The Childhood Bucket List, Part III

This story begins here.

Again, the butler didn’t reply right away.  I considered that perhaps he didn’t feel that it would be proper to advise his superior on such questions.  But after several minutes of bouncing in the Jeep, Tompkins opened his mouth again.

“Sir has done quite a lot for the world already,” he pointed out.  He momentarily had to pause as we reached a steep embankment leading up to a proper road, and the Jeep’s grinding engine made conversation impossible.  But the little car gamely reached the top, and we were once again able to hear each other.  “Your invention has saved countless lives as well as providing you with the money necessary to pursue your desires.”

I nodded.  Once again, the man was right.  I had set most of the world abuzz a few years ago when I created the device.  A system of artificial nerves that allowed perfect interfacing between man and machine?  Most people wouldn’t have believed that it was possible – many were still incredulous.  But the invention was surprisingly easy to build, and as well as offering amputees a new shot at a more normal life, it gave workers a never-before-seen degree of control over the machines they used to accomplish tasks every day.

Companies had scrambled to throw money at me, and before I knew it, I was being touted as one of the richest men in the world.  Frustrated by the fawning attention I received everywhere I turned, I had returned back to my childhood home in search of some sort of answers.

There, in the corner of the dusty attic, I had stumbled upon a box of childhood mementos and treasures.  Tucked into the pages of my dusty elementary school yearbook had been this bucket list, painstakingly scrawled down by my earlier self.  And in my moment of existential crisis, I had clung to that paper and its ridiculous list like a drowning man clings to a piece of floating wreckage in a storm.

“Also,” Tompkins continued, “I received word that the deal with Ford to provide an integrated system has been approved.  With the extra funds from that deal, sir should still have more money than he knows what to do with after completion of his list.”

“And I could donate that money to charity, or set up my own,” I finished the butler’s unspoken thought.  “Tompkins, I think you’re the best decision I’ve made, you know that?”

The butler permitted himself a very brief smile.  “So what task shall sir pursue next?” he inquired.

I glanced down at the piece of paper, still clutched in one hand.  I had long since memorized every item on the list, but I still unfolded it, running one finger down the list.  “Wear the Pope’s hat,” I read off.  “That does sound fun.”

“You recently received an invitation to the Vatican as a guest of honor,” Tompkins offered.  “I held off on responding, but perhaps it would be time to set a course for Europe.”

I grinned as we headed into town, towards the airport where my jet was waiting.  Yes, this was certainly going to be fun…

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The Childhood Bucket List, Part II

Continued from Part I.

The butler didn’t reply to this, although I could swear that I saw his chest puff up a little more.  “And how was this item from the list?” he asked instead.  “As enjoyable as sir may have imagined?”

I shook my head back and forth as I pulled myself up into the open Jeep’s passenger seat.  “Nah, there’s way too much wind,” I said.  “It stings a bit.  Chafes the skin.”

“Then perhaps it would be unwise to next tackle #41, “swimming in a pool of Jell-O,” sir,” Tompkins offered.  His voice was perfectly neutral, a skill that must have taken years to perfect.

As we rumbled back towards civilization, I glanced sidelong at Tompkins.  His eyes were on the lack of road before us; I momentarily imagined seeing through his eyes and viewing a perfect two-lane path ahead of us.  I often wondered what it was like inside Tompkins’ head.  Or really, inside anyone’s head beyond my own.  Was I the crazy one?

“Tompkins, be honest with me,” I said, half-yelling to be heard above the sounds of the engine and the rubble beneath the wheels.  “Is this a stupid thing that I’m doing?”

The butler didn’t look at me.  “You will do a number on the pool filter, yes,” he nodded, “but they aren’t too expensive, and we actually received quite a reasonable deal on the bulk order of gelatin.  Apparently you are not the only one with such an esoteric desire.”

I shook my head.  “No, not just the pool full of Jell-O,” I clarified.  “The whole thing.  The bucket list.  I mean, I was only nine when I wrote it all out!  I didn’t know about being an adult?  How could I have known back then what would make me happy now?”

The question was surprisingly deep, and I saw that the butler was caught off guard.  For just a moment, his white-gloved hands slipped ever so slightly on the wheel.  Nobody else would have caught that reaction, but I had been watching for it.  That was akin to a gasp of shock from anyone else.

