Reviewed by Beatriz Terrazas, a Carve Literary Services consultant.
Robin Parks won the inaugural Raymond Carver Short Story Contest in 2001. She’s also been published in Bellingham Review, The MacGuffin, and Prism International, among other journals. Now, in Egg Heaven, Stories, she offers intimate glimpses into the lives of Southern California diner waitresses, their customers, their bosses, and the others who cross their paths. These are hardscrabble characters filled with longing, loss, and sometimes despair; but they’re also testament to the power of love, kindness and hope.
In “Home on the Range,” 16-year-old Penny is given a job and a place to stay by diner owner Al after she’s “kicked her way out of” her foster family’s “yellow T-Bird and rolled beneath a juniper bush, shivering until dawn.” Two years later, during a routine Scrabble game, Penny and Al get into an argument over the word Mitzvah. Between her accusations that, “You can’t use foreign words,” in Scrabble and Al’s shouts of “Lousy bit of eighteen-year-old trash calls me a foreigner?” she finds the word in a dictionary: “One, a commandment of the Jewish law. Two a charitable act.” The meaning of the word will resonate with her long after she leaves the diner.
“Las Golondrinas,” Parks’ Carver Contest winner, features Toby, a little girl, and her father Ed. When Toby’s mother Penelope leaves them, daughter and father fall into a sort of rudderless existence. In an attempt to reconnect with his absent wife, Ed takes his daughter on a trip along the Pacific Coast Highway where they stay in a motel near the beach. On the beach Toby’s sense of feeling lost is heightened: “Toby stuck her toes into the sand and was frightened when the water rushed up to her feet, surrounding them and sucking the sand out from under her.” At Mission San Juan Capistrano, Toby learns about the swallows — the golondrinas — legendary for building nests under the eaves of the limestone arches of the church and returning to breed every year on March 19. Her father remembers the exact moment Penelope saw the swallows: “I can still hear her gasp when the birds came. It was dawn and so lovely and cool.” Ed and Penelope’s hope is palpable: Will Penelope feel the same call of home as the swallows and return to her family?
Love, home, family, or even a shoulder to lean on for a bit—all the characters in this collection represent the basic needs of the human heart and the ways we struggle to fill those needs, stumbling and rising up to try again. But it’s probably the book’s title story, “Egg Heaven,” that I found most compelling for its powerful illustration of friendship and love.
In this story, Vince, a Vietnam veteran, dreams of telling Clara how he feels about her. Instead, he makes sketches of her as she works in the Egg Heaven diner toasting bread, listening to a customer’s complaint, “wiping her red hands round and round a damp cloth.” When she’s evicted from her apartment, he tries to work up the courage to help her:
“He limped around the old house day after day dusting rooms so empty even his breath echoed. Nam was a long time ago, years ago, but there were still nights when the images bent him over, making him draw. Some days he threw each picture away with ritual grace—launching them across the room like so many doomed paper airplanes. He did not throw Clara away, though. Her unfinished gaze, half of the triangle of her chin, the space around two lines of her neck, he could not throw these away though they broke him open with longing so great he cried for drugs he did not possess, for drugs he had sworn to fight off hand to hand, whatever it took.”
Parks’ shows such compassion for Vince and her other characters that I couldn’t help rooting for them every step of the way.
Egg Heaven, Stories, by Robin Parks available from Shade Mountain Press, $16.95