The Last Brunch 1 The Last Brunch It began simply enough: at breakfast one morning, Alice looked into her bowl of oatmeal and saw the face of God, bearded, sad-eyed, and dotted with raisins. She dribbled some skim milk into the bowl, then watched as His face grew faint beneath the bluish puddle; she spooned on some sugar, and saw His face dissolve altogether. Alice had never before seen the face of God. Until now, she wasn’t even sure she believed in Him. And yet there He’d been, if only for an instant, staring up at her tight-lipped through the steam and hot oats like some dingy Quaker ghost. “Good morning, God,” she’d said, straightening up and fingering the hair out of her eyes. But by then He was gone. She sat for a moment turning the lumpy paste with her spoon, edging the raisins to the rim of the bowl, where she plucked them out one by one with her fingers. She wished she had said more to Him while she’d had the opportunity, but how could she? He had taken her by surprise. A little over a month ago, the day Jeremy left her and one week after she’d been diagnosed with ocular migraines, Alice began snipping and saving obituaries from the local newspapers. She laid the cropped papers between her legs on the cool white folds of her comforter and arranged them into dog-eared rows—sometimes by age, sometimes by gender, sometimes by degree of tragedy. In a purple spiral notebook she copied the obituaries and embellished them—describing (with wonderfully imagined candor) the libidinal zeal of the Catholic priest who’d died of a heroine overdose, or the gritty blue-collar heroism of the diesel mechanic who’d gunned down two Denver patrolmen and then blown his own head into halves in the backseat of a minivan—though in fact she knew none of them personally. She cut headshot photos from various magazines and matched them THE LAST BRUNCH 2 to the obituaries, gluing a clean, new face in the upper right hand corner of each handwritten sheet. On Sundays, she arranged these faces around the dining room table, fastening them with thick rubber bands to the backs of her yellow vinyl chairs, serving them (on sparkling china handed down to her by her grandmother) home-cooked meals: beef and Portobello mushroom stew; grilled asparagus with angel hair pasta in a wine-cream sauce; black bean and avocado-stuffed corn tortillas with capers and cilantro relish. She filled wine glasses with dry Chianti, though she herself seldom drank. She burned sandalwood incense and lit candles. She stayed up late, studying each face, each tragedy, and sometimes wept. On Mondays, she’d spend the day in bed, clipping more obituaries and picking through the leftover food alone. Her brain was shrinking. The medical report called it atrophy, and the doctor assured her it was nothing to worry about, just a common physiological reaction, the brain’s natural defense against dehydration. Jeremy had driven her to the emergency room after she’d complained of spots in her left eye. The doctors drew blood. They gave her a CAT scan and a spinal tap. They ran batches of tests on her urine. “Ocular migraine,” a doctor finally told her. “Stress, most likely.” He prescribed rest and Percodan. He made her sign forms. “My brain is shrinking, Jeremy,” she said on the ride home. “It’s clenched up like a fist. I can feel it.” Jeremy kept his eyes fixed on the road. “Am I dying, Jeremy?” she asked softly. He took a deep breath and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. “Just lean back and try to get some sleep, Ali,” he said. “You’re gonna’ be fine.” THE LAST BRUNCH 3 Alice rested her head on the cloth seat and closed her eyes. Outside, cars hummed by like mechanical insects. “I’m gonna’ be fine,” she whispered. She heard Jeremy click off the radio. “I’m gonna’ be fine.” Of course, what Alice didn’t know at the time was that God was soon to turn up in her oatmeal, and that when He did, she’d have absolutely nothing to say. *** “The Rev. Edward Picasso of Colorado Springs,” Alice wrote, “ a Catholic Priest, died Oct. 10 at his home in Greeley. He was 68. A vigil service and rosary were held Oct. 14 at St. Peter‟s Catholic Church. Interment took place in Evergreen Cemetery. Picasso was born July 4, 1927, in Lima, Peru. He entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver and was ordained by Archbishop Urban J. Vehr in 1950. He attended the Institute for Clergy Education