I haven’t yet made my way through all the Million Writers award stories, but the best so far is Matt Bell’s “Alex Trebek Never Eats Fried Chicken.” This story took me into its world, but also into my own past, which is one of the signs of an incredible story. A reader can only get into a story so deeply by taking a detour through her own life. A story has to be specific enough to trigger body memory, and be clearly envisioned enough that it has its own setting and characters. This story accomplishes this, over and over again.
“After work, I go straight home and throw my single shirt and pair of pants in the washer. They’ve only given me one uniform, and if I want more I have to buy them so I decide to make do with one. Sometimes I fall asleep without taking a shower and wake up to a pillow soaked with the fryer grease that’s trapped in my hair. My whole life becomes a constant cycle of laundry and showering. I smell work everywhere, so I develop a habit of wearing too much cologne that I will never break. I feel like I’m always eating because I’m always around food. I lose my appetite but never any weight. Everyone I work with has pimples from the grease. Our uniforms are shapeless masses meant to fit a wide cross-section of people. We all float inside them, buoyant but never really going anywhere.”
When I was 16, I had just graduated from high school as valedictorian. But I hadn’t been able to get it together to apply to college at all. I thought I’d try to see if I could make a living as a writer, but that proved too intimidating. I got a job at Burger King, and my first day at work happened to be the first day of school.
At my high school, seniors were allowed to drive away to go to lunch, and they flooded the fast food restaurants surrounding the school. I spent all morning dreading the lunch rush. Sure enough, when it happened, they saw me by the fryer, and I heard the frantic whispers going through the line about how last year’s valedictorian was making their chicken sandwiches. I knew that went against everything most of them had ever been told, and half of me was satisfied to have shaken them up as much as I felt shaken up, and the other half of me wanted to go hide in the walk-in freezer.
The three months I worked at Burger King (about exactly as long as the narrator works there in Bell’s story) felt exactly the way the story describes. It was an endless cycle of laundering and showering. I remember the pimples. I remember the tragic people that surrounded me. I did think I was better than some of the people who worked there, because, for me, it was a perverse sort of choice. But the truth was, I wasn’t treated any better than the rest of them. The management had just as many unreasonable requests. Fathers still yelled at me through the drive-through window in front of their children.
What impressed me about Bell’s story is that it evoked this landscape so clearly for me, so that I relived those smells and that body-aching tiredness, and the feeling of grease soaking through my skin and practically into my bones. Then Bell uses that identification for his own purposes. He’s not the kind of writer who’s good at setting but neglects plot. A lot happens in this story. The characters are absolutely believable.
I’ll be curious to see if any of the other stories up for the award can impress me this much.