I am sitting in a church pew. This chapel is empty. It’s lunchtime, and I’m supposed to be meeting an old friend here since I am passing through town for a book tour. Gene is the father of a guy I grew up with, and he has always been good to me.
The church secretary told me to wait in the sanctuary. The lights are off. Sunlight comes through the stained glass windows.
The whole world has shut down because of the coronavirus. Schools are closed. Restaurants have closed. Major League Baseball is cancelled. This morning, I saw a mile-long line of people outside a Birmingham grocery store. I don’t know what they were buying, but they looked afraid.
Gene works at this tiny church. He is the maintenance man here. It’s a part-time gig since he is almost seventy-eight.
This church gets smaller every year. Some of the younger parishioners are trying to grow the congregation by promoting the church. But the elderly folks in the congregation aren’t interested in this. “I’m not running ads,” the elderly preacher said at a recent meeting. “You don’t have to advertise a fire.”
I hear the door open. Gene’s sleeves are rolled up, he has dirt smudges on his forehead. He’s holding a wrench. His white hair is a mess.
“Sorry,” he says. “I gotta cancel lunch, we’re fixing the water heater.”
I follow him to the back room where three old men are crammed against a water heater. These are deacons. They are ticked off and fussing:
“Hold the flashlight steady! I’m blind over here!”
“I’m trying, but your feet keep getting in the way.”
“GIMME THE WRENCH!”
There is a special way old men gripe when they’re fixing things and becoming frustrated. It’s pure wrath. It spews out of them like poison. It happens to us all. You can take a soft spoken man who walks on water; who never cheats on his income taxes; who calls his mama four times per week; who always puts the toilet seat down; give him a clogged garbage disposal and this man will turn into Beelzebub.
I am standing at a distance, watching them work.
There is an art to watching other men do fix-it jobs. If you are a man, you don’t watch, but you oversee.
Guys would never, for instance, merely watch another guy tune his carburetor. We would stand EXTREMELY close to him, sometimes leaning into his engine for moral support. We would offer helpful tips as though we minored in nuclear physics. “Hey Frank, have you tried twisting the defraculation nodule with the precipitator cuff valve?”
When we run out of things to say, we spit, or offer to get in there and help. But we are lying when we offer to help. We DO NOT want to help. Because this would mean that other men would then be giving us a steady stream of helpful advice, and then we might have to strangle them with a tape measure.
The water heater closet is flooded with an inch of water. The men are sloshing around, soaked to the bone, and filthy. And I am glad that I have something to think about today that isn’t related to the coronavirus because it feels like the world has been flipped upside down.
I’m getting a lot of email from worried people. I got an email from a nineteen-year-old girl who is having panic attacks. And one from a single mother whose full-time job has been cancelled.
But all is well inside this little church. The old men are really going to town on this heater. These are Baptist men who grumble in the sort of way that only Baptists know how. They talk themselves right up to the edge of cussing, but never do.
“Dang this no good sunuva…”
It’s beautiful. If you were raised Southern Baptist like me, you live for this kind of thing. An old man named Rick has taken to beating the water heater with a hammer and speaking with lots of near-cuss-words. This is a direct quote:
“This no good piece… All I wanna do is… Line up the danged threads and kiss my… You piece of doo doo!”
By now, a Presbyterian would have said an actual bad word. An Episcopalian would have already left the church and bought a twelve-pack. But not this elderly Baptist. He actually said, “doo doo.”
This is the greatest day of my life.
By now our feet are splashing in a little river. Even the church secretary is watching. She is trying to make helpful suggestions but the old men aren’t listening to her because what would she know? “Hey,” she says, “shouldn’t you turn off the electricity with all this standing water around?”
Finally, after an hour of struggling, it is finished. The water heater is fixed and it is a great day to be alive. Old men are shaking hands, slapping shoulders, high-fiving. The secretary has gotten to-go sandwiches. The old men are all in the empty sanctuary, sitting on clean towels, eating.
One old man says grace. Men bow their heads. Nobody says a word for a solid minute. Everyone is quiet. We are all thinking about the same thing. We’re thinking that in a few moments we will finish our sandwiches, leave this warm building, and rejoin an upside-down and panicked world.
“Lord,” says an old man. “Even if all hell breaks loose, help us not to be afraid.”