It doesn’t matter anymore because organ music has gone the way of, well, organ music. But I remember when I was a kid someone stole the pipes to the Presbyterian Church’s organ to sell as scrap metal.
There were two men. Both were wearing coveralls so the church secretary trusted them.
The workmen told her they were there to do some maintenance; they were going to tune and clean the pipes and have a look at the old machine.
Instead of servicing the organ, they loaded the pipes note by note onto a flatbed truck. When they had enough they went back into the office, said thank you, and you’re all set, and drove away with more notes than they left.
That Sunday Pastor Charley Carr prayed. There wasn’t much else to do. We were supposed to pray without ceasing and so here he was, here we were, praying. It was faith in action, faith in practice.
Charley always prayed about everything anyway. He still does. You just feed him the details of your suffering and he plugs them into that God-drunk brain of his and off he goes. He’ll pray for a slipping transmission in your Ford Taurus or that the roof on your place will hold one final winter.
Charley builds his prayers from scratch on the spot but they sound as crafted as anything you’d hear at the presidential inauguration. These Presidents always enlist some well-known minister to talk to God on America’s behalf. The prayers come in at about four hundred to six hundred carefully-chosen words and everyone Amens at the end. You can’t pray in school or work and people squirm when you swear to God in court, but at the inauguration prayer is okay. My point, though, is that these inauguration prayers are scripted and Charley’s aren’t. It wouldn’t have been possible then or now. He’d have to be writing all the time.
That Sunday my father looked around at all the glass that comprised our church. It was more purple and blue and gold stained glass than wall or brick or anything. He must have been thinking about the many ways other thieves might break into the church. That was his job, my father’s, to consider logistics. He had to be practical so that Charley could be spiritual. My father was Charley’s assistant pastor then, which meant that he painted walls and ordered new panes of glass when the neighborhood kids decided to practice their pitching. I stood next to my father as he eyed all that could be broken and prayed through his teeth.
The organist, a man named Rick, wrung his hands and ran his fingers through what was left of his ponytailed hair. It would have been foolish to sit at the half-working organ, so Rick paced around in the back of the sanctuary.
When he had come in that morning he clicked the instrument on, cracked his knuckles or whatever, and started with some scales. It was strange, Rick said, when a note or two didn’t work and when he had another go, the second scale was mostly ghost notes. It was very disturbing, he said, to hear the air and not the notes.
Rick told everyone that if the men would have just left an unbroken octave or two we could have worked with that. But this way he couldn’t string anything together. This way was worse than having none of the notes at all, he said. It was just terrible. This way was like sitting down to the perfect steak to realize your teeth were missing.
In the back of the church Rick pulled off dried drips of candle and balled up the wax between his fingers. He only ever wanted to be used by God and now his instrument was broken.
We couldn’t sing without the organ to hold us in place pitch-wise. Not our church. That was like asking us to clap on the offbeat. We were good at fundraising and painting accent walls the right color. We knew all about installing track lighting and dimmer switches, but we weren’t known for singing a cappella.
So Charley Carr prayed and prayed and we amen-ed. He prayed about the pipes and also about the persons responsible. Maybe the men needed the pipes more than we did. Everyone’s got to eat, he said. That part was harder to amen but a lot of us did it anyway. He went on to pray for peace and grace and prayed us all away from bitterness and told God that he knew he would provide, God would. A lot of prayer is just reminding yourself of things, I think. It’s more a matter of practice than asking about or receiving anything.
Charley is mostly retired now. He is onto his second wife. The first one died a few years back.
This second wife is younger, but it’s nothing crazy. For example, she teaches, but could also just as easily be taking a water aerobics class at the gym. These classes are very low impact and a lot like watching older drunk people attempt water ballet. She brings Charley along with her to the gym, so while she’s teaching her class Charley walks the treadmill in intervals and gets the incline going so that his legs are in-line with his waist. It’s something else. I worry that he’ll hurt himself.
