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When It Grows

Chanya Holness

 

Tim pulls the seat out from underneath the splintery desk and waits for the phone to ring. When it’s clear nothing is going to happen, as it never does this early in the morning, he takes out his notepad and his pen and lets his hand move however it wants to.

Across the page, the fractured form of Humpty Dumpty lying next to his yolk-brains begins to take shape. As he carefully adds contorted arms and legs, a shrill ring pierces through the stagnant air.

“Hi, thank you for calling Before They Hatch Inc. My name is Tim. How may I help you?”

With the phone slipping from where it’s pressed between his ear and his shoulder, he adds an ‘X’ across one eye.

“Yes, hi. I was in the supermarket the other day and I bought a carton of your eggs. Now that I’m cooking with them, they feel a little powdery to the touch. I don’t think they’re fresh.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Ma’am,” he says, adding an ‘X’ across the other eye. Satisfied with the eyes, he starts to think about what size to draw the fragments of shattered egg shell that would be surrounding Humpty’s lifeless form.

“I would be happy to assist you in getting a refund. Would that work for you?”

He decides to make them big. An egg as big as Humpty Dumpty would probably have a thick shell, and a thick shell probably wouldn’t shatter into a million pieces.

“Yes, that’d be great!”

He adds a tongue hanging limply from the mouth and says, “Great. Is there are an address you would like me to send a refund form to?”

When the call is over, Tim puts away his notepad and logs into the company computer, finding the refund form pretty quickly. He adds the letter to the office’s stack of envelopes waiting to be mailed off and realizes that this was the only time he’s really had to get up all day. He continues to draw mindlessly, and when he’s done, he drums his pen against his desk and lets his eyes wander. Tim’s gaze lands on the wall at the childhood photo of himself and his parents posing with Big Tex at the State Fair of Texas. Without having to turn it over, Tim can envision his dad’s messy handwriting scrawled across the back of the photo: “New Jersey doesn’t need one of these things. It’s got you and your personality is ten times bigger anyway!” Bitter-sweet nostalgia swayed slow and heavy like a pendulum in his chest until it’s finally time to go.

When the clock hits 4:30, he walks to his car, stopping in the hallway to stare through the windows. Looking down below, as if through the salt and pepper light of television static, Tim cannot make sense of what he sees. People in suits and dresses, people in tatters, dogs on leashes, food stands. So many things, and they all seem like miracles in this cosmic gift of life.

But what is so miraculous about his own life? He answers calls about eggs; that is no miracle. Fate had put him somewhere between a briefcase and a park bench, but he feels more like a beggar every day—just wasting away and wishing for something, anything better.

And as if by a switch, he snaps out of it. His despair gives way to disgust. You’d be a beggar even if it wasn’t up to fate, he thinks to himself, his own snide voice ringing through his head . And in his father’s concerned voice he hears the old platitude “You can’t make a living off of your art, Tim. You have to do something practical.”

His parents only wanted him to be okay, to be able to support himself.

“We love you,” he remembers them saying. “We only want the best for you.”

Yet, here he is at his worst, doing nothing more than taking calls about eggs. It’s hard to think that this is supposed to be better than being the “starving artist” his parents feared he would become.

The off-balance feeling follows him throughout the car ride and into his home, weighing heavy on his mind until the dead of night falls through the windows. And as he sleeps, he dreams that tomorrow will be different.

Tim wakes up the next morning in a dizzy haze from having gone to sleep so late. He showers most of the grogginess away and brushes his teeth. Then, just like always, he makes his way to the kitchen to make breakfast. As he scrolls through his phone with one hand, he blindly reaches into the fridge with the other for what seems like all eternity. When he finally looks inside, there is only a carton of eggs. Inside the carton there is one egg, extra-large and cage free and all alone. There’s some kind of metaphor in that, he thinks. He thinks about how birds, so admired for their celestial freedom, are never recognized for having been brought to life from the cage of a shell. But he’s too groggy to think of what it’s a metaphor for, so he thinks instead about how he needs to go grocery shopping later and about that bagel place near the office that he used to love.

On the way to the office, the white and yellow awning of that bagel place calls his name and he pulls into the parking lot. Tim enters, smiling at the light jingle of a bell as he opens the door. Glancing at the display case, his eyebrows knit together in confusion. Egg sandwiches. When he looks up at the menu he sees “Sunny-side up sandwich, $4.99” and “Poached egg on toast, $5.99” among other things.

