OLD PLACES

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By Sean Dietrich

 A little church. It’s been a long time since I’ve been here. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere. I haven’t ventured far from my house for almost four months of quarantine.

I used to attend a church like this a lifetime ago. I played the piano on Sunday mornings. I played music for all sorts of church occasions.

One time, for instance, there was a guy in our choir who wanted to sing a Randy Travis tune for service. The song was “Forever and Ever Amen.” It’s not a church song, it’s more of a romantic song, but my buddy was in love with a soprano, so the lyrics made spiritual sense to him.

My friend and I worked on it for weeks. He sang, I played keys. Finally, we auditioned the song for the pastor. The old clergyman almost had a cardiac event. He was furious.

The preacher said that if we played another Randy Travis song on church grounds again we would be asked to leave. We made a solemn vow to never play another Randy Travis tune in our lives. Not even “Honky Tonk Moon.”

Right now it feels good being here. I’ve been indoors, stuck on an endless repeat cycle, like an LP record that keeps skipping.

My wife and I have tried visiting friends once or twice while maintaining social-distancing regulations, but it’s weird. We end up sitting 50 yards from each other so that transit trucks and commercial airliners can pass between us. I have to squint just to see my friends from so far away.

The sanctuary is empty. I hear the air conditioner humming. I wander around, running my fingers along the window panes, flipping through hymnal pages.

I look out the window. There is one car in the parking lot, which belongs to the secretary. She said I could hang out here today if I wanted.

I sit behind the piano keys. The piano is out of tune. Southern humidity wreaks havoc on pianos.

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but for much of my life, there were only two things I could actually do well: (a) make mistakes, and (b) play piano. I was a lost boy in many other areas. I was a high-school drop out, a blue-collar worker, and I talked funny.

But piano came easy to me. I learned to play by ear when I was nine. On my birthday my father bought me a little upright and put it in the basement. He told me that if I wanted to learn to play, I would learn. And that was that.

That’s just how his people thought, you understand. People like us didn’t do lessons. Neither did we hire anyone to work on our car, fix our roof, cut our hair, drink our beer, etc.

I play a few bars of an old hymn. I’m so rusty that my fingers creak, but the memories come back like pollen.

When I was younger, I used to buy my Sunday clothes at a local thrift store because I loved a good deal. I remember one Sunday when a pretty girl smirked at me and asked, “Did you buy that shirt at the THRIFT STORE?”

She said “thrift store” like some people say “communism.”

“Yes,” I said. “It was fifty-cent day.”

I was a big fan of fifty-cent day.

Then she told me that my dress shirt had previously belonged to her father. She looked at me like I was homeless and I wanted to bury myself.

But I have some happy memories from buildings like this, too. Not all my memories involve wearing secondhand button-downs. In this room I learned to play “I Need Thee Every Hour” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” and a few honky-tonk tunes I promised an old preacher I’d never play again.

I also remember hearing 42 small-town voices sing hymns with a little Mason & Hamlin. And I remember feeling like somebody special when I played piano. You don’t forget moments when you mattered.

After I finish playing, I leave the sanctuary to do more exploring. I wander to the fellowship hall. It’s dilapidated. I can see the evenly-spaced rust marks on the linoleum floor where the folding potluck table legs used to sit. The same tables where people still gather to increase their cholesterol with pimento cheese, deviled eggs, fried poultry, and, God willing, Sister Linda Shumaker’s taco lasagna.

The secretary finds me in here. She is elderly and hobbled. I’m standing in the middle of the room, remembering everything. She tells me she’s about to lock up and go home.

We both have a good chuckle about a few old memories and mutual friends. Then, she tells me that she likes my writing.

I am dumbfounded and a little misty. We embrace. It’s the first actual hug from an outsider since the quarantine began.

The shirt I am wearing is one I bought brand new from Old Navy.

I help her lock the doors. I walk her to her car. There is a sadness in her. She says she lives alone, and her closest friend during the pandemic has been her cat. We both admit that we can’t wait for the world to go back to normal again, if it ever does.

Once her car is out of sight, I look around to make sure the coast is clear. I smile because I’m feeling better. I begin to sing a particular song in a quiet voice. For old time’s sake.

Because Randy Travis sure had some good ones.

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