The Chicken Basket
Darius lived in the Western Suburbs of Chicago his entire life and he always heard about the Chicken Basket in Willowbrook and how famous it was and how it had the best fried chicken in all of Chicagoland, and how it had been around since the Forties. But he never ate there, not once, not one time in his thirty-three years. But today was the day. Today was Wednesday and he was going to dine at the world famous Chicken Basket today.
He had read up on the place the night before. He had time on his hands now to read up on things. He got a kick out of reading about the history of his hometown, Darien, as well as nearby towns like Westmont, Downers Grove, and Hinsdale. Did you know the great blues musician Muddy Waters lived the last ten years of his life in Westmont? Did you know Downers Grove was once a stop on the Underground Railroad? Darius always found local history to be more interesting than national or world history, and in many ways, far more important.
Darius tried to remember what he read about the Chicken Basket as he pulled into its parking lot. It was a stopover during the days of Route 66. Chicagoans on their way to Los Angeles, or some town in Oklahoma (but he imagined it was Los Angeles) stopped here for lunch before embarking on a truly American journey. Darius imagined Czech and Polish and Lithuanian factory workers in the 50s, men who saved up for ten years for such a trip, thinking of something as far away as the Pacific Ocean as they ate fried chicken with their families within these very walls. Darius was half Italian and half Lithuanian and one of his grandfathers had, in fact, worked in a factory in Chicago. He imagined his grandfather, who passed away in 1988, eating here in 1957.
The Chicken Basket was also a stop for those old Blue Bird buses. You could actually buy the ticket to L.A. right here.
“Three tickets for Los Angeles, please,” a tall, muscular man might say in a heavy Lithuanian accent. Only five years before, he was living in Utena, Lithuania, and his home was never fully warm and his two children were always sick and now he would see a palm tree for the first time in his life.
Darius, who liked blues music and who already knew Muddy Waters lived the last ten years of his life in Westmont, thought of an old John Lee Hooker song as he removed the keys from the ignition. It went something like Oh, bluebird, take this letter down South for me,/ Don’t you two stop flyin’ till you find Liza Belle for me.
Darius walked into the restaurant. It was older than he was by thirty-seven years. There were not too many buildings in Darien or Willowbrook that were older than he was.
He was greeted by a young woman he recognized immediately. She was his age, but he still saw something of the thirteen-year-old girl in her waitress smile. They had attended the same junior high, Lakeview Junior High in Downers Grove. She recognized him, too. Darius saw it in her eyes. Her smile did not change. She was still wearing that waitress smile. Waitresses are really something. But her eyes gave her away.
“How many?” she asked. Boy, was she checking him out.
“Just one,” he said.
Her arms were tan and fit and her hands were veiny and her fingers slender, but not too long. She was wearing a very long white Route 66 Chicken Basket T-shirt, black jeans, and black tennis shoes. He doubted any woman could make a too-long T-shirt and not-tight-enough black jeans look so good. She was five-ten of fit woman with the face of Elizabeth Shue, only prettier, if such a thing is possible.
“Right this way,” she said as she picked up a menu. She walked towards a table at the very back of the restaurant, near a fireplace. The place was packed. He admired the firmness of her behind as he followed her. Maybe that’s why the pants weren’t too tight. It would be too much for a man.
Her name was Katie Smith. When she was thirteen, she had long, tan legs, legs that were muscular in the right places, not bony like other tall girls at that age. Darius at thirteen knew nothing about the All-American girl. He’d never heard the expression before. But he knew there was something very “all” and something very “American” about Katie Smith. It was the strawberry blonde hair and dark blue eyes and sharp chin. It was the perfect teeth. When she smiled for class photos, she did it in a way that showed off as much teeth as possible.
