LOW SUNDAY I
In an unprecedented break with tradition, Maureen decided that the Low Sunday picnic this year would be a catered affair instead of the usual bring-your-own-lunch, on account of the fact that she did not want to be subjected yet again to anyone dangling their moral superiority in her face with their freshly-cut carrots and their environmentally-sound glass containers. I know you don’t eat like that at home, she thought, picturing those holy grazers stuffing their fat faces with cheese puffs and ranch dip and Mountain Dew. A catered lunch would be a much-needed check upon such wanton Pharisaism, so unfitting at any time of year but especially in Eastertide, which is no time for vegetarianism.
It wasn’t just the conspicuous display of raw broccoli and gluten-free rice chips that bugged her; it was the act of presumption they implied. We will not be told what to feed our children, Maureen imagined them thinking, and how wrong they were going to be this year. They were no different than the poor fools who stopped off at Subway on the way to the picnic last year. I mean, how difficult is it really, she thought, to whip up a decent and unpretentious sandwich at home, you lazy jerks? But at last year’s Low Sunday picnic, at least the Subway crowd weren’t doing as the hypocrites did, who loved to stand around with their hummus and bell peppers, so as to be seen by men. Oh, they have received their reward in full, oh yes. Their reward this year was going to be a little taste of preordained cuisine, an opportunity for them to think of something more wholesome and edifying to do than parade around the picnic grounds with their industrial steel water bottles.
This year the first Sunday after Easter fell, unfortunately, on the same day as Earth Day. Maureen feared this might encourage an escalation of these worryingly sanctimonious trends. She congratulated herself to what she was confident was not a self-indulgent or prideful degree for the foresight with which her planning of the picnic this year took this fact into consideration. We can allow no space for the inordinate exercise of dubious passions, not at a church picnic for Christ’s sake, and certainly no hint of devotion to foreign gods. Earth Day was most definitely one of these, a high holy day for the self-righteous recyclers from the four corners of the globe.
The Low Sunday lunch was, of course, Maureen’s own creation, and in her mind it would be her enduring contribution to what was left of Christendom—a meager one, to be sure, but Jesus had said to use your talents and not put them in the ground. Or something like that, she thought. Inattention to textual detail was common in her recollection of important biblical passages, which she justified under the equally Jesus-ish principle that the letter kills but the spirit gives life or something. But biblical knowledge was, she admitted, not her particular forte, her own spiritual charism being a command of the picnic so effortless that it could only be regarded as a divine gift. It’s given to some to teach, to others prophecy and so on (the tongues part having always been a bit of an embarrassing overreach on the Apostle’s part), but not just anyone could pull off a potluck. It wasn’t clear to which of St. Paul’s gifts of the Spirit her dexterity with the commission, preparation, and arrangement of covered dishes specifically belonged, but she figured it had something to do with the gift of service. But no matter. These technicalities of interpretation were beyond her ken and interest. What was important was the singular contribution to the Christian communion that was her annual parish lunch.
The choice of Low Sunday was a strategic one, it being the one day of the year in which parishioners were noticeable by their absence, when attendance took a drab downturn from the seersuckered splendor of Easter Sunday the week before. The picnic was originally proposed in St. Eugene’s parish council meetings as an attempt at “outreach,” to provide additional reasons to the spiritually indigent for coming to church on a day when it might seem permissible to stay in bed. By most accounts it had proven a success, and a source of small pride for the parish council, whose numbers for attendance on Low Sunday set diocesan records.
It had been carefully designed as a bring-your-own lunch in keeping with the low-key nature of the day. The one exception was the centerpiece of the affair, by unspoken decree one of Maureen’s lovingly slow-roasted meats. She found the process of repeatedly basting a roast a wholesome reminder of the sacrament of baptism. It recalled the fact that, like roast pork, we all need to be basted with the waters of baptism regularly to keep our faith succulent and juicy. Not re-baptized, mind you. Maureen regarded the picnic as a wholly altruistic act in service of the gospel, despite the murmurs, in some unsavory quarters in the parish, that it was really just an opportunity for the display of Maureen’s own superior piety. Such suspicions, when they arose, were quietly pushed to one side of her mind, where there reigned a serene confidence in the entirely unselfish use of her singular gifts as a hostess.
The former vicar had not failed to notice those gifts, and had recommended that she become a greeter on Sunday mornings, which she was for many years and even still on occasion that someone failed to show up. But in Maureen’s mind, being a greeter was the lowest of the lay ministries, since it required no special knowledge or skill apart from punctuality and an ability to say “good morning” convincingly. The idea of exercising her social gifts in this way was exciting at first, but before long she felt it was a waste of her talents. She sensed a vocation to higher forms of laywomanhood.
When the old vicar retired, the bishop sent the parish an interim priest called Cotton who was retired himself, and should have stayed that way, she thought, but being a priest was not something you ever really retire from, like being a mother or being good at making biscuits. If the Lord had blessed you with the ability to make biscuits or smoke hams then it was meet, right, and your bounden duty so to do. Sometimes, though, it seemed to Maureen like some people didn’t have the ability but God just blessed them with the duty anyway. Like Cotton, whose name reminded Maureen of the sack that he couldn’t preach his way out of. His job was basically to keep the place afloat while they found a permanent replacement, sort of like the way you patch a leaky tire with Fix-a-Flat. It’ll hold you off for a few months, but eventually you’re going to need a new one. Conventional wisdom held that an interim period was never a good time to try out new things, but the problem was often that the scabs they brought in for the time being were not familiar with all the ways things were done in the parishes where they filled in for a while. Cotton, for example, did not know that St Eugene’s did not have a children’s sermon, or enough children at all to warrant giving them a sermon of their own. So when he ambled down to the steps beneath the rood screen and called all the little children of God to gather round, he stood alone in awkward silence, staring out at the befuddled congregation wearing a red foam clown’s nose in the middle of his face.
Nice try, Maureen said to herself, but all she could think about was maraschino cherries, and therefore whiskey sours. Hollis turned a dumbfounded face to her. At that very moment she conceived of the Low Sunday Lunch. The obvious vacuum in leadership in the parish struck her as an unambiguous invitation to her to make use of her gifts in a bolder, more ambitious fashion. She took the clown priest as a sign that the hour had come for the humble potluck to be glorified.
Hollis was sold on the idea from the beginning. They often sat together in church now—not right up front with the eager beavers, nor all the way in the back like the recovering Presbyterians did and families with small children should—but more or less in the middle, and not always in the exact same pew. Maureen’s late husband, Harold, passed into glory one Trinity Sunday well before the clown priest, thank God, since the sight of such a being would surely have done him in for good.
Hollis never married. His now-unfashionable ideas about the dignity of the old Prayer Book and the depravity of modern hymnody endeared him to Maureen and Harold both, although Harold’s opinions on those and all other matters were not firm and generally left to Maureen. Hollis and Harold hunted duck together back in the day, and when they held hands during the offertory hymn one Trinity Sunday, she thought maybe he missed Harold as much as she did.
They were standing next to each other as the clown priest censed the altar. He had come from one of those folksy churches with folksy guitars and folksy view of “The Lord’s Supper.” He was unsteady and clearly uncomfortable with the thurible, and as he swung the thing round in dangerously wide circles, Maureen reached out a hand to Hollis’s as if to stabilize her body. They both imagined the thurible going astray, lit altar candles falling like dominoes and sending the whole place up in flames. A collective sigh of relief was audible as Cotton handed the thurible off to one of the acolytes, who began censing the congregation. He bowed politely, and everyone else did too in response, less out of piety than in gratitude for not being burned alive.
But when Maureen bent from the waist, she let out an ungodly fart that sounded wet and fleshy at first but then turned to a whispery whoosh. As an odious stench rose heavenward, Hollis glared at her to see if she smelled it too, this thing foul and wretched and abominable, like the rotten fumes of some demon from the very crotch of Hell itself squirreling up through the floorboards and entwining itself around Maureen’s swollen ankles. When she squeezed his hand more tightly, his look of reproach turned to one of pity. Closing her eyes tightly, she thanked the Lord who, in his infinite mercy, had the wisdom to bless the church with incense.
But this Low Sunday, Hollis wasn’t holding her hand at the gospel lesson. He was sitting three or four rows back. The deacon came out to read from the book held in front of him by the less handsome of the two acolytes, and the congregation all turned towards the middle of the nave. He was singing the passage about Doubting Thomas poking his finger in the Lord’s side, but Maureen was looking around at the people sitting behind her. It was uncouth to turn around and look behind you at other times, but the gospel reading gave her a chance to canvas the crowd for just who might be attending the picnic. There were fewer people today than last week, but that was the way it was. One or two people she didn’t recognize. She saw Hollis’s face in profile, facing the deacon. The Subway crowd and the hypocrites were in the back row where they belonged, so that no one would have to be distracted from worship by their kids squirming around and chattering for snacks or crayons. She began to tense up at the thought of making the announcement after the peace about the catered nature of the lunch this year. Surely Father will remember to say something, she thought.
The boy clapped the book shut and the ministers walked back up towards the altar. Maureen remained facing sideways, and caught Hollis’s eye as he turned forward again. He gave her a half-smile and looked down into his bulletin.
She didn’t pay much attention to the sermon. It was all about the physicality of the resurrection, the “embodiedness” of it or something, but there was too much talk about touching for her to be really edified by any of it. Fortunately Father did remember to make a brief announcement about the picnic, sparing Maureen the indignity of calling attention to herself. She had forgotten about the announcement anyway. She was thinking about lunch.
The mechanics of a church picnic were highly complicated, a fact that Maureen knew well, perhaps better than anyone else she could think of. Logistics required her to leave immediately after the dismissal, it being highly inappropriate in her view to exit the service before that point. She had always made a point of glaring at the ladies who left right after communion in order to make their lunch dates at the country club, but it did not seem to have the desired effect. To ready a church picnic, she had to make it to the park in time to meet the catering van and show them where everything went, assemble the chafing dishes, light the Sternos, lay out the linens and flatware. For the linens she had solicited the help of one of the ladies from the Altar Guild. Gladys possessed an uncommon and exquisite knowledge of and dexterity with the handling of woven objects. Maureen had always admired her ability to manage creases in linens so sharp that you could cut cold lard with them. Gladys had slipped out of the church shortly after the peace, but Maureen was willing to overlook this in deference to Gladys’ linen expertise, which she couldn’t do without. Besides, at least Gladys had been discreet about it.
There is a fine line between being tastefully refined and tacky, she thought to herself. She had especially in mind the miserable offenders from two years ago, whose contribution to the lunch was a gallon Ziploc bag full of chopped iceberg lettuce. “Lord have mercy,” she said then, “it’s a small thing.” But, for Maureen, attention to small things promised the only hope of resistance against the encroaching decadence of the age. The Low Sunday lunch itself had not proven any more impervious to that decay than anything else, and a catered lunch would leave less room for unwelcome surprises. But concessions had to be made to human frailty, and Maureen was proudly neither a fundamentalist nor a latitudinarian: she was quite willing to grant that Tupperware was fine as far as it went, but that was only as far as the kitchen. It had no place in the serving-room or, God forbid, on the dinner table. That people were now openly eating out of it she could not help but regard as the work of the Devil.
The tables all set, Maureen smoothed the front of her dress as members of the congregation began to trickle in just before noon-thirty. Maureen felt a slight tickle in her bowels as the first of them—Mary and Ansley Heard—emerged from their automobile. The latter, a 1966 Mercedes Benz 220 bought new off the lot, was one example of the way the Heards were always terribly fashionable about everything—everything but their customary arrival time at social functions. They had an unfailing habit of arriving two minutes before the advertised starting time of every event they ever attended. Maureen had always tried to attribute this to Ansley’s bum leg rather than something sneakier, like a desire to get to the devilled eggs before anyone else. Even with a two-minute head start it still typically took Ansley as much time to get to the devilled eggs as the younger and more sprightly folk who arrived on time. But it was annoying nonetheless, a fact which Maureen concealed behind the breadth of her open arms and an almost empathetic smile.
“So good to see you, Mary. You look fabulous.” She gently kissed the air just next to Mary’s cheek, and as if she were talking to a puppy, said to Ansley over Mary’s shoulder, “Anze.”
Ansley doffed his straw fedora and ambled up to his hostess, “Ah ah ah Maureen, so wonderful of you to put this on, ah ah ah ah.” Ansley wore a perpetual grin on his unnaturally youthful face and had an endearing tendency to sound like his face looked, radiant and exuberant about even the most trifling of details. His speech was frequently punctuated with a series of sharp, laugh-like ejaculations.
“Mary and I ah ah ah,” he said as though he wanted those just arriving yards away to hear, “went to a LIT-uh-ay festival at the BO-tanicuh GAWH-dens yestuhday!” He had little use for the letter ‘r’, which made its presence audible only when absolutely necessary. Maureen herself found this a charming epitome of dignified speech that her people shared with English royalty. If only the young people still spoke like Ansley, she thought, maybe they wouldn’t be eating out of Tupperware.
As the rest of the congregation arrived, she was invigorated by the effusion of praise for the location of the lunch this year, despite the fact that it was exactly the same place as last year. Maureen’s unchallenged status as queen of the church picnic remained intact, if not spiked somewhat by the first reports back from the bar, where Maureen had contributed her one homemade concoction to the affair: her trademark Bloody Marys, prepared the night before. This step was not only a practicality—few of Maureen’s personal touches were simply pragmatic, without some additional justification that verged on the mythological—but gave the mixture time to steep. Her horseradish was, as a rule, always fresh and hand-grated, an act of circumspection that not only communicated to the cocktail a superior robustness over the jarred variety but which, she hoped, would inspire similar acts of devout and patient attention in its consumers—a virtue foreign to an age in which the Devil preyed upon the lazy through conveniences like pre-made Bloody Mary mix. It was a few short steps from there to more insidious forms of moral depravity, she was convinced, but this was the way the Deceiver operated.
