Sunday, December 30, 2007

Odd Jobs

by Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. In this church, as in most churches, many of the odd jobs required to keep things running smoothly and keep the building from slowly decaying fall to volunteers from the congregation. And like any operation that relies on peoples’ generous natures, thing don’t always get done as promptly and effectively as might be desirable. Whenever Pastor Henry O’Donnell got frustrated at the lack of progress on some simple task, he reminded himself that volunteers are, well, volunteering. You must be grateful for what they give you and not begrudge them what they do not. Of course, as healthy as that attitude was, it meant that Pastor O’Donnell often ended up picking up the slack for these chores himself.

One of the most reliable volunteers at the church is Ralph Billings, husband to paid church secretary Tammy Billings. In addition to serving as head usher, Ralph is the unofficial church handyman. The Thursday after Christmas, Ralph went to the church to clean some leaves out of a rain gutter. He’d noticed the clog after the Christmas Eve service and wanted to take care of it right then. Ralph did not like to procrastinate -- if something needed done, best to just do it. But Tammy reminded him that he was wearing his good clothes, and besides, it was after midnight and she was tired.

So Ralph came back to do the chore Thursday afternoon a couple hours before Tammy finished work in the office. It took him a while to locate the church ladder because someone had left it in the back of the social hall instead of returning it to the storage closet where it belonged. But after that brief delay, Ralph was up on the ladder scooping out leaves and whistling “Jingle Bells.” Ralph found whistling happy tunes helped these little jobs go faster.

Pastor O‘Donnell happened by and spotted him. “Hi Ralph,” the pastor called up. “When you’re done with that, would you do me a favor? Since you’ve already got the ladder out, would you mind replacing the Advent banners behind the altar with the ‘Christ is Born’ banners? When the women’s group took down the Christmas decorations, they forgot to do that.”

“Sure,” Ralph said. “Where are the new banners?”

“With the seasonal items in the cellar under the social hall,” O’Donnell told him.

So when Ralph finished with the rain gutters, he put the ladder in the sanctuary and went to the cellar.

Unfortunately, when he flipped the switch at the top of the cellar stairs, the single fluorescent light failed to come on. Ralph knew the church had replacement fluorescent tubes, but they were stored, perhaps unwisely, in the cellar. The two thin windows in the cellar were caked with so much dirt that it was nearly cave dark down there without the overhead light. So Ralph went to get the flashlight from the kitchen off the social hall.

As he opened the door to the cupboard where the flashlight was kept, it wobbled and creaked. Ralph discovered the screws of the top hinge had worked their way well out of the wood. The hinge was on the verge of pulling loose. Not wanting to leave the door in such precarious shape, Ralph got his screwdriver from the car and tightened the screws, again whistling “Jingle Bells” as he worked.

That task finished, Ralph got the flashlight and headed back to the cellar. Unfortunately, he soon discovered the batteries were dead. He sighed, wondering what sin he had committed against light that it seemed to be conspiring against him. He went to the office and got replacement batteries from Tammy.

With the flashlight now operational, Ralph was able to descend into the dark, cluttered cellar with the ladder and locate the spare fluorescent tubes. He set the ladder up and replaced the tube in the overhead fixture, again whistling “Jingle Bells” but with a slightly less bouncy cadence. Ten minutes later, the cellar again had light.

Finishing another task restored Ralph’s spirits. He turned to where the boxes of seasonal items were kept. And his spirits sank. When the women’s group had un-decorated the church after Christmas, they apparently just piled all the decorations in a jumble on top of the boxes. Ralph could have just tossed the whole lot aside to get to the banner, but he knew that pile of lights, wreathes, fake holly boughs and bows would somehow morph over the next eleven months into a tangled mass that would induce headaches when it came time to decorate next Christmas.

So Ralph sorted the decorations and returned them to the empty boxes from which they came. He even relabeled the boxes to indicate which decorations were in each. It was a time consuming task, but “Jingle Bells” once again helped keep Ralph’s spirits up…though a passerby might have mistakenly identified the tune as a funeral dirge the way Ralph was now whistling.

Finally Ralph finished the job by taping the boxes securely shut and stacking them. And at that moment Tammy appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Ralph,” she said. “Could you give me a ride to the bank on the way home? I have to deposit the offering from Christmas Eve.”

“Sure,” Ralph responded. “Let me just hang this banner for the pastor.”

“It’s almost five,” Tammy said. “I want to get there before they close so the deposit goes in before the end of the year.”

“Okay,” Ralph said, though he was growing a little frustrated. “I guess the banner can wait until tomorrow.” So he returned the ladder to its proper location in the storage closet and took his wife to the bank.

Pastor Henry O’Donnell had been on the phone in his office with the door closed when Tammy left. She didn’t like to disturb him in that situation in case he was on a delicate call with a troubled or ill parishioner. As it happened, this time he was arguing with a customer support representative in India about the return of an ill fitting Christmas sweater he had purchased for his wife online. When he finally got the details of the transaction arranged, he emerged from the office to find Tammy gone.

Being the last one at the church that day, Henry made the rounds to lock up. When he went to lock the sanctuary, though, he was surprised to find the Advent banners still hanging behind the altar. “Ralph was supposed to change those,” he said to the empty room. But there they were, unchanged. So Henry got the ladder out of the storage closet, went to the cellar, clicked on the light, retrieved the replacement banners from the neatly organized boxes of seasonal decor, and hung them himself, grumbling the whole time. It only took a few minutes, but Henry was anxious to get home to watch a favorite TV show, so instead of returning the ladder to the storage closet he stuck it in a nook behind the sanctuary and tossed the Advent banners on top of the stack of boxes in the cellar.

“Was that so hard?” Pastor O’Donnell thought as he hurried to his car. “Why do I always have to do everything around here myself?” Then he reminded himself that Ralph was just a volunteer and Henry shouldn’t begrudge him the things he didn’t do.

(c) 2007 Douglas J. Eboch

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Third Candle (or The Second Candle Symbolizes Peace)

By Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church on the corner of Wilson and Elm. The Boyer family, which consists of Kevin Boyer, his wife Jill, and their two daughters Mary (age four) and Susie (age two), attends fairly regularly, if not always on time. Their attendance started - at the persistent suggestion of Jill - when Mary was born. Kevin consented even though it was football season. Kevin is a “cheese head” otherwise known as a Green Bay Packers fan. He has never understood why they hold church at the same time as NFL games. It has never occurred to him to ask the question in the reverse.

This Advent season, Pastor O’Donnell had the fine idea of asking some younger members to perform the Advent candle lighting ceremony during the service. He then had the less wise idea to ask the Boyer family to take that honor on the third Sunday of Advent. Jill readily consented. Kevin was no fan of public speaking, but after discovering the Packers weren’t playing until 5:30 that day, he went along with the plan.

The choosing of attire on the morning in question was a major event in the Boyer household. Jill had purchased a gorgeous green velvet dress for Susie to wear on Christmas Day, and decided that it would be perfect for this service as well. But Susie was less thrilled by the cumbersome dress and unimpressed by Jill’s explanation of what an honor it was to be asked to participate in the Advent ceremony. Yet after only forty minutes and three time outs, Jill got the dress on Susie.

Left to his own devices, Kevin would have worn khakis and a sweater, which for him was dressing up. But Jill insisted this occasion called for a tie. Kevin has never mastered the art of properly tying a tie, so Jill ties them for him. On this morning, she cinched up the knot a little beyond the point where Kevin could easily breathe. Kevin suspected, but was smart enough not to vocalize, that this might have been a response to his failure to hear her calling for help with Susie’s dress.

The Boyer family arrived at the church half an hour before the service to practice the brief ceremony. It involved someone taking a long, brass candle lighter and lighting it from one of the candles on the altar. Then, the designated individual lighted each of the first three candles on the Advent wreath in turn as other members of the family explained the symbolism of each candle. Finally, one member of the family would offer a brief prayer.

As Pastor O’Donnell explained this, Mary began jumping up and down, an arm stretched in the air. “Yes, Mary?” Pastor O’Donnell asked.

“I want to light the candles!”

Pastor O’Donnell blanched at this offer. A variety of incidents involving young Mary Boyer flashed through his head. The broken sewage pipe. The melted stained glass window. Mary’s generous repainting of the baptismal font.

“I’ll light the candles,” Jill said firmly. Many of the same incidents were flashing through her mind as well.

Mary was not pleased with this decision and pouted through the rest of the rehearsal. Jill finally coaxed her to memorize her line - “The second candle symbolizes peace” - with a promise of donuts on the way home. They did a test run and all went smoothly.

