First published in http://www.thewritingdisorder.com/
For those who like fiction…
LETTER NUMBER EIGHT —
GUNSLINGER IN THE CHURCH
by John Bach
I wonder what you will call me when you are older. Will you call me Granddaddy? Seems to be an old fashioned word sometimes, but I very much prefer it over other options I’ve heard. I hope you like my letters. I find them therapeutic for me, though I realize it will be many years before you read them. I hope you read them, and I hope you know how much I thought of you even before you knew who I was.
Something the other day, I don’t remember what, brought to my recollection going to church when I was a boy. I learned many good lessons in church, and some unintended. One in particular seems to poke at me to share with you. It comes back easily.
We went to a local church, right there in Painted Gate. Most people back then went to church somewhere or another. There was a few choices situated in town, and one located a bit out of town a few miles, down near the river just above Tar Gap Shoals. I bet that was a peaceful place, that church. In our little church if it got too peaceful you might hear a snort from an errant napper, or a scuffle of someone swinging their legs just to be fidgety. I bet in that Tar Gap Shoals church all you heard was the rippling water over them rocks. That’s got to put you in the mood to be reverent, least in my mind.
Our church was tucked up a couple of blocks behind what you’d call the main street. It was actually Whittaker Street, but we all just called it Main. There was an early resident who went by Sly Whittaker. No one much cared for him, it was said, and I believe his nickname was apt, as he was something of a scoundrel. The stories were a bit foggy even when I was a boy, and I bet there ain’t no one left who even knows the foggy versions. What I heard was that when Sly Whitaker died, he left a sum of money to the town council, but with the stipulation that a prominent building be erected with his name affixed to it. There was much a chatter about just what “prominent” meant. No one much cared about the wishes of the deceased benefactor, but they sure wanted the money. As I heard it, since he didn’t have any offspring or kin to lay claim to it, the council decided to just put up a little storeroom attached to the lobby of the post office. They set up a big sign that read, “Whittaker” on the outside of the room. Strangers would be told directions, such as, “Turn at Whittaker,” or, “It’s the third building once you get past Whittaker.” As time went on, the road, which had never been officially named as Main, took on the Whittaker moniker. I never much cared for the fact that the name had two “t’s” in it, but that’s neither here nor there.
Back to the church and the point of my letter. It was a little white church with a beautiful little steeple. I think if the folks that built it could have, they would have built a taller steeple, but that takes a lot of money, and I don’t know if that would have improved it anyway. Knowing some folks, the ones who worry about such trife, I bet they’d have latched onto that Whittaker money and used it for a steeple, even with “Whittaker” written on it. I think that’s a horrible thought. In my mind, the church sure was pretty just like it was.
Bud and I went to church together, and we had our own special names for some of the members of the church, some of the regulars. I remember in particular old Stoneface Weber. He sang in the choir, but Bud and I guessed he just mouthed the words. We figured Stoneface liked to be up in the choir loft so’s he could keep his eye on everybody. I asked my daddy one day after church why Mr. Weber (I wouldn’t call him Stoneface so’s my daddy could hear!) sat up there to stare at everyone instead of being up there to sing. My daddy said it was ‘cause Mr. Weber had once been a prisoner of war, and ever since he got let go he didn’t trust nobody. Sounded like a good reason to me, but I can’t imagine not trusting nobody.
The choir sat up perched to the right, as the crowd looked at it, behind the piano player and the director’s stand. The preacher was situated over to the left of the altar. Every choir member had on a robe, a green robe. These robes looked like they’d been around since Noah come off the boat. Real shiny looking like they was all slicked smooth from the wear of time. Wasn’t exactly a pretty sight, all these gray heads poking up through the green cloth, leastways most of ‘em were gray. Looked like a bunch of old dirty light bulbs poked up through green lanterns. Not too many younger folks took to singing in the choir. Old Stoneface would sit up there in his green robe of a Sunday with his bald head, just a staring out at everyone. He never once turned his head all the way over to look at the preacher, but he’d swing it most of the ways, back and forth, back and forth, real slow, taking in the whole congregation. Like a beacon light searching something out. Real regular, back and forth.
