by Nathan Hill
There was food. There was so much food, and because it was a church, and because of JesusChristOurLord, there were volunteers serving the food. There was potato salad, egg salad, pea salad, cauliflower salad. There was noodle salad. There was green bean salad with bits of brown, dry onion. There was, at the end of it all, on the farthest side of the table—inevitable, red, and eager, like the tip of a matchstick—jello salad. There were sandwiches and buns, potato chips and dip, coffee, Kool-Aid. There was water. There were white plastic spoons for the coffee, powdered cream, styrofoam cups. There were rice krispie treats and fudge brownies and chocolate chip brownies and cake. There were also beans. There were long banquet tables, for the most part accessible from both sides, on which the food was presented. There were people wandering into the basement, walking down the stairs, coming in from the July sun and the July heat, squinting in the fluorescent lit room, eyes adjusting, clusters of people, in slow family-shaped troupes, like amoebas, wandering into the basement, people in poorly tailored black jackets, dresses, suit pants both pastel and violently floral, coming down the stairs, into the basement’s cooler air. There were greeters smiling, waiting, greeting. There was enjoyment of the AC. There were people—old, inflexible, unstable—slowing the progress down the stairs. There were people wondering if it was okay to start eating, calling for the family, her family, the whole of it, the whole big sad Phyllis family, because it’s only right that kin should eat first. There was the family, encouraged to the head of the line, aware of the fact of eating and of being watched, pushed to front, faced with food, wondering how to assemble a plate and eat a ham sandwich while maintaining the proper complexion of grief, wondering what grief looks like. There were people acting as if they were crushed by grief, people actually crushed by grief, and people who felt both. There was the church basement, walls covered in green shag carpet, decorated with drawings by the kids, Sunday school masterpieces: Jesus walking on water, walking on palm fronds, forehead bloodied by his thorny hat. There was French onion dip and there was ranch dip. There were certain lunch meats—ham, turkey—that looked like different shades of the same gray. There were two lines of people, paper plates and napkins, squeezable mustard, a cereal bowl of mayonnaise, pickles. There were kids already longing for dessert. There were strips of wide white paper, not tablecloths. There were large men at the front of the line, and wisecracks from the skinnier ones, leave some for me, plates sodden with bean juice, tipping from mounds of potato salad, near-disasters. There was red jello with bananas and grapes and strawberries, also red jello without any fruit at all, plain spotless jello. There were buns and they were white and they were wheat. There were cheeses dotted with oil from sitting out. There was chili in a crockpot, volunteers serving drinks with jerking hands—wrinkled, spotted, old hands. There was red and there was orange Kool-Aid. There were kids who were bigger than the last time they were seen, kids growing up so fast, and how the time flew. There were sweet pickles, dill pickles, someone who licked the mayo knife, absentminded, and put the knife back. There were cookies, chocolate chip and sugar. There was a not-too-recent photo of Phyllis, back when she still had hair, and it was done up nice. There was she’s in a better place now. There was she would have loved this meal. There was the last time I saw you, you were only this big, and you helped me wash the car, do you remember, do you remember? There was all the way from Minnesota, she would have been so happy you’re here. There were opinions about the Jesus-in-his-crown-of-thorns drawing; kind of violent, some said, kind of too much blood for Sunday school don’t you think? There were boys restless in stiff clothes and hard shoes, and cries from the infants, concomitant flashes of optimism, the young keep coming, the family endures. There were mothers quietly warning children off certain foods, oily, eggy, high-risk, breeding ground for salmonella and god knows what else, E. coli, campylobacter, staphylococcus. There was a prayer started by the young pastor, the sanguine and casual jeans-and-T-shirt pastor. There was OurLordAndSavior. There was BlessThisFood. There were heads bowed, fists clasped and pressed to foreheads. There was let us pray. There was dear lord, I know Phyllis is looking down on this meal and smiling down from heaven, and how do I know this, well I will tell you, it’s because I got to minister to Phyllis while she was in the hospital these last weeks, and from that time, from our time together, I know about her faith in God or the Bible, and I don’t choose who goes to heaven but I’ll bet Phyllis is there because