When it came time in the service for the lighting ceremony, the Boyer family went to the dais. It fell to Kevin to hold the two little girls’ hands firmly to ease any anxieties and more importantly to keep them where they were supposed to be.

Kevin guided the two girls to the microphone while Jill retrieved the brass candle lighter. “Good morning,”Kevin said, and then realized the microphone was not turned on. He released Susie’s hand to flip the switch. Now, on the walk out, Susie had noticed the two Christmas trees on either side of the altar. She knew what Christmas trees meant - presents. When Kevin let go of her hand, she decided to check to see if there were any there for her.

Unfortunately, as Susie was crossing the dais Jill had just turned from lighting the candle lighter from the altar candles. Jill tripped over Susie and the candle lighter swung straight into Kevin’s tie. Kevin looked down in shock as a smoldering black circle slowly grew in the center of the tie.
Jill let out a little yelp as she realized what she had done. She quickly hung the candle lighter on the wreath stand and began patting at Kevin’s tie. She succeeded only in burning her hand slightly.

Over by the piano, Shane Reed acted quickly when he saw the disaster. He grabbed the fire extinguisher which was kept in a little alcove behind him and ran out to Kevin. Shane had never used a fire extinguisher, so he began reading the directions. Kevin meanwhile was trying with desperation but little success to undo the tightly tied tie. Pastor O’Donnell, not a man to panic in a crisis, stormed out onto the stage and ordered Shane to give him the fire extinguisher. He’d take care of this.

As Jill and Kevin and Pastor O’Donnell and Shane Reed battled the blaze of Kevin’s tie, Mary Boyer decided she’d best take the Advent ceremony into her own small hands. She removed the candle lighter from where it hung on the wreath stand.

Although those on the dais were too preoccupied to notice Mary’s actions, they did not escape the attention of the congregation, most of whom were familiar with Mary’s exploits. The collective intake of breath vibrated the flame of the still-lit candle lighter as Mary carefully moved it toward the wreath. Yet everyone seemed too shocked to move.

Mary touched the flame to the first candle. “The second candle symbolizes peace,” she shouted. After all, it was the only line she remembered. She lit the second candle. “The second candle symbolizes peace.” She lit the third candle. “The second candle symbolizes peace.” Mary then went ahead and lit the remaining two candles for good measure, repeating her line each time. She blew out the candle lighter and returned it to its place. The members of the congregation let out the collective breath they’d been holding in a loud sigh. Mary had lit nothing on fire that wasn’t supposed to be lit. Well, the last two candles, sure, but nobody really cared much about that.

Satisfied the ceremony was complete and it was no longer necessary to be dressed up, Susie removed her green velvet dress. Mary took Susie’s hand, and the two girls walked up the aisle to go to Sunday school class.

Meanwhile, Pastor O’Donnell finally got the fire extinguisher ready and aimed at Kevin’s tie. He squeezed the handle and coated Kevin in an inch of foam. The tie no longer smoldered. Kevin, Jill, Shane and Pastor O’Donnell turned in unison toward the congregation who sat wide eyed and frozen like crash test dummies. For almost two minutes nobody moved. Then Kevin walked calmly to the microphone. The little paper with the prayer he was supposed to recite was soaked with foam, so he merely said:

“Dear Lord, we thank you for the warmth of the Christmas season, even when it comes a little too close for comfort. And on a personal note, I hope you’ll understand if I don’t wear a tie to church ever again. Amen.”

This experience will occupy the bulk of a marriage counseling session between Kevin and Jill several years from now.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Shane - Part 2

By Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church on the corner of Wilson and Elm. A couple of weeks ago, Del Winslow, star singer in the little church’s choir, was simmering with annoyance at newly hired choir director Shane Reed. Shane had recruited Florence Barker to sing a solo in the Christmas Concert. In her youth, Florence had been a torch singer in New York, and Del was put off by the sultry way in which Florence performed White Christmas. Naturally, his objections had nothing to do with Shane’s obvious admiration for Florence’s voice. It was, Del insisted, simply that her style was inappropriate for a church concert.

Del could be blunt when the situation called for it, but in this case he didn’t feel a direct appeal to Shane would be the best course of action. So instead he utilized sixty-nine year-old Henrietta Miggins. Henrietta was of the opinion that people these days had lost all sense of decorum. In her day, decent people wore their best clothes to church, wrote letters on pretty stationary instead of computer screens, and kept their private business private. Henrietta didn’t much care for Florence Barker despite the fact that Florence was actually older than Henrietta. In her day, Henrietta would not have considered Florence “decent people.”

So it was easy enough for Del to whip Henrietta into a righteous lather by describing the unseemly nature of Florence’s performances. And Del well knew that whenever Henrietta didn’t like something having to do with church, she was not shy about letting Pastor Henry O’Donnell know her feelings. Reliably, Henrietta cornered the good pastor after services and lectured him for almost thirty minutes about the obscene version of White Christmas she had heard Florence was performing with the approval of this young hooligan O’Donnell had hired as choir director.

After freeing himself from Henrietta’s clutches, the pastor went to his old friend Del to get what he thought would be an objective opinion about what, exactly was going on in the Christmas Concert rehearsals.

“Well,” Del told him, “I hadn’t planned on saying anything. I want to give Shane the benefit of the doubt. He’s a good kid after all, and perhaps he knows what appeals to the young folks. But if you want my opinion what Florence is doing with the song is kind of racy for church. I feel a little uncomfortable following it with my traditional show ending performance of Silent Night that everyone always says moves them with its holiness.”

Pastor O’Donnell decided he better attend the next rehearsal himself.

So that evening he watched as the choir went through it’s repertoire for the show. He was pleased to discover it was a much livelier program than they usually did and was growing convinced that Shane was indeed a good addition to the staff for more than just the impact his looks had on the women of the church. Then came Florence’s song. Florence was older than Pastor O’Donnell’s mother, but somehow the way she seemed to sigh the lyrics as much as sing them made a warm redness rise in his cheeks. Perhaps this one time Henrietta Miggins actually had a point.

After rehearsal, Pastor O’Donnell pulled Shane aside. “Shane, you’re doing a wonderful job with the show.”

“Thanks! It’s a fun program isn’t it? And isn’t Florence just the most spellbinding singer ever?”

“She’s got a way around a carol,” the pastor agreed. “It’s just…her style is a little…suggestive for a church concert, don’t you think?”

“It’s White Christmas. It’s an Irving Berlin song,” Shane said incredulously.

“Well, sure. There’s nothing wrong with the song. But do you think maybe you could get her to, you know, tone it down a little?”

“Florence was one of the greatest jazz club singers in New York!” Shane protested. “I’m not going to tell someone like that how she should sing.”

“That’s kind of your job,” the pastor responded.

“People will love Florence. Trust me.”

While Shane was defending his show to the pastor, Del had worked his way over to Florence. He indicated the obviously heated conversation Shane and Henry O’Donnell were having. “Good for Shane,” he said.

“What’s good for Shane?” Florence asked.

“Pastor O’Donnell is asking Shane to make you tone down your song. Looks like he’s standing up for you. I’m glad. He should have our back. I’m just concerned since he’s new and all. It would be unfortunate for him to get off on the wrong foot with the pastor.” Then Del went to get a cup of coffee leaving Florence to watch her handsome choir director fume as he put away his music. She didn’t want the poor kid to get in trouble on her behalf. But she also knew Del and suspected somehow he might be behind this.

The next rehearsal Florence informed Shane and the choir that she wanted to try a different song. Shane was concerned that she had learned about the controversy over her previous
choice, but didn’t feel right bringing it up in front of everyone. “Let’s hear it,” he said.

Florence whispered something to Walter Tibble, then stood, hands clasped demurely in front of her, eyes closed. Walter played one verse of What Child is This on the piano, then fell silent. Florence began to sing a cappella.

Her voice filled the room with haunting, perfect tones that spoke of maternal love and quiet joy. Everyone in the choir was frozen as Florence raised goose bumps from their arms with her voice. When she finished nobody spoke. Nobody breathed. Del glanced at the other choir members and noticed tears flowing from more than one pair of eyes.

“Well?” Florence finally asked, “can I do that instead.”

“Sure,” Shane choked out around the lump in his throat. “Yeah, sure. That was great. Um, Del, do you want to do your solo now?”

As he looked around at his fellow singers trying desperately to regain their composure after Florence’s song, Del very much did not want to do his solo. “My throat’s a little sore tonight. I think I better rest it,” he said.