He met the owners once. They were a nice couple, but a little neurotic. Cerebral for sure. He wouldn’t put it past them to set up this whole scheme as a market research effort to test which of their menu items would sell the best among customers. A throat clears from somewhere behind him, and he’s reeled back to reality. He orders the sunny side-up sandwich, and makes his purchase.

When Tim gets to the office, he sits at the same splintery desk and eats his sandwich. As he eats, he doodles and drifts into familiar daydreams of a better life. He imagines a man calling him:

“Hey, you know, these are the best damned eggs I’ve ever had.”

“Well, yes, the best eggs are always eaten before they hatch.”

Charmed by his quick wit, the man would say, “Oh, so you’re a comedian?”

“Only on the weekends. I just couldn’t bear to I quit my day job,” he says, sarcasm leaking from his lips like oil. “It’s an egg-ceptional thing to be doing, don’t you know?”

“You seem like a really clever young man. Look, you’ve probably never gotten a call like this in your life, but I see potential in you. Come work for me, won’t you?”

Except, that call never comes. And Tim knows it never will, yet here he is fantasizing about some imaginary man taking a chance on him, coming to his rescue just because he’s sick of talking about eggs all day. But it wouldn’t be a rescue mission anyway, since he would just be trading one thing he doesn’t want for a more glamorous thing he doesn’t want, just to make his parents proud. Just to counteract that thing inside him that feels a lot like being rejected. That’s all he thinks about for the rest of the day, jittery and overwhelmed in his seat.

At 4:30, after a day of doing nothing, he goes straight to his car. No stopping at windows, no thinking about birds. He just races home, vibrating at the red lights and zooming past the green, whole body bubbling with anxiety. He can’t even remember how he gets home.

And, it is only after making a sharp turn into the driveway that he remembers his fridge is empty. He sits up straight. The cool air of the car fills his nostrils, in and out until the air had finally found a way to stick to his lungs and anchor him to this moment. Then he turns back around and shifts into drive.

In the parking lot, he takes another moment to collect himself. Finally feeling like his brain won’t float out of his ears, he walks up to the store, ready for the day to be over with.

“Automatic Door. Keep Moving.”, he reads, and so he does.

And beyond those doors are tidy aisles and well stocked shelves with nothing but eggs.  

Eggs in the freezers and eggs where he saw the cereal last week and eggs in Mrs. O’Grady’s cart, although she usually only buys oatmeal. Walking from aisle to aisle with dread filling his stomach, he sees each and every shelf and fridge lined only with eggs. And the closer he gets to the other end of the store, the more it seems like the aisles are closing in on him. He can’t escape.

As he turns on his heels and gets back to the front of the store, he notices something he hadn’t noticed before. At checkout, he sees eggs in the fridges where the sodas used to be. He stares at them, stock-still.

“Excuse me, are you in line?”

“Huh?” says Tim, broken out of his trance. Then, “Oh, no I’m not.”

“Oh okay, I’m just gonna scoot on line then.” Says the man, cart filled to the top with cartons of eggs.

“That’s a lot of eggs,” Tim says dumbly, eyes not knowing what to make of it all.

“Yeah, I haven’t done a big grocery trip in a while. I like keeping the fridge stocked, you know?”

He nods, as if he knows when he so clearly doesn’t, and picks up a carton of his own from the soda fridge.

In his hands, the tinted brown paper of the carton feels slightly rough against his fingertips. This, at least, is familiar to him. And as he opens the carton, he sees all 12 eggs bathed in the pearlescent white dew of angel wings. Delicate, yet hard like a baby’s tooth. And cracked. All 12 of them cracked with lines like rivers and dents like craters, yolk dripping down the sides of the eggs and darkening the paper carton.

Opening carton after carton, he finds the same thing. Angel wings, rivers, craters. Nothing makes sense. He speed-walks out the store and, when he gets to his car, he drives off as fast as he can.

When he finally gets home, he lays down on his bed. He stares at the ceiling, but the only things he sees is the trembling of his hand as he held the carton of broken, dripping eggs and those perfectly lined shelves and perfectly organized fridges. When he finally drifts to sleep, he hopes he’ll wake up in reality again.

Thinking of his failed grocery store trip the next morning, he gargles and watches frothy green mouthwash swirl down the sink. And as he buttons the last button on his shirt, he hesitates as he makes his way into the kitchen for breakfast. He can’t explain it, but he needs this; he needs to know that this one thing is the same, so he goes to his fridge, and he opens it.

