My Uncle Walter dies and we have chicken, beef, and sausage,
family style, at his funeral dinner at the American Legion Hall. I am eleven and my older brothers, sixteen and fifteen, engage in a contest. They each devour an entire fried chicken, a platter of sliced beef with gravy, and enough fresh Polish to wrap around their wastes as a belt. The seven of us are at a table, one off from the front, where our mother and father sit with my mother’s mother and her brother and two sisters. My mother doesn’t eat, just consoles our grandmother, who is inconsolable, her baby Waller in the ground from pancreatic cancer. The serving woman who has to keep bringing plates to my brothers whispers something to my father, who looks our way: He knows. He stands and walks to our table, sits between my brothers. Who’s winning? he wants to know, and our sister, Barbara, declares it a dead heat. Dad signals for the serving woman to come to our table, tells her to bring two more plates of roast beef and when the woman rolls her eyes, my father tells her to bring more fried chicken, too, to make sure everything is in pairs: two breasts, two thighs, two legs, two wings. My brothers gorge themselves until the older one, Eddie, throws up into his hand, chunks of casing and chicken skin coating his palm. When everyone has gone, when my Uncle Jim has taken my grandmother home, my mother sits at our table and eats a breast and the rest of the kielbasa, smothering it in beet horseradish. She raises a glass of Seven Up and says, To Uncle Walter! and those of us who have drinks toast with her. To Uncle Walter!
Three years later and my oldest sister, Debbie, marries Anthony the Cop, an Italian from St. Sebastian’s, the parish across town. My mother and his mother argue for weeks about the wedding menu, almost ending the marriage, or worse, causing Debbie and Anthony the Cop to elope. Anthony’s mother does not want chicken, beef, and sausage, but a chicken dish, plus three kinds of pasta. My mother says to my father, at least a hundred times, Pasta! At a wedding! Who’s ever heard of such a thing? In the end we all win, the Polack half and the Dago half, as we have chicken, beef, and sausage and chicken cacciatore and spaghetti and mostaccioli. Mom gave in on the sauerkraut, which doesn’t seem right, but Anthony the Cop’s mom gave up a third pasta, so it’s fair. Eddie, just back from basic, cleans the table with me and Paul, Eddie’s new muscular frame capable of consuming chicken, beef, and sausage at inhuman rates and levels. Paul says it’s unfair, then throws up into the balloon centerpiece. I blame myself, lured early into helpings of mostaccioli, pasta lining my gut like a tight sweater. Our father participates, too, holding his own for the first round—I secretly pull for him, knowing I can’t win—but Dad drops out, declares he has to dance with Debbie, the first dance, and needs to stay agile. Our mother will deny this until the day she dies, but I think my father was already sick at that time, his body unable to process anything, let alone C-B-S, not like he used to. He looks good on the dance floor, though, dipping and spinning Debbie like he’s folding a sheet. When he hands her over to Anthony the Cop, now Anthony-our-brother-in-law, he is smiling, wider than he ever had before, wider than he ever would again.
Dad begins to decline in December. Barbara and Genny plan weddings, expediting to summer so dad will be around, though no one says this aloud. Barbara marries Bruce, a linebacker on the Bears, their wedding at the Field Museum, a Sunday night, the museum closed to the public. Our mother has nothing to do with the planning, least of all the menu, and when dinner starts, a whole lobster and slab prime rib are placed in front of us. Eddie is overseas and Paul and I want to eat-off, but to our dismay, the dinners are by plate, not family style. Paul and I finish before the back tables get their salads, play with the lobster carcasses, staring at the dinosaur skeleton looming above. It looks ravished. Five weeks later, Genny marries Neal, the opposite of Bruce, a bearded hippy who’s fifty, both of them vegetarians. The ceremony and reception are in the back yard of the Quonset hut where they’ll live. Eddie is home and needs to escort Genny to the altar, Dad gaunt. Our mother cries the whole time, and so do the rest of us, some for Genny, some for Dad. There’s no need to go into what they serve after, what we don’t even try to eat.
At our father’s funeral that fall, our mother declares no contests, but Paul and Eddie and I think it would be blasphemous, that our father would have wanted us to compete. Eddie is still a hulking mass but he’s cocky, and Paul and I more than hold our own before our mother comes to our table and puts an end to our shenanigans, says the Legion Hall cook does not have enough beef for all the tables because of us. She begins to cry, asking us why we can’t just behave, be normal, then takes a deep breath orders us to finish the contest, to have our fill. We oblige. For Dad.
When Eddie is killed in Afghanistan ten months later, we do not have an after-dinner: There is no body to bury, no reason to go to a cemetery. There is a ceremony in the church, attended by nearly everyone we have ever met, the entire town rallying behind our mother, the kindergarten teacher at the elementary school, everyone in the town having had their noses wiped by her at some point. After, we drive in a procession past the high school, where Eddie starred in track and basketball, then the procession follows us to our house. Paul and I ride with Mom in her Skylark, our sisters and their husbands in Bruce’s Escalade. Nearly a hundred cars honk as they pass, disseminating at the end of the block. My mother stands between Paul and I and waves and mouths Thank you! to every one of them. It starts to rain but my mother does budge. Marie, the baby, produces an umbrella and I hold it over my mother’s head as we wave. Paul holds the triangular American flag, which the Marine Corps honor guard folded and handed to our mother. When the last car with the orange FUNERAL sign in its window passes, my mother goes inside. We sit in the family room, taking up every seat except the love seat by the window. I point to it and say that this is where Dad and Eddie would have sat, where they should be sitting. The TV is on but I cannot tell you what the program is. We have not eaten yet, any of us, and someone, maybe Anthony the Cop, says he wishes there was a dinner. We order a pizza, along with a beef sandwich with no peppers for Mom, who can’t stomach tomatoes any more. When she can’t eat the second half, Paul and I pretend to fight over it, lunging like we’re going to wrestle. Neither of us eats it. Debbie wraps it in wax paper, tells our mother it’s on the top shelf of the fridge, that she can finish it tomorrow, when all of us are gone, at her own pace.
Michael Czyzniejewski’s most recent collection of stories is I Will Love You For the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories (Curbside Splendor, 2015). He is Editor-in-Chief of Moon City Review and serves as Managing and Literary Editor for Moon City Press.