They found themselves that Friday evening at the Methodist church – Mother, Father, Auntie and Uncle, a few of the smaller cousins, and Cissy – because going to the church on a Friday evening to eat fish with the rest of the community was a lovely idea. So Mother declared. It was a nice idea in itself and it was a particularly special idea because Auntie had thought of it. The Methodist church was not Auntie and Uncle’s regular church, but the Presbyterians didn’t have dinners. They didn’t have Bingo or White Elephant Sales, either, but the lack of dinners was the only thing that Auntie found disappointing. Although Auntie never complained, no one could ignore her disappointments.
Cissy was skeptical, not because it was Auntie’s idea, or because she disliked fish, or even because she thought she disliked Mother. Cissy was reluctant because she had inherited a reluctance from her father and also because a Friday Night Fish Fry at the church in her aunt’s small town seemed like one of those simple and simplistic activities typical of her aunt and her aunt’s family (and not at all typical of her own family, including Mother, who never used the word “lovely” at home) that, in her suspicion of it, made Cissy feel inferior. It was the kind of idea that raised the kind of reaction that made Cissy suddenly and despite herself truly believe that she was destined to burn forever in the damnation of Hell’s fire. Or something like that.
“Our Lord Himself ate fish on Fridays,” Auntie said.
“Indeed He did,” said Mother.
Cissy looked for the rolling of Father’s eyes, but Father wasn’t rolling this time. Cynicism, when it came to Auntie’s relationship with Jesus, was against family rules. As Father well knew.
Cissy wished she were out with the older cousins, doing with them whatever it was they were allowed to do because they were older and because they were boys. Cissy was 12, almost a teenager, but she was the wrong age and the wrong gender, always. So there they were, instead, at church, in the wide, low-ceilinged basement, adding their family cluster to the crowd that passed for a line and moving in shuffle-steps forward toward the window in the wall from which the food was served. The room was white and buzzing with chatter and fluorescent lights and sticky with the heavy, almost embarrassing smell of fish.
Auntie and Mother popped in and out of their family cluster like birds in and out of a feeder, saying hello. Everyone knew Auntie. They needed only a little prompting to remember Mother, Mother who’d been gone so long that she sent away a girl, practically, and came back with a girl of her own. It happened every time they visited Auntie, as if the years Mother had been away – and maybe the continuing years she did not move back for good – constituted a huge sin with a mountain of amends to be made. The people Cissy’s family had grown out of were winter people, uniformly white and plump, like the dumplings and gravy they favored, and they looked too pale and soft to be eating dinner in the full light of mid-summer. When beckoned, Cissy popped her head out of line too and waved at all the nice people the little wave of a much smaller child. She smiled at all of the nice people. She was surrounded by nice people, smiling their smiles with their mouths but not their winter eyes, looking Cissy up and down. Even her father acted like a nice man here in the church basement, shuffle-stepping, smiling, calling “hello” and “nice to meet you,” waiting in line to eat fish like it was normal.
But then, abruptly, Auntie and Mother were back with the family, burrowing into the middle of them. Auntie’s face had gone pale, a sort of yellow waxy look. They whispered to Father and Uncle and their whispers silenced the buzzing of the room. Both Father and Mother reached for Cissy, pulling her into the stifling warmth of their joined bodies as if she were in danger or about to misbehave. Auntie and Uncle held the cousins in the same way, and Uncle’s face had gone blotchy pink.
Cissy’s patience ran out then. She stepped out of line, out of the family cluster. She stood with her arms crossed and pouted and demanded: “What’s going on?” To go to a Friday Night Fish Fry in the basement of a church in a miniscule town where everyone knew everyone, where everyone acted like they knew her even though they’d barely met her, to miss out on the only fun available for miles around because Auntie thought of something Jesus might do, to hear Mother simpering in agreement, using words like “lovely”, and to see Father smiling at people he would normally roll his eyes at, all that was enough. But it was too much to be grabbed and squeezed and whispered over. She felt people looking at them and she hated it. She hated to be looked at. She hated to be the oldest child out with her family acting like she was a good girl doing a nice thing that her aunt and her mother would like.
Mother came to stand next to Cissy. She took Cissy’s hand. Father came and took Cissy’s other hand. They looked over the top of Cissy’s head at each other, and Cissy could see Father asking Mother with his eyes the same question she had asked in her childish, pouting, shameful way. “That man in the serving window,” Mother said quietly, so quietly she almost didn’t say it at all. Cissy looked, and Father looked, carefully. Then Mother bent her head toward Cissy. “Remember I told you the story of the man who killed Granddaddy?” she murmured.
