James May died last Tuesday. It took over a week to get the memorial service booked, James drained and everything else arranged. After the visitation and sermon and after James was dropped into the ground, everybody met back at New Life Community Church’s banquet hall for some pot luck casseroles and side dishes and some finger foods and to swap stories and meet and reminisce for what some, especially the older folks, knew was probably the last time. It’s a cliche that the older you get, the more time flies – but it’s true. Five years pass like six months, which all the seniors mourning at New Life Community Church understand. They also know that the odds of living a quality life – hell, even living at all – for another five years isn’t great. And, given that thing about five years passing like six months, it’s obvious that anybody over 70 might be in James’ shoes in what seems like tomorrow or next week, though it may really come following a full season of Spring.
James, the deceased, and Bud were classmates all the way through high school and lived in adjacent neighborhoods but Bud and James weren’t as close as they were to the other kids in their own neighborhoods since there was a kind of stigma about associating with non-relatives from the outside. That was until high school when all the Catholic kids got mixed in with the public school rabble and it was such a social clusterfuck that the norms of their pre-pubescencent past faded really quick. In high school, James and Bud got better acquainted on the basketball team, a reference point from which they remained friendly acquaintances whenever they’d bump into each other in town or whenever the other was the subject of some town gossip.
June May, Jame’s wife and also deceased, and Linda Putnam were cousins, on paper, by way of some weird branches of second marriages. June was short for Junia, which she explained to Linda she never liked so she adopted June as a kid. Between Junia and June May, it’s obvious which she chose as the lesser of two evils. June also worked as a teller at People’s Trust Bank where Linda was a customer. The local paper announced June’s retirement after 40 plus years, then announced her death a few years later.
About an hour ago James was lowered into his hole at Maple Grove cemetery – the protestant cemetery in Hooven – beside his wife, listed as “Junia (June) May” on their headstone. Bud had attended the burial. It was hot and he noticed the popcorn clover and brocade of common chickweed – redneck or ghetto ground cover as some call it – spread over the neglected groundskeeping in Maple Grove, with weeds being mostly absent over at the Catholic cemetery. After James’ earthly descent, everybody drove back to town and the church, where Bud found Linda, saying they needed to catch up since they’d know each other in school and in town too. Linda complied, deciding to get them something to drink first.
Linda returns to the couch with plastic cups of ice and Diet Sprite for her and Bud. She hands both cups to Bud, emancipating those limbs of unnecessary weight, accessories, concern, etc. – needing the freedom to abruptly adjust for both physical and emotional stability. Linda lives in fear of rough landings from any altitude – major and minor. That’s what happens when you get older – bad joints and balance, sudden light-headedness. A bench an inch or two closer to the ground or a degree or two in a couch’s slope or the sixth step down the stairs from the dentist’s office – measured against the stability of a flimsy, old iron railing – all take on grave implications.
Bud accepts the cups with a “thank you.” Linda touches down with grace, though bobbing her and Bud a bit as the stiff squares of cushions absorb her. Bud hands her cup back, asking Linda what kind of spread they have at the banquet table. Linda says she hasn’t looked too close yet, but she saw a few warmers and some veggie and fruit trays and a bowl of pretzels and she heard someone say, “Those are sympathy sandwiches. You need to try one before they’re gone.” She asks Bud if he knows what a Sympathy Sandwich is and he says he doesn’t. He’s been to a lot of funerals and wakes recently so he’s a bit surprised, though there’s something in him that revolts against the idea of giving funeral foods such cutsie names. Still, he’s curious just what a Sympathy Sandwich is and what it tastes like.
“You going to have one?”, Bud asks.
“Maybe in a little while,” Linda says. “It takes me a minute to get back up.”
The couch strikes them both as some sort of church hand-me-down. One of things that sat in somebody’s finished basement that rarely got used so, instead of hauling it off to the junkyard, they donated it to the church. Its heavy, squared cushions made Bud think of life preservers covered in coarse furniture fabric and it retains the smell that reminds him of a basement – not exactly foul, just sharp and different than the rest of a house. But, unlike flotation devices, they are more airy than dense, causing Linda to sink several inches, with her knees resting at near chin level, an ominous angle for a graceful take-off when the next one’s needed. She hates asking for help, especially over things so trivial. She still has pride but with that pride comes the anxiety of failing at what were once such simple tasks as getting out of chairs, walking down steps and bending down or reaching overhead for sacks of sugar and flour at the grocery store.
