|Bester McNally worked the day shift at the Sticky Fingers
Rotisserie, had for 43 years, was five shifts away from retirement.
Bester was the chicken-master at Sticky Fingers, the highest-ranking
position attainable short of day or night manager. Like a beer company's
brewmaster, or a dough expert at a pizzeria, Bester was responsible for
the quality and production of the restaurant's showcase product: its barbecue
chicken. It was Bester who oversaw the process of removing just the right
number of chickens from the freezer for thawing at exactly the right time.
It was Bester who maintained the roasting ovens, getting them warmed up
in the morning, ensuring the chickens would be ready in time for the lunch
rush, and making small repairs to the one hundred individual spits whenever
necessary. So many years of experience made doing his job a routine as
natural and automatic for Bester as getting dressed in the morning, and
with one pair of jeans, three white T-shirts, a baseball cap, and a hairnet
to his name, it was a simple routine. Over the course of 43 years at Sticky
Fingers, Bester had run deliveries, done spot duty on overnight maintenance
and cleaning, worked the cash register, painted the place four times, and
even filled in now and then for waitresses too crampy or hungover to come
in for their shifts. At 62 years of age, Bester had four teeth left in
his mouth, bowels that ran like a faucet, a purple, irregularly-shaped
spot on the side of his nose, and an intimate knowledge of the operations
of a barbecue chicken restaurant that even the mangers couldn't approach
in its detail or scope.
But Bester had no desire for command, for the opulence
of management with its blue-sweater uniforms, a pencil behind the ear,
and access to the back-office desk that had seen its share of propped up
feet over the years. Bester liked being chicken-master and strove no higher,
especially now so close to retirement. For the Sticky Fingers Rotisserie
management team, this was a blessing that had lasted 43 years. There wasn't
a better chicken-master in town; quality and production were never in doubt
with Bester on the job. They laughed a little at him behind closed doors
— about the care and attention he put into his work, above and beyond what
was required for the $9.38 an hour they paid him. They often sighed, unlocking
the front door in the morning to find Bester had slept in the restaurant
again, keeping an eye on some tricky oven element or some clogged oil vat,
and said to themselves, "Look at him. This is all he has." And they counted
their lucky stars for having him.
But Bester McNally had a secret. He could have taken over
the whole restaurant long ago, been a manager for years. But he stayed
on as chicken-master because he had a gift. Bester McNally could talk to
the dead, and his favourite conversation partners were dead chickens.
Bester started talking to dead chickens as a boy, in his
grandmother's drafty kitchen, heated by an oil stove. His grandmother wore
boots in the house in winter, was able to hoist forty-pound sacks of potatoes
over her shoulder, and had a purple, irregularly-shaped spot on the side
of her nose. She spread table salt on her icy balcony to prevent accidents.
Chicken was his grandmother's best meal. She was a walking
chicken recipe book. Broiled Deviled Chicken. Marinated Broilers. Chicken
Marseillaise. Hunter's Chicken. Chicken Fritters. Supreme Chicken. Fried
Hen. Skewered Chicken Livers. Auntie Diane's Fried Chicken. Chicken Burgers.
And all of it deboned and cut up into bite-sized morsels for Bester; his
grandmother had a mortal fear of choking accidents.
She never stopped to eat herself — once Bester was served
his grandmother hooked a cigarette in the corner of her mouth and went
to work on his second and third helpings. One evening, hunched over the
pots and pans on the stove, she turned her head and watched him take a
bite of Chicken Paprika. "Oh, you're so good," she cried, cigarette bobbing
with every syllable, "the little chickens are so happy they're dancing
for joy!" Bester giggled and stuffed five bites of Chicken Paprika in his
mouth. His grandmother inhaled a deep, audible gasp that sounded like dull
fingernails scratching on a chalkboard. "Spit that out! You're going to
choke!" Bester complied, allowed the spicy chicken to lop out of his mouth
onto the plate. "Now eat it nice and slow," his grandmother said, serenity
returning to her voice. "The chickens want you to enjoy it."
In his mind, young Bester saw five chickens on a patch
of dusty ground, smiles on their beaks, holding each other's wings, dancing
in a circle. High in the sky the sun shone bright and warm, a cool breeze
in the air. One of the chickens said, "Eat me next, Bester!" Another
chimed in, "No, me! Eat me! I'm best served fried!" Bester laughed and
told them not to worry, he'd be sure to eat all of them, every one.
In time, Bester learned that cheeseburgers made cows throw
a party. Veal cutlets had calves cooing and tittering. Hot dogs caused
pigs to sing songs of happiness and kiss each other. But the chickens were
the best. When his grandmother cooked chicken they gathered at his feet,
tickling his toes with their pecking beaks, clucking up waves and waves
of suggestions. "A little honey sure does a lot for a basket of fried chicken!"
"Every try a chicken quesadilla? You'll like it!" They never stopped talking,
and, after his grandmother passed on, the spot on her nose spreading out
and colonizing a good portion of her right cheek by the end, they were
all he had to talk to.
Gravitating to a chicken-related line of work was a necessity
both financial and social. For 43 years Bester cooked three hundred chickens
or more every day. The dead chickens took advantage of their numbers and
organized hoedowns, picnics, and softball games to celebrate the fact that
people were eating them. Bester took part in the activities, befriending
generations of dead chickens along the way.
