by Dustin Kennedy
Originally published in Buck Off Magazine.
It was the sight of the chicken suit chained to the light pole in front of Mother Clucker’s that did it. Andy’s heart leapt into his throat, nearly strangling him. Slouched there, the costume looked like a penitent destined for execution, condemned despite feeling deep and genuine repentance for its past transgressions.
Later, he would learn that Alejandro, the owner of the chicken shack, had put it out there like that because he’d fired the previous employee whose job it’d been to wear the suit while standing next to the road, waving cars into the parking lot.
“Kid smuggled it home and went out partying. Look at these.” A few clicks and he pulled up a series of compromising photos involving the chicken, bottles of rum, and sexually provocative poses. They were in the small office behind the kitchen, crammed in a space that the architect had envisioned as a closet, judging from the dimensions. It was where Alejandro disappeared at the end of each shift to count the cash drawers.
“Social media is the devil,” he continued. “Just look at this one-star review. That little pissant left it after I fired him. Should sue his sorry ass.”
“Why don’t you?” By then Andy was already invested in the chicken’s reputation, and would have liked to see the guy served with a takedown notice, at minimum.
“He ain’t got no money, is why.”
But that was later. When he’d first applied for and gotten the job, Alejandro had led him out to where the chicken slouched remorsefully in the sun. He watched as the man’s thick fingers undid the padlock, loosening the chain that wound in and out of the suit’s various appendages.
“Wave this sign and be enthusiastic. You can change out back where nobody is looking.”
“Okay.” Andy held the suit close to his body, not wanting his new boss to see how much his hands were shaking.
“Oh, and don’t stand too close to the road. The mask makes it hard to see when cars are coming.”
So Andy dutifully carried the suit around behind the building where the dumpsters were. Up close you could see that the yellow fleece had gone a bit dingy. The material was slightly damp, although he couldn’t remember the last time it had rained. It smelled of mildew and, beneath that, cigarettes. He thrust his feet down into the suit’s padded legs, shrugged into the wing-holes like putting on a jacket, then pulled the zipper closed under his chin. Once settled over his head, the mask cut out his peripheral vision, as promised.
At first he was self-conscious, aware of how his normal gait had a slight list to it when he walked. It felt wrong. By the time he’d made it back around to the front of the strip mall the strange euphoria that had made his heart jump into his throat when he saw the thing on the side of the road had eroded into a pervading sense of embarrassment. For the life of him he couldn’t understand what had compelled him to pull a U-turn and cut across traffic in order to apply for the job of being some nobody chicken shack’s mascot.
He would have just dumped the suit back by the pole and left, but Alejandro had already made a copy of his ID for the W-4. One shift. Then he could say ‘sorry, but it’s not for me after all,’ and refuse any pay that might be offered. Put the whole thing behind him.
In the parking lot, passing beside an SUV, he caught the first sight of his avian self in the mirror. It transfixed him. He watched in awe as he turned his head side to side, making his movements rapid and abrupt, like a real chicken would. He even tilted his head, aiming one side-facing eye to the sky like they did when they wanted to watch for predators.
In all his years collecting chicken memorabilia and combing through youtube farm videos, he’d never once felt anything approaching the purity of joy that had taken hold of him. All at once it was clear to him. This was his calling.
“Baaaawwk,” he said, trying out the utterance.
For reasons unknown to him, he was certain that the chicken was a hen.
During each four-hour shift, he spent most of his time scratching and clucking, parading and preening. It was always during rush hour when people were crazy to get home, yet, perversely, could be tempted to stop. And there was a good reason why they were willing to prolonging their hellish commutes; the thought of cooking when they finally staggered through their front doors was perhaps the only thing less tolerable than the tide of traffic on which they spent a non-negligible portion of their daily existence, adrift.
Most of Mother Clucker’s business was take-out.
After a few weeks went by, Andy caught Alejandro on his way into the employee’s-only bathroom.
“Mr. Cabello, can I speak to you for a minute?”
His boss turned, crossed his hairy arms over his chest.
“You’re quitting?” he asked, the annoyance clear in his tone.
“No, sir. In fact, I was hoping to do more shifts.”
Alejandro’s mustache twitched. It reminded Andy of a push broom.
“You’re at, let’s see, twenty hours a week. I could maybe take you up to thirty, put you on the register on the weekends. But only at lunch.”
“That’s a wonderful offer, Mr. Cabello, but what I meant was, could I do more shifts in the suit?”