The story was called “When Granddaddy Got Killed.” Sometimes it was called “Your Aunt Almost Lost Her Baby.” It went like this: Granddaddy, the father of Mother, Auntie, and the two other Uncles, was coming out of the store in town one day with two paper sacks of groceries when This Man approached him and out of nowhere, just like that, with no provocation whatsoever (and what provocation could he possibly have been given, seeing as Granddaddy was about the most gentle soul who ever lived), This Man swung a mostly full bottle of liquor (probably whiskey, though no one thought to check) at the side of Granddaddy’s head, connected, and killed him instantly (it was a blessing really, the quickness of it). Granddaddy, already dead, dropped the two bags of groceries and fell to the ground, and there he lay for an astonished couple of moments, in a puddle of liquor, milk, broken eggs, and squashed bread until the people around were able to act. Some lifted Granddaddy into a car and rushed him to the hospital, and some grabbed This Man, who had not moved and who maybe knew what he’d done but maybe not and maybe was only shocked into catatonia by the loss of the better part of a bottle of whiskey, and they put him into a car and took him to the police.
Cissy had heard the story so many times that she sometimes believed she had witnessed the death of her grandfather herself, but neither she nor most of the cousins had even been born yet. No one from the family witnessed it. Mother was away at college, the two Uncles were busy at work. Auntie was the one Grandmother called first, Auntie who was pregnant at the time and home alone in her sparkling white kitchen with its lemon scent of cleaner. Auntie took the call, then called her husband at work, and then called an ambulance, and while she was describing the terrible pains in her belly, she sank to the floor and couldn’t get up again. The man went to jail for a few years, and Auntie had her baby, who was now probably driving too fast down some dirt road with his siblings and his cousins. But those parts of the story were usually left out.
And now here before Cissy stood This Man. Here, big head, little eyes, thick lips, thin hair, peering out through the serving window at the line of people, the mass of people, not seeing them individually, and so not seeing the daughters and grandchildren of the man he’d killed so many years before, but just counting heads. How did he get there, inside the window, in charge of the fish? It didn’t seem possible.
The family stood uncertainly in their cluster in the line, though the line continued to move forward. Mother held tightly to Cissy’s hand, until her hand began to feel bloodless and cold. Soon there was a space in front of them and a crowding behind. Father and Uncle hovered, not knowing what to do, to push their wives and children forward or to urge them, or even instruct them, to retreat. Father put his hands deep into his pockets and then pulled them out again. Uncle rubbed the red streak of skin along his jaw. Finally, Mother straightened her back and let go of Cissy’s hand.
“Can you, do you think?” Mother said to Auntie.
Auntie said nothing. Auntie often said nothing, but this nothing was different. This nothing held energy.
“I don’t know if I can,” Mother said. Cissy felt fear then, like abandonment. Mother was usually strong. She looked to her father, but he had no motion either. Her stomach rumbled loudly, betraying her, embarrassing her.
A long moment passed and the lights continued to buzz, as if nothing were wrong.
Finally, Auntie said, “Jesus forgave sinners.” Uncle and Father nodded. Mother nodded too. “Yes, He did,” Mother said. But they didn’t move. Cissy hoped that Auntie would not pray. This was the perfect time, Cissy thought, to pray for Strength and Guidance, and she hoped that Auntie would not notice.
“Jesus forgives,” Auntie said, and as if unleashed they all took steps forward and closed the gap between themselves and the folks in front of them, bringing themselves closer by a family cluster or two to This Man.
By shuffle-steps they moved forward. Some people received their plates and moved away. Some other people stepped up to the window. Mother turned to Auntie. She made a small breathing noise, an in-breath as if she were about to duck her head under water.
“He was drunk,” Mother said to Auntie. “Then.”
Auntie breathed out through her nose.
“Is he still, do you think?” Mother said.
“I’ve heard,” Auntie said, quietly, “that he gave it up. The drinking.”
Uncle and the cousins led their group. Mother and Auntie came next, huddled together, touching almost, Auntie’s shoulder to Mother’s upper arm. Cissy tried to get between them but Father gripped her shoulder and held her back with him.
“It’s a terrible illness,” Mother said.
Auntie said nothing.
