“I gave the bags to your mom.” To those of you not involved in the following account, that sentence seems rather benign in nature. To those who were there, that phrase still throws our hearts into instant arrhythmia.
It was mid-October 1999. I, along with my girlfriend Tonja and two of our friends – Keri who was 8 months pregnant, and her husband Jeff, who had intentionally put her in that fragile state – were in my Jeep headed north on Interstate 459. My parents and my sister Sarah were following close behind.
Our miniature caravan was on its way to a local Jaycees fundraiser, a haunted house. The “Slaughter House,” as it was called, was located just north of Birmingham, Alabama in the town of Irondale. We’d planned to stop and eat en route, so we exited the freeway when we neared a local fried chicken establishment proclaiming “Ray’s Famous Chicken Fingers.”
Ray, the proprietor, was his own man, one from the old school where political correctness had absolutely no importance. I suspect he was the sole inspiration for the word “tactless.” A neon sign thrusting skyward atop its pole amid the parking lot’s broken asphalt cheerfully announced “Give ‘em the finger from Ray’s.”
Perhaps a less adventurous troupe would have been repelled by the verbage alone, but not our brave little entourage. We’d intended to go in and eat, but one peek at the in-house clientele made us opt for the drive-thru instead.
A disembodied rasp crackled the speaker to life and my Jeep seemed to shudder in reaction. We counted heads, placed our order, and pulled to the window where a weathered claw protruded palm-up and a mass of wrinkles, rouge, and pinkish-orange hair lingered above it.
Ray’s mom Gert worked the window. I plunked the cash into her outstretched hand and her electric blue eyelids fluttered wildly as she divvied her take like a well-seasoned black jack dealer. The smell of chicken fat and broken health regulations hung thick in the air.
She then proceeded to launch greasy bags of chicken digits through my open window, clearly in a hurry to finish what was left of the half-smoked Marlboro balanced precariously along the edge of the deep fryer.
We proceeded on our way, eating our chicken, and each of us quietly thanking all that was holy that penicillin was not a controlled substance.
The trip from Ray’s to the Slaughter House was about twenty-five minutes one way. About ten minutes post-Ray’s I heard gagging sounds coming from the back of the Jeep. My first thought was that a health violation had sprung to life and was choking the life out of one of my companions. I turned and found that it was Keri, teary-eyed and trying to maintain her composure.
“Are you okay?” I queried, to which she replied that she didn’t think the baby liked the smell of the chicken. Ever a gentleman, I politely proffered an empty Ray’s bag and told her that if she had to spew in the Jeep to please hit the bag since I’d just cleaned it out the day before.
We all agreed that getting the chicken smell out of the car would be prudent. Though none of us had finished our meals, we quickly volunteered to give up the remaining portions.
Tonja, who was sitting up front with me, was passed all the leftover meals which she then placed inside another empty Ray’s bag. Meanwhile I turned to check on Keri and found that she had ever so quietly, so as to avoid unnecessary embarrassment, deposited some regurgitated chicken into the sack I had provided.
As if holding nuclear waste or a baby's dirty diaper – both of which in my opinion stem from the exact same vein – I delicately caught the bag between two fingers and gingerly handed it to a still-busy Tonja.
“I’ll pull over up ahead and you can throw the bags out,” I told her. (So much for “Help Keep Alabama Beautiful.” Hey, this was a crisis.)
Just shy of the Grants Mill Road exit Tonja got out. My folks, not knowing what was going on, pulled in behind us on the roadside. After some time Tonja reappeared.
“Where’d you go?” I joked. “How long can it take to throw two bags in the bushes?”
“What bags?” she replied.
“The bags that I asked you to throw away,” I answered in exasperation as I pulled back into the traffic.
“Oh,” she said, grinning. “There’s no sense in throwing away perfectly good chicken. I gave the bags to your mom.”
I steadied myself against the seat and placed my hands at the ten and two position on the steering wheel. Not since Hiroshima has such a look of terror been displayed on an individual’s face. Everything went into slow motion.
“You gave the bags to my mom,” I repeated. All I could picture was my sister reaching into the tainted bag, and, because of my families inherent weak stomachs, a puke-fest ensuing.
Regaining my senses I pried the terror from my face long enough to whip the Jeep to the side of the road. I slumped again, Tonja checking my pulse and frantically calling my name. A glance in the rearview mirror showed Dad’s puzzled face pulling in behind me as Mom handed the telltale bag back to Sarah.
A lesser man would have told off on poor Keri. A lesser man would have run screaming like a banshee. Not I.
Calmly opening the door, I smiled at my honey and replied, “I'll be right back.”