Dear UK readers:
I am so thrilled to have my second novel, Eating Heaven, published in your country! You can buy it here. Unfortunately, there has been a problem with the production of the UK edition, and typographical errors were introduced into the text. I hope this won't interfere with your reading experience, but if it does, please contact me here
and let me know.
In particular, on pages 299-302, text has been shifted out of place. You can read the corrected pages below.
Thanks for your understanding, and for your readership! We hope to have this issue sorted out soon.
The church is empty and quiet when Anne, Christine, and I arrive forty-five minutes before the service is to begin. There is no coffin, no body. Benny's ashes are in Yolanda's safekeeping. She's thinking of fertilizing the flower gardens at the house this fall with her new improved mix, she said, winking, and I don't doubt she will.
The small sanctuary of light wood and colored glass bursts with flowers, some from florist shops, some from people's gardens: marigolds, daisies, zinniasflowers that thrive in the heat of summer. "Benny had so many friends," Christine says as we all stop mid-aisle to take it in.
To the right of the pulpit sits a glossy red tray holding a pyramid of oranges, a glass of tea, a stick of incense, unlit. I suck in my breath, cover my mouth with my hand. I never called him.
"What do you think that is?" Christine asks.
"It looks like some kind of offering," Anne says.
I kneel to take a small white envelope from beneath the glass. Inside, a plain white card reads:
With profound respect and sadness for your family,
"Who's that?" Christine asks, reading over my shoulder.
"Ellie's got herself a man," Anne says, and pulls Christine away to tell her the juicy details.
I turn the card over, but the other side is blank. Disappointed that there isn't a more personal message, a familiar sense of doom rushes inwill he really wait, is he really trustworthy? Or is he just like everybody else? I read the message again, gaze upon the perfectly stacked oranges, the care taken in each item's placement, and I know he came all the way down here to do this himself. I remember his loose embrace as I slept, so familiar even though we barely knew each other. And he never lied to meI just never let him tell the truth. I tuck the card back into its envelope, place it back on the tray for later, when we're poring over cards and notes and good wishes, writing thank you notes, and imagine Anne and Christine and Yolanda teasing me about my new boyfriend.
The church begins to fill, first with Yolanda's profusion of family members. After Yolanda, they seek out Anne, Christine, and me, the older women hugging us like we're long-lost daughters, the men shaking our hands and casting sympathetic eyes to the floor. And then the mechanics and their wives come, and Benny's neighbors. One of the photography class couples even shows up, just minutes before the service starts, and then it's time to sit down.
The church minister walks out, followed by Yolanda's priest, who says a blessing in Spanish. Yolanda has returned to the faith of her girlhood, and her parting gift to Benny is one more lottery ticket for heaven, she hopes.
The service begins in earnest and I float away somewhere, not listening, wondering what Benny would think of all this. He'd be tickled at the truckload of flowers, at the impressive attendance. I have no idea if he believed in heaven, and I realize for the millionth time that I knew so little about Benny even though I sometimes felt I knew him best.
As a kid, I hoped heaven would be a 3-D version of our Candyland board gameunlimited consumption of candy being the ultimate reward. I've never been one to believe in fluffy white clouds and angels playing harps, but it's hard to believe there's absolutely nothing. Did Benny's soul die along with his body, or did he travel down that beam of light toward his mother and father, his brother? Rosemary? Is there a heaven that we can't even imagine, or is it simply here on earth? Maybe Benny's heaven was when he was a child and didn't know what life had in store for him, or when Yolanda married him. Maybe it was back when we were all a family, passing the potato salad, blowing out birthday candles, leaning back in lawn chairs as the cricket-chorus night descended upon us. Maybe heaven came and went, and we never knew it.
The priest and the minister bow their heads. I lower my head with the others. "Dear whatever-you-are," I pray. "Please just let him be at peace."
From the hushed quiet, Lover Man
begins to play on the stereo Anne bought for Benny. A young man, Yolanda's nephew thrice removed, has been employed by my sister as DJ, and seems to relish his job sitting at the front of the church. A murmur moves through the crowd, a small laugh of surprise, and then everyone settles in to listen and dream their own thoughts to Sarah Vaughn's smoke and pepper voice. I close my eyes and picture the Fremont Bridge, Benny dancing along it, arms open as if he's holding a partner, eyes closed, face smiling and peaceful as he steps into the low-hanging clouds and disappears.
When the song ends, the minister asks if anyone would like to speak and Christine rises, new polka-dot maternity dress rustling against me. She walks to the front and smiles at the audience, then breaks down, arms rising against her face, body stooping in a pregnant crescent.
"Oh, shit," Anne whispers, then stands and strides to Christine, puts an arm around her to try to lead her back to her seat.
"No," Christine wails, standing her ground, and sobs harder.
Anne's face colors but she stands with Christine while she cries, in front of everyone, protective arm around her shoulder. After blowing her nose and wiping her face, Christine motions for Anne to sit down, and says, "God, I didn't think I'd do that!"
