The Pioneer Chicken Stand sold fried chicken. You could buy other things there, but not officially. Whole, or pieces, or a local favorite called a Sloppy Chick: same fried chicken as the rest of the menu, but chopped up and mixed with something close to mayo but not quite mayo on a kaiser roll. It came with a pickle, until they ran out of pickles, and then it would not come with a pickle. RC Cola. If you asked for diet, the moon-faced man behind the counter would say,
“You want diet fucking soda with your fried fucking chicken?”
And you would feel shame, several kinds, and accept the RC Cola that was three times as sweet as the respectable colas and complemented the chicken’s salinity boldly and without backing down. Thick straws, too, with red stripes up the length of each side and you would depress all the option dimples on the soda’s cloudy plastic top without thinking about it. Six tables inside, white and clean, with four chairs each, red and shiny. Place your order on the right. Pick up on the left. Most people ate outside: there were twelve wooden picnic tables on the grass off to the Stand’s left, and you could eat while watching the cars roll by on Route 77. You might also see some drug deals and maybe a kidnapping or two, but you could only count on the cars.
Precarious Lee’s Cadillac, which was a color called Jennifer Blue and splattered with bugs like an entomologist’s career, was in the parking lot where he could keep an eye on it. Down the row of cars was a white Lotus Esprit Turbo next to an Aston Martin DB5 and a Toyota 2000GT. Cars, sports cars. There was a repurposed school bus with all sorts of bullshit painted on it that disgorged all sorts of loud assholes who thought they invented taking drugs. Orange ’69 Challenger. Black Trans-Am with a golden Screaming Chicken on the hood and a two-story tall whipsaw antenna that you could talk to truckers with. VW Beetle with racing stripes and a white circle on the hood with the number 53 in black paint. Everybody wound up at the Pioneer Chicken Stand eventually.
Made sense, Precarious figured. It was damn good chicken, and always fresh: 24 hours a day, and also 24 hours a night; hot and dripping fat from the pressure cookers in the back. There were four of them, overengineered custom jobs that used the chicken’s own juice to create the steam: the chickens cooked themselves in themselves at the Pioneer Chicken Stand. Precarious was sure there was a metaphor in that, but he couldn’t be bothered at the moment because he had a bucket of fried chicken in front of him, and you can think or you can have a bucket of fried chicken in front of you, but you can’t do both.
“Trade you a breast for two legs.”
“I need my breasts and my legs. Have you seen my act? AAAAAhahaha!”
Tiresias smiled and handed over two drumsticks; Precarious put the breast in her bucket, but not before ripping the skin off and dropping it into his mouth.
He smiled back through a mouthful of crunchiness and salt.
“Never played skin-the-chicken before?”
“Not a thing,” she said, digging out a chunk of white meat from in between the frame of skinny bone and rib with her fingers. “So good.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones was next to Precarious answering the eternal question “How many napkins does it take to entirely cover a ketchup-red size 64 Long suit?” He had two buckets of chicken in front of him, and two RC Colas, too, and he would take a bite, wipe his mouth, take a bite, wipe his mouth. He dabbed at his globe-sized bald head occasionally: he was an enthusiastic eater, and it was a little warm out.
“This is astonishing chicken,” he said after he had swallowed. “There’s a secret ingredient in here somewhere.”
“Juiciness,” Tiresias answered with a full mouth.
Big-Dicked Sheila and Penny Arrabbiata were sitting next to her on the table’s bench, and they nodded in agreement.
“Juiciness isn’t an ingredient. It’s a descriptive word.”
“Something can be both an ingredient and a descriptor,” Penny said
“What?” the Reverend asked.
Now it was Sheila and Tiresias’ turn to nod in agreement.
“She’s right, Preacher,” Precarious said with a mouthful of chicken.
“All y’all need to stop talking with food in your mouth.”
Sheila opened up real wide to show Arcade a gobful of half-chewed poultry.
“That’s just nasty,” he said.
She smiled, and curtsied in her seat.
Sheila wasn’t going to the meeting, but she felt like getting out of Little Aleppo for a day. Whatever she and Gussy were doing was going well: in previous years, Sheila would have run away, but she was more mature now and was retreating to ponder her position. Definitely not running away.
Precarious turned his head to face the Reverend and opened up wide, too.
“You I expected better from.”
“Why?” Precarious asked.
Arcade shrugged. It was a good question.
Precarious was not attending the meeting with Tommy Amici, either, but nobody who was had an appropriate car. Harper Observatory owned a pickup truck, and the First Church of the Infinite Christ had a panel van it used to pick up food donations and trawl for passed-out drunks, but it was unanimously decided that a more suitable ride should be sought. It’s Tommy Amici, for fuck’s sake: you can’t take a pickup truck to go see him. Couldn’t drive a panel van to Jeremiad Springs.
It used to be sacred, and now rich people live there. The original springs, those two connected pools in the shape of the symbol for infinity, they were connected to an aquifer under the sand–water in the Low Desert where previously there had been thought to be only geckos–that could service a town. Sanctity comes first, and then utility. The air was good. Clear. In the early 1900’s, the climate was seen as medicine, since there was barely any actual medicine. A resort was built, The Hillock. Fancy people showed up, and the tubercular, and ecologists. The stars were ten feet overhead; the stars moved in. Hollywood types. They all hated each other, and wanted to get away from each other, and so they all bought vacation homes right next to each other.
