Johnny America


The Hu­man Pancake


I nev­er thought about grav­i­ty much un­til Jared Wal­ter hit the side­walk in front of me and turned in­to a pan­cake. Not a reg­u­lar pan­cake of flour, milk, and eggs. Hal­lu­cino­genic drugs weren’t con­sumed that day. A hu­man pan­cake. He was flat­tened against the grimy side­walk like he’d melt­ed up­on it.

I re­mem­ber morn­ings as a kid, I’d arise in a fren­zy and scam­per to the kitchen when I heard my grand­pa dig­ging out his elec­tric-pow­ered grid­dle. My grand­ma kept it tucked in the back so it al­ways clam­oured off the strain­ers and cop­per pots. Once heat­ed, my grand­pa would mix the bat­ter to a prac­ticed con­sis­ten­cy and la­dle in­tri­cate de­signs on­to the black­ened sur­face as if the decades-old cook­ware were a blank can­vas. It amazed me.

That was the kind of pan­cake Jared Wal­ter looked like, but made with blood and guts and bits of cranium.

I stuck around and wait­ed for the po­lice. The siren wail wasn’t far off. Two po­lice of­fi­cers pushed their squeaky doors open. The small­er one was off like a black­fly and flit­ted about with se­cu­ri­ty tape. The larg­er one had to place a hand on top of the car to lift his bel­ly out. He pro­duced a damp hand­ker­chief from his pock­et, wiped his fore­head, then reached back in­to the car for his saucer cap. Quite the crime fight­ers. One could leave the at­mos­phere if a man puffed a cig­ar too close to him and the oth­er could walk through a tor­na­do. The lat­ter in­spect­ed the body from where he stood. “Not again, these god­damned idiots.”

They asked me what hap­pened, and I gave a de­tailed ac­count. “He splat­tered on the sidewalk.”

“What do you mean… splat­tered?” The mi­nus­cule of­fi­cer writ­ing the re­port wondered.

“Well look at him there,” I point­ed at the pan­cake, “if that’s not splat­ter, I don’t know what is. I dropped a can of paint when I was re­dec­o­rat­ing my bath­room, and I thought that was a pret­ty good splat­ter. But that was a speck­le, at best, com­pared to this.”

“Okay,” the cop with the bel­ly dis­par­aged, “we’re gonna need you to come down to the sta­tion and fill out an of­fi­cial re­port. Is that a problem?”

“Nope. Right now though? I have a doctor’s ap­point­ment I’m late for al­ready. And I had to walk to­day be­cause my car’s in the shop.”

He hand­ed me his card. “Any­time with­in the next cou­ple of weeks would be fine.”

I left them there putting yel­low py­lons around Jared Walter’s body, which seemed un­nec­es­sary. Sure­ly the mess was san­guinary enough to get pedes­tri­ans to al­ter their course. Hu­mans rarely want to get their shoes dirt­i­er than they are.

“Looks like it’s get­ting bet­ter,” my doc­tor an­nounced, putting away one of the var­i­ous tools she had for pok­ing things.

“Yeah, I haven’t paid much at­ten­tion to it.”

“Well thank god. There wouldn’t have been a prob­lem if you had just left the damn thing alone. How many times do I have I tell you? Don’t scratch a rash, dummy.”

Dr. Har­ri­et wasn’t the most tech­ni­cal­ly gift­ed doc­tor. But I trav­eled halfway across the city be­cause she gave it to me straight. “I know. But I’d be sit­ting there, watch­ing some re­run of this or that. Then I’d look down, and it would be call­ing to me like an ad­ver­tise­ment or some­thing. Like one of those big bill­boards that has a la­dy in lin­gerie say­ing look at my chest then buy this per­fume for your ug­ly girl­friend. How am I sup­posed to dri­ve while there’s a boob the size of my car on the hori­zon? So I’d start scratch­ing it, and it would feel bet­ter. Weird, isn’t it, how you’re not sup­posed to do most of the stuff that feels good?”

“Is there some­thing else both­er­ing you? Did some­one hit you in the head with any­thing that may have been a shovel?”

I laughed. “No, noth­ing like that. Some guy did a sui­ci­dal swan dive in­to the con­crete in front of me on the way here and I guess it’s got my brain act­ing like an air-popper.”

“Je­sus, Mark. That sounds like a trau­mat­ic experience.”

“It should have been. It just made me think about pancakes.”

“Al­right, I need to hear you stop talk­ing. Or else I’m gonna have to send you for a psych eval­u­a­tion. We’re done here.”

Dr. Har­ri­et stood up.

“So, I can put my pants back on?”

“You didn’t need to take them off. The rash is on your forearm.”

“In re­gards to pants, it’s bet­ter safe than sor­ry, I al­ways say.”

“Right. Well, I’ll be see­ing you when I see you.”

