Tuesday, June 20, 1972 Kokomo, Indiana
“I am not being difficult, Tracy, nor am I a misanthrope.” Sue Mitchell ran her hand over her forehead, swiping her bangs from where they’d slipped out of the bobby pins she used to pin them back. There wasn’t time for this phone discussion during working hours.
That is, if any work still needed doing. It hadn’t taken long to plow through the to-do list Pastor Mussing left for her.
She glanced around the Wabash Congregational Church office reception area. Even the plastic philodendrons had been wiped clean. Still, Tracy didn’t need to know she’d knocked out her work already. So, if she were honest, technically she did have time, but rather she didn’t want this discussion.
The voice on the line acquired a lofty air. “Let me put this so you will understand. Your arcane attitude is bumming me out. I want to have some fun with my best friend. I’ve let you have space to pull yourself together, but now it’s time to get off your callipygian and party hardy with me.”
Sue snorted. “A pretty pukka effort. Do you have your thesaurus open next to you?”
“Nope, you aren’t the only one who attended college. Besides, having roomed with you for so long, I’ve sort of absorbed your vocabulary.” Tracy paused and her sigh came through loud and clear. “Please? The only thing we ever do together is work with the girls on Wednesday nights. I have tomorrow off, and I promise we’ll be home tonight by ten-thirty, eleven at the latest. C’mon, whaddya say?”
It was Sue’s turn to sigh. They hadn’t gone out for fun in forever. Which was fine with her. If she didn’t see another soul, it would be pukka with her. Visions of becoming a hermit in the remotest regions of Alaska flicked through her brain. Wearing all her big bulky, non-shape-revealing sweaters. If only she enjoyed the cold.
Tracy, however, had been there when she needed a friend and offered her sanctuary. Even helped her find this job. She owed her friend. “Okay, but we stick close to town or head toward Galveston. Nothing south or west. Got it?”
Tracy squealed, and Sue pulled the phone from her ear as the chatter turned high-pitched. “Yay! I can’t wait. I’ll see you when you get home. Oh, we’re gonna have some fun. Bye!”
The line clicked before Sue returned her bye. Stuff like that happened when Tracy got excited. That girl never had a down moment, never met a stranger, and doubted no one’s story. Gullible and dewy-eyed, that was her roomie. Made it easy to give Tracy enough story without a lot of details to convince her to let them room together again. Out of the way. No one from Alto knowing where she was.
Sue picked up the stack of finished folders on her desk and tapped them straight before setting them right back where they had been. What else needed doing? Everything from her in-box was completed, her out-box emptied. Sometimes it was a pain to be so competent.
Boredom is a state of mind—repeat this fifty times.
Then she realized that if she didn’t keep busy, her brain would be creating what-if scenarios about this evening. Like what if she ran into someone she knew from Alto? Oops, she’d mused herself into exactly what she wanted to avoid.
However, what if she did? What if someone saw her out tonight? What would she do? She needed a plan.
Hmm, perhaps head for the restroom and lock herself in until Tracy found her? Or play dumb, like the person was mistaken. She’d changed her appearance enough that it was possible. Sue shoved the black cat-eye glasses with nonprescription lenses up to the bridge of her nose. Maybe she shouldn’t go.
Yet she’d promised Tracy, and she owed her roommate more than she could repay. Still that happy, squealing face manipulated even when she was miles away.
Okay, what if she dressed frumpy? Would Tracy let her out of the apartment raggle-taggle?
Absolutely no. She’d take it as a personal affront to be seen in Sue’s company when not presentably coiffed and appropriately styled.
Great, now what did she do?
“Sue, would you do me a favor?”
She pulled herself away from her concerns to find the pastor’s wife, Gloria Mussing, standing at her desk. When had she entered the room? Mercy, this day was growing obdurate about giving her a hard time.
“Of course, Mrs. Mussing. I’m happy to. What can I do for you?”
The woman held a basket of cards and envelopes with a list poking out the top. “I just got a call and need to run an emergency errand. These cards are for the hospital, nursing home, and shut-in visits this Saturday. Would you please get them signed and in the envelopes with the person’s name on the front for me? I’ll group them by who is taking them out once I’m back. Thought I’d get this done today because the rest of the week is stuffed full, but now this.” Mrs. Mussing shook her head.
“I’ll do it for you. In fact, I was trying to think of something else to work on.”
Surprise raised Mrs. Mussing’s brows. “I saw the list Jim left. You finished it already?”
Sue nodded, then added a smile to keep it friendly.
“I can honestly say we get our money’s worth out of you. My goodness, you not only work hard, but fast. I told him it would take you three days to get all that done.”