Tommy was one of the first in the Springs, and the rest followed him. Creeps can’t get their own desert, Tommy thought. Gotta live next to that two-faced comic and that junkie dancer? Jesus. Couldn’t get away from assholes. Everywhere he went, nothing but assholes. Should punch more of these cocksuckers, especially that fucking junkie with her GODDAMNED STEREO playing that jungle-oogie-boogie shit at dawn. Fuck off, all of you. Leave me with Cara, leave us alone, don’t fucking talk to us. You sing for people, and this is the thanks you get? Jesus.
He had the house built for her: it was nestled into lumpy hills on the south edge of town, and invisible behind a wall that faced the street. Curled around a pool. Flat, modern roofs. Living room had a fireplace in the middle of it, a round metal job, for the desert nights. One of the walls of the master bedroom was made of sliding glass; twelve steps from the bed to the pool. Tommy paid good money to have the architect who designed it win several awards.
And the office, which Tommy had weaponized. The desk was on a subtle platform–you could not see it from the guests’ vantage–and Tommy’s chair was custom and very high. The walls were covered in photographs to within an inch of their lives. Presidents, Senators, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices. Movie Stars. Popes and Prime Ministers. Tommy and Einstein, and not just that but it was a picture of Tommy and Einstein at Tommy’s show. Einstein ever come to see you, you wretch? No? I didn’t think so.
The windows in his office faced west, and so Tommy would meet people in the afternoon. That way, the sun was in their eyes.
The three women on one side of the picnic table were wearing sunglasses; the two men on the other side were not. One of the men had thick, long, grey hair worn in a ponytail, and the other was completely bald. Two of the women were young, one was older and also had grey hair, but it was short and under a blue ball cap with a cartoon ox on the front. Of the two young women, the one on the outside had long, brown, lazy curls and was wearing rust-colored sweatpants and a blue hoodie; the one in the middle was in a tight, short, black dress and her hair was short, spiky, and the same shade of red as the suit of the large man on the other side of the table, who was black and sitting next to a man in a rock and roll tee-shirt he had stolen two decades prior, who was white.
All enjoyed fried chicken, regardless of gender or race.
Bucket full of bones, dirty-grey and slick, and two more just the same. Chicken genocide on a picnic table. Henocide. If the bones belonged to people, it would be a tragedy, but they belonged to chickens and so it was just lunch.
Cars and trucks flew by on Route 77.
“Explain it to me again,” Tiresias said.
“No,” Precarious answered.
“Okay. It’s a road.”
“Just a road?”
“No special highway.”
Over Precarious’ left shoulder, toll booths jousted and the double-yellow line rose off the tarmac to whip motorists who passed on the right.
“It’s got some juiciness to it, I suppose.”
“M.C. Escher would masturbate to it.”
“A man’s preferences are his own business.”
“Answer my question.”
“What is your question?”
“What the fuck?”
“Be more specific.”
“What the fuck is all this?”
“That’s no answer.”
“And yet here we are,” Precarious said, and pulled his cigarettes from the pocket of his Levis.
“Where are we!?” Tiresias fairly yelled.
Her eyes opened as wide as they would go, but she was wearing giant sunglasses so you couldn’t tell. Tiresias turned to her left and right, tried to martial support.
“The man makes sense,” Sheila said.
“Speaks the truth,” Penny added.
Tiresias reached across the table and plucked the Camel from Precarious’ hand with two fingers, took a drag PHWOO, and did not give the smoke back. He smiled, took his pack out again, offered it around. Sheila took one.
“Ah, fuck it,” Penny said, and took one, too.
The Reverend Aracde Jones leaned back from the table, shook his head.
“Some smoking-ass motherfuckers.”
“Reverend!” Sheila said.
“The Lord will forgive my language. He knows I’m right.”
Sheila pulled a silver cigarette case out of her purse, took out a doobie, lit that and the Camel off Precarious’ Zippo. PHWOO. PHWOO. She offered the joint to Penny.
“Ah, fuck it,” Penny said.
Sheila handed her the joint, kept the cigarette.
Route 77 made more sense when you were high, but it did not make all of the sense any time. Route 77 was the paved version of the Kennedy assassination: theories and fact and lie and wish had melted into one, and it was impossible to boil them back down into their constituents, and so you were forced to make up your own mind about the whole business knowing you would never understand the truth. Unlike the Kennedy assassination, there were places to pull off and get chicken.
The Reverend Arcade Jones looked unhappily at the doobie, now being passed across the table to Precarious, who said,
“Told you, Preacher: cops don’t bother folks in Cadillacs on Route 77.”
“We’re not in a Cadillac.”
“We came in one.”
Which was true, and what was true could not be argued with, and besides: the Reverend knew Precarious was not a liar.
“Ah, fuck it,” the Reverend said, and grabbed the doobie mid-pass and took a hit PHWOO and smiled. The whole table smiled back wide.
The Pioneer Chicken Stand is halfway to Jeremiad Springs, depending on which way you’re coming from, and they serve fried chicken in pieces, or whole, or chopped up on a Kaiser roll with something that is close to but not quite mayo; it’s called a Sloppy Chick, and it comes with a pickle until they run out of pickles, at which point it no longer comes with a pickle. You can get whatever you wanted in the parking lot, and the only option for a beverage is RC Cola, and the picnic benches to the left are often filled with political hopefuls and mid-level drug dealers but right now one of them has three men and three women who are trying to do the right thing, even if they have no idea what it is, and God help us all they are the best and brightest of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America