A few months ago, in the dead middle of a Phoenix summer, I got up at 6:15 on a Sunday morning to fulfill a breakfast date with my father, stepmother, aunt and uncle.I’d finally given in to my dad’s nudging, he seemingly oblivious to my protests of “Who meets for a meal at seven in the morning by choice?”

I’m a bit of a late sleeper and haven’t passed more than a drink of water over my lips before 9 AM in years.  Even when jobs called for an early appearance, I really never kicked in till late morning. But dad’s an engineer and inventor and loves the precision of getting to his office every day, weekends included, by 8 AM.He’s done this at least my whole life, probably his too. At 78, he has the will of a ten-year old boy intent upon catching his first fish.

To most who have lived through one of our scorching Julys, it’s common knowledge that the only bearable time to do anything that takes you outside is between 5 and 8 in the morning.  But like most people who believe that, I rarely take nature up on her offer to enjoy those slivers of time and instead sleep in and run from my air-conditioned apartment to cooled car to any other place that keeps the temperature below 80 degrees.  This Sunday morning it was 93 degrees when I slid into my car at 6:45.

I arrived at Randy’s, a local diner that proudly takes no plastic forms of payment, CASH ONLY emblazoned in Sharpie on a sign in the door.The joint was packed.Every table was taken, people scarfing down plates filled with fried potatoes, eggs sunny-side up, stacks of pancakes three inches high.No one looked as tired as I felt.

When I found the table with my early-rising family, my dad looked at his watch.“7:05.  You almost made it on time.”  I smiled and sat down, flipped the upside-down coffee cup at my seat right-side up and the waitress, on me like a shirt, filled it to the brim.  “Cream, darlin’?  Sugar?”  I shook my head no and drank a sip, hoping it would kick in fast.  Some caffeine in me, I got up and hugged each of them, we passed general family pleasantries and I got a good ribbing about finally joining them for one of these early breakfasts.

The four of them looked as fresh as people in their late 70s or early 80s often do when they’ve been blessed with another day to tackle the world.  I could still smell my delicious pillow and wondered if I’d ever seem as happy as these people when I, hopefully, hit my eighth decade on earth.

The waitress slid a menu in front of me and said, “You’re the last one.  Their orders are in.  I’ll be back in a tick.”

The pressure was on and I scanned the menu, the choices far too numerous for this time of the day.  I decided on two eggs over-easy, a plate of home fries with extra onions and a bowl of oatmeal with bananas. My hunger was being teased by the smells from the kitchen.

My uncle, aunt, dad and stepmother all added their two cents into a conversation that reminded me of why I truly avoided these breakfasts.  In snippets I heard what has become, in my family, standard political rhetoric: “All of them are terrorists.Anti-semitic killers” – dad , “America is losing its direction”- uncle, “Obama isn’tAmerican, you know” – aunt,  and the fact that “We should be able to keep our bathtub running 24/7 if we want, after all, we’re capitalists” – stepmom.

“What are you going to have?” my dad asked, veering off from that riveting conversation, one I swore to simply swallow with my liberal tongue and avoid.I just wanted to eat breakfast, listen to the latest family gossip and fuss over who was going to take care of the bill as our family had done at every restaurant gathering in my memory.

After I told my dad my food choices, he pointed up at the Specials board on the wall behind him.

“Why don’t you order something from that menu?” he asked.

I looked up.  Three choices: blueberry pancakes, a western omelette with salsa and two fried eggs with Randy’s homemade corned-beef hash.

“Nothing I’d really like, dad,” I said.  “I’m in the mood for what I picked already.”

“You know, they have the specials for a reason,” he said.  “Easier on the chef.”

I doubted there was a ‘chef’ within a mile of our table.

“Well,” I said, “nothing up there appeals to me.”

He continued. “Look at this place, Mark.  They’re busy, need to get people in and out.   The chef prefers if people just order one of the specials.”

He sounded so convincing I wondered if he’d taken a secret stake in the restaurant.

“Dad, they have a menu for a reason.  They actually allow people to choose from a variety of breakfast offerings. Even lunch,” I said and pointed at the sandwich portion of the menu that stated, Sandwiches Served All Day on Sundays.

“All right, all right,” he said, smiling and holding both hands up in the air.  “You’re obviously familiar with restaurant protocol.  But the chef would really appreciate it if you just ordered from the board.” He pointed over his shoulder with a thumb.

The waitress arrived at the table with all their breakfasts.  Not a Special among them.  My dad could sense I was about to question their choices.

“We’re on specific diets,” he said, unconvincingly. “We’re old.”

“What’ll it be, honey?” the waitress asked me.

I pointed at the Specials board.

“A western omelette with salsa.  Can I add some home fries to that?”

