I caught a late flight from the west coast to the funeral. Landed in Pittsburgh at four in the morning, not early enough to check into my hotel and get any sleep, not late enough to have gotten any real rest on the plane. My eyes felt heavy and itchy as I went through the motions of picking up my bags, catching a cab to the dingy hotel I’d selected for affordability, dropping off my bags, and picking up a greasy Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast sandwich just as the sun was rising.
It was mid-May, but it was cold in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania didn’t really get the springtime memo until June, and then it was three months of pushing-ninety-percent humidity. I’d almost forgotten after my sunny years in California.
Meet me there, my brother had texted me, seventeen dull and numb hours ago. I’ve finalized arrangements. You just have to be there a little beforehand to test out the mic.
My response had been quick, dashed-off, an attempt to belie how heavy my hands felt. Yep
I finished the breakfast sandwich just as the grimy cab I’d called pulled up to the drab, cramped building where I’d be spending the morning. The sky was gray, not threatening rain or snow, no clouds visible really; gray was just the color the sky was this time of year. And the air was dense and stuffy enough it felt like this whole street was indoors somewhere. Like maybe this was all a set stage, flat as cardboard, and I was moving through a world that didn’t breathe.
The cab pulled away. It left a smell of wet gas behind. I approached the door, letting the smell of clean and plain and sterile things replace it.
A man in a dark, dull suit exactly like mine awaited me on the other side, his face already trained in careful sympathy.
“Ah,” he said. “You must be John.”
I gave what I hoped was a convincing half-smile. “I hope I’m not too early.”
“Not at all. Sam told us to expect you around now.”
Sam’s voice came from the right. “Hey, Jack.”
I looked up. He was standing in the doorway to the next room, his suit the same colors as mine and the funeral director’s - I’d forgotten, too, how monochrome the colors were here. Though they were surely more monochrome for this occasion. His face was a little paler than I remembered - was that for the occasion, too, or was it the result of his having moved to Vermont when I took off for California? I wondered if I was pale, or if my suntan looked rude here in the north in the gray spring.
“Good to see you,” he said.
I nodded awkwardly. “Yeah. You - uh - you too.”
The silence between us stretched a little too long. I became aware, peripherally yet in an almost overwhelming way, that I was surrounded by nothing but tan and beige and brown - brown and brown and brown, a million shades of the same dirt-color. Surrounded like I was being buried alive.
“How long’s it been?” I asked, clutching for a conversation thread.
“Oh, three or four years, hasn’t it?”
Three or four years. It sounded right. I hadn’t had the chance to visit Dad with Sam - I visited him alone, a few months ago, but it was a weekend Sam was busy with work and we couldn’t coordinate. I’d said goodbye to Dad alone, without knowing - or knowing a little, knowing in the way you always know a little - that it was goodbye.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Where’s your restroom?”
The funeral director pointed it out, and I hastened away. No one else was there when I entered; I headed straight for a sink and turned on the tap, splashing freezing-cold water on my face. That shock offset the numbness a little, and got me to stop thinking about being buried in dirt.
I examined myself in the mirror. No, there wasn’t a spot of paleness on my face. My eyes weren’t bloodshot, despite my night without sleep. My hair was even neatly arranged. And despite my reflections that all our suits looked the same, mine was clearly expensive, well-tailored. I was every inch the bright young professional.
Had it really been four years?
They took me to the room where his casket was. Folding chairs stood in neat rows waiting for the rest of the family, and up front was the podium and the mic. I fingered the index cards in my jacket pocket as I approached it.
“How’s it sound?” I asked, leaned down into the mic.
“Don’t lean down like that,” said the funeral director. “Stand straight, like you will when you’re doing the real eulogy. We’ll adjust the mic for you.”
I straightened, working not to look embarrassed. “Is this better?”
“Just fine.” The director moved toward the back of the room. “Could you give us the first few words of the address, and I’ll make sure the sound reaches back here?”