Like a marine sergeant inspecting her charge, Gladys encircled the dinner table, hands clasped behind her back. A white linen cloth, worn to translucence from years of dedicated use, followed her like a bridal train. At home she had whole stacks of these deconsecrated altar linens, which she procured from an anonymous source. And while Maureen found the prospect of a black market for used liturgical goods distastefully utilitarian, it was for this singular devotion to her craft that Maureen had conscripted Gladys in the first place. Gladys was rarely to be found without one of these linens in her purse or in her hand. To her, this accessory was as vital to her daily comportment as a pair of clean undergarments had been to Maureen’s mother. Neither of these women allowed themselves to leave the house without their respective linens, lest they wound up dead. To Gladys this habit was a merely personal affectation, but to Maureen it represented an admirable improvement upon her own mother’s inordinate concern for bodily hygiene: what mattered was the state of one’s soul, not the state of one’s underpants, and she even entertained the idea of her corpse being discovered in a ditch somewhere, her cold hand clutching a Eucharistic purificator. That’s the way to go, she thought.
One of the larger ladies from the choir came up to Maureen and gently squeezed her forearm. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
Maureen looked at her oddly. “Sorry for what, my dear?” she asked.
The choir lady froze like a squirrel darting in front of a car, unsure whether to go forward or turn back.
My God, she thought. She doesn’t know.
Ten days earlier, Maureen heaved her cast-iron Dutch oven from a bottom drawer. She groaned and laid it as gently as she could on the range. A thin layer of rust covered its surface. It made her think of her children. “Lord, forgive me,” she said to herself. “Ought never let it get to this state.” She knew you weren’t supposed to store up for yourself treasures on earth and all that, but she figured if she were going to have any treasures on earth they would be made of cast-iron. She hated it when people talked about heaven as some misty cloud city where there was nothing but gold and silver and pearls. Not that there was anything wrong with gold or silver or—Lord knows—pearls, but they got it all wrong. No, heaven would be a warm place like a working kitchen in which there is one metal, Tennessee-forged cast iron, and the Blessed are swathed in the eternal aroma of rendered pork fat.
“I’ll give you my cast iron when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” she said to no one, but imagined she was speaking to the folks who were all into ceramics and non-stick surfaces and wild marsh reed oil or whatever it was now. She just wished they could see that her larder was an actual larder, and not a pantry—whose shudder-inducing name made her think of underwear. They’d find in there, to their delicious horror, shelf upon shelf of lard, butter, duck fat, ham hock, schmaltz, salt pork, pork belly, all of which, if it was worth its salt, didn’t need to be refrigerated. If they’d really look between the droves and droves of animal fat, they might see a lone canister of vegetable shortening. Sometimes you had to make concessions to a decadent age. Leaf lard just wasn’t as easy to come by as it used to be.
The cast iron was like her own kids—lovingly seasoned in the occasional fire of love, cherished, sometimes stored away in a closet for a while, but never forsaken. And Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said that bit about the moths and rust and stuff. As she scrubbed the surface down with warm fat and coarse salt, she resolved never to put back in the drawer what she could just as well leave out on the stove. That way the rust that destroys would always be in front of her, and maybe it would remind her that her children should call her.
The last time she’d spoken to Billy was Palm Sunday, but that seemed like ages ago. “Well you all are more than welcome to come for Easter, dear,” she had said to him on the phone. “I know it’s a trek for you and the kids, and I know you have your own things going on, but you always have a home here. But I’ll be just fine. Don’t trouble yourself.”
“Mother, you know we want to be there more than anything. And I’d get out of it if we could, but Cassie is a sheep in the Easter pageant this year, and we can’t miss that.”
“Oh yes, I understand, son.” A sheep? she thought. Really? Is that the best I could do with my grandkids?
“Maybe you’d like to come down for it? Cassie’d be so thrilled.”
“Oh sweetheart, you know I would love to. But my hands are firmly fixed to this plow. It’s just impossible for me to get away for Easter.”
Maureen didn’t really have plans for Easter Sunday apart from being tired. She’d go to the eleven o’clock service if only to get her money’s worth from her Maundy Thursday pedicure.
“I suspect that y’all are having a big Easter this year?” she said but she did not suspect that at all.
“You know, the usual. Early church on Sunday morning. A sunrise service at the lake. Should be nice, but it will be a challenge getting the kids up and ready at that hour.”
I’m sorry I asked, she thought. That boy needs to have the rust scrubbed off of him. As lovely and poignant as sunrise services were, Maureen did not care for them. They struck her as a little too sentimental and maybe just a tiny bit pagan.The Lord rose in the nighttime, she said to herself, when the light shone in the darkness, which she thought was not only theologically profound but made good practical sense. It meant that you could celebrate Easter on Saturday night and then you could sleep in on Sunday—provided you’d done all the Holy Week stuff before. Sunrise services were for people who went to church once a year, or for people who, like Billy, were Baptists. Or for people who were just plain lazy, and for whom getting up early one Sunday a year felt like a sort of atonement for being pathetic. Resurrection takes work, she thought. Like dying first.
She raised him to be different, to have some appreciation for beauty and time and the church calendar and everything, but he went off and married that Baptist girl. She had infected him with a fondness for simplicity. “Modesty was Jesus’ greatest lesson,” that girl had said once. Maureen could not believe her ears. But at least the girl had been consistent about the simplicity. Her dinner parties (of course the girl never called them that) were fine but did not excite any great passion. Though they were primitive, at least there was wine, but the way the girl and her son consumed it—never beyond one glass—seemed orchestrated to teach Maureen a lesson.
I don’t give a fig for that nonsense, she thought, and then thought what a wonderful expression “I don’t give a fig” was and how sad it was that no one under seventy used it. People just don’t understand the value of figs anymore. Maybe if they were treated to them at a lavish dinner or church picnic, they would. Good, fresh ones—from California or Turkey—and not those God-awful dried ones that you had to gnaw on like beef jerky and then pick out of your teeth the rest of the day. She was reminded of that time in the Bible when Jesus cursed the fig tree for not bearing any fruit. It was hardly the tree’s fault, it not being fig season, but she figured that Jesus wouldn’t have bothered to curse the tree in the first place if he hadn’t liked figs so much. Sometimes you just get an Almighty hankering, she thought, and Our Lord was no exception, him being fully human and all.
Maureen didn’t say the part about not giving a fig at the time, but she thought it a lot last November when Billy and that girl hosted Thanksgiving at their place. She hadn’t really wanted to go. As an incentive, Billy asked his mother if she would roast the bird that year. She could hardly resist, even though she thought it was the man of the house’s job. “I’ll carve,” Billy had said, and that was enough. She would be there, with the bird.
And she was. She couldn’t believe what fine young people her grandkids had almost turned out to be. They said “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, ma’am,” and presumably they would have said “Yes, sir, No sir,” if Harold had still been around to hear it.
A tin can-shaped column of cranberry sauce quivered as Billy set the steaming turkey in the center of the table. That’s just like him, she thought, and that Baptist girl. Always taking shortcuts. She thought the Puritan plainness of the table setting actually helped to accentuate her bird, the way a cast of mediocre actors help to showcase the major talent.
“Beautiful turkey, Maureen,” the girl said.
As a gesture of hospitality, presumably, Billy said grace before he set to cutting up the turkey. It was a lovely prayer, she thought, but unusually eloquent for Billy, who was not given to wordy prayers. He tended to pepper his with a lot of we just’s and used the word Lord like a punctuation mark. She didn’t like the way he carved the turkey, slicing it into thin slivers like deli meat, which was not a genre of food that one ought to try and imitate in one’s own home. That Baptist girl didn’t seem to care for either the turkey or the prayer. She didn’t say Amen to either of them.
“What a lovely grace, Billy,” Maureen said.
“Thanks, mom. I thought you might like it.”
When he told her that he had simply read the Collect for Thanksgiving Day from The Book of Common Prayer, she became irritated. While she was touched by the gesture, she could have done without it just the same.
“Oh,” she said, “I know, sweetheart,” but Billy and the girl could see clearly that she hadn’t recognized it at all. “It is a lovely sentiment, dear. I’ll be honest, it’s not Cranmer, but I appreciate it anyhow.”
The look the girl shot across the table to Billy was a clear signal that this was the last time Maureen would be invited for Thanksgiving.
That evening, they all attended the annual Thanksgiving Day service at that girl’s Baptist church. It was as brass tacks as Maureen expected, all “Be Thou My Vision” and “Just As I Am,” which felt to her less like going to church than hearing some washed-up old folk singer performing his greatest hits at the retirement home. Thirty minutes with these people,she thought, and I can see why they’re always singing about being in the garden alone.
The preacher was just what she feared, too: one of those extemporaneous types who seem to think that preaching without a written text is somehow proof that the Holy Ghost is speaking directly through them. His sermon began with the Pilgrims and how they sailed to this great land with a fervent love of the Lord Jesus and a desire to worship in the beauty of holiness, then careened into a tepid but mildly stirring diatribe against the waywardness of society these days. It pulled up short just as it was getting good, just when it seemed the preacher was about to plunge a knife deep into the dark heart of the idols of the age. He started off on some other, much less interesting subject.
Maureen would have preferred that the Holy Ghost had moved him to talk about the actual food itself. A better preacher might be able to deliver a more edifying sermon just by talking about the religious value of sweet potatoes. This one, though, said the word “holiness” too much and “beauty” too little. But beauty was a lot to expect from this crowd, who had outgrown their downtown space and moved into a prosaic new building in the suburbs that looked like a warehouse. The old building was stately and grand in a way that suggested “Faith of Our Fathers,” but it had occupied valuable real estate in the center of town—too valuable to remain a church property. It was torn down, and in its place was a rising tangle of steel girders and plywood that would one day be, they said, a mixed-use development. And whatever that was, it was probably preferable to the new church building, which was built out of beige cinder block and tan brick, with an accent of—probably fake, some sort of plastic—green tile running all the way around it like a belt, and had a huge Italianate portcullis on the front. It looked confused. A church ought to look different from a tortilla factory, she thought, but Baptists have never been in the vanguard of church architecture, now have they? No one was going to be inspired to the beauty of holiness or the love of God or anyone else by the sight of this thing. It made her think of Dresden, only no one would regard this building as significant or beautiful enough to drop a bomb on. It didn’t soar upwards the way older churches did, even some of the better Baptist ones. It just sat there as if it fell out of the sky and upon impact had wiped out everything in the perimeter for hundreds of yards, where asphalt now stretched from the main road out to a line of white pines behind. What did they do with all the dead, she thought, when they left the old place behind? Could you really call a church without a graveyard a church?
After the service was over she waited in line to greet the pastor, a tall older gentleman with a severe gray-blonde comb-over that swept from the back of his head all the way up and around to the other side. “Nice to meet you,” she said, but she was thinking about the line from the gospels about how the Lord knows the numbers of the hairs on our head. Or maybe it was Isaiah. Let it go, old man, she thought. You’re not fooling anybody.
When she was done seasoning the cast iron, she toweled it off and set it on the stove. It was a beautiful thing. She would’ve taken a bath in it if she could. It was barely nine o’clock in the morning, and she still had to get the lamb on. It would need at least five hours, maybe six. Father had decided to hold a Passover seder before the Maundy Thursday service this year, which Maureen thought a nice touch. It would remind us of our fellowship with the People of the Covenant, and more festivity was a good thing, especially if it involved roast lamb and an old-timey recipe. And the Jews were nothing if not old-timey. They don’t come much older than that, she thought.
The task of preparing the lamb shanks for the seder had been divided between three people, each assigned five pounds a piece. They were given strict instructions to all follow the exact same recipe, and it would all be thrown together in one big pot. Maureen didn’t especially like this plan but could hardly object to it. She just hoped that the other two would have gotten their hands on a proper spring lamb, prepared in accordance with all those stringent Jewish dietary laws. Father had emphasized as much and that, while we are not subject to the Law in the same way, we should respect the tradition. Still, she knew that one or both of the others might be tempted to cut corners and go to Kroger.
But she didn’t think about that for long. She began to scramble as if time were bearing down on her. She rubbed the lamb with ground black pepper and kosher salt, which seemed appropriate, and became anxious that it would not be done in time. Suddenly five o’clock didn’t seem so far off, and she still had to factor in time for taking the lamb out, laying it out on a presentable platter, building a little tent of tin foil for it so it wouldn’t be all smeared, finding some clean, level space in the Cutlass where she could lay it down so that the juices wouldn’t spill all over her floorboard, plotting a route to the church that didn’t involve any of those damn speed bumps that were too harsh at any speed, moving the lamb into the fellowship hall and figuring out where to put it during the service, whether it would be mixed with the other ten pounds before or after, no, wait we’re having the seder before the service, all while making sure that the meat didn’t drop to room temperature.
She had to get the lamb in before ten-thirty, to leave enough time to make her appointment at the pedicurist at eleven. She had made it at a salon that took appointments, and not one of those nasty walk-in places. You just couldn’t take your chances. Least of all at the Maundy Thursday foot-washing. If some other parishioner were going to wash her feet, they could not be seen in their normal state. Yes, I know that the Lord accepts us as we are, fasciitis and plantar warts and hangnails and all, but. Maybe the Lord will, but I’m not so sure about Hollis. When the pedicurist asked her about color, she hesitated. Red would be appropriate for Holy Week, but maybe it was a bit much? After all, it would only be good for a few more days, until Easter, when the color turned white for fifty days, and it would not do to have your toes all red and penitential when they were supposed to be celebrating the resurrection.
