Be Happy

Boots’s Pick
Jennifer Spiegel


Toasted sprinkled fried scrambled served
Photo Credit: Sarah Ross

New York, 1995

Every year, Sheila’s family goes to Milwaukee for a square dancing convention. “Maybe it’s a polka festival—I can’t remember,” my friend Sue explained. Sheila lives in Archie and Edith’s house in Queens, she’s never eaten Thai, and she’s seen every Tony Award–winning musical since 1981. “Each month, one of her cousins gets married to the boy next door—excuse me, the goy next door—and Sheila’s a bridesmaid.”

Plus, Sheila loves—I mean, adores—Happy’s ice cream.

Sue and Sheila work together and, lately, my friend has been enamored by Sheila’s down-home charms. “She’s like Planet of the Apes movies,” Sue explained. “You know how they make you long for the days of lunch boxes, stirrup pants, and the dawn of MTV?”

“Yeah?” That, I get.

“Well, Sheila makes you crave normalcy. Didn’t we once have normal lives outside the concrete jungle?”

More and more, my friend has been saying how we’ve got to get out of New York City while we still can. To compliment her lamentations, she goes on and on about Sheila. Sheila this; Sheila that.

Don’t be dense, true friend. Don’t be naïve. You think we can make it outside the city? You believe that? Watch us curl up and die. Watch us sink into ourselves and become eccentric introverts. Don’t count on acceptance. Don’t you dare count on normalcy.

We made a special trip to Happy’s, since it would be a good opportunity to test our suburban survival skills. Apparently, elsewhere in America, Denny’s, Coco’s, Happy’s, Village Inn, Stuckey’s, Big Boy, and the like, positively thrive. Two men from Manhattan joined us: one from uptown, one from downtown. Someday, the uptown man may get a job transfer. Someday, the downtown man may get a job.

I’ve been on this road before. Once, I went to the Mall of America in Minnesota. A business trip, if you can believe that. The strollers, frozen yogurt–eaters, and handholding couples scared the hell out of me, but I liked the rental car quite a bit. In the final analysis, I couldn’t wait to get back to my local beggars and anonymous neighbors.

Happy’s smelled like old grease. Our waitress looked like a dirty Alice from The Brady Bunch. A high school kid mopped the floor. As we carefully hopscotched across the wet tile, I whispered to Sue, “Remember, Sheila suggested lunch so we can eat ice cream afterwards.”

Sidling up to a booth, Sue sneered. “Screw lunch. I want breakfast.”

Alice, peds on feet, approached. “What can I get you folks?”

The four of us city slickers studied our laminated menus. Speaking in a singsong voice, Sue said, “I’d like the French toast with crispy bacon, please.”

Alice didn’t move. The wrinkles around her mouth began to tremble. “I’m sorry. We don’t serve breakfast after eleven.”

We all looked at our watches: 11:17 on a Saturday morning.

Sue looked at Alice as if she were crazy.

Alice quaked.

Sue’s eyes were like the pig’s in The Amityville Horror: red, beady. “You don’t serve breakfast after eleven?” It sounded like, Are you fucking nuts?

I tensed up. So did Uptown and Downtown.

Alice smiled sweetly. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Is there something else I can get you?”

Silence followed.

“I’ll need a minute.” Sue ducked behind her menu.

“I’ll be right back.” Alice shuffled off in her peds.

When Alice was gone, Sue’s mouth dropped open. “Can you believe this? Can you believe they don’t serve breakfast after eleven? I was so ready for French toast! You have no idea—no fucking idea!” She dropped her menu on the table. “Who ever heard of not serving breakfast after eleven at a shit diner?”

“Order something else, Sue,” Downtown broke in.

“I don’t want anything else! I want breakfast.”

Mental institution material, right here, folks. Sue slapped both hands down. “This is why I can’t leave New York City. This is why!” She looked at us, wildly. “In New York City, you can get breakfast anytime. There are no designated breakfast hours! If you want breakfast at eight p.m., so be it. Three thirty in the afternoon, that’s fine.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Do you realize that the rest of America only eats breakfast before eleven?”

“We’re actually technically still in New York City—this is Queens,” said Uptown.

Downtown, more comfortable with idiosyncrasy than Uptown, put a hand on top of Sue’s. “That’s right, Sue. That’s why we live in New York City. So we can get breakfast anytime we want.”

“Damn right,” she responded.

Uptown pointed to the corner of his menu. “Get a cup of soup.”

Everyone shot him a look of disgust.

“I really wanted breakfast,” Sue whined.

I reached across the table to touch her arm. “I know, honey. But if Sheila were with us right now, she’d be having lunch.”

Sadness spread across her face, clouding her eyes. “I’ll never be able to leave.”

I watched the grief drift over her forehead. I studied the anguish unfurl across her brow. Sue could never leave New York City. She loved her French toast too much.

Alice cautiously returned. “Have you had time to think it over?”

Sue stared up at Alice. In an itsy-bitsy, sugary-sweet voice, Sue said, “Can you make an exception just this once and prep an order of French toast and crispy bacon?

I didn’t think she’d go this far. Under the table, Downtown pinched my thigh. Uptown stared in disbelief.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. We can’t do that.” Alice, stiff-legged and poised to write on her paper pad, probably desperately hoped that this weird witchy woman would just order a damn turkey club.

Sue, completely fraught now, clenched her teeth and closed her eyes. “Surely you have white bread and eggs. Pretend you’re making a B.L.T., but mess up.”

Downtown flipped. “For God’s sake, get a goddamn Reuben sandwich!”

Sue, red-faced and teary-eyed, said, “Could you just tell me one thing?”

Alice cautiously stepped back. “What?”

“Why can’t I have breakfast after eleven?”

Alice stared at her head-on. “Happy’s policy.”

Sue exhaled deeply. “Get me a cup of soup.”

Yes, I’ll tell you. I’ve lied. When people ask me why I stay, why I choose to live in mayhem, isolation, extravagance, and disease, I lie. I mutter something about art, diversity, the naked truth. That’s my usual one: truth. On and on I go about the rawness of the streets—the hard, cold facts. I say that’s what I need. I need to be surrounded by reality, engulfed in it, nearly swallowed by its gritty, truth-telling jaws. That’s when I feel honest. That’s when I feel like I could sincerely love the world.

That’s when.

But it’s a lie. The truth is this: I like French toast after eleven. I like it so much that I’ll never leave New York City. Give me that, above everything else.

pencil

Dzanc Books will publish Jennifer Spiegel’s collection of short stories, The Freak Chronicles, in 2012. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and journals, ranging from The Gettysburg Review to Nimrod. Recent work can be read online at Pank, Kill Author, and The Waccamaw Review. Please visit her at jenniferspiegel.com. Email: spiegelbell[at]cox.net