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Lent: the slow fast.

Lent: The Slow Fast

The phone rang Easter morning. Ten o'clock. Jo Ellen was lying in bed beside Chris. The children, old enough not to believe in the Easter bunny and young enough to be oblivious to the spurious relationship between chocolate and pimples, had grabbed their baskets and run off across the front yard to a neighbor's, where she imagined they were analyzing the smears on each other's faces.

She had reached toward Chris, stretched really, found him halfway. The bedroom door was locked--the door the children banged on to wake her and Chris every morning. Years, she thought, since they'd had time for morning love. "One more privilege," she heard Chris say, "the middle class is being deprived of."

Jo Ellen found the phone across Chris's bare chest.

"I think there's been a breakdown in communications," Peter said. Peter was the priest at St. Xavier's. At the beginning of Lent, 40 days before, he had weighed 230 pounds.

"A breakdown in communications?" she said.

"Yes," Peter said. "You were supposed to fix breakfast for us--for the choir--this morning."

Jo Ellen thought she could hear Peter's hunger, heavy and boundless, shifting inside his vestments. She knew what must have happened. He had been late, rushing to eight o'clock mass--the nuns, their mass already celebrated, had called to him, "Father Peter, have some breakfast?" and he had replied, "No. Haven't got time," thinking all the while he'd get one of Jo Ellen's wonderful breakfasts, sausages she'd stuffed into the casings herself, the fluffy eggs scrambled with cheese, homemade muffins.

At the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday's cross barely washed off the congregation's forehead, Peter had bubbled from the pulpit--his text, "Feed my sheep" --that St. Xavier's was going to "compensate for the inner city's unemployment with a Saturday soup kitchen."

"St. Xavier's," he'd said, "has the best cooks in the world and Jo Ellen Rostineau's the best of the best; we're making her head of the project!"

She and Chris were new in the city. People hadn't been very friendly to them until she began to cook. Now most of the people they knew and went out with, the children's friends, too, were people they had met at church, a benefit--"Besides the guilt," Chris said--of being Catholic.

It was an easy step from feeding the sheep to feeding the shepherd. The first Saturday Peter had, simply in the line of pastoral encouragement, lifted the lid of one of her pots where she was cooking fresh pea soup and taken a whiff so deep and satisfying she thought the bels in the tower would clang.

"Ahhh," he'd breathed, and what could she say but, "Try some?"

"Feed Cambodia?" Chris had told her two weeks later, foreign mission Sunday. "Why all the Christian Children's Fund has to do is slice the white meat from Peter's thighs: stuff Bangladesh."

Then Peter had asked her, again from the raised stage of the chancel, the cross behind him in authoritative support, to oversee a breakfast in the parish hall, "to bring everybody together during this special time. Maybe lead off with eggs Benedict?"

The third Sunday in Lent, 8 a.m. service, he'd said in his homily, "I can smell delicious scents wafting in from the kitchen. No telling what all Jo Ellen isn't stirring up for us." It was so folksy--$3 apiece--attendance increased, and at Matins, too, as people could come for breakfast, get the children in Sunday School, and be in their pews by 10:30. Jo Ellen could hardly stand it, people knowing her name, asking her for recipes, hugging her: Peter asked her to put on a lunch, Wednesday. Then a dinner Thursday. It seemed she was at church every day. Businessmen's Bible class, Youth for Christ. She had watched in astonishment as Peter, 230, became Peter, 250. His legs rubbed together when he walked, made a noise like taffeta skirts.

As Lent moved forward, Peter's sermons dealt increasingly with Bible feasts: the Wedding Feast at Cana, the Supper at Emmaus.

The loaves and fishes (he intoned from the pulpit) you can almost taste those crusty loaves, the insides lightly and airy, but chewy, and the fishes, those wonderful Mediterranean catches, skates and scampi, barely simmered in a little olive oil, a squirt of lemon, very simply prepared --all the Jewish culinary genius brought to bear on the boy's lunch.

Jo Ellen, aproned, sitting in the back poised to rush out at the benediction to push the fish under the boiler for lunch, could almost see the herbed oil dripping down Peter's lips.

How thrilles that little boy must've been. Allowed to go off on his own, secure in the love of his mom who'd packed his lunch, wide open to faith, the scent of the fresh-baked bread and the marinated fish reaching his nostrils as he walked along the early morning way. Maybe a piece of goat cheese--feta or chevre.

He looked right at Jo Ellen, going over the rows of parishioners whose Sundays "and Wednesdays and Thursdays) had been so pleasantly altered by her cooking. She tingled with pride.

And how full of charity when the time came, how ready to be loving when HE asked this vast crowd if anybody there had food? How proud the boy was to say, "Here, Master, here am I. Take this, take all of this."