“Thank you for squeezing me in, sweetie,” she said to the pedicurist kneeling at her feet.
“Oh it’s no trouble, really,” the pedicurist said. “So do you have a color in mind this time?”
“Something red, dear,” she said, “but not too flashy.”
Sitting next to her was a tall, skinny-legged man, a bushy grey mustache overhanging his upper lip, and a small, pointed white beard protruding from his chin. She hadn’t noticed him when she came in. His thinning hair was matted down on his head as if he had been wearing a hat, but he made no attempt to conceal his baldness the way that Baptist girl’s preacher man did. His eyes were covered with a thick, purple terry cloth eye mask, and he wore a look of serene placidity on the rest of his weathered face. He was leaning back in the big vinyl club chair, his pale white ankles shooting out from rolled-up hems of a pair of tattered Wranglers. His toes were splayed out and separated from each other by a foam divider, which made Maureen think of a trussed chicken.
“Fine day for a ride, ain’t it?” the man said. His voice sounded like crushed gravel.
“Beg your pardon?” Maureen said.
“I seen you drive up in that Cutlass. Couldn’t help but notice. It ain’t every day you see a fine looking woman such as yourself step out of a fine looking automobile as that.”
Maureen felt hot in places she had forgotten about.
“Well aren’t you just the sweetest thing,” she said. “My husband bought me that car after our first was born. I’m not even sure if there are seat belts in the back. Don’t rightly know, as I haven’t ridden back there in a while. Heh heh. One time we took a road trip to Orlando and the kids rode most of I-75 in the back window. Those were different times.”
“Oh yeah, tell me about it.”
“They don’t make them like they used to, that’s for certain.”
“They don’t make them at all anymore, madam.”
At the word madam all those warm places suddenly went cold.
“Oldsmobiles, I mean,” he continued. “A great American car, now dead and gone. She have the 455?”
“Yes, I believe so,” Maureen said, but she wasn’t sure to what or whom 455 referred. She was sure that Harold had told her all these details about the Cutlass at one time, but she couldn’t remember any of that. Maybe she wasn’t really paying attention then, or maybe she just let that slip.
“Mmmmmm. I thought so. ’76?”
“Sounds about right.”
“Uh huh. 7.46 liter Turbo Hydra-matic. You know one of those when you hear it. Truth is I heard it before I ever laid eyes on it. Original paint?”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“Well you hang on to that one. You got yourself a keeper there. A real vixen if I may say so.”
What a ridiculous sight, she thought as she looked him over, but the world is changed now, I guess. Men were getting pedicures and chest waxes and all the rest. She only learned this with a shriek of horror as she read over the glossy trifold brochure next to her chair, advertising the salon’s offerings. It contained all sorts of unheard-of torture treatments for men under the heading “manscaping.” This was a ghastly new word to her. Maybe it was all a part of the Devil’s larger Tupperware strategy. It sounded a hair’s breadth away from lawn-mowing, which was a nicer word but named a reality that she didn’t welcome either. Harold had left the mowing to her, the old fool. But he wasn’t fool enough to go in for a chest wax, that’s for damn sure.
When he was around, she could count on him at the foot-washing. Her feet would be no surprise to him. But he was gone now, and while the foot-washing was a beautiful and humbling exercise, there were years in which she thought its lesson was edifying enough when received from the pew. She didn’t actually have to take off her shoes anymore to get the point. At times she thought that others needed the experience of the lesson more than she did, so she would let them have their turn. But this year, maybe the Spirit would move her to get her butt that was not as small as it used to be off the pew and let her feet be handled by someone else. Maybe it wouldn’t—the Spirit listeth where it likes, she thought. Or is it ‘blows where it liketh?’ Either way, you could not tell what he or she or it would do, nor whose hands might cradle her lovely red toes, nor whose disgusting, linty, fungusy yellow dogs she’d have to hold in hers. She just hoped that they would have the decency to wash between their toes before the service.
When the pedicurist was all done, Maureen slipped her feet back into her flats as if she were putting up the polished silver into its little bespoke felt bags, and was reminded of the service tray for the lamb. That would need polishing too.
When she opened the door to her house, she was hit with an intensely gratifying wall of aroma. She slipped off her shoes and tiptoed into the kitchen as if the lamb was a sleeping baby she didn’t wish to wake. She slowly lifted the lifted the lid from the Dutch oven and the lamb gave off a fragrant, rolling cloud of steam. “Hello, little lambykins,” she said. “Aren’t you a handsome little fella?”
Later, when she walked the lamb up to the door of the church, the smokers from the choir were outside in the courtyard. “Why good afternoon, ladies,” Maureen said. One of them growled something that Maureen could not make out, but they smiled kindly toward one another. Maureen made a point not to wave away the smoke from her face the way the smokers always did with the incense, not really to get it away from their nostrils so much as to make a point. She knew such a gesture would be useless, that no one ever quit smoking because of someone else’s flailing about.
The tables in the Fellowship Hall were laid out in the church’s finest linen tablecloths, each one punctuated in the middle with dried herb centerpieces homemade by one of the ladies in the altar guild. The display was just lovely, she thought, and worthy of our Jewish brothers and sisters, apart from the gaudy fluorescent light from the ceiling, which reminded Maureen of a public restroom.
Father Dunbar read the passages from the Haggadah, which outlined exactly what you were supposed to do for the seder. Maureen felt warmed by the sound of it all, the sense of order and ritual that the Jews had observed for so long. They sounded a little like early Episcopalians. When Father shouted, “Kadeish!” people began pouring red wine and drinking it, and Maureen thought how lovely it was for a religion to demand that you drink wine. This was the law, after all, and how wonderful the law could be sometimes if you were really serious about it.
“Why is this night different from other nights?” Father Dunbar read from the text. It’s a rhetorical question, Maureen thought to herself but in her mind she was speaking to the petulant girl at the other table who had her hand raised. One of the dairy-free hypocrites, clearly. This Low Sunday is going to be a different day for you, sweetheart.
Father read on, about how there were four sons, one wicked, one wise, one simple, and one who did not know how to ask. That sounded like Billy. He didn’t think to ask but if he did she’d have told him not to run off with that Baptist girl.
Someone had the bright idea of having the youth group serve everyone the Seder meal, but since there were only two people in the youth group, it took an eternity. Let it go, Maureen thought, the Jews are still waiting too. While other tables were being served roasted lamb shanks and hard boiled eggs, matzo and bitter herbs, Maureen looked around the room at other people’s feet.
When her plate was served, she knew in an instant that it wasn’t her lamb. It was overdone and flavorless, and gave off an odor of lighter fluid. She gave up on examining other people’s feet and scanned the room for ecstatic faces of people who had the good fortune to have been served one of her roast lamb shanks. She saw no smiling faces, only an assembly of people who looked like they didn’t know what to do with themselves.
Whether by design or by accident, Maureen was sitting next to Hollis at the service. If they were to do the foot washing in order of seating this year, and not at random, at least it would be Hollis and not someone else—God forbid, a total stranger—who would have to hold her bunioned but beautifully pedicured feet. Would he notice them, their color? He, of all people, might appreciate the effort.
The boy who carried the incense in was a handsome teen with the bloom of youth in his cheeks, and while she shuddered to think of what lascivious thoughts might be swirling in his pubescent brain, his appearance and skill with the thurible gave Maureen a glimmer of confidence in the future of Western civilization. A thin cloud of aromatic smoke began to rise from the floor, and puff forward and backward with each swing of the thurible. Maureen closed her eyes and took in a full, deep breath through her nostrils. It smelled ancient and mysterious, distinctly Eastern, and as it enveloped the congregation Maureen felt a warm tingle go down her spine. Until the smokers in the choir began hacking obnoxiously. Maureen could tell by the way the sound came from high up in the back of their throats and not deep down in the phlegmy ventricles of their sooty lungs that they were faking it. Oh spare me, she thought. Spare thou me, O Lord.
When Dr. Austell got up to read the Old Testament lesson, Maureen looked at Hollis. She pursed her lips and he hung his open and shrugged in an “it beats me” sort of way. She pinched her eyes together and silently mouthed a stretched out whyyyyyy? For a man of such learning and surgical precision, Dr. Austell was a butcher as a lay reader, adding awkward pauses where there should be none, messing up words left and right. Maureen usually did not approve of the distribution of the printed text so that people could follow along with their eyes; she thought that for once everyone should just listen. Besides, the Lord had said, “Hear, O Israel,” and not “Follow along in your bulletin, O Israel.” But in this case it was useful to have it, since she could track along with Dr Austell and mark with the little yellow pew pencil all the places where he had made an error.
The Lord said to Moses Aaron in the…land of Egypt: this moth shall mark for you the beginning…of moths; it shall be the first moth of the year for…you. Tell the whole conflagration of Israel that on the…tenfth of this moth they are to take a lamp from each family, a lamp for each household. If a…household is too…smell for a whole lamp, it shall join its closet neighbor in abstaining…one; the lamp shall be divided in propitiation to the number of people who are eaten of it.
Lord have mercy, she thought. It’s as if he’s reading his own handwriting. At verse five, she stopped keeping track, and prayed that no one would take him literally when he got to the part detailing exactly how the Passover lamb was supposed to be prepared. By then it was, of course, too late anyway. They had already eaten, remembered the bondage in Egypt that wasn’t really theirs anyway, and as Father’s words at the homily wafted over and away from them, Maureen hoped everyone was thinking of the thing the Lord had commanded of them as they each removed their shoes and socks.
Thank God it was Hollis, she thought as she sat back in her pew and slipped her shoes on again. And the person in front of her, whose feet she’d had to wash—they weren’t that bad. A little dry, maybe, but decent. Nothing grotesque or anything, but nothing exemplary either.
She sat with Hollis in silence as the ladies from the altar guild and the cassocked altar boys stripped the place bare. They took Jesus’s body and blood out first, and it was like watching an old friend get taken away from you. She watched how they solemnly dismantled everything, and how for a moment all the thankless service that they so diligently offered to the church was for once on display, that most people in the church had no idea what these ladies did all the time, and how ultimately it was all done so that it could be undone, and then repeated over and over again. An endless sequence of doing and undoing, folding and unfolding, lighting and extinguishing. At the end of it there was not a fleck of gold left, not a petal of flower, no pictures, not even the residue of incense—nothing but a room.
Maureen got out of the pew first, and began to kneel before the altar. Hollis slapped her on the back. She immediately righted herself and jerked her head around to him.
“Oh, I always forget,” she said.
“You don’t have to do that now,” he said. “He ain’t here.”
Good Friday morning, Maureen awoke to the ringing of Harold’s old Le Coultre Memovox wristwatch, which she had set to go off at two-thirty. It was way too early to be awakened by any sound, least of all the tinny trilling of a vintage wristwatch, but it reminded her of Harold. It kept running long after he did. When it was new it was polished gold like the Easter chalice, but was now faded and scratched, and Maureen had to remember to wind it every so often to keep it going. He would have woken her up more gently, with a tiny shake of the shoulder. Maureen. Maureeee-eeen. Maureen, darling. She cracked her knees under the sheets and slowly began to stir. She sensed an animate presence in the room, and figured it must be his, or just decided it was, since if it were someone else’s she had a bigger problem. She rubbed her eyes and looked through the blinds. It was still dark.
She grunted and pulled herself out of bed, and thought only of going back to sleep. She fluffed her hair gently as if it were a squashed throw pillow, and put on her clothes. Maureen had chosen the three a.m. slot for the all night watch between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when the parishioners—those who could be bothered to—each spent one hour in front of a small, jury-rigged altar of repose in the side chapel of the church, made up in local greenery to look like a plausible Mediterranean garden. As the disciples themselves had attempted to do, they spent a dark night alone with Jesus, awaiting the dawn and the inevitable doom it would bring, praying. And like the disciples, many of them fell asleep while doing it.
Maureen swore she would not. In the early morning emptiness of the parish hall, she called to mind the line Jesus hurled at his bone-tired friends in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Could you not stay awake with me one hour?” she mouthed to herself silently, as a rebuke to all the other church folk who were still in bed, and the heathen who were still out on the town drinking and carrying on, awake but not with Jesus like they should be. She pursed her lips and rolled her eyes at the thought of those people, and figured even Jesus got annoyed with his own disciples sometimes, pursed his lips and rolled his eyes at them too. Like that time when Peter tried to climb out of the boat and walk on the Dead Sea or the Red Sea of Galilee or whatever it was and soon found himself neck-deep in the waves, flailing his arms about for help just like the smokers did when the clouds of incense came rolling up the aisle.
She could have chosen a more lady-like hour, like right after the Maundy Thursday service, after the altar had been stripped and the congregation had all scattered like the dumb lost sheep they were. She could have gone straight from the service to observe her vigil in the makeshift garden that was not entirely horticulturally correct since they didn’t have hydrangeas in Palestine, and probably not even palms but that wasn’t the point anyway, and not had to deal with going to bed twice in one night. But she did not, and chose the later hour instead because Jesus had also done some things that didn’t make sense to other people and which he probably didn’t want to do either, like making that bumbling blockhead Peter the rock on which he’d build his church.
The plates and serving trays, the silver flatware and white linens had all been washed and put away, like everything in the church on this night: buried but waiting. A faint aroma of roast lamb still hung in the parish hall kitchen at 2:45, but mingled with the smell of stale, overheated office-grade coffee. Father Dunbar had instituted a new practice this year, of leaving a pot of hot coffee on all night for all the foot-dragging parishioners who were slow to put their names on the sign-up sheet, and got stuck with the midnight to five a.m. slots. But not Maureen. She was the first one to sign up, and inked her name right in the middle of a long column of blank spaces, at the most undesirable hour, explicitly telling herself that she did not do it so that her shining example of eagerness might be inspiring to the rest of the parish.
