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LAILEE MENDELSON

SELLING EGGS AT THE PUNK HOUSE

The sky is white above Horse Pen Mountain. As always before a snowfall, the air in the valley is still and metallic, the stubble of winter trees frozen across the mountain's edge. Lizzy hurries to gather her eggs. She kneels on the floor of the chicken coop and slides her hand flat against the straw, between the soft bodies of the hens, and retrieves ten warm eggs. Kissing each shell, she places them in a basket, counting them-"three, four, five . . ." -quietly, so as not to disturb the chickens, then stands and wipes the sawdust from the knees of her gray woolen tights.

From the doorway of the coop she can see her house, a few yards away, with its yellow boards and smoke curling from the chimney. And next door, across Little Creek, the Punk House, which she's not supposed to go near. Lizzy's mother likes winter air and the kitchen window is open, white lace curtains swirling in and out with the wind. As they swing outward, Lizzy catches her mother's eye. Her mother smiles and holds up a pie (probably apple) for her to see and brushes her hand across the top as if to send her the sweet aroma. Lizzy holds up two eggs so her mother can see them. One white. One brown.

"Come on in, chickie," her mother's voice calls faintly from the window. Lizzy hates this nickname. When she was younger, she asked her mother how she was born and was told that she was hatched from an egg. Just like the chickens, her mother told her. Little chickie. Lizzy was proud of this before she started school, but now she wonders if it's true. "Lizzy chickie!" her mother calls again.

She hurries to finish the chores. She still has to sweep the adjoining Quonset hut, a green metal igloo that her father built for her, along with the chicken coop and rabbit hutches, two summers ago for her birthday. When he had finished, he drove her to the country store to buy her first chickens. Six leghorns and ten Rhode Island Reds. But Lizzy has to care for the chickens all by herself now that her father has gone away.

She sweeps the floor with the tall broom that rests in the corner of the hut, and after preparing the chicken feed for the next day, she places the tin bowls on top of the table where once her father killed the ten baby rats that he found nestled beneth it. They were skinny and hairless, shivering blobs of red Play-Doh. Her father had picked them up, put them on the table, and chopped them up, one by one, with the axe that hung on the wall. He said he had to do it, to protect the chickens. "Dissection, dissection, dissection," Lizzy sings as she cleans. She is proud of knowing such a big word.

Before she leaves the hut, she checks her face once more in the dusty, cracked mirror that hangs by the door, making sure that her lips are clean of the lipstick she took from her mother's vanity. She rubs the back of her hand across her mouth twice and then picks up the basket of eggs and runs down the wooden plank of the hut. It bounces under her like a diving board and on the last step she bends her knees and jumps into the frosty grass.

She hears a girlish giggle coming from the Punk House and stops to look at it, at its broken windows and baby-blue paint to match a summer sky. On cloudless days it almost disappears. Lizzy wonders what it would be like to go inside, if she would disappear, too. Sometimes she sneaks up to the house and looks in the windows. It's difficult to see inside, the dust having accumulated in thick clumps like dirty cotton across the glass. There's a mattress thrown in the center of the room surrounded by crushed cigarette butts and empty beer cans. She has seen the older boy who lives there alone, a teenager, asleep in the house, sometimes with a girl who has red, curly hair. Some nights, he sits in the old oak that towers above all the other trees in town. Lizzy can see him from her bedroom window, his cigarette breath lacing through the sharp black branches of the oak, and later, his thin legs dangling from the limbs and blue moonlight on his motionless form. He has a rifle and sometimes he props it up against the upstairs window of the Punk House and stares down the long, steel barrel at the countryside, jerking his arms back, pretending to shoot at things.

Lizzy knows she would be punished if her mother ever found out. But sometimes she gets so tired of listening to her mother and her friends talking in the warm kitchen. Just like the chicken coop, with all those hens making noise, sitting on their eggs. She has asked her mother why they have so many girl chickens, why she can't buy some boy chickens, too. "Because then we'd get babies instead of breakfast," her mother tells her.

Lizzy slams the kitchen door and places the eggs on the counter. "My goodness, Lizzy," her mother cries and cups her daughter's hands in hers, gently kneading them like dough. "Didn't I tell you to put on your gloves when you go out? And look at you, not even a coat."

Lizzy pulls her hands away, hopes her mother won't notice the faint lipstick stains on her fingertips. She breathes in the aroma of the baking oven and the raspberry shampoo her mother always uses. "Now go on and sit down before you die of pneumonia," her mother says and shoves her gently towards the kitchen table. She brings Lizzy a glass of milk and a slice of the steaming pie on a white plate. Lizzy sticks her finger into the hot syrupy filling, watches it glisten on her skin for a moment, then sticks it in her mouth.

