Waffle Home

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Three times, at three different locations I’ve seen Waffle Houses provide for a regular beggar.

The first was in South Carolina. Some sunburnt scarecrow hobbled through the door. A waitress tapped the manager on the shoulder. I assumed the manager had the tricky job of running off vagrants. Instead, she brought the beggar hashbrowns to go, and coffee with two sugars and three creams.

She knew how he took his coffee, which is how I knew he was a regular even though I was just drifting through town and never saw that location again.

On a second occasion, in Georgia, when a homeless guy wandered in, a cook shouted, “Dale’s here!” And Dale left with a plain waffle, a sweet tea, and a cigarette cadged off a landscaper.

Somewhere in the indistinguishable middle neck of Florida, another Waffle House manager did the same thing. Short on teeth, this beggar preferred grits.

Now it’s impossible that such a rule is written in any corporate booklet or slideshow, but some spirit of Southern Hospitality, maybe even Christian charity, does seem alive in Waffle House management.

At least, I choose to believe it is so, elbow to elbow with two friends in the yellow-orange light of a Florida location. There are a million like it, but this one is ours for now.

Which is not to say it’s all roses at Waffle House. Once, when served coffee in a mug with the last customer’s lipstick print on the rim, I asked the waitress, “what’s this?”

“Givenchy Dual-Tone,” she said. “Very in this year.”

She swept the mug away and came back with a clean one.

But thank goodness for soft yellow light. Sterile fluorescents are for jails, morgues, and public schools. Plus, they’re brutal on hangovers.

What better white noise than the vast metal field of the sizzling griddle to our right? Its sputtering fills the dead air in our sparse conversation. There’s nothing to say this late in the weekend but re-cap the events, the boozy barbecue, the lazy river, drinking card game, and the goofy volleyball game that would affront any decent volleyball rulebook. And now, mostly quiet, we wait for something to starch out the mean ghosts of white rum & tequila.

Speaking of which, our order has just arrived.

“They gave me a pecan waffle instead of peanut butter chip.”

“The cook probably read PC for shorthand. They scrambled my eggs over easy, too.”

The remember the poor, but forget my egg order.

“It’s all good.”

We eat. When Americans go abroad, even if they only eat healthy at home, even if they have sophisticated palettes, some night in their trip they will awake craving flavors such as these. The crispy hashbrowns. The greasy bacon. The artfully weak and endlessly replenished coffee.

It does a diner’s spiritual work, and that’s to feel like home, like a refuge, no matter where you are on the road.

If you’ll tolerate such a slim and esoteric category of analysis, if you have any patience for deaf cooks & sloppy dishwashers, if you’re attuned to any such thing, you must rate Waffle House poor in practice, but five stars in spirit.

Sharing a Surfboard | Florida

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***

They make it look easy as a dream.

Riding green, foamy curling waves on a surfboard.

I rented one while I was back in Florida for a wedding.

Now, in the water off of Cocoa Beach, I’m getting chafed red by a giant, oblong, wobbling blue surfboard that wants to tilt, dip, and pitch me under the water at every second.

I can see other beginners not having much luck on their own tropical colored boards (yellow, pink, key lime green).

The board is twice my size.

Squeaks and slips right out from under me.

The water is cold, but it’s clean.

No seaweed. Cocoa Beach both sounds nice and is nice.

After getting swamped by a few more waves, I swim the board into knee-deep water. The new plan is to catch a little wave and just stand on this thing for once.

It works. I ride the board standing up for maybe ten or fifteen feet.

Feels like being a billionaire.

As I’m sinking down into the now ankle-deep water, I see my small success has not gone unnoticed.

“Can I try that?” a young voice screams.

It’s a bunch of kids. Maybe five of them. Three girls, two boys, and a mom.

One of the girls is asking.

“What’s your name?”

“Gemini,” she says.

“Ask your mom.”

“She says it’s OK!”

I need a rest anyway.

