Scenes From a Country Church (A Story)

Josh drove along the country road, the smile on his face wrinkling its way up to his eyes. Next to him, Susie sang with abandon, her voice exuberantly mouthing the words to the Billy Joel song on the car’s media center. It was a song Josh knew well. He once disliked the song but loved hearing Susie sing it. She didn’t know that he hadn’t been a fan. Josh wanted her to sing it every time she heard it. He didn’t need to appreciate the song to love the person accompanying it. Susie didn’t know that the song was Billy’s favorite of all his songs.

Before their second date, Josh spent hours learning everything he could about Billy Joel. Susie shared a fascination with trivia and details about people’s lives. Susie listened in wonder as Josh recited all the facts that he’d learned about Billy Joel: that he had been a boxer and quit after his nose got brutally broken, that his ancestors were Jewish but that he had attended a Catholic school, only to end up as an atheist. Susie was horrified to learn that Billy also suffered from depression and attempted suicide by drinking furniture polish. She laughed in delight when Josh told her that Billy’s success came after failing to end his life.

“I learned to play the piano when I was very young, just like Billy,” he had told Susie. She raised her eyebrows in dubious surprise. “I hated it then but learned that music was as much a part of me as breathing. My mom told me that music would keep me sane. She was right. I can’t sing to save my life, though.”

Susie laughed. “We will see about that,” she mysteriously told him.

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“Where are we going, Josh?” Susie laughed as she stopped singing long enough to utter the question.

“You’ll see. It’s a beautiful drive. Just sing a little more. We’ll be there in a couple of minutes.” Josh smiled and kept driving.

The road became less maintained as he drove. Fences that were previously metal became loose barbed wire, and the number of houses decreased precipitously.

As he neared the old country church, he slowed and turned between the narrow confines of the ditch on either side. The church stood against a backdrop of old trees. The white steeple looked brilliant against the intermittent sun that peeked through the clouds.

“It’s beautiful, Josh. I love old churches!” She almost squealed. Her enthusiasm always bubbled up.

“I know. That’s why we’re here.” He pulled up closer to the church and shut off the engine.

“Want to go inside? I have a key.” He grinned.

“You have a key? Wow. Of course I want to go in.” Susie immediately opened her door and jumped out of the car.

Josh scrambled to undo his seat belt and follow her. She was already walking up the few steps to the door by the time he exited the car.

As he walked up to her, Susie turned and gave him a light peck on the lips. Josh laughed. Her affection still caught him off guard. He’d spent a lot of his life imagining what such attention would evoke.

Josh unlocked the door with the large key in his jacket pocket. He pulled the door open, and Susie darted in ahead of him. He shook his head in amusement.

As he entered, he flipped on the lights. The inside of the church flooded with sudden illumination. The wooden pews shone with the proof that someone still took the time to polish them. The wood smelled divine.

Josh took Susie’s hand and led her to the front pew. Her fingers folded effortlessly around his.

“Sit here, Susie.” Josh gestured to the front pew. A single piece of dark chocolate lay on the bench. Susie looked at Josh in surprise, realizing he’d planned this. Her eyes grew wide, and she smiled. She said nothing as she sat on the pew. She picked up the piece of candy, unwrapped it, and savored the bitter flavor as she chewed it. She nodded.

Josh bowed toward her as he turned. Both of them smiled. The church was quiet as Josh’s feet echoed faintly on the wooden floorboards. He walked behind the small altar and to the right. He sat at the old organ and looked at Susie.

“Did you know that Billy Joel considered himself a better organist than a pianist, Susie?” Susie shook her head “no.”

“I do too. And this one is slightly out of tune. I love the way it sounds. Imperfect enough to give this song the new life it deserves.”

Josh’s fingers began to play. Instead of the expected four bars of notes to precede the lyrics, he played an improvised version, much like Billy loves to do at his concerts. He looked over at Susie as he began. He was delighted to see that she was slightly shocked. The sound of the old organ flooded the church with melody and life.

“A bottle of red, a bottle of white, perhaps a bottle of rosé instead,” Josh sang, his voice cracking with emotion. Susie clapped in delight.

Josh continued to play and sing, his audience of one feeling the emotion he brought to the song. Time stopped as the wood structure of the church filled with melody and vibrated.

He played an improvised closing melody that faded into a hum as he finished the lyrics. “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” had never been played with so much love by someone who once thought it was a terrible song.

Susie had tears across her face as she sat in the pew in front of Josh. She smiled.

“Look under the pew, Susie. I left another surprise for you.”

As Susie locked eyes with Josh, she already knew what awaited.
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I won’t tell you what happened next. If you’re full of life, you already know. You can smell the wood, feel the melody as it dissipates. And you can imagine Josh and Susie and the life that followed them out of the church.

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