Farther Along A Chatterstrip at the End of Civilization
Joe Otis Jackson is the pastor of the African Methodist church, and most of the time Joe Otis only needed to ask a favor from the pulpit and any member of his congregation would gladly fill his request. But Joe Otis was in a quandary because he could not think of a polite way to circumvent his congregation and ask Bobber Tinkerkeller for help.
Bobber Tinkerkeller is an amiable, honest soul who never met an enemy. He is the type of good old Southern boy who was never one of those Confederate apologists. Bobber would gladly use his super-charged pickup truck to pull anyone out of a ditch, who routinely offered rides home to pedestrians struggling with grocery bags along the street. Bobber commuted to Atlanta every workday but if he had a choice, he would spend his days in his woodshop set up beside his house in Clem, the Pearl of the Tri-Pasture Area. Joe Otis knew he could work with a nice fellow like that.
Joe Otis came into Fable Feed and Seed and spent a good forty-five minutes looking at a variety of hand tools and some bric-a-brac I had on display shelves in the middle of the store. Joe Otis wore a pair of round glasses that he habitually pushed up the bridge of his nose with an index finger. His slender figure wore a button-down shirt and crispy creased slacks, and he always kept his curly grey hair trimmed close to the scalp. Seeing there were no other customers in the store at last, Joe Otis strolled casually over to me.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Fable; fine day.”
“Why good afternoon, Joe Otis,” I responded. Joe Otis told me long ago not to call him Mr. Jackson or Pastor Jackson, ‘those are only my Sunday names.’ “What can I do for you?”
“I wonder if you could get hold of Bobber Tinkerkeller for me, but –” he made a downward swatting motion of his hands, “keep it on the downlow, if you don’t mind.”
I softened my voice to match his. “Of course, whatever you say. What shall I tell him?”
“I’d like him to build me a chicken house with a pen. Not a small one like you have here, they are nice but not what I have in mind, you see?” I nodded. “I need a big one, one to hold maybe a hundred chickens.”
“Oh, of course,” I agreed. The little chicken houses I had for sale were what I considered a “hobby house” for backyard gardeners, that held less than a dozen chickens comfortably and had its own small wire-enclosed chicken pen included in the design. These could provide eggs and meat for a family quite comfortably, but certainly could not contain a hundred birds. “What, may I ask, are you planning to do with a hundred chickens, Joe Otis?”
“I want to provide food for the down-on-their-luck in the community. Thank you,” Joe Otis explained as he sat on the counter stool I offered. “The families struggling to make ends meet who still have a roof over their heads might not be able to afford much meat to feed their family, and the homeless over at Lynx Park can use the built-in public grills there to cook on.”
“That’s a great idea, Joe Otis. I’d be proud to donate whatever materials you need, and I’m sure you have plenty of willing hands in your congregation that would -”
“Shh, shh, shh!” Joe Otis hissed with another frantic swatting motion of his hands. “I’d be happy to accept your donation, Truman, but this has to be kept quiet right now.”
Seeing my confusion, Joe Otis continued, “There are a lot of truly fine souls in my congregation, that is true, and I love each and every one of them with all my heart. But most of the ones who actually know how to build things, aren’t as thorough as Bobber Tinkerkeller. They can build chicken houses, but creatures still find a way to dig under and into the houses to kill or carry away the chickens. I know because I hear the complaints when it happens. I ask them, ‘how did they get in?’ and I swear, Truman, every one of them admits they took a shortcut or didn’t think a design through. I also found out there are very few people left in my congregation who know anything about chicken husbandry.”
I nodded as I handed Joe Otis an ice-cold can of Coke from my small under-the-counter fridge. “And you’re afraid they would be insulted if you didn’t ask them, even though you have every right to doubt?” I held up the can of Coke I had for myself, and Joe Otis clicked his can against mine in a toast.
“That’s the size of it. Too many young folks never raised chicken and don’t understand certain essentials, like the need for chicken not to overheat in the summer and also stay warm in the winter. Some of the older folk haven’t raised chickens in so long, they forgot a lot of what their parents taught them, and if they still have chicken houses, they don’t know how to fix it so animals can’t get at them.”
“Do you have a place to put this chicken yard?”
“That’s the other thing. I can legally have a chicken house and yard in the city, right on church property if need be as long as it all meets code, and I think Bobber Tinkerkeller can get it done for me.”
“Well then,” I said as I picked up my phone, “Let’s see it happen.”
Bobber Tinkerkeller was happy to take my call and agreed to meet with Joe Otis that evening to discuss the plans. Oddly enough, Bobber insisted all three of us meet at the Feed and Seed.
“See, I have a few people who are looking for me to build stuff for them, so I don’t want them to know I might be pushing them down the list.”
Joe Otis nodded, so I agreed to host the meeting at the store.
When seven o’clock rolled around that evening, I opened the door next to my back dock for Bobber. He was a barrel-chested man just under six feet tall, and sported a light brown thatch of hair that was taking a slow but inevitable exodus from the crown of his head. Joe Otis arrived minutes later, so we all went to the store office. I had taken the liberty of ordering to-go orders from the Sunshine Café, and my girlfriend Nancy Sweetanall had picked it up and set it up. We ate as we plotted, including Nancy in the plans since Nancy is, as Joe Otis pointed out, probably the most practical person he knew.
