Small Fire

Huddled around the outdoor
fireplace in the backyard,
we are grateful for the fire,
as it gives us light and heat
and weapons of sticks aflame
should we need to use them
against a ferocious beast
showing up and maneuvering
in such a way that blocks
our rush into the house
behind the safety of a locked

door—
but I remember reading
tales of ferocious beasts
being able to break through

windows—
and they can even
blow a house down
with a mighty breath—

so sticks aflame could
very well come in handy.

Other Lives of the Boothbys

Other Lives of the Boothbys cover

Time for another excerpt from one of my books — this time my novella, Other Lives of the Boothbys. In this story, Bradley Boothby feels déjà vu when walking by the office building for Rayburn-Turley Publishing, that he is somehow connected to one of the publishing company’s books.

Following is the first chapter. If you like it, please consider buying the book to find out what happens next. Available on Amazon as ebook and paperback.

*****

At first, Bradley Boothby dismissed the odd sensation when he passed the Randolph-Turley building on his commutes to and from work. The feeling was nonsensical and didn’t deserve deeper attention than tossing it off the curb, where it would roll into a storm drain then eventually make its way to the Hudson.

Bradley had other things to consider, including his research on the spending habits of twenty-somethings versus middle-aged people. It was more important to focus on doing a good job at his job.

Yet the odd sensation persisted in visiting Bradley during his commutes. As if the idea had survived the journey through underground pipes, swam to the surface of the river, and flew to Randolph-Turley’s roof. Perching there until Bradley arrived on the sidewalk, when it dive-bombed onto his head. Into his head.

The idea was akin to those mythological creatures that combined different animals. A griffin or centaur or mermaid or some such. Bradley asked himself, Was there a mythical creature capable of swimming and flying? Well, flying fish already existed. And some birds could swim.

Bradley didn’t harbor dreams of being included in a book—or in a movie or TV series. No delusions of grandeur of becoming a celebrity recognized (even admired) by crowds of strangers. He was fine with his low level of fame only among his friends.

On one of Bradley’s journeys home during March, he remembered a movie he and Danielle had seen several years ago: Stranger Than Fiction. The movie had provided pleasant entertainment for the evening. Did the movie’s memory cause the odd sensation? Did part of Bradley’s subconscious want to create a diversion from his regular schedule, entertainment for his commute?

But significant differences divided him and the movie’s main character (Bradley forgot the guy’s name). Bradley’s life wasn’t as finely regimented as the character’s. Bradley was married. Bradley didn’t hear a female, English-accented voice narrating his every move. The only voice in his head was his own—and the assorted memories of what people had said to him in various conversations, along with snippets he had overheard in the subway and other public places.

Thankfully, no narrator lived in his brain. Getting through the day would’ve been very challenging with a narrator’s voice accompanying his thoughts. And an English accent might’ve sounded authoritative and pompous. More comfortable would’ve been a narrator with a New Yawker tongue: “So Bradley goes to the office kitchen for another cup of cawffee and mutters to himself, ‘How many years till retirement?’”

Whatever the origin of the strangeness in passing the Randolph-Turley building, the feeling kept arriving with regularity. Bradley had to tell someone about it. His wife would’ve been more understanding than his friends and close co-workers, who would’ve likely teased Bradley about going nutty and in need of a vacation.

Besides, Danielle had frequently asked him during the past couple weeks if something was wrong. Bradley had answered it was nothing major. Just stuff at work. He couldn’t cover up his agitation with a straight face (why he never played poker). Danielle could see right through him, a skill improved in their five years of marriage.

In their Brooklyn apartment one evening, Bradley tried paying attention to Danielle relay the latest complaint of an irritating woman—Tanya—in her office. Something about offensively amateurish graffiti in subway stations. It wasn’t clear which bothered the office woman more: the offensive language or amateurish style.

Which inspired the tangential wondering that if graffitied curse words were done artistically, would they be less offensive? Fuck Off could be prettied up by writing it with curlicues and flourishes, but the message remained the same.

