Nov. 3 2009 07:04 PM

A story about getting to the other side

This tale of a chicken dates back to when I was married, so if you're reading this, ex-wife, I hope you don't mind that you're showing up in a column. I will be fair.

We lived on a steep street in Bankers Hill in a house with a yard and a pepper tree. One morning, I was heading off to UCSD to teach a writing class and sleep through a Dialectics of Tenure seminar. As I rolled down the hill, a joke appeared: a small black and red hen crossing the street.

I pulled over, got out of the car and approached her. I knew that corralling a chicken wasn't easy, but this chicken was in danger of becoming a chicken pancake, so I had to do something.

I bent down and picked her up. The chicken did not resist. She seemed relieved. This was a tame chicken.

I walked back to the car and put the chicken in the passenger seat. There was no time to try to figure out where she came from or where she was going.

On the ride to La Jolla, I soothed the chicken by talking to her, petting her and tuning the radio to the country station. I parked at the university and lifted the chicken out of the car. Suddenly, she flapped her wings. She jumped out of my arms—and up onto my shoulder! I'm not making this up. We walked across campus. People stopped me to check out the chicken on my shoulder. One asked what kind of bird it was.

“You eat them and you don't even know what they look like when they're alive?” I asked. “It's a McNugget!”

I bought some sunflower seeds at the Sunshine Store. The chicken enjoyed them. I brought her to class. The students were amused.

I put her in my office while I went to the seminar. When I came back, my officemate, Leslie, had been surprised to meet the chicken and to find that her students' papers had been pooped on. I apologized and said, “Everyone's a critic.”

After work I went to see my neighbor, Lisa. She was from the Midwest and had a little black chicken of her own living in a coop next to her garage. I asked her if the chicken belonged to her.

“No,” she said. “But I've seen that chicken out in the street twice in the last couple weeks!”

“We have an irresponsible chicken owner in the neighborhood,” I said. “I'm taking over because that person cannot be trusted with the welfare of this bird. I'll need your help.”

Lisa taught me about chicken coops, chicken wire, chicken feed, chicken needs and behavior and so forth. She kept the little Rhode Island red hen for the first couple nights while I prepared her a new home in the little yard on the side of my house.

When I got her back, she had a name, courtesy of Lisa. “I named her Magnolia. I hope you don't mind. You can call her Maggie. It just came to me.”

I thanked Lisa and brought Maggie across the street to root around in the leaves and dirt under the pepper tree. There was no fence separating the yard from the street so I had to sit out there in a lawn chair and keep an eye on her. I played George Jones for Maggie on my boombox while I sipped bourbon and watched the sun set over the bay. At night, she slept contentedly in her heated coop.

My wife was not amused.

To her, a chicken was no pet. She didn't marry me thinking I'd turn into Farmer Dave, drinking corn mash and feeding chickens in the yard. I was supposed to be an ambitious college teacher from a successful family. Instead, I had a bunch of unpaid UCSD parking tickets and all the organizational skills of the Tasmanian Devil. After a couple years of marriage, it must have dawned on her that she had married the least Jewish Jew in all Jewdom.

And now he was a chicken farmer.

Because of that, and some other reasons I won't go into, the marriage was in trouble. The chicken had to go. She wouldn't stand for it. It was her house, too, and nobody had asked her if she wanted to live in a barn.

It was a wild-west showdown.

I wouldn't budge on the chicken. I enjoyed my evenings in the yard with my music, whiskey, Maggie and the sunset. It was how I unwound from the stresses of graduate school, teaching and tearing up parking tickets.

The chicken turned out to be the straw that broke the marriage's back, and if I could think of an idiom for breaking up that has a chicken in it, I'd probably use that instead.

Maggie and I moved out. I stayed in a friend's music studio, while Lisa helped me find a temporary home for Maggie among a family of rescued chickens in a backyard in Lakeside. The kindly elderly man let his chickens live out their whole lives without becoming drumsticks. I brought Maggie out there and watched her settle in. She seemed to enjoy the company.

Eventually, I found a new home in a little cottage by the sea in Ocean Beach, where I still live. There were no chickens allowed there, either, but by that time, I had already realized that Maggie belonged with her own kind, anyway. Unfortunately, I never went out to Lakeside to visit her again. Likewise, I haven't seen my ex since then, either. She eventually remarried a more responsible guy and together they had a daughter.

I'm happy for them.    

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