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Dear God in heaven, I can’t do this anymore. Whether a flash of self-awareness or heartfelt prayer the words ring true. Reverend John Amberstien is burned out. He hangs up his clerical robe, ties on a starched white apron, and opens John’s House of Toast. When a local congregation turns to him for help, he is torn between the frustrations of a failing restaurant and the fears of repeating a painful past.

House of Toast is a story of John's struggles, those of his wife Theresa, their friend Candace and the consequences of their decisions echoing into the next generation.

The first chapter is below. If you like it, it can be ordered by clicking here.

House of Toast

Chapter 1

 

Barkston, Michigan November 24, 1980

 

            The man is drunk. Slight of build, with disheveled jet-black hair, faded jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, he steps inside the small restaurant as onto the deck of an unsteady boat. With slow deliberation, he closes the door behind him and leans against it with complete dependency. 

            In the kitchen, a corpulent middle-aged cook in a starched white apron looks up from his work of kneading dough. “Good morning!”

            The drunk, unable to focus on the source of the sound, blinks slowly at his surroundings. In the early morning light, the dining area has a Norman Rockwell–like charm. Four booths with red vinyl seats and white Formica tops are to the right of the entrance, with windows offering a view of the small town’s main street. Two more booths along the next wall make L-shape. Opposite the windows is a counter with six backless stools that allow a view into the kitchen. To the left of the door, a public phone hangs on the wall next to a chrome bar of coat hangers.

            John, the cook, shouts again, “Welcome!”

            The man blinks and slurs into the empty space, “Didn’t this used to be Marty’s?” His eyes close, and with slow grace, he pivots a half-turn and falls backward. The hollow thud of his head hitting the floor is loud in the quiet of the restaurant.

            “Jesus!” John says. He runs and kneels next to the drunk. The pain in his left knee exacts a cost to the move.

            The drunk’s eyes open, and the two men stare at each.

            “Ow,” the prone one says.

            “No shit, ow. Are you okay?” asks John. 

            “I’m really wasted, man. Where the hell am I?” A Latino accent is subtle but present.

            “John’s House of Toast.”

            He stares without comprehension.

            “It’s a restaurant.”

            “Oh. Help me up... do you serve beer?”

            “No.”

            “Shit. I think I hit my head.” He puts a calloused hand to the back of his head.

            John holds his breath, hoping the hand will not come away bloody. It does not. He exhales and helps the drunk into a booth. “Stay here. I’ll get you a cup of coffee and some ice for your head.” He hurries away, wondering if this is what owning a restaurant will mean.

            The coffee is ready, and there is ice in the freezer. As he returns, he sees the drunk’s head on the booth table and hears a soft, rhythmic snoring. He gently lays the ice-filled towel on the back of the immobile head. Figuring the coffee will just grow cold if left out, he takes it back to the kitchen. Through the passthrough, he can see the man’s head. He returns to kneading the dough but with less enthusiasm. After a long half-hour, he hears the ice pack slide off. He can’t have this. The drunk has to be sitting up, at least. John puts two slices of white bread in the toaster and, when they are done, brings it and a fresh cup of coffee to the booth.

            It takes him a full five minutes to get the man upright and open-eyed.

            “I brought you some toast. It’ll make you feel better.” He pushes the food across the table.

            “Oh,” the drunk says. His hand shakes as he brings it to his mouth. “What’s on this?”

            “Just grape jelly. No butter. It should go down easy.”

            “There’s no beer?”

            “No beer. You want some coffee?” He slides the cup forward.

            “That’d be a good idea.” The drunk looks up from the cup. “Can I get a shot of Kahlua in this?”

            “You can get it with a shot of half and half.”

            “This is okay.”

            The cook extends his hand. “My name’s John. What’s yours?”

            The drunk’s grip is strong. “Leroy. People call me Roy. When I was in college, they called me Lee.”

            “What do you want to be called?”

            “Ronald Reagan.”

            “Seriously? The new president?” John can’t help but smile.

            “Yeah. The guy’s got a rockin’ name. You can call me whatever. I got to leave.” He puts both hands on the booth table and begins to stand.