Bradley wasn’t offended by curse words on walls. Clever sayings in graffiti could amuse him for days. The dark humor of Just Say No To Cannibalism on a wall had tickled his funny bone on an evening when he had been in the mood to enjoy it. As had pennies from heaven don’t help me afford really good drugs.

Bradley supposed, if he was a father, he might’ve wanted to shield his children’s eyes from foul language. Except the kids would’ve learned curse words some day. If not from graffiti, then hearing them yelled in school or snarled in a movie or grumbled by an intoxicated uncle at a holiday gathering.

Danielle sighed. “You must be tired of hearing about this. I get annoyed by Tanya then I annoy you by talking about her so much. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t keep the cycle going.”

“It doesn’t annoy me.” Bradley placed a bowl of leftover turkey chili into the microwave and tapped the time buttons. “Go ahead and vent. I know it makes you feel better.”

“So does this.” Danielle sipped from a glass of red wine. “I’m done venting. How about you? You’ve got that look again. Is work still stressing you out?”

“That’s not really what’s been going on,” he said. “The other day, something happened when I saw the sign for Randolph-Turley on their building. I’ve seen that sign thousands of times, but something clicked that day.”

Since Bradley paused, his wife prodded him: “What clicked?”

“The feeling that I’m connected with the place,” he replied. “As if I’m a character in a book.”

A speechless moment in which Danielle’s frown spoke volumes.

Bradley said, “It sounds weird, I get that. But I can’t shake the thought that somebody in the publishing company has written about me. I don’t know why. It’s not like my life is interesting enough to be in a book.”

The microwave beeped, startling them. Bradley removed the heated bowl, gave it to Danielle, and he slid the second bowl of chili into the microwave. She put her bowl on the kitchen counter, uninterested in food because of the conversation.

“Yeah, that’s weird,” she said. “Have you ever read a book from that company?”

“I have no idea,” Bradley said. “Who pays attention to the publisher when they read a book?”

“Okay, silly question. I’m just trying to get a handle on what you’re telling me.”

As the microwave beeped again, Bradley retrieved the second bowl. He didn’t like the look on Danielle’s face—it made him feel batshit crazy for opening up about his fixation.

He said, “I know we’re not characters in a novel. I know we’re real people. As real as this.” Bradley knocked on the kitchen counter, as if announcing his presence to a tiny family living in the cabinets, whom he wanted to visit.

“At least you know that.”

“Then why can’t I shake the idea that somebody wrote about me?” he asked.

“Maybe the same way a song gets stuck in your head,” Danielle said. “Even when you hate the song, it can loop and loop in your head all day.”

“Could be it.”

“What about seeing someone about it? Talking to someone other than me?”

“You mean a shrink?”

“Therapist,” she said. “Cindy goes to one and she says it helps her. The therapist is a good listener and he asks questions about things that Cindy hasn’t thought about. Patterns that Cindy didn’t realize.”

Cindy was Danielle’s best friend. Bradley wasn’t surprised to hear that Cindy went to a therapist. Cindy had been divorced twice and was one of those people with a tendency to act impulsively. She kidded Danielle by calling her tame. But Cindy also valued Danielle’s quieter demeanor and patient ear as a wine-drinking, restaurant-going companion. Friendship therapy.

“I’m not gonna see a therapist,” Bradley said, deciding not to add his opinion that therapists were for other people, not him.

One side of Danielle’s mouth tugged back in a disproving expression. “It could help you.”

“Doubt it,” he said. “A therapist won’t give me any real answers. Probably would just ask about my childhood and tell me I’ve got unresolved issues.”

“You definitely have unresolved issues. You can’t remember your turn to scrub the bathroom. I’m sure that started in childhood.”
With a groan, Bradley said, “A therapist can’t fix that.”

“Would be nice if they could,” Danielle said. “What about looking up your name on Google? See if it’s a character?”

“Already did that.” He was embarrassed for the admission, as it rang to him as narcissistic. Searching for yourself on the Internet to find out your popularity—or just your name’s popularity. He said, “Nothing came up.”

