The Insoluble Pancake

“It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter.”

—Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman


Alan Tu

I commence my search in the bookstore titled “Prairie Lights.” It is not situated in a prairie. At the entrance there is a sign that decrees “World Famous Bookstore & Poke Stop.” A mingling materializes in my mind. Maybe I’ll remember what I’m looking for. A hardcover volume? A Pokemon? If so, I am quite undeniably certain that this is the right place to start. I cannot go in immediately because there are two doors. I have already encountered a tricky problem, a nearly insoluble pancake. Is one healthier than the other? Is one an exit only? Perhaps both are exits, and the entrance is inscribed on a different face of the building. My brain is already scrambled, I pancake eat just to want my now. At that moment a melodious voice says-sings “excuse me” and a girl swings open the door on the right. She disappears behind the oak. I stare at the slab of wood, slowly rotating clockwise around its hinge…at the last second I wedge my hand in the narrow crevice and wrench the door open. I walk inside with a dignified air.

I consider asking the woman at the desk the following question: What am I looking for, and can I find it in here? She will probably ask me a question as a reply, such as: I don’t know. Are you looking for a book? It is certainly possible that I am looking for a book; however it is equally likely that I am looking for something else entirely. So I decide not to stress her out until I figure out what I am looking for. I wander through the store, my gaze sprinting left to right along the spines of books, occasionally hurdling over a few that look boring. None of the titles ring a bell, though I do see the name Flann O’Brien. I knew a Flann O’Brien once. After I finish the fiction section I walk over to the next shelf but I realize that I am wasting my time; maybe it is a book that isn’t in this store, maybe it is a book that hasn’t yet been published. So I am quite sure it is not a book. Because I know I will find what I’m looking for in this town. But I might as well look around a bit more; this is a nice bookstore, and I may never come again. As I am wandering I see a girl picking books off a shelf and tasting them. I believe it is the same one with the mellifluous voice. She is doing this with a big smile. There is one book that she does not put back; eventually she takes this one to the front. She wears a sky blue lanyard with a key and card hanging from it. I have bumped into some blue lanyards today already. They seem to be very significant—does the lanyard represent wealth and distinction, like a toga praetexta? A mingling once again materializes in my mind; this time, though, it feels almost epiphanic, and with it comes a memory; not a memory, really, but a feeling, a feeling of superb happiness at the sight of so many books. A faint smile emerges on my face.

I buy the book by my friend Flann O’Brien. The synopsis on the back is very weird (a book inside of a book, it says), but he’s a weird person, I remember. After the cashier bags my book, I ask, Can I exit through either door? She looks at me curiously, then her face resolves into a smile and she says, Of course, any door you like. I thank her and walk out through the door on the right (which, you may notice, is not the one I came in through).

Now, on the sidewalk, I am lost. I look left and right (and up, for that matter), trying to determine which way I should go. Almost everyone is walking left to right, so I shall follow suit. I watch as a spaghetti of people go by (several of them wearing blue lanyards) and I casually insert myself into the noodle. For some reason I decide to follow two boys with blue lanyards. They seem to know what they are doing. Of course, I do it casually, keeping my distance; otherwise they could get suspicious. But they are talking with great density and prolixity, so I don’t think I will have a problem.

The lanyards cross the street twice, both times during the red hand signal. I stay behind and wait, not wanting to be hit by a car. I watch as they slowly amble across, then horrified I see a large vehicle driving down the road toward them at a not inconsiderable speed! I almost cry out in despair. The car approaches closer and closer and then I close my eyes.

When I look again, I have the person-in-motion signal. I pick up my pace, hoping to keep up with the lanyards (who, luckily, are still ambling and jabbering). Suddenly they disappear. I run up to the point of disappearance, and look down. Sewer drain. I look to the right, and see them behind a glass door. I enter the building (“Java House” it is called) and immediately I feel a sense of happiness. The rich smell of coffee permeates the air. I don’t like the taste of coffee (no matter how many sugars I put into it), but its aroma is heavenly. The café is rather large, yet very warm and cozy. As I wander around I see a table of blue lanyards, though not containing the two I followed earlier. They are typing on laptops or reading while drinking coffee (though I can’t say for sure it is coffee). They are all extremely focused on their own things, yet they radiate camaraderie—the lanyards must have special powers.

Suddenly they all rise from their seats simultaneously, closing laptop lids and notebook covers and whatnot. The four of them push their chairs in and head toward the entrance. I think they are on a mission, as they are walking with great fervor and anticipation. I can hardly keep up—and by that I mean stay at an average distance of ten meters behind.

I trail them for about five minutes, catching snippets of their conversation but not able to concatenate them into sense. Soon, after crossing a street on a red hand signal, they say some final words and split. I don’t know whom to follow. Then I recognize the girl from the bookstore—how did I not notice the book in her hand? I decide to go wherever she goes, which is into a building—there is nothing special about it, really. It’s just a gray building named Phillips Hall. She walks up the stairs one-by-one, quite slowly, so I must either go one-by-one or do a very slow two-by-two. I choose the latter. She still hasn’t looked below her—I guess it’s normal for someone to follow you up a staircase. But she holds the door open for me, and smiles. I smile back, but am puzzled. Does she know me?

As we walk down the hall, I feel like a restless Geiger counter.

She stops at a door, opens it, and walks in. I follow her gingerly, and see a room of ten other students (including the girl who just walked in, that is) and a teacher. I think I’ve found where I belong. As I sit down, a swinging object lands on my desk. I see a key and a card. I trace a string of blue all the way around my neck.

“Great! Everyone’s here. Let’s get started.”

Alan Tu is a tenth grader at Pittsford Sutherland High School in Pittsford, New York. He attended Session 2, 2016 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.