She wiggled a styrofoam cup free from the top of a stack of them that she knew would just drive the hypocrites nuts and filled it with coffee. She took one sip and vigorously spit it into the sink. Lord, take this God-awful cup from me, she said to herself, and tossed the cup into the wastebasket. She tightened her grip on her prayer book, which had been given to her at her confirmation many years before—long before Harold, long before the Cutlass, long before Billy and the other one whose name escaped her in the wee-hour mind-fog. It was bound in a black leather cover that had suppled and softened with the years, the edge of its pages once brightly gilded but now pale and faded. She had held it the same way in her hands for so many years that it had a barely perceptible impression on the front and back in the shape of her hand. The impression was not visible; you could only feel it if you held the book in the wrong way, like an old baseball glove on the wrong hand.
They had a new prayer book now. It was as old as Billy now, but Maureen’s sympathies were with the elegance and seriousness of the prayer book of her youth, which had been crafted in 1928. It was made in a serious time, unlike the 1970s, when the new prayer book revision was issued. At least the new book was printed in a readable type, as a kindness to Episcopalian eyes, which were almost always old and tired. Parts of the new one she approved, but she felt that the book partook too much of the enthusiasm for the space age current at the time. Whoever had done the revisions had either smoked too much weed or listened to too much disco music or seen Star Wars a few too many times, or all three. 1979 was no time to be revising anything, except for the 1970s.
She left the new book where it sat, in a little bespoke book rack on the back of the chair in front of her, laid her own book on her lap, and opened it toward the back, to the psalms. The pages gave off an aroma that Maureen identified as the odor of sanctity. There was something comfortingly invulnerable about the words of the psalmist, that no amount of shifting in the winds of the age would suffice to undo. However violently those winds would stir up the far-strewn refuse of a profligate and chronically tacky age, we still had the texts of the psalms and they—unlike Harold, unlike the Cutlass, perhaps—would always be with us. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. As she opened them again, her eyes fell upon Psalm 55. “Give ear to my prayer, O God,” she began to read, but her attention quickly faltered, and she nodded off. Her head fell forward which would not have troubled her had she been awake to realize it, since it gave her the appearance of prayerfulness. She awoke with an unexpected blast from her buttocks. A hot cushion of fetid methane gas erupted from beneath her and forced itself through the wicker seat of the retired pew chair. The makeshift garden suddenly reeked of hard-boiled eggs. She looked from side to side, but there was no one around.
She started again. On the fifth try she was able to read through the entire first verse. “I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest,” she read.
Lord, she whispered, I know that’s right.
By verse twelve she had stopped following the text. The words seemed to come by themselves. She felt she had the rhythm and sense of it, lifted up her head and let the book fall in her lap. She pinched her eyes together and said, in her own words, getting some of them right and some of them not, “It’s not my enemy who torments me, no, not an adversary who treats me with such impudence—if it was I could handle that.” And then, opening her eyes wide and speaking aloud as if to someone else in the room or in her own mind, practically snarling the words through her teeth, “Noooo, it is you, my own familiar friend.”
Later that morning, Maureen awoke in bed for the second time. She pulled herself up into a sitting position and reached for the yellow legal pad she kept on her night stand. Her stomach still felt bloated from the night before. She let out a light belch and began scribbling notes about the Low Sunday lunch, listing the menu items, sketching the layout of the table. She left the legal pad on the nightstand, went downstairs and began preparing the hot cross buns she knew she would need later in the day.
She heated the milk and infused it slowly with a handful of cardamom pods, the rind of a whole orange, and a cinnamon stick. She mixed flour with baking soda and sugar, a handful of minced apricots and blackcurrants. She unscrewed the jar of yeast, took a deep whiff of it and thought of the seder the night before and how grateful she was not to have to eat unleavened bread as a religious duty. I love the Jews, she thought, but I just cannot do matzah. I know it’s supposed to remind us of Egypt or whatever but the only thing it reminds me of is drywall. Once the dough had come together, she set the ball of dough in a covered bowl to rise.
While Maureen was sliding a jelly roll pan of plump buns into the oven, members of the parish council gathered around a table in the fellowship hall. In front of each of them sat a mug of burnt coffee.
“I don’t feel right having this conversation right now, not on Good Friday,” Gladys said.
“I know it’s less than ideal, Gladys,” Father Dunbar said, “but it was the only time that worked for everybody.”
“Hollis, you’re going to have to be the one to tell Maureen. I just don’t think any of us can do it,” Doris, the alto, said.
“Tell her what, exactly?” Hollis asked.
“Maureen’s service to this parish has been inestimable,” Father Dunbar interrupted. “Perhaps we can conceive of a way to continue her involvement in a…modified capacity.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Hollis said.
“Listen, Hollis, I know this could be hard for you. I know—we all know—how close you and Maureen are.” Doris looked directly at Hollis when she said this, but the others looked down at the table or into their coffee. “It’s just that—well, some of us have been talking, and—”
“Talking? Talking about what?”
“Well some of us have been talking, and don’t get me wrong, we all want what’s best for Maureen, and we do love her so. I mean really. But we feel that maybe it’s time to let someone else have a chance to organize the Low Sunday lunch.”
“Oh I see,” Hollis said. He squinted and stared at each of the faces around the table, then back at Doris. “That’s Maureen’s baby. It was her idea to begin with.”
“We know, we know,” Doris said. “It was her idea. And the church owes such a huge debt to her for coming up with the idea—in fact, the whole diocese does—”
“So true, Doris,” Gladys interjected. “I heard that over at St. Clement’s they’ve started one of their own.”
“Yes,” Father Dunbar said, “and there’s even something similar at the Episcopal retirement home, too. Although it doesn’t draw in new people so much, it being a retirement community, but you see the point. Maureen is an innovator.”
Hollis was not sure if this was a compliment or not.
“Maureen always had such good ideas. Has. But some of her outreach decisions of late have been…questionable,” Doris said.
“Like what?” Hollis asked. He crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“Well as much as we admire her ecumenical sense, and her attempt to reach out to minority communities,” Doris said, “the event with Mt. Zion AME Zion was a bit less of a success than we had hoped.”
They didn’t discuss it much then, but the Gospel Mass that Maureen proposed to Father last year seemed like a good idea at the time. It was an odd pairing, but this was the sort of thing that Maureen believed churches ought to do. And no one would object to a gospel choir. But St. Eugene was one of those churches where everyone bows or nods at the mention of the name of Jesus, which the members of Mt. Zion didn’t do and appeared to find the whole thing a little bit weird. Some of them, anyway—others were, by the end of the Mass, nodding themselves or raising their hands up revival-style at every mention of the name. But during the offertory hymn, a traditional spiritual sung by the Mt. Zion choir, the mood changed. The soloist began to improvise, which was not done at St. Eugene, and stepped out in front of the choir.
“Looooooooooooorrrrd Jesus,” she howled. The parishioners all nodded.
“I just want to thank you, Jesus!” Nods again.
“Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus!” she shouted, and ran in place on the chancel steps.
Some of the parishioners had to wear ice packs afterwards, and the silence that followed the raucous conclusion of the hymn was punctuated with amens, yes Lords, and a muffled chorus of pained groans.
Maureen had given herself over to the moment, and when Father said “The Lord be with you,” after the song was finished, she may have actually shouted “Yessss, Jesus!” instead of “and also with you.” She had no memory of this, but several of the parishioners swore she had done it, and one or two eyewitnesses claimed that she even raised her hands up above her head at the time.
“Yeah, well,” Hollis said. “I thought it was wonderful.”
“Oh no one is saying it wasn’t wonderful, Hollis,” Doris said. “It was just maybe a little…much.”
During the silent pause that followed, Hollis could sense he was outnumbered, and that there was little defense for an old man surrounded by a pack of rabid church ladies on a mission. He knew how these ladies were—stalwart, faithful, devoted backstabbers with a Satanic lust for blood. They’d take any opportunity they could find to insinuate something sinister and unwholesome between Hollis and Maureen. He could defend Maureen or he could yield, but he felt that if he yielded he might give himself over to more gossip. At the same time, he knew as well as anyone that Maureen was not as sharp as she used to be. Hollis, however, did not care for the word ‘yield.’
“Look here, Doris. You know the real reason why you didn’t like the Zion folks. I know for a fact that you and everyone else in the choir are behind this. It ain’t about Maureen slipping or coming up with questionable ideas. At least she has ideas. I don’t see anyone else around here proposing anything. The truth is you resented the Gospel Mass because the choir from Mt Zion sound a hell of a lot better than you.”
“Now wait just a second, Hollis,” Gladys said.
“There’s no call for profanity, now,” Father Dunbar said.
“You know perfectly well that when you all tried to sing ‘Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,’ it just sounded terrible after what they did. I know it was well-intentioned to try and sing one of their songs but you just can’t sing it like they do, and frankly, it was a little embarrassing. An A for effort and all that, but Lord.”
“Hollis. Please.” Gladys said.
“You know it’s the truth,” he said.
Doris tried to redirect the conversation. “I didn’t think you went in for all that Protestant stuff, Hollis,” she said.
“Well I don’t, that’s right. But I know good music when I hear it, and I know you stick to what you’re good at. The Lord gave us the Prayer Book so that we wouldn’t make idiots of ourselves.”
“Well, technically speaking, it was not the Lord but General Convention,” Father Dunbar said.
Hollis glared at the priest. “And at least you had the wisdom not to let their pastor get up and preach, Dunbar. Maybe you’ve got enough sense to know when you’ve been humiliated enough for one day.”
“I feel like we are getting off-topic here,” Father Dunbar said. “We were talking about Maureen.”
“Well I, for one, loved the Mt. Zion thing,” Gladys said. “It was a breath of fresh air. And I’ll be honest, it was so nice to see some bl—…some people of color in our church. I have to say, I liked their enthusiasm. Especially when, you know, their people have, you know, struggled so much. They were just so full of spirit. Even Maureen was taken up by it all. She was raising her hands in prayer and such. I know. I saw it.”
Hollis made a sound like an old car backfiring. “That did not happen,” he said. “And even if it did, why are we having this conversation?”
“I’ll speak for myself, everybody,” Doris said, her lower lip quivering. “I did not care for the Gospel Mass, and as a member of the choir,” she said, her upper lip stiffening, “let me just say that you are flat wrong, Hollis. We work hard every week, and we don’t get paid like the downtown church choir. We may not sound like a professional choir, but we do our best. And maybe God wants us to sound like idiots sometimes.”
Hollis removed his glasses with one hand and rubbed his eyes with the thumb and middle finger of the other. Well then you can lead the idiot chorale, he thought.
“The Psalm says, does it not,” she said, “that we should ‘make a joyful noise unto the Lord?”
You take the noise part way too literally, Hollis wanted to say.
Gladys felt that maybe she was finally getting somewhere. Finally they were getting to the heart of the matter.
“All I am saying is that maybe it’s time for new ideas,” she said. “Time for others to have a turn. Time to broaden our horizons and stuff.”
“That’s all fine and good,” Hollis said. “But I know what ‘new ideas’ means. It means newfangled praise songs with guitars and tambourines and rainbow vestments and stuff. I’m not opposed to change, I’m really not. But those songs were all written by doped-up hippy Jesus people who wouldn’t know a Prayer Book if it hit them in the head—and I don’t mind telling you that the idea has occurred to me before. But we’ve got our own hymns that are perfectly good, even better. Our whole tradition is rich with resources we choose to forget just because it’s old and whatnot. I’m just saying, before you go selling out to the Baptists and non-denominational people you better think long and hard about what that’s going to cost you. Maureen understands that.”
“Well maybe she’s more Baptist than she likes to think,” Gladys said.
“Now hold on just a damn minute,” he said, pointing at Gladys with his eyeglasses. His eyes were hot and reddening around the edges as if fire was going to start streaming out of them.
“Well, it’s decided, then,” Father Dunbar said.
“What’s decided? Nothing’s decided. We haven’t gotten anywhere,” Hollis said.
It’s no use, Father Dunbar wanted to say to Hollis. He imagined pulling him aside out in the courtyard, drawing a pair of cigars out of his breast pocket, handing one to Hollis, and smoking them like men. It’s pointless, he would say. Resistance is futile. The die is cast. And whatever other hackneyed phrase he could think of to say that he should just throw in the towel. And he would pat him on the shoulder as if he were a military veteran returning home from combat. Thank you for your service, he would say, and they would sit down in the courtyard with a little hip flask of whiskey, and he would tell Hollis about the way things really were in the church, about who really controlled things, about all the damned committee meetings he had to go to and the conventions and retreats and how it was all a smokescreen, distracting us from our true mission. He would tell him how much he appreciated Maureen and then wonder why he was telling this to Hollis and not Maureen herself but figured she probably did not smoke cigars. Then again, I bet she does, he thought, and imagined having this same conversation with Maureen. Or maybe both of them together. He’d tell them how much he agreed with the two of them, how much he hated that bloody praise music, and how awful he thought the choir sounded too, but that maybe it was a sign of mercy or something, that God takes us as we are, all warbly and thin-voiced and relentlessly off-pitch, with feeling or without. He’d tell Maureen that as much as she could be a pain in the ass, he was glad she was in her parish, or he in hers. He’d tell them all of that and might even throw in the word shit when talking about the praise music and then say There I said it and not feel the least bit guilty about it.
