"Dark Meat Chicken" by Calvin Dark (NC Folklore Journal)

calvindark

If life ever leads you down Highway 64 West, you will either visit the Big City or pass right on through it. (We, the residents of the Big City, have long come to terms with the greater likelihood of the latter itinerary.) But, one thing we know for sure is that you will stop. We have one very strategically placed stoplight.

North Carolina

Folklore Journal

Winter - Spring & Summer - Fall 2017-8 | 64.1-2


47

North Carolina Folklore Journal 64.1-2

Dark Meat Chicken

by Calvin Dark

I

f life ever leads you down Highway 64 West, you will either visit the Big City or pass

right on through it. (We, the residents of the Big City, have long come to terms with the

greater likelihood of the latter itinerary.) But, one thing we know for sure is that you

will stop.

We have one very strategically placed stoplight.

And during those precious moments while you ponder—not your greater journey, but exactly

when our one stoplight will change—you will feel as if time has stopped. (In all actuality, time is

still moving in the Big City, just not at the breakneck speeds to which you are accustomed.) For a

moment, you will see what we see; hear what we hear; smell what we call home. You will either be

overwhelmed by sensations so utterly unfamiliar or memories so incredibly intimate. And, teetering

on that distinction rests the answer to the question of whether you will stay a spell or press on to

more exciting municipalities along Highway 64 West—like Asheboro, Henderson or even Climax.

Of course, as in so many of life’s Big decisions, your choice will be influenced by the irresistible

smell of fried chicken.

And think not that the savory smell seeping right up to

your nose is a mere culinary happenstance. That delicious aroma

is the brainchild of the Big City’s keenest businessman, Mr. Toddy

Patterson, revered proprietor of the Big City Café located off

Highway 64 West, just feet beyond the stoplight.

We have one very

strategically placed

stoplight.

First, know ye that the Big City Café is more than a restaurant. It is the illustrious watering

hole of our Big fish. (True, even our biggest whopper wouldn’t make a wave in the vast oceans

from which you hail, but that should not deny them the same powerful honorific.) Within the confines

of that small brick building whose impressive plate glass window looks out onto a real paved

parking lot, our movers and shakers—the owner of the Ford place, the doctor, the lawyer and the

almighty members of the Town Board—assemble to debate and decide the laws which set the pace

in the Big City. And the oil which greases the wheels of this history-steeped collaboration is Mr.

Toddy Patterson’s uncommonly delicious fried chicken.

Second, be ye not deceived; the Big City is not a one-fried-chicken-restaurant town. (The

proud proprietors of Brownie Lu’s and The Copper Penny would take awful offense at such an assumption.)

But even they admit that their modest gastronomic ventures are no real competition for

the Big City Café. After all, neither of those owners had mastered the three principles of a successful

enterprise as Mr. Toddy Patterson had.

Mr. Toddy Patterson understood the importance of location. (The Big City Café was cleverly

located along Highway 64 West, while Brownie Lu’s and The Copper Penny were downtown—an

area generally unknown and almost exclusively avoided by good-tipping out-of-town visitors.)

Mr. Toddy Patterson appreciated the value of innovation. (The Big City Café used an industrial-sized,

stainless steel, state-of-the-art deep fryer, while Brownie Lu’s and The Copper Penny could

only afford cast-iron frying pans and grease.)

But it was that third tenet upon which Mr. Toddy Patterson relied most heavily—

pigmentation. (Mr. Toddy Patterson was acutely aware of the power that skin color had on behavior—an

awareness which inspired his most treasured theory.)

“Any nigger who can pay my prices won’t act like one,” postulated the Big City’s bona fide

financial expert on the de-niggerfying effect of cash. Even entrepreneurial novices know that nothing

drives away good-paying customers like the loud, uncouth, uncivilized, mongrel behavior of a


Winter – Spring & Summer – Fall 2017-8 48

nigger. And these same realize that cold, hard cash is the only cure for Nature’s affliction. (The

barebones business plans of Brownie Lu’s and The Copper Penny demanded they welcome all paying

clients—white and black, nigger and civilized.)

