Pancakes & Promises by John J. Staughton
As the man’s eyes opened, it felt like a regular Tuesday, another anonymous morning, of equal estrangement from his life across the ocean as the night before had been.
However, the bustle of activity outside the door betrayed normality. The flat of typically nocturnal hooligans was abuzz, alive, humming holiday praise beside morning coffee bubbling on the hob.
He had crashed out on a pillow at some point a few hours earlier, never making it to his own room two floors above. In the communal hive of that apartment, beds were temporarily owned and freely lent. Like a perpetual game of musical chairs with far too few seats, the rolling madness of that spring semester usually left certain groups staying up past dawn, snorting conversation-sparkers to the lilting hits of their eternal idol, EJ, the real Rocket Man, and eventually seeking tumbled piles of sheets once the morning shift came in for breakfast smokes and fresh stimulation.
Tumbling into the fluorescent dawn of the flat’s unusually spacious kitchen, he saw that the late-night celebration had oozed over, as ever. This was evidenced by a freshly popped champagne bottle and two still-bubbling mimosas on the table, which had been moved from where he’d last remembered it – surely the result of a pre-dawn feng shui epiphany.
Felix presided gleefully over the affair, wearing only briefs, hair mangled into modern art, eyes ablaze with unholy fire, swinging his champagne flute like an axe, slashing in opposition to whatever trivial point had fixated his neurons mere moments earlier. He gave the new arrival a wiggle of his head, and then his ass, before spinning back off towards center stage.
Pheebs was sitting cross-legged, observing Felix’s never-ending performance of existence, a crooked rollie hanging from her fingers. They would have formed a lazy peace sign had the fag not been there, which would have fit his morning vision of her just as easily. She cocked an eyebrow at his entrance and offered a shame-faced shrug; she had hardly moved since he’d left her hours earlier.
LB tidied around the edges of Hurricane Felix, clearing the evening’s debris from the counter, even as it filled up once again. She was sweeping up dust in a sandstorm. Shattered crisps packets and abandoned blocks of Stilton leaned against vegetable-dyed cutting boards and half-drained bottles of Prosecco. Separating the night’s trash from future treasure was a challenge. Everything was equalized by the light dusting of tobacco that lay beneath the carnage of the drunken feast. She offered a mixed glance, half-welcome and half-warning – abandon all plans, ye who enter here.
Rynbow tittered absently in the corner, aware of and amused by the circus, yet managing to own the above-it-all vibe that drew the man to her like a caveman fool to fire. Her eyes looked tired, but they brightened at the sight of him, and her chipmunk cheeks puffed with a semi-sober smile.
“Jesus, have you guys slept?”
“Sleep when you’re dead, isn’t that what you always say?”
“I feel a bit dead.”
“You still drink like a Yank.”
“And you nurse beers like they’ve stopped brewing it.”
“Drinks… mimosa for me?”
“’Aye, but we’re low on Cava.”
“Mmmmm… I’ll go to the shop in a bit. Fag?”
Sliding into the same seat he’d held for most of the prior eve, the man pulled the Golden Virginia over from Pheebs and set to roll his first of the day. The rest continued their strange dance – cleaning, watching, smoking… and actually dancing – moving in fits and starts, the conversation percussive in one moment, lyrical the next, laughter like high-hats and the cymbal hiss of smoke release from the Buddha sat beside him.
He closed his eyes and smiled in the darkness, cracked his knuckles and opened the tobacco. It was a process he’d come to love, despite being mocked in his first British weeks for the atrocious excuses for cigarettes he’d slapped together with too little saliva and too much bacci. Now, less than a month later, it came as second nature, an addictive ritual they each performed in rotation, a clan of nicotine priests keeping some eternal flame alive.
The GV was damp, a fresh pack, clumped like dense moss, and the smell of wet coffee earth hit soft as he tore a pinch from the mound inside. Laying out the paper, the slight gleam of glue facing away from him, he gently fluffed out the tobacco, making the pinch a pile, and then a porous log in his white Rizla canoe. The filters were always the hardest ingredient to find, despite there being 120 in each .50p box. Empty filter tubes littered the table and stuck out wildly from the ashtrays, transparent shell casings abandoned beside smoked soldiers. Eventually finding a stray stick wedged in the bacci pouch, he completed the tip of his fag and spun the whole mess between his fingers, laying a final lick on the edge.
