Eggs Four Different Ways
Part I - Over Easy
The fried egg slid off the plate with all the elegance of a manta ray, arcing slightly as it gathered some fluff and then slowed down. The waitress quickly stooped and coaxed it back onto the plate with one fluid movement. Incredibly, the yolk remained intact.
“You’re not going to serve that? Surely, you are not...”
“I am,” she snapped, hastily rubbing the fringe of lint from the egg’s border.
She wiped the plate with a clean cloth and winked. “And don’t call me Shirley.”
The waitress leaned on the door to open it and carried the plates to the table. The egg was gratefully received with its glistening partners of crispy sausage, bacon and mushrooms. Andy listened to the rasping noise her stockings made against the tightness of her skirt.
“So you got away with it did you?” Andy’s face was grim.
“Oh, you worry too much,” she shrugged, wagging a finger at him. Her round face dimpled when she smiled. “Don’t you know what the eye doesn’t see...”
“Yes, I’ve heard,” said Andy tightly. “The window table needs their bill. And then perhaps you’d better call it a day. Because you’re fired.”
By coincidence, Portia applied for a job as waitress the very afternoon that the egg incident had occurred. Looking back, Andy had no idea why he had hired her, since she had no previous experience. His wife, Gillian, had disliked her on sight, considering her to look rather cheap. Andy on the other hand saw navy blue eyes looking up at him from beneath sooty eyelashes and was intrigued. What he felt was definitely not lust. The girl was a mixture of vulnerability and something strange to him, something he couldn’t quite place. A gentleness perhaps. Old world frailty. And as a bonus she was extremely keen and well spoken.
“What kind of a name is Portia?” Gillian had asked him over dinner than night. “She’s certainly not Shakespearean. Perhaps a table dancer?”
Andy said nothing at first. Then carefully, “I was actually thinking that she might work out okay. On a trial basis. Obviously.”
Gillian looked at him in disbelief over her magazine. “You’re not serious? Can’t we manage till someone else comes along?”
“No,” said Andy firmly. “And I’m sure you don’t want to keep filling in. I think we should give her a shot.”
Gillian glared at him. “Well, you’ll be working with her, not me. And from the sound of it you’re going to keep on till you get your own way.” She continued with her magazine, finely drawn eyebrow slightly arched. “Very benevolent all of a sudden aren’t you? Mid-life crisis again darling, or is it just a genuine desire to help the underdog? And she’s that alright.”
Andy hated Gillian when she got that tone. She made a point of cataloguing his faults on a daily basis whilst making sure that she never did anything herself which could arouse comment. She was virtually flawless in her appearance, gleaming in smooth linen suits with her long, dark hair scraped into a sleek pony tail. She was also annoyingly astute most of the time, which made Andy begin to worry that he would regret taking Portia on. But typically, Gillian said nothing more about it and instead preferred to punish him by nitpicking about minutiae around the apartment for the next few days.
On Portia’s first day of work it was raining. Andy arrived early to open up the diner and make sure that everything was in order. He was fumbling with the keys when he saw her standing across the street. Her slim legs were encased in tall boots and a spotted navy blue umbrella protected her from the rain. Her hair showed reddish gold against the darkness of her coat collar, and as Andy waved to her, she smiled tentatively and hurried across the street.
“You’re early,” he said. He hoped that his smile was professional.
“I always am. I’ve been up for hours,” she said quickly. He noticed that she seemed nervous.
“You live quite close to here don’t you?” Andy had opened the door and was shedding his wet coat and shoes.
“Uh-huh, about ten minutes. So you won’t have to worry about me being late.”
Her smile showed straight even teeth. He noticed that her eyes tilted slightly and had been skilfully extended with dark blue kohl.
“Good. Well let’s get in and get the coffee on. I sure need one.”
They continued their orientation in the little back staffroom and then proceeded to the main kitchen where he briefly went through the procedure of taking orders and putting them on the clips, and the fine tunings of the cash register.
She listened attentively, nodding now and then. The few questions she asked were good ones. By the end of the morning she was carrying plates three at a time and remembering to replenish the coffee pots. She even soothed a toddler by providing him with a few soup crackers much to the gratitude of his mother; in fact, she was showing signs of being one of the hardest workers they had ever hired. Andy hugged this information to him like a blanket, and planned on all the different ways he could share it with Gillian, sometimes imagining brutal sarcasm, other times fantasizing that she might arrive unexpectedly to see Portia and himself running the entire diner as it had never been done before. He especially liked to dwell on how Gillian would react to the sight of Portia in her uniform, because she looked extremely elegant, white shirt beneath a black tunic, with the sleeves cuffed up high to reveal her slim arms.