            John waves him back down. “Finish the toast and coffee.”

            “Okay,” Leroy says. He drops onto the bench. Looking around, he asks, “Didn’t this used to be a tavern?”

            “Yep.”

            “What is it now? Dang, my head hurts. I must have done something last night.”

            “It’s a restaurant. John’s House of Toast. You came in and fell down and hit your head.”

            “Oh…really? John’s House of . . . what?”

            “Toast.”

            “You should change the name.”

            “To what?”

            “Ronald Reagan’s House of Toast.”

            They both laugh.

            “What do you do, Leroy?” The flannel shirt is clean, though wrinkled.

            “I’m a set-up man at the paint factory. I think I may take today off, though. I better stay away from machines.” Leroy is becoming more coherent as he continues with the toast and coffee.

            “Yeah, that would be a good idea. You have a place to stay?”

            Leroy’s dark eyes look at him for a full beat. “Yes, I do. I’m not always drunk.” He takes another bite. “I own a house.”

            “Oh, well, of course.”

            They sit in embarrassed silence while Leroy finishes. “What do I owe you?”

            “Nothing. You’re my very first customer. It’s on the house.”

            “First of the day?”

            “First of the ever. This is the first day I’ve been open.”

            “Well, thanks. Really. I gotta get home, House-of-Toast-on-the-house-John. I think I can motor to the door and beyond. Thanks for the coffee and stuff. My sister used to put grape jelly on my bread for me.” He slides out of the booth and stands slowly. “Man, I really hit my head.”

            “Do you know where you’re going?”

            “Yeah. Home.” He shuffles across the room, opens the door, and stands on the outside step, looking up and down the empty street. He steps off and disappears from John’s view. It is 7:15 a.m. The House of Toast has had its first patron—nonpaying but grateful. It is a start. Unanticipated and unsettling, but a start. 

            John goes back to the kitchen, to flour and fear, to salt and near panic.

            He’d been secure in what he was doing as a pastor—he’d been a damn good one. But after nearly thirty years, it had exhausted him. It had enlarged his heart, but not in the bodily sense. If there were a physical incarnation of his spiritual being, it would have a pathologically enlarged heart—a heart that leaves its bearer out of breath, literally uninspired. His Sisyphean labor had been loving unlikeable people. People he loved but whose thinking, speaking, and acting he honest-to-God hated. He hated their wrongheaded politics, their narrow bigotry, their ignorant superstitions couched as religious faith, and their stupid, stupid questions. He became better at the task but also drained by it. Eventually, when called upon to care about someone’s life, to listen to one more account of imagined misery, to accept and affirm another self-centered, immature adult—to love just one more time—he found he was empty. And angry. And done.

He often recalled what he’d come to refer to as “the day the music died.” He had begun his weekly routine on a Tuesday morning, sitting at his desk, reading the scripture passages for that upcoming Sunday. He waited for some insight, a remembered tidbit from seminary, some relevancy to his own life, something that would be a starting point for a sermon. He sat. His coffee cooled. He waited. He sipped his coffee. He stared at the bookcase. But instead of inspiration, insight, or relevant memory coming to mind it was the thought I just can’t do this shit anymore. I really can’t. He was surprised by the tears that came. Not shoulder shakings or sobs. Just copious tears running down his flushed cheeks, dripping onto and soaking into the pages of the open Bible. After a time, he closed it, not caring about damage to the thin pages, and left.

            The previous Saturday harbingered the end, though he hadn’t realized it at the time. John had arrived at church to set up tables for the annual salad luncheon. He walked into the fellowship hall and was greeted by Marissa saying, “Reverend, the confirmation class should be helping with this! Where are they?” He wanted to reply, “Marissa, shut the fuck up. They’re eighth graders. They’re not going to come here on a Saturday morning. Stop being an idiot.” Instead, he had clenched his jaw, nodded, and began opening the gray folding chairs ubiquitous to church basements. Just such times of acquiescing silence had been draining. 

