LeVar Burton’s Podcast and Writing Contest

Photo of a recording studio with a microphone.
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If you enjoy listening to stories, I highly/strongly/very muchly recommend LeVar Burton Reads podcast.

First: who is this guy? LeVar Burton is an actor: he was Kunta Kinte in the Roots miniseries and Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation (among many other roles). He hosted Reading Rainbow for more than two decades. Also, he has directed episodes of TV series and movies.

In his podcast, Burton reads short stories. As he says in each episode, “the only thing these stories have in common is that I love them.” Typically, the stories have science fiction or fantasy elements. Burton makes for a really entertaining narrator with a smooth voice. To me, his enthusiasm for the stories comes through in his readings. His warmth and thoughtfulness also come through as he introduces the stories, then talks about how each affected him after the story.

It’s difficult to pick a few examples of the stories I’ve heard on the podcast, but here’s a short list: 

The podcast’s website. You can listen to the stories on SpotifyAppleStitcher.

Now on to his writing contest…

Photo of a woman typing on a laptop computer
by Christin Hume/Unsplash

Here’s the chance for a writer’s short story to be read on season 10 of LeVar Burton Reads! How awesome that would be for him to read an indie writer’s story — or writer published by a small press. The contest’s website is here.

According to the website, “Works must include speculative or fantastical elements.” So stories would fit into speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy, or horror. 

The contest’s theme is Origins and Encounters. That centers on the intersection of different civilizations and the results of that intersection: The website says:

“We are interested in stories that examine the magical joys and tragic pitfalls of blended civilizations and cultural exchanges in all their forms. As our worlds change, what precious things do we carry with us and allow to be altered or demand they remain untouched? What is taken from us and what will we do to get it back? What do we allow ourselves to remember of our histories, our roots, and what do we allow ourselves to forget? What do we leave behind and what do we choose to carry into the future?”

Only the first-place winner’s story will be read on the podcast. But there’s more! Their story will be published on Tor.com, and the winner will get $500. The second- and third-place winners will also be published on Tor.com, as well as receive money: $250 (2nd place) and $100 (3rd place).

The contest starts today (August 1) and ends on August 31. Stories need to be between 2,800 and 5,200 words. For the rules and details, click here.

Octavia Butler’s Rules on Writing

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Yesterday, I posted reviews of two books by Octavia Butler, and today I’m following them with highlights from one of the essays included in Bloodchild and Other Stories. I thought these highlights deserved their own post.

The essay “Furor Scribendi” (“mania for writing,” according to Merriam Webster) includes Ms. Butler’s rules for writing, and she encourages writers to make them into habits in your life. In each item, the rule is taken word for word from Ms. Butler’s essay, then I’m offering a condensed explanation of each item in my words.

  1. Read. Inhale fiction and non-fiction, read books in the genre you’re writing, read books that discuss writing. And that doesn’t have to be old-fashioned reading: audio books are good ways to experience books, and you get the benefit of hearing the sound of language.
  2. “Take classes and go to writers’ workshops.” These provide feedback on your stories — readers who can tell you what works and what doesn’t work in the stories, before you send them out into the world.
  3. Write. Set aside time in your schedule to write every day. If you’re stuck with your work in progress, shift to journal writing. Setting down your thoughts could inspire ideas for later stories.
  4. “Revise your writing until it’s as good as you can make it.” Check the writing and research. Fix the flaws you find.
  5. “Submit your work for publication.” Check out the markets and submit your stories to the ones that interest you. Yes, this can be scary. And yes, rejections will hurt. Every writer experiences them. You can learn from rejected work, and you could use it in a new project — even sections of those old pieces.
  6. “Some potential impediments for you to forget … first forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not … Forget talent. … continued learning is more dependable than talent… finally, don’t worry about imagination.”

