“Okay, sweetie, so here’s what you’re going to do.” Oscar pulled a page from his little blue notebook and smacked it down on the cardboard box, bringing frantic chirps from the baby chickens within. “Write down how much you paid for the chicks at the top, and what you spent on the food. Every time you buy another bag, write down the cost. Then, when the chickens are fully grown and you sell them to the butcher, add up how much you get paid. Compare your total costs to your total earnings, and then you’ll know whether this nonsense is actually worth the hassle.”
“But I’ve told you a million times,” Esmeralda said. “For me it’s not a hassle.”
“Scooping up chicken shit isn’t a hassle? Having to rush home to cover the pen isn’t a hassle? Besides, you might be coming out behind. Good boyfriends don’t let their girlfriends throw money in the trash.”
Esmeralda sighed. “And if I end up coming out behind?”
Oscar had already slung his backpack over his shoulders and taken a step toward the door. “Yeah?”
“What would I do?”
“You’d stop raising chickens!”
Esmeralda stretched her neck as if she had a kink, glancing at the emptiness of the tiny house behind her. There was the curtained bathroom, the kitchen, her parents’ dingy bedroom at the end of the hall. There was her own bedroom, which had been plenty big when she shared it with her sister but now barely seemed to hold the yoga mat that served as her bed. It would all be so empty, so dismal, without the chirping that would become clucking, the scratching of feet against the cardboard that would only grow louder as the chickens aged.
“Look, Esmeralda, I gotta go,” Oscar said. “I keep track of my money, right here in this little blue book. And from now on, you’re going to do the same. See you tomorrow, yeah?”
He walked out the door and towards his parked taxi without waiting for Esmeralda’s reply. He didn’t kiss her goodbye. He never had.
Esmeralda stooped down to pick up the cardboard box, gently shushing the chicks as they intensified their terrified peeping. This, she decided, was her favorite part of the entire process, the gradual abatement of the babies’ fear followed by an increasing trust in their new protector. Or maybe she preferred the weeks of adolescence, when the downy white plumage of infancy gave way to the coarse adult feathers, and each chicken developed its own personality. This was the stage at which she’d typically name them according to their habits or colorations. But then there was also something triumphant, exuberant, almost reverential about that exalted morning when the first rooster burst the matutinal air with its debut song, its inchoate warblings suddenly a proper cock-a-doodle-doo. And even the last day, when the butcher carried the chickens away in a giant mesh sack, had its poignancy, its deep emotional stirrings that were sorrowful and painful yet still evocative of something good. It was like what Esmeralda always felt on Good Friday, and it was followed immediately by its very own Easter when she would head to town to buy the next round of chicks.
This had been such a day, and buying the ten new chicks would have been as delightful as ever if she hadn’t asked Oscar to drive her. Oscar with his calculating mind and his little blue book. Oscar with his blithe suggestion that she stop raising chickens.
Esmeralda brought the cardboard box into her bedroom, where the chicks would take her married sister’s place against the wall until they were big enough for the pen outside. As she set the box down, the small sheet of paper from Oscar’s book wafted away and landed on the floor. Esmeralda placed her heel on top of it and started to twist. Maybe if Oscar had lost his only sibling to a husband in a distant land, maybe if Oscar lived all alone except for two aging parents who still managed to work long hours outside of the house, maybe if Oscar labored all day as an artisan with nothing to occupy him but the droll activities of aviary companions, maybe then he’d keep his little blue book and all its stupid pages to himself.
She only stopped her grinding when she heard the front door close. That would be her father, stopping back at the house because he’d forgotten his medication. The same medication that cost so much, that forced him to work almost twice as much as he used to.
If only avoiding death weren’t so expensive.
Esmeralda looked from the crumpled paper to the tweeting box. For the first time, the sight of her chickens made her feel guilty. Maybe they were nothing but a luxury, a childish indulgence she’d dressed up as a contribution to assuage her conscience. There was her father, sweating on two different construction sites for over eleven hours a day, and her mother, hands fluttering like fighting crows over a sewing machine downtown. And here she was, chatting away with the chickens that might’ve been costing her money.
