“Chicken Sandwich” – Fiction by Rebecca Ann Jordan

Chicken Parts - Frederick Sommer, 1939
Chicken Parts – Frederick Sommer, 1939

The dotty narrator of “Chicken Sandwich,” Rebecca Ann Jordan‘s contribution to our Fall 2014 issue, just wants to make the world a better, pink-slime-free place. All that’s standing in her way are McDonald’s corporate interests… and those pesky demons in her blood. 

{ ONE }

ONE WEEK AFTER GETTING MY NEW JOB AT MCDONALD’S, I go to the doctor because it hurts to walk. I’m told I have an in-grown toenail, and I need surgery to fix it. It’s going to be a death sentence; it’s dead winter in Colorado, I live alone and I have no social life except for my mom’s occasional calls and now my coworkers too, and after the surgery it’s going to be two months of recoup time, during which I will not be able to walk on my foot except to go to and from the bathroom.

{ TWO }

After a day of feeling sorry for myself, I think maybe I should pick up one of those old dreams that used to haunt me. I could sew, once upon a time. I Google the only fabric store in a 50-mile radius and drive an hour down a dirt road and pull up into the driveway beside a ghost-town lemonade stand. In the distance there is a fence, presumably with cows behind it. Lunch break done, I drive back to work without getting out of my car.

{ THREE }

Maybe with my last days I should try to change the world in a small way. This has never occurred to me before, but the impending two-month death has me thinking clearly. I have never been the lucky sort, but “You’re up, kid,” says the manager (whose name is Reba and who I think is a lesbian), because the fry cook dies suddenly in his sleep. I guess it’s not hard to do if you fall asleep in your car. I notice immediately the pink slime that the media is having a heyday about: the unnatural chicken parts. It’s a responsible choice for the earth, so I decide to turn vegetarian.

{ FOUR }

I try a hand at my hobbies again. With my first two weeks of wages I buy a digital camera that can do a bunch of things I’ve never heard of. I spend my lunch hour wandering around the parking lot photographing broken bottles, as though it’s some metaphor for the state of the world or my broken toenails. Speaking of toenails, they’re victims of the camera too, at night in my bathtub, with the camera strap dangling in the water and my toes on display against the tile wall.

{ FIVE }

I start getting rejection letters. The camera gets a time-out in the trunk of my car. I leave it there indefinitely, just in case.

 { SIX }

I join a local meet-up for vegetarians. We eat hummus and carrots, which somehow reminds me of snapping off dirty toes. There is a baby-faced man named Arnold who whispers something about a co-op. I don’t know what a co-op is, but I’ve never been interested in group sex.

“Now,” says a teeny little woman of 60 years, “let’s talk conversion. You’re new, so just watch, but feel free to chime in. What we want is to show the world about the horrific crimes that happen when we eat animals.”

“I work at McDonald’s.” I say this to prove my ethos.

Instead they all begin to scorn the sort of people that enable places like McDonald’s.

I second-guess my decision to be a vegetarian.

 { SEVEN }

“I want a chicken sandwich with fries.”

I overlook the fact that fries have not exactly been outlawed by the FDA yet, but they can still kill you, like everything. “We’re having a special,” I lie, “on Big Macs.”

“Oh, I don’t eat beef,” the man with the stiff hair and stiff tie says. “Just the chicken sandwich, please.”

“No. I don’t think you understand. It’s cheaper with the Big Mac. I can take the patties off.”

“What I want is a chicken sandwich.” I think this man hates me, but doesn’t he know I’m trying to save his life?

“Please, please buy the burger.”

The man leaves. Apparently Reba thinks I show promise because she lets me keep my job in the back, where I don’t have to talk to anyone, just keep plopping pink slime onto the stove.

 { EIGHT }

McDonald’s is open until midnight. I trudge through the snow at one in the morning. The parking lot has been cleared by salters but I put my boots down where the grass used to be and where the crystalline snow now is, because it gives me immense satisfaction to make my mark, like the satisfaction of breaking tiny bones.

