Omelet

Omelet

Omelet 1080 1349 Jesse Salvo

Dad is yelling and crying in the register line. I am next to him and Willa is a little ways back, trying to pick out some other family to join, one whose patriarch does not burst into tears in front of the purchase assistant at ShoeTopia. The lady who until a moment ago was quite rude and scary now mumbles something and begins rifling through the boxes of women’s flats, as if they might somewhere in their tissue paper guts provide the secret to how precisely to mitigate this specific customer interaction.

My dad is an inventor. That is not what he gets paid to do, but that is what he has surrendered his pay, and health benefits, in order to do. There are three of us: myself and Willa and Doug, who is horrible. Myself and Willa must spend large portions of the day protecting Dad from Doug.

I say to the poor hapless lady behind the register, “I’m really sorry about this. Is there any way you can help us out?”

Dad loves Mom more than all of us combined. I know that’s not what you’re supposed to say, but it feels obvious, has felt obvious ever since I was a toddler. Of the rankings, I would say that he loves Willa second-most, and me third-most. Doug is unloved.

We pay in credit and are escorted out through the pneumatic glass doors by the store manager, who is effusive and insincere, into the bright sunlight of the parking lot where a lady in a Sports Utility Vehicle sits, waiting to see if we will leave our space. Behind us, the cashier who refused to charge our purchases to the store account of someone who never changed her maiden name, calls out, in a relieved voice, “Can I Help The Next Shoe Lover Over Here?” Once Dad and Willa are far enough ahead I turn to the manager and say “Sorry. We just lost our mother.”

“Oh my god.” The manager blinks.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Well, if you need any more shoes,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Sorry for your loss,” he calls.

Here are things Dad has tried to invent thus far:

A bike-powered phone charger.

A ride-share app for long road trips.

A dog-bracelet that tells you how many steps your dog has walked while you’ve been away at work.

For each invention he came up with, Dad would always get about 3/4s of the way into actualizing it, before Doug or someone (usually Doug) discovered some person in, like, Belarus, who had already invented and begun monetizing the same thing. Then Dad would spend like two weeks haunting the house, looking crestfallen and basset-eyed, and cooking omelets, and talking to no one except Mom, before finally getting his chin up again and starting work on some new idea. Doug would relentlessly skulk outside Dad’s workshop, trying to ascertain what it was he was working on, so he could begin searching the internet for someone who’d beat Dad to the punch. Dad says it is the worst feeling in the world.

From ShoeTopia we must speed straight past the duck pond to a big, byzantine-looking church in the suburbs where we will Make Arrangements.  My parents are both, practically-speaking, nonreligious but it turns out Mom, as a child, was deeply steeped in either the Macedonian or Melkiite tradition, and that one of her half-sisters, who lives in a barn upstate with a severe-looking husband and eight strangely-dressed [Macedonian/Melkiite] children, has insisted that her little half-sister receive a proper religiously orthodox funeral, which my Dad has acceded to because he has not got particularly strong ideas about the best way to bury his wife, but now the pastor or priest or whomever, is making us jump through all these additional hoops, in order to hold the service here in the parish. Without meaning to, the bearded man glances at me, then Willa, then the altarpiece, which is a mural of Jesus cursing a fig tree. He seems to dislike something about our style of dress as it relates to the fig tree.

“Was your wife reformed?” he asks Dad.

“Maybe. She received all the sacraments, I know.”

He looks at me and Willa again.

“Were your children raised in the church?”

“Um,” says Dad. “We mostly raised them at home.”

The priest or reverend or whomever nods.

“Obviously,” he says smoothing the front of his vestments, “we cannot pray for the body since she died in a state of sin.” As he says this he reaches across and clasps my father’s hand, he stares between the three of us, looking more kindly than I had given him credit for.

“But I will lead a prayer for her person.”

“For her person,” my Dad repeats vaguely.

“The body is of no use to us, you understand.”

“Well, it’s just a body,” I say.

“Cat, please,” says my father.

“Quite right,” says the priest. “So we’ll instead pray for her person, to be allowed in the kingdom of heaven.”

“Is Mom not allowed in heaven?” Willa says, staring at the pastor’s tangled beard.

He smiles and lowers himself to meet Willa’s gaze.

“She’s probably already in heaven as we speak,” he says. “God understands that troubled people are not to blame for what they do when they are in pain.”

“But we’ll pray for her to get to heaven,” I repeat.

“For her person, not her body.”

“But does anyone’s body ever get into heaven?” I say.

Dad shoots me a look that is like Cat Could You Please Just.

But the priest laughs.

“Not in this tradition,” he says.

We all leave and it is still sunny.

“Could we stop on the way back?” I say in the car.

“Sure, where?”

“The store,” I say.

“We have plenty of food.”

“I know.”

“Which store.”

