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Ven Will I Zing?': What makes music special--and who decides?

Ven will I zing?"

It wasn't a request. The voice over the phone—disembodied, since neither Ray nor his wife, Claire, had ever met the manóasked the question baldly. Whether he was capable of singing had apparently never entered his mind.

"Mr. Roels, I'll have to take a look at my schedule," Ray said, looking up at the list of special music posted in the kitchen for easy reference. "I'll have to check with Pastor Tom about sermon topics, too, and maybe look through some music." He waited for a response, cradling the receiver while he pulled a pen from the drawer. Silence. Dead silence. "Mr. Roels—are you still there?"

"Certainly," the man said, as if it was idiotic to ask.

"I said I'll have to do some checking, and we'll have to look for music—"

"The Ninety and Nine,'" Roels said.

The piece rang a bell. Ray could even picture the drawing on the opposite page of the hymnal he'd grown up with—Let Youth Praise Him, purple cover. "A-waaaay on the mountains, wild and bare;/A-waaaay from the shepherd's tender care," the whole hymn as purple as some love-rides-the-rail melodrama.

"I haven't heard that one for years," he said.

"It's de' only von I know goot," the voice said. "It's de' von I alvays zing."

"At home, you mean?"

"Ja, at home. Me and de wife are here in Arizona only for three mont's—not even: Yanuary and February and only part of Marts'. Den ve go back to the kids."

"You sing in church?" Ray asked.

"Vunce a year," the man said.

"Vunce a year," Ray repeated, then quickly, "I mean, once a year you sing?"

"Vunce a year, and always 'De Ninety and Nine.' Now, ven will I zing?"

Never before in the years he'd served as music director at Fair Haven Church had he had such a request—if he could call it that: "Ven will I zing?"

"Tell you what, Mr. Roels—I'll have to get back to you. It's good that you told me you'd only be here a couple of months, but I'll have to get you a pianist and—"

"I don't need somebody to play vid' me," he said. "I never do."

"You don't want an accompanist?"

"I zing a cappella."

Where the old man had ever heard the word a cappella was beyond him. "Well, I'll remember that, but I can't give you a date right now. I'll get back to you, okay?"

"That's goot," Mr. Roels said. "The number is 555-1213, and most of the time ve be here at the trailer. Ve don't get out much. I don't like the traffic. "

"Do you have a choice?" Claire said later, as the two of them sat out by the pool watching the kids. "I mean, really, Ray—if a man wants to sing in church, can you say no? Of course you can't."

"Whales can sing," he said.

"There are no whales in Arizona," she told him. "Besides, if there were, maybe we ought to have them too. A whale would draw a crowd."

"I got a problem here and you're making jokes," he said. "I got a man who thinks he's been called by the Lord to minister to Fair Haven with a song nobody's sung since Ozzie and Haniet. I don't even know if he can sing—"

"He sings in his home church."

"Fourteen souls, maybe—how do we know?"

"Maybe he's an operatic tenor, sang in Vienna—"

"With a repertoire of one schmaltzy hymn?"

"He's a specialist," she kidded.

"Claire, would you get serious? What am I going to do?"

"Take it to the committee. Take it to the preacher," she said. "But I say let him sing. Maybe he's Placido Domingo."

"He's not that," Ray told her. "He's definitely a bass."

She pointed to the pool. "Maybe the kids will get a kick out of it," she said.

"They won't understand a word," he told her. "The man's got a brogue as thick as his belt."

A few days later Ray checked with the preacher, who sat speechless, rehearsing the same imaginary try-out Ray had already thought of—the two of them sitting in a Sunday school room listening to the old man zing. And when he finished, what on earth would they say—"Sorry, Mr. Roels, but dat voice of yours ist kaput?" How could they say no? Does the Lord cut monotones?

"Put him off until March and hope he goes back north," the pastor said, shrugging.

The committee was less hesitant. Angie Donnelly, who threatened every other month to leave for the sprawling Baptist church a half-mile down Scottsdale Road, thought it backward, even gauche—"He's got this accent?" she said, as if it were a virus. And Marty Postman thought a cappella seemed almost monstrous. "On that song?" he said.

"What am I going to do?" Ray said.

"Say no," Angie said. "We simply can't have it.

"Why not?" Ray said.

"Well, because. My word, nobody even knows this man. Maybe he's a murderer. And The Ninety and Nine'—" she lowered her eyes. "It's unseemly or something, isn't it? What will people think?"

Ray would have said no. He thought it all through later—how maybe if he hadn't seen Tattoo World on the magazine rack where he'd bought gas and thought the whole culture gone nuts; how maybe if he hadn't heard some syrupy radio minister promising "dreams beyond your imagination" once you gave your life to Jesus; how maybe if Mr. Roels and his wife had lived in some mountain mansion instead of an old twelve-footer; and how especially if the old man hadn't greeted him the way he did, pulled himself up from his lawn chair rocker, hobbled over to the car, stuck out one huge fat hand, and cracked a pure-bred smile from a face rutted with lines—"so," he said, "Ven will I zing?"

The answer came without hesitation, as if it were a mandate from a voice far beyond his own. "Sunday," Ray said, simply giving in, "this coming Sunday. I was scheduled to zing myself, but I have 'dis problem with my throat." A white lie. But he had no choice.

Now, how to describe it? It was, to say the least, energetic. While it took old Mr. Roels, by Ray's estimation, five minutes to get behind the pulpit, it was never boring. From the moment he rose from the pew to the last determined step he took to get back, he was the absolute focus at Fair Haven. No one moved.

His voice? Untrained, but passionate in the way it filled up even the far corners of the church; on key mostly, but, like that sheep of the song, sometimes astray as he plodded through the verses as if they were mini-rehearsals for the sweeping "A-waaaaays" of the chours, his enunciation wrenched beyond recognition. It was literally stunning. By the end of the third verse, his round face held high as a morning glory, the book closed and at his side, he threw himself into that chorus. His tremolo staggered—not as if he were about to cry, but as if he were powered with an engine of the Lord's design.

And then he stepped off the pulpit, one foot at a time, with a kind of gracious anogance, head up as if he'd once more done his best at a day's work.

Claire loved every last second of it. Angie said it was garish, and how could we ever hope to attract people from Scottsdale, and if things didn't change she didn't know how long she could stay at Fair Haven. Marty called it "an event" and just shook his head. Pastor Tom wished people could have understood the words.

And Ray didn't know what to think. He looked at his wife, whose eyes were as big as moons, and then at his kids, both of whom wore humongous smiles beneath eyes glazed with a kind of awe he didn't think kids were capable of anymore these days.

Even after the old man had finished and was lumbering his bulk down to the front pew, Ray's daughter Laney, their eleven-year-old, seemed mesmerized. On the way home, in the heat of an oppressive March sun, she said, "Who was that old man who sang anyway? Was he in the war? He must have been in something or other."

"Why do you say that?" Ray asked her.

"You could hear it, couldn't you?" she said. "I didn't understand a word he said, but you could just hear it in how he sang. Hokie toots, could we have him over sometime?"

"Sure," Claire said. "We can do that."

The whole thing was a mandate, Ray thought, something the Lord, for his own good reasons, wanted them to experience. What else could you say? It was special music. ■