“What about talking to someone at the company?” she asked. “They could tell you if you’re in one of their books.”

His face twisted. “I can’t do that. They’d think I’m crazy and throw me out. I debated whether to tell you. Figuring you’d think I’m dumb. But they’d be much less forgiving.”

“Or they might humor you and tell you one way or the other,” Danielle said. “If you’re in a book or not. They might’ve gotten stranger requests.”

“I don’t see what could be stranger than this,” he said. “I’ll save myself the embarrassment and skip going there. Maybe this talk has solved it. Maybe the feeling will stop bugging me.”

“I hope so. Want to talk about it some more?”

“Nah, I’m done. Let’s eat.”

The couple ate dinner while watching a television show about two families in 1880s Chicago. The first season had included the great drama of the 1871 fire and rebuilding was in full swing by the second season, of which the Boothbys were in the midst.

Before Bradley gave his attention over to the show, he took in the familiar surroundings. The couch where he ate many meals with Danielle and lounged with a book or newspaper, his feet propped on the coffee table. Much of the furnishings had been bought at a street market, pushed into a taxi or a ride service’s SUV, and driven here. This was home. He was glad for Danielle sitting next to him. She didn’t have to calm him down often, but she was effective when the need arose: his worries about the health of his grandparents and an often-stressful marketing job. Compared to those, tonight’s frustration felt trivial.

###

Inventing Mysteries

The problem with your life,
Mr. Poe said to me, is that it
lacks mystery. And so,
you must invent it.

May I call you Edgar Allan? I asked,
to which he nodded. But how
does one invent a mystery for oneself?
If I am the inventor, that means I know
all about the scheme, and, therefore,
it is no mystery to me.

Ah, that is the crutch of the matter,
he said.

Crutch? How can that be the crutch,
like a tool one uses to help you walk
when you have a broken leg?

You misheard me, he said. I said
crux of the matter. And I think your
leg isn’t the only thing
that’s broken.

I looked down at my legs and saw
that neither was broken. It was
undoubtedly a mystery.

New World

Crashing Wave, by Alastair Forbes

Land. Awakening. The world was still again—not that infernal, incessant tossing. Except for the waves crashing foamy suds against him. But these were nothing compared to the sickening heaving of the ship in last night’s angry sea amid lashing rain. His hands hadn’t forgotten, not by still clinging to the wood plank, a raft in miniature, helping him hold onto life, kicking furiously to escape the shouting and sinking mayhem.

Are there other survivors?

Sand. Beach. Glorious morning—the calm after the storm. A palm-treed paradise, where you shouldn’t have a care in the world. The guard had described his cage that way; he should’ve felt lucky, not having to work for food. The swill he called food. Now he’d have to work hard for food—fish, exotic fruits—and to avoid the cage he left and the one he was being shipped to. Now was a new world of survival.


Photo prompt given by Alastair Forbes. For other stories inspired by this photo, click here.
Photo copyright Alastair Forbes
Story copyright Dave Williams

Don’t Lose Your Head

Don't Lose Your Head cover

Several years ago, I published Don’t Lose Your Head, a novella of a ghost haunting a guy. I didn’t promote the book, instead choosing to focus on client work (graphic design) and writing other stories. But I wanted to revisit the novella and give it a more rigorous editorial eye. I’m glad I did, since I ended up chopping off 12,000 words from the story and making it much sharper. I’ve stopped worrying and learned how to enjoy editing. It really can make a difference in a story.

As an excerpt, here’s the first chapter of the novella, to give you a taste. If you like what you read, the book is available on Amazon as an ebook and paperback.

*****

Alan Burris glanced in the car’s rear-view mirror and saw an older version of himself sitting on the back seat. As if the mirror contained magic to reflect how Alan could look in several years, with deeper lines in his forehead and gray hairs blending into darker ones at the sides of his head.

William Resnick had never noticed the resemblance, but his wife picked up on it during her first ride in the black Lincoln sedan.

