Love and Death at the Pancake Palace

The day Old Widow Robinson—famed matriarch of Anoka—was struck down at the intersection of Fourth and Main, Luke and I had our favorite booth at the Pancake Palace. Pancake Palace was a funny name: one of those trying-to-sound-real names from a story but something about it was off, too kicky or tongue-in-cheek, and nothing about it was palatial except maybe the sign: graceful neon cursive outlined in naked bulbs, big as a child’s fist. It reminded me of Vegas, though I’ve never been. I have no plans to visit, though I think of it from time to time: parched air whispery against night skin, hell on a smoker’s throat, the anonymity and absence of questions free as a spring cow meadow.

By that point, Luke and I had been visiting the Palace for half a year, always on Sundays. Saturday night, Luke would call. Between seven and eight was typical if his wife was out with girlfriends, blazed on margaritas and gazing into the bric-a-bracked middle distance of their big-chain haunt. If she was home, the call came closer to midnight, once she’d zonked out and the neighbor’s automated sprinklers chick-chicked enough background rustle to muffle his steps to the kitchen.

“Jean,” he’d begin, so earnest, though we’d just waved goodbye after Friday’s last bell, “what are your plans tomorrow? Say, ten?”

“Hello, Luke,” I’d say, drawing things out a bit. “Let’s see.” I’d comport myself as though I were flipping the pages of my datebook, running my finger down the lined sheets to identify possible conflicts, though really I leaned against the kitchen archway, twisting the phone cord. “Ten looks fine. Pancake Palace?”

“If you insist,” Luke would say. “Unless you’d like to try someplace new.”

“No, the Palace is fine.”

“The Palace it is,” he’d say, near-whispering, and hang up before I could respond.

At one time, not so far gone that some of the regulars couldn’t remember it with golden fondness, the Pancake Palace would have been a destination. Each booth was upholstered in imitation snakeskin that bit the backs of your thighs during the months of highest summer; the diner counter bent in a languid L and terminated in an upright cake case, inner shelves rotating under the benediction of low-radiation fluorescents. On my somberer mornings, I envisioned myself unlocking the case with a click of the doll-sized key and dragging my nails through each instance of groomed frosting, angry furrows at odds with the beveled tracks of the decorating comb. Most days, I awed at the still-bright chrome posts of the diner stools, Miss Maxine’s braid trailing yellow down her shoulder.

Miss Maxine was half the reason we went. She held all the town’s gossip, though I don’t know how she collected it all. Table to table in seconds, her cheerfulness never undercut by her efficiency. “Morning, doll,” she’d say as we slid into our seats; in that time, she’d have our silverware down beside our placemats and my coffee neatly poured. She always addressed me first, which stuck with me. Had she not, I might have minded the doll a bit more. She must have overheard it, the gossip, as she hovered at the till tallying bills or stood rolling silverware. In all the years we went, I never saw her spend more than a minute tableside. Some people have a knack.

The morning of Old Widow Robinson’s death, Maxine worked with typical ease, though her smile was pinched. Normally, we caught a glimpse of shopworn tooth, but that day her lips were taut.

“How goes,” Luke said, shrugging off his coat. We both knew Maxine’s name but never used it.

“Ah, fine by me, but I can’t say that for everyone,” she said. “Did you see?”

“See what?”

“Just as you were coming in? The ambulance?”

I swung around, a little too enthusiastically, to peer out the front window. Three squad cars in resting formation. Lights on, silent and pulsing.

“Must have missed it,” Luke said, drawing the menu from its stand. “What’s the news?”

“Old Widow Robinson,” Maxine said. “She’s dead. Ronald Nelsson told me she slipped in a puddle in the intersection, and as soon as she’s picking herself up a school bus runs the red and plows through her, bam. Just like that. Ronald saw it, blood on the pavement and everything, innards. Had to rope the whole area off and hose down the asphalt.” Maxine snapped her wrist to level the spout of the coffee carafe. “What all are you having?”

“How long ago did they clean it?” I asked. The pavement appeared no darker than it typically did, and though I squinted and strained I couldn’t detect an iota of dampness. Ronald, in his typical corner booth, looked no more stoic than usual.

“Number two, please,” Luke said, and nodding at me, “and pancakes.”

