James Lewelling

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 108 in 2004.

Come to think of it, there was something just a little bit strange about that Saturday night this guy tried to treat himself to a roast chicken but couldn't. I mean, otherwise, to save money on food, this guy dined exclusively on noodles, so why shouldn't he be able to treat himself to a roast chicken every once in a while when he really wanted one? It began normally enough. As usual for a Saturday night, after hanging around the shitty little room for a couple of hours (it might have been less), this guy got restless and decided to go out. In the corridor, he nodded politely to this other guy (actually, Ned) who happened to be going out at the same time, hurried down the inordinately long front staircase to the vestibule and bumped out of the front door into the weather, thinking, confidently, Screw noodles! Tonight, I'm having chicken. (Right there. That's the best thing about roast chicken. On any other Saturday night - that is any Saturday night in which this guy was not bent on obtaining a roast chicken - this guy purposefully kept his expectations as vague and low as possible. Bumping out his front door into the weather on one of those Saturday nights, he might think, for example: "Tonight I'm going to stay out really late," or even "Tonight, going out will at least be better than hanging around the shitty little room," and nine Saturdays out of ten, he was disappointed in even these meager hopes. But roast chickens were different. Roast chickens were guaranteed.) The weather was terrible, freezing drizzle and gusty. This guy hunched up in his jacket, cut through the slush soaking the muddy front yard - no grass, just dirty holes here and there protruding out of the snow like little volcanoes - and headed off on the sidewalk leading to the supermarket closest to his building, which always had chickens roasting in a machine in the deli section. But when he got there, the machine was empty. The spits were turning, and the gas flame was on, but there were no chickens. It was as if they had just sold the last one. There was a deli guy there standing behind the counter beside the empty chicken machine, and this guy thought about asking him if there were a chicken all wrapped up behind the counter but didn't because he didn't want the deli guy to suspect that roast chickens were his special treat. The deli guy was probably a bit of a smart ass. You could tell just by looking at him. So this guy pushed out the front door and back into the slush to go to the next nearest supermarket, feeling just a bit put out but not really because the next supermarket was not far, and the roast chickens there would really be no different from the roast chickens usually (but not, evidently, today) available at the first supermarket. But when he got there, the chicken-roasting machine wasn't even on. No chickens, no flame, nothing. In fact, a panel on the side of the machine had been pried open and the guts were strewn in a little arc right out in the middle of the aisle where this deli guy in overalls was sitting on the floor with a screw driver, apparently performing some kind of maintenance. Now the third closest supermarket was a ways away - not too far, but a bit of a hike, and it would be even more of a hike to walk home - so, hoping to save himself the trip in such crummy weather, this guy took the trouble to ask this deli guy - the one on the floor maintaining the chicken machine - if they had any chickens behind the counter, but the deli guy - as much of a smart ass as the deli guy in the first store - just looked up over his shoulder at this guy for a long time, itching his head with the end of the screwdriver like he hadn't the faintest idea of what this guy was asking about - even though there he was on the floor maintaining the chicken machine at that very moment. Finally the deli guy put down the screwdriver and said, in a tone that suggested he was humoring a difficult customer, "No, no chickens today. Probably have chickens tomorrow," and went right back to doing whatever he was doing to the chicken machine.

Feeling a bit more put out, this guy headed out through the freezing drizzle to the third closest supermarket, which really was a bit of a hike compared to the first two but not too much trouble, he thought, for a roast chicken. (That was another great thing about roast chickens. This guy could eat a whole roast chicken at a single sitting, no problem. (He rarely ate breakfast or lunch). So when, on the following Monday, some other guy at his shitty job was talking about food, this guy could say, "Last Saturday, I ate a chicken," not "some chicken" or "a piece of chicken" or just "chicken," but "a chicken." This guy liked that). But when he finally got to the third closest supermarket and made his way to the deli section, it was totally devoid of roast chickens. In fact, there wasn't even a machine. Or even a space where a machine might have been. And one look at the deli guy, even more of a smart ass than the other two, convinced this guy that asking was completely out of the question. (In truth, even in going there, this guy hadn't been positive that they did have a chicken-roasting machine. He had never actually purchased a roast chicken at the third closest supermarket because he had always been able to find one at either the first or second closest supermarkets. But he had assumed the third closest supermarket would indeed have a chicken roasting machine as chicken roasting machines had become pretty standard equipment at modern supermarkets, in his city anyway).


Evidently not, this guy thought to himself as he pushed out the door into the slush blanketing the parking lot of the third closest supermarket, feeling really quite put out - like here was this supermarket appearing on the outside to be really modern and convenient but on the inside not having the necessary equipment for a modern and convenient supermarket at all. Even to call it, in light of the absence of any kind of chicken roasting device, a super-market, this guy thought, was a gross overstatement. He felt doubly put out because he had always hated walking out of a store of any type without buying anything. Walking out of a store without buying anything made him nervous. Walking out of a store without buying anything made him feel conspicuous as if the store detective or the clerks at the store or even the other customers would notice and instantly suspect him of some illegal or immoral activity like shoplifting or arson or just casing the joint (as they say) in preparation for shoplifting or arson. And supermarkets are worse than other stores because there's no convenient way to exit them if you have not indeed made any kind of a purchase. You have to squeeze through the check out line (right past all the "buying customers") smiling idiotically at the cashier, with your hands raised in such a way as to demonstrate that there is nothing in them - which is exactly what this guy had just had to do three times at three separate supermarkets.)

