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