Bud, by conditioning, doesn’t bother to get up himself. Though he’ll preach the virtues of the self-reliance inherent in bachelorhood, he’ll dodge self-reliance at any opportunity, generally under the convoluted pretense of people thinking he’s so swell that they’re obliging him a reciprocally unbalanced kindness. He’s keen on observing other people’s selfishness and moral neglect, except when it comes to himself – an awareness that, when reflected, sees mostly the favors and graciousness which he interprets as his status of favor by way of said favors delivered by a kindly benefactor.
Now, he’s too deep in thought about Sympathy Sandwiches to consider the physical effort of getting one – a thought that, in turn, leads him astray to wondering again about Doris Parrett. Long retired and Mr. Parrett having passed years ago, Doris, through her Funeral Luncheon Committee of volunteers, helps coordinate many of Hooten’s potluck funeral receptions, with her own culinary specialty being baked beans. For Bud, they’re the best baked beans ever, even better than the premium ones with chunks of meat that he buys at the grocery when they’re about ready to expire and consequently marked way down. Whenever he sees Doris at a funeral, he compliments her and has even jokingly asked about the secret to the beans – a secret she politely refuses to share in part due to it’s simplicity. For the truth of things is they’re no more than canned beans with a little onion and garlic powder and a packet of McCormick’s au jus mix added, then all simmered.
As a result of all this, Bud’s honed an eagle eye for Ms. Parrett and her wispy mound of gaudily tinted reddish-purple locks. And he’s learned through disappointment her presence by no means guarantees the funeral won’t be catered or handled by somebody else or another group. Sometimes she’s just there to mourn and mingle just like every everybody else. But seeing her gives Bud hope, unless it’s the Catholics who tend to their own, even though the others are allowed to indulge in all the festivities. Bud can even spot Ms. Pattett’s antique Crock Pot – an Army olive drab kind with a faux wooden rim just like he had back in the 70’s – from all the way across a room, even when it’s hidden within a cityscape of fruit bowls tiered 3 high and other crocks filled with Swedish meatballs and buffalo chicken dip and all the other supporting acts, including veggie trays, pans of Oreo and banana pudding cakes, etc.
Ms. Parrett’s beans have such a titillating effect on Bud that one of the ladies on the Wake Planning Committee has dubbed Bud “The Grim Reaper of Baked Beans”, with some suggesting he goes to funerals neither to relieve his boredom nor as a show of respect to the deceased nor their family, but mostly to indulge in Ms. Parrett’s savory side dish.
Bud’s such a connoisseur that he allows time for Ms. Parrett’s stock to dwindle a bit before indulging himself, as he’s come to especially enjoy the drier and crispier beans that stick to the side of the crock, which only get exposed after some depletion. It’s a rough calculation knowing when it’s time to scrape those crusty beans – a rough and intuitive calculation not unlike fishing when the river or creek’s high, having whisked away the bass from the honey hole to somewhere else – but where? Well, finding them at that point is mostly a matter of instinct – of trying to imagine where you’d be if you were those fish. So Bud monitors Ms. Pattett’s crock from across church banquet halls, funeral parlors and through dining rooms into kitchens, trying to get his timing just right. The sweet spot – the honey hole of Ms. Parrett’s crock of baked beans – is when they’re more than 3/4 gone but not yet fully sapped.
Mildred Eves, still a wisecracker in her 90’s, has a different take on Bud’s bean fetish, saying he’s, “the angel escorting the deceased’s soul to heaven, riding on the winds and wings of flatulence” and has even taken to noticing whether Bud’s name ever appears on any of the funeral bouquets, which her amateur sleuthing skills have yet to detect. As a consequence, she’s also pegged Bud the “Funeral Home Freeloader” and the “Don Juan of Death”, spearing the rumor that he just shows up for the free food and to exploit funerals like his personal Dating Game for Widows and to milk attention with his fake condolences.
