Smudged ivory wallpaper peeks out through elbow crooks or from gaps between bowed necks in the hallway. From the living room, I squeeze myself into the mass of visitors and lean back into the wall, hoping to melt in. My wife has retreated to the enclosed kitchen near the front door, not ready to scale the palpable wall of ritual and ashamed to share her tears with the crowd. She will try to find a broom or a rag to wipe the counter, I know.
In the back bedroom, in an oak dining room chair facing the bed, sits the Achen—a Malayalam word for priest. A tan, rosewood cross hangs from his neck, reaching across his pure black cassock from one shoulder to the other. Framed below a black cylindrical hat and above a coarse beard of the same shade, his soft brown eyes are locked on a book he holds out in front of him. He leads the group in prayer. But no one waits for him or repeats after him or looks up at him for the next line. Most have small books of their own; some stand with eyes closed, finding the words from inside. The parishioners fall into a rhythm, as if they have chanted these prayer songs hundreds of times. That thought alone takes my breath: maybe they have.
This is no church, yet here religion gathers—home to the beating heart of the Holy Spirit. These parishioners offer no tithe, but they came as soon as they could—left work early, canceled dinner plans, or drove two hours just for this congregation. Their unified voice could rise to the highest vaulted ceiling of the most ambitious church; the booming echo could carry all the way to the last pew and into the hallway where the late arrivals may stand watching from behind the glass. But here, it is a driving drumbeat for the benefit of a single soul.
At the church, they would have attracted three times the crowd, would have filled four collection plates with guilt. But the incense curling into the airy chamber before the altar would leave no gift of fragrance. The service belongs here, where a virtuous stratus cloud of patchouli smoke hangs just under a pocked ceiling barely high enough to contain the tall, pot-bellied gentleman in the red V-neck sweater, whose few remaining hairs reach through toward heaven.
Religion lives here, where one of the plastic, cream-colored blinds over the window is turned backward, and the end table with curved bronze legs—a proud centerpiece many a garage sale ago—now reveals its flimsy particleboard back to the whole room, and the thin white mattress with the metal guardrail at its side won’t hold the shape of him much longer.
The Achen’s voice swells and then falls in the drone of prayers. I think of the hypnotic waves of Lake Michigan coming to shore on a midsummer day, when unrelenting heat and the roaring of beach wind have stripped away all other sensation; and there is peace.
My wife returns. Finds space next to me in the hall where there was none. I reach out, and she does not stop me from taking her hand into mine.
The chanting grows louder, faster—a crescendo of cymbal strikes, one still vibrating as the next crashes with new vigor. And my heartbeat quickens, though I can’t understand a word of it. My peach fingers interlock with the dark caramel of my wife’s. I squeeze, and I pray that she, that somebody, maybe even a few somebodies who have canceled dinner plans, will be there after my end to pray for my soul in front of my worn-out recliner, the wobbly end table with a chip in the corner, and the fading impression in my old mattress.