at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and was pastor of St. Joseph Church, Southgate, in Colorado Springs for 15 years. Recently, however, Rev. Picasso lost his faith. It was just one of those things, really: one morning he woke from a solid night‟s sleep and flatly denied the existence of God. The whole concept of a Supreme Being seemed suddenly and irrevocably preposterous. In 1984, Picasso was accused of fondling the genitalia of two altar boys, Richard Diederich and Steven O‟Malley, both of Colorado Springs; the accusations were subsequently recanted, however, and the matter quickly dropped. In 1991, Rev. Picasso began using drugs recreationally, finally settling into a prolonged heroine and amphetamine addiction—his pocked and mildewed bathtub a ruinous temple to years of THE LAST BRUNCH 4 perverse communion (a fistful of pills, he ate the body; a sterile syringe, he drank the blood)—until the time of his death, when he was found by his house boy in a rigid heap, his arm still tubed and bruised, his body stretched cold and snake-like across the floor of his bathroom. Picasso is survived by several cousins in Peru, and at least one bastard son in Ontario, Canada. Contributions may be made to the Priest‟s Retirement Fund of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, or to the two little boys this monster seduced and sodomized in the name of Our Lord.” *** Not too long ago, Alice stayed up until the moon disappeared and the sun, running a bit behind schedule, sent ahead a shroud of pink and violet light to wake up the morning commuters. She watched rebroadcasts of the local news and during commercials listened intently to a televangelist who’d woken up before the sun to warn her that it may not rise again at all. The televangelist’s coarse hair was streaked with gel and heavily sprayed, in preparation, she supposed, for a plague of locusts or a sudden deluge of brimstone. His shoes were black and blunt, and shone like the dark eyes of dusty ceramic angels. She turned down the sound and looked into his wide face: I know why I‟m here, his eyes told her. I know why I‟m here and I don‟t care who knows it. A retired Denver psychiatrist was found naked at the bottom of her new Jacuzzi. A club- footed Salida florist shot and killed a fourteen-year old boy for attempting to steal a dozen white tea roses. A high-pressure system would soon collide with a stubborn low-pressure system, and the resulting rain and drizzle and mist would probably linger for days. Alice hated rain. It was sunny THE LAST BRUNCH 5 everywhere except in Denver, everywhere except where she was. It was sunny in Boston. It was sunny in Des Moines. It was sunny in San Diego. She stared at the paste-up rubber suns flecked across the national weather map. She hated their painted smiles, their plastic cartoon dazzle—but their eyes, bold and black, captivated her. Their eyes said, I am the sun and I have my purpose, and I don‟t care who knows it. She began to wonder if her eyes spoke. If they did, what could they possibly have to say? She wondered what the bloated Denver psychiatrist’s eyes said to the two frantic boys who found her, what last glutted words bubbled up from them through the frothy, chlorine-thick water. She wondered what that fourteen-year old boy’s eyes said just before he felt the small caliber bullet rip through his shoulder blade, just before he dropped, confused, in a warm liquid heap—crushing the dozen white roses beneath him. It’s quite possible, given the circumstances, they had nothing at all to say. In fact it’s quite possible that they simply embraced the nothingness, that they resigned themselves to the gentle vibrato hum of an electric motor or the staccato metal pop of a gunshot. As she slipped into sleep, Alice reminded herself to watch for the obituaries in the morning paper. She’d need fresh photographs, she thought. She’d need more chairs. *** Delbert Roy Stokes, 29, of Lakewood died Oct. 12. Services were held Oct. 14, and the body was cremated. Mr. Stokes was born in Aurora on May 2, 1966. He received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army in 1988. Stokes worked as a mechanic in Lakewood for seven years; he was laid off earlier this month. He is survived by his parents, Clint and Mary Ellen THE LAST BRUNCH 6 Stokes, of Denver. On Oct. 12, Stokes shot and killed two Denver patrolmen outside of a McDonalds in the 4200 Block of S. University