(A short creative piece - fiction. Thanks for reading!)
I imagined that Anna had experienced what most would consider a difficult life. Dysfunctional family, bouts with addiction, peppery jobs. Straight shoulder length mousy brown hair with more than a few strands of grey, always pulled back by the rubber bands she dutifully picked up at the apartment door of her neighbor who daily snapped them off his newspaper and carelessly discarded them on his own doorstep. At first she may have felt guilty that she was stealing them, but eventually found justification for her actions as recycling that which is no longer useful to its owner, perhaps a bit like she had felt at times in her life.
I first met Anna at church a couple of years earlier. She appeared alongside of Erick, a singer in our choir. Erick had a beautiful, deep baritone voice and was a kind man, somewhere in his mid-forties. He wasn’t of much interest to the single ladies in the choir, who were always clamoring to sit next to Justin, a built thirty something guy with blonde wavy hair that fell loosely to his shoulders and who had little hoop earrings in both ears, unheard of back then and what the older church women would never admit to thinking was sexy.
No, Erick was the one with heart. There was something to be said about heart. Something that often was overlooked and explained away as naivety and gullibility. But what I saw, as others had lost interest in this new woman who faithfully accompanied Erick to each and every choir rehearsal and performance, was the love and attention she received from him.
A few of the other choir members tried to speak with Anna from time to time, some hoping to help her feel more comfortable and some hoping to make themselves feel more comfortable, like they were doing the ‘right’ thing. But, Anna would only nod and answer a cursory “fine” when asked how she was doing. She wasn’t the chatter box type that so many were in this group of over thirty members. Seemingly content with just sitting and listening, she never made eye-contact with anyone. No one dared ask if she was a believer, it was just an unspoken assumption that if she was with Erick, she must be.
Anna never stood up in church at the appointed time as all those around her did. Only the few people seated near her noticed and chalked it up to the uneven step she had, ‘it must be too difficult for her to stand for long periods of time’, they assumed. However, everyone in the choir noticed because we faced the congregation as we belted out at least five songs each Sunday morning.
I wondered why she didn’t sing along to the songs. Maybe she didn’t know them. But, how could she not at least try? The words of each song were prominently displayed on an oversized screen for all to see. Painstakingly spell checked and double checked prior to the beginning of each church service by our audio visual volunteer. How could she not want to open her mouth and even pretend to mouth a few words? I mean, it wasn’t like she couldn’t see the powerpoint slides with their rotating and swirling background images carefully picked to reflect just the right mood of the song. And, after all that Erick did to go out of his way to treat her so kindly, how could she not do it even if it was just for him? We wondered, but never asked.
One Sunday, I was running late for our early morning warmup before church was to begin. It was raining harder than I’d seen it rain for many months. By the time I arrived, everyone else was there singing away, taking instruction from our choir director, Brian.
“Alto’s only. Open your mouths.” Brian pounded out a few single notes on the piano while making a circular motion with his index finger around his own mouth and all the women in the alto section opened their mouths and the pitch immediately tuned up.
“Yes, better. Now everyone from the top.” Everyone began to sing again as I stepped into my position hoping not to be noticed. Brian noticed. He gave a small smile meant just for me. I joined in with the glorious singing that was going on all around me.
Then, I noticed Anna. She was sitting in the third pew back, on the end, where she always sat. But, this morning she held a paper in front of her. It looked like it might be the words to the songs. Was she singing, finally? Her lips were moving slightly, but something was off as she wasn’t forming any recognizable words. You could always tell if a person was singing the same words as you even if they couldn’t sing very well. Anna frowned at the words and it seemed liked she was having a difficult time seeing as she moved the paper closer to her face.
In between songs, I leaned over and without saying anything, just motioned with my eyes towards Anna. Joyce and Kathy, the two ladies standing just to my right, shook their heads and rolled their eyes.
Joyce sarcastically whispered, “Brian just stuck the words in her hands and said she should join us. But you know, if your heart isn’t in it, you just shouldn’t do it.” Kathy nodded her head in agreement. She always agreed with Joyce, no matter what was said.
Brian counted the beats off and everybody began to sing, again. Without being too conspicuous, I craned my neck as best I could to look at Erick. He was not singing but looking at Anna. I could swear I saw tears in his eyes. My head shot back to Anna as I realized what was happening. She couldn’t read.
I forgot trying to pretend that I was singing and looked back at Erick. I could see it in his eyes, I could feel it emanating from his heart. He longed to rescue her from the humiliation she must be experiencing but that would only bring more attention to the fact that a woman in her mid fifties had never learned to read.
Returning my attention to Anna, I watched as she struggled, trying to pretend that she could read the words on that page, like she probably had so many other times in her life, but knowing she could only pick up a handful of easy ones. Forget the words like, salvation or redemption or humility.
I could watch no longer as my own emotions welled up inside of me. I wasn’t sure how I felt. All I knew was that suddenly I had this deeper appreciation for Erick and a confirmed disdain for Joyce and a sorrowfulness in my heart for Anna as she continued to try so as not to embarrass the man that loved her, but knowing every single person in that choir was watching and judging.
Anna never returned with Erick. And, no one asked about her.“It was good that she was gone,” people would say quietly. “How can someone be so unfriendly, especially with this group,” they would whisper confirming their own goodness. "She didn’t even try.“ When I heard those comments, I was silent.