Spring 2018, Volume 24

Fiction by Bill Smoot

Broken Eggs

In her dream she heard the rooster crowing, over and over, and then there was light coming through the white curtain and she was awake and the crowing was real. From the big bed she could smell the morning air—warm and moist and sweet-sour with silage--that drifted through the window, billowing the curtain. Everything is different on the farm, she thought. Even the air is not the same air.

At breakfast she said to her grandmother, “I dreamed I heard the rooster and then I woke up and was really hearing it.”

Her grandmother paused over the skillet of sizzling bacon, tilted her head as if hearing a distant sound, and smiled. Just smiled, didn’t speak. Susie’s parents would have been reading their papers and said, “That’s great, Susie.” They were at a conference this week, just the two of them.

Satisfied, Susie bit her toast.

“I’ll bake that cake this morning if you gather us some eggs,” Gramma said.

“Okay,” Susie answered. It would be a chocolate cake, and it would smell of fresh creamery butter, like the dairy smelled, rich and milky and a little sour. And the chocolate would be not like the cocoa she drank now or like the chocolate cookies she could sometimes have at home. Those were a little chocolate and this was big chocolate, almost too strong, but she would eat it anyway because this was the farm and on a farm you did more things.

“Here comes Grampa,” Gramma said, looking out the window over the sink. “LuAnn is with him. She’s going to paint the front fence.”

LuAnn’s parents were sharecroppers who lived down the road. She had lots of brothers and sisters, and they all lived in a small house with dogs and chickens in the front yard. The washing machine was on the front porch and a car that didn’t run sat under a tree.

Grampa walked into the kitchen and winked at Susie. His whole face crinkled like a big smile when he winked. LuAnn followed him. Susie hadn’t seen her for a whole year and she looked different. Her face had more flavors, red lipstick and a new look in her eyes. Her t-shirt had been scissored off short so her bellybutton showed. She’s older now, Susie thought. How did she get to be so much older?

“Sit yourself down and have some breakfast,” Gramma said to LuAnn. “There’s plenty.”

“Not me,” LuAnn said.

“You better,” Grampa said.

“Keep Susie company,” Gramma said.

“Okay, then,” LuAnn said. She slid into the chair.

Susie sat up straight and said hi.

“I remember you,” LuAnn said.

Grampa looked at Susie and winked again. He was wearing his khaki shirt and pants and blue suspenders. It was what he wore every day—except Sunday. He took out a red handkerchief and blew his nose. His eyes twinkled like lights in the rain.

Gramma put plates on the table—fried eggs and strips of bacon and dark toast. Susie pushed the blackberry preserves across the table. She watched LuAnn make a sandwich, spreading the preserves like mustard, holding the eggs and bacon between the slices of toast. She ate it leaning over her plate, her head low like a dog so the egg wouldn’t drip. Susie thought of making hers a sandwich, too, but she wasn’t sure. Gramma had once said about LuAnn, “That’s girl’s had a time of it.” When LuAnn leaned against the table, Susie looked at her chest and saw she had boobs now like some of the girls in middle school.

After breakfast Susie picked one of the baskets from the table on the back porch and skipped to the hen house. She saw herself as a girl in a painting, skipping along. She would be wearing a straw hat, tied with a pale blue ribbon, and the painting would be titled “Gathering Eggs.” Had she really seen that painting somewhere or did she just imagine it now? It was like the rooster in her dream--real and not real.

The chickens scattered before her, clucking and strutting. She found two eggs in one box and then saw the white hen still in her box at the end.

“Shoo,” Susie said, waving her hand at the hen the way she’d seen her grandmother do. “Shoo!”

The hen did not move. Susie moved as close as the dared, miming throwing motions and yelling for the hen to shoo. The hen’s head bobbed like a wagging finger. Why wouldn’t she move? Susie scooped some dust from the hen house floor. As soon as she flung it at the hen, a cackle split the air, making Susie’s heart pound so hard she turned and ran out of the hen house. She walked briskly back to the house with the two eggs.

“Only two!” her grandmother exclaimed. “My lands! My hens aren’t laying, Susie. What are we going to do?”

Susie didn’t tell her about the hen that wouldn’t stand off her nest. She felt shame, as if it were her fault.

“We have enough for that cake, anyway,” her grandmother said. “We’re glad of that, aren’t we?”

Susie nodded.

“You might want to watch LuAnn paint that fence,” her grandmother said. “If she’s got another brush, you can help.”

“Okay,” Susie said, rubbing her thumb along the edge of the coal oil stove. Her grandmother had two stoves--one electric and the other coal oil for when the electricity went out.

“LuAnn’s older than she was last year,” Susie said.

“We all are,” Gramma laughed. “You are too.”

“I guess,” Susie said. Even though she was looking at the glass tank of coal oil, she knew her grandmother was watching her. Susie imagined the tank as an aquarium, orange and blue fish swimming in slow motion through the thick amber oil.

“LuAnn’s thirteen now, I think,” her grandmother said.

“I’m just ten,” Susie said.

“You’ll be thirteen before you know it.”