Jo ellen stirred. The congregation had murmured somewhere between expectation and embarrassment, turning obliquely to each other as if a stranger who was not a member of the church and was never likely to be had come in the back door.

"What does he want?" Chris demanded, breaking her recollection, his hand flat aginst the inside of her leg, their bed warm with desire. His long fingers rested a minute before insisting. She propped her elbow on his chest. The plastic phone receiver was smooth as his skin. "Hang up!" Chris said.

"Peter? I talked with the organist. She said they sang better on an empty stomach. I put out some fruit, some cheese yesterday for them."

"Some cheese?"

"In the refrigerator." She knew he was calling from the church kitten. The phone was right next to the refrigerator. Jo Ellen thought she heard him opening the door. The image was so strong she imagined his opening the door to their bedroom, mischievous, like the children, seeing her and Chris, advancing toward them, not sternly, but lovingly, pulling back the sheet and criticizing their lovemaking the way he would her vegetable soup.

"Well, we're all don here and there's nothing to eat," Peter said, speaking absently into the refrigeratior.

She heard his echoing voice strained through the cool racks, a voice hopeless and forlorn among wilted lettuce leaves, food they would never eat but could not bear to throw away.

"Don't you see the cheese?"

No answer. Paper rattled. She couldn't, she told herself, hear teeth sinking into white fontiana any more than Peter could see her and Chris in bed, Chris's long smooth arms pulling her to him, his long smooth body hairless and pure in a way she thought only women's bodies could be. Only the ravenousness of the two men made any sound.

She heard the phone receiver--black like Peter's robe, slipping on its short cord from the church kitchen's Formica countertop, falling, dangling, knock nothing, knock nothing.

Jo Ellen felt she was falling, too, not just into the arms of a perfectly legitimate husband--the church had sanctioned that, though you weren't supposed to do it just for fun--but into a mortal neglect of duty, the guilt she had felt the last few weeks of Lent because she had stopped putting on the meals when Peter had gone into the hospital about his weight.

They had felt so happy the first weeks of Lent; then one Saturday morning she'd had her feelings hurt. In the soup kitchen she had put out what she thought was a tasty meal: French toast, homemade quince jam, stewed apricots, ham. A little black child wrinkled his nose, looked down at his plate and up at his mother. "Oh, go on and eat it," she said. "I'll buy us something good later on." Peter was standing next to Jo Ellen. He put his arm around her. "You know you cross the most intimate boundaries when you offer food to people? Hey!"

She saw suddenly it was unreasonable: her spending more time at church cooking for strangers, or for God, than for Chris and the children at home. God--his brides, the nuns' meals witnessed--didn't care: canned peas, instant mashed potatoes, meat boiled to death.

Tim, Jo Ellen and Chris' son, had begun to fail math; their little girl, Kate, protesting being alone so much, had kicked in a glass bookcase door in her classroom.

Time. The house, the yard, the children. Chris's tie for tomorrow evaporated into her presence in the church kitchen. So easy saying yes, so hard doing, buying food, cooking it.

Chris had finally put his foot down. "I don't think I want to go anymore." Two weeks before Palm Sunday.

Jo Ellen's mouth opened and her mother, 20 years before, flew out. "But it's your obligation, your sacred obligation." Chris looked at her coolly, as if somewhere along the climb of their marriage, he'd made a mistake, left a piton out or a rope unknotted.

She'd taken refuge as she always had, in church, on her knees, alone. She saw the congregation--the "audience," Chris called it--was thin. It was the weekend of the regionals, the basketball tournaments. Chris hadn't let little Tim go because of his math grades. Kate was being punished for the bookcase door.

Lost in thought, Jo Ellen hadn't heard for a minute the assistant priest praying for Peter. Peter was in the hospital, he said. Diverticulosis. The assistant priest, a stickler for detail, said they were feeding him nothing but Jell-O. Raspberry Jell-O. She could see it in the stained glass window over the altar, the color of clear, translucent blood.

The news that Peter was sick had calmed her, equalizing her guilt over not wanting to cook for the church anymore and her anger with Chris.

Kneeling, she had imagined buckets of Jell-O in the hospital corridors. The light poured in through the stained glass window, and with the light, a sense of loss. In the dazzling light she saw the white communion dress of her childhood consumed. She had tempted Peter. His being out of control was her fault. Her melted butter, her heavy cream, had forced his vascular walls. Her wrongs transcended the church's.

The last time she'd seen Peter, he'd seemed huge but fine. She'd been in the kitchen, bent over the oven, drawing a skewer from a line of lamb kabobs. The air was sweet with onions and bell peppers bubbling in butter. She hadn't known he was behind her. Burning her fingers slightly, she had lost her balance and tumbled backward across the kitchen, shoving Peter in her path. The thought of impaling him on the skewer had crossed her mind. Stuck, the air would have slowly hissed out of him.

