A while back, I discovered that The X-Files was streaming, so naturally, I made my wife sit through the entire series with me. I watched this show pretty religiously as a kid – was captured (and slightly terrified) by its creativity, imagination and suspense, and now, 30 years after the pilot, I’m still in awe, but in a different way. You come to appreciate things differently as an adult; it’s remarkable how well this relic holds up today. But why? This is the difference between storytellers and the rest. Do you know how to tell stories? Then today is your lucky day, bucko, because our annual short story contest is back. We’ve doubled the prize package ($1,000), doubled the word length, and cut the response time in half! And the best part? It’s completely free to enter! Our submission period runs now through December 31st, so get to work. Visit our CONTEST PAGE for more details. Speaking of which, I suppose now is a good time to announce our contest winner from THIS year’s contest. Griswold drumroll please… We’re proud to announce the winning story for the 2022 Story Unlikely Short Story Contest is Roger Sheffer, with his brilliant piece Alien Tenor. And what’s more, it’s our featured story this month. Eat it up, then go write your own smashing little yarn.
A note on all issues prior to 2023
In 2023, we switched email sending services. Converting entire issues into our new sender and their formatting is a lot of work, and with our limited resources, we've decided to expedite the work by focusing on converting only the story and intro. Perhaps some day we'll get around to the rest of it, but for now, enjoy the story.
What he walked into, after taking human form.
A choir room on Broad Street, in a Sunday-morning dither, tangled hair being combed and sprayed and re-combed in front of pocket mirrors, to little effect (and of little consequence). Men belching; deep-voiced women imitating the belching men. Sylvia, the designated alto, consuming all three alto chairs with her immense girth and slippery music and three pairs of glasses; her first banana already half-eaten, adding its stink to the under-ventilated room; her second banana, on the far end, unspotted, untouched, possibly made of wax, a banana with which she often conducted herself, the choir director’s white stick being insufficient. Can’t see it, Nigel, the way you wave it around, just a blur, like the second coming of Tinkerbell. It was a choir room in which no tenor had set foot for nearly a decade, not since Phyllis died—lung cancer, the default cause of death for lady tenors; Phyllis, who, in the early days, would sing with a lit Pall Mall hanging from the corner of her mouth, Al-le-lu-cough-cough-ia, smoke still redolent in the deep folds of the most remotely racked choir robes, never worn this century, bearing the stitched-in names of the dead. You want me to hit all the low notes, right? So, give me a break, okay, Nigel? Cough, cough, cough. Besides, they keep me awake. They’re good for the voice, my doctor recommended them back in 1961. Phyllis, the lady tenor in the framed color photo, top shelf of the choir room bookcase, standing in her backyard, circa 1977, next to a full-bloom lilac bush, holding her three-pound white poochie six inches from her face, immediately before or after kissing it, puffing toxic smoke into its mouth (“he likes it”); Phyllis, who, in her uncontested will (the dog being either dead by then, or oblivious), left fifty-eight thousand dollars to the choir. She had made out a deathbed check, with one word on the memo line: singing. Money never spent, too many table-pounding discussions, too many fragile egos. An empty chair formed the edge of the four-person bass section, there being, at that unfortunate time, three basses (two men and one woman); a “memorial chair,” a flat surface where, as if believing in the efficacy of such a gesture, Nigel would place, every Sunday at the beginning of rehearsal, a full set of music marked for tenor, and a leather-bound 1982 hymnal with all four hymns bookmarked in liturgically-correct shades of silk—more fuss than he would exert on behalf of those singers who actually showed up regularly, on time, including the half-blind Sylvia, and, especially, Miranda, the one-armed soprano, retired cop, age seventy, who really could have used the assistance—at the very least a non-tippy music stand, with photocopies of the hymns laid out, in chronological order, especially those from the dark green “hymnal supplement” which always required the most illogical page-turns, impossible while marching from front to back and holding a lit candle, Easter morning, in the dark.
Whence he came, his presumed origins.
Backing up, in small segments: a chubby robed figure was observed in the church parking lot, bent at the waist, scratching the shape of a Christian cross in the rime-frost of the pastor’s side-view mirror, properly inferred as the pastor’s, from the fact that the Corolla hatchback occupied a space marked, in gothic letters, “You Parketh, You Preacheth.” And a few minutes prior to the scraping, this same chubby robed figure boogied down Broad Street like a renegade choirboy, taking notice of an ugly white spire above an ugly brick box on too small a lot with no landscaping other than five or six dead junipers; taken aback, and thinking, okay, if it’s Sunday, this unpromising place might need me, and I wouldn’t be wearing this outfit if I couldn’t sing, would I? He fingered the cross around his neck, not gold, not even silver, but stainless steel with some dead person’s rusted fingerprints embossed in two pinches; he looped his thumb around the chain itself, too tight, I mean, if I’m going to be singing with my full voice, I’ll need a bit more room for my neck here, unless this is some kind of choke collar for a dog, and I’ve been called that. He panted, tongue sticking out. He barked lightly, high-pitched, like a Pomeranian. Okay, people, where’s the rest of the leash? There was a gap in his sense of time, accompanied by music, a Latin chant on a continuous loop, words meaningless yet comforting—what one might listen to while stuck in the tube of an MRI machine having one’s spine assessed, or while being scanned for suspected chip implants that did not help one sing better. If only. And earlier, before that unaccounted-for lapse, a Saturday afternoon spent re-gaining consciousness while seated on a bench in the boys’ dressing room of Salet’s Department Store, circa 1967, one block off the same Broad Street, hungry, thirsty, nauseous; opening his eyes, noticing the church vestments hanging from the iron hook, himself not naked, but embarrassed, still, to be wearing a “Camp Lovejoy” T-shirt and a pair of beige cutoff jeans too tight around the waist for the metal snap to hold when he inhaled, testing his voice. He needed the surplice to cover his shame, and, what the hell, why not go full-bore and put on the cassock, too, and the tiny cross dangling from the same department store hook. A theory: it would have been too early in his intellectual and spiritual development for this alien to have asked questions about the previous wearer of these garments:
1. When was he taken?
2. Was he taken by surprise?
3. Was he ready?
What he sang.
