Just before it all begins, the dog gets out of the house and kills one of our chickens. He shakes her until she goes soft and limp and then he drops her body on the ground. My husband gets rid of the body so I don’t have to look at it.
In someone’s front yard my kids find a family of mice. They’re curled up inside an old pipe, blinking up at us from their nest. The neighbor kids crouch down next to mine and I know they are closer than they should be but I am powerless to interfere. I just stand there, clenching my fists, and through my teeth I murmur, give a little space. A little space.
Strange men invite me to play Words with Friends and I accept.
My husband can’t stop splitting logs. He goes outside for ten, twenty, thirty minutes a day and just splits wood and then splits it again. Stacking up the skinny logs in piles next to the fireplace.
At night I recite the names of chicken breeds in my head. Silver-laced Wyandotte. Jubilee Orpington. Speckled Sussex. On and on until I fall asleep.
They are like poetry to me.
In the Before––
before the Before––
We lived in a little apartment in Harlem. No kids back then, just a sweet pit bull mix with tuxedo markings named Parker. In the mornings before work we’d walk him up Malcolm X Boulevard to Marcus Garvey Park, where there was a little area fenced off for dogs. Parker would romp with the other dogs while we made small talk with the humans: A man named John with a little Jack Russell terrier. A nurse with an elderly beagle named Mr. Marbles. A tall man with a Rhodesian Ridgeback who had gone to Columbia Business School.
(The man, I mean. Not the Ridgeback.)
You see someone every morning and they start to feel like a friend.
I order new chickens online. I order a pasta maker and Swiss Miss hot cocoa mix and a handheld machine that punches muscles at four hundred percussions per minute.
In the Before I never would have played Words with Friends, let alone with strangers. Let alone accept their chat requests. But something compels me to respond to them. They want to know if I’m married. They want to know what I do for a living. They have names like Harrison and Morgan and Kelvin and they write things to me like hey pretty.
The names are all so fancy, so preppy, it’s as if they’ve been selected at random from nineteenth century British novels. I know without knowing that the names are fake.
I collect one dozen eggs from the chicken coop, and I trade them for a loaf of my neighbor’s fresh sourdough. The bread is still warm when she drops it off.
I stayed in touch with some of our friends from the dog park. Even as our dogs began to die. John retired to Italy and fell in love. Sometimes I click the like button on his posts: pictures of his new dog, and his handsome partner Sergio. In the pictures he is always smiling.
There’s a wooden storage cabinet in our basement, nestled at the bottom of the staircase. It’s painted a bright, cheerful white and inside it there are three shelves, each one as deep as my arm is long. When we first bought the house I peeked inside and found an assortment of abandoned goods: a dusty autobiography of Lee Iacocca; a broken plastic backgammon set; a framed photograph with the glass cracked into pieces. Someone’s full collection of hundreds of records: Elvis Costello, Donna Summer, Cheap Trick.
Back then I left it as I found it, but now I clear out the cabinet and wipe it down with a damp cloth. I fill the empty shelves with ramen noodles and beef jerky and cans of San Marzano tomatoes and rolls of toilet paper.
It feels like abundance.
It feels like too much.
I turn to my husband and say what if, just this once, the anxiety did what it was supposed to do?
By the time my company orders us to work remotely, I haven’t left the house in weeks.
I talk with a neighbor while our dogs sniff and whine at each other. I tell her about the chicken murder.
She says you can’t even buy baby chicks right now. Feed store is sold out. Toilet paper, all-purpose flour, tomato plants, yeast, chicks: disaster shopping.
My leash is exactly six feet long, so I know I’m keeping a safe distance as long as it stays taut. When it slackens, I step backwards.
I think about giving away the dog.
I think about giving away the chickens.
The pasta maker arrives and I picture myself feeding the homemade dough through the metal device, making ribbons and ribbons of fresh pasta.
Kelvin is very bad at Words with Friends. He lives in Texas and works in oil and gas and I do not know what he wants from me.
I read online that if you can smell whether someone’s been eating garlic, they’re close enough to make you sick. I think about the Before, when I took the train to work in the city. In the morning, the men with their coffee breath. I think about the train in the evening, the beer breath, the way their knees and elbows would press into me. I don’t miss it.
We walk down to marvel at the mouse family. The little pink babies have grown fuzzy and gray.
I hook up the pressure washer and point it at the chicken coop. Layers of dust and straw and caked-on shit blast away in tidy little strips. Some of the muck flies into my face and I wipe it off with the back of my arm. My neighbor walks by with her little son and they’re calling to me. There’s straw in my hair and poop on my cheek, but I turn off the pressure washer to say hello. My neighbor wants to know when I’ll be ready for my son to play with hers, and how could I possibly answer that?