“Bill,” said Mrs. Resnick, also in the back seat, “he looks just like you!”

“Huh? What?” Bill Resnick looked up from the report’s pages on his lap.

“The driver.” Mrs. Resnick grabbed the headrest of the front passenger seat and leaned forward, saying, “I’m so sorry. I don’t even know your name.” She spoke up, as if the driver was a hard-of-hearing geezer—even though Alan was younger than both of his passengers.

Alan briefly toyed with the idea of asking the male Resnick if he remembered his driver’s name, but doubted that game would go over well. Don’t annoy a client. One of the rules of the biz. Alan introduced himself to the Mrs.

“I’m Laura,” she said. “I’m sorry we didn’t do proper introductions when we got into your car. I don’t know where my mind was.”

“It’s fine, ma’am. Like I said earlier, it’s good to meet you.”

The line deserved repeating. After driving Bill Resnick to and from JFK airport for a couple years, Alan had never seen the Mrs. until now. Her existence was known, due to the wedding band encircling Bill’s finger. Alan had wondered what the wife was like, imagining a woman who dressed in elegant clothes, moved with grace, and performed as a fantastic hostess at dinner parties. The kind of hostess who put the guests at ease and could carry conversations about pretty much anything.

Seeing Laura Resnick this morning answered Alan’s imaginings, along with finding out she wasn’t as attractive as the picture of her in his mind. Not that she was ugly, but Alan had elevated her to a level of beauty he now realized was unfair and unrealistic. But he had been correct about her elegance and grace.

Even though Alan would never discover her hostess skills, he was going to discover the Resnick house’s interior. Having the Mrs. in the Lincoln gave the green light for Alan’s plan—once a general idea and hope—to be placed on the schedule. His patience was about to be rewarded.

Mrs. Resnick turned back to her husband and said, “What’s with the scoff?” She had lowered her voice. “You don’t think he looks like you?”

A small laugh from Resnick, or something resembling a laugh. “Hardly.” Resnick returned to his Very Important Papers.

Alan asked himself, What do you care, Rez? Always at your reports and phone. Acting like you run the fucking world.

Mrs. Resnick pushed on: “I’m serious. If you shaved off your mustache, you two could be twins. Okay, so your hair color’s different, but your faces are quite similar.”

“Laura, would you give it a rest? I need to prepare for this briefing.”

She sat back against the seat, clearly dejected. “But we have, what, two hours on the plane?”

“There’s a ton I have to cover. I don’t want to look like a fool in front of the client.”

“Fine.” Then she spoke louder again, for their supposed geezer driver’s benefit: “Alan, could you turn the radio up? Just a little?”

“No problem, ma’am.”

The NPR reporter, who had been talking about the economies of several European countries, transitioned to a new story about ethnic cleansing in an African country.

Ethnic cleansing, Alan thought. Such a safe, shined-up phrase for the meaning it tries to hide. Like “we’re letting you go.” Like you’ve been sitting outside the boss’s office for hours, a puppy crying to be let out and taken for a walk.

Mrs. Resnick gazed out the window, at the other cars crawling beside them. Was she envisioning herself in another car, yakking it up with another driver, another husband? One who was more attentive? They could’ve talked about their thoughts on ethnic cleansing, doppelgängers, and anything else that came to mind or the radio.
Maybe she would’ve placed her hand on the other husband’s knee and suggested some plans for when he was done with his presentation to the client. With his work wrapped up for the day, the two of them could’ve dined at a fancy restaurant then continued the romance at a fancy hotel. She could’ve said, “I’m glad I finally joined you on a business trip. I know you’re busy during the day, but you’re all mine in the evening.”

Has it been a while since you guys got it on? It’s not like you’ve got kids to tiptoe around.

No kids had ever yelled good-bye to Resnick as he left his house and walked toward the Lincoln during one of Alan’s pick-ups. And no kids had ever yelled hello when Resnick made the reverse journey. No minivan was parked in the Resnick driveway. Instead, a silver Lexus RX. Other times, a red Infiniti Q60. His and hers. Alan had changed his decision several times in trying to match which car belonged to husband and which to wife.

