Okay, the image above isn't from a CC0 site, it's a photo I took of the church where I currently work. Pretty classic, no? It has inspired me in more ways than one.
Along with Patti, the Church of the Epiphany is home to characters who play important roles in Lindsay’s life.
Let’s look at Drew Palmer first, the senior pastor and Lins’ boss. Lins says, Drew is “a teddy bear of a man, someone who could explain that you had completely screwed something up, but could say it so tactfully that you would walk out of his office with a clear understanding of exactly what went wrong and still feel that you were a competent human being.” Twenty years older than Lins, he serves as her mentor, guiding her through the complicated world of parish ministry.
Because Drew understands the ups and downs of the vocation, he is more than ready to counsel Lins after Neil asks her to join the band.
Drew entered the office. “What band?” He pulled mail out of his box and proceeded to look it over.
“The Grim Reapers,” Sue replied.
“Patti told me they want Lins to be their new singer.”
Drew looked up in surprise. “Don’t tell me you’re going to add rock star to your resume,” he said.
Frustrated, Lins confesses, “All right, all right, just stop it. A guy I met has a band, I’ve sung a couple of times with him and then with his band and … oh, dang! This is complicated!”
His reply? “I’m good at complicated. Why don’t we step into my office?”
And so, they disappear into his office and have a talk about callings, questions, and life-changes. Drew enjoys working with Lins, but always has her best interest at heart, so much so that he is saddened when she and Neil break up and frustrated when Lins decides not to work for a reconciliation.
Lins finds additional support from church secretary Sue DeLucca, her office mate. Like everyone else, Sue wants her friend to find a good relationship and a fulfilling life.
Being the church secretary, Sue is privy to things most parishioners know nothing about (people’s joys, sorrows, grief, and hopes), as well as the technical end of church life (the discovery of mice or ants in the kitchen, a leak in fellowship hall, when to order more paper for the copy machine, and when the fire marshal is coming for an inspection, among many other things). She has developed a nose for news and because of that could be described as just a tad nosy.
Like Patti, Sue sees Neil as a potential mate for Lins and pushes her to pursue the relationship, which makes Lins uncomfortable.
Sue: “So … how’s the vacay been going?”
“Just fine? That’s all?”
Sue opened her picture file on her cell phone and held it up for me to see. “Patti texted me last night. This looks more than just fine.”
It was a photo of Neil and me on stage at the Flying Fish. We were singing straight at each other. He had an incredible, snarly expression while I looked like some kind of fierce rock queen. It would have made a great image for a music download. “Oh, that,” I said evasively. “That was just a little fun.”
After the break up, Sue is caring, yet willing to give Lins space.
“You gonna be okay?” Her voice was concerned.
I opened my laptop case. “Eventually.” I plugged the laptop in. “It’s just hard, you know? It’s like there’s a gaping hole in my life.” A push of a button and my machine whirred into action as it started to boot up. “It feels so bad, Sue, sometimes I hardly can stand it.” I blew out a long breath. “I’m just glad I haven’t fallen in love more than I have.”
She patted me compassionately on the shoulder. “I’m here if you need to talk.”
“I know. Thanks. But lately all I’ve done is talk and it hasn’t done very much good.”
“Just know we love you.”
I smiled faintly. I love you, too.” And I meant it.
The characters found at the Church of the Epiphany draw their quirks and bits of personality from people I have known and worked with during my years in ministry. I’m a people-watcher and I love that people are so varied and idiosyncratic and amazing.
Before I close this blog, I want to highlight three other characters. They are the Abbey sisters: Harriet, Rosa, and Lena. I stole their attitudes from three girls I have known since their childhood. Now, I am proud to say, they are cruising into young womanhood and are going to be women to reckon with. One of them will become president, I’m sure. While I’m waiting for that to happen, I would love to do a Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll sequel just to expand those three characters.
Tomorrow, my last Heart Soul installment for the moment: The Grim Reapers.
Continuing with our to look at the characters peopling Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, let's tackle Kenny Jameson, a secondary character who has a powerful impact on the others.
I don’t usually put up photos of people who might resemble my characters, but I needed an image for this blog (hey, I need an image for every blog), and this guy caught my eye. He looks so down-to-earth, friendly, and good-natured that I thought, “This is Kenny to me!”