Luke’s and my meeting was an accident, though in a school that small most accidents were preordained. I’d taken a long-term sub role to fill in for the home ec teacher, who had fractured her pelvis while skiing and couldn’t, from her wheelchair, reach the middle rack of the wall oven. Ms. Sonnenfeld’s loss was my gain, as I saw it. I’d just moved back from the West Coast, where, unable to find a job that stuck, I’d burned through my savings with astounding proficiency. For a year, I flirted with my girlhood dream of occupying a space just my own: pitted clawfoot tub crouched below a dangling bulb, no one but me to scatter the roaches from the oven’s maw. Money is the truest fact, the hardest nut to crack, and when it dispersed I slunk back homeward. My father was thrilled when I signed a lease on a place just blocks from where I grew up.

The principal sent Ms. Sonnenfeld’s curriculum in a reused manila envelope. How I was chosen to teach baffled my inner optimist. I’d eked through college, had never worked with children. Under most circumstances, I didn’t allow myself to smoke at the kitchen table, but when I reviewed the lesson on sewing a blouse (with darts) (girls)/starching and ironing collared shirts (boys), the sweat wicked freely along the fiber pathways of my sweater and my stomach hollowed out.

Atop the fridge, the spider plant drooped beneath its mantle of dust; smoke clouded the windows, depositing residue that would become visible, years later, as though suddenly appeared. Who, exactly, had chosen me to lead these students in the practice of everyday living? I ashed onto a split envelope. Regardless of the embarrassments, imagined or real, that I suffered, I’d squirrel away six months’ of paychecks and return to my transient life.

My first week, in list form, contained five hourlong lessons; four eggs splattered on the checked tile during the preparation of box-mix brownies; three forgers of hall passes returned, red-eared, to my stead by the head secretary; two fire drills; one passing-time smoke sneaked behind the far wall of the gym—rose-blush brick, draped with ivy. As I stood, back to the wall, I let my focus drift. Office gray, flat gray, spotty altocumulus stippling the midzone of the sky. A stand of poplars edged the soccer field, leaves idly whispering in the pre-evening breeze. A melancholy, small and pointed, bloomed in my chest; twenty years ago, when I was still a student here, I’d stood in this same place, heavy with the ache that precedes a thunderstorm. Then, the ache was for a boy I was certain would love me if only he’d pay me notice, notice predicating love. I wasn’t noticeable, though: couldn’t have been, wraith-thin and drawn so far into my own thoughts that to speak aloud was to pierce the water’s calm after kicking toward the surface from the darkest reach.

Dragging, slouching, I thought how funny it was to be here now, how I’d never predicted the gift of witnessing the same ominous churn of cloud above paper-faded ramblers. Weatherstripped pink siding familiar as lullaby. Then, a hand on my arm.

“Don’t you know smoking isn’t allowed behind the gym?” the man asked. He smirked. “Or anywhere on the property, if we’re being precise about it.”

“I’m new here,” I said by way of defense, then took another drag. He looked familiar, this plaid-shirted narc. He’d crashed my junior prom—jaunted into the gym in a tux made out of duct tape, no boutonniere—but I couldn’t summon his name.

“New, eh?” He smirked as he raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t matter where you’re from, smoking behind the gym is never allowed.” For a moment I thought he was going to bloop me on the nose, that old song and dance of patronizing mock-chastisement, but instead he whisked the cigarette from my hand and flicked it to the center of the field. The cherry arced high and disappeared into uniform green. For one gleeful moment I waited for the spark and spread that would transport the grass beyond its neat reality, but the butt burned out.

As he walked away, the man called out, “Next time, theater steps. You won’t miss the Folger’s can.” Without looking back, he raised his hand in a glib little wave. I waited until he was out of earshot to light a followup smoke.

From then on, when we passed in the hallway, Luke flashed a thumbs up and I gave a half-wave. On the days our free periods intersected, he sat with me in the teachers’ lounge, critiquing my lunches.

“Raspberry again?” he’d ask, snatching the carton from my hand. “You know it’s the worst flavor, right?”

I’d shrug. “It was on sale,” I might say, though I’d shoplifted the Yoplait. I might counter that my dead grandmother favored the berry flavors and I ate them to revere her memory, or I might say nothing, offering instead a low, level gaze. The heckling didn’t bother me, not like the studied inattention of the other staff. Smart Ones, baby photos, BOGO coupons for Gertner’s: these were the anchors of the lunch hour and the hours beyond. Each day, I entered the lounge ravenous and left struggling for air. Luke held the others in similar esteem. I’d seen him snort at the fawning over another bolt-dumb grandbaby all in plaid, then raise his crossword as if to blame a witty clue for the outburst. I said little but turned down my mouth when Ms. Obermeyer preened at the wicker-framed mirror, worrying the fiddly gold necklace she’d gotten for her anniversary.

