A Voice in the Wilderness
"Bless me, Padre, for I have sinned. My last Confession was six days ago."
"What are your sins, my son?"
"Padre, I have lusted in my heart and in my flesh after another man."
He knew he was doing everything all wrong: he should be more aggressive, start some conversations, buy some drinks, make some first moves. But that would require him to own up to a degree of responsibility, and he'd already shouldered all he could bear just getting himself to the bar. So he shut his ears as best he could against the heartbeat of the speakers and stared into his rum and coke, hoping nobody would notice that the rum part was missing. He didn't get drunk; getting drunk made you do stupid things, and he'd already filled his quota of stupid things for the evening.
A hand settled on his shoulder, and he turned his head up to look at its owner -- young, maybe in college, lighter-skinned, wearing a Magic-era Lakers jersey, one of those aggressively heterosexual-looking brothers who turned up in places like this, either a chubby chaser or it was just a slow night. But you didn't look a gift mouth in the horse, as he'd once heard someone at one of these places say, so he got up from his seat and followed the young man into the back.
1. Children, Go Where I Send Thee
David sighed as he rested his aching fingertips against the cool side of his drink; it was a good ache, though, to be sure, and the perspiring glass calmed it nicely. As venues went, he had to say he'd played more comfortable. Even with all windows open to the February chill, the place was still stuffy and overcrowded. A nice audience was great, but David's shirt was sweat-soaked almost transparent.
As local music nights went, however, the sets had been surprisingly fantastic. David had come to hate gatherings like this, since most 'local talent' was heavy on the former and light on the latter. Tonight, though, there'd been three great groups before David himself, and the band on now appeared to consist of five blonde teenagers in tight jeans doing punk-ish covers of old Hank Williams songs sincerely enough that they made it sound good. Sometimes you just had to have heart.
"You sounded good up there," said a voice from over his shoulder, startling David out of his thoughts. "I don't think I've seen you at one of these before."
David turned, and looked up -- and kept looking up, all the way to the face of the very large black man who was grinning, sweating just as hard as David was, and wearing a bow tie with no hint of ironic intent. "Thanks," nodded David. "And you haven't, unless you're also a fan of the Spanish-language music scene around here. But a friend of mine was putting this together tonight, so he offered me a spot."
The band behind them finished its song, and as the room took up an honestly appreciative round of applause, the man sat down on the empty stool next to David. "You know John, then? He's a great guy, puts together a good show."
"Yeah, we sort of go to the same church." David's memory, chronically bad with faces, finally matched the man next to him with the pianist of the evening's second group, a jazz ensemble calling itself the Matt Michaels Quartet -- though, if pressed, David would've been forced to admit that the bow tie had been the biggest clue. "You guys sounded good too," he added, raising his volume at the end to be heard as the drummer started up the introduction to the next song.
"Thanks! We were all a little tired tonight, but as long as you didn't hear it, I'm happy." He extended a hand as large as he was in David's direction. "Isaiah Stone."
David put the glass down and had the presence of mind to wipe his hand on a napkin before engaging in the handshake. "David Miguel Treviño." Isaiah's handshake was firm and warm, and David counted to three before letting go first. "...So, have you guys been playing together long?"
Isaiah laughed again, and the sound carried above even the over-amplified sound from the stage; unlike David, he didn't need to shout to be heard over the music. David's soft-spoken mother would have called him el hombre más grande, a man large in every sense of the word, bound and determined to take up every inch of space he could expand to fill. "Only a little over a year, actually. We're sort of a pick-up ensemble -- we've all know each other for a while, but a couple of us were in groups that all fell apart about the same time, long story short, here we are." The bartender passed by and gave Isaiah an expectant look, and Isaiah politely waved him away with a smile. "No, thanks."
"Not a drinker?" asked David, suddenly feeling very self-conscious about his gin and tonic.
"Dad's a teetotaller, so none of us kids ever got in the habit." Isaiah leaned in as he talked, ostensibly to be heard over the enthusiastic chording coming through the sound system, coming far closer than he should be to another man in a situation like this, David knew; but the farther he leaned back, the closer Isaiah came. "PKs are supposed to turn into holy terrors, but we're five little angels, all of us."
David frowned. "PKs?"
"Preacher's Kids." Isaiah's focus shifted to just over David's shoulder, and David turned to see the quartet's bassist, a tall, lanky white boy with bright yellow hair, making a come here gesture in Isaiah's direction. Isaiah stood and placed a hand on David's shoulder, giving it a friendly squeeze. "Well, that's my cue to go help pack the van. Most of us have early mornings tomorrow. It was really good meeting you, though."
"Yeah," nodded David, fighting every learned instinct and keeping his shoulder firmly in place under the touch. There was a fine line between self-preservation and rudeness, and he was determined not to err on the side of the latter. "Maybe I'll see you at the next one of these."
"Looking forward to it," Isaiah grinned, before turning and walking out just as the band's last song was wrapping up, disappearing into the appreciative crowd. David watched him go, feeling in his throat a desert dryness. Nothing inappropriate had happened there, not in the slightest, and he was sure that any of his sponsors would have agreed with him, but he couldn't quite keep down the flutter in his stomach when he thought about Isaiah's hand on his shoulder.
He slipped his own hand into his pocket and pulled out a little tin cross, with JESUS carved into it horizontally and IS LOVE vertically, crossing in the middle at S. He brushed his thumb across the letters, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. On every inhale, he prayed, God, change me; on every exhale, he followed, make me stronger for You. After the tenth deep breath, he opened his eyes and found himself surrounded by busy strangers who didn't care about his struggles, which was the way he liked it. He finished the rest of his drink, then set off to get his guitar from where he'd left it behind the stage. It was only a mile or so to his apartment, and he could use the walk.
The next morning, as he was slipping off his organ shoes and hunting for where he'd put his real one, he saw his pastor approaching with a frail-looking older man in a priest's collar. "Brother Isaiah," boomed Pastor George, a sturdy gentleman with a voice like God's own thunder, "I'd like you to meet Father Reyes. He's up at St. John's, a few blocks over."
Sock-footed and rumpled, Isaiah extended his hand, hoping that the service's having just ended explained his disarray. "Pleased to meet you, Father."
"Likewise. I was glad to hear you play today. You were very good." Father Reyes' voice was sweet and thickly accented, and he had a cheerful bearing to himself Isaiah tended to associate with dapper little old men of God.
"What my friend here was telling me," Pastor George put a hand on Father Reyes' shoulder, "is that his church's regular organist was scheduled to start a maternity leave at the end of next month, but God's timing is not man's timing, and she was taken to the hospital with labor pains late last night."
Isaiah nodded in sympathy to Father Reyes, unsure what this all had to do with him. "I'll pray for her safe delivery."
"Yes, thanks to God, I will go see her after this." Father Reyes smiled, the lines around his eyes folding like bedsheets. "We were going to look for a substitute, but this was so sudden...."
"What I told him," said Pastor George, "was that since Father Reyes' community holds its services at 5:30 on Sunday afternoons, that you might be able to fill in for them for a time, at least until they can find another interim organist."
Utterly on the spot, Isaiah had no time to compose an excuse. "Father Reyes, I'm flattered that you'd ask me, but my duties as the music minister here already keep me busy, especially during the Easter Season; I don't know if it would work for me to coordinate both of our--"
"Oh, they already have a music director," Pastor George interrupted. "He's just not an organist, but he'll handle the choir and the order of worship himself. The only thing they'd be asking of you would be to show up Sunday evenings and play for an hour or so. It's a fine organ, and a nice space."
Pastor Reyes stepped forward and placed his tiny, gnarled hand on Isaiah's meaty forearm. "We're a small community, and we do not have much, but we will gladly compensate you for your time, and you will have our gratitude."
There were things in life Isaiah could say 'no' to -- including his nieces and nephews, his two older brothers, and several persistent matrons of the church who insisted he meet their lovely single daughters -- but the watery grey eyes of a tiny old priest apparently didn't number among them. "I'll be glad to help," he said, swallowing hard before putting on what he hoped was a most sincere smile.
Father Reyes' face lit up, and he patted Isaiah's arm. "Good, good! Oh, so good of you, to do this for us. I'll tell my music minister, and he can meet you there around 5:00, if that's all right?"
The cheap kitchen timer velcroed to the side of the organ proclaimed the numbers 1:29. "...I'll be there, Father."
Pastor George approached him from the other side, clapping a loving blow on his shoulder that would have knocked a man of less mass down. "You have such a gift, Isaiah, such a beautiful gift. How blessed you are that God is giving you such an opportunity to share it with others!"
"Amen," said Isaiah, who didn't feel blessed in the slightest.
"Okay, de la página tres, from page three again." David tapped the pen he'd been using as a baton on the side of the metal music stand, and the choir -- three-quarters of whom were abuelitas whose grandchildren were probably not much younger than he was -- found its collective place with a corresponding rustle of pages. He plunked out a chord on the piano, which was really the extent of his facility with the instrument, and hummed it out again for the choir. Then he raised his makeshift baton and they began to sing.
They weren't a bad choir, not by any stretch of the imagination -- and years of being a church musician had introduced him to more than his fair share of bad choirs -- but they were on average somewhat old, and the women's voices tended to wobble the way women's voices did after a certain number of years. Still, nearly thirty people had gathered in the room beneath the sanctuary this afternoon, wearing burgundy robes and clutching battered Spanish-language hymnals, and that was twenty-eight more than had been there when he'd taken the job three years previous. On either side of the door hung tiny icons of Sts. Cecilia and Jude Thaddeus, which was how he felt about the job most of the time.
When they'd finished, David nodded at them and smiled. "That's better, much better," he told them in Spanish, "and it'll sound even better with the organ." He didn't bother repeating the compliment in English; everyone in the choir had at least enough facility with the language to make it through services, even the younger members, and bilingualism took so long sometimes. "Which reminds me, has anyone heard from Yolanda?"
One of the sopranos, a grim-looking woman named Linda, raised her hand, and David nodded to her. "I talked to her mother right before I came and she said Yoli's still in labour. Seventeen hours now." The abuelitas all groaned with understanding, and even David felt his abdominal muscles twitch in sympathy. "And they're telling her she should have a C-section, but they don't know if Carlo's insurance will cover it."
"Well, we'll keep her in our prayers today and through the week, I'm sure." David smiled hopefully and checked his handwritten order of worship. "All right, we've done--"
"David?" interrupted one of the basses, Efraín; he was a younger man who had lived in the United States his whole life, and by virtue of this understood Spanish well enough to attend services, though he only spoke in English. "If Yoli's in the hospital, who's playing for us today?"
"I think I am," boomed a recently familar voice from behind him, and David spun around so quickly that he lost his balance, fell from the wooden box he used as a conductor's podium, and landed hard on his backside.
The choir rushed from their seats to crowd around him, fanning him with sheet music and hoping aloud the music department hadn't suffered two losses this week, but he waved them away. "I'm fine, I'm fine," he said, which was mostly true, though he could feel where he'd have trouble sitting down for a few days. Two of the younger men slipped their hands under his arms and helped him up, and by the time he had found his feet, a bow tie had joined the concerned circle around him. "Everyone, this is, ah," he dusted off the seat of his pants and nodded in the direction of the visitor. "This is Isaiah Stone, who ... plays the organ, I think?"
Isaiah gave the room a wave and a wink, and every woman there blushed and giggled behind her hand. "Greetings, brothers and sisters in Christ, and fellow musicians in the Spirit!" Even if every word wasn't making it across the language divide, the sentiment was clear from the tone of Isaiah's voice. "I'm the music director at Grace A.M.E. Church, and it's going to be a pleasure to worship with you for the next several Sundays."
"Well, ah...." David took a deep breath and willed himself to accept this as one of God's special perversities, and not to check the room for hidden cameras. He turned to the choir. "Well, now that our organist is here, why don't we take this upstairs and try it in the sanctuary?"
The choir nodded and picked up their things for worship, filing out of the choir room; most waved to Isaiah or shook his hand as they passed. As the last of them trotted out, Isaiah gave a little laugh. "Long time no see, huh?"
"I guess that explains your early morning," David quipped, trying to be nonchalant in the face of unnerving coincidence. He bundled up all his music in one arm, then tossed his own choir robe over his shoulder; the tail of the fabric caught his precariously placed hymnal and knocked it to the ground. From an early age, he'd known he hadn't been one of God's most graceful creations, but this was getting ridiculous.
Almost quicker than David could register that it had fallen, though, Isaiah was there, picking up the book and tucking it under his own arm. "Here, let me help you carry some of that."