And then he realized that he could never tell them any of this. That it was his office as a priest not to take sides and that as a result he could never really tell anyone in the parish how he really felt about anything and that maybe that was what all those conferences and conventions and retreats were supposed to be for, to get away from it all and be able to speak his mind like the weak-kneed, aimless prodigal that he was, except that’s not at all what they did there, that they preened and postured like every other poseur at an annual conference and all they got out of it was a new supply of church swag, like the very mugs they were all drinking disgusting, chemical grade coffee out of right now. That he could never be friends with Maureen in that way, not with Hollis. Not with Gladys or Doris or Ansley or Dr Austell or any of them. That it was his vocation to marry and bury, preach and officiate, to dispense grace and receive it, when it came, but more often to take on the chin all the other crap that parishioners were always pestering him about: the rowdy kid who didn’t get along with the others in the nursery, the wilting gardenia in the forecourt, the decaying asbestos roof tiles, the persistent evangelizing for new music from the officious choirmaster, the unsolicited sermon critiques every Sunday, people with their own goddamn opinions about everything.
He tried to shoot a look at Hollis that said all this at once, which communicated a sense of fraternity, but it wasn’t clear whether Hollis received it that way or not. He simply looked forlorn, beaten, abandoned.
“We owe it to ourselves, and to Maureen,” Father Dunbar said, “to tell the truth about this. I don’t think there is any point in beating around the bush here. Her memory is not what it used to be. She has enormous gifts, we all know that. We thank the Lord for her, and for her being willing to share those gifts with us so…voluntarily. And I know she will continue to do so. I think it’s best if we wait until after Low Sunday to tell Maureen. But the time has come.”
The time has come, Hollis thought, to be betrayed into the hands of sinners.
Fasting was not one of Maureen’s strengths, but she treated it as a duty on this day. She had made it as far as early afternoon, but by then the gurgling in her stomach had become too potent to ignore. She thought about the way the church, in its merciful wisdom, provided for the frailties of us all, how it never asked of its members anything that was beyond reason or means, and gave dispensations in times of great need for a little something to help you through. Like hot cross buns. My God, the hot cross buns! She had completely forgotten about them. A burnt smell arose from the kitchen, and she frantically ran into it to yank them from the oven before disaster struck, bracing herself against the walls and door jambs as she turned the corners. She scalded her forearm on the oven rack as she pulled them out. She dropped the jelly roll pan on top of the stove with a violent clang, and touched the top of one bun. She jerked her hand back and shook out her fingers, and a few seconds later tried again, quickly flipping one bun over on its top. The bottom was only barely burned. While they weren’t perfect, they were not beyond saving.
She briefly considered making a new batch, but the gurgle in her stomach became more violent.
It takes time to rise, she thought.
Maureen had planned to take the leftover hot cross buns to the Holy Saturday service, but by morning there were only three left, and nobody knew better than Maureen how uncouth it would be to show up with only a handful of day-old buns. Better to come empty-handed than not at all, she thought, and figured we all came empty handed to the tomb of Jesus, except for the women who showed up that Sunday morning with spices that were probably cardamom and cinnamon and maybe orange zest. Even worse to show up with not enough food for everybody. Jesus knew that, she thought. He knew how to hold a feast, always having more leftovers than the food he started with.
As Father Dunbar read the line from the prayer about rising with Jesus to newness of life, she thought about the little pillows of dough rising on the countertop yesterday, cozily blanketed under a moist tea towel. She felt caught between two states. She wanted to go back and do it over, make a new batch and keep vigil at the stove so the buns wouldn’t burn this time. She wanted to go forward, to the big, bright feast tonight when she could celebrate and not be hungry anymore. In the meantime she felt suspended, between newness of life and the things she couldn’t undo.
She’d undo Dr Austell reading the Old Testament lesson if she could but it was too late. As he climbed the steps to the lectern, Maureen held her head in her hands.
“A reading from The Book of Job,” Dr Austell said, but pronounced it jahb.
JOBE, you nincompoop, Maureen said to herself. She felt her chest tighten sharply at the thought of old Job, just and faithful to the last, but a laughingstock to his spineless friends, who would get what they had coming. She tried to breathe deeply through the reading and hummed softly to herself, to drown out the abominable racket of Dr. Austell’s misreading.
“All of the days of my service I would wait, till my release should come,” he read. “Here ends the lesson.”
“Thanks be to God,” Maureen said, unusually loudly.
Father Dunbar gave a heartwarmingly brief homily, but when Maureen summoned the energy to look up at him, he didn’t make eye contact. Since only a handful were present, it would have been easy enough for him to look directly at each person in the church during the homily. Except for Doris, who sat up where the choir normally did, in the sideways-facing choir stall behind Father Dunbar. It would have been awkward for him to turn around and look at Doris. It had certainly never been done before at St. Eugene’s, not as far as Maureen could remember. Preachers never turned around to look at the choir behind them, and come to think of it there were very few occasions when you actually saw the back of a priest’s head at all, unless you happened to be behind one in the buffet line. It occurred to her that showing the back of your head to someone was really rather rude, and maybe when priests started facing the congregation during the Eucharist instead of the wall, it wasn’t so much a matter of theology as of good manners. Maureen didn’t turn around to look and see if Hollis was back in the back. He might have slipped in late.
As Father Dunbar began his sermon, Maureen thought again of the hot cross buns, how even though they were not perfect she still ate them and they tasted fine. They weren’t really fit for public display, but they were edible mistakes, perfectly suitable for private consumption. She imagined how wonderful it would be if there were a religion in which you could eat your own sins, rub them down with salt and pepper and warm animal fat, sear them on all sides and slow-cook them in cast iron for twelve hours until they were so tender they’d just fall apart on their own, then pile them on a plate with some potlikker and maybe even some slaw and then sop it all up with a buttermilk biscuit. You could enjoy it like that, and then wait a few hours and retire for a few moments into a wash closet, which was a better name for it than toilet and sort of like a confessional but different, and violently expel the stinking turd of sinfulness from your own body, then stand there and look at it as something outside of you, a good work all your own, then flush it away forever and wash your hands of the whole thing with some of that nice floral hand soap scented like lilac or swamp begonia or something.
There was no dismissal at the end of the service. The handful of people who were there simply left, in all different directions. Suddenly Maureen was all alone in the sanctuary. Not even Hollis was around.
The sanctuary was silent but for the low chatter of two women talking behind the sacristy door. Maureen heaved up out of the pew and stopped herself as she was about to bow before the altar. She crept closer to the door to overhear, but could not make out anything specific from the hushed murmurings beyond the door. It opened suddenly, and Doris emerged.
“I’ll mention it to Agnes,” Doris whispered over her shoulder.
“Agnes who?” Maureen asked, standing in Doris’s way.
“Oh hello, Maureen. If you’ll excuse me,” she said, and tried to squeeze past Maureen, who remained fixed in place, her prayer book firmly in the crook of her arm. Doris huffed.
As Doris passed her, Maureen examined the back of her head. Her hair looked disheveled, as if she had hastily removed a cassock and neglected to put it back into order. Doris paused in front of the altar, and put one knee to the floor. She held the position for a few seconds, longer than most people usually did.
“Get up, Doris,” Maureen called out to her. “Jesus has left the building.”
Doris stood up, and snorted. Without looking back at Maureen, she exited the sanctuary from the opposite side.
Maureen poked her head into the sacristy.
“We all forget sometimes,” Gladys said. “Happens to the best of us.” She shook out the used altar linens from Maundy Thursday and held them up to the light streaming through the sacristy window. A small cloud of dust particles flew off them and hung in the air. She dropped them into a laundry basket at her feet, then examined the purificators used to clean the chalice. As she held one in the light, the beet red silhouette of a smooch appeared in its middle.
“Can you believe that? Lipstick,” she said. “Now who would do such a thing?”
She put on a pair of clear lab goggles and began mixing a concoction of peroxide and ammonia in a pyrex beaker, stirring it with a wooden tongue depressor.
“Some people,” Maureen said. “It’s just plain tacky.”
“Lipstick is the scourge of my existence, Maureen,” Gladys said. “Drives me nuts. People ought to know better. It’s right there in the bulletin: ‘ladies, please dab your lipstick before receiving the chalice.’ Or get some of that smudge-proof lipstick they make now, geez.”
“It must have been a visitor,” Maureen said. “They don’t always know the way things are done around here.”
Doris knew that Agnes would be cooking by eleven o’clock. Every Saturday morning, something was going in the oven by eleven. It was like clockwork. Doris made a bee-line for Agnes’ house after the Holy Saturday service, and rang the doorbell at a minute shy. No answer. She rang it again, and this time heard a voice calling from deep inside the house.
“I’m coming,” the voice shouted, accompanied by heavy, approaching footsteps. “Hold on to your britches, I’m coming!”
When Agnes appeared at the door, she looked as if she had just woken up in a sack of flour. Thick brown hair shot out from her head in every direction and gave the impression of high-voltage electric shock. It was, like her artsy, distinctly German-looking blood red eyeglasses, dusted with a generous coat of flour.
“Well, well. Doris. What a pleasant surprise,” Agnes said.
“I was just in the neighborhood, thought I’d pop by.”
“What in the world brought you to this neighborhood?” Doris asked, removing her glasses and wiping them on her flour-coated apron, to no effect.
“Oh, I just happened to be—”
“Look, it doesn’t matter one bit. I’m glad you’re here. Come on in, darling,” she said, starting back to the kitchen, leaving behind her a trail of white footprints.
Doris shut the door behind her and followed Agnes toward the back of the house. Doris could see the back of her head, which was also somehow dusted white too.
“You caught me at a good time, Doris. I was just making some biscuits.”
“Well! I can hardly believe my luck.”
Agnes walked around the island in the kitchen and took up her station once more at the counter, where a mound of floury goo inched itself outward across the surface.
“You want something to drink? A mimosa or something like that?”
“Oh no, thank you. Probably ought not to.”
“Well why in hell not?”
“Oh, you know. Long day ahead. Easter Vigil and all. Got to have my voice in order.”
“Oh uh huh,” Doris muttered. She threw a handful of flour onto the mound. “This is a little wet. Don’t want it too sticky, you know.”
“Figured I might catch you in the act,” Doris said.
“In flagrante delicto, you mean?”
Agnes often made huge batches of food for no one in particular, but she believed that one should always be prepared in case someone came knocking. “Nothing worse in this world than receiving a visitor and not having something delicious to serve them,” she’d say. “Something, anything—just so long as you make it yourself and have it ready to go, to show people how happy you are to see them. People don’t do it anymore. Hell, it happens so rarely now it’s like you should be rewarded for doing it. I reckon that’s why God created cheese straws.”
Agnes’s kitchen felt to Doris more like an artist’s studio—belonging to an especially messy, crazed artist. Except instead of half-squeezed tubes of paint and Mason jars of brushes, she had open bags of flour and little tins of baking soda, vegetable shortening and salt. Agnes licked the knives she used to cut the fat into the flour, which made Doris think of van Gogh, who did the same with his brushes and then went stark-raving mad and hacked off his own ear. Doris studied the side of Agnes’s head.
“I used to make the perfect biscuits until I met Charlie,” Agnes said, tossing the licked knives into the sink. “I spent years trying to perfect my recipe, had it down to a science. Of course, a magician never reveals her secrets, so I can’t tell you how I made them, right? But I can say that I would roll out the dough half an inch thick and cut it into three-inch squares. Nothing special about that, except that cutting them into squares means less wasted dough than round ones, and the biscuits made out of dough left over from the first batch are never as good. They are denser and don’t rise as well. Anyway, my biscuits were amazing, I have to say. They were almost as satisfying as the wave upon wave of saporine bliss they aroused in those who ate them. OK, maybe that’s a bit much. I didn’t know what saporine even meant until I needed a word fancy enough for my biscuits. I’m not even sure I am using the word correctly, to tell you the truth. But it seemed like a good word for good bread, and when it came to good bread I was the queen. And as a Southern woman I can tell you that to be known as the best biscuit maker around is more than just a high honor. It’s practically a kind of divinity, and gods always get the best words. Yeah, they were that good. But then I met Charlie.”
Oh here we go, Doris thought. I guess I’m going to get two sermons today. Agnes had a tendency to hold forth on the virtues of scratch biscuits whenever given the opportunity, but Doris knew this was one of the risks you took in showing up unannounced at her place.
“That’s when I realized I was doing it all wrong,” Agnes said. “Charlie made biscuits by just dropping them onto a baking sheet because, she said, this was the way we all came into the world: unkempt and unformed, not all nice and circular. Or square. ‘Ain’t you ever been to a live birth?’ she once asked me. I said no. ‘It’s a mess, baby,’ she said. ‘You can’t make a human if you ain’t prepared to make a mess. Everything good is like that. Biscuits is the same way.’”
Doris chuckled nervously. “Well I guess I never–”
“Now making biscuits is a whole lot less messy than making children, I grant you that. The only cleanup is maybe sweeping up some stray flour or scraping some dough off the countertop. I never wear black when I make biscuits, because you always get some flour on you. I didn’t, though, because I knew exactly how much flour I needed to dust the countertop with (thirty-two point six grams) to prevent any excess from ending up on my shirt or on the floor. But Charlie slung flour around like the earth was made of it, and it ended up all over the place. She’d dump two big handfuls of it on the counter where she’d pat out the dough. It got on her apron, her arms, the floor, in her hair. To me it always seemed like too much, but she said, ‘The biscuits know how much they need. I don’t need to tell them that.’
“‘On the sixth day,’ she’d say, ‘the Lord formed the man out of the dust of the ground, which was probably like White Lily flour only darker, and breathed into him the breath of life. He mashed us together with something like cold butter and made us into shapes.’ Charlie wasn’t sure where the buttermilk came in, but figured the breath had something to do with heat. And she cooked them quick and high, at five hundred degrees, ‘like the hot breath of the Lord.’
