Sunday, December 28, 2008

Boxing Day

Hear the poem read by the author

‘Twas the day after Christmas
And in the little church
All the bats in the belfry
Were asleep on their perch.

Christmas Eve service had ended
Thirty hours before
But the ashes from the fire
Still dusted the floor.

Jose the janitor
Was on a vacation.
A perk from the church to show
Its appreciation

His rest and relaxation
Would have gone quite off track
If he knew the mess that awaited
Him when he got back.

Kevin Boyer was giving
His wife Jill a massage
And later that day planned to
Organize their garage.

It was penance for allowing
Their four-year-old, Mary,
To play with toys during church
And not staying wary.

And little Mary was grounded
Upstairs in her room,
With only twenty new presents
To lighten her gloom.

Poor Mary pouted and felt
Quite misunderstood.
Since it was her toy car with
The dent in the hood.

Pastor O’Donnell was home
Putting ice on his knee
Which was bruised and swollen
To an alarming degree

He twisted it badly while
Lighting a candle aglow
And tripped when a small car crashed
Straight into his toe.

Henrietta Miggins was
Writing a letter
Demanding the little church
Pay for her sweater.

Who would have guessed when she
Wore it that night
A flying candle would
Set it alight.

She added a paragraph of
Advice for the pastor
Suggesting some rules to avert
A future disaster.

The most important, she said,
Was perfectly clear
Toys should be banned from Christmas
Eve service next year.

Happy Boxing Day!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Living Nativity

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. This year, Pastor Henry O’Donnell decided it would be nifty to have a living nativity scene for the Christmas season. They would build a wooden stable on the front lawn and have volunteers pose as the nativity story characters for two hours each Sunday between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Pastor O’Donnell considered himself more of an idea man than an organizer so he assigned church secretary Tammy Billings to be in charge of the project. Fortunately for the pastor, Tammy loved to be in charge of things. First, she had her husband Ralph build the stable and manger. Ralph was quite handy and whipped up an impressive set in no time.

Tammy created a sign-up sheet and began trolling for volunteers during coffee hours in late November. She had convinced Pastor O’Donnell that having a real baby play Jesus would be unwise given the average December weather in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, that same weather seemed to be having a chilling effect on the adult population’s willingness to participate as well.

Tammy managed to convince the Boyer family to volunteer for the second weekend. Or rather, she convinced Jill Boyer which was pretty much the same thing. She got Kevin Boyer’s friend Thad Wheeling thrown in for free. Kevin figured if he had to stand in the cold in a costume for two hours he wanted a buddy to suffer along with him. Thad was single and Kevin thought he ought to know what it was like to be married to a woman who volunteered for things.

Tammy assigned Kevin and Jill to play Joseph and Mary and gave Thad the part of a wise man. The two Boyer girls, two-year-old Suzie and four-year-old Mary insisted on participating as well. Tammy thought they were a little short to play wise men or shepherds, so she whipped up passable costumes so they could portray a sheep and a camel respectively.

Missy Moore agreed to be a wise man and seemed strangely excited by the prospect of wearing a fake beard. Tammy pressed Ralph into service as the third wise man but she still needed a shepherd. She couldn’t play the part herself because she was scheduled to serve food at a homeless shelter, and as the temperature in Normal dropped nobody else was stepping up.

The morning of the Sunday in question arrived and Tammy was faced with the prospect of a shepherd-less nativity. She worked the coffee hour crowd with furious determination but with the skies an ominous gray, it seemed every single person at church had urgent prior commitments. When she reported her dilemma to Pastor O’Donnell, he took it upon himself to find a volunteer. He immediately set his sights on choir director Shane Reed.

Shane had turned Tammy down without a shred of guilt because he’d played Joseph the first week and figured he’d done his time. That excuse didn’t satisfy Pastor O’Donnell who launched into a big speech about how valuable the tableau of the living nativity was in drawing attention to the church in this holy season.

“Why don’t you take the part yourself if it’s so important?” Shane asked.

The pastor was prepared with another speech in which he claimed it would be a dereliction of his responsibility to involve the congregation in the work of the church if he took a role. Shane eventually decided doing the part would be less painful and possibly less time consuming than listening to any more of Pastor O’Donnell’s speeches.