But, above all, it was her feet. Darius noticed they were always tan, all nine months of the school year. The Lithuanian girls he knew had mostly pale feet and the ones with tan feet only had tan feet during the summer. Katie wore sandals as often as she could, and halfway through third-period English she would kick them off and stretch her legs and wiggle her toes and point her feet up and down. She had a silver bracelet on her right ankle and a gold toe ring on the second toe of her left foot. Her toenails were always painted red. Those Lithuanian girls, many of whom were born in Lithuania, did not have ankle bracelets or toe rings, and only two painted their toenails. Darius sat directly across the aisle from her, his desk faced her desk, and he admired her feet as often as he could. They weren’t just pretty feet, they were also fast feet. She was the fastest girl in their class, faster than many boys. She broke the school record for the fastest mile time for a girl, which was impressive considering the school was opened in 1975. He stared at her feet and told himself these were the prettiest and fastest girl feet in the world. He was clever about it, though. She never caught him in the act of staring at her feet. Maybe she did, but she never said anything to him about it.
Another reason he was mesmerized by Katie Smith’s feet was that his own feet were big and flat and ugly. He had his uncle’s feet. His Uncle Vytautas died in surgery at the age of seventeen. It wasn’t major surgery or anything like that, the doctors were just going to tweak some things so his feet wouldn’t hurt so much when he walked. He had resorted to walking on his tiptoes. Darius’s mother said Vytautas was in tears as he explained to the doctor how his classmates made fun of the way he walked, but he had a bad reaction to the anesthesia and died only minutes after he was put to sleep. He died because of flat feet.
Darius was also fascinated with her name. It was such an American name. Katie. Smith. How simple. How ordinary. How ordinary in a good way. His name was weird, perhaps the weirdest name in the history of junior highs. The first name was Lithuanian, a gift from his Lithuanian mother. The last name, Capitanio, was Italian, a gift from his father. Nobody else in the world had a Lithuanian first name and an Italian last name. Darius would never be able to hide out for too long anywhere with a name like that. But Katie Smith could be anyone. How wonderful.
“Is this okay?” she asked upon arriving at a table.
He wanted to say, “It’s perfect, Katie,” but he said, “It’s great, thanks.”
“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked, staring into his eyes. She was dying to say something, but couldn’t get the words past her smile.
“Someone told me to try your Route 66 drink. I guess you can’t get it anywhere except here,” he said.
“I didn’t know that. No, I mean it is very popular, but I didn’t know you could only get it here,” she said.
She smiled at him, a beyond a waitress smile, a smile that remembered things from twenty years ago, a smile that was meant for him and nobody else in the world.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But that’s what I heard. It might not be true. What flavors do you have?”
“Of the Route 66 drink? Let’s see, I know there’s black cherry and orange. There might be root beer too. Do you want me to go check for you?” she asked.
“No, black cherry is fine,” he said.
“Do you know what you want to eat or do you need a few minutes?” she asked.
“I think I know what I want, but I’m not a hundred percent sure. I’ll probably need a few minutes,” he said.
“Take your time. I’ll get your drink and bring you back some of our homemade biscuits. They’re really, really good,” she said.
“Sounds great. Thanks,” Darius said.
Darius did not think much of marriage. He saw what it was doing to his two younger brothers. But Katie Smith would be the one girl he could marry. Every second would be new and exciting. He would have to shield her from all the howling wolves sniffing around their door, but it would be worth it. He would be glad all over with everything.
“You can do no wrong, Katie,” he would say.
The sexual inspiration would never fade away.
A song entered the dining room. It was a blues song about a little red rooster, covered by the Rolling Stones. Darius thought about Muddy Water’s house in Westmont. It was just another house. The street where the house was located was not named Muddy Waters Street. The pool in the backyard, the pool for his children that reminded him he had come a long way from a Mississippi plantation, was long gone.
Katie was a waitress. This was what became of remarkable twelve-year-old girls. They grew up to become waitresses, waitresses in every aspect of life. Maybe she had a son. Maybe she had two daughters. Maybe she had a son, two daughters, and no husband. Maybe she had a son, two daughters, and a deadbeat son of a bitch husband. And yet, Mick Jagger was whaling the blues over all of them, all of the diners, even Katie. Everyone except Darius. He began to wonder just how authentic any of this, all of this, truly was.
The next song was another Rolling Stones cover of a blues classic. This one was by none other than Muddy Waters himself. The title was “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” Well I feel like snappin’/ Pistol in your face./ I’m gonna let some graveyard/ Lord be your resting place.
Darius felt like snapping a pistol in the face of the man, the men, who were responsible for Katie being a waitress.
