The Chicken Mask was sorrowful, Sis. The Chicken Mask was supposed to hustle business; it was supposed to invite the customer to gorge him or herself within our establishment; it was supposed to be endearing and funny; it was supposed to be an accurate representation of the featured item on our menu. But, Sis, in a practical setting, in test markets—like right out in front of the restaurant—the Chicken Mask had a plaintive aspect, a blue quality (it was stifling, too, even in cold weather), so that I’d be walking down Main, by the waterfront, after you were gone, back and forth in front of Hot Bird (Bucket of Drumsticks, $2.99), wearing out my imitation basketball sneakers from Wal-Mart, pudgy in my black jogging suit, lurching along in the sandwich board, and the kids would hustle up to me, tugging on the wrists of their harried, under-financed moms. The kids would get bored with me almost immediately. They knew the routine. Their eyes would narrow, and all at once there were no secrets here in our town of service-economy franchising: I was the guy working nine to five in a Chicken Mask, even though I’d had a pretty good education in business administration, even though I was more or less presentable and well-spoken, even though I came from a good family. I made light of it, Sis, I extemporized about Hot Bird, in remarks designed by virtue of my studies in business tactics to drive whole families in for the new low-fat roasters, a meal option that was steeper, in terms of price, but tasty nonetheless. (And I ought to have known, because I ate from the menu every day. Even the coleslaw.)
Here’s what I’d say, in my Chicken Mask. Here was my pitch: Feeling a little peckish? Try Hot Bird! or Don’t be chicken, try Hot Bird! The mothers would laugh their nervous adding-machine laughs (those laughs that are next door over from a sob), and they would lead the kids off. Twenty yards away, though, the boys and girls would still be staring disdainfully at me, gaping backward while I rubbed my hands raw in the cold, while I breathed the synthetic rubber interior of the Chicken Mask—that fragrance of rubber balls from gym classes lost, that bouquet of the gloves Mom used for the dishes, that perfume of simpler times—while I looked for my next shill. I lost almost ninety days to the demoralization of the Chicken Mask, to its grim, existential emptiness, until I couldn’t take it anymore. Which happened to be the day when Alexandra McKinnon (remember her? from Sunday school?) turned the corner with her boy Zack—he has to be seven or eight now—oblivious while upon her daily rounds, oblivious and fresh from a Hallmark store. It was nearly Valentine’s Day. They didn’t know it was me in there, of course, inside the Chicken Mask. They didn’t know I was the chicken from the basement, the chicken of darkest nightmares, or, more truthfully, they didn’t know I was a guy with some pretty conflicted attitudes about things. That’s how I managed to apprehend Zack, leaping out from the in-door of Cohen’s Pharmacy, laying ahold of him a little too roughly, by the hem of his pillowy, orange ski jacket. Little Zack was laughing, at first, until, in a voice racked by loss, I worked my hard sell on him, declaiming stentoriously that Death Comes to All. That’s exactly what I said, just as persuasively as I had once hawked White meat breasts, eight pieces. just $4.59! Loud enough that he’d be sure to know what I meant. His look was interrogative, quizzical. So I repeated myself. Death Comes to Everybody, Zachary. My voice was urgent now. My eyes bulged from the eyeholes of my standard-issue Chicken Mask. I was even crying a little bit. Saline rivulets tracked down my neck. Zack was terrified.
What I got next certainly wasn’t the kind of flirtatious attention I had always hoped for from his mom. Alex began drumming on me with balled fists. I guess she’d been standing off to the side of the action previously, believing that I was a reliable paid employee of Hot Bird. But now she was all over me, bruising me with wild swings, cursing, until she’d pulled the Chicken Mask from my head—half expecting, I’m sure, to find me scarred or hydrocephalic or otherwise disabled. Her denunciations let up a little once she was in possession of the facts. It was me, her old Sunday school pal, Andrew Wakefield. Not at the top of my game.
I don’t really want to include here the kind of scene I made, once unmasked. Alex was exasperated with me, but gentle anyhow. I think she probably knew I was in the middle of a rough patch. People knew. The people leaning out of the storefronts probably knew. But, if things weren’t already bad enough, I remembered right then—God, this is horrible—that Alex’s mom had driven into Lake Sacandaga about five years before. Jumped the guardrail and plunged right off that bridge there. In December. In heavy snow. In a Ford Explorer. That was the end of her. Listen, Alex, I said, I’m confused, I have problems and I don’t know what’s come over me and I hope you can understand, and I hope you’ll let me make it up to you. I can’t lose this job. Honest to God. Fortunately, just then, Zack became interested in the Chicken Mask. He swiped the mask from his mom—she’d been holding it at arm’s length, like a soiled rag—and he pulled it down over his head and started making simulated automatic-weapons noises in the directions of local passersby. This took the heat off. We had a laugh, Alex and I, and soon the three of us had repaired to Hot Bird itself (it closed four months later, like most of the businesses on that block) for coffee and biscuits and the chefs special spicy wings, which, because of my position, were on the house.
Alex was actually waving a spicy wing when she offered her life-altering opinion that I was too smart to be working for Hot Bird, especially if I was going to brutalize little kids with the creepy facts of the hereafter. What I should do, Alex said, was get into something positive instead. She happened to know a girl—it was her cousin, Glenda—who managed a business over in Albany, the Mansion on the Hill, a big area employer, and why didn’t I call Glenda and use Alex’s name, and maybe they would have something in accounting or valet parking or flower delivery, yada yada yada, you know, some job that had as little public contact as possible, something that paid better than minimum wage, because minimum wage, Alex said, wasn’t enough for a guy of twenty-nine. After these remonstrances she actually hauled me over to the pay phone at Hot Bird (people are so generous sometimes), while my barely alert boss Antonio slumbered at the register with no idea what was going on, without a clue that he was about to lose his most conscientious chicken impersonator. All because I couldn’t stop myself from talking about death.
Alex dialed up the Mansion on the Hill (while Zack, at the table, donned my mask all over again), penetrating deep into the switchboard by virtue of her relation to a Mansion on the Hill management-level employee, and was soon actually talking to her cousin: Glenda, I got a friend here who’s going through some rough stuff in his family, if you know what I mean. yeah, down on his luck in the job department too, but he’s a nice bright guy anyhow. I pretty much wanted to smooch him throughout confirmation classes, and he went to … Hey, where did you go to school again? Went to SUNY and has a degree in business administration, knows a lot about product positioning or whatever, I don’t know, new housing starts, yada yada yada, and I think you really ought to …
Glenda’s sigh was audible from several feet away, I swear, through the perfect medium of digital telecommunications, but you can’t blame Glenda for that. People protect themselves from bad luck, right? Still, Alex wouldn’t let her cousin refuse, wouldn’t hear of it, You absolutely gotta meet him, Glenda, he’s a doll, he’s a dream boat, and Glenda gave in, and that’s the end of this part of the story, about how I happened to end up working out on Wolf Road at the capital region’s finest wedding- and party-planning business. Except that before the Hot Bird recedes into the mists of time, I should report to you that I swiped the Chicken Mask, Sis. They had three or four of them. You’d be surprised how easy it is to come by a Chicken Mask.