Early Riser, by David Lee Zweifler

Some believe that before you’re born, you know all the world’s secrets while you wait for the body your soul will inhabit. That you know all the possibilities.


They have already checked my father’s boarding pass when the taxi driver calls him on his cell phone. The driver found his varsity jacket in the back seat of the cab, along with his business card.

My father considers getting out of line to get the jacket. It’s roasting in Jakarta, but it will be cold in Chicago when he lands, and he planned to give that jacket to his son one day, if he ever has a son.

But he has a plane to catch.

That’s the fork in the road. The only one that matters.

My father doesn’t go back for the jacket and instead gets on the plane. He orders a drink. A little later, there’s a boom, a dip. The plane shakes. Flames from the engine stream past the left-side windows.

As the plane fills with smoke, my father turns to a little boy sitting next to him—a six-year-old named Arief—and tells him that it will be okay. If my father doubts it, he doesn’t show it.

The boy doesn’t understand. He’s never seen a white guy speak fluent Bahasa. But the man is smiling and calm—so confident, almost arrogant—so he believes him. They share a chuckle as if to ask, “See how silly everyone looks getting upset over a little smoke?” Later, when things get really bad, the boy grips my father’s hand.

The smile my father gives the boy is classic. Precious. He would have made a great father.


Some believe that before you’re born, you know all the world’s secrets while you wait for the body your soul will inhabit. That you know all the possibilities.

Is that where I am? Is this the waiting room?

I decide to trace the other side of the fork. The one where my father runs to the ticket counter where the taxi driver left the jacket, then return in time to watch the plane push away from the gate. The one where he sees the crash on an ancient television in the airport.

Three years later, in this fork, he meets my mother in Hong Kong. He invites her out for dinner. She is a vegetarian living above a shop with lamb intestines boiling in the window day and night, its aroma filling her apartment—she’s happy to go anywhere, anytime, with anyone.

She doesn’t want to date, though. She lets him know that.

He’s persistent. He stakes expensive dinners on a series of bets. “Ron Perlman played Indigo Montoya in Princess Bride.” “It’s InDIgo Montoya, not Inigo.” “Mao Tse-tung once tried out as a pitcher for the Yankees.”

These are ridiculous, stupid bets. But he’s so confident—almost arrogant, so absolutely sure of his wrong answers—that they work.

He’s not as dumb as he looks.

He takes my mother out on dates that, after a while, she realizes really are dates, but she still goes anyway.

She’s out of his league. But he grows on her. He’s going to stick with her all the way, or until she wises up.

They return to New York. They get married and have children. The first is a son.


These could-have-beens are fuzzy. But the past is clear.

I can see my father’s last summer at the University of Chicago where he’s retaking calculus for the third time. He bikes nearly a hundred miles around the city in one day to pinpoint the best deep-dish pizza.

He is kind to the mean waitress at a tiki bar. He makes her laugh and asks how she’s holding up. After that, she makes sure he always gets a table no matter how busy it gets.

He plays Nintendo with his best friend. They would have started an advertising firm together in New York a decade later but, instead, the friend ends up joining his father’s law firm.


I’m tired of waiting and watching. I want to get going. I can’t sleep. That’s me. Early riser.

I’m jumping on a bed, waking up Mom and Dad on a Sunday morning. I’m bored. I’m jumping back and forth in time, looking backward and forward.

I don’t know all the world’s secrets. Just the possibilities.


On the other side of the fork, the one that will never be, my father picks me up and hugs me. I can smell a starched collar, sweat, cologne. I am laughing. His stubble scratches my cheek when he kisses me.

The four-year-old me pushes him away. “You’re squashing me!”

I am telling that stupid child who can never hear me, the one who takes this hug for granted. “Don’t push away. Not yet.”


I don’t know where I’m going to go. I do know that I’ll forget all this. I will never meet this father. He is already gone. Still, I love him, here, amidst all the swirling possibilities.

I can still feel his stubble on my cheek, still smell the starched collar and his cologne. I’m leaving soon, to go somewhere else to be someone else. But right now I just want to stay here.

I don’t push away. Not yet.

David Zweifler spent decades writing non-fiction as a reporter and marketer in jobs that took him around the world, including long stints in Jakarta, Hong Kong, and New York City. David has recent and upcoming work in Wyldblood and Little Blue Marble. He works as a first-reader for The Dread Machine and resides with his family in New York’s Hudson River Valley.

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