I didn’t want to go to the brunch but my wife insisted, and no matter how much I dislike Daniel I didn’t think it was worth making this into anything contentious. I let her hear about it though, and she nodded and she heard what I said but knew that I wasn’t trying to change her mind. She never got angry at me though, but after another comment I made I felt bad and I thought that it would be better if I just stayed quiet. I woke up early Sunday morning and went out to buy coffee, and we drank it at the table and read the paper together before we left at 11:00. This was when I usually ate breakfast on weekends, but Daniel, to me, had gone out of his way to qualify our appointment as brunch. Breakfast, I explained to my wife, is something you eat before you go to church. Brunch is what you eat afterwards. The breakfast, the sacrament, the brunch, that’s the order, I told her. I thought that I was being very clever about all this, and effective too, at hiding how unfortunate I considered all this to be.
I had an open glass of water in the cup holder that kept spilling out over the rim and my wife was telling me that I needed to not be an asshole to Daniel today. Shit, I said, and I picked up the glass of water, rolled down the window and threw the rest of it out, then I grabbed some napkins out of the center console to mop up the pool left in the cup holder. He really is someone you would like, my wife was telling me, It’s so obvious that you two would get along, and I know he sees it too, but you just have this idea of him. I shrugged my shoulders. Daniel’s a fine guy, I told my wife, But you’re not going to just like everyone you meet, you know? She shook her head and told me that I wasn’t making sense.
We walked out of the car and I was glad that none of the water got on my pants. I imagined Daniel making some comment about having a stain on my pants so I hunched my shoulders and kind of frowned and my wife put her arm around my waist and pulled me toward her slightly and said Come on, this won’t be that bad. I sat down at the table with Daniel and his wife Katie and another couple I had never seen. I said Hello to everyone and moved to sit down next to Katie, who I liked and who I kind of always had a thing for. That was probably the reason I thought Daniel was such a prick. I didn’t think that he was a good enough guy to deserve someone like Katie, who was very pretty and had high cheekbones and who had this tiny little mole directly situated between her two eyebrows I was always staring at. Katie smiled at me, and Daniel was saying something to my wife and I and I shook the hands of the couple we had never met. The cushion of the chair deflated a bit when I sat down, some air silently came out of a ragged slit cut on the left side of it.
The waitress left and I took a sip out of my glass of water and listened to Daniel tell this story about some woman who went to his church. She was this woman who Daniel and Katie had invited to their house for dinner once before, when she first joined the church, but she hadn’t been able to make it and since then they talked less and less. She was just another person in their congregation, Daniel was telling me, But really, a great woman, I think. I gave my wife a look across the table and she narrowed her eyes at me so I turned away. Daniel went on.
“So she stands up during this portion of the service were you ask the congregation to pray for someone in your life who you think might need it, like Katie and I did when my mom was sick and when Seth was looking for a job. It’s really nice, the minister writes down all these people’s names and problems and we all pray for them together at the end of the service. So she stands up, which was surprising enough. She is kind of self-contained, not aloof or anything, but she definitely, to me at least, gave off this pious, pretty serious vibe, like she’s all business about church. There wasn’t a murmur or anything when she stood up, but I looked around, kind of surprised, and I wasn’t the only one, most everyone turned around and gave her their full attention, something that definitely doesn’t happen for everyone.
She started off really slow. She spoke good English, which I already knew, but I think some people were surprised. Like the old woman next to me, she leaned over and whispered something to her husband that I couldn’t really hear. So everyone’s looking at her and it takes a few seconds before I can really follow what she’s saying, but she’s talking about her son, and, I mean, I didn’t even know that she had a son. I had no idea, he had never been to church with her, she had always just been there solo, not even with a husband or anything. Most people stand up and speak for thirty seconds, at most, just briefly say who they want everyone to pray for, sit down, and that’s it. But once she finally started, she kept going on and on. It was wild. No one knew how to react. I looked at the minister and he kept on looking at her then looking back down at the papers that were on his pulpit, over and over.”
At this point, I was actually listening to Daniel.
“My son was 15 years old. He rode his bike to school every morning and then after school he would ride his bike to work. My son was good, he worked hard in school and he worked hard at his job and he was a good brother to his sisters. He would walk the dog every night after dinner, we did not have to ask him. I knew that he was frustrated and angry at times, for he was 15 years old, and I know that when you are not a child and not yet an adult life does not make sense to you the way it once did. But of course I loved my son and I know that he loved his family. I remember when he was very young and I gave him presents for his birthday, he allowed his sister to open his presents, she cried that she did not have any. He was a very good son and I always thought that he would take care of me.
On Monday he was riding his bike from school to home, he was going to sleep before he had to go to his job. I was not at home, but I had left him a list of things to buy from the store after his work. He left me a note too, before he left for work, it said “Of course.” He loved us all so much. I always told him that he has to wear a helmet when he rides the bike, because I know that that is the rule. Once the police stopped him when he was on his bike and fined him for not wearing his helmet, but he never would wear his helmet. This was the one way in which he disobeyed me and I could not get angry him because he was a good son.”