When his glare come across Bud and me, we’d look away. I tried to stare back at him once or twice, but I couldn’t hold it. Like starin’ at a buzzard. The whole church could be deep in silent vespers, or at the height of the Hallelujah Chorus, and he’d still be up there with that same stern look on his face, studying everyone. One morning, during silent prayer, this stranger walked in the back, but he weren’t too quiet. My first thought was here was a drunk man showing up in church, and I was wondering how that would play out, who’d be first to go fetch him out the door. So the minute Stoneface sees the man, ‘cause like I said he never closed his eyes during the prayer, he stops his beacon right on the man, and I swear I think he reached up under his robe by his chest and took a hold of something. But no sooner had he done that when the back door closed again and the culprit was gone. Never saw him again, but it got me to thinking, and I surmised together with Bud to our mutual delight, that Stoneface probably had a gun up under that choir robe.
A couple of seats over from Stoneface sat Bigshot Tom. I didn’t know too much about him except that he was an older man who had grown up over in Haynor. His brother, a lawyer, was the mayor of Haynor, and his cousin was the postmaster in Cheatham, down the river just a bit. To hear Bigshot tell it, he himself was a doctor. Leastways that’s what he told everybody. He worked down at the lumberyard, though, and had for years my daddy said, so no one knew why he said he was a doctor. To hear him tell it, he had been in practice years before but had left it due to the “politics.” I overheard him once talking at our annual church picnic that there wasn’t as much “one hand washing the other” in selling lumber as there was in doctoring.
There was a few others we had fun with, but the one who topped ‘em all was the Gunslinger. I don’t recall which one of us first come up with that name for her, but once it come out, it sure stuck. She was a heavyset, short little lady. I guess you could say she was the number one singer, the one who hogged all the solos, though she didn’t sound that good to me. I overheard Daddy telling Uncle Hank one afternoon that she couldn’t outsing a truck with bad brakes. I told Bud that line, and we sure got a kick out it. The best I had come up with was she sounded kind of like an old hound. Even with her mediocrity, if there was a special number coming up, you could bank on her being the performer. I don’t know if some of the other ladies got jealous. My folks didn’t sing up there so’s I never heard much of that.
When the choir filed in every Sunday morning, she would be the last one through the door. You could see her pause just a tad for effect and then walk in, kind of waddling; and she’d have her arms out at her sides, kind of swinging with the grain of her walk instead of against it. Her hands were always flung out ever just so, like they was dripping water off the ends of her fingers. Made her look like she was about to reach for pistols at her side any second. Miss Mary Summers would walk in front of her and carry the Gunslinger’s songbook for her, and we never figured out why. Bud said Miss Summers was some sort of understudy to the Gunslinger.
Anyway, once all the singers got up in the loft, they’d stand there looking at us for a quiet moment, and all of us would look right back at them. I bet if you took every Sunday of my childhood and added them all up, I’ve spent at least a couple of hours just standing there, staring at that choir, them staring back at me.
Bud and I would usually hone in on the Gunslinger. She’d be looking out over her glasses back at us. I come to wondering what she was thinking, and one day I posited to Bud that she was wondering if the assembled crowd was worthy of her talent. Didn’t matter that it was the same crowd every Sunday. She’d look out over the congregation, and something like a sneer would cross her lips. Bud said once he heard that she wore Red #14 lipstick from the Miller’s Home Goods store. I know her lips was red, all right, unnaturally so, shining like ripened berries under the loft lights. Every time, right before we was told by the pastor to take our seats, she’d shake her head just ever so gently. I’d think in my head like I was her, “This place is not worthy, but I will pay my dues, one more time, one more Sunday morning.”
Well, to get to the point of my letter, one day the pastor was on vacation, so they had this travelling minister filling in to preach. He was originally from over in Cheatham, or just outside of it in the county there, and he was some relation to our head deacon, Mr. Porter, a nephew maybe. Mr. Porter was a widower and had dated Miss Summers, the Gunslinger’s choir book porter, by the way. Not that you need to know that. It just seems one thing leads easy to another when you get to looking back.
What I saw, and heard, that particular Sunday I will never forget. It seemed to me the emergence of a great force of the universe, right in our little old church building there two blocks off Whittaker, and Bud and I was both there to witness it.
