All You Can Eat [story] by Robin Hemley

Sarah, Jamie, and I are at this pancake social given by a local church. Not that we’re churchgoers, it’s just that we like pancakes. We never use syrup though, only butter. Bad for our teeth, you know. I remember when sweet meant good and wholesome, but now you can’t trust anything that doesn’t say “sugarless” or “all-natural” on the bottle.

I didn’t want to come here in the first place. In fact when Sarah suggested it, I blew up. My weekends are the only times I have to relax, and crowds of churchgoers aggravate me. I work hard at the office all week. I’m up for a promotion. Our marriage is going to hell. Our son loves his toys more than us. And what does Sarah want to do? She wants to go to a pancake social just because Aunt Jemima is supposed to attend. The Real Aunt Jemima.

So what? I say. There’s no such thing as the Real Aunt Jemima anyway. There’s probably a whole horde of these Aunt Jemimas traveling around the country, appearing at pancake socials. But my arguments have no effect on Sarah. We never want to do the same things. My idea of an enjoyable Sunday is staying at home and reading the newspaper, watching “Meet the Press” and then “60 Minutes” later on. I’m the type of guy who can’t go a day without knowing what’s going on in the world. If you wanted, you could quiz me and I’d know everything. Yesterday there was an earthquake in Peru, and it killed three hundred people.

Sarah, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about news. All she’s interested in is fixing up our house and taking Jamie to places like this. Last week it was the circus. The week before that she took the kid to one of those tacky little sidewalk sales called Art Daze. When we’re alone together, we have nothing to say. I want to talk about Iran, and all she can think about is wood paneling in the den.

The meal is one of those all-you-can-eat deals. I’ve only had about four pancakes and I’m ready to go home, but I can’t even suggest it because Aunt Jemima hasn’t shown yet. All I can do is stare across the table at this fat man who’s too busy pigging out to notice me. He’s got his head bent so low to the table that his tie is soaking up the syrup on his plate. That’s gluttony for you. As far as I’m concerned, gluttony is the worst sin by a long shot. And he’s not the only one pigging out here. It seems like my family is the only one who knows how to eat decently.

The fat man sees me staring and lifts the corner of his mouth in a half smile. “You don’t like pancakes?” he says, and adds, “This here’s sure a bargain.”

I don’t have time to answer because the minister gets up on stage and announces that Aunt Jemima is here.

Out she comes, fat and dressed just like you see her on the syrup bottles: red polka-dotted kerchief, frowsy old dress. The kids don’t know who the hell she is, so they keep eating their pancakes like nothing’s happening while the old woman thanks everyone, especially the children, God’s children, and tells us all how much she loves us.

Sarah leans over to my side and whispers, “I didn’t realize she’d be such a racial stereotype.”

“What do you expect of someone named Aunt Jemima?” I say.

The minister sits down at the piano, and Aunt Jemima turns around to tell him something, I suppose what key she’s in. At that moment, all the parents grab the bottles of syrup on the table and show the kids just who Aunt Jemima is. When she turns around again, they go wild, now that they’ve seen her face on a mass-produced product. My Jamie starts to clap and yell along with all the others. Over the general roar in the church basement you hear a few parents telling their kids to eat their pancakes before they get cold.

“Before I start my song,” says Aunt Jemima in a deep melodious voice, “I want to say a few words to y’all. Now I travel around the country singing to good folks like y’all, but I don’t only sing, I have a message to bring. When you see me on a bottle of syrup, what do you really see? You don’t just see old Aunt Jemima. You see all the things in life that’s sweet and good, all them simple things in life, like maple syrup.”

“Simple things in life,” I tell Sarah. “Who’s she fooling?”

“Relax, Jack,” says Sarah. “If you’d stop acting like a skeptic for a minute, you might enjoy yourself. Just remember your blood pressure, okay?”