David balked for a moment, then sighed and handed the rest of the sheet music to Isaiah. "Thank you." He nodded toward the door. "I guess I should have given up being a walking disaster for Lent."
"Don't I wish it worked that way." Isaiah flipped off the lights behind him, then stood by as David locked the door. "This is a nice space you've got here."
"Thanks. It belongs to the real St. John's, mostly." David led him down the hall past several construction-paper murals with bright English words and Polaroids of smiling blonde children, leavings of the morning Sunday School classes. "I don't mean it like that. Padre Reyes has been with this congregation for years now, and when the diocese offered him the option to share space with St. John's, he was thrilled." He held tight to the handrail as he ascended the narrow stairs, willing himself not to fall backward and take them both down in a scatter of sheet music.
From behind him, Isaiah made a thoughtful sound. "You know, I've lived in the area all my life, and I've never been in here."
"Well, you'll love the organ. It's a...." Safe at the top of the stairs, David felt steady enough to wave his hands in a very meaningful gesture. "A something special, I have no idea. I don't touch it, or I'd probably break it."
Isaiah laughed, which made the soles of David's feet sweat. "They told me you don't play."
David shook his head, leading Isaiah in through the vestry, up the back door that led directly behind the organ. "I'm an embarrassingly self-taught musician. Immigrant parents couldn't afford piano lessons for one child, much less six. I tried to learn a couple of years back, but, well, old dog, new tricks."
"Sounds like you make do just fine," smiled Isaiah, who proceeded to shift himself into the bench behind the organ. "So, what's up first?"
"'Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates,'" David said, tapping the top piece of sheet music. There were things in this world it was too much to ask for, and one of those was enough money for him to buy some more language-appropriate music for his choir -- or at least some music that was arranged in a way that wasn't entirely dismal.
There was a hiss as Isaiah flipped the switch to turn the organ on, the warm breathing sound the system made as air began to rush through its pipes. The choir members snapped to attention at the noise, straightening their spines and opening their music. "All right," nodded David, taking a music stand from beside the organ and setting it out in the middle of the chancel area. "It's, ah, pretty much as written," he added. "If you could play the choir's parts too, that'd be great. If not, it's not a big deal, but--"
"Parts too, not a problem." Isaiah gave him a thumbs-up from behind the organ, and David heard the soprano section nearly fall over themselves with giggling. He might have been more cross about it had he not been possessed of much the same impulse. He tapped his real baton, gave an empty measure, and motioned Isaiah to begin.
Yolanda had been a perfectly servicible accompanist, always diligent about showing up on time and steady in the face of David's often-meandering direction, but as Isaiah settled into the music, it became clear how she had really only been a pianist faced with an abundance of instrument. Isaiah was an organist, able to use multiple stops and registers at once; he set off a fanfare with antiphonal trumpets David honestly hadn't even known they'd had, startling everyone so badly they nearly missed their entrances, then proceeded to double the vocal parts, making the choir sound better by virtue of confidence and volume alike. If he'd impressed David as a jazz pianist, Isaiah blew him away on the organ.
Halfway through the second page, David became aware of a strangely familiar melody noodling around in the bassline, definitely not something written in the sheet music. It was faint, and he was concentrating on other matters, but the back of his mind kept trying to chew it into recognition. It was only near the end of the second verse that it clicked -- the tune was modified somewhat to fit the chord progression, of course, but he found himself singing along under his breath, "We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine...."
Much later, when David thought back on how everything had happened, he would be able to identify that precise moment as the one when he fell in love.
He'd passed the exit off the expressway that would take him to his house four times now, and each time he'd kept the nose of his car pointed straight ahead, driving to the last point where he knew he could make an easy U-turn, then starting the loop over again. Traffic was light on a Sunday evening, and at 7:45 there was hardly a touch of blue left to the sky. He'd turned off the radio, and wasn't even singing to himself, so the only sound was the steady hum of the road under his wheels.
He knew this loop by heart, the spin between where he should go and where he shouldn't go, keeping him suspended between the two destinations until something gave. The sign warning him that his exit was approaching in three miles tugged one direction; the other pull came from a place several miles farther down the line, in a poorly-lit part of the city with a parking lot so dark nobody could make out your car. Twice already tonight, he'd gone as far as he could, only to pull himself back at the last minute. He didn't know if he was strong enough for three.
Into the silence, a tinny synth harpsichord launched into an arrangement of 'Idumea', and Isaiah grabbed for the cell phone on the seat next to him. He flipped it open without looking at the caller ID. "Hello."
"Are you coming home for dinner?" Noemi's voice was forceful, but hardly angry. "Because if you're not, I'm dividing your portion between Luke and Joshua."
Isaiah laughed. "Maybe if we don't feed them, it'll stunt their growth a little." That his fifteen- and twelve-year-old nephews were already surpassing and nearing his height, respectively, was a source of great hilarity in the household. "No, I just ... have to run some errands."
"Oh." And that, Isaiah knew from years of experience, was Noemi's patented way of saying, well, it's your life and your big sister can't run it for you. "So, how was the gig?"
"The church? It was nice." Isaiah drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "I mean, I didn't understand ten words of what was going on, but..."
She let that hang on the air a moment. "But...?"
"I don't know. It was nice. They were nice. They were all ... really nice." An SUV cut him off, and he said a quick prayer for the driver. "The music minister is ... well, he's a really talented guy. He's the one I was telling you about, from last night. The amazing guitar player with the quiet voice."
Noemi laughed. "Small world, I guess."
"Yeah, pretty small. He's got a little crowd, and they're all pretty old and stayed, so, you know, not a lot of hand-clapping or praise dancing going on there, but...." In fact, the entire service had been so outside Isaiah's normal worship experience that he'd kept himself fixed to the sheet music for nearly the entire hour, confining his noodlings and improvisation to places most people wouldn't hear.
Of course, David obviously wasn't most people when it came to music. Self-taught or not, he was a better musician than many people Isaiah had gone to school with, and even if he didn't play the piano or read music with any great facility, it was obvious that his gift was for simply understanding the music, deep in his soul, free from all the maddening theory and rules 'proper' study tended to impose on music. And when the anthem had ended and David had given him that conspiratorial I heard what you did there smile -- well, Isaiah had to admit, that had pretty much made his entire week.
From the other end of the line, Noemi cleared her throat. "But...?"
Isaiah flipped on his right turn signal. "You know, I bet everything's closed by now, with Sunday and all. I'll just go run errands tomorrow. Chase those boys away from my food."
"It'll be waiting for you," said Noemi, whose smile was audible. "Drive safe, and we'll see you in a few."
"Okay. Bye." And Isaiah turned his car onto the off-ramp, braking for the light at the bottom and leaving the lure in the distance unheeded for another night.
2. There is a Balm in Gilead
Logistically, it made perfect sense for two collaborating music directors to meet for lunch between Sunday morning services at Grace and Sunday afternoon services at St. John's; besides giving them a chance to talk about the upcoming service, it kept Isaiah from having to make the trip all the way home and back again, and it kept David from eating by himself. At least, that was how Isaiah had presented the idea during his somewhat rambling voicemail left mid-week on David's cell phone, and David had made himself wait a full half hour before calling back and saying to Isaiah's voicemail, yes, yes.
The cafe they'd agreed upon was full of the Sunday lunch crowd's push, but Isaiah was easy enough to spot, holding down a two-seat table near the windows, grinning and waving. David made his way through the throng, slipping out of the walkway and into his seat just as a heavyset woman herded her flock of chattering children by. "This place does good business," he said, looking around.
"That's because their cheese grits are great." Isaiah, who had no problem making himself heard above the din, pointed to the ratty laminated menu. "And that's why I'm not allowed to eat here more than once a week."
"Sounds like my kind of temptation," said David, who immediately wished he hadn't. "So, how were services this morning?"
"Fine, they went fine. My nephew Joshua sang 'Rock of Ages' for the offertory."
Awkward church musician small talk had never been David's forte. "Oh, that's a nice Lenten piece." He worried his napkin between his fingers, hoping he didn't sound like a complete idiot.
Isaiah nodded, turning his attention to the menu. "Do you have a good arrangement of it?"
David had barely opened his mouth to attempt a joke about how 'Roca de la Eternidad' didn't have quite the same ring to it when a hand clapped down on his shoulder and he nearly jumped through the ceiling. "Well," bellowed a voice that could have given Isaiah's volume a run for its money, "look who we've got here!"
More instinct than conscious thought led David's hand to his shoulder, turning the touch as quickly as he could manage into a firm handshake. "Hi, Chet," he said to the hand's smiling, sandy-haired owner. "How are you?"
"Oh, fine, fine. Just out for Sunday lunch with my wife and kids, you know." Chet jerked a thumb over his shoulder to where a petite blonde woman was wrangling three fussing children, the eldest of whom looked no more than four. "Kids are great, you know."
"They look beautiful," nodded David, trying to keep his internal surge of panic from showing on his face. "It's good to see you again."
"You too, you too." And then Chet's gaze did the last thing David wanted it to do, which was fall on Isaiah, and a cloud passed over the perpetual sunshine of Chet's face. "Chet Hunter," he said, extending his hand to Isaiah. "How do you know David?"
"We're colleagues, actually," answered Isaiah, whose large hand generously covered Chet's pale fingers. If he noticed anything amiss with Chet's reaction, it didn't show. "Isaiah Stone. I'm the interim organist for David's congregation."
Chet nodded, and his features relaxed a fraction. "Well, that's great. David and I have known one another for ... what, is it ten years now, David?"
"About ten," answered David weakly, praying to whatever patron saint would hear him to end the conversation right then and there.
"Yep. Ten years." That hand clasped David's shoulder again, a sturdy masculine gesture he could imagine Chet practicing behind closed doors, but Chet was only looking at Isaiah. "We were roommates for a while at Love In Effect, you know. It's a residential Christian ex-gay inpatient program in Tennessee."
"I think I've heard of it," nodded Isaiah. David didn't dare look at his face.
"Yep, Christ turned both our lives around there, didn't he, David?" Chet looked back to the woman struggling with the children. "He freed me from the demon of homosexuality and led me to Megan, and now I'm blessed to be a father. God is good!"
"All the time," David responded automatically.
A waitress in a short brown dress approached the table, pen and tablet in hand, and Chet stepped back. "Well, I'll let you two colleagues get on with your lunch then. It was nice meeting you, Isaiah, and you take care now, David!" With mutual waves exchanged, Chet was off into the crowd again, leaving David staring intently at his menu, wondering if it really might be possible to die of shame.
"Cheese grits and coffee for the both of us, to start," said Isaiah, and the waitress scurried off back to the kitchen.
David let the silence at the table gather before asking, "...Is he gone?"
Isaiah peered over at the door. "And ... yes. Just rounded the corner."
"Great." David let his spine slacken, and his forehead fell to the table with a great thud. He considered picking his head up, mostly for the pleasure of dropping it again, but decided to leave it where it was for the time being. His brain was running cycles of what to say, mostly making the trip back and forth between I didn't want you to find out and I didn't want you to find out like that, with occasional stops at the thought of just picking up and leaving quietly, with as much of his remaining dignity as he could muster.
All these tracks came to a crashing halt, though, as he felt a hand against the side of his head, brushing at his hair in the way one might comfort a child. "Well," said Isaiah, "at least that program didn't turn you both into jerks."
"Oh, no," said David, his nose still pressed against his placemat, "Chet came pre-jerked." He took a deep breath and sighed. "No, I shouldn't say that. He's a very kind man, and very well-intentioned. He just...."
"Sir?" The waitress set two mugs of coffee on the table, and David sat back up before he could bump one and make an even bigger fool of himself than he had already. "Are you both ready to order?"
The encounter with Chet had taken away any desire he'd had to eat, but David didn't plan to let that show. "Spinach and feta omelette, wheat toast." It was the last thing he remembered having seen on the menu.
"Breakfast #3, side of bacon, extra crispy." Isaiah gathered the menus and handed them to her, then waited until she'd walked off before turning to David again. "Anyway, don't worry. I actually think it's ... well, brave."
David could have made a list of every possible thing he'd expected to come out of Isaiah's mouth, and 'brave' would never have made it. "Pardon?"
"It's just...." Isaiah shook out a couple sugar packets and dumped them into his coffee. "I know some men, men from my church, who struggle with the same thing, but they don't do anything about it. They don't say anything to anyone, not even to their families, and it mostly winds up eating them alive. But you admitted it and made a change, and there shouldn't be any shame in you turning your life around. It takes a lot of courage to take that first step and then keep up with it."