When we first meet Kenny Jameson, he is sitting in front of the music store and begging Lins for change. Lins tells him she doesn’t usually give money but would be happy to buy him lunch. Kenny agrees, and she gets sandwiches and iced tea for the two of them. Then they return to the bench to have lunch.
Then they begin to talk to each other. Lins quickly learns that Kenny’s story is made up of challenges. I think he gives the short version of his adult life best:
“Before I signed up [in the Navy], I was two semesters short of getting my master’s degree in psychology. Originally I thought I’d be career Navy and finish school when I could. But my experiences in the wars were so intense that I just couldn’t re-up again. Had the idea that as a civilian I could finish the degree and look for a job in counseling. I’d planned to work with kids but …” He sighed. “It was tough just finding any kind of work. Then I got knocked down by post-traumatic stress. Recognized the symptoms and got counseling, but the money ran out quick and next thing I knew I was on the street. Been on the street for two months now. Well, actually, I’ve been in my car … on the street.”
All that on top of all that, he is black.
When Lins asks if he’s been to the local shelter, he says, “Yeah. I’ve been there. But I’d rather stay in my car. What I really need is a job. I know there’s one out there with my name on it. Just have to find it.”
Despite all the trouble heaped on his head, Kenny is skilled at discerning the inner-workings of the people he meets. For instance, he asks Lins about her life as a pastor and she says, “It’s been a good ride.”
He replies, “Interesting. ‘It’s been a good ride.’ Does that mean it’s not one now?”
“Interesting” is Kenny’s go-to response when he finds something… uh… interesting psychologically. Lins has known him all of ten minutes, but she sees he’s figured her out. Maybe it’s because of his graduate studies or because he has an innate talent for reading into peoples’ words, but a conversation with Kenny might leave you with a slightly uneasy feeling. “Interesting…” coming from Mr. Jameson sounds as if it might be the start of a diagnosis!
Despite Kenny’s skills in human nature and psychology, he is thrown a bit off balance when Neil invites him to work in the store, live in the break room, and use Neil’s kitchen and bathroom until he can afford a place of his own. Neil's act of kindness and generosity puts Kenny on a journey that will help him get off the street, finish his education, and start a new career.
Throughout the novel, Kenny not only is the voice of reason for the other characters but is able to help his new friends discover how to navigate their confusing and messy lives. He is a stable force and is there for of Neil and Lins during the darkest time in their story.
Kenny is an strong character who has had some hard knocks in life. He is focused, kind, and a solid rock for Lins and Neal – not to mention a great main squeeze for Patti! We don’t see much of that, but I do get the sense that he and Ms. Campbell will have a long-term thing going.
Image: Cover of the first edition of Auntie Mame: an Irreverent Escapade
In 1955 Patrick Dennis wrote a novel about a boy who is placed in charge of his dead mother’s sister, a woman named Mame. The book became a play, a movie, a stage musical, a film, and a movie musical.
The character of Mame, according to Bob Mondello, “believes in trying things, thumbing your nose at convention, taking roads less traveled because they're bound to be more interesting…” Mondello also points out that Mame “stood her ground by not knuckling under to cultural small-mindness.” (“Auntie Mame’s Secret: the ‘Loco’ in her Parentis,” National Public Radio; https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93083551 .)
My character Lins Mitchell refers to her best friend Patti as “Auntie Mame.” Patti constantly pushes Lins to go beyond her self-imposed, circumscribed world. I also have a good friend who goes into “Auntie Mame” mode. Patti is modeled after my friend in a way. There were times when I was a recipient of her Mame-isms. And I always knew when one of her Auntie Mame fits was coming because her voice would get deep, dark, and sexy – and she would suggest something outrageous. It was her way of shaking me out of my default mode of introverted, quiet, bookish Janet.
I fully believe that I have my friend to thank for my current default mode: a metal and hard rock fan, who is a 60-something assistant minister, loves Monty Python, and recently was invited into a fan page that celebrates all things Jack Black and Tenacious D. Part of me cringes at this. The other part does a happy dance. My current office mate, Jen (who is in her 40s) just laughs when I talk about Halestorm and how I wish I could sing like Lzzy. She can’t believe she works with a woman old enough to be her mother who is this – shall we say – non-conforming?
