As an excerpt, this is one of the 18 short stories in my Jumble book. I hope you enjoy…
Our family has lunch at a pancake house. No, it isn’t a house made of pancakes. That would be silly and, frankly, unpractical. I suppose the first strong wind or rainstorm would bring down such a house in moments and ruin all of the homeowner’s belongings. Then you’d have to get the insurance people involved. And when that happens, things can get really heated.
Thankfully, things are not heated at the pancake house. The food is—thankfully, because who likes cold pancakes and bacon and eggs except people without taste buds, which would be a sad existence—but the atmosphere is not heated. By that, I mean there hasn’t been a robbery or kidnapping or anything like that. Which may sound exciting at first. You’d have an awesome story to tell later to your buddies, who might listen then reply, “There’s no way that happened,” but an Internet search of the local news would confirm your story and you could bask in the glory of your correctness. But I bet the experience would be quite scary if it actually happened. And if it did actually happen, the police would get involved. Perhaps even the insurance people. Please not them again. Jasper and Heidi had sounded polite at first in my respective phone calls with them many months ago, then they kept toeing the company line, which got frustrating, and when they told me to lower my voice, there was no need to shout, I told them there was very much a need, because you should treat a person like a person and not the subject of instructions in a company manual.
Speaking of people, many of them are at the pancake restaurant, spending quality time with friends and/or family. In pursuit of sustenance, both of bodily nourishment and social interaction (in the flesh, not on a computer network). Some customers might be regulars here. I don’t know, since I don’t come here often enough to detect a pattern of certain customers and their dining habits. That sounds creepy in a stalkerish manner. I wouldn’t want someone to look at my little family and think, That little family comes here every Friday evening at 6:30. Their son must really love pancakes. I wonder if they have expensive jewelry and technological gadgets back at their house, now empty of people. I wonder if their house has a security system. I wonder if they have a powerful dog that would defend the house with every fiber of its being.
We don’t, on any of those accounts. But if we had expensive jewelry and technological gadgets, you can bet your sweet patootie that we’d insure them to the hilt.
My son does really love pancakes. What kid doesn’t? When we’ve come here in the evening, we allowed Sawyer to eat pancakes with only maple syrup and/or fruit on them. The Candy Covered Cakes are for when we come on weekend days or holidays. That’s the label I’ve come up with for them. The menu’s label for the colorful pages of pancakes/waffles is Sweet Delights for Kiddies and Kiddie Nostalgists. These pancakes are like a mad scientist was set loose in a candy store and told to come up with arrangements of toppings on pancakes, and the scientist did what mad scientists do. Believe me, in Sawyer you have a very satisfied customer. Typically, when we come on weekend days, the kid happily plows through those Candy Covered Cakes, then we drive to a playground and set him loose.
Today, we’re here after shopping at one of those mammoth stores. You know the kind. You go in there with a list of items to buy, and it takes you, like, fifteen minutes to walk to the correct aisle to buy the next thing on your list. The store’s so big, you feel as if you’ll never get out of there. Okay, never is a slight exaggeration. You’ll be stuck there for years. At least there’s plenty of supplies in the food area, from produce to the bakery to the frozen section. My God, the assortment of frozen meals. All you do is pop one of them in a pre-heated oven, and forty-five minutes later, you have a steaming dinner. I bet those meals have saved many marriages. If we’re stuck at the store for years, it’s a good thing the food section is well supplied, since so many people pushed grocery carts around, checking their shopping lists and gazing at the signs for what items are in which aisle. When you enter into the store, the greeter should hand you a map of the store, a water bottle, and a couple granola bars. You’ll need the navigation and provisions.
As we pushed our grocery cart around the store, I grew frustrated at the crowd of people and the need to walk so much to find items and the growing pile of stuff in our cart. I understand the logic of buying jumbo bottles of stuff such as shampoo. It’ll last you for six months, and the cost per pint of shampoo is cheaper than at a non-mammoth store. The jumbo bottle of shampoo takes up a lot of room in the shower, especially standing next to its buddies, the jumbo bottles of conditioner and body wash. And since Claire likes grapefruit- or kiwi-scented (or any flower) cleaners and I don’t, we have twice the cleaners in our shower. The jumbo bottles are lined up like monuments to gods, maybe those heads on Easter Island.
I’ve gotten used to that grouping in the shower, but the growing pile of stuff in the cart bothered me. Despite the logic of jumbo sizes, it was irritating to see all that stuff. You don’t think, I’ve got supplies to last me for six months! Plenty of dishwasher detergent and peanut butter and ketchup and toilet paper! With the money we saved, we can put toward a vacation and Sawyer’s college fund! That was your thought when you entered the store, but along the way, your thoughts turned to, Why do we need all this goddamn stuff? I don’t care anymore about eating free samples of chipotle-mango dip and garlic-bombed hummus, I’m ready to leave this place.