"God gives me strength," David said, and he knew it had to be true because he'd never had any of his own. "But thank you. For not being uncomfortable."
Isaiah laughed, tasted the coffee, frowned, and went for another sugar. "You may have noticed by now, I'm a pretty easygoing guy."
"Seems like." The grits arrived, steaming and delicious, and David's recently unclenched stomach had no problems now telling him it was time to eat. "And I suppose Chet has a right to be like that, especially if he thinks I'm backsliding."
"You mean he thought we were...." Isaiah gestured back and forth between the two of them with his fork.
Sidestepping neatly the question of whether or not Chet had any right to be suspicious, David shrugged, trying to sound as blank and unconcerned as possible. "I guess he must have."
"Well," said Isaiah, giving David a little smile, "I could see how someone might think this is date."
David shoveled a spoonful of hot grits into his mouth so fast that he burned his tongue and nearly choked.
"Will you stop fussing?" Noemi hit him across the back of his knuckles with wooden salad tongs.
"I'm not fussing." Isaiah would have reached for something to hit her back with, but his arms were full of place settings. "I'm getting ready for company. That's completely different from fussing."
"Which is why every salad dressing we have in the house is on the table between two different salad bowls filled with two different salads. Because you're not fussing."
"Joshua and Debbie don't like tomatoes, and Rachel and Luke don't like olives. Everyone gets choices." He frowned at a pile of utensils. "Is it fork-knife-spoon, or fork-spoon-knife?"
"It's alphabetical," sighed Noemi, taking them from his hands and setting them down herself. "I just want to know what's so special about this guy."
Isaiah frowned at his sister. "Nothing. There's nothing special about him. He's just a new friend, and his family lives a few hours away, and I thought it'd be nice if we had him over for dinner instead of having him eat all alone."
"Well, he must be something special if he gets to sit in on Family Night." Family Night at the Stone-Davis-Cole household happened every Wednesday, and it was firmly understood that barring unforseen catastrophe, all six members of the household would be present on that night for the evening meal, or suffer the consequences; with sports schedules and school activites and Debbie's new (to her, at least) car, it was likely the only time during the week when everyone would be assembled. "...Oh, God, you're not trying to set me up with him, are you?"
"What?" Isaiah turned so quickly that he caught a chair with his hip, nearly toppling it. "No!"
Noemi's eyes narrowed. "Are you sure? You know what happened the last time you tried to set me up with someone?"
"No, but if you hum a few bars, I can try to fake it." By now, both of Noemi's failed marriages were far enough off to be fair game for flippancy, but at the time, Isaiah hadn't seen anything funny about the rougher second one, from the point he'd introduced her to Kevin Cole because giving the guy you liked to your sister seemed like the thing to do, to the point where he'd tracked down his former best friend and stopped just short of beating into him what the consequences would be if he ever lay another hand on Noemi. By the time it was over, he'd felt certain that Noemi had picked up on what was really happening, but bless her heart, she'd never called him on it. He was closer to her than he was to anyone else in his family because she noticed the most and said the least.
"Right." This time she poked the salad fork at his gut before giving him a kiss on the cheek. "So don't try it again."
The timer on the oven went off, and he left her to go back into the kitchen before dinner could burn. He could fix maybe a dozen dishes well, and pot roast was one of them; green bean casserole, one of the others, was cooking on the rack below it. Noemi was wrong: he wasn't fussing at all. Fussing would've been giving into the temptation to cook all ten other entrees as well, just to make sure all his bases were covered.
Fussing might also have been defined as planning and re-planning the meal multiple times between inviting David on Monday and actually starting the cooking process Wednesday afternoon, to say nothing of double- and triple-checking to make sure all his nieces and nephews would be in attendance, but he hadn't planned on mentioning that.
Over the various noises from the kitchen, Isaiah heard the sound of the front door's being opened, followed by familiar unseen voices. "Hey, Uncle Isaiah!" shouted Joshua.
"In the kitchen!" he boomed back, turning on the sink tap to give the serving plate another rinse before he put the pot roast onto it. "You boys wash up; we'll eat in just a few!"
"Hi," came the response from just over his shoulder, too soft to belong to any member of his family. He turned to see David, charmingly casual in just a polo shirt and khakis, leaning against the refrigerator with a bottle of wine in his hands. "Now, before you say anything, I did remember that you're not a drinker, but it's sort of a habit, I can't just come to dinner without bringing something, and I couldn't think of anything to bring but wine, and ... well, it's got a pretty label, so maybe you can just keep it around for decoration...."
With his hands covered in soap suds and holding a large ceramic plate, all Isaiah could do was smile and incline his head to the right. "You can just put it there on the counter. And thank you, but you really didn't have to bring anything. It's just good to have you with us."
"Well, you know what they say about old habits." David looked around the kitchen. "Is there anything I can help you with?"
Isaiah shook his head, fitting on a pair of oven mitts. "Thanks, but I'm just about all done here. Did the boys let you in? I didn't hear the doorbell."
"They did, actually. They knew who I was before I figured out who they were," David added, which Isaiah refused to let be an indicator of how much he'd spent the past few days talking about their Wednesday night dinner guest. "You've got a lovely house."
"Thanks," said Isaiah, spooning out carrots, happy to turn the conversation to a subject he knew somethng about. "It was falling apart when I bought it, and more money than I had and more room than I needed besides, but I felt God calling to me, saying, this is your home, Isaiah. So I bought it, against my better judgement, and my faith was rewarded when Noemi and the kids were in need of a place to live."
"And he's a very understanding landlord," interrupted Noemi, rounding the corner with the salad tongs still in her hand; Isaiah wondered what had happened to make her so attached to them. She extended her free hand to David and gave him a businesslike handshake. "You must be David; I'm Noemi. I've heard so much about you."
Though his attention was by necessity fixed on making sure the scalding cast iron pot made it to the sink without incident, Isaiah thought he saw David's smile turn slightly bashful. "Likewise," David told her. "You have very hospitable sons. They found me wandering the street looking for house numbers."
Noemi smiled. "Thank you, they're good boys."
"They'd be better boys if they trimmed the hedges once in a while," said Isaiah, raising his voice on the last half of the sentence to make sure anyone listening in the dining room would be able to hear him. "Then maybe guests could find our house!"
"Sorry!" came the unseen chorus, which made the adults gathered in the kitchen laugh.
When they walked into the dining room, Isaiah was pleased to see all four of his neices and nephews sitting quietly in their seats, smiling at their uncle and responding politely as he introduced each of them. David smiled and waved to each one, then allowed himself to be ushered into his seat at one end of the table, sitting directly opposite Isaiah. He looked a little uncertain about so much attention, but by no means uncomfortable in the presence of such a large family.
"Let us now join hands and thank the Lord for the bounty He has given us," Isaiah said once they'd all been seated. Noemi and Luke were on either side of him, and he wrapped their hands tight in his. "Brother David, as our guest, would you say grace for us?"
"Of course." David smiled, then inclined his head downward. "Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts..."
As he heard the familiar blessing, followed by specific offers of thankfulness for each of those gathered at the table, Isaiah found his attention turned not Heavenward, but to the other end of the table; his eyes drifted open to see David's bowed figure, his slender hands clasped with Rachel and Joshua's, as though he'd belonged in the circle all along, as though there'd been a hole in their gathering Isaiah hadn't even known about until he'd seen it filled. David had come to his place at the table, and those already there had welcomed him quite literally with open arms.
"Amen," concluded David, and the rest of the table echoed him before dissolving into a pandemonium of pass the and hand me that and can I get. The joyful commotion was so distracting that Isaiah caught only the tail end of the look Noemi gave him -- something gentler than a frown, far closer to the wrinkling of the brow of someone for whom things were beginning to make sense.
And then, just as quickly, it was gone.
He heard the ringing as he came down his hallway and barely managed to fumble for his keys, unlock the door, and snatch the cell phone from where he'd left it on the counter before it went to his voice mail. "Hello?" he gasped at the receiver.
"David? It's Reverend Marty," greeted the familiar voice from the other end of the line. "Listen, did I catch you at a bad time?"
"No, I just...." David ran his fingers through his hair. "I just walked in the door from jogging, Reverend, can you give me thirty seconds and I'll be right with you?"
"Take all the time you need." Marty's voice was perfectly soothing and pastoral, with an edge of fortunate sincerity that made him sound sufficiently like Billy Graham and less like a snake-oil salesman.
David rested the phone on the counter, wishing he could 'accidentally' snap it shut and disconnect the call, except for the knowledge that Marty would just call him back. He kicked off his tennis shoes and peeled off his sweaty shirt, deciding that it could keep his shoes company on the floor; snatching the phone in one hand and the phone in the other, he went to flop down on the futon that served as both couch and bed to his tiny apartment. "I'm here, Reverend, how are you?"
"Oh, I'm fine, doing just fine. The weather's lovely here in Tennessee this week. Not a cloud in the sky."
"Sounds very nice," said David, who had dealt with enough clergy in his time to know that the only purpose of weather talk was to cushion whatever was to follow. "It's been a little cloudy here. Won't rain until Wednesday, though."
"Is that so," said Marty, and it wasn't a question. "Actually, I heard much the same from Chet when I spoke to him the other day."
David froze where he lay, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. "Yes, I saw Chet the other day when I was having lunch with a colleague," he said, willing his voice neutral, hiding nothing because he had nothing to hide.
"A colleague," Marty echoed, still not quite a question.
"He's the interim organist at my church." David had been to confession at times that had felt less like confession than this did, which was somewhat ironic, because Rev. Marty was Protestant.
"That's good, David. I'm glad you've got some professional friends who share your musical interests." A pause. "I spoke with your sister the other day, actually."
He had many sisters, but only one who had married a Presbyterian from Tennessee whose church kept close ties with Love In Effect. "How is Linda doing?"
Marty's chiding, you-should-call-your-sister-more-often tone slipped out through the receiver. "She's good, though she's asked me to keep an eye on you. She said the Lord's put you on her heart these days. She and I are both worried about your lack of a support system in Atlanta. You've been there six years now, but you've made so few close connections."
The way to respond to such concern was never to get defensive, David knew, because that only confirmed the concerned party's suspicions. "I've made some friends from church. But you know me, Reverend. I'm not outgoing like Chet."
"Of course," said Marty. "We're all our God's children, and all of us special in our own ways. But you know, a support group would do you well. It would provide a certain degree of accountability."
"I understand, Reverend."
"The human heart was not meant to thrive alone, David. Christ drew strength both from solitude and from his dearest companions."
David's eyes fixed on the blank walls of his apartment, punctuated only by the (empty) cross that hung above his bed. "I'm blessed by your friendship and your concern, Reverend," he said, and it was true. "Please tell my sister I'm doing well and I'll make a point to call home more often."
"Of course." There was a smile to Marty's voice David could hear over the phone, a satiated grin like that of a professor pleased that his student has just passed a difficult exam with flying colours. "Take care of yourself, David. Christ has gone before you in all your struggles, and you should know you're always in my prayers."
"Thank you, Reverend. You're in mine."
When the call ended, David shut the phone and rested it on the pillow next to his head. A too-familiar hollowness filled him, an ache that had started as a crack when he was a just a child and spread until becoming an abyss. In his mind, it looked like what he remembered of the Grand Canyon from the family road trip they'd taken the summer he was 11. So many times at Love In Effect, he'd undergone guided meditations, picturing filling that same chasm with Bibles, or soft clouds, or once even Communion wine, turning the gap inside him into a large purple river.
But no matter how he tried, he could never dam the good feelings up, and so in time they all washed away, leaving him empty and vulnerable. The walls of his apartment were empty for a reason, the familiar saints and icons from his childhood banished from this place, the one remaining object absent the body whose death made it holy. Their absence was testament to how he was better than temptation.
It was the third Sunday in Lent when Isaiah realised he was looking forward more to services at St. John's than he was to services at Grace. The lack of responsibility was refreshing -- his job was to show up, play along with what had been chosen for him, and leave decisions to others. And while his church family at Grace was dear and familiar to him, the congregants at St. John had accepted him joyfully into their community, and he did so love meeting new people, even if there was a language barrier at work.
He wasn't quite ready to admit one last reason to himself, though, not even as he lingered at the piano bench after the service while the choir said their good-byes for the week and filed out into the early evening. Noodling aimlessly, he found his fingers settling into the chords of music he'd practiced that morning with his choir, then began to sing, "Christ the Lord is risen today--"
"Hey," said David, lifting his head from the scattered pile of sheet music his choir had left on his music stand. "No hallelujahs during Lent."