This is a real drag--all this walking around and in and out of supermarkets, this guy thought, as he slogged along the sidewalk, putting the third closest supermarket further and further behind him. But he still fully anticipated getting the chicken he had gone out for because there were still two Mediterranean restaurants within walking distance that always had chickens roasting on spits in their front windows. These restaurant chickens would probably be a bit more expensive than the supermarket chickens, but he was past worrying about money at this point, and he consoled himself that these restaurant-roasted chickens - which he had never had before - would probably be, in some way, better too. Besides both restaurants were on his way home, so he wouldn't be taken any further out of his way. In fact, walking back through the slush along the sidewalks toward his shitty little room, this guy felt kind of good, like, this was a bit of trouble, but now he was going to get a deluxe restaurant-roasted chicken instead of his usual supermarket-roasted chicken. And maybe, the restaurant-roasted chicken would really be better (more juicy or something), so much so that from now on, maybe, he would start getting his roasted chickens exclusively from restaurants instead of from supermarkets, so this whole inconvenience would lead to an overall improvement. Who knew? Maybe the Mediterranean guys would be less obnoxious than those smart asses who tended to work in delis. And maybe he'd chat with one of the less obnoxious Mediterranean guys, and they'd get along, and he could get a shitty job at a Mediterranean restaurant, which would probably be an improvement over the shitty job he had, definitely at least in that it would bring him closer to roast chickens - which he liked. (Everybody likes roast chickens, this guy thought. I mean, as far as this guy knew, people from all walks of life and all over the world - except really freaky vegetarians - eat roast chickens. They eat them in France and China and probably Africa and India too. (He wasn't positive about Africa and India but it seemed plausible.)

But, as you know, because I already told you he was unable to treat himself to a roast chicken that night - in fact that's the whole point - there were no roast chickens at either Mediterranean restaurant even though these particular restaurants always had chickens roasting on spits in their front windows. In fact, it was the visible spits that lent these restaurants their novelty. In fact, you could say that these restaurants were hardly any different from any of the other cheap ethnic restaurants in the city except for the visible spits; so without the spits, these restaurants hardly existed at all. But that's not the worst of it.


The chicken guy at the first Mediterranean restaurant was this little runt of a guy who spoke no English, and when this guy tried to ask him if he knew where he could find a roast chicken, the little runt of a chicken guy became completely confused. So this guy kept trying to explain, first by raising his voice and then with gestures, but the more he talked and gestured, the more confused the little chicken guy got and the more frustrated - and in truth, heated - this guy got until the little chicken guy (A finger puppet, actually. You know, the kind you make by sticking just about anything on the end of your finger and drawing a face below it, right on the skin, with a ballpoint pen.) hopped into the backroom and returned with a really big, intimidating chicken guy, who also spoke no English, or almost none. The really big chicken guy - with really big arms, wearing a white apron with brown stuff smeared across the chest--just gave this guy a threatening look and said, "Go away," with great finality like he meant not just now from here as a result of this little bit of confusion but forever from everyplace.

Back on the freezing sidewalks, this guy began to feel that it was really getting late and maybe he'd spent enough of his valuable time wandering around the city in search of a roast chicken. He even considered giving up and skipping the second Mediterranean restaurant. But then again, it was on his way home; it would at least be warm in there; and what if there really were roast chickens at the second Mediterranean restaurant? This guy realized that he could not tolerate the possibility that having wasted his time at four commercial outlets at which one could reasonably expect to obtain a roast chicken, he would skip over, through lack of resolve, the one place where a roast chicken could in fact be found. Even so, when he got there, it didn't look promising. There were no spits in the window, but the machine was on; so he pushed into the lobby.

The chicken guy at this Mediterranean restaurant was a good deal more sympathetic than the runty guy at the first. He was kind of suave-looking, wore a clean white uniform and pressed black tie, and had slick, black, perfectly cut hair - like he had just walked out of a barbershop. His English was perfect, and, after this guy explained what he was looking for and the trouble he was having, this suave looking chicken guy seemed to sincerely want to help. In fact, he became quite expansive. He didn't explain why the restaurant was out of roast chickens or direct this guy to some other place where he could obtain a roast chicken, but instead tried to instruct this guy in how he could prepare his own roast chicken by describing in a bit more detail--and with more feeling, certainly, than the situation warranted--the method of chicken roasting his mother had used when he was a boy back in Lebanon or India or wherever the hell he was from, which seemed to take place outside in a garden and involve quite a bit of basting. After this explanation had gone on for quite some time - with this guy trying to make clear to the suave chicken guy that he only had a stupid cooking ring at home that was no good for anything but noodles - this guy started to feel that maybe the suave chicken guy wasn't really interested in chickens at all but was speaking in a kind of double entendre. In a word, this guy began to feel that the suave chicken guy was a fairy bent on getting into his pants. As soon as this guy figured that out (and it took a long time, but who would expect such a thing?), he disengaged himself from the conversation as quickly (and politely) as he could and took off.

It was even colder out now. This guy was soaked to the skin. The streets were a waste of freezing slush. He started walking. He ended up at a fast food joint. The guys there were all wearing cardboard birthday hats. When he pushed himself in through the glass door and was standing there dripping all over the linoleum, they all looked over at him, in their hats, at the same time, like they knew. They eyed him, in their hats, like they knew everything. No chickens of course. There never were. No point in even asking. He got an extra value meal with a chicken sandwich in it instead, and took it home with him in a little white sack with a goofy looking face printed on it, which he waved at this other guy (actually Ned), who happened to be coming in at the same time. He ate sitting on his mattress with his back against the wall, and even though he had super-sized the fries in hopes of compensating himself for all the trouble he'd gone to, in the end it just made him feel a bit sick.