CHICKEN MESSIAHS by Peter Nolan Smith

Several years ago the media covered a story about rat-infested aGreenwich Village KFC. The stock for Yum Corp, which owns the fast food chain along with Taco Bell, dropped fifty cents on the NYSE with the negative news and I felt bad, because for several years I had been a quality control inspector for KFC in the New York area.

Colonel Jim Rockford had hired me for the job in 1999, although the Iowan was not related to the James Gardner’s TV character in the Rockford Files and our friendship dated back to an acid trip on Black’s Beach in August 1974 during which I swam with seals speaking in tongues. Jim laughed at their jokes. Coming down from the LSD we forgot the sleek sea mammals’ punchlines, although one of them had to do with seaman.

Jim Rockford had served in Vietnam. He had rejected a military career to become a hippie guru with a girlfriend who looked like Patty Hearst.

That summer in Encinitas the cops stopped us everywhere with guns drawn, thinking Pam was America’s # 1 fugitive. Jim hated the attention and felt the urge for going.

“Come join us in Frisco. You can wear flowers in your hair.”

The Summer of Love had ended in 1968.

“I have a teaching job starting in a few weeks.”

“The road is not a job. It’s an adventure.”

“I know.

We said good-bye on the highway. They headed north of the PCH and I hitchhiked east to Boston, where I taught at South Boston High School. Jim showed up at my Brighton apartment in the late autumn. His hair was longer and Pam, the blonde SLA clone for Patty Hearst had been traded for a young Eurasian twenty year-old named Nona.

Everyone in Boston fell in love with her that season.

Me too.

I taught school and at night we danced at gay clubs in Boston. They left for Woodstock with the first frost.

We stayed in touch, but I moved to New York to pursue a career as a poet and the connection snapped like an old rubber band. I thought about Nona a lot. Her beauty was an exception to the rule in America. Dusky instead of blonde. I never expected to see her again.

In the winter of 1995 I was in Bali at the Blue moon, a seaside bar where everyone who disappeared from your life reappears cooler than before and one night a woman called my name.

It was Nona.

She hugged me in the early evening tropical light and we drank with mutual friend and later went to her kon-tiki house in a bamboo grove. Her jealous Balinese boyfriend threatened me with a ceremonial kris. Nona showed him the door. “Pagi. Anda tidak bagus.”

“Not you. Stay here. He scares me.” I slept in the spare bedroom listening to the bamboo trunks rub against each other like lovers seduced by the wind. Nona was upstairs. She was lying in bed. I thought about Rockford and remained in my room.

After midnight her lover climbed the wall into Nona’s bedroom and whispered words of love in Balinese.

In the morning he was gone and Nona said she was leaving for Singapore.

No packed bags lay by the door and I read the situation for what it was, but before I left the house, I asked about Jim.

“Why did you leave him?”

“Because he hit me.”

“Hit you? Why?”

“It’s a long story, anyway he’s married and living in Iowa. I think he’s growing marijuana. Here’s his number. If you see him, tell him thanks for everything.”

A month later I was back in New York and called the number in Iowa. The woman answering the phone said Jim wasn’t home. I later found out he was doing a five-year bid for cocaine possession, while I spent the rest of the 90s working six months at my diamond gig on West 47th Street and the other half of the year traveling on the other side of the world.
Six months on.
Six months off.

It was a small world.

I ran into Nona in Bali, Paris, and London. She was designing silver jewelry for a German boyfriend. There was no talk about the Bali beach boy or Jim.

Women don’t discuss guys who hit them, unless they’ve had a lot to drink and Nona only sipped wine.

My 1998 trip to Thailand ended with my falling in love with a one-eyed go-go dancer. It ended badly and I returned to New York, exiled from my redux of the film THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG.

My friends tired of my tales about betrayal and they avoided my calls, because broken hearts are always bad luck.

Most evenings I drank at the 10th Street Lounge without anyone bothering me, but one night spotted someone familiar staring at me. He was older and had short hair. I couldn’t ID him until Jim Rockford smiled.

“What you doing here?”

“A friend from Boston had said you were living on East 10th Street and this seemed like the bar you would drink in.”

“How so.”

“Pretty girls. Good music. Come with me.”

“What are you really doing in New York?”

“I spent the last five years as a guest of the Iowa penal system. The cops invaded my house for suspicion of pot growing. Couldn’t find anything but an ounce of coke. Said it was for dealing.”

“Was it?” I’m very pro-anti-drugs.

“What you think?”

“Personal use.”

“Yeah, but they never found the reefer since I had buried the farm underground and we were using solar panel to heat the room, so they couldn’t see the heat signature. Dopes. I’m still dealing pot but needed a clean source of income, so when I got out of prison, my PO got me a job inspecting KFCs.”

“Kentucky Fried Chicken?” The Colonel had been a vegetarian since a near-fatal bout of cancer in his teens.

“Yeah, Frankenstein chickens with no legs and no eyes. Only a mouth, bones, meat, and an asshole.”

It wasn’t a pretty picture and I ordered a vodka at the bar from the waitress I’d been trying to seduce for ages. My sppech was visually impaired at the end of the night. Rockford wasn’t in much better condition and I invited him to sleep at my place.

“Thanks, I couldn’t have made it to New Jersey.”

“What are you really doing out there?”

“Well, I told you about that KFC gig. Every day I go to about 30-40 of them. Maybe you can help me.”

“How so?” My coke-spastic hands were having trouble with the front door. The key kept getting bigger.