“I remember,” I say. “I don’t need you to remind me. But if I have a heart attack and drop dead, I want you to move my body. I don’t want to be found dead among a bunch of churchgoers. Next she’s going to start talking about family values.”

But she doesn’t. She goes right into her song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” She’s got a deep gospel voice and sways to the music while the minister accompanies her on that old piano with half the keys chipped away. While she sings, she makes motions with her hands. When she gets to the word world, she makes a circle. When she says hands, she cups her own together and looks piously up at the ceiling. After two verses, she stops and says, “Now I want all you children, God’s children, to sing along with me and do all the things I do with my hands. Now when I say children, I don’t just mean the young ones,” and she gives us her famous syrupy smile. Everyone laughs, even me. I don’t know, maybe there’s not all that much difference between me and these churchgoers, and anyway, what’s the use of arguing with such a sweet old woman? So I grab Sarah’s hand, even though we just had an argument before breakfast, and she smiles at me like people do only in movies and rest homes, sort of vacant.

Sarah and I have had a lot of arguments recently. She’s always reading these dumb women’s magazines and trying out the things they tell her to do. “101 Ways to Fix Chicken Pot Pie for the Man You Love,” and stuff like that. Poor Sarah. She’s been trying for the last fifteen years to make me happy, but the more she tries, the more bored I get with her. There are some people who aren’t meant to be happy, and I’m one of them. I don’t like happy people. Sarah is completely the opposite. Her favorite word is tickle. She likes to go to movies that tickle her, and if she reads a newspaper, it’s only to scan the columnists who tickle her.

A couple of weekends ago, Sarah spent hours shellacking the covers of women’s magazines onto the walls of our bathroom. Of course when I saw what she was doing, I was furious. “Sarah,” I said, “This is the tackiest thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, you might as well turn the whole house into a 7-Eleven.”

“I just thought it would brighten up the place,” she said. “Don’t you think it looks cheery?”

“It looks cheery as hell,” I said. “I don’t need cheeriness when I’m on the john.”

Sarah sat down on the edge of the tub. Then she grabbed a pile of magazine covers, threw then over the drain, and turned on the water full blast. A model’s face was on top, and the face just bounced up and down under the water pressure like it was doing some kind of strange facial swimming stroke.

For the first time in a while, I was scared for Sarah. I had an aunt who killed herself with sleeping pills, and this seemed to be just the kind of thing someone would do before they offed themselves. So I gave in. I let her shellac the bathroom so that now it looks like a newsstand. Then I took her out to dinner, and I didn’t even mention the fact that the Soviet Union had rejected our latest arms proposal, though it was on my mind.

Now Sarah’s acting like we’ve never argued in our lives. She’s just giving me that silly smile of hers.

“I’m glad we came,” I say to make her happy. “Pass the syrup.”

“But you don’t like syrup.”

“That’s true,” I say. “I don’t know what’s come over me. It just looks so sweet, so wholesome.”

“Daddy, can I have some syrup?” says Jamie.

“No. You remember your last checkup, don’t you?”

“Oh, let him have some,” says Sarah. “A little couldn’t hurt,” and she smiles at me. But she doesn’t need to smile. Her hair smiles for her, flipping up on either side of her face, a phony style that went out fifteen years ago.

“Well, it does look good,” I say. I pour some onto my pancakes and take a little bite.

Yum.

Aunt Jemima’s well into her song again, and everyone is singing along, following her motions with their hands. When she gets to the part about the “itty bitty baby in His hands,” they all rock their arms back and forth. Some of the younger children don’t know how to rock a baby and look more like they’re sawing some object in half.

Babies. Sarah’s wanted to have another child for a while, but I don’t. She’s so old-fashioned about that sort of thing. If I tried to tell her about exponential population growth and about starvation, she wouldn’t understand me at all. She’d probably just smile and say, “But we’re not some starving tribe in Africa, honey. We can afford another child.” I’ve known Sarah long enough to know this is exactly what she’d say.

