Through the bulletproof glass, I gave the man my order: two-piece fried chicken with a biscuit, the cheapest item on the menu.
I pushed a few wrinkled dollars into the tiny slit at the bottom of the window and the cashier took it without saying a word. He rang the order into a beaten register then disappeared to the back.
Stepping aside, I leaned against the wall, which was sticky with grease. I scanned the adjacent wall, studying the various framed photographs and certificates, old write-ups from long defunct magazines, advertisements promoting the latest and greatest chicken-based consumables. I had not eaten all day.
One photo in particular caught my attention: A famous rapper wearing the same emblazoned uniform as the man who had just taken my order.
It seemed the famous rapper had grown up in the surrounding projects, grim and ancient hi-rise block apartments, row after row of cheap brown buildings where the dealers sheltered from the hawkish gaze of the mobile police watchtowers that were posted on every street corner.
As a young man, the famous rapper had worked at the restaurant. I wondered if he ever came back to visit, sampling the food to ensure it was still up to his standards.
I doubted he would ever return, unless it would be for some vapid PR stunt, world renowned millionaire and chart topping recording artist embraces his humble chicken influenced roots.
What a nice headline, a nice little lie. How quickly we all forget where we come from.
Behind the glass, I caught a glimpse of someone wearing a novelty chicken suit. He wandered the kitchen as if in a daze.
Must be the mascot, I thought. Shit gig.
As if I had room to judge, spending my days in a dark basement warehouse, working alongside ex-cons and prehistoric-sized cockroaches. But I was out now and I was hungry to burn my meager earnings on some cheap crispy flesh.
The feather clad mascot stood before the massive fryer, filthy from years of abuse. I watched him watch the churning fuel that cooked my food.
The chicken reached his oversized white fuzzy gloved hand straight into the bubbling oil and extracted my dinner. He tossed the two pieces, a breast and a drumstick, into a flimsy cardboard box then threw a rock hard biscuit on top and closed the lid, removing the hot grease from his winged extremity with a flick of the wrist.
It seemed like the chicken man and I were the only two left in the place, no one else waiting for food, no other employees. There was no seating, carryout, get the fuck out, please come again.
The chicken man approached the window and pushed my box of food through the open slit. As I grabbed my order, I squinted to try and make out the eyes hidden behind the strip of mesh on the costume’s face. Only the large unblinking cartoonish bobble eyes of the mask returned my gaze.
I asked the chicken man for a side of hot sauce and received no reply. Defeated in my request, I took the oil slick shimmering box in my hands and muttered some halfhearted gratitude.
The chicken man pressed his face against the glass. After a moment, he withdrew and did it again, harder this time. Soon he was banging his head repeatedly against the window, the hollow rhythmic thuds and the sputtering fryer the only sounds audible as I exited the establishment.
Outside, the streetlights had come on and a light rain began to fall. I made my way up the block towards my apartment, which I shared with an occasional prostitute, an jobless addict, and quick-tempered chef who was prone to violence, a lovely trio of roommates in a lovely part of town.
I ducked under the shadow of one of the police watchtowers, its flashing blue and red lights casting strange patterns along the brick wall of the nearby abandoned factory. I passed the pack of feral cats that roamed outside my building, all of them sick with worms, ribcages bulging out of their emaciated frames.
They mewed upwards at me, starving, crazed with hunger, smelling the contents of my bad. I too was probably crazy and certainly hungry, but I pulled the drumstick from the box and tossed it to the cats, which pounced on it eagerly, stripping the meat from the bone in a matter of seconds.
I took my one remaining piece of chicken inside and up the few flights of stairs, said a quick hello to my catatonic roommates, all stoned or drunk on something or other, and retreated into my room, locking the door behind me. I got high too and then stripped off my clothes.
Sprawled atop my bed in just my underwear, I sank my teeth into the breast. It tasted awful, dry and burnt, no hot sauce to ease my sorrow. The biscuit hurt my teeth. I chewed solemnly, staring at the wall, not despondent, but a long way from content.
I swallowed roughly, the stringy white meat caught in my throat. I could hear the steady rain falling against my window, which was shielded by a bed sheet I had tacked to the wall for privacy. We do the best with what we have.
Yesterday, they found a body in the street near our building, gunshot wound to the head, execution style. I thought about the body, about the omnipresent police watchtowers, about the malnourished cats, about man in the chicken suit, about the famous rapper.
I called the woman I loved, but got no answer. I texted her, I have a story to tell you about chicken. I waited. There was no response. So I decided to tell the story to you instead, but whether or not you like it is ultimately going to be a matter of taste.