Johnny America


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.

Filed under Fiction on August 28th, 2008

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