“It wasn’t so much.” She shrugged, hoping it didn’t sound boastful. The truth was, the training she received in college prepared her for much more than the simple filing and typing this job required. In fact, the hardest part was keeping the smile on her face when people arrived. It would be so much better if she didn’t have to deal with the public or even the congregation. Was she a misanthrope? Maybe a little bit.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here with us and that you’ll take this off my hands. Good to know we’ve got someone we can trust to get things done.” The pastor’s wife set the basket on Sue’s desk, waved, and headed out.
This time, her smile was genuine. Sue heard little praise as a rule, and Mrs. Mussing’s words felt like Noxzema on a sunburn—only without the sting. Just the cooling sensation that made her want to say “ah.”
She pulled out the list of names and began by addressing the envelopes. It’d be nice if her old church did something like this. Then maybe someone would be filling out a card for her brother while he sat at home. Sue didn’t recognize any names on the paper. True, she hadn’t been attending all that long, only since she’d started her job. But there was no way she’d be going back to her home congregation, and since she hadn’t found another place to attend, it only made sense to come here on Sundays. Plus, it turned out Pastor Mussing was not only a great boss, he knew a thing or two about preaching sermons.
Once she had the envelopes readied, she checked the name on the list, noted if the person was in the hospital or a nursing facility or was simply homebound, and chose an appropriate card, signing it with her best penmanship. Blessings from Wabash Community Church.
Mrs. Mussing hadn’t said how to sign the cards, so Sue spent a moment considering the best message to write. After completing a couple, she picked up a rhythm and soon had the lot filed back into the basket in three stacks and in alphabetical order. All done.
She stood and stretched and paced the room. If she couldn’t do her exercises, she could at least move. After developing the habit, her body itched to stay active, so she counted off steps and made several circuits of the lobby.
Despite the ease of the job, it had a peaceful setting, kind colleagues, and a safety that made it all worthwhile. No one around her recognized her. She could stay cloistered in this office until… Until she didn’t have to.
Ten minutes later, she settled back at her desk and decided to start a list of jobs she could get done if Pastor wanted her to. Keeping busy helped, and it was no trouble. She’d gotten to number seven when the notion about the safe and serene nature of this place shattered.
The church office door opened, and he walked in, causing her to retreat behind a personal loup of efficiency.
She wasn’t sure if she was repelled or attracted, only that he turned her stomach to flying confetti and her pulse rate to a jackhammer’s pace. Either way, he was definitely male. That scared her, and it wasn’t good. With effort, she kept that professional mask in place.
Sue noted a slight shuffle to his gait, and he pulled off his motorcycle helmet to reveal a matted, beach blond mane and full beard. A guitar case hung from a strap over his shoulder as he approached her desk.
No, this wouldn’t do. He made her too uneasy.
“Is Professor Day in?”
Sue swallowed hard and found her voice. “Um, who shall I say is calling?”
“Just tell him Mac is here for the appointment.” The guy glanced around the room, spotted the couch next to the potted fern, and headed that way.
The space between them increased, granting her more breathing room. Not that he smelled bad. She hadn’t noticed anything like that. Just that his mere presence made her nerves take up conga lessons. She called into the music director’s office. “Mr. Day, Mac is here for an appointment.” An appointment for which someone had neglected to inform her.
“I’ll be right out.” Click.
“He’s on his way.”
She recalled Pastor Mussing’s verbal list of her duties. Should she ask if she could get him something to drink? However, starting a conversation meant acknowledging his presence again, and she wasn’t sure if that was such a wise idea. Still, part of her job was to be the office hostess. A part she had hoped she would not have to often deal with. But then, Pastor Mussing had emphasized that she was the first impression visitors got, so it was important that she be hospitable. And it was getting summery outside. Logic, and his shaggy pate, told her his head had gotten warm riding with that helmet on. Fine. She’d play Jackie Kennedy. It might not be the White House with thousands of live TV viewers, but she would be as gracious a hostess. No matter if her fingernails dug canyons into her palm.
“May I get you something to drink? We have water or coffee.” Should she suggest that the church stocked powdered Nestea for the summer months?
He glanced her way and flashed a touch of a smile. “No, thank you.”
Well, that was that. She’d tried.
Had she really? “What about a magazine?”
He shook his head, and the matted, probably sweaty, clumped strands swung a little. “No, but thanks.”
At least he was polite. Even if he merely sat there, not trying to talk with her.
That hadn’t happened in a long while. Recent history had proven that, given the chance, a man would try to start a conversation with her whether she wanted to talk to him or not. And boy, had she heard some lines.
Well, not extreme recent history. Not since she’d changed her appearance.
So maybe it was working. The thought tickled at the corners of her mouth, and she caught a genuine smile trying to sneak out. But it was followed with a little sadness. Did that mean she’d never again get attention from a man? Never again experience that moment of inner confidence when she knew she looked appealing?