Later, after rehearsal was over, he caught up to Florence in the parking lot. “Listen,” he told her, “I liked the new song you did tonight, but don’t you think it’s a little too similar to what I’m doing with Silent Night? I really loved your version of White Christmas and it does give the show more variety.”

“But Pastor O’Donnell doesn’t like that song,” Florence said. “I wouldn’t want Shane to get off on the wrong foot when he’s just starting out.”

“I’ll take care of Pastor O’Donnell,” Del assured her. “Let’s give Shane the show he really wants.”

So in the end, Florence performed White Christmas in the concert. Henrietta Miggins was scandalized, but a dozen jazz aficionados who came because of a flyer about Florence’s performance Shane distributed at a local cabaret loved the number. Really, so did most of the members of the church who attended, including Pastor O’Donnell’s wife Jennifer who held his hand during the song.

And Del got to close the show with his traditional performance of Silent Night. He received many compliments afterwards, including, to his delight, several from the jazz fans. Pastor O’Donnell noted those came immediately after the fans spoke to Florence and he suspected they might not be entirely genuine. But he kept his suspicions to himself.

(c) 2007 Douglas J. Eboch

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Shane - Part One

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church on the corner of Wilson and Elm. Recently the church hired a new choir director named Shane Reed. Shane was thirty-two; from Seattle, Washington; and had a Master’s degree in music. Shane also had a broken heart. He and his high school sweetheart had gotten divorced a few months earlier. In his job interview Shane told Pastor Henry O’Donnell that he left Seattle because he needed a change of scenery. The actual reason was that he felt like putting a continent between himself and his ex. Pastor O’Donnell liked the polite young man with the shy smile and hired him on the spot.

Shane jumped right in, conducting the choir in worship service his first week on the job. Shane’s performance was a little rocky in Pastor O’Donnell’s opinion, but no worse than might be expected. To the pastor’s delight, however, several of the congregants remarked on how much they liked the new choir director as they shook Henry’s hand on the way out of service. It seemed he had indeed made a wise hiring decision.

As Henry O’Donnell drove home with his wife Jennifer and daughter Katie, Jennifer also remarked on what a nice young fellow Shane was. “And hot,” Katie added from the back seat.

“Excuse me?” Pastor O’Donnell said.

“He’s hot, Dad,” Katie informed him with the exasperated eye roll all teenage girls must learn in the Junior High bathroom. “I could tell he has a swimmer’s body. Yummy.”

“Katie!” Jennifer exclaimed.

Pastor O’Donnell noticed Jennifer’s cheeks had reddened. As he thought back, he realized all of the people who had complimented him on hiring Shane were female. It occurred to him it may not have been Shane’s musical prowess they admired.

Shane’s arrival came just as the choir was starting its preparations for the annual Christmas concert. This concert was a sixteen year old beloved tradition at the little church. Though the choir was only fourteen people strong, they were a tight knit and experienced group of singers. Choir member Del Winslow had directed the first couple Christmas concert rehearsals while they waited for a new choir director to be hired. When Shane arrived for his first rehearsal, Del shook his hand warmly.

“Welcome, Shane,” Del said. “You did a nice job at the service last week. We’re really glad to have you here.”

“Thank you,” Shane replied.

“Now, we’ve already put together our program for the Christmas concert,” Del told him. “Why don’t we run through it once for you?”

Shane agreed and for the next hour Del directed the choir in a run through. They performed many traditional Christmas hymns in a traditional style just as they had for every other concert for the last sixteen years. The show concluded with a performance of Silent Night that featured Del as a soloist -- just as it had for the last sixteen years.

When they were done, Shane clapped and praised them enthusiastically. “What wonderful voices you all have!” he exclaimed. Del grinned proudly. Then Shane said, “I would like to jazz up the arrangements a little.”

Del’s smile faded. He was not a fan of jazzing things up. But he held his tongue as Shane proceeded to change the pace and arrangements of several of the hymns, even swapping some out for songs he felt were more “toe tapping.” Poor Walter Tibble, the organist, struggled to adapt. Walter had learned most of the hymns a certain way years ago and was not the kind of fellow who handled change particularly well.

Finally, Shane suggested they conclude the concert with Joy to the World immediately after Silent Night. He thought it would leave the audience in brighter spirits. Del could hold his tongue no longer. He asked to speak to Shane outside.

Once they were alone, Del put his arm around Shane’s shoulders. “You’re obviously a talented musician, kid, but you’re new here. We have traditions. Traditions people expect us to honor. One of those traditions is my performance of Silent Night to close the Christmas concert. People look forward to it all year. They tell me so all the time. I don’t say that to brag, mind you. I’m thinking of you. I wouldn’t want people to be disappointed with your first Christmas concert.”

“I see,” Shane said diplomatically.

“We’re fun people,” Del went on. “Maybe it is time we tried a few new things in the concert. But let’s just take it a little slower. Leave the last number alone.”

Shane had directed the church choir back in Seattle and dealt with singer’s egos there so he knew what the smart decision was. “Okay,” he said. “We’ll end with Silent Night.”

And after that things went smoothly in rehearsals.

Until the day Shane met Florence Barker.

Florence Barker was a seventy-eight year-old widow, and had been a member of the church since she moved to Normal from New York twenty years before. Many of the church women of her generation considered her an odd duck. Florence wore flashy shoes and peppered her discussions with salty language and saucy innuendos. More than one churchgoer attributed Florence’s behavior to her big city roots.

What most of them did not know was that Florence Barker had at one time been a professional jazz singer. Though many of the people at the church had actually owned records she sang on, Florence never achieved the kind of fame where the average music fan knew her by name. Shane, however, was not an average music fan. He was a hard core jazz devotee and when Pastor O’Donnell introduced him to Florence, Shane knew exactly who she was.

Florence was flattered by Shane’s attentions, and not a little taken with his boyish looks. They huddled in a corner of the social hall during coffee hour as she regaled him with tales of nights performing at the legendary Blue Angel supper club in New York until everyone else had gone on to their Sunday afternoon activities except for church secretary Tammy Billings who waited impatiently to lock up. Finally Florence had to put a stop to the reminiscing as her stomach was noisily reminding her that it was past time for lunch.

As they walked out to their cars, Shane asked the question he had been wanting to ask since halfway through their conversation: “Miss Barker, why don’t you sing in the choir?”

“I was never any good at that type of group singing,” she said. “I’m too independent minded. And call me Florence, Sweetie. It’s the twenty-first century after all.”

“Well, if you won’t join the choir, what about doing a number in the Christmas show? It’s my first one and I really want it to be great.”

Florence’s weakness for good looking, earnest young men had gotten her into trouble on more than one occasion, though usually not at church. She agreed to Shane’s proposal. Shane was delighted.

When Florence strolled into the next Christmas concert rehearsal, the babble of conversation dribbled to a stop. Shane called for attention. He explained Florence’s background to the choir and then announced that Florence would grace them by performing a number in the show.

Shane was so giddy at the prospect of working with Florence that he hadn’t noticed the choir didn’t seem to share his excitement. If Florence was aware of their hesitation she didn’t let on. The truth was most of the choir was a bit in shock by this turn of events. Shane asked if Florence had picked out a song.

“I have,” she replied and handed sheet music for Irving Berlin’s White Christmas to Walter Tibble.

“Let’s hear it,” Shane said. Walter began to play the song with a sprightly bounce.

“Hold on there,” Florence said. “Slow it down a little.” Walter dropped the tempo by a third and Florence began to sing. It was unlike any performance that little choir room had ever heard. Florence cooed and purred the lyrics just like the torch songs she performed back at the Blue Angel. She made snow sound naughty and glistening treetops downright indecent. The stained glass windows in the sanctuary next door were in danger of steaming up.

Shane was smitten. When Florence whispered the last line with her come hither phrasing, he clapped wildly. The rest of the choir joined in. All except Del. “This is unacceptable,” he thought.

Though Shane didn’t know it yet, he had just put his new job in jeopardy.

The story of Shane and the Christmas Concert will be concluded in two weeks. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 11, 2007


by Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Ralph Billings is head usher at the church and husband to Tammy, the church secretary. He’s also the unofficial church handy man. Ralph believes good nutrition is the key to a good life. So when he learned that the pre-school Sunday school class known as the Guppies had made cookies one Sunday, he got very frustrated. Karen Winslow, the teacher, should know better than to encourage the kids’ sweet teeth!

But Ralph was a positive guy who didn’t believe in giving negative criticism. Instead, he decided to do something positive: he would help the Guppies plant a garden of healthy vegetables in back of the church. Karen was happy to accommodate his suggestion -- as long as he would be the one showing the kids how to garden. In fact, she secretly looked forward to seeing how Ralph would fare intentionally bringing the kids to a big patch of dirt.

