Monday, February 01, 2010

Simple Gifts

The memory is so strong in my mind it’s like a wood carving. Textures and smells and sounds all stand out in perfect relief: the twinkle of stars, the singing of crickets, the smells of the musty old building and the laughter of my friends, young and strong and happy. The future was a thing to be desired, an attainable goal, the Christmas morning present we couldn’t wait to open. Years and decisions and memories yet to be made or had, and every one of them full of possibility. Distance and time and a narrowing of focus had yet to drive us apart, and in our minds never had a group of people been closer or loved one another more.

That night we had decided to just drive, to take in the sights in our small college town for one last time. We would all be graduating in a couple of days, and we hid our fears at being separated in talk of the future and jobs and families. What we wanted to do was weep and hold one another tightly, because right now this was our family and its end seemed unthinkable. We knew we would still see each other, but none of us was naïve enough to believe that this closeness, this sameness of mind would continue once we started down our own roads. So we hid our sadness in laughter, recalling the time this one fell down the stairs, or that one was glued to his chair by jokester roommates. Still, we kept each other close for one last night and loved each other as fully as our breaking hearts would allow.

Most of our old haunts visited, we decided to drive out to the local “haunted” road to scare ourselves like we once did as freshman. Every small town probably has one of these. There’s no real haunting, but time and location and isolation elevates what’s really probably only a back road for farmers into a place of horror and slaughter in the minds of young people looking for thrills. Tales of Satanists run wild, horrible spirits seeking vengeance, cries of babies long dead served to add some thrill to this small town where the local burger joint was the height of fun. Every one of us had heard (and eventually retold) the story of Mary Paine, the girl who never made it to prom because of her death by misadventure on that very road. The fact that we had found no such story in the paper’s archives didn’t lessen the thrill of driving over the bridge that led to Paisley Road, didn’t lessen our hope to see that forlorn spectre wandering the lonely dirt road. We all longed to see her in her prom dress, beautiful and resplendent, none of us admitting that what we really were looking for was tangible proof that our emotions and memories would live on long after we left this town. Mary was the avatar for both our hope and sadness, and never before had we strained our eyes so strongly, almost desperately, for a glimpse of her pale form.

We didn’t see Mary that night, or ever for that matter, but we continued down the road all the same. Paisley Road had long ago been dug out of the earth so that walls of dirt stood 8 feet or higher on either side of the road. It was so narrow that compact cars only just fit on it, and many times had we heard of larger vehicles almost getting stuck. Old growth trees loomed over the road, forming an almost impenetrable canopy above us. Despite the perfect clarity of the sky that night, only the most scant of star shine and moonlight reached us below, so the effect was one of being all alone in an almost pitch dark earthen tunnel. We would stop our cars and extinguish our headlights, and bathe ourselves in the darkness. It was that darkness so deep you can almost feel it, like a large blanket wrapping you warmly. We felt the pressure on our ears and eyes, but it never seemed ominous. It was comforting, and there were more than one or two groans when the lights came back on and the engines roared back to noisy life.

Eventually we came to our actual destination on Paisley Road, Cold Springs Baptist Church. None of us knew for sure if the church was still used, though the condition of the building led us to believe it was, to some degree. It was always unlocked, and we had been here on many occasions before to drink and smoke (which we never did inside the building) and enjoy the quiet and peace this old one room building afforded us. Many students from our school had spent at least one evening at this church, and every one treated it with respect. It was simple inside, with plain wooden pews, a small altar with room for the lectern and a chair for the pastor, and a small choir loft behind that. There was no organ in the church, but there was a small, mostly in tune upright piano to one side. A sense of peace and long held belief fell upon us every time we entered the building. New families were blessed in this building, lives celebrated when they came to their eventual end. None of us said it out loud, but we all felt that this was the perfect place to end our evening, to consecrate our time together.

We sat talking, laughing in hushed tones, drinking our beers and ribbing one another. Couples shared quiet small kisses more full of meaning than any that had come before. Everything felt bigger, more full of import, and this in a time when we loaded every experience with the weight of all our as yet insubstantial years. We were raw nerves, every experience painful and joyful at the same time, and we wanted to feel it all. We were greedy, wanting to fill ourselves so full of this night that no other experiences would fit. We knew it was impossible, but our love could be found in the striving.

After a time all of us became quiet, lost in our own reflections. I admit to drifting quietly between sleep and waking, I was so content and at peace. Beside me sat my friend Claire, her head resting peacefully on my shoulder, my fingers slowly combing their way through her long soft hair, hair like a river of silk. I had long harbored an unrequited crush on Claire. She was kind, and her blue eyes sparkled when she smiled, and I thought no creation on earth could match her beauty. Not only that, but she had the most heart-rending voice I’d ever heard. It was high in tone, and so sweet it sounded like it might break at any moment, though it never broke but soared. It was so pure and good it sounded like something from a higher level, a brief whisper from a loving God. I’ve always loved women who sing, but Claire is the template by which all of them are judged.

I had begun to drift again, my hand slowly falling away from Claire’s head and falling on the back of the pew. I was roused when I felt her head leave my shoulder. She rose from the pew and approached the piano. A few whispers from my other friends rose up when they saw her walking that way. I wasn’t the only one who loved Claire’s voice, and all of us straightened up a bit in our pews in anticipation of the gift of song she was about to give. She seated herself at the piano, lifted the lid, and plinked out a few halting notes. Satisfied with the state of the piano’s tuning, she settled herself more squarely behind the keys and began to very quietly play the melody to the old Shaker tune “Simple Gifts”. After one full rendition of the tune alone, Claire began to sing along, and we were all enraptured.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

When she finished singing, she softly closed the piano lid and returned to her seat beside me. I felt tears on my face, and heard small sniffles from all around me that told me I wasn’t alone. I looked at Claire with fresh love, and she smiled at me through tears of her own, and her eyes sparked in the moonlight coming through the church’s windows. I thought then that my heart might burst, and that it would be okay because no moment could match this one. I gently wiped her tears, and she laughed and did the same to mine, and with that the spell was broken. We heard chuckles from the rest of our friends, and the good-natured teasing started up again. We finished our beers, gathered our empties so we could leave this magical place just as we found it, and got in our cars to head back. Sitting in the back seat, I held Claire’s hand, and watched the night sky, and thought about how grateful I was for my friends, for the people who were my simple gifts.


Blogger Crystal Arcand (3Stairs) said...

You're a gift, Bill. This is just utterly lovely.

Now come to Texas and dry my tears!

6:18 AM  
Blogger Rod Cruz said...

Honestly... I was amazed by this piece. You really have found your calling, Bill. Really.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Justin Birnstihl said...

Hmmmm... the search for ghosts representing or desire to hang on to the ghosts of who we used to be. I know quite a bit happens after that, but that's the part when you had me.

7:03 PM  

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