The Chicken Coop by Gabriel Don
Gabriel Don received her MFA in Creative Writing at The New School, where she worked as the chapbook and reading series coordinator. Her work has appeared in Westerly 58:2, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Brooklyn Rail, The Saudade Review, The Understanding Between Foxes and Light, Yes Poetry, A Minor and Statorec.com. She has appeared in visual poems such as Woman Without Umbrella (vimeo.com/55691171) and Unbound (vimeo.com/54545554). She started several reading-soiree series including Pies and Scribes and Dias Y Flores in New York City and is editorial staff at LIT. She is a #bookdress and can be found on Amazon @ tinyurl.com/aq9ll8c.
The Chicken Coop
The chicken coop was outside, to the left of the house, down the side stairs, tucked away in the corner, opposite to the downstairs sliding glass door, that opened into a big room with grotty carpets and piles of oil cans, old tools, across on the other wall a topless poster of Pam and a door to where I slept on a water bed with my dog Scar. Dad liked to keep chickens. He installed the large wired cage as soon as we moved in. We got our eggs daily and chopped and roasted a chook for special occasions. We didn’t live on a farm or nothing. Sure, it’s not the biggest town in Austra’ia―it wasn’t something people did, keep chickens. If they wanted chicken meat or eggs, they’d go to Coles. Dad was just like that.
His dream was to own a prawn trawler. When he eventually saved up enough to buy one, days laying brick, digging holes, slabbing walls, he took it out on the river and got sick as a dog. Ah nooooooo. Mate, it was gross. He turned green and spewed for days. He chucked a sickie from work and spent the rest of the week at the pub drinking ginger ale and beer. I was working with him at the time and since I wasn’t old enough to drive the truck myself, I sat next to him, bony legs dangling over bar stool, sipping on a fire engine. I was eleven when I dropped out of school to work with Dad. We woke up at the crack of dawn and climbed up and sat down in the only seat: one long bench with three seat belts, up the front of the ute. Dad and I would argue over the tape deck. He wanted to listen to Kenny Rogers. I wanted to play ACDC. Best way to wake up mate, on a long drive to the work site. We’d go back and forth, until we’d stubbornly, cutting off our noses to spite our faces, listened to AM radio. The truck didn’t have FM.
The floor was filled with rolling stubbies, beer cans, soft drinks, bottles of old and hot Lift, greased wrenches and parking tickets. After Dad picked up the boys, I’d be squashed into the middle with the gear stick shifting between my legs. Boz, Dad’s dog, a beautiful black Doberman, was on the back, wagging her tail and slobbering her tongue into the wind. Dad didn’t want me to be a bludger. Had to earn my keep. I was always waggin’ school anyways, so Dad reckoned it was best I just tag along with him. Once, not even four years old yet, when my parents were out at a dance, all dressed up, I dismantled the living room cupboard with a screwdriver, all by myself. Mum threw a hissy fit. Dad looked proud.
When I was a youngin Dad would disappear for days, not come home. Mum would say he’d gone walkabout. Shrug it off, like it was normal. No biggie. She’d tell me to put my togs on and we’d go to Maccas for breakkie. The one that was right on the beach, yeah mate, it’s gone now. It was always full of surfies in boardies and no shoes, not even a pair of thongs. Mum looked like a movie star. She was in her early twenties, her black hair permed and her eyes hidden behind her big purple sunglasses. We’d eat pancakes, bacon and egg McMuffins and hash browns and spend the rest of the day at the beach. Slip slap slop. Mum would lie on her purple towel, sunbathing, reading a book and I’d body surf and climb rocks. Chase the bush turkeys. Sometimes she’d walk around the cliff hills with me. She’d show me the hidden waterfall and sing me a song to remember the colours of a rainbow. She had a song for everything.
Eventually Dad would find his way home, with a gutful of piss, stumbling and swerving, telling Mum he’d been working on a house in Brizzie, the words barely making any sense slurred and Mum would spit the dummy. She hadn’t even wanted to marry him, she’d cry. He chased her and chased her. He pursued her till he caught her, like a fish he’d throw back after he’d hooked it. I would sneak out the front door, run away from the smashing plates and loud screams, down the stairs on the side of the house and sit with Boz, his head in my lap, my legs curled and bent, my back leaning against the wall, looking at the chooks. They were funny little buggers. I’d watch them squabble, bobbing their heads up and down, pecking each other, fighting for a feed. Their cage, covered in shit, hay and rust, was always in need of a clean. Sometimes Dad would send me down there as a punishment with a slopping bucket of soap and water.
