At weddings the groomsmen leave their tuxes hanging on their chairs during the reception. Old guys like me don’t take ours off. 

At weddings the groomsmen leave their tuxes hanging on their chairs during the reception. Old guys like me don’t take ours off. See, we know we won’t be exerting ourselves so much that we’ll be uncomfortable with another layer. We’re used to operating under additional layers. We’ve been doing it for years. Some layers of fabric, some of flesh, still others of feeling. Truth be told, we don’t consider what we carry around on our backs any kind of burden anymore. We’ve become comfortable with it. We’ve accepted it even, like some guy named Todd Muck has accepted his name and whatever has come with it. The time comes when a label, regardless of its appeal or its distastefulness, becomes your identity. It ceases to have any value or carry any judgment. It just becomes you. As older guys we understand that. But occasionally one of us breaks free.

I heard a story once about a guy who had been unhappy for years. Things hadn’t turned out like he’d hoped but he never got over it, never got used to it. Well, he finally left his wife after years of dissatisfaction in the marriage, just set out on his own one day; walked away. In his wanderings, for some reason, he felt drawn to churches. Maybe he needed God, maybe he needed religion, maybe he was just searching for answers, who knows? The first few he’d just stop and sit in the churchyard. Never went in, guess he figured it wasn’t his church so he’d be trespassing. Even if he wasn’t and he did go in what do you say if the Ladies Aid comes in for their monthly meeting and finds you there? Would they scream? Call the sheriff? That wasn’t the sort of confrontation he needed. After all, he’d just left his wife. The woman who, for so many years, had pushed and shaped and controlled him. Who needed the rejection and scorn and judgment of any more women?

Anyway, one day he gets up his courage or maybe just forgets his fear, I don’t know which, but he goes in and looks around, mostly in the sanctuary. He feels sort of out of place but sort of at peace all at the same time. Like being where he wasn’t supposed to be in this building was comforting because he had been in something he wasn’t supposed to be in for so many years. It was like coming home but on his terms. He didn’t stay long but he’d broken the seal.

The next church he came to he went in again. He had the same sort of feeling at that one and at the next one and the same sort at the next and the next one after

that. Maybe God was talking to him, maybe he had just come to the end of his rope and held on for dear life. He didn’t really know what it was but a strange thing started to happen in those churches he stopped in; he started to sing.

The first time was odd and weird and he couldn’t have told you why he did it. He was never a singer in his wife’s church, never went to choir on Wednesdays, never sang in any programs. Heck, he barely mouthed the words even to the hymns he liked and knew during service. There wasn’t much of a reason for it but like the stopping and going in and spending time in the churches he just started doing it.

Inevitably someone caught him.

It was in a church in Potter County out in the middle of nowhere. He’d just finished the second verse of Amazing Grace when a voice behind him piped up,

“I hate to interrupt but are you the Special Music for this Sunday?”

He nearly jumped out of his skin. He whirled around and was ready to bolt when he realized the six ladies behind him in the aisle completely blocked his path. He’d never been rough with a woman and short of barreling through them like a fullback, he was going nowhere.

“No, ma’am, just singin’ a little bit.”

“Well it was certainly lovely and a wonderful baritone. Do you travel around and sing in churches?” she asked innocently.

He guessed it wasn’t a lie so he said, “Yes ma’am.”

She didn’t need to know he sang alone, to empty churches, without anyone knowing he was there or that he was drifting around aimlessly like he’d run away from home acting like some wayward tramp. That was just way too much baggage to unload.

“Any chance you’d favor us with a song sometime?”

Without thinking (he would have declined if he had thought about it) or knowing why, he said “Sure.”

He sang that Sunday at the 10:00 service. It was their only service since they’d lost so many people in the last few years. He sang “Amazing Grace” because Norma (the lady that spoke to him) told him it was the most beautiful rendition she had probably ever heard. He wasn’t particularly glad to do it. He didn’t like attention or being up in front of people or being looked at like that but a promise is a promise and they were in church and he didn’t want to add sinning to him running off like he had so he did it.

It was his plan to leave quickly after the service but every Tom, Dick and Harry (literally) wanted to shake his hand.

“Absolutely inspiring!” Tom Belmont gushed.

“Mister, you can flat out sing!” Dick Fieldman said.

And Harry Giessling, with tears in his eyes, said, “Bless you brother.”

As he politely thanked them and turned to go a frail hand tugged at his elbow. “Sir, that was touching and so beautiful. Can you come back next Sunday?”

Her name was Harriet and she was all of five foot nothing and about 85 pounds.

Could he come back? What else did he have to do?