“I think that many people do not know what will make them happy, sir,” he ventured after a minute.  “And they are willing to try many different things to capture the happiness that they had when they were a child.”

I nodded.  Sage words as always.  Tompkins must have taken some sort of class at Butler School on how to counsel concerned clients.  “I suppose,” I nodded.  “But shouldn’t I be donating some of this money to charity or something?  Helping the world?”

To be concluded!

The Childhood Bucket List, Part I

The parachute was still coming down, landing in a giant puddle on the razed cornfield behind me.  A little part of my mind informed me that I would have to release the tether connecting it to my shoulders soon, or else the first errant gust would drag me across the field.  And in my current state, that would not be enjoyable in the slightest.

But before I undid the harness, I unzipped a small pocket.  From inside, I retrieved a yellowing sheet of paper, creased with innumerable fold lines.  I carefully unfolded the sheet, smoothing it out against my bare thigh.

“#37, Skydive naked,” I read off as I clicked my pen.  “Check.”

With the item crossed off of my bucket list, I finally shrugged out of the harness and let it fall to the ground.  In the distance, I could already see the plume of dust rising up from the truck that was headed out to pick me up.  It was too far away for me to see clearly, even with my Lasik-enhanced eyes (#22).

Even though it was still out of range, however, I could see my butler, Tompkins, stoically sitting behind the wheel, his face unruffled and unbothered by the bumps of the cornfield.  He probably wasn’t even sweating in the tuxedo that he insisted upon wearing.  I’d told him a dozen times that it wasn’t necessary, that I didn’t need for him to stick to all the traditions, but he had insisted.

In the end, I’d been forced to acquiesce.  Get a butler (#18) had been on the list, after all.

A few minutes later, he pulled up alongside me, his eyes not lingering on my nakedness.  To do so would have been most improper, I knew.  “Your trousers, sir,” he greeted me, passing over a pair of jeans.

I climbed into the proffered clothing, wincing as the bare stalks bit into my feet.  “Thanks, Tompkins,” I replied.  “You’re a gem, you know that?”


Sometimes, Superheroes Have Difficulties Too… Part II

Story starts here.

I peered around the small bathroom, searching for some sort of weapon that I could find.  I needed something hard and strong, something that I could throw!

My fevered eye cast around, needing the right object.  The bar of soap?  Definitely not hard enough.  A toothbrush?  No way that it would penetrate the monster’s skin, even at its weak spot.  The toilet paper?  There was no way in hell that I was throwing that away!  I would need that for later.

Finally, my desperate gaze landed on the plunger, sitting next to the toilet.  It was a big, heavy affair, and it looked solid enough to land multiple good blows.  I reached out and grabbed it.

Step one, acquire a weapon.  Check.

I turned back to the hole I had knocked in the wall, looking out at the monster.  It had been focused on something in the building across from us, and was now busy using its claws to try and tear a hole in the opposite wall.  It was having issues getting past the steel girders, but I knew that those razor-sharp claws would soon make short work of the foundation.  And fortunately, the monster’s back was turned to me, and I could see that spot between the beast’s shoulder blades.

Step two, find the monster’s weak spot.  Check.

One hand firmly wrapped around the plunger, I struggled up from the seat, but a wave of weakness hit me as I managed to climb up to my feet.  My free hand landed on the back of the toilet, and I had to suck in a few deep breaths.  My damaged rear end was very exhausted already from previous work, and I had to focus the majority of my attention on not soiling my trousers.

With my teeth clenched and my fists squeezed so tight that the knuckles were white, I wavered on my feet.  Raising the plunger, I swung it a couple more times at the hole in the wall, widening it until it was roughly my size.

I glared across the street at the back of the monster.  “God dammit, I hate having to be a hero sometimes,” I muttered to myself. And then, sucking in one last deep breath, I leapt out of the building.

I went flying across the street, watching the monster’s back come zooming into my vision.  I landed with a bone-jarring thump, and felt another twinge shoot through my tortured intestines as my boots hit the monster’s armored plates.

Unfortunately, the impact was strong enough for the beast to take notice of a pesky fly hitting its back.  It turned and twisted, releasing its grip on the building as it tried to see what had just flicked it.

It was only a matter of time before the creature came up with the idea of rolling on its back; I had to act fast.  I raised the plunger up over my head with both arms, trying to ignore how the action made my stomach lurch.

