HERE IS YOUR FUTURE, JUST THE WAY YOU LIKE IT
Someone said the new IHOP had been a fishing supply store, others recalled a dry cleaner. Adam swore it was his great aunt’s bungalow, having served as a brothel during the war, but that was just Adam talking too much.
I knew it as a foreclosure, burdened by asbestos, a dry carcass purchased with foreign money.
Work began quickly. Particle board went up along the sidewalk, and teenagers graffitied the walls with eager truisms. Inside, men constructed a shapeshifting vinyl mound. There were many jackhammers that jackhammered long into the night.
Jonesville was not a town used to noise complaints, but a cop once said the number of non-emergency calls had increased to a hundred in January. “No more bullet-biters left in this town,” he said. “They all ran up the hills to make their own damn breakfast.”
When the walls came down for the IHOP’s glorious reveal, right there on the corner of Hope and Downes, it was a nearly religious thing––with a peaked roof pointing straight to God.
The IHOP raised a banner advertising seven-dollar triple stacks and bottomless coffee. Iridescent pinwheels sprouted from the dirt, spinning madly in the April wind. The gutters were hung with garlands.
The following day, I encountered a man dressed as a pancake. He loitered beneath the awning of the grocery store, burdened by the weight of his plush, syrupy shell.
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” he squeaked. I noticed his ankles poking out from the pancake legs, white and thin like corn husks. He handed me a coupon for a free kid’s breakfast, and I thanked him.
It had been a year since I left the city and joined Adam upstate, the sale of my apartment having made me rich. I never wanted to get stuck down there with all the assholes. Instead, I wanted to get gray and cranky somewhere quieter, somewhere with more space, somewhere that needed me.
During those last weeks of winter, I had grown into myself in an ugly way. I washed my hair with bar soap, and I ate mostly hard-boiled eggs. I talked to the dog for hours on end. The promise of IHOP felt like renewal. And with the coupon in my hand, I imagined the smell of cooking oil, my tongue dry and lapping at the air. There was breakfast, waddling around and torturing me.
Whatever it was, it was working.
The Catskill Mountaineers Club organized a meeting at the IHOP on opening day. I made a reservation for 10AM, noting we would prefer a booth near a window. That morning, the sun was bright and blinding and doing what it always did––lighting the last cracklings of muddy ice and soot along the roads. Adam and I needed to discuss the parade float. But more importantly, I needed to get the hell out of the house, where most days it was just me, the dog, and the dirty windows with their pulled-plastic covers.
I walked, but it appeared most people had driven: the parking lot was filled with out-of-state plates, many of them Subarus, two RVs, and a congregation of motorcycles packed into the far corner.
A sign on the front door advertised free mimosas from 7 to 10 AM, an early bird special. Well goddamn me. I thought Jonesville was dry, but the IHOP had rewritten the law.
The inside was decorated with old things. There was a framed photo of the Junior Varsity men’s wrestling team (dated 1967), a street sign for Earl’s Road, which is no longer a road because Earl is dead, and a cartoon poster for a bar called the Regal Beagle, a relic from before my time. The lead beagle wore aviators and sipped from a martini. He reclined in a chaise lounge surrounded by lady beagles in crop tops and running shoes. Near the back, somebody had hung a pair of antique snow shoes from the drop ceiling.
The hostess beamed at me. “You’re our very first reservation––how exciting!” She wore crucifix earrings and spoke like I was across the room.
“There was a line around the block at six-thirty, but you’re the only one who called.” She put her hand to her neck and cracked her knuckles against it. “But I regret to inform you that we can’t accommodate the window request, as all the windows are right here, in front.”
She led me to a booth near the syrup station. At this hour, it was mostly families with young children, a few groups of teenagers sipping chocolate milk through straws. Across the aisle, an old man poked at an omelette. He wore a baseball cap that read The Vietnam War Was Unfuckingbelievable. When he caught me looking, he cocked his head and made a wet, gurgling noise that came from his throat.
I hit a deer once, the first month I moved here. It survived long enough for me to get out of the car and look at it, writhing in the beam of my headlights. Then it looked back at me. It had a giant hole in the middle of its body. The deer wheezed and cooed and then it died. It was a sound I never want to hear again, but sometimes I find it in the basement pipes or when the dog returns from the woods, coated in brambles and panting.