Everyone laughs, whether from relief or empathy, who knows. As she begins to speak, I turn around to look at these kind people behind me, to smile a thank you to those I know. What I'd thought was a good-size crowd of fifty or so has grown to include a large standing-room crowd at the back of the church, doors open and spilling people outside onto the sunny sidewalk. The looks on their faces reminds me of the guests at my father's funeral, only I didn't get it then. I didn't feel the solidarity of sitting together to mourn the end of a human life, didn't understand the importance of this one last ritual: paying respect, praying for that better life we all wish so desperately for when someone we love is floating off into the distance. Tears come to my eyes for the first time today, not just for Benny, but for Dad and for all the things we never were to each other.
And then I see her, deep in the shadow of the back right cornera small, older woman in a form-fitting black dress, hair perfectly coiffed under a loosely draped scarf, and movie star-size sunglasses on her face.
My mother has always been the most dramatic person I've known.
I turn back around, smiling, which is a fairly inappropriate response to Christine's earnest speech. I press a crumpled tissue against my lips and try to focus on the rest of the service, until the opening notes of Vivaldi's Four Seasons
, and we all rise and turn to go.
My mother has beaten a hasty retreat. She's nowhere in sight.
At Benny's house, the small rooms are jammed to overflowing with people. In the past five minutes alone, I've met his insurance agent, his barber, the guy who sharpened his lawn mower blade. People fill the back patio, the front step, the yards front and back.
"We're going to run out of everything," I grumble to Christine as we throw more hot dogs, steaks, and burgers on Benny's old barbecue grill outside. Yolanda's sisters and cousins arrived early to set out the salads and appetizers and side dishes, but it's all going fast.
"They're not here for the food," Christine says, ripping open another package of hot dogs. "They just want to be as close to him as possible."
An old man in a bolo tie and suspenders approaches us. I vaguely remember that he is one of Yolanda's uncles. "You girls, you shouldn't be doing that," he says, waving an arthritic hand much like Benny's at us. "Go, go. I'll see to this. This is man's work." He beats a fist against his chest, taking a macho stance.
"No, really, it's okay," I say, smiling through gritted teeth. "We want to."
"Well, I don't," Christine says. "Come on, just let him, Ellie."
"No," I say, too strongly, too stubbornly. "If I'm not doing this, I won't know what else to do." I pause and she looks at me, not comprehending. "This is what I do. I cook. I feed. Food is what I do for...I don't know. For everyone."
"Let someone else do it for a while," she says, taking my arm, smiling at the old man and pulling me away. "Maybe it's time you learned how to do something else."
I weave in and out of the crowd, stopping to chat with the photography class couple, who remember my name even though I don't remember theirs. "Johnson," the man says. "Virginia and Lou. We've kept up with your mother over the years, mostly at Christmas. We always enjoyed our time with your family so much."
And then it's this neighbor and that dear old friend, all of whom saw me seated at the front of the church and who want to tell me how sorry they are, and what a wonderful guy Benny was.
All I can say to any of them is, "I know."
I'm looking for my mother. It may be stubborn and childish thinking on my part, but if she made an appearance at the church, she may come here. I cover the entire backyard with no sightings. She's not in the living or dining room, not in the kitchen. I doubt she'd be in either of the bedrooms; still I peek into Benny's bedroom, and the sewing room, both empty.
I cut back through the thicket of people in the living room and step through the front door into the sweltering afternoon. It figures that the weather would be sunny for Benny's big going away party. My mother's Saab is parked a half block away, wedged at an angle between two other cars, and she's sitting in the driver's seat.
I walk quickly toward her, hoping she won't drive away when she sees me. "Mom," I call when I get close. "Why don't you come in?"
She shakes her head and holds her hand up against me, palm out. Stop. She is crying beneath the Sophia Loren sunglasses; she is a wreck, but so am I. So is everyone. Why should she suffer any more profoundly than the rest of us?
I lean down, hand on the hot roof of the car, looking at her through the open window.
"Mom. Seriously. Just come in."
"Eleanor, you of all people should know that I can't. I just can't." She shields her face with the hand that tried to stop me and turns away.
I straighten, stand in the middle of the street. The afternoon is still, not a breeze or cloud in sight, and filled with summer afternoon sounds: lawn mowers, kids shouting in someone's backyard, sprinklers ratcheting and hissing, ratcheting and hissing. I take a deep breath, hold it for a moment, then close my eyes. I want to pound on the top of her car with my fists, grab her by the throat and drag her out of the stupid car. I want to scream at her until she gets a clue that she is not the only one on this earth who ever lost someone they loved.
I sigh, shake my head, look back at the house. Benny always took such pride in its appearance, sticking to his first color scheme of white with salmon-colored shutters, painting it himself every five years. The lawn is perfectly edged against the sidewalks, the trees in their deepest leafy green.
I look back at Mom, her head now tilted back against the headrest.
I walk to the passenger side, open the door, and get in.
"Let's get out of here," I say. "We need to talk."