August comes, and as the purple Gamays are being hand-plucked in Beaujolais, Susan, Teddy, Finn, and I return from Maine and prolong our summer escape on the east end of Long Island, vacationing for cheap on the beach. Fortunately, the boys are conditioned to be thrilled by the avalanche of a hotel ice machine, so they don’t expect a yacht with their sand. The best thing about being unemployed, maybe the only good thing, is being unemployed in the summer.
On a perfect, cloudless morning, a family of locals recommends that we breakfast at a legendary pancake house. Judging by the long line tailing out the restaurant’s front door when we arrive, we won’t be disappointed. It’ll be forty-five minutes for a table, and with the prospect of good eats to come, Susan and I get comfortable on the sidewalk while the boys chase each other like terriers in the sun. Sated eaters amble past us, slow and smiling, looking like they’re heading for a nap. I’m already envisioning a lazy, lovely sleep on the beach under the umbrella.
Reading the restaurant’s paper menu taped to the cluttered front window, I recognize a familiar face of brown doe eyes and gleaming white teeth. I am surprised to see Ms. Jordan, who will be Finn’s teacher in September. She remembers us and is quite gracious, mixing milk and meat on her summer vacation, asking Finn about school and introducing us to her good natured banker husband. They’re fifteen or more years younger than Susan and me, a calculation that still stuns, and they share newlyweds’ enthusiasm for the chocolate-chip pancakes. “It’s your first homework assignment, Finn,” she says, and charms him with a giggle.
He gets uncharacteristically shy, filing behind me for cover, and I’m relieved that the devil inside him will wait until school starts to make itself known. “Chocolate-chip pancakes. Excellent,” I say. “I’ll have him write a research report.”
Finally, we get in and sit two across in a booth by the flapping kitchen door. The room is humming. We’re famished and excited by the freighted plates sailing by. I know the boys won’t finish them, but the price is so low that we let them order individual plates of chocolate-chip pancakes. Susan goes for eggs, toast, bacon, and coffee. I decide to try the corned-beef hash and toast. It’s starred as a house favorite on the chalkboard over the cash register. When in Rome.
On our trips to visit Susan’s family in the Midwest, we’ve become accustomed to the super-sized portions that restaurants have made standard in their quest to stuff insatiable Americans. However, even by that more-is-better measure, the pancake-house servings are big enough to choke a horse and the horse’s fat groom. The pancakes are twelve inches across and stacked half a dozen high, like records in a jukebox. It takes me ten minutes just to cut the spongy cylinders into pieces the boys can actually fit in their mouths. Susan’s breakfast covers three plates. My corned-beef hash weighs at least eight pounds, and I dare the boys to lift it.
“This is all going in me,” I declare, and tuck a paper napkin into my shorts.
The corned beef is good—salty, lean, chewy—and they’ve browned the toast to the right consistency, so it sticks to the pile of meat and makes unbroken slabs for pushing in load after load. After nearly a half hour of solid eating, I finish the entire plate, gulping glasses of orange juice and water to neutralize the salt flats curing in my mouth. Between them, the boys leave over a full stack of pancakes that would be a shame to waste. It’s the restaurant’s signature dish, and hey, they’re already cut into bites. I clean another plate.
We waddle out of the place around eleven and drive our rental car to a gorgeous ribbon of beach bordered by dune grass and gentle, sparkling surf. There are only three other groups of people in this secluded paradise. The day looks to be terrific, and I start unpacking the beach umbrella, blankets, towels, pails, shovels, baseball gear, football, Kadima paddles, and cooler that comprise our light packing. The boys dig an umbrella hole in the fine-grain sand, and I spread the blankets and towels behind.
Suddenly, I begin to feel strange. I’m sweating and going green at the gills. I double over at the sand hole, nauseated.
“Dad, you look bad. Your neck ball is shaking,” Finn says about my clenched Adam’s apple. “I could play tennis with that.”
Susan has lain down on a blanket, and I see that she’s suffering the same post-pig-out symptoms. On my knees, I plant and raise the umbrella and collapse on the blanket next to her. “I may have eaten too much,” I belch.
“I feel sick,” she says, rolling into the circle of shade. She hasn’t taken off her capri pants and top. Her eyes are shut. “What were we thinking? Why did you make me do it? You get out of control on vacation. That was so stupid.”
“But it was so good. It would have been a shame to pass up. People eat this way all the time; the place was packed, you saw them. We’re just wimps.” Lying flat out, I unbutton my popping shorts, gross and moaning like Uncle Richard on the living room rug at Thanksgiving.
The boys build a fort at the water’s edge and, mercifully, occupy themselves by the languid tide. Susan and I quiver like dying beached whales and spend the sunny afternoon comatose and drooling, lightweights wiped out by nothing more than a hearty American breakfast. We can’t stomach the thought of lunch.
I know the plates in me will digest, however. I have been feeling great for months. I’ve crossed the threshold into corpulent normalcy, and no Jew-hating gastric menace is going to take me back. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m one of the people now. I’m an American. I’m a man.
Indeed, Susan and I laugh over our gluttony at dinner that night, eating juicy fried clams and drinking tall cups of beer at a roadside shack that—whoops—takes only cash, so we split the chowder. Susan finds a last cruddy bill buried in the sticky mess of her canvas bag. The boys throw rocks in the gravel parking lot and get us kicked out. We push on for ice cream.
From THE MAN WHO COULDN’T EAT by Jon Reiner to be published by Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Jon Reiner. Printed by permission.