Daniel Paul — “North to the Future: A Sourdough Lovestory”

Theirs was a sourdough love; it was freshly made, but tasted aged. Though Haley and Rick had only just met, and though they were each only nineteen during that summer in Alaska, they both felt as if they had stumbled into a love that was sudden, yet permanent: new to the world, but certain to endure. She was a local—Talkeetna born and raised—and he was from New York City—one of the hundreds of tourists who had started coming to the town for the sole purpose of eating pancakes since the recent invention of teleportation technology. Their friends told them it was fleeting. His friends said it was just a fling, that she would never leave the town; her friends said he was just another teleporter, that he would never stay. But Haley and Rick trusted that what they felt was real. And so every day he would teleport to Talkeetna, and, after her shift working at the Roadhouse, they would sit and eat pancakes and talk and giggle and smile. It never seemed like there were any pauses in the conversation—their words clung to each other’s with the same fierceness that their hands did when they walked about town—but if there were moments of silence, it was only because their mouths were full of pancakes.

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iTeleporter described Talkeetna as having RUSTIC CHARM, FRONTIER CHARM, and MOUNTAIN CHARM. (A programming intern had written a subroutine which added the word CHARM after every description. His bosses had liked this and put him on salary. The intern celebrated by replacing his cat’s dry food with a more luxurious wet brand.)

Zagat’s Guide to Pancakes said this about the McKinley Roadhouse: FRESHLY MADE PANCAKES FROM HUNDRED YEAR OLD SOURDOUGH STARTER AND FRESHLY PICKED MOUNTAIN BERRIES MAY BE THE BEST IN THE WORLD

The teleporting community said this about those pancakes: YUM YUM.

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Haley had been working at the Roadhouse since she was fourteen. She saved her tips, hoping to leave Alaska for college, knowing that she wasn’t likely to get any farther than University of Alaska Anchorage. She knew that the guilt of leaving her family and the fear of being on her own would be too much if she had to build up to leaving. If she was going to rip the mountains from her heart, she would have to do it in one quick pull.

What was she running from, you ask? Surely a girl growing up in the most beautiful place on Earth—which Talkeetna may have been: in the shadow of the mountain, with glacial rivers rushing through valleys of blooming wildflowers—surely a girl raised on the greatest flapjacks known to man—which they most certainly were; the people at Zagat’s Guide to Pancakes were not exaggerating—surely this tall and strawberry blonde girl would be endlessly content with wide spaces to stretch her long legs and strong winds to mess up her hair and force her to reaffix it behind her ears. Surely this ALASKA GROWN girl would need nothing more than the last frontier to prove she was as tough as she acted with the boys at her school. But this was the problem. Talkeetna was a town of fewer than a thousand people. From kindergarten through high school she shared a grade with the same nine kids, the same five boys. The only time she’d ever left Alaska had been to go to her grandfather’s funeral in Scottsdale. All Haley could remember besides the cold and still body of her plaid-loving grandfather in a stiff black suit, was the indoor swimming pool of the motel.

In the first two weeks after teleportation technology had been invented, over two hundred teleporters had come to Talkeetna. And even though Haley served most of them, she did not think any of them were worthy candidates to run away with. Until Rick.

Rick was a sophomore at NYU who had been to Alaska once as a child. He had purchased an iTeleporter with his student loan refund check, justifying the expense by telling himself (and anyone who would listen) that it would open up a lot of ‘journalistic’ possibilities, though Rick was not a journalism major. Really, he was just tired of New York. He had no doubt that the first place he wanted to go was to Alaska. He thought back to the trip his parents had taken him on, over a decade ago, and thought first of Mount Denali. Unlike the animals, which his parents had told him would soon be extinct, and the glaciers, which he was told would soon be melted, nobody told him that the mountain was going anywhere. He was able to look at it one bit at a time, not feeling like he had to strain his eyes to remember it all at once. So ten years later, when he was scanning his iTeleporter guide for prime rematerialization spots, he searched for the mountain. WORLD’S BEST PANCAKES. VIEW OF MOUNT DENALI, it said.

It was his plan to go there only once. Teleporting to Alaska is not cheap. But that all changed when he caught a glimpse of a strawberry blonde waitress.

He fell in love with her immediately. True, he had fallen in love with three other girls earlier in the week—an Asian girl who had more ribbon than hair, a French barista whose accent was as fully extracted as her espresso, and the new comic on SNL whose name he couldn’t remember—but this felt different. Maybe it was the ALASKA GROWN sweatshirt. She looked like a girl who knew how to catch fish and though he couldn’t explain why, this seemed like the sexiest thing in the world. Images of sexy, post-apocalyptic, desert islands flashed in his mind. She could teach him outdoor living skills, and he could lie and tell her that he was really street smart—even though in four years at NYU he did not get farther into Brooklyn than Dumbo, nor farther north Manhattan than the Seinfeld diner on 112th.

