The Egg, Zac Smith
“The Egg” also appears in Beer Money, a zine that is forthcoming from Malarkey Books and which is available for preorder now.
I used to work in a regional grocery store/home goods chain as a “grocery clerk,” which meant that every day I was paid minimum wage to unload a truck for four hours, eat lunch in the parking lot, and then stock shelves for four hours.
Once, when I was stocking the baked beans, a man wearing glasses walked up to me and cleared his throat. I pretended not to notice him, which was a trick I invented to prevent customers from asking me questions.
But he ignored me ignoring him and spoke anyway.
“Hey,” he said.
I stopped and turned toward him in a way that would give him the impression that I fully intended to help. This was another trick I invented to keep people calm when I invariably would not be able to help them because I had no idea where most hard-to-find things were located in the store, like toothpicks or nutritional yeast or canned pumpkin, and I also had no idea where most commonly-sold-out things were located in the back of the store.
But instead of asking where anything was, he said, “What should I do with this?”
He was holding an egg.
“What?” I said, looking at the egg. I was very confused. “What do you mean.”
“I found this egg,” he said.
It was brown and sat perfectly in the cupped palm of his hand. It looked like maybe an Extra-Large or, perhaps, a Jumbo egg.
“You found it? Where?”
“The floor,” he said. “It was just, like, loose on the floor.”
When he said that it was loose on the floor, I pictured it as a wild egg, like some horrifying predator rolling down the aisles, pouncing on one of the small mice that lived in the bakery aisle and then continuing to roll around while trailing mouse blood and organs throughout the store.
“Loose?” I said.
“And I can’t find any trash cans,” he said.
I looked around. I thought he meant that he was looking to buy a trash can from the home goods area of the store, and I despaired briefly at the thought of having to leave my baked beans behind and help this man locate something in a part of the store I had never ventured to.
“Yeah, like, to throw this away,” he said, looking up and down the aisle to indicate that he was, or had been, engaged in actively looking for trash cans but had encountered zero trash cans.
I also had no idea whether there were any trash cans in the store. I had never had to throw something away while inside a grocery store. I was also unsure whether it would be best to throw the egg away or take it to the lost and found, or perhaps the restock shelf behind the dairy cooler.
No one had trained me on what to do about loose eggs.
He moved his hand up and down with the egg in it, like he was weighing it, or considering throwing it, maybe, like a golf ball or skipping stone. I envisioned him throwing it across a massive lake, where it would skip all the way to the opposite shore, fifty miles away.
“Do you want a new one,” I said, pointing at the egg, forgetting, temporarily, why we were talking about the egg in the first place.
“What? No.” He raised his eyebrows and widened his eyes in a way that made it look like his whole head was expanding. “It’s just . . . loose.”
He held the egg a little higher and we both looked at it gleam in the fluorescent light.
“Look, can you just, like, take it and throw it away? I don’t want anyone to step on it and slip or whatever. And I’d like to finish shopping.”
We then both noticed a small girl in pigtails standing really close to us, staring at the egg.
“Wait!” she yelled. “What if it’s a penguin egg?”
“What,” said the man in a distracted-sounding voice.
I realized that the man didn’t have a cart or a basket or anything else with him. Just the egg. And I was still holding two cans of baked beans, one in each hand.
“Don’t throw it away because it could be a penguin egg and if you throw it away, the baby penguin inside will die,” said the girl.
She looked incredibly upset.
“It’s not a penguin egg. It’s just an egg,” he said. “A chicken egg.”
He looked at the girl and then back at me.
It felt very possible that the girl knew something about eggs that I didn’t. I couldn’t remember the last time I had learned anything about eggs, whereas the little girl’s confidence seemed grounded in her being someone who attends school for eight hours a day, five days a week, instead of being someone who had to unload trucks and stock shelves for eight hours a day, five days a week.
“You know what,” he said. “I can just throw it away at the front. It’s fine.”
“No!” yelled the little girl. She yelled louder than I had ever heard a little girl yell before.
“It’s not a penguin egg,” he said. He smiled uncertainly at the little girl.
“How do you know?” I said.
“What,” he said, raising his eyebrows again.
“If you found it on the floor,” I said.
He laughed. “No, hey. Look at it, you’ve seen a chicken egg before, right? That’s all it is. Like for breakfast?”
“Chicken eggs are white,” said the little girl.
“Well,” he said.
“So maybe it’s a penguin egg,” she said.
“No,” he said. “No, here, look.” He looked at me. “Can’t you just, like, take the egg and throw it away in the back or something?”
He stepped closer to me and made to reach for my arm.
“No!” screamed the girl, louder than before.
“I’m not taking your egg, man,” I said, holding up the baked beans as if to say, what with these beans and all.
“What? It’s not my egg. It’s just . . . it’s just an egg,” he said, holding the egg up to my face.
“Hey,” I said. “Calm down.”
The girl screamed again in a very loud, prolonged way until a woman ran up to us, shouting “Daisy” in a worried, confused tone.
“What’s going on?” said the woman. “Daisy, what’s going on.” She crouched down and wrapped her arms around the girl from behind. The girl pointed at the man.
“He wants to throw away that penguin egg,” she yelled.
The man smiled and laughed in a very uncomfortable-sounding way, lowering the egg. It felt like he was trying, unsuccessfully, to hold the egg in a casual, informal way.
“A penguin egg?” said the woman. She looked at me. “What the hell is going on?”
I tried to look stern and confident to fit into the role that she seemed to expect of me, it felt like, like I would physically restrain the man or beat him to death with my two cans of baked beans in order to save her and her daughter if it became necessary.
“It’s just an egg,” he said. “Take it. Jesus.”
He held it out to me again but I backed away, putting on a startled face and raising my cans of baked beans a little higher. The woman gasped.
The man looked at the woman with a very pained face, holding up the egg between his thumb and index finger.
“I just found it on the floor and all I wanted was this guy to throw it away. That’s all.”
He shook the egg while raising his eyebrows, and I imagined the egg making a rattling sound, like an old tin can with a bolt inside of it.
“No!” the girl screamed. “You’re hurting the baby penguin!”
She began to cry.
The man stepped backwards and let the egg rest back in the palm of his hand.
He looked at me.
“Fine,” he said. “Fuck it.”
He let the egg roll out of his hand without looking at it. It looked like how a cool villain in an action movie might drop some very important key or magical item down into the ocean or a pool of molten lava, thus raising the stakes for the protagonist to save the day by the end of the movie.
We all watched the egg fall, twirling gently, and I worried that, when it hit the ground, I’d be the one who would have to mop it up, worried because I had no idea where the mops and buckets were.
Zac Smith lives in Boston, MA, where he likes to walk his dogs. His stories have appeared in Hobart, X-R-A-Y Lit, Philosophical Idiot, Soft Cartel, and other very sweet online journals. His twitter is @ZacTheLinguist.