Thus, Mr. Toddy Patterson set his prices high in accordance with his theory that a certain

level of spending capability assuages the natural tendencies of skin. It’s that type of clear business

savvy that won the admiration of the Town Board and secured its first and only unanimous vote on

where to place our one stoplight.

Of course, this municipal recognition was not at all pleasing to the proprietors of Brownie

Lu’s and The Copper Penny.

. . .

W

e, the Darks, are inhabitants of the Big City and our designated slice of this earthly

heaven is denominated the Dark Side. We are Darks because that’s the name bestowed

upon us—to make sure folks remember that we aren’t white.

If life leads you to venture off Highway 64 West to the Dark Side, our worn dirt paths and

unofficial passageways seem worlds away from that signature scent and that lone, powerful stoplight.

(Darks know good and well that sometimes just a few miles constitute a seemingly untraversable distance.)

On the Dark Side, you’ll either be struck by that which is unfamiliar or taken back to a place

you forgot. And, if you are drawn to tarry, you might need an intermediary to accompany you.

That’s when the services of Mr. Johnny Turner—the second keenest businessman in the Big

City—come in handy.

Now, Mr. Johnny Turner isn’t a professed prodigy of Mr. Toddy Patterson, but the success

of his enterprise demonstrated an acute understanding of those three proven tenets. Mr. Johnny

Turner understood the importance of being on the move. (He transacted business in a multitude of

locations—from black folks’ porches and driveways to black folks’ fellowship halls and shade trees.)

Mr. Johnny Turner appreciated the value of undertaking the undesirable. (Inspired by good white

folks’ aversion of the Dark Side, he stumbled upon innovation—offering to collect black folks’ payments,

serve black folks notices and answer black folks’ questions with white folks’ answers.)

But, Mr. Johnny Turner’s livelihood depended most heavily on his indiscriminate source of

income. (He was not naïve to the significance of pigmentation—for even his enterprise was focused

on a singular hue.)

“I’ll take money from a white hand or a black one—as long as it’s green,” was Mr. Johnny

Turner’s well-known motto—a theory he preferred to call the down-right equalizing effect of cash.


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North Carolina Folklore Journal 64.1-2

Even the least business-savvy knows that nothing shakes the foundation of the insured or plunges

the sickly further into malaise like seeing the wild, untamed, vulgar comportment of a nigger in the

respectable offices of the good white business folk they trust. It was a very necessary business expense

to employ the services of Mr. Johnny Turner who was more than willing, for a modest fee, to

brave those unpredictable jungles and take care of his fellow white folks’ business on their behalf.

Unlike Mr. Toddy Patterson, Mr. Johnny Turner had no competition—real or otherwise—

and this very profitable arrangement kept good white folks in their comfortable places and kept Mr.

Johnny Turner in the black.

. . .

N

ow, there was no mistaking the arrival of Mr. Johnny Turner. His visits were always

perfectly timed on the wings of prosperity. (Not that black folks had many

prosperous times, but Mr. Johnny Turner kept up with them all and never missed

an opportunity to cash in.) And, most of all, no one else—black or white—would be riding through

the Dark Side in such a fine, fancy green Chevrolet Bel Air.

And sometimes, collecting a payment or serving a notice or supplying a difficult answer

proved such a challenge that even our respected intermediary needed an intermediary to accomplish

his mission. That’s where Melvin came in. True, Melvin was black, but he had worked in the shadows

of the white folks downtown long enough to learn some of their ways. Truer still, Melvin was

on the move too. He, like everybody else, knew that the only way up was on the white man’s ladder.

And, truest of all, the fact that a black man was at the white man’s side made some of those payment

pills a little easier to swallow.

And it was the kind of win-win situation that we grew accustomed to in the Big City—white

folks are comfortable, black folks are tolerable and Melvin got a nice little commission from Mr.

