When the virus began, no one paid much attention. It was wallflower news, wedged between more essential stories like school shootings, the stock market, and political controversies. Then it was upon us, a rogue wave crashing over the world, leaving no safe place to bury or mourn the dead.
Jordan told me it would pass. He whispered this to me the night before, after the military rationed out the vaccine one by one, puncturing our veins, ripe as earthworms, ready for the burn, ready for the feeling of ordinary to return. But it never did.
Do we all deserve this end? he asked.
The vaccine failed, and with it, the collapse of hope. We stopped counting bodies and focused on counting our coins instead. I watched him as he dropped each gold coin into a mason jar over and over, the numbers starting new each time. One, two, three, four.
People with money were able to pay for funerals. Mortuaries stripped themselves overnight and woke to remodeled insides, their guts reconnected with safety glass stretching from wall to wall. We watched as an unending line of masks with deadpan faces hidden underneath inched their way six feet by six feet toward an open doorway. Jordan grabbed my hand before I could react, pulling me away from our garden wall. Months earlier, we planted the strawberry bushes before summer took hold. Don’t bury the crown, he reminded me, a warning from the summer prior when the weeds choked the roots until they turned black and broke. This year, we filled our hands with berries sore with juice, staining our skin the color of the sky before it shattered.
Perhaps this is the reason why I didn’t notice the rash?
At night, I treated his angry skin with warm cloths soaked in milk wash and lemons. The smell of citrus soothed the fear, and he began sleeping more than he was awake. My sickbag of emotions rattled inside me, and for the first time, I felt relief the baby died before it could be born, before we could give it a name. Sometimes roots can’t be saved, he said, leaning into my sobs as we rocked back and forth. Sometimes we never know why.
We ate the last of the summer harvest as the lines of people became outnumbered by the shadows of cars creeping the streets past the funeral homes. Brilliant bodies displayed as mannequins in a department store window, cars full of mourners driving leisurely by, some stopping until inevitably the car behind them honked, the casket rolled away, and a new one replaced it. The dead had become demigods for the New World.
The night before he died, I cooked two suppers worth of sweet green okra, peach-blushed corn, and smoked meat from our garden rabbit. I placed the knife at the top of the animal’s throat, where the white fluff mixed with the brown fur, its heartbeat filling the warm, empty kitchen. With the cut came a scream—both the rabbit’s and mine–blood from its womb-warm belly coating my hands the color of strawberry jam. Jordan ate each piece I fed him, whispering between bites, poor Fred, oh, poor, pitiful Fred. We should have never given it a name. Our nightly ritual became counting each coin into his palms until he told me to stop, that it was enough. Drive-by funerals, he said, laughing until he couldn’t. Don’t make mine a drive-by funeral. The morning Jordan died, I left his body wrapped in alcohol-drenched sheets and found my way to the seed sower, paying her all the coins and stuffing my pockets until they sagged. That evening, I buried him in the garden before the soil grew cold. One by one, I dug holes for each heirloom seed, dragon carrots, bull’s blood beets, and seascape strawberry, his favorite. He knew his body would be enough to keep the garden nourished. The mourners howled their grief into the night, and I felt my own sorrow dig its claws into my throat, but I had work to do. Morning would come soon, and with it, all of the sadness of last night’s dead. I stood watch over the soil where his body laid beneath, the body I once shared nights of unending pleasure, then endless days. A body that helped me create another body. Now I wait. That’s all that is left to do. I wait for the seeds to sprout, for the roots to awaken and take their hold.
My memaw Libby, that’s what everyone called her—Libby—was a school cafeteria cook in Logansport, Indiana. She died when I was a baby, so I didn’t know her, but I was gifted her recipe book, something that has become sacred to me. It’s a way for me to get to know her through the food she loved to prepare. The only thing is, the recipes call for large servings (think an entire K-12 school serving size), so it’s been quite the feat to figure out how to downsize. Still, these recipes showcase something deeper, something we all know as families, cultures, and communities: food is love.
In “Drive-by Funeral,” the food represents a different kind of nourishment, one of survival. During the early stages of the pandemic, I found myself drawn to the oddness of the news, wondering what the next headline would be that outdid the next. A drive-by funeral caught my eye during a time when honoring and burying our dead was unsafe. Everything was unsafe. And so, the drive-by funeral was born. But this story goes beyond the rituals of survival. It’s about loss, fortitude, and love of self to keep living, even when everything around us is dying. Memaw—Libby—speaks to me within the recipes I inherited and the food she loved during war. During gardening out of necessity, jarring, pickling, and bomb-shelter preparedness. We are no longer in war, at least not with another country, but we are still fighting dark times. Food can act as a binding to bring us together. This is why I’m sharing Libby’s Freezer Jam. Eat, share, freeze for a later date.
Hillary Leftwich is the author of three books: Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press, 2019), Aura, a memoir (Future Tense Books, 2022), and Saint Dymphna’s Playbook (2023). She received her MFA in fiction and poetry from The Mile High MFA at Regis University. She reads/selects/judges for The Colorado Book Awards and is a Kenyon Review scholarship alumnus (CNF, 2021). Her writing has been published in print and online in Best Small Fictions (2021), The Rumpus, Entropy, Denver Quarterly, and others. She is the owner of Alchemy Author Services & Writing Workshop, teaches creative writing at Lighthouse Writers, University of Denver’s College for Professional Studies, and is a visiting assistant professor at Colorado College’s English Department, where she teaches fiction. She lives in Denver with her partner, son, and their cat, Larry, where she also hosts/organizes At the Inkwell Denver, a literary reading series and liberated space for all voices.