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.