With a grin, Isaiah laid into the rousing first three chords of Handel's 'Hallelujah' chorus, stopping just short of where the voices would enter triumphantly and transitioning back into a dirge-like rendition of 'O Sacred Head, Now Wounded'. "Better?"
"Don't make me call the Liturgical Police on you." David pointed his baton accusingly at Isaiah, but despite all his exaggerated attempts at gruffness, Isaiah could see a smile turning the corners of his mouth.
"Are they the ones who'll fine me for wearing my red tie before Pentecost?" Isaiah brought the song to a close and pushed back from the bench, leaving the final cadence unresolved; that didn't bother David as much as it had driven his Juliard classmates nuts, but he could see it still made David's eyebrow twitch. "All right, I suppose I'd better head on."
David made a shooing gesture without lifting his head. "Go on, then. I've got some music library maintenance to do, so I'll be here for a while."
"Oh!" Isaiah turned just at the door, trying to look casual and not like he'd been wondering how to bring this up all evening. "Noemi and I both forgot that this Wednesday's a little different. Rachel's in her school play, which means we all go see her be the March Hare, and then we all go to McDonald's."
"Oh," David cleared his throat, going back to sorting the sheet music after only a moment's pause. "Well, tell her to break a leg for me."
Isaiah shrugged. "You could tell her yourself. I mean, if you don't mind a Big Mac instead of home cooking for once. Rachel said she'd like you to be there," he added, which was a true statement, if not an entirely unprompted one.
The second or two it took David to answer stretched out for years in Isaiah's mind, and he was sure for every inch of it that the answer would be 'no', that it was ridiculous to ask your colleagues to your niece's school play, that the only people who enjoyed watching second-graders run around the stage in ridiculous costumes were the people obligated to be there by family ties. And then David's face broke into that quiet grin he had, the one that lifted Isaiah's heart every time he saw it. "I wouldn't want to impose...."
"No imposition! We'd love you to be there." He took a steadying breath. "...I'd like you to be there."
"Then I wouldn't miss it for the world," said David softly.
Isaiah was so giddy on his way out of the church that evening, so walking-on-air delighted, that it wasn't until he was in the car and halfway home that a cold rush of shame doused his euphoria as effectively as a bucket of water thrown on a candle. He knew exactly what he'd been doing in that choir room -- he hadn't been asking a friend out to a family gathering, he'd been flirting. In a House of God, with another Man of God, he'd acted disgracefully and succumbed to the urges Satan continually set on his heart.
Most of all, it wasn't fair to David to behave like this. After all, the man had fought his demons of homosexuality and won, and it wasn't fair for Isaiah, waging half-heartedly a silent and losing battle, to drag anyone else down with him.
"Oh, Isaiah," he said to himself, his hands knuckled tight around the steering wheel, "what the hell do you think you're doing?"
He'd been expecting the venue to be, at the most, an emptied cafeteria with hard plastic chairs, and as such was pleasantly surprised when the address Isaiah sent him turned out to be a small community playhouse swarming with parents and children. He stood in the foyer, blinking at the unfamiliar crowd for a familiar face, and nearly jumped out of his skin when Debbie clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Hi, Mr. David," she beamed.
"Oh, hello. I didn't see you there." He wasn't sure if Isaiah had told the children to affix the 'Mr.' before his first name, or if it had been just collective good manners on their part, and either way he was unwilling to dissuade them from the practice, no matter how strange it seemed to him.
"I'm sneaky." She wrapped her hands around the crook of his elbow, and he awkwardly adjusted his arm to provide her the proper escort as she led him into the fray. "Uncle Isaiah's been here holding down a row of seats for an hour, so I got watch duty. Rachel's really excited you're going to be here."
David blinked at her, surprised into momentary silence. "She ... is?" Though he'd never doubted Isaiah's sincerity per se, David had assumed that his family's feelings on the matter of his attendance were at best neutral.
"Yeah. She loves an audience." An usher handed him a photocopied program as Debbie led him into the auditorium. "Besides," her voice grew softer, conspiratorial, "we all like seeing Uncle Isaiah happy."
Before David could think of a response to that one, Debbie had pulled him to a stop in front of six seats, four of which were filled with people waving greetings to him. "Oh, good," said Noemi, "you found him before some other family could pick him up."
"Special delivery!" Debbie snapped off a salute that made her earrings jingle. "Now move."
Isaiah and Noemi stood to allow Debbie past them into the row. Luke and Joshua were together at the far end, poring together over what David assumed was a basketball magazine; they were half-brothers three years apart, but they were closer than any other siblings David had ever seen. "Have a seat," said Isaiah, indicating the aisle seat next to him. "Did you have any trouble finding the place?"
"No, none. Just a little traffic." David glanced at the program, which had Alice in Wonderland on the front in fancy script. "Nice crowd here."
"It's a racket. Parents are a guaranteed audience." The lights dimmed, and Isaiah smiled at him. "Hey, good timing."
A tape-recorded orchestra started up its overture, and the curtain lifted on a hand-painted tableau, with a blue-dressed girl center stage who could have been Disney's Alice, except her hair and skin were both dark. The music softened, and from the shadows crept the White Rabbit, sporting a pair of rabbit ears that stubbornly refused to stay upright, no matter how he fussed at them; he gave them an irritated tug, and a murmur of laughter rose up from the audience.
About the time the Cheshire Cat appeared, balanced on a set of wooden crates painted like a tree, David shifted in his seat, letting his left hand come to rest against his leg -- and then froze as his hand brushed up against another set of knuckles from the seat next to his. Propriety demanded he pull away, but he found himself paralysed by the shock of contact, guilty and thrilled and breathless all at once. Still, it was brief enough and light enough that anyone would think the touch accidental, and if he could just manage to move his hand again in the next ten seconds, there would be no reason to suspect--
And then Isaiah's knuckles moved, not away but apart, spreading fingers apart just wide enough to accomodate the backs of David's knuckles, threading their hands together with barely a quarter-inch of overlap. David chanced a sideways glimpse, but Isaiah was still looking straight ahead at the stage, laughing gently with everyone else as Tweedledee stumbled over the hem of her costume. His right hand, however, remained fixed against David's left, light enough to remain plausibly an accident, but firm enough that David found himself ignoring the rest of the play and concentrating on the shadow of a possibility that this might be real.
The whole family knew that Luke was called to the ministry -- the only one who hadn't figured it out, it seemed, was Luke himself, and they all knew he'd come around given time. It was clear from the way compassion seeped into all of his actions, like the way he had pulled Isaiah out of the blue funk he'd been in all day by challenging him to a few hoops, or the way he let the first ten minutes of the game go on in relative silence before asking, "Where's Mr. David?"
Of course, his nature wasn't entirely compassionate; the question came as Isaiah was setting up a free throw, and he missed it. "Beg pardon?"
Luke shrugged, retrieving the ball. "Heard you say something like 'have a nice time at the something-something' on the phone the other day." He dribbled a few times, took the shot from the edge of the driveway, and sent the ball swishing through. "And Mom said he's not coming to dinner tomorrow."
"He's at a bishop's council meeting. They wanted someone to come talk on multi-cultural worship and music." Isaiah took the hand towel from the back pocket of his shorts and wiped off his forehead. "He's in Raleigh until Saturday."
"That's cool." With a spin, Luke made a break for the basket, and Isaiah didn't manage to block him in time; he sprang up on young legs and dunked the ball into the shorter-than-regulation hoop, leaving his long fingers curled around the rim. He was going to be tall someday, tall enough to play college ball, tall enough maybe even to pass and shoot his way into a good scholarship. "I mean, I guess he knows a lot about that stuff."
"More than most people," Isaiah agreed, catching the ball as Luke passed it to him and making a jump shot of which he was rather proud.
Luke picked up the ball, and kept his eyes fixed on it as he bounced it against the pavement. "You know, you've been home a lot of nights the last couple weeks. Like, all of them."
Isaiah felt his stomach tighten into a knot. "...And?" he asked, his voice little more than sand.
"And I'm glad." Luke cleared his throat and tossed the ball to Isaiah, indicating that the game was on again and Isaiah should toss it back. "That's all. Say, maybe Mr. David should come play at our church."
The change of subject was somewhat artificial, but Isaiah was willing to go with it. "Now what makes you say that?"
"I don't know." He took another shot, sending the ball sailing well over Isaiah's head and into the net. "You keep saying he's good, but we never get to hear him. Besides, you've been playing over there so much, I figure it's only fair."
Isaiah shrugged, glad to have the distraction of retrieving the ball to save him from an immediate reply; bending over was not any heavyset man's forte. "...Maybe. I'll think about it."
"That means 'yes'," said Luke, and before Isaiah could ask what he'd meant by that, Luke had already snatched the ball from his hands, leapt for the goal, made the shot, and hung from the poorly weighted rim despite his mother's specific warnings not to do just that. "And that means my game."
The worst part about having people who loved you, Isaiah thought, wasn't that they could see right through you; it was the way they sometimes saw ahead of you, knowing things about you before you even started to believe them yourself. "You cheater," grinned Isaiah, giving his nephew a sweaty congratulatory hug.
The mattress in the motel was stiff, the whole room lit only by the blue-grey glow from the muted TV set, and David lay on top of the covers, curled on his side, still fully dressed down to his shoes and tie, staring at the grey cell phone on top of the bedside digital clock. He was reaching for it, and had been reaching for it for the past hour, but his hands felt like weights, and every time he lifted one, he shook and lost all breath in his lungs, and had to start over.
"Hi," he muttered to himself for the thirtieth time, watching the clock turn from 9:04 to 9:05. "Sorry to call so late, but ... I'm thinking about-- I was thinking about ... on Sunday, the offertory-- I mean, if you think ... if you--"
He snatched the phone from the dresser mid-sentence and had pressed call before his common sense could override his decision; by the time his terror caught up with him, the call was already connecting. He heard three rings and then a click. "Hi," greeted Isaiah's voice, strangely quiet.
"Hi," David said, "I was just calling to -- I mean, I'm sorry to call so la--" A soft series of beeps interrupted his well-practiced poorly worded excuse.
From the other end of the phone, Isaiah asked, "What was that?"
David pulled the phone away from his ear long enough to see a single bar flashing in the battery gauge, and thought to himself every Spanish curse he knew that didn't take the Name of the Lord in vain. "It's just my phone, it's nearly out of juice, and ... well, I'm pretty sure I left the charger at home, so....."
Isaiah laughed again, and David found himself holding the phone closer to his ear, as though he might somehow be able to absorb more of the rich, warm sound. "Isn't it always the way, though?"
"Yeah," David nodded, smiling. "Yeah, I guess it is. ...Anyway, it wasn't important. I was just," he took a small breath, "...calling."
"I'm really glad you did," said Isaiah, and David heard a high-pitched piano trill in the background. "I was just playing a little."
David closed his eyes and imagined Isaiah at the keys, sleeves rolled up, bowtie probably askew, and the thought made him smile. "Playing what?"
"Oh, just as the Spirit moves me. Any requests?" Isaiah struck a few disconnected notes, jazz-style.
His lower back had begun to hurt, and it took David a moment to realise that he'd pulled his knees up nearly all the way to his chest. "I should let you go. It's late, and I--" His phone beeped again, a last warning. "Anyway, I'll be home tomorrow, and my phone's going to die at any minute--"
"Let me try something I've been working on," said Isaiah. "And if your phone dies on us, good. You can't tell me you don't like it until tomorrow."
Before David could say anything in response, there was a soft click, the sound of a phone's being placed face-up on the piano's lacquered rim, followed by a low jazz chord. "No, I don't like that key, let's try--" said Isaiah's voice, now distant from the mouthpiece, and the chord shifted up a minor third. "Okay, better." A few more deep chords set the key, and then Isaiah began to sing, his voice hushed, presumably so as not to bother the rest of his house: "Sometimes I feel discouraged / And think my work's in vain / But then the Holy Spirit / Revives my soul again...."
The last time David had sung this song had been at a Love in Effect chapel service, part of a circle of men trying to pray away their demons, singing about how despised and vile they were, begging healing in the face of depravity. Now, though, as Isaiah's voice danced through the notes, he heard not desperation, but the promise of deliverance from it: "There is a balm in Gilead / To make the wounded whole / There is a balm in Gilead / To heal the sin-sick--"
"...soul," finished David alone as the phone gave one last strangled beep, then shut itself down for good. He knew he should get up and at least take off his good clothes before falling asleep, but for now he couldn't summon the energy to do anything but remain curled in place, pressing the silent phone to his ear, as tears rolled down into the pillow.