Noon rolled around and the participants gathered to don their costumes. Missy turned up with a surprise. A friend of hers owned a goat named Poppy Seed that Missy borrowed to compliment the animals portrayed by the two costumed children. Little Mary Boyer instantly fell in love with Poppy Seed. This affection manifested itself in a burning desire to ride the animal which briefly resulted in the odd tableau of a camel seated atop a goat on the church lawn.

Pastor O’Donnell happened along right about then on his way to lunch and commented that he didn’t remember mention of camels riding goats in any of the Gospels. Shane suggested that if the pastor would like to take his place, Shane would be happy to re-read the Gospels over lunch to fact-check the issue. The pastor declined the offer.

Though Mary’s affections remained undimmed, the other participants quickly grew weary of Poppy Seed. The goat ignored the hay they put on the ground in front of it and instead tried to eat the wise men’s robes.

Eventually the wise men learned the radius of Poppy Seed’s tether from where it was staked in the ground and were able to avoid the goat’s destructive teeth. Poppy Seed would not be so easily foiled, however. The manger was still within his reach and the plastic baby Jesus was swaddled in some tasty looking coarse cotton. Once everyone had settled into their poses and allowed their minds to wander to thoughts of the warm, cozy indoors, Poppy Seed made his move.

“Hey,” Jill yelled as Poppy Seed nabbed baby Jesus. “Give that back!”

Jill grabbed onto the doll’s head and engaged Poppy Seed in a tug of war. Missy moved to help but tripped on the goat’s tether, dislodging the stake from the ground. Poppy Seed gave a hard tug and the doll’s head popped right off in Jill’s hand. Now free, Poppy Seed loped away with the swaddled, headless doll, dragging the tether and stake behind him.

Shane noted that Biblical accuracy was going right out the window in this particular living nativity.

Meanwhile, Pastor O’Donnell had just finished scraping the ice from the windshield of his car. He was about to climb in when he noticed a quarter in the slush at the edge of the parking lot. “How lucky,” the pastor thought as he bent down to pick it up.

Right about then Poppy Seed galloped around the corner of the church and into the parking lot. He saw Pastor O’Donnell bent over and his goat instincts kicked in. He put his head down and butted the pastor from behind. O’Donnell was caught completely off guard and sprawled into the slush. Poppy Seed continued his romp.

Shane, in the lead among Poppy Seed’s pursuers, saw the entire incident. He tried hard to suppress his grin while he ascertained that the pastor had sustained no injury greater than a bruise. Fortunately Pastor O’Donnell’s backside was well padded.

There were several near accidents on Elm Street caused by drivers distracted at the sight of biblical characters chasing a goat with a headless baby in its mouth down the sidewalk. Pastor O’Donnell was certainly right about the living nativity getting attention.

They finally caught up to Poppy Seed four blocks later in front of a coffee shop. Shane grabbed the rope around the goat’s neck and Missy managed to get the doll back by trading for her robe.

“Well, we better get back to the church,” Missy said.

And just then it began to sleet.

Shane looked into the coffee shop. “I’ve got a better idea,” he said. “Coffee’s on me.”

Ten minutes later the coffee shop patrons were treated to the tableau of Mary, Joseph, two wise men, a shepherd, two children dressed as a camel and a sheep, and a bearded woman squeezed around a small table enjoying hot drinks while outside a goat tied to a parking meter devoured a cotton robe.

Kevin took a sip of his double gingerbread latte and sighed happily. “Forget gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is the best Christmas gift of all.”

“You’re welcome,” shepherd Shane said.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Bleak Midwinter Afternoon

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. This year, choir director Shane Reed thought it would be nice for members of the choir to sing Christmas Carols at a local retirement home one Sunday after church.

When Shane asked for volunteers, Del Winslow quickly signed up. He was frequently the choir’s featured soloist and Del feared they just wouldn’t be up to snuff without him. He certainly didn’t want the good folks at the retirement home to hear a sub-par choir. On the day in question, however, he was regretting his decision. A freezing storm was coming in and it had started to snow. Del would have much rather spent the afternoon at home reading by the fire. But, a commitment was a commitment.

At 1 p.m. Shane herded his ten volunteer carolers into the church’s van. Del asked if Shane would like Del to drive as he had grown up in Pennsylvania and Shane was from the West Coast. Shane pointed out that he was from Seattle which did in fact get quite a bit of snow. Shane took the wheel, trying to ignore the ten back seat drivers.