So, Patti is exactly what my over-thinking, straight-laced, earnest alter-ego Lins needs.
For instance, while Lins and church secretary Sue DeLuca are involved in a heated discussion about rock music and whether it does or does not fit with church, Patti is fixing her makeup.
“Sounds like you’re in a rut, my dear.” She paused to run berry-colored lipstick expertly over her mouth (she never used a mirror). Snapping the cap back on the tube, she said, “What you need is a change of pace.”
Then she suggests that Lins take some vacation and stay at her shore house in Point Pleasant Beach. But Lins is hesitant.
I was getting a funny feeling. Like things were going to change big time if I went with Patti. She’d probably get me down to Point and make me go bar-hopping with her or something equally uncomfortable. And those were the least intimidating of possibilities.
Right you are, Lins. On their first night, Patti drags her to the Flying Fish Club, a seedy little bar that is having a Karaoke night. Then she convinces Lins to sing with her. When Neil Gardner plops down on a chair at their table, Patti encourages the two of them to sing together. And when they return to the table after their duet:
Patti gave me a knowing smile. It was a smile I knew all too well. She was about to get me in trouble. “Well, now … did I detect a bit of chemistry?”
Next, Patti pushes Lins to go on a date with Neil. She even offers to give her friend a makeover.
Again, Lins is hesitant:
When we were in college Patti once had offered to make me over and I had agreed. When she was finished I looked just like a hooker.
“Um … maybe you should do my nails instead,” I suggested.
Once the relationship between Neil and Lins gets going, Patti is supportive. However, there must be something in the air in Point Pleasant Beach because Patti soon falls for Kenny Jameson, a homeless veteran who starts working at the music store Neil manages (more on Kenny tomorrow). Patti’s relationship, though, moves a bit quicker than Lins’.
After going on a date of sorts with Neil and his daughter Penny consisting of dinner, Penny’s softball game, and ice cream cones, a happy Lins returns home to find this:
Sitting on the couch together, and wearing bathrobes, were Patti and Kenny. Two glasses of wine sat before them on the coffee table.
Patti, with absolute cool, said, “What? You’re not the only one allowed to date, Lins.”
When things go bad, and they do because it’s a romance, Patti is there for Lins with hugs, tea, wine, and sympathy. But she also sees what Lins can’t or won’t see: Neil is a good match for her. And so, Patti roots for them to get back together and proves that she also is good at pep-talks and straight talk.
The thing I love most of all about Patti, though, is her “Auntie Mame-ishness.” I adore her cool, her interest in and acceptance of those unlike herself, and her willingness to take a walk on the edge, if not “a walk on the wild side,” as Lou Reed sang. Finally, I love her heart, for like Mame, it is a good one and it is open.
Okay, all you rockers, fans, and groupies out there, it's time to talk about Neil Gardner, front man for the Grim Reapers and has he got a story.
He and Lins first meet on Karaoke Night at the seedy Flying Fish Club. She's automatically suspicious of guy who suddenly has joined them at their table. But he has an endearing clumsiness to him that saves her from telling him to leave. Lins' politeness also keeps her in check, even though she has the uneasy feeling that her pal Patti, also at the table, would like to see her make friends with this stranger.
After Lins notes that he’s a part-time rock god, Neil sets about getting the story straight for her. I’m going to let him explain it:
“Part-time, yeah. Not so sure about that rock god thing. For one, I’d be making a whole lot more money if I were a real rock god. I had big dreams, though. Once upon a time.”
He goes on: “We thought we’d be the next E Street Band or Bon Jovi. But reality’s a harsh mistress, so the dream got small and local. We do it out of love now. Our piece of the rock pie is pretty thin, but, hey, it’s ours. Take what we’ve got and be glad.”
The leader of this part-time bar band, this loser guy who lives over the music store that he manages was born to a couple of hippies: Corn Flower Gardner and Rowdy (of no discernable last name). They lived on a commune in Western Maryland and later in a cooperative in Baltimore. Some years after Neil was born, the young hippies had a little girl.
