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