On this morning Casey’s family sat in the same place where they always sat in the Addison Methodist Church, a little more than halfway back on the right side, first Aunt Ada, then Casey’s little sister, then his mother, then himself, then his father. Uncle Willy and his family always sat two rows behind them and Uncle Harry, who wasn’t married, sat with them. Mrs. Baker and her sister, Miss Schiller, sat just across the aisle, and, as always, Miss Schiller already had her glasses on and her hymnal on her lap.
As soon as they were seated Casey had looked up to the front of the church and saw the hymns they would be singing: Number 16, “Praise the King of Heaven;” Number 327, “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” and Number 502, “Christ Be Beside Me.”
Mrs. Kingston, who was the pianist, began to play the opening chords and the minister, Pastor Peckering in his white robe but his dark-gray suit and red tie showing beneath his robe entered from the side door and went up to podium which had the purple satin cloth hanging down from it.
When Mrs. Kingston stopped playing everyone stood up and Pastor Peckering said, “Shall we pray.” People bowed their heads and Pastor Peckering started talking to God, speaking slowly and emphasizing each word.
This was the part that Casey could never quite understand: How Pastor Peckering got God to listen to him every time so quickly. Because when Casey said things to God he wasn’t that sure God ever heard him. Probably He did. That’s what Pastor Peckering said. God always heard you. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe God was busy off over other parts of Iowa listening to other people. God couldn’t always be in that part of Heaven just above Addison. And Addison was only one town among lots and lots of towns in Iowa and Casey and his family didn’t even live in Addison but out on a farm south of Addison. So why should God even hear Casey or pay any attention to him? Maybe if you were a minister and wore a white robe and stood in a church behind a podium with a purple satin cloth hanging down off of it and you spoke slowly and it was Sunday that all made a difference.
“Amen!” said Pastor Peckering.
“Amen!” answered all the adults.
“Amen!” said Casey.
* * *
On the following Saturday morning Aunt Ada drove to Cedar Rapids to get supplies for the family and Casey went along with her. Casey really liked Cedar Rapids. It was a real city, not a small place like Addison. It even had a river flowing through it with bridges across the river and a big downtown with hotels you could spend the night in, restaurants you could eat in, department stores where you could buy almost anything you wanted and, of course, Hennings. Hennings was the drug store right next to the Robinson Hotel with a long marble counter and red stools and a mirror which ran the whole length of the counter and above the mirror there were these pictures of girls in bathing suits drinking Coca-Cola, showing their long legs and smiling at you.
So on this day, after he and Aunt Ada had agreed on a meeting time outside the Robinson Hotel, Casey went into to Hennings, ordered a strawberry milkshake and looked above the mirror at the girls drinking Coca-Cola. After Hennings he decided to cross one of the bridges over the river and in the middle of the bridge he stopped to watch the water passing under him and looked up the river one way as far as he could and also back down the river as far as he could. Then he walked across the rest of the bridge and kept walking until he realized he was in a part of Cedar Rapids he had never been in before.
He was in front of a church. That is, of course, it was a church. But somehow it didn’t look like a church. Well, it did and it didn’t. For one thing, it had two steeples, not the one steeple like the church back in Addison and all the other churches Casey had ever seen. And this church was built out of stone, not wood, and the stone looked old and gray. And his church had statues of people in indentations along the sides of the outside walls.
As he was studying these statues trying to figure out who these people were Casey saw a tall man with a shock of white hair step out of the church and start to smoke a cigarette. Well, there wasn’t anything unusual about a man smoking a cigarette. But this was no ordinary man. He was dressed from top to toe in black: black shirt, black pants, black shoes and a kind of black suit coat. But even at this distance Casey could see the glimpse of a white collar.
That man is a priest! thought Casey. Smoking a cigarette. A Catholic priest!
The man pulled at his cigarette, turned his head, slowly exhaled the smoke and saw Casey standing on the sidewalk.
Immediately Casey turned and walked back in the direction he had come.
* * *
The next Saturday Aunt Ada had to go to Cedar Rapids again and Casey asked if he could go along.
“Sure, why not? A boy like you?”
At Hennings Casey ordered a strawberry milkshake and looked at the pretty girls above the mirror. After he’d finished his shake he went outside, crossed the same bridge over the river, stopping in the middle of the river to watch the water flow beneath him. Then he kekpt walking across the bridge and it wasn’t too long before he was standing in front of that stone church again with the two steeples and the statues of people in the indentations along the walls.
