By: Harvey Huddleston
“Breathe.” That’s what the voice said in his ear but Elliot wasn’t sure that he’d actually heard it. It was a low voice, soft and caring, one to be heeded. He glanced to his right and in the periphery, a little behind and to the side, stood Mina. Was it she who had whispered for him to breathe? Until then, it hadn’t occurred to him that he might pass out but then he realized, in a moment’s panic, it was possible.
Surely Mina was feeling the same heat and lack of air as they stood waiting for the service to begin, just inside the door to the nave, between it and the vestibule, the casket now closed and resting on rollers before them, the Monsignor giving silent cues, the six young men on the other side of the casket, nephews and grand nephews whom Elliot might or might not know, unrecognizable in their suits and masks, ready to perform their task as pallbearers, staring at the casket and over it at Elliot with their vaguely familiar eyes, in those minutes as they waited.
First would be Mass. A Requiem. The Mass for the dead.
He wondered if the AC was on. He knew that it was but it was late summer in Memphis and nothing could hold back the heat and humidity beating at the brass doors and flooding through them when they opened. For the last hour steamy bodies had come into the vestibule of the church to visit and view his mother. Elliot’s sisters had chosen this way instead of having visitation at the funeral home last night, explaining that there weren’t any of her old friends left to come see her.
This morning it was mostly Elliot’s siblings and their families. Some cousins his age whom he hadn’t seen in years were there and a few older church members with whom she’d once had an acquaintance. There were also some friends of his brother and sister-in-law who’d known his mother over the years. Maybe fifty or sixty in all. Not bad, thought Elliot, for a ninety-eight year old woman who’d spent her last seven years in assisted care and the last two under quarantine. In Elliot’s weekly facetime calls with her, and more so during the last few months, she hadn’t been able to communicate much of anything that he recognized.
But that was him, long gone and removed. It hadn’t been that way for her with everyone. Amber, her main care-giver at assisted living, had introduced herself to Elliot in the vestibule. He’d recognized her cheerful eyes over the mask, those same eyes he’d seen every week when Amber had called him in New York from the Ipad she’d set up for Lauraine. Amber always called her Lauraine and Elliot knew from the way his Mom’s eyes had followed Amber how much she’d meant to her. Amber couldn’t stay for the service but it was nice that she’d come and Elliot told her she could still call him on Mondays anytime she wanted.
Catherine Ann, his cousin, had also come up as he’d stood near the open casket. He didn’t recognize her eyes but then her voice gave her away. It had been at least thirty or forty years but the fun in her voice was still there and Elliot half expected her to make some outlandish remark about the proceedings. There were others like Monsignor McCartney whom his sister, Nancy, had asked to perform the service. He’d come in from a wealthy parish in the suburbs and told Elliot they’d been on the same peewee football team sixty years earlier. The Monsignor seemed a little miffed, not so much that Elliot didn’t remember him but because he hadn’t bothered to fake that he did.
There’d been something more important on Elliot’s mind.
The crowd in the back of the nave began to shift. People were now moving forward and filling in the pews up front. Elliot took a deep breath and followed them up the center aisle. The service was about to begin.
Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam, the first words of Latin he’d learned, the first line an altar boy said in response to the priest when serving Mass. It translates, I will go to the altar of God; to God who gives joy to my youth. Back then Elliot hadn’t known what it meant but the words had stuck with him. It was their sound, mysterious and sublime. In the second grade he’d learned them by heart and then recited them aloud in this same church for all to hear. Other things came back to him as he sat down next to Steve and Karen behind the others. He realized he’d forgotten to genuflect before entering the pew.
There were the stained glass windows imported from Italy, rising thin and high to their half-moon Roman arches. They’d been the last major expense before the church was completed. The priests were always asking for money and Elliot remembered his parents discussing whether they could afford more. The Church eventually got its Italian glass and they were still his favorite windows of any church he’d been in. They weren’t too busy or ornate but had broad shapes in clear bright colors, the purest reds and blues and yellows he’d ever seen.