“And she keeps going on and on about her son and how good of a son he was and that he would never wear his helmet, and she starts getting really shooken up, she’s sniffling and pausing every couple of seconds and it’s obvious that she’s about to lose it. It was brutal. I knew exactly what was coming, but it’s not like there was anything we could do to hurry her up. Katie and I just held hands and had to wait. Eventually the minister stops fidgeting around and makes this prolonged eye contact with her, unbroken, I think he thought that he could like, will her to finish, you know? And the whole church, everyone, I wouldn’t say that we were tense, but we both have been going there for a while and nothing that happened there has ever come close to this.
“So she finally gets to it eventually. Her son was hit by a car coming back from the grocery store. He was launched over the handle bars and went head first into this tree. The road curved and the car hit him at an angle so he flew off of the road, into this tree, head first. Dead, instantly. There were pieces of his skull in with the pine needles at the base of the tree, and you could even see the skid marks where the car slammed on its breaks and then took off. They didn’t get the guy who hit him. The woman gets there and the police are there, they’ve fenced the whole thing off, it’s gruesome, gruesome. Her boy, her firstborn, imagine this, not even a face to say goodbye to, they got her info by the wallet in his pocket. So she’s at this scene, the death of her oldest child, and the lettuce that he picked up for her at the store, they needed it for salad or something I guess, lettuce is scattered all around the tree and on the road, like a dozen heads of lettuce. I have no idea why they needed that much. So she’s there, looking at all of this, and she’s standing up in front of all of us, telling us all this. And she tells us that she just went around picking up the lettuce for some reason. The police aren’t stopping her, but it’s not like she can hold all of this lettuce in her arms, so they’re slipping out and falling back down again, but she keeps going around, picking them back up. Can you imagine that? I mean, can you imagine the like, poetry of all this? Trying to scoop up these heads of lettuce while your son’s body is just lying there? She got a ride back to her house from the police car. She left the bike there I guess.
“So she’s done telling the story, just standing there quivering and shaking, and it’s completely quiet. I wasn’t even breathing it was so quiet. No one is moving and she is still just standing up. I don’t know why I did this but I get up and walk over right to her, and she collapses into me, sobbing. I’m supporting like, all of her weight and we walk out through the back of the church. I’m trying to talk her down, to console her or do anything I can to help, so I walk her over to the water fountain. And I have no idea what prompted all of this, but I start to talk about the dog I used to have when I was a kid. It was terrible. I don’t know if it was how she brought up that her son used to walk the dog, or just the idea of something getting hit by a car, but I can’t stop talking about this dog I had when I was a kid, Baxter. And I know the whole time that this is awful, that I just need to shut up, but all I can do is think about stopping, I’m still talking and I can’t stop. But I do, finally, and she is sniffling but she isn’t crying anymore and she looks up at me. I still don’t have any idea why she said what she said to me next.”
“Your dog, you loved it? You would walk it, you would feed it, you would brush and pet it. The favorite spot for a dog to be pet is on their throat, that is where they love to be pet. You of course know this, no? But I always thought that this is strange, that this is where dogs love to be pet the most, for they are capable themselves of reaching their neck, of scratching it with their own paws, carefully. I thought that the back, that is the place where dogs should prefer to be pet. But I have learned that it is not about where the dog can reach, it is not about solving an itch for the dog. In the wild, when dogs fight, the first place they try to attack is the neck. If they can, they try to rip out the throat of the other dog they fight. It is the place they defend most carefully, because it is upfront and exposed, and if it is injured badly, they of course will die. When the dog allows its master to scratch on its throat, it is not enjoying the end of an itch, it is enjoying the act of its own submission. A tamed dog so enjoys the feeling of submitting itself that it will sacrifice the part of themselves they know must be most protected. I am not a dog, but in my life, I too submit myself before that which is my master.”
“And I’m standing there, and now I have no idea what to say. Before I couldn’t shut up and now for the life of me I have no idea what to say. And then she walks out. All of this was literally about an hour ago. I know this isn’t an uplifting story, or typical brunch chatter or whatever, but man. It was wild.”
After we finished and paid the bill and said goodbye to one another, I walked through the parking lot to our car with my arm around my wife’s shoulder. Do you believe that story? I asked my wife and she said Only Daniel would think to go help that poor woman and I nodded. You’re right, I guess I said, That was big, and the thought crossed my mind that maybe my wife had been right about the guy. I reached into my front pocket to take out the keys to unlock the car but instead I grabbed the wet balled-up napkin that I had used to clean the water I spilled earlier. I must have put it in my pocket afterwards for some reason.
I looked up from staring at this napkin lying in my palm and across the lot saw Daniel open the car door for his wife. Both of my hands dropped and the napkin fell to the ground. My left pocket was damp and I opened the car door and sat down. I put a hand on the steering wheel and looked at my wife, this woman who was glancing at her cell phone, the corners of her lips tugging against a neutral expression. I turned the key and as my hand pulled away from the ignition I thought that I should stroke her face, thought that if nothing else, I need to do what I can to comfort her, whoever. In this strange state of equilibrium, the dense accumulation of remembered dogs and shared birthdays commensurately tugged me upwards and pulled me downwards, to a point where any movement at all was imperceptible. Buttressed by the ramifications of all this existence, I drove down the road as trees grew alongside me.
Profile: Tim Livingston