Casey stood looking. He couldn’t explain to himself exactly what was different about the church. Well, the obvious, of course: stone, not wood, two steeples, maybe more if you counted all those little towers at the corners of the church, and the statues along the walls.
But something else, too.
Suddenly Casey heard deep vibrations, a throbbing almost, coming from inside the church. Just as suddenly the deep vibrations turned into high, piping sounds dashing after each other up there.
An organ! thought Casey.
He looked at his watch.
Why not? He had a full hour’s time before he was to meet Aunt Ada again.
So Casey walked up to the main entrance of the church and, since the tall, heavy door was open, entered. And couldn’t believe what he saw: Lit candles everywhere, more statues along the walls, stained glass windows reaching up toward the ceiling and the run of notes from the organ filling all the space from the pews to the ceiling.
Casey didn’t know what to do. Should he stay or should he go?
Casey decided to sit down. But not really sit down. Because he chose a seat at the very end of the very last pew of the church. That way, he told himself, he wasn’t really staying.
One thing was for sure: The piping of the organ wasn’t like the hymns they sang back at the church in Addison, “Praise the King of Heaven” or “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.”
Suddenly the high tones crashed down again into those deep vibrations, almost, but not quite, inside Casey’s stomach.
Then Casey saw the organist, there he was, up at the side of the church, in fact, the tall man with the shock of white hair dressed entirely in black, in fact, bent over the keyboard of the organ, the golden pipes of the organ spreading above him.
Is he making that wonderful music? thought Casey.
The throbbing of the organ passed into high pipping sounds, then the deep chords again, and finally to a rush where the music played out. Casey watched the tall man pull his hands from the keyboard, push back on his stool, stand up and look around the church.
He won’t be able to see me, thought Casey. He won’t be able to see me because I’m sitting way back here. And I’m not really here.
But Casey also told himself: Go!
Except he didn’t go.
The tall man came down the aisle toward the back of the church. That is, toward Casey.
Now! Casey told himself.
The tall man in black stopped maybe ten feet from Casey. He smiled.
“So, my son, hello,” he said.
Leave! Casey told himself.
The tall man gestured toward the organ. “Such as my meager efforts are. Bach.”
“I’m Protestant. I go to the First Methodist Church. In Addison.”
Somehow all that information seemed important to say to the priest. To explain. Get things out.
“Oh? So?” said the man.
“We go every Sunday.”
“Ah,” said the priest. “And what brings a young man like you to our church on this fine day?”
“The organ . . . ?” started Casey. But he didn’t know how to finish his sentence. So he tried again. “That music . . . .”
“Bach,” said the man. “He’s a composer. He lived some time ago. In Germany. In Eisenach. Three hundred years ago.”
“But . . . ,” said Casey. Again he didn’t know how to finish the sentence or even what he wanted to ask.
Suddenly Casey got up and walked out of the church to the sidewalk and turned toward the bridge that would cross the river.
* * *
That night at the family dinner Casey told about the tall man in black playing the organ and his coming to the rear of the church to talk to Casey.
“Casey, you hear me,” said his mother. “I don’t want you going to that church again. Ever.”
“Why?” said Casey.
“Just you don’t mind why?”
“But why?” said Casey.
“Because I say it.”
“Now, Catherine . . . ,” started Casey’s father.
“I won’t have it!” said his mother. “I simply won’t have it!”
“But Catherine . . . .”
His mother stood up and began to take the dishes from the table.
“My goodness gracious,” said Aunt Ada from her seat.
“That’s enough from you, too!” said his mother carrying the dishes out into the kitchen.
“Well . . . ,” said Aunt Ada.
Casey’s little sister began to cry.
Several minutes later Casey found his father in the living room. He had already inserted his big headphones over his head and was seated near his short wave radio with all the dials on it. His father was adjusting one of the dials and Casey knew that soon he would be listening to his special news coming out of Chicago.
“Dad?” said Casey.
But his father gave him a look and continued to adjust the dial.
So Casey went back down the hallway to the kitchen. From the hallway he saw his mother washing dishes, Aunt Ada drying and his little sister sitting on her stool in the corner. No one was saying anything.
So Casey kept on going to the boot room where he opened the back door and stepped outside into the night. He could see the outlines of the barns illuminated by the yard light, and beyond the barns he could feel the emptiness of the fields.
The family dog, Randy, trotted over.
Casey sat down on the concrete of the porch and pulled the dog to him.
“I love you,” said Casey. “I do. I always will.”
Out there in the fields, in the night, down by the creek, he heard the sounds of the organ again.