How I First Met Lana the Tigress.
"Is there anything else you need?"
The eggs were fine. I hadn't had to wait long, and they looked like they always did — a fluffy yellow cloud sprinkled with bits of ham.
It was the waitress who was unusual. She had swung the plate over my shoulder, and as I looked up and said, "No thanks," she stayed where she was and stared.
There was a beat.
"Are you sure?" she asked, her gaze fixed on mine. "Are you sure you don't need anything?"
I looked across the bar, to the trim figure in the white apron standing in front of the gallery of half-empty bottles.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "Are you sure there isn't anything you need?"
As he spoke, time seemed to slow down. It was as if his voice were on a tape and someone had pressed a finger on the take-up reel, drawing out his words and sending them into an unnaturally low register.
"Owwwr Yoooooo Shhooorrr Thurhrrrr Esn't Anythung Yoooooo Neeeeed?" he said.
Then my eye caught something. I only saw it for a second, but its image registered instantly in my brain: a small metal can, the size of a tear gas canister, emblazoned with a gold flame and the words "Fire Sky Max." Behind the logo was an image of a snow-capped mountain peak under a cyan sky. The can was crenellated with little triangles, as if its skin were diamond-cut crystal instead of tin. As if it held something precious instead of God-knows-what.
Suddenly the bar, the waitress, the dark wood and the wall of bottles melted away, and I was in the open-air cockpit of a biplane pitching around in the clouds.
"Wings are icing up pretty hard!" the pilot yelled back to me. "She's your baby, now! Steer her good!"
I reached down for the stick but only lifted up a saffron robe draped over my crossed legs. I looked up to see the interior of a Tibetan lamasery. A monk in ceremonial dress, shrouded in incense and a soft orange glow, bowed to me.
"You have given an excellent answer," he said, his voice feeble but full of kindness. "As your reward, you may ask any question of me that you wish."
My mind raced. "Should I ask him how to land the plane?" But before I could form the question the scene changed again, and I was on a mountaintop watching a terrible earthquake split apart the valley below. Then I was in a corporate boardroom.
"I'm telling you people," the suited man said to his near-clones around the large oak table, as he pointed to me for emphasis, "this man understands what patriotism is all about!" There was a light round of applause, and twenty silver heads smiled in admiration.
The next instant I was hosting the Oscars, handing out the gold statue for Best Supporting Actress (Amanda Peet, Syriana). But before the slender actress even took the tiny mannequin from my hand I was at a microphone at a comedy club, a breathless audience waiting in the dark. Then I was on the moon. Then on Pluto. Then I was a bowling ball careening toward a set of pins. They stood like soldiers. That awful, hollow, rolling sound.
I braced for the pain, but at the moment of impact I became the President. A single word was trying to form itself in a vast expanse. "That must be my brain," I thought. Then I was a clown in a circus spotlight. Then a howler monkey throwing a pecan at a tourist. Then I saw an eternally young man in a long white beard standing by a burning gate. "Your God will see you now," he said.
I screamed, and then hopped a little on my stool when I realized I was back at the bar.
The waitress had taken a step back and the bartender looked suddenly concerned.
"I'll have one of those," I said, steadying my voice as I pointed to the little blue can.
"Fire Sky Max," the bartender said.
I opened the can. Your standard pop-top.
What had I expected? What does anyone expect from a pre-packaged beverage whose ingredients are written in Japanese? I suppose I had wanted what every Western consumer wants: Enlightenment. The wisdom of the ages. To be transported in some way. To receive the gift of transcendental experience through material consumption. I'm an American. It didn't seem like too much to ask.
What I got was hard to describe. Not quite chocolaty, but not like a regular cup of coffee either. It definitely had a strong sugar taste. Maybe it would have been better over ice. Maybe it would have been better on vacation, or in the middle of culture shock. Deprivation has a way of spicing things up. That's the weird thing about travel.
By the time I had finished, the waitress was long gone.
"Um?" I said to the bartender, after the five swallows it took to polish off the can. "What was it she wanted?"
But already he was handing me the check. "You can pay at the register," he said.
Outside it was warm, the sky dotted by only a couple of clouds. I couldn't help feeling that there was some adventure I had just barely missed, some lesson I was supposed to have learned. Time had stopped, and the universe had opened itself up, to offer me some sort of opportunity, but I hadn't known what to make of it.
I looked up. A flock of sparrows shot overhead. I heard the sound of a bowling ball striking a set of pins. I shook my head, because that was impossible. There was no bowling alley near where I was. I knew that.
Then, down the block, I saw her. The waitress from a few moments back. She was striding away, cutting through the crowd, her knees kicking at her skirt. Without knowing why, I followed her.
I didn't know what I would say if I caught her. She probably couldn't explain the biplane, the bowling ball, the corporate boardroom or the howler monkey. Still, I thought I should talk to her.
The caffeine was just reaching my veins. The weird taste of almost-chocolate was still in my mouth. The sun was shining, I didn't have anywhere to be, and it was early. It wasn't even noon yet.
Sean Carman's writing appears most often in small magazines and literary websites. He is a contributing writer for Stumbling and Raging: More Politically Inspired Fiction, a new anthology of political fiction edited by Stephen Elliott.