Egg, Paper, Arson

[creative nonfiction]

She was eight the first time she peeled the membrane from the inside of a hardboiled egg. It was like peeling a sticker from the collection she kept in the Payless photo album in her closet, but more delicate, or like peeling the skin from her aunt’s sunburned back as they lay on threadbare blankets in her grandparents’ yard. If she was very careful, Shimmery could pull it off—the egg membrane and the skin—in a large swath, but usually it pulled away in thin strips like the chewed and chapped bits of her bottom lip.

One Saturday, Shimmery was left alone in the rented duplex where she lived with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend, up the hill from Kmart and Barbara’s Beauty Salon. The salon burned down just before they moved in, and Shimmery would always associate the stench of burning plastic with the summer they lived on that hill. Her mom said it was arson, but Shimmery didn’t know who Arson was or what he had against manicures and perms.

Because she was alone, she gathered all of the boiled eggs from the refrigerator. The eggs were meant to be pickled, and Shimmery knew she’d be sent to her room for cracking them all, might even get the belt, so she decided her room was the best place to work. She pushed aside the doll-size bottles of Avon perfume—each one a gift Shimmery’s grandmother had given her when she visited the old house with the pink bedroom and the loquat tree in the back yard, and where Mr. Fisher, the neighbor, always gave them summer figs, even though Shimmery didn’t like figs. She especially didn’t like them after Mr. Fisher told her about the mama fig wasp and how she is always trapped inside, how her body slowly dissolves and becomes part of the fig. Now Shimmery rubbed away the dust with her stuffed rabbit and tapped the eggs on the wooden edge of her dresser. She tugged at the fragile shells with her chipped fingernails, collected the membranes on a plate and looked out the window while she waited for them to dry.

Mr. Fisher died. They took him away in an ambulance, and Shimmery never saw him again, and then she moved to the duplex. She had a different neighbor now, a boy who lived on the other side of the duplex wall. His name was Dustin, but she called him Dusty in her head because he was always dirty. He had a treehouse, though, and one time he asked Shimmery if she wanted to see. She followed him up the ladder, and when he asked if he could kiss her, she said yes because she was curious. After that, she didn’t have anyone to walk with her to the liquor store for popsicles because when she thought about his pale, mud-streaked face pressed against her own sunburned skin she felt like a frog had crawled down her throat and died in her belly.

The liquor store was past the black carcass of the salon. Before it burned down, before Shimmery lived up the hill, her grandma had taken her there for a manicure, and her grandma made Shimmery promise that she’d never let anyone cut her cuticles. Shimmery worried about the day when someone would ask to cut her cuticles and how she would find the courage to say no. That person might even cut her cuticles without asking, and then they’d never grow back.

Beyond the liquor store was a stream where Shimmery sometimes went crawdadding with her mom and dad before her mom moved them to the duplex. One afternoon, her dad pulled the crayfish from the traps and chased her through the empty lot, making sucking noises with his teeth. Shimmery shrieked and ran toward the road until her mom told them both to knock it off. Her dad coaxed her back with promises that he wouldn’t chase her again, and he didn’t, but later, at home, he dumped all of the crawdads onto the kitchen floor and let them skitter across the linoleum. Shimmery screamed and hid in her pink room while her dad’s big laughter ricocheted off of the kitchen walls. That night at dinner, she watched her parents pull the heads from the crawdads, twist and squeeze until the shell cracked, and then peel away the pieces to expose the meat. Her dad placed a piece of the flesh on her plate, insisted she try it, and she wanted to like it. It tasted like mud and melted butter.

She wondered now if she could walk to the stream by herself. She wondered if anyone was out there, crawdadding.

When the egg membranes dried, they curled in on themselves like potato chips. Shimmery wanted to flatten and mash the pieces together to make a kind of silky paper. She could use the paper to write a letter. Dad, she began the letter in her head, looking out over the treehouse in the back yard. We live on the hill above the salon that Arson burned. Where did you go?

Patricia Caspers is an award-winning poet, journalist, and columnist, as well as founding editor of West Trestle Review. Her poetry is published widely in journals such as Ploughshares, Spillway, and Sugar House Review. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections: In the Belly of the Albatross (Glass Lyre Press) and Some Flawed Magic (forthcoming December, 2021, Kelsay Press). She lives in the California foothills.