Thursday, May 8, 2008

An Egg Story

The boy was no more than seven or eight the day the man got into a tussle over a dozen broken eggs.
     The chickens having been exceptionally productive layers that month, the man had decided to make the most of it by selling what they couldn’t use. “We can’t very well eat them for every meal,” he declared, hammering together the little wooden stand, behind which he and the boy were to sit and sell the extras eggs to all passersby. “Just you imagine the size of the plateful you’d have to tuck into your belly if we did!”
     Straddling an overturned peach crate, as if it were a tiny horse, the boy closed his eyes, imagining a whole mountain of creamy, fluffy eggs, taller than a house, taller than any tree, as tall as the sky even. He could imagine two dollops of butter at the very top, a peak so high that every passing cloud ended up with a buttery bottom. “I don’t think mom would appreciate the leftovers,” he grinned, thinking of the lady, struggling to the trash can, pushing a wheelbarrow of uneaten scrambled eggs.
     “Nope. I don’t suppose she would at that,” the man chuckled.

By late morning, there sat a fine-looking little egg stand, along side the dirt road that connected the farm to the main motorway.
     The man rested on a stool, behind a waist-high display of bright white eggs, all neatly grouped in dozens inside paper bags, which his wife had carefully rolled open so customers could inspect them.
     The boy was perched on his horse, a length of straw between his teeth, still thinking of his eggy mountain and its buttery clouds.
     Over their heads, shielding the eggs from the midday sun, was an old pillowcase, attached to four poles. Each time the wind passed by, the makeshift awning shifted, left and then right, filling with the breeze, making a soft, pleasant, snapping sound. Things were going quite well. They’d sold eight of fourteen dozen. The man was pleased. “We’ve already earned enough to get your mother that apron she’s been eyeing – if we sell these last six dozen I think we might even be able to get that little spaceship with the blinking lights and turning wheels,” he exclaimed, smiling broadly, reaching over to ruffle the top of the boy’s thick mop of hair. “What do you think about
them eggs, eh?”
     “Oh, boy! Do you really think so –
really?” the boy gasped, his thoughts instantly tumbling from the egg mountain. He was now behind the controls of Space Pal 200, the brilliant wind-up toy spaceship that they’d both admired just the week before at the department store. The thought of actually being able to own such a thing was intoxicating. Even with his father’s new job building roads for the WPA, the boy knew the family struggled to make a living, as did so many. There was little money for extra-special treats like tin spaceships. The majority of his toys he’d had to fashion himself, from broken things. His mother rarely ever tossed out an empty bottle, or box, or thread spool, or newspaper, she instead put them all in a big wooden crate, labeled useful, which sat out in the barn. There, the boy would spend many of his idle hours, fabricating his own little cars, boats, trucks, and airplanes, even tanks. But, of all the toys he’d made, he’d never attempted a spaceship. The idea of space travel was still relatively new, even to the daydreams of a seven and a half year-old boy. Coming across the shiny Space Pal 200 had been like discovering a whole new flavor of pie.
     “No promises now,” the man stressed. “And, of course, your mother has to approve.”
     But the boy had already begun to watch for the next customer, every distant engine-like sound and sudden hazy billow of dust making him sit on the edge of his crate, his thoughts drifting across a velvety black void, following a brightly-painted spaceship, a child, whose existence, at least for one bright afternoon back in 1940, revolved around selling seventy-two eggs.
     Of course, things being as they are, it now took twice as long to make each sale.
     The sun had already begun to set when the man finally declared, “Well – there she is, our final dozen – I wonder who’ll be the last lucky customer?”
     As if in answer, a noisy old truck came bumping along, its tailpipe dragging, the engine hissing like an alley cat tossed into a barrel of rainwater. The truck lurched to a stop, a burly driver dressed in gray overalls stumbling out, spitting onto the road as he crossed it. As he got closer, the boy could see that he was covered from head to toe in dirt. His face was wide and uneven, with tiny eyes that looked like two black beetles, sitting beneath a pair of thick, wiry eyebrows. He came to an abrupt stop before the stand, his hands deep in his pockets, leaning backwards on his heels, then righting himself, like a buoy taking a soft wave.
     “Afternoon! Might I interest you in the finest eggs this side of the Mississippi?” the man said cheerfully, rising. “That’s the very
last dozen.”
     The driver made a hrrumph sound in the back of his throat and snatched at the bag. Holding it before his mud-encrusted face, he began to slowly run his eyes over each of the eggs, as if he wasn’t at all convinced they weren’t actually something else.
     “Laid just this morning, sir,” assured the man.
     The driver didn’t say a word, he simply proceeded to lift each egg from the bag, turning it over in his filthy hand, peering at it intently.
     “Perhaps he needs glasses, dad,” whispered the boy, ever so quietly.
     The driver raised his head, a cold, hard look in his eyes. “You wanna insult a man – you better speak
up when you do it, boy,” he grunted. The boy’s face went bright red, even his ears were glowing. He felt his father’s gentle touch on his shoulder. Before he realized it, both men were on the other side of the stand.
     “I think you’ve crossed a line there, sir,” the man bravely stated, for the dirt-covered driver was a good four inches taller and probably fifty pounds heavier. “I’m not particularly fond of strangers addressing my son that way.”
     The driver smirked. “Is that so?” He held up the bag, which sat comfortably in his large, open palm. “Just so happens, “sir”, that I ain’t too fond of being called a blind man – ‘specially not by some egg-farm
     That was the last either of the two men spoke, at least in words that should be repeated. Though it must be said, the man’s utterances were, by far, the more civil of the two.
     It all happened so quickly. The boy hardly had time to blink.
     The driver crushed the bag of eggs in his fist and hurled it to the ground. The man demanded he pay for them, but the driver just laughed and spat, man insisting that he either pay or get back in his truck and be on his way. Laughing again, the driver reached out and jabbed a finger into the man’s chest. This led to shoving and grabbing, and, before you could say Space Pal 200, both men were rolling across the dirt road, kicking up an angry cloud of dust.
     A minute or two later it was all over.
     There was a slamming of the truck door, the ugly roar of its engine, the sputtering of its tailpipe, and a dirty burst of exhaust. It roared away, leaving the man standing, somewhat stooped, holding the back of his hand to his mouth. He was almost now as filthy as the driver, his clean dungarees dappled with dirt, and yolk, and just a little bit of blood.
Dad?” asked the boy, from behind the stand. “Are you alright, dad?”
     The man nodded his head, brushing at the dirt with his free hand, two fingers held to his lower lip. “Macky,” he said, strolling slowly back across the road. “I’m truly sorry you had to see that, I truly am – but there’s a valuable lesson in it for you– when you set to selling eggs, always remember, in every dozen there’s more than likely going to be one bad one – and I mean customers, son – not the eggs.”

