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,
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.
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
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
"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
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
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
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.