Reverend Otis—a tired man in his mid-forties with tired hair and a tired voice—had prepared the funeral eulogy for Hazel Mueller with characteristic lackluster. He’d delivered fine memorials in his earlier years, but the monotonies of life had worn away at his convictions, and for him it had become a bitter pill to make promises to the living about the pearly gates and God’s grace, places and states he’d retained as much belief in as the sexiness of his scalp. So, he’d come to rely on the family of the deceased for the details of his address. Insert his/her place of birth, his/her life accomplishments, then a humorous/touching story, preferably humorous, e.g. when he/she could not find the hardboiled Easter eggs hidden inside the house. But with Hazel Mueller this was not possible, as she was ninety-five and without one living relative.
When Hazel had first called Reverend Otis from Assumption Courts Assisted Living, she’d explained that Burt, her second husband, had died three years ago; that her only sibling Paul had been killed in the war via poison; and that Lucricia, a product of her first marriage to Antonio (also dead), had not performed her duties as daughter, having died childless of emphysema at sixty-two. All this Hazel told Reverend Otis with elaborations and tangents and the high wheeze of the very old. There had been a time when the reverend would have enjoyed this. Felt interest, sympathy even. But her calls came too frequently and her requests for Biblical assurances were too insistent. He would catch himself cringing at the ring of the phone, praying—with momentary
sincerity—“Lord, let this cup pass from me. The whole bowl.” But it did not, for Hazel did die later that winter, during a frigid week in February, and because he was her reverend and because he was not yet immune to shame and, mostly, because she had seen to all the details herself, insisting that she have a proper funeral like a human being who had meant something, the reverend had written her eulogy, sent off the obituary to the town’s small paper, and planned the service for a Thursday night.
On the afternoon before the funeral, though, the town was struck by a massive blizzard. There was ice, then snow, then sleet, then a snow as cold and dry as indifference, a snow the wind whipped into such white that Reverend Otis peered out the windows of his church and saw only God’s unknowable eye.
Half an hour before Hazel Mueller’s funeral service, the snow had mostly stopped, but the wind had not, and the roads were deemed impassable. So when Beulah Schlungen, the organist, rode an icy gust of wind through the church’s front door, shaking her head and blurting out “Brrrrrrr,” Reverend Otis met her with a shocked brow.
“God above, Beulah,” he exclaimed. “You battled conditions like this?”
She shrugged. “Already cashed the lady’s check,” she said, and after another explosive shiver, she handed him her coat, cracked her knuckles, and walked into the sanctuary and up to the massive brown organ, where she was soon practicing Hazel’s favorite hymn, “How Great Thou Art.”
It had been so quiet moments before. Now the deep echoing tones of the music filled up the church, covered the altar, aisle, pews, carpet, walls, and rafters in a thick cloud, a wondrous cloud, sweet-scented and strong, a cloud that used to lift Reverend Otis’ eyes. But now, listening to it, he felt such emptiness, and instead of standing at his post by the entryway door to greet the mourners, he crumpled down in a back pew. He touched the sheet of paper inside his robe on which he’d written Hazel Mueller’s eulogy, but he felt the utter uselessness of the words of comfort he’d penned, the impossibility of saying anything he actually believed.
Some time later, the music came to an abrupt stop.
Reverend Otis jerked, glanced about him, then toward his watch. It was seven minutes past seven, the start of the service.
“Reverend,” Beulah called, peeking her head out from behind the organ, “I think you better come on up here and read.”
Reverend Otis looked around him. Vacant pews. Wholly vacant. Not even the folks from Assumption Court had braved the weather.
“I’d say just read what you wrote, just like the other times.”
“To whom?” Revered Otis asked, then threw his head back and bellowed: “To whom?”
The sound reverberated against the walls of the church.
When he looked again at Beulah, she had stood up, had walked close to the silver casket. She pushed her dyed, permed curls out of her face, peered at the framed picture Hazel had supplied of her younger self, her own hair curly once, her own lips soft and pink, a smile for someone.
Beulah sighed then moved back to the organ. “Well, come on,” she called, and began again to fill up the room with rich, sweeping notes, building toward Hazel Mueller’s hymn.
Reverend Otis rubbed his tired eyes, scratched his balding head, and felt the hollow corners of his body shift—just a little—like a small piece of bread had been dropped in. Slowly, he took to the pulpit. He put his hands on its smooth wood, and with the music rising all around them—all of them—Reverend Otis pulled from his body the words to read.