And so, the man, steadfastly refusing to let the unfortunate incident leave a sore mark on his son, convinced his wife that there was just enough in their savings to buy the toy spaceship, even after he’d scared her so when he walked into the kitchen with a red and bloody mouth. “We’re not going to have one bad egg spoil our boy’s dreams,” he said, wincing, as she dabbed his split lip with iodine.
     The very next Saturday, they all packed into the family car and drove to the department store, where the man purchased one yellow and white apron, and one official Frontier Boy “Real Rawhide” Play Canteen, which he handed to the boy with a pained grimace.
     The very last Space Pal 200 had been sold the day before, and though they both looked, every time they visited town, they never did see another.

Time moved on, life changed, the boy grew into a man and started his own family, the long and dusty road was paved, his parents died, the farm was sold, and still, that unattainable toy never quite completely lost its appeal.
     On any given night, when work was done, when his own children had been put to bed, when his wife herself had retired, he would sit out on the porch of his little house, leaning back into his wooden chair, looking up to the blanket of sparkling stars, imagining that sleek, bottle-green rocket, zipping by, wearing a tail of sparks.

“Macky! Do you have to play with that thing in here? I’m trying to get your father’s dinner ready.”
     “Sorry,” the boy said, gathering his Space Pal 200 from the kitchen floor.
     His mother watched him retreating down the dim hallway, little indigo flashes dancing about the metal key of the favorite toy. She saw him fading into the dark of the stairs and felt the pang of one of those moments, those instants where life seems as hurried, and as fleeting, as a wishing star.

©2008 Jeremy W. Eaton