The staff of the retirement home had set up an all-purpose room for the performance. It was to be kind of a mini-party. There was a brightly decorated tree, a table of sugar cookies and even a big bowl of eggnog. Chairs had been set up in a semi-circle facing one end of the room where Shane and his singers could perform.

The visitors chatted with the staff and enjoyed some cookies as residents of the home shuffled in. Del was a connoisseur of Christmas cookies and graded these a “B.” He was going back for his fourth cookie when a wiry little man with leathery skin elbowed him in the bicep harder than Del would have thought the fellow capable.

“Leave some for the geezers, kid,” the man said.

Del flushed. “Sorry. Do you want this one?”

The old guy cackled and smacked Del on the shoulder. Del almost dropped the cookie. “Nah,” the man said, “I’m watching my weight. Name’s Herman Vankowitz. I’m Jewish. I’m mainly here for the eggnog. I love eggnog.”

“I’m Del Winslow.”

“Good to meet you, Del. Hey, you know the hymn ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’?”


“You guys going to sing it?”

“It wasn’t on our list, but I could see if our director has the music.”

“Ah, don’t bother. That hymn annoys me.”

Del shrugged and rejoined the other choir members. He nibbled his cookie slowly so he wouldn’t be tempted to go back for another.

A few minutes later, his attention was drawn to a commotion near the reception table. A staff member was arguing with Herman.

“You’ve had two cups of eggnog already, Herman,” the staff member said. “Give me that one.”

“It’s not for me,” Herman protested. “It’s for my new friend, Del.”

Herman scurried over to Del and handed him the cup. “Here you go, buddy,” Herman said. “Just like you asked.” Then Herman gave the staff member a big, suspiciously innocent grin.

The staff member raised an eyebrow. Herman elbowed Del again. “Drink up, buddy,” Herman said through his grin.

Del decided to help the old guy out. He took a big gulp of the eggnog.

And almost choked. It was very liberally spiked with brandy.

“Good stuff, eh?” Herman said.

Del nodded, his eyes watering. The staff member didn’t look entirely convinced, but she returned to her post anyway.

Herman punched Del playfully in the arm. “Thanks. You saved my bacon.”

“Here’s your eggnog,” Del said.

“You keep it. I wouldn’t want to get your germs. Us geezers have to be careful of stuff like that.”

“It’s a little heavy for me,” Del said with a meaningful look.

“Ah, I get it. You’re a lightweight. Okay, give it here. We learned to hold our booze in the Navy.”

Del bristled. He’d been in the Army and wasn’t about to let some pint-sized sailor show him up. Del downed the eggnog in a single gulp and handed Herman the empty cup.

“Well, well. Maybe you’re not as soft as you look,” Herman said. “Care for another?”

“Bring it on,” Del replied.

“Okay, but you better get it this time.”

Del retrieved two more cups of eggnog and met Herman in a corner behind a knot of people out of view of the staff members. Herman drained off about an inch of his eggnog, then topped it off from a small flask he had tucked in his pocket. Del followed suit, but drained off an inch and a half of his eggnog before spiking it.

“Your eyes are watering,” Herman commented after they’d downed their beverages.

“I think I inhaled some nutmeg,” Del told him, wiping at his eyes with one hand while using the other to steady himself against the wall.

And then it was time to sing. The choir went through a medley of songs, ending with Del doing his classic solo on “Silent Night,” accompanied by Shane on the piano. Del was feeling a little buzzed from the brandy, but he knew the song inside and out.

Then, in the middle of the second verse, the tender mood was interrupted by a noise like a chainsaw cutting through scrap metal. Del raised his voice in a vain attempt to drown out the racket while trying to determine where it was coming from. When he finally located the source, he was not surprised to see that it was Herman Vankowitz snoring in the back row.

The event finished up around 4:00 and the choir members headed out to the van. A good two inches of new snow had fallen while they were inside. As Shane tried to back the van out of its parking place, he accidentally went off the edge of the asphalt. The tires spun in the snow, kicking up rooster tails of mud.

“Put it in low,” one of the back seat drivers said.

“Don’t give it so much gas,” another instructed.

“Back up, then go forward,” a third offered.