While some on the committed agree with Mildred’s overall assessment of Bud, others believe it’s tainted by jealousy that her potato salad garners a fraction of the accolades of the baked beans, prompting her recurring apology that, “Warm dishes naturally get more attention. It’s a psychological thing”, she’ll state from selective observations at family reunions, for instance, where year after year the chicken wings garner far more favor than the potato chips and tub of store-bought coleslaw. And the sting of the slight against her potato salad isn’t without merit for it takes time to boil, then cool and peel all those potatoes and eggs with arthritic hands and dice them along with fresh green and white onions and celery. It takes far more effort than dumping a few cans of Van Camp’s and a packet of au jus into a warmer. Again, through the same sleuthing skills that have uncovered Bud’s fingerfood freeloading scheme, she’s pretty certain of the secret of the simplicity of those baked beans, having stalked Doris down the beans and soup and gravy aisles on a day just before a reception – with the smoking gun being only 5 packets of the McCormick’s packs of aus jus , not the cheap store brand, depleted to 5 from 7 after Doris made her raid. Yet, knowing all these shortcuts, Mildred swallows her pride out of respect, for most secrets – unless they break the laws of the court or morality – are best left alone and hidden in closets or buried altogether. After all, Mildred’s got her secrets too, including a mild contempt for Ms. Parrett’s lurid purple hair, which she considers wholly inappropriate for a woman their age but, considering all the good work she does with the Funeral Luncheon Committee, she leaves Ms. Parrett’s hair be as a private rather than public subject of her consternation.
Spying some fidgety kid snooping around the banquet table, Bud perks up like a mamma bunny twitching its cottontail when a cat gets too close to its nest.
“This all reminds me of burying my Keith last year,” Linda tells Bud. “But we had our service at Church of Christ.”
Death of a loved one vs. baked beans, Bud calculates. He errs on the side of morality and, by will, forces his attention back on Linda. She did, after all, get him a Diet Sprite without prompting.
Bud eases back into the couch. “Yeah. I was there,” he says. “The services were good but this one was kind of long.”
“Long? It was only forty minutes.”
“Yeah,” Bud says. “35 minutes about God and Jesus. About 5 spent on the deceased – the person everybody is here to mourn about.”
“James was just a man. That doesn’t compare to God and Jesus so it makes sense.”
“I though the deceased was supposed to the star of the show – not anybody else,” Bud says. “Can’t we just leave well enough alone and let it be about James May and his family? Why’s God always got to be brought into it? And not just as a side attraction but as the main event.”
For Bud, the sermon, like most others, had all the ceremony and professionalism of a middle-school play. James’ bio, obviously culled from last minute questions hustled from his wife and kids, read like a grade school report on any historical figure. When the preacher, who struck Bud as something of a relief preacher from some strip mall Church on Fire-type revival, asked if anybody had a story to share about James, nobody did, which, for Bud, was a testament to his inability to rouse the emotion that he was supposed to, not unlike the leftie reliever rushed in from the bullpen for just one out but walks the batter instead. When the eulogy was announced as finished, there was a polite rush to the exit for a half-dozen mourners to indulge in cigarettes, some oddly encased in pill bottles for some reason. Some of the assembly stumbled out drunk – some drunk over their grief at the loss of James but some drunk just because that’s just their natural state, even before noon.
“It’s a shame how hardly nobody from June’s side of the family came. Even if James was just a second husband, he stuck with June through her cancer,” Linda says.
Bud took another sip of Diet Sprite, then said, “Um”, while looking over at the buffet table again.
“And they’re supposed to be a good Christian family.”
“Everybody’s supposed to be good regardless of faith,” Bud says. “And most are good, according to their own version of their own story.”
“Nobody’s perfect,” Linda says.
“Yeah. I know. That’s the loophole. The loophole that allows the man who nursed a dying mother to be disrespected by her children by not even showing up to his funeral. But, in a way, I get it.”
