This story is by Laura Porter Taylor and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jenna Scott sat in her assigned seat for choir rehearsal on Wednesday night, three weeks before Christmas. It was now routine after 13 years singing with a group of people she spent four or five hours a week with but hardly knew. The women on her row said hello as they walked by, but they didn’t stop to ask how she was or engage her in meaningful conversation as they did with the others. At 55, she was still on the fringes of life, always on the outside looking in.
She looked at the expensive oxblood-colored leather briefcase beside her chair, reached down, and touched it gingerly. Next to the laptop she was using for tonight’s devotional was another cold steel object. Having it near her gave her a sense of power mixed with fear. Sweat broke out on her forehead when she thought of what she planned to do in less than two hours.
Lifelong isolation wasn’t a choice. She longed for a best friend with whom to share her secrets and to have girls’ nights out with like-minded, congenial women. Yet, she was never included in any group, no matter what she did to cultivate acceptance. She was pleasant, educated, reasonably attractive, and always the first one there when someone needed help. Decades of self-reflection to repair perceived personality flaws brought no resolution. Finally, she stopped trying to analyze it. Some questions simply had no answers.
Music became her refuge. It always included her. She and her father were part of a large choir at the Methodist Church her family attended. His warm, silky baritone voice was reminiscent of Bing Crosby’s, and Jenna’s honeyed soprano blended harmoniously with his as they sang together each week. Then he died unexpectedly the day after her 28th birthday. She joined in the choral tribute for his funeral, but heartsick at losing him, she didn’t sing another note or attend services for nearly 20 years.
The road of her life was littered with an unkempt montage of the flotsam and jetsam of a wasted, fractured existence. Twice divorced, she and her current husband weren’t close. Work became his mistress once he finally gave up his last one just a month before their wedding. Jenna married him despite his disloyalty. It was better than living alone, listening to the sound of her own breathing.
They moved to Atlanta in 2003 to expand Jeremy’s business. Thinking a change of scenery might present opportunities to find the relationships she craved, she agreed to accompany him from the city she’d called home since birth.
It was just one more disappointing illusion. Jeremy’s partner of 26 years spent the firm into bankruptcy, wiping out several hundred thousand dollars of their retirement funds. Jenna was laid off from her attorney position with a health records company. What money remained forestalled foreclosure on their suburban prison, which was impossible to sell during the unrelenting economic recession. They were constantly teetering on the edge of financial ruin.
Somewhere between the disasters representing the sum total of her life, Jenna decided to sing again. This group came highly recommended by one of her husband’s colleagues. The members were excellent musicians, and the church had an open door philosophical bent. Perhaps she could fit in there. In her dreams, she saw people making room for her in groups of casual conversation. They didn’t turn their backs or tighten their circles to keep her out when she walked up to join them.
She tried again in vain to make friends. She volunteered for everything from the board to mission projects. Despite her best efforts, the Director of Music regarded her with contempt. No one cared if she participated or didn’t. Yet, every Wednesday night and Sunday morning, she returned, singing anthems so beautiful it was hard to keep from weeping.
Loneliness was a harsh mistress. The trauma she inflicted required slavish tolerance of the unacceptable, forcing Jenna to question the validity of her own human need. Stress from years of unrequited longing to be included anywhere or by anyone had left her an empty vessel, dark and purposeless. Singing no longer filled the void in her soul. Desolation haunted her, even in a roomful of people. That was especially true of those here tonight who claimed to walk with God.
While the director aimed his displeasure upon the unfortunate bass section, Jenna’s thoughts wandered back to September five years before when harsh reality set in regarding who belonged here and who didn’t.
Scheduled for a complicated spinal surgery, she called the church to request a minister to pray with her at the hospital.
On the day of the procedure, cold certainty slammed the last door on her hope for inclusion anywhere. If you weren’t one of them, the senior ministers had little use for you. Content with their million-dollar manses and six-figure salaries, they golfed and enjoyed elegant dinners in the mansions of parishioners with substantial means. They shuffled the less prosperous and the nobodies to the junior pastors.
They didn’t accord Jenna even that privilege. Instead, the intern, who looked like a high school kid, was dispatched to her bedside. Something broke inside her as he read clichéd wooden passages over her in prayer. No soothing hand took hers, no words of comfort were offered. He departed quickly without speaking her name. Alone and frightened, she sobbed piteously once he was out of earshot. No one called to follow up. She was invisible and irrelevant.
“Ms. Scott, if you will kindly join the group, you have the devotional tonight. Please do us the honor of presenting it, so we may proceed with Sunday’s anthem.”
The director’s sarcastic tone brought her thoughts crashing back to the present.
Jenna caressed the smooth lamb leather of the case next to her chair. She picked it up and walked purposefully toward the brilliant black lacquered $750,000 Bösendorfer grand piano. Placing her laptop on a protective pad atop the imposing instrument, she wondered how many hungry people that much money could have fed.
She glanced upward at the massive cross set in Italian marble, surrounded by multi-million dollar organ pipes. A cold winter rain wept wistfully against the opaque stained glass windows of the soaring sanctuary as if mourning the presumption that art designed by humans was more beautiful than that created by God. Jesus would be singularly unimpressed.
The music accompanying the photographs seamlessly merging into one another on the sanctuary’s large screen was Samuel Barber’s exquisite Adagio for Strings. Her gut clenched as she read Jesus’ words about mercy from the parable of the good Samaritan, observing the ennui etched on indifferent faces, or at least on those not openly messaging on smartphones.
She chose her next words carefully, her tone flat and dispassionate.
“Tonight I’m leaving you with a vision you’ll always remember. Hopefully, it will change some hearts. Christ commands us to show mercy, love one another, and include everyone, for we are all children of God. None of you have offered me a place at the table, but your callous disregard has made a hard choice very simple.”
Angry voices whispered from the chancel. Jenna took a last upward look at the cross. Was Jesus afraid on that long ago Friday afternoon the Romans crucified him? His promise of paradise that day gave her courage. She removed Jeremy’s revolver from her bag and pointed it at the director.
The panic on his face was palpable, his mouth agape like a goldfish struggling to breathe out of water. The hammer clicked, its reverberation roaring in her ears. Someone screamed. Then, turning the gun to her temple, she pulled the trigger.
The explosion echoed off the marble walls of the sanctuary as the Adagio reached its penultimate climax. Jenna’s bright red blood streamed over the magnificent patent leather surface of the Bösendorfer. It slowly dripped down onto the keys in stark, horrific contrast to their white birch wood purity.
Phones which only moments before were used to text others discourteously during her presentation recorded the awful aftermath, now fodder for social media and local news outlets. Sirens wailed urgently in the background. Many people left, slamming their folders shut in disgust. They stalked out of their extravagant monument to conspicuous wealth, furious she had chosen it as her venue for the commission of an unpardonable sin.
Someone from the altar guild ran to retrieve towels to stem the blood pooling on the piano. No one offered a single word in prayer for her departing soul.
Jenna’s consciousness rose from her lifeless body, hovering near the cross, watching the frantic scene below. A resplendent glow appeared above, brighter than any she had ever seen. She heard familiar voices calling her. Lifted aloft as a bird with the wind beneath its wings, her spirit was fused with a sense of belonging that transcended life without inclusion, love, and validation, a fate far worse than death. Smiling, she turned toward the light and home.
* * * *
Suicide occurs every day in America, destroying lives and families. Persons of all genders, ages, and ethnicities can be at risk. Suicidal behavior is complex, and there is no single cause. In 2020, 47,511 individuals took their own lives. If you or anyone you know is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Help is available.
In loving memory of Danny and Rich. I loved you both as if you were my own.