There is a Scene in Johnny Guitar

Jeff Gabel
I have only seen Johnny Guitar once. Years ago, at the height of Tyler’s fondness of Joan
Crawford, it was screening at an art house on Colfax that still ran film prints. There is a
scene that stuck with me. I don’t remember when it happens—only that it is morning and
Joan is arguing with a man. Unprompted, she decides to fix breakfast, and goes about
cracking eggs into an old cast iron skillet. Each egg she cracks with a single tap on the
rim. The yolks slide into the basin, the thick and thin albumen trail behind.

The conflict between Joan and the man, the whole reason for the scene, escapes
me. How is she able to do that? I thought. One tap. Each time she does not so much as
look at the egg or the cast iron rim. When the eggs crack, she loses none of the yolk,
smears none of the albumen along the shell of the skillet. The sensation I gathered is
difficult to describe. It was as if someone had walked up from behind and smacked all of
the expectations I’d had right out of me, as if to tell me that I’d been looking for the
wrong things. That’s when it came to me. There was another story playing in time with
what I had been watching. An undercurrent, I would later call it, one that was composed
of gestures and intonations, of omissions from the edits, the framing of shots.

The film played on, but Joan, cracking those eggs, lingered, eclipsing everything
else. My mind reeled. Soon I was conjuring the image of a spectrum on which she and I
stood at opposite ends. Crowding my end were images of my past self. One at a time they
appeared with the sharpness of the restored film print. A child struggling to punch the
pointed end of a straw through the little white seal of a juice pouch—so flustered that all
he accomplishes is reducing it to a mangled piece of trash. An adolescent growing red in
the face when, asked for his postal code by a girl he likes, he freezes because he thinks
that he does not know. He has only heard of it referred to as a zip code. A young man
working his first administrative job fails to retain how he is supposed to collate a stack of
papers. His boss not so discreetly asking one of the interns if all young men of his
generation lack common sense, or if it is just him. The intern later telling him, “It was
kind of creepy. He says these things as an excuse to flirt.”

When the film ended, and Tyler and I were standing out on the sidewalk, I had no
idea how the story unfolded after the yolks slid into the skillet. I could not even say why
the film was titled Johnny Guitar. My attention drifted aimlessly from one thing to the
next. My hands were trembling. I stuffed them in my coat pockets. My foot tapped the


“What?” I turned to Tyler.

“Her name. Joan Crawford’s in the movie. I love that. It’s so unique. Man, she is
such a bad ass.”

I remember nodding in agreement, though I doubt I said anything. My mind was
caught, replaying the crack of an eggshell, then another, then another.


There are times, like today, when the image of Joan working those eggs and that skillet
puts me in a tailspin. The astonishment I felt while watching her was as sudden and
cursory as a blank frame of film shooting through a projector’s gate. The remembrances
that followed, on the other hand, have festered. They have buried what wonder I gained,
and suffused into broader notions of envy, helplessness, and disappointment. Once these
feelings run their course, I always arrive at the same place. I decide that I’ve never
accomplished, let alone approached, anything with such confidence or ease.

A tremor is coursing through my hands when Tyler walks up behind me. I don’t
know how long I’ve been standing over the turntable and receiver. Her father has tasked
me with putting on some music, and now I am staring down at an indecipherable array of
knobs, latches, and buttons.

Tyler wraps her arms around my waist, presses her lips to the back of my shirt.
She is peering over my shoulder, and sees that I haven’t sorted out how to activate the
platter. She steps around me and says, gently, “It’s not the most intuitive. Here, let me
show you.”

Jeff Gabel is a writer from Denver, Colorado. His fiction has appeared in Literary Orphans and Litro Magazine (Online), and is forthcoming in Aji Magazine. He is currently a candidate at The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.