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I moved to Kauai the day after my twenty-third birthday. It seemed like the right thing to do, a bit impulsive, but the right thing to do. The charms of Fargo had worn thin in the six months that had passed since I finished school. Actually, in retrospect, it seems likely that the town never had any charms. I only thought it did because I was drunk throughout most of my undergraduate education. A steady diet of Rumple Minze makes it easy to overlook flooding, frigid temperatures, and faux kindness. As it turns out, piling sandbags in the bone-aching cold next to some chunky passive-aggressive Lutheran is not fun; one hundred proof peppermint schnapps just makes it seem that way. The first time I was sober and heard, "Of course, Mrs. Knuteson's tater tot hot dish is delicious, so naturally I'm glad we both made it," I knew I had to get the fuck out of North Dakota.
Fortunately, I had the resources to make my goal of leaving a reality. My grandpa left me some land that an energy company found quite desirable, and I found quite dispensable. Christ, I would have let them frack underneath a children's water park for a hundred thousand dollars, and they offered me two million to frack in the middle of fucking nowhere. Naturally, my parents were offended by my willingness to part with property that had been in the family for generations. That said, I'm pretty sure they would have done the same thing had they not feared the judgmental eyes of their rural community. They were supposed to be meek, selfless people, and meek, selfless people did not go against the best interest of their town to achieve personal gain. The fact that one of their daughters did was hard enough for them to live down.
Kauai wasn't a random choice. I had been to the island once before, during the summer of 2003. I remember the year because my mom had shirts made up. The bright blue tees read "Kristiansen Family Trip! '03" on the front with our names in bold letters across the back. Holy shit, they were hideous. I was only nine at the time, but I knew they were tacky; a telltale sign of a family that rarely left the area in which they lived. The fact that my long blonde hair covered up the "Ingrid" on the back of my shirt was only a small consolation.
Looking back on it now, I realize how that trip meant different things to different members of my family. For my mom, it was a key step in fulfilling her goal of living the 1950s' version of the American Dream. Indeed, it may have been the final step. She already had the husband that provided stability, the children that were well behaved, the house that was nice but not lavish, the minivan that had leather seats and power windows, the domestic appliances that performed functions beyond their cheaper baseline counterparts, and the friends that were not quite as well off as she. The trip to an exotic (but American) locale simply provided the final flourish to the portrait she had so carefully crafted, that of a Midwestern family that was thriving without getting too big for its britches.
For my dad, the trip was less of a status symbol and more of a confirmation, an assurance that his hard work had provided a nice life for those that he cared about. It was an extravagance, yes, but a well-deserved one.
As for my idiot sister, Kauai provided her with a chance to gawk at "foreigners." It also increased her coolness cache at the local high school. Including herself, there were only four legitimate contenders for homecoming queen and the other girls' summer vacation destinations paled in comparison. The Black Hills, The Lake of the Woods, and The Wisconsin Dells just couldn't compete with The Garden Isle.
As for me, I'm not sure what that trip meant. I mean I was nine; it seems unlikely that it meant anything. But of course it must have. After all, Kauai was the first place that came to mind once I decided to leave the Upper Midwest. Perhaps that's because it was the first place outside of the Upper Midwest that I ever went to; the first place that was different; the first place that had its own culture, and traditions, and norms; the first place that made me realize my world and the known world were not synonymous with one another.CHAPTER 2
"Hey, everybody," I said in the most chipper voice my hungover brain could muster. "Welcome to our little zip line tou ..."
"Aloha," my coworker interrupted. "Welcome to Lahahana's Eco Tours. My name is Sage, and this is Ingrid, and we will be your guides for the day."
Sage Kendrick. What a cunt. My welcome speech is never up to her standards. Correction, I am never up to her standards. No one is. You know those holier-than-thou-evangelicals, the ones that judge you for every sip of beer, every uttered profanity, every just-for-fun sexual escapade? Sage is the radical left version of that. Her talent for sanctimony is incontrovertible. She could easily hold her own against the most ardent Darwinhating, literal-Bible-interpreting, Jesus-rocklistening, born-again Christian. The only real difference between her and the evangelicals are the issues that she finds offensive. Rather than raising an objection to the use of the word "goddamn," Sage protests the use of the word "lame." Rather than casting judgmental eyes on people that order margaritas, she casts them upon people that order steak. Rather than abstaining from pubic hair maintenance because it's lascivious, she refrains because it contributes to the objectification of women. Sage is the worst.
Following the completion of her speech, Sage led the tourists to the van while I brought up the rear. It was a pretty standard group: an upper-middle-class family, excited about their impending adventure; a set of honeymooners, taking a break from fucking in their ocean view suite; and a wealthy, old couple, clearly regretting their decision to forego the private tour.
