Derek opened his eyes and let them rest in the dark of his cupped hands for a few moments after finishing the prayer. He usually prayed before dinner in the manner of his parents, resting his head in his hands, elbows on the table. He knew other families who offered a prayer before dinner by simply holding their palms together in front of themselves, or by holding hands in a circle, but they all closed their eyes. You had to close your eyes. If you didn’t, Derek knew, the prayer didn’t count. It was a sacred minute where he felt it was possible for God to enter the room and change things without you looking. Every day, before partaking of the evening meal, he thus played a game of hide-and-seek, and every time, like a child, he wanted to prolong the possibility that a miracle had in fact occurred, no matter how small. Lately it seemed that he kept his eyes closed longer and longer, as if giving the Almighty extra time to fix things — things, Derek knew, he would never be able to see.
It was a thought he pondered while driving to work, sitting on the freeway. It was, he figured, the essence of faith. His limitations as a mortal man would prevent him from ever knowing for sure if God had been at work in his life (or his dining room), or not. If the traffic was particularly bad, this line of reasoning led him invariably to the uncomfortable thought that he was trying, in his closed-eyed silence, to out-maneuver God, to catch Him in the act, and thus validate his beliefs. That made him feel like a cheat. By the time he reached the office, he couldn’t wait to get to work to take his mind off it.
The first thing Derek did once he sat at his desk was to place, very carefully, so as to make no noise, his bagged lunch in the garbage bin. He never looked inside the brown paper bag; he didn’t need to. He’d prefer not to know. After he did this, he uttered a quick prayer for forgiveness, and fired up his computer.
Derek had met his wife at church; they had been set up on a blind date by mutual friends — a married couple who not long after Derek and his wife married, fell apart spectacularly — in ways Derek often thought guiltily about. There had been wild alcoholic binges, pills, rumors of prostitutes. Derek’s new wife thought it best that they, like others in the church, stopped taking this couple’s calls. That was years ago now, and Derek sometimes wondered what became of them. He remembered them in his prayers, and at night, when he couldn’t sleep, often found himself re-living outings and dinner-dates, searching his memory for clues as to the cracks in this couple’s relationship. He came up empty. There was nothing to point to; they had seemed perfectly happy. Derek lay there staring at his ceiling, listening to his wife’s breathing, wondering if anyone else would think that of him. Probably, he thought. They probably would.
Every day, at the dinner table, Derek gave thanks for the food, and for the Lord’s bounty, using the same words he’d recited from childhood. His children said them too. Everyone was hungry.
Then, when he opened his eyes, he gazed at the coleslaw his wife had served in a carved-out cabbage, and knew that his prayers had not been answered. God had not intervened; he was being tested, yet again, by a force greater and with more tenacity than Derek could comprehend. He smiled and held out his plate, and even as the words “that looks lovely, Dear” escaped his lips, he blasphemed loudly in the depths of his heart.
Salad Book, Better Homes and Gardens, 1958