So the following Sunday Ralph got someone to fill in as head usher and wore his overalls and straw hat to church. The parents had been forewarned to have the children dress in gardening clothes as well. Karen gathered the class by the back wall of the church where a section of ground beside the flower garden had been set aside for the project. Ralph explained to the kids that they were going to grow a variety of vegetables and that in a couple months they’d be able to make a yummy salad out of the things they grew. The kids thought that sounded really cool and dived into the work with enthusiasm.

Overall, things didn’t go too badly. Yes, a wayward shovel stroke breached the sprinkler line and the resulting deluge seeped into the adjoining classroom, but it only took Ralph four hours to repair the damage and clean up the resulting mess that afternoon.

Yes, the packet of beet seeds mysteriously disappeared. Little Mary Boyer was not fond of beets and decided maybe she’d enjoy the promised salad more if it didn’t have any.

And yes, Mary was overly fond of snails and slipped several in her pocket while planting, which gave her mother Jill quite a start the following laundry day. But then, Jill was used to finding unusual things in Mary’s pockets.

So overall it was about average for a Guppy class project. And by the end of the church service, a fine garden had been planted.

The following week, Ralph was delighted when the kids came running up at coffee hour to tell him how little shoots were sprouting in the garden.

Two months later, the report from the kids wasn’t as positive. The plants had been growing wonderfully and the first tomatoes were beginning to ripen. But sometime during the previous night, something had dug up several of the garden plants. Ralph went to inspect the damage. It was just as he suspected:

A raccoon.

Thus began a pitched battle. Ralph first tried various repellants suggested on the internet: Cayenne pepper. Moth balls. Coyote urine. Each worked for a few days, but inevitably the raccoon returned.

Then Ralph stumbled across a really clever solution. He bought a mechanical Santa Claus that waved its arms and sang carols to act as a scarecrow. It worked…but then the neighbors complained about having to hear “Jingle Bells” in the middle of summer. So, Ralph was forced to disconnect the speaker. Apparently the raccoons were as relieved as the neighbors at the break from June carols because they quickly returned, ignoring Santa’s waving arms.

There was only one thing to do. Ralph would have to trap and relocate the raccoon.

Ralph purchased a large animal trap and planted it in the garden on a Tuesday evening when Tammy was attending the monthly trustees meeting. He placed the trap at the back of the garden behind the tomato plants and baited it with some shrimp -- a raccoon favorite. He then found a quiet corner where he could read until Tammy was finished. But less than ten minutes after settling in, he heard the loud clang of the trap’s door. “Got ‘im!” thought Ralph.

Ralph grabbed his flashlight and hurried around back. He could see two points of glittering light where the raccoon’s eyes caught the flashlight beam. But as he parted the tomato plants and stepped in to pick up the trap, he realized something was wrong. Instead of a gray-furred critter with black mask, he saw a creature that was all black with a white stripe.

A skunk.

It hissed and stomped its feet in warning, then turned its backside to Ralph. Ralph scrambled backwards, but tripped on the chord for the mechanical Santa. He tried to roll away but he was tangled in the chord.

The skunk sprayed Ralph long and thoroughly. Ralph wailed as the pungent odor assaulted his nose and tears poured from his eyes. In the meeting room the trustees stopped their discussion of parking lot lighting upgrades to ponder what the unholy screams could mean.

Ralph finally managed to scramble away from the skunk gagging and choking. He crawled into the bathroom and splashed water onto his face. He then stripped down and rinsed out his clothes. The smell was horrible. And it wasn’t just coming from his clothes -- it was coming from his skin, too.

Half an hour later when the trustees meeting broke up, Tammy spotted him sitting in the courtyard soaking wet and miserable. She approached, worried, but stopped short when the smell hit her. “What happened!” she asked.

“I caught a skunk by mistake,” Ralph replied. “Can we go home?”

“You’re not getting in the car like that. It’ll stink for weeks.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Tomato juice gets out skunk odor.”

“Where am I supposed to get tomato juice?”

“You’ve got tomatoes growing in that garden, right?”

So Tammy drove home to pick up some fresh clothes for Ralph while he squeezed the juice out of several of the tomatoes and began taking a sponge bath in the sink.

Meanwhile, Henrietta Miggins, one of the church trustees, was heading back to her car after giving Pastor O’Donnell a piece of her mind for twenty minutes following the meeting. Normally her tirades lasted longer but she was a little tired that night. As she passed the bathroom, she noticed the door was cracked open a couple inches and there were splashing noises coming from inside. She looked in and saw a half naked man covered in red liquid.

Henrietta sucked in her breath but retained enough composure not to scream. She ran back to the meeting room where Pastor O’Donnell was just locking up. “What now, Henrietta?” he asked.

“There’s a naked bloody man in the bathroom!” Henrietta hissed. “Call the police!” Pastor O’Donnell was skeptical of Henrietta’s report and walked toward the bathroom. Then he saw a rivulet of red running out from under the door. Remembering the odd scream they’d heard earlier, Pastor O’Donnell ran to his office and dialed 9-1-1.

Once the police arrived they quickly sorted out the situation and had a good laugh about it. They called Animal Control to release the skunk and then, being careful not to get too close to smelly, tomato juice soaked Ralph, they informed him that it was a violation of city ordinances for an individual to trap and relocate raccoons. That was okay, Ralph assured them, he had no intention of trying again.

Tammy then took poor Ralph home where she made him sleep on the old futon in the garage for the next four days.

The good news was that the skunk’s liberal spraying effectively discouraged the raccoons and they left the garden alone from thereon out. The bad news was that it also effectively discouraged the Guppies Sunday school class. The garden was abandoned for the year, the remainder of the vegetables left uneaten.

The following week the Guppies once again made cookies. Ralph kept his opinions on this to himself.

(c) 2007 Douglas J. Eboch

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Ghost of Ernest Eagleton

by Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. The church has long been haunted by the ghost of Ernest Eagleton who died in 1924. Or so Pastor Henry O’Donnell would have his church secretary, Tammy Billings, believe. You see, Tammy is a bit superstitious and Henry is a bit of a prankster. And each year in the week before Halloween, the pastor creates an elaborate prank to scare Tammy.

Henry didn’t make up Ernest Eagleton. Ernest was an actual person who died a rather violent death on what is now church property. You see, the church was built in 1947 on the site of what had been a restaurant. And during the 1920’s when prohibition was in effect that restaurant had been a speakeasy. The original building was torn down to build the church, but one element was incorporated into the new structure: a cellar under the current social hall. The church used the cellar to store files and seasonal items. But during prohibition it had been used to store alcohol smuggled in from Canada. This cellar was where Ernest Eagleton met his demise.

Ernest was a jazz musician who played clarinet in the speakeasy band. He was popular among the patrons and managed his money wisely and was thus able to avoid trouble with the speakeasy’s rather unsavory owners.

That is, until he fell in love.

Not that the gangsters who ran the place had any complaint with love. But Ernest had the misfortune of falling in love with Mazie, the voluptuous wife of the speakeasy’s manager, Marco. Ernest and Mazie were very careful to keep their affair secret knowing that Marco kept a .38 in his jacket pocket which had been used on more than one person unwise or unfortunate enough to upset him. When Halloween rolled around, though, Mazie concocted a risky scheme. She bought two costumes - one a nurse’s outfit which she showed to Marco, and the other a gorilla costume which she hid in the ladies’ lavatory.

One of the reasons Mazie cheated on Marco was that whenever they went to the speakeasy he was always too busy running the place to pay any attention to her. (The other reason was that she had never really loved him and only married him for his money.) But Marco’s preoccupation with making all that money allowed her to easily slip away during the big Halloween party and change into her gorilla costume. She then left a note for Ernest - who was dressed as a baseball player - to meet her in the cellar during his break.

Unfortunately, Marco decided to use the cellar for a business meeting while Ernest and Mazie were having their tryst. Even more unfortunately, her plan with the Gorilla costume was undone by the fact that the mask was very hot and she had taken it off once she and Ernest were alone in the cellar. And as a result of that chain of events, Ernest met his demise.

That story, with various embellishments, was well known to anyone who attended the little church very long and it made a good basis for Henry’s annual Halloween prank on Tammy. Tammy typically worked late on Tuesday evenings because her husband Ralph played racquetball with a buddy. Ralph would pick Tammy up from the church after he was finished and the two would have a late dinner.

