I stepped off the elevator and onto the third-floor oncology unit of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, holding the hand of my wife, Monique. We were accompanied by my good friend of more than twenty years, Deacon Maxwell Frye. As we walked down the hall, I recognized the pungent odor of medical disinfectant. It didn't matter what hospital I visited; the smell was always the same, and it seemed to embed itself in my nostrils. I hated it because it always reminded me of the imminent deaths of the people in the rooms around me. Oh, I'd learned to tolerate it over the years, especially since visiting people in their last days was part of being the pastor of First Jamaica Ministries, but today's visit wasn't just to any old parishioner on his deathbed. No, today's visit was much closer to home and way more personal for me and Deacon Frye. We were here to see our very dear friend James Black, who was dying of lung cancer.
"T. K., Monique, get your behinds in here," James coughed out when he saw us standing in the entrance to his room. He hadn't seen Deacon Frye yet. Despite his condition, it was obvious he was glad to see us.
As we entered the room, Monique's grip tightened around my hand. I could tell she was struggling to conceal her shock at just how bad James looked. I had tried to prepare my wife before we arrived, but words couldn't describe how much he had deteriorated.
This was the first time Monique had seen him since he'd pled guilty to murder charges a little over a year ago. I still couldn't believe he'd willingly gone to jail for a crime he didn't commit, but I guess some parents will go to any lengths to protect their children. Can't say whether I would have done the same, but I was glad I had never been put into that position. He'd been given a twenty-year sentence, but I pulled some strings after a recent visit when I heard his prognosis, and he was released for medical reasons. Cancer had taken a vibrant, six-foot-tall, two-hundred-pound man and turned him into a talking skeleton. Even more unbelievable was the fact that his hair was completely white. He seemed to have aged twenty years in less than a year's time.
It didn't take my wife long to gather her composure. In a matter of seconds, she leaned in and wrapped her arms around James to give him a kiss on the cheek. She shot me a pointed look when she spotted a picture of his two grown children sitting on the night table beside his bed. Monique hated the idea that his daughter and son were both missing in action and hadn't come to see their father once since his arrest. I didn't fault her for feeling that way, but I knew a little more about the situation than she did. I'd made a promise to James not to share what I knew, even with her.
"James, I've got a surprise visitor for you." I gestured toward the door and watched as a grin broke out across James's face.
"Wait, don't tell me, T. K. You finally pulled it off. You got Holly Robinson-Peete to divorce her husband and become my personal nurse until the Lord takes me home."
"Holly Robinson? Have you lost your mind? Here you are supposedly on your deathbed and the woman you want to spend your last days with is Holly Robinson-Peete? You couldn't set the bar any higher than that? I mean, come on, James. If you're going to fantasize about a woman, you need to go all out and do it with a bang!" Maxwell joked as he appeared in the doorway. He and James had always been like that.
"Well, I'll be damned. Maxwell Frye, how the hell are you?" James smiled from ear to ear. "I'll be honest, brother. I didn't think I'd see you again in this lifetime. How long you back for?"
Deacon Frye had been in Iraq for almost five years. His company, Maxwell Enterprises, was a minority contractor for the government and was doing infrastructure work in Iraq. One of the stipulations in the contract was that he oversee things personally. He'd been back stateside only a few times briefly since.
Maxwell walked around to the far side of James's bed and gave him a hug. "I'm back for good. I was having some heart problems, and they had to fix me up with a pacemaker. Sorry I'm just getting around to seeing you, but I'm only now starting to get readjusted. Things have really changed around here." He glanced over at me and my wife. We had not been married when Maxwell left for Iraq. Like many other church members, Maxwell was surprised by my decision to marry Monique.
"Change ... don't I know it," James said. "It's good to see you, Maxwell. The Wilsons over there are gonna need your help keeping these church folks in line."
"Well, you know I'll do whatever I can, James."
"I know you will. I feel better about things already."
James turned to my wife as Maxwell took a seat in the chair on the other side of his bed. "So, Monique, how are you? You're looking good as ever." He looked at me and winked. "No offense, old friend, but your wife just gets finer and you just keep getting older."
"I know that's right," Maxwell added.
"None taken." I chuckled. "I think she looks pretty good myself. That's why I married her, remember? And as far as getting old, well, I'm like a bottle of wine: I get better with time."
"Mmph, you sure do, honey." Monique gave me a smile, then turned her attention back to James. "To answer your question, I'm doing fine. What about you? How you doing? You look good."
James laughed. "Girl, I swear, you have fit right into that first lady's role, haven't you?"
I watched my beautiful wife blush.