“She never used a recipe, of course. She was the kind of woman who determined how much salt something needed by smelling it. I still can’t smell salt. But she could, and her sense of smell stood in for measuring spoons, which she didn’t use either. As in the kitchen, so in life: that was pretty much the way Charlie lived. No recipes, and no plans. Just a lifetime shaped by practice, taste, and smell. And the other senses too. Her biscuits looked good enough to eat raw, and they were. I had never liked biscuits that were not all nice and geometrical, since that’s the way I thought biscuits were supposed to be. I once ate in a restaurant where the biscuits looked like a cooked mound of dough. I couldn’t make sense of them. They looked like a Jackson Pollock to me. I thought I could make something like that in my sleep. They tasted alright, but I could never get over the way they looked, all rough and peaked with almost burnt bits on the top. I assumed they must be biscuits since they were served in a restaurant, the same way I assumed the Pollock must be art since it was in a museum.
“But after that I decided I could do it better, so I set out to perfect the biscuit.”
Doris reached out to pinch off a piece of raw biscuit dough. Agnes slapped her hand and let out a cat-like screech.
“When people ate my biscuits, they talked about how great they were, how delicious. But when people ate Charlie’s biscuits, they talked to each other. Asked questions about each other. It’s like they came alive. I mean the people. Or maybe the biscuits too—as if when you bit into them they released some magic spirits that opened up and flew all around inside you, lighting little fires and such. My biscuits brought people pleasure, I think, but hers brought them communion, or something like it. I think somehow they made people understand each other, or understand some third thing that made them understand each other. They didn’t just go into people’s mouths; they seemed to alight upon them. Like tongues of flame.
“Once I said to her, ‘Charlie, you should enter your biscuits in one of those baking contests.’ She looked at me like I had just said a dirty word. Then her face changed, she looked at me with pity, as if I didn’t know any better. I didn’t. She said nothing is more foreign to food than a contest. ‘Eating ain’t about winning and losing, baby,’ she said, ‘and don’t let nobody tell you different. It’s the most important thing they is, and it ain’t no game. I know a bad cook when I see one. Because the good ones you never see.’
“I didn’t learn how to do this because she told me. I learned it from eating her biscuits and watching the way she made them. When I made biscuits, I consulted charts, measurement tables, temperature gauges, recipes—until I figured out my own way to make them, which I wrote down on green graph paper and had laminated. Charlie read nothing. She just sang and flung flour everywhere. It was as if a whole history of humanity had found in Charlie a place to live, a place to be itself, to come to flower.”
“But Charlie is gone now, and with her the bloom. A lily of the field now, she don’t toil or spin. Or make biscuits.”
Agnes kneaded the dough silently for a minute or so, while Doris watched her from the other side of the island.
“I am taking a batch to her grave today. I tried to make them the way she did. She left the world almost the same way she had entered it: unkempt, but formed. I will leave them under her tombstone, next to the silk and plastic flowers. I am sure that they will be eaten by squirrels, or mold and rot, like all the works of our hands.
“But you didn’t come here to hear me rattle on about Charlie, now did you?”
“Well no, but you know how I always love to hear you talk about whatever. And you do know how to cook, that’s the truth. In fact, it’s part of the reason I’m here. The truth is, Agnes—and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way—you know how I don’t like to push church on anyone—but I just wanted to see if you’d like to come to the Low Sunday lunch at St. Eugene’s this year. We’ve got a new vicar now—well, he’s been there a few years, truth be told—but the point is that things are changing at St. Eugene’s. There’s a new wind in the air, so to speak. A new day is dawning.”
“A new day is dawning everywhere, darling. Every morning. I don’t need church to know that,” Agnes said.
“Well I reckon that’s true, but I just thought you might like it. It’s going to be a feast.”
At the mention of the word ‘feast,’ Agnes fell silent for a moment, and appeared to Doris to be lost in thought.
Now is the time, Doris thought. The time of my renewal, for one tree to be uprooted and another to sprout in its place. The passage from Jahb rang in her ears. “All of the days of my service I would wait, till my release should come.”
“Oh,” she said, as if it were an afterthought, “maybe you’d like to bring a roast or something? I know the parishioners at St. Eugene would just love that.”
Doris knew the opportunity to cook for someone else would be too much for Agnes to resist. A look of far-off wonder fell across Agnes’s face, and Doris felt that she had her in her grasp. Whatever free-range fantasies were swirling in the wild-haired head of Agnes, Doris could already picture the years of her own hard service coming to fruition, the day of renewal, the vengeance of the Lord.
LOW SUNDAY II
Maureen was engaged in an edifying conversation with one of the ladies from the Altar Guild when it happened.
“I have been meaning to tell you,” Maureen said, “the lilies looked just divine last Sunday,” but her eyes were on the woman emerging from a canary yellow Volkswagen a few yards off. She was attempting, with some difficulty, to extricate herself from the car without setting down the large, foil-tented Pyrex roasting pan she held unsteadily with both hands. She flung her legs out the car door and scooted herself across the seat sideways, her dress bunching up around her thighs. When she stood up, she wiggled her hips to make her dress fall back to regulation length, and pushed the car door closed with her butt. “Just glorious,” Maureen continued through a feigned smile, the look of pleasure draining out of her eyes. Now what is this all about, she wondered.
“Will you excuse me for just a sec, hon?” she said to the lady whose name escaped her.
Maureen moved to intercept the stranger, exchanging a few pleasant glances with the parishioners, careful not to hold their gaze for too long lest it be mistaken for a willingness to chit-chat. The guest had set the dish on the hood of the Volkswagen while she smoothed out the front of her dress. Maureen considered it a kind of sacred duty of hospitality to know the first names of all the church members and their children, or if not their names, at least their faces. But this particular one she could not place, and after a momentary crisis of self-doubt about the exhaustiveness of her knowledge of the parish roster, she convinced herself that this must be a mistake. As she turned and looked around at the others—the altar guilders and choir members, the clergy and laypeople, the Subway crowd and the hypocrites—she could not tell the difference between any of them. Not far off she saw the anguished face of Hollis turned toward her, but for the moment she could not recall his name.
“Good afternoon,” Maureen said.
“Oh hello,” said the stranger.
“May I help you with something?” Maureen said.
Whether oblivious to the meaning of her question or simply in disregard of it, the stranger replied, “Oh, thank you, no—I’ll get it.”
A quiet fury began to rise in Maureen’s bowels as she pondered the possible cause of this unwelcome intrusion.
“I gather you did not get the message about the lunch,” she said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Are you here for the parish lunch?”
“Well, we had it catered this year, darling. No need to bring a dish.”
You bitch, Maureen was tempted to think but didn’t. Nothing, she thought, is more indecent than to bring a dish to a dinner that has already been provided for. It’s a terrible imposition on the hostess. And just plain tacky. Whatever the contents of that roasting pan were, they were likely to be unsightly and out of place on the table she had so carefully and generously arranged for someone else to prepare. In her mind arose the horrific prospect of a foil-covered Pyrex dish alongside all her grandmother’s monogrammed bone china, which she had brought from home for this special occasion. That is just not going to look right.
“I am so sorry about this, ma’am,” the stranger said.
Maureen’s inclination was to let this pass as a simple lapse in communication, because despite the indignity now forced upon her, at least this new interloper was well-dressed. Her outfit suggested she was in the right place, but this egregious faux pas told otherwise. Maybe she’s got the wrong picnic, she thought. But that can’t be. The Low Sunday lunch is the only show in town today.
She looked over the woman’s dress, a modest, knee-length springtime yellow cotton number with wide shoulder straps. On the lower part of the dress was a print of a giant red hibiscus. Maureen had her own reservations about bare arms, but understood that this was Eastertide and that was all about the body or something. She looked around at the others, studying their outfits. The Subway folks were in obnoxiously bold-colored microfiber shirts and pants. Or maybe those were the hypocrites. Only Maureen and The Heards, and this new intruder, were dressed Sunday-style, but all the rest had come in chinos and sensible shoes. When did they have time to change? she thought.
“A friend of mine invited me to your lunch,” the stranger said. “I am so sorry.”
At this revelation Maureen’s mind began to spin. The unknown contents of the woman’s casserole dish began to fill her with unspeakable dread. She was sure she was no racist, but she thought culinary miscegenation a sin against nature. Some dishes were just unequally yoked, and she knew all about the ways the Methodists did their covered-dish suppers. Oh God, she thought, not another green bean casserole. This can’t be a casserole, though. It’s too tall. Oh God. At the sound of the feverish ruffling of stockings behind her, Maureen wheeled her head around to meet the approaching intervention.
“Oh Maureen, I suppose you have met my friend Agnes,” Doris said, short of breath.
Maureen returned her gaze to Agnes, whose expression no longer bore the marks of innocent wrongdoing, but of relief. Maureen’s face was fleshy and loose, and when she smiled for real the skin over her puffed jowls tautened like saran wrap pulled tight over a peeled onion, and they pushed up the rims of her oversized glasses so that, through the lenses, her eyebrows looked like her eyelids. She smiled at Agnes, but not in that way.
“I invited Agnes along today. I hope that’s OK,” Doris said.
“My heavens, why wouldn’t it be?” Maureen said. “Let me take that from you, sweetheart,” she said as she lifted the foil-covered dish from Agnes. Agnes was not yet ready to hand it over, and the two women engaged in a brief tug-of-war over the dish until Agnes finally let go. It was much heavier than it looked, and when Maureen took it from Agnes, she gave out an exaggerated grunt, lurched her shoulders forward and thrust her left foot forward to support the weight of her new cargo. This is no green bean casserole, she thought.
“Oh bless your heart, sweetie. You really didn’t need to go to such—” she began as she righted herself and the dish, cutting herself off as if to emphasize the new burden to which she had now been subjected.
“I’ll take care of this, love,” she said. “You two go mingle.”
Honestly, she thought, forcing a smile back to her face. Some people. As Doris and Agnes moseyed in the direction of the crowd gathering around the sumptuous spread, the Subway folks were huddled together with the hypocrites. Maureen suddenly recalled who was who, although she couldn’t put names to them. They were overlooking the table and talking jovially, their little rat children running circles around their egregious running shoes and tugging on their blue jeans. Probably don’t know what to do with themselves, Maureen thought, without their carrots and water bottles. Suckers.
An audible murmur, presumably of delight, followed Maureen as she headed in the general direction of the table but at an angle, toward the catering truck that was almost completely obscured by the wide trunk of a large white oak. Making sure she was hidden from general view, Maureen set the heavy glass dish upon the lowered tailgate of the empty truck bed. She set it at an angle, the corner of the dish hanging just over the side of the tailgate, that suggested it had been placed there just for the time being and forgotten. She brushed her hands off one another as if to cleanse them from some foreign contamination, exhaled deeply and headed back towards the table, unnoticed.
Edith was just putting one of the cheese canapés into her mouth when Maureen approached.
“Oh hello, Edith,” Maureen said.
“Mmm,” Edith said. It was one of the few expressions acceptable with your mouth full. An awkward silence reigned momentarily as she attempted to get the canapé down without making any smacking noises nor shedding any crumbs down the front of her blouse. Maureen bought some time by smiling askance and mouthing a wide-eyed heyyyy to some of the new arrivals.
“Lovely sermon today, don’t you think?” Maureen said.
“Mmm,” Edith said. Maureen began to wonder if Edith’s vocabulary consisted of anything else.
“Yes, Father did such a splendid job,” but Maureen didn’t think Father—only Maureen referred to him as simply “Father”—did a splendid job at all. In fact she found his analogy between the resurrection of the dead and recycling a regrettable capitulation to the pagan spirit of Earth Day, which marred an otherwise wholesome and edifying message. In earlier times Maureen fought through such homilies with gritted teeth, and made her disapproval known by a subtle but noticeable shifting in her pew of her substantial bulk, but now she surrendered to them as inevitable in a church denomination obsessed with “fresh expressions” of old truths. If there was one thing Maureen couldn’t abide, it was a church getting fresh with her. But all of this was lost on Edith, who was still enraptured by the vicar’s homily.
“‘How good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!’” Edith said, quoting from the psalm for the day. “What a wonderful line.”
“Wonderful. Just wonderful,” Maureen said. She did not like the direction this conversation was taking. It was uncommon for parishioners to discuss sermons in detail, much less to recite readings for the day, but when they did so she did her best to deflect them by an overt but polite expression of disinterest. Edith was veering perilously close to thoughtful commentary upon the sermon, which almost always ended badly for everyone. Maureen thought it best to change the subject.
“How do you like the canapé?” Maureen asked.
“Mmmm,” Edith said.
In the course of this exchange, Maureen began to sense an intensity to Edith’s gaze. Edith’s eyes were unnaturally wide and she didn’t blink once, as if she were trying desperately to maintain eye contact with her. Maureen had not noticed that some of the potlikker from Agnes’ covered dish had dribbled out over the edge and onto her Low Sunday dress, leaving a dark, greasy trail from just below her waist all the way down to the hem. She caught Father Dunbar’s eyes, which were directed at hers, or somewhat below hers; it was hard to tell since he was over yonder. His brows seemed gathered upwards, and he looked almost pitiful, like a child pretending to be sorry about something.
“Do try the shrimp. It’s just divine,” Maureen said, but Edith thought she heard “deveined”—an odd comment to make about it, she thought, since shrimp was rarely served any other way in polite company. The very thought of not deveining them brought to Edith’s mind the idea of ingesting tiny threads of shrimp poop, which sounded disgusting, so she decided not to try them at all. Still, she thought it a good idea to look at them admiringly for a moment, just in case Maureen was watching.
But she wasn’t watching at all; like a once-threatening storm cloud she drifted off in the other direction, and was silently mouthing hello to all sorts of people. She held off at a slight distance just outside the wide oval of people gathered around the table. She could see some of them straight on, some in profile, the backs of some heads. She nudged her way into a gap in between Hollis and some other person, and looked the crowd over, one by one. She did not recognize a single one of them. I need to have my prescription checked, she thought, removing her glasses and wiping them with the hem of her dress. A small smudge of grease remained on the lower left lens, out of her vision. I’ve seen that one somewhere before, she thought. Did I wash his feet?