Spring melted into summer, and Portia continued to improve. As time went on it was clear that she was going to stay, and Andy decided that he would never doubt his own intuition again.
Part II – Scrambled
“What is that cat doing in here? And God, what’s wrong with it anyway?”
Portia looked up at the sound of Andy’s voice, a tear gliding down her cheek. “I found it on the street. Some terrible person. They’ve rolled him in the tar from the road and then left him. Look at his paws.”
The kitten meowed plaintively as if on cue. His fur was hardening into tiny jagged angles giving him the appearance of a plated lizard, and every few seconds he would try to clean himself but was unable to lift any of his limbs.
The rolling of his golden eyes was the only movement left to him, and he did so to great dramatic effect.
“I agree this is not a good day for the cat,” Andy said less harshly, trying not to notice how gently she was holding the little animal, cradling its sticky feet. “But we can call someone, can’t we? We can’t deal with it here.”
“I have an idea. Could you melt a bit of shortening for me?” Portia stood up and fetched a newspaper from the recycle box. The cat mewed and tried to circle round but ending up toppling sideways.
Andy threw a lump of shortening into the fry pan and turned up the heat. He was amused at himself. Usually he would be screaming by now, beside himself with rage that they were not opening up on schedule. As it was, he was actually enjoying the respite from routine, wondering what on earth she was proposing.
The shortening began to slide around the pan.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” said Andy dryly, pretending to be irritated. “I’m a bit of a novice about all this. Do we roll the cat in flour first or just throw him on in?”
“That’s not funny Andy,” said Portia. She looked up at him trying to look disapproving of the joke. She put the frying pan onto a piece of newspaper in front of her. She had a wad of paper towel, which she dipped in the liquid shortening, and began to stroke it onto the kitten’s body a little at a time.
As the hair underneath became visible she began to knead with her fingers, gently teasing out the tar until it came away like melted strands of caramel. Her fingernails showed white and oval against the darkness of the tar. Soon the cat was shiny with the fat, but free of tar. Something twisted inside Andy. He was transfixed. Amazed.
“I’m sorry. And I know it was not ... appropriate to bring him here but I couldn’t just leave him like that.” The cat was beginning to purr, his whole body vibrating with the effort. “I’ll work late tonight. And I’ll get a box to put the cat in till I go home.”
Andy busied himself with cleaning up. “Oh, put him in the little shed out back. He can’t get out of there and it’s warm. But let’s get a move on, this is supposed to be a diner not a cat hospital.”
“I know. I am sorry,” said Portia smiling. She squeezed his arm between her two hands, lingering there a moment. “Thanks so much, Andy. You’re a really kind man to understand.” Andy shrugged gruffly and plunged the fry pan into sudsy water. He felt himself breaking down as the shortening had only moments before.
Part III – Hard Boiled
“Do you want a drink?”
Andy shrugged his jacket off at the front door. Inside Gillian was just fixing herself a vodka martini. He watched as she released the olives from between scarlet nails.
“Mmm. Okay, sure.”
He dropped into the chair, and looked through the envelopes of mail, not really seeing any of them. The drink appeared at his side and he sipped on it gratefully.
“Ever think about getting a cat?”
“A cat. What for?” It was as if he had proposed bringing an elephant home.
Andy was looking through the mail again. “You know. As a pet.”
“Cats smell! Or their litter boxes do. You know I don’t really like animals.” She smoothed her skirt as if she could imagine fine hairs all over it already.
“Right. Well, it was just a thought. I wasn’t sure how you would react,” said Andy carefully. “And now I guess I do.” He picked up his car keys again, jingling them thoughtfully.
“You have been so weird lately,” said Gillian coming over and sitting next to him on the sofa. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Why does something have to be the matter?” Andy tried to maintain his voice, keep it even. “And I haven’t been weird. As a matter of fact, I’ve been more like myself for the first time in years.”
“Oh puh-lease. What is this, new age crap?” said Gillian her eyes flashing.
Andy downed his drink and stood up. He stared at his wife taking in her perfect profile, the long fingers spread out against the burgundy of the sofa. She could pass for a runway model – long limbs and hair that fell in a coil to her waist. A sob caught in his throat and he swallowed it down.
“I’m going out,” he said wearily, fingering the keys again.
The ice shifted in her glass. “You’re-going-out-because-I-don’t-want-a-cat?”
“Of course not,” said Andy evenly. “But if you had...”
“Andy, what are you talking about?”
