Langley, Washington. A quiet, peace-loving little town on the southern end of Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. Four cops, counting the chief, 1,500 citizens. A gang of huge, beautifully colored wild rabbits roams the streets, feral but respectful of the marked pedestrian crossings. Likewise, you will find a disproportional number of old hippies doing what old hippies will do. If you are missing one, in fact, this is probably the place to look. Ours are not seasonal hippies, by the way, but in residence all year long. Reports of rainfall in the area are exaggerated.
There are more tourists than there used to be, and for a holiday weekend you should allow for two- and three-boat waiting lines to get off the island and away from them. It sometimes makes you yearn for the old days—back before a conglomerate bought the weekly Record, a front-page story once ran marking the appearance of three guys who nobody knew walking up First Street in business suits.
But things change. Some get better, some of them get worse. The newspaper, for instance, got worse.
It is possible that the most peaceful man in Langley is the retired dentist Frank Ploof. Retirement has been a long transition, and now, just when Dr. Ploof’s phone finally stops ringing with calls from longtime patients who are finding out what dentists cost in the rest of the world and want him to do something about it—people still under the impression that 30 pounds of ground pork ought to cover a four-tooth bridge—now, just when the feeling of obligation finally passes off the doctor’s shoulders and he sleeps like a baby, not only through the night but through his afternoon nap too, now, even as he sleeps, trouble comes looking not only for the town of Langley but for Dr. Ploof himself.
And nobody is peaceful anymore.
The cage is all metal, three feet wide, four feet long, three feet deep. It is left near the alley out in back of Linda Anderson’s real-estate office and U.S. Bank. Linda was a human dynamo in the business, but a little overweight and died, as somebody surely said at her funeral, doing what she loved.
In any case, the cage is left in the alley and the latch is left unlatched. Nobody knows what time this happens, but it’s dark.
Not far away—a football field maybe, as the crow flies—the retired dentist and his lovely wife are tucked in for the night.
Back when Dr. Ploof closed his practice—coming up on two years now—he and his wife rebuilt the downtown office into a home, with the bedroom looking out onto a small courtyard, and beyond that, the U.S. Bank. There is a tree in the courtyard and a picket fence around the tree, and all I can really add to that is when you’re down and out because your island is changing, go stand in line for six months at the county building department and you will understand that it’s not.
So the cage door opens, and one by one they emerge. They cross through the drive-thru tellers’ station, then Anthes Street, looking for trouble, the way roosters do. Roosters cannot cross a parking lot without an argument. Squabbling and pecking, little feathers float in the air behind them marking the trail. The trail leads over the picket fence to the tree, where most of the birds settle into the low branches, out in front of the small yellow building that was once the greatest dental office in the world. Fences mean nothing to chickens, they take what they want.
It is 3:52 in the morning, first light in the east, and it is exactly nine feet from Dr. Ploof’s side of the bed to the tree in the courtyard. The windows are open and the eruption blows the doctor out of bed. The noise—describe it anyway you want, but it is nothing like cock-a-doodle-do.
No farm boy, Dr. Ploof cowers in the darkness. His eyes meet Mrs. Ploof’s eyes and the noise shatters the air again.
No answer. It is quiet in the room until the rooster goes off again. Of course, it could be a different rooster. It is possible that when you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all.
“Are you going to at least come with me?” she says.
And we have now arrived at the point where many marriages become less peaceful than they used to be. Heat is added from hidden sources and suddenly the air is ripe with unspoken accusations, and manliness itself is suddenly be on the line, and the wife, for the love of God, just wants to be taken seriously. Old, never-settled quarrels can begin to bubble along the sides of the pan.
The Ploofs creep—together—out the front door and gaze into the tree. Five roosters, two Ploofs. Yes, we have already lost track of three chickens. Sue us. Dr. Ploof is clearly here against his better judgment. He wants his sleep. Still, is it better not sleeping due to roosters or due to marriage? Usually issues of machismo cannot be used against him but she has got the gaff in this time.
The doctor’s wife has brought along a flashlight. The doctor is carrying a broom.
Dr. Ploof makes his move, striking, you might say, from behind Mrs. Ploof. And here is the thing you have to keep in mind when you’re fighting roosters: an exit strategy. Chicken-fighting is no different than whacking a hornets’ nest. Know where you’re going to run away.
All to say, the broom doesn’t work—but then, ask anybody in town, when did violence ever solve anything?—and only escalates the confrontation. More screaming and screeching. Two of the birds stir up off the branch and resettle higher in the tree. The others, which seemed closer before, are now somehow out of reach.
And as luck would have it, 24 hours pass and 3:52 is back, and with it five roosters. Maybe the same ones, maybe they are using alternates tonight. In those 24 hours word has spread through town, and call after call has come in, neighbors and friends, begging the Ploofs not to hurt the chickens. Right on time, the roosters blow the lid off the world. Dr. Ploof covers his head with his pillow, needing his sleep so he will be on his toes for another day of retirement.
A minute later the door opens to the courtyard. It is different this time, though. For one thing, the odds have changed. It is now five to one. Mrs. Ploof is alone. She steps out of the door sideways, carrying a ladder and a flashlight and a blanket. It is not known if the doctor got out of bed to open the door. The roosters shuffle uneasily. Mrs. Ploof sets the ladder beneath the tree and begins to climb. The roosters do that thing with their heads like old folks whose hearing is nearly shot.
She closes in, reminding herself to be gentle. The last thing in the world she wants is to hurt a rooster, at least for now. She slips her hands underneath the bird and lifts, as if she were lifting a nest full of babies. The nest explodes in her face. Feathers, claws, fear, a wall of noise. The aroma of mildewed feathers. The ladder tilts, but does not go over, and the importance of this moment cannot be overstressed. She does not fall while he is not there to steady her, surely avoiding severe injury. Possibly Mrs. Ploof could have been hurt, too.
The doctor is waiting silently in the bedroom when she returns. You yourself may be too insensitive to realize it, but this is another crisis. And again, the doctor is up to the job. It is like watching one of those skinny-legged little girls skipping through two jump ropes at the same time, you just have to ask yourself: How does she do it?
Like all great magic, it is simpler than it looks. Dr. Ploof does not say: How did it go?
Later in the morning, the doctor continues to maintain his peaceful marriage. He leaves town. He and Mrs. Ploof drive down to a little boathouse the doctor rents in Seattle, and meantime a beautiful young local named Emily Martin hears about the roosters, and every night for 10 days she comes by—four, five hours—and takes the roosters by ambush. With her are her younger brother and younger sister. One holds the flashlight in the chicken’s eyes, one holds the ladder and one—Emily—grabs the rooster. “The trick is, anything you can grab, you grab,” she says. A tip I think we can all use somewhere along the line. The alternative—not grabbing him because you’re afraid you’ve got his vitals—if that happens you end up chasing a rooster all over town. One night the chase lasts four hours before they find the rooster hiding behind a box about 10 feet from the tree.
In the end, Emily takes all but two of the chickens home to her house in the woods, where they wake up most mornings about 4. They wake up, she wakes up. She builds them separate roosts, so they don’t fight each other to death, and still wonders about the two that disappeared. All this, she says, because she cannot stand to see things suffer.
And with that thought, the peaceful little village of Langley and perhaps it’s most peaceful citizen, slide off again into a good night’s sleep.