Especially with imagination, I liked Ms. Butler’s words so much I want to put more emphasis on her advice:

“Play with your ideas. Have fun with them. Don’t worry about being silly or outrageous or wrong. So much of writing is fun. It’s first letting your interests and imagination take you anywhere at all. Once you’re able to do that, you’ll have more ideas than you can use.” — Octavia Butler

I’m drawn to this kind of advice. I’ve posted about it from Shel Silverstein (“Put Something In”) and Felicia Day (Embrace Your Weird). I believe the reason I’m drawn to them is that they serve as reminders to me. Be serious about crafting stories, but don’t forget to have fun along the way. And hopefully, these words will be helpful to other writers out there.

All the quotes in this post are from: Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories, Seven Stories Press (New York: 2005), pages 139-142.

Eternal Road – The final stop is on Sale at 99¢ Till Wednesday — Fiction Favorites

The description of Mr. Howell’s book is quite intriguing, ending with “If you like time-travel, adventure, mystery, justice, and the supernatural, this story is for you.” And the book is on sale through Wednesday!

In case you missed the announcement,  Eternal Road – The final stop e-book is on sale on US Amazon through Wednesday, March 24 at midnight Eastern Time. Here is the link Eternal Road – The final stop has 26 ratings for an average of 4.8. This special is being featured on Ereader News Today. […]

Eternal Road – The final stop is on Sale at 99¢ Till Wednesday — Fiction Favorites

Furious Fiction

Wanted to let you know about a neat contest for writers of flash fiction. On the first Friday of every month, the Australian Writers’ Centre hosts a contest for writing a very short story.

The contest is called Furious Fiction, and it’s kind of the writing equivalent to a cooking contest, a la The Great British Baking Show. You have 55 hours to craft a story that includes a maximum of 500 words. It can be in any genre. But the stories have to include certain ingredients that change each month. That could be the setting (wedding or funeral, for example). Could be that a character has to do a specific action (make a decision, for example). And a few key words need to be included.

I have entered the contest a few times, and it’s an interesting challenge. I’ve found that prompts poke my creativity in different ways than thinking up a story that could be about anything and be any amount of words. A photo prompt can rattle my brain, causing ideas to pop that wouldn’t have otherwise. Same with the prompts in this contest.

While the contest’s turnaround time added stress to my writing, it also prodded me into finishing the stories. A stronger motivation than thinking, “Maybe I’ll finish this story next month.”

If you’ve never tried to write flash fiction, you may want to start with a weekly prompt that offers more time to put a story together. It’s not a simple thing to try to tell a story in a small amount of space. After you’re comfortable with the format, maybe try this contest.

The winner gets $500 Australian dollars. When the winner is announced, the story is published on the website of the Australian Writers’ Centre — along with the stories that made the short list. The hosts include descriptions of what they liked about those stories. That’s helpful to learn what was successful about the stories, and you could use the lessons when you’re writing new stories.

National Book Festival

The 2020 National Book Festival starts today!

Previously, the festival — hosted by the Library of Congress — was held in the Washington, DC Convention Center on a single day in September. But, like lots of activities this year, it’s switched to virtual because of Covid-19. Thanks bunches, Covid.

My family will miss not being able to visit the festival in person, but a virtual festival means many more people can attend. Authors will be doing live Q&As.

From the schedule, looks like today has authors of children’s and YA books, then tomorrow starts authors of grown-up books.

If you’d rather see an alphabetical list of participating authors, here’s that.

Minotaur at the Door

Minotaur at the Door cover

Today’s excerpt comes from The Minotaur at the Door, a novella about what could be a minotaur knocking on the door of the house where Pablo, Miles, and Harry are renting.

Pablo’s journey alternates chapters with the events of Daedalus and his son Icarus, centuries before Pablo. These chapters breathe life and detail into the myth of Asterion, the first minotaur, and Daedalus and Icarus’s imprisonment in the labyrinth. How father and son deal with being stuck in the maze and how they craft a plan to escape.

So here’s part of the first chapter. The book is available at Amazon as an ebook and paperback.


The house’s three occupants were busy watching television shows in separate bedrooms, and none of the men was excited to answer the knocking at the front door.

