When the service had ended and the family had recessed to an undisclosed location within the church, the pastor invited us to gather in the community hall where the family would be joining us shortly. She encouraged us to share stories of the deceased with each other.
I prefer not to overplan my role in these affairs. I am discreet and adequately forgettable, but I am here not just to be a witness, but be a participant. I would be one of her students, of which there were many, and hoped to blend in as one.
Although the pastor had given clear directions to the hall, many stood around either speaking softly to each or just looking around as if wondering what to do. I’d learned that although mourners are very obedient to pastors during a service, all bets are off as soon as the final amen is uttered.
As I left the sanctuary, I noticed a basket by the door with a sign on the front side that said “Save God’s creation: RECYCLE”, but there were only two bulletins from the service which did not surprise me at all. In my experience, people generally threw away funeral bulletins when no one was looking as if maybe it might be considered disrespectful to throw away the last sacred document of a person’s life. I do not hold this belief, but I’ve saved every funeral bulletin I’ve attended since I was fourteen. My breast pocket is wide enough to tuck most bulletins away without folding them, but I do not treat them like collectible baseball cards or art. I fold them on occasion. It’s what’s written on them that I care about.
I followed the slow-moving stream of people into a very tastefully lit and decorated hall–not like so many church halls which double as gymnasium. This was the Roger Hill Memorial Community Hall–as the brass plate at the entry said. This man must have been a wealthy benefactor of the church.
A line had formed at one end of several long tables covered in dishes of bite-sized food on plates, trays, and platters brought from homes–homes of members of a church committee of some sort. Eating at a reception requires some skill, though. You could find a place at a table, but a table is a commitment I was not interested in making. I would need to choose either a drink or a plate first and then the other after. One must keep a free hand for handshakes and sympathetic arm squeezes–or simply to wipe one’s mouth with a napkin without putting food or a drink down first.
As I waited in the line, I surveyed the hall. Cliques were beginning to form. Former students from various stages of Gloria’s teaching career began finding tables or corners of the hall to congregate. Church members took their regular seats. Conversations began to warm. This was not a sad occasion for most. This was a time to reminisce and reconnect.
I grabbed one of the clear plastic plates and began the buffet shuffle with the others. There’s always one man or woman holding up the line. I leaned over a little to get a look and saw the soloist fiddling with the tongs at the cheese plate. She couldn’t seem to get just the right number of slices in the grasp of the tongs. Although I appreciated her discipline in not touching the cheese with her fingers, I would be willing to ignore a discreet nudge with her thumb or middle finger to get the two, not one, not three slices of swiss cheese off the stack.
Over the growing din of conversation, I could faintly hear her exclaim to herself in exacerbation, “Well, I guess I’m going to have to settle for cheddar.” She easily plopped seven cubes of cheddar—an excellent number–onto her plate, and moved to the fruit tray where she began the same process.
I noticed that there was a separate station for tea, lemonade, and coffee. I stepped out of line and moved in its direction, exchanging a smile with the male counterpart of the pillar-of-the-church power couple from the guestbook line. The coffee line was only an organist and a church librarian–no, a chorister–deep. There is something about sopranos. The heel to her knee-high black leather boots were just a bit higher than the rest, and she displayed a somewhat theatric physicality when she took both hands of a passerby and spoke warm words to her.
With coffee in hand, I scanned the hall. Conversations were lively. The family would be in at any moment.
“Hi,” came a man’s voice beside me.
I turned to see the face of a man roughly my age. Dark hair trimmed clean and short on the side with beautifully style longer hair on top. More sharply dressed than the church crowd. Stylish, slim-fitting navy suit, gleaming white dress shirt, open collar.
“Hello,” I said.
“I saw you stand up when the dude asked if you were a student. I’m Michael,” he said, extending his hand.
Michael. That won’t do. Everyone remembers meeting a person with the same name. I shake his hand and say, “It’s good to meet you, I’m Jacob.”
“Jacob, cool. Yeah, my last name is actually Jacobs. He he. Your last name wouldn’t be Michaels? Lol.”
Dammit. This was throwing me off.
“Dude. Are you ok?” he said, eyebrows creased.
“Yeah, no. That would be funny. No it’s, um, Michael Adams.”
“Ah, cool. What class did you graduate? You seem familiar.”
Before I had the chance to answer–before I even had a chance to construct a story, a streak of blond hair and tan skin was storming Michael Jacobs.
“Oh my God! It’s Michael Jacobs IRL!”
“Shit! Kayla!” he said, receiving her raucous embrace. “Is the rest of the gang here?” He began craning his neck to try to find the gang. “I saw Harris, Josephson, and Hunter sneak in late.”
“Yeah yeah, they’re just getting some food. Oh my God how are you? I loved what you wrote in the guestbook. I had no idea you were like a writer and stuff. That’s so cool!” she said.
My heart began to race. In two years, nothing like this had ever happened.
“Huh?” said Michael.
“That beautiful thing you wrote in the guestbook…you know….how she wrote on your heart. So sweet. It’s like a whole new side of you. Honestly?” she said, stepping in closer and speaking confidentially. “My heart kind of melted.”
Then he looked at me, as if looking for some sort of help, and then back at this beautiful woman, then down at his supple, brown leather shoes. “Yeah, well. Thanks. She…um was a special lady, so…”
And at that moment, the family began to trickle into the hall, and the din of conversation subsided. Heads turned, and then turned back so as not to cast unwanted attention on the grieving.
“So, who’s your friend?” said Kayla, smiling at me with sparkling, hazle eyes.