By Joanna Galbraith
My mother is frying an egg for Nana-Jean.
She clutches onto the frypan as if it is the only thing that is able to keep her grounded to the earth. I have seen her hang onto the vacuum cleaner and the lawn mower in the same desperate way; as if these instruments of housewifery were invented solely to keep her from floating away.
She doesn't usually make breakfast for the whole family. Normally, it is just for her and me. Soon she will make it just for herself. She says I am far too old to have my breakfast made and I must learn to butter my toast with a knife before the summer has ended.
The egg my mother cooks for Nana-Jean has a deep yellow-orange yolk. It must have come from one of Gloria McGovern's hens. Gloria feeds her cat: rump steak, lobster and fresh cream; her dog: roast beef, pork cracklings and chocolate pudding; and her chickens: marigold petals, alfalfa and yellow corn. Everyone else in the district feeds their chickens bland, white cornmeal. I know this because last year I went on an ‘eggscursion’ with my school.
When the egg is cooked, mother scoops it onto a plate and lays it in front Nana-Jean. Nana-Jean smiles one of her gummy grins (no teeth for her today) and flips the egg over with her fork.
The toothless smile does not, however, last much longer.
‘Dear Lord above,’ she screeches in the voice of a woman half her age. The last time Nana-Jean screeched at an egg it was half a very dead chicken.
We rush over to her plate, except for the cat who bolts for the window, to see the cause of this particular outburst. The yolk is bunched into shriveled, grayish-yellow folds similar in sight to a dried cow pat and is surrounded by what looks like a tea-stained doily. But there are no signs of chicken remnants or small flakes of blood.
But Frightening? Only from a gastronomical viewpoint.
‘It looks like your father.’
She pushes the plate away as forcefully as her eighty-seven year old arms will permit. ‘My Father?’
My mother peers closely at the egg. ‘No, it does not.’
‘Not him, your father,’ she says accusingly to me as if the fact that he is related is somehow all my doing.
‘Don't be silly,’ mother tuts. ‘It's just a bloody egg.’
‘I know a bad egg when I see one,’ Nana-Jean replies firmly and shoves the scoundrel egg to the side of her plate.
Later, I scoop the egg out of the dustbin and show it to my neighbour, Jeremiah.
‘Apparently it looks like my father.’
We both stare long and hard at the eggy portrait. The frame is falling apart around the edges: the small pieces of crocheted albumen are breaking away but the centre remains intact. (I learned the word ‘albumen’ during the ‘eggscursion’ but this is the first time I have found any reason to use it.) Jeremiah holds the specimen up to the light and uses a Christmas cracker looking-glass to examine the individual folds of the congealed yolk. He is a true detective.
‘It certainly seems to have very human qualities,’ he observes pointing to a part of the yolk which, at a stretch, could be taken for a nose - a long one at that.
‘I suppose it could be a face,’ I grudgingly concede.
He lays it on the kitchen bench and meticulously compares it with the only washed-out picture we have of my father. As he works I am jumping nervously from foot to foot.
Hop Hop Hop
If Nana-Jean catches us in here looking at pictures of my runaway father, whether it be on the medium of paper or egg, she will kill us.
‘Well?’ He is taking too long.
‘Hmm. Difficult to say. I mean it could be your father. But then that looks like a cloak to me.’
He points to a particularly bunched-up section of the yolk. ‘It could be the Virgin Mary.’
The Virgin Mary.
Please Lord, no.
Two summers ago an image of the Virgin Mary was found in the heart of a lettuce just outside Grogan. It was first noticed by Jimmy O’Hara, as he loaded the lettuce into his truck ready for market day. The sighting caused an almighty fracas. People came from miles around, interstate and beyond, hoping to catch a glimpse of the holy spectacle. They left prosthetic limbs and prayer notes scattered throughout the vegetable plot where the visionary lettuce had sprouted and built temporary camp sites on nearby parklands where they prayed, sang and drank far too much ‘communion wine’. For days the air was filled with the click of kneading rosary beads and the drone of a thousand Hail Mary’s so in the end even the Priest had to close the rectory windows because he couldn’t hear the answers on The Price is Right above all the noise.
Then the lettuce began to wilt. Tired because it was old and had been prodded too many times. People became disillusioned, even angry, particularly those who had traveled great distances to witness this miracle. Shouting that the Virgin Mary would never wilt, they accused the grocery boy, the farmer who had grown the lettuce and even the town, of deception. It left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
‘I don’t think it looks like anyone. I think we should get rid of it.’
‘No,’ says Jeremiah. ‘Let’s take it down to Brokey Road and get Luigi Strachini, the five dollar painter, to interpret it.'
This sounds like an awful waste of five dollars but Jeremiah is adamant. I reluctantly agree. He seems so enthusiastic about the idea and Luigi is really rather good. Last year he did a portrait of the Mayor’s wife which made her look less like a terrier and more like a woman with a fine lip-hair problem. Everyone in the town thought she looked quite human, for a change, and on the strength of Luigi’s portrait the Mayor and his hairy wife were voted back in for another three year term.