Harry pressed the pause button on the remote control, since his show was in the slow scene of a tea ceremony. Sometimes the friends of one occupant came over to hang out, but Harry wasn’t expecting anyone tonight. He opened his bedroom door, called out down the hallway, “You guys expecting friends?”

“No,” Miles said from behind his closed door, amid the dramatic music from his TV.

“No,” Pablo said from behind his closed door, amid the sounds of dialogue from his TV. “Can you see who it is?”

“Fine,” Harry groaned. “But it’s someone else’s turn next time.”

Going downstairs, Harry thought about how the yakuza thumped on the doors of people who owed them money or favors. Harry was quite taken with the action-packed television show, now in its third season. Most of the people visited by the yakuza paid the owed money, or they stutteringly promised to return a favor required by the Japanese crime syndicate guys.

When a debtor tried to escape, the plan didn’t end well for them. A chase ensued through night-time Tokyo (it was always night-time in the chase scenes), then the yakuza used harsh methods to persuade the debtors to pay up. Only one character had been able to elude the yakuza: Kaito Takagi, who could disappear, ghost-like, into the crowded city. Harry would’ve liked to have that ability.

Perhaps because of the show’s suspense, Harry peeped through the peephole instead of opening the door. What he saw standing on the front step shocked him and made him glad for checking. The thing standing on the front step couldn’t be there. A second look into the peephole confirmed the truth.

Harry bounded back up the stairs and shouted, “There’s a minotaur at the door!”

Dramatic music and dialogue stopped as pause buttons were pushed. Two bedroom doors swung open, and the roommates stepped into the hall that lacked decoration on the walls—merely a corridor to more important places.

“Is this some kind of joke?” Pablo said.

“If it’s a joke, it’s a weird one,” Miles said.

“It’s not a joke. It’s serious.” Harry’s eyes and voice communicated sincerity.

“But the minotaur wasn’t real,” Pablo said. “It’s just a myth.”

“Myth or not, there’s a minotaur out there,” Harry said.

As a fresh round of knocking came from the front door, the three men remained in the hallway.

“Is it Halloween?” Miles asked.

“That’s not till next month,” Pablo said.

“Oh, right,” Miles said. “The days tend to run together for me. Maybe this is somebody’s idea of a prank. I need to see for myself.”

He led the trio down the steps, to the foyer, and he leaned forward to peer through the peephole. The other two stood a few steps to the side, in the living room, and watched.

Astonishment was on Miles’s face as he went to join his comrades. “Holy crap, you weren’t kidding about that thing!”

“But is it really real?” Pablo said. “Or is it just a costume, and you were right about somebody pranking us?”

“Looked kinda real to me,” Miles replied.

“I’ll see about this.”

Pablo became the third to check through the door’s tiny, circular window—and he was the third to be baffled by the sight. Even while the creature wore a hoodie, it had a bull’s face. The image defied the reality of this suburb of Columbus. A creature couldn’t have the head of a bull and the body of a person. Pablo retreated to the group.

“What’re we gonna do?” asked Harry.

“How should I know?” Miles asked back. “I’ve never met a minotaur before.”

“Let’s pretend we’re not here,” said Harry. “It’ll think nobody’s home and it’ll go away.”

“But the lights are on.” Pablo pointed to the lamp next to the couch.

“And the TVs are on.” Miles looked at the ceiling, as if his eyes had X-ray power to see into the bedrooms and the television sets, each with a stilled image. He said, “The beast could’ve seen the flickering lights of our TVs through the upstairs windows when it was walking toward our house.”

“Yeah, it could’ve,” Harry said. “You guys think it can hear us talking?” He didn’t bother to lower his voice.

Presumably in answer, a grunt came from the other side of the door. Followed by louder, insistent knocking. The house seemed to shake, although that might’ve been in the three occupants’ imagination. They gaped at each other, a triangle of worry.

“Let’s go to the kitchen!” Miles stage-whispered.