She picked up Oscar’s paper, now ragged and torn. His name, typed in bold print, was perched in the top-right corner. She flattened the page out on the cardboard box, shushed the chickens with more harshness than she was used to, and wrote down exactly how much they’d cost her.
It was moving day, and Esmeralda had already relocated all but one of the adolescent chickens. She was working as fast as she could because Oscar was already beeping from the road, and he hated to be kept waiting. In her haste, the last of the chickens slipped through her hands as she lifted it out of the box.
“You come back here!” Esmeralda called, shuffling down the hallway with her arms stretched toward the fleeing feathers. Just as she had the escapee pinned against the bathroom curtain, it rushed past her grasping fingers and through her open legs.
“Gah, you!” Esmeralda laughed as she pursued the rogue adolescent, strangely the only male of the entire bunch, back to the cardboard box she’d lifted him from. “You’re grown up now, and it’s time to move into your big boy home.”
The young rooster scampered out the back door toward the pen. Esmeralda found him staring at his newly relocated cohort through the wire mesh.
“This is where I was trying to take you all along, you little rascal!” She reached down again, and this time he let her fingers tighten around his body.
“Rascal,” she said. “That’s your name.” She put him down inside the pen, where he began pecking the ground alongside the newly christened Whiskers, Cauliflower, and all the rest. Esmeralda watched them for a moment, pleased they had taken so well to their new abode.
Beep. Beep. BEEEEEP!
“Uh oh,” Esmeralda said toward the pen. She gave her palms two firm rubs on her jeans, grabbed her cellphone, and ran out into the street just in time to see the checkered rear of the taxi pulling around the corner, heading out toward the center of town.
Her phone buzzed in her hand, and Oscar’s message appeared on the screen: “I said 4:30. You were supposed to be waiting. Get it together. See you tomorrow. Maybe.”
Above the message, the clock read 4:37.
Esmeralda walked slowly into her bedroom, surprised she wasn’t angry. There was pain — some vaguely negative sensation sucking itself inward — but she seemed to be viewing it from afar, as if she were a bystander to her own suffering. Because she was used to it, maybe. Because she knew what Oscar was, understood how his sharp corners and metallic edges repulsed every tender touch. He was her man, yes, but did she love him?
No, she decided while fingering the piece of notebook paper tacked beside her bedroom door. She didn’t love him. And it was just as well she finally admitted it.
But he was her man. And in a world where she didn’t have any other, a world where everyone else seemed younger the more she aged, she would have to be glad to have him. After all, what would happen if he left her? She’d be single again, rapidly approaching her forties, with nothing but her loneliness and her meager profession to sustain her. No, no, just the thought of it was unbearable. Oscar might have been cold, harsh, and incapable of love, but he was the taxi driver, and she was stuck without a ride.
Esmeralda, stooping down in the pen, interrupted her whistling to joke with the chickens. They were almost full-grown now, which meant their droppings were full-grown, too. The cardboard from cereal boxes was best for scooping — thin enough to slide beneath the liquidy splotches, thick enough not to wilt beneath the weight. She bought cereal just for this purpose, something she hesitated to admit because she didn’t want to add Lucky Charms expenses to the tattered piece of paper with Oscar’s name in the corner.
Oscar’s little blue book had apparently told him he could take that morning off. He had asked Esmeralda to meet him in the park, but she had declined. Two of the charges— Chatterbox and Peaches, were sick with some mucus-producing illness that had claimed her chickens in the past, and she had convinced herself that maternal attention would stave off disaster. Not only would it break her heart to see two crumpled bodies in the trash bag by the door, but the financial hit would eliminate any chance she had of making a profit.
Esmeralda slid the cardboard beneath the last runny stool, then tossed the entire piece of cardboard into the baggie in her left hand.
“There you go, Peaches,” she said, playfully grabbing the hen’s beak and giving it a gentle shake. “With a pen as clean as this one, who wouldn’t get over a flu?”
It sure sounded like Oscar’s horn, but it could have been the friend of a neighbor. Esmeralda decided to ignore it, and she gave Chatterbox a rub on the side.
“You’re all right, aren’t you? Don’t you worry. Mama knows you’ll be fine. And you, Rascal; what’s up with your voice? You should be waking us up by now! A macho man like you, I’m surprised!”