“Please, let this work,” I whispered, and then slammed the plunger home, driving it all the way into the creature’s skin to the hilt.

For once, luck was on my side.  The creature gave a sudden spasm as the weapon went in, and it instantly collapsed, down towards the street.

Step three, take out the threat.  Check.

I rode the monster down to the ground, although honestly, more of my attention was focused on keeping my sphincter clenched than it was on making sure the beast was well and truly dead.  As the street came closer, I saw a small figure come running out of the building across the street.

“Captain United!”  The woman was my secretary, and her eyes were wide as she came scurrying towards the dying monster.  “Captain!”

I staggered down from the monster’s corpse.  “Don’t worry,” I got out, waving my hand at the giant body behind me.  “Problem all taken care of.”

“Captain!” my secretary called out.  She was clearly out of breath, but she raised one hand to point at me.  “Captain, your pants…”

I looked down, confused about what she was going on about.  But then, as the paparazzi closed in, raising their cameras and calling out questions, I realized that, in my haste to dispatch the monster, I had made a critical error.

I had never fully pulled up my pants…

Sometimes, Superheroes Have Difficulties Too… Part I

“Captain!”  The voice outside the door was insistent, filled with urgency.  “Captain, they’re calling for you – it sounds serious!”

I groaned loudly in response, raising my free hand to rub at my face.  My other hand was clutching my knee as I bent forward, and my face was screwed up in exertion.  “Not a good time!” I managed to grunt out in return.

From outside the room, I heard a loud crash.  This time, when my secretary yelled for me again, there was a new note of urgency in her voice.  “Captain, I don’t think that they can wait much longer!”

I could only respond with another groan, slumping forward a bit.  This was absolutely the worst time possible.  “Couldn’t Steelfist handle it?  He owes me a favor!” I called out.

“Abroad at a conference!” my secretary responded, frustratingly helpful.  “And Odin is off on another astral plane, and we haven’t been able to raise him!  Apparently cell phones can’t reach through the impenetrable ether.”

From outside, I could hear some faint but clear sounds of destruction, of shrieking steel and collapsing concrete.  I had to get out there.  People were in danger!  But when I started to stand up, I heard another unpleasant sound – this one a gurgling, coming from inside my abdomen.

“Oh god, I should not have gone for the all-you-can-eat option,” I groaned to myself, settling back down onto the porcelain throne that had become my prison.

The crashes were growing louder.  “Captain United!” my secretary yelled, a note of panic in her voice.

I felt a new wave of uncomfortable queasiness course through me, and shifted on the seat as it passed.  The crashes were so loud, I swore that they were right outside my little room-

-wait a minute.  I turned and looked at the wall next to me.  I carefully removed the toilet paper, setting it down between my feet.  At the moment, it was more valuable than gold.  Once that was safe, I turned to the wall, grimaced, and raised a gauntlet-clad fist.

I slammed my fist into the wall, sending a spiderweb of cracks out in all directions.  Two more punches, and I had opened up a hole big enough to stare through.  Leaning forward, I stared through the hole out at the large, scaly monster roaring and tearing its way through downtown.

Despite the hole that I had knocked in the side of the building, the monster hadn’t been alerted to my presence – it was a small relief to see that it had not figured out that men on toilets could be a threat.  And as it turned away, I spotted a small area on the back of its neck where the large plates of armor had a chink, where there was nothing protecting the beast’s spinal cord.  That was the weak spot!  If I only could find something to hit it with…

To be continued…

How I Got the Girl

I love telling this tale to just about anyone who will listen.  Hopefully some of my readers like love stories, so buddy, this one goes out to you.

I was working for Habitat for Humanity after college, and one of the events put on by the organization was a big fundraiser/gala event where all the bigwigs came out, waved their monocles around, and threw cash at the organization so we could keep helping poor people.  As “volunteers”, we were being tapped to help out at this thing.

Now, I had no interest in spending a night volunteering when I could be at home, pantsless, reading Reddit.  But my darn Midwestern sensibilities wouldn’t let me refuse a direct request, so I agreed to come along and help out.

