It is the hottest day of the year, and even hotter inside our family’s thousand-year-old van. ABBA’s greatest hits play on a nonstop loop. The windows crack open a desperate inch. Our sweaty, short-clad thighs stick to the pleather seats.
This is hell.
“Who-o-o’s hungry?” Dad asks, voice booming like a sports announcer. “Shall we stop for some din-dins?”
I roll my eyes.
“Speak now or forever hold your peace!” Mom chirps.
“I’m not hungr—“ I start.
My brothers begin to chant, “Din-dins! Din-dins! Din-dins!”
“Okay, din-dins it is. Be on the lookout for a restaurant!”
Bryce sees the bright brown-and-yellow neon sign up ahead. He reaches across me and pinches David’s shoulder.
“David! Chicken by the Foot! We never have Chicken by the Foot.”
David inhales sharply. “Yes!” He screams, “Dad! Chicken by the Foot!”
Somehow Dad doesn’t hear the scream over the crescendo at the end of Money, Money, Money, blasting at three-quarters of the van’s max volume.
“…Funny money… In a rich man’s world…” Mom sings.
“Dad!” David shouts. “Chicken by the Foot!”
The boys chant together. “Chick-en-by-the-Foot! Chick-en-by-the-Foot!”
Mom stops singing. “Sheryl, you want to go to Chicken by the Foot?”
“Actually, I—“ I say.
“Sounds good! Chicken by the Foot it is!” Dad shouts. The boys whoop and holler.
We pull into the Chicken by the Foot parking lot. The boys are out of their seats before the car stops. They pile over each other to open the door and tumble outside.
I am not hungry. I do not want chicken, and certainly not by the foot.
I step out of the van and slam the door closed. The heat has stuck my ponytail to the sweat-soaked back of my shirt. Sighing, I yank open the bronze-handled door to the restaurant.
In the lobby is a giant statue of a chicken wearing a cowboy hat. The chicken jauntily balances on one foot, the other foot kicked out sideways. Its body lists to the side and one wing points toward its raised foot. The chicken’s other wing holds a sign that says “WELCOME TO CHICKEN BY THE FOOT!”
What does this even mean? I ask myself. ‘Chicken by the foot’ clearly refers to the volume of chicken served. Yet this chicken is pointing to its own foot.
I shake my head at the chicken. Its glassy eyes stare soullessly back.
I sit at the booth with my family. Red formica table and brown vinyl booth seats.
“Hello, everyone!” The server approaches. A young woman with a bright-red button-up t-shirt tucked into yellow high-waisted slacks. “Welcome to Chicken by the Foot! My name is Liz. What would we like to drink?”
“Chocolate milk!” says Bryce.
“Yeah! Chocolate milk!” David echoes. They chant, “Choc-lit milk! Choc-lit milk!”
I wait for their chanting to subside. I catch Liz’s eye and say, “Water, please.”
“Hi, Liz. I’ll have a diet coke, please—and make sure it’s got lots of caffeine.” Dad says. “We’re going back on the road after this. Gotta stay awake!”
Mom looks at the server. “Do you have tea?”
“Sure do! Orange pekoe, Earl Grey, orange-ginger, mint, and chamomile.”
“I want just plain black tea—do you have that?”
I pipe up. “Orange pekoe is plain black tea.”
Mom turns to me. “Are you sure it doesn’t taste like orange?”
“Yes. It is just regular black tea.” I look at my new friend Liz for backup.
She looks blank. “I think that’s right. I’m not much of a tea-girl myself.”
No one speaks for a moment.
I say, “Mom: do you want black tea? Or herbal tea?”
“Hmmm. I don’t know. I really don’t like the taste of orange.” She says to the server. “If I don’t like the kind of tea, can I ask for a different type of tea?”
Liz smiles. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”
Mom turns to me. “Why don’t you order, Sheryl, while I think about what I want?”
“I’ve already ordered.”
“Oh. Okay. Then I’ll just have a ginger ale.”
Liz writes it on her pad and walks away.