she said so, she said about her faith, and she said PastorI’mSoTired, and she said ThisHasBeenALongFight, and she knew that her time, what was left of it, here on this earth or world, in this her life, because of the cancer, was coming up, and she was so at peace with that, with the coming up of her time, or dying, so totally at peace and she knew she was going to heaven because she believed, because Jesus was her savior or rock, because though I walk through the valley of death and all, because it’s a choice, see, you fear no evil, and nobody who goes to heaven is surprised to go to heaven, nobody is like “What am I doing in heaven?” because you choose how you live, and if you want to know where you go if you choose wrong I will tell you, it is hell, so anybody who goes to hell, it’s not our fault, it’s their fault, because they decided it for their own selves, because it’s a choice, which is why Phyllis I know is smiling down on us right now and she fears no evil and let that be a lesson to all of us here today and in life, to be more like Phyllis, in that the way she chose was the right way, because she chose heaven, or the rock. There were nods of agreement—silent, substantial nods. There were loud amens of agreement, too loud, from people unfamiliar with the Lutheran way. There were even, during the prayer—darting about, meeting occasionally with a kind off teenage defiance—the unclosed eyes of atheists. There was InHisNameWePrayAmen. There was the repeated amen from the tables, the amen-echo. There was the clink of silverware, people going for seconds. There were the few out-of-towners, the longest, thinnest tentacles of the family, reaching to the cities, returned now for the weekend, for the funeral, feigning a vast filial connection, the stuff that’s thicker than water, occasionally slipping out of the church on cell phones. There was a vegetarian not admitting his vegetarianism. There were people talking about trucks and engine sizes and engine blocks. There were smoke breaks. There were the memories, when I had Sunday school here, different pastor, same green carpet walls. There was I wonder how they clean the walls—with a vacuum? There was I thought Phyllis looked so natural, with the wig and all. There were the volunteers gossiping about the young pastor, when is he going to settle down, and who’s it going to be? There was a new boyfriend introduced as “her man.” There was who wants the rest of the turkey? There was I can’t eat all this. There was we’ve got way too much food. There were plans made involving changing clothes and getting out of this jacket and getting out of this tie and getting comfortable again, plans made involving the ham, beer, sitting in lawn chairs in someone’s garage, visiting. There was I don’t know what else to do so I might as well eat. There was ThankYouForComing. There was I’mSoSorry. There was GodBeWithYou. There was so much still to do. There were still flowers to retrieve and divvy between the children and still food to split up and send home and decisions still to be made about the money still to be collected for the cost of the service and casket and all the rest of the goddamn expensive mess and charging so much ought to be a crime and still the sleeping arrangements to be decided and where to put the out-of-towners and still the matter of thanking everyone who could only be here in spirit by card or bouquet or both and still the need to notify everyone who would want to know but does not yet know and still the financial affairs and the reading of the will and the going through the house and still the business of cataloging and collecting and naming all the things that need to be named in that great big home and all those memories and what will be found and what should be kept and what should be given away and what to do now that this woman, mother, grandmother is gone? There were questions, heavy and salient, far-reaching, urgent, what do we do now? There was where do we go? There was a woman. There was a space where a woman was. There was the memory of a woman. There was a place where a woman was not. There were leftovers. There were dishes. There was cleaning, packaging, containing, refrigeration. There was looking under the tables. There was a beeper, and a baby's bright red rattle, and a money clip. There was lost-and-found. There was the family last to leave. There was filing out, climbing stairs, groaning at achy knees. There was the last person locking the doors, lights out, the quiet hush. There was the walk into the sun, the heat, the day, the season, the year, the next new beginning, the next big event, living and breathing and longing for the woman who was no longer there.
Nathan Hill holds a BA from the University of Iowa and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Fiction, Pleiades, American Poet, The Sycamore Review, and several other journals. A native Iowan, he now lives in New York City. (4/2005)