By J.D. Schraffenberger
Whole Appalachian suburbs dot the north, pockets of mountain folk finding each other far from home. The church voices of old people here: like banjos now as they praise the lord.
The church itself shines—a great geodesic dome Grandpa helped click together from a kit, piece by piece—skylights placed to catch the sun in shafts and beams that touch the sheen of his polished podium.
The congregation: serene old people bow their heads, quiet. But when Grandpa gets excited and the shafts of light scream, these old people get up, they dance, my grandma weeping, red-faced, waving her hand above her like a confused, grievous beauty queen. This is the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen.
My dad, who grew up in the city across the river, taught my brothers and me how to be ironic about God: being Catholic, this came easy to him. But his face in prayer is serious and quiet, too.
Grandpa begins grace with a deep bass Lord, and Grandma sprinkles a high lonesome Jesus here and there into the prayer: the name lisps, Jesus, a whisper, Jesus, the name on her teeth cutting through all irony. Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.
I learned quite young to make my brothers laugh by imitating Grandma. We played video games, and when I won, I whispered the same sincere Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Now during grace I look up at Jonathan, who is red-faced, eyes clenched tight.
And there at the funeral home, I say it, my father and brothers and me gathered in a small circle in the corner: Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Jonathan, who has been released from the hospital to attend the funeral, laughs loud and can’t stop, a frenzied laughter, worried laughter, his eyes frightened and begging me. He clenches his fists, pounds his thighs.
When the others
look at us, huddled in our safe corner, I put my hand on Jonathan’s
shoulder, think I’m sorry, say Shh, think, David, this
isn’t happiness, I swear, say It’s okay, think
These are our tears.
J.D. Schraffenberger is the winner of the Seattle Review's 2005 Poetry Contest, and his fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by The Louisville Review. His other work appears or is forthcoming in Dogwood, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Poetry Midwest, English Journal, and H_NGM_N. He is also the editor of Harpur Palate and co-director of Writing By Degrees, the annual creative writing conference at Binghamton University, where he is a Ph.D. student.