When the Jungle Cuts Gorilla and the Cluck Me Chicken fell in love, no one gave the relationship more than a few weeks. “It’s, like, unnatural,” said the busy stylists at the Valley View strip mall as they shampooed hair and snuck glances through the salon windows. “Gross, like whoa.” But sometimes, in the animal kingdom (or whatever kingdom retail chain mascots inhabit), attraction produces uncanny pairings of unusual commitment. Such was the case for beast and fowl during the summer of ’09, when temperatures ran unseasonably hot and the heat wave made blacktop shimmer, pushing the people of Verona, New Jersey, toward impulsive behavior.
Romance had not always been bountiful at Valley View. There was, in fact, a time when Gorilla and Chicken considered themselves sworn enemies, vying for the popular traffic island near the Four Points intersection—a spot coveted for its visibility to motorists traveling from all corners of Verona. Their mutual hatred was not instinctive, but rather an extension of the long-running feud between Mssr. Claude, the owner of Jungle Cuts salon, and Sheckles, the regional manager of Cluck Me Chicken.
Mssr. Claude considered Cluck Me—with its cheap, deep-fried legs and its stringy 25-cent wings that frat boys gobbled down by the bucketload—an affront to the elegant panache he’d spent years working to establish at the mall. On more than one occasion, he’d arrived in the morning to find the manager, a big meathead with a Rollie Fingers moustache and a mullet that screamed tractor pulls and Kid Rock concerts, crossing his burly arms over his chest and casting mean glares out into the parking lot. Troglodyte, he’d think. Bigot. Sheckles’s employees were no better—they wore hideous yellow aprons covered in tacky pins and buttons, and whenever Mssr. Claude stepped out back to deposit the hair clippings from the salon floor, he’d see them leaning against the dumpsters, smoking cigarillos and cackling at one another in vulgar tones.
Sheckles, on the other hand, felt the neighboring salon was staffed by stuffy, stuck-up snobs who lacked any discernable sense of humor despite the fact that their mascot was a giant monkey. Every morning, he’d watch the beauty shop girls with their oversized wayfarers and asymmetrical razor-cut hair slink from their Volkswagen Jettas like a pack of skunks, each sporting a different stripe of highlights. They chattered as they went, like—well—like little monkeys, disrupting the only quiet time he’d get all day, the only sunrise. But what could he expect? The salon owner, a little man with frosted tips and a soul patch, hadn’t even bothered welcoming him to the mall, not so much as a friendly “howdy-do?” And he’d been given every opportunity to be neighborly—the grand opening banner had hung across the marquee for over a month. Sheckles could almost see them, sitting there in their expensive chairs, turning up their pieced noses at his wing-dingers and crispy strips as though they were garbage. Garbage! Sheckles knew Cluck Me didn’t serve the finest food in Verona—he harbored no delusions of grandeur—but his chicken was not garbage.
Given the combative atmosphere around Valley View, it’s easy to see where Gorilla and Chicken’s animal animosity came from. In fact, Mssr. Claude demanded under threat of immediate firing that his stylists refrain from fraternizing with the mouth-breathing Neanderthals at Cluck Me, and Sheckles told his staff that he didn’t want to see them hanging around those prissy painted gum-poppers unless they planned on turning in their two-week notice. So when the Jungle Cuts Gorilla arrived at the Four Points intersection one morning in late-June, just as he did every morning, with his cardboard sign promoting a half-off sale on all Vidal Sassoon products, only to find that the Chicken had set up camp in his regular spot with her sandwich board advertising “juicy breasts and tender thighs,” he seethed with ape-like aggression. He’d marked that territory a long time ago, and no newcomer was going to steal it out from under him.
He carefully checked both ways before crossing the entrance ramp to the mall, as motorists coming off the highway rarely yielded and he didn’t want to wind up another wildlife fatality along the side of the road. Then he stomped over to the island and let his sign drop with a menacing thud. The Chicken was well into her routine—waving to drivers like royalty and pointing down at her sign in a provocative manner—and she barely noticed him. Her costume was genderless, of course—yellow feathers with a large orange beak and black pupils that rolled around all googlie with every shake or bob of the head—but the wearer was obviously a woman. Her tan, slim toes and painted toenails gave her away.