Their rushed voices turned into rushed legs; they skittered through the living room and dining room, into the kitchen. It was the farthest the occupants could’ve stood from the front door without opening the back door and transforming into non-occupants.

“What if the beast is hungry?” Harry said. “What if it’s banging on our door because its belly is rumbling, and once we open the door—if we open the door, that is—it will eat us up? That’ll be all she wrote. No more us. Gone in a frantic crunch of flesh and bone, because we won’t be able to get away.”

Pablo had listened thoughtfully to his roommate and tried to keep as level a head as possible. “I don’t know what minotaurs eat. It would be easier if a centaur was outside. That way, there’d be a man on the top half, so it’d be obvious what they eat. They like to eat what all other men eat.”

“But don’t you think centaurs might have horse-eating tendencies?” Miles asked. “At least some of the time?”

Lifting an instructive forefinger, Pablo said, “Maybe for Sunday brunch, they add a bit of hay.”

“Brunch is such a great idea,” Miles said. “Wonderful how it combines breakfast and lunch. And you could be right about centaurs. Maybe they have some hay, and an apple for dessert.”

Pablo’s finger remained raised. “Or a tasty carrot.”

“Would you two stop?” Harry demanded. “That kind of talk isn’t helping our predicament. Not one bit! A centaur isn’t out there. What do we know about minotaurs?”

“I only know they live in Spain,” Pablo said.

“Those are regular bulls,” Miles said. “In Spain, they fight bulls, and they do that running-with-the-bulls thing. Which is pretty nutty, if you ask me.”

None of the men had a desire to run with the bulls in Pamplona, although the subject had come up when, at various times, they had discussed life bucket lists with other friends, and a handful of those other friends had expressed interest in bull running. Seeing the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China were on the three men’s lists, which had a much lower risk of horns piercing their back sides.

“Isn’t the minotaur the god of war?” Harry asked.

“That’s Mars,” Miles said.

“That’s a planet,” Pablo said. “The red, angry one.”

“It was named after the Greek god of war,” Miles said.

“Mars is the Roman equivalent,” Pablo said. “Ares is the Greek god of war. They’re different, but somehow they’re the same.”

Harry threw up his hands. “It’s all so confusing!”

Nothing was confusing about the new bout of hammering on the door. The glasses in the cupboard jittered and clinked together. The occupants also jittered as they gazed, wide-eyed, toward the front of the house.

“We have to learn more about this creature,” Miles said. “Do we appeal to his bullish side or his mannish side? Quick! Get Bulfinch’s Mythology from the bookshelf!”

“What?” Pablo snapped. “You don’t know the Roman god of war, but you remember that Bulfinch wrote a book about myths?”

“If you think about it, it makes sense,” Miles said. “Gray had anatomy, Jane had fighting ships and assorted weaponry, and Bulfinch had mythology.”

“Keenly said,” replied Harry. “Was Bulfinch a minotaur?”

“Of course not,” snorted Miles. “Bulfinch is spelled with only one ‘l.’”

Harry looked a little wounded and sounded a little defensive. “It sounds like an odd combination of a bull and bird. Specifically, a finch. They’re yellow, right?”

“I think they can be,” Miles said. “But I don’t think all finches are yellow. It’s not a prerequisite.”

“That’s got nothing to do with our situation,” said Pablo. “I agree that we need to learn more about the creature. Go get the book, since you know so much about it.”

Miles scratched his stubbled chin. “I only know it’s under ‘b’ on the shelf. Since fiction and non-fiction are mixed together, and they’re alphabetical by title.”

“But if the categories were separated, the book would be in the fiction section,” Harry said. “Myths are just made-up stories.”

“That beast isn’t a made-up story!” Miles exclaimed.

Pablo groaned in exasperation. “Are we sure it’s a minotaur? It’s awfully dark out there.” True, it was night-time. He turned to Harry and said, “Maybe it’s your Uncle Frank, thinking it’s Thanksgiving. Frank’s a big guy.”