Beep. Beep. BEEEEEP!
Esmeralda sighed and stepped out of the pen. That was the type of anger only Oscar’s horn could transmit.
He was pulled right up in front of her home, a half-used stick of her deodorant held out through the window.
“We’re done,” Oscar said, thrusting the deodorant into her hand. “Found this in the trunk, figured it was yours.”
Esmeralda stood speechless.
“It’s been a good run, hasn’t it? We both did each other a lot of good.”
“But, why? Why now? And what am I going to do?”
“Love’s a bit like business, isn’t it?” he said, patting the little blue notebook in his breast pocket. “We add up the costs and earnings, and then we check to see if we’re coming out ahead.”
“And with me — ?”
“I think you’d find the same thing, with the right calculations.”
Esmeralda felt a strange nausea swirling inside her, a little like the food poisoning she’d experienced the year before, but threatening to manifest itself even more violently. Her arms began tingling, and a frothy hatred bubbled between her lips.
“Leave,” she said. “Now.”
He smiled before pulling away, an insipid smirk that showed how little it all meant to him.
Esmeralda backed into her house with some dark, strange rage winding tighter and tighter inside her. It was building to a sickening crescendo, her breath quickening, her heart pounding, her fists clenched as tight as her jaws. She didn’t know what to do. Scream? Kick the door? Bite her knuckle? Chop off her arm? None of it would do. Then a cry broke the tremulous silence: Cock-a-doodle-doo! She turned to see Rascal strutting down the hall, the triumphant escapee who’d finally found his voice.
Esmeralda shook with convulsive, ebullient laughter.
It was almost evening when the butcher finally came to the house, armed with his big mesh bag and his old-fashioned balance. Esmeralda grabbed the chickens from the pen and passed them over one-by-one. As every time before, she remained stoic throughout, knowing to put a steely hand on her heart and keep the sentimentality at bay.
They weighed a fair bit, but not nearly as much as she’d hoped. And then there were only eight of them, Chatterbox and Peaches having died weeks before. The wad of bills the butcher left in her hands felt just as big as it always did, but this time it didn’t excite her. It seemed inadequate.
She pulled the paper down from the wall, took a pen from her pocket, and started adding up the expenses. There was the initial cost of the chicks, the several bags of concentrated food, the medicine the veterinary had sold her in vain. The total grew higher and higher as she calculated the old-fashioned way, adding digits and carrying ones, finding the cumulative total before moving on to the next item on the list. She had a calculator on her phone, but that was too certain. She wanted the hope of a mistake if the total was too high.
And it was too high. Barely, but too high all the same. She added the numbers up again on the tiny bit of paper that remained and got the exact same total. She pulled out her calculator and ran it through again. Same result.
She had lost money on the chickens.
The paper in her hands became smaller and smaller as she folded it over on itself. Oscar. Oscar! He had taken what she most valued: the ability to do what she wanted while thinking she was doing good.
But no. She was wasting money. As he had said, she was throwing it in the trash.
She tossed the folded piece of paper out into the hallway, lay down on her mat, and wished the world away.
Esmeralda woke up to the familiar sound of peeping chicks. She pulled herself up on her elbow and looked at the cardboard box looming over her in the twilight. Not only could she hear the twittering voices, but she could also make out that precious pitter-patter of infant toes on cardboard. It seemed her imagination hadn’t yet caught up to reality.
But of course she had to be sure. She got up on her knees, shuffled over to the box, and peered inside. She could have squealed with wonder and delight; there were ten angel-white chicks, future Rascals and Chatterboxes, gazing up at her.
“How do they look?” her dad asked from the doorway.
“Who? Why? Did you…?”
“I figured you must have gotten tired after the butcher came, so I ran out and bought them myself.”
“But why? Dad…We lose money on them. I did the math.”
“I found the paper on the floor and had a look. You messed up somewhere.”
“But I checked at least three times.”
“Trust me, Esme. You’d made a mistake in the calculations.” He took one big step into the bedroom, kissed her on the top of the head, and went away, whistling. Esmeralda looked back down into the box of chicks.
“Now you,” she said, “might just be the cutest batch yet!”