Brokey Road is an uninspired looking main street for a town the size of Grogan.The pavements are crumbling and bad-tempered; they trip at least two people daily. The Mayor promised two elections ago to get them replaced. The weatherworn signs that hang from the shops constantly rattle as the westerly winds blow through on their way to some place better. It looks like the M at Micks Milk Bar has finally saddled itself on the back of a galloping breeze so now unfortunately it reads icks instead. Luigi is perched down by Gracie’s hair salon. He likes to catch the ladies as they leave the salon feeling coiffed and attractive. That’s how he caught the Mayor’s wife, just after she’d had her top lip bleached.
He hasn’t managed to attract anyone today and is looking horribly grumpy. His dark head is sloped between his grubby fingers and he is muttering something in Italian about ‘oggi’ and ‘shit’. Beside him slouches his loyal canine friend, Raphael. Luigi says that Raphael is a true artistic genius trapped in the body of a dog and consequently will only take a commission which has received Raphael’s wag of approval.
'Can you paint a portrait for us? We’ll pay.’
‘From an egg,’ I add lifting the lid on the plastic container that is holding the egg.
Luigi and Raphael look into the container and simultaneously lick their lips.
‘Don’t be wastin’ me time,’ he mutters. ‘Eggs are for eatin.’
Jeremiah persists. ‘We think there is a face in this egg. Look closely, can you see one?’
Luigi stares between his filthy, fat fingers at the egg. Twisting his head sideward he begins to nod. Then, turning to confer with Raphael whose tail is wagging furiously, he adds, ‘S’pose it could be a face.’
‘Great.’ Jeremiah is thrilled. ‘So can you paint it?’
‘Cost y’ five dollars.’
I fish the money from my pocket.
‘Come back at three,’ he says grumpily and settles the egg on the slope of his easel.
While we wait Jeremiah takes me to icks for a milkshake.
‘Just imagine if it is your dad.’
‘Bet it isn’t.’
‘Well, even if it turns out not to be your dad. I wonder who it is. Perhaps they’re trying to tell us something.’
‘Yeah, like eat your eggs before they go cold.’
But Jeremiah will not be deterred. He is convinced the egg has something to say.
At quarter to three we return to Luigi.
‘I said three,’ he says gruffly but he reaches down to his ragged leather satchel and pulls out a portrait. We stare at it closely. The man is quite ordinary-looking except for his smile, which is more of a lopsided smirk that makes me want to tip my head towards the ground. I’ve seen that lopsided smirk before. It belonged to my disgraced Uncle Vern, who now resides in jail for offences my mother says are too rude to repeat. Jeremiah has never met my uncle but he disagrees. He says he looks like the man his mother used to date before she caught him extinguishing his cigarettes on her cat’s tail. We both agree, however, that it looks nothing like the faded picture of my father.
‘Do you know him?’ Jeremiah asks Luigi.
‘Looks like that con-artist, Pepe, to me. Stole me painting twenty years back.’
‘Yes, but does he look like anyone local?’
‘Only been ‘ere five years, ask Inspector Stag. Him been round forever.’
Not the Inspector who is always importantly busy catching thieves and jaywalkers; I really don’t want to bother him with a picture taken from an egg.
But Jeremiah insists.'We don’t have to tell him about the egg bit,’ which is fortunate as Luigi seems to have assumed the egg as part of his commission.
We find Inspector Stag at the police station sitting at his desk eating coconut lamingtons. He’s had a good day, three arrests two cautions, so he welcomes us with a big, crumby smile. Jeremiah is very business-like.
‘Tell me Inspector Stag, you have lived here all your life, haven’t you?’
‘Have indeed,’ he responds, his chest puffing well beyond the size of his shirt.
‘So you would pretty much know anyone who comes though this place?’
‘Photographic memory,’ the Inspector chuckles, clicking a finger to his temple.
Jeremiah pulls out the portrait.
‘So, if I showed you this man would you recognize him, if he was local?’
The Inspector is enjoying this conversation, I can tell because he always licks his lips when he is excited. Last year when he caught an armed robber barehanded he licked his lips throughout the television broadcast. It put us all off our dinner. As the Inspector stares at the picture his mouth slowly begins to drop to form the largest O I have ever seen. If he breathes in he may well suck Jeremiah, myself and the whole town of Grogan into his mouth.
‘Wh…where did you get this?’
‘Who is it, Inspector?’
‘Why it’s that scoundrel Feldman. We never caught him. Biggest escape of my career.’
‘You mean he’s not my father?’
The Inspector does not hear me. Instead, he is rising from his chair, his eyes bulging like overripe lychees, the shredded coconut tumbling like snowflakes from his moustache.
‘Why’d you bring me this picture anyway? To taunt me.’