And inside, there it is. That egg, cage free and all alone. It sits oddly in the fridge, no longer shielded by the thick paper covering of the carton. The top instead lies, with ripped and jagged edges, by the eggs’ side. And Tim, with bated breath, stares, and, stares, and stares. The egg, smooth and white as ever, sits in the fridge like a target. It’s bigger than his head, bigger than an ostrich egg. It’s as if an elephant bird had come back from extinction only to lay an egg in his fridge without so much as a warning. And there it sits, shaking slowly in the steady back and forth rhythm of a rocking chair and expanding like a pregnant belly.

Bowled over by a headrush, he stumbles back into the counter, and when he steadies himself, he runs out the door.

Tim goes to work, and for the first time, he wishes he could stay there. He doesn’t want to think about the egg or the store or anything else.

When he gets up to use the bathroom, wiping his hands on his pants in the hallway, he bumps into the Dave from the research department.

“Oh, it’s nice to see you Tim! How ya been?”

Swallowing the lump in his throat, “I’ve been good. You?”

“I’ve been pretty good myself. Though I’m a little busy, what with the American Egg Council meeting coming up.”

“Oh, is it soon? I haven’t heard a lot about that.”

“Yeah, it’s in a few days.” And after a few minutes of mindless chatter Dave says “You and me should definitely catch up. How about lunch today?”

“Sure, sounds great.”

And sure enough, at 12:30, there he is, sitting in the meeting room that doubles as a lunch room, hesitantly taking an egg sandwich out of its white and yellow bag.

Dave’s mouth opens and closes, and sound is coming out, but Tim can’t make out his words. Dave looks at him expectantly.

“What?” says Tim.

“I said, is something wrong? You seem a little distant.”

“No, no, everything is fine,” and then in a moment of dumb bravery he decides to just say it.

“Well, actually, Dave, something weird happened this morning.”

Eyebrows knitted together in concern, Dave puts his sandwich down and says, “What was it?”

“There’s a giant egg in my fridge”

“A giant egg,” he scoffs.

“Yeah, a giant egg.”

“Well, where’d you get it from?” He says, picking up his sandwich again and taking a bite.

“I got it from the supermarket down on Walker Ave. It wasn’t that size when I bought it. I don’t really know what happened to it.”

“Oh, let me guess,” he says, speaking through the slimy globs of egg in his mouth. “There was a giant chicken sitting right next to it too, right?”

Dave chuckles and mutters under his breath, “You’ve always been such a jokester.”

An uncontrollable energy rises up inside Tim, and in a white-hot rage he rises out of his chair. “You know what? Fuck you!” he screams, towering over Dave. There’s a pressure squeezing tight in his stomach, and it’s like the words are being strangled out of him. It’s not much, but his mind is moving so fast it’s the only thing he can think of to say.

Dave puts his food down, and as he gets up too, his chair rolls behind him and bangs into the wall. “It was a joke, man! What the fuck is wrong with you?” boiling, his fists are clenched so tight that not even a hair could slip through.  

“Nothing’s wrong with me, but you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. If you knew what happened, you’d know better than to say that stupid shit to me.” The manic energy inside him catches in his throat and spreads everywhere from his fingertips to the soles of his feet. He trembles. He feels five years old again—his emotions too big for his body, not quite knowing what he feels or what anything means.

“You sound fucking crazy right now. What did I even say?”

At that, Tim deflates, knowing that no matter what he says, he can’t change a thing. “Never mind,” he sighs out. “It’s nothing.” and a penetrating silence washes over the room and reverberates against the walls.

After a few seconds, Dave closes the lid on his half-eaten egg sandwich and gets up.

From the doorway, he says resignedly, “Look, you wanna believe Humpty Dumpty died on the cross for your sins or some shit, be my guest—no one’s gonna stop you. But leave me out of it.”

And when he walks away, he closes the door behind him, leaving Tim in the uncomfortable emptiness.

When Tim wakes up the next morning, and the morning after that, and the morning after that, he finds that nothing has changed. Except for the egg. It’s strange how something so perfectly formed can be so abnormal. And just as before, the egg shakes and grows, already so big that it had knocked over a shelf in the fridge. Tim made sure to remove all remaining shelves after that.

Day after day after day, it’s an endless cycle of going to the grocery store and checking the fridge, seeing broken shell after broken shell and then one very large egg. It’s compulsive, like lying next to the cremated ashes of a loved one every night although they do just fine on the mantle. But each day, all Tim does is look. He’s too afraid to touch it; he can’t be sure what would happen if he did.