Pheebs stubbed her fag dead and slid him the half-filled ashtray, along with a lighter, the final piece of his puzzle. Like clockwork.
“Wanna come to the shop?”
“Mmmmm… I don’t know. It’s fucking freezing out.”
“This is not cold. Jesus…”
“Rynbow? Wanna come?”
“I’m skint, but… yeah, sure. I need some air. We’ve been in here for fucking ages.”
“Breakfast stuff, LB?”
“You still wanna make pancakes and all?”
“Fuck yeah, it’s Pancake Day, right?”
“Alright, I got a fiver somewhere.”
“Find it later, that’s fine. Anything else?”
“Sure… chocolate, champagne, breakfast shit… anything else? Once… twice…? Felix?”
“No… just orange juice… and more Cava!”
“Alright, be back in a tick.”
His gang of three swirled out of the flat, missioning it for midmorning supplies. It was a holiday, after all.
For an atheist, the beginning of Lent hardly instilled a sense of reverence in him, and with the exception of the occasional paczki and a few near misses with Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Fat Tuesday largely passed him by each year. In his Catholic childhood, the day was marked by casual conversations about what would be given up for Lent, what sacrifices he intended to make for the following 40 days. Having abandoned the greatest scam on Earth years earlier, the late-winter holiday had lost its meaning. However, his new band of misfits in London viewed the day a bit differently. Known as Pancake Day in the UK, Fat Tuesday was celebrated by a gluttonous feast of pancakes and a steady stream of debaucherous bubbly, among other stronger vices. As such, convincing him to join in the high holy day activities was not difficult.
The sidewalks were dark, in that perpetually damp manner of London stone, sucking slowly up the back of his pants with every squishing step. The shop was only two blocks down, and the bite of February wind fired him more than coffee ever could, chasing his hangover to the back of his mind, ripping it off like a mask, leaving fresh skin and a stomach hungry for morning booze. Cutting through the borough’s mixed smells of kebab and petrol, the three bobbed towards their daily dose shop – smiling, mad, thirsty.
He linked hands with Rynbow for an instant before entering and gave Pheebs’ shoulders a gentle squeeze; the pair had quickly become his family, chasing away the loneliness and uncertainty of this new home.
Bottles of champagne and cider clanked down on the counter, accompanied by tossed candies and crisps, bacon, flour, eggs, and a bag of spinach, followed by spontaneous requests for filters and bacci, all bubbling up from the hyper mood of a trio gearing up for a dangerous day. There was indifferent observation from the shopkeeper; he worked at the center of a university campus in South London, so wild-eyed boozehounds at 10am on a Tuesday did little to elicit surprise. On a whim, the young man pointed to a bottle of scotch, Johnnie Walker Black label, and the shopkeeper raised an eyebrow.
“37 quid. You want?”
“Sure, fuck it.”
One slap-dash signature later, the man tumbled back into the street, two bags richer and 70 pounds poorer, but the trade-off would likely be worth it.
They were back in the bustling flat kitchen within minutes, dotted by new faces that had just woken up, and the Yank triumphantly dropped the bags of supplies onto the table, like the corner shop was a freshly pillaged hamlet.
After distributing the various treasures to those scattered around the kitchen, he possessively clutched the bottle of scotch in one hand and the carton of eggs in the other.
“So… who wants a fucking pancake?”
Felix, unofficial ringleader of the circus and self-proclaimed couture chef, swan-stepped over and snagged the bag of flour and eggs without saying a word. He strutted back to the hob, kimono flowing behind like a psychedelic train, and pushed the dirty pots and pans into the sink.
Shaking his head at the band’s crackpot maestro, the cowboy kid cracked the brassy cap of the scotch and raised it to his lips, allowing a healthy slosh to burn down his throat, pinching his face against the fire. Sitting down with a pack of Luck Strikes before him, he leaned back towards the window and let the scene before him flex and swell.