The collective wisdom from the rear of the van was of no use. They were stuck. “Someone’s going to have to get out and push,” Shane said.

Del’s head was spinning a little but he dutifully took a spot at the right corner of the van. Missy Moore moved to the driver’s seat so Shane could add his muscle to the effort. “Give it a little gas,” Shane called out.

Missy did, and mud sprayed up into Del’s face.

“A little less gas,” Del said as he spat out wet gravel.

Missy tried again. The pushers strained. Del leaned into the van giving it all he could.

And the next thing he knew he was flat on his back, looking up at Shane and the other choir members. And Herman.

“What happened,” Del asked.

“You passed out,” Shane told him. “Are you okay? Maybe we should see if there’s a doctor inside.”

“I think it was just the eggnog,” Del said.

Herman coughed loudly and gave Del a pointed look.

“I’m lactose intolerant,” Del lied.

“Oh. Well, just stay there and catch your breath while we get the van out,” Shane said.

“Let me help,” Herman said.

“That’s okay, we’ve got it,” Shane replied, running his eyes over Herman’s skinny body.

Del and Herman watched as Shane and the other men pushed at the back of the van. It was only digging in deeper. Finally, Herman could take it no more. He strode up and put his shoulder against the back doors. Veins bulged out ominously in his neck.

But the van popped free almost immediately.

“Thanks,” Shane said to Herman and shook his hand.

“My pleasure,” Herman replied. “Hey, before you go, let me take Del inside and get him cleaned up. He’s soaked.”

Shane agreed and Herman led Del in through a side door and to his room. It was a double room. Herman’s roommate lay in the bed by the window hooked up to a bunch of machines. “He’s in a coma,” Herman told Del, as he opened the door to the small private bathroom.

When Del was finished cleaning up, he came out and thanked Herman for his hospitality. “Could I ask you a favor?” Herman said. “My roommate’s a Christian. His favorite carol is ‘In the Bleak Midwinter.’ He used to hum it constantly during the holidays. Drove me nuts. Would you mind singing it for him? You said you know it.”

Del was taken aback, but he readily agreed. He sang the hymn in his deep, creamy baritone to the comatose gentleman as a tear worked its way down Herman’s right cheek.

When Del was finished, Herman thanked him and shook his hand. “See you next year,” Herman said.

“Have some of that special eggnog ready for me,” Del replied with a wink. Then he headed out to join the others for the ride back to the church. It had been a pretty good way to spend a wintry afternoon, Del thought.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


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. Henrietta Miggins had been attending the church her entire life. This year Henrietta turned seventy, and by coincidence, her birthday fell on a Sunday. As Henrietta got ready for church, she wondered if anybody would remember.

Henrietta’s family had planned a big party that evening. Of course many people celebrate milestone birthdays with wild parties when they’re young then have more sedate celebrations as they get older. This was not true for Henrietta. She had never celebrated with wild parties. But apparently she was about to start.

Henrietta was pleased that her daughter had come from Pittsburgh – even though she brought her latest ne’er-do-well boyfriend with her. Henrietta was even more excited that her son had come all the way from California with his wife and three kids, though Henrietta was not so thrilled to discover her fourteen-year-old grandson, Dylan, was now adorned with an earring and black nail polish. Clearly her daughter-in-law was letting those kids run wild as could be out there on the left coast.

Her joy at seeing her offspring was tempered by the fact the entire clan had elected to stay with Henrietta. Henrietta still lived in the family house so there was plenty of room, however she had grown accustomed to quiet and order. Her family was neither quiet nor orderly.

Her son and her daughter’s boyfriend had commandeered the television to watch college football all day Saturday. They expressed amazement that she was still watching a 32” tube T.V. She feared they might get her some monstrous “flat screen” contraption for her birthday. Like there was anything on television that she needed to see that large!

Meanwhile, her daughter-in-law left the two youngest kids in Henrietta’s care and went to the mall. Henrietta couldn’t understand why she’d pass up the opportunity to visit with her mother-in-law. Didn’t they have malls in California?

Henrietta enjoyed her grandkids’ company but would have preferred it in smaller doses. If she thought Dylan would help with his siblings, she was mistaken. He spent the day with tiny earphones stuffed in his ears listening to a digital music player while he played some video game on his laptop. Both the music and the game seemed to Henrietta to be Satanic in nature. More evidence of her daughter-in-law’s weak parenting. She would have gladly offered the woman a few helpful tips if only she’d get back from the mall!

