NOAH heard the sound of organ music the minute he opened the door of the Church of the Good Shepherd. He walked silently through the narthex and stood for a moment at the point where the center aisle began, listening to the music. Not wanting to disturb the organist, he walked slowly and quietly down the aisle, which was no mean feat given that the floor was made of some sort of polished concrete with tiles inset at intervals in a vague pattern. Having been raised in a small-town Southern Baptist church, he hadn’t been entirely enthusiastic about joining the choir of any church. He had hated the hellfire and brimstone oratory at his home church and had stopped attending services as soon as he was old enough to get away with it. Cindy, his coworker and reason for joining the choir, had insisted that Episcopal churches were unlike anything he’d experienced growing up—and he would consider anything to get away from his roommate for one or two more nights a week. He shared an apartment with a fellow college student, and their relationship was, at best, strained.
As he reached the steps leading to the choir area, the music stopped briefly, then started again. This time, the piece was light and airy, and the notes rose and fell in pitch at a fast and furious rate. Reaching the altar area, he leaned against the altar rail and watched the organist. The young man playing the organ was wearing cutoffs and a tank top, and he was sweating profusely, as it was late June and the air-conditioning wasn’t running. Noah watched in total fascination as the man’s hands flew over the keys, as did his feet on the pedals. The player was clearly having trouble with his music in that the thin bound volume of music from which he was playing was not cooperating. Every time he turned a page, the page didn’t want to stay put and kept flapping back.
Finally, the player flipped a page too violently, and the book began to slip off the music rack. Without thinking, Noah leapt forward, crossed the few feet of space between where he sat and the organ console, grabbed the music, and settled it firmly in place. The player hadn’t missed a note, which made it clear to Noah, himself an amateur musician, that the music had been at least partially committed to memory. He started to step back, but with a quick nod of his head, the organist said, “Stay.”
Noah remained standing and scanned the music hurriedly until he was confident that he knew where the player was on the page. When the player neared the last two measures on the page, he nodded his head at Noah. Noah quickly turned the page, pressed it down carefully until he was certain it would stay in place, and was rewarded with a bright smile. He continued turning pages as instructed until the piece had ended. When the last note had finished reverberating around the stone and plaster walls of the sanctuary, the organist looked at Noah and said, “You’re hired.”
“Are you free Saturday evening?”
“Do you own a black or dark blue suit?”
“Then you’re hired.”
“Hired to do what?”
“I’m performing in concert at Jacoby Symphony Hall Saturday evening, and my page turner pooped out on me yesterday,” the man said. “The job is yours.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Stand beside the organ console looking pretty and doing what you’ve been doing for the last five minutes, except you’ll be doing it in front of a thousand people. By the way, the honorarium for the service is fifty bucks.”
“Just for doing that?”
“Well, that includes one practice session and the concert and will probably take up five hours of your time, tops.”
“Okay,” Noah said.
“That aside, how can I help you?”
“I came to audition for the choir.”
“You must be Cindy’s friend.”
“Friend is a bit strong,” Noah said. “She and I are coworkers. I’m Noah Webster.”
“Now there’s a famous name.”
“I think my mother thought it was cute at the time. You don’t want to know what I think.”
“Well, Noah Webster,” the man said, “I’m Tom Foster.”
He held out his hand, and Noah shook it. He noted that Tom’s eyes were as dark as his curly black hair and positively radiated intelligence and humor.
“Pleased to meet you,” Noah said.
“We have to go up to the choir room for the audition,” Tom said, “but first I need to clean up. As you might have noticed, I’m sweating like a Mexican whore. Follow me.”
He turned off the organ and removed the key; then he grabbed a gym bag from beside the organ bench. Slipping off the bench, he led Noah through a series of corridors, the last of which ended in a locker room. “This church, as you may know, has an indoor pool that people use for a quarterly fee, and this locker room serves the pool,” Tom said as he began pulling off his clothes. He located a towel in his bag and added, “I’ll be back in a jiff,” before he disappeared through an open door.
Noah heard the sound of water splashing on a floor. A few minutes later, it stopped, and Tom emerged from the door, dripping wet, toweling his hair dry as he walked. Noah stared at his body and saw broad shoulders tapering to a narrow waist. Tom’s body was well developed, clearly from regular workouts. It also appeared to be hairless except for a small patch of black pubic hair that framed an impressive set of genitals. Noah suddenly realized he was staring and quickly averted his eyes, somewhat taken aback by the unfamiliar sensations he was experiencing. Tom didn’t seem to notice, as he finished drying his body and deftly retrieved underwear, shorts, and a polo shirt from his gym bag. He pulled them on quickly and slipped into a pair of deck shoes. He stowed the shoes he’d been wearing in a little cloth bag and put it in the gym bag along with his towel, sweat-soaked cutoffs, and tank top.