There was a sense of community in everything they did, helping hands and jibing words, love seamlessly threaded between every step. He had struggled for years to fill the various holes that pockmarked his heart, but there, in a smoky kitchen filled with the sizzle of bacon grease, he felt at ease. A soul mate on one side and a lover on the other, he closed his eyes and let the cacophony of sound fill him. Swigging again from the bottle before putting it down, he felt the final strands of his hangover sever and disappear.
He rarely thought of home, particularly after the instant collapse of his trans-Atlantic relationship a month earlier. Untethered by the common bonds of longing, he floated absently, falling from one desire to the next. His American shell and rugged style were eccentricities in London, whereas they had been forgettable back home. Each day was better than the last, a steady upswing of things gained, which was a strange state of affairs for the day before Catholics around the world would give something up, embracing a contrarian backswing of things to be lost.
The first batch of pancakes from Felix’s braggadocio hands were essentially crepes, and they slowly piled up beside the hob, but the sole table was quickly cleared. Desperate mouths spread lemon and sugar on the spontaneous breakfast, washing down saccharine servings with even more champagne and the few remaining cans of Fosters that had survived the previous night.
The Yank watched the meal unfold, content with only his scotch and cigarettes, quietly waiting to take his turn at the stove. He had never enjoyed cooking, and possessed a dearth of skills, but meals in this newfound family were sacred. Sunday roasts and lazy breakfasts were signposts of friendship and lighthouses in the sea of restless university weeks. The creativity of his words didn’t extend to inspiration while facing a half-empty fridge, but for this unexpected holiday, he intended to show these Brits what a real flapjack tasted like.
Their debates of cultural norms between Britain and its old colony were heated and constant, so a breakfast baking battle was inevitable. His father had taught him the art of the pancake – thick and fluffy, peppered with chocolate chips, lathered in melting butter and drowned in maple syrup. This nonsense of crepes posturing as pancakes could simply not stand. After Felix’s dozen or so perfectly crisped crepes were flipped, stacked and summarily devoured, the man scrubbed out his own mixing bowl and John Wayne-walked to work, the Black Label never leaving his fist.
He felt the liquor heating his blood and lightening his steps with every passing breath. His hands moved like a tipsy virtuoso, one cracking eggs as the other cleared space on the hob, his ears perked to the chats around him, his nose snatching at every fresh burst of tobacco smoke.
The first two pancakes were crap; he was out of practice, or his element, but as more scotch disappeared into his gut, the dance of pouring, flipping and self-praising his creations became effortless. A cheer went up as he double-flipped a pancake in the air and barely caught it with the searing pan he waggled dangerously. It was barely noon and his face felt numb, but the kitchen was a den of energy and laughter, and he felt ecstatic, free of anything within spitting distance of self-awareness. The French philosophy lecture he was supposed to attend at 4 seemed like a faraway, impossible threat – meaningless in the face of this endless party. He was a hotcake machine, churning out perfection, from silver dollars to paella pies, and delivering them to ever-empty plates.
By the time he finished sweating over the stove, the clock had slipped into afternoon, and the shoreline of sobriety was out of sight. A spliff eventually found his lips, and then another, and a proposal for a game of Scrabble finally dragged him from the steam and butter-burns of pancake prep. The revolving door of the flat continued well into the afternoon, welcoming ghosts and vague acquaintances, blindly passing hours as time swiftly tore the day in two.
The bottle dwindled and his body began to rebel, threatening to lose all that he had gained, and he willed his stomach to obey, chaining cigs past the midpoint of his pack, delirious in the pleasure of the chaotic company. They danced to new records and old favorites, then straightened up their minds with a few obese lines as the sun began to wane.
Unexpectedly, he found his feet willing him back to his own room; it was one of those moments where the destination was less important than the act of moving somewhere, letting his buzzing brain turn off and allowing instinct to take the reins. His room was the sole space he truly possessed in London, away from the clamor of university insanity. He remembered initially being motored by a determination to retrieve something, but he quickly forgot the object of his search in the stairwell.