If his first sight of Haley was enough to get him to come back for pancakes the next morning, his second visit, in which she chatted him up, sharing with him her comedic impressions of some of the other teleporters (and implying that he was not like them), was enough to get him to purchase a three-month New York/Talkeetna teleportation pass.

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May was the beginning of Talkeetna’s tourism season, around the time that travelers began to flood the dry riverbeds of the mountain town, which sat roughly halfway between Anchorage and Denali National Park. They showed up in cars, buses, and RVs, and to Alaskans they seemed almost to spring out of the ground like wildflowers, their NorthFace jackets in forget-me-not blue and fireweed fuchsia. So finding that there was a new technology to deposit tourists up north was not hugely surprising. And while some could not help but be impressed by the wonder of teleportation and the possibilities it implied, others had darker thoughts: specifically, couldn’t one of these fancy scientists figure out a way for Talkeetna to get the money from tourism that its seasonal economy depended on without having to actually get the tourists? (The owner of the local pizza café, in particular, had a fantasy of robbing the tourists at gunpoint before piling all of their t-shirts and fanny packs in the town square and setting them ablaze.)

Some thought that the influx of teleporters would be a boon for every business in Talkeetna, not just the Roadhouse. The flightseeing companies printed new rack cards with a more futuristic feel they hoped would be attractive to teleporters: block lettering and so forth. The crafts stores and gift shops put some of their finest objects on a cart and wheeled them just in sight of the teleportation zone. But no business followed.

No, no. Just here for the pancakes, said the teleporters. If I wanted to see the mountain I would teleport to the summit. If I wanted to buy jewelry I would order it online. All of this I could get in New York except the pancakes.

Do you want to do a tour of Denali? A boat tour of the Nenana? asked the locals.

No, no. I’m just here for the pancakes. I was in Alaska a few weeks ago. I teleported to that Into the Wild school bus. You got some beautiful country here.

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Over the years, Haley had lied to a lot of tourists. She saw the boys and girls her own age, each of them only going to be in town for a day or so, as a blank slate to reimagine herself. Many of them who visited Talkeetna from places like Texas or Montana found themselves talking to a strawberry blond girl who insisted that she was from New York. She lived in the Empire State Building. Her dad worked at the Statue of Liberty. She had private lessons on the giant piano from Big. Etc. As she got older, the lies got more precise (aided by research) but no less romantic. So, on their first date outside of the Roadhouse, as she sat on the banks of the Nenana River with Rick and asked him to tell her about his life, her excitement at discovering the real New York was tempered by the sadness that she was losing the part of herself that had lived there in fantasy: an alter ego she considered a close friend.

And as Rick answered her questions about New York with his own questions about Alaska, he found himself torn as to which fantasy of her to indulge. After all, could he really think of her as a small town girl when the mountain in her back yard was the biggest thing he’d ever seen? Could he imagine her as a rugged explorer when she had never left home?

He told her about Real New York, which, it turned out, did not include any tourist attractions, and was (as far as Haley could tell) localized exclusively in two or three pizza places and one particular block of Chinatown.

I bet he’s experienced, she thought as she kissed him. New York is so cool that people must be having awesome, cosmopolitan sex there all the time. I bet it wouldn’t be awkward, like it was in the back of Jimmy Thompson’s truck.

I bet she’s inexperienced, he thought as he kissed her. I bet that she wouldn’t really know that I didn’t know what I was doing. I bet that I could just worry about kissing her, without worrying if I was kissing her in the right places in the right order.

As they wrapped their arms around each other in the seemingly endless afternoon of Alaskan summer, they each wondered if they might have a future together.

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By the second week of June, teleporters were lining the street. The large, family style tables of the Roadhouse were packed, and there was not enough room in the screened in porch for the waiting patrons to congregate. They spilled out onto Main Street. Is this the pancake line? they would ask each other.

The other shop owners looked at the line with jealousy. The owner of the pizza café around the corner wondered how hard it would be to set up a griddle in the kitchen. He didn’t have sourdough starter, but he decided that he might be able to pass off a counterfeit if he got store-bought pancake mix and cut it with Kodiak Brown ale to synthesize the yeastiness that was in such apparent global demand. He dispatched a couple of his J1 Slovenians to Fairbanks to procure Bisquick and spatulas.

While waiting in his increasingly empty pizza shop for them to return, he began to wonder how difficult it would be to burn the Roadhouse to the ground.

