THE FAMILY FEAST by Abra Pressler

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On the Sunday of a particularly long weekend, I fish the long cardboard box out from under my bed and survey the damage. My housemate’s cat, who has a strange ability to wiggle the latch of the doorknob undone, and an even stranger affection for chewing and spitting pieces of cardboard into small saliva-damp piles under my bed, has gone to town on the thing. I’d kept the box because I was afraid of moving again, and trying to figure out how to dispose of something so large daunted me. I doubt my thought processes were not unlike anyone who had accidentally committed murder – what to do with this large, useless thing now? Cut it into tiny pieces and see if it’ll fit into recycling? Leave it out in the bush where no one will find it and let it break down?

Large unwanted goods of the legal kind are taken in earnest in the ACT, and my local salvageable and recyclables was in Phillip. The rain from the day before had made the cardboard box damp, malleable and smell like dust, so it easily bent upon itself until it could fit undetected in the boot of my car. I drove it to the dump.

Dumps are great places to spend a lot of time, if you don’t mind the smell. The good ones have shops. They’re like any good-will places – spend enough time and you’re bound to find something good. The ones in the city, especially – they got brands like Tony Bianco, Guess, Cooper St for such low prices it ought to be criminal – criminal to sell them that low, or criminal to not know they’re worth a lot more.

Out the front of the dump in Phillip, I threw my cardboard box into the dumpster by hitching it over my shoulder and pegging it as far as I could. It reached the far back corner, hit the steel cage wall and disappeared. Then, I wandered down the muddy driveway over to the dump store. Above the door, a wooden wind chime clonked, caught in a breeze.

Out the front of the dump store, which was an unmanned tin shed, there were red geraniums planted in old truck tyres. Underneath the pagola and next to the wall, was a large-wheeled rusted pram with a rusted frame and stained linen that held a sleeping dolly. Lined up against a window were old glass coke bottles.

The dump shed smelt like most op-shops. The stench of moth balls mixed with dust. It smelt of greens rotting over the hill. It smelt like the pit of animal remains, their juices bursting from plastic bags. The stench reminded you, ‘this is what decay smells like. This is rot. They are becoming dirt and someday you will too.’

There was an old crystal decanter and a few port glasses. Chipped, dusty, grime gathered in balls on sweaty palms. The shed was deep but bright with streaming skylights. There were a few disjointed bicycles, a foot spa (who wouldn’t take that?) and against the wall, a rug rolled up. There were bigger items right at the back. A ladder. A car’s bull-bar. A fibreglass statue of Colonel Sanders. The kind all the KFCs used to have in the 90s.

He was dusty. And old. Loved. His red paint was worn down through the primer and down to the shiny, smooth metal. His chin was chipped. He wore a cold white suit and a black tie. A smile had been moulded into the steel that made him.

Was the Colonel lost? Was there a pedestal near some drive-thru he used to stand, only to suddenly disappear? Perhaps he was missed, a longstanding community ornament? Or was he dumped here, unceremoniously retired after years of service to be melted down at some point and made into pool fencing?

Sometimes childhood memories feel like dreams. Often I have trouble distinguishing one from another. I have a vivid memory of breaking into a neighbour’s house when I was six. My mum had told me to ask the lady something and she hadn’t been home, but her back door had been unlocked so I went in. Her house always smelt of peppermint, and she was the only person I knew who had legos. I think it may be a dream because there’s no beginning, and there’s no end. In the dream, she finds me and I run home to my mum, who is none the wiser, which only cements the dream because my mum knew everything, like all mums do, and I remember feeling drunk, heady, off the fact I’d pulled one over her. There are no consequences, though I know this woman knows my mother well and is only a phone call away. No one speaks of it ever. That’s why I think it’s a dream.

The Colonel was heavy. He couldn’t have been easy to move from the rubbish pile. He couldn’t have been easy to conceal. Had he been wrapped in a tarp, it would have been a different story. Once I took white laundry detergent in a plastic bag in my checked suitcase through the security in Heathrow, so I know what it’s like to have something innocent be accidentally suspicious. I didn’t even notice that I’d done it, but then when I landed in France it wasn’t there and all my clothes were messed up. It’s hard to launder your clothes while backpacking – I had to buy more.
On that trip to the tip, there was a part of me that considered buying him and putting him in my apartment as a novelty. I think he’d be a good conversation starter and a great dedication to how much I love his chicken, but no one comes to my apartment, and I know no one in this new city, and really, I think he’d just scare people off. There’s no price tag. He’s probably not for sale.

He used to be everywhere. I remember him fondly. Him and Ronald McDonald. Sitting on benches, standing by entry-ways, guarding a safe passage to the toilet. That was before Maccas got modern and got the McCafe and KFC tried to up their crusher game. Suddenly the family gimmicks of the 90s were tacky. Everyone wanted that modern fast food look, all wood and pleather booths and flat screen TVs that always played Max on Foxtel. I swear I haven’t seen a guide dog donation dog box in forever. Not now that I can pay for stuff by waving my phone in front of a cashier’s face.

A childhood dream comes back to me, so fast and potent it must be a reality, because I remember, or at least project something that feels of a memory. In this memory, my family are going into a KFC. When we were younger, my dad would always order the same thing – a Family Feast box. I didn’t even knew they did burgers until I was 12.

In this memory, I am around eight, or six. I am old enough to know better, that’s all I know. I have an idea of common sense. At the end of a counter, against the wall, is the Colonel. The tall, white-suited Colonel. My Colonel.

He’s holding a menu. Or a donation box. It’s a donation box, I remember now, but it’s pretty empty.

This time it’s my mum who’s ordering. For some reason, she looks at me – and I don’t know why because we always get the same meal – Family feast, two packets of chips and can we have another coleslaw instead of the potato and gravy? Thank you.

But this time she doesn’t say the scripted order. This time she says, ‘Do you want some chicken?’
And then I look at her and I say, ‘Mum. It’s not chicken.’

In this memory, I can’t remember the look on my mum’s face. There’s just a hole there. That’s the problem with your memory. Faces and names and signs burn from my memory like a squashed cigarette butt, just a black hole and it’s charring, frayed and expanding edges.

‘It is chicken,’ says my mum.
‘No. It’s not. It’s him.’ I point to where the Colonel stands. ‘We’re eating the KFC man.’
‘We’re not eating him. It’s chicken.’
‘I don’t think so. I think it’s human. It’s bits of his body.’

Once I’d been told the Colonel had died, it had sealed the deal for me that they were harvesting parts of his tissue to season and deep fry at all their restaurants. To me, I believed it with the same conviction that I believed Walt Disney was frozen in the basement of the castle, waiting to be released like some kind of Han Solo figure once they’d cured AIDS.

‘Abra. It’s chicken. Go sit down, please.’

I went to go sit down and was convinced that my mother, the teenage cashier, the restaurant, the food industry, the government, they were all lying to me.

When our Family Feast came on the red plastic tray, we all opened our little alcohol wipes and I ate my piece of Colonel – wing and side of breast– I resigned to my six-year-old self that this was what human tasted like: covered in spices and crispy skin, thin, brittle boiled bones, a congealed blood vessel and chewy joint cartilage. And completely convincing myself of that fact, I continued to eat.

***

Abra Pressler writes fiction from her home in South Canberra. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing) from RMIT University, and in previous lives she’s been a chocolate shop girl, grain processor, burger-flipper, hotel maid, and for a while, a teacher in the south of France. From 2012 – 2015, she edited fiction for GORE journal. When she’s not writing, Abra works within the education sector. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter

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