“Sure, give it a try.” I un-velcro the strap from around my ankle.

Gemini, her brothers and sisters swarm the board in a flash. They’re screaming and fighting over it like a game of King of the Hill. I have thrown an entire family into chaos.

Gemini secures the strap around her ankle.

While this may sound like snatching the crown, it’s a serious tactical error. The weight of her three siblings carries the board into shin-deep water. She’s being pulled along as it surges up and down in the water.

I have thrown an entire family into chaos. The blue board seems as alive as a giant eel, bucking and chucking brothers and sisters into the water.

They’re trying to stand on the sinking board. Look-amme-momma-look-amme. This doesn’t last long.

In under a full minute, they figure they’ve got my money’s worth.

They shove the board back to me. It floats towards me in the water.

Their mom calls, “Thank you.”

I return to trying to do short standing rides on the board in shallow water.

I can pop into a standing position and ride the board ten or fifteen feet at a stretch. Tomorrow I should do even better.

The sun is setting. The water is lighting up warm orange. It makes a shimmering, blurry reflection of the sky.

Cold water wipes me out.

After one more standing ride, I figure I can’t top that this evening.

Tuck the board under my arm and return to the shop as the sun goes down.

End

Drunk Owl

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Hour thirty of driving. Day three on the road.

Packed my life inside a Toyota Corolla.

Left Florida for New England a few days ago.

Now driving on a road in New Hampshire with granite cliffs on one side and mountain views on the other.

Black mountain shapes with red radio tower lights on top in the night.

A line of brake lights flares red ahead of me.

The cars start flowing around something.

Soon I will see what they are avoiding.

Headlights shine on the paved road texture.

They shine on a hooked beak and round face.

Feathery wings spread out their full span.

There’s an owl standing on the white dotted line between lanes.

Cars and trucks give him his distance.

Owl spreads his wings full span. Bobs his beaked head like a boxer.

Come at me, come at me, to every vehicle.

What’s with the attitude, little animal?

You’re only still alive because many strangers gave you a break and a brake.

Or maybe you’re trying to end it all.

Your little owl life got too dark and hopeless.

I come to a full stop and honk at him. He bobs his head at the car.

I lay on the horn. He flies away after a long blast.

Stubborn bird.

Drive on.

Images of South Carolina

Falling in with squatters and getting my stuff chucked out the window in Brooklyn. The violence and trash talk of a college rugby club. Read these stories and more in my book, Odd Jobs & After Hours

Boards of a two-block-long pier on the shore of Lake Marion slither in the waves like the spines of a great creature, creaking and groaning all the while.

Sunburnt strangers, white stripes of sunscreen striping the rounds of their bellies and slopes of their noses, wave from a passing pontoon boat.

On shore, fishermen bring just-caught catfish, grouper, and flounder to the back door of a wooden restaurant.

Soon the catch will be fried, basketed, and served with coleslaw.

Nearly all of the boats fly the Stars and Stripes on the top of their masts.

Three stray cats stretch themselves under trees dripping with Spanish moss, or they make moon eyes at outdoor diners for scraps of fish.

The sun is behind a grey haze of clouds.

The air carries clean water smell, and is loud with the senseless, perfect music of water.

Blonde women, one in a cut-apart flannel tank top and bathing suit, the other in a pink mega church t-shirt reading, “Jesus Loves this Hot Mess” sun themselves on the shore.

Smoke comes and goes in the air, brought by a cobblestone chimney on shore.

Trailers and RVs are hitched up for the night in a nearby parking lot.

It’s a sleepy southern evening, and Jesus loves this hot mess.

Circles in the Desert

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Here I am on the end of a string.

Walking in circles.

The circles are getting bigger.

Why?

Pal Dusty & I are trying to find the head of a pin.

The pin marks the back-most boundary of our land.

I step over a shrub.

I walk through red chunks of broken boulder.

No pin yet. Its head is a little bigger than a 25-cent quarter.