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They made a deal. Haley would take Rick to her favorite “non-tourist” place in Alaska, if he would teleport her somewhere exciting, somewhere away from Talkeetna. They would prove their doubters wrong, prove that their love was bigger than the small town where it had been sparked; they would show each other places that were as authentic and unique as their love.

She took him to the Ghost Forest in Girdwood. The 1964 earthquake had dropped the ground, flooding the roots of the forest with saltwater, killing the trees instantly, but preserving them. She told him how she loved staring at the gray and leafless trees, how whenever her problems seemed big she would come here and see proof that people—to say nothing of a person, to say nothing of her—were small and humble. He nodded as if he understood, but all he could really think was that if you take away the trees—which were ugly, and looked burned—Haley’s favorite place in Alaska kind of looked like the part of upstate New York where he had gone for summer camp.

He had hoped to take her to Hawaii or Europe—places that he had always wanted to go to, and that seemed to evoke sex in their syntax alone. But he quickly realized that he could not afford them. His teleportation expenses had tapped out his student loans, and all of his credit cards were maxed out. He could not afford to go to Maui or Paris, even by such pedestrian transportation modes as air travel, nor could he even afford to add a companion teleportation fare to his unlimited Talkeetna/New York pass. He did, however, have enough iTeleporter rewards points for transport and lodging for two in an off-season golf resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.

He was so effusively and pathetically apologetic for taking her somewhere so unexceptional that she was unable to sustain her resentment. In the end, she slept with him partly out of pity, and partly because it was July in Arizona, and the room was the only air-conditioned place for them to go. As he kissed her in a sequence that was so counterintuitive she was forced to conclude it was just how folks in New York did it, she remembered with clarity and surprising nostalgia the smells of pine and diesel in the back of Jimmy Thompson’s truck.

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By the time of the first big teleporting accident, Talkeetna was on the verge of open war. The hope of a teleportation boom bringing prosperity to the entire town had proved false. Not only were the teleporters just interested in pancakes, they were driving away normal tourists. More and more, the RVers and tour groups were going straight from Anchorage to Denali.

It was the end of July, everyone besides the Roadhouse was behind on their numbers, and drastic measures were being taken. J1 seasonal workers from all across Eastern Europe were let go from their posts. They could be seen walking with wet eyes to the park connection bus which would take them to Anchorage or Fairbanks. Most of the Bulgarians—famed for their shirt folding prowess—tried to find gift shop work in Denali Park. The Slovenians headed south, hoping to find work in one of the fisheries in Homer or Seward. Besides laying off their seasonal staff, every business—from the tour boats to the craft shops—now offered AUTHENTIC SOURDOUGH FLAPJACKS, which in reality were some mixture of regular pancake mix and alcohol. Despite several iTeleporter web posts warning of this deception, many teleporters were fooled. The notion that Talkeetna was a crooked town began to spread up and down the Parks Highway, further depressing business. More than a few locals were overheard worrying that “in the future, people won’t come here for anything but pancakes.”

The future:

On the first day of August, a British man with a falafel craving tried to teleport to Jerusalem. Due to some combination of technical failure and human error he materialized in Lebanon, where the blue light he appeared in was confused by a Hezbollah soldier for an explosive. He was shot three times in the chest, and died soon after. All of this for falafel? his wife said to reporters. I offered to make him a sandwich. Now I’ll never be able to make him a sandwich, ever again. I know I should be sad about a million things, but all I can think of is how I’ll never make him a sandwich again. The reporter thought that this was very profound.

This was also the same day that the New York Times ran a story about perceived discrimination in the iTeleporter company. One of its reporters had been about to teleport to the Sudan in order to conduct some interviews, when he had seen his proposed rematerialization coordinates described as having WAR-ZONE CHARM and PANDEMIC CHARM. When he was asked about this apparent fetishization of tragedy, the iTeleporter CEO blamed it on a salaried programmer who, as an intern, had written a rogue subroutine. The programmer was escorted from the building by security with all of his belongings in a cardboard box, including a framed picture of his cat. How am I going to break the news to you, Fluffy? he asked himself, struggling with the weight of the box as he squeezed through the narrow opening of the subway car. I guess we’re going back to dry food for a while, he practiced. Dry food was ok, wasn’t it?

That night, the iTeleporter company sent out a mass message that they would be suspending service indefinitely, effective 12:00 PM EST the next day.

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Rick woke up late the next morning. He saw the message, and realized that he had less than an hour before he would be shut off from Talkeetna, perhaps forever. He materialized on Main Street, and started running through the empty streets towards the place he knew he would find her: the Roadhouse. Being forced to leave meant that, despite what the dreams he had of them together, they might need to split up. But being star-crossed only made the love they had feel all the more real, and helped to erase the awkward Scottsdale trip from his memory. They would have a passionate, tear stained goodbye. A long, Clark Gable length kiss. Perhaps they would even figure out a teleportation equivalent to running alongside a departing train. Their love was, perhaps, running out of time. But there was time enough to share one last pancake.