Harry frowned at his roommate. “We already proved that it’s not Halloween, so it can’t be Thanksgiving. Even if it was, our family always goes to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. Uncle Frank knows that fully well.”

“But he makes mistakes,” Miles said.

“Everyone does,” Harry said.

“We’re getting nowhere!” Pablo cried. “I’ll get the book.”

As he hurried back to the living room, more house-trembling knocks came, like from the epicenter of an earthquake. The two occupants in the kitchen were silent until their friend returned with Bulfinch’s Mythology.

Pablo searched the book’s index, thumbed through the pages until finding the appropriate page. He said, “Says here the minotaur was in a maze in Crete. Everybody knows that. But here’s something I forgot. And it’s bad news. Very bad news. He ate people. Seven men and seven women were sacrificed to him every nine years.”

The other two men made grossed-out faces.

Miles said, “So he has a taste for human flesh. Great, just fucking great.”

“But there’s also good news,” Pablo said. “Theseus killed the minotaur.”

“Did he write the thesaurus?” Harry asked.

This time, Pablo snorted. “Who cares? He killed the monster!”

“But the monster on our front step is very much alive!” Miles said.

“Maybe he’s a relative of the one in the maze,” Harry said. “Like Uncle Frank is my relative.”

Pablo thumped the book shut, like jaws clamping down, but the book’s jaws snatched only air. “Enough with this bullshit. I’m going to see what he wants.”

“Don’t you dare open the door,” Miles said. “It’s our only protection against the beast!”

“I’ll talk to him through the door,” Pablo said. “And don’t forget, the walls are also protection.”

“Thank goodness we have brick walls,” Miles said. “They’re not made of straw, like in the story about the big, bad wolf.”

Pablo hefted a sigh and looked tired from the weight. “But it’s not a wolf, so you don’t have to worry about it blowing the house down.”

Harry perked up, excited to make an insightful remark. “If a centaur was out there, maybe it would eat our house. If our house was made of straw.”

Pablo stomped off, followed on his heels by his two roommates, and Pablo stopped just behind the front door. The stranger’s loud huffing could be heard, reminiscent of a wolf.


The Red Tree

Red Tree cover

A new excerpt! This time, it’s from “The Red Tree,” which is a short story, but one on the longish side. It clocks in at just over 10,000 words. While rain falls for weeks, the Engler family invites friends over for an evening of dealing with cabin fever together. And when the spring sun arrives, the Englers celebrate by walking in a wooded park, where they encounter a red tree away from the trail. Guesses abound as to why the tree is red when none of the other trees are.

Life returns to normal for most of the Englers. The father, Calvin, decides the red tree was a sign for him to make changes in his life and property. Changes the family and neighbors don’t quite understand. But some family members can be eccentric, and others learn to roll with it.

Below is a portion of the first chapter. If you like it, the ebook is available at Amazon.


They feared the spring rain would never end. The gray cloud-ceiling kept releasing raindrops, like a tight formation of planes carpet-bombing Calvin Engler’s house and all the other houses in his neighborhood and the roads on which he commuted and the office building in which he worked as a manager for a business consulting company. The cloud-bombers seemed intent on turning the buildings to rubble. Occasionally, thunder rumbled, lightning seared the earth.

Dana Engler didn’t have to tell her husband the family was getting cabin fever, especially their two sons. Playgrounds could’ve been visited, but playing there would’ve resulted in very muddy clothes. Dana said, “Could you imagine them going down the slide and landing in a puddle that’s grown bigger every day?”

“The boys would probably like that,” Calvin said, picturing Zach and Ryan, one at a time, sliding down with slickened speed and landing with great explosions of arching water. Like when they cannonballed into a pool, except with darker water.

“I wouldn’t like doing the extra laundry,” Dana said. “We’ve got plenty of dirty clothes as it is.”

“You have to admit, their clothes have been cleaner since the rain. Indoor play isn’t as dirty.”

“But they’re getting sick of pillow forts,” she said.

