By Ce Ottenweller
he saw the egg sitting in the patch of grass near DeeDee’s oak. It was a light green color—came from one of the white chickens. Priss hadn’t seen the egg that morning when she’d walked down to feed the horses, so it had to be pretty fresh.
She picked it up and gently pocketed it in the thick oversized rust-brown corduroy coat she wore. It felt warm against her palm. Priss instinctively pulled the coat tighter around herself against the October chill.
Her mom, Fan, was at the linoleum table, dragging on a cigarette as she thumbed through some catalog. Her thick, oversized acrylic nails prevented her from actually grabbing the pages; she flipped them with that strange gripping technique that women disabled by their own vanity perfect, where it seems the fingerprint swirls grab the paper like mini-versions of an octopuses’ suction cups. Fan glanced up as Priss walked in then went back to flipping the pages.
“You better pull those boots off, Girl, before you get horse shit in my house.” The words were for Priss but were aimed at the catalog.
Priss nodded, already using the wooden bootjack by the door. She looked around. The thought came that she might be safer with the boots on—the trailer was a rumbled mess. Pressed wood furniture with the laminate peeling, ashtrays with piles of butts, the 1970s shag rug gritty with years of accumulation. Heinz, the ratty terrier mix that was her mother’s constant companion, lay snoring on the “loveseat,” his shaggy head on their one pillow, his hairless butt twitching against the thin couch cushions. He’d chewed himself raw because of a flea allergy. He stunk, smelling like a wet, dead rat.
Anyone from the outside looking at the scene would stare at Fan and then say, “Yeah, horseshit might help,” but Priss was raised to keep her mind, and everything in it, to herself.
The new egg bounced gently against Priss’s upper leg as she walked into the kitchen. She got out one of the frying pans. She had about 15 minutes before she had to start the quarter mile walk to the bus stop and get to school.
The pan was at one point “nonstick.” It was one of the items Fan and Dick got as a wedding present 16 years earlier. Dick was long gone. There were years of scratches on the surface, the Teflon brutalized by every metal implement in Fan’s arsenal.
Priss set it in the middle of the gas stove and got out the box of kitchen matches. The igniter died years ago. They now did things the old fashioned way, which was good enough for them, Fan said. Priss twisted the knob for the front right burner, bending slightly to watch the gas jets, struck the match and gently edged it towards the holes. There was a big WHOOSH and it was lit.
“What’re you doing?” Fan asked. Priss could hear Fan’s chair creak as she twisted her body away from the scummy window and towards the stove. Fan’s interest created an ominous silence.
Priss kept her back turned as she continued, quiet for a moment before responding, “Breakfast, Ma. Making an egg.”
There was another scrape as the wood chair was pulled away from the table. Priss tensed. Every cell in her body tightened and huddled against its fellow cell in defense against the expected onslaught.
She felt rather than heard her mother come up behind her. She pretended not to notice and kept going—pan on the fire, open the fridge, grab the tub of “Shed’s Spread,” then a spoon—throw a blob of grease on the pan… swirl it around…
Fan loomed closer, just behind Priss’s right arm. She leaned in still closer. “You know better than that—that’s too much Shed’s on there!”
Physical escape was impossible. Priss’s only refuge was to keep her outsides still, don’t flinch, become like a rock. Let the inside feel the confusion and pain, but never let the outside show it.
Fan hip checked Priss away from the stove, forcing Priss to turn towards her. “You better believe you’re sorry. That shit’s expensive, Priss! You can’t just waste Shed’s like that!”
Priss finished the turn as if that’s what she intended the whole time, opened the fridge door, threw the Shed’s on the empty wire shelf next to the half opened, dried and cracked American cheese and six pack of Pabst. “I’m sorry, Mom.” The apology was delivered to the empty fridge.
“You scrambling it or frying?”
“I thought I’d fry it.” Priss turned back from the refrigerator and, without looking at her mother, took the egg from her pocket. She reached out, cracked it on the edge of the pan then laid its freshly laid package into the pool of bubbling fat. It crackled in response.
They were quiet. Fan watched. Priss stood over the stove, spatula held at the ready.
Priss’s intention was to get her breakfast together fast, without offering opportunities to be stopped or kicked to the side. It didn’t work. It would never work.
Fan drew in a sharp, accusatory breath and said, “Look, you’re not doing it right. You gotta fold the edges in.” She reached in and, with one swift movement, body-checked Priss’s lean form to one side and grabbed the plastic spatula. “You don’t know what the hell you’re doing,” she muttered, “Gimme that.”
Priss’s anger whipped up from its hiding place. She finally met her mother’s eyes. “Mom, I wanna do this!” She could feel herself failing again. “Just leave me alone! I don’t want you to…”
The slap arrived in a flash. Stunned, Priss just stood, quiet, but she didn’t lower her eyes this time. This time, she locked onto her mother’s face and stared.
Fan stared right back, daring her daughter to say another word. Her eyes narrowed, giving Priss “the look,” openly radiating contempt, disgust, and more than just a glimmer of self-satisfaction.
Tears. Clenched fist. Stuffed words. The struggle within became that tight feeling in Priss’s chest where all of it gets wedged over and over and over, like an overstuffed plastic trash bag that no one takes out, but just keeps jamming more crap in until it splits. And it will split. But not today. Not yet. The rage went down and down and down, deep down, where it and she were safe.
Fan somehow sensed the internal fight and pierced Priss with a stare that dared her to challenge what she’d said. Her eyes, her body language, her stance, the trailer, the fug of cigarette smoke and burnt grease—it all said, “Go ahead—show me you’re not just another worthless little girl. Show me you’re better than your momma. Ungrateful bitch…”
Satisfied she’d won, Fan said, “Just get the hell out of my way. You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.” She turned back to the skillet. “Can’t even fry an egg right,” she muttered.
The egg, oblivious to the dysfunction surrounding it, happily crisped around the edges. But as the moment wore on, the yolk thickened. The bottom began to blacken and crumble into a fine, wiry crinkle. The sweet runny nature of an egg at the perfect moment of cooking was gone in a microsecond and Priss watched it happen, mute and powerless.
All Priss wanted was a tasty breakfast and a sense of self worth. All Fan wanted was a dash of self esteem purchased with her daughter’s soul.
And the egg? It suffered, died, and was served on a dirty plate.
Ce Ottenweller lives in Houston, Texas, with Charles, her sweetheart of 28 years. Her first step into glorious midlife began with ditching her career as a multi-media creative director to run a small history nonprofit. She is earning her MA in Cultural Sustainability at Goucher College in Maryland and is researching how culture interferes in care for African American mothers. She is a professional voice over artist as well as a writer. Ce is passionate about food and community and the best moments of her life have included cooking with, and for, the people she loves, especially her precious niecelets.