The flimsy house shook as the would-be pianist struck the wall several times with his fists. Maybe Naomi Taylor was right and music is demonic. This musician looked and acted possessed. Stringy hair fell over his shoulders. His shirt was stained with the sauce of whatever he'd been eating. Abruptly he turned toward Ben and swung a wild right at him, close enough that a gust of air made him blink.
"Don't flinch!" he cautioned, "I can control it that way." Ben was on his feet now but too stupefied to make his way to the door. "It's the disease," his assailant said. "As long as you're still, I can control it."
A fire blazed in the grate, and it seemed hot in the old farmhouse now. Ben had brought enough firewood to last the rest of the afternoon, but keeping warm seemed the least of this guy's problems.
He had introduced himself as Georgi, and then acted offended when Ben waited for a last name. Eventually he muttered something that sounded Eastern European. After Ben started the fire, he had talked impatiently about his problems for an hour or so. A pianist, he'd been a student at Julliard, but he was diagnosed with a poorly understood neurological disease that ended any chances he might have had of a career as a performing artist. His family, he claimed, was wealthy but they had more or less disowned him when his erratic behavior started. He hadn't been good for much of anything for more than eight years. How he ended up in the Pacific Northwest was anybody's guess.
That was the first visit on a cold day in January. Ben went back with more firewood, and then he started bringing groceries. His feeling of obligation to people in need was the reason he was a becoming a minister. He had made some hard choices about his future before becoming an intern at the church in Woodinville. A Christian, his vocation seemed unavoidably to revolve around the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. In this rendition of the gospel, the final judgment hinges more on acts of compassion than on doctrinal orthodoxy or devotion. Feeding the hungry, and so forth, amounted to the same thing as loyalty to Jesus.
If Georgi seemed demanding at times, it could be that eight years of trouble had taken all civility out of him. Ben listened for many hours, trying to understand and demonstrate concern. All the same, the conversations were taking him away from his studies. When he had applied for the internship, it was understood that it would be part time. He had completed most of the academic requirements in seminary for a Master of Divinity degree. Though he still had some doubts about professional ministry and was losing ground financially, he enjoyed engagement with the academic work. He did not enjoy many of the people who came looking for help at the church, some of them outright frauds. After spending many afternoons with Georgi, he asked for some money from the deacons' fund to fill his oil tank. It would solve his heating problem for the rest of the winter, and Ben wouldn't have to keep bringing him firewood. Other members of the church contributed more groceries and some of them a little money.
When Georgi started coming to church, people were on the one hand, impressed. On the other, he was a dismaying presence--with his seizures and his imperious manner. He didn't make things easier for himself by openly discussing the times he had been in jail or institutionalized, even restrained. Maybe he was a mad genius, but suburban Presbyterians were having enough trouble raising their children without Georgi hanging around behaving more like a rock musician than a disciplined artist.
He could play the piano well enough to back up some of his claims. His technique was rough, but he had clearly studied. Rev. Morland asked him to play an offertory selection one Sunday. It was a bit too grandiose for people who mostly preferred singing choruses accompanied by one or more of the guitar pickers in the congregation. Most folks had Georgi's best interest at heart, but occasionally somebody would patronize him in a way that infuriated him. Then he'd storm out, leaving people wondering why they had bothered to try to help.
"What he needs is a good kick in the ass," Bill Freeman said one day while he was helping Ben around the church building. It was late April by then. Leaves that had soaked up rain all winter were rotting in the gutters. "Fine, he's a serious musician. That's about as much use as being a totem pole carver in this day and age. Ask any Indian downtown Seattle if he would share his tobacco with one of his kind who's still cutting eagle beaks on trees?"
Ben went up a ladder toward the eves of the cedar-paneled church building. It was the kind of day nothing could bother him too much--sunny, if still cool. The mist had lifted from among the evergreens. Beyond the hills the snow-crested peaks of the Cascades were visible. He would rather be looking at them from the window of his study, but Bill's company was making the maintenance work bearable.
But, Bill couldn't see any reason Georgi wasn't working for a living. "He could be a cashier at the hardware store, or flip hamburgers. Or something!" he said. "John Wheeler is letting him live in his old place for practically nothing. Even on minimum wage, he could get by."
"What if he freaks out during a rush? Ben asked. "He might hurt somebody. In a fast food joint, he could get into hot oil or something?"
"Well, maybe he shouldn't be under pressure, or meeting the public, but there are jobs he could do."
"He gets some money from somewhere," Ben recalled, "Disability benefits of some kind."
"So why are we buying his groceries?"
