Monday, September 15, 2008

The Angel Singers, a Dick Hardesty Mystery excerpt by Dorien Grey

THE ANGEL SINGERS, a Dick Hardesty Mystery
Publisher: Zumaya Publications, LLC (August 28, 2008)
ISBN: 1934841064

Of all the gifts bestowed upon Mankind, music is one of the greatest,and no musical instrument is older, more versatile, or has more power to move us, than the human voice. Anyone who doubts the power of that instrument need only listen to Kate Smith singing 'God Bless America.' And when one voice is joined by 50, 100, or more—think of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'—the power grows exponentially.It can literally transfix, transform, and empower us, raising us as close to the angels as mortals can get.

The need and desire to sing together provides a sense of unity,strength, and power, which has long been recognized by organized religions. But it equally serves the purposes of minorities such as the gay community, which has given rise to a number of choruses and chorales which enhance our sense of unity, of belonging, and of pride.

But though human voices joined together in song may approach the divine, the individual humans who make it are not immune to the weaknesses, petty and major, that plague humanity. And yet it is to our credit that flawed though we may be as individuals, we all still have the potential to be angel-singers.

–Dick Hardesty


"Black pants are black pants," I said as we made our way into yet another men's clothing store in the second mall we'd scoured in our…well, Jonathan's…search.

"No, they're not," Jonathan said. "They have to be the right black pants, and I haven't found them yet. I'll know them when I do."

Joshua, who had been alternately munching from a small bag of caramel corn and trying to wander off on his own, announced simultaneously that he was thirsty and that he had to go to the bathroom.

"Look," I said to Jonathan, "you go in and look around and I'll take Joshua to the bathroom and get him some water, and we'll meet you back here."

"I don't want water. I want a Coke!" Joshua declared.

"And I want a million dollars," I said, reaching for his free hand. "Sometimes we just have to settle for what we can get." I intended that little moral lesson for Jonathan as well as Joshua, but it went right over both their heads. Joshua informed me he did not want a million dollars; he wanted a Coke. Not water. A Coke.

As Jonathan went into the store, I dragged a pouting Joshua off in search of a water fountain and a bathroom.

* * *

Our ostensible reason for being in the mall was to buy some fall and winter clothes for Joshua, who was growing like a weed. But after that chore had been accomplished, Jonathan had decided he needed a new pair of black pants for the upcoming Gay Men's Chorus Fall concert—his first with the group—despite the performance being still two months away.

His involvement with the chorus had, as I'd suspected it would when he first joined, taken up a lot more of his time than either one of us would have liked. And going to school one night a week, plus study time, added even more pressure on him. I have to admit there were times when I mildly resented not only the loss of his company but the additional responsibilities I had to assume with Joshua while he was gone. But he loved it, which is all that really mattered, and between us we managed to keep everything under control.

Things would lighten up a bit after the concert—one of the three the chorus put on each year. The upcoming Fall concert was to be held November 17, three days after my birthday, at Atheneum Hall, the city's largest and most prestigious music venue. This would be the first time any gay group had ever performed there, and it was a real coup for the entire community.

I was also getting something of an education on the subject of choruses. I'd never known that a chorus was comprised of only one sex, whereas choirs and chorales were a mixture of men and women. Jonathan told me he was classified as a "tenor 2", and I hadn't a clue what that meant until he explained that a "tenor 1" is one who can hit the really high notes—a "tenor 2" had a lower range, but still higher than baritones. Who knew?

One of the reasons I had originally encouraged Jonathan to join the chorus was so that it would gave him the chance to meet new people outside our own little circle of close friends—all of whom had been friends of mine before Jonathan came along. I thought he should have some friends of his own, independent of me.

As I soon found out, I may have gotten a bit more than I bargained for. The chorus was, at least on the surface, a very friendly and supportive group. In addition to once-a-week Tuesday night rehearsals at the Metropolitan Community Church, there were also what they called "sectionals," where several of the basses, or baritones, or tenors would get together at various members' homes to practice their group's specific parts. And several times a year there was a general get-together at the home of Crandall Booth, one of the chorus's major financial backers/supporters and a member of its Board of Directors. Chorus members were encouraged to bring their partners—and, in the case of Jonathan and me and two other couples, their children—to these gatherings.

