"I'll have one Busy Bee meal please." (Four buns alternating with three patties and lots of mustard.)
"Side of regular fries or garlic?"
A kid with the beginnings of a moustache punches in my order.
"Actually, plain fries."
"Have a date?" he asks.
He lifts his hands and gives me two thumbs up with a side of crooked smile.
“Avoid halitosis,” is Rule No.5 in the Cuddle Manual, a hand-stamped packet covered in a red, fuzzy binding.
After sliding the remains on my purple tray in the trash, I go to the restroom, dragging my bag behind me. I feel like Santa Claus. An old guy using the urinal looks at me when I enter the bathroom. His urine comes out in spurts, like he has something to hide. I change in the handicapped stall; it's the only one that will accommodate my big bag. The sporadic dribbles from the old man come to a halt as I take off my clothes and open the bag. It looks like the remnants of a turkey that shed its skin and waddled toward the nearest coop. I pick up the deflated animal and inspect it.
The zipper is in the back. Major design flaw and something all Cuddlers complain about.
I leave my socks on. You never know what the A/C is going to be like at the places we go to. And it's not like you can ask them to change it. That's Rule No.2 in the Cuddle Manual. “The only thing Cuddlers can say at a Cuddle Party is ‘Yes’ in response to a client’s cuddle request. (Please be sure and learn the sign for ‘I have to go to the bathroom.’)” I've never been docked points for talking, but others have. And docked points equals docked pay. We work on commission. Cindee Carter was suspended for a week for asking a client where she got her shoes.
This turkey cloth is itchier than my last costume. Cheap material. I'll have to buy a spandex suit to wear underneath. Stepping into the red tights, I slide the coarse fabric over my body. My arms enter the wings that are missing a noticeable amount of feathers. I put the turkey head on and exit the bathroom stall to take a look at my new persona.
Old guy is washing his hands. Just the tips of his fingers, really. He stops what he's doing and looks at me. I hope he isn't going to have a heart attack.
"Zip me up?" I turn so my back is facing him. After drying his fingers on his pants he walks over, fiddles with the zipper till it catches, then moves it up my back to the base of my neck.
"Want me to do the eye hook as well?"
I practice nodding like a turkey would nod. Small, but deliberate movements. He fastens the hook, then gives me a gentle pat on the back as though to say, "All done."
I thank him and wave good-bye, though my worn appendage won't rise as high as I'd like.
I look at myself in the mirror, head on, then profile. My beak isn't even made out of shiny plastic. It's felt. And it droops, like an elephant's trunk. Or a compass, pointing south.
Gia Smith’s is only a few blocks away from the burger joint. I've strategically planned this. People stare at me on the street. I bet they assume I started the day with a stack full of colorful flyers in my hand for the latest sandwich shop special or some Save the Environment campaign. As lion, people on the street would slap me five. They'd want to pose with me and take my picture. They’d try to usher me into the bar to buy me a beer. "Please arrive at all Cuddle Parties in costume, ready to begin work” and “Your real identity is to remain a secret at all times,” are Rules No. 3 and 4. They want this to be an authentic experience for participants. Nothing kills a fantasy faster than the stinky, sweaty guy under the costume. Even though I think I clean up nice.
I was one of those wayward kids who wandered into the offices in the basement of the mall over a year ago. Maybe it was my habit of standing really close to the person I’m talking to that clued Captain Kevin in to the fact that I’d make an ideal Cuddler.
“You want a great way to make some extra cash?”
I nodded. Who wouldn’t?
He invited me to spend that night at a Cuddle Party, not as an employee, but as a participant. At first I was self-conscious when I entered the host’s apartment, but everyone was so kind. Monkey was there (who knew I’d be working with him a year later?) and gave me my first hug. I could have stayed there all night. Mikey, tonight’s supervisor, later explained the biological reaction people have to hugging, the intense release of endorphins.
“It’s better than any drug,” he said.
I was hooked.
A husky bouncer at the new locale looks me up and down. He’s there to deal with guests who drink too much. I tell the doorman tonight's passwords, "Phantom limb." He waves me in.
Inside I see Bunny, Monkey, and Chick standing around talking. Most Cuddlers use their real voice when in costume, but Chick masks hers with this high-pitched, fake baby voice. It's kinda cute. I don't know any of their real names or what they actually look like as we all strictly adhere to Rule No.4 and even show up to staff meetings in costume.
"You new?" asks Bunny.
I go to put both arms on my hips, but my wings won't budge. "Are you kidding? It's me!"
Monkey tries to peer through the mesh area hiding my face.
"Lion?" Monkey asks. "What happened to you?"
"How the mighty have fallen," says Bunny. "Looks like I have a good chance of sweeping the leader board tonight!" He high fives Monkey.
Chick puts her wing on my shoulder. "Sorry."
She's always been nice to me.
"I hear we're going to have a full turnout tonight." Chick brushes her yellow leggings with her wings. She’s one of the few who has any actual body shape exposed, although now, I’ve joined her with my turkey legs. The rest of the Cuddlers are all hidden in their oversized costumes. Her costume is made out of real feathers, unlike mine. The friction from all that hugging means she loses a lot of yellow feathers each night and she says she has to buy bags of new ones and glue them on after almost every party.
Mikey bounces into the room.
"Who do we have here! New Cuddler?" he asks me and comes over to shake my wing.
"It's Lion! Can you believe this shit?" Monkey says.
"Wow!" Mikey looks stunned. "I don’t know what to say. Okay, Cuddlers, I want you all to gather in a circle. Our clients will start coming in a few minutes and I want to brief you on the situation."
A puppy and kangaroo I don't know join the circle.
"So, tonight we have mostly return clients, but we do have two new ones, so we're gonna have to go ahead with the Rules Circle."
In middle school I was in a play once. I had what you’d call a supporting role, playing an organ grinder, but before each show, we’d get in a circle and our drama teacher, Mrs. Passomanik, would talk about what a great performance this was going to be and how much she appreciated us. Dad made me quit drama after that one show. He said the army wasn’t looking to recruit thespians.