“Any store really,” I say. He pulls into a pharmacy parking lot. I get out through the passenger side door.

“You can just keep the engine running,” I say.

“We have plenty of food,” he says again through the window as I walk inside.

“I know,”  I call back and go inside.

Inside I buy two boxes of Radiant Goddess Ultra tampons and double bag them and the guy behind the counter looks up right before he scans them and goes,

“Big night.”

“My mom just died,” I say.

“Oh my god,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say.

He refuses to charge me.

“Sorry for your loss,” he says.

I get back in the car and shut the door, and keep the bag next to my right leg so my father won’t see what’s inside and get annoyed or feel like a failure.

“What was that about?” he says.

“I wanted a snack,” I say.

“We have plenty of food,” he says, shifting into gear. We pass the pond again on the way back home.

When we’re back at the house I give the bag of Radiant Goddess Ultra tampons to Willa, whom Dad had bought only Junior Miss tampons, under the understandable misapprehension that the make on the box referred the physical size of the person-in-question’s vagina. What percentage of young girls must explain to their fathers about the physical size of vaginas in the wake of their mothers’ sudden deaths? Someone should conduct a study. Willa hurries upstairs.

Doug is on the couch watching a television show about former NFL Stars who go to the sites of government cover-ups and demand answers.

“Could you turn that off please,” Dad says, standing in the doorway.

Doug does not respond.

“Doug.”

My older brother looks up from the couch.

“I am watching a program that I enjoy,” he says, as if explaining television to a very dim-witted child.

“O.K. but could you set it to record and turn it off please.”

“I went in your workshop while you were gone,” Doug says.

“I wish you would not do that.”

“The bluetooth coffee cup was patented in late 2018 by an L. A.-based design group called Ammunition,” he says.

Dad straightens.

“I’m just saving you time,” Doug says.

“I am going to make an omelet,” Dad announces. He has made 30 omelets in the last 15 days and no one has eaten any of them. He makes them and covers them in plastic and puts them in the fridge, then throws them out to make room for the new omelet he has made.

The fridge has been crowded out with food. Nobody has anything useful to say so everybody just brings over loads of food, on serving platters and in Tupperwares and covered by tin foil. Like they’re trying to fatten us all up so we’ll make it through the winter.

“You want peppers in your omelet, Cat?” Dad says.

“I probably won’t have any,” I say.

“I’ll put in peppers, just in case.”

From the living room, a former defensive back from the Philadelphia Eagles asks his partner But what if they changed the documents?

Doug dropped out of college when he realized he loved marijuana and television, and decided to dedicate more time to both. He works at Sportsmans’ Reserve now and comes home wearing a wilted red polo with his name on it and complaining about the store’s patrons. By Doug’s accounting his store is patronized almost exclusively by stupid people. They come in, cannot find items, bother Doug, ask impertinent questions about pricing, try and use Sportsman’s Reward points on items that are not applicable for Sportsman’s Reward purchases, buy gear that is substandard against his explicit recommendation, buy gear that is overly expensive even though they are novices, order and purchase things for all the wrong reasons—and Doug now fashions himself something of an outdoorsman. He wears camouflage pants and has shot one rabbit. His girlfriend’s Dad loves him, because they share a dispositional politics. He has lent my brother his paperback copy of Anthem, which Doug may have read.

“Dad,” I say.

My father whisks eggs the way that Buddhists stack cairns.

“Dad.”

“Yes, Catherine?”

“Do you have a black suit, for Saturday?”

He looks up.

“Um,” he says.

“I’m going to take Willa shopping later so.”

“I’ve got khakis,” he says. “And a blue blazer.”

“O.K.” I say. He returns to the omelet. “I think you need a suit,” I say.

Upstairs it sounds as if Willa is throwing objects at the floor.

“Do you have a tie?”

He is rummaging around in the fridge for a pepper, for me, to make the omelet better for me.

“Dad? Do you have a tie?”

“Um,” he looks up. “I’ve got the one I wore. At your graduation.”

“I think we should get you a tie and a black suit.”

He makes a noise in his throat like If You Really Think That’s Necessary, Catherine.

My father wore a dinosaur tie to my graduation.

“We’ll go to the mall in like an hour.”

I went away to college because everything about where I grew up terrified me. The people terrified me, their atavistic politics terrified me, their car payments and garden beds all terrified me. The only thing that I liked was visiting my eccentric, off-kilter parents, wondering at their incongruous residency here, like some piece of long-term performance art. Now my Mother’s ghost has delivered me back into this claustrophobic place where all the edges are sharp, like a diorama made from broken glass. It feels smug. It feels like the case against eccentricity and off-kilteredness has been successfully prosecuted and now I must attend the hanging. We go to the store.

