I was elbow deep into my hillock of chicken fajitas when my son London's friend Joe leaned over and whispered, "Hey, Rob."

"Ymph?" I answered, my distended jaw full of chicken, grape tomatoes and a mess of multicolored peppers.

"Did you know that your plate is dripping stuff all over your pants?" He pointed to the spot where my black leather place mat ended and the latticed metal of the patio table began. Juice from my marinated lunch had been dribbling through one of the eye-shaped gaps long enough to form a stain shaped like Gorbachev's birthmark on my fly. My family started to laugh in an all-too-familiar way.

The five of us were seated on the back patio of the Church Street Café after winding our way through the American International Rattlesnake Museum where, among exotica like Alice Cooper's leather cobra jacket, I watched an albino serpent shed his skin. At the museum, Joe had surprised me with his knowledge that a grass snake can emit a foul smelling liquid from its anal glands. At the restaurant, this savvy 7-year-old was quick to identify my fatal food flaw. If he isn't in the gifted program at school with that kind of range, he sure as hell should be.

Truth be told: I've always been a bit of a slob and I just can't escape the damnation of the disheveled. This incident on Church Street reminded me of seven years earlier, just before London was born, when I worked for a nonprofit and I was going to see saurians of a different type, the City Council. The morning was clean and crisp and I wore a white shirt and khaki pants, which had been deterged at the dry cleaners so that they were also clean and crisp. I parked my car, fed the meter and then grabbed a coffee from a cart on Marcy Street. A spring arose in my step and I think I may have whistled something as saccharine as "Zippity Do Dah." Bursting with joy, I squeezed the cup hard enough to make the lid pop off, showering me with hot liquid the color of a Western Diamondback. The bespattering started at about the third button of my oxford and snaked down to just below my belt. I panicked. Thirteen minutes to my meeting in the Council chambers and I looked as though a baby the size of Kirstie Alley had just spit up on me. All the stores on Lincoln Avenue had yet to open, but I sprinted along them like I was in some movie about a man desperate to find a lost love if that lost love happened to be a clean shirt.

I caught movement in a woman's boutique and figured that I could get away with something slightly frilly in the Mick Jagger vein; this is Santa Fe after all. I pounded on the gold trimmed door and the frightened salesclerk who opened it said "no way" before I even had a chance to explain how one of the Oompa Loompas had splashed me while languishing in Willy Wonka's pool. Surprisingly, no one opened their doors to a man covered in brown juices that morning so I bought a newspaper and positioned it in such a way that it a) covered my stain and b) made me seem like the bastard, homeless and slightly journalistic lovechild of Sally Rand, the famous fan dancer of the 1930s. No one on the Council asked me why I sported a paper codpiece; they'd obviously seen worse come before them.

Seven years later on Church Street, I wasn't able to shed my clothes like a snake; all I could do was offer thanks to Joe for his mature insight and act like the refined gentleman I am by dabbing my paper napkin (and my fingers) into a glass meant for drinking and then wiping my crotch until it appeared I was incontinent.

Robert Wilder's newest book is

Tales from the Teachers' Lounge

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