Janice E. Rodríguez inhabits two realities—the rolling hills and broad valleys of her native eastern Pennsylvania, and the high, arid plains of her adopted land of Castilla-León in Spain. She currently teaches Spanish at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. When she’s not teaching, writing, or gardening, she’s in the kitchen working her way through a stack of cookbooks. She can be found online at janiceerodriguez.com
Becca and Paul’s second public appearance wasn’t nearly as pleasant as the first. It was a funeral.
Every year, the Distelfink closed its doors after dinner the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and reopened the first day of buck season, and the hunting widows of Haasenville took advantage of their husbands’ absence and their growing dislike of turkey leftovers to go there for lunch. Kate obliged them by unleashing her creative genius in a parade of finger sandwiches, salads, tartlets, and petits fours, things the husbands would have dismissed as silly girl food.
When Doris Yoder opened the post office at eight that Monday, Kate still had not returned to town. At nine, when the still-dark kitchen of the Distelfink should have been abuzz with lunch preparations, Doris reached the only conclusion possible: Whatever the story of Kate Lesher’s whereabouts was, it was going to be the most important topic of conversation of the day, more important than the sudden cold turn in the weather, the township board of supervisors’ unexpected revision of the rules for best Christmas display, or the box that had arrived for Stoffel Franz late Saturday afternoon, a heavy one that gave a mysterious chink whenever Doris found an excuse to shift it.
The hunting widows congregated in the post office, with the overflow outside stamping and shuffling their feet and tucking their mittened hands under their arms. Doris began to make phone calls to the Philadelphia airport and the turnpike traffic hotline and doled out what little she learned in tantalizing but infrequent updates.
Pastor Mark, a transplanted suburbanite who had always kept his failure to understanding hunting to himself, arrived at the post office in time for Doris to announce that she was considering calling the police in Florida to see if something had happened to Kate as she left her mother’s place. Women clustered around him, wringing their hands and spilling out their worries in a breathy, white cloud.
“Has anyone tried Kate’s cell phone?” he asked.
Doris and the others stopped talking and stared.
“Do any of you have her cell phone number?” he asked.
He was met with blank faces.
“I’m sure we have it on file in the office,” he said. He crossed the street and unlocked the front doors of the church. One woman bustled after him and then the rest, leaving Doris alone at the post office.
By dinner, everyone knew the details. Kate’s mother had died suddenly on Saturday evening, and the funeral was to be at Saint Matthew’s Lutheran church on Wednesday. Not everyone in town remembered Kate’s mother, but everyone in town knew Kate, so everyone in town went, including newcomers Becca and Paul.
The day should have wept with the mourners; the sun should have hidden itself behind heavy, gray clouds instead of streaming through the stained glass windows and landing in glorious splashes of color on the congregation and the flowers.
Becca and Paul sat together in one of the amen pews. Kate was in a front pew, looking weary. By her side was a teenager. Becca’s experience teaching public school led her to guess that the girl was twelve or thirteen, and common sense dictated that it must be Kate’s little sister. The girl’s shoulders were hunched, and she directed an empty, numb look to the urn atop a stand near the chancel rail.
Becca couldn’t look at the urn, at the girl, or at her own outfit, the black skirt and blouse she’d worn to St. Matthew’s for her great-aunt Opal’s funeral earlier that year, too lightweight for November, too tainted with sad memories to wear in warmer months. She planned to take them off when she got home and stuff them in the back of the closet, hoping that she’d never have to put them on again.
She glanced at Paul, who was still but for a persistent, slow folding and unfolding of one corner of the church bulletin. Before the second hymn, the corner fell away, and he began to fold and unfold another corner. He gave her a tight, sad smile.
After the service, the guests filed through the receiving line and down creaking stairs to wait before the closed fellowship hall doors. Little knots of people formed, silence slowly giving way to conversation, the first chuckle surfacing. Becca heard disapproving whispers from a group of women by the bulletin board. They were scandalized to learn that Kate’s mother’s ashes were to be scattered in some undisclosed location the next day at sunset, as her father’s had been. Where, they wondered, would you put the Easter flowers?
Becca pressed her lips into an angry line. The same women had attended Aunt Opal’s funeral, extended their sympathies and sad eyes to Becca, and, more likely than not, had muttered their disfavor behind her back as soon as they left the receiving line. She started toward them, but Pastor Mark swooped in front of her. Soft in voice and delicate in his choice of words, he maneuvered their conversation away from Kate’s mother and toward the town’s Christmas decorating contest. He left only when the women had broken into two factions that were firmly entrenched in debating which was more festive, blinking or steady lights.
In the church kitchen, a culinary disaster of the first order was under way. Doris and Stoffel’s wife, Naomi, had both brought slow cookers filled with sausage and potato soup, a social blunder worse than showing up in the same outfit. Alberta Moyer stopped calligraphing the folded cards that identified foods for the buffet table, awaiting direction.
Doris said, “Just write our names, Alberta. ‘Doris Yoder’s Sausage and Potato Soup’.”
“Nobody else’s card has their name on it,” Alberta said.
“Well, then, add everybody’s name,” Naomi said.
“Lunch is getting cold already,” Alberta said. She capped her pen.
Naomi narrowed her eyes at Doris. The kitchen grew silent.
The chair of Saint Matthew’s kitchen committee looked at Doris, postmistress, township supervisor, Grange treasurer, who occupied the pew in front of her every Sunday. Then she looked at Naomi, wife of the chair of the supervisors, whose pew was right behind hers. Unwilling to offend either powerful party, she called for the chair of the kitchen committee of Stony Run Mennonite, who, Solomon-like, interviewed both cooks separately and, by virtue of a half-teaspoon’s difference, directed Alberta to label one soup “lower salt.” Satisfied, both cooks put their soups on the buffet table, and the funeral luncheon was ready.
Alberta swung open the doors to fellowship hall. Becca felt Paul’s warm and reassuring hand on the small of her back as they lined up at the buffet table, and she promised herself that their third public appearance would be a standard-issue date consisting of dinner and a movie.
© Janice Rodriguez