“Okay,” Tom said as he stood up and grabbed the bag, “let’s go up to the choir room and have a go at it.”
Noah followed him down another corridor and up two flights of stairs to the third floor. A door off of the landing at the head of the stairs opened into a generous-sized room that contained a baby grand piano facing rows of chairs on a series of risers. Tom sat down at the piano and instructed Noah to stand at his right. “Okay,” he said, “let’s hear a scale.”
He struck middle C, and Noah followed the music, singing, “Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.”
“Good,” Tom said. “Now do the same thing using ‘la la la’.”
Noah followed Tom’s instructions and was put through a series of vocal exercises, at the end of which Tom handed him a copy of the Episcopal Hymnal and asked him to sing from a particular page. As instructed, Noah sang the line, which consisted of nine words.
“Good, but not quite what I want,” Tom said. “The whole line shouldn’t be legato. The last three words need to stand alone. They should be neither legato nor staccato. Simply touch them and let them go. Think of it as a lover giving his beloved a brief caress and quickly, but not too quickly, lifting his hand away. Like this—” He played and, with a rich tenor voice, sang, “Come, risen Lord, and deign to be… our… guest—” and then said, “Now try again.”
Noah obediently sang the line again, as instructed.
“Well, Noah Webster,” Tom said, “you’ve just grasped, in one simple lesson, a concept that has eluded at least half of the choir for the past month.”
“You might not thank me when I ask you to demonstrate what you just did to the rest of the choir. You’ve had more than a little bit of training, I think.”
“Some. I play the piano, and I used to play French horn in the band. Somewhere along the line I had a few voice lessons, but I didn’t keep up with them.”
“Ever done any solo work?”
“I assure you that will change once you join my little band of angels. Tell me about yourself.”
“As you already know, I work with Cindy, but it becomes part-time during the school year. I just finished my first year at FSCJ and will start back in the fall.”
“Are you gonna stay there until you graduate?”
“No. I’ll be transferring to UNF at the end of my sophomore year.”
“Good,” Tom said, “that means you’ll be around and available for a few more years. I think you’ll like UNF. I hope to finish my doctorate there by the end of next year.”
“You don’t look old enough for that.”
“Actually, I’m not. The thing is I graduated from high school when I was sixteen, so I’m probably only a couple of years older than you. Listen, I hear the thunder of footsteps on the stairs. How about having a glass of wine somewhere after the rehearsal? I like to get better acquainted with all of my singers.”
“Sure,” Noah said, “I’d like that, except I’m only nineteen, and I’ll have to settle for a Coke.”
“Not a problem.”
People began to enter the room. Noah noticed that each choir member went to a set of built-in bookcases along the wall and removed a burgundy-colored folder of music. The folders appeared to have labels on their spines but were too far from where he was sitting for him to read them. A fat lady came through the door and located her folder.
“Ah, here’s our librarian,” Tom said. “Marilyn, got a minute?”
“Sure,” she said, and she sort of waddled over to the piano.
“Marilyn,” Tom said, “this is Noah Webster. He’ll be joining us as of this evening. See if you can find a folder for him now, and you can get him outfitted with robes when you have time.”
“Sure thing, Tom. Pleased to meet you, Noah.”
She went to the shelves, selected a folder, examined its contents, and wrote something on the label. “Okay, Noah,” she said, “this one appears to be up to date with the music we’re currently working on, so it’ll be yours. We pretty much keep the folders in alphabetical order on these shelves.”
“Thanks,” Noah said.
“Follow me,” she said. “I’ll assign you a robe now, before everyone gets here.”
She led him through a door he hadn’t previously noticed, which opened into a fair-sized room. Along both walls of the room were rows of purple robes and white surplices on hangers, each hanger containing a large white tag marked with a name. She moved to the end of the row of hangers and produced one with no name on the label.
“These are pretty much one size fits all,” she said, “but give it a quick test, why don’t you?”
“Thanks,” Noah said. He set his folder on a shelf above the hangers and slipped into the robe.
“Perfect fit,” she said. “I thought it would be.” She wrote his name on the tag. “Okay, this one’s yours from now on.”