By Sunday morning Henrietta decided it was time to lay down the law. The entire family was going to church with her. Dylan whined mightily about that. And one would think he was a candidate for martyrdom by the way he carried on when Henrietta informed him he had to leave his digital music player at home.

Seventy-eight year-old Florence Barker was serving as greeter at the church this particular Sunday. She made a big to-do over Henrietta’s family, even commenting on how handsome Dylan was. That was to be expected, Henrietta thought. She considered Florence to be a woman of sketchy morals owing to her history as a professional jazz singer and her penchant for flashy shoes completely inappropriate for a woman her age. Florence probably sensed a kindred spirit in Henrietta’s wayward grandson.

“And is your family here for any special occasion?” Florence asked Henrietta.

“It’s her seventieth birthday,” Henrietta’s son beamed.

“Really!” Florence exclaimed, nudging Henrietta with her elbow. “Well, welcome to the septuagenarian club. It’s great. When you’re old, people let you get away with murder.”

Henrietta supposed Florence had needed age to gain a measure of respectability. Henrietta had earned her respectability by not trying to get away with murder in the first place. But she kept this supposition to herself and simply said, “Is that so.”

With the younger children sent off to Sunday school, the Miggins clan found their way to Henrietta’s normal pew. Henrietta’s friend Betsy Davis was there. “Happy birthday,” Betsy said. At least someone had the good manners to remember without prodding.

Henrietta barely managed to get her whole family introduced before service started. Betsy was gracious despite the horrible manners of the younger Migginses. At one point during the service when Dylan had to be asked to stop kicking the pew in front of them, Betsy leaned over and whispered, “Isn’t family a blessing? They really keep life lively, bless their hearts.”

Henrietta was mortified.

Henrietta was surprised when Pastor O’Donnell mentioned her birthday during the announcements. She suspected Florence had clued him in after their encounter at the front door. Henrietta considered Pastor O’Donnell a scatterbrain, unlike the clergy in her day. At least they didn’t resort to any foolishness and make her stand up or anything. At seventy, Henrietta had had just about enough foolishness for one lifetime.

After church the Miggins clan went to the social hall for coffee hour. If Henrietta hoped to get a break from her relatives, it was ruined by the parade of people coming up to wish her happy birthday. Then four year-old Mary Boyer came skipping over with Henrietta’s granddaughter Hayley.

“Hi Grandma,” Hayley said. “This is Mary. I met her in Sunday School.”

“Yes, I know Mary,” Henrietta said. In fact, Mary was well known by everyone who attended the church. Of all the little girls for Hayley to befriend, Mary would have been last on Henrietta’s list.

“Hayley says it’s your birthday,” Mary said.

“Yes,” Henrietta agreed.

“How old are you?” Mary asked.

“Seventy,” Henrietta said.

“Wow, that’s old!”

Henrietta looked around for Mary’s mother but was unable to locate her.

Just then, church secretary Tammy Billings shouted for everyone’s attention. “You may have heard Pastor O’Donnell mention that today is Henrietta Miggins’ seventieth birthday,” Tammy announced. “I bet she thinks we forgot, but we didn’t. Henrietta, come on up here.”

Henrietta joined Tammy at the front of the social hall. Tammy presented her with a large gift. “Just a little something to show our appreciation for your years of service to the church,” Tammy said.

Still a bit in shock, Henrietta carefully opened the wrapping and looked inside. “What is it?” Mary shouted.

It was a beautiful china tea set. Henrietta had tea every afternoon and despite great care, her current tea set was chipped and worn. She was speechless. She had not been prepared for a gift so…what was the word? Ah, yes: thoughtful.

“That’s not all,” Tammy said and gestured toward the kitchen where Florence and Betsy appeared with a large sheet cake. There were two candles on the cake, one in the shape of a seven, and the other in the shape of a zero. Florence and Betsy brought the cake over to Henrietta and Florence led the congregation in a jazzy rendition of Happy Birthday.

When they finished, Henrietta leaned in to blow out the candles. “Don’t forget to make a wish,” Mary said.