A slight flush entered my cheeks despite my best efforts. Stupid, to be embarrassed at the beginning of a speech I’d written myself, that I’d known I was coming to read out to everyone in my family. But it suddenly felt silly and sentimental. Not the kind of thing I wanted to read out as test audio in front of no one but my brother and a stranger.
Stupid. I cleared my throat and pulled out my first index card. “Uh, when - when I was around eight years old, my dad started making olive bread on Saturdays.”
I heard my voice project to the back of the room. I knew the sound was good, that the funeral director and Sam had both heard every word. I nodded quickly and stepped down without looking at them. I tucked the card away again, my eyes on the dirt-beige carpet, mind working fast to paper over my senseless self-consciousness. But before I could entirely remove myself from the scene, I heard my brother’s tiny, quiet intake of breath.
Oh, he must know what I was going to talk about. Dad’s olive bread was the kind of stupid heartwarming mush you heard around Christmas time on the radio. He started out terrible at it, he’d never baked a day in his life, but Sam and I would choke it down to make him feel better. We’d tell him it was the best olive bread we’d ever had - it was a joke between the two of us, because it wasn’t really a lie. We’d never had olive bread from anyone else. But over the years, as gray springs like this melted into heavy, humid summers and then into the glorious kind of vibrant orange-and-red autumns you can’t find anywhere in the south, his craft improved. We started looking forward to the smell of fresh baking on Saturday afternoons. We’d charge down the stairs when the oven dinged, and demand olive bread slices right this second, not a thought in our heads anymore about his feelings. And he’d be so pleased we liked it that he wouldn’t even hold back for fear we’d lose our dinner appetites.
I hadn’t had any olive bread since I left for California. That was longer than four years, coming up on a decade now. But I still remembered the later years, when Sam and I were in high school and slammed with sleep-crushing work, or bickering over whose turn it was to take the trash out, and then the smell of that olive bread would waft up into our room and we’d brighten, and stand to charge down the stairs, and decide another week was worth getting through if we had Dad’s olive bread to spoil our appetites with.
I knew Sam knew that was what my eulogy was about. If I’d looked up then, when I heard the little breath-intake from the back of the room, maybe we could have connected. Had a real conversation, said something of what we were really feeling. But I was already halfway through the process of covering my feelings up again, and there was no chance for honesty now.
It wasn’t long after that the rest of the family started arriving.
Concealment was easier in a crowd. Aunts and uncles and cousins swarming around me, telling me I looked well, complimenting my suit which was the same color as theirs but a better style - all attempting the same trick of light, grief-free conversation - meant I could simply coast through the room without thinking too hard. Only a couple of people were openly grieving. Hanging by the walls, eyes on the casket, voices strained and cracked when they spoke. I kept my interactions with them to a minimum. Just enough to be polite. I kept my posture straight and my words calm and my face neutral through the whole ordeal, and was mentally congratulating myself by the time everyone was seated and the funeral proper ready to start.
Sam was far away. I saw him in glimpses, but his posture was straight too, his words calm, face neutral. What upstanding sons we were.
I didn’t pay attention to what was said before I went up for the eulogy. My ears were buzzing, and I welcomed it - another layer to add to the numbness. Easier to block everything out until this was all over. I was already fantasizing about that dingy hotel room I’d dropped my bags in a few hours ago, and what a long, welcome sleep I’d get on the cheap spring mattress after the funeral got out. And then later, how nice it would be to emerge from my plane into bright southern California, where everyone’s clothes were colorful and palm trees were more common than maple and oak.
My name was called - John, the son of the deceased - and I was poised when I stood and approached the podium. I gave that half-convincing half-smile to the crowd, and stood tall, sure the microphone would pick me up.
I talked about olive bread. My voice didn’t tremble. Others in the audience cried, but I ignored them.
I thought I was in the clear when Sam approached me outside.
Farewells had all been said, and I was halfway in my cab, when he and his pale Vermont face appeared in front of me again. I paused, blinking, wondering if he was here to tell me I’d forgotten something.
But he stammered a little when he spoke. “D’you - is it all right if I crash with you?”