“I can’t fault them,” Luke said. Final bell had rung and our hall duty had wrapped. “You work here too long and a Sears portrait is about all that gets you going in the morning.” Our footfalls echoed in the empty hallways, linoleum to locker bay and back again—a lovely hollow solitary sound. Out of habit, I clutched my purse near to my body, strap flat against the bone of my shoulder; my autonomic nervous system remembered my life in the city. Castoff gum flattened to a bus seat invariably turned black with grit, sidewalk gum the same, and a clutch of pigeons would never vacate the sidewalk if bread was scattered there. I hadn’t seen a pigeon in months, it occurred to me then. I wondered if my old park was the same, if the bum on the bench still slept beneath a soft steeple of cardboard.

“Hello?” Luke said. “You still with me?”

I nodded, though the scent memory of a eucalyptus stand took a moment to dissipate.

“I need to swing by my room before I go,” he continued. “Got a minute?”

I paused before nodding, and Luke jerked his head toward the science corridor, unlit. Evenings, the school was hardly recognizable as itself. Exit signs shadowed the divots in the locker doors.

Luke’s classroom had the same layout as my own, minus the wall ovens. From the bank of lights above his demonstration counter, he’d hung a recovered wasps’ nest, the gently kinked craft wire woven through the hive at equidistant points. Jarred fetal pigs occupied the highest shelf, baldly visible and out of the reach of aggressively curious hands—strategic positioning, I noted. Luke shuffled in the front drawer, drew out a pair of gummy forceps. From his breast pocket, a joint.

“Did you know the Chickadee wing is named not for the bird, but for General Edwin Chickadee, who staked the first claim to this land in 1887?” Luke asked. Each of the school’s main hallways had an avian theme, or so I thought. Luke pinched the joint in the forceps’ tips, lit it, and tossed me his lab coat. “Block the door with this, would you?”

I bunched the coat along the seam of door and tile, trying not to leave a single crack. “What about the fire alarm?” I asked. Luke looked up, nodded to the foil encasing the smoke detector. I nodded back and leaned against the demonstration counter, nearly demolishing a snake’s shed skin. While Luke disappeared into the supply closet, I studied his environment: poster with an outdated count of the planets, shelf after shelf of cracked geodes and agate slabs, a baby food jar clotted with pig’s blood, recognizable due only to the label. It must have taken years, I realized, for Luke to amass this collection. I warmed at the thought of him waking early on weekends to stake out estate sales, piling his Toyota with the encyclopedias and butterfly nets of the newly dead. Come Monday, I resolved, I’d bring the spider plant to my room, brighten things up a bit. A goal, to have a room recognizable by its objects or aura.

The closet door swung open, releasing a wall of smoke. “Long day,” Luke said. “Seriously long day. Thanks for stopping by.” He fanned his hand before his face, making a show of clearing the smoke, and then led me by the elbow to his desk.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he said.

I stood still as Christmas Eve, willing the blood not to rise to my face. Luke reached into his top desk drawer, didn’t drop my gaze for a moment. The silence was edgeless, then thorned, filling the space between us and then the room itself, mute suffocation of all those jarred and glass-eyed creatures. With his hands behind his back, Luke spoke.

“White Diamonds or Light Blue?” he asked.

“I—” I said, and sputtered. “Can you repeat the question?”

Luke laughed, a rollicking barbecue laugh. He held out two part-used bottles of perfume, one in each palm. I could have my pick.

“I confiscate them for safety reasons,” he said, air quotes implicit. “No perfume near an open flame, not in a lab setting. And then they just pile up in my drawer. My wife won’t take them, either. She hates scents.”

My voice had found me again. “Light Blue,” I said. “Thank you. I never think to buy perfume.”

“Not a prob,” Luke said as he handed over the bottle. The glass was foggy with fingerprints, known and unknown.

September marked the perfume, October the aquarium trip Luke and I chaperoned, November the Sadie Hawkins dance and the week of mania preceding it. Each day, swift before noon and interminable after the lunches Luke and I shared in the humid, noodle-smelling lounge, merged with those before and after. Each week felt like its own cohesive unit: a predictable blur of chicken patties, theorems, throaty clatter of the janitors’ wheeled trash bins.