“I guess,” Susie said. Susie’s mother didn’t like it when she said “I guess.” But in the country you could relax more; even her mother admitted that.


LuAnn was wearing big white gloves, men’s work gloves, that made her arms look thin.  

“Feels like I been at this all damn day,” LuAnn said.

“I’ll help,” Susie said.

“Just got this one old brush, is the thing. I’m going to take a break soon, anyhow. You got to take breaks when you do this kind of work.”

Susie nodded. So LuAnn knew about things like work, grown-up things.

The fence ran along the road the length of the big yard, posts in the ground and three flat boards between, the wood old and gray. LuAnn stood as far as she could from the fence and leaned out from the waist, holding the brush in her fist and stabbing the bristles into the wood, dabbing the paint on in short jabs.

"Done this much and got that much more,” LuAnn said, looking up and down the fence. Done was about five feet and that much more was the rest of the yard, all the way to the driveway.

LuAnn lay the brush across the rim of the paint can and carefully slid her hands from the big gloves. She looked down at her cutoffs, her bare legs, her bare arms. There was not a spot of paint on her. “Break time,” she said.

LuAnn walked out into the road, a strand of two-lane blacktop that wound like a ribbon through the countryside. Susie stood on the shoulder. LuAnn wormed her hand into the front pocket of her cutoffs and took out a crumpled cigarette pack and a plastic lighter. She took out a single bent cigarette and carefully straightened it.

“Want one?”

Susie shook her head. She put one arm behind her back, wrapped her fingers around the elbow of her other arm.  LuAnn lit the cigarette and gazed down the road. She took short puffs and blew the smoke from her mouth with puckered lips. She pointed down the road with the cigarette.

“Some day, somebody’s going to come down this road,” she said, squinting ahead.

Susie slid her hands into her back pockets and looked down the road, high on either side with Queen Anne’s Lace taller than a person.

“Who?” Susie asked.

“Some boy.”

“What boy?” The boys Susie knew acted stupid.

“Some boy I don’t know yet.” LuAnn held out the cigarette and tapped it with her forefinger. “He’s out there, though.”

The road was quiet and still, and in the distance its surface shimmered in the midmorning heat, and beyond that it seemed to dip into a shallow pond that Susie knew wasn’t really there. Not many cars passed by, and when one did, there was first a distant hum, quickly growing louder, and finally the car whizzed by, all speed and color, disappearing around the bend and leaving everything more silent than before, as if the car had sucked all the sound along with it. Susie wondered if the boy would come in a car. In the city, men in cars could be perverts and follow you. At school they had been taught what to do, scream and run for help.

“I hope he’s rich,” LuAnn said, “but he’s got to love me sweet. Got to love me sweet.” She looked at Susie wide-eyed and nodded, big, for emphasis. Then she said, “Let’s go,” and flicked her cigarette to the asphalt and stepped on it, grinding it under her shoe.

Susie followed LuAnn to the calving barn. LuAnn lifted the latch and leaned her shoulder into the huge door and slid it open enough for them to squeeze through. They stepped in and Susie helped her pull it shut.

“Time for some time in the hay,” LuAnn said.

The barn was dark and smelled of silage and cows. When they walked past the stalls that had calves in them, the calves backed away, still chewing their cuds, their eyes round and shiny. LuAnn plopped down on her back in the corner of the last stall, an empty one, into a scooped out place in the straw that just fit her. Susie sat in the front of the stall on the edge of a manger. She was afraid LuAnn was going to smoke again and she worried about a lit cigarette around all the straw.

LuAnn unbuttoned her cutoffs, the way Grampa unbuttoned his pants when he sat in his chair after dinner, but then she unzipped them, too, and slid her hand down. Thinking LuAnn had an itch, Susie looked away. She picked at a splinter on the manger. LuAnn rubbed herself, slowly, back and forth, and closed her eyes.

“Got to think sexy thoughts,” LuAnn said.

Susie rubbed her nose, like she was going to sneeze. LuAnn’s hand moved around and around under her cutoffs, like Susie’s hamster used to do, rooting itself a nest. Susie picked up some kernels of feed corn and looked at them. If she could make a hole in them, they could be strung into a bracket. LuAnn’s mouth was open, and her hips began to move back and forth like she was trying to go someplace. Susie looked toward the front of the barn. Where light spilled in, bits of dust floating in the air glowed like slow sparks.

Susie wondered if she should leave. While LuAnn was in here, Susie could use the one brush and paint some of the fence. LuAnn looked like she was pretending to ride a horse that was going faster and faster. Susie watched, feeling nervous. But it was like watching a scary movie—you had to look. After a while, LuAnn moved faster still and made a sound like she was being hurt, and her face was red like she was hot from running. Susie was afraid. What if LuAnn fainted like Charlotte did that time in PE when they ran races? But LuAnn slowed down and then stopped moving, and at last she opened her eyes, wide, as if waking from a nap. Sweat glistened on her upper lip, just like a cow.

“Do you want some water?” Susie asked.

“Not me.”

