Thomas clawed his way up out of sleep, and opened his eyes.
It was bad enough he didn’t quite remember where he was at the moment, but was shaking off the semi-nightmare of bad days long ago. A decade before, he sank deep into depression. He couldn’t remember how it started. Going straight from high school he worked the freight docks at night and took a few college classes during the day time. Before he reached thirty, he had that degree and was working in management. Trucking was still a growing industry where he lived.
Then, all of a sudden, it didn’t matter. Nothing seemed to matter much. His boss advised him to take that long neglected vacation. He came home and never went back. He felt like he was in some kind of prison. Sometime during that period his wife left him. The one corner of sanity left in his mind at the time could hardly blame her. She remarried and he never saw, nor heard from, her again. The house, cars, everything was gone.
His cousin loaned him an old travel trailer, sited on his hunting lease. Tom could never remember what kept him from committing suicide, but one cold night after his indifference to everything in general saw him nearly freezing without any heat, he was shaking too much even to feel bad. He walked up to the convenience store and decided to have some cocoa.
As he sat sipping and still shivering at the table, he realized it was Christmas. He found himself involuntarily humming first, then singing one of the cheesy old songs from a long forgotten movie. One of the customers heard him, and asked Tom something he didn’t catch. Blinking, he came back to himself enough to look up at the old woman.
“You have a really nice voice, sir. Do you sing in a band or choir somewhere?”
Thomas wasn’t sure if he actually shook his head deliberately or was still shivering, but she must have taken it as a “no.”
“My church is looking for a song leader. We sure could use a real singer, since so few of us can carry a tune any more.”
Tom smiled, an almost forgotten reflex. He did have some training, but it was mostly from his old school days. The music teacher had considered him talented and organized enough to help direct the school choir. Something inside him stirred at the memory. His hands twitched under the table as they recalled independently of his volition the pattern to beat the time to the music playing inside the store. Why not? “I suppose I could,” he said tentatively.
“We can’t pay a whole lot, but we would sure be glad to have someone who knows music up front for once,” she gushed. Juggling the thin plastic t-shirt bag with her purchase, she fished in her purse. Producing a card, she placed it on the table. Thomas recognized the address as just a half-mile away on the old highway. Then she handed him a twenty dollar bill.
He stared at it, lost, as she shuffled out the door without another word. Maybe he could use the money to refill the propane tank. He was singing again as he put the money in one of his pockets. The world was suddenly an alien place, but it wasn’t so bad, after all.
It’s not that he got religion, as his cousin teased him, but the people were just so darned nice. He showed up that next Sunday, clean shaven and early enough to find out about the situation. There was a piano, and a very old gentlemen was there practicing. He looked up. Thomas was dressed decently, but felt a little awkward trying to decide how to introduce himself. The old gentleman beat him to it.
“You must be Thomas!” His voice was broken, not into cracks, but a million soft shards which rasped. That would explain why the pianist wasn’t directing singing.
“Yes, sir.” After a pause, it started coming back to him. “What songs do we have for today?” He began flipping through one of the old hymnals. It was almost instinctive. Had it not been, Thomas could have done none of it. In a short time, the songs were arranged and Tom knew he could sing them well enough to do okay.
During worship, the singing was enthusiastic enough, but a little country church half filled with retirees was not at all like his school choir. He decided it didn’t matter. There was almost no pressure at all, just him singing the songs and them trying. But they gushed over how much better it was than before, and he felt really comfortable. That is, except with the half-dozen offers for lunch. He just wasn’t up to that, yet.
After they were all gone, the last parishioner coming out was by far the smallest, most dried up old man Thomas had ever seen. The dark, lined face and fine decorative beadwork the man wore made it obvious he was Native American. He stopped, and turned his wizened face up at Thomas.
“Go home and rest, Thomas. You have very, very far to travel. I will come to visit you tomorrow. Be ready.” The voice was both soft and commanding.
It never occurred to Thomas he was in any position to argue. Instead, it gave him something to anticipate, something which softened the emotional downslope after so much excitement. The old man waddled away and got into an old Cadillac which had pulled up in front of the door waiting for him.
Thomas still saw the image of the old Osage face when he struggled to sit up on the couch. Looking around, he dimly remembered this was the anteroom of a coffee house. It seemed midday, and how many customers might have come and gone and seen him there was but a slight worry.
He only ever saw the face of the Indian wise man in his dreams when it was time to change course.