Henrietta thought for a moment as she looked around at her wonderful new tea set, her children, her grandchildren, her friend Betsy and her enemy Florence, Tammy and all the people from her church waiting to toast her with their cups of coffee or punch. Then she leaned over and blew the candles out with a wheezy breath.

“What did you wish for?” Mary asked.

“I can’t tell you or it won’t come true,” Henrietta snapped.

But the fact was she couldn’t think of a single additional thing she wanted just then.

In memory of Rex Smith

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Agony of Victory

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. This year, choir director Shane Reed organized a church softball team called The Miracles to play in the Normal Interdenominational Summer Softball League. The team was 0-5 going into the sixth and final game of the season before the playoffs, from which they’d sadly been eliminated by their fourth game.

Fortunately, their last opponent was the Ephesians, a team from a small church in the suburbs. The Ephesians were only 2-3 and represented the Miracles’ best chance at gaining at least one victory before the end of the season.

Shane had extra reason to want to make a good showing. While he was warming up, he spotted Kelly, a player from another team in the league, sitting in the stands. Shane had developed a little crush on Kelly while her team was pounding the Miracles in their first game. He knew Kelly was dating the league umpire who was assigned to their game that day, most likely why she was in attendance. Shane’s heart didn’t seem put off by that fact, regardless of what his brain might advise. Shane’s brain was usually the loser in battles with his other organs.

When it was the Miracles’ turn to hit in the bottom of the first inning, Shane headed out to home plate. The Ephesians’ catcher was a fit woman with a bright red perm who looked to be in her sixties. As Shane got into his stance, the catcher crouched down, her knees popping like two pistol shots.

“They tell me you’re the coach of this pathetic bunch of losers,” the catcher said.

“Excuse me?” Shane asked, startled.

“Play ball,” the umpire called out.

Shane turned his attention to the pitcher. As the pitcher wound up, the catcher hissed, “From the looks of your little girl arms, maybe you’d be better off forming a jacks team.”

Shane tried to focus on the incoming ball, but the older woman’s heckling had thrown him and he missed badly.

“I take it back. Most little girls I know have better hand-eye coordination than that.”

Shane looked to the umpire for help. He just shrugged. “As long as she keeps it clean, I don’t see a problem with a little friendly banter.”

Shane turned back toward the pitcher and tightened his grip on the bat.

“Want to call your mommy and complain to her, too, you little whiner?” the catcher said.

Shane ignored the taunt and took a swing as the pitch came in. He caught a piece of the ball, grounding to third and was thrown out as he reached first base. As he shuffled back to the dugout, he snuck a peek toward Kelly. She was eating a hot dog, apparently oblivious to his humiliation.

Shane wasn’t the only target of the catcher’s taunts, and as the game progressed the Miracles spent a good deal of time in the dugout crafting snappy comebacks. Despite the distraction, they managed to keep the game close. The two teams seemed fairly evenly matched on skill level.

As they went to the bottom of the seventh and final inning, the Ephesians were up by only a single run. With no outs and the bases empty, they had reached the top of the batting order again which meant Shane headed back to the plate.

“Well, if it isn’t Nancy Drew,” the catcher cackled as Shane got in position. “You know, if you put on a little lipstick, maybe some of the nerdy boys would ask you out.”

Shane ignored her. The pitch came in. He took a quick swing and hit a nifty tweener over the first baseman. It was enough to get him a double. Winning would be the best revenge, he thought.

Del came up to the plate. Del was fond of reminding everyone he’d played a little intramural ball in college. Of course that was forty years and sixty pounds ago, but over the course of the season Del had actually shaken off a good deal of the rust and even a couple of the pounds. After looking at a ball low and inside, he pounded a pop fly deep into left field.

Shane made it home easily, smirking at the catcher.

“You even run like a girl,” she informed him.

“Tie game,” he replied.

“Time,” the umpire called. He was looking out to second where Del was doubled over, hands on his knees, sucking in big gulps of air. “Is he going to be okay?” the umpire asked.

Shane shrugged. Del may have regained some of his skills, but his conditioning regimen the last few decades mostly involved doing bicep curls with potato chips as he sat on the couch watching TV.

After a few minutes Del regained his composure and signaled that he was ready. Next up for the Miracles was Thad Wheeling.

Thad popped an easy ball to right field. Del smartly stayed on second. Or maybe he was still too winded to dash for third. Now there was one out, game tied, the winning run on second. And the Miracle’s best player, Kevin Boyer was up.

