On a recent morning at the International House of Pancakes, while eating hash browns that crunched with the afterglow of cigarettes and sipping water that came from moldy faucets, I sat next to a family of three—a scruffy skater-type with droopy eyes and shaggy haircut, his overweight sister and her husband. The lady was so fat, so double-wide in the butt, that every time she shifted, the wooden chair creaked and shrieked. I expected to hear a crack and splinter and a startled “Ooof!” coming from their table any minute.
The family talked, loudly, about the terror they’d experienced while attempting to cross a mountain pass in a blizzard last winter. “I never been so scared driving in all my life as I was at that moment,” the husband said.
“I was in the back seat sobbing,” the fat lady said.
The guy with dark circles for eyes stared at a point mid-table and said nothing.
My waitress was a chipper, cheery lady in her early thirties. Blonde hair and Sarah Palin glasses. She called me “honey” when she refilled my water glass.
At that point, I wanted to order a Diet Coke, but I didn’t because: a) I was almost through with my SmokeHouse Platter; and b) I guessed that they only carried Pepsi. I hate Pepsi.
The other waitress on shift, a girl in her early twenties, nametag: Amanda, walked by my table and said, “Is that one of them new iPod thingies?”
“It’s a Kindle,” I replied.
“Cool,” she said. “I think I need to get me one of them.”
“They are cool,” I said.
“Cool,” she said and started to walk away.
“They’re only $139 right now,” I called after her.
“Okay, cool,” she said, already busy with dirty plates at another table.
I returned to Freedom. Walter Berglund was ranting about overpopulation and the way society was swirling down a just-flushed toilet. The country that minutely followed every phony turn of American Idol while the world went up in flames seemed to Walter fully deserving of whatever nightmare future awaited it.
I coughed my way through the rest of my breakfast, then walked to the register to pay for my nicotine-laced meal.
Behind me, the husband was describing—for the whole restaurant—how he had to sit on the edge of his seat, hunched up over the steering wheel, as he came down the mountain.
“Other cars were passing us going 5 miles per hour,” his large wife said, shifting and creaking. “We was, like, crawling through the snow.”
“The scaredest I ever been,” the husband agreed.
My waitress, Tonya, rang me up. “Whatcha reading?” she asked, nodding at my Kindle.
“Freedom,” I said. “By Jonathan Franzen,” I added superfluously. I knew she wouldn’t know Franzen from France.
“Oh. And is that what it’s about? Freedom?” She had sort of a Glenn Beck edge to her voice.
“Yes, in a way,” I said, adding, “it’s a novel.” Again, superfluously.
“A novel. Hmm.” She acted as if I’d just asked if they had chicken satay on the menu there at IHOP. “Now, ‘novels’...what exactly are those? Are they—”
“They’re fiction,” I said. Now I could see her face struggling to remember the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.
The husband was still holding forth about their blizzardy descent from Terror Mountain. His wife’s chair was begging for mercy because now she, too, was into telling the story, her butt cheeks bouncing each time she injected an exciting detail, like how she gripped the armrest so hard she broke a nail. The husband and wife were talking to themselves, however. The brother with the droopy eyes wasn’t listening. He was watching me at the register, waiting to see what I’d say to Tonya.
I wanted to reach out, pat her hand, and reassure her with something like, “Don’t worry, lots of people get the two confused. Even my wife has a hard time with it. She always tells me the ‘non-’ part of ‘non-fiction’ makes it sound like it’s not true.” I would have gone on with a mini diatribe about how writers like James Frey, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer blurred boundaries between genres and, for better or worse, planted flags in new territories. I might have even delivered a sermon on why I thought The Executioner's Song was the greatest untrue book I’d ever read. But then I looked up and realized that the sparkle in her eyes was not one of amusement or enjoyment, but was instead the glitter of fright. She’d gotten herself in the deep end of a conversation with a sharp-dressed man who carried around one of those iPod thingies Amanda had been telling her about and now how could she go about extracting herself from this conversation and somehow still earn herself a decent $4 tip?
“I-I like non-fiction,” she softly stammered. “Things that are true. You read any good books like that lately?”
I thought for a minute. “I liked Rosanne Cash’s memoir a lot. She’s as good a writer as she is a singer.”
“Well,” she swiped my credit card and tore off my receipt with a brisk snap, “I don’t read much.” (There it was. The slam of the door.) “Last book I read was in high school.”
By the tone of her voice, it sounded like it had been The Sun Also Rises and she’d hated every page of it.
I stopped short of telling her I read books like she served pancakes. She seemed like a nice lady; I didn’t want to frighten her by boasting I currently have 6,375 books in my basement. I certainly wasn’t about to tell her that I was that most inscrutable of creatures, a novelist. Some things are better left unsaid.
She had her life, I had mine. We were just two pleasantries passing on the sidewalk of life.
I signed the credit-card slip, adding a more-than-generous tip, lied about how much I’d enjoyed the breakfast, then left the restaurant, the gulf cracking and widening between us as I walked out the door.