"He spends most of his money on CDs," Ben admitted.
Ben explained, "Recordings--symphonies, operas, and that kind of stuff." Bill removed his glasses and wiped them with his handkerchief. Many years taking care of business had set the furrows in his brow. He may have been thinking about all those years he'd been an auditor with the Department of Labor & Industries. With grown children, and now grandchildren, it had probably been worth it. He quietly let the whole issue drop and went back to bagging the leaves Ben had thrown down from the galvanized rain-gutter.
No doubt there were jobs Georgi could do. He couldn't hope to be a performing artist anymore, but he must realize that it would have been a long shot even without his neurological disorder. With his parents' money behind him, he might have had a shot at a career in performance, but there were a lot of other talented pianists. He seemed to think working at an ordinary job would be an indignity or simply too much of a distraction. He was composing music now, trying to find a way to engage himself creatively. He worked things out mostly in his head, then on the piano at John Wheeler's house, which was on property adjoining the old place where he lived. Lately he had started working at church. His halting progressions at the piano made it harder for Ben and Rev. Morland to concentrate.
In a way Ben envied Georgi. Who wouldn't prefer to spend every day on his passion, for music or whatever? Ben would rather be doing a Phd in philosophy of science than becoming a minister. For a course on the Pentateuch, he had followed a lead in Whitehead about the connection between the lawful regularity assumed in the Hebrew bible and the epistemology of science. In spite of the sense of obligation that required loving others better than he was permitted to love himself, he would be on academic track if there were better prospects for employment. Instead he was pursuing an M-Div. Having gotten involved with Georgi, in addition to his pastoral duties, he was having trouble even keeping that up.
He discussed his frustrations with Rev. Morland while they were driving to the food bank with boxes of canned goods and macaroni products in the back seat of the car. Doing things for others seemed to be costing him all sense of going anyplace in life.
"All of us have to share responsibility for the plight of the underclass," Rev. Morland said. "The trouble with a high-tech economy is that it benefits only the educated and the highly skilled. There are winners and losers." He didn't have to press his point because about that time they parked where a hundred or so people were lined up on the sidewalk. Many of them were able-bodied, if ragged, young men. But here they stood, waiting for a free meal. Some of them smoked. A few looked accusingly at Ben and Rev. Morland who now squirmed uncomfortably in their leather seats.
Ben had to concede that most of these guys, though they were healthy enough to work, wouldn't have what it takes to get through a physics course. So is this what it comes down to? Those of us who can pass physics, or get a reasonable education of some kind, if we're Christian enough to care, have to deny ourselves and try to salvage some of these chain smokers whom we have beat down by our success?
It wasn't that simple. Though Ben was educated, he hadn't made money. He didn't swing a lot of weight as a white male or as a member of the old-boy's club. Did it make sense for him to relinquish even his capacity for achievement to help these men of about his age--he was about to turn thirty--who had fallen out of the system, or who had dropped out. It was painful to think about the engineering program at the University of Washington. He could have gotten in. By now he could have been a structural engineer.
Georgi, in spite of his ill health and money problems, was working quite productively. Throughout the spring and summer he talked with Ben only when he needed human contact, musical composition being for all practical purposes, submersion in an alien substance. He wrote a cycle of art songs he called Psalms of David for Ann Mc Kutcheon, an attractive soprano who occasionally sang with the church choir. She and Georgi honed this composition until it was ready for a public hearing, then Ann found an accompanist who was up to the rigors of performance. They scheduled a concert for a Saturday night in September at the church. Announcements went out all around the area. Ann invited her friends from the Seattle Opera chorus.
Everybody knew this was going to be a fairly controversial occasion. There had been concerts before at church, but this was headier stuff. The texts of the songs were taken from the Bible--Psalms and The Song of Solomon, some of it quite sensuous. When couples, flamboyantly gay, showed up from the opera subculture, eyebrows were raised. Bill Freeman commented, "The sexual-ethics committee from the General Assembly ought to be here and get a load of this."
Somebody who knew the stage-lighting craft had enhanced the lights on the platform that evening. Ann came out to sing in a dazzling white dress. Her hair flamed from her head like the burning bush. Ben had heard enough serious music to know this song cycle was pretty torturous to perform. Just getting it right technically, Ann was preoccupied, but at the same time her voice and presence were stunning. The pianist had style. By the intermission people were either lavishly aroused, or offended. Many stood to applaud. Some stormed toward the narthex for a breather.
