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CHICKEN (PART I)
BY JAMES STEGALL
Girls start at the counter. Women handle the buffet. Cooks are always male. Mid-float is usually the youngest girl, while closing cook/night clean-up is a man in his forties. The opening cook can be in high school but he has to have proven himself trustworthy. He empties the previous day's buffet leftovers into the dumpster. It takes somebody strong to lift all that fermented food to shoulder height. Only two of the cooks can do it.
Night clean-up empties the oil, cleans the pressure fryers, cleans the fallen fries, nuggets and chicken patties from behind the double fryer, cleans the grease trap, twists up wet towels tight and lines them at the tile edge dividing the kitchen and dining area, then sprays down the grease-caked brown kitchen tile with boiling water from the black hose. The water has to soak, then gets pushed with a squeegee back to a drain under the warming cabinets. Curdled grease like cottage cheese collects on the grate and has to be cleared probably five times with one of the long metal spoons. There's a lot of down time while the oil strainer cleans each pressure fryer. Loud music. This all happens around two in the morning.
Girls can be scheduled on dishes but unless they're older they always find a way to trade the boy on counter with that skin-withering duty. The only good thing about dishes is the spray hose, which can soak anybody in the kitchen from a distance.
If the mid-float's any good, they help the cook with the extra crispy, which has to be emptied into a metal rotator with three gallons of tap water and a pouch of marinade concentrate. The chicken goes in frozen and for a while sounds like rocks sliding inside the tumbler. After thirty minutes the marinade's done and has to be scooped out, spread on flat sheets and put back in the cooler near the door. That's policy. Most cooks just leave it in the tumbler until they need crispy down. They pull it out a piece at a time and toss the raw chicken across the kitchen into the wide flour bin. From there, it's tossed into the open fryer for extra crispy only. Closing cooks don't toss chicken because they have to clean up the white flour trails and all the oil splashed against the wall and back behind the fryer, where it congeals into white lard.
The original flavor has a separate sifting bed. It doesn't have to be marinated, but the breading requires several ready-sized packets of egg white, browning and the special seasoning that actually reads "Secret Herbs and Spices" as its ingredients. The plastic bag of frozen chicken parts is dumped directly into the sifting bed, where it's lifted and rolled by hand to ensure even coating. Ribs and thighs usually have bone splinters sticking out that cut. The breading stings and leaves pink spots over wounds all up and down hands and forearms. Cooks are always covered in flour.
The breaded pieces are placed in order on the round butterfly opening fryer racks. Each level on the rack is a complete chicken: wings, thighs, ribs, drumsticks and breast. The rack folds closed and drops into the drum-like pressure fryer. The lid seals the boiling oil inside. The timer buttons are almost all worn white. Fourteen minutes per drop. Each drop fills one whole rack in the warming cabinet. There are twenty racks in the cabinet.
A good cook knows how to balance chicken count with the time of day and day of the week. Overcooking could leave a whole cabinet of chicken to debone for use in the pot pie on the buffet. Deboning is ass: the chicken's still hot and the oil burns. Cooking too little, then taking the pressure fryers down to clean opens up vulnerability to a large order right before closing, wiping everything out and meaning more chicken has to go down. Now the cook's screwed and'll be cleaning with the night shift until two in the morning.
There are only four breasts per fourteen minute drop. A twenty piece all-breast can wipe out a whole cabinet.
Another job is rotisserie prep. Whole ready-marinated chickens have to be trussed with string -- tie the drumsticks together, flip and truss the wings -- then skewered four chickens per on five metal spears that rotate in a glass case. If the chickens are just a little raw, when raised, offering-like, to pull onto the spears, they'll leak icy blood down forearms into the armpits. This sucks. The customers haven't figured out rotisserie yet and so far most of it has to be deboned -- though it's easier to debone because its skin comes right off, unlike original, which sticks when cold. Front counter girls who are good manage to give most of it away to friends at the drive-thru or to homeless people.
Anybody can make coleslaw, but it takes some training and most of the counter girls get the cooks to do it, complaining it dries their skin, cracks their nails, etc. Whole cabbages, onions and carrots are fed into the big metal processor, which spits the ground slaw into a big white tub. Once the plastic tub is half full of vegetable meal, a pillow-sized pouch of slaw mix is cut open and dumped on top. The mix and vegetables both come straight from the cooler, and don't seem cold until the preparer has pulled on forearm-length plastic gloves and started digging to the elbow in the mixture, pulling up, scraping the corners, ensuring vegetable and mayonnaise-sauce are well-blended. Nothing's worse than dry vegetables or a spoon full of greasy white slaw sauce. But the process chills to the bone. The gloves tear through and the cold sauce seeps into the skin. Some cooks have to take breaks during the mixing. Counter girls use ice cream scoops to measure the finished slaw into styrofoam cuplets.