Just a side note about our church. I know a lot of folks nowadays go to these big old churches with air conditioning and the latest styles of furnishings and carpet and inlaid tile, all complemented by just the right colors argued over endlessly by the members of the various building committees, at least the lady members. Back then, like I said, we just had the little old building. It had wooden floors and hard pews. The back pews would fill up first, so if you was late, everyone knew it ‘cause you had to walk all the way up to near the front. The later you was, the further up you had to walk. You could hear a mouse walking on those floors, they was so hard and hollow sounding, so you can imagine the sound of tardy Sunday church shoes.
Well, it went like this. That replacement pastor, Pastor Fellows, had a daughter he brought with him, a skinny little wisp of a girl with a big head of wavy hair. She went by the name of Constantine. Constantine Fellows.
We walk in that morning, Bud and me, and take our seats. This guest pastor and his daughter are sitting up front, in the very front pew where the regular pastor usually sat. My interest was piqued immediately, ‘cause it was always nice to have a replacement pastor on a given Sunday morning. I don’t care how good the regular one is, it’s just nice sometimes to hear someone new.
Of course, sometimes a substitute pastor could be a dud. One time we had this young guy fill in from somewhere down in Alabama. It was a rare thing ‘cause he had two Sundays to take care of. The regular pastor was away dealing with a sick brother, I think. Anyway, that man got up there and blustered and billowed, and I thought it was the longest hour of my life. Didn’t take too many words from the time he started up to know that it was gonna be a miserable time. I remember in the thick of it all looking outside through the window thinking even the trees and flowers was sad. Bud did some quick calculating on his church bulletin and figured that after two such sermons that man would have wasted a whole 1/40,000 of our waking lives up to that time. That next Sunday you could tell some regulars was missing.
So this particular week, with this Pastor Fellows, I was hoping he was funny, and I have to admit I was more than a little interested in his daughter Constantine. Thinking back, she looked more like a big old Q-Tip up there in the front row. Next to nothing little shoulders holding up that big old fluffy ball of hair on her head.
Turns out, Bud and I both kept attention that Sunday ‘cause Pastor Fellows was pretty tolerable. He waved his arms around and sprinkled in some funny stories, which never hurts. Of course, you don’t want the visiting pastor to be too good, ‘cause then you get to wishing you could have him every week, instead of the regular pastor.
He preached on doing the most with what we been given. He said it wasn’t right to be blessed by God with a talent or money, didn’t matter how much, without being willing to take the time and trouble to give it away for the benefit of others. Said it was selfish. He likened it to being a big old tick on a dog, just taking and taking without nary a thing to give back. I don’t think that particular analogy went as well as he liked, cause what’s a tick gonna give back anyway? And who’s he gonna give it to?
But I got the general point, and I got to thinking what do I have that I can give back? Then, being a little boy, I got to thinking, well, what could I give to that Pastor’s daughter, Constantine? Would she like some particular marble from my collection? Or one of my favorite stick carvings I had done the summer before? I was wondering just which one would suit her, when that pastor up and says, “In light of what we’ve discussed, my daughter Constantine would like to share a song with us.”
What transpired after that lives deep in the annals of my mind’s recollection, little one. See, this pastor didn’t stand still like ours does. He meandered all over up there, and it turns out that he had wandered over to stand by the piano when he made his announcement, right in front of the choir loft. I looked up over the pastor’s shoulder and seen the Gunslinger perk right up behind him in the loft when he said it. Her mouth kind of dropped open a little, and her eyes got real pointed looking. She was the Queen Music Giver in that church, and who was this young feline to come in and steal her glory?
That little girl stood and walked meekly up to the front of the church and stood beside her father. I hadn’t seen nothing but her fluffy hair up to that point when she turned around. She had a pretty face, kind of meek like a puppy or a little doe. Pastor Fellows said, “What will you share with us today, Constantine?” I have seen few men more full of smile than he was at that moment.
She responded, “What would you like to hear?” as if she had nothing prepared, which seemed hard to fathom in front of a group of strangers. I remember her dad looking out at the curious crowd. I don’t think many of them was expecting too much judging by her size and little speaking voice. I recall thinking she would probably squeak a little when she sang.
