Chapter 21 — Over Pancakes


The pancake and waffle restaurant was busy.  The hostess directed Axel to a spot near the coat stand where he could stow his backpack, then said he could sit wherever he liked.  Axel liked the counters in places like this so found a spot towards the end, near the swinging door to the kitchen.  The house was alive with the clatter of plates and silverware and filled with conversations, buoyant with laughter and intrigue.  Axel took a stool beside a well built, young man with dark curly hair, who wore a peacoat.  The young fellow sat hunched over a small glass of ice water and a menu.  The menu was closed.

The waitress, a middle-aged woman with a full face, ruddy cheeks, and yellow hair, gave Axel a menu and ice water, asked if he wanted coffee, filled his cup too quickly so that some lapped over into the saucer, then asked:

“Hon, you need a spoon?”

“No, ma’am, this is fine,” said Axel.

There were little stainless steel pitchers filled with milk, and salt and pepper shakers made of glass, and napkin boxes, and stainless steel baskets that held paper packets of sugar and sweetener and small tubs of jelly for toast, clustered together, up and down the counter.  The restaurant was refreshingly quaint.

After serving Axel, the waitress turned to the fellow in the peacoat.

“Riley, hon, have you decided yet?” she asked him.

“I need more time,” was all the young man said without looking up.  But the way he said it, he sounded defeated.

Axel sipped his coffee and gave the menu a quick read.  He found what he wanted under “Cakes & More”.  He wanted “The Haystack”—four pancakes, two eggs, and sausage links or bacon.  Then Axel glanced furtively at the young fellow beside him who remained in the same bent position as before.  Only now his eyes were pinched closed and he wore a grimace on his face, as if experiencing excruciation pain.  Obviously something was wrong.  Axel did not need to think about what he would do next.

“I’m Axel.  How are we doing today?” he said as he poked his hand towards the young man.

The young man raised his head and looked at Axel.

“Not very good,” he answered without shaking Axel’s hand.

His face was glazed with tears; his expression full of pain.

“Oh now,” said Axel as he glanced around, looking for shelter.  He spotted an empty booth in the far corner of the restaurant and immediately rose and put an arm around the young man’s back and began lifting him from the stool.

“Here.  Let’s go back here and visit.  A booth will be much more comfortable, don’t you think?  Come on, son.  Come with me.”  Axel spoke with fatherly authority and the young man obeyed and stood, his chin fastened to his chest.

Just then the waitress returned to take Axel’s order.

“Sir, did you know what you wanted?”

“Two Haystacks, please.  Eggs, scrambled.  One links and one bacon.  Lots of syrup.  We’re taking the booth back there, if that’s all right.”

“That’s fine.  I’ll send it out to you,” said the waitress.

“Thank you.”

Axel led the young man to the booth and had him sit on the side facing the wall.  Axel sat opposite him.  The distraught man pulled handfuls of paper napkins from the holder and blotted his face with them.

“I’m okay.  I’m okay,” he said.

“I know you are,” said Axel.  “You like sausage links or bacon?”

“Bacon, I guess.”

“Good,” said Axel, “I like both, but tonight I had my tooth set on links.”

The good looking young man with the dark, curly hair gathered himself and sat upright, resting his muscular forearms on the table before him.  The paper napkins, he’d used to dry his eyes, he held rolled up like a ball in his fist.

“I’m sorry about that,” said the young man, glancing furtively into Axel’s eyes.

“Never be ashamed of tears, son,” said Axel.  “They are an honest expression.  People can’t fake tears and for that reason I respect them.”

“I’m just ashamed of making a scene.”

“That was no scene.  You’re talking to someone who’s gotten eighty-sixed from more establishments than you can count.  Believe me, I know a scene when I see it.”

The young man laughed.

“Son, what’s your name?” asked Axel.


“A pleasure to meet you Riley.  I’m Axel.”

“Glad to meet you too,” said Riley.

“Riley, how old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”


“Do you live around here?”

“Yeah, Packerville.  But I’ve only been here three years.”

“So where did you live before?”

“Montana.  Missoula, Montana before here but originally I’m from Libby.  In fact I spent my whole life in Montana before coming out here.”