Anybody can make biscuits, too. The biscuits come frozen in boxes, hard as hockey pucks. Flick some flour on a baking tray, line up the biscuits five by fifteen, brush on some liquid butter and throw them in the convection oven for twelve minutes.
All cooking times vary: pressure fryer, fries, patties, nuggets, potato wedges, extra crispy, wings, rotisserie, biscuits.
All alarms are unique:
Beep! Beep! Beep!
B-beep! B-beep! B-Beep!
Bawp! Bawp! Bawp!
Everyone knows immediately what's up. People shout: "Biscuits up! Get the fries! My wings!" and it becomes the responsibility of the nearest person to stop the alarm and pull the finished food from the oil. This isn't part of the training.
The chicken is packed in brightly colored cardstock boxes with a square of wax paper, napkin/spork packet, butter, honey, and cuplets of coleslaw and mashed potatoes and gravy. It's important the chicken go on the warming trays in the proper order so it can be grabbed with long metal tongs and packed quickly, subconsciously, while talking to the drive-thru and listening to the short divorced shift manager whose four year-old has rubella and uses you as surrogate male interaction whenever you work together.
It's important you don't read too much into the way Stacy likes to leave flour handprints on your ass, starting early in the shift and pointing out "Her territory" to other employees throughout the remaining eight hours. It's important that you sell Gerber jars full of your drug-free urine to Bruce the paroled fry cook for five dollars a piece, weekly, and buy his boombox for twenty dollars when he offers. It's important you listen to Henry talk about Chiapas and Marcos and listen to Rage Against the Machine in his Datsun B210 on breaks. It's important that when Liz, who has acne but seems to like you, asks you to sit in her car with her after closing that you do, because she's twenty-three and has a fair idea of what she's doing.
When a girl says she was married, when she says her husband beat her, and her eyes are moving up and down your face in a way that could be calm or frantic, that seems to teeter on the edge, if you were equipped to recognize it, all you can do is nod.
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CHICKEN (PART II)
BY JAMES STEGALL
A parking lot.
The way the moonlight turns the asphalt silver. This car sits facing the freeway offramp and headlights swell and pass, lighting her face, the acne on her forehead and her high cheekbones. The restaurant is dark in the rearview except for a small glow from what you know is the back office where the night clean-up sits while the oil strainer recycles the contents of the pressure fryers.
Just out of high school, you're thinking I don't know what it means to be married. I don't know what it means to be divorced. She's saying how hard it was to leave. She's saying what it was like when he came back in off one of his five month Marine deployments, or whatever it was he did, and they had parties and she missed work and got fired. He spent the electric bill money on beer and the power was shut off. He held a steak knife to her throat. She left once for half a day and he didn't even notice. And she leans closer and says she never cheated on him, even the times he was gone, a total of ten months in the eighteen they were married.
She knows now that she just wanted to get away from this town. Now she's back.
Her skin is thin on her face. The moonlight makes her skeletal. Words are pouring out of her mouth, eyes, nose. Her whole body is communicating. She moves her hand from the shift knob to your knee. She turns a little in her seat and looks you straight in the face. You've got your back to the passenger door. Your legs are wedged under the dash. You've got nothing to add, but she wants to hear. She pulls words out of you until you tell her you've got a sister who's fifteen and you just graduated from high school and still live with your parents. Your mother tries to enforce a one o'clock curfew. The clock on her dash says one-thirty as you say that and she looks up at you as if you just gave her something. She says quietly it's been so long since she was with someone like you.
You don't ask what that's supposed to mean. You've never heard anything like that before. She wants things you're not aware of yet. She touches your nose with a bony finger. She asks where you want to go.
Shrug. "I don't know. Anywhere."
She turns the ignition and says her apartment then. She lives on Jefferson Street near the school district main office and a senior citizens home. The streets are empty. The doorway next to hers has a green doormat and a pink tricycle propped beside it. Her door has a small country-style sign that says welcome.
"I like having my own place," she says. You can't look at her without seeing the shadow of her husband standing beside her. The Marine. You ask what he was like and she tightens her shoulders a little -- she's unlocking the door, but she turns and says he was as tall as you. He had brown hair. He liked cars.
She says she loved him until he hit her.
It's that statement that hangs with you as she pushes the door open and goes inside. The doorway is dark except for the street lamp until she flicks on a light and the hallway turns yellow. The doorway to the kitchen appears, and the living room with cream-colored carpet and a sliding glass door colored by the dark outside.
She sticks her head out of the kitchen entryway and says Silly -- come in.
Her face looks fuller under the light. The skin on her hands isn't so tight. She hands you a beer from the fridge. You try and twist the cap off until she hands you a bottle opener and you say thanks. She takes a drink from her bottle, watching you. The beer has no flavor but it's cold.
