The Chicken Parmesan
I’m tired. I’ve been standing next to a four hundred fifty degree oven all day and the air conditioner is broken for the second straight week. I drown another chicken parm in the fryer. We’re slammed, it’s dinner rush. Pots and pans clanging, narco music on the little speakers, dirty jokes being tossed around in Spanish, scorching hot oil crackling and popping like bubble wrap pressed eagerly between fatty fingers.
I’m chasing my dreams in L.A., so naturally I’m working in the back of an Italian restaurant. I’ve had a lot of jobs before this one. In previous lives — I was a political insider in DC, a lumberjack cutting down trees in the Great Pacific Northwest, I’ve even held a position where all I did was fire people in Vegas. Each job it’s own little armageddon, but it’s the chickens that broke me.
I stare into the cauldron of grease, my mind races as fast as my heart. There are two breasts in that fryer. That’s one whole chicken. How many chicken parms had I made during the dinner rush? Fifteen? Twenty? Two cutlets per order, that’s ten chickens. I’m no longer aware of the heat. I’ve broken into a cold sweat.
I look over to the chef who’s making two orders of chicken piccata, my favorite. How many has he made tonight? Another ten or twenty? Does this loving father of three understand he’s the Mao of chickens? Does that make me Pol Pot? It’s not our fault, we’re just following orders.
My senses are tunneling, these goddamn chickens.
I need cool air. I go to the walk-in, and breathe in deep. Exhaling I notice three five gallon buckets on the floor. All with chicken. Three. Goddamn. Buckets. How many chickens are in those?
How many jellybeans are in the jar, Ryan? How many carcasses are in the bucket, Ryan?
The air makes my sweat feel like needles. I know what’s going to happen unless I get outside.
I stumble out of the freezer, nobody seems to notice me, other than our dishwasher, Panchito. That wasn’t his real name, but we already had a Juan. He looks at me and asks “Estas bien?” I nod. He smiles, continues washing dishes and whistling the tune to his favorite American tv show: COPS. I need fresh air.
How many chickens does our little restaurant go through? This is just dinner and there’s no less than twenty chicken parmesan out there, God only knows how many piccata. Two breasts per order, and what? A minimum of one hundred orders per day? We’re open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Seven times one hundred. Seven hundred chickens per week just in our restaurant. Fifty two multiplied by seven hundred. Thirty six thousand four hundred chickens per year for our restaurant. We’re one of eight restaurants in our Bel-Air Strip mall. All have chicken on the menu, even the sushi place. Thirty six thousand four hundred multiplied by eight. Jesus Christ, two hundred ninety one thousand two hundred chickens. Every year, just in our parking lot. I don’t want to believe it’s the end of the world, but the math checks out.
Existential fucking chickens.
I try to play it cool, nobody else seems suspicious of my fowl induced breakdown. I walk down the dimly-lit hallway following the light and faint noise of outdoor semi-fine dining. I’m outside. I can breathe. The world still exists.
The outdoor terrace has a pleasant ambiance: track lighting, gingham table cloths, candles. And then I hear, “This piccata is delightful.” I look up and see chicken on nearly every of the thirty plus tables, not counting the dozen or so inside. It’s a chicken Normandy. I burp out a little bit of my soul and head to the parking lot. I count eight extremely busy restaurants, all with some “local organic sustainable” bullshit on their menu. What does that even mean? Are these wild chickens we’re using? I’ve never seen a herd of hens roaming Melrose Ave. My left arm feels funny. I lean against a garbage can to hold myself up. I can’t feel my face.
“Hey!” I hear from my side. It’s one of the waitresses. “What are you doing?”
“Taking a little break.”
“Your break area is in the back, you can’t be up front looking all dirty.” She was right, I had flour and chicken guts all over me. People are staring.
“Sorry,” I responded. “I heard a Kardashian was out here.”
“No,” she stated. “That was yesterday.”
I take a few deep breaths and center myself. Eventually, days later, I quit my job.
I can’t make chicken parmesan anymore. I won’t. So I get a job at a new restaurant — as a waiter. I’m no longer the mortician, now I just drive the hearse. It’s a start, I think to myself. Or it was before this virus, I guess we’re just trading one apocalypse for another.
“Forty six!” Shit, my section just got seated. It’s a birthday party, they’re gonna expect a free dessert. Nobody tips on free dessert. “Welcome everyone! We’re so happy you could join us tonight. My name is Ryan and I’ll be your server. Can I start you off with something to drink?”
“I heard the chicken parmesan here is to die for. What do you think?”
What do I think? How about unsustainable? An individual nuclear molecule from a grand Fukushima level environmental disaster? It’s poisoning everything you love and care about. It’s an affront to God’s creat —
“It is…to die for,” I let slip out eerily and glassy-eyed.
The table studies me before one of the teenagers asks, “Why’d you say it like that?”
We stare at each other for what feels like an entire episode of COPS.
I break the silence.
“How do you feel about fish?”