So at 6 pm on the Tuesday before Halloween, Henry told Tammy that he was going to do a home visit and left her alone in the office. He drove around the corner, parked his car and snuck back. Then he used his cell phone to call Tammy. He told her he was missing his sweater. When she couldn’t find it in his office, he asked her to check to see if he had left it in the cellar where he had been going through some old files that morning.

Tammy didn’t like going into the cellar by herself at night, but she was a grown woman and wasn’t about to admit her fears to Henry. She got her key chain, unlocked the social hall, and descended the wooden steps into the cellar.

The room was lit by a single, long overhead fluorescent light. The pipes and vents on the ceiling and crumbling boxes stacked along the walls left many pockets of dark shadow. Tammy looked around, trying not to let the ticking and clicking of the pipes and vents unnerve her. She spotted Henry’s sweater draped over an easel at the back of the room.

As she went to retrieve it, she heard another faint sound among the pipes - music.

She furrowed her brow. Nobody else was at the church that evening. Where was music coming from? Then she realized it was clarinet music and visions of Ernest Eagleton stabbed into her mind. She looked down and discovered two used highball glasses resting on a nearby box.

Tammy got out of that cellar as fast as she could.

The source of the music was not Ernest Eagleton’s ghost, of course. It came from a boom box Henry was playing near an air vent in the social hall. Sound traveled quite well through the vent system.

As Tammy bolted out of the cellar, she discovered Pastor O’Donnell doubled over in laughter. “You should see your face,” he gasped.

“That’s not funny,” Tammy responded and threw his sweater at him. She stomped back to the office.

Henry giggled to himself as he retrieved his boom box and started to lock the social hall up again. And then he heard a slow thunk-thunk-thunk sound coming from the cellar. It sounded like something had bounced down the stairs. Tammy must have knocked something over in her mad flight, he thought, and went to investigate.

He discovered a baseball resting on the cement floor at the bottom of the stairs. He picked it up. “Must belong to one of the scouts,” he thought.

And then he heard a rustling from the back of the cellar. He looked up…

There in the shadows was someone in a gorilla costume.

It was too dark to make out the eyes behind the slits in the mask, but there was definitely someone inside the cheap outfit. A muffled voice said one word: “Ernest?”

Henry made it up the stairs only falling once. The next thing he knew he was standing in the middle of the office panting, his shin throbbing from where he’d banged it when he fell, and his heart racing at an alarming rate.

“Tammy, someone in a gorilla costume is in the cellar!”

“Very funny.” Tammy responded.

“No, really!” Henry insisted.

The two of them went back and forth in the same vein for several minutes. Meanwhile, back in the cellar Ralph Billings took off the gorilla costume. It had been well worth the forty bucks he’d spent to rent it, though he felt bad he’d had to cancel racquetball. He shook his head at poor, predictable Henry O’Donnell. Every year Henry played his Halloween pranks on Tuesday when Tammy worked late. Ralph was surprised Tammy still didn’t see them coming. But he suspected perhaps Pastor O’Donnell would skip the prank on Tammy next year.

Ralph shoved the costume in the trunk of his car and went to pick up his wife. While she was gathering her things and Henry continued to try to convince them he’d seen Mazie’s ghost, Ralph slipped the spare social hall keys back in Tammy’s desk drawer.

And back in the cellar the ghosts of Ernest and Mazie were happy to have the place to themselves once again.

(c) 2007 Douglas J. Eboch

Sunday, October 7, 2007


By Douglas J. Eboch

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. It was built sixty years ago and is a pretty traditional protestant church. The pastor, Henry O’Donnell, was built fifty-five years ago and is a pretty traditional protestant pastor. But one day Henry read an article about multi-media worship services and decided perhaps it was time both he and the church modernized.

He decided to start small: a screen and a projector in the sanctuary so they could project song lyrics and announcements. The church had bought him a laptop computer a couple years before which he could attach to the projector to provide the media. The church secretary, Tammy Billings, was reasonably good with computers and certainly capable of running the operation from the balcony at the back of the sanctuary which saw little use these days.

Pastor O’Donnell took his proposal to the Trustees committee which would have to approve spending several thousand dollars on the screen and projector. As usual, the committee was split in their opinions. Henrietta Miggins thought that if the church survived just fine without fancy multi-media when her parents were members, it would survive just fine without it today. Ralph Billings, Tammy’s husband, was a technophile and all for modernizing the service. Del Winslow opined that anything that might make O’Donnell’s sermons more interesting was worth a shot. In the end, the motion passed.

Pastor O’Donnell may have intended to start small, but once the equipment arrived he was like a kid with a new toy. He stayed up until the wee hours for several days planning an elaborate slideshow to illustrate his sermon for that week. He was preaching on the duty of Christians to actively help those in need, and as he tapped away at the laptop he had visions of the congregation moved to tears by the power of his presentation.

If Tammy Billings was intimidated by the elaborate show she would be running she showed no sign of it. Tammy believed in organization and preparation. As the pastor revised his sermon and added new images to the slideshow, Tammy simply printed out longer and longer cue lists and practiced until she was completely familiar with the program.

The first hint that things might not go quite as planned came an hour before service Sunday morning. As Pastor O’Donnell headed toward his office, his cell phone rang. It was Tammy Billings. She and Ralph had a flat tire. Ralph was in the process of changing the tire, but Tammy suggested Pastor O’Donnell better go ahead and get his laptop hooked up to the projector.

Pastor O’Donnell was certainly cable of handling that. He and Tammy had done a dress rehearsal Friday afternoon so he knew exactly how to set everything up. Then the phone rang again. “Ralph broke one of the lug nuts off,” Tammy said. “The auto club is coming. But we may miss the start of service.”

Pastor O’Donnell was getting a bit nervous, but he quickly came up with a back-up plan. His wife, Jennifer, could operate the computer until Tammy arrived. It was often the uncomfortable role of a pastor’s spouse to be called on in these kinds of emergencies. Jennifer was not a computer person and was reluctant to take on such a big responsibility. But when Henry showed her Tammy’s neatly arranged cue list she agreed. All that was required for the first half of the service was to bring up the lyrics to the hymns. The slideshow during his sermon was the complicated part and surely Tammy would be there by then.

Yet as the time for the sermon approached, Tammy had still not arrived. Jennifer scooted out of the sanctuary during the offering and dialed Tammy’s cell phone.

“There’s been a complication,” Tammy told her. “Ralph got in an argument with the tow truck man and…well, we’re waiting for a different one. You’re going to have to run the sermon media yourself.”

“I can’t!” Jennifer cried.

“You can,” Tammy told her. “After the hymn that comes before the sermon, turn off the projector and close the file with the lyrics. Open the slideshow entitled September Sermon. The entire text of the sermon is on the cue sheet. When Henry gets to the first red X turn on the projector. After that whenever you see a red X just hit any key to move to the next slide. Easy.”

It sounded easy. After the next hymn, Jennifer turned off the projector as instructed. She closed the file with the song lyrics. She clicked on “open” from the menus -- and realized she didn’t know where the September Sermon file was located. As the scripture was being read, she frantically searched through Henry’s folders. Henry’s filing scheme was not as intuitive as one might prefer.

She still had not located the file when her husband stepped into the pulpit. Jennifer eyed the printout of the sermon. Henry was fast approaching the point where she was to put up the first slide. She clicked through folder after folder. Finally, her eyes fell on a file named September Images. “That’s it!” she thought, and clicked on it.

Pastor O’Donnell was building to the big moment. “Can we Christians ignore the suffering of others? We often do because we avoid seeing it. But we must act when faced with tragedies like this.” Pastor O’Donnell gestured grandly at the screen.

As the file was opening, Jennifer turned on the projector. An image popped on the screen.

The congregation laughed. Not giggles or titters either, but deep guffaws. O’Donnell thought that was a strange reaction to a slide of people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. He looked over at the screen.

The image projected there was of Pastor O’Donnell in cut-off shorts and a stained T-shirt standing outside a cabin. It was taken on the O’Donnell’s vacation the previous September. Pastor O’Donnell prided himself on being thrifty -- though Jennifer thought that was just a euphemism for “cheap” -- and had made the cut-offs from an old pair of jeans he had worn in college. However the good pastor had gained some weight since his college years and the shorts were extremely tight.

Pastor O’Donnell’s face turned bright red. “Next picture!” he shouted. Jennifer desperately hit buttons on the computer and the image switched to O’Donnell in the same outfit pushing a canoe into the water. The act of bending over had split his tight shorts and a white arc of underwear showed through the gap. Whatever button Jennifer pushed only advanced the slideshow to the next embarrassing image.