The po­lice sta­tion was squat and even­ly pelt­ed with bricks. Metal­lic rail­ings glim­mered in the af­ter­noon sun. Plain, blocked let­ter­ing broad­cast­ed the num­ber des­ig­na­tion of the precinct. Boys and girls in blue waltzed out of the open­ing with Sty­ro­foam cups of cof­fee and gra­nola bars. Un­for­tu­nate­ly for of­fi­cers who en­joyed donuts, they had to shy away from them to avoid be­ing stereo­typed. So they ate or­gan­ic things like bran ce­re­al or gra­nola bars. You would nev­er hear, “Hey pig! Why don’t you go eat a bunch of healthy, high fiber snacks!” from neigh­bor­hood punks.

Pass­ing through the vestibule, I was greet­ed with a shiv­er­ing blast of con­di­tioned air. The bee­hive in­side was awash with ac­tiv­i­ty. Re­ports and file fold­ers were thrown on desks with all-know­ing gazes. The po­lice chief yelled at O’Flaherty for blow­ing up a city block in pur­suit of a de­liv­ery boy with ties to the Yakuza. Of­fi­cers close to re­tire­ment were leav­ing to re­spond to calls that were more dan­ger­ous than they seemed. It was every­thing I imag­ined it to be.

A kind black la­dy manned the desk that di­vid­ed the chaos of the floor from the gen­er­al pub­lic. She greet­ed me warm­ly. “Next,” she said. But it was warm. You could tell by the way she didn’t raise her eyes as I re­placed the pre­vi­ous com­plaint ma­chine she had helped.

“Yes, hel­lo,” I said, “I saw a man splat­ter on the con­crete yes­ter­day morn­ing and the de­tec­tive or what­ev­er told me to come down and fill out a report.”

“Did the of­fi­cer give you a card?”

“Yes ma’am.” I had the card ready and hand­ed it to her.

“Hm­mm,” she stud­ied the card, “was this for that ten-fifty-six on Forty Seventh?”

“It was on Forty Sev­enth Street, yes. I’m not sure what a ten-fifty-six is. I on­ly know what a num­ber one and a num­ber two is.”

She wasn’t amused, “The sui­cide, sir.”

“Uhh yes, sure. If that’s what you folks have de­ter­mined it to be. It was my first thought as well.”

She whipped her chair around and bur­rowed in­to a fil­ing cab­i­net the size of a con­densed ma­hogany tree. Fold­ers swept un­der her march­ing fin­gers as she searched. Once lo­cat­ed, she spun back in my di­rec­tion, slid a piece of pa­per in­to a clip­board, and laid it on the desk. A stick­er placed over­top said, ‘Jared Wal­ter, case 196703.’

“Please fill out this wit­ness re­port over there and turn it in when you’re done.”

It didn’t take very long. I filled out my con­tact in­for­ma­tion and put, ‘a man splat­tered on the side­walk in front of me,’ in the blank box des­ig­nat­ed for state­ments. When I re­turned the clip­board, she ex­am­ined it and sighed about the stu­pid­i­ty she had to deal with on a dai­ly ba­sis. As I was leav­ing, I spot­ted the bel­ly of the po­lice­man from the day be­fore. He was eat­ing a donut. “Ex­cuse me,” I yelled.

He no­ticed me and wad­dled over, lick­ing the jel­ly from the in­side of his fried pas­try. “Yeah?”

“I re­mem­bered some­thing you said yes­ter­day. You said ‘not again’ and called the pan­cake an ‘id­iot’.”

“The pan­cake?”

“Oh, um, I be­lieve his name was Jared Walter.”

He fur­rowed his brow, “Just stay away from that build­ing son. And don’t read any books about gravity.”

I was so con­fused. What was so bad about grav­i­ty books? And what did the build­ing have to do with it? Was it a li­brary full of grav­i­ty books that bored peo­ple to death by suicide?

I in­tend­ed to find out.

It wasn’t a li­brary. It was a con­ven­tion­al of­fice build­ing, full of drea­ry-eyed cap­sules in mid-priced suits.

I went to the ac­tu­al li­brary and rent­ed all the books I could on grav­i­ty. I sourced ar­ti­cles on­line. Galileo, Georges-Louis Le Sage, Ein­stein, Schwarz­schild, Eötvös, Nord­ström, New­ton. They var­ied some­what, but they all es­sen­tial­ly con­clud­ed that when you dropped some­thing, it fell down­wards. I was per­plexed. There wasn’t any­thing I didn’t al­ready know about in the books ex­cept the math equa­tions, sci­en­tif­ic for­mu­las, and most of the words.

My girl­friend be­came en­raged with the hours I was spend­ing on re­search. Three weeks in, she slipped a copy of the Ka­ma Su­tra in­to my read­ing stack. I asked her how an old sex man­u­al could help solve my grav­i­ty co­nun­drum. She told me it wouldn’t, but that I should read it be­cause it wasn’t just about sex. It was al­so a guide to eth­i­cal and com­pas­sion­ate liv­ing. I told her it sound­ed like horse­shit and that I wasn’t about to take ad­vice from some strange, two-thou­sand-year-old per­vert. She left me.

I re­turned the books af­ter months of read­ing and reread­ing. The li­brar­i­an to­talled the late fees on her cal­cu­la­tor with over­sized but­tons. She still had prob­lems mak­ing out the signs and sym­bols. “These are all the books about grav­i­ty you have, right?”

