The road runs from Hannibal, Missouri, to St. Louis. It offers a lot for the eyes. Lush, green hills; stands of oak, elm and cedar; occasional glimpses of the Big Muddy, just as Tom and Huck might have seen it.
I had spent the night in Hannibal at a quaint B&B (aren’t they all “quaint”?), attempting to conjure up the spirit of Sam Clemens. I had questions for him about how to write humor. He never showed.
The second “B” at the B&B was excellent: scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and onions, wheat toast, homemade strawberry preserves, and a thick slice of country ham. As I took a long walk in the woods that border the B&B, seeking a little exercise before driving back home, my thoughts were on eggs. “The” eggs. The ones that were being recalled, millions, maybe billions of them, all originating in Iowa, just a stone’s throw from Indian Joe’s Cave. I was little prepared for the encounter that awaited me on my walk.
I left the main path, worked my way through elder bushes and low-hanging pines. (I’m not sure what an elder bush looks like, but it sounds good.), and stepped into a clearing, still in morning shadows.
And there she stood. Or, rather, huddled. A chicken. Brown and russet, rather thin, scraggly feathers, eyes wide with fear. She didn’t move. I approached her, walking slowly, a smile on my face, thinking loving, positive thoughts
She looked me right in the eye.
“Hello, chicken,” I said. “What are you doing here?” I spoke as though to a child.
I expected silence, maybe a slight squawk. Instead she said, “You’re not with them, are you?”
“Excuse me?” I’m not sure what surprised me more, the sound or the suspicion.
“I asked if you’re with them.” She looked behind me, checking for others.
“Who is ‘them’?”
“The guards. The keepers. The gatherers.”
“I don’t under - “
“Don’t interrupt.” Her voice became more strident. “The crooks, the handlers, the egg Nazis.”
Suddenly it made sense. “You must be from - “
“Iowa. Wright County. The Factory.” She spit out the words, scratched the ground like a bull about to charge.
I sat down next to her. She backed away. “No, I’m not one of them.” I introduced myself. “I’m Gerry. With a ‘G’.”
“Phrances. With a ‘Ph’.”
“Did I make fun of your ‘G’?”
“Well said.” I held out my hand.
She gave me a weak high five. Actually a high four. She hadn’t eaten in days. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a slice of wheat toast, lightly buttered. She grabbed it and quickly tore it apart with her beak. “Thanks,” she said. ‘It’s not cracked corn, but it’ll do.” The toast disappeared in seconds.
“So...Phrances...tell me about it,” I said.
She sat in silence, gathering her thoughts. I waited as the sun edged into the shade.
Finally she began her story:
“It was a nightmare. Impossible demands. Despicable living conditions. A complete lack of sanitary considerations. And don’t get me started on the manure piled in there.” I shuddered at the thought. She continued. “No exercise, no socializing, no background music.” She stopped, stared at the ground. I thought that was the end of her story. There was more.
“I’m a good layer. I know I don’t look like much now. That’s what six days on the run will do to you. But I dropped a lot of eggs, Gerry. Even got a Happy Egger award last month. But you think they care?? Not one wit. You drop three today, they want four tomorrow.”
“My lord,” I said, unable to help myself. I reached over and scratched her head.
“Gerry, you can’t imagine the conditions there. I saw rats. They ran along the walls, scurried amongst the cages. I still have nightmares where I see their beady red eyes and wet twitching noses, probing between the bars. And the rain. There were holes in the roof. Besides the lightning and thunder, water dripped on us. Not on me. I was caged in a dry spot. but so many of the others...” She stopped, engulfed by memories of lost friends, most likely.
“You don’t have to go on,” I said.
“Do you have anything to drink?”
I pulled the half-full Evian bottle from my pocket. “There. As much as you want.” I tilted the bottle so it dropped into her open mouth. She smacked her beak. “You don’t have any coffee by chance, do you?”
“Coffee?” She had to be kidding.
“They gave us coffee. Black. Full strength. To keep us awake, increase production. I’m kind of addicted to it now. I get these headaches...”
I laughed. “I’ll take you to Starbuck’s.”
“Never mind. Go on with your story, Phrances.
She took a deep breath and ruffled her frayed feathers. “We had one guard, a sadistic sonofabitch. Skinny, pock marks, tiny black eyes like a rat. He’d walk up and down the aisle, bang on our cages with a baseball bat. Shout ‘Drop ‘em, ladies, drop ‘em’ in a high-pitched voice. He got off on scaring us, hearing all the racket we’d make. You can imagine what thousands of chickens sound like when they’re frightened.”
“Thousands! How big - ?”
“Tens of thousands, mon ami. This camp was huge. Thousands and thousands of us, squashed side by side, as far as the eye could see.”
The day had grown cold inside me. The story became clear as she talked. Over a half billion eggs from two Iowa farms recalled. More than a thousand cases of salmonella poisoning across the entire country. An egg operation involving as many as half a million chickens. Each cage holding 4 or 5 birds in an area no larger than an 8x10 sheet of paper. But the cruelest deception had yet to be spoken.
“You know, the name of this place I was at is the Wright County Egg Company. It’s run by a ruthless profiteer named DeCoster. He’s had run-ins with health officials before, but he keeps on doing business. And here’s the ball buster, Gerry.” She stopped and looked around. I could tell our time together was growing short. “Listen to this. You know how they sold their eggs? Not as Wright County. Oh, no, that’s too corporate. They packaged their eggs under names like Mountain Dairy. Hillandale. Shoreland. Sunshine. And, my personal favorite, Dutch Farms. Seriously, if eggs, or any kind of food, comes from Dutch Farms, you just know it’s gotta be healthy. Right? Talk about massive deception.”
“I never knew,” I said.
“Who knew? You go into Ralph’s or Albertson or Schnucks, you expect an honest egg. If they had been honest, the cartons would’ve been named Alcatraz Eggs, Sing Sing, Attica. Even Abu Ghraib. You like that? ‘Mr. Grocer, could I have a dozen Abu Ghraib eggs?’ Not in your lifetime, that’s for sure.”
“Look, is there anything I can do for you?”
She drew herself up, shook off the dust, trying her best to regain her former beauty. “Yes, Gerry with a G, yes there is. Tell people what went on. Let them know what we chickens have been through, just how evil those people are. Above all else, don’t let us be forgotten.”
I felt a tear form in the corner of my eye, a lump in my throat. I reached out and stroked her lovingly under her beak. “I promise.” I held my hand there. “But what about you?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I have relatives in Defiance. They live on a farm. Nobody cares how may eggs they lay, as long as the owners have their beer and wine. And they don’t like fried chicken either.” She let out a loud cackle, possibly a laugh, and began to walk towards the woods. “It’s paradise, Gerry. Just remember your promise.”
“Safe travel, Phrances,” I shouted, as she disappeared into the undergrowth of elder bush. “I’ll keep my promise.”
And she was gone.