Jennifer and Henry O’Donnell’s teenage daughter Katie was guffawing along with everyone else. She had almost forgotten how silly her father looked that day. Then her laughter stopped abruptly as she remembered that was the same vacation she had tried to perm her own hair. Her mother had taken lots of pictures of that disaster. Pictures certain to be coming up soon in the slide show.

Katie dashed to the back of the church, up into the balcony, and hit the “Escape” key on the computer ending the slideshow in the nick of time. For her, anyway.

Somehow Pastor O’Donnell got through the rest of the service. On his way out to coffee hour, Del Winslow let the pastor know that the multimedia had indeed made his sermon more interesting. Henrietta Miggins only sniffed in disgust. Tammy finally arrived and spotted Jennifer. “Did it go okay?” Tammy asked.

Jennifer gave her a nasty look. “Someone needs to tell Henry to be more specific when labeling his files.”

The next week the service returned to its low-tech traditions. The projector and screen did continue to get used for weddings, church meetings and special events and in the end the equipment was well worth the expense…but it was some time before Pastor O’Donnell tried to do a multi-media sermon again.

(c) 2007 Douglas J. Eboch

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Katie the Substitute

Hear the story read by the author

Katie the Substitute
By Douglas J. Eboch

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. The pastor there is the Reverend Henry O’Donnell. Last Sunday tensions were high in the O’Donnell family sedan as the good pastor drove to church with his wife Jennifer and fifteen year-old daughter Katie.

The source of the tension was a “family night” they had engaged in the previous evening. Jennifer insisted they have such events once a week. Usually these were on weeknights and they played a board game or watched a movie. This time, Jennifer was performing in a community theater play and Henry and Katie came to see the Saturday evening show. Both were secretly grateful they were able to combine the viewing and family night obligations into one evening. Unfortunately, Henry fell asleep in the middle of the second act and began snoring loudly until Katie elbowed him in the arm. Henry maintained it wasn’t his fault -- he had stayed up late Friday working on his sermon so he would have time to see the play and besides, he had seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream several times and knew how it came it out. That excuse didn’t seem to appease Jennifer much. When he pointed out that she “only” played Titania and thus wasn’t in the scene that put him to sleep, Jennifer launched into a lecture about how crucial Titania’s role is to the theme of the play. The lecture nearly put Henry to sleep again. The O’Donnell’s family nights didn’t always produce the intended family bonding results.

While Reverend O’Donnell and his wife stewed during the Sunday morning drive, Katie was having her own problems in the back seat. She hadn’t asked her boyfriend of three weeks, Joe Wheeling, to go to the play because she knew they would have to sit with her Dad and she liked Joe too much to subject him to that. Joe said he’d go to the movies with his friends and call her afterwards. But he hadn’t called. Katie was engaged in a furious text message conversation about the situation with her three best friends. Though this brain trust produced a wide variety of conflicting theories on the psychology of teenage boys, all three of Katie’s friends were united on one point: whatever Katie did, she should not text or call Joe.

Katie was finding it difficult to heed their advice.

Meanwhile, the Boyer family’s trip to church was similarly tense. Kevin Boyer had been cornered by church secretary Tammy Billings the previous week and agreed to bring some sort of baked goods for coffee hour. He had neglected, however, to pass that information on to his wife Jill or to actually arrange for anything. He only remembered the obligation as they were trying to herd four year-old Mary and two year-old Susie out the door.

Jill was furious. Kevin didn’t see what the big deal was -- there was a donut shop on the way to church. Jill tried to explain to him why bringing donuts would be embarrassing, but Kevin failed to grasp the point. He thought donuts would be far superior to the usual selection of banana breads and lemon cakes.

Anyway, there was little choice. They stopped and got a couple dozen donuts. This excited little Mary greatly. She loved donuts -- especially the ones with gooey stuff inside. She became very displeased, however, when Jill wouldn’t allow her to have a donut from the boxes before church. Mary expressed her displeasure in long, high-pitched, ear splitting wails.

Meanwhile, the O’Donnell’s had arrived at church. As the pastor sat in his office trying to focus on the upcoming services, he realized he had left his sermon notes in the car. He asked Katie to go get them.

“Uh huh,” she answered, and just sat there on his couch furiously working her thumbs across the keypad of her cell phone.

“Katie, did you hear me?”

“Uh huh.” Still she didn’t move.

“Katie!” Pastor O’Donnell yelled. He was on the verge of a melt down. “Go get my notes from the car!”

Katie shuffled out of the office, still fixated on the tiny glowing screen.

Pastor O’Donnell used the time to take care of various odds and ends relating to the service. But when Katie hadn’t returned after ten minutes, he went to see what was keeping her.

He discovered her standing four feet outside the door still typing away. That was as far as she’d gotten before forgetting all about her assigned task. Pastor O’Donnell lost it. “Give me the phone!” he shouted and yanked it from her hand before she could respond.

“Dad, no!” Katie wailed. “I was right in the middle of a conversation!”

“You can finish your conversation after church. Now go get my notes like I asked.” Katie burst into tears (which startled Henry) and bolted off down the stairs. What the pastor didn’t know was that Katie had just bowed to her less wise urges and sent a text to Joe asking why he hadn’t called. Her young heart’s fate would be determined by his response.

Pastor O’Donnell had no sooner stashed the cell phone in a desk drawer when Tammy Billings delivered more bad news. Karen Winslow, the Sunday School teacher for the pre-school class had called in sick. They needed a replacement. Pastor O’Donnell asked if Tammy would do it. Unfortunately at that very moment the Boyers arrived, little donut-deprived Mary’s screeches echoing through the building. Mary was in the pre-school class. Tammy politely but firmly declined.

“I’ll do it.” It was Katie, just returned with her father’s notes. Perhaps the pastor ought to have been suspicious of the offer, but it was now twelve minutes until the start of services and he was in no mood to be picky. He agreed and Katie went down to the pre-school class room on the lower level, a plan forming in her head.

It was a simple plan, really. Once service started, she would take the class on a quick field trip up to her father’s office, retrieve her phone, and find out if her romantic future would be happy or tormented. What she had not planned for was little Mary’s determination to get her donut fix.

Service started and Katie had the eight kids in the class line up. She led them upstairs and told them to sit in a circle in the reception area outside her father’s office. The social hall was visible through an arch and Mary craned her neck until she spotted the donut boxes on the folding tables. Katie told the kids if they stayed quiet they would win a prize, then went to retrieve her phone. As soon as Katie was out of sight, Mary made a beeline for the donuts. Some of the other kids might have alerted Katie, but they all wanted to win the prize.

Mary sorted through the filled donuts looking at the little holes in the side to determine their contents. She found one filled with purple jelly. Purple was Mary’s favorite flavor! She grabbed it and took a big bite -- which caused a good sized dollop of jelly to squish out and fall smack onto her dress.

Meanwhile, Katie found her phone and discovered half a dozen text messages from Joe. After the movies he’d gone over to his friend’s house and played video games until late into the night, and simply forgotten to call her. He apologized in his first response to her, but when she failed to respond back, he’d grown concerned. His messages over the last forty minutes had grown ever more desperate. Katie was delighted. She sent him a text reassuring him and telling him she would call after she was done with church. Then she replaced the phone in her dad’s desk -- the perfect crime.

She left the office and discovered her class was missing. It didn’t take her long to find them gathered around the boxes of donuts in the social hall. They had all decided that a donut was probably as good as any prize Katie was going to give them. Katie reprimanded as harshly as she could without raising her voice above a whisper and herded them all back to the classroom.

It wasn’t hard to convince the kids not to tell their parents about the donuts. What was difficult was figuring out what to do about the jelly stain on Mary’s dress. But Katie’s brain was firing on all cylinders now that her issue with Joe had been resolved. She created a craft project for the kids where they cut out and decorated construction paper flowers that Katie then pinned to their shirts. By pinning Mary’s a bit off center it would easily cover the jelly stain.

The solution was only short term, of course. Eventually Jill Boyer saw the stain on Mary’s shirt and managed to get out of her what happened. Jill was not particularly upset with Katie. After all, Jill had to deal with Mary’s antics every day of the week. But eventually word got back to Pastor O’Donnell and Katie was grounded the following weekend. Katie didn’t really care, though, because Joe sent her text messages the entire time.

(c) 2007 Douglas J. Eboch

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Funeral of Gerry the Gerbil

The Blessing of the Animals Part 2:
The Funeral of Gerry the Gerbil
By Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm where the Guppy Sunday School Class was mourning the death of Gerry the Gerbil. Gerry had a good, long life, but would be sorely missed by the pre-school kids, particularly Mary Boyer who loved the little rodent with an enthusiasm bordering on torture.