Kevin hit a sizzling line drive right past first base. It was a smart hit – Kevin only got a single but it gave Del time to make a run for home plate.

And Del needed that time. He was doing okay as he rounded third, his belly bouncing like a beach ball in the wind, but about halfway to home he started to slow. His face glowed bright red and a thin strand of drool trailed back behind him from the corner of his mouth.

The right fielder scooped up the ball and lobbed it to the first baseman, sure that the game was over. But as they watched Del’s pace decrease until it seemed he was moving in slow motion, the first baseman realized they might still have a chance. He hurled the ball toward the catcher. Kevin seized his opportunity and took off for second, hoping the Miracles would live up to their name.

Del stumbled forward and fell toward home plate, one arm outstretched. He would later claim it was a “slide.” The catcher snagged the ball and tagged him on the head just as his arm landed across the plate.

“You’re out!” shouted the umpire.

“What?” Del gasped. “I was safe!” He rolled onto his back to better argue.

“She got you, my friend,” the umpire replied. “Two outs.”

“There’s no way,” Del protested from the ground. “She didn’t even…” he trailed off in a fit of coughing. The umpire strolled a few yards away, effectively ending the argument with the prostrate Del. Shane and Thad came out to help Del back to the dugout.

Kevin had made it to third during the commotion. With the game tied and two outs, fifteen year-old Katie O’Donnell came to the plate. Bucking baseball tradition, Shane had spread the weaker hitters throughout the line-up, hoping since it was slow pitch softball, they could just get on base. But Katie had only gotten two hits all season. It looked like the game was going into extra innings.

Katie was so nervous she was trembling. The other Miracles all clapped and shouted encouragement to her. The Ephesians’ catcher was unmerciful.

As the first pitch came in, the catcher made a crack about Katie’s skinny legs. Katie turned to retort, forgetting all about the incoming pitch. By some stroke of luck, as she let the bat fall from her shoulder it hit the ball, bouncing it back toward the pitcher.

Katie began her tirade at the catcher. Kevin took off for home. He realized what nobody else had at that moment. The ball was fair. Katie had accidentally bunted.

“Run!” Kevin shouted as he approached. Katie looked up, looked at the ball, and then took off for first. The catcher realized what was going on and scrambled for the ball.

But she was too late. Kevin skipped into home as she turned to make the tag. “Safe!” shouted the umpire.

The Miracles had won their first game.

Shane bolted from the dugout, promptly tripped, and landed on his face in the dirt. But his enthusiasm was undimmed and he quickly pulled himself back up and high-fived Kevin. Then he turned on the catcher.

“Maybe you would have got made that play back in the middle ages old lady!” he taunted.

Then he noticed Kelly coming out onto the field. He quickly brushed the dirt from his face.

Kelly went up to the catcher. “Tough loss, Mom,” Kelly said.

Mom? Shane went pale.

The catcher turned to him. “Good game, kid. I think your team’s going to be a challenger next season.”

Then Kelly, her mom and boyfriend walked off the field.

“Oh well,” Shane thought. “We finally won a game!” He turned to celebrate with his teammates.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Howl in One

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In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Every year the church holds a Halloween festival for the children on the Sunday before Halloween. The teen youth group usually plans their own event at the same time. Karen Winslow, the teacher of the preschool Sunday school class known as the Guppies, is in charge of the children’s festival. Each year she tries to think of something special and original to do. Usually her ideas involved enormous amounts of thankless effort. This year she had her most special, original, and thankless idea yet: creating a Halloween themed miniature golf course!

Karen was not incapable of learning from past experience. On the morning of the festival she enlisted her Sunday school class to help her build the golf course. This had the advantage of reducing her set up effort for the festival and eliminating the need for a lesson plan for Sunday school. It had the disadvantage, however, of greatly increasing her clean up time after class.

Karen gathered shoe boxes, PVC pipe, tin cans, Halloween decorations and various odds and ends to use for construction material. Then she allowed each child to create and decorate their own hole on top of several large pieces of carpet remainders that she laid out in the social hall, late October being a little cool for an outdoor festival in Normal.

