“God bless the food!” That was how dinner began.
Nine people sat around the table, holding hands. After the prayer was said, everybody released their hands from the circle and began serving each other. The usual pleasant dinner table chatter started up, more pleasant than usual, perhaps, because of the guest.
“How long will you be staying, Jacob?” asked Eleanor, the older woman sitting across the table from Jacob. She was short and petite with graying shoulder-length brown hair. Her brown eyes were steady and seemed to penetrate right through his flesh (“Dark brown eyes, like a puppy dog, but they burn their way to your soul, don’t they?” Lucy would later comment to him.) The question was pleasantly stated, but Jacob sensed an earnestness, or suspicion, in her question. Eleanor was the matriarch of this house; she was guarding her adopted family.
“I’ll probably leave tomorrow after breakfast,” Jacob replied, smiling. “I know you all have work to do, I have to get back home.”
“Where are you from?” asked Jennifer, the tall young lady sitting next to him.
“Have you always lived there?” she asked, speaking slowly.
“Well, I grew up on Long Island, and I lived in Florida and New Jersey for a while, and now I live in New York City, where I work.”
“Where on Long Island did you grow up?” asked Henry, Eleanor’s husband. He was about sixty, tall and thin with short white hair and a white beard.
“Do you know the Island?”
“I lived in Northport for eleven years.”
“Really?” said Jacob. “I grew up in Smithtown. My parents still live there.”
“Excuse me,” interrupted Jennifer, handing Jacob a slice of whole wheat bread. “Could you pass this down to Eleanor to get toasted?”
The dining area was small, but with large windows that admitted plenty of light in the spring evening. The immediate view from the second story of the old mansion was a cherry tree whose young leaves and flowers were animated by a light breeze and several neurotic little sparrows. Around the tree was a circular driveway. Behind it was a long, narrow road that wound its way down the hill. Beyond that was a nice view of the Pennsylvania countryside.
The dining room opened up into a living room space, where there were three yellow couches arranged around a coffee table. The walls were painted white, and decorated with framed watercolors of plants and birds. There was one large, incongruous painting mounted on the wall just behind Eleanor. It was a reproduction of one of the works of Heironymous Bosch. The happy watercolors cowered in deference to it. Beneath the Bosch sat the residents of Apollo House and their guest around the circular table, set with simple white plates and teacups, shiny silverware, pitchers of water, baskets of breads, and bowls of raw vegetables. Next to Eleanor’s chair was a very big, very old toaster. Anybody who wanted their bread toasted passed it around the table to Eleanor. The polite sounds of the Friday dinner on the quiet Pennsylvania farm commune were punctuated from time to time by Eleanor, seated against the dark backdrop of naked sinners, demons, and wild animals, placing a piece of bread into the ancient toaster, and toasting it with a loud, creaky “KA-CHUNK.”
At the end of the meal, everybody held hands and, shaking them with each syllable, said “Thank you for the meal!”
1998. This is closely based on my visit with Debbie who was working at a Christian-utopian community for mentally challenged adults. The names are different and there was no Bosch painting.