Katie returned with a bottle of Route 66 black cherry soda and a basket containing two biscuits.
“Try it,” she said, referring to the soda. “Is it as good as you heard?”
Darius took a sip, not too long of a sip because she was standing there watching him. “It tastes like something you can only get here,” he said.
“Maybe I’ll bring some home with me tonight if they’re that good. I don’t drink a lot of pop, but if it’s as good as you say,” she said.
“It’s made with real sugar, too,” Darius said, pointing to the spot on the bottle where it said the soda was made with real sugar. “Sugarcane sugar,” he said.
“Really? That’s so weird. My boyfriend buys bottles of Coke from Mexico instead of the American Coke. He says the Mexican Coke is made from real sugar, too, and is way better than American Coke,” she said.
“He’s right. I’ve tried the Mexican Coke. It is way better,” Darius said.
A new song walked into the diner. It was one of Darius’s favorite love songs. Its name was “Three Steps to Heaven.” It was written and performed by Eddie Cochran, who took three steps to heaven in 1960. Cochran was twenty-one when he recorded the song, but it was not the voice of a young man in his early twenties. It was the voice of someone in their late thirties or early 40s. Perhaps Eddie was letting us know what he would have sounded like if he lived to be forty. Again, Darius wondered how authentic any of this truly was.
Katie just stood there smiling at Darius. Her eyes were a thicker paint of blue than he remembered. It was Van Gogh blue, thick, layered, madman strokes of blue.
“I think I know what I want,” Darius said.
Katie produced a pen and notepad out of nowhere. Darius didn’t see where they came from. He looked down at the menu for a second, looked back up into her eyes, and found her holding a pen and notepad. Waitresses are truly something. The good-looking girls, the average girls, even the not so good-looking ones with sweet, sincere smiles. They can be something to really observe, really appreciate.
“I’ll have the fried chicken sandwich with your homemade chips,” he said.
“Do you want everything on it?” she asked.
“What’s everything?” Darius asked.
Katie smiled and extended her hand over the bottle of black cherry soda, counting out the contents of the sandwich with her thumb, pointer finger, middle finger, and forefinger. “Lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, mayonnaise,” she said quickly and with a suggestion she said those four words at least forty times a day.
“Sounds good,” Darius said.
He saw her write everything down on her notepad. He remembered how quickly she would write things down in junior high. Besides admiring her feet, he admired the way she took notes. If she wasn’t satisfied with what she wrote down, she had no hesitation in raising her hand and having the teacher repeat the part she missed. Once, when she was in the bathroom, Darius got up to sharpen his pencil and he deliberately walked close to her desk so he could see what kind of hand writing she had. He saw that the handwriting was smaller and sharper than most girls’ handwriting and not so loopy. He wanted to see what she wrote on the notepad now. He wanted to see if her handwriting was the same.
“By the way, the biscuits were really good,” Darius said. They were, too, buttery and flaky, homemade no doubt.
“Told ya,” she said, before darting off to a nearby table to answer the call of a man in a suit who was raising his hand, trying to get her attention.
Then a funny thing happened. The same Eddie Cochran song played again. “Three Steps to Heaven.” There had to be some kind of mistake somewhere.
Darius observed his surroundings. Above the fireplace was a fish on a plaque. The fish was green and orange, it looked like a salmon, but he didn’t know much about fish. To the left and right of the fireplace were ten white shelves, five shelves on each wall. Each shelf held ceramic chickens. Each chicken was unique in color and size. He counted twenty-seven chickens in total. He also saw six large windows that overlooked I-55. To the right of the windows, hanging from the wall, were Route 66 license plates from Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, New Mexico, Kansas, Arizona, and California. But the order was not right. It should have been Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
At the opposite end of the diner, he saw a clock with the word “Cruisin” on top of the twelve in blue neon and the words “Chicago to Los Angeles” below the six in neon pink. Across the diner from the clock was a framed poster that read “Old Style presents the 1989 Chicago Blues Festival, Grant Park, June 9, 10, and 11.” There was a yellow cubist cat with a derby floating over his head. He was sitting next to a cubist black man in a suit playing the electric. The left side of his face was blue and the right side was green. His hair was orange.