Georgi was animated in the presence of people he held in esteem. His usual arbitrary manner in abeyance, he was loquacious and smiling. He wore a pinstripe suit-coat, mismatched with his trousers, and a green tie. Ben circulated in the crowd gauging the amplitude of response, which, as he found, was extreme. Most of those present had been expecting something like the sober piano recitals John Wheeler's wife used to do once or twice a year. She was up in years now, but it was her sympathy for Georgi that had softened John up to let him move into the vacant house on their property. She held forth among a coterie of other women who took such things seriously. This showing had in a sense vindicated her judgment, and since it received her distinguished approval, it was all right with the other women. There were others standing around who were unimpressed. They slouched with their glasses of punch in groups of three or four. Some smirked or commented obliquely that the pianist was "grandstanding", or that Ann certainly had made an impression with the "culture vultures from downtown"--and with whomever might want to take her up on the signals she was sending in that slithery dress.
Ben certainly wasn't dead to sexual innuendo, but he didn't think the energy he was getting from the platform that night was sexual. The effect was more one of elegance--eros, yes, but not erotic, as in modern parlance. He used to get something of the same jolt from a neat convergence of mathematical calculations. Georgi's musical scores even resembled the graphs on which he had plotted physical phenomena.
Rev. Morland agreed that eros or, perhaps, arete were the Greek terms that applied to the performance, and furthermore that eros and arete were more, implicitly and explicitly, than sublimated sex drive. He added the qualification that the church has never known quite what to do with either. "Christian art and symbolism dates from as early as the church of the catacombs," he said. "The iconoclastic controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries engaged some issues, though that debate was complicated by prohibitions of images found in the Mosaic law. The prominent place music has in the Bible hasn't restrained theologians of the stature of Calvin and Bonheoffer in their disdain for complex harmonies and vocal artistry. Performers, of course, being performers..." He seemed to realize he was verging on opinions that would be uncharitable in this context. "...Tend to perform," he concluded, to laughter.
Sunday in church, the morning after Ann's and Georgi's premier of Psalms of David, a lot of people seemed determined to define themselves in relation to the previous evening's undeniably impressive showing. Ben learned from Joan Langston, the organist's wife, and a source he considered beyond question, that something Elisabeth Arnold had said to Ann in the choir room before the service had provoked angry shrieks. The two women had even, as she delicately put it, "engaged in a little bout of hair pulling." Elisabeth and her husband were longstanding members of the church. She was a good singer and a frequent soloist with the choir--a formidable woman, Betty. She was prone to take control of any situation given half a chance, but nobody thought she was capable of brawling over who was the prima donna around here. It sounded horrendous. Both women somehow pulled themselves together to appear in the choir loft.
Before formal worship began there was a period of chorus singing. Many people enjoyed this breezy folk music. Some clapped in time with the opening songs. Then Brother Simmons, the worship leader, changed the mood. While strumming casually on his guitar, he suggested that a special effort be made to enter into communion with God. Sunlight filtered through stained glass windows. A roseate glow spread in the sanctuary over people inspired to a crescendo of earnest praise. With each repetition of what, it would have to be conceded, were trivial texts, traditional Presbyterians became more and more uncomfortable. Ben was among those who found themselves embarrassed by this effusiveness. If this building had been designed by architects no more skilled in their craft than these musicians were in theirs, the structure wouldn't keep out the rain. His face was exceptionally hot when he stood to welcome visitors. He got through his opening remarks, but skipped the announcements. In lieu of that, he reminded everybody of the schedule of activities on the back page of the bulletin.
The first lay reader brought a starchy formality to her lectionary text. It seemed to cut through the squeamishness Ben and quite a few others were feeling. In spite of the clash between heartfelt choruses and classic hymns, Rev. Morland had insisted, since this pop-music trend began, that his congregation continue to worship together in one major service on Sunday. People had left the church in disgust with both extremes of opinion--some wanted more freedom of expression, others more substantial theology and, explicitly, better music.
Rev. Morland preached from some of the same texts that Georgi, who was conspicuously absent that morning, had so provocatively set to music. He made some ethical points that had no doubt been missed in the previous evening's sensation. In the Song of Solomon he found devotion where Georgi had accented sensuality, but he also explained eros for the benefit of those who thought it was a term mainly to be applied to pornography. All concerned seemed satisfied that he had affirmed certain essential facts their counterparts of the opposite persuasion had missed. This made it possible for some folks who might have been prone to carry on as Betty and Ann had in the choir room to be civil to one another at the coffee hour.
