When the telephone rang, I was standing on my front deck in my bathrobe, watching the woods. We had a few secluded acres, and I liked standing there, watching the squirrels and the birds and the sun through the branches.
It was a nice morning, and I’d worked late the night before, and I had the day off. The house was empty, my dog was standing there with me, smiling at me, and the only reason I answered the phone was that it was in my bathrobe pocket.
It was a guy from the post office, asking for my wife, so I told him she wasn’t here, and who I was.
“Oh, great!” He said brightly. “Your checks are here.”
A beautiful day, just getting better every second. I said, “That’s great! Is this the main post office, in Lancaster?”
“Yes, it is! Don’t forget to bring your picture ID.”
“Well, super, I sure won’t. I’ll be there directly.”
My wife and I operated a small business out of the secluded house, so checks arrived in the mail all the time. Of course, normally they showed up in the mailbox, without a formal phone call. But the way it works when you’re self-employed is, the checks arrive and you really need them. You’re really happy to see them, because often, they are very, very late.
So I went back inside and had an absolutely spectacular little breakfast and took a shower and put my dog in the car and we drove on across the countryside into Lancaster. Not a very pretty place, Lancaster, so that was the thing about the morning to grin and ignore.
Tethered the dog right beside the front door, thinking, this will just take a minute, and walked on into the post office, a real spring in my step.
The lady behind the counter wore a floral print blouse and a big, heart-shaped necklace that said, “MOM.” Her face and eyes looked tired, but she had a nice, bright smile.
“Hello,” I said, slapping my ID down like the ace of spades. “My name is Tom Chalfant, and I’m here to pick up my checks.”
She snapped and pointed at me, and gave me the smile I usually get when I’m walking around with one of my daughters, and people think it’s just so cute, a dad and his girl. Or when I’m lounging around the park with the dog leash tied to my foot, reading a book. A kind of tilted-head, tight-lipped smile that says, “Awwwww.”
Which was weird. Everybody likes to get checks in the mail, but there didn’t seem to me to be anything adorable about it.
Oh well, no matter, I thought. I showed her what a good day I was having, using my what-an-awesome-day grin, and a couple of outstretched palms.
She said, “We’ve been listening to them checks all morning, just a-chattering away!”
Which caused a little hiccup in my smile. That didn’t sound like checks at all. What the hell was she talking about? There was now a bit of concern growing, back in my brain someplace. The unorthodox phone call in advance, the puppy dog smile even though my puppy dog was outside, the description of little innocuous pieces of paper as “chattering.”
Now the youngest guy in the post office, looking like someone’s teenaged son or something, poked his head out of the back room and asked a silent question just by pointing at me.
“Yeah,” replied the woman, a little sadly it seemed. “He’s here to pick ‘em up.”
But I really needed the checks to come in, because that’s how I paid for everything. And I didn’t want to entertain any alternative theories, as to what everyone was talking about, or whether I was hearing everybody correctly. I just wanted my checks.
And the kid vanished into the back room again, and I thought, man, does it get pretty boring at the post office, or what?
The woman smiling at me expectantly. Was I supposed to get out my wallet, show her pictures of my kids? Did I know her already?
So I just said, “Well. Okay. Great. I’m glad you enjoyed my checks all morning, but I’m ready to pick them up now.”
A weird phenomenon, someone else hearing their version, you hearing yours, both of you speaking English. She said, “I’ll bet you guys are going to enjoy them more!”
Well, that was certainly true, because I wasn’t going to listen to them or smile about them – I was going to take them straight to the bank. Pick up some steaks afterward, maybe one of them four-slice toasters and some Girl Scout cookies.
“I’ll bet we will,” I told her, and then stopped in the middle of telling her all about my plans, because now I could hear the checks chattering, too.
The young post office guy emerged from the back room with a wooden crate, which chattered like the bird section of a pet store. I cocked my head at him as he walked up to the counter and put it down in front of me, but I made no move to touch it or acknowledge it or anything else that might be construed as acceptance of the weird, wooden crate. With air holes in it.
Looking around for cameras now, maybe Ashton Kutcher – it made sense at the time.
The guy smiled at me like it was a present he was waiting for me to open, while the woman gave me another puppy-dog-at-the-park smile. I pursed my lips. Looked at the box, and then at both of them, and then at the box again.
“What the hell is this thing?” I finally asked.
Confusing them. They didn’t reply, just looked at each other, and then the woman looked at the shipping label, tapped it with her finger and said, “This here’s your wife, right?”
It was, so I nodded.
“Then that there is your box of chicks.”
That’s what it was all right, a box of baby chickens, shipped in a crate. Chicks, not checks.
“Didn’t your wife tell you she ordered a box of baby chickens?” The woman asked.
“She did not.”
“You guys have a farm or something?”
“We do not.”
Now they looked a little scared, my scowl growing, standing there in the post office, where no doubt, people go nuts all the time. I peered into the air holes, catching tiny little shadows waddling around in there, and a big feed bulb, mounted in the middle.
“You want to accept it or not?”
It didn’t take long to do the math. What’s louder and more irritating, a box of chickens, or a wife and three daughters, who didn’t get their secretly ordered box of chickens? I said, “I need to sign something, or what?”
Yes, there was some kind of chicken pickup acknowledgement form, so I signed it, and then I was back in the car, my dog and I wearing similar expressions of puzzlement and alarm as we drove back home, the box of chickens getting pretty excited, in the back seat, about the bumpy car ride.
I was thinking, I might have experienced something that very, very few people will ever experience.
The surprise box of live chickens. My advice to anyone out there, thinking about ordering one – it’s considered in most circles to be nothing but cool, running something like that by your spouse before you do.