I picture anxiety as an arrow. I picture it as a mallet.
Things get bad in Italy and people start posting on John’s Facebook wall, asking if he’s okay. One of them wants John to know there’s a 4.9% mortality rate in Italy right now. John assures them everything is overblown, and it’s fine. He’s just returned from a walk with his dog.
I’m afraid to make the homemade pasta because I might get it wrong, and then I’d have to start dinner all over again, but there wouldn’t be any time.
There is never any time.
When the Swiss Miss cocoa arrives, I realize I have purchased sixteen boxes by mistake. I meant to buy two. Or maybe I didn’t. My husband tries to help me make room on the shelf and I ask him to stop. I need to do this, I say. I need this.
I explain to my kindergartner that we can’t keep the mice as pets because they’re wild, and living with us would make them sad. He disagrees.
Kelvin asks if we can talk somewhere else. I ask him if it’s because I am beating him so badly at our game. He says no, but he will be leaving Words with Friends for some months. He tells me I am a loving person to chat with. He thinks I’m very funny. He plays a word for three points.
The people posting on John’s Facebook wall want to know if his life is back to normal. John says it has never been normal, but things in Milan are not so good. He only goes outside to walk his dog.
The postmaster calls to say my new chickens have arrived. He’s got a deep voice and an amiable tone and I could stay on the phone with him for longer, if I had to. When the phone rings, the dog is splayed out on the floor in a bright strip of sunshine; he’s angled his body just so within the sliver of light, one paw spilling out into the shade. I stand up to leave and my husband reminds me to take the Subaru, since we haven’t started the engine in weeks and the car battery could die.
Inside the car smells like the Great Teriyaki Spill of 2019. I roll down the window and plug in my phone and Martha Wainwright comes strumming through the speakers. The air outside is cool and I start singing along and I realize I can’t remember the last time I did that. I only sing in the car. When else would I do it?
I drive by a woman pulling a little girl in a red wagon. Six feet away from her another woman walks a big dog with a droopy face. At a major intersection I see a whole family waiting for the light to change. A man with cornrows, a woman with a ponytail, two kids. The man looks over his shoulder at the woman and smiles. He takes one of the kids by the hand, preparing to cross. Those are all the people I see on my fifteen minute drive.
At the post office, someone has made red Xs on the ground with duct tape to show where to stand. Through his mask the postmaster asks me what kind of chickens I’ve got in the box. I tell him this breed is ideal for an apocalypse––good foragers, steady layers. He asks me to spell the name and I do. W-E-L-summer. He writes it down on a piece of paper for his wife.
When the police officer in Minneapolis murders George Floyd, I am at home. I am baking bread rolls from scratch while he calls out for his mama. My kids are watching Wild Kratts on PBS in the other room. I am brushing melted butter on the rolls and not thinking about being alive even at all.
At night I hold the punching machine over my thighs and let it hammer my iliotibial bands over and over and over again, but they do not submit.
Kelvin says there are too many fraudsters on Words with Friends. He asks me again for my email address. Sometimes I’m sure he’s after money and other times I think it’s nudes and then I wonder if he’s just lonely.
Two men come to install a fence around the chicken coop. The dog stays.
At dusk my children conspire to sneak out of the house. They creep through the front door, leaving it open behind them, and by the time we realize they’ve escaped, they’re on their way back home in the twilight.
One of them has a baby mouse in his pocket.
My husband forces him to release the mouse but they’re at the wrong house, not where the mouse lives, and my son is hysterical.
We microwave some popcorn and watch The Parent Trap with the kids. The Lindsay Lohan version. The dog sits on the couch with his big head resting on my son’s lap. He allows my son to stroke his velvety ears.
There’s an update from John, but it’s not from John, is it? It is Sergio, posting on his behalf.
Hi there, it reads.
John is died yesterday, in the night at hospital.
I decide I’m ready to make the homemade pasta. I follow the instructions for the dough but when I try to run it through the device it doesn’t ribbon like in the YouTube video. It just crumbles. I try again and again but it doesn’t work and the kids are whining so I pound the dough into a glossy yellow ball and feed it to the chickens. I think about all the flour I’ve just wasted. I boil some rigatoni from a box and nobody notices.
My older son has pulled his little blue suitcase out of the closet and he’s packing it with stuffed animals and LEGOs. He’s running away to rescue the baby mouse. I tell him the mouse has almost certainly found its way home by now, but he’s skeptical.
I look up “words with friends fraud” online and I find an article about men who prey on vulnerable women through the game. I tell Kelvin I’m not going to share my email address. Please don’t talk, he says. He plays a word for five points.
The word is “we.”