Blvd, and then turned the gun on himself. Witnesses claim the officers were trying to quiet Stokes, who had stripped himself naked and was dancing on the hood of a Mercedes, shouting limericks. Stokes was a handgun enthusiast. His last meal was a Quarter Pounder with cheese, large fries, and a Diet Coke. Mr. Stokes never finished his fries. Mr. Stokes never saw God, either.” *** Jeremy left Alice on the day she snipped her first obituary—the day she realized in no uncertain terms that she was shrinking. This happened more than a month ago, a few days after she was let go from her job for “unsanctioned napping,” one week after she began committing to memory a litany of local tragedies. After being released from the hospital, Alice spent the next week (most of it on the kitchen floor) poring over obituaries and from memory recounting their particulars to Jeremy. “It’s such a shame what happened to Evan W. Potts,” she’d say over dinner, or “Twenty- seven is too young to die, don’t you think?” Alice herself was twenty-nine. She and Jeremy would be lying in bed, Alice’s arm draped over his thin waist, her fingers gently plucking at the soft hairs on his stomach. “It must have been rough on Glenn, watching her waste away in a hospital room like that. Hospitals are so . . . antiseptic. Did I tell you they were only married two years? She should have died at home, Jeremy. Lindsay deserved to die in her own bed, in her own nightgown, in her own house.” Jeremy would roll over and slide his fingers along the curve of her neck. “You have to stop thinking about these people, Ali,” he’d whisper. He’d brush his lips over the pink points of her THE LAST BRUNCH 7 shoulder blades. “You’re going to make yourself sick again.” “Two years,” Alice would mumble. She’d flip onto her back and gaze into the stucco shadows etched like half-moons across the ceiling. “Two years is just not enough time together.” Several nights after Alice began her medication, Jeremy would lay awake waiting for her to drift into sleep. He’d listen to her breathing, to the collision of the dry, forced air against the warm vacuum of her nostrils. But one night he fell asleep first, and Alice watched him—counting the gentle rises and falls of his chest—until her eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness. For the rest of the night she laid still, blinking, her head propped against the headboard, and tried to watch herself shrink. On the day Jeremy left, an Englewood fifth-grader was backed over by a Saab, the driver of which told police he was distracted by the recalcitrance of his new cellular phone. As Alice clipped her first obituary, she noticed that overnight her fingernails had grown ragged and long. The pink nail polish was badly chipped, the skin around her fingers hung loose against the bones. Jeremy stuffed some shirts into his duffle bag. He’d made a decision. “I need to get away for awhile,” he said. He looked at Alice, who was sitting beside the kitchen table cross-legged on the linoleum floor. “I can’t take this anymore.” “Twelve-years old,” Alice said, smoothing the paper scrap on her knee. “She played soccer. She collected comic books.” Jeremy shoved some balled-up socks into the bag. “You should call your sister. Call somebody. But I need to get out of here. I need some time to think.” THE LAST BRUNCH 8 Alice looked over at Jeremy, at the khaki bag propped on the sofa, and laid the trimmed newsprint at her feet. “I love you, Alice,” he went on, tugging at the zipper. “You know that. But I can’t help you. You can’t relax anymore. You don’t eat. You just sit around all day and talk about death. It’s depressing as hell.” He pulled the bag over his shoulder. “I thought I could do this but I can’t.” Alice turned from him and dropped her eyes to the floor. “Maybe I’ll send flowers,” she said. “Or a fruit basket. Fruit baskets are nice.” She held her fingers up to the light and examined the length of her bones. I’m shrinking, she thought. She pulled at the loose skin around her cuticles and squinted through the slats of the Venetian blinds. Her left eye wouldn’t focus. Luminous spots like a chorus line of indigo moons danced suggestively at the corners of her vision. For the rest of the day, Alice sat on the floor and snipped obituaries. She cut and smoothed and sorted late into the evening, long after the sun had set, long after Jeremy’s muttered curses had ceased to buzz in her