Following the decline of his band’s popularity, Link Ouray’s family started asking him why he kept playing solo shows to unappreciative drunks in such grimy, good-for-nothing clubs, and Link always told them the same thing: “I wasn’t born to shovel slop for The Man at some fried chicken stand.” He was a man of few words. That’s why he played instrumental music. And he refused to believe that he could have spent the last decade making a name for himself as one of rock’s golden boys only to fall back into the bleak 9-to-5 cooking jobs of his blue collar adolescence. Yet here he was, hunched over a vat of roiling peanut oil, flipping birds at The One and Only Lloyd’s Fried Chicken Shack in deep eastern Arkansas.
“Order up!” In addition to the pink Formica counter and walls covered with autographed celebrity photos, Lloyd’s was home to the “hollered out order.” Over the clamor of customer chatter Lloyd howled, “Three piece bird, one biscuit, two sides!” Lloyd was the manager. He and his wife Shelly co-owned the place.
In rapid succession, Link dunked a breast, wing and thigh into the cast-iron skillet, piled two perfectly shaped cones of collard greens and mashed potatoes on a plate then, seconds shy of overcooking, flipped the chicken in time to seal all its juices in the crisp, seasoned skin that made Lloyd’s famous. If the otherworldly batter had built The Shack’s reputation, then Link was the custodian of its standing. Without a skilled cook, no batter mattered. Frying chicken was an art. Like playing loud rock guitar, it was all heat and timing.
With a twist of the tongs, Link yanked the steaming meat from the oil and nestled it on a plate. “Order up!”
He was born Jensen Remington Snodgrass, but he so idolized the musician Link Wray that he legally changed his name to Link at age sixteen when he and three friends formed their cover band The Missing Links. They were kids. But their ages and matching leather biker jackets won them enough local notoriety that the Los Angeles tiki bar Vicious Vick’s soon offered them a regular weekly spot. So they moved from Colorado to LA, and after a few years the band rebranded themselves The Jack Rippers and started writing their own material. They jumped from an indie label to the majors. Recorded album after album. Made cable TV appearances and toured the country opening for everyone from Willy Nelson to T-Bone Burnett. But eventually the kitschy novelty of rock instrumentals wore off, and fans started complaining that a lot of surf songs sounded the same. Twangy riffs, reverby effects, using the so-called “whammy bar”—where was the variety? At concerts audience members scratched their heads and asked each other: didn’t they just play this one? Link told journalists they weren’t a surf band. “We play rock and roll,” he said. “Listen closer.” But that was the problem: by then, people had quit listening.
When the band finally broke up, Link performed solo around LA. He set up a website, lost weight, drank too much. Years passed. His family called to check on him. The tour page of his website listed venues with names like “Lo Sum Dumpling House” and “The Filthy Flutist Lounge.” He told his family that he was fine, that he was on his way “back up,” but he was so broke he could no longer afford cigarettes and barely made rent. Drunks yelled at him at gigs and spilled beer on his equipment. One stole his effects pedal right off the stage. At age thirty-four, after an especially grueling gig at a dump in West Covina, he finally admitted that music no longer seemed a viable career option. So, just as he always had, he ran away. Split. And hid down in Oxbow, Arkansas at Lloyd’s Fried Chicken to escape his troubles and try to stage a comeback.
Along with countless other traveling musicians, Link had been a Lloyd’s regular during the years when he toured. Thanks to frequent visits, Lloyd knew Link by name, had occasionally mailed him Ziploc bags full of batter to cook with, even had an autographed band photo hanging on the wall among the hundreds of band photos. So after Link made one pitiful phone call asking for work, Lloyd hired him to cook. Lloyd’s wife Shelly was tired and needed a break anyway. The couple worked seven days a week. Now, with Link at the skillet, Shelly could focus on baking the biscuits, doing paperwork, and enjoy some time off.
On this Thursday evening, Lloyd grabbed the plates of food from the cooking station and rushed them to hungry diners. “Hey hey,” he told the crowd waiting by the door. “We’ve got birds with your names on ’em.”
People came from miles around to indulge in that chicken. Memphis tourists made special detours to visit Lloyd’s. Cross-country travelers followed windy country roads south of I-40 to reach the restaurant. Other folks drove from as far away as Oxford, Mississippi and Fort Smith, Arkansas to savor Lloyd’s batter. That recipe had put his two kids through college, afforded him and Shelly a small historic house and a cabin in the Ouachitas, which was why Lloyd guarded the recipe with more care than most people guarded their debit card pin numbers.