He looked for the colored shafts of light slanting down through the miracles and saints but couldn’t see any. Maybe he’d only imagined them or the sun was already too high, unlike when his class had knelt in these same pews during the seven o’clock Mass before school. It seemed to Elliot that the real miracle was that the church was still standing after the city’s exodus to the suburbs over the last half century. The school had closed years ago. Five hundred kids had attended with Elliot but now it sat empty next to the church.
The casket was now in the center aisle at the front of the nave and Elliot wondered how he’d missed it being rolled there. The Monsignor and Deacon had taken their seats in the sanctuary to the right of the altar. From being an altar boy, he knew that everything was done with glances and nods, especially at an unscheduled service like a funeral. Elliot tried to go back over what he’d planned to say but then couldn’t remember it. Another moment of panic set in until it came back to him that he would first thank everyone for being there. Should he mention the heat? No, it wasn’t important and there was still the question of whether it was only him who felt it so intensely.
A woman at the piano off to the side played and sang the hymns that his sisters had requested. They’d asked for something appropriate but Steve had made sure that “Amazing Grace,” the one she played now, was among them. The Deacon, a high school classmate of Steve’s, was supposed to perform the service but when Nancy brought in the Monsignor, the Deacon had asked if he could assist. Also up there with them was an ancient clergyman who’d struggled in on a cane and had barely made it to his seat. Steve whispered that he was Father McConnaghy from the Ave Maria home and that he and Mom had become good friends during her last years. Steve was surprised he’d come at his age so Elliot made a note to include him when he thanked everyone.
In the pews up front on the right side of the aisle were the immediate family with Nancy, Lynne and Lauralee in the first pews, along with their husbands, kids and grandkids. Karen, Steve and Elliot were in the last pew on that side. In the front pew on the left side of the aisle were the pallbearers and ushers with the other guests in the pews behind them. Karen and Steve’s friends were in the back on that side. Dan and John were there. And Mina, Karen’s best friend, was in the last pew with anyone in it. She looked at him when he glanced over and Elliot wondered again if it was she who’d told him to breathe.
The Deacon crossed to the pulpit at the left of the altar but further down towards the nave. He spoke into the mic and Elliot couldn’t understand him over the wind shock of his voice and its echo in the cavernous space. He wondered if the mic was too old, its diaphragm too brittle and cracked after sixty years attached to that pulpit in air constantly changing from sauna hot to meat locker cold. But then he caught a few words and recognized the awkward constructions translated from Latin by way of that still controversial Vatican Council way back when. Mass had begun.
The Deacon left the pulpit and met the Monsignor behind the altar where they made preparations. Next up to the pulpit was Laurie, Nancy’s daughter and Elliot’s niece, who now had three grown kids of her own. It struck him how she still looked like that little girl at her wedding twenty five years earlier. She read some liturgical text that he could barely hear. Was she too far from the mic or her voice too soft? But her reading was short and she then made her way down the steps, around the communion rail with another step down and back to her seat in front. Elliot watched her negotiate all this as he would soon make the same journey himself.
The Monsignor then took his place behind the altar and the congregants took their cues from each other, sitting, kneeling and responding “Amen.” Elliot tried to focus on the liturgy but that kid’s habit of drifting during Mass intruded. An old George Harrison lyric ran through his mind, “Soon will be the break of day, sitting here in Blue Jay Way.” Elliot tried to make it stop but then the strings came in, swelling up to carry him away. He began to have second thoughts about trying to speak. Maybe someone in his condition shouldn’t attempt it.
When Steve had asked a few days earlier if he wanted to say something, Elliot said that he did. Karen wanted to speak too so it was decided they both would, with him going first. Now, there in the pew, it occurred to Elliot that he could still opt out. He could just say to Steve right there next to him that he wouldn’t be speaking after all and no one except he and Karen would ever know that he’d backed out. But then Elliot remembered that there was something important he wanted to say, even though, at that moment, he couldn’t remember what it was.
