An Exercise In Patience by Scott Mitchel May

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He sat. He sat, and he waited. He sat, and he waited, and he began to grow impatient and unwilling to sit and wait any longer, that and plus, he had exhausted his supply of chips and salsa. The waitress, dressed in the pale pinks, yellows, and blues of a vaguely ethnic and super-flowy dress had already brought him three rounds, and she was not likely to bring him any more until his brother showed up.

Adam O’Brien ordered a Modelo Negra some time ago, but it was almost gone, and he had not planned on drinking a second. He wasn’t even hungry now. In his wallet, he had his debit card, five high-limit credit cards, and the five-dollar bill he always carried with him. Assuming that the five dollars was enough to cover the beer, he took it out of his wallet and prepared to leave it on the table and walk out before the waitress caught sight of him again, causing him to feel an anxious obligation to order some additional food to justify the three baskets of chips and the three small dishes of spicy salsa he had already consumed — gratis. He looked over his shoulder, again, toward the entrance, but still no Hugh. Fuck it, he thought, I’ll just put the five down, get up and leave, and the waitress can just think I was only here to scam a cheap lunch of chips and salsa and that will just have to be that because I will not spend my entire afternoon, or at least more than an hour of it, waiting on that perpetually-late dipshit.

Hugh enters at just the moment Adam is having this thought. Adam can see his brother looking around, trying to find the table, and possibly thinking Adam has already left. The face his brother is using to look around and locate the table is confused, looks hurt, and too also looks deeply tired as well. Adam waves his arms frantically above his head as if he is signaling a small, single-engine plane to come in for a landing. He sees Hugh seeing him, and for the first time in a very long time, he believes he also sees Hugh — really sees Hugh.

“Thought we’d lost ya.”

“Who’s we?”

“Just an expression.”

“So, it’s just you then.”

“Yes, Hugh, it’s just me.”

“Because you made it seem like there were more people waiting on me to arrive… waiting for something to happen. Disappointed I had not yet arrived, disappointed that there was something they were expecting to happen that had not happened, something they had built up in their own heads, independent of me, as to how their time would be rewarded, and, in that expectation, I was lacking, coming up short, again, and that I now am somehow responsible for their having a bad time because I had made them wait.”

“No, just me. Just me that was made to wait.”



“Were you waiting long?”

“Three baskets of chips, three small bowls of spicy salsa, and 2/3rds of a Modelo Negra.”

“Consumption seems like a very odd way to measure time. The time it takes to consume a thing would differ from person to person. I have no idea how long it takes you to consume anything, let alone a single basket of chips and a single small bowl of salsa. I also have no idea how much you enjoyed the chips and salsa and what the enjoying of the consumables did to your perception of time. I have no way of knowing if you having to wait on me to arrive was a particularly torturous experience for you, or, if you enjoyed the wait because you had enough treats along the way, enough stimuli to sustain you while you were expecting me, while you were waiting for the thing to happen. Also, I have no idea how bad you want me to feel about being, what is by any sane person’s rational definition, terribly late. Forty-five minutes is, objectively, a long time. But you had the Mexican music, the waitress, in her overly long but be-cleavaged dress, bringing you chips and salsa, and you had beer. What am I supposed to make of your comments? Are you or are you not, now, content?”

“Hugh, you need to relax, buddy. I was just trying to be funny. Break the tension. Put you at ease about the whole being late thing.”




“What were you doing anyway?”

“I dunno, sleeping maybe. It’s hard to know. I was at home, and then I was here, Wiley was there, I think, but maybe not.”

“I don’t like that guy. You need to get a better place and be around better people. You need to find someone who has what you want out of life and ask them how they got it. You should be thinking about what kind of life you want to have. Hanging out, smoking dope, and drinking with Wiley may have been ok when you were in your twenties, but Hugh, baby-brother, you need to make some changes. You won’t even let me come up to your place anymore.”

“We’ve discussed this.”

“Ma’s worried.”

“Ma’s always worried.”

“We want to help — she wants to help.”