He grabs Jeremiah and I by the scruffs of our necks and marches us straight out of the station. Obviously, this picture has not pleased him, reminded him of a glitch in his otherwise spotless career.
‘And don’t be show that face around here again,’ he growls, slamming the door behind him.
Dusting down our knees, we stumble right into the path of the religious education teacher. She is shocked to see that we have been thrown out of police premises, especially since I am the only student of hers who can recite all the books of the Old Testament without error. We tell her what has happened.
‘Well my dears,’ she says looking at the portrait. ‘I remember Feldman and he looked nothing like this chap. The Inspector is having you on. Why he’s the spitting image of my ex-husband.’
Now Jeremiah and I are confused, and, as the night wears on, we become even more so. Every time we show someone new the picture they seem to think he is someone else. By nightfall the town is in disarray. The streets are choked with people who either holler at the very sight of the portrait or mutter expletives and threaten to tear it into a million shreds. The public phone boxes are jammed with people trying to call Lifeline because their own phone lines are down. The psychologist who runs a clinic on Brokey Road is rumoured to have been ambushed at the supermarket and forced to offer free counseling to the hemming crowds until Inspector Stag breaks him out and charges the entire crowd with false imprisonment.
In the end the Mayor is forced to call an emergency town meeting, much to the despair of his bearded wife who is unable to slip in a last minute appointment at Gracie’s. The hall fills quickly with desperate, haunted people who clutch at their hearts and wail, ‘I thought I’d seen the back of him.’ A chorus of dogs joins in the racket and even though I am sure on a distant planet the resonating noise may be considered poetic, here in Grogan it is tortuous.
When the crowds are finally hushed, the Mayor asks Jeremiah ‘to bring forth’ (his words, not mine) ‘the portrait responsible for perpetrating this outrage.’ The picture is tacked to a board at the front causing the entire room to thicken with the sound of a thousand, reviled names. I can see my mother among them mouthing a name I cannot decipher.
Silencing the agitated masses once again, the Mayor asks Jeremiah and I where we got the picture.
‘An egg,’ I whisper.
‘And where is that egg now?’ he demands.
Jeremiah and I exchange glances.
‘We think Luigi may have eaten it.’
There’s an angry huff from the front left-hand corner. ‘I may well be a desperate painter but I ain’t that desperate.’
Luigi steps forward, pointing to his breast pocket.
‘It’s in ‘ere.’ ‘Bring me the egg,’ booms the Mayor and Luigi bounds on stage; Raphael hot on his heels.
‘No dogs,’ the Mayor growls.
‘He’s a painter,’ Luigi responds.
Ignoring Raphael, the Mayor takes the egg between his fat, sausage-like fingers and holds it up into the air for the crowd to inspect.
‘This,’ he says in his gravest tone, reserved only for funerals and re-election promises, ‘is the cause of tonight’s outrage.’
And as he twirls it above his head, I can see the last bit of the albumen breaking away in his fingers so the egg begins to spin like a spaceship through the air. The crowd shrieks with horror and those in the path of the offending egg start diving under their seats - throwing bags, chairs, even their children, into its path. Then, as the egg finally begins to embrace gravity once more it is obligingly intercepted by the waiting jaws of Raphael, who at this stage would seem to be more dog than painter. The whole crowd falls mute. They crane their necks to watch Raphael, holding their breath waiting for something terrible to happen; but the dog simply grins, gobbles down the egg and carefully begins to lick his bottom.
‘Painter indeed,’ mutters the Mayor but no one hears him because the hall is filling once again with the sound of a thousand gasps and the sight of a thousand fingers all pointing to the painting. Except now the painting no longer resembles a portrait but instead has become an unintelligible mess of squiggles and blotches. At first, everyone looks confused; their mouths and eyebrows jumble and contort just like the picture. Slowly, quietly though, the realization begins to dawn that perhaps the painting’s spell has been destroyed with the eating of the egg. And soon everyone is cheering wildly; hailing the rather artful Raphael (and his very accommodating chops) as the hero of the town. Everyone, that is, apart from Luigi who is horrified that he is responsible for such a terrible drawing.
The Mayor lets out an amused snort.
'Why, that explains everything,’ he booms across the hall. ‘It seems to me folks that we have ourselves here a simple case of a very, rotten egg.’
He suggests that the painting be escorted to the police shredder and destroyed immediately, just to be sure. Jeremiah offers to take it down to the station after the meeting.
As the relieved mob dissolves, I spy my mother approaching me. She is wearing her familiar, lop-sided smirk.
‘So, who was your rotten egg?’ she asks.
I think of telling her about Uncle Vern and how his lopsided smile makes me sometimes think of her, but instead I lie and say an old teacher from school.
‘Who was yours?’ I ask back. ‘Never you mind,’ she says with a twinkle in her eye.
There is something about the twinkle which makes me think it wasn’t my father. Nana-Jean had always been more upset about his disappearance than she had anyway.
© Joanna Galbraith 2006
The Bad Egg