James spoke gently to her. "Now, I know I look like crap, so you don't have to lie to me, Mo." He sighed. "I know my best days are behind me. I made my peace with that a long time ago. I'm ready to die."
"Who said anything about you dying? You're probably going to outlive us all, you old coot." I was trying to break up the mood in a way only a true friend could do.
"If I do live that long, it's only to be a pain in your ass, T. K." he joked, forcing himself to sit up. My wife helped him by propping a pillow behind his neck. "But seriously, I'm tired and I'm ready to go home. I just hope the Lord's willing to let me in the door."
I hated to hear him say things like that, so I tried to offer him some encouragement. "I don't think you have to worry about that, James. I think you've sacrificed enough, don't you? The Lord—"
James shot me a glance that basically said, "Let's not go there."
I nodded my head out of respect for his condition and his feelings, but that didn't mean I had to like it. That man had sacrificed his entire life for the love of his family, and he had been willing to die in a jail cell because of it.
James quickly changed the subject. "So, Mo, how about him? He taking care of you the way he's supposed to?"
She reached out to take my hand as she answered. "I couldn't have asked for a better man. I couldn't have asked for a better life."
"That's what I like to hear." James nodded his approval. "Are those wenches in the church treating you all right? They're not trying to run over you, are they? 'Cause all you have to do is kick one of them in the ass and the rest will fall right in line," he said with a laugh.
"Oh, you don't have to worry about that. I've got them right where I want them." Monique and I had had a rocky start to our relationship, because certain members of the church—mostly female—thought her rumored past was too dicey for her to be considered a candidate for the role of first lady after my first wife died. She was strong, though, and had withstood the storm. Now she was well respected and loved by most church members. Even those who had been adamantly against our marriage knew enough to treat her cordially now and kept their opinions to themselves.
"Besides," she continued, "we have bigger problems than that at the church. With—" She stopped when I squeezed her hand, signaling for her to shut up, but it was too late. James's body might have been failing him, but his mind was still sharp as ever.
He sat up straight as a board, ignoring the pain. There were three things James loved most in this world: his two children and our church. He knew the ins and outs of church politics like nobody's business. He'd been both a deacon and a member of the board of trustees just as long as I'd been pastor, and we made quite a formidable team. But now, with him being sick, I didn't have the heart to tell him that what we had built together over the years was slowly crumbling.
"What's going on at the church, T. K.?" He was staring directly at me, and his eyes did not budge from my face.
"It's nothing, James, seriously. I can handle it." I glanced over at my wife, who was trying to apologize with her eyes. I loved her to death, but just this once I wished she had kept her big mouth shut.
When I turned back to James, he was still staring at me, waiting for an answer.
"What, do I look stupid? If it was nothing, you would have told me by now. Now spill it. I wanna know what's going on at my church."
My church. He was still claiming ownership in our church, even though most of our members had turned their backs on him when he was arrested for murder. If they only knew how selfless he really was.
He looked at Maxwell. "What do you know about this, Deacon Frye?"
"I've been trying to—"
I cut off Maxwell before he could put himself in a bad position. "He knows what I told him and nothing more."
"So tell me what you know, T. K.," James demanded.
I began to pace back and forth in front of his bed. "James, you've got other things to worry about. You don't need this nonsense. You need to concentrate on your health."
"Dammit, T. K., my health ain't worth a damn right now. Face it—I'm dying. The only thing I got left is that church. Now, are you going to tell me what's going on, or do I have to make some calls and find out myself?"
"Tell him, honey," Monique prodded. "You two have always worked well together. Maybe he can come up with an idea to help."
"Thank you, Mo," James said matter-of-factly.
I continued pacing for a short while before I finally sat down next to my wife and looked at my friend, ready to tell him the truth. "The church is in trouble financially. We're down about thirty-five percent in attendance and almost forty-two percent in revenue. The board's thinking about closing down the school next year if things don't get better, and that's just the beginning."
"What?" His body tensed up angrily. "I built that school. We had plenty of money put aside in the school fund before I went to prison."
"Priorities changed when you were arrested. The country went into recession. People aren't giving as much as they used to. The rates on our adjustable mortgages have reset much higher than anyone expected. I tried to keep things simple, but Simone Wilcox was voted chairwoman of the board of trustees, and last year she pushed to have money directed to the building of new senior housing. We've got a lot of working capital tied up in that project."
I could see James running the numbers through his head. He'd always been good with figures, which was why he'd been elected chairman of the board of trustees despite his reputation as a womanizer.