I had dis­rupt­ed her cal­cu­la­tions. She wa­vered over the cal­cu­la­tor, then hit the ‘all clear’ but­ton. “Let me do one thing at a time,” she said.

My late fees went in­to the high dou­ble dig­its — near­ly equal to the amount of time it took the li­brar­i­an to tal­ly my fine. I had to use my cred­it card. She swiped it through and we were play­ing the but­ton game all over again. The re­ceipt print­ed out. “Is that all the books on grav­i­ty you have?”

“What in the hell did I just god­damn say? Let me do one damn thing at a time. I’ll check on your god­damn grav­i­ty books af­ter you sign this god­damn re­ceipt and give it back to me.”

“My apolo­gies, I thought you might have for­got­ten.” I scrib­bled my name along the bot­tom of the receipt.

She took it and tucked it un­der the draw­er in the vin­tage cash reg­is­ter. “I haven’t for­got­ten a god­damn thing in my life. I haven’t for­got­ten that hideous shirt you wore last time you were in here, and I haven’t for­got­ten to check for more god­damn grav­i­ty books.”

I kept my mouth shut. She tack­led the key­board with the grace of a gi­raffe fight, and be­fore I could re­cite the his­to­ry of the known world I had my an­swer. “Oh yes, we just got one back.”

She seized a tat­tered book from the re­turn shelf. “Do you want to take it out?”

“Yes please.”

The book was called ‘Grav­i­ty is for Morons!’

The ex­cla­ma­tion point seemed out of place. The cov­er was a hor­ri­bly doc­tored pic­ture of a man float­ing above a pool. You could tell he was dis­placed from some ter­ri­bly bor­ing pho­to oblig­a­tion, like class pic­tures or a fam­i­ly re­union, be­cause he looked en­tire­ly spir­it­less and was stand­ing as you would on lev­el ground. It was writ­ten by a Dr Clif­ford. The book jack­et re­vealed the ‘Dr’ to be a short­ened ver­sion of ‘Dar­ius.’ The first line of chap­ter one read: ‘If you be­lieve in grav­i­ty your a stu­pid moron!’

The book was strict­ly poor­ly-word­ed in­struc­tions. It was the work of a delu­sion­al mad­man. Tips for ‘see­ing how dumb grav­i­ty is’ in­clud­ed ‘stop fart­ing,’ ‘pre­tend your swim­ming,’ and ‘step re­al­ly high and walk for a long time.’ The last chap­ter was ti­tled ‘The Ul­ti­mate Proof of Stu­pid Grav­i­ty’ and had a blunt, non­sen­si­cal list. It said:

Fol­low All Book Instructions


47th St


Dont eat

Four Quar­ter Pounders

No Pick­les

Build­ing Across Street



Jump When You Feel It

The ref­er­ence to Forty Sev­enth Street spiked my adren­a­line. It was my first. I al­ways thought my first rush of adren­a­line would hap­pen when a su­per­mod­el was trapped un­der a car with a ba­by and a pup­py. In­stead I got it from rec­og­niz­ing a street in a lunatic’s ramblings.

I still won­dered how Jared could even re­mote­ly think any of the things in the book could work.

Forty Sev­enth Street was crowd­ed and it was em­bar­rass­ing to high step past peo­ple like I was lead­ing a march­ing band. My arms ached from wav­ing them at my side in a front crawl mo­tion. It took for­ev­er amidst the yelling pa­trons and ap­a­thet­ic em­ploy­ees to get four Quar­ter Pounders at McDonald’s.

I climbed to the roof, pre­sum­ably as Jared had done all those months back. I had no in­ten­tion of jump­ing; I sim­ply want­ed to put my­self in his place be­fore he leapt. I shuf­fled to the edge and looked down. I passed gas, but it didn’t make me feel like I could float. Wind gen­tly mas­saged my ears and mut­ed the sounds from the street be­low, giv­ing me a re­laxed feel­ing of sep­a­ra­tion from the scat­tered chaos. It was serene.

Abrupt­ly, a force car­ried me up­ward. I shout­ed in ter­ror. I was mov­ing with such ve­loc­i­ty I couldn’t hear the sounds of my scream. I stopped as quick­ly as I had start­ed. My knees wob­bled un­con­trol­lably and I fell against the side of a met­al can­is­ter I was in.

“Food’s here!” a voice echoed.

“Hel­lo?” I shouted.

A Cau­casian man with dread­locks and a nov­el­ty t‑shirt ap­peared in front of me. A slit opened on the can­is­ter and he reached in and snatched the McDonald’s bag out of my hands. “Good to go, Fred?”

“Hold on one sec­ond there Greg,” a sec­ond voice replied.

“What’s go­ing on?” I demanded.

“Al­right. Good to go, Greg.”

Fred pressed a but­ton on the out­side of the can­is­ter and the floor be­neath me opened up. I shot out of the can­is­ter like bad Mex­i­can food. I saw the earth, the sky, Chica­go, then the side­walk. My body splat­tered everywhere.

My brain stayed ac­tive for a few sec­onds af­ter I hit the ground. I thought about pancakes.

Filed under Fiction on April 12th, 2013

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