I nodded at the old man as if to thank him, but also to confirm he did not frighten me. He did not nod in return.
As consolation for the iridescent light, or maybe because I looked lonely and sad, the hostess brought me a mimosa on the house. I toasted the air and sent Adam a text begging not to be left alone so early in the morning.
This year’s parade theme was “Blasting Off To The Future,” likely a nod to Jonesville’s economic revitalization. It was a swan song for landowners, a reminder to embrace the power of subdivision and for next-of-kin to reduce pricing as their properties fell further into disrepair.
People had gotten so lazy. Nobody knew how to live in their own houses without the ignominy of space heaters––humming animals installed beside fireplaces so choked with soot and garbage that one wood fire would burn the whole place to the ground. Parts of town looked like a permanent yard sale, and half-collapsed barns were left to tumble down on their own.
There was nothing left to fix in the city, but Jonesville was a call to arms. Economically failing, dirt poor, and red as blood. We were the new times, a battle against the old, unsustainable ways.
The parade was a big deal––always had been. Decades ago, it was a time for local farmers to get drunk, drag their livestock down Main Street, and argue about whose cows were stronger and better-looking. Nowadays, it was about who was most committed to turning this place around, as expressed through things on wheels. So it was expected that local businesses prove their hometown spirit by purchasing left-for-dead vehicles and outfitting them with visions of the world they were born to create.
As newcomers, we needed to blow this float thing out of the water. Rumor spread that the New Men’s Rotary Club planned to recreate the moon landing hitched to the back of a modded-out school bus. There was a rumor they’d dipped an American flag in resin so it wouldn’t wave in the wind.
This was a stupid approach: the moon landing was old news. It was how the future looked if you were living in the past. Reductive, unimaginative, and lurching in the wrong direction.
“Fuck the moon,” I said to nobody, raising my plastic glass. This was soon followed by a text from Adam: Running late, be there in ten. The girls wanted to show off their new hunting knives, haha.
Adam’s daughters were ten and twelve. That’s old enough to like boys and know about porn, so I figured that was old enough to own hunting knives and want to kill things too.
A server approached with a stack of laminated menus that she placed in a fan on the table. I asked for a coffee and apologized that my party was running late.
She nodded and put a hand on my shoulder. “Sun’s bright out there. Hard to leave bed with a thing like that.”
She had cropped black hair and smelled like expensive soap. Her fingers were blue-tipped and spindly. She probably didn’t care much for serving breakfast to all us assholes, but good jobs were scarce in Jonesville.
I patted her hand. “Thanks,” I said. “I like the sun. I assume it’s still out there while we’re in here.”
She withdrew and pulled a notepad from her apron. “Last I checked. How do you take your coffee?”
“With half-and-half, if you have it.”
I paused, the aroma of high fructose corn syrup flooding my nostrils like a high. “One last thing. What do you think about the future?”
“What about it?”
“You know. Where it’s going. What it is.”
“Oh, I’ve got a boyfriend, if that’s what you’re asking.” She tucked her hair behind her ears, and her expression softened. “But the future is a place where everyone’s just rearranging the deck chairs on the Queen Mary, darling. It’s like the present, but with more furniture.”
“You mean the Titanic, right? Didn’t the Queen Mary make it just fine?”
She looked at me blankly and gave a little sigh. “No,” she said. “I mean what I say.”
The old man snorted and shook his jowls over his plate.
I should mention now that there was no mountaineering in the Catskill Mountaineers Club. In fact, the closest mountain was a two-hour drive from Jonesville, and they had closed the trails due to falling rock.
The Catskill Mountaineers Club was A Collective for Sport and Idea, according to the cards Adam had printed. A hivemind, horizontally organized here in the wilderness where we could spread ourselves infinitely. We were in the business of curating experiences, and we had plans to buy up the old day camp at the edge of town. Raze the dormitories, build one-room cabins and long communal tables through the woods. Dot the river with birch canoes, invest in energy-efficient lighting, and charge the wealthy to abandon the city for in favor of real, unadulterated nature. Adam wanted to hand-embroider membership patches. We planned to make a killing.