There was no escape from this chicken basket.
Jesus, where am I, Darius asked himself.
Darius heard the man in the suit say to Katie, “I honestly didn’t think it would take this long. It usually doesn’t.”
By thirty-three, Darius thought he would be a published author, not famous yet, but at least published. He submitted short stories to hundreds of magazines starting when he was twenty-five, and they all rejected him, every goddam last one of them. When he was seventeen, he won a writing award. It was the worst thing that ever happened to him. He would often say it should be against the law to tell someone who is seventeen they’re a good writer. Adults should be more responsible.
George H.W. Bush presented him with the award that day.
“Mr. President, this is Darius Capitanio from Darien, Illinois. He is a winner in the Xerox Document Company Young Author’s Contest,” an Asian man said into a microphone. Bill Clinton was the president at the time, not Bush.
They were inside some ballroom with a giant chandelier in a businessman hotel in Rosemont. His father and mother were there. His father was recording the crime. Darius walked up the stage and shook the president’s hand. The president then handed him some kind of hotshot plaque. “Congratulations, Darius,” he said.
“It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” Darius said.
The president put his arm around Darius and guided him towards the flashing cameras. He then shook Darius’s hand once more before walking off the stage.
“I feel like firing someone today,” the man in the suit said.
He had black curly hair and skin the same color as the fried chicken he was eating. He wanted another beer, that’s what was taking so long. Darius was sure Katie was in the back somewhere, out of sight, fetching his beer. The man’s eyes were too close together and his nose was far too large for his little face. He had two chins. His head seemed to drop as he spoke, as if it struggled to bear the weight of that nose. It made him look vulnerable.
His suit jacket was gray and his shirt black. His tie was solid red. There was a gold watch around his meaty wrist and a gold ring on his fat right ring finger. Darius guessed he was somewhere in his mid to late thirties, not too much older than he and Katie were.
He was talking to a decidedly older woman with ash blonde hair that reached just beyond her shoulders. She had large, perfect circles for eyes with long eyelashes, a small, upturned nose, and thin lips that outlined a wide yet attractive mouth that was covered in purple lipstick. The crucifix of her gold necklace touched the top button of her white blouse. The blouse had a collar. She looked like she could be Reese Witherspoon’s mother.
She was not his wife. She did not sit in her chair like his wife, and she pretended to laugh.
“What do you mean?” she asked with a radio voice.
“Don’t you just wake up in the morning and want to fire someone?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
She was not from around here. She was not from the Midwest.
“I’m going to fire that girl Julia tomorrow,” he said. “I wanted to do it today, but I lost my nerve. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Are you serious?” she asked. It was clear now she had a Southern accent. She was a true Southern beauty, an exotic classic in these parts.
“Very serious,” he said as he lifted the plastic tumbler to his fleshy lips.
Miraculously, “Three Steps to Heaven” played for the third time.
“Jesus, how many times are we gonna hear this song?” the man in the suit asked anyone who was close enough to hear him.
Darius thought about the eighth grade dance, the dance three days before graduation. He wouldn’t see any of his classmates after graduation, not even his two friends. They all went to Downers Grove South, while Darius went to Nazareth Academy in LaGrange, a Catholic school. Six months into his freshmen year, he lost touch with his junior high friends, there were new friends to make and all that crap. His impressionable mother wanted him to get a Catholic education. She felt he might join the wrong kind of crowd in high school, and she heard through the grapevine Downers South was enrolling more and more of the wrong kind of crowd. Pure lunacy. Darius would be where he was now whether he attended public or Catholic school. It was the writing award that ruined him, not the schools.
But he remembered that night in the ballroom in the Holiday Inn in Willowbrook, just down the street from the Chicken Basket. The last dance with his junior high comrades, the last night to reflect on three years together, three very important years in the formation of young men and women. Katie and her friends were the most popular girls in the school. Her friends, he remembered six of them, were almost as pretty as she was. It’s funny how things work out that way. Darius stood with his two friends off to the side as Katie and her group and some of the wild boys, popular wild boys, the boyfriends of some of Katie’s friends, moved their way to the center of the ballroom and danced to songs from the mid-nineties, songs long forgotten. They danced in ways that were beyond their years to songs that some of the mother chaperones would later argue were, when they got around to really thinking about it, quite inappropriate. Maybe these young boys and girls turned into the kind of crowd Darius’s mother was talking about when they reached high school. Maybe they became dangerous in high school, but they were just kids that night.
