Standing in line at a Trinity Lutheran pot luck, Hans held a tray balancing a plate, a soup bowl, and a glass of ice tea. Two lines of church members, mostly old folks, hovered around a long table covered from edge to edge with metal pans, foil pans, tupperware, glassware, baskets, crock pots, and paper buckets.
He eyed the foods before him: potato salad, egg salad, bean salad, salad salad, cole slaw, ham, garlic bread, fried chicken, deviled eggs, bread pudding, barbecue ribs, two jellos (one red, one green) containing grapes, apple slices, carrot shreds, and other unidentifiable fruits, three casseroles—all of which looked the same before serving spoons pierced cheese crust to reveal bizarre assortments of meats, cheeses, and vegetables—and four types of brownies, of which the plastic-topped pan of store-bought fudge brownies remained sadly whole, the chocolate’s shiny surface unpunctured, until people got up for seconds.
None of it looked all that appetizing, but Hans could already picture the grinning and the yawning and the belly patting that would follow as the white-haired ladies and suspendered old men grabbed their walkers and headed for the chapel for the weekly Lenten service.
The line inched along at a turtle’s pace, people looking at the food and then each other and then the food like they’d never seen the likes of it before and didn’t know what to pick first and had to relearn how to plop a glob of whatever on their plate each time.
For better or for worse, these were Hans’s people: the proud, stout German-American Lutherans with last names like Weiss, Mueller, Friedrichs, Reinhardt, Dierdorf, Kohler, Gottfried. Not to mention his own name. His mother (in line next to him) used to say how glad she was to move back to the St. Louis area from Chicago—to hear those German names again and see the shorter, rounder people (because the average Chicagoan is lean, tall, and either Italian, Irish, or Polish). His uncle Karl (already started on the oozing mush of egg and potato salads) liked to excuse his love handles and double-chin by citing the Schumann family’s big-boned Bavarian descent.
Sure, the Schumanns could trace their lineage back to a little village in the Alps, but if they ever actually visited the Fatherland as Hans had, they’d realize how wholly American they were. Germans still knew how to walk places, how grow produce without genetically engineered seeds and pesticides, how to finish every slurp of every sauce on their plates instead of loading up a second serving.
Finally seated, Hans took in the scene. If, as his father’s stereotypes had it, Catholic suppers were raucous affairs with dozens of kids running wild, then Lutheran suppers were the exact opposite. These people—his people—were almost too meek to reproduce. Hans attended Sunday school, starred in nativity plays, took confirmation classes, joined the youth group. There were kids then, a few years ago. Not many, but a few. Now they had vanished, as though they’d never been born.
Hans could not help but picture the people that remained—these poor, pious souls—dying off one by one over the course of the next ten, fifteen years from clogged arteries and lack of exercise.
As a lump of jello slid down his throat, his mother talking weather to an old goat with a prosthetic hand, he pictured the wooden double-doors to Trinity slamming shut for good. The plaster statue of Christ gathering dust. The stained glass windows shattering at the hands of vandals chucking tar-covered chunks of loose concrete.