Robin Parks links the stories of Egg Heaven through similar settings—the restaurants that give the pieces their names, with establishments briefly mentioned in one story sometimes becoming the center of another—and the recurrence of those diner mainstays, coffee and eggs. The workers leave even if they have nowhere else to go, or else they mourn or fear the people they love leaving. All of them live on the edge—geographically, economically, emotionally—sometimes in all three ways. Their stories never quite merge enough to make the collection an episodic novel, but there is a sense that they could if the characters’ schedules or habits changed just a little.
The titular tale makes the recurring motif of eggs more than a common breakfast dish that could easily be overlooked. One twin has lost her sister, who was hit by a vehicle while scolding the one who lived for always breaking the yolks at breakfast; the survivor then works at a diner called Egg Heaven (which shares its name with a real diner where Parks once works) where she meets a man recovering from injuries and PTSD from Vietnam. Both struggle emotionally; she struggles financially and has recently been evicted from her apartment, forcing her to live upstairs from the restaurant. They have a romance, unspoken for months, until his respect for her grief gives him the courage to call up old friends, whose calls before he had always ignored, to move her piano. Eggs stand for grief, for love, and for the hope of recovery. That’s a lot to eat for breakfast, but eggs have always carried the potential for heavy symbolism, as they carry the potential to become a life.
Coffee never quite carries as much as eggs. It is what you drink while waiting for your lover, or for the waitress to notice you, or when you have nowhere to go but a vinyl booth. And, in the end (literally, of the collection), it’s what your boss serves you when your prodigal son shows up in the middle of your shift. Coffee is what you give or take when you don’t know what else to do.
These everyday breakfast staples carry everyday meanings, not in the sense of being dull but of mattering because they appear again and again in people’s lives. Loss happens every day. Mothers die or lose their minds and linger in filthy pink shoes and leopardskin coats. In “Las Golondrinas,” a father and daughter deal with unfaithful Penelope’s latest disappearance; their wife and mother does not take off every day but close enough. Ed has accepted his wife’s habits, but Toby has not, which leads to such exchanges as:
“What would you like, Tobarino? Have anything.”
“I want Mom.”
Ed nodded. “How ’bout a grilled cheese?”
He can translate his daughter’s desire into an ordinary hunger for an ordinary food. Toby fights against her mother’s periodic flights. She does not want to allow them to be simply part of her life, even when her school guidance counselor suggests that they are not so strange. This refusal to accept what has become every day puts her, emotionally, on the edge, while the trip her father takes her on, including a visit to the Pacific makes her, at least temporarily, geographically so.
But it has been clear from the start that this collection deals with people who live on the margins. The opening of “Home on the Range,” the first story of Egg Heaven signals that this is a book about people on the edge. No one but the economically or geographically marginal rides long-distance buses, but Penny is even poorer than the average passenger. Without even a pocketful of coins to use in bus-station vending machines, she has to shoplift food. For safety, she waits until right before the bus is due to leave, and it is only during that time waiting, when the bus is stopped and the landscape unchanging and so no longer a distraction, that she remembers how she came to be on her journey. She hopes, one day to forget everything and every place that brought her to the edge.
Penny dreams of being Penelope and having cousins in New York who love her, yet when we read of a real Penelope, she is unsatisfied with being loved by more immediate family. The ordinary life they offer, and her waitressing gig at California Bowl, are not enough. That dissatisfaction is ordinary, embodied by the “wild things . . .luscious but dangerous” the lesbian cello instructor learns to identify in “Northwoods Tavern” and by the wandering young people of “Floating By,” the final story. Others only act on their longing for something more when reminded of their mortality: Palpitations, breathlessness, your heart is getting weak the doc said, and I drove my SUV away from Utah, away from the marriage and my regular guy life, to this arid town” and romance with a young man (“Delgado’s Family Mexican Restaurant”).
It is ordinary to want more than eggs and coffee or a grilled cheese can give. It is ordinary to leave in search of that something more, even if leaving creates a greater hunger in the people left behind. That very commonness, in the stories of Egg Heaven, elevates these experiences of departure and loss and life on the periphery. These tales matter because they could be happening now—indeed some, at least, almost certainly are. With just a shift in your schedule, you could fall into one of these stories, just as Robin Parks’ characters could easily fall into each other’s.