Notes from R3-C4: 'The Chicken House' by Danielle Susi

I walk to the doorway; the man is inviting. He motions for me to enter. A dirt floor, unknown particles in the air. He pulls a dirty plastic chair from a neat stack by the entryway and I take my seat, explaining to him why I am here. The laminated list of research questions rests in my hands as my breath becomes labored.

I feel sweat building in my palm around the voice recorder. The man sits in a hammock attached to a corrugated aluminum roof. The main room is cluttered and filled with chickens running about. One makes a home on my foot as I prepare my interview.

I ask him how many people live in this home in my best Nicaraguan accent—dropping my “S’s” and rolling my “R’s.” He tells me that just he and his wife live here, and when I prompt him, he says he has three adult children that no longer live here.

His wife enters the main room from their tiny kitchen. Her black hair is wet and long and straight and showing grey. She’s stuck a red comb into it, as if she expected someone else to continue detangling the strands for her.

Everything in the house is lined with a thin film of filth. It’s barely noticeable until you swipe your hand through it and realize your fingers are covered in the grey dander of chicken plumage and see that the entire room is tinged this similar shade, like a great looming shadow.

I never learn their names, because I never ask, because it’s not what I need. Instead, I keep them as “Residence 3 in Quadrant C-4” on my careful chart.

I mark how old the man is: 76, and his wife, 73. When I ask how old his children are, he replies with numbers like 70, 73, and 74, and knowing this cannot be right, and so begins my process of deciphering that these are the years of their birth. He's never fully clear in his responses. Though, I feel, he is not intentionally elusive.

He goes on to tell me that his children had gone to school in the area because it was close by. They had only completed up to the second or third grade, though, and within the span of several years. This seemed to be the norm here.

Like his wife, who sits quietly behind me, many women in the families I’d interviewed were housewives. Some ironed clothes or sold tortillas to supplement the household income. Many of the men worked in the fields, harvesting peanuts and tobacco.

I observe a small, darkened bedroom off of the main room. A thin foam mattress is covered with a sheet, and from where I'm sitting, I can see nothing else in the room.

At this point a pig pokes at my leg with a cold, wet snout and makes a sound so loud and vile that the volume bar on the recorder jumps suddenly. Each of my breaths become more difficult as my lungs fill with flying chicken dander and dust from the floors. My eyes water; I ask what the man believes are the strengths and weaknesses of local schools. The occasional cluck of arguing hens makes the recorder jump and I worry about capturing what the man says.

The woman behind me speaks this time and tells me there was a group of Canadians that built a classroom at the elementary school nearest their home. I know, for a fact, that it was a group of American college students; I mark her comment in my notes.

Of the weaknesses, she says there is no water for the students in the schools. And that many of the teachers arrive late and leave early. I mark these too as I watch a bead of sweat fall from the space behind my knee, make a tiny stream halfway down my calf before gravity brings it to the floor.

I feel suddenly the alarming need to leave this house before my pulmonary system shuts down entirely. I skip over several questions and ask the pair quickly whether they believe the opportunities available to their children will be better, the same, or worse than the opportunities they’ve had in their lives. It’s the question I want a full and comprehensive answer to, but my body is, as my concentration is, pulling away, as my nose runs like poured water and I struggle to make more notes on why they feel it's better.

A chicken actually lands on my shoulder and is leaning against the side of my face. As I cringe, turning away from it, letting out a small nasally cry, the man simply puts his hand out and swats it off of me with force. The hen’s little clawed feet make light scratches down my arm as it resists its descent.

I begin to stand. I thank them for their time and hospitality, when the woman says to me, “We have a lot that we need,” and I know she is asking me for money. It’s not in my research protocol to give or receive goods or services during interviews. “I’m sorry," I say coldly.

I make a motion to replace my chair in the stack near the entryway but the man takes it from me. I thank them again and step carefully over small chirping hens in my path to the door.

I walk away and see splatters and small pools of blood on the dirt in front of the next home as I approach it. They are slaughtering pigs. I write in my notepad, “On first observation, Residence 4 in Quadrant C-4 slaughters swine.”

Danielle Susi is an MFA student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pink Pangea, Airplane Reading, Montage, Vagabond City and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a writer’s grant and residency from the Vermont Studio Center.