            There had been tasks he that brought him joy—surprising parishioners with tidbits about scripture and church history, holding babies at baptisms, talking to young couples about being married, throwing a Frisbee with any willing kid. But those things hadn’t been enough, and the negative side of the scale had tipped irredeemably down.

            Had he told the congregation how he was feeling, they would have assumed it was too many sermons, too many funerals, too many hospital visits, maybe even too much praying. But that wasn’t it. Those were easy. It was the duplicitous words, false smiles, choked anger. A colleague had joked, “We’re all just a funeral or two away from a perfect congregation.” In this congregation, John could count five without giving it a second thought. On some days, a dozen. In the middle of the night, awake with jaw clenched in silent rage, their faces would come into view, their voices would echo. And he would want them dead. Dead and—he could only wish—damned.

            A thousand heart-exhausting events made retirement desirable; one heart-aching event made it possible—an inheritance following the death of a dear friend. He and Theresa had speculated about the amount. Though she was twenty years his junior, she was more conservative, more pessimistic in her outlook; he was grandiose and a dreamer. When a letter came from the law firm, even he was surprised. It was a lot. The equivalent of five years’ salary.

            That evening she’d asked about the amount. When he told her, she said, “Wow. What are you going to do?”

            “Quit.” 

            “Quit what?”

            “Quit what I’m doing.”

            “You’re not doing anything. You’re sitting on the couch staring at a letter…wait, you cannot mean quit your job.”

            “Yes, I do. Quit my job.”

            “What are you going to do?”

            He had continued to stare at the letter. Nothing. The thought of doing nothing, of an undemanding future, of being free of the obligations, the stress, the dishonesty, the anger that crystalized into unforgiving hatred—the absence of it all drew him into an almost paralyzing calm. It felt like the instant the air conditioning turns off and the house drops into silence. 

            “Nothing. I’m going to do nothing.”

            “Well, okay. I’m going to fix dinner.”

            He felt obligated to tell some of his parishioners in person. A few had transcended the pastor-parishioner gap to become friends. They deserved more than a letter. Telling the board was surprisingly easy. And surprising in their response. 

            They always met in the church’s small library around a large dining room table that had been a “gift” from a parishioner. After the opening prayer, he had simply said, “I have something to say before we begin the official meeting. I’m resigning my position here. I’ve written a letter to that effect and will ask the secretary to mail it out to our members tomorrow. My contract does require me to give two months’ notice, and this is it.”

            The five council members, three men and two women, were silent. Only one face showed shock. Then Stan Gorman, the president, said quietly, “I’m sorry to hear that, Reverend John, but I don’t think any of us are too surprised.”

            “Oh, you’re not?” he’d asked.

            “No. It’s been pretty apparent that you haven’t been happy. Have you taken another position?”

            “No, Stan. I’m done being a minister.” The truth and simplicity of that sentence had cathected tears, surprising both him and theboard. There were murmurs of sympathy, and Kathy Tanes sitting to his left, reached over and squeezed his hand.

            Then everyone took a breath and continued with the meeting’s agenda as if nothing had happened. It was all John could do to keep from grinning in profound relief. He didn’t have to make himself care anymore. Despite his girth, he felt as if he could fly. Or at least float. He wanted to run out of the room, but with a concerted effort, he stayed at the table. As the meeting continued, few remarks and fewer looks were directed toward him. That was just fine with him. Better than fine.

            Two months after his final Sunday in the pulpit, he said at breakfast, “I have to do something.”

            “About what?” Theresa asked, joining him at the table.

            “About my not doing anything.”

            “I thought you didn’t want to do anything. That was what you wanted to do—nothing. And that’s pretty much what you’ve been doing.”

            “I did. Now I’m done. Are you going to eat that last pancake?”

            “No. What are you going to do?”

            Walking over to the stove, he said, “I’m going to eat this pancake.”

            “You know what I mean. What are you going to do?”

            “I don’t know. Something.”

            “Something. You don’t know what you’re going to do, but it will be something.” She sighed with exasperation and stared at him.

            He stared back. He loved that face. All those years…that was the look he loved, that mixture of frustration and affection.