Bobber listened as Joe Otis described his plans and drew up a few design ideas on the legal pad I supplied. At one point Bobber frowned and leaned back in his chair. “Pastor, this sounds just as fine a Christian gesture as there is, and I appreciate that Truman’s willing to donate the materials and of course I’m happy to donate my time and hammer, but… do you realize just how much it costs to feed and care for chickens? Unless you’re going to pay for all the chicken feed and disease preventions and all that other upkeep yourself, you’re going to need to ask for donations sooner or later. There’s no shame in asking your congregation for help.”
“I don’t trust them to build a sturdy chicken house, but I trust them enough to help me buy feed. That will go over well,” Joe Otis cracked.
Nancy idly tugged at her long braid of hair, a sure sign to me that she was studying the situation from all angles. “Back when we were kids, raising chickens for the family was just what families did, but I don’t remember my granddad ever taking a chicken to the vet. He’d have thought vitamins and vaccinations for animals a waste of time and money, so he used old farmer methods that we kids never learned. Then he would pick out a chicken, chop off its head and dress it right there in the back yard. But you are talking about donating live chickens to people, Joe Otis, and the Health Department is going to have something to say about that.”
Bobber made an “oooh” sound of agreement.
I interjected, “I swear, so many people these days are so used to going to the grocery store, they can’t imagine a chicken that isn’t featherless and gutless in a plastic bag. I wonder if there’s anyone who even knows how to clean a chicken from crow to cutlet.”
Bobber, Joe Otis and Nancy all eyed me at the same time. “You must be from Oklahoma,” Bobber said at last, “You come up with the darndest phrases.”
“But it’s true,” I replied. “I grew up on a farm, too, and I had to dress chickens for my Mama. There has to be a sanitary way of disposing of the innards and a way to remove the feathers – you recall what a stink that makes – and then if you want to fry the chicken and not just bake it whole, you have to know how and where to cut.”
“Not everyone gets their chicken from KFC,” Nancy agreed. “But there are folks who still buy those whole chickens in the meat department and cut them up when they get home. I do.”
“Still, he’s right,” Joe Otis sighed, “I don’t imagine very many are going to be able to go – what’d he say, go from crow to cutlet?”
The four of us sat dejected, gazing at the remnants of turkey slices and cathead biscuits and gravy in their takeout boxes.
“I mean, there’s people who would gladly cook chicken to feed the hungry, but that isn’t what I am aiming for,” Joe Otis told us. “I wanted to have something people can fix for themselves when they were ready to sit down and eat, not to wait around for a weekend so they can get handed a Styrofoam plate of food. I wanted it to be on their timetable, not somebody else’s.”
“Do you have to include the chickens?” Nancy asked. “Would it work just as well to, say, only give away the eggs?”
“I could,” Joe Otis said slowly as he rubbed his chin in thought, “until the commercial egg farms came knocking. There’s a lot of farmers who would feel threatened by even a little competition. Ahh…! What was I thinking; nothing is as simple as it used to be. People aren’t the same as before, either. My grandmother would tell me or my sister to go pull feathers off the chicken she killed for Sunday dinner, and we would go out and do it with no questions. These days kids would put up a fight, say their rights are being violated or that they’re suddenly vegan for the day, or they would sass back and go off joyriding instead of helping prepare dinner. People would literally rather starve than put in an effort.”
“But that isn’t your fault, Joe Otis,” Bobber told him. “Your heart is in the right place. I think it’s wonderful that you want to help hungry people have something to eat. But no, people are not the same these days. My God, I think all them years of watching Mad Max movies made people expect a heartless, selfish future instead of looking for good in the world.”
Nancy murmured, “That sounds like the type of non-sequitur Truman would come up with.”
“Hey,” I quietly objected.
Joe Otis swallowed a bite of a cathead biscuit and said, “Well, I’m glad I spoke to you folks instead of bringing it up to my church members, because I didn’t think this thing through and I would have sounded cracked. I must be one of those folks who forgot how the bare chicken gets in the bag. Plenty of my congregation would be all for giving or getting chickens, but I don’t think any of them would welcome trying to get rid of guts and feathers. Gracious, we’d all come off as practitioners of animal sacrifice! And I didn’t once think about the Health Department. Until a few minutes ago, I didn’t even think about the local commercial chicken farms either.”
“Just the same, I hate throwing cold water on a kind gesture,” Bobber told him. “I think you could get a hell of a sermon out of it, though.”
“Well, wait a minute now,” I said, thinking hard. “Okay, so raising chickens and giving them away for people to kill and clean themselves is a no-go, okay. So why not use the land you were going to use for the chicken yard, and build a community garden with upraised beds and hydroponic sections? All the handyman types in the congregation could help build what Bobber designs, I’ll have the Feed and Seed donate the materials and startup seeds, the whole congregation could tend the garden, and the homeless and hungry can pick what they need when it ripens. The Health Department doesn’t have to get involved, people get fed and if you do decide to get a few chickens, you can still give away their eggs, and add their poo to a compost pile to start up the garden next year.”
Joe Otis’s eyes brightened.
“Even the elderly can help tend a raised garden, they won’t have to bend over nearly as far,” Bobber Tinkerkeller said, ripping the page with his chickenyard designs out of the pad and drawing up the placement for raised beds. “We might can get ol’ Jimmy over at the Plumber’s Helper to donate a tax-deduction-worthy watering system, I’ll call on him once we decide what we want.”
“I’ve got half of my next sermon already in my head,” Joe Otis said with a wide grin.
Nancy patted my arm. “You come in pretty handy once in a while, Truman.”
I shrugged and smiled. “I’m not just some garden variety chicken plucker, you know.”