Fall lingered that year, as it often does in the Northwest, in still afternoons and red evenings through late October and into November. Out on Puget Sound whales were sometimes visible from the ferries going to Winslow and Bremerton. The silvery sheen on the water didn't disappear or cloud over in a gray chop until one day Ben got out of his car at a gas station and a cold wind slammed into him. His joints ached, and he felt irritable in a way he hadn't felt all summer. Probably it wasn't really very cold, but after long stretches of mild weather, it was a jolt. When a drenching mist flooded over the evergreens, he realized the deciduous trees had lost their cover, and they began to look as stiff and barren as he felt.
He knew he would have to ask the deacons to consider funding another tank of oil for Georgi's furnace. He attended a meeting one evening in November with this purpose in mind. While reports of activates and expenditures were presented, he fidgeted and thought about Georgi trying to ignore the cold and continue his work in Wheeler's thin-walled farm house. When there was an opportunity, he brought it up. Somebody objected right away. "If he won't work for a living, we're just abetting his dependency by supporting him."
"We wouldn't be supporting him," Ben countered. "Three or four hundred dollars in assistance to get through the winter isn't a lot of money. At least Georgi is a known quantity; we wouldn't have to risk giving the money to deadbeats."
"He has a point," Bill Freeman said. "We know Georgi. He's a little weird, but he's not on drugs."
"It would be easier if he wasn't such an elitist," somebody else said. "Why should we support him in his enthusiasms? Only snobs listen to that kind of music.
"He needs to go to work," added another.
"He works," Ben offered. "You have no idea of the effort he puts into his compositions, or how he concentrates when his problems aren't getting the better of him. He's difficult, but some of that is the result of his illness."
"I'm not sure we're interested in becoming patrons of the arts," Curtis Becker said, looking rather irritable. In this Ben felt some kind of personal challenge. "We especially don't want to encourage art that makes an exotic spectacle of passages from the scriptures."
"Oh for God's sake!" Ben groaned. "We've got people every Sunday swooning over religious choruses that could mean anything. At least Georgi set canonical texts."
"People worship through those choruses," Curtis said emphatically."
"Whom do they worship?" Ben sputtered. "Judging by the flimsy theology in those songs, it could be Baba Hahoola. And the music is spineless."
"Spiritual!" Curt corrected. "Music should inspire people to spiritual worship. Georgi boy's program in September was carnal, Ben. And arrogantly ambitious. The impression it had on most people was one of unregenerate physicality."
Ben tried to be conciliatory. "What we are addressing, at least what I think we are addressing, is a physical problem. Georgi can't afford to fill his oil tank, and if he doesn't have heat over the next few months, he will be jeopardizing his health, making a bad situation worse. And he can't work at his craft when the temperature is forty degrees in his living room."
Bill sat up straight and forward on his chair. "Maybe we better let this one ride for a week or so," he said. A veteran of a lot of church wrangling, he knew how to ease out of a confrontation. Thank God for him. Ben had probably been strident again.
He didn't sleep very well that night. After about four AM he couldn't doze off again until shortly before the clock radio sounded. It was tuned to an FM station that used to keep the chatter to a minimum. Lately it sounded as hyperactive as any pop-music station. He wanted to turn the noise off and sleep for another hour, but he knew he would feel better if he went out for a run.
He got up, dressed in shorts and a windbreaker, and went out. Groggy and stiff, he totted along a flat stretch of road in the darkness. It was a cool morning, the sky overcast. A truck pulled out of a parking lot and accelerated past him. By the time he got to where an old logging road that he often followed met the asphalt, he was starting to feel better. He stopped to stretch for a few minutes, and then started up one track of the seldom used road. It was a little wet. The grass shed moisture when he bumped clumps of it growing between the wheel marks. Running cleared his mind. Why did it invariably make him feel better, no matter how aggravated or depressed he might be?
Curtis was right that the program last September had been physical; that was its glory. But don’t physical exertions require spiritual resolve--more, spiritual finesse? And everything spiritual Ben knew of necessarily involved physical things. Love was supposed to be spiritual: God is spirit; God is love; two values equal to a common third value are equal to one another. Ergo, love is spiritual. Try to love anything spiritually! Try to love a woman spiritually!
There was a woman whom he had loved. For a while maybe it had been a spiritual love. It might have been said he loved an ideal, or, if you prefer, a woman of his imagination who resembled the Norwegian blonde with whom he had actually gone sailing on Puget Sound. Maybe it was spiritual, until he sat across the table from her one night in a restaurant and her eyes ignited him inside as though he'd had too much wine. He could remember her perfume, the silky resilience of her skin. Was her voice spiritual or physical? The things she said ideal or actual?
