by Katie Jean Moulton
The only problems—not counting her mother, who was a fact of life—were Pop and the chicken suit. Kendra was nineteen, living in her first apartment with her first real boyfriend, working the only job she’d ever had. She even made appearances on local TV. Of course, no one could tell it was her.
Her parents had finally divorced—after two-and-a-half decades of holy acrimony, according to Pop. The real surprise came during “negotiations,” when her mother procured the family business: Cheap Date Liquor & Smokes, the chain of discount-liquor stores Pop had spent his life building.
After another of Pop’s belligerent, Seagrams-soaked phone calls, her mother filmed a new commercial, featuring the rest of the family chanting the slogan—“Cheap! Cheap! Booze! Booze!”—while Kendra, in the chicken suit, flipped off the trampoline into the above-ground pool.
“I don’t blame you,” Pop rasped to her on the phone once he’d seen it.
Pop had come up with that slogan, and the mascot. “You’re already my chickadee,” he’d said, plucking at her tuft of blonde ponytail. For the last two years, she had waddled around half-blind at promo events all over the bi-state metro area. Because he paid her well, yes, and because it made him laugh every time.
Now he said, “I won’t let Arlene crush me.”
In the apartment, she sat next to her boyfriend on their hand-me-down couch. “I think your dad’s a stand-up guy,” said CJ. After all, Pop had supplied him with beer before he turned twenty-one. “But this isn’t your fight.”
At Cheap Date’s flagship store, she stood beside her mother, who wore a new navy suit but retained her halo of hairspray and cigarette haze. “After everything he put me through,” said her mother, “this isn’t half what I’m owed.”
At the cash register, Kendra rang up the usual bottle for Roy, the run-down regular who showed up at high noon and didn’t leave until the light was low. “Where’s my sponsor?” wheezed Roy.
She remembered how Pop used to smoke a cigarette as Roy leaned against the store’s outside wall, throttling a paper bag. Both men laughed a lot: silly, dark nonsense.
“It’s not funny,” she had said, just once. “He’s a bum, and he’s sick. Maybe dying.”
“I hate to break it to you, but so is everybody,” snarled Pop. “One day at a time.”
Soon enough after the divorce, Pop took what was left of his savings and opened Hank’s Low-Price Vice. The location was perfect: in a strip mall beside an extra-long traffic light, an outpost for county buses, within hitching distance of the river—and directly across the street from Cheap Date’s flagship store.
Kendra called his condo. When he answered, Pop let out a rattly sigh, sounding suddenly old.
“Mom’s madder than hell about the new store,” she said. “Why are you doing this?”
“Hell, chickadee,” he breathed into the receiver, “why do we do anything?”
On opening day, Pop’s banners proclaimed, “Divorce Blow-Out! Freedom Fire Sale!” So her mother launched her own campaign, blowing up balloons and slashing prices. Technically an employee, Kendra was sent for. CJ told her to stay out of it. And she tried.
Yet there she stood on the curb in Cheap Date’s parking lot, sweating in tights and feathers. She stared across the rushing road at Pop’s desolate shop, its glass door a still mirror. She could cross. Instead, she fumbled with the oversized yellow head, let it slip under her wing to the ground.
Katie Jean Moulton is the editor of Indiana Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter and Post Road. Born and raised in St. Louis, she loves beer, the blues, and rivers, the muddier the better.
What does compression mean to you?
Compression is about concision and timing, as in a well-told joke. The resonance of a story like the impact of a punchline relies on structure, but also the degree to which the audience has leaned in to listen. Compression does not necessitate half-breath brevity; instead it insists on just-right details, repeated and built to the what-else-but-this? conclusion. Sometimes the most lucid answer to a question is not one word, but a story.
What does compression mean to you?