“We’ve discussed this.”

“You two ready to order?” The question was startlingly curt for a waitress in a place like the Casa de Lara Restaurante Mexicano, but Adam could understand her tone. She’d been waiting, too. Possibly waiting for them to order, eat, and to leave so her shift could end. He focused on the unspoken emotion that radiated from her, injecting urgency and tension into the whole ordering of lunch thing and making it apparent that it was either now or never, well, not never, but, if they sent her away, she’d not return for a passive-aggressively long amount of time — of that, Adam was damn sure.

“Combo #5,” Adam said.

“Same,” Hugh said.

“Gracias,” the server said, and then walked away briskly.

“Help? How?”

“I don’t know, baby bro — a little money to start. Maybe help you look at getting back in school, learning a trade, getting you out of kitchens for good. Get you on some sort of A plus B equals C kind of a track.”

“They fired me.”


“I dunno. Maybe a month ago, maybe more, time is hard for me. You know time is hard for me. Why are you always asking me about time? When things happened, the chronology, why does that matter to you so much?”

“Hugh, I’m not always asking you about time, chronology or whatnot, but, asking you when you were fired from a job you’ve had for a significant amount of time, well, that seems like a reasonable question. It seems relevant to the story of what’s been happening in your life as of late.”



“I’ll say three weeks ago — if I must put a fine point on the when of the thing — they told me not to come back, not even to drink at the bar anymore.”

“Do you need immediate help?”





“I have money, lots of money, my rent is all paid up, through the rest of the year.”

“Where did you get that kind of money?”

“I dunno.”

“You don’t know?”

“The hows and whys are hard for me… you know that. Linear progression, how I got here, where I got that, it’s not interesting. Not to me.”

“Ok, ok, fine. You don’t need anything, you don’t want anything, and you don’t want to say how you are going to live. Let’s just eat our lunch, catch up.”


The food didn’t come for another ten minutes which is a passive-aggressively long time for a Restaurante Mexicano, but neither Hugh nor Adam complained, they just sat, in silence, neither one of them wanting to continue any kind of conversation until they had something to put in their mouths, some sort of action they could be doing to distract themselves from the necessity of keeping the dialogue going after it began again.

Being full and continuing to eat isn’t a uniquely Adam O’Brien thing, it’s not even a uniquely American thing. Being full and continuing to eat seems to be a uniquely humans who can afford it thing. In America, it just so happens that a particular kind of abundance is afforded by more people than most anywhere else. Not like abundance for all, or affordable abundance of the kind of foods people associate with good health, but if a person wishes, they can eat more, consume more calories on less money, here, than almost anywhere else. Hugh has never considered this. Adam has.

About halfway through his chicken tostada, and staring down the double-barrel of beans and rice, and not to mention a still untouched mini-burrito, taco, and twin enchiladas, he thought about it. He felt distension in his gut, and he felt the uncomfortable heat on his forehead that always meant The Sweats were coming on. Yet, there was no question in his mind of not finishing, or, at least, not coming damn close. The baskets of chips, the small bowls of salsa, the beer, the filler, they were not going to stop him from enjoying the meat and potatoes (tacos and burritos and enchiladas and tostadas and rice and beans) of this meal. This meal that he had waited so patiently for — enduring boredom and anger in alternating waves. A meal he had almost abandoned entirely before Hugh, his inconsiderately slow and confounding brother, decided to show up to at the very (and Adam was serious about waiting no longer) last minute. Typical, he thought, finishing the tostada, then moving on to the taco. Hugh was picking at his mini-burrito. Typical, he thought again, picking slowly, methodically, he even makes his food wait.