Then at the University of Washington, he had been preoccupied with vector spaces and wave mechanics. It kept him in the library nearly every night. His constancy for this woman, in a spiritual sense, was unwavering. But she wanted his physical presence. He did everything he could to make up for lost time when he was with her, in a physical sense, which of course didn't help. Physical love alone is no good either. But it only took about six months of a spiritual relationship before she got tired of waiting around. He had intended the rigors of his work schedule to benefit both of them. He lost out to guys who were there for her, virile savages many of them. Half the track team had been interested in her. Try to run against that crowd on the strength of a spiritual ideal!
The clouds on the horizon let a few blades of sunlight through. Starting to feel his stride, he followed the road on an easy slope along a hillside. If spiritual values are ultimate to God, why an incarnation in human flesh? Why would Jesus heal a palsied hand or give sight to the blind? Why proclaim liberation to the oppressed? Why, finally, the cross? And the resurrection?
Did Curtis love Georgi spiritually? Did he care for his soul so much that he couldn't encourage a passion for musical form incarnate in the steel of piano strings and Ann's vibrant flesh? Or did he just love the virtuous feeling he gained intending to help without ever trying to understand what Georgi needed or wanted? A genuine interest would want to help him rise above subsistence. But, most of the deacons seemed to feel that helping would be fine if he were starving on the street, but expenditures that sustained his musical creativity were unnecessary.
Is that all you were about, Lord, taking on human flesh to give us only enough relief to subsist? Is our only work proving we are loyal to an invisible world while we renounce this one? Is that the "living sacrifice" to which Paul commends us?
If God ultimately despises everything physical, I have no reason to climb this hill, he thought. But as he ran, the clouds parted and a brassy sun blared out of the sky. He heard tympani in the beating of his heart, and the rivers of his blood sang an erotic anthem. Where the road crested between piles of logging slash, Jesus thundered ahead of him, naked and virile, on a powerful horse.
He was undisturbed in his study that morning. A passage from Isaiah absorbed him for two hours, even though he was losing his Hebrew literacy. It had been three years now since he had done much study. He looked at a commentary and tried to work what he found into a paper he was writing. After lunch there was a pastoral call that couldn't be avoided any longer.
Naomi Taylor, a black woman of nearly ninety years of age, was prone to launch herself into vociferous tirades about almost any event getting current media attention. There were some subjects that could set her off even without timeliness. Though she had been in a number of mental hospitals, she wasn't crazy. Her former husband had committed her back in the forties when all that was required was the testimony of three of his friends. She and her husband had been living in Chicago. While she was struggling in hand-to-hand combat with psycho-ward attendants, who she said were trying to kill her, he took off with the kids for the west coast where he married another woman. She had Jesus in her heart with a vengeance. More than once she had told Ben how she survived the loony bin. "You can't kill me," she raged at white-coated attendants who were holding her down with a broom handle across her throat. "God is in me!" God had put up a good fight. She was out of there in a few months and followed the bigamist husband to Bremerton. She started a lawsuit against him and could have won, but she backed off for the children's sake.
At eighty nine years of age she still had Jesus and plenty of vigor. Ben knew it had been a mistake when he mentioned music. Now he was going to be here for another hour at least. She chewed her toothless gums and barked, "It's the devil! Look what it's doin' to my Sweeney. Paying three alimonies, he's got babies from women he hardly even knows." One of her sons was an arranger and band manager in Vegas. He was making big money, but Naomi thought his success was demonic. Ben agreed that it was vulgar, to say the least. "Now they're bringing those guitars in church," she yelped. "Last time I was down at First Pres, there was a wedding reception goin' on right on the premises. That raucous noise and women gyreating were enough to conjure up every kind of pagan lust. I told Rev. Barnard he had violated his sanctuary"
"Appalling," Ben agreed absently. It didn't matter what he said. She could go on for a long time with or without agreement, or even comprehension. He had even nodded off one time while she was holding forth. She'd patted his cheek and apologized meekly for wearing him down.
He went out dazed as usual today, but he did feel considerable affection for this old pantheress of the housing project. She had the right idea about music--its current pop incantations anyway.
When Ben got back to the church, Rev. Morland had received an insistent phone call regarding the previous evening's meeting. He was mildly amused, but invited Ben into his office.
