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By alison strobel
David C. CookCopyright © 2011 Alison Strobel
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The bus ride to LA Café was a soul-sucking experience.
Amelia Sheffield's head bounced with each pothole as she attempted to doze. She'd never been a morning person, but her boss didn't seem to care. The shop opened at six, and if she wanted a paycheck, she needed to be there in time to get the bread baking and the sandwich fixings organized for the crowd that picked up lunches on the way to work. Never a big meat eater, she found chicken and shredded turkey and sliced roast beef even more difficult to handle at five thirty in the morning.
She stepped off the bus at Sunset and Echo Park, then walked the last three blocks to the shop. LA wasn't a pretty city at any time of day, but at least at o-dark-thirty it was a bit more calm. She'd walked this route long enough now to have figured out the regulars and locals, and they exchanged sleepy nods as they passed on the sidewalk. Familiar faces, friendly conversation—it was all that kept her at this job. Well, that and the need to eat and pay rent.
When the manager switched on the Open sign and unlocked the front door, Amelia gathered her resolve and wiped the mope off her face. She began to greet the customers as though they were close personal friends.
"You way too chipper, chica," Maria told her. "Ain't gonna find a producer in here, you know. They all eat downtown."
"Touché," Amelia admitted. "But either way, I can't stand the thought of grunting my way through the day and never actually talking with anyone." Then, in a lowered voice, "This job is bad enough without my attitude making it worse."
"You saying my attitude is bad?"
Amelia grinned and popped Maria on the shoulder. "Your attitude? Naw, chica, you're the picture of optimism." That started Maria laughing.
But despite her best efforts, Amelia could feel the creativity draining from her blood every day that she punched in and then out again eight hours later. Every day, she would drag herself to the bus stop and slouch against the shelter, feeling isolated despite the people around her, and she would pray that today would be the day she got an offer for the job she really wanted.
To her surprise, her husband, Marcus, was home when she let herself in to their fourth-floor studio, his hair still wet from what was likely a post-jog shower. She hardly ever saw him during the day; he worked so much. Between his tutoring jobs, his surf instructing, and his part-time shifts behind the register at Target, he was rarely home and awake for more than an hour or two at the most. Going for a run was one of the ways Marcus blew off steam.
"Hey, you're home," she said, leaning against the door and breathing hard. "Can you believe the elevator is broken—again?" She shuffled in, flopped onto the couch, and groaned. "I am so tired."
"You've got to stop going to bed so late."
"I know, I know."
He leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Mmm, the heavenly scent of fresh bread and mustard."
She smiled. "Eau de hoagie?"
"Bottle it, babe, you'll make a mint."
"Don't I wish." She leaned over, stretching her back. "Remind me again that we're not just killing time."
"We're not just killing time."
Amelia sat up and cocked her head to the side. "Yeah, I don't buy it."
Marcus gave her a small frown. "His ways are not our ways, love. And neither is His timing. We can't see what He's orchestrating behind the scenes."
"But if God exists outside of time, then He doesn't have any timing at all, right?" She couldn't help playing devil's advocate, especially when he got all pastorly on her. It triggered a need to prove she was just as smart as he was, even if her theology wasn't as polished. "In which case, maybe He just doesn't realize how long we've waited."
Marcus laughed. "Not as long as some."
She sighed. "Yeah, you're right. Sorry I'm so impatient."
"Don't apologize to me."
She looked to the ceiling. "Sorry I'm so impatient. It's just that I'd much rather be, you know, playing piano like I've been training to do for the last ten years, rather than building sub sandwiches. But please don't take this as a prayer for patience. It's just an apology."
Marcus snickered. "Nice."
"Hey, it's honest. He likes honest, right?" She stood. "I'm gonna take a shower."
"And wash away all that delicious cold-cut goodness?"
She laughed. "Sorry, babe. I know how much you love your wife smelling like the deli case."
He wagged his eyebrows, then looked at the clock and sighed. "Guess I'll see you later, then; I'm leaving in ten."
She said farewell with a lingering kiss that made her shiver. "Just a little preview of later tonight," she said with a wink.
"Looking forward to it." He kissed the small diamond ring and wedding band on her finger, and she turned with a smile for the bathroom, humming Mozart and thinking happy thoughts of her husband. Despite the uncertainty of their futures, Marcus's confidence that God would take care of them comforted her. She loved the stability his faith gave their lives.
But alone in the steam, she prayed more seriously. I wish I knew what You were waiting for, she thought toward heaven. It would make it easier. And I wish I had Marcus's faith. And patience. I probably should be praying for patience, huh? Even if I could just get some studio work or something, I'd feel so much better. This sandwich gig makes my existence feel positively meaningless.