But it’s all right. This anger towards Sarah will pass. Right now, I feel happy and know that the whole audience is thinking the same thought: everything is fine. We’re all safe together in the hands of this fat, old woman. She looks like she could shelter us from anything.

The shy-looking minister at the piano feels it too. He’s pounding his fingers up and down the keyboard, his skinny churchgoing rump half off the bench just like Jerry Lee Lewis. And the whole plaster ceiling is shaking, bits of it raining down on us like God’s white teeth. Then the song ends, and everyone is tired and sweating. My brain is sweating from all this thinking. Maybe I should stop thinking and relax, like Sarah says.

I smell my armpits. That roll-on antiperspirant I use really does last a long time. As the commercial says, men sweat more than women, but you couldn’t tell it by old Aunt Jemima. She’s got two wide circles around her armpits, and she says, “It’s a mite hot in here.”

Everyone agrees. All this combined body heat makes the place hotter than an oven. I look over at Jamie. In between songs, he’s wolfing down pancakes like he’s never tasted food before. And the syrup. His pancakes are swimming in it. Empty bottles line our long table like dominoes, and our waiter is working his butt off bringing stacks of steaming, hot pancakes and bottles of maple syrup to everyone. I’ve never seen Jamie eat like this. Sarah and I have to feed him protein pills just to keep him from going anemic on us.

And that fat man. He’s sure getting his money’s worth. I’ve never seen anyone put away this much food.

I don’t know what it is with him and me. We’ve been having this silent fight ever since we sat down, with him just smiling that weird half smile at me. I don’t know why I feel so hostile toward this particular fat man. Maybe it’s really guilt. Maybe I’m hostile because I have a lot of fat inside me, not the kind you can weigh. I’m really a skinny guy. Invisible fat.

“I sure wish Jamie would eat like this all the time,” I tell Sarah.

“Me, too,” she says. “Maybe we should feed him pancakes morning, noon, and night.” She sends me another vacant smile that doesn’t mean anything. It’s just polite. I look around the room and half the people in here have that same polite smile on their faces.

Anyway, what’s she saying? Morning, noon, and night? I don’t know about that.

I pour milk into my coffee with a moo-cow creamer, which is sort of disgusting if you think about it. I mean, the people who invented these things must have known that it looks like the cow is puking into your coffee.

I take a few bites of my pancakes, swishing them around in the syrup with my fork. Yum, yum. They’re such simple things, really, brown on the outside, fluffy white inside. But they’re so good. I never realized before that covering them with syrup makes all the difference in the world.

Aunt Jemima is singing another song now, called “Pancake Lady.” None of us know the words, so we just let her sing while we laugh along in between bites

Pancake Lady makes pancakes for me
Pancake Lady makes pancakes for free
Eat ’em up, eat ’em up, one, two, three
Pancake Lady’s got a hold on me

 Suddenly Jamie gags and yells with his mouth full, “Look, there’s a fly in my pancake. Yuck, there’s a fly in my pancake.”

Sure enough, Jamie’s fork has uncovered a little fly, snuggly wedged in a piece of white fluff, its itty feet and bitty head sticking out.

“Jamie,” says Sarah. “Don’t make such a fuss over a little fly. You’re going to spoil everyone’s breakfast.”

“You’re mother’s right,” I say. “Have some more syrup and eat your pancakes.”

“But I’m not hungry anymore. It’s gross. A gross, dead fly in my pancake.”

As soon as Jamie says gross, the fat man looks over at him with a pained expression. I put my arm around Jamie’s shoulder and hug him to me so that his mouth is squeezed into my armpit. I smile at the fat man and whisper to Jamie, “You’re embarrassing me, you little twit. Finish your pancakes or you won’t eat for a month.”

Jamie’s mouth is so firmly planted in my armpit he can barely move his lips. “Daddy, you’re hurting me,” says a voice like the dummy of an amateur ventriloquist.

