Long ago in my reading, I came across a term, a single word, used to describe the phenomenal blending of voices that can occur when close blood relatives sing together. I have forgotten the term and have not run across it since, nor have I had any success in looking it up, but one of my fondest memories from going to church, long before becoming a minister, involves singing with my father and my little brother, who both had bright, clear tenor voices. Without discussing it, one of them would choose the harmony, the other the melody, and though my voice was always much weaker than theirs, they would carry me through the hymns, and I could feel my voice transforming in my throat as it strove to match theirs in power and tone. The effect was so noticeable, so startling and disruptive, that we would glance up from the hymnals at each other to acknowledge that our three voices had melded into a single instrument.
No one sings very well at Thyatira. The problem, I think, is with the piano. The piano does not encourage the congregation as it should. Though Nancy Rankin plays as someone whose fingers cannot bend, and though she does not mind stopping mid-way through a verse and starting over, I assign much of the fault to the upright itself. Nancy has no piano at her house but comes to the church Friday evenings to practice the hymns for Sunday. From the porch of the manse, I can see the stained-glass windows lit and hear her playing.
When I walk over and sit in the sanctuary listening, she fin-ishes the hymn and turns to speak to me. “That’s one of my favorites,” she says. “That’s a pretty, pretty hymn.”
“Something’s wrong, though, isn’t it?” I ask.
“I think we need to get the piano tuned.”
We are a poor congregation, and when I call the church secretary the following morning, I learn there are no funds available for hiring a professional tuner. Thinking I might be able to handle the task myself, I begin researching the process, and in so doing, Eli Eason comes to mind. Eli and I once waited tables together. He majored in piano performance and often carries, as a talisman in his back pocket, a tuning fork. Whenever he has an anxious moment, he brings it out and slaps its tines on his thigh to get it droning an eerie tone. No one ever needed a tuning fork less than Eli, who has perfect pitch. If a stool leg screeches across the floor, he names the note it has played. On the back counters of the restaurant, he used to set up several goblets with varying levels of water to have the waitstaff run our dipped fingers over the rims, creating in the ringing the most portentous minor ninths.
I call Eli, and though he has never tuned a piano himself, he claims familiarity with the process, and he knows someone from his days at the music school from whom he can borrow the required tools. He comes over on a Sunday morning at eight, not very aware that it is Sunday or that the service will need to begin just three hours later. When I remind him, he hangs his fingers from his empty belt loops, tugging his pants into place, and says he thinks he can do it in time.
I pace the aisles while he works. When the first members arrive to take their places in the pews, the lid is still off the upright, exposing the soundboard and the harpish set of strings. Several elders of the church ask what is happening. I come up with the idea in the moment to have a less formal service featuring Eli on the piano. When one of the more venerated gentlemen of the church learns I will not be delivering a homily, he says, “So you won’t be earning your keep today?” He grins and adds that it might be nice to take a break from the sermon. When Nancy Rankin arrives and I tell her we will not be needing her services this morning, she is very polite, almost glad, I think, saying this will give her the opportunity to visit her grandchildren over in Maxeys. She and her husband decide not to stay but get back in their vehicle and leave.
While I deliver the opening prayer and announcements, Eli still tinkers with individual notes, playing them over and over again to get them right. Then he closes the lid and takes to the bench to play, as a test, a scale and an etude. Already the congregation is impressed. The rest of the hour, with the hammer and forks and pins and mutes still scattered across the sanguine car-pet, Eli seduces us with the most beautiful pieces. The bass notes rumble like the voice of the mountains while the treble notes flirt and fly with impishness. No one can understand how only two hands and ten fingers are capable of all the notes we hear. He plays one of his own little sylvan masterpieces, followed by a highly technical sonata composed by one of the greats. The sound waves are almost visible to me. The melodies flow among the people and gather about them, vivid and full of static. These are rustic country people who do not often get to hear live performances of such sophisticated music, and it is a privilege to sit watching them as the pieces reach their emotions. Then Eli asks for requests, any of their favorite hymns, and one old man, rather than calling out a title, simply belts out the first verse, and Eli is able to pick it up with him, playing in whatever chance key the old man’s vocal cords have chosen.
At the end of the hour, when Eli stands up from the bench, his response to the applause is a nod and more of a stoop than a bow. He and I head next door to the manse, where I fix him a tomato sandwich. We drink beer and eat lunch on the front porch. When I thank him and tell him his talents should be put to the service of the Lord every day of the week, he makes it clear through his response that he still does not believe. Though I have suspected this as the case, I have just witnessed the Holy Spirit flow through his fingers, and I am particularly hurt by his blunt affirmation of denial.
“Why then,” I ask, “would you give up your Sunday morn-ing to come tune the piano for a church worshipping a god you don’t believe in?”
“Because you asked me to,” he says.
Adding to my sorrow is a feeling of powerlessness. I have been through all this with him before. Many a late night, we stood on the curb outside the restaurant with the topic of faith preventing us both from heading home. From having grown up in the church, he knows the gospel well, just as he remembers all the hymns, and he thoroughly and wholeheartedly rejects the message. I can feel him becoming agitated in his chair, and I have little else to say, because I have become sad and confused. I know he is a wonderful person who regularly performs acts of charity and kindness, and in many ways, I know him to be more Christ-like in his daily activities than a number of others whose readings of the Sermon on the Mount number in the dozens. We know nothing else to do but to stand in silence on the porch. We hug goodbye in the driveway, and maybe both of us are parting with the feeling of having failed each other.
The manse landline is ringing. No one ever calls the manse land-line except when one of the church members deems something an emergency. The crisis surrounds Nancy Rankin, who has called in tears, wondering if she has been permanently replaced as the church pianist. I try to explain over the phone but decide I need to visit her in person. I immediately drive to her house, a brick ranch in the southern reaches of the county. I meet her at the storm door. She carries her pocketbook in the crook of her arm, acting like she is on her way out for errands and will have no time to speak with me. I nearly push her back inside and make her sit still in her recliner. She acts flustered when I tell her she is the church pianist and always will be, as far as I am concerned. “I know I’m not musically gifted, but I try so hard,” she says, and her voice becomes rough and glottal. She starts to weep. I get to my knees in front of her recliner and embrace her and speak into her ear. I tell her she is a great service to the church, and as I am hugging her, my arm is brushed by something on her garment. I back away and see a tag hanging from her blouse. Noticing how the seams stand and how the floral print is somewhat dull, I feel obligated to tell her that she is wearing her blouse inside out.
From NOON Annual. Used with permission of NOON, Inc. Copyright © 2019 by Darrell Kinsey.