“You can drive while I fill out my reports. I’ll give you $200 for the day and all the chicken you can eat.”

“I have my diamond job.” It was September and no one was buying jewelry.

“Call in sick. Will your boss understand?”

“I think so.”
My boss Richie Boy was my drinking buddy.
The next morning I called and said, “Head cold.”

Have a bacon and egg sandwich and drink plenty of water.” Richie Boy had never graduated from medical school, but I followed his advice to the letter.

Jim had a cup of coffee and a donut.

“Breakfast of cops.”

“I needed more.”

We picked up his rented Ford Taurus from the parking lot on East 9th street.

I put Arthur Lee’s LOVE on the CD player and we left the parking lot.

“Damn, I love SIGNED DC. Head over to queens. I have a battle plans.” Jim threw a metropolitan map on my lap. The locations of the KFCs were marked with a red marker.

“Today’s Brooklyn and Queens. Tomorrow the Bronx and Manhattan.”

I glanced at the map.

There were over a hundred KFCs.

None of them were on 5th Avenue or Soho or the Upper East Side.

I mentioned this to Jim and he laughed, “Wherever KFC is, then you can count it as a scary neighborhood after dark. So step on it.”

We drove over the Queensboro Bridge and hit 10 KFCs before noon. The back seat was jammed with specials and super-sized drinks. “The stores get a bonus if they ask us to supersize.”

I made good time through Queens, because most of the shops were on the same boulevards, however Brooklyn had 30 KFCs scattered over the 5th biggest city in the USA and the neighborhoods got rougher as darkness dropped over the city.

East New York was an apocalypse.

Especially Pitcairn Avenue.

KFCs were the only sign of life.

No bars. No restaurants. No stores.

Only KFCs and bums hanging around the corners.

No one bothered us, since two white guys cruising a black neighborhood look like cops.

We had about $300 worth of chicken in the back seat. The car reeked of the Colonel. I had eaten about $20 worth.

“We gotta to get rid of this shit.”

“Stop at Courtlandt. There are few homeless people there.”

“A few was about twenty and most appeared ready to run when we pulled up to the curb. Jim lowered the window and said, “Don’t anyone make a move.”

They froze like it was a Kojak episode and the Colonel got out of the car. “Anyone here like chicken?”

“Does the pope shit in the woods?” A toothless wino joked, until Jim opened the back door and distributed fifty meals to the shopping cart brigade. The toothless wino cackled holding up a drumstick. First I thought you wuz the cops. Now I know who you are. You the chicken messiahs.”
Like that the chicken messiahs became an urban legend to the needy in Phillie, Newark, Yonkers, and New York.

Only the homeless would accept our charity on the streets. Anyone else was too proud or suspicious to take a hand-out. Not the boys working security at the 10th Street Lounge. The Jamaican bouncers loved the special deliveries.

Jim and I washed off the grease and drank vodkas at the bar. Our dessert was a line of blow. Nothing too extreme and the Colonel said, “I got another busy day tomorrow.”

JIm woke early. “I’ll be back next month.”

And every month the Colonel would come into town with a kilo of pot and a bag of blow. KFCs recognized us as secret shoppers and cleaned their stores for our review. Some were good. Some were horrible. Jim never ate the chicken. Only the potatoes and corn bread. I loved the skin.

“Most people working this job get really fat.” Jim warned, as I had a bite of an extra spicy chicken. “So watch out.”

I concentrated on driving and after five trips knew the roads in the Bronx and Brooklyn like a gypsy cabdriver.

Phillie was worst than anything New York had to offer.

Especially North Phillie, where addicts shot dope on the streets. They never wanted charity chicken.

About a year into the gig Jim asked at the bar, “You know I been wanting to ask you a question.”

He had gotten the manager, Cornell, to play IMAGINE. Jim was a Beatles fan. I liked the Damned.

“What kind of question?’

“How you get my number?”

“Nona gave it to me.”

“Nona? Where you see her?”

“In Bali,” I explained about our meeting at the Blue Ocean without adding the boyfriends.

“How she look?”

“Beautiful as ever.”

“She say anything about me.”

“She said you hit her.”

“It was a mistake.”

“Yeah,” I never hit women. At least I told myself that, but had done so three times. They were also all mistakes.

“She was telling me I was a loser. Every day. It got to me and I slapped her once. She left me after that. I don’t know why her telling me that would have such an effect. I’m a peaceful guy.”
Nona had recently returned to New Jersey. “I saw her last week.”

“She’s back.”

“Yes.”

“You have her number?”

Nona had told me never to give her number to Jim, but he was my friend and she was a 100 miles away. I wrote down the number and he went outside to call her. He came back after a few minutes and said, <“Now I remember why I hit her.”

“The voice.”

Nona came from Trenton.

Her voice sounded like it came from a high-pitched helium inhaler.

“She still didn’t deserve to get hit.”

“You’re right. Jim was contrite. “She was a good girl. Said she wants to meet me.”

“You tell her about KFC?”

“She had a good laugh about that. Made me feel good I could make her laugh.”
Me too and later that week they get together.

Although only as friends.

I left the states after 2001.

Jim and I still speak.

He visits Nona on his trips to Jersey. She eats chicken. He drinks wine in her house on the Delaware. No chicken messiah could hope for more in this age of little magic, because like the ad says, “The Colonel knows best.”

And Colonel Rockford knew the best even better the the KFC Colonel.

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