Pastor Fellows waved his arm out in a wide arc. “How about a number everyone should know? How about ‘Amazing Grace?’ I’m sure the organist knows it?” He looked over at Mrs. Stimpson with that smile still coming out. She nodded to him that she did.
Constantine gave her father a quick hug. “Okay, Daddy.” Then she looked at Mrs. Simpson, “Ready?” to which Mrs. Stimpson nodded again. I looked back up into the loft, but the Gunslinger was looking down into her songbook.
Well, everyone else was looking at Constantine. She cleared her throat just a hint and straightened up even more straight and skinny than she had been. And then she sang. How she did sing! I must tell you I have never heard since a voice more pure and lovely. Her father fell away back to his seat, though I’m sure no one noticed, as I imagine all were as enraptured as I was by the young Constantine’s sweet voice. It seemed as if she sang straight from heaven, a visitor from the chosen choir around the throne room, letting each one of us there in that room have a listen.
I don’t know if you know the words to that song, little one. I think you probably do by the time you read this, as I’m sure that song will last as long as singers do.
As far as how Constantine sang it, there seemed to be a kind of repentant progression. What first lay hidden in the hearts of the listeners in that church house that day, I cannot say. I can attest, however, that not one soul exited in sinful pride. By the very first, “I once was lost…” men and women both were bowing their heads in humble shame at how they could defy God’s glory.
The song melted hearts, hear me! My own included. When she finally reached, “’Twas grace has led me safe thus far…” a glimmer of hope of forgiveness beckoned as a friend, above the lowly group, heads still bowed. No one could watch her sing. It was too wonderful.
By the time the young waif reached, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…” outstretched hands were raised across the room. I sneaked a peek through tearful eyes, and it was such as I had never seen. Save the sweet notes of the young girl, silence reigned. Mrs. Stimpson played in vain, a needless accompaniment. She had stopped playing at some point. I’m not sure anyone noticed when she stopped; in fact, the exact point in time was later a point of contention when the morning was evaluated.
I wish I could relive those few, sweet minutes; I wish they had stretched out longer. To me, the whole town, the county, and the lands and peoples beyond had grown still. Surely, I pondered, with my eyes fixed on the floor, surely farmers and masons and deliverymen the world over had stopped their toils to bend an ear to this rare and precious voice.
Upon the conclusion of the song, I could hear soft weeping in the crowd, from more than one corner too. Other than that, nothing. The pastor didn’t speak, the young singer didn’t comment or walk back to her seat. All was still. I glanced over at Bud. He was still too. I saw a piece of paper in his hand on which he had scribbled her name, Constantine Fellows. He had crossed through the last name and above it written his own last name, Pelter.
I sat there longer, not moving. I thought back to when I had pondered what gift to give the girl. No marble or stick carving I had seemed worthy then, and I was embarrassed by the very idea of it.
I remember looking up, quietly, as the first to emerge from a dreadful thing. Pastor and singer were both still, heads bowed. Even Stoneface Weber was looking down. The Gunslinger was still, her eyes looking down as well. I felt pity for her then, as it seemed her work in life was over. I peered about and saw a few women dabbing at their eyes, men too.
I recall a quiet “Amen” coming from the guest pastor at some point, and then the crowd moving along and filing out of the church silently, walking out into the beautiful day. The sky seemed a perfect blue field, holding us all in. It seemed that all of life had paused somehow, and that all of it, every bit of life, was precious and good.
I wished for the girl and her daddy to stay for a second week, as the boring and blustering man from Alabama had. I wished for her to visit every week, in fact, to have her daddy wave his arms and meander around and tell his funny stories, all in precious prelude to what we knew to be coming. To have her sing each Sunday.
I hoped to see her again sometime at least, even if I had to wait until heaven. To my bitter disappointment, news of her came later the next year that troubled our little church. That must come in another letter, for I even now am taken in and coddled by the sweet, lasting notes. Indeed, I would surely ask of her even now, in spite of the news that came to us, I would surely ask of her to let me hear her sing Amazing Grace again.
I wish to sit quietly now. I will write again, my grandson.
This particular story is part of a novel in progress tentatively titled, Gentle Sun. You may reach the author at email@example.com or follow his blog at johnwilsonbach.com. He’d love to hear from you.