Despite his absent memory, he popped into the stale smog of his tiny room, all sound from the party below faded, and he clumsily slammed the nearly empty bottle on the desk, among the scattered papers and ash. A rare moment of clarity plopped him behind his desk and he impulsively clicked the Skype icon, calculating the time difference and assuming his family would be awake. He slapped a Post-It across the camera, knowing that even his acting skills wouldn’t be enough to hide the scotch from his eyes.
In the first few days of his time abroad, communication with home had been essential, a lifeline, but as he shed his American skin in favor of British duds, most of their conversations occurred in drunken, increasingly sporadic instants of longing. The piercing dial tone of the call opened his eyes a bit wider, and he cleared his throat, lit a cigarette and prepared for the obligatory catch-up.
Seven rings… eight… nine… and then the familiar crackle of the answering machine.
No one home. No one. Home. No. One. Home.
He angrily clicked the red button and drew deeply on the bottle, sucked down a long tug of smoke, and felt his stomach rumble with malice. Pancakes and sugar and bacon and crisps swam in a sour pool of booze, layered like a crooked cake, lager supporting whiskey beneath a light sheen of champagne that had clawed to the top, crinkling his nose with every burp.
He stared at the blank screen for a long moment, certain that they would call back. He was suddenly frantic for connection, a grounding moment with his old world, one where Fat Tuesday had nothing to do with pancakes, or hedonistic violence against his liver.
Head lolling and vision blurred, he felt the hot bulge of tears on his cheeks, and the façade of British stoicism melted in his lap. As he laid his head down on the keyboard, tugged by gravity more than grief, he could almost hear the rumble of madness beneath him, but it was drowned out by darkness.
When he woke, it was Wednesday.
The man returned to life on the cold leather of a green couch he did not own. It had been his bed for nearly a year. The young sun was crawling through the dirty glass of a sliding door that led to a narrow balcony – too small for a chair, only useful as a place to dry his clothes. Owing to his western perspective of the world, Japan’s apparent hatred of dryers irked him. In the past ten months, a dozen items had blown off the clothesline into the abandoned parking lot below, impaled on the unnecessary barbed wire of the dividing fence, and most he had left to their forgotten fate.
The Yank could feel the bite of late January seeping through the walls, and he curled his toes further beneath the pathetically short blanket that had kept him warm all winter. As his brain caught up with his dreamless reality, he reasoned what day it was, and whether anything was expected of him.
Sunday. No plans. Nothing he had to do.
However, the prospect of a lazy, carefree Sunday was very different in the East, lacking the possibility of serendipitous run-ins with mates and spontaneous day-drinking pleasure beside the rivers of wild capitals he’d once called home. Considering a resigned slouch back into sleep, he flicked open the computer that lay at eye level beside him on the low table. It had been the last thing he touched before falling asleep a handful of hours before.
The gritty blue light of the screen was an insult to the dull pastel of Sunday dawn behind it, and the man grimaced at the sharp pain in his temple as he raised his head. The chipped wine glass beside the computer, with a small puddle of dried whiskey at the bottom, was the easily recognized culprit, but not the one to blame.
No, his Saturday night had ended much like all the others – with a slow, steady stumble to his empty flat, having nearly worn out his welcome at the local izakaya, where his oldest student, at 65 years of age, often took him for karaoke, a well-cooked meal and an endless stream of weak beer.
He secretly dreaded clicking on his inbox, fearing an absence of correspondence from the only person he truly cared to hear from; oddly enough, the identity of that unnamed lifeline changed day to day and week to week. Seeing the name Michelle at the top of his inbox was unexpected. The only Michelle he knew was an old flame, long ashed and passed, living a better life without him.
The subject line Freelance Opportunity grabbed his eye, causing the puzzled pieces of his Friday night to pop into memory. He had applied for a freelance writing position, following a soul-searching binge of hard decisions and rough realizations. Diving blindly into a website he had fallen across on a long stretch of nocturnal surfing, he had emailed the career contact, explaining his admiration for the site and detailing his past life as an art dealer. He then inquired about being a contributor to the art division of the site.
By the time he’d drunk himself dark that Friday night, the hastily scribbled and sent message had nearly vanished from memory, pushed beneath an aggressive, tipsy book review, another few scotches, and thirty minutes of an ill-conceived buddy-cop comedy on Netflix.
