Jeremy Spencer Rees
Just that morning Mrs. Durden’s overdone necklace had played a loud percussion as she strode to the back corner of the chapel where my father and I were seated. She half-sat beside me and expressed the usual sympathy with a well rehearsed conflicted smile. “It breaks my heart that I missed the funeral,” she was saying to my father. “If I hadn’t been stuck down in Tulsa these past weeks I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. My, I would’ve run the show, done everything I could’ve to help.” Her dress looked like mustard with red-brown floral patterns, like a spring design halfway repurposed for the fall. I kept my eyes on the back of the pew before me as she spoke over my head. “Your wife was just the sweetest woman in all of Wyoming. Getting back from this trip hardly felt like coming home, knowing she wasn’t here anymore. The beating heart of the town. If I had known she was nearly so sick…” Rather than a consequent she provided a dispirited shake of her head. My father said nothing through all this, only staring at her.
She turned to me. “And this poor boy.” She gave me those same eyes that everyone had for me those days, that look that even at that age struck a flint in my stomach, though I couldn’t explain why for another decade. She set her hand on my knee, her nails long and thick and a brighter white than her glistening teeth. “I’ll be by this afternoon with some dinner for you two.” This snapped me to attention with a quick breath. I looked to my father who was nodding polite gratitude. “It’s a small thing, I know, but small things are all we have against times like these.”
I was throwing a tennis ball for Rocky in front of the house when she arrived, the storm already brewing in the distance. I hadn’t expected her to come so early, or I would have gotten lost with the dog as I usually tried to when meals were being brought. “Gee, I hadn’t thought of bringing anything for the dog,” she said walking the path to the front door. “You share some of this lasagna with him, now, okay?” Rocky stood tensed just in front of me and tracked Mrs. Durden's intrusion on our territory. I couldn't run while she was right here, and in just a moment my father would be at the door and would see me here with my feet rooted to the ground, and as Mrs. Durden pulled away he would motion for me to come inside.
Accepting a pan from Mrs. Durden on the threshold, my father did manage a small smile and a few words too quiet for me to hear, but he filled the doorway so there was no question whether she was coming inside. I lifted my still hand in farewell as she crossed back to her car, and I kept my head turned toward the road long after she had pulled away until my father called my name from the front door. He gestured innocently for me to come.
The pendulum of the living room's grandfather clock sounded like a blade on a cutting board, coldly slicing second after second off of the afternoon. From the kitchen table I couldn't see the gold-lettered TEMPIS FUGIT arcing over the clock's face, but I knew it well, though I hadn't yet learned the translation at that age. After the clock had struck the forty-five I listened a while for the heavier tick of the minute hand moving, counting how many stood between me and the top of the hour. Anything to absorb my attention as I was confined to the chair, my stomach working madly. After five minutes my concentration failed me briefly and I lost count of the hand’s movements. I was left now suspended in an indeterminate stretch of time with dread at the end, a dark freefall.
The white floral curtains my grandmother had hung in this kitchen framed my whole world before me, and through the windows it all seemed a distant memory. Illusory. Fiction. The low, damp day hadn't evaporated the dew, and our front lawn shone grey-blue, reflecting the clouds. Main Street rolled itself out before the window, disappearing somewhere over the hill outside of town. Past its end and the neighboring town mountains rose lazily over the county. I knew them well; my father and I and our horses drove the cattle up those mountains each spring, and a decade later I would drive a number of pretty faces along those canyon roads to kiss them, but today they sat a painted backdrop under clouds suspended threateningly over the valley. There at Main Street’s meeting with Center sat the church, the town’s centerpiece, a mess of rotting wood with no insulation to offer in winter, the cross on the steeple bent at an angle from a storm some years ago. The building used to appeal to me as life’s social center, but the past few weeks the only interactions had were rehashed and compulsory and required of me a mask. Along the edges of—
I jumped as the clock's chimes began to play. After the short melody and four loud beats indicating that the top of the hour had slid by I sat silent in the kitchen. As the clock resigned itself back to its ticking, I could again faintly hear my father in the living room handling the disassembled pieces of his rifle, working over each one with a series of cleaning patches. A heavy piece was set down on the coffee table and I couldn't hear another picked up, and I knew he was listening to hear me. I was frozen. “Well?” he called, and then began screwing small pieces of the rifle together.
I brought my eyes from the window to the table. Only one dish on it, just before me. A square ceramic baking pan, white on the inside, the outside a light vomit green. Three slices of lasagna lined up inside it, surrounded by streaks of sauce, a scab baked onto the sides marking the height of the pasta's edges, flakes of ricotta. The remains of at least half a dozen slices already gone. I began shifting one around with my fork, the slice that seemed the smallest, and observed it a moment, gathering my willpower. It had been on a corner of the pan—all the perimeter pieces were burnt and crunchy over much of them, but I had gotten to prefer this over the usual too-mushy texture of the middle. Just looking at the piece below my fork made me dizzy. But I knew I had to at least start on it, that my father couldn't come in impatient to find I wouldn't take a bite without him watching over me. I leaned forward to bring my head closer to the pan, desperate to allow at least some of the pasta to join that already in my stomach, but my mouth wouldn't open. I couldn't do it.
This moment must have lasted longer than it had felt, because then my father emerged from the living room. “So you still need me in the room?” He had an imposing, powerful body, and I didn’t think I would recognize him if he weren't wearing boots and jeans and a heavy brown work coat. He stood with his feet wide and stoically still, his body nearly as tightly tamed as his mouth. His grey-green eyes belonged with our ancestors in the Scottish autumn, solitarily herding sheep and brooding over drinks in dark pubs with other large, bearded, quiet men.
