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Choir Boy

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Berry dreamed of bloodshed and smoke, or churches that collapsed around him as he tried to sing. Disasters nearly choked his voice, or sheet music turned to nonsense. But even in his dreams Berry remembered his training: he kept the sweetness in his voice and the Hosanna in his eyes no matter how he suffered. One image lodged between fantasy and memory like a repeating nightmare: Berry severing a finger in church and singing through the pain. Berry saw himself holding the finger in place with another finger and using every other finger to hold up his music. Sometimes, Berry was so sure this had happened, he’d swear one of his fingers still crooked the wrong way. There was no scar, but maybe that was because when things happen to you at a young age, they sometimes heal really well.

• • •

Berry wept the day he became a choirboy.

It was his earliest memory. His atheist parents abandoned him on the steps of St. Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral and raced back to their car. Marco, Berry’s dad, yanked his car door shut as if the church was chasing him. Then Marco had to wait for Berry’s mom to air-kiss and arrange herself. Marco swatted the steering wheel, his mustache torqued with annoyance. His stockbroker blazer fit too tight over his football sweatshirt. Berry’s mom, Judy, fussed with the seatbelt over her magnolia bosom. Red hair fell from her headscarf over her eyes as she smiled at Berry. Then Judy closed her door and Marco tore the Toyota away.

The five-year-old Berry waited on the steps of St. Luke’s for someone to collect him. He stared up at the granite spires and stained glass, which looked black on the outside. He’d begged his parents to spare him this. But Judy wanted Berry to learn music. Most music classes charged money, but St. Luke’s paid choirboys a stipend. Marco, meanwhile, remembered pranks and transcendence from his choirboy days.

Nobody from the choir came for Berry. Instead, he perched on the church steps for half an hour or so, watching cars pass through teary distortions. The cathedral’s ridges and crags made Berry think of a stegosaurus, his favorite dinosaur. Eventually, he tried the cathedral’s front door, but couldn’t open it. Boredom beat out Berry’s fear. He hopped down the leg-high stone steps one by one, then walked around the cathedral to the small alley that separated it from its office building. At the alley’s end, he heard sounds.

It didn’t sound like human music. It confused Berry’s ears. He walked down that alley to a back door in the cathedral, where the vibration thrummed the most. The voice of an alien invader who felt guilty joy over the terror its face inspired, it drew Berry. He opened the hole in the cathedral’s shell. Inside, a hallway led to a curtained doorway and beyond that was the area behind the altar. Berry glimpsed gritty stonework lit by rainbow threads of light. He’d never been inside a church before.

The hallway had doors to Berry’s left and his right. The left door led to a dirty crawlspace and a spiral staircase that rose forever into a funnel of stone. The right door led to the alien chorus.

When Berry pushed the right door open, he found people instead of the monster he’d half expected. Up close, the choir almost deafened Berry, who couldn’t separate voices or identify the notes each person sang. Harmonies clung and wrapped Berry as he walked into the center of the swell. He almost ran away.

The long room was half church, half gym. The outer wall glistened with stained glass windows set in stone, but the inner wall had concrete and lockers filled with Playstation games and sneakers. A corner of the room had pasteboard walls forming an office, with a small desk and swivel chair inside. A few dozen chairs clustered in rows around a grand piano. In front of each chair stood the source of a voice, his face warped with what looked like rage. The biggest singers mostly had beards, and furious mouths a mile above Berry’s head. The closer Berry got to the piano, the smaller the people became, but even the smallest dwarfed Berry. Many of them wore blue blazers like Marco’s.

About the time Berry reached the piano at the center of the semicircle, the music stopped. Someone spoke to him. Berry turned to face a wild man at the piano. His first impression was of a porcupine beard and eyebrows, then he noticed the round glasses that magnified the man’s eyes to the size of Berry’s hands. The caveman wore a shirt and tie, but his hairy hands jerked like a demon’s. The creature asked Berry’s name, and he gave it. Somebody handed Berry his own blue blazer, with a patch that showed the stone dinosaur. It hung to Berry’s knees and swallowed his hands, but it was the smallest jacket they had.