It’s the exact same color as a quarter, too.

We have secured latitude and longitude now.

As well as a satellite GPS tool.

But the coordinates are missing two decimal places.

And for this estimate, we are two hundred feet away from our target.

(At least, this is merely another estimate.)

So Dusty feeds out a little more kite string. And I circle.

Horizon: sharp mountain, no mountain, smooth mountains, trees.

Back and forth across the red desert, searching for the head of this pin.

More kite string out. Wider circle.

Same, yet different shrubs, rocks, dead grass, sand underfoot.

Exact same horizon circle of sharp mountain, no mountain, smooth mountains, trees.

It’s easy work.

But dull.

Found it!

Under thick shrubs and branches so dry they look like beach wood, though of course, it is not, I see that silver metal head of a pin.

We build a brick-red cairn.

Big rock base, medium rock middle, little rock top.

Love cairns.

Dumb thing to love, but there you go.

That was the last pin we needed.

Now we know exactly where we live.

To be continued

Night Landing

AZ Desert. Night.

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It’s getting dark and cold fast here in Arizona.

The temperature plummets in desert nights.

From a day in the seventies to a night at twenty-nine.

I must find my unmarked piece of land and pitch camp there.

I’m parked outside a now-closed auto shop after getting a tire replaced.

The sooner I start the better at this point.

No, I don’t have satellite coordinates.

I saw the route to the parcel once about four months ago.

Flew into the state, saw the land once in the daytime, flew out, called friend, & we bought the land. A lot has changed in between now and then.

Point being, I’m not completely sure how to get there. That’s just how it is.

Back four months ago, we drove alongside cliffs and past farms that all looked the same.

Red desert, junipers, and distant mountains. Chunky red rocks.

Beep, beep, beep, goes my truck with its one new tire a little bigger than the other three.

I’ve got one map with a disclaimer about its own inaccuracy.

The map shows an entrance one exit back down the highway. I turn on the audio book about the moon landings I’ve been listening to and start driving.

Weighing options as I drive.

The astronauts are on the launchpad in my audiobook.

Should I sleep in the truck and try to find my land by sunrise?

Around here, that’s how you wake up with a shotgun in your face.

They’re nice people, the locals. They just don’t like trespassers.

Drive 45 minutes back to a motel?

I’m already over budget. And I’m this close to my land.

With rising hills of smooth desert and the thistly shadows of juniper trees under the moonlight on either side of me, I truck farther.

In the darkness ahead of me, a white ranch sign looms.

Through that gate, somewhere on 40 thousand acres, is my 40-acre piece.

It is even darker on the other side of the gate.

Far past the reach of any streetlight or porch light’s glow.

The paved road has ended. I grab the lever to engage the four wheel drive.

Truck through the gate.

The whole truck vibrates, shakes, and rattles like a machine gun. Everything jumps off the seats. Slides off the dash. The mirrors shake.

Is the four wheel drive failing?

I open the door to look at the truck. The shaking is not mechanical. The dirt road itself has washboard paving.

Rock-hard ribs that seem like they could rattle the truck to pieces.

No way out but through.

Rattling & rumbling down the road. Let all my supplies tumble to the floor. I’ll get them later.

Headlights from another vehicle. It’s cruising at about 40.

White Toyota truck. I flash him down.

Ask him to confirm my location on the map.

He says the exit entrance I just found isn’t the one marked on the map.

He shows me our location, miles upon miles away from where I had guessed.

At the pace the roads allow, it should take over an hour.

I follow the other trucker for a few minutes.

My windshield is completely blocked by clouds of dust filled with yellow headlight glow. Blackness beyond that.

We come to a fork in the road.

Guide must go left while I go right.

We honk goodbyes and set off our separate ways.

My fork in the road dives downhill into a narrow, single-vehicle-sized path. Thickets and weeds crowd the edges of the path.