            Theresa stood and turning to leave mumbled, “Something … he’s going to do something …”

            The “something,” when it came, was unsought. He was waking slowly, since getting up or not was now a pleasurable choice. Toast. Why was he thinking of toast? He never had toast for breakfast. He didn’t smell toast. But it would be nice to go to a restaurant and have a piece of toast.

            The vision was so appealing, it drew him into decision and action. He would open a restaurant that specialized in toast. [RFL3] He talked to restaurant owners, bankers, insurance agents, and a small-business adviser from the county extension office. Some of them laughed, one of them loaned him a small amount of money, another took some of his money, and the last offered much-needed encouragement. No one thought it was a good idea.

            Many conversations with Theresa were tense, usually taking place over first cups of coffee in the morning.

            “So, explain to me again what you hope this to be. This time I promise I won’t interrupt,” she’d said.

            “A little restaurant open for breakfast and lunch that serves toast as its main item, with other things offered as well.”

            “What other things?” she asked, buttering her own toast.

            “You know, butter, jelly, peanut butter—” he pointed to her plate.

            “What kind of peanut butter? You’re not going to serve cheap peanut butter, are you? Because I wouldn’t eat toast if—”

            “You’re interrupting.”

            “Sorry. Go ahead. I’m worried. This just seems weird and risky.”

            “It probably is. Anyway, good, organic peanut butter, okay? And honey—”

            “What?” she asked.

            “No, not honey like ‘Honey’. Honey. Like bees make.”

            “Oh.”

            “And juice, coffee, and whatever else I can think of that goes with toast.”

            “Like ham and eggs?”

            “No. I think there are enough ways to have toast so that a restaurant like that could make it. I mean think about it, Terry, what’s homier and more comforting than toast? And how many different kinds of breads are there? And different things to put on a piece of toast? It would be unique, and people would come and sit and eat toast and visit and drink coffee. I’d love a place like that. You would, too.”

            “I might if I wasn’t too hungry. You really want to do this?”

            “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do more than this is marry you.”

            Theresa eyes crinkled when she smiled. “Finish that pancake, and let’s go back upstairs.”

            On another morning, in the midst of a conversation about taking Betsy, the household beagle, to the vet, Theresa thumped her emptied coffee mug on the table and asked, “Are you going to risk our retirement with this?”

            “What? Taking Bets to the vet? How much can it cost for two shots?”

            “Stop it. You know what I mean.”

            “No. I promise.”

            “Okay, do it.”

            “I am. But I’m glad to finally have your permission.”

            “I’m sorry. I mean ‘Do it, go for it, succeed.’ I’m beginning to think it might be a good thing.”

            On this first morning, it is real— John’s House of Toast, but he isn’t sure it is a good thing. Following Leroy’s exit, it is only a place to sit and stare at empty booths. And it’s chilly. He purposely left the thermostat at fifty overnight and then brought it up to sixty-five. No one would feel like eating toast in an overwarm restaurant. Besides, it would keep the heating bill down.

            Bills, balance sheets, invoices… so much had been new to him. He had never managed a business or taken a relevant class. He’d consistently chosen to ignore church finances, leaving them for others. The depth of his ignorance had been evident in his lack of planning. Originally, he thought about having a toaster at each booth and three on the counter. How great would that be if people could make their own toast right there in the booth? But his insurance agent quickly demolished his vision.

            “One kid, one knife in the toaster, and bang! You don’t own a restaurant anymore. Or a house. You could probably keep one car.”

            “Okay, okay. But it was a good idea.”

            “No. It was a romantic idea. You’re going to have to learn the difference between that and practical if you’re going to do this successfully.”

            He hasn’t learned that yet. 

There are five kinds of bread. A dark rye with caraway seed; whole wheat with extra bran, a real seventies throwback; a delicious eggy challah; a white from the James Beard recipe book; and last, a sourdough. Two loaves of each.

            He doesn’t know what people will want. Nor did any of the other restaurant owners he visited. They were amused by his enthusiasm and his dream. Some understood what it was to have a dream, even one so wild. And some seemed mildly offended that one so daft could aspire to join their ranks.

            At 8:05 he saw someone approaching the front door. Oh God, it’s Candace.

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