Adam thought about reengaging in what was sure to be yet another in a long line of conversations with Hugh about his future, his thoughts, and what he was thinking of doing. If maybe he wanted to leave Madison, if maybe he wanted to go back to Chicago where they had more family, or New York where they had no family, or if somehow he might think about going back to St. Patrick’s, off The Square, and reacquainting himself with the meetings that they have there for those that are of a similar genetic inclination. If maybe, just maybe, his brother would consider moving in with him, and his understanding mental-health-professional-wife, and their three dogs in Verona, WI., where life was just a bit slower, and Hugh could have some real time to rest, without Wiley, the booze, the seemingly endless and morose thoughts, and the guilt he seemed to carry around with him everywhere he went like a goddamned ton of feathers. Adam finished his taco, popping the last bite into his mouth, chewing, then saying, “Good,” through a muffled mouthful.

“What’s good? What is good?” asked Hugh.

And, just like that, we are off to the races again, thought Adam. “The food, this particular taco, the atmosphere, I don’t know, the whole experience.”

“Is it?”

“Don’t be so fucking obtuse.”

“I can’t say for sure if this is good, bad, or what. I can’t say with any relative certainty what those words even mean. I know that good 4,000 years ago was killing and bad was showing mercy. Bad meant death for you and yours, and good meant death for every other person you came across. But the playing field was relatively even and everyone knew the score. Everyone was other. Everyone that was not familiar was other. Those that looked like you but existed outside of your social experience — other. Those that didn’t look like you — other. Those that were part of your group, but left for an inordinate amount of time and then returned — not to ever again be fully trusted and possibly — other. Good… bad… these were defined concepts based around prolonging life and holding off an inevitable death that was coming sooner rather than later. Now death comes later rather than sooner for almost everyone involved, and so then, we invent new things that are good, and, new definitions of bad. Life, good… life at any cost to any other… bad. Good is not in surviving the day and providing for the survival of the day for those around you but rather in sustaining a base level of comfort for the self and for the afflicted.”

“Look, Hugh, Ma and I are just trying to get you where you’re going — trying to help you accomplish whatever goals you have. We want you to be successful. But, like, you know, in a way that seems satisfying to you. We don’t want to hem you in, make you conform to some linear definition of success, but help facilitate whatever it is that you are excited about doing. You’re not young, I am not young, and Ma’s really not young. Let us help you get the show on the road. If that’s culinary school, whatever, awesome, fine, so be it. If that’s enrolling in the Tech and getting your gen-eds then transferring to Madison and figuring it out, great. But brother, and I’m saying this cause you need to hear it, your life’s a giant fucking mess. If you haven’t bottomed out in some secret way that you haven’t told us, then your ass is surely in a first-class seat on a rocket ship destined for a harsh and tragic recalibration of your reality. We just want to save you some heartburn, some trouble, and skip the step where you have to really flat-line.”

You don’t see.”

“I don’t?”

“You can’t hear what I hear. It’s the hearing that you lack, the faith.”

“Okay.” He had heard this hearing business before. That conversation is a dead-end, which, Adam O’Brien didn’t understand and really didn’t want to understand; though, he suspected his wife (being a well-liked and respected member of Madison’s mental health community) would understand, and prescriptions for Zoloft and Abilify would understand.

“You don’t hear!” Hugh banged his fists on the table, drawing the attention of the pastel-dressed waitress, and knocking Adam’s empty Modelo bottle into his refried beans. It would seem this particular conversation had come to its timely conclusion and lunch was now over and it was time to leave The Casa de Lara Restaurante Mexicano before any cataclysmic, irreversible, and family-rending thing could be said or any ultimate conclusion vis-a-vie the whole Adam and Hugh relationship thing could happen and before anyone’s feelings got well and truly hurt.


Scott Mitchel May

Scott Mitchel May dropped out of high school at the age of seventeen and moved to Madison, Wisconsin. He worked as a short-order cook for some years before getting his HSED and enrolling at Edgewood College, where he graduated with a degree in English Literature. Scott is a writer, reader, smoker of pipe tobacco, and enjoyer of fermented beverages. This is his first published work of fiction. Scott lives in New Glarus, Wisconsin with his wife Katherine and their five chickens.

If you enjoyed ‘An Exercise In Patience’ leave a comment and let Scott know.

You can find and follow Scott at:

Photo by Pavlo

You can read Scott’s previously published story ‘The Idea of Dogs’ here

Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay


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