3. Softly and Tenderly
He didn't know why he was back here. He had a thousand better places to be and a thousand reasons to be in them, but he was still leaning over the bar, staring into his rum-and-coke-minus-the-rum, hoping equally to be noticed and to be passed over entirely until closing. Therefore, he technically got exactly what he wanted when a young man with waist-length dreds tapped Isaiah and motioned in the direction of the bathrooms. So Isaiah put down his drink and came along.
The bathroom was somewhat crowded, but an unspoken rule that nobody paid any attention to business that wasn't his own meant that no one even looked up when the two men entered. The young man leaned back against a bare patch of wall and unzipped his fly, pulling out a cock that even only half-hard was still an impressive size. "Come on," he grinned, holding it out as though for inspection. He wore a gold wedding band on his finger. "Unless you want to fuck."
Isaiah shook his head, then braced himself along the wall, steadying himself as he knelt. He did want to fuck, that was the problem. So maybe if he didn't go that far, he'd want it less, and maybe once he didn't want it enough, he could stop. That had been his going theory for a few years now, and it had been working as well as any theory that took several years to not solve a problem did.
As he took the cock before him in his hand, though, performing his usual pre-blowjob check to gauge dimensions and spot any unpleasantness, he noticed something unusual: he himself wasn't hard. The setting, the scenario, everything was the way it usually was. Except this time, he was prohibitively aware of what was missing.
"Sorry," he muttered, pushing himself to his feet and heading for the door, not even sparing a glance for the man he'd left behind him. His fingers found his car keys in his pocket. "I was hoping you were someone else."
The overflowing bucket of fronds beside the side door tripped David as he walked in, and he might have pitched forward if Isaiah hadn't reached out from behind and caught his arm. "Easy there."
David righted himself, untangling his feet from the greenery. "One of the hazards of Palm Sunday," he smiled sheepishly, straightening his tie. The palms themselves looked a little the worse for wear, having been used already for hosannas in the morning service. "This is the time of year for church plants that try to kill me. If I forget my allergy medication on Easter, I'm in trouble."
"You and my mother," Isaiah nodded. "Is it bad for you at Christmas too?"
"No. Fill the church with poinsettias, I'm fine. Fill the church with lilies, my head gets so stuffed up I can't breathe." David unlocked the double doors from the foyer into the sanctuary, propping them open for those who would come after. "Maybe I'm in the wrong profession."
"Maybe we just need to find you a hypoallergenic church." Isaiah followed David down the nave to the altar area, carrying David's guitar as part of an unspoken arrangement to keep the delicate instrument in the hands of the one less likely to fall on his face. The 'real' St. John's had done an amazing job getting the sanctuary ready, covering the walls with banners proclaiming 'BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!' in large gold script, draping the pulpit and altar with yards of deep red cloth embroidered with bright green leaf designs, setting up huge arrays of palm fronds that gave the area behind the railing a bit of a jungle motif. Sometimes it was nice, David thought, to share a space with people who had the money to make such things and the willingness to share them with others.
The door to the vestry opened, permitting Padre Reyes and two deacons into the sanctuary. "David!" exclaimed Padre Reyes, coming over to give him a firm hug. "It's good to see you today," he continued in Spanish, "at the start of this most holy week."
"It's good to be with you too, Padre," David agreed. He shook the hands of the other men, both of whom he knew mostly by virtue of the congregation's small size.
Padre Reyes nodded toward his companions. "Celio, Héctor, and I were just discussing how much your music has been an integral part of this Lenten season. We've been blessed to have your leadership."
Héctor, the taller of the two men, nodded for emphasis. "In these past several weeks especially, listening to your choir, I've been sad that the Lord has blessed me with many things, but a singing voice is not among them."
"Well, if we were all in the choir, no one would be left to listen in the congregation," David laughed, giving his customary response to bypass an excuse he'd always found inexplicable. In all his life, he'd met only five people who couldn't sing, and five thousand more who wouldn't sing, but the latterkind always seemed to get annoyed when he pointed that out. "Thank you so much for your kind words, but I can hardly take the credit. My choir has been exceptionally dilligent, and Isaiah has been invaluable."
Presumably having heard his name, Isaiah looked over from the nearby pew in which he sat, quietly tuning David's guitar and humming to himself. He'd never been taught to play, or so he'd told David, but he'd taking to fooling around with David's guitars whenever they weren't in their owner's arms, and he had a sense of pitch that proved frequently useful. "Hosanna!" he greeted the men, raising a hand what David knew he thought was an appropriately bilingual greeting.
"Hosanna indeed," repeated Padre Reyes, slipping back into English as he walked over to Isaiah. He reached out and took one of Isaiah's hands in two of his own, shaking it gratefully. "When your Pastor George led us to you, we had no idea what sort of a blessing we were receiving!"
Isaiah took the guitar off his lap and stood, and when he did he towered over the rest of them. "Thank you so much, Padre. I do feel God has brought us together for a great work, and it does my heart good to hear the Word of the Lord in any language."
That won him a laugh from the assembled Spanish-speakers, and Padre Reyes patted his hand again before letting go to fuss with his vestments. "Maybe this will inspire you to learn Spanish," they all chuckled, "and you will come back and worship with us again even after Yolanda has returned from her leave of absence."
From the beginning, David had known this was never anything more than a temporary arrangement, a part-time collaboration at best, but Padre Reyes' words drove through him the cold knife of remembering exactly how temporary it was. "She's doing better, then?" he asked, in English for Isaiah's benefit.
"Oh, quite well," answered Celio, who was her cousin on her mother's side. "Baby Luisa is home from the hospital, and Carlo's back at work already, so Yoli's looking forward to coming back to church on Easter, and starting with the choir again the Sunday after that."
"That's wonderful!" Isaiah clapped his hands together. "Praise be to Christ for healthy children, amen?"
"Amen," echoed David, more as a reflex than anything else. He felt as though he had become a statue, face frozen in a smile it didn't matter if he didn't mean because he couldn't change it anyway. Of course it was wonderful that Yolanda and her family were better, and it would be nice for everyone concerned to return to their lives as they had been before all this had happened, and any desire he had to extend this arrangement at all was entirely selfish on his part, and he should stop feeling that way immediately because it didn't benefit anyone.
Of course, no amount of logical thinking could make the excitement in Isaiah's eyes sting any less.
"Amen," nodded Padre Reyes. "Well, we'll let you musicians continue getting ready to work your wonders in peace," and the three men toddled off down the far aisle, into the side chapel where they prepared for services, leaving Isaiah and David alone in the voluminous sanctuary.
David picked up his guitar from where Isaiah had left it in the pew and draped the strap around his shoulder; he strummed a chord, frowned, tightened his A string a fraction. "Sounds good," he nodded, picking out the beginning to one of his half-finished compositions, one he'd tentatively titled 'In the Desert'. Like most of his compositions, it would probably remain half-finished until he either forgot it entirely or wrote it down and lost the sheet music shortly afterward. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Isaiah walked to the organ and flipped the switch to turn it on; the pipes hidden deep in the walls drew in their collective breath, holding it patiently until their keys were pressed and their voices could be released. One Sunday afternoon, Isaiah had described that warmup sound to David as the Ruach Elohim, the Spirit of God, moving over the face of the waters like at the beginning of Genesis, just waiting to speak.
Leaning against the communion rail, David got to the point in the song where he ran out of music, sighed, and stopped. "So," he said into the airy silence, resting the guitar in its stand just behind the lectern, "bet your family'll be glad to have you back on Sunday evenings, won't they?"
The comment had started life as a joke, but as David turned, he could see that the smile on Isaiah's face was just as much plaster as his own had been shortly before. "...Can I confess something?" Isaiah asked, crossing the chancel to where David stood.
"Sure," David nodded. "I mean, unless you mean confess, like I give you Hail Marys and we go inside the confessional box, because I think it's locked during services."
That at least turned Isaiah's smile honest. "Nothing that mortal or venial." He shook his head. "I just ... well, is it terrible of me to want a woman I've never met and her newborn baby to stay sick, just so that I could keep a job?"
"Oh, thank God." David laughed, leaning back against the lectern so he didn't fall over with relief. "No. I mean -- well, yes, but--" And then they were both laughing, longer and harder than any part of the conversation deserved, racked with the kind of nervous St. Vitus' dance of hilarity that you couldn't stop once it grabbed you. Everything was coming to an end soon, which was probably best for everyone concerned, and there was nothing to do to stop it, and sometimes when there was nothing left but laughter or hysterical sobbing, you went with the laughter because it was easier to explain.
At long last, David managed in a deep breath, held it for a three-count, and exhaled. Isaiah cleared his throat and put his hand on David's forearm, steadying them both. "You all right there?"
David nodded, looking at Isaiah's hand because he couldn't manage to meet his gaze. "Fine, fine." Another deep breath, this one held to five and let loose in a rush that carried the words, "I guess I'm just not ready to let you go."
"I guess that makes two of us," Isaiah said, his voice soft and low like thunder, rolling in on the wind that hissed high through the sanctuary's tall ceiling.
From the back of the sanctuary there was a heavy sound, and the two men practically levitated apart, with only Isaiah having the skill to make the reflex look like the beginning of an intentional return to the organ bench. When David looked, only Héctor and his wife, Elisa, stood in the back, a large pot of palm fronds placed on the ground between them, both looking up at the front of the sanctuary with expressions David couldn't read at that distance. He lifted his hand in a bright wave, and the couple waved back, but with a slowness that twisted David's stomach in a knot again.
Of course, it didn't matter what they'd thought they'd seen, or even what they'd actually seen, because there'd been nothing to see. And they had no reason to be suspicious, because of everyone in the congregation, only Padre Reyes knew about the time David had spent with Love In Effect. So really, there was nothing to worry about at all.
Responding to phone call from a friend with a dead car battery by hopping in the car, driving halfway across town on a rainy night, and giving him a jump was, to Isaiah's mind, perfectly reasonable -- as was following that friend all the way to his house just to make sure the battery didn't die along the way. Accepting that friend's offer to come inside his apartment for a cup of coffee would, if pressed, be admittedly slightly less defensible, but Isaiah had been raised that it was rude to refuse gratitude, and anyway, it was better than falling asleep on the drive home.
At least, that was what he found himself thinking as he sat on the futon-couch in David's tiny studio apartment, watching over the low planter wall that divided the kitchen from the living room as David rummaged through the cabinets for coffee. "I bought some the other day," said his muffled voice, "but I can't remember ... oh, there it is." He emerged with a round blue tin, a towel still draped over his wet hair. "Generic grocery store brand special roast."
"Sounds heavenly," smiled Isaiah, looking around what little there was to the apartment. There were only two doors, so far as he could see -- one to the outside hallway, one to a bathroom that was itself of no great size. Two bookcases as tall as he was lined the far wall, flanking a modestly sized television set, and a desktop computer that looked at least a decade old took up most of a table in the far corner. "I didn't get a chance to ask how your combined service went."
David put the coffee on while he talked. "All right, I guess. It's always awkward when we try to share. Everyone's got the best intentions, but Father Nelson from the regular St. John's always gives the homily, and it's always in English, so the turnout is low from my congregation, and turnout is low anyway because nobody remembers to celebrate Holy Thursday. So imagine sixty white people wondering why half the communion litany is in Spanish, a dozen little grannies who are the only ones who can pronounce the hymns from the Spanish hymnal, and me with my guitar, trying to do all eighty verses of 'Let Us Break Bread Together' without accidentally singing 'when I fall on my face with my knees to the rising sun'."
Isaiah laughed loudly, then clapped a hand over his mouth, mindful of David's neighbours. "Don't feel bad, I think everyone's done that one at least once. At least you didn't give the reading from the letters of Paul about how in Christ there are neither Jews nor Genitals."
"...You're making that one up."
"Swear to it. My oldest brother did it when he was twelve. The family still teases him about it."
Shaking his head, David got out two mugs. "Well, the pun doesn't really work in Spanish, so I think I'm safe from that one. How do you take your coffee?"
"Just sugar's great," said Isaiah, looking around again. The whole place was somewhat neater than David's personality would have led him to believe, but he knew better than to say so. "You've got a cozy place here."