“The Lord be with you!” said the vicar, and everyone responded, “And also with you,” except for Hollis, who always insisted on the older “and with thy spirit” of the 1928 Prayer Book. He said it with a hint of disgust, and just loud and late enough to be heard. It appeared to contain in a condensed form an entire critique of the church’s present waywardness. The rot all begins with little concessions like that, Hollis had once told Maureen when she asked him why he did it. Start giving up “thee” and “thou” and pretty soon you have people marrying their dogs, he had said. And while she didn’t entirely disagree in principle, she thought it an annoyance that Hollis couldn’t bring himself in this one relatively minor detail to do like everyone else. Hollis had been recalcitrant in his use of the “spirit” version since 1979, and while Maureen’s native sympathies were naturally with him, she thought it nothing to make a fuss over. It was one thing to stand on principle but it was another to call attention to yourself.
But at the moment, her thoughts were less upon Hollis than on the nearly flawless table setting around which they had all gathered. She stood frozen in a state of shock and didn’t hear a word of the vicar’s blessing, in which he had made a point to mention Maureen herself and her work of extraordinary generosity in arranging this year’s lunch all by herself. If she had known that some of the parishioners had peeked to see her reaction to the vicar’s mention of her during the grace, she would have been horrified to know what they would have seen. They stared at her, but she was looking at the table in horror. Her eyes were so wide that they almost filled the frames of her oversized glasses, and her mouth hung open. In the middle of the exquisite spread that she had so diligently organized, amidst the silver chafing dishes of cheese grits and sautéed asparagus, sweet potato casserole and sausage balls, next to a stack of her grandmother’s favorite bone china, sat a hulking foil-covered Pyrex dish, its top an unsightly bulge of aluminum and its sides blackened with the charred residue of the overflowing liquid contents within.
As if an artillery shell had just exploded in front of her, Maureen’s hearing became momentarily disabled. She remained in a state of near-apoplexy, which was mistaken by some for a kind of mystical rapture that was not uncommon for Maureen in the presence of a good piece of meat. As someone gently unfolded the foil covering of the central dish a small cloud of steam arose like a puff of incense, and she saw her fellow parishioners moving about the table in silence as figures in a painting by Hieronymus the Elder or Brueghel Bosch or whatever his name was, their sin-distorted limbs flailing about maniacally and their lusty nostrils up in the air for a chance at the unmistakable fragrance of slow-cooked pig. She could hear and smell nothing. But she could see by their debauched faces, which looked as though some invisible hand had pinched them together, drawing in the eyebrows and tightening the lips into a pucker, that their reaction was exactly what she feared. Only one sound could issue forth from such mouths: the whistling exhalation of unmerited pleasure, as if dozens of devils of repressed desire were suddenly released at the sight and smell of Mary Agnes le Doux ’s Easter ham.
“Maureen, you have really outdone yourself this year. Bless you!” Dr. Austell said, laying a hand on her shoulder. She looked at him blankly.
“Mmm,” Maureen said, as her temporary deafness began slowly to retreat. A faint, embarrassed smile passed over her face and her left cheek began to quiver uncontrollably. In an instant all of her senses returned with a vengeance, and she was overcome by the unmistakable din of iniquity that now raged about her. She had been subjected to the indignity of being upstaged by this unwelcome offering of a guest, of all things, who wasn’t even a member of St. Eugene’s. Her name was on no parish roll, and in Maureen’s moral calculus her non-representation in the offering plate, regardless of whatever genuine gifts she might possess, made her singularly unqualified to present the centerpiece at her Low Sunday picnic.
What in the name of GOD, Maureen thought to herself. At least she thought she had only thought this. But the doctor’s look of moronic perplexity suggested otherwise. He scampered off toward the picnic table like a whipped dog, looking over each shoulder at Maureen, whose roomy figure began to shrink as it receded in his view.
Maureen inhaled deeply and recalled a bit of practical wisdom to steel her in her moment of tribulation. Of things that are outside your control, say they are nothing to you, she repeated to herself. She was pretty sure this morsel of sanity was in the Bible somewhere. It sounded stoical and stiff-upper-lippish so was probably from one of those darker books in the Old Testament like Ecclesiastes or Judges or something, maybe even one of those apocryphal books that no one ever read, especially those bloody Baptists who didn’t even have them in their Bibles. But no matter. They are nothing to you, she repeated to herself. She is nothing to you.
At tableside, Agnes introduced herself to a drooling Hollis.
“My goodness,” Hollis said. “That is some ham. I will have to ask Maureen how she did that.”
“Well, as it happens, Mr. Hollis, I—” Agnes began, piling her plate with cheese grits. In the distance she noticed Maureen still standing alone. She took a second plate from the stack and began to load it too.
“Hollis. Just Hollis. I have long believed that many of our political ills could be resolved if the powers and principalities, whoever they are, would just sit down together over a bit of meat like this here. There is more wisdom, I am convinced, in a good meal than in the majority of what spews forth from the pull-pit these days. One thing I think we can all agree on is that that ham is out of this world.”
“Why, thank you,” Agnes began.
Hollis looked confused. His expression turned sour. “Well. Enjoy it while it lasts,” he said. “There won’t be another one of these.”
Agnes cocked her head to one side, smiled politely, and drifted away from Hollis. He turned his head to follow her, but when he saw Maureen a few yards off, he turned back to face the others. The chorus of whoohs had given way to a less articulate common silence, interrupted by groans of visceral pleasure as the parish ate. Agnes approached Maureen with two plates of food and held one out to her.
“I know you must be just exhausted, Maureen,” she said, extending a generously piled china plate towards her. “You’ve got to be hungry.” Maureen glared with scorn at the defilement before her, which she found difficult to regard as nothing. A quick jolt of rage struck her ample breast as she noticed that a chunk of Agnes’ ham encroached upon the edge of the plate, covering up her grandmother’s monogram.
This is the last straw, she thought.
“I’m not hungry, thank you,” she said.
“You must eat, Maureen,” Agnes said.
“I must not. I will eat when everyone has been served. It is what we do.”
“But Maureen, everyone’s already got a plate. Please. Enjoy yourself.”
Maureen huffed at this final affront. “If there is one thing with which a hostess should not concern herself,” she said, “it is her own enjoyment.”
“Well I will just leave your plate here,” Agnes said, bending down to set the plate on the ground at Maureen’s swollen ankles.
“Oh don’t be ridiculous. Stand up. Give me that.”
Agnes smirked guiltily as Maureen grabbed the plate from her, and held it in silence for several minutes, indignantly gripping her fork by her right thigh as if she were about to stab someone with it. At last Maureen raised her fork, and scraped a chunk of ham away from the plate’s edge so that her grandmother’s initials were visible again. While Agnes thanked Maureen for her arrangement of the lunch, and for the exquisite banquet she had so lovingly organized, Maureen pecked at some of the dishes she had ordered, conspicuously avoiding the ham that soon sat all by itself in the middle of the plate.
“You were right, Agnes, I was hungry,” Maureen said.
Agnes smiled painfully at Maureen. “Did you not like the ham?”
“Oh, the ham. It’s just that, well, Doctor um—my doctor has warned me off all flesh of the porcine variety, on account of—well, let’s just say that pork tends to incite a gastric rebellion in my system.” For Maureen, it was unseemly to discuss one’s digestive record at a social event, but given the circumstances she gave herself a dispensation to do it, if only to make Agnes uncomfortable enough to leave her well alone. To Agnes, all the visible evidences of Maureen’s lifestyle suggested a person who was prone to intestinal disturbances, but her sizable form—and her storied fondness for slow-cooked meats—were proof enough that this was a po-faced lie.
“Oh I don’t believe that,” Agnes dared. “A little bite surely won’t hurt you. I’m willing to wager you will even enjoy it. It’s been smoked over a combination of hickory and pecan for eighteen hours. Naturally I brined it for two days before that in blackstrap molasses and chili powder.”
Maureen did not at all like the way this was going. It struck her as a distinctly devilish gimmick, and was sure that she heard Agnes hiss at the word “molasses.” But at Agnes’s unsolicited exposition on meat-handling, Maureen felt a sudden release of her deepest libidinal passions, and the stiff frown she had been forcing to her face weakened. The aroma of the smoked ham had, for several minutes now, been waging a campaign of massive retaliation against her already fragile olfactory nerves, whose defenses crumbled with each word of Agnes’ florid description of the handling and smoking of raw pork. She found herself increasingly unable to resist the onslaught of the ham sitting on her grandmother’s fine bone china.
“Doris invited me last week to your lunch, and I thought I would make my best Easter ham. It’s such a delight to have someone to share it with,” Agnes began, and detailed how she had spent a solitary Easter Sunday with warmed-over leftovers and the dregs of an almost vinegary box of red wine.
“Oh for God’s sake,” Maureen said. “No one should eat leftovers on Easter Sunday. That is downright ungodly. And drinking wine from a box is positively Satanic.” Such practices are clearly evidence of a malformed soul that needs to get itself into church, she thought, and one ought not to eat food prepared by such a creature. In her mind Maureen began to develop a program of remedial catechesis for Agnes that would cure her of her wantonness, unaware of the generous forkful of smoked ham she was directing into her own gaping gullet.
Agnes was doing likewise with a charred tip with the bone still attached. She chewed on it like a beast of prey, her mouth spewing forth with an explosion of saliva. Several globules landed squarely on Maureen’s face. One landed in the middle of the huge left lens of her eyeglasses, and as she removed them she was suddenly hit in the eye with another barrage of spit. Agnes was too taken by the ham to notice, her eyes closed tightly as she chewed on in a state of mystical ecstasy.
Maureen could now taste what everyone else at the picnic had been gesticulating about so indecorously. Nothing in Maureen’s own proud history with pork had ever come close to this. There were simply no words good enough for it. At a single taste of it, every stuck-up, driveling windbag of a food critic would bend the knee, every dribbling tongue confess that this was ham as God intended it. Beads of sweat formed upon her brow, and her eyes began to water. I cannot believe this, she thought. As Maureen rubbed her eyes, Agnes appeared to her transformed. She seemed both stranger and more familiar than before. As she let the first morsel of ham slip down her throat, she stabbed another with her fork, and the magnificent aroma of smoked pork seemed to swell and stretch her insides. As they both ate the last of the Easter ham together, Maureen sensed in her gut the first riotous rumble of a newness of life that both thrilled and terrified her. Now seeing the face of Agnes for the first time, she had the sense of touching with her eyes an open wound. Something inside her popped like bacon fat in a hot iron skillet.
“My Lord and my God!” she screeched.
The rest of the parish reeled around to Maureen, whose grandmother’s bone china lay in broken shards around her ankles.
Hollis helped her home from the Low Sunday lunch, broken shards of her grandmother’s china plate poking up like tentpoles in a white grocery bag hanging from the arm that wasn’t holding Maureen up by the armpit. She’d seemed dazed by the experience, but he thought it could be any number of things: fatigue, stress, Bloody Marys. Agnes’ ham had driven more than one person at the lunch to emotional severity. He drove the Cutlass home, her practically comatose in the passenger seat, him gripping the wheel like Steve McQueen, wishing he could open it up, feel the power of all 7.46 liters and all eight cylinders, feel the mad growl of animal life thrust his back into the vinyl seat. But he drove home gingerly, under 3000 rpm, so as not to wake her. By the time he threw it into neutral and gilded silently up to the curb in front of her house, she was drowsy but awake enough to walk up the front steps with assistance. Hollis got her into the kitchen, and set her in a chair at the breakfast table. He poured her a glass of tap water, which she didn’t drink. She nodded off again, her plump head fallen forward, resting on a pillow-like fold of chin fat.
Hollis spread out two large broadsheets from the Sunday paper on the breakfast table. Maureen snored loudly. He stayed there for hours, supergluing the china shards together, until suppertime. He warmed up leftovers from the lunch, served Maureen and then himself. Hollis ate occasionally, more invested in his reconstruction project than the leftovers. Maureen picked at her food.
“I just don’t feel all that hungry,” she said, pushing her plate away.
“I reckon we both ate enough at lunch for two people,” he said.
He’d gotten almost the whole plate back together, but one piece was missing, leaving a triangular hole in the plate where Maureen’s grandmother’s initials should be. After dinner, searching the grocery bag again and then the back seat of the Cutlass, he told Maureen, “It’s no use, Maureen. It’s just no use. It ain’t no damn good without that piece.”
“Where’s my grandmama?” she asked.
“I looked everywhere. I could go back to where we had the picnic. Maybe it dropped there.”
“Don’t bother,” she said. “It’s just a plate.”
“But it was your grandmother’s. It’s probably worth a hundred dollars.”
“Was my grandmother’s. It’s mine now. And a broken plate ain’t worth a nickel,” she said.
Maureen stood up to clear the table. She swayed, like a dreidel losing spin, and braced herself against the table’s edge.
“You alright?” Hollis asked.
“Just stood up too fast,” she said, gripping her forehead.
She staggered back to the kitchen sink, bouncing between the countertop and the stove, but Hollis didn’t think anything of it. Maureen’s Bloody Marys often had that effect, even on Maureen.
“I’m sorry, grandmama,” she murmured.
Hollis abandoned the china project, leaving it unfinished on the newspaper. He washed the dishes and set them on the rack to dry.
“It’s getting on,” he said, drying his hands on a dishtowel. “I should go. I’ll come back and see if I can’t finish this later. Maybe I’ll find that missing piece somewhere.”
“Farewell,” Maureen said.