We had storage units, ex-wives, and unpaid parking tickets down in the city, but we had since quit our jobs that tethered us to those lives. We knew how to tear things down and build them back up. We were in the business of predicting what people wanted, how, and when. We were doers and makers, bored to death by the pedigree we had earned in the trenches below.
Before I came to Jonesville, I worked in branding. Property, specifically. My portfolio is full of luxury condos and reclaimed factory buildings, gutted to their brick shells and reborn with brass fixtures and rooftop gardens. I wrote in the manic language of the empty elite, poetry designed to harness the purchasing power of those who inscribed their privilege not only in imported marble but, of course, in petty semantics.
Imagine having a gumball machine full of the worst words: incubate, radiate, nourish, exotic, leather, granite, God. The repetition of this language cast it into the realm of the unreal, like saying your name over and over again until it’s just circumstantial sound, nothing more than a car horn or a sneeze.
Adam arrived before my coffee, sliding into the booth and slapping his palms against the table. He wore a weatherproof hunting jacket that smelled like wax and smoke, and his facial hair finally approximated a beard. “Whaddya got for me, Babbot? Tell me you’ve got ideas, because I’ve got no ideas, just pancakes on the brain my man.”
“Hi Adam,” I said and drained my mimosa.
“This sure is one hell of a bungalow!” Adam peeled a menu from the table and studied it. “At least according to the town records, this is where it was supposed to be. Can you believe it? The Leibowitz family legacy is a fucking IHOP.”
The server returned with a ceramic mug of coffee and half-and-half in a metal creamer. She placed these items on the table, but there was no sound of impact nor sense of touch. Like we were briefly on mute and nobody cared. I noticed the ring on her right hand: oval-shaped and so dark that it seemed to swallow the light around it.
“Hello,” said Adam, resting his chin on his hand and gazing upward. “Did you know that back in the day, this was my family’s slut shop? Back when it was a hot house for wartime one-night stands?”
There was a bit of perspiration on her forehead, shimmering in the bright light. “We’ve been open less than five hours,” she said.
Adam waved his hands as if to signify that no, no, nobody was fucking on the griddle in some ersatz pancake house. “The land,” he said. “This land belonged to my great aunt. She had a bungalow. In the 40s.”
He pulled a business card from his wallet and handed it to her. “But we’re back now, in a big way. I’m Adam. You’re beautiful.”
“Thanks, and we’re happy to have you.” She slipped the card into her apron without looking at it. “Something to drink? Coffee or––”
“I mean it was a whorehouse,” he interjected. Adam pointed to my empty mimosa glass. “I’ll take one of these.”
“All out. Something else?”
I watched Adam screw up his face. He scowled, swirled his hand beside his ear as though he were conjuring something, and pointed at a spot on the menu. “Orange juice,” he said.
As our server returned to the kitchen, I noticed Adam’s eyes on her ass. He watched her like he watched his man-made lake, fishing rod in hand: naively expectant and a little sad. He and Lana had settled the divorce papers last summer. Fourteen years of marriage gone to the dogs, but now Adam could turn to his new house and knock down every wall he desired. He could drink in the nude, marking listings for the infested and overgrown foreclosures that spoke to his soul.
The temperature in the room seemed to have risen. I tried to isolate the whir of an air conditioner or the sounds of outside, but there was nothing.
“So, about the future!” Adam grinned and nodded like a bobblehead. His greys unfurled around his temples, and light from the faux-glass chandelier above us blessed him with a holy look. “I think it’s looking bright, no?”
He gestured toward a service station and concluded, “Hundreds of people probably got fucked, right there. Dodging death and fucking. And now they’ve put this bad carpeting all over it. You’d think we’d have flying cars and bionic dicks by now, but no, the future is a dump.”
I shook my head. “Are you suggesting we put a bionic dick on our parade float?”
“Well, I’m not not suggesting it,” said Adam. “Sex is the future, isn’t it? Or maybe it’s that sex creates the future. You know, this was what they called a safe space from war. Like a literal fucking safe space. You creating anything aside from your own erections, Babbot?”
“I built a tool shed.”
Adam patted my shoulder. “Attaboy,” he said. “Always a builder. But I think you need to get laid, man.”
