by Ken Poyner
Every year I put on the chicken suit, come down to the plant, and parade around all afternoon. The children of workers, the children of foremen, the children of managers, the children of office staff, the children of board members: all want to feel my feathers to find out if they’re real.
I walk in and out of offices around which, in my usual worker’s coveralls, I would never be allowed. I rub the heads of people who, on other days, I have to stand aside for in the corporate section hallways.
I stare out through the beak and have learned, through all the years I have been doing this, how to virtually ripple my coxcomb. My feet—more like bunny feet—I can shuffle and cock sideways and everyone laughs to see the chicken dance.
I don’t get paid extra for this.
For days after I will be scratching the suit’s starch from my skin, ironing with the flat of my hand the red welts that come up where the costume joints don’t quite match my own. Once I had to call in sick after spending hours in the suit on an unseasonably hot summer day, and I was nearly replaced right then as the company picnic chicken.
It is an honor, I’m told; but I think they size up the employees, select the one that looks less likely to damage the traditional suit, more likely to fit cautiously into it with no severe stretch, no dithering of the fabric.
I haven’t developed a good beer gut yet, so I slide easily into the aging company icon, and have done so for years. There are some tenured guys who tell me I am the best chicken of all; but I think they just want me to keep the job and prevent them from being asked to take it.
A boy of about three punches me flat in the thigh, and I’m glad for the stiff over-weave, the quality backing.
One year the entire third shift got ball-eyed drunk, knowing hours would soon be cut and layoffs passed out, and they tried to get a fire going in the sand pit drain to make for the largest chicken roast ever. That actually worried me. Beer and desperation don’t make for clear thinking about the welfare of others. I ran about the yard, out of character, yelling at them to give it a rest, to go pick on some hot dogs and the chicken breasts laid out for that purpose. Once or twice they nearly had me, and then a manager cracked open a bottle of cheap, under-the-seat bourbon, and the third shift lost interest in me.
I could have given up my acting career then, been satisfied as a line worker quartering chicken carcasses. No more giant chicken engagement once a year. No more giving children friendly nightmares, putting a comic face on the work we do.
But I persevered, and here I am one more year. By the end of this day I will be bone tired and bruised, sick of co-workers’ families, bosses’ families, and not so sick of that girl I’ve winged twice, barely contained in her halter top. But before I get two straggling volunteers to get me out of this awkward confabulation, I will wander out by the receiving dock and wait for the next truck load of chickens coming in to be processed: pressed against the wire of their cages, rattled from the road sickness of their cramped, long truck journey. Terrified, disoriented, crowded into silence except for the sudden movements of the truck—when their voices erupt, sounding like the squeak of their souls coming loose.
See. All is not lost. You have your champion.