Also, no dog had ever appeared at the door. No finely bred dog barked and wagged its tail to bid its master adieu or hello. All the clues pointed to a married couple living a comfy life in the nice suburb of Westbury with no kids or pets.

*

Earlier this morning, when the Resnicks had left their “we’re quite well off financially and like to show it” type of house, they hadn’t poked at a security system’s keypad. There had been no tell-tale chirp of a system being armed. As both Resnicks had approached Alan, standing by the Lincoln’s open trunk, he had almost leaped with joy.

It’s too good to be true. Wait. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Get the details first.

Alan had greeted them with a perky “good morning,” and loaded their luggage in the trunk. The Resnicks had climbed into the back seat, and Alan shut the door behind them. Then the drive and careful information gathering started.

Alan had said, “Good to finally meet you, Mrs. Resnick.”

“Likewise,” she had replied. “And I want to thank you for taking such good care of my husband. He tends to run a little late.”

A harumph from her worse half.

“It’s true, Bill.” Mrs. Resnick had a soothing voice. Her attention returned to the driver as she said, “But you’ve kept him from missing his flights.”

“All in the job, ma’am,” Alan had said. Modest and polite. Keep it up, soldier.

“And this morning, it’s important not to be late.”

“Why’s that?” Here we go.

“Because I’m going with him, of course,” Mrs. Resnick had said. “We have old friends in Chicago, and it’s been too long since I’ve seen them. Far too long. When Bill told me he’s going there for a meeting, I jumped at the chance. It’ll be a mini vacation. Just from today to Sunday, but it’ll be a chance to relax and sightsee. Right, Bill?”

“Yeah. Right.” Resnick clicked open his briefcase and started shuffling papers.
The papers didn’t keep what Resnick probably saw as the old ball and chain down. Mrs. Resnick said, “Well, I’m looking forward to it.”

Alan pinched his thigh to test if this was a dream. He didn’t wake up.

Time for some justice. Tonight’s the night, Rezzie old boy. It’s finally here.

*

The Lincoln exited on to the ramp toward Kennedy airport and eased to a stop at Terminal 7, underneath the United Airlines sign. Still plenty of time to catch their 10:05 flight.

Alan went into the steps of the departure routine. Clicked on the car’s caution lights. Pressed the button to open the trunk. Got out of the car and was slapped by the noise of the morning rush: a plane taking off, cars honking and jostling for space. Alan opened the back door on the curb side and offered his arm to Mrs. Resnick. She looked surprised for a second then thanked him, grabbed his suit jacket-covered forearm, and pulled herself out of the car. Alan hoisted the luggage from the trunk and set it on the sidewalk.

Alan said to the couple, “I hope you have a wonderful time in Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Resnick.”

Mrs. Resnick flashed her husband a look, and since she presumably didn’t see the signal she anticipated, her hand slipped into her handbag.

Alan smiled. “No need to tip me, ma’am. The limo service is paid through his company.” Alan nodded to Resnick.

She looked relieved as an uncomfortable moment passed. And Alan wasn’t about to tell her that good, ole’ Billy Resnick wasn’t that great of a tipper when replying to Velox Limo’s invoices. The subject of frequent complaints Alan shared with his boss, Hank.

“Let’s go,” William Resnick said and started wheeling his luggage away. Off to check his bag and show the world how it should be run.

“Have a good day,” Mrs. Resnick said to Alan, seemingly embarrassed by her husband’s brusqueness, before she went to join him.

As Alan watched the well-dressed couple walk through the doorway of the airport terminal, he imagined conking William Resnick’s skull with a cartoon hammer, slumping him to the ground so hard that stars and tweeting birds orbited his already swollen head.

###

Pancake House

stack of pancakes

As an excerpt, this is one of the 18 short stories in my Jumble book. I hope you enjoy…

Pancake House

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.”

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