Berry found a chair just as the music started again. The others pretended to include him, but it was a long time before he tried to add his voice. By the time the notes made sense to Berry, they had already claimed him on a level beneath reading and counting. He’d grasped the difference between a dotted quarter note (three quick leaps) and a triplet (three beats in two). He learned a thousand anthems by heart, but more than that, he understood something about the patterns of music. You could count on music to change but return to its starting point, which made it more dependable than people.

• • •

Berry turned thirteen on a Sunday in June. Marco glanced at the calendar, swore, and flung granola and butter into a frying pan that was nearly a wok. Judy wasn’t home, as usual. “Don’t bother,” Berry said. He already wore his choir blazer, white shirt, and gray pants. Shower dew dribbled in his eyes. He’d traded up blazer sizes seven times in the past eight years. The latest blazer had bleach stains along the rear right shoulder from its previous owner, Roddy, who’d dropped out of the choir after his voice had changed. Berry’s wrists had started poking from this blazer’s sleeves six months ago. A label inside the blazer’s scruff read Haddock & Lange, Men’s Clothiers.

“I don’t want to be late for choir.” Berry stared at the dream-catchers and mandalas Marco kept on the walls for the spiritual advice clients he sometimes entertained at the apartment. He tried not to watch Marco savage the pan with a spatula. The hot butter smelled of tar babies. The granola leapt and flecked Marco’s mustache. Marco scooped the fried granola into an ice cream cone: “A birthday treat.” Then he excavated a tie from his stockbroker days and wrapped it in Sunday funnies. Berry looped the tie under his choir blazer and sat through Marco’s half-assed birthday chant, cocked to run for the downtown bus.

The bus came late. Berry found a seat up front near the old and legless people and perched, legs quivering with so much voltage his butt barely sat. “What’s with you?” asked the large old man next to him.

“Going to church,” Berry said mid-twitch.

The bristles around the man’s chops rearranged into a scowl. He rose and found another seat.

Berry got to the cathedral just as the choir warmed up. He ran down the alley to the side door. From the alley’s end, he heard scales and grace notes, voices waking. Berry ran into the cathedral and through the right door, into the choir room. A few basses and tenors turned to glare at the latecomer. Berry ignored them and found his chair at the center of the front row of trebles. Berry felt a jab in the arm as Teddy, the head choirboy, punched him. “Late,” Teddy whispered. Teddy wore the same blazer, but with low-hanging baggy pants. He kept his eyes on Mr. Allen, the choirmaster.

Mr. Allen didn’t bother to chew Berry out for lateness. The director’s hair and beard had only gotten wilder since Berry had joined. He still wore the wine-bottle glasses; rumor among the younger boys whispered Mr. Allen was blind but could read thoughts.

That morning, Mr. Allen threatened to cancel church if the choir didn’t pull its shit together. Staring into his cloudy eyes, Berry didn’t doubt Mr. Allen could abolish religion forever if he chose. Berry imagined Mr. Allen walking out into the cathedral, its brownstone vaulting already pregnant with the congregation’s chattering, and announcing: “Show’s over—go home and worship your own way, folks. We got nothing for you here.” Dean Jackson and Canon Moosehead might jump out of their carved seats, tripping on their golden robes to protest. But Berry couldn’t see them arguing with the choirmaster.

Berry’s stomach clenched around fried granola. He tried to concentrate on the notes and clear the bracken out of his voice.

“This is the strongest this choir has ever been,” Mr. Allen told the semicircle around him of terrified men and boys. “We have twenty polished trebles and a dozen experienced altos, tenors and basses—there’s no excuse for you to sound like the Akron Tourettes symphony chorus.”