I don’t know why I never noticed this before. On the balcony above my unit and three units to the left, there is a woman who is naked from the waist up. She leans over the balcony, smoking a cigarette, and her hair is curlier than mine. She probably gave up trying to tame it when she hit puberty. I think, with the moon behind her like that, wouldn’t she make a great photo? I run back to my car on the tiny bones and find my camera in the trunk. When I come back the glass door slides closed, and I can’t see inside because it is so damn bright out with the moon. I go into my apartment and run a bath.

 { NINE }

I regret putting my contact information on the list at the vegetarian group, because I get their weekly newsletter which is mostly about how they’re going to meet up soon, so put it on your calendar, and there’s a few pictures of happy, emaciated people hugging each other. The 60-year-old woman who ostracized me is usually there with a JPEG of her teaching yoga at the local library, cheerfully asking subscribers to join her, because everybody can do yoga. I grab my flat tire and think, no, you idiot, not everybody can do yoga, and some of us are dying, anyway.

Their recruitment must be dropping because I usually don’t take phone calls while I’m at work, but I decided to take this one out of spite of the dead chickens coming out of the tube, and it’s Arnold on the phone.

“Hey,” he says, “we missed you at the last two meetings.”

“Thanks.” I’ve been told I have a fear of commitment.

“Yeah, they’re kinda stuffy in there,” Arnold says.

His voice is like what I imagine a train conductor’s voice is like: puncturing when he’s working, but wheezing and hoarse when he’s quiet, from all the yelling. “Do you want to stop by the co-op sometime?”

“Maybe,” I say noncommittally.

“I have a farm, just off the 160. We raise chickens. It’s nothing much but I thought you might be interested.”

Arnold doesn’t even know me, other than the fact that I don’t like hummus. “Why?”

“I just thought. You don’t have to come. It was nice talking to you -”

“No, I’ll come.”

I don’t know what possesses me to drive out to Arnold’s farm. It’s not anything like the farms in the movies. There’s no red barn, no creaky weathervane. Arnold has about two hundred chickens, cooped in a long building with their own nests on either side, and one chestnut mare, used for rounding up the chickens, I guess. “It’s all humane, see? They’re free to wander around; that’s the difference. We don’t feed them anything that we wouldn’t feed ourselves. I trade eggs and meat for corn and vitamins at the co-op. Everybody wins.”

I snap a picture of a half-grown chick that takes a vengeful liking to my blue jeans. Maybe he senses his inhumanely-treated kin on my hands, but the picture turns out blurry.

 { TEN }

Mom calls. She asks me how my trip to the doctor went. I tell her I have foot-cancer and they have to chop it off. We both cry for a while.

I have two months until my surgery. One foot in and one foot out.

 { ELEVEN }

 “I think that I can get us chicken in bulk, for cheap.”

Reba stares at me, because she expected I was going to ask for a raise. “We have chicken in bulk for cheap.”

“But it’s not humane.”

“Listen, kid, you’re new. Don’t stir the pot. You’re not the first hippy to come in here looking to make McDonald’s a better place.”

“But what if I could get it cheaper than it costs to ship the pink slime?”

Reba narrows her eyes. After a moment of silence, in which her old-fashioned cuckoo clock comes out to announce the quarter-till-the-hour, Reba shrugs. “Alright.  You do the research and show me the findings. Down to the cents. That includes transportation, upkeep, and everything. And I’ll think about it.”

I am so elated that I am actually really nice to the stiff-haired man who comes in to get his chicken sandwich. “We’re getting new chicken soon,” I tell him as my coworker takes his order. “It’s home-grown, right here in Durango. Humane.”

“That’s great,” the stiff-haired man says, “and I don’t care.”

He doesn’t even know that I’m making a better world for him. He’ll miss me when I’m gone.