“Get it? How?”
“James’ bond to her kids wasn’t blood. And James wasn’t there for her kids’ births or to raise them. He was only there for the last 25 years of her life, not the 9 of her first marriage. That’s just the way it works. Sometimes the blood bond’s stronger than what a moral bond ought to be. A lot of times, actually. Without the blood, there isn’t anything.”
Linda holds her cup of iced Diet Sprite to her chest and sighs.
“Do they at least have cans?”, Bud asks.
“No. Just two liters.”
“For God’s sake…couldn’t even splurge for cans. The man nursed an ailing wife for what?…..3 years…and all he gets is 2 liters of soda?”
Linda doesn’t bother asking Bud what his contribution to the reception has been. Just his gracious and benevolent and almighty presence, she supposes, but says instead, “At least it’s not Crisp.”
“What the hell’s Crisp?”
“Come on, Bud. No cursing in church.”
Looking at Linda with mimed stupidity, he asks again, “What the heck’s Crisp?”
“The Save-A-Lot brand.”
“Linda, it may be the Christian thing to see the bright side of everything, but there’s realities that need to be recognized too – in situations and in people. And the fact is..the reality is… 2 liters of soda at a man’s funeral is the shits. Things and situations, just like people, can just be lousy. That’s just the way it is. That’s what your God gave us.”
Linda lowers her head at the plastic cup of iced Diet Sprite resting on her chest and sighs again.
“Please, Bud. Your language. And blasphemy.”
“By my count James had about 70 Goddaaaaaaaarned mourners. That was it. Only 70 people show up for you at the end of your life. The man traveled the world, for crying out loud.”
“It’s a weekday. People work,” Linda says. “And please, Bud, don’t use The Lord’s name that way.”
“It’s not because it’s a weekday, it’s because of how people are,” Bud says. “It’s because they tell themselves decency doesn’t matter once somebody’s dead. But it didn’t matter while he was alive for most of them either. So, alive or dead, none of it really matters.”
James attacks his Diet Sprite with a violent gulp, it’s bubbliness and aspartame sweetness betraying the physical and dramatic and metaphoric bite a shot of Kessler’s would have. But they’re in church.
“Used to be people would read about such things in the newspaper,” Linda says. “If somebody died on a Thursday, they’d delay the funeral as long as possible so it could be written up in the paper the coming Wednesday. That way people’d know. Nowadays I hear they put the obituaries on the internet where folks like you and me never see them. Which makes sense why there isn’t much of anybody here. If I even had a computer I don’t think I’d waste time seeing who around town just died.”
“You might,” Bud says. “Some people, especially our age, got nothing better to do. The obits and the memories that go alone with them can be better than an episode of Perry Mason you’re already seen half a dozen times. Or some dumb show about million dollar celebrity aquariums.”
“It’s morbid,” Linda says. “If people got nothing better to do than obsess over people’s deaths, then they ought to,.
Bud can partly but not wholly agree with that. He’d have to admit that it’s interesting to peruse the obituaries and try to piece together all the stuff missing between the details of a life that’s summarized within the constraints of $50 per line and an additional fee if the family includes a picture, most of who decline. Like recently Bud read about a woman who graduated from their high-school as valedictorian, received national scholarship awards in high-school and college, moved a few towns over where she retired as a respected teacher, had a husband and a few kids who spread their lives across the country; how she retired early to work on her husband’s generations-old family farm, then died at 62 of a cryptic illness only hinted at by the suggestion of donations to the National Leukemia Society in lieu of sending flowers. Reading all that, Bud had thought it was a terrible shame about all the life between those highlights that gets dismissed. There had to have been loves and losses and triumphs and challenges and wins and defeats and regrets – that’s the meaty stuff that fits in between all the highlights. Yet, it’s the stuff that gets lost too. It’s the nuances of a life that get lost, like how a particular person comes to understand love when it changes from something mostly carnal and passionate to something more subdued. And how that particular person responds to those changes particularly. Or how does love change when you’ve poured your life into rearing children that turn out to be something other than they’d hoped? And when she got that cancer diagnosis, how’d she respond to letting go of life? Did she panic? Did she respond with dignity and grace? Did she bottle up her emotions for the sake of dying with that dignity and grace? Would she and even her family been better off if she’d released those emotions? Would it have helped bring everyone closer together in her dying days rather than distanced them from her and each other? Is it a duty to use your death as a tool of conciliation when it’s easier to just write off the world as you suffer? This is the stuff that Bud thinks about but figures Linda will find morbid so he changes the subject back to her religion which he honestly finds almost equally as morbid.