He had always been distant, but not like this. I can remember him laughing at jokes, usually my mother’s. I could confide in him during our summer hours out with the herd. He even played baseball with me now and then. Looking back even now I marvel at how much he depended on my mother to keep him tethered. To what I still can’t vocalize.
His grief took his hand and led him far into a dark cold where he couldn’t be followed. In the mornings and evenings I could feel his presence in the house but didn’t know where and didn’t want to. Mornings I woke up alone, made breakfast, and walked alone to the elementary. I spent as much time as I could away with friends or Rocky or no one, and when coming home could no longer be delayed I came in the back with soft feet and walked close to the walls, shivering against the sour air of the house.
Our only interactions were the meals. Meals delivered by the town’s network of housewives most days since she’d gone. They would park their car in the same spot where a strip of mud was forming just on the edge of the lawn from tires, ring the doorbell, never knock, and smile and say how sorry they were and tell us insincerely not to worry about getting the dish back to them, and I would curse them for it each time.
To my father anything not eaten the same day was ingratitude. My ingratitude. No matter how much was delivered. “It’s a gift for your mother,” he would say, standing beside the table, never seated. “It’s the least you can do for her memory. For her.” His voice wasn’t the same I had known before her death.
When one was brought to us my staying out late could only postpone my eating. My father would sit waiting in the kitchen as late as necessary. He usually ate a small portion of the meal and insisted I take the lion’s share, but on some lucky days he ate half or more. Once I crept in the back to find him leaning on the kitchen counter sobbing before a casserole dish. I froze before the door a minute but slipped down to the basement without him turning and seeing me. The next morning the dish was empty, and I washed it before going to school.
The families with less to spare would provide portion sizes for just one meal between the two of us, and I was grateful to these. Mrs. Durden’s type, however, thought depth of sympathy ran alongside the amount of food given and would provide even as much as a week’s worth of dinners all at once. This never changed my father’s view, though. He would stand darkly over the table as I struggled to finish, and when I looked to be giving up he would ask whether I cared. Nights I had to vomit I went to the basement bathroom, farthest from his bedroom, and ran the fan and faucet so he couldn’t hear my prideful rejection of the gift.
“You need to master yourself, son,” he would say. These are the words that all these years later I most clearly remember my father saying throughout my childhood: falling asleep driving cattle, slipping off to the baseball fields with the other boys, talking back to my mother and again sobbing at her funeral. “Master yourself."
“Come,” he said now, stepping into the kitchen. “You've had plenty of time to digest.” I tore a chunk away with the tines of my fork, lowered my head again, and forced my mouth open this time. I somehow managed to get the bite into my mouth, and my teeth reluctantly closed and pulled it off of the fork. My mind pulled back in horror at the taste. I swished the slimy, confused mess about in my mouth, avoiding chewing, doing so just enough to split the noodles and swallow the wet muddle as quickly as possible. My breath came back to me with relief. I sat a moment savoring the feeling of air in my empty mouth.
My father grew impatient. “Okay. Another one.”
I picked up the fork again and selected another corner of the same slice to tear off. The cheese stretching apart reluctantly sickened me, and I had to close my eyes. I willed them open again but they couldn’t move. I tried to lean toward the plate, to raise the pasta on my fork, even to feel its weight in my hand, but my arms were heavy and numb, my stomach nauseous. Paralysis. I struggled to lift my eyelids, but they remained fixed until finally my head dropped into my hands. “I can’t, Dad. I can’t finish. I—”
Fingers through my hair yanked my head back. My eyes opened sharply now and the light through the window came at them from underneath as they pointed toward the ceiling, toward the shadow above me. Tines stabbed into my lips, and my mouth had to open and allow the fork inside. My eyes again shut tight, I unwillingly closed my mouth around the fork, and it retreated, scraping lasagna off on the backs of my teeth. Gravity pulled the food back in my throat and I began choking. I bent over the table and coughed with my mouth closed, afraid to let the food out. I chewed. The mozzarella latched onto my teeth and fought against me as I tried to stir it about. I tried to swallow but couldn't get the foul mass past the back of my mouth. I was squirming to and fro in my chair now, gripping the table’s edge tightly. Master yourself. My throat fought hard against swallowing. I felt I would need water to force it down like medicine, but if I opened my mouth it would all escape. Saliva poured into my already too-full mouth. For her. Then next I knew I couldn't help it, I didn't have the self-mastery, I was bent over the side of the chair and it was already set in motion, and my father quickly set the trash can beneath my head and the vomit landed in there. It poured out a long moment, all orange and bloody-red, the slabs of noodles landing with wet claps, coating the cardboard and plastic containers, eggshells, banana peels. The vomit burned and scratched my throat on its way up. The stream came in bursts, two- or three-second lulls in between. I felt weak and noticed I was shivering. My eyes let a few drops join the vomit on its way down, tears laced with defeat and fear. The sanguine stream from my mouth finally ran dry and I coughed a number of times, then it was over, and I was left leaning over the trash can, shaking, catching my breath, trying to blink my eyes dry.
The clock sliced a few seconds off this moment.
Then my father grabbed the pan from the table and pitched it loudly to the base of the trash can, which he picked up and carried back to the corner, fuming to himself, “...and let it go to waste."
About the Author
Jeremy Spencer Rees is an undergraduate studying Computer Science with minors in Creative Writing, Philosophy, and Business Administration. Whatever free time he finds is wholly consumed by tennis, the outdoors, and the piano.