{ TWELVE }

“You know, those are pretty good.” I’m showing Arnold all the pictures I took of his farm after we have sex with our socks on. I like the way his baby-face makes me feel more mature, even though I don’t think he’ll ever get the chicken smell out of him. I take a picture of his penis. He tells me I have to print him out a copy, and sign it, because someday I’ll be a famous photographer and he wants to have a photo from before I was famous so he can sell it for lots of money and buy more chickens. I don’t tell him that I have a death sentence. Instead I kiss him.

When I walk him out into the frigid cold, the bare-breasted woman is on her balcony. She watches Arnold go to his car and not see her and wave and drive away. She looks at me with her head cocked to the side. I take a picture of her. She scolds me by turning her curved back with the indifference of a cat. I delete the picture because I feel guilty, which is not something a real photographer would feel.

{ THIRTEEN }

I spend all week running numbers and calculating everything. I have a meeting with Reba. “Impressive,” she says, but she’s frowning.

“But?”

“Well, it’s not regulation. I mean, think of all the meat we’d have to ship for all the McDonald’s in the world.”

“But it’s just our place,” I say, because I’m worried that my sleeping with Arnold would be for nothing. “Just this one location. We could change out the chicken. It will be humane.”

“I’ll have to make a report…”

“No, don’t make a report. Just change out the chicken. Everyone will be healthier because it’s home-grown. And when we get all these customers in here demanding home-grown chicken, then you can make a report.”

Reba is a hard-ass. I can see she wants to follow the rules.

“Help me change the world,” I plead quietly. She doesn’t know about my toe, but she agrees. I give her Arnold’s contact information.

{ FOURTEEN }

Mom shows up. She says she doesn’t want me to be alone. I don’t take the camera into the bathtub anymore, because I don’t want her to think I’m some kind of pervert, even though you can see from the slideshow I’ve put on my blog that my toe is getting even more swollen and yellow.

{ FIFTEEN }

Arnold is busy doing business with McDonald’s, and mom is always cooking me things and crying, so I Google the closest fabric store within a 50 mile radius and drive to the ghost-town lemonade stand. It might be a good subject for some photos. I start taking pictures of it, because it’s been rubbed bare by the world, and maybe I have a kinship to it, but I just convinced McDonald’s to get rid of their pink slime, so I don’t feel all that splintery today. It’s still three weeks until the surgery. I limp across the field, toward the fence where there’s a cow chewing her cud. “How now?” I ask, and she turns her head away and walks over the hill as if I’ve forgotten our anniversary.

{ SIXTEEN }

 “I’m busy,” says Arnold’s conductor-voice over the phone, “I’m real busy, but maybe we can meet at the co-op later this week.”

“Can I come to your farm? I have a signed picture of a penis to give you.”

“Sure. Next week, maybe.”

I cook his chickens on McDonald’s stove. I recognize one of them, even though he’s feathered and sliced and what do they do with the chicken heads anyway? It’s the one I took the blurry picture of in the coop. The young chicken had barely had a chance to live. I eat him, because it’s the respectful thing to do in such a situation. Reba thanks me for my hard work and fires me for getting tears in the meat.

{ SEVENTEEN }

I find out on Facebook that someone back home died of cancer. I feel guilty, and also terrified, because wouldn’t it be just like God to deal me a dose of karma, and what if they find out that I really do have cancer in my foot after all?

I get three likes on my picture of the young chicken who liked my pants: Arnold, Mom, and a person named Betty Grable, who I think is one of Arnold’s friends, and who is probably not the real Betty Grable.

I don’t know why but I think that the brown cow at the fence must know something, so I drive back. The cow is there. She starts walking and I start walking too, and we break tiny bones together, and I try to touch her through the fence but it’s a weird fence to hold a cow in, not a chain link or anything like that, more like the wrought iron fences you see in front of a mansion, and I settle for snapping pictures. She doesn’t care. She takes me up a hill to the other side. There are lots of cows here, in the middle of the field, and they seem to be congregating around an old Indian statue with many arms but that doesn’t have a head anymore.