The treadmills and ellipticals in our gym are oriented towards a McDonald’s, which I always thought was pretty ironic. I doubt poor Charley can even see the golden arches, though. To Charley, without his hearing aids or glasses, the gym is all human figures this side of the glass and beyond—all just a space to sin and so he prays.
He wears the hearing aids normally, but at the gym, because of the music and clanking weights, he takes the devices out and I imagine prays for the girl working out on that one machine that looks like she is trying for the world’s strongest snatch. He prays for the honey-colored girl with the honey-colored hair who talks to a guy who only does curls. Charley either prays or listens to sermons on his Walkman, which he still uses because at this point to switch over to CDs or an MP3 player doesn’t make any sense, and I don’t think Charley has ever wasted time in his life. In addition to being a full-time minister he was always a part-time checker at the grocery store. If you missed church you’d have to face him at checkout where he would say, how’re things? It could be pretty terrible when you got in his line after missing church that week.
I went back recently. To church. It had been a while. Charley was there filling in at his old church. These days he substitute preaches at the Presbyterian Church and other churches too when the ministers go on vacation or just need a break.
I think Charley really does love this second wife. He had her perform a dance as a part of the service. She is too old to take her shoes off and dance in public but she does it anyway. She writes choreography to these kind of saxophone-heavy songs, that if I had a dollar for every instance, every derivation, of the word beautiful, I’d be as rich in cash as I suppose Charley is in spirit.
The service went as planned. A couple songs and then Mrs. Carr danced and Charley prayed in his polished but unscripted way and then gave his sermon. It could have been any of the old sermons or prayers or post-service talk that consists of an inventory of which parts of your week went wrong. I fell into the service and all because the format hasn’t changed much in all these years.
I remember seeing Maya Angelou, the poet, read at one of the recent Presidential inaugurations. It was quite a performance. When I read it’s like watching a man try to put a shirt on as if it were pants. So I don’t read my stuff aloud. I remember thinking that even if I had written the poem no one would ever buy something like that from a guy like me. Maya Angelou was very inclusive. There were Turks and Swedes and Native Americans in the fray. They were all in the fray of life. We were all in the same way, she seemed to be saying.
There were some dinosaurs in the poem as well. I enjoyed that. We can relate to dinosaurs. They are strange and strong and not built to last. They were over before they really began and in a way I think we kind of worship that sort of thing.
The organ is still in its place at the right of the stage. These days it’s only used as a stand for an electric keyboard, which a younger girl played throughout the service. It sounded just like the real thing. The original hasn’t moved an inch not only because it’s heavy but because it’s built in, it’s basically buried there in the stage. That’s the way the Presbyterians do things, they build everything in. They know not to redecorate. Everything is dusted and cleaned and repainted but stays put.
Being back at the church I was reminded of when my father was essentially a glorified maintenance man who I was kind of embarrassed of. Now I was embarrassed about having been embarrassed. I thought about those early years when I imagined I would grow up to be like my father and remembered one of the times the church flooded and we bucketed the water out of the basement, just he and I. Outside, all the leaves had come down at once and clogged the drains and then it rained and the place flooded. I bet it still floods when it rains like that.
While Charley preached the organist came in and out with some soft chords and I thought about all the time before now when I am jobless—by choice, but jobless. I just quit my job writing for a textbook company for reasons so obvious they’re not worth noting.
I think the problem I have now with my father is one of security—his, not mine per se. It’s not his literal security but his sense of it. Let me explain. He’s gone from nervous and checking the windows and locks at the church to a kind of lockjaw faith. He can no longer be shaken. He seems to have gotten all the shaking out of his system. When he prays he is mostly claiming things to be or become true, and I’m not sure it’s supposed to work that way. I don’t know if you can even call it faith at that point. Seems as if faith is faith because there’s a chance you can be out of it.
When Charley finished preaching he ended with the benediction and stayed around a while to pray for those who wanted it. In the early days there would have be a line of people waiting for Charley to pray for them.
I sit in the back and watch him work. Cassandra walks to the front to see Charley. She’s still here Sundays and has only become more hysterical. A song starts and I look up expecting it’s the girl using the organ sound on the keyboard but it’s only a CD coming through the speakers.
