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We had a plan that I thought was pretty good. I just didn’t expect it to be so completely interrupted by a pancake breakfast. But then, the town Fireman’s Pancake Breakfast is always at least a little surprising.
It’s something our town does to raise money for extra activities that our taxes don’t pay for. I’ve been going ever since I was a tadpole because my father, as the editor of the town’s best newspaper, is always invited and sits at the table at the head of the room. Oh, and gets pancake syrup poured on him. Every year. They call it a tradition, but I think it’s just plain hilarious.
My father says it began before I was born when he threw a pancake Frisbee-style at Alderman Byrd. Alderman Byrd threw it back, but missed. So he got up slowly and carefully, and poured an entire pitcher of maple syrup over my father’s head.
As I said, hilarious.
It turned into a tradition the next year when my father made the mistake of showing up in a raincoat and rain hat, the sort that salty old seamen wear. Alderman Byrd took this as a challenge. The next year my father brought an umbrella. And after that, he gave up trying to protect himself. He shows up in a shirt he doesn’t care too much about and sits there silently as Alderman Byrd syrups him.
This year, the money raised by the breakfast was going to a cause that Mimi cared about a lot. The Tulip Time Nursery. It’s a daycare center that the town funds for families that can’t afford the more expensive ones. Mimi volunteers there during the summer and goes on some of their class trips. Over the past few years, the town had given the Tulip Troop, as the kids were known, less and less money because there wasn’t much money to give out. The nursery raised some money through donations and bake sales. They even sold the tiny little tomatoes and half-grown cucumbers that the Troop spent all summer growing. I’d pass by the garden sometimes, and the sight of those little kids whacking at the ground with their plastic hoes as if they were actually gardening was maybe the cutest thing I’d ever seen.
So, when Alderman Byrd asked Mimi to help put up signs advertising the Pancake Breakfast, she was torn. On the one hand, she wanted to raise money for the Tulip Troop, what with them being so cute and all. On the other hand, she thought Alderman Byrd was going too far: The signs showed a big, juicy photo of my father looking calmly into the camera as syrup dripped over his head and down off his glasses. The fact that you also got to eat pancakes at the breakfast was hardly even mentioned.
Mimi showed me a copy of the flyer. “Don’t worry about it,” I said to her. “It’ll probably draw a lot of people, and that’s what everyone wants. Even my father.”
But it gave me an idea that required me to hire my very first employee. I needed an adult who could buy some things without anyone getting suspicious. “That’s a great idea,” Mimi said. “There are so many things that’d be easier if we had a grown up to do them for us.” Even something as simple as getting business cards printed up is tough for a kid to do without making people suspicious.
But who? One of our teachers? No, that would make going to school too complicated because we’d always have to pretend that nothing was going on. Besides, I’m not sure it’s legal for students to hire their teachers. One of my relatives? No, they might let the secret slip to my parents. Mr. Seoul, the guy who drives the ice cream truck? He seemed like a really nice guy, but I’m not sure I’d trust with him a $100,000,000 secret.
Then it came to me. Remember Julia Minden, the teller at the bank where all my money is? Probably not since I only mentioned her once and that was a long time ago. Ms. Minden was about twenty-five years old, tall, and had the sort of smile that is so bright it makes you want to duck. Every time I’d gone into the bank, we’d chatted a little. I really liked her. Not only was she helpful and cheerful, but she didn’t treat me like a little rich kid. Plus, she was already in on the secret. Mimi and I went to see her.
“Hello, Jake,” she said, like someone genuinely pleased to see me.
“Hello. Do you know my friend Mimi?”
“You’ve been in with your mother. How is your father doing, Mimi?”
“Good,” Mimi said.
“Can we talk with you privately about something?” I asked.
“Of course.” She caught the eye of Ms. Harrigan who waved to her that it was ok to take a little break, seeing that it was with me. Ah, the privileges having money gives you!
We went into one of the bank’s private rooms and I laid out the deal: “We’re looking for a grownup to help us, and we’re wondering if you’d be interested.”
“Help you do what?”
“Help us do the things that we’re doing with our money,” I said.
“It’s not really our money,” Mimi said to me. “It’s yours.”
“Well, yes,” I said.
“But we’re not doing anything evil with it,” Mimi said. “There are just some things that it’s really tough for kids to do.”
“Especially if no one is supposed to know that they have money,” I added.
Ms. Minden sat thinking,
“We’d pay you,” I said. I’d somehow left that part out.
“Would I keep my job here at the bank?”