Part of her wanted to cheer that notion across the finish line. Still, another part wondered if she’d always feel this way, and if she’d sliced off her proverbial nose to spite the face that had brought her such heartache.
Mac ran his hands over his jeans, wiping the sweat away again. Despite the air conditioning in the office, his nerves were outdoing his deodorant three to one. He couldn’t imagine why Professor Day had asked him to come see him at a church of all places.
He moved his guitar from leaning against the couch to laying across his lap, needing the physical touch as if it were another appendage.
Music had always interpreted Mac’s life.
He’d spent adolescent summer days under the boardwalk and nights up on the roof with Ben E. King. Then he moved to the dock of the bay to hang with Otis Redding.
But at graduation, his Uncle Sam sent him on an exotic all-expense paid trip that cost him dearly. Eric Burdon spoke truth to him—he had to get out of that place.
It was bad. So bad.
Especially those first few weeks in the hospital.
Then came the recent years of trying to resurrect his life, of learning who he was.
These days, though, more often than not, he found himself with Doby Gray, grateful for the songs that helped him drift away.
Music. The balm that poured out a measure of peace amid a chaotic world.
Speaking of that, why was this office silent? This was not good. He needed sound.
“Sorry about the wait, Peter. Or do you prefer Mac?” Professor Day stood in front of him, hand outstretched.
Mac rose before meeting the handshake. Didn’t do to let anyone assume he couldn’t stand on his own. “No problem, sir. And it’s Mac. Thanks for asking.”
Professor Day held a carton under his left arm. “Give me one more second and we’ll go back to my office.” He turned to the secretary. “Sue, would you please run these over to my daughters at Ferguson House? They need them before four, but they have a customer until after three, so don’t leave before then. They made sure I realized not to interrupt their important meeting, but that the next client needs these reel-to-reels.”
“Happy to take care of that, sir.” Though she sat there ready to do his prof’s bidding, Mac had the impression the woman was a lot smarter than she was given credit for. He took a better look.
“Just Aaron is fine. Do you know how to get there?”
“Yes. Aaron. I’ll make sure they are delivered on time.” She flashed a smile that seemed rehearsed. Still, it lit her face a little, and two dimples popped like tiny parentheses on either side of her mouth. Maybe they were spotlighting where her real smile should go. She was better looking than she wanted to let on.
“Good, got that out of the way. Come with me, Mac, and I’ll explain why I dragged you here.” The chuckle floating back was the real deal. Not like Secretary Sue’s smile. It was one of the reasons he accepted the professor’s request to meet at the church. He liked the guy. Besides, how many advanced music students had a teacher who included sessions with Burt Bacharach, Herb Alpert, Brian Wilson, and Frank Sinatra on their resumes—to name a few? If you wanted to be a professional musician, you should learn from someone who understood the score.
Professor Aaron Day did.
The hallway to his office wasn’t all that long, only a couple of doors on either side. The professor stopped at the last one on the left and turned the knob, holding it open.
Mac stepped past him. The room was cluttered with books and instruments and sheet music in piles. Looked like something out of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
“Excuse the mess. Still trying to get organized around here. Splitting my time between the church and the university means I’m never finished combing through to decide what to pitch and what to keep.” He lifted a stack from the visitor chair and motioned for Mac to have a seat.
He did, still mesmerized by the sheer musical vastness represented in the small room. “How many instruments do you play?”
“A few. I prefer my guitars, especially my twelve string, and the piano, but I’ve played clarinet and sax for a few recordings.”
Mac would bet there were more than those named. He glanced at his own ax—it was never far from him, like an extra arm. He was self-taught on the piano. Reading music was doable, but playing by ear, that was where he was freest. For the Nam, he’d picked up the harmonica because it would carry in his pocket. That particular instrument he hadn’t played since he got home.
Professor Day cleared his own chair and dropped into it as if finishing a race. “So, I’m sure you are wondering why I asked you here.”
Mac nodded and kept a tight button on his lip. Too often he’d let the wrong word slip at an equally wrong time.
“If you read the class syllabus, you’re aware you must put together a recital of your own compositions to be played by other musicians. You can choose what instruments, but there needs to be a mix of at least three. Most of your classmates will be scheduling use at the IUK auditorium, but I’ve been thinking. This congregation might enjoy a music night, so I’m offering you a chance to do your final project here. You’d need to present before Labor Day. I’m acquainted with a few performers who attend Wabash Community, and I’ll be happy to help you with contacts. The thing is that you’d want to have a theme that fits a house of worship.”
Mac mulled the man’s words a moment. “What does that mean? Only classical or hymn-like pieces?”
