fiction Issue 29

The Burning

by Daniel M. Mendoza

A colorful mixed media artwork depicting a chicken with a shopping cart approaching a fast food check serving window
Fries by Igor Zusev

This past Sunday, the city announced a parade to celebrate the grand opening of Fanatics Hunting and Fishing Gear where Motherclucker’s Chicken Shack once operated before the incident residents collectively call “The Burning” occurred. Motherclucker’s was not open very long when it became obvious to all that it would rake in outrageous profits. In an interview with the The Daily Telegraph, John Bocanegra, the owner, had said he believed he was on to something great and anticipated record turnouts. He also confessed that because of his dietary restrictions he’d never tried the thrice fried chicken himself. In the photo-op that accompanied the article, he was pictured cutting the red ribbon alongside the mayor. His tiny, thin frame made the mayor and others seem carnivalesque in their bloated stature.

John Bocanegra was a salesman of the highest order, and by that I mean he was a crook. Albeit, he was a small-time kind of crook, going from town to town, posing as an internet provider, a solar panel salesman, at times even a lover—if the woman was pretty and desperate enough to fork over some cash for his company. But, like all those intoxicated with the entrepreneurial spirit, Bocanegra dreamed of success on the grand scale.

It was in a small, indiscriminate town where he seized his grand opportunity. He had been selling expired magazine subscriptions when he decided to take some of his well-earned money and have a sit-down at a local roadhouse, Frank’s Cafe. As soon as he entered, he was entranced by the constant sound of bubbling frying oil, the smell of fried chicken skin, and finally, the crunch. It was as intoxicating as the smell of the golden fried perfection. It was in that moment that he knew he had the opportunity for a success above all the other successes in his life.

Much to his surprise, it didn’t take long for Bocanegra to acquire the recipe for the thrice fried chicken. In fact, he was a bit suspicious that Frank would be willing to pass the recipe—a family one at that—along to him, a perfect stranger, without much reservation. But Frank even took the time to invite him in back of the cafe to see how it was all done.

“You see, John,” Frank said, wagging a pair of tongs caked with animal fat in front of him. “The secret is in the chicken. Never, ever, ever under any circumstances, skimp on quality chicken.”

“Yes, yes, I see, Mr. Frank.”

“And of course, it helps if you never change the oil, too.”

As I said, Mr. Bocanegra was a businessman of the highest order. He knew that every addiction begins with novelty. A minor sip can drown her; a single puff can lead him to the trap house; and, a simple smirk can ignite a lustful affair. In the case of Motherclucker’s, it only took the slightest sniff of their three times fried chicken and the customer was hooked.

By eleven o’clock as soon as the sweet steam came off the rooftop vents, anxious bodies waited at the door of the newly opened Motherclucker’s. And by a quarter past, the line reached out to the curb. Vehicles, too, flooded the triple lane drive-thru. Teenagers armed with Mothercluckin’ tablets, feathered headdresses, leather moccasins, and face paint eagerly danced up and down the drive-thru taking orders from anxious customers. The dine-in area was packed with laborers, business people, and families. They all sat at their booths in a daze at the thrice fried golden perfection of their Mothercluckin’ meal. They sipped from a 64-ounce Big Motherclucker and the children used two hands to bring their 32-ounce Lil’ Motherclucker to their greasy lips.

Other businesses couldn’t compete. At first it was the fast food joints, the ones who sold greasy burgers or cheese stuffed pizzas. They folded and disappeared just as fast as Motherclucker’s had appeared. The high-end restaurants managed to hold on to their upper-class clientele a little bit longer. But, when their reservations became less and less common, they tried as best they could to re-invent their menus. The Black Truffle Brie was now deep fried and came with honey mustard and spicy ketchup dipping sauce; Royal Osetra Caviar was now between two honey butter biscuits; and, the Hazelnut Sphere with Frangelico Mousse was replaced with a deep fried mini churro carefully placed under a warming light for a full hour before serving. These changes only prolonged the inevitable. All the owners could do was stare out the window and curse at the Big Motherclucker, an illuminated chicken dressed in a suit and loosened tie, biting into a fried drumstick. The sign was so big it could be seen from anywhere downtown.

The city, once the model of progress for its efficient public transportation, was now gridlocked on a daily basis. City leaders swiftly approved the use of the rainy day fund to construct lane additions to Motherclucker’s surrounding streets. Funds for additional train cars and busses were promised by the governor who had done a publicity visit and took pictures with the staff at Motherclucker’s. There remained one problem. The city’s department of transportation couldn’t find any set of hours to begin construction. The hours when Motherclucker’s closed would be ideal. When rumors of lane closures began to make the rounds on social media, however, people began calling off work and camping out in the parking lot. The mayor soon agreed with her most trusted advisors: there really was nothing to be done.

The health of the city, like its infrastructure, was in sharp decline. Diabetes and obesity skyrocketed, but nobody seemed to mind. In fact, I was told it was common to hear that when a Cluckie—as they had come to call themselves—lay on their deathbed, their only consolation was The Big Mothercluckin’ classic eight piece with extra fries and a 64-ouncer soft drink.

It seemed there was really nothing to be done to stop the whole motherclucking enterprise. The mayor and her advisors gave up the catered meetings to wait in line for the classic eight piece. And had it not been for mother nature stepping in, who knows what would’ve happened to that city. Reports of a rare bird flu urged the USDA to remove all chicken processed at a number of facilities. Motherclucker’s used its buying power to swiftly shift distributors and continue selling its famous thrice fried chicken. This scare was enough to send consumers into a purchase frenzy. Many hoarded the eight piece classics in their freezers, rationing out microwaved pieces meal to meal. Some turned to questionable back alley deals for a taste, and rumor had it that chicken strips were going for ten times their original cost on the local Craigslist.

Nobody knows exactly when because all but a few who were at the “The Burning,” as The Daily Telegraph called it, are either dead or in psychiatric care, but at some point Motherclucker’s began frying up the diseased chickens. As a result, people lost their minds. Customers arrived in the morning and soon they were hallucinating that they and everyone else in the crowded parking lot were chickens. They pecked at one another or tried roosting on cars and the oak trees covering the outdoor tables. And when the final classic eight piece was sold, they began pecking at each other more aggressively. They made their way into the kitchen and began pouring heaps of batter and breading onto the weakest of the flock, the fryers crackled with anticipation. Amid the hysterical squawking, steam rose in grand heaps from the rooftop vents. Soon Motherclucker’s erupted in flames, the fire department pulled up but the firemen, too, were hypnotized by the smell now engulfing the downtown. They stormed the restaurant without masks, smacking their lips in hope of one juicy bite of a fresh motherclucker.

Perhaps the most acute description of that infamous day is one artistic rendering from a now crazed artist who’d barely escaped “The Burning” by hiding in the dumpster. It was a painting of the Big Motherclucker sign, towering high above the flames and two men climbing its pole reaching toward it, with one hand outstretched presumably toward that thrice fried neon drumstick.

Daniel M. Mendoza is a writer living along the Texas-Mexican border. His influences are Gloria Anzaldua, Cervantes, and Emily Dickinson.

Igor Zusev is a creator of chaos art. After a lengthy career in tech and AV project management, Igor discovered art as a way to unwind and connect with himself. Sometimes he’ll produce a deeply personal piece, and other times you’ll find him exploring messages he wants to portray in his style.