Sawyer hit the I’m ready to leave this place point before me. It’s hard to keep an eight-year-old’s attention on store items when the items aren’t toys or candy. You can say, “Hey, let’s go pick out some tasty grapes!” or “Hey, look at all those socks!” only so many times before those attempts lose their power. And Sawyer could tell when the excitement drained out of my voice when I said those attempts at sparking his interest, and the attempts came out flat.
He kept asking to play Banana War on my phone. But he couldn’t play the game while walking, and he’s grown too big to ride in the cart. Which didn’t have room for him anyway. Plus, Claire gave me that look that said she couldn’t believe I still had that game on my phone. I’ve told her that boys need fun and silly games. Banana War actually has strategy. Because you can fling all the little bananas you want—and they’ll do some damage against your opponent—but if you create a pleasing home in your portion of the jungle, you can attract monkey scientists and engineers. The scientists will use genetics to grow larger bananas. The engineers will design catapults to fling the larger bananas and cause more damage against your opponent. So the game involves investing for long-term benefits, as well as bits of community planning, botany, zoology, and engineering. Claire doesn’t buy my reasoning and she says I should encourage Sawyer to play 10 Times the Power! Math. I do that sometimes. But despite the cool-sounding name, the game is pretty boring. It lacks flying bananas and the juicy splat sound when a banana lands and the lively hooting and dancing your monkeys do when a banana kills some of your opponents.
We finally managed to find everything on our list and when we pushed the cart to one of the prodigious lines at the checkout area, Sawyer sighed theatrically. Claire said, “I think my men could use a meal at the pancake house. What do you say?” Sawyer immediately agreed and his energy was renewed. Poor guy was flagging. I know when Claire says my men in a situation like this, she really means my boys. Because I know I’ve also given some theatrical sighs and groans in our not-so-epic journey around the store. In other situations, like during picnics, Claire has said, “It’s good to be with my two guys,” and she doesn’t mean immature boys.
I wanted to go to the pancake house, but the stack of frozen meals in our grocery cart gave me pause. I pointed to them and said, “What about these? Won’t they go bad in the car if we stop somewhere to eat lunch?” Claire said not to worry. Insulated bags were in the car and they’d keep the frozen food safe until we got home. A savvy shopper, my Claire.
At the pancake house, we celebrate our survival of the mammoth store. Claire suggests I should steer away from coffee, it’ll agitate me more. Also no carbs. Or a minimal amount of carbs. She suggests juice or chamomile tea. I order the tea, because calming sounds like a smart idea. And I order the Meet Me On Meat Mountain plate. Which, in ordinary times, would get me a look from Claire that says I shouldn’t forget that heart disease runs in my family. But not today. In past visits to this restaurant, I’ve eyeballed the Meet Me On Meat Mountain plate when customers around me ate it, but I’ve never ordered it. Today has become a special day.
When our food arrives, I discover I have more of a plateau to excavate than a mountain. The foundation is hash browns, holding successive layers of sausage patties, sausage links, Canadian bacon, hickory-smoked bacon, maple-glazed bacon, and turkey bacon. It’s an expensive entree, but the mere look and smell of it is worth the cost. And I haven’t even taken a nibble yet.
Before I take that nibble, I look across the table to see the plates of my family. Before Claire is a veggie omelet. Sawyer’s pancake is decorated to look like a clown’s face. Eyes of blue gumdrops. Nose of a red gumdrop. Smile of arched strawberry licorice. Hair of a mound of whipped cream peppered with multi-colored sprinkles. The “face” is dotted all over with chocolate chips that might’ve been meant to portray freckles, but more closely resembles moles or a worrisome eruption of skin rash.
Sawyer has ordered this particular concoction before, and it dawned on me that you could order the Wacky Klown Face for fun or as a form of therapy. Many people suffer from a fear of clowns. Out of curiosity, I had looked up the word for it: coulrophobia. If you don’t just have a distaste for clowns but are struck by a panic attack when near one, you could get the Wacky Klown Face pancakes. You could come face to face with your fear. You could literally eat your fear. I wonder if anyone has tried it and if it worked.
