Roswell, New Mexico
August 1st, 2020 [94 Days Until the General Election]
Alex Manes wiped the red grave dirt off his hands, rubbing his knuckles on the ragged Roswell summer scrub weed at the base of the headstone. He took a deep breath, working the moisture back into his mouth, and spat. He watched it drip down his father’s name, over “Beloved Father to Three Sons.”
Alex turned and winced. The long minutes kneeling had played hell on his missing limb. He stumbled his way back to his jeep.
He opened the door and the smell hit him: 5 flats of peonies, the rich, raw earth of them. The smell of the plastic around their bases. The clink of the gardening tools when he slammed the door and bumped his way out of the graveyard was a reminder: you’re here.
45 minutes later, Alex’s hands were planting his rainbow of peonies in the King David Episcopal Church’s side yard, but in his mind he was playing the piano. It wasn’t a piece he’d played before; he’d always sung his Schubert lieder. The piano line was pretending to be a spinning wheel, rolling up and down and up and down the chord in a perfect circling cycle. He hummed the words:
“Meine Ruh' ist hin,
Mein Herz ist schwer;
Ich finde, ich finde sie nimmer
He learned this lieder, along with all of his german solo pieces, during his one recuperative stay in Germany. He’d been singing in Air Force choirs since he’d mistakenly raised his hand at BMT when they’d asked who knew an instrument, and he’d said he could play piano and sing. This immediately doubled his overall duties, adding in choir and band rehearsal to the rest of his military training. But singing, being inside the music with other voices surrounding him, was the only time he felt safe.
Alex’s German voice teacher had spoken mostly opera English, enough to tell him when to breathe and how to breathe, how to get used to his new balance. She’d been the one to get him up and out of his wheelchair. She’d needled and badgered and reminded him to make sure he actually did his PT. She’d grumbled at him that she wasn’t going to waste time teaching him seated breath support when he was supposed to be up and about.
She’d been the only person he’d said goodbye to when he’d been shipped out of Germany.
Alex hadn’t told her or anyone else why he had requested Roswell, NM. He’d never lived there, the only family he had there was 6 ft down. But no one had asked. He was under the impression that his commander back in Baghdad had confirmed they had a good PT team on the base, had signed the forms, and then figured it was out of her hands.
He wasn’t -- he wasn’t unemployed, exactly. But his specific skills weren’t in high demand on the base and with only a few more months before he finished his commission he was on the lightest of desk duties.
Come in for staff meetings and when folks ask, other than that -- Captain Manes. Alex. Just take some time to heal. That’s an order .
It was a cheap enough place to live, even if the 1950s alien kitsch was annoying. On his first day, he’d gotten a little apartment, put his music books on the one shelf the last tenant had left behind, and got a quick burger at the Crashdown Cafe.
Alex had a process, when he was sent to a new area: in his first few days, drive around to the churches, looking for one flying a rainbow flag or some other indication he was welcome. Walk into a service at 10:30am, open his mouth during the first song, and well -- that was usually that.
It felt crude, sometimes, how easy it was to find welcome in new towns of any size, any culture, relying just on his voice. They didn’t know about his leg, his exaggerated startle response, or why he froze-up when military men came in for a hug during the Passing of the Peace.
Most places never really ended up asking; his voice was enough for them.
At King David’s in Roswell, there wasn’t a choir, but he helped out on the piano when Juanita was out of town. After a few weeks, he’d asked Tony, the priest-in-charge, if he needed any help around the place. First it was fixing-up the computers, then re-running the phone lines. Then there was some electrical maintenance. Alex wasn’t particularly handy but he was a sure sight more handy than Debbie, the part-time admin; certainly more than Tony.
The entire parish was less than 50 in a building that could fit 200, so they didn’t really warrant a full priest, just a part-time priest-in-charge. Tony spent the rest of his time working as a marriage counselor over in Albuquerque.
But even with the tiny congregation, the diocese wanted to keep the church open. They’d had a church in Roswell for 300 years. Alex thought they were hoping religion came back in style sometime before they ran out of parishioners.
A few weeks ago, Debbie had taken him out to the side garden — really, a plot of dead earth no one had loved in a decade — pulled a spade out of her voluminous purple knock-off Prada purse, and put it in his hand.
“The rains are coming; make it bright. It doesn’t have to survive into next the summer. Just make it bright.”
Thus the totally desert-inappropriate peonies. Thus the rainbow, which Debbie did not like at all; but, well, Alex was only getting paid in smiles, so he could do what he wanted.
He’d just reached the part of the lieder where Gretchen was remembering Faust’s magic legs -- Sein hoher Gang, Sein' edle Gestalt, Seines Mundes Lächeln, Seiner Augen Gewalt -- when he heard it, coming from the church basement, the choir room he’d repainted a month ago when the heat of the midsummer afternoon drove him inside, but never seen used.
He began to hum along with the hymn — it had three verses, and then, something flipped, a descant rose, up, up, up — and oh . That was the kind of baritone he liked, rich and red and enough to make his hands shake in time with his vibrato.
By the time Alex had finished the row of flowers, the music had faded with the late Saturday afternoon sunlight, leaving the church quiet and dusk-laden, the singers filing out from the far front door where Alex couldn’t hear them.