I hated my five-a.m. wakeups for the reasons everyone does, loved it for the variations of the same old world it presented. I’d gotten used to maneuvering daylight hours only, taxicabs recognizably yellow in the morning sun, mail trucks navigating their routes. All those years and I’d fallen out of touch with the pre-dawn segments of the day. Before heading to school, I’d spend a few minutes at the kitchen sink with my coffee, staring out at the backyard’s most endearing features: paver path winding from the gate to the far corner, each stone hazy with moss; gazing ball—cracked, tackily aqua—left in a wire stand by a bygone tenant. Come summer, I’d sand the snow-warped picnic table into something functional—enjoyable, even. Maybe I’d paint it aqua to match the outlying lawn decor, invite Luke for a cookout while his wife disappeared to Applebee’s.

Bit by bit, I’d found my footing in the classroom, a combination of rote memorization of Mrs. Sonnenfeld’s notes and sweet-faced intimidation. When the choir girls passed notes, I knew to stand beside the seat of the latest recipient, hand out, until my awkwardness forced her into uneasy surrender. When the more troublesome boys dropped their hard boiled eggs on the floor, trying to skirt the tasting portion of that day’s lesson, I collected every cracked one and lined them on the demonstration counter.

“Accidents happen,” I said, offering my best muted Jackie-O smile. I straightened my shoulders, brushed the sleeves of my Goodwill tweed. “When they do, we do our best to rectify them. Don’t we, class?” Nobody answered.

I paused before continuing, reading the panic of the room. All those dumbstruck, pimpled faces, silent in anticipation of the punishment to come. If school had taught me anything, it’s that the pain of gaffes is acute only for the flare of a moment, that it softens exponentially as time blunts all memory, as even the crudest among us bud some semblance of empathy.

“Travis, Brad, Jay Jay, come up here, please.” The boys rose slowly, shooting each other glances as they shuffled. “Everyone else, start cleaning your workstations.”

As the rest of the class swept eggshells into their tables’ dustbins, I addressed the boys. “Taxpayer dollars paid for these eggs, and we’re not going to let the taxpayers down, are we?” From the far corners of the classroom, students craned to hear my careful reprimand. “You’ll eat these eggs before you leave. And the next time you feel the urge to throw food on the floor, think of the taxpayers.”

“So did they eat the eggs?” Luke asked, sipping his coffee. This was an early trip to the Pancake Palace, and Luke was onto his third cup, each one pale with creamer and gritty with sugar. Our tabletop a litterscape of paper crumples and milky teardrop drips.

“Eventually,” I said. “They waited until two minutes before the bell, and then Shellie what’s-her-face started throwing spitwads, which kicked things up.”

“Shellie Klein?”

“Blonde figure-skatey type? Pathological rhinestones?”

“Yeah,” Luke said, “that’s her. You should have cut the spitball flinging short. She’s a little too precious for her own good.”

I sipped my own coffee and shrugged. “It was in service of the larger good. What else would I have done?”

“God, I’d like to wring her neck.” Luke’s eyes were dreamy with the consideration of potential violence.

Beyond our plate-glass window, snowflakes hovered, fell, and eddied. It was just past noon but the sky had assumed a later blue, which cast the bare oaks and traffic signals in a fittingly dreary light. Maxine’s braid swung a yellow trail through the humid indoor air. Hour after hour, the windows fogged with our radiated heat, the steam rising from our Victor mugs and billowing from the dishwasher each time Max cranked open the door. It felt good, this co-mingled moisture; it took something of me and implicated me in a scene that scoped far beyond myself.

In eight days, it would be Christmas. My brother and his wife would take their brood caroling, everyone rosy and wearing coats to match the weather. My father, given his mood, might decamp to the den for National Lampoon and Hamm’s, both enjoyed marathon style, or he might iron his frayed-cuff flannel and treat himself to steam-table Chow Mein. My mother, dead, was nowhere, the lucky one of us to escape ritualized celebration.

“What are you doing for Christmas?” I asked Luke then, no preface. He looked stunned; only later did I realize that the suddenness of my question could have marked it as an invite: a plea.

“No plans,” he said. “Probably make a burger, watch a movie.”

Though I willed myself not to, I fluttered each time his wife’s absence dictated the shape of his sentences. I’d gotten Luke a small gift—a pocket pipe, evidently carved from elk horn—and had wrapped it in a page from last week’s funnies.

“Here,” I said, sliding it across the formica. “For Christmas, but not before.”

