Fiction · 05/27/2009

Over Easy

Mary pokes a hole in her yolk and watches the thick yellow ooze across the white membrane towards her glistening butter toast. She always cooks her eggs over-easy because, despite the name, those are the most difficult to make. Light taps to crack the shell. A slick slide into the skillet. And then the tricky flip.

Her husband, Lester, had tried to leave two years prior. And now there was Alvin, who was on a mission to prove life without him was shapeless chaos and life with him would be like a wonderful summer camp, with activities and planned romance and self-growth. The night Lester said he was leaving, Alvin wrote her a poem and read it under the stars on her front lawn. He titled it “The Flightless Birdie” and enhanced the words with bird calls. As he yodeled the loon, Mary cracked open the door and told him to go away.

“I know Lester’s gone,” Alvin said. “Soon, you’ll realize his leaving makes everything easier. Soon, you’re going to realize what the two of us have together.”

“Give me two years,” Mary said. Then she shut and locked the door.

For those two years, Mary stayed home and worked. She was still trying out different names for it, but in essence she had built an invention that scientifically measured the difficulty of all things. She felt that difficulty justified almost anything, and, if measured properly, was a way to get from where she was to something better. She knew there were different kinds of difficulty. There was the difficulty of loving Lester when he didn’t love her. There was the difficulty of ignoring Alvin when he kept coming to the house. There was the difficulty of keeping Lester hidden. Different means of making her life more difficult. Different ends.

Her first test subjects were the kitchen ants she collected each morning after breakfast. The first ant, a wiry little black thing, jumped the meter and escaped, but the second ant registered a whopping 97.9, the third 93.7 and the fourth 94.9. The results, then, were mostly the same.

Mary searched for the queen ant. This involved some research and several trips to the drugstore, but finally Mary followed the hot water pipe and found her. She was more than ten times the size of the others. Her abdomen swelled with eggs. Mary flicked her hand several times before the big, black body dropped into the machine funnel. Mary could still feel the legs sticking to her as the numbers flipped to 300. Mary was on the verge of proving it was more difficult to be a queen than a soldier or a scavenger. Unfortunately, the machine, which was not perfected yet, took this moment to break down before the finding was conclusive. The breakdown set Mary back a whole month’s work. Lester was getting weak. Alvin was getting more persistent. But Mary focused and rebuilt the machine.

When there were no more ants in her kitchen Mary began to test fish. She bought a giant aquarium full of neon tetras and sat in front of the glass making notes. She recorded which of the fish were first to feed, which ones swam fastest, and which ones hid in the dark coral tunnels. From this information she further substantiated her hypothesis.

Which, more or less, proved to be true. There was a swishy green and black striped thing that didn’t fit the pattern. And one of the fish she thought had been hiding turned out to be dead and couldn’t be tested at all. But for the most part, her data sets remained consistent.

She moved on to parakeets. From the start, none of her subjects had died. At least not in any observable way. The truth was Mary couldn’t figure out exactly what happened to the things after she put them down the machine’s funnel. There were always a few grinding sounds and then a puff of smoke. Last, came the difficulty reading. Nothing ever crawled, or flopped or flew back out.

And after the two years she requested of Alvin have passed, the machine is ready. Mary sops up the last bit of yolk with her toast as she hears Alvin’s car turn into her driveway. She has already unlocked the front door.

Alvin tries to turn the knob as usual. But this time the cylinders roll and he finds himself staring at the interior of Mary’s house.

“Hello?” Alvin calls. Then he takes several steps forward.

Mary puts her plate in the sink with Lester’s. Lately, he wasn’t eating. And he had stopped struggling a year ago. Why did you want to leave me? she used to ask him. If, just once, he had given her an answer she could live with, she would have set him free. She would have let him fly in whatever direction he wanted. No more Pentothal to keep him subdued. No more locks. But now it’s too late. Lester only sits on the floor near the bed and blinks his eyes. Mary worries this will affect the test results.

She can hear Alvin approaching. “Mary,” he calls. “I’m here.”

When Mary first met Lester he made her feel beautiful. He stared into her eyes. He brought her nice things. He took bad things away. She quit college and flew with him. Over the house and the town and the county. They rested in the tree tops. They didn’t look down. It wasn’t possible. But he made her believe.

Then a thousand other birds flew by. Prettier and faster birds. And Lester liked them. And then birds were the same as people. And then the sky was the same as the earth. Eggs went in frying pans. Eggs never hatched.

“Mary,” Alvin says again. He is standing in the kitchen. He is reaching for her with confident hands.

The machine in the bedroom is already on. Mary can hear it whirring. She holds the needle full of Pentothal, ready to surprise Alvin. He will serve as the control group. Lester will serve as the variable. And, of course, Lester will go last. Mary has already made a thousand guesses about his difficulty reading. She has already thought of a thousand ways to fit him into the machine funnel. The grinding sounds. The puff of smoke. If all goes as expected, soon she will have proof that nothing will ever be so difficult.

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Julie Babcock’s fiction and prose poetry have appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, MiPOesias, The Apple Valley Review, The Iowa Review and elsewhere. She is a Lecturer at the University of Michigan.