One of the requirements of this gala was that everyone had to wear formal wear with a hint of construction – people wore caution tape ties, duct tape hats, steel toed boots, and so on.  It looked quite strange when paired with formal wear.  I had some bright orange nylon straps (for attaching wooden planks to truck roofs), and turned them into a belt and suspenders.  Hooray last minute craftiness!

At the event, it turned out, like many obligations, to be much more fun than I had expected.  I was put in charge of a game called Hammerschlagen, which basically consists of a drinking game revolving around whacking a stump with hammers.  Good times.  And most of these bigwigs turned out to be former fratboys, so they insisted that I had to have a drink in my hand at all times.  Very fun.

Towards the end of the night, the games were shut down and we were all funneled into the central ballroom, where music was playing and people were drunkenly dancing.  I was tipsy, wandered around, and bumped into my very drunk boss.  I next had to quickly dive in and stop her from “twerking” on her boss, a board member.

After preventing this potential disaster, my eye fell on a flash of red.  A gorgeous girl in a tight red dress, the outfit hugging every curve and showing off an amazing hourglass figure, was dancing over on the side of the room!  And in my tipsy state, I was just lubricated enough to feel that I might have a shot with her.

I went staggering over, noting as I approached that she was wearing a child’s construction vest over her shoulders.  In the epitome of smoothness, I came dancing up, tugged this vest from her shoulders, and informed her that it would look much better on me.

Somehow, this theft of her clothing didn’t seem to turn the girl off, and we shared grins as we danced together.  The song ended and the girl asked for her vest back; I told her that it now belonged to me, and she’d have to give me her number to set up the next time she could get it back when she met me in person.

“Like a date?”

“Yeah, like a date.”  Oh yeah, man.  So smooth.

Perhaps it was the alcohol (in my system, not hers – she later revealed she was sober for all of this!), but I felt totally cool as I swapped phone numbers with her and tried to prevent my eyes from lingering too long on what lay beneath that red dress.  The party was ending, the band was done, and I had to dash to go help clean up.

The whole ride back home (I had carpooled, hence the drinking), I was bragging to my coworkers about this great girl I had met.  They listened politely, and I went to bed happy, with a child’s construction vest sitting on the foot of my bed.

The Soul Gene, Part II

Continued from here.

This announcement produced a small gasp from the more theatrical-minded members of the audience, but most of the scientists in the darkened theater remained silent, waiting to hear Cooper’s next words.  The white-haired scientist hadn’t expected to get much of a response in any case, but he did appreciate a good reveal.
“My team was initially not focused on the Y chromosome at all,” he said, taking a step back from his announcement.  “We were instead tracking negative behaviors in society, looking for a genetic correlation.  We believed that behaviors often seen as immoral may have a physical component, possibly a faulty neural junction or a misfolded protein.  Given the wide degree of neural-associated proteins now linked with mental responses, it’s not that big of a leap to make.”
“And we did find a distinct genetic correlation using GWAS, a genome-wide associated screen,” he went on.  Cooper clicked to the next slide, and a Manhattan plot appeared, showing data on a graph.  One peak seemed far higher than all the others, nearly rising off the screen.  “As you can see, we had one especially prominent hit.”
Another slide click, and it was back to the image of the Y chromosome.  “This gene maps to the Y chromosome,” Cooper announced.  “And deletions in this gene correlate incredibly well with violent crimes – murders, rapes, and psychopathic tendencies.  Smaller missense mutations seem to match behavior that, while still negative, is not quite as devastating.”
Cooper took a deep breath as he prepared to make his most stunning announcement of the night.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we believe that we have found the “soul” gene.”
There was immediately a rush of whispers and cries from the audience.  Cooper had expected no less, and a minute later, the lights rose up to reveal an angry crowd on its feet.  
“Excuse me, professor!” called out one angry scientist who didn’t seem excused at all.  “Are you saying that the existence of this gene confers a soul upon an organism?”
Cooper spread his hands, although it did nothing to mollify the shouter.  “We are stating that the lack of this gene appears to lead to profoundly negative behavior,” he clarified.
But this just led to more yells.  Many of the scientists on their feet weren’t even making their complaints clear, but were merely angrily shouting and booing.  
Cooper reached up and rubbed his face.  He had several more slides on methods as well as another half dozen graphs of results, showing how his correlations held up across multiple populations, but he sensed that he wasn’t going to get to show these off.  He had wanted to wait to release this information, had wanted to first write it up into a paper, but the University regents were anxious to be the first group to get their name in the papers.
Well, that was definitely going to happen now.  Although perhaps not in the way that the regents had been expecting.  More people were shouting questions, and some were surging angrily towards the stage, but Cooper kept his hand over his face.
Perhaps the Society of Women in Genetics had not been the best avenue to present this work.