“Well, I’ve always been fond of the romantic notion of Montana though I’m sure the reality is quite different.  All my life I’ve wanted to visit the state, maybe even live there,” said Axel.

“It’s all right,” said Riley, “but I like it out here better.”

“Why’s that?”

“The towns are closer together.  There’s more work, more people.  Here you don’t feel so isolated.  Plus, it’s pretty country,” said Riley.

“I see,” said Axel.  “You have family out this way?”

“None that live here, no.  My mom and sister are in town visiting right now but they’ll be going back to the ranch soon.  They live close to Libby in northwestern Montana near the Idaho border, if you know where that is.”

“I’ve seen it on a map, actually,” said Axel.  “Libby’s just south of Lake Koocanusa, if I’m not mistaken.”

“That’s right.  Most people have never heard of Lake Koocanusa.  I’m surprised you have.”

“Well, like I said, I’ve wanted to go there for quite some time, especially to one of the lakes, like Koocanusa.  I live to fish and I’ve wondered how the fishing is up there.”

“I’ve seen some big coho come out of that lake but the big ones are not easy to catch.  They stay pretty deep.”

“I’d love to try my luck,” said Axel.  “So your family lives out there, eh?”

“Yeah, my mom and sister do.  They’re all the family I have.”

“No father?”

“I have a father, of course, but I have no idea where he is.  He and my mom were only married for four years before they divorced.  When it came to marriage Mom said she should have listened to her instincts.  Her instincts told her to never get married.  But when she got pregnant with me, she decided to ignore her instincts and give marriage a shot with my father.  Even then, she was almost thirty before she and dad got married.  She believes he might have gone to Las Vegas after the divorce but doesn’t know for sure.  I was too young to remember much about my dad.  I’ve never even seen a picture of him.  But my mom says, if I want to see a picture of my father, all I have to do is look in the mirror.  My baby sister was already on the way when my parents split.  My mom says she was relieved when my dad left and hoped he would never return, which he didn’t.  So after the split, Mom and I went to live with my grandma Bunny, my mom’s mom, and she became a second mom to me.”

At this, Riley’s eyes filled again with tears and he used the paper ball in his hand to brush them away.

“So I’m guessing it’s a family matter that’s got you down,” said Axel.

“Yeah, you could say that,” said Riley weakly.

“Look, son, I don’t have many marketable skills,” said Axel, “but the good Lord blessed me with larger than normal ears and, with practice, I’ve learned how to use them.  So if you trust me with whatever it is that’s bothering you, I promise I’ll give you my undivided attention.”

“It’ll sound stupid to someone who didn’t know her.”

“Tell you what, then,” said Axel, “you sketch out the problem and I’ll give you my honest opinion as to whether or not I think it’s stupid.  If it turns out I agree with your assessment, well then, we’ll drop it and talk about the weather or fishing or something else while we wait for our pancakes.  How’s that?”

“Yeah, okay,” said Riley quietly.

Riley studied his hands clinched in front of him for a few seconds before beginning.

“About three weeks ago I got a letter from my mom.  She wrote from Montana to say that she and my sister wanted to come out and visit me, stay a few days, if that was all right with me.  She said they’d planned to fly out in two weeks.  She asked me to call her so we could discuss the details of when and where to meet at the airport, and so forth.  But the letter didn’t mention anything about Grandma Bunny coming which I thought was odd because they live with Grandma, on her ranch.  If Grandma wasn’t coming, I wondered how was she supposed to get along without anyone there to help her?  I mean, Grandma Bunny’s strong and capable but she’s still old and needs help with, at least, some things.

“Something else I should mention,” said Riley, “do you know what a Luddite is?”

“Yes, I do,” said Axel.

“Well, I’m a Luddite, partly because I can’t and won’t afford these expensive smart phones and the internet but mostly because I loath such technology, the way it’s being used.  It’s an invasion of personal privacy, in my opinion, and it makes the people who use it stupid and lazy.  I hope you’re not a techie or something and I’ve offended you, but that’s my opinion.  All my friends think I’m weird, of course.”

“I’ve never owned a cell phone,” said Axel.

“Then you get it.  So anyway, that’s why my mom wrote and asked me to call her because I don’t have a phone where they can call me or text me.  So that meant I had to borrow a phone and call Mom because there wasn’t time to write back, you see?”