Cassandra has asked for prayer every Sunday morning since we were fifteen. She smiles and someone prays and she cries. That’s how it works.
She went to my father’s church for a while before coming back here. She moves in circuits that way.
I could have gone to my father’s church. It is more contemporary. The music at his church sounds basically like U2, so there’s that. But I didn’t want to unstack chairs and set up or have tell anyone what I have been up to these last years.
Cassandra was pregnant our sophomore year. When it happened, people in the church said it was shocking even though it wasn’t shocking. She didn’t understand how things worked. They were so upset that one of their teen-aged girls was pregnant. I was only mad that she’d had sex with someone before I had.
I see her downtown sometimes and am sure she’s still on drugs, that when already her brain started off a little bit scrambled. I think maybe she hasn’t seen her kid in years. Her folks ended up raising him. He’s got to be in high school by now.
Charley puts his hand on Cassandra’s shoulder and they talk and bow their heads and Charley prays and Cassandra cries and after a while she smiles and Charley and Cassandra and Charley’s wife leave together, to lunch probably. Charley is always taking people out to lunch. Maybe prayer has got nothing at all to do with talking.
I’m just sitting there. I don’t know what to do. I need to eat.
Someone is snuffing out the candles but the CD is still on and it’s a new song.
Charley must find a way to block out the prayers that never did anything except for sound good. There are so, so many of that kind.
Lost jobs and scratched cars in empty parking lots, and fallen trees across the road at the end of a long week when all you want is to be home. Or Mr. and Mrs. Millions who pray for more kids and Todd and Stacy who pray for none when Stacy is pregnant and Mrs. Million is not.
A man named Greg died in the sanctuary at the foot of a ten-foot ladder. He was alone in the building trying to hang some new mini blinds. So what does Charley do with that?
Maybe he looks at all of time rather than at single moments.
Rather than the time Jason Brunswick lost his job which he’d had for so long and wasn’t good at much else, and so he started smoking meth again after twenty years sober. And Jason’s wife and kids move to Grass Valley to live with an aunt and uncle and we pray and pray and nothing happens except for a fire in the valley and the mother and kids have to move again to someplace else.
The Wilson’s daughters die together in a car crash four days after 9/11.
Nic Smith. Nic Smith my friend from forever ago dies upside-down in the snow while his dad shouts and shouts for his only son. Nic Smith suffocates in the snow.
An elder’s son molests his best friend’s sister and when everyone finds out it’s the pastor of the church who is somehow to blame because now the church is divided. That guy, the elder’s son, is married to some Brazilian girl now and has just paid to put some braces in her mouth. She will be with him forever.
What about the guy who only wants to be married and would be so very good at it and has never molested anyone? There’s that, but there are more car crashes and lost jobs waiting in line to be prayed about. And so it doesn’t matter and that’s the point. Someone always lies and someone else steals and accidents happen. And even though there are more types of healthy now than ever before, there are more ways to fuck up, more calories to burn and shots to miss. We’re learning there are more causes of cancer than we can imagine and so some pray. We pray for organ pipes to be returned when they have so obviously been scrapped. We pray for Cassandra who always asks for the same things. We sing a kind of song. We keep prayer on our lips even though we are only food in God’s teeth. We pray for more money but only end up working more. We pray for politicians and smog. We pray for the small and the impossible. We pray for more time. We pray for the weather to hold and for a car to start. And somewhere some man prays for his son to catch a fish.
Luke Wiget is a writer and teacher who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, by way of Brooklyn, New York. He co-curates and hosts drDOCTOR, a reading series, podcast, and journal and writes/hosts “YEARBOOK,” a column for The Rumpus. Luke won The 2015 Quiddity Lit Editor’s Prose Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Rumpus, Hobart, decomP, Heavy Feather Review, Big Truths, and BOMBSITE, among others. He has an MFA in fiction from The New School.
Image: RoganJosh, morguefile.com