I remember the first time my Dad caught me and my friend Ben smoking. We had a nice big bowl of mull on my bedside table. We were lying in bed, vegging out, in our trackie dacks, playing video games, punching cone after cone. I thought Dad was away living on a building site while he did their renovations. Mum never told us off for getting high. She didn’t like confrontation or maybe she didn’t notice. Dad liked his grog and all but he down right hated pot. He came home early and smelt some smoke sneaking up the stairs. Mate, he was spewin’. I heard him punch a hole in the wall upstairs and tip over the television. Bloody oath. We could hear his heavy steps down the stairs and mate, we took off as fast as our legs would carry us. Luckily my room has a door into the back garden so we escaped outdoors and up the stairs and hid under the truck. He looked for us for ages, screaming he was going to kill me when he found me. We held our breath and nearly passed out from fright. I’m not a wuss and Beno is the biggest guy on our rugby team, a giant Polynesian who can tackle anyone on the field but Dad’s mental. We just hoped and prayed Dad wouldn’t get into the truck and drive to the pub for a schooner. We were under that truck till sunset when we finally, slowly and scared, popped our heads out and checked to see the coast was clear and legged it to Beno’s, where his old man didn’t care if we smoked.
I inherited my temper from my Dad. Poor Mum. She’s the sweetest, gentlest woman you’d ever meet and she had to deal with us drongos. I reckon in another life, without us, she could have been a prime minister or done something special, you know? She didn’t get a fair go. Mum loved to go to our club’s member’s draw every Thursday night. She was always hopeful, this was the week, she would win the large cash prize. Better than staying in, cooped up in the house. I loved driving in the car with Mum when I was little. She’d just take us for a trip, in any direction, no particular destination. She’d have Dolly Parton turned up to the top volume, singing, “I will always love you.” Or Tammy Wynette spelling out, “Our d-i-v-o-r-c-e becomes final today.”
We’d drive alongside the concaves and curves of the rivers, along the coast, past mangroves, through eucalypt forests; the thick smell of the gum trees entering the car. We’d venture into the middle of nowhere and in Austra’ia that’s not far from anywhere. If the car broke down, we’d be fucked. Not a light in sight. I’ve been taught since kindy what to do if I ever ended up stranded. How to gather condensation on cling wrap for water. Never drink from the ocean unless you want to go mad. The call that echoed: Cooee, Cooee, Cooee. It’s heaps dangerous on the roads. Wild life made their way across the highway, unaware the car had been invented. Kangaroos, especially, at night they become hypnotised by headlights and a big beaut of a thing, built like a boxer, not able to move, in the car’s path. It’s not that people care about killing a kangaroo, they’re hunted like pests here, cheapest meat you can pick up at the supermarket: a kangaroo can total a car and hop away. I’ve never hit a kangaroo, mind you. Worst accident I’ve ever had was when me and the boys were bored shitless on a Saturday so we decided to drive to the Bottle-O, fill up the esky with long necks and throwbacks and head upstate for a barbie. We got heaps smashed. My truck at the time didn’t have a door on the left hand side, next to the passenger’s seat, where I was sitting wasted on the way back and I rolled right out onto the road. When they got me home, I had to sit in a bath of Dettol, my whole body grazed.
My oldies kept at it―the screaming, the violence, the tears, the door slamming―my whole childhood. By the time I was bringing girls home, Dad had moved out. Mum and Dad weren’t divorced but Dad lived in an apartment on the main street of Coolie, above the pie shop, with a bogan, who had flabby arms and several chins, named Sharon and her daughter, Liana. He’d met Sharon at the pub. She sat with him, red nose with red nose, every day till closing. Mum was on the road a lot for work so I lived by myself most of the time. Only saw Dad at work. He’d invite me to join him and Sharon for dinner at the pub but I felt sick every time I’d see her. Once that bitch saw Mum sitting up at the bar with her friends at the Clubhouse and―so lucky I wasn’t there, Dad wasn’t there either―she went up and started talking shit and then pushed Mum off her seat. Poor Mum. Sprawled out on the blue carpet, in her finest clothes and jewellery.