The Soul Gene, Part I

Cooper held onto the podium with both hands as he gazed out at the crowd in front of him.  Thanks to the spotlights focused on the stage, they were nothing but vague whispers in the darkness, the hint of something out there beyond the bright lights trained on him.  His hands clamped so tightly onto the sides of the podium that the knuckles were white.

“And so, without any further ado,” Cooper announced, the microphones in front of him grabbing his words out of the air and blowing them up loudly, “let me present my research.”

Cooper turned towards the large screen beside the podium, clicking the button on the laptop in front of him.  The professor was proud of how well he had adjusted to the most recent technology.  Many of his fellows were still struggling to use word documents and email, but Cooper had taken quickly to the new digital age.  Perhaps that had helped spur his research.

The man clicked through the first few slides, laying out the background for his discovery.  “For a long time, the Y chromosome has been believed to be largely useless,” he explained to the listening crowd.  “Indeed, in less developed organisms such as C. elegans, there is no Y chromosome at all.  These nematodes simply pass on one or two copies of their X chromosome, where two copies designates a hermaphrodite.”  He clicked to a picture of the microscopic worm in question.

“However, when we move up to more advanced organisms such as Drosophila species,” he continued, “we begin to see the appearance of a Y chromosome.  Given the results that will come soon, this may prove to be very significant.”

Cooper clicked to the next slide, a large schematic of a chromosome.  The banded pattern that represented chromatin staining made the picture immediately recognizable to the crowd.  “The Y chromosome in *Homo sapiens*, which we all should recognize,” he labeled the slide.  “We do know that there are a few genes on here.”

Advance to the next slide.  The large chromosome was still visible, but now labels pointed towards several areas.  “Here are some of the main genes,” he went on.  “Several sex determining proteins, as well as some kinases.  However, genes on this chromosome are prone to microdeletions, making them a risky prospect in evolutionary terms.  It also makes the Y chromosome markedly more unique than the others when compared across individuals, as well as populations.”

There was a large area towards the center of the Y chromosome schematic that had not received any labels.  Cooper nodded towards this area.  “For a long period, it was believed that this section of the Y chromosome contained nothing but junk DNA,” he said.  His voice dropped, the mikes having to strain to carry his words out to the crowd.

“But we now know that this isn’t true.”

To be continued…

Three Sons in a Room

I gazed around at the other two people in the room with me.  With the clinical detachment that comes from years of experience in observing the uniquely human condition, I watched the other two men struggle to make sense of what they saw.

Both of the men were dressed similarly, I noted.  Of course, they both wore the straitjackets that were required by the authorities in this room.  But beneath those straitjackets, long white robes flowed down over their legs and towards their feet.  When they shifted back and forth, I noticed that they were also both wearing thong sandals.

The man on my left shook his head back and forth, making his long, light brown hair fall in waves over his bearded face.  “This is totally inappropriate, man,” he complained.

The man on my right had similar brown hair, although his was cut a bit shorter and he was clean-shaven.  “This is no way for me to be treated,” he agreed, blinking a few times to clear his eyes.

“Yeah, man,” the bearded fellow agreed.  “They should be glad I’m a forgiving dude, or I’d be laying out some smiting right about now!”

“Oh, if I gave them a smiting, they’d wake up next to my dad, having to explain their actions,” the clean-shaven man snorted.  “Don’t even get me started on smiting.”

I briefly wished that I had a notebook to write my observations in.

The bearded man was still grumbling, but the clean-shaven man started to look around and to notice that his arms were pinned.  “Hey, what gives?” he called out.  “You can’t treat me like this!  I died for your sins!  And this is another big sin, right here!”

“Excuse me?” spoke up the bearded fellow.  “I believe that I’m the one who died for your sins, not the other way around!”

The clean-shaven man leveled a menacing glare at his companion that would likely have held more weight if he hadn’t been similarly restrained.  “Do you know who I am?” he asked in tones of ice.  “I’m Jesus freakin’ Christ!”