Chunky red rocks under the tire. Red rocks shaped like gigantic molars and eyeteeth – possibly ready to chew my tires to pieces and leave me here somewhere in the middle of 40,000 acres of nothing.

There’s a sign on a ranch fence, that’s good.

TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. SURVIVORS WILL BE SHOT AGAIN.

Nevermind, it’s not a good sign.

Onward.

The moon landing audiobook talks about an incident in which, mid-flight, the Apollo vessel started firing its Abort Mission beeper alarm. A solder ball floating in zero G completed the abort mission circuit.

And my own truck, not long after that paragraph in the book, starts beeping again.

Nothing I can do about that. Working my way over piles of red rock. Rock-rocking and bump-bumping along in the cab. High beams shine on dust and darkness. Vast, blackness in the desert night.

There are mountain cats out there. Coyotes.

Beep beep beep.

Houston, disregard that abort mission signal. We’re landing tonight.

Beep beep beep.

Shut up you stupid truck! Just get me there.

Just kidding, Rhodie. Love you. You know I’ll get you anything you need.

Beep beep beep.

Rocking and rolling over chunks of boulders. Big empty, darkness out of all windows.

Am I still on the right track? I must be.

But look – there are no signposts marking anybody’s land out of the windows, and the acres I’m driving past must have been divided and sold.

I mean, they weren’t even going to stick a SOLD sign on my spot? No satellite coordinates, no sign, and of course, no address?

Which scrap of this desert is mine?

Beep beep beep.

Be quiet, you’re fine.

Just sign the title deed, and then cool, you’re on your own?

Over more chunks of boulder. The road turns back into washboard ribs.

I truck onward, weighing options. Rattle & rumble.

Beep beep. Maybe I could camp anywhere and search by daylight.

Beep beep. Maybe I should turn back. No, come too far.

Beep beep. SHUT UP, TRUCK! LET ME THINK!

Off in the distance, two green signs. Like street signs.

Wait a minute.

If that’s an intersection, it will tell me exactly where I am on the map.

Please be what I need you to be.

I get closer to the two reflective green rectangles visible through the cloud of red desert dust.

Yes, here in the dirt roads, desert, and mountains, one intersection is marked.

I find the intersection on the laminated paper map. The map shows eight quarter-mile by quarter-mile squares lying next to the road in between my current location and my parcel.

I could backtrack. Spitball two miles of distance without markers. Get close enough for a camping spot.

I turn the truck around.

Rumble nice and slow, trying to do distance arithmetic in my head.

To cover two miles at fifteen miles an hour, I’d need to drive how many minutes – ?

Wait. A second sign. It’s black characters written on a triangular chunk of red rock.

But it’s got a number on it. The number of the parcel next to mine.

A quarter mile farther. There’s a little branch on the ground. Invisible when driving from the opposite direction. But there’s a wooden board with the numbers of my parcel burnt into it.

I leap out of the truck. It’s still running. I kiss the wooden sign. Dust on my lips. Arms up to the clean, clear night sky.

“Rhodie, we’re home!”

Beep, beep, beep.

Pull onto the parcel.

Kill the engine.

Deep quiet.

Ancient quiet.

Quiet like they had two hundred years ago. Four hundred years ago. Farther back than that, too.

Alone in the ancient quiet under the Arizona sky.

The temperature dropped like a rock in a pond.

Cold, stiff fingers grab lantern & tent.

Lantern on.

Big wash of light on the grey-green thistles and red rocks.

Kicking rocks away for a little soft ground under my tent.

Watching for rattlesnakes & scorpions.

Miles from help alone in the ancient quiet.

Where is the wind? Not even wind is here to make the place feel alive.

Snort. Rustle.

Whip around and glance back.

Animal eye glint across the road. Chest height. Something big.

Panther? Coyote?

Maglite on. It’s a cow. Just a cow.

Back to the tent. Poking poles into their polyester sleeves and metal rings. Clipping plastic hooks.