"'Cozy' is a nice way of saying 'small'," David pointed out, walking over with both mugs and sitting at the far end of the futon. "But thank you. And yes, it's small on purpose. I'm not supposed to live in the kind of place that's good for entertaining guests. When my sister helped me move back here after -- well, after -- she picked it for me."
The few times David had made reference to the time he'd spent in the ex-gay program, he'd always changed the subject quickly afterward; now, however, he let the statement hang on the air, sipping at his coffee instead, his eyes a million miles away. "Hey," said Isaiah softly, figuring he might never get another chance, "I may be way out of line here, and you can tell me to mind my own fool business, but ... it seems like they still control you a lot, even though you're not there anymore."
David's jaw tightened, and he just stared into his mug. "The director liked to joke that it was the Hotel California -- you know, check out any time you like, but never leave. At least, he thought it was a joke." He laughed once, but without smiling. "Did you know that it was a voluntary program?"
Isaiah frowned, and he shook his head. The impression he'd been given about programs like those were that they were more like mental hospitals, places where your loved ones sent you when they didn't know what to do with you anymore, where guards and doctors regulated when you came and went. He could somehow picture David's family grabbing him by the arms and dragging him there, telling him it was all for his own good; it was harder to imagine David walking in of his own free will.
"Completely voluntary. I checked myself in on the first day, and I checked myself out when they said I was good to go."
"So they," there seemed no good way to phrase the question, "...made you straight?"
David shook his head, his eyes still fixed forward. "No, they made me a 'celibate ex-gay'," his free hand made finger quotes around the last three words. "They made Chet straight, but Chet's problem wasn't that he was gay, his problem was that he had been molested by his uncle until he was twelve and didn't know how to maintain a stable relationship. There was another guy whose problem was that he was gay and a heroin addict, and when they cleared up the heroin addict part of the problem, he was gone. Most guys were gone in a year or two, because they were 'cured' or because they got sick of it and left on their own."
He wasn't nosy or a gossip by nature, but something about the expression on David's face told Isaiah that it needed to be asked. His hands tightened around his coffee cup. "...How long were you there?"
"Nine years," said David with a bitter little smile. "I knew early on that I had ... a problem, so I tried prayer, daily confession, aversion therapy, even an exorcism. Nothing worked. So I graduated high school and checked myself in the following week." He drank down his coffee to the bottom before speaking again. "I think they finally let me go because they felt too guilty taking my family's money any longer."
And there wasn't really anything left to be said to that, so Isaiah turn his efforts toward finishing his own cup of coffee. From what he knew of David, he wouldn't have been surprised to learn that this was the first time David had ever spoken about any of this to someone who didn't know in the first place, and while he approved of catharsis and sharing, he didn't know if he was an appropriate audience.
Finally, David shook his head and forced a laugh. "And this is why I don't get invited to parties," he said, taking Isaiah's emptied mug from his hands. "Another cup?"
He should leave, Isaiah knew; it would be best for the both of them if he said his thank-yous and good-byes, and left them both to their own devices. "That'd be great."
With a small grunt, he pushed himself up from the low futon, then walked back into the kitchen. "So, yes," he continued, "you're right, they do still control a lot of my life, and I guess I let them because I'm used to it by now. Even more than that -- I've come to rely on it. Because I've seen that what they do works, and I've got to believe if I do it enough, if I'm good enough, if I work hard enough at it, maybe one day it'll work for me too."
"That's--" Isaiah's throat closed around his words, and he tugged at his tie to give them a little more space. "I meant what I said about you being brave. I just didn't know how brave."
"It's not brave," said David, returning and handing Isaiah his mug; when he sat again, he sat closer, though possibly not on purpose. He leaned forward, bracing his forearms against his knees, staring into his coffee as though it, and not Isaiah, were the other participant in the conversation. "It's desperate. I have to believe that there's ... some way left they can help me let God fix me. Because if there isn't...." His voice trailed off.
Isaiah bent as close as he dared come without actually touching David, keeping an imaginary confessional lattice's distance between them, as near as you could get to another person while still being miles away. "If there isn't...?"
"Then there's something wrong with me that God can't fix." The surface of David's coffee rippled once, then again, and David ran the heel of his hand roughly over his cheeks. "Or won't fix, I don't know which is worse."
With the theological consequences for failure laid bare like that, Isaiah was left with no recourse, no rebuttal. The options as David stated them seemed equally devastating: either David was flawed on a level so fundamental to his place in the universe that even Divine Intervention would have no effect, much like the example Pastor George had once given about how even God could not make a two-sided triangle; or God had given up on David and abandoned him to despair. His only option was to keep fighting it, then, to keep repeating the same tricks and the same rituals that had worked for others, with the last great hope being that even if they didn't bring about the desired conclusion, he could stand one day in the presence of the Almighty and say with absolute sincerity, dammit, I tried.
And if that was true about David, what about Isaiah?
Finally, David took a deep breath and let it out in a laugh. "Anyway, I want to thank you, Isaiah, for ... well, for not judging me about it. I didn't want you to know -- I don't want anyone to know, really...." He raked his fingers through his hair and looked at Isaiah for the first time since the conversation began, his eyes red-rimmed and tired, but steady. "But if anyone had to know, I'm glad it was you."
"David, wait." Isaiah set his coffee mug down, balancing it atop a stack of sheet music catelogues, and buried his face in his hands. "...I need to tell you something."
He could hear David sigh softly. "Isaiah, it's okay. You don't have to say it. I think I know."
"No, you don't. You really don't." He felt on the verge of tears himself, and he clenched his fists until his knuckles hurt just to make himself stop. "I need to tell you, and I need you not to say anything until I'm done, okay?"
If he'd thought this was going to be hard, he knew better the minute he opened his mouth and the words came tumbling out. "I have sex with men. I have sex with men I only see once, whose names I don't even know. I pick them up in places around the city where other men like me gather, and I go into the restrooms or their cars or sometimes a motel, and I always try to be careful but I know one day I'm going to screw up, and I know I should stop but I can't. I pretend like my family doesn't know, and they pretend like they don't know, but we all know, and they're worried sick about me but they can't say anything, and I want to stop but I can't." He paused to catch his breath, aware he was shaking with humiliation, but he couldn't have stopped then even if he'd wanted to. "And I can't talk to anybody, not even my sister, because a secret's a secret only so long as nobody talks about it, and I don't even know what the hell I'm doing talking about it with you, except I don't want you to think I'm something I'm not. And I keep saying you're brave not because it's the right thing to say, but because I know for a fact you're a hell of a lot braver than I am." Confession was supposed to be good for the soul, or so he'd heard, but all Isaiah felt like doing was throwing up. "...And I'm out of things to embarrass myself with, so I guess that means I'm done."
He felt a timid touch on his shoulder, the dry warmth of David's hand. "...I still know the director at Love In Effect," he said quietly. "If you wanted, I could get you--"
"I don't," Isaiah snapped before he could catch himself, regretting it doubly as he felt David pull away. "...I'm sorry. I don't. I don't know what it would solve except tearing up the lives of everyone around me, when right now the only person that's getting hurt is me." Now he knew that one was a lie, but he was willing to let it go for the time being. "And I'm like you. I don't have an abusive uncle or a drug problem. I'm just ... like this, and I've been this way for as long as I can remember. And if something's wrong with you, then it's probably extra-wrong with me, because at least you try to help yourself, and if they can't fix you, then I don't see how they could do me any good."
And there it all was, face-up on the table, two card players calling each other's bluffs to reveal they each held the same shitty hand. Isaiah pulled himself to his feet, picking up his damp jacket from where he'd left it folded atop a small dresser. "I've got to be going," he said, shrugging it on. "Call me tomorrow if the battery's dead again, and I'll give you a ride."
"Thank you, Isaiah," he heard David's timid voice say, and Isaiah couldn't do anything else but let himself out into the hallway and wind his way down the stairs out into the street.
The storm had only worsened while he'd been in David's apartment, making even the short sprint from the building's front door to where he'd left his car a drenching shower, the drops falling so hard they stung his face and eyes. He jumped into the driver's seat and slammed the door behind him, then turned the key in the ignition before he could change his mind. The engine and radio alike sprung to life, the former registering its noisy protest against the chilly night, the latter greeting him with Johnny Cash's rich, mournful voice: "Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling / Calling, O sinner, come home."
It was the best advice he'd heard all evening. He turned his car out into the deserted street, working on an autopilot of habit and muscle memory as he pointed his car toward the freeway that would lead him to his house.
In spite of the solemnity of the Good Friday service, it seemed that everyone in the congregation wanted to come up afterward and greet their musical guest. David was hugged, kissed, and hand-shaken by a good hundred people in rapid succession, which was a new record for him; in particular, the congregants in choir robes had a habit of dropping phrases like 'nice to finally meet you' and 'heard so much about you', and he didn't entirely know how to feel about that. He'd felt somewhat more grounded when Noemi and the kids had come up to hug him, and when Noemi had invited him to Easter brunch at least they'd had logistics for a familiar conversation topic, but they'd left quickly, abandoning him to the mercy of well-wishers.
Perhaps as a function of pastoral privilege, the bright-eyed bald man whom everyone called 'Pastor George' came to him last of all and gave him a meaty handshake. "Amen, Brother David. That was truly moving. 'The Old Rugged Cross' was my father's favourite hymn, you know."
He didn't, of course, but he nodded. "Thank you, Reverend, for letting me worship with you today -- and for letting us borrow Isaiah these past few weeks," he added, hoping any sorrow in his voice would be attributable to Christ's Passion and not other circumstances. "We'll return him to you soon."
"He's amazing, isn't he?" Pastor George looked over to the organ, where Isaiah was in the process of unfurling a long white-and-gold cloth, presumably the altar dressing for Easter Sunday morning. "His father was my mentor when I was doing my student pastoring, and I remember seeing Isaiah at ten years old, playing the piano and leading music during worship. The church gave him a scholarship to go to Juliard, and he accepted the job back here when he was done."
Family created its own kind of gravity: invisible, inescapable. "I know this church means a lot to him," David nodded.
"Don't know what we'd do without him." Pastor George patted David on the shoulder. "Anyway, it was wonderful meeeting you, and you and yours have a blessed Easter."
David didn't bother explaining that there was no 'and yours' around to speak of; he simply thanked Pastor George and walked up to the front of the church where he'd left his guitar in its case. The sanctuary somehow seemed even weightier now that it was empty, cold and high, its tan-painted walls and colourful stained glass dull with the dim daylight. In the emptied room, David could hear the organ's breath still circulating behind the grates, a white noise counterpoint to the rain still falling outside. Perfect weather for Good Friday, he thought; perfect weather for hopelessness.
When Isaiah saw him, he held up a bolt of gold cloth. "Here," he said, "help me unroll this."
David nodded and took one end, stepping backward as Isaiah turned the roll, until he could see the bright white cross and spring flowers embroidered against the shiny background. "Shouldn't we wait until the third day for this?" he quipped feebly, and to his relief, Isaiah smiled.
"Resurrection takes a lot of work," he said, taking the weighted end of the banner and hanging it from the front of the pulpit, until the end brushed the ground. "Besides, flowers are being delivered tomorrow, and hanging all these is easier when you don't have to wade through a sea of lilies to do it. Say, did you get your car fixed?"
"I went to Sears this morning. It just needed a new battery." David took one of the two rolls of bright fabric still on top of the organ, unrolling a six-foot banner with the word ALLELUIA! spelled out along a sunbeam. It looked out of place to David, like someone had brought out a box of Easter decorations by mistake in January. It seemed impossible to believe that Easter was only two days away.
Isaiah pointed to the lectern. "That one goes over there."
David did as instructed, latching it to a set of small hooks on either side of the podium microphone. His mind floated and rejected a thousand possibilities for conversation, ranging from the weather to his car to next Sunday's service, before finally settling on music as a safe topic. "That soloist on 'Precious Lord' has an amazing voice."
"Kyla's great," nodded Isaiah, draping a plain runner over the altar cloth. "The alto section is going to miss her when she graduates this June. You sounded great, too. What arrangement was that?"
"That was just me making it up as I went along." David grabbed the other end of the runner and raised it the way someone would flap the wrinkles out of a bedsheet. "Is that everything?"
Isaiah sighed, smoothing the cloth with expansive strokes of his hands as he walked down the length of the altar toward David. "I'm sorry about last night."
David shook his head. "I should be the one saying sorry. I didn't mean to go on like that."