Sage spouted her usual crap as the van made its way to the tour's inception point. Some shit about the "unspoiled" Na Pali Coast and the "spiritual experience" that she had there. I'm not sure what she said exactly. I did my best to tune her out. The awesomeness of the Na Pali Coast is self-evident, and, as such, I knew that Sage's account of it could only lessen my affinity for it.
In order to keep my mind occupied I began counting chickens. It's kind of a hobby of mine, or at least it has been for the last three months, ever since I moved to Kauai. To be more precise, counting chickens is a small element of a larger hobby. The larger hobby is war, war against the chickens. God I hate those little bitches. They have been my sworn enemy since day one, and they will continue to be my sworn enemy until the day I die, or until the day that the island is completely free of their infernal clucking. Hopefully, the latter comes before the former.
I didn't arrive in Kauai harboring anti-chicken sentiments; those took about an hour to develop. I remember exactly how it happened. My plane had just landed at Lihue International and I was staring out of the window as it taxied to one of the eight gates when I noticed a couple of roosters scampering across the runway. Stunned by the presence of livestock at an airport, I watched as they chased each other across the tarmac. It was kind of cute. They pecked at one another's tail feathers, futilely flapped their wings, comically bobbed their heads, you know, classic chicken stuff. Then suddenly it stopped being cute. In an attempt to lose his pursuer, the smaller of the roosters darted off in a new direction. Not fooled, the larger of the roosters followed course. Not caring, the plane did the same. Although the crunching sound emitted by their bodies could not possibly have been discerned over the forced air and rustling passengers inside the cabin, I still thought I heard it. Whether or not it was a figment of my imagination was of little relevance. It affected me as though it were real. I cringed and felt an immediate sadness seep into my body. It was a sadness that was disproportionate to the event that had just transpired, and it stayed with me all the way to the baggage claim. Then I stepped outside and found ten more chickens pecking at a bag of chips in the parking lot. As it turns out, those fuckers are everywhere; shitting, being loud, harassing toddlers, basically just making the island worse. The plane could have taken out a thousand of them, and it wouldn't have made a dent in the total population. Their presence in Kauai epitomizes ubiquity; a fact I comprehended at that exact moment — in the rental car parking lot, while watching those mangy birds peck away at salty crumbs. It was then that I decided the feral chickens were my mortal enemy, and it was then that I decided to wage a one-woman war against them. Within a minute I claimed my first victims. After setting my luggage down next to the rental car, I ran at the birds with my arms spread in what I guessed would be perceived as a threatening manner. It might have been unnecessary as a five-foot-ten-inch woman is probably threatening to an eighteen-inch chicken whether or not her arms are spread. Regardless, it worked. The birds fled into the adjacent road where three of them were greeted by oncoming cars.
"Ingrid: 3 Chickens: 0," I thought, as I loaded my luggage into the sub-compact.
And that's how it began, the war against the chickens. The running tally isn't merely a facet of that war; it's a core component, it's the fuel. When I am at work, or out to eat, or hanging at the bar, or really anywhere that it would be considered uncouth to try and kill chickens, I count them instead. The ever-increasing total reminds me of the fowl's prevalence, and this, in turn, spurs my rage. Anytime that I'm on my deck and a chicken walks by and I don't feel like going to get my .22, I just remind myself of that number and it inspires me to get my ass out of the lounge chair and grab my gun.
Six, I thought to myself as I threw the van into park. Or was that seven? Should I count that pair of bird legs I saw sticking out from under the "Liberate Hawaii" sign?
"Ingrid ... Ingrid ... Ingrid! Ingrid!!!" Sage's irritation and volume increased with each repetition of my name. Although I heard her the first time, I pretended that I didn't. Her frustration pleased me.
"Yes Sage," I replied sweetly, an attempt to guilt her for losing patience. "What can I help you with?"
"Oh, just please assist this family with their harnesses," she replied in a conciliatory tone.
I did as instructed and continued to do as instructed for the rest of my shift. Sage deserved a punch to the vag, but that would have to happen another day.
As I helped one of the kids into their harness, I decided to go with six, erring on the conservative side.
"That makes one thousand seven hundred and seventy-eight total chickens," I said to myself.
The kid I was helping said either, "Are you talking to me?" Or, "Are you talking about me?" I can't remember which, probably the former.
Once all the participants were secured in their harnesses, the tour continued. Everyone successfully zipped all the lines (I don't know if the verb "zipped" can be employed in this fashion, but I assert it with authority, and, as of yet, no one has corrected me), everyone consumed the food that we provided, and no one dropped any of their possessions. Once we finished, all the participants took off their harnesses, Sage and I loaded everyone back into the van, and we drove back to the point of departure. On their way out, the customers handed us tips. As usual, I received more money than Sage. This disparity could be attributed to the fact that I'm significantly less obnoxious than she is, but it probably should be attributed to the fact that I'm significantly more beautiful. That may sound conceited, but it's not. Sage is really ugly. Next to her a five looks like a ten.