Bester felt fortunate to have had so many years in the
company of dead chickens, could never quite get over the idea that he was
actually being paid for it. But it was coming to an end, and he was looking
forward to the rest. He'd been imagining his life after the Sticky Fingers
Rotisserie. He figured he could get by on three chickens a week; leftovers
never really bothered him.
Five shifts to go, but first he was going on a little
day trip. All of the Sticky Fingers employees and even some of the regular
customers chipped in and bought Bester a retirement gift: a tour of a chicken
farm, something he'd never done. They even paid for a taxicab rather than
send him off on an hour-long bus ride to the country.
The cab picked him up at the Sticky Fingers. He crawled
into the backseat, aided by one of the waitresses, chewing gum snapping
in his ear. The other employees, gathered in the parking lot, waved to
him as the cab pulled out. When the taxi turned onto the highway Bester
felt a little tingling in his ears and a sudden onset of heartburn, not
an unexpected sensation: he'd eaten at the Sticky Fingers yet again. He
closed his eyes in the backseat, knowing a little nap would have him feeling
chipper by the time he got to the farm.
The cabby shook him from his sleep. "Hey Gramps. You're
here. And by the way, you're friends didn't pony up for a tip." Bester
handed the man a crumpled five-dollar bill and pulled himself from the
car. He barely had time to shut the door before the cab sped off, heading
back to civilization.
Bester took a moment to absorb it all. The farm was just
as he'd imagined it. The taxi had driven him up a winding dirt road and
left him in front of a white-painted farmhouse with red trim, blacktop
roof, and a brick chimney, smoke softly curling from the stack. A wide
cornfield lay to his left, forest of trees to his right. Big red barn standing
next to a grain silo in a patch of land adjacent to the corn. A farmer
in a floppy straw hat, green overalls, and thick boots, blowing his nose
into a handkerchief, stood on the farmhouse porch.
"Welcome to the Cross Winds," the farmer said, folding
his handkerchief, stuffing it into his back pocket. He descended the four
short steps from the balcony to the road and extended his hand. "Name's
Ken. Ken Norton, like the boxer, 'cepting he was quite a shade darker than
myself." Farmer Ken laughed at his own joke, coughed, took out his handkerchief
"I'm Bester McNally. I've been chicken master at Sticky
Fingers Rotisserie almost, well, almost all my life. Sure am looking forward
to seeing your operation here. Are the other people on the tour here yet?"
"Other people?" Ken Norton the farmer cried. "There's
no other people. Just you, Mr. Bester."
Bester felt happy to know his friends had gone out and
got him a real special tour. "So when can we start?"
"Well, right away, just as soon as we get some formalities
out of the way. Come on over to the barn and we can get started, get you
cleaned up a little."
The barn was musty. Chicken coops, stacked four high,
stretched in rows from one end to the other. A narrow passage bisected
the rows. The hum of clucking inside was so thick it sounded to Bester
like the motor of an air conditioner gone awry.
Farmer Ken got down on one knee in front of Bester, took
hold of his ankle. Bester pulled back instinctively. "Now, now," Farmer
Ken said. "Just hold still, this'll only take a second." He wrapped something
that felt like a bracelet around Bester's ankle.
"What the hell is that?" Bester asked, flapping at what
looked like a yellow price tag hanging from his ankle off a thin metal
"Well, gotta be able to identify you. 'Stinguish you from
Bester had no time to ask further when Farmer Ken wrapped
his fingers around his jaw, forcing his mouth open. With his other hand
he guided Bester's head back. Bester's mouth was suddenly filled with pellets
that felt like M&Ms but tasted like aspirins.
"Got to get you filled up with antibiotics, there. Want
you to be healthy, you know." Farmer Ken cupped his palm over Bester's
mouth and held it there until he swallowed all the antibiotics.
Gagging, Bester managed to blurt out: "You're crazy! I
want to go home. I want to go back to the Sticky Fingers. Now!"
"No, no, no," Farmer Ken said, "the whole thing's been
set up, all paid for. You can't leave now."
Bester sat down on the dusty floor of the barn, exhausted.
He heard clicking and looked up to see Ken shaking a spray paint can, walking
toward him. Ken rolled Bester's right shirtsleeve up and painted his entire
arm yellow. "For quick ID," the farmer said, answering Bester's unasked
Bester felt terrible. Sick to his stomach and dizzy in
his head. He just wanted to sleep.
"One more step and then I'll put you up so you can rest,"
Farmer Ken said, hoisting Bester to his feet. He was led down the rows
of coops, the chickens throwing themselves at the wire mesh as he passed.
"They're a little antsy today," Ken said, chuckling. "But they get like
that with newcomers."
At the end of the barn Farmer Ken sat Bester down on an
overturned wooden crate. Bester rested his chin in his hands. Ken walked
over to some kind of a machine, a metal box with a cylinder connected to
its side. Ken flicked a switch and the cylinder began spinning, slowly
at first but soon so fast it was a blur. Farmer Ken hooked his arms under
Bester's armpits and dragged him over to the machine. "Believe me," the
farmer said, "this is going to hurt me a lot more than it's going to hurt
you. But it's for the best — I don't want you harming anybody — nobody
wants to buy chickens all pecked up." Ken angled Bester's face toward the
spinning cylinder. He felt a great heat emanating from it. He had no strength
to resist and blacked out in the very instant the circular saw dug into
the flesh, cartilage, and bone of his nose.