It was an odd thing to say, Hollis thought as he let himself out. It sounded a little ominous, but Maureen was never afraid of an occasional apocalyptic remark to liven the mood. He rubbed his fingers together against his thumb to loosen the dried superglue, and walked out into the dark night.
For all the powerful odors of Maureen’s Low Sunday Lunch three days ago, Hollis hadn’t noticed the sweet, assertive aroma of gardenia and confederate jasmine enveloping the park where the picnic had been. It hit him like a sucker-punch.
There was little evidence of the picnic a few days earlier. No remnant of festivity hung there, no sound of footfall. The gardenias had begun to brown around the edges, the grass glossy, churned and compressed by church traffic, and behind the oak tree were two spun-tire divots where the catering truck had, it seemed, gotten the hell out of there as fast as possible. Why Hollis had chosen to come to the park today, he could not say. But a morning spent watching The Bridge on the River Kwai in his pajamas was enough to move him to get off the Barcalounger and do something.
He searched the grass for the missing china shard. It was probably madness, but so was the bridge in the movie. And maybe life itself. He looked closely in the area around where he thought Maureen had been standing when it happened, but found nothing. When he was about to give up, he spotted it. The florid green initials of Maureen’s grandmother blended in with blades of grass under which it was camouflaged. Hollis bent to collect it. It was the size of a tortilla chip, still smudged with the dried residue of ham-likker. Hollis beat down the urge to lick it off, and slid the shard into his pocket.
When he returned to Maureen’s with the found piece, he thought it would be as good a time as any to break the news to Maureen about his Good Friday showdown with the Parish Council about the Low Sunday Lunch. He rehearsed what he would say, how he would position himself clearly on her side of things, make it clear how it all stood. He would lay out the plain, unvarnished truth and let it hang there in the air for a moment while she would think about it, putting it all together in her mind. He knew the risk: it would finally turn Maureen against the ones she had long suspected for the turncoats and backstabbers they turned out to be. But in this case it was just fine to burn bridges with Dunbar and Doris and Gladys and everyone else because some bridges needed to be not only burned but blown to hell with high explosives. As he rapped gently on Maureen’s door, Hollis imagined himself as Alec Guinness falling onto the detonator, dynamiting the bridge he had never really wanted to build.
There was no response. The door was unlocked. He let himself in and called out to her. A strange smell—decidedly not of slow-cooked pork—met him in the foyer.
He found her on the kitchen floor, still in her Low Sunday dress.
“My Lord and my God,” Hollis whispered to himself, walking slowly over to her body as if he had expected to find her this way.
He knelt down next to her, felt for a pulse, and laid down on the kitchen floor next to her, ran his fingers through her hair, fluffed it back into shape. He stared into dumbstruck eyes that did not look back at him, and made the sign of the cross on her forehead with his thumb.
Hollis pulled himself up, every step across the floor, every creak in his bones distinctly, unfamiliarly audible in the strange silence of Maureen’s kitchen. He pulled out the metal chair at the breakfast table. It scraped across the wood floor. He called Dr. Austell first, then Dunbar. Whatever their failings as people, they had an office, and Maureen needed their offices now more than their reliably disappointing personalities.
“I’ve been telling her for years about pork fat,” Dr. Austell said when he arrived at the door, old school leather medicine bag in one hand. “I hate to say I warned her, but her cholesterol was bound to creep up on her like this.”
“How do you know it was cholesterol, Doc?” Hollis asked.
“Well I reckon I don’t know, but it’s a good guess. A professional opinion, let’s say. A working hypothesis. Given Maureen’s predilections I’d say a blocked artery the leading candidate at this point.”
Father Dunbar arrived with a black case of his own, a small, hook-clasped leather box containing a miniature sterling silver chalice and paten, a tiny glass cruet of wine, an even smaller glass bottle of oil. He was dressed in a salmon colored polo shirt and troublingly short khaki shorts, garish white tennis shoes aglow in the American style.
“For God’s sake, Dunbar,” Hollis said as Father Dunbar came in through the front door. “You look like you just came from the yacht club. You knew what you were getting into here. Would it kill you to put on a damned cassock? There’s a dead body in here.”
“I left my stole out in the car. I’ll go get it.”
“Is it that awful rainbow one?” Hollis asked. “Because if so you can just leave it right where it is. In fact, you can—”
He stopped himself short. Today was not the day for blowing bridges to smithereens. Maybe after the funeral.
“I’m sorry, Dunbar,” Hollis said, patting him twice on the shoulder. “It’s good that you’re here.”
Dr. Austell knelt over Maureen, who was now laying flat on her back. He felt for a pulse, stethoscope in his ears.
“Is that really necessary?” Hollis asked.
“Routine,” Austell said, listening through the stethoscope, staring at some invisible spot not inside the house. “She doesn’t have a pulse.”
“You don’t say.”
Dunbar started picking up the kitchen, even though it was already tidy. “Should I leave this?” he asked Hollis, pointing to the china project. “Or…”
“Leave it,” Hollis said, and positioned himself between Father Dunbar and the breakfast table, as if to shield him from something a priest shouldn’t see.
“Don’t you think you should call the kids, or should I do it?” Hollis asked.
Hollis knew it was a bad idea to let Dunbar make the calls, but he didn’t want to do it either. As much as he feared what was about to come out of Dunbar’s mouth to Billy and the other one, he didn’t want to have to be the one to break the news. He sat down at the breakfast table to finish the plate. It would at least to give him something to do, an office to perform. He withdrew the orphaned shard from his pocket and set it on the newspaper. He superglued the edges and positioned it snugly into place while Dunbar made calls. Billy first, then the other one. He called them both, gave them both the same pastoral talk about how we never know the time nor the place that God calls us home and how we should be grateful for the time God gave us with Maureen.
Hollis snorted. I should have made that call myself, he thought and with his thumbnail scraped the superglue reside oozing from the cracks in the plate. It looked alright. You could barely see the seams. He thought about how this broken piece was being reunited with the whole to which it belonged, while Dunbar was telling Maureen’s children about the new hole in their lives that would never be filled.
Dunbar was on the phone for about half an hour, talking in a different tone now, less preacherly and more businesslike. One of them must have been the coroner or the funeral home. A few of them Hollis couldn’t identify from only one half of the conversation.
Doris and Gladys arrived together. Doris called out from the front door, “Maureen? Maureen, honey?” They both shrieked at the sight of Maureen’s bent body on the kitchen floor, began oohing and aahing melodramatically, leaning into one another’s shoulders. Hollis, unconvinced, greeted them with a nod, and returned to the breakfast table. Dunbar must have called them, he thought. Figures. A Judas, every one of them. A corner of the newspaper hungover the edge of the table. A slow drool of superglue ran off the corner and onto the lower front of his shirt.
“It’s just so sad,” Gladys said, whimpering. “But praise God, there’s another angel in heaven now.”
“For Christ’s sake, Gladys, watch your mouth,” Hollis said. “Have some damn respect for the dead.”
Gladys’ whimper turned into a sob. “How could you in a time like this, Hollis? Such language. I wish I could say I was surprised at you.”
“Language? Oh, that’s rich, Gladys. Do forgive me if I find your sentiments distasteful. Angel? Please.”
“Now, now. We all grieve in our own way,” Dunbar interrupted. “Let’s remember that.”
Hollis glared at Dunbar viciously. I’d like to ring that scrawny little low church neck of yours, he thought. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“It’s just all so sudden,” Doris said. She snatched a white linen purificator from Gladys’s hand, and dabbed the corners of her eyes with it. “Not three days ago I was eating her ham. That splendid, glorious ham. She looked as alive as could be.”
“It wasn’t her ham, and you know it,” Hollis said.
“I don’t understand,” Doris said.
“Like hell you don’t,” he said.
“What’s gotten into you, Hollis?” Doris said. “Look, I know this has got to be hard on you. You and Maureen were so close. But this is hard on all of us.”
The breakfast table chair screeched across the floor as Hollis stood up quickly and jabbed his finger at Doris. The newspaper, stuck to the front of his shirt, came with him. The china plate shot off the table, struck the side of the cabinet where Maureen kept the cast iron, and shattered into even more pieces than before. Hollis stood silently, his finger still pointing at Doris, the superglued Sunday broadsheet hanging like a misplaced bib on the front of his shirt.
He boiled with rage, his eyes red, his finger trembling.
“Now look,” he said. “Look at what you’ve done.”
He wanted to extend his finger farther, right up into Doris’s face, and unbind all the hot fury that was just begging to release itself, open itself up like the throttle on the Cutlass, and unleash a torrent of bestial fire, feel the force of controlled resentment suddenly unbuckle and recklessly hurl itself at her. But Hollis had never driven the Cutlass.
There is another way, he thought to himself. His finger went limp and his arm fell to his side. It’s no use.
Fragments of her grandmother’s bone china lay scattered across Maureen’s body. Hollis knelt on the floor next to her, gingerly removed them, and gathered them into a small pile. The once-missing piece with her grandmother’s initials on it was nestled up to the toe-kick under the cabinetry. On all fours, Hollis retrieved it, placed it into Maureen’s cold palm, and closed her fingers tightly over it. He made the sign of the cross on himself and whispered something under his breath. Doris cocked an ear towards him. He walked past her silently. She watched the back of his head as he disappeared into the hallway.
He left Dunbar alone with the two ladies and went upstairs, looking around into empty rooms. Billy and the other one’s rooms were preserved as if they had just left for a high school retreat, and would return any minute. In Maureen’s bedroom, the bed was neatly made. On the nightstand, Harold’s LeCoultre watch sat on top of a yellow legal pad. It was a new pad, with none of the sheets torn off. Only the first page had been written on, the rest full of empty pages that would never be filled, not by Maureen. With the back of his hand, Hollis brushed the watch on to the nightstand as if clearing off a layer of dust, and raised the legal pad to his eyes.
He thought of Maureen’s last words to him on Low Sunday. “Farewell,” she had said. Maybe she had known what was coming. She had written the same word on the first line of the top sheet of the legal pad. The ink was pressed hard into the page, like she meant it, so that the impression of the ballpoint tip was visible for five pages.
That was all she wrote, apart from some indiscriminate doodling of her own name in the upper right hand corner, a few cartoonish faces of people he could not identify. The duvet was pulled tightly across the mattress like a sheet of tin foil. When Hollis sat down on it, heavy creases appeared around the impression of his slim body. He held the legal pad in both hands and stared at it. Harold’s watch on the nightstand was silent. It would need to be wound.
The murmuring from the kitchen wafted upstairs like the smell of bacon fat, but less appetizing. They would take the Low Sunday Lunch from her, without ever having to confront her face-to-face. They were probably discussing it right now. Hollis sat on the side of the bed, the legal pad on his lap. He could hear their occasional outbursts of feigned sorrow, their ejaculations of tabloid-grade theology, their expressions of intimacy with Maureen that not one of them had ever earned. Oh, they are sorry alright, he thought. At least Maureen had tried to give them something that would elevate their disordered souls, edify their corn-starched bodies with something red-blooded and life-giving, not the usual sentimental crap they were used to.
“And the fat of the sin offering shall he burn upon the altar,” Hollis muttered to himself.
He looked down at the paper again. With the pen Maureen had left on the bedstand, almost as if for him, Hollis began to finish what she had started. He mimicked her handwriting, he knew it well enough anyway, tried to duplicate the amount of pressure she’d applied on the first lines. He could forge her signature too, but it’d have to be good, since it was known to everyone in the parish from the thank-you notes Maureen never failed to send out.
He envisioned the others downstairs, engaging in what they thought was important planning. Maybe it needed to be done, but it was not important. Not like her funeral. You get one chance to leave this world, Hollis thought. Better do it right.
He wrote out specific instructions for the service, as fastidiously detailed and vigilant as Maureen’s Bloody Mary recipe would have been if she had ever bothered to write it down. He thought of everything, just as she would have: who would read the lessons (Dr. Austell was explicitly, by full name, forbidden), to the flowers (no carnations whatsoever), to the hymns (to be sung lustily by the choir, so as to diminish as much as possible the evidence of the congregation), to the menu for the reception (pork). The pastor from Mt.Zion AME Zion Church, not Dunbar, would preach, and their choir would handle all the music. The whole event would be as in your face and foot-stomping as the gospel was supposed to be. There would be wailing with grief and shouting for joy and it would be both sorrowful and joyful at the same time, for the Lord had said because you are lukewarm I will spit you out of my mouth and for the love of all that is holy there would be not a lukewarm soul in the house on the day they put Maureen in the ground.
Maybe it would be like a sucker-punch, but a sucker-punch of roses, incense, bread, wine–good things that none of them really deserved. As in life, so in death, Hollis thought, Maureen would show them all–the pearled-up country clubbers, the Subway crowd and the hypocrites, the unnecessarily portly choir members and the fastidious altar guilders–how it was done. Maureen would be not sent off from this world in any half-assed, low-church, vaguely heretical whimper of a memorial service. No, she would be sent off from this world with a sung Eucharist according to the 1928 Prayer Book, as the Lord intended for all people, and there wasn’t a damn thing that anyone could do about it. For one day the dead would have her say, and Maureen’s last word was going to be a full-on, incense-filled, bell-ringing, four-part-harmony Allegoddamnluia of a requiem mass, and for one day in their fast-food and gluten-free lives, the people of St. Eugene’s would be nourished with the holy feast they didn’t know they needed.
Hollis signed Maureen’s name at the bottom of the page and was just about to raise himself from the edge of the bed, go back downstairs and share the revelation with the others in the kitchen, who even now were probably raising their tearful eyes to heaven, looking to the wrong place, weeping for the wrong thing. He wrote one final line. It was meet and right, and as he walked down the steps back towards the kitchen, he knew with complete certainty that it was true:
“There’s a ham in the freezer.”