That movement. Susie remembered straddling her stuffed dog and moving like LuAnn, but that was long ago, even before first grade. And she hadn’t breathed hard like LuAnn, or turned red or made that noise. Could LuAnn be retarded? Susie heard one of the calves bump against its stall. She hoped LuAnn didn’t want her to do it, too.

As if she read Susie’s thoughts,  LuAnn said, “It gets better as you get older. Like wine.”

Susie’s parents had lots of wine, including some bottles they were saving from the year Susie was born. LuAnn pulled her hand from her cutoffs, sniffed her fingers, and then wiped them behind her ears. “Do this and it drives boys nuts,” she said.

“Like perfume,” Susie said. “My mother does that with Chanel.”

“Same thing,” LuAnn answered. She rose to her knees and zipped and buttoned her cutoffs. She picked a piece of straw from her hair. She sighed. “Back to that damn fence.”

Together they slid open the barn door and stepped into the bright sun. It hurst Susie’s eyes.

“I’m going the help Grandmother, “ Susie said.

“Tell her I’m still a-painting,” LuAnn said.

Susie walked past the corn crib and toward the gate, avoiding the cow paddies on the ground. She decided to try to get more eggs for her grandmother.

Susie found a long pointed stake behind the henhouse. She carefully approached that sitting hen and prodded her with the sharp end of the stake. The hen cackled and squawked, like before.

“Damn you,” Susie said. “Shoo, damn you.”

She gave the hen another poke, a harder one. The hen clucked and squawked, but this time Susie was ready and she shouted louder for the hen to shoo, loud like the arguments her parents had, and she lunged at the hen with her stake. The hen pulled in her wings as if to strengthen her grip on her spot, but this only made Susie feel more determined. She poked harder, not even caring if she broke the eggs; it was important to teach the hen a lesson. Her next poke lifted the hen from the nest, and the hen flew from the box, her wings flapping violently. Susie jumped back. The hen ran from the hen house, her clucking now a wail that made Susie feel afraid—not afraid of the hen but afraid for herself for some wrong she had done. But her grandmother had said to get the eggs, hadn’t she? It wasn’t right for the hen not to get off the nest. Susie was in the right, as her mother said.  

Susie took the eggs—three of them, very warm, warm enough to take into bed on a cold night. She stepped from the dark hen house into the bright sunlight that hurt her eyes, her two hands holding the three eggs against her chest and then one of them rolled, dropping—so fast!—and made the muffled sound of wet cracking. She looked down and saw oozing from the broken shell wet feathers in a pool of bloody yolk, and a tiny bald head with a speck of an eye.

Susie began to tremble. She ran back into the hen house and placed the two remaining eggs back in the box. Maybe the hen would return and sit on the two eggs. She felt frightened and confused. If it was going to become a chicken, why weren’t all eggs like that? How could she have known? Why didn’t her grandmother tell her?

Back out in the sun, Susie didn’t realize she was going to cry until the sobs broke, suddenly, like a sneezing fit in a dusty attic. She walked around to the back of the hen house where she wouldn’t be seen, behind the tangle of blackberry bushes, and knelt in the grass with her hands on her knees and her chin on her chest, her shoulders heaving as she sobbed. She was never going to eat eggs again, she knew that. She also knew that she could run to the house, to her grandmother. She could even see herself doing it, running across the yard and up the back steps and inside to her grandmother, and it would be okay to cry because her grandmother never got a tight face when Susie cried like her mother did. She could cry and say oh, grandmother, I didn’t mean to but I dropped the egg and it was blood and wet feathers, and her grandmother would sit in the big rocker and take Susie into her lap--you’re never too big for Gramma’s lap, she would say—and she would hold Susie and rock and explain about eggs. Susie could see the painting of it, “On Gamma’s Lap,” but in the painting Susie seemed younger than she was now, and smaller. Maybe she would say LuAnn had done something dirty in the barn, and Gramma would say it was okay, LuAnn’s had a hard time of it.

The picture faded and Susie noticed in front of her a cluster of ripe blackberries on the bush. She didn’t know it was far enough into summer for ripe ones--not even her grandmother knew, she bet. She sat forward on her knees and carefully pulled three from their stems. The black knobby berries glistened in her palm. She picked up the first—never mind that her mother always told her to wash them first—and pushed it between her lips. Its sweet flavor exploded in her mouth and over her tongue, sweet and tangy and very warm, as if the sun were inside the soft berry. She felt the tiny seeds on her tongue, and then she put in the other two which dissolved like candy, the best she had ever tasted, so sweet and real. Then she knew she wouldn’t run to the house after all, that she wouldn’t tell about the hen or the broken egg or LuAnn—they would be her secrets, things she would tell no one. She saw more black ones behind the young green and the red ones, and she pulled these from the thorny stems and pushed them into her mouth.




BIO: Bill Smoot lives in Berkeley and teaches at a prep school and with the Prison University Project at San Quentin. His short fiction and essays have appeared in such publications as Crab Orchard Review, Western Humanities, Review, and Orchid. He is the author of Conversations with Great Teachers.