My father abandons us in the women’s section amidst a forest of complicated lingerie, goes and seeks out someone to explain suits to him. I take Willa to the changing rooms. I walk in when I hear her sobbing. I clutch her little body. Her crying makes me begin crying.

“It’s cool,” I say inexplicably. “It’s cool, cucumber.” And she laughs at me, crying. Dad is right to love her best. Myself, and Doug, and Willa standing side by side by side is like observing the ascent of man in descending age order. I think, looking at her wiping her face, Please become President, little girl.

Checking Out is like jockeying for the last helicopter out of some collapsing republic. Dad almost accidentally buys tuxedo pants, but we switch them out at the last second. We use store points on a corpse account. As we’re walking out I almost bump into someone I used to date.

“Hi,” he says, looking nonplussed. “I didn’t realize you were home.”

“I’m not,” I say.

He says he will message me.

Family begins flying in tonight. First Mom’s half-sister and her pious brood. Dad’s brother who is a drunk who lives out in Utah.  Mom’s mother, who has lost her mind but should still be there to inter her daughter. Some second cousins and college friends.

The kitchen is crowded. Doug, irritated by the noise, finally shuts the television, packs up and goes to his girlfriend’s.

“I’m so sorry we couldn’t visit for longer,” says one of my Mom’s kinder college friends, drawing him into a hug.

“Yeah,” Doug says, accepting the hug as his due, then leaving through the side door.

People discuss how their flights were (dreadful) where they are staying (The Hampton Inn) how myself and Willa look (just gorgeous) the President (a psycho). My dad explains to people about how a bluetooth coffee cup would work if it weren’t already invented.

“You’d regulate the temperature on your phone,” he says.

My grandmother asks me when Catherine will be arriving. I tell her that I am Catherine. She seems impressed.

“But,” my Dad says. “It’s looking like I’m going to need to go back to an engineering firm. For health insurance.”

People are thrilled to be able to offer something other than food.

“My nephew works at an engineering firm,” someone volunteers. “But it’s in Kansas City.”

“I don’t think I’m going to pull Willa out of school to move to Kansas City,” my father says.

“Just something to think about.”

Willa suddenly looks terrified. My grandmother tells her she looks gorgeous.

More people tout their connections in the engineering community. Everyone’s having a really good time. I get a message on my phone.

I just found out why you’re in town. Christ.

Men and boys respond to tragedies the way the rest of us react to crimes on the news.

Do I want to meet up later? Yes. Maybe. Depends when everyone leaves here.

Willa grips my arm tightly. I call her a cucumber again and tell her she will just adore Kansas City.

I meet the boy late, around one, at a townie bar whose sole purpose seems to be reuniting people from different high schools. It is loud and he is with a friend, who is already drunk.

“Are you O.K.?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “I can’t stay out too late.”

“That’s fine. I’m dating someone,” he says.

“Oh,” I say. “Good.”

“Do you want something?”

As he heads to the bar to fetch drinks, his friend stares at me.

“You O.K.?” he says suspiciously.

“My mom killed herself,” I say over the din.

“Oh,” he says. Then, as if he cannot help himself: “How?”

“She stripped naked by the duck pond and covered herself in bread, so that she was mauled to death by ravenous ducks and swans.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“As a heart attack,” I say.

“Sorry for your loss,” he shouts as my boy returns.

The next morning I wake up in the wrong bed. I shuffle out the door and get in a car and pick up breakfast sandwiches for everyone in my house who is sleeping. Ten of the breakfast sandwiches take longer because of my half-aunt’s family’s abstruse dietary restrictions.

My dad is next up. He comes in the kitchen and begins to make an omelet. He looks briefly at me.

“You know your face looks a lot like your Mom.”

“Yeah,” I say.

“I miss her very much,” he says.

He begins crying in his omelet. I do not cry. I cross the kitchen and he touches my face and closes his leaky eyes like a blind man trying to recognize an old familiar. We stand frozen like that, with his thumbs pressed against my eyelids—like a father and daughter in an old Greek play, neither of us speaking.

The people in the house begin to stir, plod into the kitchen, grab coffee and chat. Generate human warmth. Tomorrow afternoon will be the wake. Closed-casket for the mauled eccentric who summoned me back here, stuck me with her face, and took her unscheduled exit. Saturday the funeral.

I am trying to work out the very last thing we owe to a death. The thing that comes after all the tampons, plane tickets, reheatable tupperwares and recitations of the rosary.

Without anyone noticing I slip out the door and get in my car and drive to the duck pond. It is bright and clear. It is the sort of day where, if you believed in God, you would thank him for it. I get out and walk toward the shore with my breakfast sandwich and tear off pieces to feed the starving birds. They waddle close, hesitant at first. Pretty soon I have got them eating out of my hand. Their beaks are gentle even though they are hungry.

It will be me, of course. I will pray for the body.

Header photography © Liz Baronofsky.

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