When Chuck sings that old familiar hymn, “I’ll Fly Away”, you actually believe him. You’re expecting the moment between “oh glory” and “hallelujah by and by” to see him ascend to heaven in a fiery chariot. And I’ve seen his rendition of “Amazing Grace” draw thirty people to the altar rail. Thirty Methodists, mind you. This man, Chuck, who had never done a seedy thing in his life, could channel that ex-slaveship captain who was lost and found like Johnny Cash could channel a Folsom County lifer.
When Chuck sings, his sincerity transcends his artistry.
Which is not to say he is a bad singer. Quite the contrary. His rich, velvety baritone is almost edible. It’s just that it isn’t his vibrato that moves people. It’s his honesty, his passion, his… sincerity.
Then one Sunday, Chuck didn’t sing. Well, didn’t sing a solo anyway. Just sat in the loft singing hymns with the choir. A couple of weeks later, he stopped singing with the choir completely. He joined the rest of the unwashed masses in the pews, sitting beside Sandy with his arm around her shoulders. When we rose to sing together, he stood up but didn’t crack a hymnal.
Several weeks went by and the whispering campaigns began in earnest. Rumor was that Chuck was planning a solo for Easter Sunday. To everyone’s chagrin, Chuck and the choir director were keeping mum.
But the one thing that can be counted on more than rain on a church picnic is the resourcefulness of a church secretary. She wore the choir director down and got the scoop of a decade: Chuck was indeed going to sing.
That Easter Sunday, I stood outside the sanctuary helping Bob, the head usher. He railed about what he called the CEs–those parishioners who came on Christmas and Easter only–but I was happy to see such a good turnout. I passed out bulletins, held open the door and became increasingly eager to hear Chuck.
But I was the rookie usher that day and had to count the offering in the sacristy while the rest of the ushers went into the sanctuary to listen. I could hear Chuck, though, and he didn’t disappoint. He sang the last verse a cappella and slowed it down to a near crawl.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See thee on thy judgment throne…
Chuck paused, then unleashed in the last couplet a depth of brutal honesty that overwhelmed me. My legs quivered and for a moment I stopped breathing.
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.
There was a second of silence, then wild applause. I stood planted in the sacristy, fistfuls of twenties and checks in my hands, tears in my eyes. Then I saw Chuck walk past hurriedly toward the back exit. I flung my handfuls onto the counter and started after him. I caught up to him in the parking lot.
“Chuck? Where are you going?” I asked as I grabbed onto his elbow. “That was a great performance. It really was.”
“Thanks,” Chuck said, turning to face me. “But I’ve got to go now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m leaving. Leaving the church, leaving town. Sandy and I are over.”
“I don’t know what to say, Chuck. I’m sorry about you and Sandy, but you don’t have to leave.”
“Listen, Sandy was my rock. She’s the one that had faith. If she believed, then I could too because I had faith in her. The rest of the crap going on in that church doesn’t interest me in the least. The politics, the gossip, the hypocrisy. I never heard otherworldly voices or felt a spirit descend upon me like a dove. I loved Sandy and that was good enough for me. Now that’s over. That song was my last shot.”
“What do you mean?”
“I told Sandy that I would look her way during the last verse. All she had to do was give me some kind of sign and we could forget everything and start over.”
“And when I looked at her, she was crying and she looked me straight in the eyes and shook her head and mouthed the word, ‘No.’ Well, that’s all I needed. It’s over and I’m gone.”
I realized I had been holding on to his arm the whole time. I let go.
“Okay, Chuck,” I said. “You go on. Good luck with everything.”
As he walked away, I felt compelled to say something.
“Chuck?” I shouted. “Chuck! Your singing. It meant a lot to me. I mean it. It really did.”
Chuck stopped at the door of his car and turned back my way. I could barely hear him.
“I wasn’t singing for you,” Chuck said.
And he drove away.
Jason Stout lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and 5 children. His works have appeared in: Every Day Fiction; Flashquake (Editor’s Pick); Shine!; and Pequin. He can be contacted through his website: jasonstout.jimdo.com.
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