I reckon people in our town are jealous of Mum. They like to cut down tall poppies. Flock together. Mum is smart and a looker too and she always behaves like a lady. She was just raised that way. She doesn’t think she’s too good for you or anything. She never got angry with me, not once. She’s not the type to speak her mind. I think after Dad, she got scared to. She’d rather walk around things, tell white lies. Hide up a supermarket aisle from workmates because she hadn’t answered their calls. Tell everyone what they wanted to hear. She never told me off for being a wally or bringing a different woman home every night. Even after she walked in on us having a pash. She was polite to them. Made them cups of tea. Invited them to go shopping at the mall. Even remained friends with them long after we’d broken up, when I wasn’t on speaking terms with them. The girls in town were nuts for me. I had to fight them off with a stick. Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen.
At work, among the Bobcats, trucks and dozers, Dad and I got along just fine. Installing swimming pools, fixing floors, mending roofs. Drilling holes, swinging shovels, holding levels, watching the bubble move. On our smoko we’d sit together by the water and puff on a rollie, eat our meat pies with tomato sauce and drink a nice cold one. No need to talk about nothing. If it was a slow day and we had lots of boys on the job, I’d take off my big brown scuffed up CATs and have a snooze. Piece of piss. Dad would still come home with me sometimes. Have dinner with me and my sheila, Mum too if she wasn’t travelling. I’d go downstairs afterwards and watch recordings of RAGE with my girlfriend. Mum and Dad would chat upstairs: I could hear their voices murmuring down through the floorboards. When I went up to the kitchen to get another bottle of cordial and some snacks, I’d see them curled up together on the day bed, sleeping with the news on the telly. Dad wrapped around Mum, his arms around her waist, together, curved like a backwards c.
Sharon broke up with Dad and Dad came back to Mum. She was so happy to have him home but then we found out he was sick. One day Dad couldn’t walk straight, sober. He lost his balance. He was falling all over the place for ages before Mum and me convinced him to see a doctor. We thought it might be an inner ear infection or something. Turned out a lot more serious. Dad wouldn’t even tell me himself: he made me ring the doctor to find out. Sharon found out Dad was sick and wanted him back. Only when she knew he was dying. When Dad got sick, he deteriorated fast. One moment he was a capable man, working, driving, drinking; the next he was overweight, dribbling, swollen, in a wheel chair. Incapable of eating. Incapable of anything. That’s the worst mate. My hero. My dad. Not capable. Couldn’t do his hair, no more James Dean coif. Dad was vain. He wouldn’t have liked to go like this. Just wasn’t right. Lost the cheeky twinkle in his crystal blue eyes. When they started chemo his hair fell out. He’d been so proud of his hair. He used to tell me and Mum how his hair had been straight until he’d gone through puberty and then it went curly. I never believed him till I had children of my own and it happened to them.
It was hard for me and Mum to visit Dad in the hospital or talk to the doctors. Sharon was always there, the bulldog, pulling strings. That’d be right. When I did get the chance to see him, sit next to him, lying there barely conscience, it was hard. No one wants to see their dad like that. I hate hospitals. The whiteness. The smell of Dr Pepper. Adults turning back into babies, being rocked around in cots, being fed through sippy cups. Strangers forced to share rooms during intimate moments, birth, sickness and death. Doctors talking down to you. Pretending to care, scheduling you in so they can rush off to their golf game. Angry overworked nurses. Paying for parking. I got so many fines visiting Dad. I don’t think he even noticed me. He wasn’t there most of the time. Still I felt like it was my duty, to be there till the end. The hospital couldn’t do anything for him anymore. So we took turns taking him home, depending on his mood. Sharon insisted on keeping Dad’s new dog, Boomer, at her house. Wouldn’t let us keep Boomer at our house and Dad loved that dog. Sometimes more than me I reckon. So he’d go home to her apartment to see the dog.