The anti-establishment parents gave their children names that worked on a commune, but not so much on the outside: Strong Oak and Little Doe. When Neil became an adult, he legally changed his name. He claims she always admired musician Neil Young, so he took “Neil” as a first name.
(The truth is I named my character after Neil Innes, musician and former member of the Bonzo Dog Band and Monty Python. Neil says he was the 2nd 7th Python. You go figure that out.)
Corn Flower Gardner was always searching for meaning. Toward the end of her rather short life, she joined a church that had stringent beliefs, and this turned Neil completely off – especially after the platitudes they offered him after his mother died from breast cancer.
In talking to Lins and not knowing that she serves as an assistant pastor, Neil reflects on the time before and after his mother died:
Neil bit into his ice cream cone and chewed for a moment. “The short time I was at the church, there was this kid, Freddy. He got leukemia. It must have been bad because he was sick a long time. Nothing seemed to work. The church people prayed like mad, but he died anyway.” He finished the cone off and wiped his fingers with a paper napkin. “Same thing with my mother. There was no miracle. They both died worn out and in pain. The people in the church came up with all sorts of bullshit: God wanted them, God needed another angel in heaven, don’t question God’s will, that kind of crap. As if they were showering the bereaved with comfort. Well, it wasn’t comfort, not to me. I mean, why would God take my mother? And what possible use could an all-powerful God have for a kid like Freddy? Why couldn’t God just give them a break?”
A little later, he says:
“I kept wondering why my mother died. Was it punishment? Did I say the wrong prayer? Didn’t God like me? Didn’t God approve of her? I mean, if God is love, why would he do shit like taking someone’s kid or someone’s mother?” He stared at the bright lights in the stores. The sound of people on the boardwalk and ambient music from the shops floated on the breeze. “Like, for instance, why would God take your father? You were just a little girl. You needed him. Only a monster would take away a kid’s parent. That’s why I think it’s all bullshit. I don’t think there even is a God, you know?”
Rather than reacting in anger, Lins has compassion for both Neil and the people in his mother’s church. She reflects (to herself):
He had been wounded all right – and by well-meaning people. I knew they were well-meaning because I had colleagues and friends like the people in his mother’s church. They had strong beliefs and used certain phrases that were meaningful to them, but couldn’t hear how those things sounded to those outside their circle.
His mixed up background feeds into Neil’s seemingly dual personality. He's quiet and a bit reserved off stage, so Lins' first impression of him is that he is a shy, nervous guy who wants to pick her up by asking her to sing with him. Of course, Patti encourages her to do it.
But when Lins and Neil hit the stage, things change.
I could not have predicted what came next. This middle-aged guy took charge. His sang the first verse in a controlled manner. When we hit the chorus, though, he switched to full-on powerful. And he had range, effortlessly hitting the low notes and the high notes. I had to work to keep up and provide the harmonies.
…He had, I thought, an amazing expression and demeanor. It was perfect for a man fronting a rock band.
At the end of the number, Lins reflects:
He had been in control, powerful, and passionate up there. It was like sex – only with music. At the end of our number, I almost expected him to light a cigarette and ask, “Was it good for you?” And I would have told him that it was incredibly good song-sex.
Hmm... chemistry. Lots of it.
But, hey, this is a romance., Things can’t go smoothly right?
So, they don’t. Big time.
First of all, Lins knows that Neil is an agnostic or atheist, she can’t bring herself to tell him that she’s a pastor. She keeps her vocation a secret because she can’t figure out how to tell him.
When he asks her to join the band, Lins is thrown into a crisis. Is this the change God has in mind for her? Whoever heard of that? It doesn't make sense. But she likes the guy...
As for Neil, he's divorced. He got a girl named Ginger pregnant, married her (because it was the right thing to do, he says), and became the parent of a little girl, Penelope, or Penny for short. But the marriage soured and the couple split. Lins sees the tension that exists between Neil and Ginger. Ginger has full custody of Penny and is strict about how often their daughter can see Neil, because she considers him to be irresponsible. Does she want that in her life?
And there’s one more tension: Neil has a sister has a problem with addiction, something Lins learns mid-story.
And that’s where I’m going to let this blog rest, because, as River Song tells the Doctor, “Spoilers, sweetie.”
You’ll just have to read the book to see if Neil and Lins rock off into the sunset together.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder