Colonel Sanders in Extremis
Colonel Sanders stood outside using the glass door like a mirror. He straightened the black necktie and brushed a bit of lint from his sleeve. “Fucking white suit,” he said. Then the old man cleared his throat and entered the restaurant door, which he shed like a magician’s handkerchief. He became the smiling grandfather, full of good will and good chicken. A five-year-old boy saw him first and hid behind his mother’s leg. It was a good spot, Colonel Sanders thought, like crouching behind a plaid oak stump.
“Thank y’all for coming to try my chicken,” he intoned. His voice did a good job of filling the room, but few people made eye contact. Sometimes it was like that.
Johnson came up from behind and practically goosed him. “Work the crowd now, Colonel, work the crowd,” he said, as he sailed over to the condiment island and began replenishing the napkins.
“Johnson can suck my old gray cock,” the colonel thought. Then he paused to make sure his face still fit the mask of the southern gentleman, the man with the secret recipe. “My chicken is always crispy,” he croaked. “I do declare.”
The women were more tolerant of his presence than the men. He knew it would be otherwise if he was just playing at being old. But he was 79 that month. No need to bleach his goatee white, no need to add gravel to his voice. He sidled up to a young woman in her thirties. She had large breasts, which is what the colonel liked best. “Well that chicken looks finger-lickin’ good,” he said as he stared into the half-devoured bucket she was sharing with her friend. He circled around to see if he could sneak a peek down the undone buttons of her blouse. “Those thighs look delicious.”
“Why thank you, Colonel,” she said, giggling to her friend.
The men could be cruel, and it was unnerving how often they zeroed in on the goatee. He had worn it for decades. It’s what got him the job. “Do the ladies like the feel of that goatee as they’re sittin’ on your face?” they’d ask. “Your sister liked it mighty fine” was the answer that got Johnson to report him, but there were no backup colonels to be had, and so, as with most things, there were no repercussions.
Johnson looked up from the now fully loaded napkin dispensers and twirled his finger in the air beside his face. It was the signal every store manager used to convey that Colonel Sanders needed to keep moving around the dining area. The colonel headed to the next table, but only to try his luck from a different angle.
The colonel was on loan from corporate. He spent an hour a day at six different KFCs in the Hartford area. It was a publicity stunt, though “stunt” wasn’t the right word. It had all the agility and surprise of a body double losing his balance and hitting one branch after another as he plummeted to the ground. When his hour was up, he’d get into a van shaped like a fried chicken leg, and head to the next KFC.
“KFC,” he thought. “Why did they change the name? Goddamn initials. Do people want IBM to make their dinners?”
When he was done interrupting people’s meals and leering at the women, he left without saying anything to Johnson. He was pleased to know he’d never have to see his pimply neck again. Out in the parking lot, the colonel snuck a smoke beside the dumpsters. He’d already been reprimanded for smoking in the van, but he refused to give it up entirely. His departure routine also included a swig of whiskey.
Finally, before he got into the van, he took out a handkerchief and cleaned his glasses. His eyes were still good, so headquarters had given him a pair with flat lenses. He was forever having to wipe the dandruff off of them. He considered popping the lenses out, but he had heard they check for that. The whole point of the promotion was to let people meet a real Colonel Sanders. Everything had to be authentic, which is why he didn’t feel bad about splurging on the flask — stainless steel, with a rifle and a dog etched into it across a silhouette of Kentucky. He filled it each morning with sour mash. “Something befitting a colonel,” he said to himself.
On the way to the next restaurant, he got caught in traffic. It happened every day. People were always honking and pointing, laughing at the man who hadn’t planned well for retirement. On this occasion, he got mooned by some Catholic school girls headed home on the bus. That part he didn’t mind. They were all cute, and their smiles were both wanton and chaste. He believed their future was bright.
Colonel Sanders pulled into the last KFC of the day. In fact, it was the last stop of the entire promotion. He had half a flask of whiskey left, and he drained it on the spot. “Let them fire me,” he said out loud. It was dinnertime on Friday, just outside of Cheshire. He was a little late, and the manager met him in the parking lot. “Come on now, Colonel. Let’s get moving.”
“I got caught on 84,” he said in his native, New Jersey voice. It was an effort, sometimes, to speak the way he’d been born. Even when he wasn’t wearing the suit, he felt the drawl creeping into his voice. The campaign had been going for two straight months, weekends included, and he felt like he was living the part. Of course, he could never get away with his Sanders voice in the actual south. Corporate had real southern gentlemen for that. But here in Connecticut, the diners never questioned his adopted voice, even though he had arrived at it simply by trying to sound as stupid as possible. He imitated the woman from Georgia who lived in the apartment beside his own. She was a bit of a hag, and she was forever screaming at her kids about their lice and the loud TV. She said things like “hoppin’ mad” and “crooked as a dog’s hind leg.” He tried to use these expressions when he was in character. He was an actor, after all, and he knew that every role required study — however small, however meager the recompense.
Inside the restaurant, a small crowd was waiting for him. The women all had children, and a couple of flashes went off as he came through the glass door. “Well, well,” he said. “Looky what we have here.” He said this last word in two syllables. It was the kind of exaggeration that would get his ass kicked in Kentucky, but here among the Yankees, it went unremarked. To them, his accent was just as good as the clothes, and the clothes were authentic. Initially he worried they would make him wear polyester, like the cooks and cash register girls. But he was a man apart. His costume had to be dry-cleaned — and they made it clear that it was his bill to pay. It was for this reason he never ate the chicken they sometimes offered. It was just too messy, and he was always in a rush. What did he care about a ten percent discount anyhow?
Colonel Sanders shook hands with the toddlers, and paid extra attention to the kids with good-looking mothers. He was feeling the whiskey now, and he asked if they might have any questions, figuring he’d get the same old stuff about the secret recipe and where his first store opened. He had memorized all the answers off a laminated sheet taped to the dashboard of the van.
One kid called him Captain Sanders, and he corrected him. “I’m a colonel, my boy. A colonel from the south!”
Another kid piped up: “Were you in a war?”
“Why yes I was, son. Yes I was.”
“Was it the Civil War?” he asked, and a small tittering arose among the mothers.
“No, no, no,” he pretend-laughed. “I was in the Korean War,” which he pronounced as “KO RE un” in his pretend accent, realizing as he said it that he had broken character. He whipped around to see if the manager had caught it.
“Did you have to kill any Koreans?” a boy of about 8 asked, pronouncing the strange new word exactly as the colonel had.
“Bobby!” hissed his mother. “That’s not polite.” She gave his shoulder a pinch as she held onto him, and it was plain he got the message — he looked like he might even cry. Colonel Sanders usually couldn’t be bothered with such children. But the boy’s mother was practically falling out of her blouse, and he admired the blush that spread across her bosom. Plus, she was wearing yoga pants, and Colonel Sanders was curious to see what she looked like from behind.
“That’s alright, my dear. The young’uns always ask the most pointed questions. Their innocence commands them!” He liked the way that sounded, especially with the accent.
In point of fact, Colonel Sanders had killed people in Korea. On several occasions, he had fired into throngs of charging enemy soldiers, and though he shot wildly, he had always assumed that some of his bullets hit some of the people headed toward him with silvery bayonets. But the only person he was really sure about was when he had checkpoint duty. A woman was running toward him, as if she were scared of something behind her in the dark, but he worried that she was a saboteur. When she didn’t stop on his command, he shot at her. The third bullet took her down twenty feet in front of him, but the adrenaline and fear made him keep shooting. He was a private at the time, and she turned out to be just a girl. Maybe 15. He’d gotten a formal reprimand for that.
“There are no good choices in war, son,” he drawled. He was feeling the full effect of the whiskey now, and he stumbled against an empty chair. He started to get misty, standing in the middle of a dining room, surrounded by the town’s soccer moms, a toddler in every lap. He wasn’t actually crying, but it was enough to ruin everyone’s appetite for the extra-crispy special they had going.
And then, because he was tired, and because he was suddenly very drunk, he said in his real voice — his cynical, New Jersey, know-it-all voice — that men go to war despite the shame and the terror, because they believe the women they leave behind will remain faithful to them, that they won’t take up with men who have bone spurs and heart murmurs. “But expecting women to keep their legs crossed is folly,” he said. “Sheer and utter folly.”
The manager was staring at him now, drawing a finger across his own neck to make it clear the colonel should shut up. Despite everything, Colonel Sanders recovered himself. He was a professional after all. He forced the drawl back into his voice and began to say farewell as the women collected their children and headed for the door. He took a last lingering look as they departed. It was touching how they had arranged themselves, like they were the audience, like they were watching a little play. Now they avoided his eyes, and some of them seemed to pity him, which was a foreign and not altogether unpleasant thing. The women had looked delicious as they sat there listening. They were yet another thing he would not have time to taste.
Charles Rafferty’s most recent collections of poems are The Smoke of Horses (BOA Editions, 2017) and Something an Atheist Might Bring Up at a Cocktail Party (Mayapple Press, 2018). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review and New World Writing, and his story collection is Saturday Night at Magellan’s (Fomite Press, 2013). He has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, as well as the 2016 NANO Fiction Prize. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College and teaches at the Westport Writers’ Workshop.