There we were, playing old hymns. We sang the song “In the Garden” to an empty auditorium. And it was the most fun I’ve had in a long, long, LONG time.
It almost felt like being normal again.
The Black Box Theater was virtually vacant. There were two men sitting in the concert hall listening. But these were audio engineers, broadcasting our show. Audio engineers don’t count.
Beside me were my musician friends: Josh, Barb, Todd, and Aaron. We held instruments. And we put on a show for a spindly broadcast microphones that stared back at us.
We sang the lyrics:
“Aaannnnnd he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own….”
Our broadcast had started with “Keep On the Sunny Side,” in the key of D. It was peppy and bright. The fiddle kicked it off and immediately I felt more alive than I’ve felt all year, except for the time when I stockpiled a garden shed full of toilet paper a few months ago.
I’ve forgotten how much I miss playing old songs with friends. I’ve forgotten too much.
Long ago, before the advent of pandemics, I played music in a band. I was always shuttling sound equipment into wedding receptions, playing for Rotary Club Bingo nights, or lugging amplifiers into dark beer joints that smelled like the varsity basketball laundry bag.
Oh, the things I’ve forgotten during a COVID era.
“And the joy we share, as we tarry there, none other has ever known…”
The fiddle bowed a solo. I felt the pleasant thump of a bass, beating a two-beat country rhythm.
I spoke into the mic to read letters from our longtime listeners. The mailbag messages made me feel warm all over.
There was the heartfelt letter from Randy, in Tennessee. He’s been listening to our show from the early days. A funeral director who got into the business as a teenager, not long after his grandfather died. He once helped conduct the funeral service of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
I read a message from Sarah, who wanted to wish her sister happy birthday via the podcast airwaves. Sarah’s sister is turning 50. Her sister cared for her dying elderly father who suffered from ALS.
It was quite a letter.
So we all sang “Happy Birthday” over the air. Then a few more songs. I played the piano a little. There were a few laughs from the audio guys when I told jokes. I even heard someone applauding.
“And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he teeellllllls me I am his own…”
I told a short story about my granny. About her paralyzed vocal cord. About her wandering eye, and how she tilted her head for family photographs so she could see the world in focus.
Her favorite hymn was “In the Garden.” At times I thought I felt the ghost of an old woman looking over my shoulder while we played.
When the broadcast was over, we packed our instruments, ate barbecue, sipped icy beer, and talked about olden times. Times that are gone right now.
We told stories about a pre-pandemic world. About what people’s kids are up to. About parents who raised us. We talked of life as it once was. The way people used to do. We did not talk about viral infections, mortality rates, massive endemics, or COVID-19.
For a few moments life was, more or less, ordinary again. Laughter abounded. A few times I had to wipe something from the corner of my eye.
I didn’t ever want to leave.
But nothing lasts forever. This is the nature of life. And, I guess you wouldn’t want good things to last forever because otherwise they would cease to be wonderful.
We finished our barbecue then wandered through a quiet amphitheater, one more time. Lights off. The evening was over.
On our walk down the center aisle the audio guy surprised us by replaying snippets from our podcast over the sound system.
We all stopped to listen. My eyes closed. Once again the fiddle whined. Once more the guitar sang. And the timeless harmonic joy of “In the Garden” came piping over the speakers.
“Did it all really happen?” I was thinking. “Did we just do that? It’s been so long.”
I was also thinking, “Where did normalcy go? And how long before it comes back?”
The recorded music ended. The nightman locked the theater doors. We donned surgical masks and carried beat-up instrument cases through a prairie-flat parking lot. The stars above were dazzling. The moon looked the same way it did two thousand years ago.
We all said goodbye, but we kept our distance. No hands were shaken, no hugs were exchanged. We are responsible adults. Many of us have elderly parents with weak immune systems. We touched elbows. We said we loved each other.
“We oughta do this again sometime,” someone said.
We know we probably won’t, of course. At least not for a while. But it felt good to say.
On my drive out of town I saw the lights of the theater’s marquee click off. The world went black. And there was a smile on my face that wouldn’t quit.
My wife was singing beneath her breath:
“I’d stay in the garden with him, though the night around me is falling. But he bids me go, through the voice of woe…”
It really was a lot of fun. Being normal again.