There is a snowy-haired man standing in front of a gate. I ask, “What is this?” He stares at me. I get the feeling he doesn’t have many visitors. I take pictures of him and the cows and the statue, far away beyond the fence. At home I must drop my SD card down the sink at some point, because Mom turns on the garbage disposal and then presents my wrecked pictures to me, begging me to forgive her.

{ EIGHTEEN }

I go back to the field with the cows. The brown cow greets me. “What’s your name?” I ask, and she leads me around to the gatekeeper. “How do I get in?”

“You don’t,” he says finally, remembering he has a throat and tongue. “Not unless you do something good. To change the world. To make a difference, before, you know…” I take a picture of the headless statue. It’s far away, so it’s really small against the blue sky. You can’t even tell the cows are cows behind the fence, this far away.

I think I must be having dreams, or demons, or a fever.

But my toe really, really hurts, and so I take off my shoes and break tiny bones with my bare feet, and the woman is on her balcony with her breasts all perked up because it’s damn cold outside. She doesn’t even pretend she doesn’t see me anymore. We stare each other down as I walk up the steps to my apartment. Tonight the moon startles me as it leers like a search beacon through the trees.

“Aren’t you cold!” I scream at her. “Get off the balcony! Put a bra on at least!” She stares at me and drags on her cigarette.

I sit down on my front step and we stare at each other until I have to get up and tell mom not to worry about me because I’m not dead yet. She’s won this one, with her breasts bare like that, braver than me in every way. She knows she is victorious because she finally smiles and flings her arms up to catch the last rays of moonlight.

{ NINETEEN }

I beg for my job back. It’s fine, because Reba likes me, and one of her peons is out sick, so why don’t I just go in the back, and no crying on the chicken this time? It’s a bucket of pink slime. Where is the humane chicken?

“That’s it,” Reba says. “That’s the humane chicken.”

“But it’s pink slime.”

“It’s easier to keep that way,” Reba says. “And we make more money per chicken if we use all the parts. Head and toes and everything.”

She makes the mistake of leaving me alone to fry the chicken. I dump it out, all of it, onto the sidewalk outside. She’s screaming obscenities at me and my phone’s ringing and a picture of Arnold’s penis comes up on it, but I keep dumping all the humane chickens onto the sidewalk, apologizing to them because they had a good life there, after all, with the corn and the vitamins, and the cops come and arrest me and I’m screaming because I don’t want to spend my last nights in jail.

A doctor comes and says that he told me I shouldn’t have been walking on my toe that much, because it got infected, and they have to do emergency surgery right away, and besides, my iron levels are extremely low. I wish Arnold was here, but he’s busy, and I probably ruined his business with McDonald’s, but I wish he was here anyway, and we could have sex one more time, or maybe I should have stuck with the sewing, and I think of all the pictures I don’t want anyone else to see, because I don’t want them to think of me like that, but remember me just like I was, a good kid who worked at McDonald’s and didn’t stir the pot, and then I feel a prick and they knock me out, the bastards.

{ TWENTY }

Mom’s asleep in the chair next to my hospital bed when I wake up. Everything hurts, but I feel kind of good, like there’s not too many demons in my blood anymore. There’s a box next to my bed, all wrapped up in recycled paper. “I forgive you,” it says on the box. “Love, Arnold.” I unwrap it and find a really good lens, with a zoom feature that I don’t really know how to use, but it says it’s state-of-the-art and it’s for my camera.

When they release me from the hospital Mom gets really mad because I lied to her about the cancer. She tells me I am a selfish, narcissistic kid, and that she worried about me, and that she thinks it’s best if we don’t live together anymore because I need to grow up. She moves out.