Johnny Turner.

This particular day had been a busy, and thus, profitable one for Mr. Johnny Turner and, by

extension, for Melvin. So busy, in fact, that it was late in the afternoon before the two regained

Highway 64 West towards downtown. Intense late afternoon hunger caught both Mr. Johnny

Turner and Melvin at the same time that lone stoplight did. Though the windows in the big green

Chevrolet Bel Air were tightly sealed, the captivating smell of fried chicken—and the allure of its

purchase—penetrated the glass.

“Mr. Johnny Turner, I b’lieve I wants some fried chicken,” Melvin said. (This was not the

first time the smell of Mr. Toddy Patterson’s high priced fried chicken had tempted Melvin, but it

was the first occasion which coincided with a busy day’s commission.)

“Mr. Johnny Turner, I

b’lieve I wants some fried

chicken,” Melvin said.

As our stoplight beckoned a period of reflection,

Mr. Johnny Turner made convincing cases for

Mr. Toddy Patterson’s feeble competition. He reminded

Melvin that on this particular day, the special

at Brownie Lu’s was collard greens and cornbread—

perfect side dishes for a piece of their fried chicken.

And, when Mr. Johnny Turner saw that Melvin remained unpersuaded, he extolled The Copper

Penny which boasted, hands down, the best iced tea around. But these words too succumbed

somewhere in that thick good-fried-chicken soaked air.

Then the stoplight turned green.

“Naw, sir,” Melvin said, his mouth watering for the unprecedented. “I aim to try me some

of Mr. Toddy Patterson’s fried chicken that I done heard such a heap about.”


Winter – Spring & Summer – Fall 2017-8 50

Now the sun was low in the sky as it shown down on

Highway 64 West. The sun’s glare was so powerful against that

big, plate glass window that Mr. Toddy Patterson barely even

noticed the arrival of his two late afternoon patrons. (And truth

be told, the lunch rush was over and the supper clientele had

yet to arrive, so the emptiness of his restaurant had caused Mr.

Toddy Patterson to nearly doze off.) In fact, Mr. Johnny

Turner and Melvin were only inches across the counter from

Mr. Toddy Patterson when he saw them. Mr. Toddy Patterson

looked Melvin right smack in the eyes, raised his hand and

pointed to the menu above his head—specifically at those astronomical

prices beside the Big City Café delicacies.

Melvin looked up at the menu, contemplated those unprecedented

numbers, touched his pocket and his day’s earnings,

then stared right back.

“Sir, I’d like me a piece of fried chicken, please,” Melvin

said for the very first time in the Big City Café. He then laid

the requisite, inordinate sum on the counter.

“That so, boy?” Mr. Toddy Patterson sneered as he took the money and scowled at Mr.

Johnny Turner—an apparent traitor and ineffective intermediary. “Comin’ right up.”

As the rays from the setting sun traversed that great plate glass window and illuminated that

precious stainless steel deep fryer, Mr. Toddy Patterson lifted his hands in supplication and bowed

his head. Once righteously emboldened, Mr. Toddy Patterson pulled a lever and that magical grease

began to stir. He opened the refrigerator and withdrew a fresh, pink piece of poultry (which, at this

point, was no different than the same dead birds delivered to Brownie Lu’s and The Copper Penny).

While still in its mortal state, Mr. Toddy Patterson applied a floury robe and sprinkled thereupon salt

and pepper. Then, in a movement of grace and power little different than those Rev. Uncle Simmons

used to baptize newly converted souls in the shallow waters just off the banks of the Rocky

River, Mr. Toddy Patterson dipped that ordinary flesh into the purifying grease. (There was never a

consensus among Big City theologians over which baptismal process—or their performers—was

more Holy Ghost blessed.)

And, right there in the setting sun, all three were mesmerized by the irresistible smell and

heavenly sound of that piece of chicken shedding this here earthly form to be converted.