Everbody, she thought, had suffered from her talents. Her children. Chris. The garden, which should've been plowed, ready for the seed Good Friday when they always planted, was a tangle of last summer's weeds.

She knelt long after the assistant priest had absolved them.

When she opened her eyes, everyone was gone. Snakes of smoke rose from the extinguished candles. She felt a part of her, a noisome duty, had been extinguished, too. The altar guild woman was stripping the flowers from either side of the cross and the last note of organ music hung in the air, an accusation.

The assistance priest was waiting at the back of the church. He was tall and thin with a beard. He looked ascetic, but someone had told her he had his own stockbroker.

"Aren't you going to feed us?" he asked.

" I didn't think anybody was coming. The basketball."

"Weren't you going to feed Peter?"

"I didn't know he'd gone into the hospital. I fell sorry. There should be something. I always have something."

He followed her through the church, the robing room, to the kitchen. He sat down at the table, his expression and posture a history of husbands waiting for wives to feed them. She put down a paper-towel mat in front of him.

"Coffee?"

"I have to go to the hospital," he said. "The chaplains have a pool. I won't get home till after eleven."

She saw them, in black bathing suits, racing each other in the blue chlorine water. She put the plate down, the cup and saucer, the knife, spoon, and fork, though she had only a chicken sandwich and potato salad for him.

She watched him bite into the sandwich. Was she laying the same curse on him she'd put on Peter? The bite left a jagged half moon on the bread, the shape of a cry.

He sighed as if he wanted to take Peter's place in her ministration. "You don't know how good this is!"

"I made the mayonnaise," she said, looking at the tiny white dots of it on his mustache and lips. He licked at the spots.

She put potato salad on his plate. He ate it with the exhiliration Peter had shown when he spoke of roasting the fatted calf for the prodigal son.

"More?"

He put his plate up, a mendicant.

She plopped one big spoonful on the plate. He held it there, still. She put another half chicken sandwich on it. He steadied the plate. She scraped the bowl.

She watched him eat, seeing Peter blowing up in this man's thin face. He put his plate up to her again and cocked his head a little, waiting.

Resolved, she had gone home then, surfacing among her housework, a diver with the bends, overcome by the enormity of small tasks. At first, the work, unpraised by Peter or the other parishioners, unsanctioned by God, had seemed sacrilege. Then, digging in the vegetable patch, dust-mopping under her and Chris's bed, making school lunches, became quietly satisfying.

Peter called when he got out of the hospital. She had left food in the church kitchen freezer. He wanted her to come thaw it. He cornered her when she went in Palm Sunday, saying, "You're still the chairman of the committee." He said "still" as if the appointment was eternal. He had lost very little weight though she had heard the doctors had taken out his entire lower tract and cleaned it on a towel. She felt an odd love for him as a person. "If the people aren't here," he said, speaking to a child, "we can't very well ask Him to be here." She listened for the capital "H" as if it were coming from a long way off. She thought of the hugs of ten anonymous women in the church kitchen, of how their embraces had been worth so much more than little Kate's defiance or Tim's math grades. Public love. Could she ever go back to the small arms of the children, Chris's alembic grasp?

As Chris soothed her now, Easter, in his arms, sun pouring through their bedroom window, little bubbles of pleasure popping through her body, she remembered trying unsuccessfully to calm Peter, unable to use physical means as Chris could with her.

She closed her eyes. This seemed right, this feeling, the results--children--the church and life for once coinciding. Chris's weight, usually gentle upon her, bore down. She closed her eyes tighter. She imagined someone dancing on his back. Peter? The weight seemed to increase. The weight, heavier and heavier, tried to exorcise the exquisite pleasure she felt. She wondered if she'd hung up the phone, whether she could. Whether her connection wth Peter could be severed. The weight bore down, heavier and heavier. Dozing, the pleasure seemed farther and farther away. When she opened her eyes, the bed was shaking. Kate was jumping up and down. Tim was behind her shaking the headboard. Chris, a sheet draped around his waist, leaned on the windowsill, looking at her, waiting. She thought he might have been St. Sebastian waiting for his arrows. The hole in her stomach where breakfast should've been whimpered, harmonizing in her mind with the other stomachs she'd left empty at the church. Everyone must suffer: that was Lent. She was the eggs in the children's baskets. There was a new one: chocolate with a yellow fondant yolk. She wanted one. The thought of taking it from them, against their will, gave her an odd pleasure.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Flythe, Starkey, Jr.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Words:2779
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