As she showered, her thoughts bounced from one thing to another—from Marcus and what their night held, to the motif she'd found herself humming on the bus and had meant to chart at home, then to the call she owed her best friend, Jill—which sent her thoughts to the two years they spent together at Juilliard and the double wedding they'd shared six months ago. Eventually her mind made its way to the audition she'd had two days ago. She'd done well, and had been sure she'd get a callback, but so far she hadn't heard anything. Hadn't they said they'd contact everyone in a day or two? Maybe the whole gig had fallen apart. There were already scores of theater troupes in LA—was there really a need for one that only did musicals? For her sake, she hoped so. She prayed she'd land the position—it would keep her playing and performing and practicing for when something bigger came along.
She left the shower with a plan in place for the short time she had before leaving for job number two: tutoring piano students at the community center. Tugging a comb through her long hair, she hummed the motif again as she walked to the bedroom to get new clothes. With her mind on other things, she returned to the bathroom and checked her reflection in the mirror—and stood there in surprise. For the second time that week she couldn't avoid noticing the striking resemblance: her mother looking back at her.
She pulled her damp hair into a ponytail to dispel the similarities. Maybe I should get a haircut or something, she thought. Maybe dye it. Her fingers fumbled the elastic ponytail band twice before she managed to pull it around her thick red locks. To further mark the distinction, she applied only mascara and a quick sweep of blush. She couldn't remember ever seeing her mom without full makeup.
Amelia went to the keyboard to chart the motif but found she couldn't concentrate. She cursed her mother silently and put the pencil down so she could play instead. She needed to refocus her head, distract it from the memories recalled by seeing her mother's visage in the mirror. She mentally flipped through her repertoire and selected a simple, calming Brahms piece, one she'd learned after her mother's disappearance three years ago. Playing anything her mother had heard would only make things worse. She played from memory, eyes often closed as she pictured the music and called upon the memory of the dozens of other times she'd played the song. Soon the familiar piece had her centered again, and her thoughts returned once more to her earlier prayers.
This was what she was meant to do. Not refill mayo containers, not walk an eight-year-old through finger exercises and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." She was meant to sit behind a sleek grand piano on a stage somewhere playing the compositions of masters. When she played piano and imagined herself on stage, her soul seemed to open up. In her more honest moments, she admitted to herself that it was the only time she ever felt that God really did exist.
Thoughts of her mother pushed aside, Amelia glanced at the clock on the DVD player and sighed. Time to leave. At least this job let her put her talents to use, even if it was with a bunch of uninterested kids.
She arrived home four hours later, damp from a surprise winter shower that struck on her walk back from the community center. The apartment was dark and empty; Marcus was working until ten at his third job. She hated how much they both worked—Marcus especially. Enough already with these dead-end jobs, she prayed as she hung up her dripping coat and kicked her shoes to the corner beside the front door.
It wasn't until she'd changed into dry clothes and toweled her hair that she noticed the blinking light on her cell. The ringer was still off from her lessons. She flipped it open and hit the voice mail button, then opened the fridge to pull some dinner together.
"Amelia, hi, this is Ross Gunther. I wanted to see if you could come back for a second audition on Friday at eleven. Give me a call." He rattled off a number, but Amelia wasn't listening. She was too busy jumping around the kitchen.
She dialed Marcus's number, knowing she'd get his voice mail since he was tutoring but too excited to wait. "Guess what, guess what, guess what?" she sang into the phone. "I got the callback!" She shut the cell and let out a squeal, then closed the fridge and sat down at her keyboard. The piece she'd used for her audition came to her first, and she played it at double time until she switched mid-measure to Mozart's "Alla Turca" to accommodate her excitement. Maybe this was the break she'd been waiting for. It was hardly a prestigious position—heck, the troupe was still forming; it technically wasn't even in existence yet—but all you needed in LA was to be seen. Or heard, in her case. And if she got this job, who knew what contacts she might make?
This could be it, she thought as she ended the piece and danced to the kitchen to forage for dinner. This could be the beginning of it all.
* * *
Marcus smiled as Amelia's message played on his phone. "Good for you, babe," he murmured to himself in the quiet of the library. He wasn't surprised that she'd made it through the first round of auditions. She was so gifted. He wasn't very knowledgeable when it came to music, but the first time he'd heard her play he'd known she had a future. She just had that "it" factor. And although he knew that musical theater wasn't her dream job, it was better than nothing. If only it paid a little better so she could ditch the dreaded sandwich shop.
His excitement for Amelia morphed to guilt when he returned the phone to his pocket and his hand felt the letter he'd stuffed there. He'd had plenty of chances to tell Amelia about it since its arrival yesterday, but each time he'd chickened out. Granted, he'd written off the job opening at first. But the longer he had it, the more he found himself considering it. He just didn't know what to do next.