I nodded and pressed into the sticky vinyl. Adam and I met in college, but he’d soured. He earned a heap of Lana’s money when she left him, so he’d been investing in really stupid back-to-the-land shit. Now he takes private archery lessons in the woods behind his house, claiming he’s a novice hunter deeply interested in rabbit stew. He bought a motorcycle he can’t ride and cowboy boots made of snakeskin. He hired a weekend nanny for his preteen daughters. The nanny grew up in town and promised to teach the girls survival skills like whittling and poisonous plant identification.
“I hear Lana’s down there teaching them how to make soufflés and handing them vocabulary books before bedtime,” Adam recently agonized. We were sitting on his splintered porch, drywall-dusted and half drunk. “When I’ve got the girls, I aim to teach them how to really live. The city made everyone soft, but I’m gonna fix all that.”
Despite this, he was my only friend in Jonesville, and now he was my business partner. On most days, I worked to tolerate the new Adam, knowing very well he still drove to the city for Swedish massages and juice tonics. One day he would grow tired of his anachronisms, as would I. In that moment, he presented himself as the sophisticated backwoods Jesus that Jonesville likely did not need.
By that point, my hunger was absolute––I could have eaten my fist. But as I examined a gleaming stack of pancakes on the laminated menu, I felt eyes on me. Glancing up, I met the gaze of the old man. He had finished his omelette and was watching us. His eyes were too open. He dragged his fork along the perimeter of his plate. He stared. Dragged, scratched his face, stared.
I trained my eyes on the breakfast options. I would order a triple stack of pancakes, bacon, two eggs over easy, and I’d gladly pay extra for a thimble of Real Maple Syrup. Adam whistled lazily through the gap in his front teeth. I felt the old man’s eyes on my neck like beams of hot, white light.
“Babbot, we’re gonna eat like fucking kings,” said Adam.
When the old man stood, he flicked the brim of his hat so it sat, half-cocked, across his brow. Back hunched, he knuckled his hands into the stardust-tiled table. He was tall. Like an old bow in an old corner. Tall enough to touch the ceiling.
In that moment, the lights dimmed. I felt the sweat on my neck. And as the old man approached, I thought back to the deer, bloodied and broken. I imagined it following me down the road on its hind legs and making slurping sounds, asking why I had dared come here in the first place.
The old man was standing at our table now. His forehead protruded like the front of a boat and he smelled like gasoline. “You don’t get creation. You don’t get fucking, and you don’t get war,” he hissed.
He raised his hand, considered it, then swept it behind his back. “War gets you. It comes for you. But it’s too good for you. You shitfuckers don’t deserve it. You wouldn’t know a bullet if it bit you in the ass.”
Adam opened his mouth as though in a moment of paralysis. A static hum throbbed in the air. And in gathering the courage only a man like Adam could muster, he fluttered the menu in the air, insisting the old man had lost his mind.
“This is my family’s land, and how dare you talk to me like that on my property.” Adam continued to swat the air as though he were fanning a fire. “You have no business here. So please return to the hole you came from!”
Somewhere in the back, a kid yelled “Beat him up!” Others soon joined in, chanting “Beat him up! Beat him up!”
The old man smiled, unlocked his jaw, and launched an arc of saliva onto our table. Adam shrieked. I couldn’t help but laugh before registering a migraine creeping in the corners of my skull. And as the old man lurched away, his shirt untucked at the back, our breath hanging limp and hot in the dead air, the power in the IHOP surged and gave way to black.
Weeks later, I fill the bed of my pickup truck with sand, stick a New York state flag in it, and drive down Main Street between a rocket ship and three cows draped in tinsel. The rocket ship takes gold, the moon landing comes next, and I use the sand to lay a patio in my yard.
The ice is gone, and the Japanese beetles make the fruit trees pulse like too-alive things. On warm nights, I sit there for hours, the dog at my feet, grateful to be alone.
Adam acquires the day camp using the remaining funds from his ex-wife, and we begin stockpiling an arsenal of sledge hammers and shovels in preparation for rebranding the wilderness. As for the IHOP, they purchase two backup generators and change to a 24-hour model. Adam and I do not return.
Every morning the parking lot fills to capacity; by noon, straggling cars double park along the street. Their drivers waddle along the asphalt, sugar drunk and happy. And every night, as the sun buries into the mountains, the light from the windows vibrates like a thing from outer space––a thing that cuts the sky in half when all should be moored together in darkness.