Gerry died on a Saturday and so a funeral was scheduled for Sunday after church and Sunday school. As the class gathered and Pastor O’Donnell arrived to preside over the ceremony, Karen Winslow, the class’s teacher, realized they needed something to put Gerry in for his interment. A shoe box would be traditional, but there was not such a box anywhere on church property. “I know!” shouted Mary Boyer and ran off toward the church kitchen before anyone could stop her.

Karen knew she should probably not let little Mary run around on her own but the truth was the four year-old was beyond Karen’s control, so she just shrugged at Pastor O’Donnell and waited. A few moments later Mary returned with a medium sized green plastic kitchen container adorned with press-on decal flowers. “That’s perfect, Mary,” Karen said. She wrapped Gerry in a paper towel and laid him inside the container.

They decided they would bury Gerry in the flower garden along the south side of the church. The class had spent the hour decorating a large wooden cross to serve as a tombstone. Karen dug a hole, laid the plastic casket inside and shoved the bead and macaroni encrusted cross into the dirt.

Everyone turned to Pastor O’Donnell. During the delay in finding a casket, his mind had wandered to his lunch plans and so he was caught a bit off guard. But being an experienced clergyman, he had no trouble leaping into a prayer on the spot.

“Oh Lord, we thank you for the six years--”

“Seven,” Karen interjected.

“--Seven years that Gerry the Gerbil cheered our hearts. We commend him to your care. Amen.”

It wasn’t a long prayer, but it seemed to Pastor O’Donnell suitable for a gerbil. He was already turning to retrieve his wife for their lunch date when Karen said, “would anyone like to say a few words about Gerry?”

It turned out the whole class wanted to talk about Gerry. Pastor O’Donnell tried to will his growling stomach quiet as the kids talked about Gerry’s soft fur or how fun it was to chase him in his ball or how his little feet tickled when they let him crawl inside their shirts. Finally, it was Mary Boyer’s turn to speak.

“I remember the last time I got to hold Gerry I shared a piece of cake I had saved in my pocket and he threw up in Mrs. Winslow’s coffee cup.”

Karen blanched. “He threw up in my coffee cup?”

“Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you,” Mary said.

That seemed to be a good note to end on, so Pastor O’Donnell raised his hands and said, “Lord, bless Gerry the Gerbil. He will be missed. Amen. Go find your parents, kids.” Then he whispered in Karen’s ear, “Just think of it as something to bring you closer to the deceased.” As the kids followed Pastor O’Donnell back to the lounge, Karen stayed behind, staring at the cross. Mary figured she must be awful sad to have lost such a close companion.

And that was the end of Gerry the Gerbil’s story. Or so Pastor O’Donnell thought.

The next Sunday, 69 year-old Henrietta Miggins stormed up to Pastor O’Donnell and Karen Winslow during coffee hour. Henrietta was frequently storming up to the good Pastor and he braced himself for the inevitable nit pick about that week’s choice of hymn or what some youngster had the affront to wear in church.

“Someone stole my plastic container!” Henrietta said.

“What?” Pastor O’Donnell was not expecting that.

“Last week I brought a coffee cake in a green plastic container with flowers on it. I had to leave early so I asked Tammy Billings to set it aside in the kitchen, which she says she did, and now it’s gone. Somebody stole it!”

Pastor O’Donnell’s stomach was tightening. He caught Karen Winslow’s eye with a severe look before she could speak.

“Calm down, Henrietta,” the Pastor said. “I’m sure it just got moved. Will you give me until next week to find it?”

Henrietta studied him. “Okay,” she said, “but I suspect it was that Florence Barker. She has no respect for other people’s things. And I have a good mind to tell her what I think about that!”

“Just give me a week, Henrietta. Please.”

“Fine.” Henrietta nodded and stomped off.

“We have to tell her!” Karen said.

“We absolutely do not,” Pastor O’Donnell replied. If she finds out we buried a gerbil in her container she will either have a heart attack on the spot or kill one of us.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to return her container next week.”

“You can’t do that! She’ll use it again. That’s sick.”

“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”

Later that evening under cover of darkness Pastor O’Donnell returned to the church with a shoe box. He dug up the dead gerbil -- still perfectly preserved in his airtight container -- and moved him to the shoebox. Then he reburied him and washed the plastic container thoroughly. The following Sunday he returned the plastic container to Henrietta claiming he had found it in a cabinet.

And that was the end of Gerry the Gerbil’s story. Or so Pastor O’Donnell thought.

The following week he discovered Henrietta had brought the plastic container back to coffee hour, this time filled with banana bread. He blanched a little as he passed through the refreshment line.

“Henrietta made banana bread, Pastor. Why don’t you try some.” It was Karen Winslow.

“No thanks, I’m watching my weight,” said the good Pastor.

“Have some.” Karen said. Her face was very serious.

Pastor O’Donnell smiled and gingerly picked out a piece of bread from the center of the loaf. Karen watched him while he took a bite, chewed, and swallowed, a rather pained look in his eyes.

“Mm, it is good.” He said.

“Just think of it as something to bring you closer to the deceased,” Karen said, then went to talk to her friend Henrietta. Pastor O’Donnell retreated to his office. Suddenly he didn’t feel very well.

And that really was the end of Gerry the Gerbil’s story.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Blessing of the Animals

By Douglas J. Eboch

Listen to the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. One Saturday each fall the church holds its “Blessing of the Animals” ceremony wherein all the kids in the congregation bring their pets to be blessed. Though Pastor O’Donnell found the theology a little sketchy, it was one of the more fun events he presided over during the course of the year.

This year, however, tragedy struck.

But before we get to that, let me tell you about Gerry the Gerbil. Gerry was the official pet of the pre-school age Sunday school class which was known as the Guppies and taught by Karen Winslow. Karen had taken to calling Gerry “Methuselah” because he had lived a full two years beyond the five year upper end of the lifespan commonly given for Gerbils. At the age of seven he was older than any of the kids in the pre-school class. Karen attributed his longevity to his ornery-ness.

Gerry probably had good reason to be ornery given that every seven days he was scooped from his cage, put in a plastic ball, and then generally assaulted by three and four year olds for an hour. God rested on the seventh day…Gerry did not. Mary Boyer was Gerry’s primary tormentor. Mary considered Gerry to be her very best friend at church. Karen doubted Gerry felt the same way.

Naturally, Gerry was one of the animals who received the annual blessing from Pastor O’Donnell. That Saturday morning, Karen plucked Gerry from his cage and placed him into his plastic ball. She carried him out to where the other kids and their pets were gathered. Mary wanted to introduce Gerry to her cat, Tantric, but Karen explained that Gerry might be a little overwhelmed what with all the new animals around.

Pastor O’Donnell’s daughter Katie had brought her dog Wags to be blessed. Wags was a mid-sized, floppy eared, spotted mutt of indeterminate lineage Katie had gotten at the pound on her tenth birthday. Now fifteen, Katie usually preferred to spend her Saturday mornings almost anywhere but the church. However she really loved Wags and actually looked forward to having him blessed each year -- not that she would ever admit such a thing to her father.

Wags also loved the event though of course he didn’t understand what the blessing part was all about. What Wags really loved with almost equal passion were people and other dogs; and he could barely contain his enthusiasm as Katie walked him over to a whole group of brand new people, several accompanied by new dogs. So many rear ends, so little time to sniff thought Wags.

The ceremony was held on the grassy lawn behind the classroom wing of the church. Gerry had the privilege of receiving his blessing first. Afterward, Karen set him down in his plastic ball on a picnic table that was pushed up against the building, wedging the ball against the wall with a rock. Being in his ball but not able to roll it made Gerry anxious. He began jumping around, throwing his weight this way and that trying to dislodge the ball. After several minutes he succeeded. He motored happily away realizing only as he was sailing off the edge of the table that perhaps there was a reason Karen had immobilized him.

Gerry’s plastic ball bounced into the grass, tossing Gerry about but not really hurting him. Once Gerry regained his senses he decided to explore. He wasn’t used to running around outside. He scampered along unnoticed by anyone until he ran behind Pastor O’Donnell just as he was blessing Tantric.

The majority of pets present were dogs, all of whom stared in amazement as the small rodent cruised by in its plastic bubble. Then the shock of such an odd vehicle wore off and they realized it didn’t matter what the rodent was driving, it was still a rodent and therefore had to be chased. Pandemonium ensued. Gerry was a little hard of hearing, but he could certainly hear the ruckus raised by the dogs. Noting that all of them were restrained, Gerry wheeled his ball over near them and did a little dance just to taunt them.