As the door banged shut, the olives in her glass nodded and Gillian was left frowning at them in disbelief. He’ll back in half an hour, she told herself. But there was a rising throb of uncertainty in the room. There was a difference here, which she was not able to articulate. A panic, which had first manifested itself as tiny birds skittering across her chest, was turning to jungle drums. The clock showed six thirty. He probably just went out to cool down, she reasoned, even saying it out loud. Gillian took a long sip of her drink to steady herself. The smell of fast food drifted in on a breeze from the window, which was wedged open to offer some relief from the hot summer night. She felt nauseated. She opened the newspaper with a snap and toed off her patent shoes. They gave a satisfactory thump as they hit the floor.
Part IV Coddled
Snow was just starting to fall, enveloping the sounds of the city and obscuring Andy’s vision as he pulled into the parking lot. He switched off the ignition and looked at the front of the four-storey apartment building. Its walls and outlines were grey and impassive. He wrapped a scarf tightly round his neck as he got out of the car, pausing before he carried on to the steps and then pulled on the huge door handle of the apartment building. He heard the whoosh of the door as it closed behind him, felt the blast of heat on his face. His finger ran down the list of names. He hesitated only a moment before pressing the buzzer.
“Portia, it’s me, Andy. Could I come in for a second?”
“Oh hi…” A surprised pause. “Come on up.” The buzzer broke the silence and he opened the door.
Portia answered the door. She was wearing jeans and a soft red sweatshirt, which was far too large. Her feet were encased in grey hockey socks, and the abandoned kitten, now a surly rotund cat, made circles round her ankles. She smiled uncertainly waving him in. “Everything okay?”
“I need to talk to you,” Andy said evenly. He ran a hand through his dark hair, and took too long fumbling with his coat, folding it, and then inserting his scarf down the sleeve. “Is that okay?”
Portia took the coat from him with a smile. “Sure it is. Do you want a tea? I just made some. Come on and sit down.”
Andy watched as she poured the hot liquid into a striped mug, offered him toast and homemade jam. The silence between them was comfortable just as it always was at the diner. Andy felt himself unkink, settle, revelling in the peace that came over him.
“As you know, Gillian and I have been separated for a while now and we want to finalize things for good. Soooo, her lawyer is talking big money.” He paused. “And the thing is, I’m going to have to sell the diner.”
“Oh. Oh no.” Portia had clearly not seen this coming. She went pale.
“Most likely the new people will want to keep you on,” Andy went on quickly. “I mean they won’t want to lose someone like you. You know how the place runs, the regulars just love you…”
“I guess it might not even stay a diner.” Portia smoothed the cat’s ears and looked out the window. “I’m sorry. Here I am thinking of myself, when you’re going through hell.”
“I’m not really, not now,” said Andy brightly. “And I feel good about the whole fresh start thing. I was…not happy. I think you may have guessed that.”
Portia looked at him, nodding. She maintained his gaze for a while then looked away sadly. “I’ve always really enjoyed working at the diner. With you, I mean.”
The cat mewed plaintively. Somewhere in the apartment the radio was playing. The hum from the refrigerator seemed to have become deafening to Andy.
Why didn’t he do something? Say something?
He downed the tea in a gulp, and stood up to leave, knowing it would seem sudden, not knowing what else he could trust himself to do. Portia placed a hand on his wrist, pressed it. “Thanks for coming over to tell me. We’ll still keep in touch when all this is done won’t we?”
He could not face her. “Sure. Well -- I need to get going here.” He dragged his coat on, zipped it up. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The cat began lacing its way in and out of Andy’s legs, making him topple a little as he tried to walk towards the door. “Guess he doesn’t want me to go,” he quipped awkwardly.
Portia looked at him meaningfully from behind the rim of her mug.
Andy scooped the cat up and held him for a moment. Time seemed to have stood still. He placed the cat back on the chair where it immediately formed a tight circle and began purring. His heart was raw, as if it had been scraped out with a teaspoon. Somehow he got through the door and closed it gently behind him.
He went down the steps quickly. His head seemed full, as though there was a slide carousel set on high spinning in his brain, the colours blurring and pulsing at the same time. Something made him turn around, and he looked back up at the apartment building, blinking the snow from his lashes. There he saw Portia, perfectly framed in the window. She had wiped a little oval in the condensation, and was moving the cat’s paw so that it appeared to be waving.
In direct contrast to half an hour ago, Andy turned without hesitation and ran back to the apartment building. He took the front steps two at a time. As the buzzer rang out harshly, the snow discreetly set about erasing his previous footprints -- silently, steadily -- just as though their soft impressions had never been made.