Rainfly over. Chuck my sleeping bag & pad into the assembled tent.

Pull on sweats, hoodie, hat, gloves, sleeping bag liner, sleeping bag.

I am now a big nylon caterpillar slip-sliding inside a polyester tent.

Cozy enough.

The temperature will be below freezing in four hours.

Headlamp off.

Goodnight.

To be continued

No Service

AZ Sunset

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I pull my truck into the little town of off-gridders & cowboys in Arizona.

Lasso-lined wooden signs. Wooden board buildings.

Red desert with pine-green gin junipers for the landscape.

Mountain peaks make purple shapes against the red sky.

I own land with my friend out there in that distance.

This town consists of one diner, one restaurant, and three auto shops.

That’s it.

That big sunset means it will be dark soon.

My tire’s rubber intestine is completely distended.

I roll into the first of the three auto body shops.

“That is the biggest bubble in a tire I have ever seen,” says a mechanic there.

He’s in a trucker cap, long beard, flannel hoodie, & jeans. Sipping a Coke on his break.

I tell him I’ll buy a replacement for cash right now if he’s got it.

He says he doesn’t have it.

Time to drive to auto shop number two.

I pull up to a fenced-in auto shop number two with a closed gate. Big flapping flags advertising their services.

The guys who work there are pounding beers inside the shop.

“Closed on Sunday,” one calls.

I call back that I’ll pay a little extra if they sell me a replacement tire today.

One brings his beer can over. Looks at the tire. I tell him the size.

He doesn’t have it.

Auto shop three, save me.

Gingerly, slowly, I pull the truck to auto shop three.

Same story. They say no.

Back at the town’s one restaurant, I call the guy who helped me fix up the truck.

He recommends asking for a tire that’s a little bigger but with the same rim size.

Auto shops one and two say they don’t have that size either.

It’s 45 minutes to the nearest Walmart. I won’t make it on this bubble. It’s taken me as far as it will go.

I pull back up to auto shop three and ask for the new size.

They can do it.

The one restaurant in town closes soon.

The truck is being jacked up.

I pull my bike out of the truck bed and ride maybe ten minutes back to the restaurant.

Order a bacon blue cheeseburger & beer.

After dinner, the new tire is ready.

I bike back to auto shop three in the dark.

Pay cash. Bike in bed. Grab my map out to the land.

New tire in place, it’s time to truck out to the land.

Fire up the engine.

But the truck starts beeping like crazy.

No matter. I’ve ignored it all cross-country journey.

Shame the beep is back right now, though. Now in the last of last legs.

Time to drive out to my land.

Out where there is no service.

To be continued

Over the Panhandle, Rolling on a Bubble

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It’s probably nothing.

A small seam of rubber parting with the wheel.

I found it in the late morning in Kansas after coffee with a friend. After goodbyes.

I’m a little behind schedule, so I decide not to think about it.

The gas pump clicks. I return it to its hook. Top off the windshield wiper fluid.

Let’s put the audiobook on and roll out.

Now I need to connect my iPod to my speaker. The car’s radio is broken, so I stuck a portable speaker in the cab.

Where is it? Where’s the speaker?

I take the two boxes and two bags out of the cab.

Dig to the bottom of every pile of supplies.

Stolen.

I was robbed last night.

These old truck doors can’t lock.

I took out most of the important items last night.

But now I’m left with a broken radio & no speaker for my iPod.

No Grateful Dead, no Joe Rogan.

Eighteen hours of silence?

Tough on the brain.

I pull around the corner & stop in an auto store. Buy a similar replacement speaker.

Then it’s westward once more.

Down through Oklahoma.

Across the Texas panhandle.

You never saw a land so barren.

There are no structures, no trees.

It’s even difficult to identify plow-tracks of farmland. Yeah, this isn’t even farmable.

The distance shimmers in the heat.

I think about that seam, that little bubble in the tire.

In fact, I think about it for hours.

Pull the handle for windshield wiper fluid.