With graying hair and neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, Rev. Morland was an old ivy leaguer--Princeton 1960. The diplomas hung behind his desk. He nearly always wore his black suit and clergyman's collar. This suburban church was a plum, affluent, upper middle class. The building was a landmark in the area, and the mortgage was paid down. It used to be dignified, before the guitar-players’ invasion. The Rev was a little overloaded for the intellectual capacities of most of the folks out here. Social justice was the prophetic mode he favored. He always asked about Naomi, though he couldn't listen to her for very long.
Since coming west, he had developed an interest in Native American culture. Arrowheads, framed under glass, hung on the wall with his academic credentials. He had a bronze of Chief Sealth and a parchment lithograph of one of the speeches the chief made as an old man, a document that was something of a cult object among Northwest environmentalists. When Dances with Wolves received the Academy Award, Rev. Morland had cheered. Ben never tired of ribbing him about it. He had walked out of that ridiculous, if politically correct, movie.
"You really must have pushed Curt's buttons," Rev. Morland said.
Ben wasn't surprised that he had upset some of the deacons. What he said when he was trying to make his unpopular opinions understood was often inflected by impatience or annoyance. "I suppose I should have been more diplomatic," he answered. "It just seemed they were unwilling to consider Georgi's problems because his life revolves around music, rather than family or business."
"It's too bad what he writes is so DWEM," Rev. Morland said. "If it was ethnic, or feminist, we could probably get him a grant of some kind. The Regional Assembly is helping fund Daybreak Star Center." He smirked and added, "There's a young buck over there who wants to stage what he calls The Operatic Interpretation of the Evoluton of the Bison."
Rev. Morland tossed his car keys over the desk. "How about making a run to food bank for me? The stuff is all loaded."
Ben took the keys and went out to the parking lot. For a man who had feigned repentance on the Columbus Day Quincentenial, Rev. Morland certainly had a taste for Western technology. His car was a sleek Le Sabre. The greed and imperialism of Dead White European Males might explain the accumulated wealth of their descendants in Western Europe and North America; it didn't explain the science and technology. Did the marvelously engineered machine gleaming even under an overcast evening sky just evolve like one of Darwin's beasts out on the Galapagos Islands? Head bashers like the armies of brutes in Dances with Wolves didn't design this car. The Rev was doing all right for himself, pulling down about ninty thousand a year if you included his expense accounts--the car allowance. That kind of money would make you a lot more negotiable when somebody starts talking nonsense, whether it was the radical prophets at the Presbyterian General Assembly or Curtis Becker.
Driving the new car was like flying a Lear jet. The rush hour had peaked and lulled. In twenty minutes Seattle's skyline jutted up from the gloamy Sound. Through the slant of the windshield, lights along the freeway had the luster of images in an optician's lens. He glided down an exit under Freeway Park, past the Columbia Center, and other high-rise buildings. A few more blocks through the financial district, and Pioneer Square's totem pole slid past among trees and wrought iron. When the tires hit cobblestones, Ben stepped on the brake and came in for a landing in front of Union Gospel Mission.
It was going to take several trips into the Flea House to unload the food. He unlocked the trunk and started carrying in boxes. Three trips emptied the trunk. Inside there was a religious service going on. One hymn after another droned resonantly out of the chapel doorway as he passed. More than a hundred ill clad, grimy, wiskery men finished singing Down at the Cross, and somebody called out another hymn number. They cranked up again. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine/ Oh what a foretaste of glory divine. /Heir of salvation, purchase of God/ Born of his spirit, washed in his blood." They weren't bad--better than a lot of congregational singing Ben had heard lately. They kept calling out hymn requests, one after another. Ben made another trip to get the stuff from the back seat of the car. When he was finished, he stopped again to listen at the open doorway of the chapel.
At the piano, an effeminate man in a rumpled sport coat was rolling the chords. A stocky conductor in work pants and high top shoes beat time leading the singing. He looked up from his hymnal occasionally at the wayfarers seated before him in crooked rows of chairs. Ben stood there in the warm, high-ceilinged vestibule and listened longer than he should have. He remembered the back door of the car was still open outside.
He went out to close it. A cold wind he hadn't noticed earlier was blowing up from the waterfront. The smell of urine on the sidewalk, mingled with stale beer, offended his nostrils. As he grasped the car door, he saw upholstery lining bulging out of the back seat. He bent to look inside. Somebody had slashed three times across the width of the leather seat and once across the back rest.
He slammed the door. The ugly mess in the back seat hadn't satisfied the vandals. On the hood was a grisly swirl of gouges left by a screwdriver or a can opener. He looked around Occidental Square at the ragged street people settling in for the night. A couple of Indians brown-bagging on a bench looked up at him. He had been inside no more than ten minutes.