One day, from the glass of the soda fridges, something new catches his eye; a row of opaque white bottles that match the sterile look of everything else. He wished the bottles were transparent. He can’t tell what’s inside, but he can tell that it’s different. From the way that their slender necks flare into squarish bottoms, they’re probably condiments, he figures. His growing smile takes over his face as he pulls out a bottle. It’s gotta be ranch he thinks. Or maybe even mayonnaise.

With the nutrition facts facing him, he turns it around and his shoulders drop. The smile is wiped clean off his face and is replaced with a grimace.

“Squeezable Eggs!” he sees. And in smaller print underneath, “The more you squeeze ’em, the more you eat ’em!”

That night is tougher than any other. He was so close to seeing a change, so close to breaking free from the horror show that has become his life. And he thinks about what it has meant to be so far from reality, so stuck in this stupid nightmare that he just can’t take it anymore.

He walks to the kitchen. He stands there, face illuminated by the light of the fridge, contemplating what to do. And he thinks, no one’s gonna stop you, no one’s gonna stop you, no one’s gonna stop you.  

And so, with one foot on the ground, one foot next to the egg on the only shelf left in the fridge, he wraps his arms around the shaking egg and pulls. He pulls so forcefully he falls on his back, but he gets right back up and tries again. He pulls and pulls until the sweat dripping down his forehead dries in the cool air of the fridge. As his arms envelop the gently shaking egg, he plants his feet on the ground and arches his back forward, hoping that he’ll have enough momentum to pop the egg out when he rears backward. But the egg never budges. He pulls until the muscles in his back strain, until his legs give, and then he lies on the ground, defeated. Exhausted, he carries himself to the couch and falls asleep immediately for the first time in months.

In the middle of the night, Tim awakes to a rapid pounding. It’s somewhat muted but forceful, as if someone had put an industrial washing machine in the wall and set it to turbo. He rushes off the couch and runs toward the kitchen. He stops in his tracks. The fridge is convulsing, as if a tornado is ripping its roots from the ground. And his heart stops.

Tim doesn’t have time to waste. He snaps out of it and pulls the handle lightning fast. With the momentum of it all, the door flies off and leaves a hole in the wall somewhere.

He stands there in the midst of this loud, blurry catastrophe. The egg is as big as the fridge itself, and the confines of the fridge are the only thing stopping the egg from growing, from taking the roof off his house. There’s no way to get the egg out if he still wants to live. But he has an idea. He rushes to the basement, and when he comes back, he stands just far enough away to not be swept up in its whirlwind. He bears the baseball bat out over his shoulders and hits with his eyes closed. Tough bits of egg shell fly off and hit him in the face, stinging so much that a sharp stab of tears threatens to spill out from behind the squeeze of his eyelids. He can barely hear the slimy smack of dribbling yolk against the wall behind him every time he swings the bat over his shoulder. Over and over and over again. His back hurts and his body is heavy and tense with a chaotic energy, so he stops for a second. When he resumes, with one hard hit, the egg cracks, and the yolk explodes in his face. With that final bang, the fridge stops shaking. Everything is still.

Drenched in the thick, yellow translucency of egg yolk, Tim drips all the way to the bathroom where he takes off his clothes and hops in the shower. The steam from the water mixing with the stench of the yolk fills the room and he gags. When he gets out, he cracks the egg some more and picks up the broken pieces. The glow of the moon follows him like a spotlight as he wheels the shattered pieces of shell out to his car in a wheelbarrow. He puts them in his trunk and drives to the dumpster, and in the rearview mirror, he catches a glimpse of the smile on his face. It’s all over.

On his way to work in the morning, he knows what he has to do. He catches Dave in the hallway again.

“Hey Dave, I just wanted to say I’m really sorry about what happened between us. I really hope we can move past it.”

After a moment’s silence, a small smile grows on Dave’s face. “Don’t sweat it,” he says, and with a careful look he adds, “You seem to be doing better.”

“Thanks, Dave. I am doing better. I really am.”

On his way home from work that day, he goes to the grocery store one more time, just for peace of mind. And when he stares at the aisles and shelves and fridges full of eggs, he doesn’t shatter into a million pieces. He knows what he has to do; he knows he can’t stay.

That night, he writes his letter of resignation and books a plane ticket for somewhere very far away; Texas. And weeks later, when he’s finally in his seat on that plane, staring out the window at the endless stretch of celestial freedom, he thinks he’s finally being rescued. And it’s nice to know that he’s doing the rescuing.