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MARK SUTZ writes with hunks of charcoal on large slabs of pavement. He resides on the first floor. He regularly contributes to random bar conversations, political telephone polls, messy exchanges with his family and arguments against the death of the book on paper by reading them in public settings. Once a year on their shared birthday he recites into the night sky his memory-banked version of 'The Raven' for Edgar Allen Poe's spirit. Having quit haiku, his skill too weak for its form, he now writes novels. For those interested in tossing stories into the contest void, he manages Fiction Contests and Other Opportunities.

20 responses to “The Specials Board”

  1. Amanda says:

    You win! Your family engages in even more loaded conversation than mine does, pre-8AM. I didn’t think this was possible!

    My dad, too, gets up ultra-early, and when I spend weekends at home, I usually give up trying to “sleep in” later than 8:15 (by which point the cats have been fed, the dishwasher unloaded, bodies showered, newspaper fetched and read, coffee percolated, and muffins parked in the oven to bake).

    The routine with us isn’t politics, though, it’s science. I have a nutrition degree, and my dad is a health- and diet-conscious man. Typically I touch down at the breakfast table (roughly 10 minutes after waking), to conversation-starters like, “Remember that one time when you told me about the thing the helps build neurotransmitters? Which one was that again and how does it work?” or “Your mother and I have been wondering if you could take a look at the multi we’ve been taking, and make sure it’s a well-balanced formula for people our age…” (insert sound of plastic pill-jar being shoved across table for my immediate analysis)

    There is, however, something admirable and survival-of-the-fittest about being a functional early-riser, as opposed to someone who can simply haul one’s carcass out of one’s bed at the crack of dawn.

    • Mark Sutz says:

      Thanks for reading this thing on a precious Sunday.

      I’m at the point now that I relish loaded conversation where ever I go and kind of expect it, at least a majority of the time I hear human beings speak.

      I envy you your family’s science banter. You could bring up protocells or zero-gravity activities and no one would bat an eye.

      If getting up early involves something I love, like a hike or a run or sex or getting back to a good book, I’m functional. Otherwise, I’m dust.

  2. Malena says:

    Great piece, Mark. Nothing is simple in families. I like the humor and details here. I remember when I was someone who thought that getting up at 10 was early. Then I had a child, and suddenly when he doesn’t wake until 7, we consider that “sleeping in.”

    • Mark Sutz says:

      Malena,

      Thanks for taking the time to read this piece. I have no kids of my own but, through friends, am well familiar with the change in sleep habits. I admire all parents for that ability.

  3. julia baurichter says:

    Really enjoyed reading the story. Early is definitely not my thing, and family at that time of the morning is definitely risky…..my guard is too down and I might even let loose and say something I meant rather than just keep the peace.

  4. Thanks for recreating this scene that, as someone living overseas, makes me miss the US. The cozy diner atmosphere, the coffee refills, the home fries, and even the clunky worldviews of loved ones. And this line captures well my own feelings in the presence of older generations “if I’d ever seem as happy as these people when I, hopefully, hit my eighth decade on earth.”

    As for the Arizona heat however, I blame Obama.

    • Mark Sutz says:

      Thanks, Nathaniel. I much appreciate your reading.

      How about this – I’ll bring a care package consisting of a ceramic diner coffee cup, make you the best home fries you’ve ever had and regale you with stories about my family’s clunky worldviews, if you give me a tour of Dijon someday.

      As far as the Arizona heat, I blame the throngs of people who have moved to every corner of this city and required the construction of enough pavement and highways and buildings to start giving LA a run for its money.

  5. Art Edwards says:

    Mark,

    You almost made me miss AZ.

    Thank God for Changing Hands and Pita Jungle, both of which I hit every time I’m back.

    Art

  6. Curtis says:

    You’re a good sport. For showing up and for ordering off the specials board. You are also very fortunate to still be able to share a meal with your father. But I’m sure you know that. Randy’s sounds a bit like Harlow’s. Nice piece.

    • Mark Sutz says:

      Randy’s is a bit like Harlow’s, but a bit brighter and spacious, both things designed for a much older set of people. Harlow’s wins hands down. I don’t think I’ll ever find another place like it.

  7. M.J. Fievre says:

    Ah, families! Can’t live with them–can’t live without them.

  8. Zara Potts says:

    Parents will be parents no matter how old they get..

    or how old we get…

    This is a lovely piece – you captured the morning really well.

  9. Rodrigo Ibieta says:

    Great work! I can’t imagine how I might react to some of those choice comments made by your family…haha. I laughed aloud quite a bit on this one.

  10. Mat Zucker says:

    Love this anecdote and setting. So much implied between that menu and board. The great thing about family is they remind you about yourself just as they remind you about themselves.

  11. frosty says:

    mark, you nailed that dad suggestion thing… nice. felt immediate. in fact, i’m feeling stuffed on greasy diner food! xofrosty

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