All of this ate into the already-limited time Jonathan and I had to do "us" things. But I was rather looking forward to one of Booth's events, and I knew Joshua would in seventh heaven, since he could be the center of attention of a lot of adults and have a couple of other kids close to his age to play with.

* * *

Over the course of the weeks, I got to know not only something of how a chorus was made up, but a few through-Jonathan's-eyes glimpses into what went on behind the scenes.

The night of Jonathan's first rehearsal Roger Rothenberger, the chorus's director, had, as he did with all new members, assigned him a "Buddy," to help ease his way into the organization; introduce him around, show him the ropes, and explain and answer questions on procedures. Jonathan's Buddy was a kid named Eric Speers, and the two of them hit it off immediately. So when Jonathan suggested inviting Eric over for dinner, I readily agreed. I was curious to meet him, and figured it would give me a little better insight into this new part of Jonathan's life. He had indicated that Eric had been with the chorus since it had begun five years previously, and was deeply devoted to and involved in it. He was also the peacemaker of the group, which was apparently, as are most groups, both tight-knit and contentious.

It was inevitable that whenever you get 50 or so artistic gay men together, the road was not without its bumpy stretches. There were the inevitable cliques, feuds, and rivalries that afflict any group of humans, and Jonathan always brought home a doggie bag of the latest bits of gossip he'd heard at rehearsals. I've never gone in much for gossip, but Jonathan got such a kick out of observing all the various behind-the-risers intrigues and took such delight in sharing them with me that I couldn't complain. It was rather like watching one of those guilty-pleasure soap operas on TV, although the cast members of the chorus dramas were not all as drop-dead gorgeous as their on-screen counterparts. There were even a few hush-hush allusions to a conflict between Rothenberger and Crandall Booth, and to Booth's alleged financial ties to some rather shady types. I didn't give any weight to the latter, since I knew that Glen O'Banyon, the city's preeminent gay lawyer, for whom I frequently did work, was also a member of the chorus's board, and if there were any solid basis to the allegations, Glen would not be associated with Booth in any way.

Rothenberger, Jonathan had told me, had been born and raised here,then moved to New York and started singing with the New York City Gay Men's Chorus and became an assistant director. He'd then gone on to direct one or two other groups before moving back here. In addition to the Gay Men's Chorus, he also directed the choir at the M.C.C. I'd seen him at the chorus's last concert—the one that had prompted Jonathan to want to join. Rothenberger had reminded me of an opera star; portly to the point of being rotund, full beard, somewhat imperious manner; in absolute control when it came to leading the chorus. Jonathan reported that Rothenberger's mantra at every rehearsal and before every concert was: "Remember; when you talk,
you're human. When you sing, you're angels," and everyone in the chorus apparently thought the world of him.

The most recent tempest in the choral teapot was created by a member who joined not too long before Jonathan, and who happened to be Crandall Booth's nephew. There's nothing like a little nepotism to get things heated up, and the controversy was compounded by the nephew, Grant Jefferson, apparently being something of a pain in the ass. Jonathan, of course, always prefers to see the good in everyone, but even he found it a little difficult to find much positive to say about Grant. "He's really good looking," he conceded, "and he does have a nice voice," which, coming from Jonathan, I took to be something of a case of damning with faint praise.

Possibly another reason why I allowed myself to be vicariously caught up on the goings on of the chorus was that my work, while fairly steady, had lately tended to be far less than the stuff of which detective novels are made. For the past two weeks or so I had been caught up in a "case"…if it could even be called that…so stupifyingly dull I'd have much preferred to watch paint dry. Suffice it to say it involved a client with more money than intelligence who was on a vendetta against a former business partner and wasn't going to let a little thing like his case not having a leg to stand on get in his way. I finally gave up trying to convince him that he was wasting his money, and resigned myself to the conclusion that if he was going to throw his money away, he might as well throw some of it at me. So I spent an inordinate amount of time running off in whatever new direction he pointed me. I could and should have quit; however, my mantra was: "It isn't the principle of the thing, it's the money."

* * *

Eric was set to arrive for dinner at 6:30 Friday. I was at the office when Jonathan called at 3:00 to tell me there was a work emergency that necessitated his driving to Neeleyville with his boss, and he probably wouldn't be able to make it home until 7. He didn't have Eric's number with him and, having no way to reach him, asked if I could pick Joshua up from day care, put dinner in the oven, and entertain Eric until he got home.