He removed the robe and hung it near the end of the row among the names beginning with W. Back in the choir room proper, he noted that the chairs on the risers were now occupied by twenty or more adults of various ages. As Noah and Marilyn reached the piano, Tom stood and said, “Okay, kids, let’s get to work, but first, I want to introduce you to Noah, who has just joined our little group. Noah is a coworker of Cindy’s, and it’s she whom we have to thank for his being here. He’s a bass/baritone, and I fully expect him to start doing all of the solo work that Steve used to do before he moved away. Where is Cindy, by the way, Noah?”
“She had to work overtime and sends her regrets.”
Tom directed Noah to an empty seat between two men on the top riser, and the rehearsal began. He put the choir through a group of vocal warm-up exercises before the rehearsal started in earnest.
When it was time to run through the Communion hymn, Tom let them have at it without comment. When they’d finished the first two stanzas, he said, “We’ve been fooling around with this one for a month, and some of you still don’t quite get it. On the other hand, during his audition, our newest member got it perfectly on his second attempt. I told you I was going to embarrass you, Noah… now show them how it’s meant to be done.”
He sounded the beginning chord, and Noah sang the first line of the hymn exactly as he had done earlier. When he’d finished, Tom said, “Okay, guys and gals, I want all of you to do precisely what Noah just did.”
They ran through the piece two or three times before Tom was satisfied enough to say, “By George,” Tom said, “I think you’ve got it. And it’s a good thing, too, because it’s on the program for Sunday morning. Thank you, Noah, for setting such a good example.”
By the end of the rehearsal, Noah really felt as though he was a part of the group. When he was finished with the rehearsal, Tom stood up, said, “Everyone stay put for just a minute,” and walked over to the bookcases. He returned carrying two fat books and continued, “Will you please come down here, Noah?”
Noah did as he was asked, and Tom handed him one of the books, which he’d opened to a page containing the title of the piece and the legend “Solo for Bass/Baritone.”
“I want you to sing this for us, Noah. Stand over there, facing the group, and give it all you’ve got. I’ll play the first few bars for you.” He played a few bars, stopped, looked at Noah, and nodded his head.
They ran through the solo with Noah doing his best to give it all he had. When he finished, there was a sort of stunned silence in the room, followed by a generous amount of applause.
Tom stood up, patted Noah on the back, and congratulated him. “Okay, kids,” he said, “who can tell me what this means?”
An attractive middle-aged woman in the front row raised her hand and said, “The Elijah is back on.”
“Good-looking and smart too,” Tom said. “You bet your Episcopal tush it’s back on—with a little bit of coaching, Noah will be even better than the late, and now unlamented, Steve ever thought of being before he ran off and deserted us.”
“Steve who?” somebody said, and the whole group had a good laugh.
“What are you talking about?” Noah asked when the room was quiet.
“We had planned a major concert for next spring,” Tom said. “We were going to perform Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah with a small orchestra, an expanded chorus, and four soloists. Steve was going to sing the title role, but when he moved away, we had to cancel our plans.”
“Aren’t there other soloists in town?” Noah said.
“There are, but we don’t have the budget to pay the soloists. It’s all we can do to pay the orchestra members.”
“I’m not sure I’m up to something like that.”
“Don’t worry about it, Noah,” Marilyn said as she walked up to the piano during this exchange. “There isn’t a person in this room who doesn’t think you have what it takes.”
“Especially after what we just heard,” one of the men said.
Other members of the group gathered around Noah, alternately welcoming him to the choir and praising his singing. Finally, only Tom and Noah remained in the choir room, and Tom asked Noah to join him in his little office. Tom sat down at his desk and obtained all of Noah’s contact information, then handed Noah a sheet of paper. “Here’s everything you need to know about Saturday’s performance, including where to be and what time to be there.”
“By the way, if you become the official bass/baritone soloist of the choir, a small stipend comes with it.”
Before Tom could say anything else, his stomach rumbled very loudly and he said, “Oops, I guess I need something a little more substantial than a glass of wine. Have you eaten?”
“I was too nervous to eat a full meal, so I had a Coke and half a sandwich.”
“That settles it. We’ll have a late-night snack while we get acquainted.”
Tom shut down his computer, and they left the choir room, which he carefully locked.
“Do you have to lock up the church before we leave?” Noah said.
“The sexton will secure the building as soon as the pool has closed for the day, which is just about now.”
In the parking lot, Noah asked, “Shall I follow you?”
“If you like, or you can leave your car here, and I’ll bring you back after we eat.”
“Will it be safe here?”
“Then I’ll ride with you.”