The bearded man just shook his head back and forth.  “Nah, man, you’ve got something loose in that head of yours,” he said back.  “I’m Jesus, man.  Maybe you’re one of my disciples or something?”

As the men argued back and forth, I watched and made sure to listen carefully.  The administrators had warned me that there were people impersonating me, that I would have to learn what made these poor souls claim to be Jesus.

After all, it’s no good being the Son of God if you can’t distinguish yourself from the competition.

Ambition, Part II

Continued from part I.

Azrael stood up, gripping his cup of pale, sugary coffee.  He slid over the barrier between the booths, dropping into the seat opposite the mousy-looking salesman at the next table.  The man glanced up as the newcomer slid into his booth at the diner, but he didn’t seem to be unduly surprised or put off.

As the angel leaned forward to stare into the man’s eyes, searching for some sign of what might be lacking, Mephistopheles sauntered around and slipped into the seat next to the salesman.  The waitress, noticing that her two customers had changed tables, came over and dropped the devil’s plate of greasy meat in front of him.

“Hello there,” the angel ventured, speaking to the man as if he was a small child.  “What’s your name?”

The man looked back at the angel without much interest.  “Arthur,” he replied.

“Hello, Arthur.  And what do you do?”

The man gave a shrug.  “I sell insurance,” he responded.  Azrael waited politely for the rest of the speech, but nothing more was forthcoming.

The angel’s eyebrows dropped down.  Now that wasn’t right.  One of the most defining qualities of any insurance salesman is their insistence that, no matter how much insurance you might have, you always need more.  So to not be immediately deluged with “one low price” offers was more than a little surprising.

“You know, I don’t happen to have any insurance,” the angel ventured, poking the bear.  He kept on peering closely at the man as he waited for some sort of response.  Nothing seemed to be coming out of the man’s mouth, however.  He just nodded vaguely and continued gazing straight ahead.

Next to the man, Mephistopheles had managed to get his hands around the large, meaty burger that had been brought to him.  He took a big bite, chewing with obvious relish and ignoring the little flecks of mush that flew from his lips.  “Weird, ain’t he?” he asked with enjoyment.

“You definitely took something from him,” Azrael agreed.  He turned his attention back to the man.  “Arthur, did you know that I’m a genie?  I’m here to grant you one wish!  Anything you want!”

Arthur blinked a couple times.  “I could maybe go for some cheese balls,” he spoke up.

Azrael’s eyes narrowed.  “I just gave you a wish for anything,” he repeated in tones of mingled disbelief and righteous anger, “and you want to wish for some cheese balls?”

“Maybe some crisps,” Arthur ventured.

The angel’s hand twitched as it wrapped around his coffee cup.  He took a long drink, steadying his nerves, and then turned to Mephistopheles.  “You took his ambition, his drive,” he told Mephistopheles.  “The poor guy’s a husk.”

“Lucky guess,” the devil said through his mouthful of food, but he raised one of his greasy hands and snapped his fingers.  Another little cloud of smoke burst around Arthur’s head, and he blinked a few times and looked around, as if seeing the other visitors at his table for the first time.

“Oh, hello there!” he commented to the angel and the devil.  “Didn’t see you folks sit down.  Now, are you totally satisfied with your current insurance?”

*

Instead of answering, the devil and the angel simply stood up and walked back to their table.  Arthur watched them go, a slightly crestfallen look on his face, before he was briefly distracted by something flitting in front of his face.  When he pulled his eyes back to the two retreating figures, he couldn’t remember why he’d been looking at them in the first place.

“I liked him better without any ambition,” Mephistopheles complained.

“I know, I know,” Azrael comforted him, patting the devil on the shoulder of his suit.  The fallen angel felt slightly greasy, but the angel resisted the temptation to wipe his fingers off.  “But you lost, so you have to pay for the meal.  Rules are rules.”

Mephistopheles nodded, and tossed a couple heavy gold coins onto the table with a clink.  The waitress came by, scooped them off the table without stopping, and made it several steps before she stopped and looked down at her hands with a confused expression.

“But next time,” the devil insisted.  “I’ll get you on the next round!”

Azrael just lifted his coffee cup to his lips for another sip.  The sunshine was streaming into the windows.  He leaned back in the booth, savoring the moment.