The Ornish Drive Chicken House
The day the winged angel visits Margie King begins like any other summer day in Okalousa, Louisiana. The heat index is 101 degrees, the air won’t move, and on the corner of the 200-block of Ornish Drive, seventy-year-old retired plant workers Joe Baker and Oscar Henley rehash the same conversation they’ve had for the past five years.
“The problem with the Democrats started with Carter,” says Baker. “He shoulda stayed on the peanut farm.”
“No, no,” says Henley. “The problem was Johnson.”
The conversation goes round and round until it dwindles into a talk about the weather, which is ultimately summed up in three words: It’s damn hot.
Normally at this point in the day, Baker and Henley would unseat themselves from Henley’s porch, get into Baker’s pick-up, and make the five-mile trip to their favorite deli (a trip that takes them twelve minutes every time), but instead they see Margie King standing in her modest flowerbed, nodding and talking to an invisible something in the humid Louisiana air.
Henley calls out, asks if she’s okay. Margie is nearing sixty and lives alone, so Henley considers himself to be her only protection from neighborhood thugs, even though the average age of the neighborhood is fifty and Henley has only one way of determining a thug, which is the level at which their pants fall below their waist.
Margie doesn’t hear him.
“Better go see what’s the matter,” Henley says, and he leaves Baker on the porch to cross the street to 294 Ornish. When he gets there, Margie mutters, “yes, yes, I understand,” to the invisible something, then turns and greets her neighbor with a big and unusual smile.
“You alright?” Henley asks.
“Oh, yes,” Margie says from beneath her enormous gardening hat. “There’s a treasure buried under my house.”
Henley responds the way he always responds when someone says something he doesn’t understand.
“Say again?” he says.
“There’s a treasure under my house,” Margie says. “I’m gonna dig it out.”
Henley looks into the empty and humid Louisiana air where Margie’d been staring earlier. “Who says there’s a treasure?”
“An angel named Sams. He had big wings.” She indicates the size.
Henley isn’t sure what to say at all, so he lets her know he’ll be keeping an eye on her, and crosses back to 297 Ornish, where Baker is ready to go to the deli. Once they get in the cab of Baker’s pick-up, Henley takes one last look at Margie, who is shoveling out her geraniums.
“I do believe that woman is losing her mind,” Henley says.
By the time Halloween comes around, the hole in Margie’s front yard is so big that three Spidermen, two fairies, and one hobo have stumbled and nearly fallen inside. Henley runs across Ornish Street each time to make sure the trick-or-treaters are okay. He notices that Margie has her porch light out this year, which is unusual, but then again, everything Margie does lately is unusual, because the only thing she does is dig. Henley and Baker have mulled over the different ways they can intervene for her own good, but have yet to figure out how to stop her from digging, so they watch her from Henley’s porch instead. Henley even let Margie borrow one of his shovels. He thought about asking if she needed help, but he didn’t think that was a good idea, considering the whole project was ludicrous. Not to mention his bad back.
“You think she’s gonna find somethin’ under there?” Baker asks, not for the first time, on a November afternoon.
“Maybe she’ll strike oil,” Henley replies, not for the first time, and they laugh.
Thanksgiving. Margie’s house now rests on a pitcher’s mound. Piles of dirt are pushed up against her wooden fence. Oblivious birds land on top of the mounds from time to time, and Baker and Henley try to figure out what breed they are. Henley thinks all birds that have red are cardinals. Baker thinks all the small ones are hummingbirds. They are both wrong ninety-seven percent of the time, but neither of them knows it.
Margie isn’t coming out much anymore. Even though the slowly disappearing grass around her house indicates that she is alive and well, Henley goes over there weekly to make sure thugs haven’t violated her. He considers this a grand favor because of all the steps and missteps he has to make on and around the dirt to get to her front door from the sidewalk.
“Women,” says Henley. He shakes his head as he walks away yet again from Margie’s unanswered door. “I don’t understand ’em.” Henley wishes his wife were still alive, because she would know how to handle the problem.
Henley gets a head cold the week before Christmas and because he is seventy years old, the head cold is the equivalent of pneumonia. He is relegated to his bedroom for four days, during which a few of the neighbors bring him chicken noodle soup, nips of whiskey, and spicy gumbo. Henley leaves a key over the porch lamp (the same place he’d been leaving it for forty years — Henley isn’t worried much about thugs, because he figures he can handle himself), so the kindly folks let themselves in and out. Each time the neighbors visit, they give him updates on all the goings-on of Ornish Drive, which means they all talk about Margie King.
“She’s crazier than a fox in a chicken house,” says Beryl Johnson.
Jimmy Leland declares that Margie is legally insane and should be committed, and Baker, of course, says that they need to do something to help the poor woman, although he never says what.
When Henley finally walks onto his porch on December twenty-third, he takes a look at 294 Ornish Drive and says, “Sonofabitch,” because Margie King’s house isn’t there anymore. Her little house has been reduced to demolished wood and vinyl siding, towering near the dirt, next to a stationary dump truck. If he and Baker were gonna do anything, they were too late. Henley walks back inside, picks up the phone, and dials Baker. Baker takes eleven rings before he picks up because he can never hear the phone.
“Hello,” Baker says.
“Joe,” says Henley. “Margie King done tore her house down.”
There is a pause. Then Baker says, “Sonofabitch.”
Here is what Margie finds buried underneath where her house used to be: three bottles of moonshine, one pencil box, twenty-five dollars stuffed inside an empty coffee can, a pair of eyeglasses without its lenses, three children’s sneakers, five glass Coca-Cola bottles and several dried cigarette butts.
After Margie determines that Sams’ definition of “treasure” is much different than hers, she climbs one of the dirt mounds and sits on top. It is seven-fifteen in the evening. At seven-thirty, Henley walks over and looks up at her.
“You okay?” he asks.
“Guess Sams was wrong,” Margie replies.
“Oh,” Henley says. He is genuinely disappointed, but not in the least bit surprised. He looks at the razed lot where her house used to be.
“You got a place to go?” he asks.
“You got any money?”
“No. I was counting on that treasure.”
Henley nods toward his house across the street. “I got room.”
“Okay,” Margie says.
“Come on down from that mound,” Henley says.
She starts down; Henley helps her. It’s New Year’s Eve and he wonders what they will eat for dinner. He thinks about what kind of food he has to offer a woman. All he’s got are TV dinners, Cowboy beans, and refrigerated rice.
“Happy New Year,” Margie says. She doesn’t seem upset about the treasure, but Henley doesn’t worry about why. After seventy years, he tries not to worry about stuff he doesn’t know. He’s learned that it’s not worth the effort.
“Happy New Year,” Henley says, and before they cross Ornish Street, he pulls the three bottles of moonshine out of the dirt.
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