"You gotta be kidding me. We can't afford to be building at a time like this. What's that heifer Wilcox trying to do, bankrupt the church? Why the hell you let them elect that woman head of my board, I don't know. She's not her father, T. K. Simone Wilcox ain't out for anyone but herself. The woman's a diva with an agenda. Trust me, she's always got something up her sleeve."
"You of all people would know, James," Maxwell joked, taking a jab at the fact that James used to sleep with Simone.
"Don't get smart, Maxwell. That was a long time ago."
"Not to her," my wife commented. "But in her defense, James, she's got an MBA, and she runs one of the largest car dealerships in the area."
"Oh, give me a break. That's only because her daddy retired and didn't have any sons to leave it to. She could never have built a dealership like Wilcox Motors by herself. I bet you half her staff has already left. I'm surprised it's still standing." James shook his head. "I know she's your friend, Mo, but Simone's best asset is between her legs. I could tell you some stories."
"That's chauvinistic, James. You're just hating on her because she's a successful woman," Monique snapped.
"No, that's just realistic. There are plenty of women who could have done a good job as chairwoman. Simone's just not one of them."
I glanced over at Maxwell, shaking my head. My wife had just opened up a can of worms she might not be able to close.
"Did you guys take Lisa Mae into consideration?"
Monique scrunched her face like there was a bad odor in the room at the mention of Lisa Mae, a one-time rival for my affection. "No, we did not consider that woman," Monique told him. She didn't know I knew it, but she'd secretly campaigned to make sure Lisa Mae never had a shot at the chairmanship. "However, Simone couldn't have been but so incompetent. Things were going pretty well until attendance dropped."
James was clearly frustrated by this news. "Answer me this: Why'd attendance drop? Something must have pissed everybody off. What, did Simone start charging a fee at the door for people to get in? People don't just stop going to church en masse."
"They do when the choir director's trying to sleep with their husbands and sons." Monique was trying to hold back a laugh. The situation definitely wasn't funny, but just like plenty of other people, my wife had a weakness for gossip.
James looked at me with a frown. "Oh Lord, it was Jackie, wasn't it?"
"Well, I guess he wasn't as harmless as you thought. I told you we needed to get rid of that SOB years ago, T. K."
Clearly, James had been much better than I at judging the truth. I'd wanted to dismiss it as rumors. James had always predicted Jackie would cause trouble, and he had been painfully correct.
"Yeah, you did." There was nothing I hated more than listening to one of James's I-told-you-so rants. "I just wish I had listened to you. That man's wife has got the whole congregation in an uproar."
"What's she doing?"
"She found his journal. Turns out all those rumors were true, and he recorded every sordid detail in that diary," I admitted. "She didn't waste any time spreading the news either. Over a third of the men in the choir found themselves in that journal in some capacity or another, and the other two-thirds were considered guilty by association."
I felt badly for Jackie's wife, and part of me could understand why she reacted the way she did. You can imagine how devastating the discovery must have been for her, and, well, misery does love company. Unfortunately, her coping method left me with a huge problem on my hands. Word spread quickly, and within two weeks, the entire choir disbanded, even though Jackie had already been fired and was no longer attending the church. My wife and I had been trying to put it back together to no avail. I never knew how hard a choir director's job was until then.
"Now we've got no choir," I said as I finished summing up the turmoil we'd been struggling with. "Now, I'm a heck of a preacher if I do say so myself, James, but nothing goes better with the Word than music. Our choir has always been a cornerstone of our church. Putting my ego aside, wasn't it you who once told me that half the people in the pews on Sunday were there to hear the choir and not me?"
He chuckled. "Yeah, I guess I did say that, didn't I?"
"Well, from where I'm sitting, you're sounding more and more like a prophet."
"Man, I can't believe something like this could take down the church," Maxwell added.
"Neither can I. Plus, when you add that to the financial troubles we're having, it's like the perfect storm. To be honest, I don't know what we're gonna do. We've got a huge balloon payment on one of the church's mortgages next year."
"You're right. Only thing that's gonna save us is getting people back in the church. What about Savannah Dickens? Maybe we can get her to help," he suggested. At one time, Savannah Dickens's voice could light a fire in the soul of even the greatest heathen. But like so many other things, that had changed too. She left the church to start a career singing pop music. It looked like she was going to make it, too, until she got hooked on drugs. She fell hard and she fell fast, and no one in the church had seen or heard from her since.
"Already thought of that, James, but it looks like Sister Savannah has lost her way to drugs. She's not even a member of our church anymore."
Excerpted from The Choir Director by CARL WEBER Copyright © 2011 by Carl Weber. Excerpted by permission of DAFINA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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