“But he was a terrible man,” Mother said, “besides that. What he did to Daddy.”
“It’s a terrible illness,” Auntie said.
“He was abusive to his poor wife, you know,” Mother said.
They moved forward. It was almost Uncle’s turn. He’d grouped the cousins in front of him like a shield.
“Actually abusive?” Auntie whispered so the man wouldn’t hear.
“Well,” Mother paused in her step. “Well, not actually physically.”
“He didn’t hit her?”
“No, more like emotionally. You know. Psychologically.”
Auntie wrinkled her nose. Cissy looked away from Auntie to her mother, her tall, straight-backed mother. She held herself so erect that Cissy could see the outline of her mole through her shirt. Cissy was fond of that mole, although if she’d thought of it like that – having affectionate feelings for a large brown overgrowth of skin – she’d have thought that she was sick in the head. But catching sight of it calmed her, as if her body remembered being safe in her mother’s arms, her head on her mother’s shoulder, idly fingering the mole the way other children do the satin edge of a security blanket.
The cousins were craning their heads backward, trying to catch sight of Auntie, their mother. Auntie had nothing to remind them of safety, like Mother had. Cissy felt sorry for them.
But it was their turn at the window. Uncle did not turn back. He did not look at the man. He did not say anything. He handed plates down to the small cousins and took one himself and herded the children, carefully balancing their heavy plates, ahead of him.
Mother and Auntie took a resolute step toward the window. Mother stepped ahead of Auntie, putting a hand on Auntie’s arm the way she sometimes still did with Cissy before they crossed a street. With one hand still on Auntie’s arm, she reached into the window and took the plate the man was holding out. It was heavy and she had to let go of her sister’s arm to hold it with both hands.
“Thank you,” Mother said. She looked the man straight in the eye. “God bless you.” As she said this, Mother’s chin rose until her nose pointed almost straight up until she couldn’t actually see the man anymore. She stood like that for a moment and then turned with her plate and took a few steps past Auntie and toward Uncle and the cousins who stood still in the middle of the room, the youngest cousin tilting his plate, unnoticed, at a dangerous angle to the floor.
It was Auntie’s turn next at the window. She peered up her nose at the man, the man who filled the window with a kind of ominous mushiness, like a fever dream. Behind her, the room swam with pale people holding plates of white food and the silence of them was almost as loud as noise. Auntie held her back so rigid that it arched. Her hair quivered.
“How dare you!” she hissed. It was barely audible, and the man leaned forward through the window, his massive head looming toward Auntie’s as if he wanted to kiss her. “How dare you,” she said again, in a more normal voice. And a third time: “How dare you!” Loud enough now that it echoed through the crowded room. “You stand there dishing up dinner as if you were forgiven?” Auntie shouted. Her voice cracked. She was not used to shouting. Her hands trembled. She balled them into fists and clutched them to her thighs.
The man pulled his head back into the kitchen. He stepped back from the serving table. He hadn’t recognized Auntie and Mother; maybe he didn’t still. Maybe he had no idea of who Auntie was, this tiny woman hissing and shouting at him, but only had an instinct of danger or of guilt. He was like a giant little boy, the kind who pulls legs off grasshoppers but is afraid of his mother. He put his hands in their plastic gloves to his face, clutching it, covering it, and when he pulled them away again bits of goo stuck, white like the paste that squeezes out the edges of children’s artwork. His mouth moved and he whispered. It could have been “I’m sorry” but no one there could hear through the small opening in the wall and through the din of Auntie’s fury.
“You are not forgiven,” Auntie shouted. “Do you hear me? Not!” The man stumbled backward through the kitchen. Everyone froze, watching Auntie watch the man disappear from sight. Everyone forgot to keep breathing while they waited to see what Auntie would do next.
Auntie picked up a plate. She reached through the window and picked up the slotted spoon the man had dropped and she served herself two pieces of fish and a generous helping of potatoes. She picked up another piece of fish and turned toward Cissy behind her. Cissy held her plate steady and Auntie served her a piece of fish and a spoonful of potatoes. Father held his plate out and Auntie served him too. Then Auntie walked with her plate to a table and sat down, and Mother, Father, Uncle, the cousins, and Cissy followed and sat down too. Cissy put a bite of fish in her mouth but she couldn’t swallow. The fish just sat in her mouth waiting to dissolve, waiting for earthly things to regain their form, waiting for the moment when the room would erupt again into chatter and laughter and the world would resume its turning.