in memoriam

This morning, I learned that a man died. He was not someone I knew well – in fact, I hardly knew him at all. I suppose I knew his wife slightly better, although she was more of an acquaintance, a colleague than a friend. I suppose I say this so as not to lay claim to any part of her grief.

Perhaps she and I had been on some conference panel at some point? Had colleagues in common? The details elude me. But what I remember is one evening, she and this man had me to dinner at their home, which was not far from my childhood home. At some point, we made this discovery – a town in common, some narrow strip of New York state – and it was determined that I should visit them when I was next in the area.

Their house was small, and the volume of their visible possessions – tote bags, magazines, papers, ashtrays, throw pillows, wine glasses, lap blankets – gave the impression that the house itself was bursting at its seams, but it was not uninviting. Bookshelves lined the walls and where there were not shelves, books were stacked – so high that they seemed to hold themselves up by sheer force of will.

She was a small, too – slight of stature, slender, pale. In the house, I perceived her husband to be much larger than she – in size as well as in presence. I recall his deep, sonorous voice, for example, in contrast to her softer, higher pitch.

They had roasted a chicken simply and presented it on a platter, clearing a small section of table of the excess water glasses, small plates, playing cards, silverware, candlesticks, candle ends, and matchbooks.  I am guessing there were potatoes, salad. There was likely wine. We sat at the small table, this man at its head and me on his left side, and the woman stood for a moment, opposite her husband, preparing to serve. She reached over to the platter, thrust her hands inside the roast bird and tore it in half.

This was not simply tugging at a leg or a wing. This was ripping the flesh apart with her bare hands. She proceeded to place a bit of chicken on my plate, on her husband’s, and then on her own. We passed around the other dishes.

The rest of the evening passed unremarkably. We laughed and joked, told the few stories we all tell in new company – those meant to reveal our best qualities, but in the most humble, self-deprecating ways we can think to tell them. There was perhaps coffee and lemon cake at the end of the meal?  

There was, in retrospect, something of an unreal quality to the event. The house – cartoonishly overstuffed; the way in which the smallness of the house seemed to exaggerate the difference in their sizes relative to each other; and the rather comical way she served the meal. Nothing in my memory suggests that anything other than pleasant conversation transpired, although I suppose it should be noted that neither were any enduring affinities ignited – it was the last time I saw either one of them.

I don’t know why I spend so much time thinking about this when I hear that he has died – his death, sudden and surreal in its own way. Or why what I remember most vividly about that evening – those hours spent in the company of this man and this woman whose lives inexplicably and fleetingly intersected my own – is how attentively he watched her as she told some joke or another, how his face was broad and open, and how his laughter filled the small room. And how she held his gaze steadily as she spoke, gesturing with her hands, which were slick and glossy with chicken fat.