Now Dad couldn’t come to work I was at the top of the pecking order. I’d oversee the boys on a job. Dad would have me fill out his cheques, forge his signature. Still trying to run the business from his sick bed. Pay for building materials. Sharon was the one collecting his social security cheques, taking all the money. I had to sneak him packs of cigarettes and a bit of money every time I visited him. Sharon’s sister was over during one of my visits and she said, in front of Dad, “Youz don’t worry. He’s not going to last much longer.” When Sharon found out about the cheques she tried to have me thrown in jail. Mum went and visited a solicitor and they said even though Dad told me to do it, it was still illegal. Sharon tried to convince Dad I was stealing from him. I never took one dollar off Dad. I only ever paid suppliers or contractors like he had told me to. Sharon was the thief. Mum had bought Dad a new wardrobe to replace his tattered shirts and pants. All brand new. Still had the labels on. Sharon returned them for the money. I confronted Sharon in the pub and told her she better not press charges against me. If she did she’d better watch out. She’d regret it. Sharon got all up tight and started whining to Dad, “You’re gonna let your son talk to me like that?” Dad said, “My son can talk to you however he wants.”
I didn’t know then but that day she’d taken him to the solicitors. He’d signed over everything to her. The land he bought with Mum’s money. He’d convinced her early on in their marriage to sell her shares in the family farm. With the money they’d bought a large plot together. Every year Dad had a new scheme of what he was going to do with it. Hadn’t done nothing with it yet. In his condition, Sharon had convinced him to change his will. A man who couldn’t even go to the bathroom by himself or remember our names. That was the worst part of hospital for Dad, he had told me they took a woman to the bathroom with him, in a group, the nurses took them all into the toilet. A lady had to go to the bathroom in front of him. He kept telling me how terrible it was. He would call me sometimes from Sharon’s and say it’s the milkman or a pizza delivery. Sharon was always there hovering and wouldn’t let him talk to me too long. She gave away the dog as soon as he died. To someone else. I don’t know who. I tried to look for Boomer but never found him.
Mum was away when Dad passed. I’m sure she would have been there every day by his side, taken time off work: if Sharon wasn’t there, growling and biting. After Dad died, everything was a blur. I’ve blocked most of it out to tell you the truth. He was only fifty-five. I was twenty-four. The funeral took place not too long after. I went with Mum and she was hysterical. All her incubating pain, at last hatched. I didn’t cry. Didn’t want to be a sook. Mum was still his wife when he died: they had never divorced. He was being cremated and Mum ranted on and on about her aunt’s cremation when she was a little girl that she still had nightmares about: a dead body on a conveyor belt, being rolled towards a curtain, dropped into an incinerator. Mum, who is a devout Anglican, summoned images of fire and brimstone. I wasn’t very useful to Mum at the ceremony. I got wasted and high and ended up at a brothel or strip club. Can’t remember.
When Mum found out about the changed will, she did nothing. She could have easily had it overturned. Easily have had the new will annulled but she wouldn’t. When I went to pick up Dad’s things from Sharon, the things she hadn’t wanted, the things that weren’t worth anything, she’d already thrown them all out. At least I had his truck. I went and picked up Dad’s ashes. Sharon didn’t want them either. It had always been Dad’s wishes to be sprinkled into the Tweed River, at its mouth, where it meets the Pacific Ocean. I walked out, along the rocky peninsula, alone with Dad’s ashes and began to release them into the wind. The second my fistful of ashes was released into the wind, the wind changed and I got a mouthful. I was pretty upset for a moment but then I saw the funny side. I reckon Dad would have laughed.
When I bought a house of my own and moved in with my wife and baby girl― finally out of Mum’s hair, she’d let us live with her, after I got married, after I had my first child―I built a chicken coop underneath my house, in the backyard, next to the pool. I finished building it real good; a bloody ripper, then I had a coldie next to their cage and watched the chooks. Funny little buggers. They’re fond of company, have their own little community in the chicken coop but they get real aggro every time I put a new hen in, have to be real careful, otherwise they beat the poor chook up. They’re real stubborn too. They like to sleep in the same space and if another chook took it, they just lay right on top of it. Once a hawk swooped down and picked up one of the roosters having a stroll around the yard. No joke mate. Picked him up and flew away. That rooster was the leader of the pack. The rest of the chooks got all confused after that. Took them a while to return to normal.