David Shawn Klein
My father announced we were moving from our brick and concrete housing project near Coney Island to take up farming. He tasked me with researching the where and how. I was ten. The when, my father kept to himself, but he strongly implied that our big move was just around the corner.
I think he knew that, like him, I was prone to an overactive imagination and a tendency to get gusted away in tornados of enthusiasm. Visions danced in my head of waking in the dark to the crowing of a rooster. I’d slip on overalls, light up a corncob pipe, and tramp out to the barn to milk a cow and slay a pig. Never mind that I was so acutely sensitive that I couldn’t bring myself to squash even one of the family of roughly ten-thousand roaches who shared our apartment. Instead, I’d reach for a page of a glossy magazine so I could scoop the little fucker and deposit him in our toilet. This put a big damper on my plans for the day because the roach always made a sprint for freedom, while I fought to keep him on the magazine by dancing it around as if I were Bob Fosse with a case of Tourette’s. Just as it was with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, the roach invariably won. Off he’d leap, parachuting to the safety of our kitchen floor, where he’d sprint back and forth between our oven and fridge. Wherever my magazine was, the roach was not. We’d go on like that, me, cursing and flailing, the roach running zigzag patters and giggling under his breath, until the next thing I knew, half my morning was gone. Finally, he’d skitter into a cupboard between our dinner plates, flipping me the bird with his little cockroach antennae.
I probably would have been better off wishing to be a farmer of something that didn’t require animals. Cats gave me asthma. Dogs petrified me—I once threw myself down my grandmother’s stairs when her miniature poodle ran between my feet. And anyone who’s ever reached a hand of food pellets into a goat pen knows that petting zoos are a hotbed of pure anarchy.
Then there was Poor Wally.
Poor Wally was a parakeet who lived in a cage against one wall of our living room. I had a habit of careening from one end of our apartment to the other. There was no game involved. I wasn’t scoring imaginary touchdowns for the Giants, or dunking over Oscar Robertson. I just careened. The problem was that I had the body of an athlete, if competitive eating is a sport, and zero agility. I never could put on the breaks before skidding into Poor Wally’s cage, sending him crashing to the floor in a cloud of feathers and a chorus of pathetic squawks.
Eventually, Poor Wally had a stroke and died. One day, I think he saw me coming, sighed deeply, and said, “I give up.” My mother accused me of being a parakeet killer, but I think she was just put out by having to arrange the funeral. When you buy a pet, you don’t reckon with the fact that you’re going to have to dispose of the body someday. But, as my mother figured out, that’s what trash compactors are for.
So, any day, we were going to pack all our worldly goods into the family Rambler and head for Kansas. In school, when the other kids were learning about the tripartite structure of our representative government, I was in the dell, feeding chickens, shooing horses, and rotating crops—which seemed an especially impressive feat. I mean, how do you get a crop to turn? Were they built on a wheel? My brain throbbed with visions of corn as high as an elephant’s eye and waves of sun-glazed wheat, and I knew for sure that farming was to be the next chapter of my life. All I had to do was stop daydreaming and get to work.
Naturally, if you grow up in a housing project near Coney Island, where the grass is manufactured in a laboratory and your major experience with agriculture is Swanson’s TV dinners, to figure out how to go west, or whichever direction the farms were, meant going straight to the source—the United States Department of Agriculture.
Dear Sirs, I wrote with penmanship that looked like I was either riding the Cyclone or preparing for a life as a serial killer. My family wants to start a farm. Please send us information as fast as you can. Very truly yours, David Klein.
The thing about our gusts of enthusiasm, mine and my father’s, was that they really were mere gusts. Like the night he came home bearing treasures from his indoctrination into the Order of Masons. The treasures came in a cool, top-secret box embossed with a mysterious insignia, which immediately disappeared ever deeper into his underwear drawer. Or the week he decided we were ultra-Orthodox Jews. Or the ice cream maker that he used twice. Or the portable sauna where his entire body was locked into a wood receptacle shaped like a carrying case for a French horn, and his head poked out of a hole at the top so my sisters and I could honk his Ringling Brothers nose with abandon. One day, these enthusiasms were your entire life, all you could think or talk about, and the next, not unlike my father himself, they were gone.
So he quickly dropped the subject of our becoming the Jewish version of Green Acres. I forgot, too, until one day a large white envelope arrived from the United States Department of Agriculture for “Mister” David Klein. I tore it open. Inside was a letter from the Secretary himself, Orville Freeman, the letterhead embossed in gold. Since Orville and I were obviously, by now, the closest of friends, the letter also was explicitly addressed to me. Orville expressed gratitude for my interest in farming and included full-color informational brochures to get me started. It was all very formal, official, and, I think, all at once a bit too real.
The fantasy of your own sauna, or of cooking up a batch of ice cream, like the dream of plowing fields of corn and wheat, can seem a lot sexier when it plays in your head like a Hollywood movie than in the clarifying light of real life. Or when the mailman brings you an embossed letter from the United States government and an envelope’s worth of informational pamphlets filled with words like drip irrigation and anhydrous ammonia, and photos of real farmers with hardened, sunburnt expressions that say, “I couldn’t give a hoot that Bonnie and Clyde is a breakthrough for American cinema, or whether Barbara Eden’s genie is hotter than Elizabeth Montgomery’s witch.”
My father quickly moved on from his half-ironic tableaux of the Klein family arrayed happily around a tractor, and, as he had a habit of doing, became a scarce commodity in our lives. For me, if it took a tractor to get to the happy, my bags would always be packed, even if it meant moving to a soybean farm in remote China. For now, I’d learned my lesson: no more threshers, udders, or bales. I’d stick with my new, far more realistic goal of becoming the first Navy Seal with uncontrollable asthma and a habit of singing along with Barbara Streisand albums.
About the Author
David Shawn Klein’s short story, “Finch” appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of The Hudson Review, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A companion story, “Einhorn’s Kosher Palace,” appeared in The Hudson Review in 2017 and was also nominated for a Pushcart. “Personal Best,” a meditation on running and mortality appeared in the October 2019 issue of the Runner’s Gazette. He was nominated for Best New Poets 2019.