Really, the dog owners did an admirable job keeping their dogs in control given the circumstances. However poor Katie was knocked to the ground by a large German Shepherd and lost hold of Wags’ leash. Wags broke free from the crowd and Gerry decided it was time to make his getaway. He motored his ball through an arch that led to the church courtyard -- Wags hot on his furry little tail.

Katie, Karen and Pastor O’Donnell dashed after the two animals. Katie and Pastor O’Donnell yelled for Wags, though their voices were drowned out in the cacophony of barks behind them. Karen called for Gerry though it was unclear what she actually expected the gerbil to do even if it heard her.

They arrived in the courtyard in time to see Wags catch up with the scurrying Gerbil-in-a-ball. Wags pounced -- his paws struck the ball and slid off, sending the ball careening into a bench -- the ball bounced, went airborne, and plopped into the fountain in the center of the courtyard. Gerry’s little legs moved as fast as they could, but the ball just spun in the water.

Wags leaped into the fountain creating an enormous wave that sent Gerry’s ball airborne again. It skittered across the courtyard. Wags leapt out of the fountain and gave chase. Katie, Karen and Pastor O’Donnell chased Wags. They circled the courtyard four times, Gerry almost lapping Pastor O’Donnell by the end.

But then Gerry spotted a crawlspace opening with its mesh cover missing. He darted for the darkened hole. His ball just fit, sliding to a stop two feet inside. Wags did not fit into the opening. He crammed his head in and barked furiously, spraying the gerbil ball with dog spittle. Gerry did another little dance taunting poor Wags which drove the dog into an unprecedented frenzy.

Katie pulled Wags out and dragged him from the courtyard. Wags was a little embarrassed to return to the other dogs without the remains of a gerbil in his mouth, but they seemed to have moved on to other business. Meanwhile, Pastor O’Donnell reached into the crawl space and retrieved Gerry.

But Gerry hadn’t run that far in quite some time and as Karen carried him back to the classroom in his plastic ball, Gerry’s heart decided seven years was quite enough. Gerry squeaked once, staggered, and dropped dead. Karen discovered this turn of events when she opened the ball to return him to his cage. Unfortunately, at that same moment Mary Boyer entered to see if maybe Gerry was ready to meet Tantric now.

Karen explained to Mary that God had decided he wanted to play with Gerry. Mary was sad, but took the news surprisingly well. “At least he had already been blessed,” Mary said. “That means he’s going to Heaven, right?”

“Heaven. Right.” Karen said. She wasn’t too sure on that point, but figured this wasn’t the time to remind Mary of Gerry’s many transgressions through the years.

“So when’s the funeral?” Mary asked.

Coming up next time: The Funeral of Gerry the Gerbil

Sunday, August 12, 2007

101 Degrees
By Douglas J. Eboch

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. The church was built sixty years ago, and the first air conditioner was installed in the sanctuary thirty-eight years after that. It was an ugly brute of a machine, chugging along noisily through the summers like an overmatched and slightly gassy boxer who simply refuses to go down. Last week, Normal was struck by a heat wave. On Sunday the weatherman forecast a high of 101 degrees. That morning, the church’s tough little air conditioner choked, gasped, wheezed out a defiant curse to the heavens, and released its last breath of chilled air.

Tammy Billings, the church secretary, pulled out the yellow pages and said a prayer that God would bring her a repairman who worked Sundays. God answered her prayer on only the twenty-third entry she dialed. It was seven minutes until the main church service was scheduled to start. Tammy went out to wait for the repairman in the parking lot.

The congregation slowly filled the chapel. Of course they had no advance knowledge of the air conditioner’s recent demise. Suit coats and ties quickly came off. Jill Boyer snuck out to the bathroom to remove her panty hose. Sixty-nine year-old Henrietta Miggins fanned herself vigorously with the bulletin and sniffed at the lack of respect such behavior indicated for the holy church. In her day, air conditioning was uncommon and people were simply dogged enough to suffer through the heat, ties and hose properly in place. Some people might question whether Henrietta’s day was actually better than these days, but Henrietta was not one of those people.

Pastor Henry O’Donnell sat in the pulpit going over his notes for the sermon and mopping at the twin tributaries of sweat streaming down his temples into a growing puddle on his dress shirt. Henry may have been pudgy and out of shape, but his sweat glands were the picture of vigorous health. At the first sign of heat or exertion, they sprang into action, releasing a torrent of liquid apparently intended to douse any nearby fires that might be responsible for his rise in body temperature.

While Tammy Billings waited for the repairman, her husband, Ralph, was busy with his duties as head usher. Ralph firmly believed the proper response to hot weather was hydration. Every spare moment he got, he replenished himself from a one liter water bottle.

Ralph Billings drained the last of his liter of water just as the call for offering began. He grabbed the faux gold collection plate and headed down the side aisle. As he started up the center aisle collecting little envelopes, it dawned on him that perhaps he had over hydrated. The nearest restroom was outside and around the corner, but Ralph had no time to dash out when he reached the back of the sanctuary. He had to take the offering to the altar during the Doxology. And then he had to wait there during the dedication prayer. Today’s dedication prayer had been written by a medieval monk who was not a fan of brevity. To make matters worse, there was an annoying drip -- drip -- drip coming from somewhere over by the pulpit (Ralph never realized it was Pastor O’Donnell’s sweat hitting the tile floor). When the dedication finished, it was all Ralph could do not to run up the aisle. He reached the foyer and knew he wouldn’t make it to the restroom.

And then his gaze fell on his empty water bottle.

The choir launched into a rousing hymn which completely drowned out Ralph relieving himself with the aid of the water bottle in the bride’s room off the foyer . Unfortunately, he was so relieved he neglected to zip up afterwards.

Pastor O’Donnell stepped to the pulpit. He felt light headed with dehydration, although through some miracle, his sweat glands showed no let up in their ability to produce liquid. Were his mind still as sharp as those sweat glands, he might have tried to edit his sermon on the fly. As it was, he was so woozy that when an irregular pounding began punctuating his speech, it took him several minutes to realize it was the recently arrived air conditioner repairman at work on the roof and not his blood pounding in his temples.

The good Pastor mustered up as much energy as he could for his big finale, a call to model mercy to an unmerciful world. And then he closed as he always did with a reverent “So be it, and Amen.” In the moment of solemn silence that followed, there was another thump from the roof, but this one strangely muffled and accompanied by a yelp of pain. Then there came a stream of decidedly irreverent -- although colorful -- language. Pastor O’Donnell tried very hard to keep merciful thoughts about the unseen repairman.

Next came communion. Ralph, completely unaware his shirt was protruding from his open zipper, walked to the front of the main aisle to direct the congregation. His job was to back up row by row, motioning the congregants out when there was space at the rail for them to kneel. Now, most of the congregation couldn’t see his open zipper since his back was to them. But the choir could. The laughter started with Thad Wheeling, who struggled to muffle it. But laughter is most contagious in a serious setting, and by the time Ralph was to the third row, the entire choir was infected. Pastor O’Donnell, noticing Ralph’s situation, tried to motion for him to fix his zipper, but Ralph was too distracted by the choir to notice.

Ralph reached the fifth row, Henrietta’s row. Henrietta, red faced and “glowing” as women said about perspiration in her day, fanned herself furiously with her bulletin, powered by her righteous indignation at the choir’s mysterious misbehavior. And what was Pastor O’Donnell doing making what appeared to be obscene hand gestures? She had half a mind not to take communion in such an environment.

But Henrietta was from a generation too stoic for that. She stood up into the aisle -- and promptly fainted away with heat exhaustion. Luckily, Ralph was quick and caught her. Not so luckily, he realized his fly was open as he lowered her to the floor and in his shock dropped her the last six inches.

Quickly, a circle formed around Henrietta. “Get her some water,” someone called.

“Ralph, you have a bottle back there, don’t you?” Pastor O’Donnell asked?

“It’s empty,” Ralph lied. That’s when Thad got an idea. He grabbed a tray of communion grape juice and ran up just as Henrietta’s eyes fluttered open.

“Drink this,” he commanded and thrust one of the glass thimbles toward her.

“This is the blood of Christ, shed for the many,” Pastor O’Donnell quickly intoned just to keep things legit. After a moment of confusion, Henrietta downed the quarter ounce of juice. Thad handed her another one. And then another.

“Don’t drink too fast,” Pastor O’Donnell instructed. She shot him a withering look. Just then two year-old Susie Boyer came running by -- or rather streaking by. She had removed her sundress to cool down. Henrietta promptly passed out again. Service was over.

(c) 2007 Douglas J. Eboch