"And how are the chickens today?" her mother asks. "I see you collected quite a lot of eggs."

Lizzy wipes her mouth on the checkered napkin. "Ten of 'em," she replies. "Which means I only have to sell twenty more to buy another bantam. Just twenty more. I'm going to every single house today to sell."

Lizzy's mother smiles and giggles beneath the thudding of the water in the steel sink. She places each egg under the tap to wash off the grime. "You do that, chickie," she says. "But don't forget your coat this time, you hear?"

Lizzy pulls on the down coat hanging on the back of her chair. Her mother places the white and brown eggs in a fragile pyramid in the wicker basket. She ties a blue bow crisply on the handle and then holds a dirty egg out to Lizzy. "This one's no good," she says. "You can throw it out." She buttons up the neck of Lizzy's coat and opens the door for her, gives her a peck on the forehead. "And remember what we talked about," she says and points up at the blue house.

Lizzy takes the egg in her small hand and kisses her mother's powdered cheek. Her body shivers as she steps outside into the cold. She looks up at the sky, even whiter than before, and thicker with clouds that are low and heavy above her head. She walks to the chicken coop and hoists the bad egg over the wire fencing. It splatters in the center of the chicken yard and runs thickly, like syrup, between the blades of frosted grass. Immediately, three chickens are upon it, their sharp beaks jabbing at the slimy yolk. They love it, have loved it since the first day that Lizzy threw an egg over the fence, just to see their reaction to the unborn chick. To her surprise, they hadn't run from it as she expected, but ate it, ravenously, as if it were nothing different from their usual feed. She has even had to start collecting the eggs earlier in the day. If she waits too long, the chickens soon discover the things they sit upon and peck through the shells before she can get to them.

It's like the female rabbits who sometimes eat their babies. They eat them when they feel threatened in any way, perhaps thinking that they are hiding the bunnies back in the safety of their tummies. Some mornings Lizzy arrives to feed the rabbits only to find blood mingled at the bottom of the cage with the sawdust and carrot discs.

Her nose begins to run. Wiping it across one of her yellow mittens, she walks to the creek that runs through the yard, gurgling past her house, past the Punk House, and through town and down until it grows larger and faster and becomes the raging Tacoa River. Here, though, it's called only Little Creek, barely two feet wide, mountain-clean and filled with rocks dyed orange by the Georgia clay. It is surrounded by poplar trees and loblolly pines and giant burrs that will be bushes in the spring, heavy with fat, juicy blackberries that Lizzy likes to feed to the rabbits.

She carefully crosses the water and heads up the icy hill to the Punk House. No disappearing today, it stands out very blue against the white sky. It hasn't been taken care of for years, and some of the paint has peeled away into shreds like dead skin. Above the front door, the porch roof is slanted in a shallow ramp, the poles that hold it up bent in the center. Lizzy knocks gently on the door, but there is no answer. She knocks louder. The door opens, shrieking on its hinges and sending Lizzy one step back.

"What the fuck do you want?"

Lizzy looks up at the boy. It is the first time she has seen him this closely. His hair is black and greasy and is parted down the middle so that it hangs in two long flaps about his thin face. His cheekbones jut out from his skin and his eyes are all blues and reds. He is standing in his underwear, scratching at a white thigh.

"I said, what do you want?"

Lizzy holds the basket up. The blue bow flutters against her wrist. "I wanted to see if maybe you'd like to buy some of my eggs," she gulps. "Sir."

He looks down at the basket and laughs once, harshly, as if coughing. He looks up and lifts the hair back from his forehead.

"Now what the fuck would I do with eggs, do you think?" He moves to slam the door, but a female voice stops him.

"Snake, who's there?" The girlfriend with red hair appears, draped in a white sheet. She moves towards them, dragging the sheet along the hallway floor. A cigarette burns in her left hand. "Oh, it's a little girl," she says smiling. "How are you, you cute little thing? Are you selling eggs today?" She bends over the basket and holds the sheet tightly across her chest.

Lizzy smiles at the pretty lady with her red lips. She remembers the lipstick still in her pocket and pulls it out, hands it to her. The girlfriend reads the label on it and giggles. "Crimson passion," she says. "Sure is pretty."

"Get back into the room, Tammy," the boy says, grabbing the lipstick from her hand. "And shut up or I might just trade you in." He pushes her back with his arm.