A sweet smelling fog of atomized grease slicked the inside of the building and everyone in it. Dense with the nutty aroma of flour and oil, the interior echoed with the din of thirty-plus patrons smacking and chatting, of silverware clinking and ice rattling in glasses.
A herd of antsy patrons huddled by the register and spilled out the door. Children, truckers and soybean farmers, a van’s worth of elderly residents from the Helena Acres Nursing Facility—all cramped at the entrance, staring at other diners. Lloyd handed them glasses of water and sweet tea, assuring them he’d have them seated shortly. No one complained. The building was tiny, the lunch counter small. Combined with its legendarily limited table space, the fact that the restaurant didn’t take reservations meant that the thirty-minute wait was as central to the Lloyd’s experience as the chicken. Lloyd called the delay “gastronomic foreplay,” the salivation before gratification, which made the release of grease that much more satisfying. His brother Buck saw it differently.
“It’s called throwin’ money away, is what it is.” Buck worked weekends when Link had off, but he was always hanging around eating free food. The brothers weren’t close. After prison released Buck for his last larceny conviction, Lloyd hired him to get him back on his feet. With his record discolored by thirty-plus years of petty crime, the local thrift store was the only other business that would risk employing Buck, and they barely assigned him twenty hours per week. Being a sucker for the bruised and battered, Lloyd took his brother under his wing, letting him mop floors, bus tables, clean the greasy ceiling vents and empty the trash. If Link was the custodian of The Shack’s reputation, then Buck was just the custodian. Sometimes he also filled drink orders and set silverware and placemats, but mostly, he cleaned. And like Link, once he got hired, Buck had never left.
“Order up!” Link set down three fresh plates of food, and Lloyd whisked them away.
Having been the black sheep of the family his whole life, Buck was now trying to remake his image. Lately he fancied himself an idea man and was always urging Lloyd: get a bigger building. Provide outside seating. Knock down a wall to build an addition. Convert the scruffy office into a dining area. Anything to increase profitability. “You got this enormous demand that you choose to ignore,” Buck recently said. “You’re like some hot and horny housewife that won’t give nobody the time of day.”
Lloyd had his own philosophy. “Desire fuels demand. It’s like comedians say about standup routines: you should exit the stage while you’re still ahead to leave the audience wanting.” Thanks to Lloyd’s secret batter, folks were always wanting.
Only Shelly, Lloyd and Link knew the exact recipe, but everyone had a theory about what ingredients were in it. The owner of Mickey’s Machine Rental attributed the unique flavor to a combination of honey, rosemary and a hint of lemon rind. Crystal over at the Sinclair station swore Lloyd put chocolate and ginger in the mix. Lulu at Dollar General insisted the key component was saffron: “Not a doubt in my mind,” she said, “saffron. Stuff’s expensive.” The Ladies of the Holy Mother of Christ Wednesday Bingo Group thought the unusual taste resulted from a mix of cornmeal, oat and graham flour, though the church pastor claimed those lighter flours burned at high temperatures. Nobody denied that the batter was heavy on black and cayenne pepper, but until Link came along, only Lloyd and Shelly were informed enough to greet this guestimation with a knowing smirk.
Lloyd’s devotees described the chicken in various ways: “It has a slight oniony perfume.” “Meat’s almost pork-like.” “It’s an orgy on your tongue.” Restaurant reviews from The New York Times to Switzerland’s leading culinary magazine characterized the flavor as arriving in “distinct orchestral movements.” The forward flavors were a bold spicy warmth mixed with a subtle sweet tang. After a moment’s chewing, bright citrusy top-notes appeared, followed by a heady mid-range porcine element, and a low, gravy-like roux richness that lingered on the back end alongside a second round of pepper. Even those who didn’t know what a top-note was agreed that the chicken was the best on earth.
People thinking they were clever called all the time trying to get the recipe. They lied and said they were with the E.P.A. investigating contaminants from a leaky dumpster. They posed as scientists doing cholesterol research, or claimed to be in the hospital suffering an allergic reaction after eating at Lloyd’s. “The doctor needs to know the ingredients,” they’d say, “so they can prescribe medication.”
“I wasn’t born yesterday,” Lloyd told them all. “Come down and I’ll feed you a breast and you can guess for yourself.”