“And that stuff about The Lord, ya’ll can’t even get it straight if The Lord is God or Jesus or both.”
“You’re a cynic, Bud. Don’t talk this way inside a church, please.”
Bud takes umbrage at Linda’s dismissal. Bud’s an intelligent and inquisitive man. He thinks about the definition of Lord. He wants to tell her about the time he found the funeral assistant outside smoking and how he responded to Bud’s curiosity – how Bud learned that people aren’t generally buried in shoes, just socks as a courtesy. How the assistant said one time a family requested their father be buried in cowboy boots, which was peculiar, not because of the style, because of the simple fact of being buried in footwear isn’t generally a family’s major consideration during the grief period. But the family insisted so they had to cut the boots open all the way down the shaft just to be able to get the feet inside and how there was no telling about cut up boots once the pants legs were pulled down but it didn’t matter anyway since it’s practice for the bottom half of the casket to be closed during the service anyway. And how they’ve got to remove most accessories before a cremation due to the potential for toxic emissions. And how sometimes the funeral home supplies either underwear or diapers for a corpse, as a courtesy. See, he’s not a stupid man. He’s curious, though that curiosity sometimes leads him to some arguably strange terrain.
“I’m a realist,” Bud says. “Here’s everybody now, at least pretending to be sad. I can’t ever figure out why. They way I see it, if James has moved on to heaven and in the big scheme of things we’re all right behind him – as if James was on the freeway doing 65 and we’re in the line of traffic right behind him – then there’s no reason to be sad. We’ll both be hitting the Exit for Paradise at, essentially, the same time. Yet, everybody’s sad. Or pretending to be sad. But we are sad and scared because deep down we know we aren’t going to see him again. James got off on exit 208B for Springdale Road while we’re getting off somewhere else down the highway on a totally different exit leading to a totally different place. We know it. We know we’re not going to see that father and husband and that pal you went on yearly fishing trips and got drunk with again. He’s gone for good and everybody knows it. That’s why we don’t celebrate like he’s won the lottery, which, for all intents and purposes, he has, right? The only reason we don’t celebrate it is if we’re jealous or we simply don’t believe it – if we think that giant cardboard check is going to bounce at the bank and we’re gonna look like a fool for carrying on like it wasn’t.”
Bud notices the man at the back of the memorial service who’d kept nodding off, now snooping around the food table.
“See, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s like claiming you’re brave but acting like a coward. I’m not saying people can’t be both. In some respects you might be brave and in others cowardly, in which case you’re sorta brave and sorta cowardly in the same package. In the same way, you can say you believe while you really only sorta believe in the afterlife.”
“You think about things too much,” Linda says.
“I’m just saying things for what they are.”
“Sounds to me like everything’s all about you, Bud. And without God, I guess it is.”
“This isn’t about being cynical or self-centered, Linda. It’s about being smart. When I was a kid, my mother drove us all the way over to Connersville for me to see big time wrestling, live and in person, over at the armory. There was The Bruiser and Sailor Art Thomas. All the big stars were there.”
“My brother and father loved that too. Even my grandma did. Every Saturday night in front of the Dumont” Linda says. “Everybody in our day loved wrestling.”
“Well, imagine if your father was taking himself and your brother to the matches and me and my mother were right behind them on 52 going to Connersville. I’d have no reason to be anxious or uneasy about your brother being in front of us. And whatever turns they took would be met with excitement and anticipation, under the presumption that we were getting closer and closer to where we wanted to be – the matches.”