Professor Day shook his head. “No, it only needs to be God-honoring. Even some rock does that. Think of the songs from Godspell. There are several that fit that category.”
“Are you requiring words for all the music? I’d have to locate a singer.” Where would he find one? And no, he was not going to sing them himself. Sweat returned to his palms while his deodorant gave up the ghost. This final project was a giant enough step for him without that added feature of him performing.
“Only one piece needs lyrics, but you can add them to the whole recital if you choose.” The professor chuckled, and Mac realized his eyes must have spoken for him about the viability of that ever happening.
“As I looked over the roster for this class, I really felt moved to make you this offer. You don’t have to do it.” He paused, like he was waiting for Mac to give him direction on what to say next.
“Aaron. As long as we are outside of class, it’s fine. Go on.”
Mac cleared his throat and tried again. “Aaron, I’m not a super religious guy. I do believe in God, and I’ve got reason to be grateful. Still, I might not be the right person.”
“I think you are. I also believe that as you work, if you pray and ask for guidance, you might find this is more for you than for your audience.”
Whatever that meant. “I don’t know any singers. Do you have a name or two to go along with the other musicians?”
Aaron grinned. “Do I have a name? Mac, you’ve come to the right place. The best pianist in town happens to be my youngest daughter. All three of my girls, as well as my wife, have beautiful voices. Sounds like nepotism, I’ll bet, but facts can’t be denied.”
“Oh. Okay. Think they’d be willing?”
“I’ve got a feeling at least one might be persuaded.” Aaron scribbled on a notepad. “Just to make sure I remember to speak with them. Now, before you go, I’d really like to hear you play.”
“Um, so it’s decided?” Mac suddenly realized he’d been steamrolled.
“You still want to think about it?”
Mac let his gaze skirt around the room before meeting Aaron’s, resigned. “I’m in. This thing is going to stretch me.”
“That’s the point. Now get out your guitar and show me what you can do.” Aaron moved to the piano and set the stack of books covering the seat on the floor before sitting down and playing a quick scale. “Want to try ‘Classical Gas’?”
With his guitar out of the case, he slipped the strap over his head and played the opening chords.
Aaron joined in, and soon the tiny room was filled with the jam session.
The door suddenly opened, and Mac glanced up to see a middle-aged guy in the doorway as his fingers slowed to a stop on the frets.
“Keep going, sounds great.”
Aaron stopped and spun around on the stool. “Oh, Pastor Mussing, come in. This is one of my students, Mac MacKenzie. Mac, this is our pastor, Jim Mussing.”
Middle-aged dude walked on in with an open palm. “Nice to meet you, Mac. You are fantastic.”
Mac shook the guy’s hand and struggled to get his voice to work. “Um, thanks. Nice to meet you too.” He’d been having so much fun that his words tasted like lies. No way had he wanted to meet the guy right then, even if he was all right. Instead, it was about playing and getting lost in the music. That’s where Mac was truly free.
But his folks had drilled manners into him, and he used them. Besides, he was in church. Which was worse—to lie to say something polite, or tell the truth and be selfish?
“Sorry to interrupt, I was just enjoying it too much. Hope to see you around, Mac. I’ll let you two get back to what you were doing.” With that, the pastor closed the door.
“Guess we got too loud?”
Aaron shook his head. “No, these walls are thin. It’d be hard for the sound not to travel. You’re pretty good on guitar. How are your piano skills?”
“Eh?” Mac shrugged and wiggled his hand in front of him.
“Try this.” Aaron pulled out a couple of pages of sheet music.
Mac started to balk. It wasn’t that he couldn’t read the thing. He could, but getting his fingers to comply as fast as his brain recognized the notes was another deal. Well, maybe he should make his professor aware of the extent of his skill. Would he rescind the invitation?
He laid aside his guitar and inspected the music. It was for a hymn, “O Fount of Many Blessings.” At least the piece was familiar. That should help. Mac sat on the seat, got his feet on the pedals and his fingers over the keys, and leaned in to follow the notes, humming them to himself as he did. He could do this. Okay. Big breath.
The song started, and as music tended to do, it flowed up his hands and arms and straight to his heart where he took hold of the nuances and textures, making it come alive. He played the verse a second time and repeated the chorus before drawing to a finish.
As the last note echoed away, he knew something had happened.
There was clapping behind him, but only one person. Aaron. Professor Day. His teacher. He’d pleased the man. Mac’s heart pounded.
Maybe, just maybe, he could do this.
Only, he’d have to use his own compositions—not that he’d never composed anything. He had. Several pieces, some that would actually fit this situation.
No, the big thing was, he’d need to allow others to hear his work. An audience. And that might be the hardest part of this whole process.