“No, sir.” Only crazy about chickens, he added silently in his head.
His boss stared at him, jaw working as if he were chewing a new idea over. Andy hoped he was going to say yes, but worried that stopping him when he had to pee had been a strategic miscalculation.
“I only need you out there during peak traffic, Monday through Friday.” His tone was needlessly gruff.
“Oh, ok.” At least he still had those five shifts.
“Is that all?”
“Well, I was wondering if maybe, um, could I clean the suit?”
Alejandro shrugged, then shut and locked the bathroom door. Through the wall you could hear when anyone put the seat up or down, and this time it was down. Since it was the end of his shift, Andy furtively stuffed the suit into the duffel bag he’d brought for this potential outcome. He knew he was taking a liberty with Alejandro’s assent, particularly regarding where said suit might be cleaned, but the temptation was far too great. On his way home every stoplight was an impatience, the existence of other drivers an affliction. Finally he arrived in his numbered parking space, hurried up to his apartment.
On the table lay an array of cleaning tools. Soft bristle pet brush, alcohol wipes, lint roller, spray bottles, one with mild detergent and the other for rinsing, and, most importantly, a small wet/dry vac he’d gotten used at his church’s spring rummage sale.
As he worked he dreamt of a dozen ways he might alter the costume to improve its fidelity to Chicken-ness.
After a late dinner of millet and frisée salad, he showered and carefully donned the suit. It was the first time he’d done so without wearing clothing underneath. Its embrace was so warm that he didn’t need a blanket.
The next morning he woke to discover that Alejandro had called several times. He dialed the number, and on the third ring he heard his boss’s voice.
“You got my chicken suit?”
“Yes, Mr. Cabello, I have the suit.”
“Bring it down here, right now.”
“But sir, you said I could take it home to clean it.”
“I want my property back here right now, or I’m calling the cops.”
“I’ll be right there, sir! Goodbye.” He hung up. A sense of panic seized him, causing him to fumble as he rushed to smooth out a wrinkle that had formed while he was asleep. He knew he had to hurry, that if he could show Alejandro that the suit was now so clean and improved his boss’s anger would turn into a joy that echoed his own.
At that hour the roads were nearly empty. The only other car in the part of the parking lot near Mother Clucker’s was Alejandro’s. Andy took the suit off the hook it had been hanging on in the back seat, cradled the mask under his other arm. The hanger bit into his hand as he carried it lofted to shoulder height so that the feet didn’t drag on the asphalt.
He knocked on the door’s glass with three sharp pecks.
Alejandro let him in.
“Come on, then.”
His boss’s broad back led the way to the kitchen. Andy had never been at the restaurant during the early-morning prep period. Great tubs of chicken carcasses sat dressed on the table next to a cleaver and cutting board. On the other side, quarters were sorted by type for battering. The ice closest to the meat was pink, fading to white.
Andy did his best to ignore this, but it had rattled him.
“Here is the suit, Mr. Cabello. Good as new.”
As he said this, he threw back the protective plastic layer, revealing the vibrant material within.
Alejandro examined it, counted the pieces to make sure every part was there.
When he was certain, he turned back to Andy.
“Why you like wearing it so much? You some kind of pervert?”
“You want to fuck chickens or something?”
“No, sir. It’s not that, exactly…”
“How is it, then?”
He felt his face go red as a coxcomb. Within him, something moved towards righteousness, and, though he felt shame, was compelled to articulate an inarticulable truth.
“Well, it’s like, as a hen, sir, you would sometimes be bred if there was a rooster in the yard, but it’s not, um, necessary to lay eggs….”
“You post any pictures?”
Waiting to hear his fate, Andy was mortified at what he’d shared.
“You’re a weird one, I’ll give you that. Keep the suit clean and don’t post any pictures or I’ll fire your ass.”
Joy fluttered his heart!
“Yes, sir! I mean, no sir! I won’t!”
“See you on Monday, then.”
Andy scooped up the suit, rushed to the door carried on wings of rapturous euphoria.
Alejandro followed, locked the door. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t fired the maricón, other than that he did a good job attracting customers. He went back into the kitchen, noticed that the second fryer was taking a long time to get hot . On the phone he dialed his restaurant supply contact.
“You want me to come out, see if it’s just the switch again?”
Many times he had sought a cheap fix for such problems in his business, looking merely to get by.
“No. Bring a replacement and we’ll change it out before rush.”
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