"Well, neither did I, so maybe we should just call it--"
'Even', David assumed the next word would have been, but Isaiah never made it that far, because one of his wide sweeps ran out of fabric and into where David's right hand rested, and instead of either one's moving, their fingers locked together as easily as if the gesture had been planned the whole time. Isaiah's hands were warm, and David's were frozen but sweating just the same, their skin and black suitcoats in sharp contrast to the white satin beneath. This was not an accident; this was on purpose, this was real, and it demanded a response.
So David pulled his hand away. "Isaiah," he said, his mouth a desert, "we...."
"No," said Isaiah, stepping back and sticking both hands into the pockets of his trousers. "I shouldn't even--"
"Isaiah, wait," interrupted David, his voice steadier, and Isaiah halted his retreat. "...Look, it's clear to me what's going on here, and I think it's clear to you too. Am I right?" After a nervous pause, Isaiah nodded, and David took a deep breath before stepping closer, suddenly aware of how live the sanctuary's acoustics were. "And I really think we need to ... to stop and pray about it. About us. Apart."
To his great relief, Isaiah nodded again, even though he seemed to be looking at David's feet, his tie, the sanctuary walls -- anywhere but David's eyes. "Can I ask something?"
"Sure," said David, trying not to think about how close they were, or how he could feel the hollow inside his heart spread with every word, or how Isaiah's hand on his had made it hard to breathe.
Isaiah's fingers went back to smoothing the cloth, his face expressionless, impossible to read. "What are you expecting God to say?"
"...'No,'" admitted David. He picked up his guitar and umbrella, then started for the side door. "I'm expecting Him to say 'no.'"
Anyone who cautioned against praying and driving obviously had never seen the way Isaiah prayed or the way he drove. He'd prayed his way through nearly a quarter tank of gas, and if something didn't happen soon, a visit to a gas station was in his near future. But he wasn't going anywhere until he got an answer.
For someone as religious as he was, he'd never been very good at praying; from an early age, he'd used music as an crutch whenever he'd been called on to lead a prayer, singing someone else's words in the hope that they were less important to God than was the sentiment behind them. His mother, herself a painfully shy woman, had been particularly fond of saying that it wasn't the show the Lord wanted, but the sincerity.
"Okay, God," he'd said as he climbed behind the wheel of his car, "I'm ready to be sincere." And he'd driven the next ninety minutes in complete silence.
There was something strangely naked about praying aloud alone -- speaking audibly to God, who was supposed to know the silent words of his heart anyway, just made Isaiah feel self-conscious about the redundancy of composing a thought in his head, then saying the same thing out loud. So he just kept driving through the rain, letting the half-formulated sentences bubble up in his mind, never creating anything that seemed worth saying.
He didn't need to review the counter-arguments; he'd worried through every Biblical and traditional prohibition against homosexuality a thousand times over, until he knew them all by heart and could recite them on command. He even agreed with most of them, especially the ones that warned of a life of constant misery and loneliness -- those he knew about firsthand. They didn't work, anyway; he couldn't count the number of times he'd repeated them to himself while driving down this same road, knowing exactly where he was going despite their proscriptions.
But David was amazing. Everything he did possessed an inner strength and grace that shone quietly through, steady and clear, illuminating the lives of everyone around him. Isaiah could despise himself and his own nature, but he couldn't bring himself to accept that there might be anything at all wrong with David.
And then it came clear to him that he wasn't waiting for an answer; he was trying to make the decision, still clinging the last bit of control his fears and desires demanded he not give up. Holding on had kept him waiting nearly two hours, six weeks, his entire life, listening for something he wouldn't let himself be quiet long enough to hear.
'Trust and obey,' like the old song went. Just let go.
"...Okay, God, I think I'm really ready this time." Isaiah took a deep breath, held it, and let it go. "Whatever You say, yes or no, I'm ready for it."
The road in front of him turned, and as he turned with it, the path before him cleared, the trees and buildings parting on either side of the road to reveal a clear expanse of sky. Around him, it was still raining enough that he needed his windshield wipers on, but in the distance, far into the west, the storm had broken wide. Beyond the ridge of dark clouds lay a wide stretch of blue, with sunlight frosting the tops of the trees and houses, a living Thomas Kinkade painting.
What struck Isaiah, however, was the bright, sharp rainbow that cut the landscape neatly into halves, a line reaching down from the storm to the earth. Each colour was vibrant and distinct, as plain as if an artist had applied paint to sky, perfect and clear and and unmistakable.
Isaiah stared out the windshield of his car, jaw slack with perfect disbelief. "...Oh, You've got to be kidding."
The wooden beads of his grandmother's rosary clacked softly against themselves as he worked the strand through his fingers, muttering his way through the prayers by rote as he sat on his futon, his knees tucked tight against his chest. He'd prayed the entire rosary four times now, twice in English and twice in Spanish, and was now contemplating seeing how much of it he could remember in Latin, mostly as an exercise in distraction.
The most devastating thing was that it wasn't going to be devastating at all. He'd politely decline Noemi's offer to brunch, and he'd see Isaiah on Sunday afternoon, and they'd lead worship together and shake hands and part as friends and brothers in Christ, and on Monday morning it would be as though none of it had happened at all. They hadn't, and wouldn't, change the world, and nothing but an empty chair at a Wednesday night dinner table would ever tell that there might have been something different.
That thought, sudden and clear, was the straw that broke David's back, and he pitched forward, great sobs racking his body. His hand clutched the strand so tightly he could feel the beads mark deep into his palm. Nothing was going to change; nothing would ever change. This was what it was going to be like for the rest of his life.
The priests said suicide was a Hell-worthy sin, of course, but by now David was nearly willing to chance that Hell was an improvement on his current state. He'd been crazy to think he could make it on his own in Atlanta. Maybe he'd move back to Tennessee, see if there could be a job for him at the program, or maybe even just somewhere nearby. He could wait tables or bag groceries; he didn't need much. Just a place where people would pretend he belonged, and where he could pretend to be happy until maybe he stopped wanting to lie very still and wait to die.
At long last, his grief wore itself into exhaustion, and he shut his eyes, willing his lungs steady until they eventually obeyed. Sitting up straight, he saw out the window that the rain had stopped, and this lifted his spirits somewhat; he pushed open the bottom window, figuring the fresh air might do him good.
It was then the butterflies began to rise up from the empty lot behind his building -- first one, powder-white and skittish, then another, then dozens more rising from the high grass into the sunshine. They fluttered on the still air, dancing together, circling upward into the newly emerged late-afternoon sun. There seemed to be hundreds of them now, maybe even thousands. David watched, transfixed, as they took flight together, their shared ascent transforming the dry brown patch into a snowy field.
And then he frowned, looking up at the sky and addressing God in stern Spanish: "Is this Your idea of a joke?"
God's answer to that question came in the form of a knock.
He didn't even give 'no' a chance; the moment David opened the door, Isaiah grabbed either side of his face and kissed him hard.
That was, of course, as far as he'd planned, but he found his great faith rewarded as David fell clumsily but sincerely into the embrace, reaching his arms around Isaiah's neck and holding him tight. They bumped teeth and noses, and David's moustache tickled Isaiah's upper lip, and it was perfect. David pulled them both into the apartment, their mouths still joined, and Isaiah was conscientious enough to shut the door behind them. Isaiah, his heart full to bursting, tasted salt tears against David's skin.
Then David leaned back and frowned. "Why are you wet?"
"I had to sit on the hood of my car for a while and listen to a rainbow," said Isaiah, as though that sort of thing happened every day.
The edge of a smile tugged at David's mouth, so slight that Isaiah might have missed it had his moustache not tugged with it. "And what did it say?"
Isaiah joined his hands together at the small of David's back, appreciating fully for the first time their height difference. He could have tucked David securely under his chin with little effort, and he found this incredibly charming. "It said I should come find you."
"Funny," murmured David, almost as an aside, "I think that's what the butterflies said too."
"...So is that a 'yes'?"
"Yeah," said David, hope dawning behind his red-rimmed eyes, "I think it is."
Isaiah grinned from ear to ear. "Good," he said, bringing his hand up to cup David's cheek. He brushed his thumb across the still-damp skin just beneath David's eye, then brought him close for another kiss, this one softer and a little more cautious. Any doubts he might've had about coercing David into something he didn't want were erased as David kissed back, inexpertly but with enthusiasm. Isaiah caught David's lower lip between his teeth and tugged, and David whimpered; so Isaiah did it again, and this time David tightened his grip around Isaiah's shoulders, pulling their bodies together more closely but swaying a little, as though he were standing on his tip-toes.
This time it was Isaiah who let go of the kiss first, covering for it by nuzzling David's hair. "Let's go sit down," he said, "before you fall over or I get a crick in my neck."
David twined his fingers with Isaiah's and, though Isaiah could feel him trembling, guided them both confidently over toward the futon. He sat on the edge, while Isaiah removed his sodden jacket and dress shoes, settling them neatly in a little pile on the floor. He hadn't meant to stay so long out in the rain, especially not in his church clothes, but sometimes when the Spirit seized you, you just had to go with it.
When he was done, he sat beside David on the futon, wincing as he did. "What?" asked David, looking concerned.
"Sat on my phone," Isaiah grumbled, pulling it from his back pocket. He flipped it open to find three missed calls and three messages from Noemi, the latter of which likely all contained variations on the sentiment where are you? Instead of listening to them, he sighed and opened a text message field, thumb-typing in all well dont wait up and adding, after a moment's thought, at davids.
"What's she going to think when she sees that?" asked David, who had curled his legs beneath him on the futon and rested his cheek against Isaiah's shoulder.
"Honestly?" Isaiah put the phone on the small nightstand beside the bed, then leaned back against the wall, tucking David to his chest. "'Finally!'"
They both laughed about that one, and then the laughter faded into a warm silence. Isaiah kissed David's hair and David brushed his fingers over Isaiah's open hands, learning them by touch. Isaiah could feel the calluses on David's fingertips as David traced circles on the inside of his palm; music, like God, left its own mark.
As the light from outside the window began to fade and the room grew darker, David lifted his head a fraction, burying his face in the crook of Isaiah's neck and placing his palm flat over the center of Isaiah's chest. "I don't know what I'm doing and I'm scared," he said, his words warm against the skin of Isaiah's throat, "but I think I really want you to touch me." He reached up and tugged at Isaiah's bowtie until the knot came undone. "Please."
Isaiah found himself suddenly glad he was already seated. "Are you sure?" he asked, though his hand was already stroking David's back through the thin fabric of his t-shirt.
"Mm," nodded David, tugging open the buttons of Isaiah's dress shirt one by one. "I'm sure now."
No more encouragement was necessary. Isaiah curled his fingers beneath David's chin and lifted his face until their mouths met. Their first kiss had been desperate, their second cautious, but this one was deep and slow, unburdened by worry or fear. He reached for the hem of David's shirt and pulled it over David's head, then took the opportunity to stretch them both out along the length of the bed, side by side, making sure to let David have the half of the bed away from the wall. As David finished unbuttoning his shirt, Isaiah slid it off his arms and tossed it somewhere vaguely in the direction of his jacket and shirt. It was a small apartment, anyway, and difficult to lose things in.
His hands pressed flat against David's bare back, feeling at previously undiscovered muscles there. David seemed so small, especially when compared to Isaiah's bulk, that it was easy to miss how much power there was hiding just beneath his skin. He followed the lines of muscle with his fingertips until the ended at the waistband of David's jeans, then retreated, taking his time.
But David grabbed Isaiah's wrist and brought his hand back, settling it against the flat of his stomach just above the button of his jeans, even as he hid his face partway into the pillow. "No, I like it there," he murmured, and Isaiah could see a flush equal parts bashful and excited spread across David's cheek.
"Tell me what you want," said Isaiah, kissing at the exposed curve of David's ear, and David shivered.
"I don't know what I want," said David, pressing his body flat against Isaiah's in a way that suggested he knew exactly what he wanted -- what he didn't know was how to ask for it. "Tell me what I want."
Isaiah smiled, kissing down David's jaw to his throat. "Okay, but you have to trust me."
David nodded, and his adam's apple bobbed against Isaiah's mouth as he swallowed hard. "I trust you."
Nodding, Isaiah let go of David just long enough to turn him so they both faced the same direction, away from the wall; David's body fit into Isaiah's like spoons in a drawer, his cheek resting against the inside of Isaiah's left arm, Isaiah's mouth at the back of his bowed neck. "I've got you," said Isaiah, draping his arm across David's waist until his hand returned to the place David had positioned it earlier.
