I am waiting at the Chicken Co-op, pronounced ‘coop,’ inside the Exxon gas station and convenience store in Lovingston, Virginia. A couple of blocks away the mechanic is changing my car’s oil, rotating the tires.
I’m not very good at waiting. Delayed planes, bank lines, stop-n-go stalled traffic. Pedicures.
In the Chicken Co-op a narrow island counter is a few feet away from the hot food display. I climb onto the metal chair and sit at the lunch counter. To survive the wait, instead of reading and not remembering much of what I’ve read, I decide to write what’s going on around me. I lay my tote bag on the counter, pull out my spiral notebook and pen.
A woman in a purple and pink flowery blouse and matching purse walks up and stares at the trays of potato salad, pale slaw, mushy greens, thick potato wedges, baked apples, and mounds of crispy fried chicken—breasts, wings, thighs, drumsticks piled high behind a cloudy plastic shield.
An oven alarm buzzes. A freezer door slams, clicks shut. The muffled conversations of the cooks in the kitchen. Overhead the neon ads hum. On the wall Pepsi and pizza boards. The smell of hot grease frying.
“Alright,” the woman in the flowered blouse says to the order-girl, “I’ve made my mind up. Just some fries and wings. I want the greens but they don’t want me.”
Next to the wall, a man pulls open the cold drinks case. Glass bottles rattle.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” the woman in the flowery blouse says to the girl, “My shirt was totally soaked before I realized it. Couldn’t take it off anyway. Going on vacation on my birthday, going to California.” The woman walks over and sits across from me at the counter.
“Nice bag,” she says.
I’m glad my handwriting is so scribbly she can’t see I am writing about her.
“Oh, thank you,” I say, and then spout off some details about the bag to allow our encounter to bloom a little, but soon realize the details aren’t of much interest.
A hefty man, in a gray knit watch cap and baggy jeans walks in. “I just want to walk up and down in this Air con,” he shouts merrily to the room. He strolls up to the order counter and shouts back at the cook. “Got any ice cream? Got them cups?”
In the kitchen a cook shouts, “Jimmy!”
The man laughs. “Here we go. She’s all excited, ain’t she? This is overwhelming.”
More customers walk down the aisle to the Chicken Co-op counter. They stare at the big menu high on the wall.
Ice cream cone in hand, Jimmy strolls, laughing, up the grocery aisle. How ya doin’? See ya’ll. Love you.
I scribble in my notebook and take a sip of the vitamin water Zero Sugar, cranberry pomegranate. The label claims “will help reduce the oxidation of stress in a body . . . soothing like a babbling brook.” There is a strong artificial sugary-sick aftertaste.
A young white woman steps up to the counter. She’s in a t-shirt printed with a photograph of a Black man holding up a large bass on a fishing line. She places her order.
“No tomatoes, just cucumbers. It’s for Oscar and he ain’t gonna eat it unless the bacon is crisp.”
The t-shirt woman and the young Black man, maybe Oscar, begin to play the Queen lottery machines in the food aisles behind me. An aluminum pan rattles and a pile of fried wings are dumped into a hot tray. In the kitchen someone is beating batter. The spoon clunks on the side of the pan. The mechanic office calls. My car is ready.
On my way out the door, I toss the Babbling Brook Reducer of Stress into the trash.
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