The choir kept mauling the day’s anthem, Ireland’s “Greater Love Hath No Man.” Berry kept singing too loud at the wrong moment, or coming in too soon. This time, he watched Mr. Allen carefully and tried to see the changes coming. The piece started as a lullaby about love undrowned by floods, and then it thundered like Marco on too many pills. Berry let the score and Mr. Allen’s hands guide him to its ending, which was all about cleaning yourself from the inside out. George, the choir’s solidest treble, held down the solo.

“I guess that won’t drive anybody to the druids.” Mr. Allen shut the piano, threw a black robe over his sweater, tie, and jeans and disappeared. A moment later, Mr. Allen played something by Bach on the organ.

The choir ditched blazers and wriggled into floor-length cassocks and white surplices, with white frilled collars that served up the choirboys’ heads like John the Baptist’s on a platter. Just as Mr. Allen’s organ prelude started, Berry’s best friend Wilson ran in. He gave Berry a cupcake with one candle. The pleated paper jagged Berry’s hand. “Thanks,” Berry said. Wilson had sandy hair and freckles and lived in the suburbs. Teddy, herding the other choirboys into the hallway, gave Wilson’s scruff a yank for lateness.

“Shit sorry late late late.” Wilson tugged his robe so hard from the locker that his cassock fell on the muddy floor. “My parents fought all night. My dad is the only person whose vocabulary improves when he gets drunk. Get some liquor in him, he turns into a walking thesaurus, only without the walking part. It makes me glad I only have a few years left to live.”

“Why do you always say that?” Berry asked. They lined up as the men filed two by two ahead of them into the cathedral’s stone embrace.

“Stone fact,” Wilson whispered. “If I live to eighteen, I’ll shit myself. I’m marked for death, like JFK or Jesus.”

Canon Moosehead stepped through the red velvet curtains that shielded the hallway where the choir assembled from the cathedral’s nave. A white-bearded soft-faced man in silk, the Canon spared none of his trademark smiles for the choir. “I just wanted to let you know that some members of the Downtown Association have agreed to pay us a visit today. I just spotted a dozen or so of them in the congregation. As I’m sure you know, the association has some concerns about our cathedral.”

“What, like we feed junkies and street people, and sometimes they crash here,” muttered Marc audibly. He stood on Teddy’s other side in line. For years, Marc had tried to hide the fact that his parents visited the cathedral’s Hungry Souls soup kitchen.

“I heard that,” Canon Moosehead said. He looked straight at Marc, his eyes hard behind puffy lids. “And sure. There’s no way to deny it, our cathedral brings the wrong element to the neighborhood. Not the sort of people who will help to bring our downtown back as a destination. They also have problems with choirboys disrupting local merchants before and after rehearsals. So I came to tell you all that if you have any stunts planned for today’s service, you’d best postpone them. I’m sure you know there are already plenty of people who’d welcome a smaller, simpler chamber choir. I wouldn’t give those viewpoints any more ammunition.”

The Canon withdrew through the curtain. Marc hissed. “For real,” Teddy told Marc. “We don’t start shit today. Another time.”

Marc nodded.

Bach died. A hymn started and the choirboys lifted their music. By the time the cue to sing came, the first few boys had already parted the curtain and started up the cathedral’s aisle.

As soon as Berry’s voice left the outer passage and entered the rafters, it gained majesty. These were the moments Berry believed in God, despite all the stuff his mom and dad said. Berry kept his eyes cast upward in rapture that was only partly for show. He tranced and channeled music. He almost tripped over the boys in front of him once, and he had to glance down at his hymnal every now and then. But he tried to keep his gaze Heavenward—presentation is all. Berry especially avoided eye contact with the congregation. The cathedral looked like a big gingerbread house, with its brown walls surging to meet overhead. The only non-gingerbread parts were the back-destroying pews, the lily altar, and the stained glass windows.

The choir reached the front, the hymn ended, and Berry’s mind screen-savered. The Collect for Purity rang out. Liturgy curled Berry’s tongue and itched the space under his fingernails with its tuneless seriousness, imploring and blessing and confessing and psalming. Every week Berry’s life led up to this hour, but he spent at least half of it trapped in his own head waiting to sing.

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