He went back into the vestibule, an oppressive ire flooding over the green tile before him. The woman at the desk, whom he thought would be impervious to this kind of thing, was sympathetic when he told her what had happened. She handed him the phone, and he called the police, then Rev. Morland. He'd been getting along well with the Rev. This would be the end of the good will he had managed to accumulate. The car was insured and it could be repaired in a few days, but the facts of these kinds of things never seemed to matter. He had been driving the car, so he was responsible. Relations with Rev. Morland would henceforth have a restrained formality. No more joking about Dances with Wolves. He shouldn't count on being rehired at the end of his internship.
The car went in for repairs. Ben had to come to work, though he couldn't accomplish much. He didn't have any influence, other than with people who didn't have any either. He knew the matter of funding Georgi's fuel bill was a dead deal. Bill Freeman called and offered a lead on a job that Georgi might be able to handle, but Ben knew what the hermit composer was likely to say to that, and the explicit language he was likely to use. He got the details anyway and a phone number. It wasn't a bad deal actually, answering phone-order calls for a friend of Bill's who was in the mail-order business as a sideline. He sold smoked salmon and a few other specialty foods from a catalogue that went out three or four times a year. There was a big rush of calls around Christmas and Father's Day, but most of the time the order clerk just sat around between intermittent calls on the 800 line. Twelve bucks an hour.
Georgi wouldn't be interested, but Ben had to restrain the impulse to call the phone number himself. He could probably get more reading done between calls than in his current employment. Around here, he might be able to salvage things, but the real question was whether he wanted to be a minister in this church or any other? In fact, he had never wanted to be a minister. He felt called to minister, though this didn't necessarily mean being a clergyman. He'd had a lot of advantages in life, not that his family was wealthy, but he'd had a family. His mother and father stayed together and they loved him. They made sacrifices and encouraged him, as people used to be more prone to do for their children. He seldom saw his brother and sister, but they were in touch. Any of them knew where to reach the others in a matter of hours if something came up.
His longstanding conflict boiled down to the denial of his strongest and best impulses in response to the severe teachings of Jesus. He said take up the cross, for God's sake! Follow him to an execution! When you take a martyr as your ideal it's hard to justify a motivation to accomplish anything. Better take the servant's role, turn the other cheek, and go the second mile.
So what about Georgi's oil tank? It must be empty by now. Would he ask for help, or wait for Ben or somebody else from the church to take the initiative. Should he be taking the initiative? Was he, in fact, making Georgi worse off in the long run by helping him? It seemed that it all depended on what Georgi made of the help that was offered. Nobody could know whether he would be helped, or if he would be damaged by others who enabled him to go on with his music only to get more and more dependent in every other area of his life and eventually becoming incapable of managing his own affairs. If he was already incapable of managing his own affairs, as much because of his illness as any irresponsible behavior, shouldn't he still be helped? But why the hell didn't he save some of his money when he had it? Do artists have to sacrifice everything for their craft and die like Mozart before they're thirty years old?
Ben was at the end of himself. Whether he helped or didn't help Georgi, he risked doing damage. It was probably better to err on the side of compassion. He prayed, Jesus, don't let me blow this one, and called the oil company. The bill wouldn't be as much as one course at the seminary, and he knew he would have to pay it himself. It made him feel a little better about sitting in his study reading. At least a little of the money people contributed that paid his salary, would go toward benevolence of the sort they must have intended.
During the next few days he made a couple of hospital calls and worked on a study he was preparing for the winter-quarter Christian Education series. He had to admit he was tempted to call Bill's friend about that job. He could jump the ministerial career-track altogether and go back to engineering if he wanted to. He knew what he could do when he was intent on something. It wasn't too late. Still, he hesitated. He loved the church. In any theology worth its salt, the world was headed toward a consummation in which there would be time for him to work in the fashion he craved and in which there will be material with which to build. In the millennium, there will be structural engineers. The foreseeable future was a little less inspiring, but he may yet get to do something in theology and the philosophy of science. The church was going to have to do some work along these lines in an era of probability and chaos theory. If he could eventually salvage as much time as Rev. Morland spent studying Native American culture, he could do a Phd.
Next morning he was alone in the building. Having finished the church newsletter in a couple of hours, he thought he would be able to read until lunch. But his phone rang. He could ignore it. The thought of young ministers he knew who were touchy because they spent their time studying or circulating in restaurants while living on a salary made him reach for the receiver. He didn't want to end up feeling guilty or insecure because he wasn't doing much.