When an elderly woman vacated a seat at the counter, Lloyd ushered a tall man over and wiped the surface with a rag. “Hidy, Frank. Know what you want?” The man nodded and, without looking at the menu, asked, “Could I do it?” Lloyd agreed and the man hollered: “Four piece bird, all breast, three collards!” As Lloyd fetched silverware and refilled drinks, Link lowered more meat into the grease.
Despite the way his wrist popped from an old guitar injury, Link worked quickly. He kept multiple birds frying in three separate skillets. He simultaneously decorated several plates with heaps of grits, green beans, potatoes and slaw. The Shack offered six side dishes daily, seven on Sundays for the church crowd. Lloyd wasn’t a religious man, but Sunday was a family day. It was also Sunday Salad Day.
Even though he’d personally given up the habit fifteen years ago, Lloyd let customers smoke at the lunch counter, but only the counter. Occasionally they’d get some uppity diner from out of state—a doctor traveling home to Connecticut, say, or a school teacher from an affluent section of Atlanta—who’d cough and wave their hands in a dramatic gesture. But the vents above the stove sucked the smoke straight up, and everyone was so absorbed in their food that most people didn’t mind.
“Order up!” Link wiped the sweat from his forehead and positioned the plates so Lloyd could reach them.
The bell above the door rang and in walked Buck. On break from the thrift store, he sauntered past the line of customers and slipped into the supply room so he could eat without having to wait for a seat. He wore brown uniform pants and a maroon Crimson Tide t-shirt. Leaning around the corner, he whispered, “Pssst, Link. Three piece all white, mac, collards, beans. And a two-piece box to go, three biscuits.” Link nodded his acknowledgement, trying not to scowl. Like his boss, he was wary of Buck.
Buck’s first words to Link upon meeting had been: “You some kind of greaser?” Buck had come in for a free lunch that day and was startled to find a stranger in the back room rolling chickens in the bus tub.
“Why,” Link said, “can you smell it on me?” Buck said that wasn’t what he meant. He pointed to Link’s outfit: cuffed black Levi’s, black leather shoes, a white button-up collared shirt framing slicked back hair and tattooed forearms. It was the same outfit he’d worn since his twenties. Ignoring Buck’s hostile tone, Link explained in as few words as possible who he was, where he came from, and how he’d played straight Link Wray tunes, no frills, at the beginning of his career: “Ace of Spades,” “Jack the Ripper,” “Run Chicken Run,” “Raw-Hide.”
Buck shook his head. “Never heard of ’em.” Link said most people hadn’t. Buck said, “Play something for me, maestro.”
Link held up his flour-covered hands. “No guitar.”
“I mean sing somethin’ then.”
“My tunes are instrumental.”
“What? No lyrics? What kind of song don’t have words?”
Link dredged a drumstick in batter. “You tell me.”
Buck looked him up and down, as if writing songs without lyrics was even more of a reason to question Link’s character than his clothes. “Well, you look like a greaser,” Buck said. “I’m from an era when those boys were the ones in town not to be messed with, and I sure as shit don’t trust no one who looks like they popped out of some old movie, thinkin’ they’re tough. Know what I mean?” He stared at Link for a moment, trying to establish the pecking order with his squirrely brown eyes. Link stared into the bucket. The coiled green tail of a serpent wound up Link’s left arm. Getting no response, Buck said, “But if you say you’re not one, then you’re fine by me.” He leaned close to Link, showering him in his acrid coffee and cigarette breath. “During my stints in the joint, I bunked with some real mean SOBs.”
Repressing a snicker, Link whispered back, “During a show in Houston, I once jumped off stage to punch a man in the face for putting his hands on a lady. My old roadie also showed me how to make a tattoo gun from a pen, if you ever need ink.” When Buck recoiled, Link extended his palm. “Now pass me those tongs, would you?”
The men disliked each other from the start. Once Buck learned that Link knew the recipe, he hated him even more.
On this day, as on so many busy days, Buck ate in the office. He ate like a starving pig at the trough: head down, face in his food, shoveling as if someone were about to come take it away. Link came to loath the unsavory whistling noises Buck made through his nose. After he’d trailed crumbs across his brother’s desk and left the store computer keyboard greasy, Buck cornered Lloyd by the register to lecture him about his newest bumpersticker ideas. He handed Lloyd a drawing sketched on college-ruled notebook paper. Lloyd studied the sheet. The first sticker said: “Lloyd’s will have you clickin’ when you’re pickin’ on our chicken.” The other said: “Breasts are best, if wings aren’t your thing.” Buck had once designed a t-shirt. It featured a smiling yellow bird character set atop a red backdrop, beneath the words “Lucky Mother Clucker.”