“Me, too,” Calvin said. “They were fun in the beginning, but every time it’s the same thing. The boys get a kick out of building the fort and crawling in it for a little while. Then it gets old, so they get their soldiers and knights and attack the fort. I always have to defend it.”

“It’s more fun to attack than defend,” Dana laughed.

“Yep, and I like attacking the attackers. But they’re not into that. They get mad at me for flipping things.”

Dana and Calvin invited two families over for a Friday evening to liven up the house. The families had met through their kids in elementary school, and they met now and then for playdates and pot-luck dinners. An idea to deal with the ever-present rain was to rotate the host family for gatherings.

Calvin prepared his famous lasagna, and Dana baked several frozen bags worth of tater tots. The Clemenceaus brought Spanish chicken and rice. Neither of the adult Alversons were fond of cooking, so they brought a large salad, along with brownies made from a boxed mix, and nobody complained the brownies weren’t from scratch.

Each of the Clemenceau and Alverson families was balanced with a boy and a girl. The boys were in the same grade level as Zachary Engler. The Clemenceau and Alverson girls were older than all the boys, and often called them immature and suggested they grow up already. To which the boys replied with well-practiced farting noises made with their tongues.

The four boys chowed down dinner and returned to playing in Zach’s room, creating structures with LEGOs and racing cars on the floor and zooming robots in the air, then the cars suddenly achieved the power to also fly. The two girls, under instructions of their parents, had joined the boys before dinner, but after dinner, they retired to the living room, playing Connect Four on the coffee table.

The grown-ups took their time eating dinner and drinking wine and beer. Glad the kids were occupied and enjoying themselves. Sometimes a loud remark came from Zach’s room (“I told you this robot’s a good guy!”), but as long as an intense argument didn’t develop, the parents were fine to let the kids work it out for themselves.

“With all this rain, feels like I should build an ark,” Calvin Engler said.

“Seriously, right?” Lisa Clemenceau said.

“It’d be a neat family project,” her husband, Jeremy, said. “Plenty for everyone to pitch in.”

“Too late for that, though,” Dwight Alverson said. “It’s too soggy out there. If you wanted to build an ark, you should’ve started before the rain started falling.”

“And I don’t think our back yard is big enough,” Dana Engler said.

“It doesn’t have to carry two of every animal,” Calvin said. “Just our family.”

“So it’s not really an ark, but a boat to save us,” Dana said.

“Hey, we have to look out for number one,” Calvin said.

“You’re not gonna invite us on the boat?” Jeremy Clemenceau asked.

“Sure we will,” said Calvin, not wanting to look selfish.

“What about us?” Paula Alverson asked.

“Of course you can join us,” Dana said. “We’d be delighted to have you guys along. The company would be great, and we’d need help to sail the thing.”

“We’d need help before that,” Calvin said. “We’d need help building the thing.”

Calvin said plans for a big ship would have to be drawn up and good-quality lumber must be procured, not the cheap junk usually on sale but planks with no knots in them. Because this beauty had to be ship-shape, no leaks on this vessel. Also, they’d have to watch online videos for tips on building a water craft, tips that newbies wouldn’t know, tips passed down by professionals wanting to share their passion.

Jeremy Clemenceau added that they would need to get books on how to cut the jib and tack into the wind and tie an assortment of knots and become familiar with the delicacies of the astrolabe. The geographic-positioning apps on their phones would not work so well with much of civilization underwater, except maybe for the tops of skyscrapers and transmission towers. And a book should be purchased on the language of maritime signal flags to communicate with the ships of other survivors.

Assuming there would be other survivors, which everyone around the table hoped there would be. A lonely scenario to be the last three families on earth. Similar to the Twilight Zone episode in which a nuclear war destroys the world, and a survivor finally gets the peace to read all the books he desires, but accidentally steps on his eyeglasses and breaks them.

“I haven’t seen that episode,” Lisa Clemenceau said.

“Total spoiler alert,” Paula Alverson said. “Now you don’t have to watch it. You know what happens.”



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.


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.”