ears, long after the door had closed quietly behind her. *** “Kelly Logan McMaster of Englewood died Oct. 8 at Children‟s Hospital. She was 11. A Private family service was held. She was born on May 31, 1984, in Glens Falls, N.Y. She attended Holly Ridge Elementary School in the Cherry Creek School District. She is survived by her parents, Stan and Maxine McMaster; a brother, Ross; and her maternal grandparents, Albert and Patty Guinne, of Elmira, N.Y. Kelly was riding her bicycle with friends when a neighbor, 33 year-old Ken Knight, backed out of his driveway and slammed his car into the little girl, launching her into the path of an oncoming Volvo wagon. Mr. Knight is a THE LAST BRUNCH 9 securities broker for Alex Brown and Associates. He nets close to two-hundred thousand dollars yearly. Knight expressed surprise and regret after the accident, and promised to replace the hand-held cellular phones from both his Saab and his Ford Explorer with cellular speakerphones. Mr. Knight is well insured and doesn‟t foresee any problems reaching a reasonable settlement. No criminal charges have been filed against him at this time.” *** One morning Alice woke and noticed that her sweatpants hung loose on her hips and had folded around her thin ankles like green accordion pleats. In the shower, she kneaded the flabby skin covering her kneecaps, and stared at her soapy feet. She thought, If I‟m shrinking, what will become of my things? Who will water my plants? Who will feed the dead? Alice knew the dead must eat. She knew that without sustenance they would wither and fade, that their souls would pull apart and drift away like webs of sallow smoke. For the rest of the day she slept. The phone rang several times, but she never bothered to answer it. Her stomach ached. She tried to remember the last time she’d eaten. It was a Tuesday morning when Alice had noticed God’s face in her oatmeal. After breakfast she’d rinsed out the bowl and surrounded it on her marble cutting board with thin white candles and a small clay pot simmering with potpourri. The bowl that God had chosen was cheap—porcelain with powder-blue spring flowers patterned on the inside under the glaze—and while she lit the candles, Alice wondered why God hadn’t waited until Sunday to visit her, when she could’ve THE LAST BRUNCH 10 presented Him with her best china. She wanted God to visit when she had enough food, when the Catholic priest and the diesel mechanic and the psychiatrist and the boy who stole the flowers could see him, too. She wanted to serve God roasted red potatoes with chives and filet of sole, she wanted to serve Him wine instead of skim milk. After breakfast, Alice decided she would wait for Him again, that she would prepare and plan carefully and that eventually He would come. Surely He would come. Surely He could look inside her, could recognize the depth of her suffering. She’d bake fresh bread and Brie and roast garlic cloves, and on Sunday she’d set a special place for Him at the head of the table. She needed to see God again. She had so many questions for Him. Since her hospital visit she’d taken off her silver rings to keep them from slipping from her fingers. Her earrings jangled weightily from the stretched lobes of her ears. Her hair had grown shaggy and nearly covered her face. Her tongue felt slick and numb. When she saw God again she’d ask Him if her eyes spoke like the eyes of the televangelist, or like the eyes of rubber suns. She’d ask Him what her purpose was. When she saw God again, Alice told herself, she would ask Him why she was shrinking. *** “Janet Fultyn-Gaines of Denver, a psychiatrist, died Oct. 12. She was 42. Services were held Oct. 13 at Fairmount Mortuary Chapel, and the body was cremated. She was born Oct. 17, 1952 in Cambridge, Mass. In 1984 she married the late Dr. Noah Gaines, a Denver cardiologist. She earned her bachelor‟s degree from Amherst, and her M.D. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. For a time she served as staff psychiatrist at Hospice of Metro Denver, and later she opened a private practice in Lakewood. She was the author to THE LAST BRUNCH 11 two best-selling books and was considered a worldwide authority on Satanic Cult Syndrome. She had recently retired to devote time to fiction writing. Dr. Fultyn-Gaines is survived by her son, Christian; and her sister, Annabel Clemens, of Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Fultyn- Gaines drowned early Wednesday evening in her Jacuzzi. Her body—blue and tumescent, its skin paradoxically stretched and pruned—was found by her nine-year old son and a playmate. Dr. Fultyn-Gaines had taken a handful of Valium and had polished off a bottle of Dry Riesling. The coroner listed the cause of death as accidental, though he noted a strange expression in the woman‟s yellow eyes (which ultimately, and with some hesitation, he attributed to chemicals in the water).” *** She planned all week. She purchased and had delivered to her fresh baby carrots and crisp spring onions. She bought Roma tomatoes, which she set on the windowsill to ripen in the sun. She bought wheels of smoked Gouda and thick filets of cured Nova Scotian salmon. She bought fancy crackers and macadamia nuts. On Saturday she tried to trim her hair, but the scissors felt bulky, unwieldy in her hands, so instead she wet it and brushed it over her ears, fastening it behind her thin neck in a heavy, loose braid. She tried on a long, flower-print summer dress, which she hemmed twice and tossed over the arm of a bedroom chair. She could no longer wear shoes comfortably; though they held close to her feet, Alice felt herself slip in them—felt her toes lap about in their empty spaces like the truncated tongues of snails. On Saturday night, Alice couldn’t sleep. She sat in the dim light of the kitchen and ran an THE LAST BRUNCH 12 iron over the wrinkled notebook pages, blinking through the spots in her eye. She laid a soft white towel between the hot metal and the Catholic priest and let the steam smooth the tattered edges of the paper. She smoothed them all—doctors and housewives, mechanics and triatheletes, men and women, boys and girls—and laid them out in front of her, searching in the shadows of their stippled eyes for some glint of light. “Tomorrow,” she said, “God will come. God will come, and this time I’ll be ready.” That night Alice dreamed. She dreamed in subdued colors, shades of brown and gold and copper. She entered a room and noticed in its center a long mahogany table, lacquered to a sheen, around which gathered faceless, genderless figures in white robes drinking freshly squeezed orange juice and eating scones and pecan-yam bread. When Alice moved toward an empty chair, it disappeared—replaced by a puff of blue cloud, oblong and electric with dew. She sat down, feeling herself suspended above a rich dirt floor, and, unable to speak, watched a shimmering figure roll toward her on smooth cosmic wheels. In front of her was placed a polished plate on which rested a single hard-boiled egg. “Thank you,” Alice said. But her benefactor had disappeared, lifted and melted away like fog. Her own voice, she noticed, sounded hollow, smothered by the dark edges of her senses. She reached for a gold salt shaker, but when she looked up to smile she noticed that the rest of the blurred faces had vanished as well—that all that remained around her in the darkness now were luminous eyes glowing like suns from invisible perches above shelves of shadow. “Eat it,” a voice said. “It’ll do you good.” Alice turned and saw Jeremy, naked but for a worn pair of canvas deck shoes, standing beside her. THE LAST BRUNCH 13 “Hello, Jeremy,” she said. Her voice lilted, dipped—slid from her mouth like rainwater. “Hey, Ali,” he said, avoiding her eyes. “Eat, please.” Alice looked at her plate, at the egg, brilliant white, and saw that it hovered above the dish, spinning gently like a new moon in some mystical orbit. A halo of light surrounded the egg—the soft light of luminous insects, the fractured iridescence of peacock feathers under the purple glow of sunrise. In her thin hands, the egg felt cold and meaty. She peeled back the shell and was surprised to find that the egg’s skin throbbed like a naked cactus teeming with baby scorpions. Tearing it open, she felt the flesh melt in her hands, slide through her fingers. The yolk—a tiny pearl, a coagulated soul—crumbled into dust, and when she turned to Jeremy, he, too, was gone, the traffic of his eyes faint and blue at the edges of her vision, dancing like indigo moons. When Sunday came, Alice could barely raise herself in bed. She felt drowned in her blankets. Her mouth stung, and she concentrated hard on stretching her lips over her teeth. The walls of her bedroom seemed somehow taller and more remote than she remembered. She groped along the stucco and made her way to the bathroom. When she looked into the mirror, she noticed thick folds of skin bunching around her eyes. Her cheeks had sunk, and the skin around her neck hung loose and yellow like the dimpled skin of a holiday goose. Alice splashed some cold water over her face. Sometime during the night, the spots in her left eye had spilled over into her right eye, and she had trouble focusing on her reflection. “Today I’ll see God,” she said. She ran a thin hand along the sharp, mottled edge of her chin and felt her left eyelid flutter. “I just hope he recognizes me.” THE LAST BRUNCH 14 After dressing herself, Alice moved to the kitchen and began setting the table. She’d prepared most of the food the previous afternoon, her back a tangle of smooth knots sliding inward to the pit of her gut, her limbs heavy but soft, laboring to move—her arms and legs meat stuffed into velvet skin, the heavy sausages of Queens or Popes hanging beside her, wobbling beneath her. Stooping over the stove, stirring, her muscles hot and dry, her blood evaporating, she’d somehow managed to finish, stretching cellophane squares over vegetable platters, placing loaves of brown bread on steel racks to crust, folding freshly cut herbs into thick sauces until she thought the tiny bones of her hands and wrists would snap or crumble. Today she felt even weaker. The china plates and bowls were heavy and cumbersome, but without incident she laid them out next to cloth napkins, which she’d starched and folded into plaid triangles. From the refrigerator she fetched platters and trays stacked with grapes and cheeses and melons cut like crescents, and arranged them neatly along the counter tops; she thrust plump pies and brimming casserole dishes into the oven to warm. When she’d polished and laid out the silverware, she took a deep breath and slumped down to the floor next to the stove. Her heart thumped against her chest, close to her skin, and both her eyelids ticked terribly. The sun slipped behind some clouds, and Alice wondered for a moment if it might rain. She wondered if it might rain and if her heart might explode—if her limp flesh would melt into the swirls of the linoleum, if her bones would erode into salt and sand—and she wondered if she’d shrink, without dignity, her eyelids fluttering, tiny birds flapping their wings, waiting for God. *** “Antoine Carter, Salida resident, died Oct. 12. He was 14. Carter enjoyed basketball, THE LAST BRUNCH 15 drawing, and music. He was shot in the back trying to leave the flower shop of Ramiro „Ronny‟ Cordova. Mr. Cordova unloaded his .38 pistol, striking the boy once and shattering two glass display cases filled with chrysanthemums. Though damage to the shop was extensive, Mr. Cordova will not seek reimbursement from Carter‟s mother, Celesta Barnes, 27, of Salida. In his statement to police, Mr. Cordova said: „Let‟s just call it even. Let‟s let sleeping dogs lie. No use crying over spilled milk. No use shutting the barn doors after the horses are gone. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. We shouldn‟t count our chickens before they‟ve hatched. Enough is enough is enough.‟ Every Wednesday and Thursday Mr. Cordova‟s shop, The Rose Garden, offers 25% off its entire inventory. The Rose Garden also offers senior discounts, and boasts seasonal prom specials on corsages. Interment for Mr. Carter was held Oct. 14 at Mesa View Mortuary Chapel. Flowers were donated by The Rose Garden, 2250 Monaco Ave. *** When she finally stood, Alice looked at the smooth faces pressed and laid out on paper rectangles in the middle of the dining room table. One by one she picked them up and carefully secured them to their chairs. From the living room, she dragged another chair into the kitchen, and placed it at the head of the table. She drew the blinds and lit dozens of candles, watching as the yellow light danced across the walls. She set out baskets of warm bread and a platter of sliced Vidalia onions. Rosebud radishes and strips of sweet yellow peppers she tossed in a bed of cold spinach and drizzled with a soft vinaigrette of basil and thyme. On a large wooden cutting board she laid out smoked cheese and Brie and toasted sesame crackers, beside which she set a broad dish of THE LAST BRUNCH 16 baby potatoes glazed with butter and sprinkled with diced parsley and cracked red peppercorns. The salmon, fleshy and moist, she surrounded on an ornate silver serving tray with baked garlic cloves and thin lemon slices. The preparation exhausted her. Her hands trembled, and once or twice she felt them nearly buckle under the weight of leaden dishes grown too bulky for her bony fingers. When everything was ready, Alice scanned the table a final time before lowering her head to say grace. “Please come today, God,” she said. Her breathing was heavy and came in short gasps. A silky strap slipped from her shoulder. “I’ve got more than enough food.” And so she waited—for how long she didn’t know—sipping red wine and staring at her empty plate. She tried to initiate conversations with her brunch guests, but they were all quiet this morning, pensive, waiting, as she was, for God to appear in a glass of wine or a puddle of dill sauce. Her head swiveled heavily on the brittle stalk of her neck, and her eyes ached. Her feet felt cold and small. He has to come soon, she thought. I’m running out of time. She took another sip of wine and straightened up in her chair. The room, she noticed, was crowding inward toward the table, growing smaller, somehow; the air was wet and warm and smelled like rain, and shadows darted across the pale walls and surrounded the table like a flock of dark birds. Her head began to spin. Alice peered through the dim light at the faces of the dead gathered around her. She looked in their eyes for a sign of some sort, a flash, a wink, but she saw nothing, no hint of revelation, just the fixed expressions of photographs—and the squinting dizzied her further. “Don’t you think he’ll come?” she asked. She opened her eyes and glanced across the table. The spinning had stopped. She filled her glass with more wine and, satisfied that the rest of the glasses were generously filled, replaced the bottle in its wicker basket. “I’m sure He’ll come THE LAST BRUNCH 17 today,” she said, folding her hands in her lap. “I mean, it’s important that he do, don’t you think? Some of you have some explaining to do.” She leaned back and smiled, again closing her eyes. The room was quiet, but when she listened closely she heard a low flapping sound building beneath the shallow whistle of her breath. She sat still, trying to control her breathing. The sound grew gradually louder, like the beating of wings, and Alice tried to open her eyes, but she couldn’t, her eyes failed her, and so she listened more carefully, blood pulsing in her ears, her nostrils flaring gently as if to let in the sweet odor of grace. “It’s O.K.,” she whispered. “It’s O.K. Please. Everybody eat.” But the sound excited her, prodded at her stillness, awoke in her some animal curiosity, some riveting fear. She wondered absently if her guests heard the sound too. She wondered if they could hear what she was hearing: the billowing ascent of raving Phoenixes; the caw and clatter of hundreds of swooping vultures. Her mind swirled. After a moment she tried to push herself up in the chair, to thrust herself into the swelling rhythm, to attack the sound, but her feet, she noticed, could no longer reach the floor. She shifted her weight forward, and she could feel the loose fabric of her dress gather under her. When her right eyelid fluttered open suddenly, she threw her gaze across the room and was struck with sadness by the empty chair at the head of the table opposite her. Sandalwood and smoking tallow burned her nostrils. Out of the corner of her eye, through a gauze of smoke, she thought she saw a long, fluid shadow drift across one of the walls—but when she turned towards it, it disappeared, and her eye glazed over, and her lid clamped shut. The sound of beating wings grew louder and closer. “It’s O.K.,” she said softly. Her whole torso was trembling—and she felt strangely unbalanced: at once liquid and sand, her body became the fingers of a tide pool, the muddy basin of an ancient river bed; her tiny bones embedded themselves in the smooth, malleable stone of THE LAST BRUNCH 18 something at once abstract and terribly immovable. She rocked in her chair and listened. Beneath the din of wings she could hear voices—muffled, hollow voices, strange and familiar. “He’ll never come,” she heard the Catholic priest say. His voice was reedy, much higher than she’d imagined it. “We may have to wait forever, and even then it’s not certain. Show me a man of perfect faith, and I’ll show you weak man. I’ll show you a sheep, a bag of self-righteous bones bundled together and tied with a Christmas bow. If the blood of Christ ever coursed through my veins—and I doubt that it did—I’ve been bled dry long before now by life. We’re nothing but empty vessels, all of us. We’re dry gulches of flesh. Hardly the stuff of angels, if you want the truth.” “He’ll come for me,” the mechanic said, chuckling. “Spiritual lameness, that’s what he’s looking for, Padre. And that’s about all I got. Know His purpose and you’ll know your own: that’s the key to salvation. I killed, true—but I acted, at least. You rotted away with boredom. That’s the difference between you and me, Reverend.” Alice breathed heavily into the darkness; her rocking slowed, and soon she sat completely still. “You two can babble on all you like, but I, for one, am certainly not going to give up hope,” a woman’s voice said. “God as we know Him is simply a projection of human desires and instincts— the mind’s manifest conceptualization of the immortal, the eternal. Don’t you see? God is the ultimate vehicle humans have for self-preservation! We’re wrong to think Him ethereal. God is clarity, certainly, but not spirit or essence. There are no castles in the sky. There is only self- actualization—God at His most perfect in the mathematical synchronicity of firing synapses, at His most mysterious in the second-sight of gypsies. As long as I have my mind I have my soul. When all is said and done, gentlemen, salvation is a function of the unconscious. It is a function of the THE LAST BRUNCH 19 mind.” Alice couldn’t speak. She reached out to grab the edge of the table, to brace herself against the pressure of her own sluggish weight, but she couldn’t find the smooth wood with her fingers. Her ears burned. “I miss my brother,” a little girl’s voice trilled. “He thinks I hate him but I don’t.” Alice listened more deliberately, but the voices soon trailed off into a cacophony of frenzied flight. She pulled her knees to her chest and cried. In a moment, warm hands stroked her— it seemed like hundreds . . . but no, it was fewer, she felt the fingers now, twenty maybe, or ten— and she felt herself being lifted from her chair like a ceramic doll. How much had she shrunk? she wondered. Surely she could fit into the palm of a man’s hand. She floated in the air, imagining herself swimming in the great fist of God. As she sobbed, the balls of her shoulders rolled forward and relaxed; her arms hung loose and limp over her thighs and knees like gossamer ribbon, like fleshy stains. She felt a warm pull in her chest—her ribs shifting, pulling apart from muscle and tendon, slowly dissolving. When she opened her mouth to speak her tongue lunged forward, flicking against her lips, but her voice failed her, and her words turned to sweet ash in the dry slope of her throat. She listened again for the soft voices of her guests, for the trumpets of angels, for the warm and gentle breath of God, but all she heard was the liquid beat of her own heart, waves crashing in rhythm against her chest. The beat soon soothed her and filled her ears. Her heart was racing, swarming inside her like locusts—swarming, flapping, the wings of birds, the clapping of hands, the soft, gentle drumming of rain against glass. She smiled at the sting of salt in her eyes. As the sound welled, surrounding her now, her shoulders sank inward, collapsing under the weight of a thousand feathery wings. Her body slackened, folding in on itself, hot and heavy—pulled towards some invisible center where Alice hoped her prayers would collide with the prayers of the dead, where her THE LAST BRUNCH 20 eyes would speak to the dark eyes of angels, where her heart would nestle like a tiny polished pearl in the palm of eternity. In the empty room, yellow candlelight flitted across the vacant eyes of the photographs, across the eyes of all the dead. Between light and shadow, an amber glow danced over Alice’s soft face and wide eyes. The room was still. Her jaw hung slack, her mouth twisted around the ghost of some remarkable, stifled utterance. When it came their time to speak, Alice’s eyes fixed upon the cold flames of distant suns, flames that twinkled brilliantly, briefly, and then dissolved. Drifting, her vision fixed upon a vortex of Supreme Nothingness, upon the empty stare of ineffability, black and opaque and whirling like a sea of shadow without promise of light. Forever, her eyes fixed straight ahead. Forever, it seemed, they remained silent.