She returns in ten minutes with a tray full of drinks, which she places at random on the table.
In another minute, Liz brings a second tray, smelling of oregano and congealed fat. She places a whole roast chicken in front of each of us. One giant leaf of curly kale and this… chicken carcass on top of it.
“Oh, um… I think you made a mistake,” I say. “I don’t want a chicken.”
Liz smiles. “Everyone gets a chicken.” The smile remains plastered on her face. “It’s Chicken by the Foot. Everyone gets a chicken to start.”
“Yeah, honey,” Mom says. “You all wanted to go to Chicken by the Foot. And you know that at Chicken by the Foot, everyone eats a chicken.”
“Chick-en-by-the-Foot! Chick-en-by-the-Foot!” The boys chant.
“I didn’t—“ I pause, not wanting to hurt Liz’s feelings. She remains standing there, smiling her plastic smile. More quietly, I say, “I didn’t want to go to Chicken by the Foot. I don’t like Chicken by the Foot. I’m not even hungry.”
Mom looks down. “Oh. Well, you didn’t say so. You could have told us—“
Mom’s voice is drowned out by the boys’ chant.
“Jesus! Stop it already!” I shout.
“Language, Sheryl!” Dad snaps.
“They’re shouting in the middle of the freaking restaurant, and you tell me to pipe down?” I spit back. I can see Liz wince. She surely does not get paid enough to put up with this.
Thankfully, the boys have stopped chanting, probably waiting to see me get in trouble.
“Sheryl, we need you to be a team player.” Mom says. “We’re here, and we’re going to have a nice meal, together as a family. Now eat your chicken.”
I shake my head and look at the chicken on my plate.
“If you want something else,” Liz says. “You can serve yourself from our salad bar. Only four dollars extra.”
“Oh, that sounds nice!” Mom says, her voice raising in pitch. “Let’s all get the salad bar as well.”
“Is there dessert?” Bryce asks.
“Yes! There is Jell-O and brownies.”
“Awesome!” David says, grabbing onto Bryce’s hand in a bro-ish handshake. “Sa-lad-bar! Sa-lad-bar!”
“I don’t need to have the salad bar. I guess I can just eat this—chicken.” I say.
“We’re all getting the salad bar.” Dad announces. “Thanks, Liz”
“You’re welcome.” Her smile shrinks and her eyes stare straight ahead. She turns away.
We all walk to the salad bar and take a plate. Soggy french fries swim in grease. A punch bowl of dispirited lettuce and sliced tomatoes, with a bowl of dressing next to it (labelled “DRESSING”). Garlic bread, then grapes and a bowl of canned chickpeas. A baking pan with Jell-O cubes. I fill my plate with salad and some dressing. The boys load theirs up with Jell-O and grapes.
We sit down. I take a tentative bite of the salad. The dressing is ranch-adjacent and room temperature. Slimy tomatoes squelch around in the dressing.
I look at the chicken in front of me. “Sorry you had to die—for this.” I push the chicken’s leg with my fork. It dislocates and falls onto the plate. “Um, and sorry I broke your leg.”
I take a couple bites of chicken, then push both plates away from me. Mom, Dad, and the boys are tucking into their meals with enthusiasm. I sip my water.
Despite their best efforts, we end up with the better part of three chickens left over. My parents ask for a take-away container and pay the bill. The boys punch each other, full of sugar, animal fat, and food coloring. I try to ignore them and take another sip of water.
Liz brings an enormous styrofoam container. We pile in our chicken leftovers. Then she clears the plates and brings us each a miniature ice cream cone with a marshmallow candy inside.
“Here ya go,” she says. “Thanks for coming.”
I offer my mini-cone to the boys as we leave. On the chicken statue’s butt, a sign says, “THANKS FOR COMING TO CHICKEN BY THE FOOT.”
The boys are pushing each other, and nearly fall into the chicken statue. Bryce apologizes to the chicken, and then slaps David on the shoulder.
We pack our take-away chickens into the trunk. Now the whole van smells like chicken.
Dad says, “All aboard! Six more hours till home!”