I get nothing. The glass stays dusty.

I guess fluid level wasn’t the problem. The line is broken somewhere.

Say, with no spare tire and one can of Fix-a-Flat, and nobody around, what would happen if I broke down on the panhandle?

Search the GPS for nearby gas stations.

None.

Search for nearby restaurants.

None.

An hour later, I check again. None.

Hold, tire bubble. Get me over the panhandle.

Into the lush- hahaha- no, it’s not lush- but-

Get me to New Mexico.

It would be like breaking down on the moon if that bubble burst now.

Here on the empty roads of the barren panhandle. Always empty, yet more so, now for the pandemic.

Burst, tire, if you must, but not yet.

Driving to New Mexico on a bubble.

To be continued

Master the Death Touch: A Guide to Middle School Martial Arts

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Many cultures develop their own martial art.

Some are ritualized and traditional, some are field-tested and highly practical.

One collection of non-lethal yet crippling techniques is taught and practiced beginning in middle school in the US.

Its practitioners diminish, but do not disappear through the college years.

In adulthood, the artform is often all but forgotten.

This martial art is yet unnamed, but recognizable by a few consistent techniques replicated in schoolyards and above-ground pools everywhere.

The Five-Star

Technique: The assailant opens his hand with five fingers spread (hence the name Five-Star) and delivers a whip-like smack across the back of his target.

Outcome: A bright red five-finger mark and fire-hot pain. This technique takes on a particular brutality in aquatic combat. Expect a pool noodle lashing in retaliation.

Notes: What makes the Five-Star insidious is that if delivered the proper distance from mom, the telltale red mark on the victim’s back will vanish completely before any tattling can be completed. It is a crime that disposes of its own evidence.

The Wet Willie

Technique: In this maneuver, the assailant wets his index finger with saliva and uses it as a poking weapon.

Outcome: Useful as an intimidator, the Wet Willie can clear a room with a single, threatening pointed finger.

Notes: In our pathogen-conscious era, it could work on full grown adults.

If you try this, you might get arrested, or you might feel like you have the Force from Star Wars. This is not legal guidance.

The Purple Nurple

Technique: The assailant grabs and tweaks the nipple of the target.

Outcome: Revulsion and recoil in the victim.

Notes: As with all techniques, this typically a man-to-man maneuver.

Guaranteed to be obnoxious.

The Noogie

Technique: The assailant executes a headlock, then rubs the knuckles of his free hand into the scalp of the victim.

Outcome: Red face, temporary hair loss.

Notes: If the Noogie is happening to you, the raid is over, your cabin is burning, and you are being scalped.

The Sack Tap

Technique: Assailant delivers a quick flick to the crotch of the victim.

Outcome: Victim doubled over.

Notes: A brutal technique, known to end friendships but also entire bloodlines. The Sack Tap is Old Testament warfare. It is against all Geneva Conventions.

The Defecator

Technique: Assailant makes blades of his hands by joining his fingers. He approaches his target from behind. He jabs the target just above the kidneys with his fingertips.

Outcome: When the target turns, the assailant explains the maneuver is supposed to result in the target defecating himself.

Notes: Ineffective by most credible accounts.

The Death Touch

Technique: Not recorded in detail by any credible source. The theory describes a nerve cluster in the foot which, if smashed with the end of a bo staff, will result in the instant death of the victim.

Outcome: Instant death.

Notes: The Death Touch is preached by the one kid with a rattail hairdo.

The one who carries a bo staff whenever he is allowed to do so.

Though mouthy, he will never demonstrate the Death Touch, despite pleas and extended sneakers from brave volunteers.

He will swear up and down he took a life at his last school, yet here he is, walking and breathing freely among you mortals.

Foolish doctors can not identify the Death Touch as the cause of death in autopsies, after all.

Now you are armed and ready for your life’s true calling; to fight with middle schoolers. Go forth; avenge yourself of the old wounds.