Axel nodded.

“Sorry, guess I’m taking the long way around.”

Axel shrugged.

“No problem.  This is a nice, clean place, here,” said Axel, “and I’d rather be here than outside in the cold.  Wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess so.  So anyway, the next day I called Mom and asked her about Grandma Bunny, why wasn’t she coming with them.  Mom just said, ‘Oh honey, it’s involved.  I’ll explain it all when Isabel and I get there.’  At that point I assumed Grandma was in a rest home, or something, or was going to be staying with a friend, maybe.

“So this afternoon Mom and Izzy arrive, checked into a motel (so not to ‘cramp my style’ according to Mom) and then, later, I picked them up and brought them to my place for dinner.  First thing Mom asked about was where Carly was, my ex-girlfriend.  I told her Carly and I had split—Carly’s idea.  My mom was like, why? when?  You seemed so in love with her.  I said we split about two months ago and I’m still in love with her; she just doesn’t want to be my girlfriend anymore.  So we had to talk about that for a while before, finally, I changed the subject and asked her about Grandma Bunny.  I saw Mom and Izzy exchange this look of dread.  They didn’t want to tell me what was up.

“Well, hon, that’s why we’re here, said Mom.  We felt it wouldn’t be right to tell you any other way than in person.  Tell me what?  What? I demanded.  My mind started racing—”

Riley then shielded his eyes with his hands and wept.  Axel said nothing but pulled napkins out of the napkin dispenser and slid them across the table to his young friend.  Riley’s tears plopped heavily on the table like drops of blood.

After a minute, Riley recovered himself somewhat and began drying his face and the table with the paper napkins.  Just then the waitress appeared with a full pot of coffee in one hand and two platters of food in the other.

“Who had the links?” she asked.

Axel raised his hand.

“Here you go, hon,” she said.  She plopped the hot plates down on the table in front of them.  She refilled both their cups with coffee.

“Riley, dear, you doing all right?”

“I’m fine Jinny,” said Riley, clearing his throat.  She held eye contact with him and raised her eyebrows in a silent question.  “Really Jin, I’m okay,” said Riley quickly.

“Okay then.  You boys let me know if you need more syrup or anything.  Oh, and Riley?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Your mama called and asked if you were here.  I told her you were and you were okay.  She was a little worried about you, taking off the way you did.  But she knows you’re here now so she’s okay.  Just thought you’d want to know.”

“Thank you Jinny.  I appreciate that.”

“You’re welcome, hon.”

Axel asked Jinny if she would please bring him the check when the time came.  She said she would.  Then before beginning his meal, Axel bowed his head and silently gave thanks for his food, after which both men began eating their suppers.

Axel poured syrup over both his pancakes and sausage links and dove into the pancakes hungrily.

It was a few minutes before Riley continued his story.

“Turns out, the reason Mom and Izzy came all the way out from Montana was to tell me Grandma Bunny had died.  Grandma was healthy and active right up until the end, Mom said.  But one morning she just didn’t wake up.  It wasn’t so much Grandma’s dying that bothered me; it was the fact that I wasn’t part of things after she did.  I argued with Mom about that.  First of all, she said, there was absolutely no indication Grandma was even sick so her passing came as a complete surprise.  Second, Grandma had been very emphatic about her wishes:  She wanted her body cremated and her ashes sprinkled on the ranch, down by the spring.  And she wanted no ceremony, no service, no eulogies.  ‘No backward glances’ is how she put it.  What was done was done; that was how Grandma felt about things.

“I knew all of that, of course, because Grandma Bunny had said that sort of stuff for years.  But I still felt like I should have been there, at least when they scattered her ashes.  Mom thought differently.  It felt like Grandma Bunny simply vanished into thin air and I never got to say goodbye.  That’s what upset me,” said Riley.  “I was closer to Grandma Bunny than any other human being in the world.  Now I’ll never see or talk to her again.  She just evaporated.”

“Well, I can tell you this, Riley: being grieved and upset about the loss of a loved one is not stupid,” said Axel.   “And not saying goodbye does make it harder because it can delay the resolution we need when we suffer such a deep and significant loss.  I know this from experience.  But you can say goodbye, son; that’s not really the problem.  But it does require creativity on your part to figure out just how to do it so that it addresses your grief.  Because your grief is unique to your relationship with your grandmother.  So the key to finding your resolution rests in your heart, and yours alone.  It’s a bit more complex than attending a funeral.  But do you see what I’m talking about?”

