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Adam and I were sitting on a mountain in Brasher State Forest. The westbound sun scanned the canopy with searing, amber yellow, procuring shadows. For months he and I had talked during shifts at the restaurant about going camping. It was hard to find the time. Now I was looking up, trying to estimate how much daylight remained before it would be too dark to hike back to the truck.

“I told you, I don’t feel – “

“Ah c’mon! You’ve been fine all day. We went at least fifteen miles! How could you have a fever comin’ on?” Adam interrupted.

“Yeah well I’m feeling pretty sick now.” I spoke flatly, trying to keep my temper cooler than the fire we were sharing.

“It’s nothing! You’re not used to it, that’s all” he said.

“Maybe, but still...”

Adam leaned closer to the campfire, one elbow crossed over his knee, in the way that portends of candid communication.

“It’s beautiful out here, n’ there’s a whole ‘nother day of sweet freedom tomorrow. You gonna throw that away for brunch at gramma’s? That’s what’s got you sick, ain’t it?”

His supposition was dreadfully correct. Not long after we had pitched our tents, my thoughts fixated on brunch at Grandma’s house, like leaves turning toward the fleeting sunlight. Tomorrow was Sunday; the third Sunday of the Sundays of August; the same Sunday of each month when my family gathers for brunch at Grandma’s house. On those Sundays, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends flock in. We play games and erupt in buoyant conversation as plate after plate of homemade food, coffee and cocktails are passed around. I felt pinned in a corner. I was sixteen, and I would have jumped into the fire before openly admitting to Adam that I wanted to brunch at “gramma’s” rather than camp. I nearly did.

“Months of waiting, now this? For brunch? Seriously?”

I looked away. Not down, but up, at the gold-tinted dome of oaks, maples, and beeches that enveloped us, high above; the true and unreachable summit of that mountain we were camped on. My thoughts turned once more to the brunch I would miss. Neither my family nor I had ever missed brunch. Grandma, my mother’s mother, started the tradition long ago. She lived alone in an old Victorian house in the countryside. Ten of my Grandma could have lived there comfortably, so over-sized was it, yet the house and she were fitted perfectly for one another. Her hospitality amply filled the space her shrinking frame did not, and the architectural accents that beautified every wall and window were just precipitates of her personality.

Grandma would bustle between the kitchen and dining room all morning and afternoon. She was always (per her insistence) hostess, head cook, and head server. Standing across the table, wrapped in a checkered apron, she would use her steamed-up glasses as a pointer to explain and recommend the dishes, like a painter eagerly explaining the fine qualities of a Rembrandt to art enthusiasts; the food was self-evidently delicious, but her care doubled its appeal.

“The fire’s dyin’, man. Throw s’more branches on, wouldya?” Adam broke in. His hands were coated with so much melted butter and chicken grease that they were liable to become torches. I placed a spidery mess of sticks onto the fire and topped it with pine boughs that crackled and burst. Adam chuckled as the fire leapt up in a fit of dance, then went back to devouring the box of chicken. His cheek was like the magician’s handkerchief. Chicken wings went in, and by some unseen, effortless trick only bare bones came out.

Grandma passed away, but the tradition she started lived on, for how could we let go something so special? It was solemn for a while. I had imagined the old house was crying for its gracious old keeper when Aunt Cran and Uncle George moved in. Now we all help cook and comment on each other’s cooking, Aunt Cran acts as curator, and the festivity abounds. “Traditions” can range wildly in meaningfulness, but to my family, Sunday brunch errs on the side of magic. Brunch instantly calls to my mind heaping plates, familiar voices and scenes of clean, ubiquitous brightness. I saw it as a sixteen year old as I see it now, and there laid the guilt I could not shake.

“Hey Adam,” I said, snapping out of reverie. The setting sun had crept beneath the canopy and was peeking from behind Adam’s back.

“Hey! Hey, Adam! I have an idea. There’s still enough light to hike back to the truck. Let’s go pick up our own brunch, and cook up something real fancy tomorrow morning. Like omelets, ham, pancakes, anything we want. Want to?” Adam looked up from the fire. Despite his full stomach, a big smile formed as he ruminated on the idea of a grand breakfast feast. I was elated. The family brunch tradition would be kept alive; with a slight alteration, but alive! They would enjoy the story I would bring home of us cooking brunch out in the wilderness. We smothered the fire, and took the trail.

An hour later we reached the gray lot where my truck sat in an overgrown corner. The last red ray of sunset was long gone. Chill mountain air swept over us as we walked to the vehicle. Adam found a supermarket on his phone that was still open. We rumbled over the park roads and out onto a highway.

“There’s a gas station comin’ up. I think you better stop real quick,” Adam said. I looked down at the gas gauge. The needle was still up toward “F”.

“I should?” I asked. I was busy composing a brunch shopping list in my head. This brunch was to be special, and definitely did not require any gas station food.

“I just need to stop in for a second,” he said with his face turned out the window. Three minutes later I pulled in, right up to one of the yellow concrete poles that fronted the neon hut. The cashier had no customers, but he stood nonetheless ready before his cash register. Too ready, it seemed, as his head drooped willow-like down to the customer display screen. He mustered up sleepy attention with Adam’s entrance and the door’s electric two-tone.

I watched from the car. The cashier fought hard, blinking under the neon tubes, forcing wakeful breaths from his open mouth. Adam showed no mercy. He looked, and considered, and looked around some more. I was wide awake with my plans, but even my excitement suffered as Adam sauntered about the store. He roved with great care up and down the aisle of candy, down the aisle of crispy things, and made a careful inspection of a regiment of pop logos. The cashier nodded; he was losing the battle of Attentive Service.

“Come on, Adam! What are you doing!? Let’s get to the grocery store and go!” I shouted.

Adam quickened his pace. He lugged his items to the front of the store and dropped them on the counter. He whipped the cashier back to semi-consciousness with some cheerful-looking conversation. They laughed. He leaned over casually, his elbow spread across the counter, flashing big gestures and his all-convincing smile. What was so funny? I wondered. The cashier looked immensely amused and grateful for the unhoped-for liveliness during his night shift. He scanned the items, and Adam fumbled around for his wallet.

In that interval, the cashier turned his sleepy, smiling head, and, I swear, through the glass of the store, through the glass of my windshield, and through the glass of my glasses, he looked right into my eyes, and winked.

“What? What!” I fumed. “Is something funny?!” I shouted to unhearing ears. Adam said something and they both erupted with laughter again, coins spilling out of the cashier’s hand. He disappeared beneath the counter.

“For the love of God,” The truck knocked and jolted backwards. It flew back, out of my space, and flew back more until I was on the open road. I pulled the lever and spun the tires until they caught hold, exploding me forward, back towards home. The lonely store faded behind. The third Sunday of each month is my day, our day; family, food, and an eternal, ubiquitous brightness. I felt shame burn away, rubber on the road.


Image of Brunchin' Around


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