The thing Darius remembered clearly was the majority of the girls, not just Katie’s friends but the majority of all the girls, for whatever reason, took off their shoes when they danced. He didn’t remember who started it, it might have been Katie, but almost at once, the girls, and even some of the boys, took off their shoes and danced in socks or bare feet. Katie was barefoot. Two girls asked Darius to dance with them, slow dances. They were also barefoot. Darius kept his shoes on.
He was very tall even then, six-foot-two. He was, in fact, the tallest boy in the school and there were some girls who found him very attractive, even if he was too shy. Considering his height and looks, they expected him to be far more outgoing. But these two girls were confident he was outgoing enough to at least slow dance with them, and he did, but he couldn’t keep his eyes off Katie, who was dancing with the popular boys. She wasn’t dating any of them, but she had no problem dancing with them. He had to have one slow song with her before the night ended, before everything ended. He just had to. They knew each other well enough, they worked together on a history project once. They met at Katie’s house, Darius, another boy, and two other girls. By eighth grade, they even said hello to each other in the hallways, at least when it was him walking by himself passing her walking by herself. She always said hello first.
During what turned out to be the second to last slow song of the night, Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” not a song long forgotten, Darius Capitanio approached Katie Smith.
“Hey, Darius,” she said. She seemed happy to see him.
“Hey, Katie. Do you want to dance?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said.
He placed his arms around her waist and she placed her arms around his neck. She was tall, but she had to get on her tiptoes to accomplish the feat. A minute into the song, she broke a wonderful silence.
“Hey, Darius, do you mind if I place my feet on your feet? Dancing on my toes kind of sucks,” she said.
“Sure, go ahead. My feet are big enough for the two of us,” he said.
“Cool, thanks,” she said with a laugh.
Darius felt her feet on his feet. She was much lighter than he expected and the two teenagers continued the dance as if nothing had changed.
One of her friends, an absolute knockout of a redhead, laughed at the spectacle. Katie wasn’t fazed. She stuck her tongue out at the redhead and turned her head away. Then she closed her eyes and rested her head on Darius’s shoulder. She didn’t give a damn about what her friends thought. She didn’t care that Darius wasn’t a part of the popular crowd, he was kind and gentle and tall and handsome, and she liked his cologne. Darius remembered blushing and he tried with all his power to stop the damn erection that was forming. He didn’t want Katie to get the wrong impression. But he couldn’t stop it. He could smell the sweat on the top of her head and he couldn’t stop it. He was sure she could feel it and he worried she would end the dance and walk away thinking for the rest of her life that Darius Capitanio was some perverted jerk. But when the song ended all she said was, “Thanks for the dance. I love your cologne, by the way. What is it?” she asked.
“It’s Calvin Klein,” he said.
“I wish some of the other guys were wearing cologne, if you know what I’m saying,” she said.
Darius laughed and she disappeared.
Katie returned to Darius’s table with a chicken sandwich and potato chips in a yellow basket in her right hand and a frozen glass of pale beer in her left hand.
“Here you go, sir,” she said to Darius in a playful voice, gently sliding the basket across the table until it reached the bottle of black cherry soda.
“Thanks. Hey, what’s with the song? Why are you guys playing it over and over again?”
Katie laughed. “Okay, our DJ is kind of crazy. You can’t see him from here. He’s in the lounge behind the bar. If you saw him, you would know he’s crazy. He thinks it’s hilarious to play the same song ten times in a row. Just the tip of the iceberg of the insanity that goes on around here,” she said.
“I don’t mind,” Darius said. “I actually love this song. I wrote a short story about the singer Eddie Cochran a couple years ago. He died shortly after recording this song. He was only twenty-one and…”
“Yeah, you’re a writer. I remember…” Katie said. She was about to say she remembered some of the short stories he wrote in eighth grade. Their English teacher made him read his stories to the class so they would get a better understanding of how to write a good short story. “Just do what Darius does and you’ll be fine,” the teacher would say. She had one of his short stories, a story about Buddy Holly, published in the school newsletter. “You look like a writer,” she said, correcting herself.