The fat man leans across the table and pokes his fork at my son. “Nice little boy you got there,” he says. And then he does something disgusting. He sticks out his fat cow tongue, covered with big chunks of chewed up pancakes. If he wasn’t an adult, I’d think he had shown me his slimy food on purpose.

“Oh yes,” I say, a little flabbergasted. “He is kind of nice. Jamie, thank the nice fat man.”

Oh shit, I didn’t mean to say that. I look at the fat man, but he’s just smiling at me, taking big bites from his stack of pancakes.

“Daddy,” says Jamie, his voice like the sound of a TV in another room. “Please let me go. I’ll eat anything.”

I free Jamie and tell him, “Now be a good boy and eat your pancakes and syrup.”

Jamie looks all right, just a little red in the face. He picks up his fork, pours syrup on his pancakes, and them makes a big ceremony of cutting away the piece with the fly. He slides it with his fork to the side of his plate.

“His mother spoils him,” I tell the fat man, and Sarah gives me a “wait until we get home” look.

I glance at Sarah and wonder why she still wears her hair in that phony flip that went out of style fifteen years ago. I just wish we had something like syrup to pour on our marriage.

Yesterday we were talking for the millionth time about having a kid, and I said, “Look, I bet you don’t even know who the prime minister of Japan is.”

“Maybe I don’t,” she said. “But that’s because I don’t bury myself in things that don’t matter.”

“The world doesn’t matter?” I said.

When Sarah argues, she gets irrational. All she did to answer me was to recite this kids’ rhyme, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” She also made the corresponding motions with her hands, first interlocking her fists, then pointing her index fingers into a spire, and then opening up her hands and wiggling her fingers at me. After that she stuck out her tongue and locked herself in the bathroom. A woman like that certainly can’t handle another child. Still, there was something sort of endearing about her at that moment.

Aunt Jemima finishes the song and we all clap for her. I wonder where she’s been for the last fifteen years. Things sure do seem a lot simpler when she’s around.

I look over at the fat man for a second. This time he looks me directly in the eye, and with a wink, opens his mouth as wide as it will go, showing me a mouthful of stuff that looks like foam rubber.

“Listen, mattress-face,” I say. “I’ve had just about enough of you,” and I get ready to send him a punch, though I’m sure he’s got enough flesh in that shock-absorbing face to suck up half my arm. I’m halfway off the bench and across the table when Aunt Jemima starts into her next song, “Camptown Races.” As soon as I hear that soothing voice, I just can’t get up enough energy to be angry anymore. I float back nice and easy to my bench, like a paper cut-out doll.

I lean over to Sarah and whisper, “Speaking of racial stereotypes, what do you think of this one?”

“It’s lovely,” she says, smiling at me and blinking like she’s in some 1960’s beach party movie.

Aunt Jemima tells everyone to sing with her, and so we sing.

The kids love this song. Most of them don’t know the words, but they sing along anyway. They especially love the line, Doo dah, doo dah, and won’t sing anything but these words. The song soon turns into a shouting match among the children, most of them substituting Doo dah, and then Doo doo, for all the words in between. I sort of resent this alteration of the original, but no one else seems to mind. Aunt Jemima looks like she’s having a blast, dancing around the stage, her enormous hands waving in front of her.

The fat man is yelling “doo doo” in my face.

Plaster chips fall from the ceiling as the song ends, and with hardly a break, Aunt Jemima leads us in “The Hokey Pokey.” The minister’s hands flop up and down on the keyboard like a marionette’s. Everyone rises from the benches and crowds in between the tables to do the Hokey Pokey dance. There’s not enough room for a circle, so we make two lines facing each other. We shake our feet, then our hands, and then we turn ourselves around.

Aunt Jemima’s voice rises above us, singing, “That’s what it’s all about.”

I am suddenly disturbed by the fact that I am shaking my hands and feet at the command of an old woman. If someone from the office were to come in now I would be passed over for promotion. They’d make life unbearable. “Glad you’re working for us,” they’d say. “We need a man around the firm who know his Hokey Pokey.”