{ TWENTY-ONE }

As soon as I can walk I defy doctor’s orders again and I take my high-focus camera to the fence. I take pictures of the brown cow’s eyeball. We walk together all the way around the fence, further than we’ve ever gone. We walk past the gatekeeper, who seems like he wants to say something, but I don’t let him talk because I don’t care what he has to say. My breath comes out of my mouth like cigarette smoke. The lens slips between a pair of spindly wrought-iron fence posts and I start taking pictures of the cows. They look like they’re sticking near the statue, which is weird. They lick its toe sometimes. It must be made of salt.

{ TWENTY-TWO }

“I know you’re not coming back here for a job.”

“I’ve changed. I don’t care about the chicken anymore.”

“I’m calling the cops.”

“Don’t call the cops. I’m not going to ruin your chicken or talk bad to the customers. I just need something to do.”

She folds her huge arms over her chest. At least she’s wearing a jog bra, unlike some people I know. “I heard about your toe.”

“Yeah. I thought I had cancer.”

She sighs. “Fine. But you’re working the cash register, until I catch you stealing from it.”

“Okay.”

I work the cash register until midnight, when the stiff-haired guy comes in for a chicken sandwich. “You,” he says, frowning. “How do you still have a job here?”

“The lesbian manager likes me.”

“Do you know how hard I work every day?” the man says.

“I’m under more stress than you could ever imagine. Real pressure. The decisions that I make affect whether my company succeeds or fails. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for some customer service. And they let you keep your job.”

I don’t know what to say to that, because I promised Reba I wouldn’t talk bad to the customers.

“I want a chicken sandwich,” he says. “And fries.”

I wish I hadn’t thrown out the bad chicken. Instead I take his money and spit in the sandwich before I come back out and give it to him. I feel bad, not for him, but for the chicken, because after all it doesn’t really deserve to get spit on. But the stiff-haired guy probably wouldn’t care if he knew about it because he’s under real stress and too busy to worry about some kid’s spit in his sandwich.

{ TWENTY-THREE }

I walk around the fence. I sit on the ground for a long time because my wrapped-up toe is tired. The brown cow gets bored and wanders away. The gatekeeper is watching me intently. I offer to show him my photos. He looks as I scroll through the display. I let him hold the camera and look through all my pictures, the ones of the brown cows and the white chickens and even my yellow toes, because I have no recent visitors on my blog.

I sit back down. The wind is picking up flurries of the new snow, so it’s hard to see the cows. Finally the gatekeeper says, “I think you should go in.”

“Really?” He nods. “Why?”

“I don’t know.”

I don’t question him. He lets me in the gate and hands the camera back to me. I take off my shoes because it seems like the right thing to do in such a situation and limp down the hill even though I think my toe is bleeding. I take a picture of a cow’s tagged ear. I try to get a picture of the statue, but through the storm there’s only a thin gray outline of it on the display.

The woman is there. She’s wearing ski pants and leg warmers on her arms but nothing on her chest. “What is wrong with you?” I ask.

“I have breast cancer,” she answers, and I believe her; it’s not just a cry for attention, but the bare boobs are definitely a cry for attention.

“Do you want me to take your picture?”

“Sure.”

She leans against a cow. I do it. She looks more like Betty Grable now, or some other classic lady; the way her body, I guess, is kind of like water. What I mean is that she can move any way she wants to and still looks good. She can cleave me without touching me. “Can I kiss you?”

“Sure.”

We kiss. I give her my camera. I never see her after that. Mostly because as soon as my toe’s all the way healed I move back to Manhattan where I came from in the first place and get a job in the city where I don’t have to look at animals anymore.

{ X }

RebeccaJordan-21REBECCA ANN JORDAN is a speculative fiction author and artist. She has published poetry and fiction in Infinite Science Fiction One, Fiction Vortex, FLAPPERHOUSE, Strangelet, Swamp Biscuits & Tea, Yemassee Journal and more. Becca regularly columns for DIYMFA.com, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from California Institute of the Arts. See more of her work at rebeccaannjordan.com.

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