It was Georgi. Could he come over for a short visit? A visit with Georgi, long or short, could cut the middle out of his day. In the past it often had meant several hours of fairly intense conversation, interesting but... . He stalled while making up his mind. He couldn't keep Georgi waiting too long because he knew he had to call from a phone at the gas station a quarter of a mile from his house.
"Did you get your fuel tank filled?" he asked.
"Yeah," Georgi answered. "Don't know when I'll be able to pay the bill though. Hey, listen! I have a gift for you and the rest of those hoary Calvinists over there."
"Is it musical?" Ben replied, amused. "Your last gift was a time bomb. It must have made Calvin turn over in his grave."
"This is different," Georgi insisted.
Stravinsky was blowing the walls off the disreputable, paint-peeling house when Ben got out of his car. He recognized the Rite of Spring because Georgi had explained some of its wild images to him on an earlier visit. Almost a year had passed since that cold January day when Ben came with firewood in response to a more distressing phone call than the one he got today.
The door was ajar, so he rapped loudly, but he didn't wait for an invitation as he went inside. It was warm. The major furnishing in the living room was a faded overstuffed chair. In addition there were cardboard boxes full of musical scores and CDs. A modest disk player lit up by a graphic equalizer rested on a scratched and cigarette-burned coffee table. Speakers on the floor pounded out Stravinsky’s savage rhythms. Georgi sat in the adjoining kitchen with an open manuscript before him on a wooden table which had long ago been painted white.
"I haven't got all day," Ben said to get his attention.
Georgi looked around and grimaced, the equivalent of a smile for him. He got up and went to turn off the recording.
"Where you been keeping yourself, man?" he asked, "I thought you had lost touch with the human race."
"I've been busy," Ben answered. "Say, Bill Freeman has a lead on a job. You wouldn't be interested would you?"
"Doing what?" Georgi asked. He pushed a tangle of hair off his forehead.
"Answering the telephone for a mail-order company."
"It's an easy job, except for a few weeks before Christmas. If you learned the products through the rush, you could sit and listen to music until June." For a moment this seemed to interest Georgi, but then he dismissed the idea with an imperious wave of his hand. "If you aren't interested, I'm thinking of applying," Ben concluded.
"What? And give up that cushy deal at the church! You only work on Sunday. Are you crazy?"
"I still think about going back to engineering. I suppose I'm conflicted. And it's hard to get anything done at church.
"What would you know about it? There are all kinds of interruptions here to take up my time. I have to eat, you know, sometimes even cook. And lately there hasn't been enough good light to copy my scores."
"I don't want to keep you," Ben offered. "So what are you up to this time? Where is this gift you promised?"
"Oh!" He leapt around and went back to the table. When he got there, he waited for Ben then motioned for him to sit and examine a musical score.
Ben sat down before the sheaf of hand-copied notation on the table.
Georgi said, "I thought you needed something to tie your service together a little at church."
"What is it?"
"What are they teaching you in seminary? Don't you recognize a liturgy when you see one? This will smooth out some of those awkward transitions in your Sunday service. It's music..."
"For the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus!" Ben finished for him. "You know we have a small choir and a lot of people who prefer folk music. Who's going to be able to sing this?"
"They'll be able to sing it. It isn't as complicated as it looks. Langston will play the hell out of the organ part, and I've used some of the tunes your people already know. I even put in guitar-chord reductions."
"What does it sound like?"
"It's right there in front of you. Can't you read?"
"Georgi... ". He looked down at the score in his hands. The music, of course, was mute to him in notation form. It would be like handing a page covered with mathematics to a musician to decipher. The texts he recognized:
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name
Worship the Lord in holy array.
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters
The God of glory thunders
The Lord, upon many waters
The voice of the Lord is powerful
The voice of the Lord is full of majesty....
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord
Though your sins are as scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow
Though they are as crimson,
they shall become like wool....
Why do the nations conspire,
and the people plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves up,
and the rulers take counsel together
against the Lord
and against his anointed,
saying, Let us break their bonds asunder
and cast their cords from us.
He who sits in the heavens laughs
The Lord has them in derision
Then he will speak to them in his wrath
and terrify them in his fury
saying, I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.
He will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, You are my Son,
Today I have begotten thee
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage
and the ends of the earth your possession
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel....
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established
as the highest of the mountains
and shall be raised above the hills
And all nations shall flow to it
and many people shall come and say,
Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob
that he may teach us his ways,
that we may walk in his paths.
For out of Zion shall go forth the law
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem
He shall judge between the nations
and shall decide for many peoples.
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war any more.