He sang “That Old Rugged Cross” this time to twice the number of people that heard “Amazing Grace” the week before. Seems the congregation network was busy and although Christmas wasn’t for six more months and Easter was a months-old memory the people who only showed up on those special occasions came out to hear him sing.

In the Sundays that followed they kept coming back and he kept singing. They crammed into the pews and then they stood in the back of the church or sat on metal folding chairs from the basement and the invitation was always vehemently made, “Come back and sing next week.”

Notoriety nor praise nor even notice had ever been given to him; not as a child or a young man or especially a husband. He never expected much and never got much but it never bothered him. The thing is, if you don’t look for something you don’t miss it when you don’t see it. He was absolutely dumbfounded and warmed through by the response from these people; people he didn’t know, didn’t know him and didn’t expect anything of him welcomed him as someone. Not as a “star” or a celebrity but as a friend. It was as if he was in a foreign place but minus the alienation he remembered from where he used to call home.

The crowds continued to grow and they started having two services again. Although he never was good with names he began to recognize faces and got familiar with some of the congregation. Still, there were always a lot of new faces. He was told that people drove 50 or 60 miles sometimes to worship and listen to him sing. It really shouldn’t have surprised him then when Sylvia showed up in the crowd.

He didn’t see her until he rose from the front pew to take his place by the railing. Carol, the piano player who he had gotten to know and become friends with, had just started the introduction to “Lord I want to be a Christian” when his sweeping gaze saw her in the fourth row near the aisle. The introduction concluded and the piano began the chords for the first verse. His throat closed and he choked and he coughed once, twice, three times. He swallowed hard. Carol looped around as if it were just more of the introduction and came back to the beginning. The sound he got out was anything but sweet or inspiring or wonderful. It reminded him of a weak, sick lamb trying to get its mama to come and rescue it. He squeaked out the first verse and let Carol play through the chorus. One of the little old ladies had taken to leaving him a glass of water near the rail and he took a timid swig while Carol went through the rest of the chorus. When the melody came back around he did a little better, more like an eighth grade boy serenading his one first love, scratchy and shaky, but closer to holding a tune this time. When he started the third verse he was determined to make a better go of it and he was certainly producing much better volume, surprisingly so until he noticed out of the corner of his eye that Tom, Dick and Harry were all on their feet singing.

They had gone unnoticed just beyond his peripheral vision. The four of them finished the verse and the chorus. Carol played the interlude before the final verse and then as if the pastor had asked them to rise, everyone stood. The crescendo of voices was unlike anything he had ever heard or felt before. There had been times in his old church where, when moved by the emotion of Easter or Christmas, the ladies really tuned up maybe even enjoying a little competition for top honors but he had always just been in the crowd. Never before had he been in front of this kind of praise; this love of the sound of music and of its own voices. The sound swelled and uplifted his spirit. This time he got misty around the eyes. He received the inspiration and elation of everyone there. Sylvia met him after all but the last four or five people had left the church.

There had been a lot of hugging, a lot of backslapping and a lot of comments that approximated “Glad you got through that rough one, huh?” from the guys.

Sylvia was never one for that sort of demonstration but today she looked at him as if she were studying something on display, something in the zoo.

“Hello, Gene.”


“Surprised to see the guy all the ladies at Circle are raving about is you.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what to make of it, I guess.”

“Where you been keepin yourself?”

“Oh, I stay in Standage mostly but I do a lot of drivin’; move around a lot other than comin’ here on Sundays.” he said, staring mostly at the floor.

She gazed around the nearly empty church, “Yeah, you’ve had yourself quite a run. You think you’ve gotten it out of your system now?”

He paused before answering.

He saw her. Here in the church, in this place where he was new, different; his sight had changed too. He knew this all was simple, that the answer despite being a choice of one word or the other held consequences beyond a multitude of words and actions and contained in itself a new reality.

It was so simple, just one word. Who could have imagined? Certainly not him in his youth or young adulthood or as a mature man. Sports announcers liked to use the clichéd “It all comes down to this.” Fact was, it did. And even though he knew that one way or the other he could survive, there was only one way he could live.

He looked at her.

“No, I don’t imagine I have.”

“Well when then? I can’t be waitin’ around all the time for you to wise up and come to your milk!”

“No, I don’t imagine nor expect you to, Sylvia.”

“Well fine then Earl (she never called him by his first name unless she was mad). Just fine!” she proclaimed.

She bustle-stomped down the aisle and out of the church the automatic door-closer slamming the metal door behind her.

He heard her pickup fire up, the crunch of the gravel and then the spinning tires as she tore out of the church yard. In his mind’s eye he could see the dust swirl in the hot, nearly mid-day air then sift down into the churchyard.

He was alone. The church was quiet. And he was at home.

He began to sing.