“I wish I was a writer, a real writer,” he said.
“What’s a real writer?” she asked with a sarcastic smile. She truly was the most beautiful girl in the whole goddam world, in the whole goddam chicken basket of a world. He told himself at thirteen he would never see a better-looking girl for as long as he lived. So far, he was right.
“It’s someone who is published by the time he is thirty-three,” he said.
“We’re still young,” she said. “Life doesn’t really begin until you reach your…”
She was interrupted by the man in the suit.
“When you’re done talking with your boyfriend, can I have my beer?” he said in a voice loud enough to make half the restaurant look at him and then at Katie.
She walked over to his table and put down the beer with force. The frost of the pale ale spilled on the food and the basket.
“Here!” she said to the man. She stormed off to the hidden world behind the bar, the world of the crazy DJ who was killing Eddie Cochran. Darius couldn’t see her from where he was sitting.
Darius tried to control the Italian half of his anger. He tried to feel sorry for the man’s eyes and nose, but he could not. He stood up and walked over to that pathetic nose. He looked like a giant, and only the Devil would put Italian blood into a giant Lithuanian body.
“Hey, man, I’m sorry, but she’s not doing her…,” the curly-haired man began.
Darius knocked the beer into the man’s lap. The Southern blonde gasped. She was expecting the very worst.
“You mother-fu…,” he tried to stand up.
Darius pushed him down with a hand as big as the man’s head. “I’d stay in your seat if I were you, unless you want to spend the next couple days in the hospital,” the giant Lithuanian said, cold-blooded as Muddy Waters.
The man remained in his seat. He didn’t know what to say.
An old man at the next table broke the silence. He had a smartphone in his fucking hand.
“You better get out of here, young man, or I’ll call the cops. I’m a lawyer and you just committed assault and battery,” he said.
“You do that, Pops. I’m gone,” Darius said.
Darius walked over to the bar. The manager, a fat, bald man in a John Fogerty blue flannel shirt ran past Darius and towards the man in the suit.
“Do you want me to call the police, sir?” he asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” the man in the suit said in a voice that salvaged some bravery.
Darius found Katie Smith standing at the corner of the bar, near the ladies room. She was crying next to a middle-aged waitress who was doing her best to comfort her. Waitresses truly are something.
“Good for you,” the older waitress whispered to Darius so that the DJ couldn’t hear. But Darius was sure he could hear every word, even though Eddie Cochran was giving his fifth encore of “Three Steps to Heaven.” Katie was right, he was a crazy looking son of a bitch. A description wouldn’t do him justice.
“That asshole comes here with that whore once a week and he always treats the waitresses like shit. It’s about time someone put him in his place. But you better get out of here, they’re gonna call the cops,” the waitress said.
Katie untangled herself from the woman.
Darius was amazed at how pretty her face was, even though it was red and trembling. There was only one Katie Smith in the whole world, all the others, the countless others, were fakes. No writer, no dead rock star, no blues musician who made a deal with the Devil could capture what he felt. It was hard for Darius to speak.
“Darius, please go. I don’t want you to get arrested. If the cops come, I’ll say I started the whole thing, okay? Just go, okay?” she said. She wiped away the tears with the back of her hand.
He was not going anywhere, he told himself. He had not gone anywhere in thirty-three years. The man with the nose was a jerk, even a coward, but what about what he did? Maybe he was just as crazy as the DJ, just as crazy as one song playing over and over again. He couldn’t look at Katie anymore.
“No,” he said. “It was silly. I’ll tell the cops what I did. It was me.” Without saying anything more, he sat down at an empty table and waited for the police.
• • •
Chris Pellizzari is a graduate of the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, earning a B.A. in History with a Minor in Spanish. He also holds a Masters in Journalism from Columbia College, Chicago. His short story “Granada” is scheduled to be published this fall in The Awakenings Review. Pellizzari also had a chapter from his novella Last Night in Granada published in The Write Launch. Another short story, “Salamanca,” will be published in the October issue of the same magazine.