“I'm really sorry, Dick," he said. "I didn't know this was going to happen. I…"

"No problem, Babe," I said. I wasn't quite sure what I could do to entertain someone I'd never met before, but it wasn't a major issue.

* * *

Joshua was standing on the front porch with Estelle Bronson, one of the day care owners, when I arrived at five after four. I'd have been there ten minutes earlier had the city not been digging up exactly the same three-block section of the street they'd dug up the year before, and naturally a major intersection was involved.

Seeing me pull up, Joshua bounded off the porch and headed full-gallop for the thankfully closed front gate. Estelle's call drew him up short, and he stood stock still until she caught up with him and opened the gate as I leaned over to open the passenger's side door.

"'Bye!" Joshua called to Estelle as he clambered onto the front seat. Estelle and I exchanged a quick greeting and then, seeing Joshua was safely in with his seat belt—admittedly not the best of fits—fastened, she closed the door and headed back through the gate.

"Where's Uncle Jonathan?" he asked as we pulled away from the curb. Though it was not at all unusual for me to pick him up when Jonathan couldn't for one reason or another, he always asked.

"He was busy," I explained, as I explained every time it happened, and Joshua's response was always the same, too. "Oh."

The ride home was largely taken up with a detailed and always dramatized accounting of his day at "school," accompanied by the requisite hand and arm gestures and facial expressions. Although he still had not totally mastered the concept of linear thought, he was getting much better at it and I had gotten pretty good at stepping over the chasms and seeing around the corners of his narrative, which centered on the Bronsons' acquisition—whether permanent or on loan wasn't clear—of a rabbit and a tortoise. It seems they had been the basis of a story about a race involving the two of them, which he related to me in detail, omitting only the moral of the tale.

As soon as we got home, I turned the oven on and waited for it to preheat. We'd bought a good-sized pork tenderloin the last time we were at the store, in anticipation of Eric's visit, so all I basically had to do was put it and the baking potatoes in the oven, which I held off doing until the first commercial break in the evening news. To forestall the possibility of Joshua's starving to death before dinner, I gave him a large plum and a small glass of milk after he'd helped me set the table.

At six-twenty, the door buzzer rang, announcing Eric's arrival.

I opened the door to find a rangy reddish-blond about Jonathan's age and height. He had freckles and the kind of almost impish face that always reminded me of a leprechaun; in his case, a very tall leprechaun. We shook hands and did the mutual introductions, and I showed him in, explaining that Jonathan would be a little late getting home.

Joshua, as always upon hearing someone at the door, had come bounding out of his room so as not to miss anything.

"Joshua, this is Eric," I said by way of introduction, and when Eric smiled and said "Hello, Joshua," and extended his hand I noticed an uncustomary moment's hesitation on Joshua's part before taking it. As soon as Eric released his hand, Joshua moved close against me, leaning against my leg…which also struck me as a little odd.

"And I'm a little early," Eric said. "I hope you don't mind. I'm afraid I'm always so worried about being late that I always end up being too early."

"A man after my own heart," I said, offering to take his light jacket, which he removed and handed to me with thanks. I in turn handed the jacket to Joshua. "Would you take this into our room for me, Joshua?" He gave me a slightly resentful look, then took it and went toward our bedroom.

"Make yourself at home," I said. "Can I get you a drink?"

"Sure; that would be nice," he replied, moving to the couch to sit down. "Whatever you're having."

"A Manhattan okay?" I asked. I'd held off having mine awaiting his arrival.

"I love Manhattans!" he said. "You've obviously got good taste."

As I excused myself to go into the kitchen, Joshua followed me closely. "I want one, too!" he said. He knew I always gave him a glass of soda whenever I had my evening drink, so I was a little puzzled by his reaction. Then I remembered that whenever Jonathan spoke of Eric, as he often did, and with the enthusiasm of someone with a new friend, Joshua would react in some way far out of character for him. It struck me now that he felt threatened by Eric's entrance into Jonathan's life.

I fixed our drinks and brought them into the living room, grabbed a couple of coasters, handing one to Eric with his drink, gave Joshua his soda—he insisted on two marischino cherries in it rather than his usual one—then sat in the chair closest to the couch. Joshua sat in my lap.

Ooooo-kay, I thought. We have a little problem here.

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