“Yes. We would only need you to do things every now and then.”
She looked at me now like someone who had made up her mind. “I trust you. And I like what you’ve been doing with the Fordgythe Foundation.”
“You know about that?”
“It wasn’t hard to figure out since Mrs. Fordgythe is the one who transferred the money to you.”
“So you’ll do it?”
“I’d be happy to.”
“Great!” We sat for a moment. “How much do we pay you?”
She laughed, “I don’t know.”
“How can you not know? You’re a grownup!”
“But salaries don’t work that way. Usually you’re not paid much more or less than other people in the company doing the same job with the same amount of experience. But this isn’t like that. So, we just have to figure something out.”
“Well,” I said, “It doesn’t matter much to me because I have so much money.”
“Yes, I have that going in my favor,” she said, laughing again. “But we’re just going to have to come up with an amount we both think is right.”
So here’s what happened in the negotiation. She began with an amount that was about a tenth of what she made as a bank teller. By the time we were done bargaining, I had gotten her to accept a salary of half as much as she made. She thought I was terribly overpaying her and I thought I was terribly underpaying her. I guess you could call that a successful compromise.
Now that Ms. Minden worked for me, I told her my plan. She laughed and asked how she could help.
There was only one thing left for me and Mimi to do: Download a picture of Big Bird. By the next morning we’d posted 100 flyers around town. “Big Byrd invites you to the Pancake Breakfast to benefit the Tulip Time Nursery,” said. And in the center was a photo of Big Bird with Alderman Byrd’s face imposed on it. Sometimes I love computers.
I knew that some people called him Big Byrd because he was shaped roughly like that overgrown chicken on Sesame Street. In fact, I once saw him in shorts in the park and his legs were as thin and knobby as Big Bird’s. The Alderman didn’t like the comparison at all. Not even a little bit. So we figured we’d annoy him before the big day. Why not? It was for a good cause.
The day before the breakfast, Ms. Minden sent me an email saying that everything was all arranged. When I asked who had built the stuff we needed, I was surprised to find out that it was Mr. Paul, the Dunns’ butler and handyman. “I had to tell him what it was for,” Ms. Minden wrote back to me. “I didn’t want him to think it was for something illegal.”
“You trust him enough for that?” I replied.
“Actually, yes. Of course I didn’t mention your name or anything about winning the lottery. I just said I was doing some odd jobs for an eccentric rich person. But I’ve known Mr. Paul for a while. We’re in a book club. He’s very honest. And he has a great sense of humor.”
Wow. The things you learn about someone in a book club!
The night before the breakfast, my father was laying out the clothes he was going to wear. Alderman Byrd traditionally poured carefully onto the top part of my father’s head so that the syrup could flow all down my father’s face. And from the face it went to the collar and from there on down until by the time my father got up, he left a syrup mark on the seat. Gross, when you think about it, which I try not to do. So, the clothes he wore had to be disposable, but also nice enough that it didn’t look like he was dressing for the syruping that was bound to happen.
I looked at the checked shirt and the black jeans. “Nice,” I said. “Going a little informal this year?”
“Yes,” he said jokingly, “It’s only a breakfast. No need to get all dressed up.”
“Yeah, sure. I mean, suppose you spilled some, I don’t know, syrup on yourself. You wouldn’t want to get your good clothes all sticky.”
“Spill syrup? Why, what are the chances of that?” he said and laughed. He picked out a pair of nice fuzzy socks.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if Alderman Byrd got syruped one year instead of you?” I asked.
“Ol’ Big Byrd? I wouldn’t say no. But it’s a tradition. I don’t mind it. In fact, it’s even sort of an honor.”
“Sure.” my father said, running his hand through what used to be his hair. “They wouldn’t do this to someone they didn’t know and like.” Then he looked at me, panicked: “Would they?”
He was kidding.
“I’ll wake you at eight tomorrow,” Dad said.
“I’ll probably be awake by then,” I said. I’d better be. I had work to do.
The breakfast began at nine o’clock, but the only ones who got there that early were either town officials like Big Byrd or those who really wanted to get their money’s worth of the as-many-as-you-can-eat pancake offer. My father, as a town notable, showed up shortly after nine. Mimi was already there because she didn’t want to miss a minute of it. And in the front of the room at the table closest to where the volunteers were serving the pancakes was Ari, already on his third plate.
We hadn’t told Ari our plans. Mimi had asked about that a couple of days earlier. “Why don’t we not,” I suggested. “That way he can be surprised by what happens.”
“Yeah, it’ll be more fun for him.”