Opening the highlighted message, he quickly sat up, suddenly awake and edging towards sober.
Thanks for reaching out. I’m happy to hear that you like the site! We appreciate the kind words. It sounds like you have a pretty unique experience in the art world, and we’re always interested in guest contributors that may bring a new angle to the site.
To start with, can you send me a sample of your recent writing, an updated resume, and a list of a few ideas for articles on the subject of art? Nothing too extensive, just some simple pitches. If that works out, we can talk more about what writing for us looks like.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.
His eyes tore back to the top and he read it through again, slower, reveling, the same way he’d chewed the last bite of yakisoba the night before, and savored each sake shot, and held out the notes during his final song on the karaoke stage.
Talk more about what writing for us looks like.
It was a simple sentence, possessed of nothing particularly dramatic, but that “us” stuck on the rear of his retina like a dart, as though he were already a part of it all, a nascent member of a club, peripheral though it may be, of people who exchanged words for money.
He felt the burst of hot blood in his veins, the instant invasion of serotonin, expectation, inspiration. It was the high he used to ride on final auction mornings when he’d already made his weekly nut, the giddy rush he’d shivered away the first few times teaching a classroom of spongy Japanese minds. Yet in that instant, eyes on a computer screen, gazing at an email filled with nothing but vague opportunities, his brain stirred up the memory of that perennial drug, the litmus test ecstasy of whether he was bored in his own fucking life.
His fingers itched for a cigarette and the keys, and they found both moments later.
Sunday. No plans. Nothing he had to do.
But finally, something he wanted to do.
What he had been counting down as trudging weeks became quicksilver days, and empty hours he had fought to fill felt unexpectedly packed with departure. Over a week had passed since the message from Michelle, and a flurry of correspondence had ensued. He had quickly found and submitted a handful of eclectic artists that had burrowed into his memory from another life; she had been impressed by his eagerness, or perhaps it had been the long-winded, meticulously crafted missives.
She had no way of knowing what the opportunity truly meant to him, and he was careful not to show his hand, or confess his novice nature. Granted, he had been scribbling in journals and on scraps of paper since his childhood, creating worlds that had never seen the light of day, but the idolized profession of writer had always felt too daunting – or downright irresponsible.
That last castigation had been born in his blood, from generations of men and women on both sides of his chromosomes who had worked in traditional jobs, for 30+ years, putting in their time, hoarding away their gold, and retiring when aching bones and pension rules finally deemed it appropriate.
The man’s professional choices to that point had already been the subject of curiosity or outright criticism, particularly from his grandfather, who had never been a supporter of tact or alternative lifestyles. The man had hinted at future career aspirations in writing, delicately proposing it as one of many options during holiday get-togethers, and even then, he’d seen hackles rise and eyes roll. Most members of his family cared more about what he gave up for Lent than what he chased after in Life.
However, weakly justifying a pipe dream was very different than delivering on it, albeit in a minuscule way. His silent resolution for the new year was to be more decisive about his future, and he saw this improbable position – guest writer on an innovation website – as a proverbial kick in the ass, a sign from God, a wake-up call, however anyone chose to slice it.
Arriving home late, despite having survived blank stares and indifference from students and passers-by alike, nothing felt the same anymore. He had leveled up, at least in his own mind, and that’s where it counts.
He had hesitated to share the news with those at home, afraid that saying it out loud – like a birthday wish confession – would cause it to vanish. However, Michelle had accepted his first full article that morning, informing him that it would be published by the end of the day. 10pm in Japan meant it was nearly morning in the States, and he felt the blood flush up his shoulders and into his neck, a chill of energy he embraced.
Dropping his bag at the door, he kicked off his shoes and scampered to his laptop; the site was already open, and there, beaming out at him, the second post down on the homepage, was the article he’d researched, written and re-edited a half-dozen times. He lit a cigarette as he clicked the image – his image – and hungrily watched the article – his article – load on the screen.
The only sound was the destruction of tobacco in his fingers. His eyes panned the lines, painstakingly slow, like he’d never seen them before. After re-reading it three times and stubbing out the smoke to light another, he spotted the counter at the bottom of the page – 394 views.
Life is relative.