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Of course he needed somewhere to stay, too, before he caught a flight back up north. And we were brothers, after all, and we’d shared a room for most of our childhood. But the request took me aback all the same. And the red in his cheeks, as though he’d confessed to something shameful, told me he understood my confusion just as well as I did. It had been three or four years now.
“Well, sure,” I said, “but I don’t have an extra bed.”
“I’ll take the couch.”
And once we were both in the cab I didn’t have it in me to care anymore, whether Sam was here or not. My all-nighter had caught up to me. The sky was gray, and the sandwich I picked up from another out-of-the-way fast food place for lunch was tasteless, and it was spring in the place my father had lived and died. We got to the hotel room, and I kicked off my shoes and threw off my jacket, and went to sleep on the bed with the rest of my funeral clothes on.
I slept a long, long time. Ridiculously long. I should have woken in the evening, when Sam must have gotten off the couch where he’d crashed and left the hotel room. Or I should have woken when it was dark, and I’d missed dinner and slept longer than I had since I was a child. Or I should have woken when the sun rose, its murky light oozing through the hotel curtains to show me a world where my father was surrounded by dirt.
But in the end it was the smell that woke me.
When I opened my eyes, I thought it all must have been a dream. The funeral, the death, the goodbye, the four years not seeing Sam, California - all a dream, and I was still in high school struggling through stupid Latin vocabulary. And maybe I’d fallen asleep at my desk midafternoon. Because the smell, strong and hearty and heady and warm, was one that always greeted me an hour before dinner.
I didn’t understand the scene in front of me. Sam in a rumpled t-shirt and jeans, lines around and under his eyes, his hair a little receded from his forehead - not high-school Sam, but someone older. Holding a cutting board in one hand and a knife in the other.
“What…” I murmured, and my voice wasn’t my high-school voice.
“Wake up, Jack,” Sam said, and his voice was like none I’d ever heard from him before.
It hadn’t been a dream. I kicked myself up into a sitting position and I knew it was all read. Dad was dead and Sam and I were orphans. But Sam had Dad’s olive bread in his hands - freshly baked, not a relic of some last act of baking but something that hadn’t existed when we were putting Dad’s body in the ground. Dark and thick and soft and mouthwatering.
“I made this,” Sam said. “Dad gave me the recipe before he died. And there was an oven downstairs.”
I looked up at him. Emotions spiked up sharp and hot from my stomach to my throat. I’d done such an admirable job swallowing them yesterday, but I’d slept so long, and the bread smelled so good, and I so strongly felt I was back in our old house and young again, and Sam looked a little like Dad with his hair receding like that -
“You’d better eat.” Sam set the cutting board down on the nightstand. “I’ll cut you some.”
Embarrassment had crumbled. The word was hushed, and cracked, and loaded. When he turned away from the bread and toward me, I knew he saw my eyes were starting to swim. Stupid salt water filling them up so I could hardly see him, but he saw me.
He was gentle, drawing me to my feet and wrapping his arms around me. Like I was still his baby brother and he was still resolved to take care of me. I was more forceful when I hugged him back, clutching at his t-shirt as though that would ground me here. We didn’t say a word, not a question or an apology. My tears streamed silent down onto his shoulder. A second later, before I could even think to be self-conscious, I felt he was crying too.
“I’ve missed you,” he murmured.
“I’ve missed you too.” I sounded like a child.
“We’re going to get through this.”
I held him tighter.
“Jack -” he choked on a sob, sudden and explosive. “I love you, Jack.”
I shut my eyes, and for a moment there was nothing, nothing in the world but the bread.
Four years it had been. And nearly ten since I’d left Pittsburgh the first time. And nothing would ever be the same again without Dad, of course I knew that - and it wouldn’t be long until I was off to California again, to soak in the sun and forget about this bleak chilly town. Yet still, despite everything, this morning Sam and I were about to gorge ourselves on Dad’s olive bread again. And that was enough for today. That was enough to be worth getting through another week, just as it always had been.