In truth, though, I think something else was going on. I think Mimi and I wanted to have something that was only ours. That may not have been the nicest thing to do to our friend Ari, but we had a good excuse…good for him and good for ourselves.
Mimi was watching for me. “Is everything…?” she started to ask as she came towards me.
“It’s all done,” I said. It had been done by six am. Which meant that we’d started it at five am. Even though it was almost summer, at that time in the morning it was chilly. I’d met Mr. Paul behind the building. He was drinking coffee from an insulated cup. It smelled good, and I don’t like coffee. So I was very pleased when Mr. Paul reached into his bag and pulled out a thermos filled with hot chocolate and an empty mug for me. I guess being a butler teaches you how to be considerate. “Are you ready?” he asked me?
I nodded. “Did you bring everything?”
He pointed at the duffel bag next to him.
So we entered the pancake house through a window and did what we planned on doing.
“Phase 2 went according to plan,” I said to Mimi.
“Phase 2? What was Phase 1?”
“You know, figuring stuff out.”
We got good seats towards the front, but out of spray range, and chowed down on some pretty good pancakes.
The speeches didn’t begin until 10:30, and they were short because everyone knew that we weren’t there to hear local politicians drone on and on about how proud they were to support this and oppose that and how pleased they were to vote for giving the firefighters new red suspenders. The people in the room were there for two reasons and two reasons only: to eat pancakes and to watch my dad get syruped. Every speech only postponed the time when my father would be drenched in sticky, icky, gooey goo.
My father was doing his usual thing, pretending that he didn’t know anything was going to happen to him, listening to the speeches as if he were actually interested instead of wondering just when Selectman Byrd would be coming over with that big pitcher of maple syrup.
As usual, Selectman Byrd was waiting for the end of the speeches because as soon as he did the deed, no one would even pretend to listen to the rest of them. The fifth town official was finishing up. She was explaining how proud she was to support the library’s new library cards, the ones with a lovely picture of Melvil Dewey on them – he apparently was the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System – and there didn’t seem to be any town officials left. It was just as she was expressing her admiration not only for Dewey but for decimals – where would we be without them? – that Selectman Byrd rose from his seat. Quietly. No big fuss. But everyone was watching him, as he well knew.
Now pretending to whistle casually, he was approaching my father from behind. Dad was putting the last bite of pancakes into his mouth, rolling his eyes, pretending to be enjoying them as much as if they were a fancy dessert at the country’s best restaurant.
Up creeps Selectman Byrd. And now from behind his back he brings the pitcher of syrup. Except this time it’s not a pitcher. It’s one of those gigantic water pistols, the type that hold a gallon. The Selectman is pumping it up with air so that he’ll get a good stream out of it. My father must be able to hear him, but he acts as if nothing is going on behind him. People are giggling. All eyes are on the Selectman.
And watching the closest are me and Mimi because everything depends on Selectman Byrd standing right behind my father. The water pistol means he’ll stand too far away. Mimi looks at me. I look at her.
Slowly, Selectman Byrd comes forward. Ten feet away. Eight feet away. Five feet away.
And he fires.
A stream of syrup hits my father in the back of the head and drips down his collar.
The Selectman gets a nice arc in the stream so that it drops down on him like a slow shower.
My father slowly turns to face him, as if wondering what’s going on. The Selectman hoses him in the face.
Five feet away, in the wrong place. And there’s nothing Mimi or I can do.
Then, as the syrup continues to stream down his face, my father reaches under the table. He has two cans of whipped cream taped there. He stands up. He aims them both at the Selectman.
The Selectman pumps up his water gun again but the stream stays weak.
My father steps backwards.
The Selectman steps forward. Five feet from where my father had been sitting. Three feet. One foot.
I press the button on the device in my pocket.
It sends a radio signal to the devices Mr. Paul installed in the ceiling. The signal releases magnets that were holding the latches closed.
From the ceiling comes five gallons of butterscotch sauce, the only thing we could think of that was stickier than maple syrup.
Selectman Byrd is stopped in his tracks. He is stunned. He stands there, his arms at his sides, as the butterscotch sauce trickles down his head, down his shirt, into his pants.
Butterscotch sauce is coming out of the cuffs of his pants.
And then I press the second button.
Do you know how many fake yellow feathers there are in two pounds? More than enough to cover an entire large Selectman who has been recently coated with butterscotch sauce.
Big Byrd stood there flapping his wings as if he were really Big Bird.
And I thought to myself: For a waste of money, it was worth every penny.