Less than 400 people buying an author’s new novel could be suicidally depressing; more than 390 people reading his words in a single day felt like mainlining Laphroaig.
“Fuck! 394!” he shouted to no one. “God, it’s only been 8 hours. That’s nuts!”
He laughed to the empty walls, contemplating what insanity might feel like, and roughly ran his fingers back through his hair. He felt like he’d just ripped a gagger. The top of his head was tight and transparent, and he leaned back into the couch, shivering in pleasure at the cold leather bite. He leaped up, trailing smoke and dropping bombs of ash on the carpet, spinning in a circle with nowhere to go, but energy to spare.
“Whiskey! Celebration! Yes… FUCK yes!” He squeezed his fist hard, feeling knuckles crack into the palm. “YES!”
He sloshed out a pour and downed it before the bottle had settled, then filled another to sip. “400 views. God DAMN that feels good!”
The man lived alone in a lonely country and had mastered only the most basic levels of Japanese. Considering the reticent nature of most locals to look at him, let alone have a chat, he’d developed the rather constant habit of talking to himself. But this was not a night for solipsism, and he impulsively dialed his family on Skype, taking another sip to calm his racing heart.
Two rings, three, four…
“Hey guys… I know it’s early, but I just really wanted to call. I… just… are you guys okay? Awake? Sorry…”
“Yeah, what’s wrong?” Immediate parental concern.
“Nothing, no… I’m great. I just… I wanted to tell you that I… I got a job. A writing job. On a website. Writing about art…. the first piece, uhhh… got published today. I’ll send you the link.” His thoughts were tumbling out faster than his mind could organize, and surely too randomly for his groggy father to comprehend. “She wants me to be a guest writer. Michelle. That’s My new boss. Sorry. I looked at the article, and, like, 400 people have already seen it! It’s crazy!”
“Wow,” said his father, slow on the uptake, but trying to muster grace. The man heard a snap as the call went to speaker. “That’s… good, son. Good news. Okay, here she is, your mother’s awake.”
“Hey Ma, I’m sorry. I know it’s early. I just wanted to tell… someone. You guys, obviously. But, you know, I… I didn’t know who else to call.” He snatched at the pack of cigarettes and lit another, the last one still sizzling to death in his coffee cup ashtray.
“Hi,” his mother’s raspy voice cut through, sluggishly pulling out of dreams.
“Hey! Sorry to wake you.”
“No, no… that’s okay. We just had a late night…”
The silence on the line may as well have been a shout. He felt his heart tumble into his heels. “You guys okay?”
“Yeah, we’re fine, but… Grandpa’s in the hospital. Took himself in last night.”
Nausea and another salvo of silence. “Shit.”
His grandfather was a man who hated hospitals, having battled every admission over the last twenty years, and undergone a myriad of surgeries, only to come out more stubborn and assured of his invincibility.
“Yeah… the pain was getting… pretty bad, I guess.” The excitement of moments earlier had frozen on the airwaves, stopped somewhere over the Pacific, and plummeted into the deep, forgotten.
“So… what does that mean?” the man regressed in a matter of seconds, a child again, desperate for explanation and comfort, perhaps even soothing lies.
“Not sure yet, but… you know Grandpa… he’s strong. Nothing to worry about.” His mother’s voice held the tinny shrill of falsehood. “So… what’s your big news?”
“Uhhhh… I just told… I mean, I… I got a job. Writing about art for a website. Published my first article today, actually. Just wanted to… tell you.” Unlike the rambling proclamation to his father, this was a stuttered confession to a fearful daughter, not a stalwart mother. It was out of place and time, instantly pedestrian.
“Oh, honey… that’s great. Really.” He heard genuine emotion that time, but it was thinly lacquered over exhaustion and other concerns. He was a child celebrating scribbles being taped on the fridge.
The man’s head swam in the smoke, and the whiskey burned in his gut, roiling beneath bile. He angrily stubbed out the cigarette and dropped his head onto the heel of his hand, grimacing as his elbow pressed into his kneecap. “Anyways, yeah… I’m sorry I woke you guys up. I’ll call you back in a few hours. I’m… I’m really sorry to hear about grandpa. Get back to sleep.”