An acquaintance posts a picture of a rainbow arcing over a gas station, with the caption God is merciful. I wish I could delete that picture from the universe but instead I send a message to a friend of mine who is good and kind and patient. She believes in God. I have never believed in anything, especially God, so I ask my friend to help me understand.
I say: What kind of smug asshole do you have to be to believe that God is merciful?
I say: Why does God get all the credit for the good and none of the blame for the bad? He gives us a rainbow and then takes somebody’s grandpa.
I say: Fuck that rainbow and fuck that useless rainbow God.
(It is possible I did not, in fact, want to understand.)
She says: That’s not how I see it.
She says: We can’t comprehend the beauty that is the universe.
She says: There’s a circle of good and bad, and we have to be able to pay attention to the good, too. Not to the exclusion of the sadness and horror of other things, but precisely because of them.
I give away the pasta contraption to a stranger on Facebook. She wants to know if I’m sure I don’t want it anymore. I’m sure.
Someone leaves the new gate open and the dog gets into the chicken coop again. He kills three more hens. I drop to my knees and wail so loudly my neighbors come running over. “We thought something had happened to the boys,” they say.
The dog trots up to me. His face is all dumb-dog concern but he still has feathers in his mouth.
In the Before I sat next to the same man on the train every morning. He was slight and trim, balding, with a greying goatee. He kept his knees together and his elbows in and he read the New York Times and sat in the outer seat, so every morning I’d say “Mind if I get in there?” and he’d get up and I’d wriggle into the empty window seat and the entire ride his knee would never bump mine once. Sometimes if he wasn’t there or someone else was sitting next to him, in what I came to think of as my spot, I would step back onto the platform and catch the next train. We never spoke.
I wonder if he’s okay.
I put on my Black Lives Matter t-shirt and my blue cotton face mask and drive over to the local demonstration on the town green. The families are sitting on blankets spread out on the grass and they are not six feet apart but we’re outside, and that’s okay. I think.
It is my first time in public in three months.
It is my first protest in two decades.
My sign reads “I hate crowds but I hate injustice more.” It’s made from a folded-up Amazon box. All the Sharpies in the house were dried up––my kids never put the caps back on—so I typed and printed out each word on pieces of white paper and taped them to the cardboard.
The mood is of an outdoor concert except everyone is wearing masks. A Black man tells his daughters that they’re going to stand on the edges of the green, because there’s still a pandemic.
The sign he’s holding reads Am I next?
His is the only Black family I can see. In front of me a white girl helps her younger brother stretch the elastic loops of his face mask around his ears. Another white girl in a halter top keeps her gaze fixed on the podium while her fingers weave crowns out of the clover. There’s a little dog with long hair on her lap and she places the flower crown on the dog’s head, lifting up its silky ears to hold it in place.
The First Selectman walks up and while he speaks about the work we need to do as a community, someone yells out INTEGRATE YOUR SCHOOLS! The words sit heavy in the silence.
My kids stay up until 9, 10, sometimes 11 p.m. What can I do? One night the older one accompanies me to the chicken coop to close them in for the night. It’s dark, and he gets distracted by the first firefly of the year.
He runs inside to get a flashlight and doesn’t say why.
If you could see him––
Turning the light off and on and off and on
whispering under his breath––
Flash, flash, pause
Flash, flash pause
He is speaking to the fireflies in their language.
Kelvin never writes to me again. I lose interest in Words with Friends.
My husband goes outside to split more logs. He raises the mallet, lets it fall down. The log splits reliably. Obediently. Every single time.
One of the dead chickens was a family favorite named Lovey, with blue-gray feathers and a calm disposition. She liked to perch on my son’s arm like a parrot. My kids ask if we can bury her and I dig a hole in the soft, rocky soil of the backyard. The older one runs inside to ask my husband for a “God book.” He comes back with a miniature novelty Bible that belonged to my grandfather, the size of a beetle, ensconced in a little plexiglass box. The tiny cover has a golden cross painted on it.
We’re Jewish, but barely.
He holds the God book in his hands and says a few words to Lovey. He places four stones on top of the loose earth while I fumble around on my phone trying to find the words to the Mourner’s Kaddish. I begin to read.
My younger son interrupts. That’s not correct, he says. You need to sing. He’s never heard the Kaddish before or been to a funeral, but somehow he expects music. I take a deep breath and I start the chanted version of the prayer, even though I know it changes the meaning, and all the words come back to me. I no longer need to look at my phone.
I write to my friend. The one who believes in God. I tell her about my son and the fireflies.
I say: I think I get it.
I say: I don’t think it’s because of God, but I understand.
Mille Fleur d’Uccle.
Black Copper Marans.
Rumpus original art by Meg Richardson.