Another tour completed, I threw my shit in the car and headed to the bar.CHAPTER 3
Lefse ... Of Course
"Oh ya know, I just get a little nervous about all these new people moving in."
I rolled my eyes in response to this comment. My mom didn't see. The thirty-five hundred miles between us obfuscated the nonverbal cue. The distance is a blessing. It's much easier to disguise my frequent frustrations over the phone.
"I mean they seem nice enough," she continued. "It's just I'm a tad concerned about how they're going to fit in. They don't know how things go in this town. They're gonna be lost."
"Times change, Mom," I said. I thought something more accusatory. Namely, Are you worried about the newcomers being lost or about your version of your hometown being lost?
"I know times change, Ingrid, but change isn't always for the better," she replied.
"Yeah Mom, and it's not always for the worse either. I mean a few years ago you were worried about everyone moving away, about the town dying, and now you're worried about the town growing. I mean what do you want?"
"I want our town to be healthy, our traditions to live on, our community to stay tight-knit."
"Then embrace the newcomers," I said.
"Well I'm trying, sweetheart, but it's not that easy. I mean it's hard, ya know. For instance, just the other day me and your sister and some of the other gals from Trinity Lutheran brought food to this 'Welcome to Town' lunch, and, of course, I made lefse."
"Naturally," I said in a sarcastic tone that was lost on my mother.
"Yeah, well, while we were there this one man picked up a piece, walked right by the butter and sugar and cinnamon and lingonberry jam, and straight over to some pan of spicy chicken disaster, that was made by gosh knows who, and started piling it onto the lefse. My lefse! Your grandma's recipe! I mean for crying out loud."
"The audacity," I replied, my sarcasm more overt this time.
"Okay, young lady," my mother replied in the most defensive tone her reserved disposition would allow. "No need to be rude. I was just trying to explain what it's like here."
"Sorry, I wasn't trying to be deliberately dismissive," I said. It was a lie. My retorts had been deliberately dismissive. I asserted otherwise because I wanted to shift the conversation in a more constructive direction. "Honestly, Mom, it's just hard for me to imagine things are that bad. I mean you're not even at the heart of the boom. That's out west. You live in eastern North Dakota. The people moving by you are the whitecollar people. The engineering and tech people that provide services to the energy companies out west. Williston, Dickinson, those are the towns with legit concerns. Infrastructure concerns, housing shortages, that kind of stuff."
"That's true, honey. Of course, you're right." My mom said but did not believe. She chose to agree with me because any form of overt contentiousness is anathema to her. "So," she said, groping for a more benign topic. "How are things down in the fiftieth state?"
Had I been feeling ornery, I would have steered the conversation back toward the more combustible topic, but I wasn't, so I didn't. Instead, I proceeded to update her on the day-today of my life, and she, in turn, did the same. By the time we said our goodbyes, I was at the bar with a beer in my hand.
I sat on one of the stools facing the water, nursed an IPA, and waited for Ethan and Charlie. There was no excuse for their tardiness. They don't have jobs, unless one considers drinking, golfing, or lying on the beach a form of employment. In the time that passed before their arrival, I rejected the advances of two upper-middle-age tourists, made a failed attempt to eavesdrop on an oddly furtive conversation among a group of local Hawaiian men, scrolled through all of the newly posted pictures on my Insta, and counted three feral chickens. I was turning my attention to the TV on the wall when Ethan tapped me on the shoulder.
"Hey, babe," he said. "Sorry we're late. We had to help this old lady with a flat tire."
I responded to Ethan's bullshit with a look that said, "yeah, good one asshole."
Undeterred by my remonstrative facial expression, Ethan maintained his innocence so I turned and appealed to Charlie.
Making no attempt to join in the collusion, Charlie said, "Yeah, there was no old lady. We played the eighteenth hole four times because there was no one behind us."
"That sounds right," I said, following my words with a punch to Ethan's arm.
He gave me a guilty smile then leaned over the patio railing, picked a flower from a nearby plant, handed it to me and said, "Okay, so maybe our late arrival was due less to an old woman in need and more to the pursuit of my own entertainment, but I did get you this flower."
"You're lucky you're cute, charming, and rich," I said, an indulging smile spread across my face.
"Is it luck? I mean this doesn't just happen," Ethan said, striking a pose.
"God, you're awful" I said with a laugh, my head shaking. "How do you not get beat up on a regular basis?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Feral Chickens"
Copyright © 2017 C. McGee.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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