She pulls the cigarette from between her lips and blinks her eyes. "Geez, Snake. She's just a kid. Chill out." And then she turns and walks back down the hallway, the sheet following her along the floor like a dragging bridal train.

Lizzy likes the boy's name. It explains why she sometimes sees him kissing the girl, his quick tongue plunging into her mouth. He runs his fingers through the frayed elastic of his underwear and rests a veined hand tightly on his waist. "Yeah, you're the girl that lives down there in the yellow house with the nice chickens and rabbits and the mother who I smell baking pies all the time. Isn't that just the sweetest thing?" He laughs without smiling and bends down to the basket. "You know what?" he says. "I think I just thought of some use for your eggs." He grabs the top egg off the pyramid and throws it into the stream. It breaks on a rock and floats downstream. "And," he says, "for your pretty lipstick." And he opens it and writes the word "FUCK" on the door in big red letters. "Now get out of here." He drops the lipstick on the porch and then slams the door, leaving Lizzy staring up at the word.

She waits for a moment and then walks to the side of the house to look into the window. Standing on a rusted gas can, she presses her nose up against the glass and sees Snake on top of the girl on top of the old mattress. The sheet that was wrapped around the girl's body is now spread over the two of them. Lizzy sees the back of Snake's greasy hair and beneath the separated strands, the red lips of the girl. The sheet moves up and down, and up and down again, its white bucking movement like two giant rabbits. She jumps off the gas can and takes a few steps back from the window, looks around, picks a brown egg out of the basket and hurls it at the window. Then she turns and runs as fast as she can back down the hill.

When evening comes and the temperature drops, it begins to snow. Big, heavy flakes top Horse Pen Mountain, the loblollies, the Quonset hut, everything fading away to white. Lizzy sits up in her bed, unable to sleep, watching the snowflakes drift down against the blackness of her bedroom window. She has been sent to bed without supper after her mother found her lipstick missing from the vanity. And before being sent upstairs she'd had her mouth washed out with soap for asking her mother what the word on Snake's door meant. Her mother had grabbed her and told her it was something good people didn't talk about or do. And then she'd dragged her into the bathroom and then sent her to her room. But now she hears the water of her mother's shower running and knows that it's safe. She gets up quickly and pulls on her boots, goes down to the kitchen to check on her chickens. She wants to be sure they're all right.

When she pulls back the lace curtains, she notices a figure moving against the sky and realizes that it's Snake, stumbling through the snow and bare-chested beneath his overalls. In front of his chest, he swings his rifle slowly back and forth through the air, pretending to aim and shoot at the sky. When she sees him disappear into the chicken coop, she opens the door and waits.

She waits until she hears a frenzied bawking and sees chickens scurry madly into the fenced area, and then she runs into the snow. She approaches the door of the chicken coop slowly, not going up the ramp but standing on the ground with just her eyes above the floorboards, and sees Snake standing beneath the gash in the roof, through which snow is falling and melting into a frozen sheet. He kneels on this icy spot, the rifle poised between his damp knees, his eyes focused down the dark barrel. Feathers and snow float around his head. In one of his hands is a leghorn, dead, its neck twisted and broken, its eyes like black marbles.

The hens left inside the coop begin to settle down. Soon it becomes quiet, as quiet as the sound of the snow touching the ground, and Lizzy pokes her head up higher until Snake notices her. He points to the chicken. Its red wattle dangles limply across his wrist. "It's dead," he says and drops it onto the floor.

Lizzy nods her head. She walks up the ramp and over to the nests, cold in her white nightgown and red snow boots. She picks up a freshly laid egg, still feather-warm, and holds it out to Snake. "You want the egg?" she says.

Snake takes it from her hand. "You and your fucking eggs," he says.

Lizzy straightens her back. "I was hatched from a fucking egg," she says quietly and then a bit louder, "What do you think of that?"

Snake begins to laugh, rests his head on the barrel of the gun, and smacks his knee once. "Hatched from an egg," he says, looking up at her face for the first time. "And a fucking egg at that. Is that what you think?" and then a board creaks and they look down at another hen, fluttering its wings against the floorboards, blood trickling thinly and delicately along its chest. "I must have done that, too," he says.

He kicks gently at the struggling chicken with his boot. "It's gonna die," he says, then stands up, rifle in hand. Lizzy moves in front of him and kneels on the ice. Her nightgown bunches around her pink knees.

"Show me what you do," she says, pointing to the dead chicken. Snake turns back slowly, leans the rifle against the wall, and sits across from her. He wrings the air with his fists, a quick deliberate movement, like demonstrating how to open a bottle. Lizzy leans over, places her small hands on the thin neck, and twists.

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