I drove through town in a slight drizzle. Despite using the GPS, I got lost three times before I pulled up to an old 1950s home tucked away between two neighborhoods packed to the brim with McMansions. I remember it was cold, and I was slightly cranky. I think Paul and I were finishing up an argument over the phone as I drove. A silly one, I’m sure, like so many those days. The kids were toddlers and we were both overworked and underslept.
The house itself was enchanting. Smoke puffed through the stone chimney and the rain made a pat-a-pat sound as it smacked the tin roof. Oh, that’s right; it wasn’t drizzling, it was pouring, and the gutters couldn’t keep up with the flow. A steady stream of water cascaded down the corners of the house.
I held my yellow coat above my head as I raced to the semi-covered side porch and knocked at the door. It took a while before Betty answered, but when she did she was accompanied by the aroma of fresh baked cookies.
“Oh, come in, come in!” she said as she ushered me past her tray of fresh-out-of-the-oven gingerbread men. They had invaded her little kitchen; her counters were covered with an army of confectionary men.
She was baking them for her ladies ministry, she said. It was something she did every year. Everyone knew she was a fantastic baker, despite the fact that she only did it once a year. For all they knew, she said, she baked all the time. The hassle was worth the notoriety.
We talked about the weather and her ladies ministry. She had been a missionary in Africa years ago; the Congo, in fact, during the 1960s.
She gestured to a soft seat in the sitting room. The house was small, with low ceilings, but every corner was decorated in an immaculate Victorian style. She smiled and was the essence of hospitality.
I was there to interview her husband, a nearly 80-year-old man who stood at the corner of a busy intersection and waved at cars passing by in hopes that they would patron the local tax service. It would be a great human interest story, my editor said, to tell the story of the man behind the costume.
Betty wasn’t so thrilled. He only took that job because they needed the money. She didn’t understand why everyone was so enamored with him. It paid $15 an hour, and that allowed them to eat and keep their home, but it was a job for teenagers. Anyone could do it.
Not quite like Henry, I countered with a smile. “Not with such style,” I said.
“The geriatric shuffle, you mean,” she chuckled.
He walked in then. He was slight, weathered and wrinkled, but still had most of his hair. He smiled and came to greet me.
“Thank you so much for coming,” he said. “I was surprised you called about me!”
I stood and shook his hand. “You’d be surprised how many people ask me if I know anything about you! You’re a local legend,” I said.
His eyebrows rose in surprise. “Why?” he asked.
I laughed. “People like happy people, and there aren’t many of those around.”
Betty let out a laugh. “Happy doesn’t pay the bills,” she said, then paused. “Well, except in this case.”
They sat and I turned on my voice recorder. We talked about their families, their job history, how they met, and their children. Their son was the light of Betty’s life.
Henry gave an overview of his resume. He was a vocal major in college for two years before he joined the military. He spent a few years in Korea and was released to continue his college degree.
“Oh, my opera!” he suddenly said. “I’ve been working on an opera for years, would you like to see it?”
I froze, slightly stunned by the change in topic, but nodded. “Sure!”
Betty rolled her eyes and walked back into the kitchen. I followed Henry to a back room, where he reached underneath a bed and retracted a very old, flaking folder. His hands shook as he pulled out a thick stack of yellowed paper. It was filled with hand drawn lines and musical notations.
“It’s about a rabbi,” he said softly, “the rabbi who met Jesus when Jesus was only a baby. This opera chronicles how that one chance encounter affected his entire life.”
He stared at the pages for a long moment. And then he sang.
He sang the entire opera, his voice wavering at times, and tears streaming down his face from beginning to end. There was no time, there was no place; there was only music scribbled on paper for decades upon decades.
I imagined a young Henry writing his opera after days spent fighting in Korea. I saw him writing in a corner room hours after his children and wife went to sleep, after the death of their daughter. I could see him singing softly while he was unemployed after leaving a job that required him to work Sundays.
“It would have set us up for life,” Betty had opined earlier. “He would have had a pension if he had worked for them just three more years. Surely God wouldn’t mind him working Sundays for just three years?”
“I couldn’t!” he interrupted. “You know that, Betty, back then I just couldn’t. It was a matter of conscience.”
“He wouldn’t have minded,” she said again, softly.
“I didn’t know that then,” he said. “I thought it was right.”
“He wouldn’t want you wearing a banana costume and waving on the side of the road until you’re 84, surely,” she said, a little louder this time.
He was silent.
I imagined him writing about the rabbi after one job required that he wear The Head as part of his waving costume.
“It’s most uncomfortable,” he told them. “It makes me claustrophobic. It’s heavy, cumbersome, you can hardly see where you’re going.”
They let him skip it. “He’s the most faithful and best waver they have,” Anne said.
He would write, he said, until his fingers couldn’t grip the pencil anymore. Then he would sing. Sometimes years would go by without having written a single note, and other times that he would stay up through the night writing. Occasionally, he would destroy it all and start again.
“Thank you for listening,” he said, shaking his head and wiping the tears from his eyes. “I just hope that I can see this performed before I die.”
When I walked back to the living room, Betty took me by the arm.
“Thank you for humoring him,” she said. “It’s probably the only thing he’s ever really cared about.”
“Has he ever sent it anywhere to be published?” I asked.
She shook her head and rolled her eyes again before he walked in.
“That’s about all there is to us,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Do you have what you need?”
I nodded. “I’ll call you if I need any more details,” I said.
They escorted me out and gave me a gingerbread man to go. I called Paul on the way home and told him I would bring home a pizza for dinner.
This isn’t the story that was printed; that centered more on Betty’s adventures in the Congo. The country was a powder keg while she was there, on the brink of independence from Belgium, and foreigners were far from safe. It made a much more engaging story. How do you write about a dream deferred?
Henry died two years after the story was published. So did their son. His family told me that it meant the world to them that people were finally able to know the depth of their father’s interests and passions. They may not have heard his opera, but they knew he had written one, and for them his children and wife, that was enough.