She was taller than the Gorilla had expected, and the cork heels of her sandals gave her about four inches on him, but he wasn’t going to back down. Company policy demanded he never break character when in costume and, because he came from a household where one never questioned policy, Gorilla pointed down at the concrete, over to the Jungle Cuts sign, and crossed his arms over his broad, hairy chest as though to say, Pack it in sister, this is my stomping grounds. But Chicken ignored him, turning to face the opposite stream of traffic and shaking her tail feathers in his general direction. To passing motorists, their pantomiming must have looked like a comedy routine they’d worked out, but this was serious business—this foul intruder wasn’t going to take Gorilla’s prime real estate and get away with it; he didn’t care how pretty her feet were. He tapped her on her feathered shoulder and spread his arms in the universal “what-gives” gesture and waited for a response.
Chicken slipped her sandwich board over her head and set it down in front of her and studied the mysterious monkey that had invaded her province. He was a he—of that she was sure; his hands stuck out from the cuffs of his costume, and she could see his blunt fingers and hairy knuckles (hairy with his own hair, a shade or two lighter than the synthetic pelt). Atop his rounded simian head, the black fur had been swept up into a hip faux-hawk and someone had dyed the tips with blue spray paint. When he pointed again, she shrugged (for she, too, had taken a vow of silence and, honestly, didn’t see much point in talking to the gorilla anyway). I was here first, she seemed to say as she slid the sign back around her neck and focused her waving toward a mini-van full of fat kids.
Had they been able to speak to one another, Gorilla and Chicken might have realized that they shared a lot in common. They were both young. Both working to earn money for junior college. Both from middle-class families that found it harder and harder to keep up with the rising income tax each passing year. But their dumb silence conveyed none of this, and with no other recourse for a primate of higher order reasoning, the Gorilla retreated to the opposite, less-visible east side of the mall to sulk and put in his time beneath the sign for The Mattress Castle and Genji’s Happy Hibachi and Sushi Bar.
That night, as he lay in his small bed in the small bedroom in the small home that he would eventually come to think of as his parents’ house, Gorilla fumed. Mssr. Claude had given him hell for moving—as though the appearance of that baffling golden chicken had somehow been his fault. He stared at the posters of old baseball heroes that adorned his walls and thought about the future—a life beyond Jungle Cuts. A life with a real job. One where women would actually notice him and treat him with respect. Not like those salon girls who giggled behind their fingertips whenever he stopped in on his water breaks. He wasn’t a morning person, but he knew he’d have to rise at dawn tomorrow if he were going to beat the early bird that had stolen his spot.
For two weeks, Gorilla and Chicken went back and forth—the fur and the feathers flying. Every day brought on fresh confrontation as each woke earlier to best the other. This dragged on until one evening when Gorilla dozed at the dinner table, splattering his mother’s beef stroganoff on his favorite Aerosmith T-shirt, and Chicken nodded off on her way home from work, drifting her Jetta across the rumble strips that bordered the highway. Both realized there had to be a better way.
The following week, after a long Fourth of July weekend, Gorilla arrived at work to find that someone had shaved the stylish blue faux-hawk from the top of his costume. Meanwhile, Chicken discovered a few edits to her sign, which now read, “Saggy breasts and flabby thighs.” The battle between beast and fowl had reached its nexus, and to make matters worse, Gorilla was pretty sure that somehow, among their primitive power struggle, he’d fallen in love with Chicken’s feet.
When they received news of the damaged props, Mssr. Claude and Sheckles were both furious—their quarrel, which had first spilled over to their workers and had now somehow spilled back, was costing them money—so they gave their respective employees an ultimatum: bury the competition. Neither animal knew what that meant exactly—were they supposed to kill one another or let bygones be bygones? That night, Gorilla tossed and turned in bed, burdened by his boss’s grim demand, and Chicken had a strange dream—King Kong had kidnapped her and, like Fay Wray, carried her to the top of the local water tower where they both proceeded to make animal noises in the dark. She woke clutching her pillow and thinking about his hairy knuckles.
With dawn approaching, both snuck out of their homes—Gorilla carrying a pail of leftover heartthrob red paint he found in the back corner of the garage, and Chicken wielding her father’s acetylene torch. They drove the silent streets of Verona, heading toward the mall, each prepared to put an end to this feud once and for all. Their hazy, ill-conceived plans were highly illegal, and since Northern Jersey is a fairly flat area, neither owned anything remotely close to a black ski mask. Instead, they wore their costumes, thin disguises to conceal their identities. They arrived at nearly the same time—Chicken parking in the rear by the loading docks, Gorilla wheeling into the manager’s spot along the side of the building—and they crossed paths in the dark by accident, nearly running into each other as they stalked the shadowy areas behind the complex.