But I can’t stop doing the dance. This is ten times better than watching “Meet the Press.” It’s hard to worry about work, divorce, or even the world when you’re doing the Hokey Pokey.

When the song finally ends, everyone in the church basement groans. We want more, but Aunt Jemima says she’s tired. In fact she looks completely drained. Her kerchief has fallen off, and she doesn’t even have enough strength to pick it up. But we want an encore.

The crowd’s past control, with everyone shouting and hooting for more.

“I’m about ready for more pancakes and syrup,” I tell Sarah over the noise.

“Daddy?” says Jamie. “I’m tired. Can we go home?”

“We’ll go home when I say so,” I tell him. “We can’t leave in the middle of Miss Jemima’s last song. She’d be offended.”

“You’re good people,” Aunt Jemima tells us. “Real fine people. Now before I sing my last song, I want to ask you, what’s the best food in the whole wide world?”

“Pancakes!” we yell.

“And what tastes better on pancakes than anything else?”

“Syrup!”

Why, there’s nothing we wouldn’t eat for this fine woman.

With tears in her eyes, she leads us once again in “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” We’re still standing from the Hokey Pokey, and so we sway along.

When she says world, we all make a globe. When she says hands, we cup our hands like we’re holding robins’ eggs.

Then she sings, “He’s got you and me brother in His hands,” and clutches her chest. We all clutch our chests. She collapses on the floor, and everyone except for the minister at the piano collapses with her.

Lying on the floor like that, we sing until all the verses are done.

After the song ends, the basement is quiet except for our breathing. Slowly, we rise to our feet, all except Aunt Jemima, who remains on the floor, her arms folded on her chest, her eyes closed. She’s quite a gal, joking around like that.

The minister gets up from the piano bench, steps over Aunt Jemima, and yells, “Three cheers for Aunt Jemima.”

We all cheer, but she’s so modest, she doesn’t even respond. She just stays on the floor, that syrupy smile fixed on the ceiling.

I sit down with the rest of the crowd.

Then the waiters spring out of the kitchen, carrying trays of steaming hot pancakes and new bottles of syrup, and we begin to eat again. I have a voracious appetite. So does Jamie. He’s shoveling pancakes into his mouth. The piece with the fly is gone. He must have eaten it. In fact, everyone is eating with so much gusto that no one has time to talk. All you can hear is the squish squish of people chewing pancakes, like the sound of an army walking in wet clothes.

People are smiling and laughing. I smile at Sarah. That hair style of hers is the most attractive thing in the world right now, except of course, for pancakes with lots of syrup.

I lean her way and say, “I’ve been thinking, Sarah. I’ve changed my mind. Let’s have a baby.”

“Let’s have lots and lots of babies,” she says.

“Gobs and gobs of babies.”

“Daddy?” says Jamie with a cute expression of concern on his face. “If you have lots and lots of babies, will you still love me?”

“Why certainly, young man. That’s what it’s all about.”

“Oooh, Daddy,” he says. “I love you as much as pancakes.”

“With lots of syrup,” I reply. “That reminds me. I could use some more.”

I ask the nice man across the table to pass the syrup, and he kindly obliges. Then I see that a couple of paramedics have come to take Aunt Jemima away. No one else seems to notice. Maybe I’ll find out what happened to her on the news, but then again, maybe I won’t. I’m sure she’ll be all right. I don’t know, it’s just a feeling I have, that all of us are safe together.

 

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of the poem “EZ Bake” by Catherine Doty.]

Image by Lara604

Robin Hemley is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and many other awards, including the Nelson Algren Award for Fiction from The Chicago Tribune, and three Pushcart Prizes in both fiction and nonfiction. He has published 11 books and his stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and many literary magazines and anthologies. Robin received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and directed the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa for nine years. He is currently Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Writing Program at Yale-NUS in Singapore. “All You Can Eat” originally appeared in the collection of the same name (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988).