“I only feel sadness or anxiety when I begin to feel that we’re being duped. That our parents are taking us somewhere other than the wrestling matches – that we’re being lied to. That’s why we cry at these things, Linda. Cause we all know we’re not going to the matches to see The Bruiser battle the Sheik in a steel cage. Deep down we know it. That’s why we don’t look at the turn off 30th Street onto Waterloo Drive with excitement and anticipation. Instead, we look on it with sadness and dread.”
“When I was a kid a television was a piece of furniture,” Linda says. “Something they put real time and effort into making look nice. It was a centerpiece that families saw as a lifestyle investment. Nowdays a TV is just an appliance. Ours first black and white was a Dumont. It even had a style – The Hanover. My father made a real big tadoo about it. In those days it was almost as big a deal as being a car. You remember what your TV was?”
“Ours was an RCA but I think you’re missing the point.”
Linda isn’t sure there is a point so she passes her cup of Diet Spite to Bud again, excusing herself to the ladies room and wondering if a wife and kids or a dog or maybe even a motorcycle or boat wouldn’t have prevented Bud from having such dreadful thoughts and silly ideas. Bud asks if she needs help getting off the couch. Linda says she doesn’t. As she rocks forward – once, then twice and on the third time using the momentum for liftoff – Bud’s cups of Diet Spite slosh but they’re less full, giving him some relief from the anxiety of spillage as he bobs on the cushions. Linda, having made a successful ascent, hears Bud say, “Try to check out those sandwiches when you pass the table.”
While he waits, Bud thinks about the one man who broke out weeping during the sermon. Bud watched as a child from the row behind the man consoled him. The crying man put the boy on his knee and continued to weep while the boy put an arm around his shoulders. It was a tender scene. Then Bud had looked around at another man seated at the back wall – one of the best dressed of all the mourners – who kept nodding off. It’s the same man just moments ago scouting the buffet table. Bud had witnessed another child attacking his gum and spasming with boredom, oblivious to the grief and sadness surrounding him and obviously misaligned with the spirits of James or The Holy Ghost, which the family friend turned preacher-for-a-day was encouraging with the nervous conviction of an unpolished politician. And the soulless and generic hymns were pumped through the funeral home’s PA system that sounded worse than the 8 track player in his ’73 Buick Century. It all struck Bud as cheaply commercial and formulaic, like most sit-com spinoffs or the band that copies the copy of another popular band.
The sobbing man’s grief was a choice, Bud thinks. For he doesn’t truly know what lies beyond death. For, if there’s unadulterated joy beyond death – as he’s supposed to believe – then grief is an absurd response – the response of either an idiot or a psychotic.
But that service was what it was supposed to look and sound like, mostly, which was good enough, Bud had thought, surrounded by the tinny hymns and veneered furniture of the funeral parlor. It’s what they offer and everybody plays along. And what’s the difference between the deluxe and economy funeral package – 5 to 10 grand? Hell, why not go the cheapo route when only 70 people show up? The whole show only lasts a couple of hours anyway.
As a bachelor Bud knows even fewer than 70 are likely to show up at his funeral. Still, he wishes there was a way of using the cost to bring anybody who’d attend joy rather than sadness.
Joy, he thinks. That’s what we need. Not anymore goddamned sadness.
He looks to see if the formerly drowsy man, now roused by the buffet, is still snooping over by the baked beans.
Hire a clown or a comedian? And a full fucking bar and, if not steak, then fine veal parmigiana, at least, not fucking Olive Garden, The hell with the funeral expenses, splurge on an a great meal for everybody instead of vegetable trays and brownies baked from a box. And a live band. But, in it’s unorthodoxy, that would be an extravagant flaunting of convention, which would rub some people the wrong way. They’d think that it was a last ditch effort to make a spectacle of myself, even after I’m gone. But, it’s supposed to be about the deceased. It’s their time…..
Then he stops to think who could he entrust with fulfilling such a task? Give whoever ten grand, which Bud has at his disposal, in the hope that they’ll do all he requests? Who’s a close enough friend that they’d want to do it – willingly – not forced into it by guilt? He realizes he doesn’t even have a friend close enough to know what he’d want without Bud having to spell it all out. He’s had nobody close enough to him to ever have such a discussion. In that case, he’d have to pay somebody to take care of his own goddamned funeral the way he’d want it taken care of. Pay them as he would anybody else to mow his fucking grass or cut and sweat a busted pipe.
