Chicken Suit for the Soul
One dad’s attempt to ease summer-job suffering
By Bruce Grierson
It promised to be the best job so far that summer-which wasn’t saying very much.
I’d been scanning the “casual labour” postings at the local employment office, vowing every visit to take something, anything. Already I had unpacked shipments of underpants, been pulled through an active sewer on a rolling sled to seal cracks with a bucket of caulk and a trowel, and delivered flower arrangements in a car so small half the buds got crushed when you closed the hatchback. At 18, you take what you can get.
That’s why this particular gig looked so beguiling: “mascot.” To celebrate the grand opening of a new Edmonton location in the Red Rooster convenience store chain, the employer needed to catch the eye of passing motorists and was offering two days’ work to a self-starter who would bust a few dance moves on the corner.
I fit the suit. I got the job.
The outfit had clearly been washed fewer times than it had been worn. The oversized head-more chicken than rooster-was sculpted out of wire and foam and sat heavily on shoulder pads, which had been shined and flattened by sweat and compression. The moony eyes didn’t line up with mine.
It was mid-July. Even the mosquitoes were sluggish. A high-pressure system had settled on the city, and forecasters were calling for record-breaking temperatures by Sunday. The suit had no ventilation. There was no relief unless you removed the head, which was allowed only during one of two 10-minute breaks, out of public view-lest any children be forever traumatized by the sight of decapitated fake fowl.
It didn’t take long for the welcome party to show up. Kids can smell the stress hormones in sweat even upwind, and soon half a dozen preteens were orbiting as I staked out a spot on the sidewalk and tried to get into character. “Hey, chicken!” one kid taunted. This was a part of town that might charitably be called “emerging.” These were tougher kids than I was used to. “Hey, chicken legs!”
My best defence was to concentrate on the job. I improvised a dance that involved standing on one leg and helicoptering the other leg and the opposite arm-er, wing-more or less in sync. It wasn’t particularly roosterly, and it certainly wasn’t manly. Immediately, I could feel a change in the energy of the kids. They were homing in on a new frequency of vulnerability.
The first rock hit me in the back. I figured they were aiming for the head, and I actually reoriented to give them that bigger, softer target.
No cars slowed. A manager briefly emerged from the store, was hit by a blast of heat that lifted his toupée, then quickly darted back into his air-conditioned cave. During break time I closed the door of the store’s stockroom, removed my head and hyperventilated.
That night at the supper table my dad said grace-the same grace he had grown up with as a missionary’s son, murmured quietly to himself in wartime mess halls and now trotted out for his four kids (who were mostly just glad it was short). Then he asked me, “How’d it go?”
To everyone’s surprise-but mostly mine-I started to cry. I described the heat, the stench, the rocks, the sticky pavement under my chicken feet.
“And the worst part is,” I said, “I have to go out there tomorrow and do it all again.”
My father was quiet for a full 10 seconds. Then:
“No, you don’t.”
This was unusual. Dad had always believed we kids should keep our commitments. The store had hired me in good faith to be a chicken (rooster), and it wasn’t cool if the chicken (rooster) didn’t show up.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I mean, you’re not putting on that suit tomorrow,” he said. “I am.”
Dad had wiry black eyebrows and, under them, the kindest eyes. He was 60 years old. “Look, we’re about the same size,” he said. “Who’s to know?”
“We’re only lent to each other,” the short-story writer Raymond Carver once said. We get to have moments, and all we can do is savour the best ones as they happen: here, now… gone. The part of me that relished imagining my father out there doing the twist or the bus stop, maybe even kind of enjoying himself in the anonymity of the costume, was hard to deny. But there was no way I was letting him be the chicken. The fact that he was willing to be the chicken was enough. The gesture blew new strength into me.
The next day went well. Nothing was different, but everything was. At the end of it, I deposited a cheque for $86 and felt like a king.