Behind the Short Story: “Let It Burn”

First, a numbness. A chill that says you shouldn’t have gone and bit in, that something wicked this way comes. The heat does not flood in, yet. It builds. The nose starts to run, and your voice catches. Your body knows only to sweat. Because it’s too late to run. With Nashville hot chicken, the flames pause just that moment before they consume.

Prince’s hot chicken, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Lately, hot chicken has gone from cult food to kind of a thing. Even KFC is in on it–not authentically, mind you. Lest you think I’m the latest bandwagoneer, my 2015 “Let It Burn” submission to Alfred Hitchcock  beat KFC to the punch by some months. The publishing world is itself a sweet, slow burn.

 

I digress. Lester, the sorta-hero of “Burn,” describes hot chicken thusly:

“…with repeated exposure I’d gotten the gist: three parts lard, a jolt of garlic and some old-time religion’s worth of cayenne. I snatched another bite…and the heat of better angels radiated through me. Wing’s Glaze of Glory, good for the soul. In a scouring way.”

Nuclear, Lester calls it. Fried brimstone. A trial by fire.

His last thought there was my initial one in crafting the story. A character in a revelatory fire. The idea kept me going at “Burn” through on-and-off bouts  of despair and rewrite. If cold conceals, extreme heat reveals.

That idea has been done before. As in, a likely one-to-one ratio of Southern writers who’ve used heat-as-metaphor to Southern writers in total. But did they do it with hot chicken? No. And hot chicken brings its rabid fan club who brave the flames less because of the taste (it’s delicious, at least until the tongue goes) but because of its survivor’s endorphin kick waiting on the other side. What if someone needed that heat-and-release? Really depended on it?

A premise, not a plot. Who would find themselves bound to such an oddball dependency? Someone with no small amount of self-loathing. Someone with sins to purge. In “Burn,” Lester the bouncer doesn’t want to be a violent guy. Problem is, most nights Lester wolfs down Chicken Wing Doultrie’s hot chicken punishment because most nights Lester has indulged his core tendencies. “Burn” tells how he finally comes to uneasy terms with who he’ll always be.

Lester’s Nashville

Back in the drafting days of 2014 and 2015, I kept thinking a major theme to “Burn” was redemption, or more like how someone irredeemable might stay on its path. With time. now I wonder if really this isn’t a story of reclamation. Lester reclaims his fate, and fate reclaims him. And it’s all happening in the dying slivers of unreclaimed downtown Nashville. Like our chicken, our fair city is on a roll these days. South of the Broadway honkytonks, a place of rather poor reputation since before the Civil War, strip clubs and light industry eyesores have transformed into luxury condo towers and shiny clean convention centers. A renaissance, the Chamber of Commerce might crow. Loss of habitat, to the indigenous rough breed. Lester is stuck doomed in these last shadows of old Nashville.

Conjuring this world kept me going when “Burn” never wanted to hang straight. I love this story’s mood. Not noir, but maybe noir-ish in its fatalism. But embracing its inherent humor and the semi-mysticism swirling around food truck sensei Chicken Wing Doultrie. “Burn” is its own trapped world, Lester’s world, whether he likes it or not. At least he has Wing’s brimstone chicken to keep him more-or-less sane, if hardly gentle.

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Chicken Nuggets (yes, I went there):
  • Hot chicken’s heat is in the chili paste rubbed and fried into the skin. It’s ordered typically whole, half, quarter white or quarter dark. There will be a piece of white bread, but don’t get fooled thinking bread offers the least mercy. It’s a pure pepper sponge.
  • Before the TV show and the hipsters and KFC, mostly a hardy few in-the-know stood in long lines to chow down and sweat out. You might find longer lines for biscuits or pancakes. So now is an overnight success decades in the making: Prince’s is the original (invented as a surprise punishment for a wayward husband–except he loved it), but with good cause Hattie B’s has its army of devotees.
  • Sticking to tradition, Wing would have had a neighborhood shack, not a food truck. It felt better to have him mobile, so that Lester had to work to find him.
  • There’s hot fish, too. Doesn’t feel as literary, does it? I stuck with chicken.

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