Today, my thoughts are not on coulrophobia, but on the similarity of my son’s plate and mine. We share the connection of excess. His is the child’s version, mine the adult. When he is older, say eighteen years old, we might come here, just the two of us, and we’ll order Meet Me On Meat Mountains. We’ll talk about man stuff. Sports and cars and girls—or guys if he is gay. I’ve thought about the possibility that he’s gay, and I’m totally fine with it. But we’ll get to that possibility when he’s older. Maybe before the meat plate becomes one of the passages to manhood for Sawyer.
Right now, I’m enjoying the feeling of how Sawyer and I are cut from the same cloth. Of course, parents like seeing physical connections with their children: how the same eye color or nose shape or curly hair has been passed down. Behaviors run deeper: how your laughs sound the same, or you’re both left handed. It’s probably a selfish leaning, but there’s a vein of gratification at realizing those connections.
Our little family isn’t talking, since we’re busy eating and we’ve gotten past the “How’s your food?” queries. My excavation of the mountain is progressing swimmingly. So well that a meat euphoria joins the growing tranquility from my second cup of chamomile tea. Why do people take illegal drugs when they can have this lovely sensation?
My attention expands beyond our table to the other customers. I wonder about their lives. Other times, I’d probably think some of them look shifty, like that guy could be a burglar because of his beady eyes. Or another guy might be a Peeping Tom because he looks tired, and I’ve attributed his tiredness to staying up late spying on attractive neighbors. I know it’s wrong to judge people merely on their appearances, as appearances can be deceiving, but I confess to the practice. And I would guess that most people do the same thing.
Chewing on bacon, I push past those knee-jerk assumptions and mentally reach farther. That beady-eyed dude could be an accountant. That tired-looking dude could be an inventor who spent most of the night in his workshop tinkering with a contraption. That woman could be a mathematician. That other woman could be a botanist researching disease-resistant crops. Another woman and man, in their 60s, are not talking much. They could’ve reached a level of comfort in their relationship where they don’t need to jabber incessantly. Guilty of jabbering is a group of four teenagers at a booth, giggling at one in-joke after another. Occasionally, people at a nearby table throw frowns at them because of the ruckus. But I like the camaraderie among the teenagers. At other tables, kids are sitting in the groups. The kids eat pancakes or hamburgers or chicken tenders. One kid wears a soccer or baseball uniform, fresh off a game. I wonder if his team won, but it doesn’t matter. He’s spending quality time with his folks.
They’re amazing, these people. Look at them enjoying this quality time together. These specific people in this specific place. What are the chances that our stomachs rumbled at the same time, and we had a hankering for the food served here, and we acted on that hankering? Must be infinitesimal.
All of us, through whatever whims of fate or plans for eating, ended up here. If you showed up a couple hours earlier or later, the people would be different. You’d have different travelers joining you on this journey of lunch.
Astounding to think how this worked out. These families and friends assembling at the same place and time. It’s as if we received an invitation to come here. As if our personal mobile devices chirped and vibrated, and there was the message: “Meet up at the pancake house.”
This is a family reunion of sorts, even though everyone doesn’t know everyone else’s names. That kind of thing happens at family reunions, when extended—far extended sometimes—family members show up. You would ask the unrecognized person, “Who are you again? Aunt Betty’s son from her second marriage? Oh, right! You’re that Robert!” Then you would discuss Aunt Betty’s basket collection and the delicious jams she makes. You’d exchange descriptions of what you do for a living and your hobbies.
Here at the pancake house, you can make up people’s names. Over there is Aunt Vivian and Uncle Joe. And there’s Stephanie and Tommy. And so on. They’re amazing, these people. Simply, brilliantly, amazing.
The bacon-and-sausage glow fills my body, as air fills a balloon. Back at the mammoth store, I saw people as obstacles in my way. But now, they breathe with spirit and meaning. This is one of those glorious moments in which things click just right. I’m not irritated by one nuisance or another. I’m thankful for my wife who puts up with me. I’m thankful for my son, and his goofiness and his neat observations about culture. I’m thankful for living in this town. I’m thankful for being alive.
Claire gives me a look that says she knows something’s going on with me and she’s not sure what it is, but she doesn’t want to interrupt my thoughts and she’ll ask me when we get to our car. Sawyer’s still busy chowing down on the clown face.
I’m moved so much that, after my family has finished our meals and I’ve paid the bill and we walk toward the exit, past the greeter who tells us to have a nice day, I turn back toward the dining area. I look one last time at this group of friends who I’ll never see again, not in this entirety. I call out, “I love all you guys!”
Their conversations halt and they look at me funny. That’s their way. I give a crisp wave good-bye and head out of the restaurant, pushing the glass doors aside.
Outside, my wife and son are also looking at me funny. Sawyer says, “What was that about?”
“Just expressing love for my fellow man,” I say. “And I love you guys, too.”