Linda returns from the ladies room, making another safe landing on the couch. Bud hands her cup of Diet Sprite back again and prepares to ask about the Sympathy Sandwiches – whether she’s gotten any more intel? But her thoughts – like Bud’s with the baked beans – were led astray somewhere in the lavatory. Instead of finger foods or God, she returns with her own grief in mind.
“Since my Keith died, it’s been so lonely,” she says. “The house seems so much bigger and it’s always quiet. Since Keith died, I feel I’ve lost all purpose.”
“Do you have a radio?,” Bud asks.
“It’s not about sounds or silence, Bud. It’s about meaninglessness.”
“Meaninglessness? What do you mean by that?”
“Well, when Keith was alive I always felt like I was there to support him,” she says.
Linda was a career-long housewife. Bud is a career-long bachelor and, as far as Linda knows, Godless too.
“I mean, I used to have meals to cook and a reason to clean the house and do laundry – all those things. And even to make him feel better when he was down. He was a good-natured man, though. He was rarely down in the dumps.”
“You can still do those things,” Bud says.
“But it’s not the same without Keith. Heck, a whole meatloaf goes bad before I eat it. Unless I freeze it but then it gets freezer burn and it just isn’t the same. None of it’s the same.”
“You gotta wrap it real tight in plastic wrap. And not aluminum foil. And it’s got to be wrapped real, real tight.”
“Darn it, Bud. It’s not about the meatloaf.”
“Sorry,” he says.
Bud takes another sip of Diet Spite.
“So, folding laundry or running the sweeper’s not the same without Keith in the house? He added value to running the Hoover?”
“You can’t understand,” Linda says. “You’ve always lived alone.”
“Well, you can come over to my place and cook and clean and do laundry,” Bud says. “There’s plenty of that to be done. My place is a dump and I never cook. I just wait for Hungry-Man‘s to go on sale.” It’s not really a dump but he figures the hyperbole might make Linda feel she’s doing more than just tidying up. It might make her feel that she’s really helping.
“You’re joking, right?”, she asks.
Bud shrugs. “About the Hungry-Man‘s? No. I like the boneless chicken and the fried chicken and the country fried chicken even though it would be better if it as country fried steak. And the country fried chicken is confusing because it’s not really fried chicken, it’s just the boneless chicken with gravy on it. And I can’t stand anything with the green beans. The microwave doesn’t cook the green beans or the carrots. They always come out hard. That’s why I always buy canned green beans and carrots. They’re soft.”
Linda wonders if he finished.
“There’s one…beer battered chicken….I’m curious about that one because beer batter usually goes with fish. And beer battered fish is pretty good so maybe beer battered chicken is too but the problem is that one comes with the mixed vegetables.”
He turns to Linda to see if she understands but she just looks at him quizzically.
“The mixed vegetables. Green beans and carrots. So that’s no good”, he says.
“For heaven’s sake, Bud, you ought to be dead by now from eating all that junk. But no, I wasn’t asking about Hungry-Man’s. I was asking if you’re serious about me coming over.”
There’s now a group gathered around the table. Bud sees them pointing and talking. He hopes there’s banana pudding cake but he doesn’t want to appear like a vulture. Caught between temptation and decorum, he bides his time a while longer as, in his mind, the well of baked beans goes to half full – going nice and gooey in their concentration at the bottom and good and crusty as they cling to the side of the crock.
Linda looks at him in silence, wondering if devotion – well, devotion’s too strong a word – any kind of commitment, maybe – to another man would be dishonorable to her deceased husband.
“You can come over if you want. I’m not gonna force you,” Bud says.
“I don’t know,” Linda says.
“It’s somewhere to go and something to do,” Bud says.