The rain that had begun falling a couple hours ago showed no signs of letting up. He hoped Amelia had reached home before it started. He sat in the library's reading room, eyes trained on the street light outside that illuminated the falling rain, waiting for it to lighten up so he could walk home without getting drenched. His thoughts began to wander, first to the letter, then to the positions he'd applied for but had lost to other candidates, then to the ministry dreams he'd held for the last four years: a city like LA or Chicago or New York; a multicultural church making a difference in its community; Amelia playing in the worship band or working with disadvantaged youth like she'd done alongside him during college. He would be a pastor, one of a handful who shared the responsibilities of teaching and shepherding the congregation, and would help lead the church even deeper into the plights of the city, showing its members how to shine their light in the darkest corners.
The job described in the letter was nothing like this. Not in a big city—not in a city at all. Not multicultural. Not team led. Which meant he should have stopped thinking about the invitation it contained ten seconds after reading it, not cart it around in his pocket all day. And if that didn't do it, the description of a congregation left wounded and confused from a decade under a legalistic and downright heretical leader, from what he could tell, should have made up his mind. He was a theologian, not a therapist. But somehow he couldn't stop thinking about it.
The rain finally turned to mist. Marcus shouldered his messenger bag and headed for the sidewalk.
He wasn't naive. He knew God's plans could be different from what he'd expected. God had proven Himself far better at providing what Marcus needed than Marcus had ever been. Amelia was evidence of that. He'd courted education and youth- ministry majors during his undergrad years, thinking such a person would be the obvious match for a pastor in training. But then he'd found Amelia one October night as she'd played on the darkened campus chapel's Steinway, and somehow, he'd known immediately she was the one. She was nothing like the girls he'd dated before, nothing like he'd ever imagined himself wanting. But he'd definitely wanted her. And God had been faithful to them, guiding their relationship, speaking to them through their mentors and friends, and assuring them that the unlikely match was just what He had intended.
The only person not convinced had been Marcus's father. He insisted they were too young, too immature, and too blinded by emotion to enter into marriage wisely. His mother had done her best to make up for his lack of enthusiasm, and Marcus and Amelia had refused to let one lone voice of dissent ruin their plans—but even so, the indictment had hurt.
Marcus fiddled with the letter. Memories of God's faithfulness with Amelia made him willing to concede that the career path God had in store for him may not be the path he'd planned. He was confident God wanted him to be a pastor—and he knew that how it played out might end up looking very different from the vision he had. But he knew that Amelia held more tightly to her dreams. There was no room in her mind for a life that didn't include a career for her as a professional musician—hence the reason she still knew nothing about this interview request. Marcus worried about how her young faith would respond if the job discussed in the letter came to fruition. Though he had to admit she had a penchant for being wildly encouraging of him and his career; it was one of the things he most appreciated about her. Maybe she'd surprise him and be enthusiastic instead of mortified. He prayed she'd at least have an open mind.
He walked quickly toward their apartment complex, head down against the December wind, and debated when to tell Amelia about the letter. Perhaps he should wait until he'd figured out whether to pursue it. He still had a hard time believing the church had contacted him in the first place—since when were inexperienced wannabes fresh out of seminary invited to interview for senior pastorships? Maybe it would all turn out to be a mistake.
But that thought made him nervous. The hope of finally having a full-time ministry job, the hope that had prompted him to pocket the letter rather than recycle it, was growing in influence with every hour that passed. And the more he thought about it, the more enticing the position was. How many of his fellow seminary graduates were interviewing for top positions, rather than taking slots at the bottom of the totem pole? This wasn't a ground-level job. This was a pulpit of his own, a flock to manage and care for, a chance to help a congregation recover from a toxic past and reinvent itself. And he knew he could do it. It was an unconventional offer, yes, but all the more reason why God had certainly ordained it.
* * *
The next afternoon found Amelia longing for nighttime. She had gone to bed too late again last night, her thoughts jumbled with excitement over the audition, and now as she trudged to the community center to teach, she admonished herself to be in bed by ten. Not every night. But tonight at least. And maybe tomorrow. The audition was in three days and she didn't want to botch it because she was too tired to think straight.
She'd begged and pleaded with her boss to have Friday off, but it wasn't until Maria had offered to trade shifts with Amelia that he'd relented. She was nervous; between lessons and the deli she didn't have much time to brush up on her second audition pieces. In the past, pressure often brought out the best of her abilities. She hoped that was still true.
Part of her felt a little silly for being as excited as she was. This wasn't the philharmonic—heck, it was just barely a paying job. She had so much further to go if she wanted the kind of career she'd always dreamed of, and wondered if her time would be better spent seeking out more prestigious opportunities. But then she remembered how long it had been since she'd played for an audience—besides church, which didn't count—and reminded herself that the right people were a lot more likely to hear her at this troupe's shows than in some hotel bar somewhere. There was nothing wrong with starting at the bottom. She zipped her coat to the top and stuffed her hands into her pockets. Everyone had to start someplace.
Excerpted from composing amelia by alison strobel. Copyright © 2011 Alison Strobel. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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