But then, too much time passed. (Too long for a baptism of any kind, even a cleansing of a

lifetime of transgressions.)

“Mr. Patterson, is my chicken ‘bout done?” Melvin inquired.

“Not yet, boy,” Mr. Toddy Patterson replied without taking one look at that bird submerged

in that deep fryer.

For another good while, Mr. Toddy Patterson, Mr. Johnny Turner and Melvin stood around

that counter under that powerful sign—the only sound to be heard was the intensifying popping of

the grease which nearly drowned out the bustle, then pause, of obedient passersby.

“Mr. Patterson, I b’lieve my chicken is good and ready by now,” Melvin said.

“Boy, I’ll tell you when it’s time,” Mr. Toddy Patterson said.

By then, the smell that began to soak the air was quite unfamiliar in the Big City and proved

so repugnant that it would have tempted anxious travelers to speed through our stoplight to more

exciting and pleasantly aromaed destinations.

“Look Toddy, I’ve got to get up the road, ain’t that chicken done yet?” Mr. Johnny Turner

asked the only keener businessman he knew.


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North Carolina Folklore Journal 64.1-2

Mr. Toddy Patterson glared then nodded at Mr.

Johnny Turner. He then reached for his special pair of

tongs hanging beside the deep fryer and fished around in

that boiling vat until he withdrew the charred remains of

a poor, disintegrated piece of chicken. Mr. Toddy Patterson

flung the smoldering mass on a paper plate across the

counter towards Melvin. The plate landed on the floor in

“It wasn’t worth it,

Melvin. You’d a been

right to do it, but it just

wasn’t worth it.”

a dust of volcanic ash as the three stared at the thoroughly cremated creature which had cost Melvin

a good chunk of his earned profits for the day.

It was at that moment, when nature prevailed. An uncontrollable innate urge rose up in Melvin

and manifested so very clearly upon his visage. To the common eye—or rather to the trained

one, as Mr. Toddy Patterson would postulate— it was clear that Melvin was about to act a fool.

And he did.

Like a wild animal, Melvin leaped over the counter—knocking down that mighty sign in the

process—and grasped Mr. Toddy Patterson’s neck as if he was the condemned fowl and Melvin, an

expedient slaughterer. He then swung Mr. Toddy Patterson’s futilely writhing body towards that

great deep fryer, still filled with popping hot grease.

“Melvin, stop!” Mr. Johnny Turner hollered as he jumped over the counter. “It ain’t worth

it, Melvin! You’d be right to do it, but it ain’t worth it!”

Mr. Johnny Turner pleaded and pleaded until Mr. Toddy Patterson was loosed and spared a

scalding baptism.

All the way back to the Dark Side in that big, fancy green Chevrolet Bel Air, Mr. Johnny

Turner repeated over and over just about the wisest piece of advice we’ve ever heard.

“It wasn’t worth it, Melvin. You’d a been right to do it, but it just wasn’t worth it.”

. . .

T

ime, much like the travelers along Highway 64 West, moves steadily along and change

is never that far behind. No law or mighty sign, history-steeped collaboration or

stoplight can forever impede time’s faithful traveling companion. (While often perturbed

by this precept, no one in the Big City holds illusions of being exempt from it.)

Before long, the Big City Café wasn’t the exclusive home of a magic deep fryer. Brownie

Lu’s and The Copper Penny soon made the same wise investment and started serving up fried

chicken that, for the first time, rivaled Mr. Toddy Patterson’s.

But, trust and believe, Mr. Toddy Patterson—the Big City’s expert in innovation—maintained

his revered title by making a second wise business investment.

A new shiny gas pump.

Mr. Toddy Patterson was keenly aware that at some point during your travels along Highway

64 West, you will require either tasty, deep-fried chicken or good, clean gasoline—and for the sake

of Mr. Toddy Patterson’s bottom line, hopefully both. (Thanks to this innovation, another tenet

was added to his prized strategy: desperation – the inevitable need for either fried chicken or gasoline.)

This particular afternoon, the sun was going down along Highway 64 West and Mr. Toddy

Patterson stood before that big plate glass window, dreaming of a mighty suppertime rush. He

smiled with pride as he turned his gaze towards another wise purchase he had made to ensure his

business’ superiority—a mighty blinking neon sign which alerted the weary traveler of good, clean

gasoline almost as effectively as that famous smell beckoned a respite.

But much to his dismay—on this day—those magical lights were not blinking.


Winter – Spring & Summer – Fall 2017-8 52

Now, Mr. Toddy Patterson was fully and keenly

aware that it was the combined magnetic forces of the

good smell of fried chicken and those blinking bright

lights that ensured his corporate survival. So, he rushed

outside to the huge metal canopy constructed over that

moneymaking pump to find the electric line detached

from the transformer high above. (Incidentally, it was

that the same power line which gave life to our stoplight.)

Had it not been so near the critical suppertime

hour, Mr. Toddy Patterson would have called on professionals.

But, the thought of losing the business of

even one weary traveler convinced Mr. Toddy Patterson

that he could remedy the situation himself.

So, he went around to the back of the Big City Café, grabbed a steel ladder and marched defiantly

towards the frayed wire dangling from the huge—yet temporarily extinguished—neon sign.

O, saints and friends, if only Mr. Toddy Patterson’s connaissance of electric wiring had been

half that of successful business venturing! Just as he climbed that ladder and reached for that dangling

cord, a queer, reckoning wind began to blow. (Mr. Toddy Patterson did indeed feel that stirring

breeze, but his keen business sense erroneously led him to assume it was approaching commerce

making its way along Highway 64 West.) But when this mighty wind reached our stoplight, it heeded

not and turned immediately into the parking lot of the Big City Café. It took ahold of that frayed

wire and possessed it so thoroughly that it writhed and slithered—sparkling in that setting sun.

And just as quickly as it had arrived, that queer, reckoning wind regained Highway 64 West

and continued on to its more exciting destinations like Asheboro, Henderson and even Climax.

In the blink of an eye, those tiny little sparks turned to mighty flames when they landed on

Mr. Toddy Patterson’s heavily saturated clothing. (Thanks to a particularly good lunch crowd, his

shirt and apron were thoroughly coated with grease from having stood before that magical deep fryer.)

Instantly ignited, Mr. Toddy Patterson leaped from the ladder, dancing and screaming wildly—

causing quite the spectacle in the parking lot of the Big City Café.

Just then, brothers Pete and Larry Curry—the Big City’s first and only black volunteer firefighters—had

just halted dutifully before our stoplight. They saw the dancing ball of flames and

swung their truck into the parking lot of the Big City Café. Pete jumped out, ran inside and yanked

a tablecloth from a table. When he returned, Larry grabbed one end of the tablecloth while Pete

held the other and they cornered Mr. Toddy Patterson, pouncing upon him in an attempt to smother

the flames. Wrapping him tight as a link of homemade sausage, the Curry brothers rolled and

tumbled Mr. Toddy Patterson around the parking lot until he extinguished. (This incredible sight

did not go unnoticed by the passersby on Highway 64 West—neither did that odd aroma, which

smelled slightly different from the usual deep fried delicacy.)

Later that evening, folks who had arrived from places far and wide all along Highway 64

West were taken aback by that disintegrated carcass. Several openly remarked that they had never

seen meat so thoroughly charred from its bone.

But Melvin had. Though never at Brownie Lu’s or The Copper Penny. n

_______________________________

Calvin Dark graduated from Duke University and was a Fulbright Scholar to Morocco. Calvin is the author of

Tales from My Dark Side, a collection of short stories about the Darks, a Siler City, North Carolina family. He

resides in Washington, DC where he writes and is president of CD Global Strategies Group, a public relations firm.

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