I had to get out of there after Wally tacked up that smug photo on the breakroom wall, right over the Employee of the Month sign and that pimply kid’s name. I had to do it, I repeat in the rearview mirror, driving to my buddy Allen’s house with my windows down, midmorning humidity falling in. Someday, the burger flippers will tell my story as they smoke joints by the dumpsters.
I shake the cage on Allen’s front door holding a trash bag full of stolen chicken nuggets slung over my shoulder. “Hey, let’s have a party,” I say when he answers. He glances at the bag and nods toward it.
“Is that booze?”
He unlocks the cage and takes the bag by its twisted neck, and his arm drops a bit when I let go, like he didn’t know two-hundred-fifty nuggets would weigh so much. I want to tell him he’s probably holding like fifteen chickens’ worth of meat, but I can see he doesn’t care.
“How do we heat ‘em up?” he says.
“So, a nugget party?”
Allen invites me inside his smokey mission-style house. He swings the industrial trash bag and drops it on a coffee table to the left of the door. The bag rattles as it lands.
“We need fries,” Allen says. He lights a cig and inhales. “And a shit-ton of ketchup.”
“I don’t think I can go back for that.”
The front cage creaks open and someone knocks on the door. Allen looks at me and then at the bag of nuggets. He steps forward, the stiff fabric of his cheap button-down scratching me as he passes. He pulls open the door a few inches so I’m shielded, except for an inch crack at the hinge. My boss Wally stands on the other side, his thinning brown hair mussed up like he’s been dragging his fryer fingers through it.
“Where my nuggets?” he says to Allen, whose eyes dart toward me behind the door. I shake my head.
“Nuggets?” Allen says.
“I know he’s in there.”
Allen’s lips curl up into a smile, the wet of them holding the cig as his mouth moves. “Who?” he says. I can see my boss shifting from foot to foot like he’s going to kick open the door with Allen on the other side of it—maybe even pin him behind it—and take back the bag of frozen meat. Why he wants it, I don’t know. He can’t sell the nuggets anymore. It’s hot as hell in here and they’re half thawed. Some of their factory bags have opened and spilled. Nuggets are mashing together into one giant chicken sponge.
Wally’s eyes dart. He’s looking around the door frame now, maybe for a way in. Our eyes meet—his with my one peeping through the crack.
“You!” he shouts and leans in hard against the ajar door with his left shoulder. Allen backs up and the door flies open. Wally stumbles in, his arms swinging for balance, the cage slamming behind him. He stops, just short of planting his face on the dirty beige tile, and rights himself. He turns to me, his face wide.
“Where are they?”
“Wow, dude,” Allen says, flicking his cig out the open front door. He saunters toward the couch, sits, and plants his muddy boots on the table next to the chicken bag.
Wally slams the door behind him and tugs the polyester orange shirt that makes everyone look like uncooked meat. He smooths a greasy strand of hair to the side, and I feel a little sick watching him.
“Look, man, you don’t want the nuggets back.”
“I do.” He’s breathing heavy now, his shoulders lifting and dropping. I wonder how he can be out of breath from falling into a house, but maybe that’s what happens in middle age.
“That was the last of them.”
I think he means his inventory for the restaurant. I’m sure I took the whole freezer full of nuggets.
“Why don’t you fight for them?” Allen says from the couch.
“Shut up, Allen,” I say, but Allen’s already standing and holding the black trash bag like a prize. I can smell the garlicky pink sludge starting to thaw inside it.
“Oh, come on,” Allen says, tugging on his loose jeans and pealing a new cig from his mouth. He lifts the bag higher with his other hand. “Duke it out. Then, winner, winner, chicken dinner, as they say.”
I look back at Wally, who’s standing with his shoulders slumped and his knees hyperextended like a dumb kid. Sweat drips down his temples. Don’t do it, man, don’t do it, I think, but Wally is already straightening up and balling his fists. He drops one foot back in an awkward fighting stance. It’s obvious the guy’s never fought before.
“Look,” I say, but Wally’s coming at me now, his fists flying in the space between his face and mine. Behind me, Allen’s laughing. Smoke from the newly lit cigarette curls around my head. I take a step back. “Look,” I say again, holding my hands up, flat like a sparring partner. Wally hits my bare palm.
“Go for it, dude!” Allen shouts, and I’m not sure who he’s urging on, Wally or me. I ball up my hands and thrust my right forward, connecting it with Wally’s face. Smack. Wally’s head flies back. He falls on his back onto a square of cream carpet with a loud thud. His feet stick in the air like a dead roach.
“Fuck,” I say, because I think I’ve broken his nose. Maybe even knocked him out.
“Woah!” Allen says. The bag rustles in his excited grip.
Wally groans, and I’m relieved. He rolls over and props himself on all fours. He brings his hand to his face and pulls it away. Blood covers his fingers. His gut hangs under him, falling out of his pleated khakis.
“I didn’t mean—,” I begin, but I’m not sure what I meant to do.
“What’s your problem?” Wally pushes himself to standing, his head leaning back to catch the blood now streaming down his weak chin. He struggles to stay upright, the fat of his middle lulling like he might fall again. I make to steady him, but he jerks away.
“Take the chicken.” I glance back at Allen with the bag still in his hands and reach for it, but Allen doesn’t hand it over.
“Forget it,” I hear Wally say. I turn back to him. He’s wiping his nose and turning to leave. “You win.”
“No, really.” I yank the bag from Allen’s grip and nudge it against Wally’s backside, trying to get him to reach for the thing, but Wally’s already fumbling with the door handle. He sticks one hand in the air without looking back. I bump him with the bag again instead of saying I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t about him.
“You could’ve become something, you know,” he says as he twists the handle. I wince. The cold of the nugget bag brushes against my own thigh, and I think I feel juice leaking from it.
“Wally,” I say, but I’m sure he doesn’t hear. He throws open the cage until its hard metal smacks against the dull stucco. It meets a dent already made, bounces, and swings back again. Wally stumbles away. Allen pats my back like I have just won. I drop the chicken bag on the tile, and it lands with a dull thud.
Jody Gerbig lives in Ohio with her husband, young triplets, and too many pets. Her work has appeared in Columbus Monthly, Brevity, Twin Pies, Litro, and many others. She currently serves as an associate editor for Typehouse Magazine.
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