Luke smiled, a warm, closed-mouth molasses-creep of a smile. “Great minds, Jean,” he said, and slid over his gift for me. From the shape of it, I knew it was the bottle of White Diamonds I’d passed over months before. I could nearly envision the print-smudged glass and chintzy diamonette band demarcating bottle from lid.

“Thank you,” I said, pocketing it. “I never think to buy perfume.”

The day Old Widow Robinson died, I woke hours before my alarm, my night-thoughts brocaded with all the anxieties I suppressed. The hour was too early for the Sunday paper, for birdsong; still in bed, I ran over the list of mild tasks I’d like to accomplish that day. Water the hydrangea, which had just popped buds green as aquarium light, dainty as pinky nails. Before that, buy a hose. Iron my one good broadcloth blouse to wear to my exit interview. My stint at the school was rapidly nearing its end, and still I knew so little about the mechanics of household maintenance. I’d never managed to transfer my spider plant from its fridgetop lookout to my borrowed desk, and my classroom remained as anonymous as an airport. No matter. Ms. Sonnenfeld would return to find her space just as she’d left it—perhaps more so, eerily—and her months of arthritic ache and stasis would fade into the realm of memory.

Me, I had no forward plans, and the worry hung heavy in my consciousness. Maybe I could take a post at the reception desk of Dr. Saletti’s dental practice if his full-time girl decided to make a go at stay-at-home motherhood. Barring that, temp agencies occupied every strip mall from here to Minneapolis, and one of them must have been in search of something. Washing my face, I made a mental tally of everyone who owed me a favor or a few bucks. As I shrugged on my cardigan, I reminded myself that the plasma bank was a perennial, non-judgmental option.

That morning, Luke’s preoccupation deepened my own. I cut tiny bites of pancake and chewed each forty times, enacting the mealtime dictum of my youth. A mapley paste coated my tongue. Maxine swung by, peering into my coffee cup and raising her eyebrows. “Any more for you, doll?”

“Nah, but thanks,” I said. I was desperate for the contact warmth of a full mug between my hands but already jittery and conscious of it.

“And you?” she asked Luke. Luke shook his head and held up his hand in defeat.

I waited to ask Luke until the tension became unnavigable. “I know it’s jarring, Old Widow Robinson, but is everything OK?”

Momentarily, he stopped pushing curds of hardening egg around his plate to look me in the face. “Jean, I don’t know.” His eyes bore a glacial uncertainty. “It’s Elizabeth. The past few weeks, she’s been out late, not saying much about where she’s going or who with. And I know she has her girls’ nights, and her boss has been piling on extra work, but I don’t know.” He took up his cup and sipped, though he’d been out of coffee for ages.

I felt the slow-motion horror of recognizing, before I said it, that the permanence of my followup would hang in the air without dissipation. “You think she’s having an affair?”

Hard, hurt glint in Luke’s eyes, microflinch shadowing his face. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I know she’s never stayed late to finish presentation decks. She doesn’t give a shit about sales figures.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and I was.

Luke sighed, pushed his plate toward the center of the table. “I’m done,” he said. “Wanna roll?”

I could have eaten the remainder of my short stack, but I nodded. I could have asked Maxine to split the bill, but I took the last twenty from my wallet and folded into a longways tent, set it between our spent plates.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll walk you home.”

By then, the squad cars had departed, the yellow tape had been cut and unstrung. Walking by, you’d never have guessed that an elderly woman had spent her last conscious moments knocked down in this intersection, gravel embedded in her cheeks from the force of the collision. Later, when the Herald released the full details of the accident, I’d learn that the bus driver was not intoxicated, but merely distracted by a sprinting dog that was later revealed to be a yard-waste bag. Later still, when I returned to the Palace alone, Maxine would tell me the widow had swallowed three teeth knocked free when she’d struck the ground; the rest hung bloody from their roots, stilled mid-flight.

Luke walked at a distancing clip, and I tempered mine to hang a few respectful steps behind. He wanted privacy; this much I knew. I knew too that, when he crested his front steps to find the front drapes parted, Elizabeth’s bra and panties kicked off wanton on the living room floor, he’d want an arm—any arm—to grip in white rage. This would be the last trip to the Pancake Palace, I could guess, and I swallowed hard to rid my throat of its rising lump. Focused on the lingering film of syrup on my tongue, the reedy, seesaw call of the chickadees, puzzled over Maxine’s claim that Old Widow Robinson had slipped in a puddle when it hadn’t rained at all since last Sunday.  

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