“No, no… it’s… it’s okay. He’ll be fine, and we’re getting—”
“No, no… I know, it’s just early. I’ll call back soon.”
“Are you sure? Isn’t it late there?”
“Yeah, but I’ll be awake. Love you.”
“Okay… love you too, son.”
Life is relative.
In the span of a cigarette, his monumental news crumbled from the peak of pertinence to a meaningless anecdote. That seminal accomplishment, seen from the backend of a gutting phone call, diminished in weight like a cloud emptying its guts into the anonymous sea. Perspective and importance had always been transient terms, but he had been foolish enough to believe otherwise, to invest in the value of the individual, the disconnected, the vagabond soul liberated from emotion.
He had built a personal tower, constructed of selfish dreams and future hopes, buttressed by tiny victories and petty conquests, yet the quicksand of disaster blew brutal and unforgiving. It was the long-game con he’d never seen coming, the blindsiding pain of youth he’d burned and buried once before.
He had thought of little else since the phone call. He all but abandoned solid foods, and the days blurred together in that grey tedium of wasted uncertainty. He continued writing – madly, in fact – everything from art reviews to long, rambling diatribes, reckless and humming like the midnight hours in which they were penned. They were preposterous and bold, rambling confessionals, peppered with grand drunken riffs, proclamations only he would ever know, promises only he could ever keep.
There was no more joy in his days, only the thought of impending loss, and the selfish desire for his grandfather to survive, despite the septuagenarian coming to terms with the end and choosing to call his own shot.
Giving something up was different than giving up, but those two ideas felt blurred, inseparably, and the man felt bitterness, nostalgia for arguments at Christmas dinners that hadn’t happened yet. Bowing out came across like betrayal, but that was only because accepting reality was more painful.
His grandfather died on February 11, hours before Fat Tuesday of that year.
Pancake Day, Vastenavond, Fausnacht, Shrove Tuesday, Sprengidagur…
Call it what you like.
The name itself lacks meaning, but the sentiment persists. Eat all the sweets now, and then resist for 46 days. It is the day of pleasure before sacrifice. Enjoy your bottle of whiskey, because it’s gonna be a dry Lent. The holiday celebrates gluttony, excess and irresponsibility, succeeded by a harsh shift towards moderation, reality and absence. In this case, of course, the sense of absence smashed home the day before Mardi Gras, rather than after.
His manager, a gentle Japanese woman, suggested that he take the day off, but he refused. She asked whether he would fly home for the funeral, but he had no answer. With his final return flight booked for 5 weeks later, and a credit card already overloaded from his holiday foray back to the homeland, it seemed like an impossible chunk of change to muster.
That thought alone made him sick.
An ocean separated him from his grieving family, his blood, yet his choices were being motivated – and limited – by money.
There was no room for consolation in that world; existence in Japan flowed around him like water. There were no arms nearby that he longed for, just the unknowing faces of shy students, many of whom had faced losses of their own, more scarring than he could comprehend. There were no pancakes to eat, or hands to hold.
On Tuesday evening, he slid to the floor, a bowl of ramen steaming next to him, the first food he’d eaten in over a day. He straightened his ashtray and absently rotated the bottle of Yamazaki he’d purchased a few hours earlier. A sterile screen glow illuminated his face, and he could see his reflection in the empty, mocking space.
He had wrestled to put words on pages many times before, but this felt different. He had become a writer, at least according to the pittance payment he’d be receiving for each of his articles. Now, instead of claiming to “write on the side”, or quickly backing away from his own declarations of a literary life, he had a membership to the club, if only semantically, and he knew that staring down blank pages would be the lifetime fee.
He would not be at his grandfather’s funeral, but his words would be. Ignoring the irony, which seemed too laughable to accept, he cried instead, and then began to write.
“In ancient history, the lives of great men were remembered through song by those they left behind. Music was the way that different generations shared their stories. Great kings and warriors were immortalized by verses passed down from fathers to sons, and mothers to daughters.
My grandpa may not have any great songs written about his life, but he certainly deserves some. Instead, every life he touched was filled with music…
Drink down more of these mad tales in SN9: Fat Tuesday – available on Amazon!