He hoped that Haley would be waiting at their regular table. Instead, he saw her standing across the street from the Roadhouse, which was ablaze, the orange flames blooming in the summer wind.

She was in tears when he embraced her, though neither asked how much of her weeping was for their at-risk love and how much was for the Roadhouse, its first home. After a long hug, he moved to stand beside her, watching the fire, their hands clasping tightly as they did on their first day by the river. His hand squeezed hers three times (“I love you”), and hers squeezed back four times. This was part of the unspoken language they had developed. It was this language that they spoke in, as they looked from the flames to each other’s eyes, and agreed that they would let neither man nor nature tell them their love was not real.

And so, noon Eastern Time passed with Rick and Haley where they started: in Talkeetna, together, breathing in the smells of fire and flour, dreaming of the future.

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The future?

The Roadhouse will burn all the way to the ground. The pizza café owner will go bankrupt, with only the spiteful memory of the smell of burning sourdough to comfort him. The Roadhouse owner will be too traumatized to start again; she will take the insurance money and retire.

The Roadhouse will burn, the town will go broke. People will move. Others will stubbornly stay. Years will pass, and life will give people other things to worry about. There will be wars; there will be terrible storms. Maybe Alaska will secede. Maybe it will be taken over by whatever new country takes over Russia. The clouds will part and the future will blow down from the mountains.

But here’s the thing: the flapjacks will endure. The sourdough starter will not perish in the fire; the Roadhouse owner—who hated the government and sang Nenana speedboat chanties about the end times—always kept it in a fireproof lock box. She will continue to make flapjacks, even when she can only make them for her children. Those children will make flapjacks for their children and so on, and long after there is a place called “Alaska,” there will be something called “Alaskan Sourdough Flapjacks.”

Around that time (hundreds of years after the Roadhouse fire) an alien will materialize on what used to be Talkeetna Main Street. His society will have been studying Earth for a long time, but, because of the difficulties of light-speed surveillance and travel, they will not have gotten word that this is no longer the site of the flapjacks that may be the best in the world (or the universe?). The alien, equipped with a universal translator, will ask the first person he sees, a young woman wearing a RUSSCANAMERICAN GROWN sweatshirt, where he can find the flapjacks. She will think of the old woman who lives down the road who occasionally has people over for flapjack vigils.

The alien will fall in love with the pancakes, tell all of his alien friends, and soon Talkeetna (the name the alien uses for the town) will become the capital of Earth. Alien technology will reinvigorate Earth’s economy. There will be no poverty, no famine, no wars. Pancakes will bring peace. At least, until a rival planet’s aliens find out about this most precious of resources (sourdough) and start a war that brings all those terrible things back.

Thousands of years later, the same sort of thing will happen with trans-dimensional travelers. In a historical irony that no one will be able to appreciate, they will materialize in a ball of fire that leaves a burn mark in the exact shape of the NYU logo.

Thousands of years after that, a group of time travelers will discover that the greatest pancakes in the history of existence were on a world called Earth, in a town called Talkeetna, in the beginning of its third millennium. They will travel to the Roadhouse and end up preventing its destruction.

(Though, if history is any kind of indicator, they will probably end up bringing that destruction about. Perhaps they left something behind that ended up being the original source of iTeleporter technology in the first place! That would fit, wouldn’t it? That’s a pretty classic recipe.)

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The day after the Roadhouse fire, Haley and Rick will sit down to a breakfast of fried eggs, potatoes, and uncertainty. Rick will be unsure how to explain to his parents that he is staying in Alaska, that he cannot return to college. Haley will be uncertain as to how to convince her parents to allow Rick to stay in their house for more than a day or so, or where they can go and what they can do if they refuse.

They will both be so uncertain as to whether love is enough to overcome the obstacles between two people that they will misunderstand their own story. For while theirs was a love story, it was not between a boy and a girl, a local and a tourist, or a New Yorker and an Alaskan. No.

Theirs was a love affair with the pancakes, with the feeling of invincibility and possibility that comes from seeing the world through morning eyes, and tasting it with the buzz of fresh sourdough still on your tongue. And, together or apart, they will be chasing that taste for the rest of their lives.


Daniel Paul received his MFA from Southern Illinois University. His fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and humor writing has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Pinch, Puerto Del Sol, Hobart, New Delta ReviewPassages North and other magazines. He has been awarded prizes for his work from Briar Cliff Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere. He lives in Ohio where he is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Cincinnati. Find his work at danpiercepaul.wordpress.com