“But how can I say goodbye when there aren’t even ashes left?” said Riley bitterly.

“Actually, there are thousands of ways,” said Axel.  “Listen, son.  The grandmother you love was not in that cold body she left behind—and I’m certain she understood this which was why didn’t want any fuss when she died.  And she wouldn’t be in the cemetery plot, had they buried her, nor is she in the ashes after being cremated, no matter where they might be scattered.  No, the grandmother you love is always and only right here,” said Axel, pointing to his own head.  “Even when she was alive, she was never more than a collection of memories: memories of the times you and she shared together, right here, inside your head.  The physical person, while she was alive, was simply a reminder of all those meaningful moments she brought to your life.  But at the time, when those moments actually occurred—if you stop and think about it, son—you weren’t even aware of their significance.  It was only afterward, after they got stored in your memory, that you realized how precious and meaningful certain times with your grandmother were.  So you see, your Grandma Bunny really has not left you; she’s where she’s always been: in your thoughts and memories.  And that’s good news because now you can never lose her so long as you remember her.  You can still talk to her, Riley, commune with her in your heart anytime you wish.  You understand what I’m saying?”

“Sort of,” said Riley.

“And son, don’t blame your mother for the grief you feel,” added Axel, “it’s not fair to her and it’s counterproductive for you.  It’s like shooting the messenger.  Right now you need your family, and especially your mother.  I hope this makes sense.  But these are your feelings and you have to make peace with them yourself.  No one can do that but you.”

“I get what you’re saying,” said Riley, his voice indicating resignation.

Then it seemed Riley relaxed as if unburdened from some weight, a secret shame, perhaps.  And the palpable tension that had surrounded him lifted and the crisis dissipated.

Just then, Axel looked up to notice a middle-aged woman entering the restaurant, wearing a concerned expression on her face.  Her eyes darted from the booths to the counter and back to the booths as she brushed the rain from her coat.

“Uh son, a woman just entered the restaurant and she appears to be looking for someone.  Might she be your mom?”  Axel nodded in the direction of the woman.

Riley twisted in his seat to look over his shoulder.

“Yeah, that’s Mom,” said Riley.

He stood and waved to signal her.  She waved back and walked confidently through the restaurant towards the booth where Riley and Axel waited.

Though not a tall woman, she carried herself erect which had the effect of making her look taller than she was.  It was easy to picture such a woman riding a horse.  She wore a Pendleton coat and, under it, a bulky sweater and western style jeans and boots.  On her head she wore a blue and white knitted ski cap that had a large pom-pom on top and a bold design of snowflakes woven in.  And she wore matching blue and white mittens.  The ski hat and mittens seemed not to fit with the rest of her attire.  She did not strike Axel as someone who skied.

“So here you are, my prodigal son,” she said as she pulled off her mittens and cap.  She was smiling as if finding her son had been a scavenger hunt which she had won.

“Hi Mom.  This is my friend—”  Riley hesitated.

Axel jumped to his feet as if suddenly back in the U. S. Army and a colonel had just entered the mess tent.

“Axel Browne, ma’am; I’m an acquaintance of Riley’s.  We met this evening here at the restaurant and got to talking.  He’s a fine young man.  He’s got a good head on his shoulders.  It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”  Axel thrust forward his solid hand.

“Easy on the ma’ams, cowboy: I’m not that old.  I’m Annabel Stiles, by the way.  How do you do?” she said as she grinned and took Axel’s hand.  “Weird, but for some reason you seem familiar,” she added.  She gave Axel a quizzical look.  “Oh well, that happens to me often,” she said, dismissing the thought.  “Riley hon, let me in; I want to sit on the inside.”  Riley dutifully scooted out, stood, and let his mother slide in on his side of the booth.

“So what mischief have you boys been up to?” said Annabel playfully.