This is her apartment. Standing in her space, you look at the few pictures on the walls, the towel hanging from the oven's handle, the dishes in the drying rack. She is five years older than you. She has photographs held by magnets on her refrigerator. You tilt your head to study them because you can't think of anything to say. Somehow you know how lame it would be to talk about work and yet you don't know what else to say. You've only been there since May. You don't know when she started. She packs and unpacks the plastic container holding the buffet condiments: the sliced cucumbers, mushrooms, green peppers and cherry tomatoes that make up the salad bar. Once she cut herself slicing a cucumber and you got her a bandage. No one else saw or thought to do it. You don't remember. maybe it was just the two of you in the kitchen then. She took her finger out of her mouth and you put on the plastic strip and she said thank you and how sweet you were. She's an opener and you're almost always night counter or dishes, because they haven't changed your schedule since you graduated.
She points to the faces in the photos. Other girls with her in a bar. A picture of her niece with pudding all over her face. A picture of her mother. She asks if your parents are still married and nods when you say no. Her eyes make you uncomfortable.
She leaves the kitchen and turns on the stereo low in the living room. She says I'd give you the grand tour but there isn't much to see. Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom. There's a balcony, but it just looks over the street. I can afford it. That's what matters. She asks what you like to do. What your hobbies are. Your mind is blank. Your mind is caught standing her in her living room looking at the decorative pillows on her couch. She chose everything in the room. Each piece is her. This is wholly unlike any other place you've been in by yourself, with a person who invited you alone. Even the things in your own room were chosen by your mother -- maybe you rearranged them or changed them somehow, but at heart non of it's truly yours. And yet all this is hers. Her story is written in all of it. You find yourself searching for clues to explain what she's said. You find yourself saying:
"You don't have any pictures of your husband."
She's looking through the CD tower near the stereo. She stands holding some CD case you can't see. She presses the eject button and the music stops and she inserts the new disc.
"Not out here," she says. "I'm trying to put that behind me."
She declares that she smells like grease. She can't stand the smell of the grease. You glance down at your white-crusted tennis shoes, your pants flour-whitened. She says she's going to take a shower. She leaves the room and reappears in a bathrobe with her hair down. From the bathroom you hear the sound of squeaking pipes and then water running. The door is open and she calls over the water, You can sit in here if you want.
The beer bottle is warm in your hands, empty. You set it in the kitchen sink and open the refrigerator. She has several boxes of chicken, soda cans, honey and butter packets and some salad dressing. A case of beer. You draw another bottle from the case and search for the bottle opener.
"Are you there?" she calls.
The bathroom is filled with steam. Her shower curtain is blue vinyl. You can smell Ivory soap. The counter is covered by things new to you. Conditioner bottles, lotion, make-up, lipstick, perfume, combs, a mashed tube of toothpaste. Her shampoo smells like peach. The steam carries it. The beer tastes ultra cold in the sauna. The mirror is dusted with steam. Trails of condensation make stripes on the silver.
"I want to ask you something," she says over the water. The sound of the water changes as she moves. You see the top of her head through the rings holding the shower curtain. She stands on her tip-toes and looks at you, the tip of her nose near the curtain rod. The water makes her hair black. The hot water makes her skin look red and healthy. She's talking about making love, what she misses most, sad to say. Her voice goes on.
"Tell me what you like best about it," she says. She's different because any other girl you know would say it with a lilt in her voice. She says it so seriously that you pause. She wants an honest answer and you haven't ever considered the question. You haven't questioned it. Thinking about it in terms of her voice, you don't know what to say.
"I like their skin."
"Women are going to use you," she says -- so quickly it seems she wanted to say that no matter what your answer.
She turns off the water and asks you to hand her a towel.
You ask how old she was when she got married and she answers nineteen. She felt certain then. She thought she knew him and that how she felt would last forever. Everything was an opportunity and not an obstacle. She liked feeling that way.
"Do you want to take a shower?" she says. "Now that I'm clean, you smell horrible."
She waits while you pull off your shirt and pants, and waits until you pull off your socks and underwear too. Her eyes go down your body as you straighten. Her eyes go directly into you.
"You look good," she says, as if you were asking her opinion on some clothes. You feel pale and underdeveloped. The water scalds your chest when it first hits. After the shower you find a pair of shorts and a t-shirt on the counter beside her deodorant and the styling mousse.
You hold them up and smell them. They fit fine.
When she asks if your mom will wonder where you are you say in the morning she will. She's almost always asleep when you get home.
"I doubt she is," she says.
She sits on her bed brushing her hair. Her bedroom is nearly bare but for the bed and a chest of drawers. The closet doors are closed. Her coverlet is green.
You sit down beside her and take the brush. She looks at you and then turns her shoulder so you can draw the brush through the damp length of her hair. She flinches.
"Careful," she says.
This story was taken from eyeshot.net.
You should go have a look.
That's all I know.