The Mass proceeded with its incantations and spells. Some there had never been to a Catholic Mass so the Deacon would signal when to kneel and sit. When his time came, the Monsignor approached the pulpit and spoke loudly to overcome the poor sound. His sermon was disjointed with him listing things important to Elliot’s Mom like her love of music and baseball, interspersed with reminders of the eternal reward awaiting them all. The list was taken almost verbatim from an obituary that Elliot and Steve had put together but then wasn’t used because their sisters had wanted something more traditional. Steve had instead laid out some printed copies of it in the vestibule that the Monsignor had obviously put to use.
Elliot recognized a familiar urgency as the Mass built towards Communion. He didn’t know the exact order of things, especially since this was a Requiem and he could only remember serving at one. His Mom had always asked if he went to church on Sundays and he would answer, “Not a whole lot but I’m thinking about it.” But then, in her later years, when she could no longer share in the joke, he’d just say that he did.
Elliot was surprised that so many lined up for communion. Not only hadn’t he been to confession in at least fifty years, a major prerequisite before communion, he hadn’t fasted for the last three hours. He wondered if all these people had done that or if those things were even required anymore. Either way, Elliot wouldn’t go up to the rail for communion. Those were the rules as he’d learned them under pain of mortal sin and he wouldn’t be disrespectful by flaunting them at this late date.
Watching the communicants return to their seats with wafers dissolving in their mouths, Gordon flashed through his mind. There was Gordon in the seventh grade, his head bowed and his hands folded in front, walking back from Communion down the center aisle with a giant erection holding out his pants in front like a tent pole. Everyone could see it, the nuns, the lay teachers, the kids in their class, girls on the left and boys on the right. It was shocking, funny even, but also sad. Sad because of the humiliation on Gordon’s face. No one laughed or gave any indication they’d seen it because, in his humiliation and defeat, there was an intimation of what was in store for them all. Elliot couldn’t remember it ever being mentioned except for hearing that Mister Charles talked to Gordon about it in private.
Mass was wrapping up quickly as it always did after receiving the body of Christ. The sign of peace was passed around but Elliot refrained, feeling himself tense up and knowing it was almost time. Monsignor blessed the congregants and said, “Go in peace.” Then stepping away from the altar, he kind of mumbled, “And now we’ll have some words of remembrance.”
A silence settled in as Monsignor looked out. Had that been Elliot’s cue? He looked over at Steve who motioned him forward. Elliot exited the pew, being careful to not stumble over the folding kneeler that had always tripped him up. He walked up the center aisle and then to the left, around the communion rail and one step up to the sanctuary. As he approached the pulpit, he found himself removing his mask and Joe Biden flashed through his mind. He climbed the two steps and looked out at those staring back over their masks.
He then looked at the clergy seated on the opposite side of the sanctuary and spoke loudly since he wasn’t facing the mic. “I’d like to thank the Monsignor, Deacon and Father.” Then he looked at the pianist. “I’d also like to thank the piano player for her wonderful music. You know, Mom was a musician too and she would’ve appreciated it.” He then looked back out at the waiting eyes. He saw Steve in the back motion for him to move closer to the mic, which he did. Then he began.
“Once I was in Nancy and Jimmy’s backyard for a family get together. It was one of those beautiful days. Great food and drinks, kids jumping around the swimming pool, a football game on TV inside, and I was sitting on the patio with Mom…”
Whose voice was that coming back at him off the walls? It sounded vaguely like his own but it was more like that voice he’d heard as a kid. Soft and weak and pitched way too high, the kind of voice no one listened to. He paused for a last moment of panic but it was too late now. All he could do was go on.
Harvey Huddleston’s short fiction has been published in Literary Yard, Otoliths, CC&G Magazine, The Eunoia Review, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Mystery Tribune and The Scarlet Leaf Review.