The irises of Annabel’s eyes were shallow and the color of Tahitian seawater near the shore.  Faded freckles spread over the bridge of her nose but were nearly invisible unless you looked closely.  Her hair was coarse like that of a horse’s mane and the color of light honey but with silver strands intermingled which reflected light, like threads of tinsel.  Her hair, she had pulled back in a ponytail.

“Mom, how did you get here?” asked Riley.

“Why it’s the most amazing thing,” she said, grinning.  “Here in this modern city of Packerville, they have something called ‘taxies.’”

“Very funny, Mom,” said Riley.

Annabel then turned and directed her comments to Axel.

“Well, where we come from Axel, back in Podunk, Montana, people still ride horses to get around.  But the gal at the airline ticket counter said we couldn’t bring our horses on the airplane so, you see, we had to—”

“Okay, Mom.  Look, I’m sorry,” interrupted Riley.

“Sorry for what, darling?”  Her tone changed slightly, indicating irritation.

“I’m sorry for running off and leaving you and Izzy stranded at the apartment.”

“That’s sweet of you, but your mama wasn’t born yesterday, hon.  And Isabel and I are Montana gals who grew up on a ranch so we know a thing or two about how to take care of ourselves.”

“I know, Mom.  But I’m sorry I overreacted and everything—”

“We’ll talk about that later, dear.  Besides, I wouldn’t want to horn in on you fellas’ night out.  I’m just glad to know you’re safe and in good company and not getting drunk at some strip joint or biker bar, somewhere.”

Annabel grinned devilishly and winked at Axel as Riley rolled his eyes.

“Well, I’m glad you’re not pissed, Mom,” said Riley sarcastically.

“As a matter of fact, I am pissed,” said Annabel flatly.  “But I’ll bet if you bought me a beer I’d feel better.”  Annabel smiled wryly.  “Do they sell beer in this lovely little cafe?”

“Yeah, I think so—” began Riley.

“Allow me,” said Axel who jumped to his feet again.  “What do you want, ma’am?” he asked.

“I’d like anything Mexican, if they have it.  If not, then any piss-colored beer will do, so long as it’s cold and served with a wedge of lime and not a lite.  I hate lite beer.”

“And how about you, son?  What do you want?”

“Nothing for me,” said Riley.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” said Axel.

He had felt like a fifth wheel, sitting at the booth with Riley and his mother.  But he hoped that giving them a minute or two alone, they’d say what needed saying and clear the air.  He heard them talking in hushed tones as he left the table.  Good, thought Axel, I’ll take my time; let them sort things out.

He crossed the room to the restaurant counter which was busy now since it was dinner hour and the restaurant was full.  He found an empty stool at the end of the counter and waited for Jinny to make another round.  In a minute, she rushed past him from the kitchen carrying three plates loaded with meatloaf and fried chicken and piles of mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn, headed to the other end of the counter where she delivered her cargo to waiting diners.  Then she filled small, plastic glasses full of ice water and delivered them to a pair of customers who had just sat down and were opening menus.  After that, she bussed plates, coffee cups, and silverware from midway down, where a group had just left and, while there, stuffed payments, tickets, and tips into the pocket of her apron.  Next she rang up the tickets at the cash resister and impaled each on a wire skewer that stood beside it.  After that, she turned to the coffee machine, started a fresh pot, and took a full pot with her to make her way down the counter, refilling cups as she came.  Axel enjoyed watching Jinny work.  He admired her efficiency.

Through the big windows at the front of the restaurant, Axel noticed that the storm had arrived.  It rained steadily, glazing cars and the parking lot so that everything glistened under the street lamps.  It’s going be an uncomfortable evening, thought Axel, if this rain continues.

“Honey, what you need?”

It was Jinny, holding the coffeepot.  Axel ordered beers.

“I’ll bring them out to you,” she replied.

“I’m over there with the young fellow and his mom,” said Axel.

“No problem; I’ll bring them out in a minute.”

Axel returned to the booth where Riley and Annabel were and, as he arrived, mother and son embraced.  Annabel planted a kiss on her son’s cheek.  Axel sat down quietly as Riley squeezed his mother tightly.

“I love you, Mom,” said Riley.

“I know you do,” whispered Annabel, “every boy has to love his mother; it’s the law.”

She closed her eyes and smiled wistfully as they embraced, remembering, perhaps, other embraces when her son was yet a boy and under the protection of her wing.