Undetermined, though it certainly mattered, as the repertory could have shifted. During the first five minutes of rehearsal, when Nigel brought up the issue of vocal range, with regard to certain female singers unable to reach, without cracking, the G above middle C, albeit on the first Sunday of Daylight Savings Time—six words that the sexton said should be inserted in the upper slot of both hymn-boards, which, that week, read “Lent 2”—the new tenor nodded cheerfully and said, “I know what you mean, because if it’s early enough in the morning, my low notes are so low that the human ear cannot pick them up. Like a water buffalo. No kidding. Like the rotation of the Earth.” To which the lady bass replied, “The same with me, bucko,” causing her two male cohorts to laugh heartily.
The next line was spoken by the alien tenor in tones perched along the highest precipice of a coloratura soprano’s range (nearly inaudible if this text were to be read aloud): Here’s the other side of the coin. I’m almost useless. Nobody ever writes church music this high. Not on this planet. He stuck out his tongue and licked a crumb from his lower lip, then said, Nobody would buy it. A statement which, in the director’s opinion, carried no weight, coming as it did from a singer whose identity was merely self-declared, never authenticated—as it would have to have been in any of the larger churches in Monkeytown and North Monkeytown advertising good money and benefits for a real tenor. Bulletin boards, real and virtual. A hundred a week, in an ELS Lutheran choir, north end of Broad. Perhaps he expected to be given a solo, first time out.
I’m lost, the alien said. Take me to your leader.
That would be me, Nigel said, welcoming him with a smile. The tenor part is highlighted in your music,light blue marker.
You’re sitting on it.
The alien tenor laughed, then pulled the sheaf of papers out from under his butt, squinted at the notes, which were upside down.
Can you read music?
I mean, sight-reading is not a necessary condition for singing in this choir, Nigel said, then stepped back, twisting a handkerchief in his hands. Really, he said, no skills are expected. We can’t pay you a penny.
I’ll be okay if the other tenors sing into my ear.
There are no other tenors.
Out dead, a bass said, without regret.
Where he disappeared to, that Sunday, after church.
Not to the usual post-service coffee and cookie buffet that constituted—for the poorer singers and congregants—their principal meal of the day, featuring the classic dried-out cheese slice on a Triscuit and the shriveled four-grape bunch accented with unripe orange or pale green melon chunk. Nor to the lineup for the unisex restroom in the church basement, monopolized by soprano wannabe’s from the congregation—who, while the choir, boasting its first tenor of the century (a man!), marched down the central aisle, had spouted irrationally high notes from loose lips, as if to destabilize the robed few, whose greatest accomplishment in life had been to walk and hold a hymnal and sing in tune at the same time. Not there, in the line for the restroom; the alien probably wore a high-tech diaper. Nor in the counting-room of the church, where, in the very distant past, after the benediction, any paid singers would have assembled, jostling to collect their five-dollar bills (with deductions for nose-picking and untoward laughter), although the counting-room still existed, and a male tenor would have had every right to step into that room for a handout; especially this tenor, who on the opening hymn, fourth verse, had absolutely nailed the descant, unrehearsed, unbidden; as if, So we’ve got these extra notes on the page floating up there, with the words slightly out of sync—I may as well launch the high voice. Paid for those few measures, if for nothing else.
Lent Three came, and Lent Four went, depleting all the good hymns (the ones with fancy descants), with no return visit by the century’s first male tenor, no apologetic message on Nigel’s machine. Easter Sunday—nothing. So many times betrayed, the choir and its director (with the alien’s sweaty robe hanging in the closet, tenor chair still vacant, music annotated and neatly stacked) believed the ordinary theory, the usual assumption: that this alien tenor, whose name they never learned—if he even had one—had merely been testing the waters, shopping around, checking out the theology, the acoustics, the vibe, the coffee. They blamed themselves—too old, feeble, deaf, inflexible. Maybe it was the fake banana, wielded by the crazy alto. They missed a better theory.
If it makes sense, as one TV judge liked to say, then it must be true. Or was it the opposite—if something doesn’t make sense, it isn’t true?
“I never saw him leave the building,” the lady bass said. “Honest.”
Then Sylvia said, gesturing with the fake banana, “I’ve had my eyes glued on that boy since the moment he walked in the door. My guess is, he stepped into the closet, took off his robe, and turned to dust.”
Miranda, the one-armed soprano, added, “It stinks in there. Something’s fishy.”
The late Phyllis, in her lovely color photo, top shelf, choir bookcase, seemed to agree. The photo, if one looked closely, now showed her making full contact with the face of Poochie-Poo, a direct and immediate and no doubt lethal kiss, the smoke pouring from her lips as if her face were featured on some old-time Marlboro billboard with a vague chubby figure in the background, mouth wide open—either in shock, or poised to sing.
About the Author Roger Sheffer taught creative writing at Minnesota State Mankato. His stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Third Coast, Adirondack Life, and other magazines.
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