Harriet arrived at the church at half past three in the afternoon. She was a full hour early for the Mass, and had nabbed a prime parking spot – barely thirty feet from the steps of St. Paul’s. Unfortunately, she was a bit too early, and the coned off area reserved for the hearse was still empty. She left the engine running, letting the air conditioner blow fight the day’s heat. Impatiently, she drummed on her thighs and scoped out the neighborhood. It was a nice area, but painfully suburban. Blocks of local business lined the sidewalks until they gave way to cavernous white homes. It seemed every street in the town was chosen from a list of pleasant names drafted sometime in the late 1950s – Elm, Maple, Sycamore, etc. She was parked on Park Street – no shit.
She checked her watch out of habit. The funeral was to begin at 4:30 pm – of this she was certain. She had read the obituary no less than a dozen times since coming across it in the Sunday paper. Rather, she had read the first sentence of the obituary a dozen times. On the passenger’s seat next to her, the paper was open to the page and it was circled in deep, red ink.
Thomas Montgomery Ignacio was called home to the Lord on August 13th, 1994 after a severe allergic reaction to the Eucharist. Services will be held at St. Paul’s Catholic Church this Tuesday, August 21st at 4:30pm.
The obituary went on to mention Thomas’s dedication to his family and associated nonsense, but Harriet paid those details very little attention. As a long-time reader of obituaries and funeral attendee, she had never come across anything half as interesting as a man dropping dead after consuming the Body of Christ. Initially, she thought somebody must be having her on – mocking her secret hobby by planting a story too good to be true. To make doubly certain, she phoned the bank where a collection was being taken up for the man’s wife and son in lieu of flowers. The woman who answered sadly confirmed that it was true – Thomas had collapsed soon after swallowing his communion wafer and died before the ambulance arrived. Harriet hung up as the woman started explaining how she could donate to the family.
After twenty more anxious minutes, a gaudy white and silver hearse pulled past Harriet’s car and parallel parked between the cones. Almost giddy, she watched as two men in cheap suites rolled the casket out onto a gurney and wheeled the dead man up a ramp on the side of the church. She waited a while longer for good measure, as others began to show up and file into the church. Finally, at ten past four, she cleared the dandruff from her shoulders with a brush from the glove compartment, saddened her face appropriately in the rearview mirror, and choked the engine.
Inside the church, the men had unloaded the gurney in front of the altar, sliding the casket onto a low table flanked by flowers. In front of the dead man, they had placed a small kneeling bench where a short, plump man was praying with his head resting on the lip of the open casket. Harriet took a seat in the back pew and craned her neck for a peek at the body. Her heartbeat was gaining speed – as it always did – anticipating some sort of thrill. Silently, she pieced together the face she might expect in the silk-lined box. In her mind, she saw the lifeless color of his skin and the waxy shine of his lips.
Finally, the plump man was finished, returning to his seat while wiping tears away from his eyes. Harriet eyed the meager crowd, but didn’t see anyone else approaching. She stood and made her way down the aisle, taking special care to move slowly and avoid any form of eye contact. The click of her heels on the marble floor echoed around the church as she passed by one whispered conversation after another. Finally, she reached the bench and kneeled, crossing herself in what she hoped was convincing fashion, and taking his first good look at the man who was allergic to Jesus Christ.
Sometime during the flourish of the opening hymn, Harriet sneaked out through a side door. She passed two joggers on the way to her car, where she cranked up the air conditioner, crumpled the newspaper and cried.