Locate me in the back row of the church choir. It’s not difficult. Since it’s rehearsal night, there aren’t that many of us, and even fewer if you are looking at the men’s row. That’s me, younger than the geezer profundo over to my left. I’m young enough to be the the son of the forty-something tenor to my right. He sings ahead of the beat. I was pressured to join because I play the piano. Never let them know you can play the piano, by the way—free advice. This is one of my first (respectable) adult activities: the church choir.
I could say that I’m here to make my parents proud, but no. I could say that I’m giving up my Wednesday nights to atone for the lust I feel for Starsky and Hutch, yes both of them and at the same time, but that’s not it. Well, maybe it is. I am here because I don’t belong anywhere else. Later, I’ll understand everything about why I am here, but for now I slouch and sing all the right notes timidly and on the beat thank you.
Up in the front row Clara Louise shrieks, halting rehearsal because something’s got hold of her leg. Come to find out, her knee highs had become entangled with the leg of her chair. The death’s-door tenor two chairs right of me finally discovers the sheet music we were rehearsing as the Clara Louise incident began, but now we’re on to another anthem. He sings the old one anyway, dry vocalizations ebbing from his throat. He is so old it scares me. When 7:45 comes, he leaves with his Annie, cueing her for “Cosby time.” With their exit, I notice I’m less anxious. No more Grim Reaper singing telegrams in the tenor section.
I don’t ask questions. I don’t need to. Truth be told, the presumed commitment for me to sing in the choir makes me a little queasy. This is so not me. Men unable to follow which song we’re on. Old women soprano-splaining how best to hold the music. Altos counting down to Miller Time. The director encouraging every attempt at creating beauty, no matter how hideous our sound. The piano-organist who thinks Farrah Fawcett hair will never go out of style. She wears a red formfitting sweater with the eyes of a big smiley face placed most unfortunately. The sallow paint on the rehearsal room walls. The crackled choral music in my hand, dying leisurely at the hands of humidity and time. On each copy a former director stamped “Lay not up for thyself treasures on earth.” Jesus-shaming us into returning the church’s property. After all, it’s a quarter a copy. People must have really sacrificed for me to hold this mildewed copy of “My Eternal King.” Maybe I ought to give Cosby another try.
After a short break allowing Annie and Paleo-Tenor peaceful passage, we warm up again. Now, I sit up as directed, although the breathing exercises make me lightheaded. Then, within me—where?—my adolescent energy settles, gives up for a moment. I’m not naive, just surprised by everything, astonished when a harmony rings into focus, activating a sweetness in the hanging air. It’s brief, our triumph. But I am sensitized now, having experienced a music that can only emerge from a group of people, even the likes of us.
It isn’t pity that takes me but a deep sadness as a baritone lisps through a solo he has prepared, a tune of Franck, simple, mellifluous. I would say that he sings like Mike Douglas, but he’s actually more like late Dinah Shore. His timbre, his body lingo, his defensive vigilance for every note he sings fills me with a sense of shame and thrill. Looking back, he was always a giddy calamity. Now my palms sweat. He makes me nervous—not like Starsky, not like Hutch—but that feeling I get when watching Paul Lynde cackle in the center square and realizing my father is in the room.
I shouldn’t understand so much. I wish I could play football and enjoy violence.
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