Her mind races, trying to make sense of what’s being proposed. Is Bud serious? If so, is he selfish or selfless? Would life be better sitting at home alone in that sad and silent house or over at Bud’s fixing chicken pot pie? She’d noticed his shirt missing a button which he’d clandestinely repaired with a safety pin, concealing the clasp on the inside of the shirt. She’d noticed his mismatched socks, one blue and one brown – an understandable mistake given their similar tones and values. He wears his glasses crooked. His nose and ear hairs and eyebrows could use trimming. Why doesn’t his barber do it for him? Or at least politely suggest it? All these thoughts and things confuse her, like the modern world to a time traveler from the past. Bud can tell it’s going to take a bit more convincing.
“What’s the value of meaning and purpose compared to making scrambled eggs and frying a few strips of bacon?”, he asks.
It’s starting to make sense to Linda but, at the same time, it doesn’t.
“I don’t offer meaning and purpose to just anybody, Linda. It’s a pretty special gift.”
She still says nothing while Bud looks at the people grabbing things from the table of food.
“And you’ll be providing me meaning and purpose too, Linda – the purpose of receiving all your care and attention, which, in turn, enhances your life by giving it focus. See, somebody should be there to receive all your care and attention instead of loafing around at the racetrack or drinking beer and playing cards at the American Legion every day. There’s heroism and sacrifice in this arrangement for both of us. Our parents would be proud.”
The idea of her parents being proud makes Linda happy.
Bud considers adding, “Maybe they’ll even add a word or two about it in your eulogy. ‘….her heroism and lifelong commitment to sacrifice and helping others….'”. He knows and likes that he’d be included in that thought about others but he doesn’t verbalize the sentiment. He keeps that play to himself.
“You won’t be living just for yourself,” Bud says. “I’ve done it. It’s hard. You’ll be helping me out of the loneliness and despair of living by and just for myself.”
To Linda, this sounds sort of like Jesus’ work. which makes her feel good too. Since her husband’s death she’s known about that loneliness and how it’s terrible. And it’s probably all that loneliness and despair that’s sadly turned Bud into such a cynic and against God, in which case, it won’t only be Bud’s work – the dishes and laundry and vacuuming – it will also be The Lord’s work she’ll be doing – at worse, showing sympathy for the wicked. And in a way, it all goes back to what Bud was saying about the eulogy being more about God and Jesus and the deceased. Bud will only see himself in Linda’s sacrifice. Bud will not see God in her sacrifice to him. But that can be her burden, she supposes, for such is the life of a disciple and martyr of The Lord or family.
Many are the woes of the wicked, but the LORD’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him, Linda recites to herself.
If the Lord can love the wicked, then shouldn’t she too? Isn’t her duty to lead the wicked toward salvation with kindness and aid and understanding?
She realizes that accepting this offer would be, in a way, starting over, since Keith and Bud are entirely different people. It would be starting over but not completely starting over, at least.
“How about I stop over at your place Friday afternoon?”, Linda asks. “How about we give it a test. I can stop over around noon. I make a pretty good tuna melt. You like tuna melts?”
“Yes,” Bud says. “I like tuna melts a lot. And salmon patties too.” Bud doesn’t understand why they doing the Catholic thing on Fridays since neither are Catholic but he doesn’t want to disrupt her train of thought on the matter.
“I don’t do salmon patties. The bones,” Linda says.
“Okay,” Bud says.
“You sure I won’t be a nuisance?”, Linda asks. “You’re probably not used to having much of anybody around.”
“Nah. It won’t be a nuisance. It’s what I’ve always wanted,” Bud says, wondering what his house will smell like after the cooking tuna. And how long it will linger. But it’s okay because he truly likes a good tuna melt.
And knowing she’ll be fulfilling another’s desires and that she will, in turn, be desired, are all that Linda’s every really wanted either, so she smiles.
“I’m gonna check out the spread now,” Bud says. “You want anything. A Sympathy Sandwich? Baked beans?”
“Sure,” Linda says. “If they have any left. Unless it’s got ham. I don’t do ham. And I’ll take some beans if there’s any left.”
“Okay,” Bud says. “Here, take these cups. It’s my turn to get up. I’ll be right back.”