At first, neither knew how to proceed. They’d caught each other red handed, but what to do about it? The surrealism of the situation—the two of them, half-dressed in uniform, carrying a bucket of paint and a blowtorch, while the pink flesh of dawn just barely broke across the horizon—must have influenced their rash behavior, they would later say. Or maybe it was just summer’s hot, sticky sway. But in the next moment, they found themselves rolling around on a stack of cardboard in the deep black pools by the dumpster, pulling at each other’s costume, fumbling for bare skin. When she pulled his shirt up, Chicken was surprised to find how athletic Gorilla was under all that fake fur. And when she whispered, “Don’t stop” (the first words spoken by either of them), Gorilla thought he caught a hint of accent—Asian maybe? Hispanic? It was hard to tell, her voice still muffled by the polyester chicken head. They pulled off each other’s masks, found the moist crevasse of each other’s lips, and in the hour before daybreak, Chicken and Gorilla worked out the problems plaguing Valley View strip mall.
They buried the competition.
The next day, they shared the tiny traffic island, but to Mssr. Claude and Sheckles, it seemed that both had drawn their lines in the sand, neither willing to give an inch, and the competing franchisers watched proudly from their shop windows, silently imploring their star employees to last, to endure, to win final control of the intersection by means of attrition, if necessary. Gorilla and Chicken were careful to maintain their charade, jostling and taunting, though every so often, when they felt no one was watching, they’d brush one another with the back of a hand or the side of a hip.
This secret arrangement, worked out fine until sometime in early afternoon, when an impatient driver on his way to Purrfect Pets and More swung out of traffic and took the curve into the mall too fast. Gorilla saw the dusty sedan first and grabbed Chicken by the back of her outfit in a vain attempt to pull her away from harm, but there was little he could do. Between the two of them, the island was crowded, and it was the summer of the heat wave, the summer of shimmering pavement and impulsive behavior. The careless driver clipped Chicken’s wing, catching one of her sign straps with the side view mirror and tossing her into the street where she tumbled once and lay still, one of her sandals disappearing among the bushes on the opposite side of the road.
Gorilla leapt to her aid, hunched over his fallen Chicken, long arms dangling between his knees, and to the small crowd that gathered in the parking lot, it looked as though he were guarding her the way animals sometimes do. Mssr. Claude and Sheckles were there, too, among the throng, murmuring quietly. And while both men felt a private complicity in the accident—after all, it was their insistence that neither mascot back down—they each blamed the carelessness of the local drivers, the stubbornness of kids, and the borough of Verona for not installing a much-needed turn signal on such a busy road.
“A fucking tragedy,” Mssr. Claude said.
“Boy, you said it,” said Sheckles.
Meanwhile, in the road, Gorilla leaned close, forgetting about his vow of silence. “Stay with me,” he said, and because he still didn’t know what else to call her, “Please, Chicken, just stay.”
That was over a year ago. Since the accident, costumed mascots have been banned from the Four Points intersection, and a tenuous peace has settled over the Valley View strip mall. Mssr. Claude and Sheckles have moved on to television advertising—30-second cartoon spots that are, by most accounts, clever and well drawn. The Chicken and Monkey suits have been retired to storage closets. And the former wearers—well, they’re anxiously awaiting the turning of the leaves. For this autumn, in exchange for a modest scholarship funded by the Essex County Community College athletics department, they’ll split duties as the fearsome Essex Wolverine, the king—and queen—of all junior college mascots.
Jason Kapcala lives in northern West Virginia along the Monongahela River where he finds inspiration in the frozen industry of Appalachia, and where he offers a series of community writing workshops for nontraditional students living in the Morgantown area. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals like Blueline, The Summerset Review, Santa Clara Review, Yale Anglers’ Journal, Cleaver Magazine, Blue Lake Review, and The Good Men Project. He is currently shopping a novel Hungry Town, and working on his next project, a novel tentatively titled Welcome to Accident about a small-time rock band from a ghost town based on Centralia, Pennsylvania. His website iswww.jasonkapcala.weebly.com.