usually not a minute sooner. Mostly things stayed broken.
After dinner, I went outside to clean the chicken shed. My girls scratched and clucked around my feet, gobbling up grasshoppers when they found themselves trapped in the pen. My body relaxed as I raked at the dry ground. I tossed the girls an extra handful of grain, and they ran for it, eager. Then I heard a truck coming, and my body tensed again. It was Ted Magnum, a guy from The Body Shop, where Wirt worked, fixing cars. From the corner of my eye, I watched them. Wirt’s voice got louder, and then Ted shouted something I couldn’t quite understand. He left in a hurry, dirt balling up behind him. I finished up in the chicken pen, and walked to where Wirt was, propped against the Russian olive tree, his belly hanging over his pants.
“What’s up with Ted?” I asked.
“His wife’s been looking for work for a long time. Seems like you stole her job. Why didn’t you tell me you were workin’ for that Benito guy? Tryin’ to keep it a secret so I wouldn’t find out?”
“I was going to tell you,” I lied, “in just awhile. I wanted to make sure it was what I wanted to do, that’s all. I didn’t steal anyone’s job. That’s crazy if Ted thinks I ‘stole’ her job. Benito asked me to work for him, and that was it.”
“Nell’s been to every business in town, lookin’ for work. Includin’ Benito’s. Then you come along and get the job. He’s mad and I have to work with the guy.”
Coon came from around the corner, and sat beside me. A lump rose in my throat.
“We don’t need the money. You need to quit your job and tell Benito to give it to Nell. Do it tomorrow, first thing.”
“You’re kiddin’ me, right?” I tried swallowing, but the lump stayed. “What if I want to keep the job? It’ll give us extra money. Everyone works, that’s the way it is.”
Wirt came closer to me, so close I could smell the alcohol. Without taking his eyes off me, he gave Coon a hard kick. I cringed. Coon yelped.
“You’re doing what I say,” Wirt said. “You’re quittin’ first thing tomorrow.”
I wanted to say no, I wasn’t quitting, but the words wouldn’t come. I knelt down and stroked poor Coon. Coon rested his head against me. He couldn’t understand. And the fear, the sheer fear of what Wirt might do next terrified me. My stomach hurt, my hands were clammy. Something bad was going to happen. I just knew it.
I heard people talk about their husbands beating on them, but it was just talk, I had told myself. Now, I didn’t like how Wirt yelled at me, or threw things, but I figured I could handle it OK. He hadn’t hit me. But now that he killed Ruthie, and started being mean to Coon made me think harder. But I was scared, scared to do something and scared not to do something. It was the in-between part I was uncertain about. Stuck, I was stuck, and I couldn’t get out.
Then, right before we went to bed, Wirt drank one last beer. When he was done, he threw the can toward the trash, laughing.
“Where’s Coon? I need to teach that dog to throw my cans out for me.”
I didn’t say a word. Thank God Wirt forgot all about it. Instead, he pulled off his dirty jeans and slid into bed. He looked at me, like he wanted me, like nothing he did or said tonight even affected me. But I couldn’t go to him.
The more he looked at me, the more scared I became, so I pulled off my jeans and slid into bed next to him, my eyes full of tears and hurt and regret and when he was done I cried, only nothing came out.
It was nearly two in the morning when I got the idea. God, let it work, I prayed. Let it work.
I arrived at Benito’s a good thirty minutes early. He was already there, and put me to work sorting the seed that arrived.
“Make the display any way you like,” Benito said.
“Thanks,” I said, picking up a large box. It held flower seeds of every kind, green beans, squash, kale seeds. Anything you wanted to have in your garden could be yours, all it took was a little water and a lot of work. A couple hours later, I had the seeds displayed as nice as could be. Lunchtime came before I knew it. I sat outside on the porch and ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with a Coke. A cop car pulled in front of the store. I finished my sandwich, tried to steady my shaking hands.
Ronnie Sanchez and I knew each other from way back. He had worked as a cop now for three years.
“Got a complaint from a neighbor of yours. Been looking for you all morning. Says your chickens are out and they’re eating her garden. She called a couple hours ago, after she went to your place to talk to you.”
“I don’t like what I’m going to have to tell you. But you know Mrs. Peters, how she noses around sometimes a little more than she should. This morning…well… maybe it was a good thing she did. She heard your husband yelling or something, so she went into your house. Found him shot through the head. He was alive, but shot. She said he was out of it, and she couldn’t understand a thing he was saying. She called for help right away.”
My feet became jelly. Blood left my own head, and I thought I might faint.
“No,” I whispered, and I clutched Ronnie’s hands. “No, it can’t be.” I began crying. Everything had changed, everything. “Is he in the hospital?”
Ronnie paused, then spoke softly.
“He died. I’m sorry, Ella. A gun was found in the bed.”
“Died?” My heart pounded hard.
“Yep, he died. Apparent suicide. What else would it have been?”
I collapsed in Ronnie’s arms, but he steadied me. My breathing evened out. Suicide. It was suicide, he said.
Benito had been listening. He came up to me, and gently said for me to take my time, go home, gather my thoughts and return later, when I was ready. A week, two weeks. But to come back later.
Thank God. I still had a job, I thought to myself.
When I got home, my girls were in the pen. I’d thank Mrs. Peters later, for putting them in. Coon was under the Russian olive tree, and he pumped his tail slowly when he saw me.
Fear and dread seemed to wash away, and I felt clean, like a river flowing free and hard and clean. The yelling was over. All that old stuff I knew with Wirt was gone.
Come next week, I’d go back to Benito’s and start work again. When I got enough money saved, I’d go buy myself a new washing machine. A brand new one, better than the one Wirt got rid of. That way, there’d be no more trips to Maydell’s.
And when I got home from work from now on, it’d be the girls and me, and of course, Coon. We would be enough.
Maybe Benito would get in some baby chicks next spring. I could find another hen like Ruthie.
Or maybe I’d get a couple of guineas.
Coon nudged my leg, like he understood me. I stroked the old dog’s head.
Ronnie’d come back later, I figured. Ask more questions. I’d tell him like it was. When I left for work that morning, Wirt was sound asleep. That’s what I’d tell him.
No, I’d tell Ronnie the truth about Wirt, if he questioned me. How sad and depressed he had been. But never, ever would I’d have thought Wirt would take his own life, poor thing.
Not poor Wirt.