While I deliver the opening prayer and announcements, Eli still tinkers with individual notes, playing them over and over again to get them right. Then he closes the lid and takes to the bench to play, as a test, a scale and an etude. Already the congregation is impressed. The rest of the hour, with the hammer and forks and pins and mutes still scattered across the sanguine carpet, Eli seduces us with the most beautiful pieces. The bass notes rumble like the voice of the mountains while the treble notes flirt and fly with impishness. No one can understand how only two hands and ten fingers are capable of all the notes we hear.
On first read, I loved this story, but it was one of those “Do I love it because it’s about church music so it happens to hit one of my literary G-spots, or do I love it because it’s a good story?” So I thought about it for a while, and read it again – it’s quite short, and it’s online, there’s a link at the bottom of this post – and realized, there’s some interesting stuff going on here. Ok, sure, I went down a couple of rabbit holes, which I’m prone to doing. But maybe there’s something in those rabbit holes.
It’s about three people and how their needs, desires, and deficiencies interact in a way that creates a beautifully functioning system, if those deficiencies can be accepted. And that’s what led me to think about Rebecca Goldstein’s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God which I read back in my 2019 In-Between period, a book that made the case that we can have religious experiences without necessarily believing in God: by sacrificing one’s desires for one’s community, for example, or by offering comfort to a stranger. The three characters of Kinsey’s story very much act in the spirit of God, though their actions – and their beliefs in God – vary. The structure of the story also plays into the system of religious experience these three create, in a more subtle way.
That’s a lot for one story to do. So my love of this story is quite definitely earned, even though it was a love at first sight, you might say, before I realized there was more to this than a cute smile.
The minister needs to care for his flock and save souls; he wants to get the piano tuned; his deficiency is the inability to reach the gifted non-believer Eli, and his strangely unwitting injury to the incompetent but earnest Nancy. Eli, the minister’s friend from college, needs to believe what he believes; he wants to help his friend by tuning the piano and playing for the service since he’s already there; his failure to believe is, in the eyes of the minister and thus in the context of the story, his deficiency. And Nancy, the church pianist who gets the day off, is deficient in that “plays as someone whose fingers cannot bend”; she needs to work very hard to maintain her minimal competency; and she very much wants to be the church pianist.
In the end everyone gets most of what they want: Eli tunes the piano and plays for the service, thus helping the minister; Nancy remains church pianist; the minister gets his piano tuned. Eli retains his need to be separate from the church, Nancy continues to be dedicated enough to practice, and the minister has cared for Nancy by keeping her and Eli by letting him go. And each retains their deficiencies: Eli will not believe, Nancy will not become a better pianist, and the minister cannot save Eli’s soul. He does, however, make up for his unintentional slight of Nancy by reassuring her of her position as church pianist.
What’s interesting about this is you have to wonder what would have happened if Eli decided he liked playing for the church, and was willing to do so in spite of his nonbelief – or, for that matter, if he changed his mind and became a believer. The stable three-body system would have collapsed on itself and become a mess. Stability depends on keeping him on the fringes, perhaps an occasional guest but not a regular.
I wonder if that’s where the title comes in. I had a feeling Thyatira was not a randomly chosen name for the town (there is a town of that name in Mississippi, and another in Georgia), so I went looking. It’s one of the Seven Churches of the Revelation, churches Jesus praises, scolds, and/or corrects in John’s vision of the Apocalypse. Thyatira was praised for works and faith, but scolded for allowing Jezebel – an eponymous false prophet – to lead them astray into immorality and idolatry. Would Eli have been the minister’s Jezebel, the idolatry being worship of beautiful music and the immorality the cruelty of casting aside the faithful servant Nancy in favor of the talented Eli? The upright in the title “Upright at Thyatira” can refer to the piano, which is an upright (that is, the strings and soundboard are vertical in the case, rather than horizontal as with a grand piano), but upright is also an adjective indicating strong morality. This fits (if you squint here in the rabbit hole) with the idea of rejecting idolatry and immorality.
Long ago in my reading, I came across a term, a single word, used to describe the phenomenal blending of voices that can occur when close blood relatives sing together. I have forgotten the term and have not run across it since, nor have I had any success in looking it up, but one of my fondest memories from going to church, long before becoming a minister, involves singing with my father and my little brother, who both had bright, clear tenor voices. Without discussing it, one of them would choose the harmony, the other the melody, and though my voice was always much weaker than theirs, they would carry me through the hymns, and I could feel my voice transforming in my throat as it strove to match theirs in power and tone. The effect was so noticeable, so startling and disruptive, that we would glance up from the hymnals at each other to acknowledge that our three voices had melded into a single instrument.
And now, the structure. The first paragraph seems completely unrelated to the rest of the story. On first read, I thought maybe the story had been mislabeled in Pushcart (that happens once in a while) and this was a non-fiction piece. But in light of having read the whole piece, there’s this element of harmony, which is, itself, a system that works perfectly, reflecting the way these three interact and bounce off each other in a stable system. I did look for a single word that means the harmony achieved by family members, but wasn’t able to find one; the best I could do was sibling harmony, which is a recognized effect, though whether it’s due to physical similarities of bone structure in the face, or the process of growing up and singing together is unclear.
She acts flustered when I tell her she is the church pianist and always will be, as far as I am concerned. “I know I’m not musically gifted, but I try so hard,” she says, and her voice becomes rough and glottal. She starts to weep. I get to my knees in front of her recliner and embrace her and speak into her ear. I tell her she is a great service to the church, and as I am hugging her, my arm is brushed by something on her garment. I back away and see a tag hanging from her blouse. Noticing how the seams stand and how the floral print is somewhat dull, I feel obligated to tell her that she is wearing her blouse inside out.
And now for Goldstein and her 36 Arguments. Each of these three people displays divine characteristics. Eli comes when called; he doesn’t barter, or argue, he just shows up and helps out as he’s been asked. Nancy gives her talents, such as they are. The minister accepts both of them: Eli in his nonbelief, Nancy in her lack of ability. It’s akin to the Christian God loving sinners even though they are sinners. The final scene witih Nancy is so gentle and loving, it’s as if Jesus himself is in the room.
I tried to find out more about the author, but ran into problems. There is a Darrel Kinsey (possibly more than one) who published a few books over a decade ago, and there was an H. Darrel Kinsey, minister of music and holder of a degree in piano performance, who passed away in mid-2019. I finally tweeted NOON, who helpfully told me not only is the Darrel Kinsey of this story alive and well, but he has another piece about Thyatira coming out in their 2022 issue.
Regardless of my meandering down rabbit holes, it’s a great piece. And the best thing about it is that on its surface, it’s just as moving. I just happen to like rabbit holes, even when I’m not sure they’re relevant.
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Complete story is available online at LitHub.