As always, Lloyd listened to his brother’s pitch, staring him in the eyes and nodding his head. Then he politely declined. “Not quite right,” Lloyd said, “but maybe next time.” Buck loathed him for this. It made him feel stupid. Why couldn’t Lloyd see all his buried potential? Lloyd wasn’t the only talented one in the family, or Buck figured he wouldn’t be if he would only give him a chance.
“I’m working on another shirt,” Buck said. “It says ‘Lloyd’s, one of the world’s great unsolved mysteries.’” He winked. “Could make a store slogan.”
“We already have a slogan,” said Lloyd, “‘The One and Only.’ Plus, I’m afraid selling stuff cheapens things. You’ve seen those poor saps at Waffle House in those grey and yellow getups with those little bowties? We don’t want that.”
“You sell the shirts to customers,” Buck said. “We don’t wear them.”
A regular customer named Clyde called out from the counter, “Buck, is that a Crimson Tide shirt?”
Buck pinched the front of the fabric to get a look at the logo. Without looking up he mumbled, “I got it from the thrift store.” Clyde shook his head and sprinkled more hot sauce on his beans. This was Razorbacks territory.
Lloyd raced to refill diners’ glasses then returned to find Buck still lingering at the register beside a crowd of patient onlookers. “How about franchising,” Buck said. “You thought about that? Not in any fast food type way aimed at global domination, but maybe a store in Little Rock, and in Memphis, Texarkana—strategic placement.”
“You can’t be ‘The One and Only’ if you have four shops. It’s simple math.” Math wasn’t Buck’s problem. He was only trying to factor himself into the equation. When he thought about franchises, he imagined himself as manager of a Lloyd’s in Memphis, then later pictured himself becoming a part-time owner of it and another franchise, and then ultimately changing the name of both to “Buck’s Fried Chicken: The Cluck Stops Here.”
Lloyd rang up a group of local high school kids and shoved bills in the drawer. “We’re a one-in-a-million enterprise,” he said. “You want it, we got it, drive down to see us or stay home hungry.”
Buck turned his head away from the crowd and whispered, “I don’t understand you. People drive all the way from beyond forever to eat here. Let’s give ’em what they want. Wouldn’t you think someone was crazy for turning down money that was being waved in their face?”
“We don’t need more than we’ve got. If anything, we’ve got too much already.” Besides working every day, he and Shelly didn’t get to use their mountain cabin except on a few holidays. The water-skies they bought five Christmases ago still sat in boxes in the garage, unused, beside some dusty bass fishing equipment and a flat-bottom boat that black widows had colonized. Vacation was a word they never uttered. While he had never complained to Shelly, Lloyd knew he couldn’t keep working seven days a week at his age. Yet he didn’t know how he was supposed to retire in three years on the measly savings they’d amassed. Their two kids lived far away and wanted nothing to do with the restaurant business. Link still seemed determined to get back into music. Who was left to manage The Shack, Buck? Please. Buck rented a tiny apartment in a drab building in the quiet center of town. He drove a beat up, beige 1970 Dodge Dart whose right front wheel-well flapped when he turned. When the Dart wouldn’t start, he rode his bike. There wasn’t a bus system in Oxbow, but it was a small enough town that you could walk everywhere. Having to walk just made Buck feel destitute. But he was sharp enough to sense that he’d been left out of Lloyd’s long-term plans, and he felt determined to claim what in the absence of other inheritance, he now considered his birthright.
Buck motioned to a man with long brown hair flowing from under a Peterbilt mesh cap. “Sir, where’re you from?”
“St. Louis,” the man said. “But I’m long haul, so I’m from all over.”
Buck turned to his brother. “See? We could have one in St. Louis, too.”
Lloyd squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “Let’s talk about this later, alright?” At the warmth of his brother’s touch, Buck’s lips puckered and his fists clenched. Lloyd noticed. Customers did too.
While Buck was tying the plastic to-go bag, preparing to leave, Lloyd told him, “You’re wound too tight. When was the last time you went on a date?”
Buck slipped between customers and flung open the door. “About the same time you had a day off.”