"I know," said David. He reached down and overlapped his hand with Isaiah's, and though the tremble in his touch had returned, Isaiah felt him hold on steadily, refusing to let Isaiah slip away again. It was a heady feeling, having someone trust so completely in him, that Isaiah felt a similar nervousness rising in himself. He'd held and been held by men like this before, more times than he could count, and had long ago learned to divorce the physical connection between two bodies from any emotional connection. Holding David like this, just being with him, was the first step to re-learning everything he'd made himself forget.
His fingers unfastened the fly of David's jeans one button at a time, and when they were undone, he slid both them and the underwear beneath them off David's slim hips, pushing them down to where David could kick them off the rest of the way to the floor. That done, he settled David's naked body back against his, holding him still for a minute, letting him acclimate to Isaiah's touch again. When he felt David's body begin to relax, he brushed his fingers just below David's navel, following the soft hair there downward.
When the backs of his knuckles brushed up against David's cock, David jumped, and Isaiah held his breath, afraid it had been too much -- but David settled down again just as quickly, laughing at himself. "That tickled," he shrugged, wriggling back into Isaiah's arms. "...But I liked it. Keep going."
"All right," said Isaiah, wrapping his fingers around David's shaft as firmly and deliberately as he could manage. This time David didn't jump, but leaned his hips into the touch, as his breath hitched in his throat. Isaiah wondered if he even did this by himself, or if that was part of his self-denial as well. "I've got you," he murmured against the back of David's shoulder. "I'm right here."
David nodded, his breathing even shallower now. He settled his hand over Isaiah's again, following the motions as Isaiah stroked him fully hard with a light, gentle touch. Isaiah ran his thumb over the head of David's cock, spreading the slick fluid beaded there down his shaft, and David whimpered. He wasn't delicate, Isaiah knew, but neither was he as tough as he made himself out to be, and there was nothing wrong in taking things slow.
At least, not until David leaned his body back against Isaiah's, pressing his ass right into the curve of Isaiah's groin. Then Isaiah had to admit that slow did have its drawbacks.
"I've got you," he whispered again, chancing to pick up the pace. David gasped and muttered something in Spanish, but whatever it was, it wasn't 'stop'; when Isaiah's hand hesitated for a moment, David's was there pressing him to continue. He squeezed his hand at the base of David's cock, then moved upward, letting pressure substitute for friction even as he guided David more quickly toward release.
Isaiah heard David's orgasm even before it happened, a gentle tremor that rose from David's throat and became a whimper at his lips. He rocked in Isaiah's arms, gasping as he came in Isaiah's hand, and Isaiah held him close as his muscles first tightened, then began to slacken again. Finally, as though his strings had been cut, David collapsed back against Isaiah's body, panting and heavy and so beautiful that Isaiah decided he would be willing to forego everything else, including all his own needs until he turned to dust, if he could just keep David right there with him forever.
But David turned his body to face Isaiah, kissing him and placing his hand at the waistband of Isaiah's slacks. "Show me what you want me to do," he said against Isaiah's mouth, and though he probably meant it in all curious sincerity, Isaiah couldn't think of a more effective piece of dirty talk. Actually removing clothes seemed too much of an effort, so Isaiah guided David's hand to his belt, helping unfasten his pants as best he could with only one available arm. That done, he placed his fingers atop David's wrist and slipped both their hands into his pants.
David's reaction to being confronted with a penis that wasn't his was nearly comic -- he jerked away almost immediately on contact, as though he'd touched something hot, then took a deep breath and tried again, this time with steadier results. "Sorry," he murmured into the kiss, laughing nervously, "I have no idea what I'm doing."
"Just like that," Isaiah replied. He'd been able to ignore his own needs, being so enraptured by David's pleasure, but now he was achingly hard and his body didn't care about the skill level of the reciprocity, just that some arrived, and quickly. David's fingers closed inexpertly around Isaiah's shaft, and Isaiah drew in a sharp breath. "Don't be gentle."
That caused David's eyes to widen a little, but he was good to the instruction, and his hand began to move faster up and down Isaiah's shaft, slick with sweat and Isaiah's precome. "Good?"
Isaiah's response was to kiss the words from his mouth, tangling lips and tongues together as David's hand stroked Isaiah continually faster. The angle was strange and sometimes David's grip was too tight, but at least as a musician he knew how to build a good rhythm. And really, none of the awkwardness mattered, because this it was David with him, touching him, and that was a heady thought. For all the times he'd done this and more with other men, he'd never before cared about his partner more than he cared about himself. Now, David's wonder and desire only fueled his own as they joined together, finally together.
Finally, in what must have been for him a move of some boldness, David sucked Isaiah's lower lip into his mouth, and the mental image that sensation provded was more than enough to send Isaiah over the edge. He came hard, his hands clenched into the sheet and around David's wrist, crying out his release probably loud enough to annoy the neighbours. Well, let them hear, he thought as his body went slack against the mattress and David curled close to him. Isaiah, for his own part, was done hiding.
At that moment, Isaiah's phone began to pour forth a tinny rendition of 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus', and he thought unkind things about text messaging's ability to ruin a moment. David, however, groped bonelessly for the phone and managed to flip it open nearly before the third line was done. He held it for a moment just out of Isaiah's field of vision, then began to laugh. "I think you were right," he said, rolling over to show Isaiah the one-word message -- which was, indeed, FINALLY.
Isaiah scrolled to a second unread message, also from Noemi, that read kids say congrats btw. "...She didn't."
"Looks like she did." David lay his cheek on Isaiah's shoulder, draping a still-limp arm across his chest, and Isaiah hugged him close. "...Also, wow."
It was about the highest compliment Isaiah had ever been paid. "That's my line," he quipped, pressing a kiss into David's hair, marvelling at the impossible made possible, the wash of relief that ended years of waiting. If everything he'd believed and endured had been for this one moment, it had been entirely worth it.
David's fingers tugged at the neckline of Isaiah's undershirt. "I want to do that again," he said, his voice a whisper again. "And more. I really do. I just...." Taking a deep breath, he lay his hand flat against Isaiah's chest again. "Can we wait a minute?"
"No hurry whatsoever," said Isaiah, stroking David's bare back. "I'm not letting you leave this apartment until at least Sunday morning."
"Oh, great," David laughed, but he hugged Isaiah tightly even as he feigned irritation. "And here I was going to do laundry tomorrow."
Isaiah held him just as strongly, letting the jokes cover how terrifying and new and wonderful this was for both of them. "I'm not letting you put on clothes again until Sunday morning either, so that shouldn't be a problem, right?"
"Ah, you think of everything." David curled his fingers under Isaiah's chin. "How did I ever live without you?"
The question caught Isaiah off-guard, and he found tears stinging at the corners of his eyes. "I don't know," he said, his voice choked. "I guess the same way I did."
The room was almost completely dark now, and the night was so calm that the only sound was their shared breathing, falling in and out of rhythm. Isaiah had lived his life so in motion, surrounded by the wind and earthquakes and fires of the world, that this tranquility caught him off-guard, and he felt nearly lost in it. Yet David's weight against his chest was steady and pleasant, a quiet anchor that held him fast, promising that even if Isaiah let go, he wouldn't drift far.
Caught finally by that peace, Isaiah shut his eyes and listened, and heard a familiar still, small voice say: This is your home, Isaiah. And he knew at last it was.
4. Lift Every Voice and Sing
"Bless me, Padre, for I have sinned. My last Confession was...." David paused to think. "...Ten days ago."
"What are your sins, my son?"
"I've sinned against myself, Padre."
He could hear Padre Reyes clear his throat from the other side of the grate. "My son, a momentary lapse of judgement is not permanent in the Lord's eyes--"
"No, Padre, not momentary." David laughed, looking at the little tin cross in his hand. "For years I've sinned against myself. I have despised and fought against what the Lord has created me to be. I've listened to those who said they'd love me if only I would change, and thought myself unloveable because I could not. And I refuse to continue that sin any longer."
There was a long, heavy pause, and then the sound of an old man's deep sigh. "David, please, please think very carefully about what you're about to say."
"Oh," said David, "I have."
To assemble the Board at the church on Easter Monday was unheard of, but they were there already, lining the sides of the long conference table that evening as he entered the pastor's study and shut the door behind him. The faces were all familiar to Isaiah -- some who'd known his parents since before he was born, some who'd attended school with him or his siblings, some who sang in his choir. At any other time, they would have greeted him as a member of the family; now, however, their expressions were grim and distant, and they did not look at him.
Only Pastor George, sitting at the head of the table, acknowledged Isaiah's entry. "Please, Isaiah, have a seat." He indicated the chair at the far end, and Isaiah took it, folding his hands in his lap, just out of sight. Between his thumb and forefinger, he held a guitar pick, and he pinched it so tightly he was afraid it might snap.
"Now," continued Pastor George, regarding the group with a practiced pastoral smile, "Sister Connie, would you like to lead us in prayer as we call this meeting to order?"
"Of course." Sister Connie -- whose daughter was in the same grade as Joshua, at whose wedding Isaiah had played the piano -- dipped her chin to her chest, and the others followed suit. She gave a quick prayer, and there were no other noises as she spoke, only a shared 'amen' as she finished.
Straightening his shoulders again, Pastor George took a deep breath. "Brother Isaiah," he began, "there are some things that have recently come to our attention."
Isaiah clung to the pick he'd taken from David's apartment as though it were a talisman, some magical object that might protect him from the trial ahead. On the outside, however, he had vowed to show no hint that every word they said was a stone cast against his heart. He could at least face this end with dignity.
Pastor Alma was tiny, barely five feet even in heels, but her voice and presence were powerful as she stood by the baptismal font, her rainbow stole draped over her shoulders. On the wall behind her, a great butcher paper banner from the Sunday School classes proclaimed CHRIST IS RISEN!, surrounded by a fog of colourful children's handprints. "And as some of you may know," she said, her Puerto Rican accent lilting through her words, "today is special for many reasons."
Before she could say any more, the entire congregation turned to look at the choir loft, and David felt his cheeks pinken with the attention. He stood and came forward just as he'd been instructed, focusing so hard on making his careful way through the sea of daffodils filling the chancel area that he tripped over the hem of his choir robe, and would have likely fallen had a strong arm not reached out from behind to steady him. "I've got you," Isaiah smiled, and they linked hands as they made their way to the front of the sanctuary.
"The blessing of Easter," Pastor Alma continued, "is one of new life -- more life. Ten Easters ago, David and Isaiah began the journey of their life together. Eight Easters ago, they joined our church family. And now on this Easter, let us join together in welcoming a new member of their family into the Family of Christ."
On their cue, the front row stood and made its collective way to the front. At the head of the procession came Debbie, her husband Craig following close behind her, carrying in his arms a sleeping baby girl. Noemi and her other children followed close behind, all beaming proudly as David and Isaiah joined them. Luke came up front to stand by (and tower over) Pastor Alma, who had agreed to help him perform his first baptism.
"Brothers and sisters in Christ," he boomed, his deep voice so very much like Isaiah's, "I present to you Selah Grace Davis Wilson, child of Deborah and Craig Wilson, for baptism into the Body of Jesus Christ."
As the familiar ceremony continued, David found himself thinking about loss. Isaiah's parents had politely but firmly declined the invitation to attend the baptism, as had his other siblings and their families. David had barely spoken to his own family in years. The congregation, despite its multicultural leadership, was predominantly white, and never performed the prayers or rituals of David's childhood. And while the weather report said warm and sunny today in Atlanta, here in Boston frost still clung to the windows and grass, and all the people draped their winter coats over their Sunday best.
"Selah Grace," said Luke, cupping his hand and dipping it into the font, "I baptize you in the name of the Creator," he let clear water fall onto his niece's head, "and the Redeemer," and again, "and the Sustainer." As third handful fell, Selah opened her eyes and began to fuss, and the congregation laughed gently. Then Luke took her in his arms and began to walk down the church's nave, letting those assembled there see their new sister in Christ as the assistant organist led the congregation in the baptismal hymn, 'My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.'
Yet as Pastor Alma had said, there were always blessings to be had, even in the midst of loss, even from hopelessness. Change wasn't only an end; it was also a beginning, an opportunity for new life, more life. And sometimes that life was small, and sometimes it changed the world.
"There would I find a settled rest / While others go and come;" the congregation sang, and David held Isaiah's tightly hand in his as he joined Isaiah's bold baritone with his own voice, no longer timid: "No more a stranger or a guest / But like a child at home."
(author's notes and soundtrack)
home * fiction * original * nonfiction * links * livejournal