Four year-old Mary Boyer loved Mrs. Winslow’s project and immediately set out to create the biggest, bestest, scariest hole she could. It was a complex amalgam of pipe and cardboard covered in plastic spiders and skeletons and topped, rather incongruously, by a pink unicorn Mary had cut out of a coloring book and glued to a piece of cardboard. The whole thing was held together with half a jar of paste. The other half of the paste from the jar was distributed liberally on Mary’s clothes and in her hair. But she was proud of her masterpiece and the other kids were duly impressed. She dubbed it “Pinkhorn Manor.”

The youth group, meanwhile, had decided to watch a scary movie for their Halloween party. Pastor O’Donnell insisted it be rated PG-13 much to his fifteen year-old daughter Katie’s chagrin. But Katie found a movie that promised lots of creepy chills and would, not at all incidentally, give her a good excuse to cuddle up with her boyfriend Joe. She was further chagrined, however, to learn that her father had recruited church secretary Tammy Billings to act as chaperone for the youth group party.

When the time came for the festival to begin, Karen brought out a bucket of old golf balls and several putters she’d borrowed from members of the congregation. Each hole was a tin can placed behind whatever contraption the child in question had constructed. Karen divided the children into foursomes and kept score on a rolling white board in between dodging runaway golf balls.

Mary was in a foursome with Sierra Smith. Mary had fairly good hand-eye coordination for a girl her age, but tended to hit the ball too hard, no matter how often Karen said, “Gently, Mary, gently,” through gritted teeth. By the time they reached the hole Mary built, the fifteenth, she was three strokes behind Sierra.

Mary did not like to lose, especially to Sierra Smith.

Meanwhile, up in the youth group room, Katie’s plan was going along quite well. At first whenever Katie got too cuddly with Joe, Tammy cleared her throat pointedly until the teens created some space between them. But as the movie progressed, Tammy found herself caught up in the tale of a small town party clown possessed by a vengeful spirit. She quit paying much attention to the volume of air separating Katie and Joe. Truth was Tammy kind of wished her husband Ralph was there to cuddle up to.

Joe, meanwhile, was finding it a little difficult to enjoy the romantic opportunity. He tried to act like the cool, calm protective boyfriend. But that creepy clown was freaking him out. He came up with a reasonably effective strategy which involved focusing his gaze on a point just above the television any time the spooky string music started playing. If he didn’t look directly at the screen, he didn’t jump too much when something scary happened.

Back down on the 15th hole, Sierra Smith had just scored a hole-in-one. Mary stepped up determined to match the feat. She hit the ball and it ricocheted off the side of the elaborate edifice of Pinkhorn Manor. Frustrated, she lined up for shot two. That one entered the piece of PVC pipe that led through the structure but somehow emerged from the top instead of the back, knocking the unicorn into the air and bouncing back almost to the original tee off point.

Mary wound up for shot three, determined to get the ball through Pinkhorn Manor even if it meant punching a hole in her creation. She swung and the ball entered the PVC pipe on a perfect trajectory. But the force of the hit caused it to skip over the tin can when it emerged from the other side. It ricocheted off a plastic bucket filled with water and apples for bobbing, then bounced off the wall and arced up through the open door to the youth room.

Joe was staring intently at the wall above the TV while on screen the possessed clown crept up behind a pretty young housewife who had the misfortune to be home all alone. The golf ball sailed in and bounced off the top of Joe’s head.

Joe screamed.

The scream was high and piercing and caused pretty much everyone in the room to levitate off their seats, spilling drinks and overturning bowls of popcorn. Joe was supremely embarrassed by his outburst once the cause of the blow to his head was discovered. But despite the knowledge that it was a wayward golf ball and not a clown’s hand, he couldn’t seem to stop trembling.

Once order was restored, Katie cuddled up to Joe again; but now she was the one playing the part of cool, calm protector. Joe held her extra tight. Tammy almost cleared her throat to intervene, but Joe’s pale face looked so pitiful she decided to let the two teens be for a little while.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Intruder

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In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Sixty-nine year-old Henrietta Miggins had been a member of the congregation for sixty-nine years. And ever since the current sanctuary was built in 1947, she’s sat in the same place: tenth pew back on the left side near the center aisle. Which is the same place she’d sat in the previous sanctuary. Last, Sunday, however, she did not sit in that spot.

That’s because when she strode up the center aisle precisely five minutes before the service was scheduled to begin, she discovered someone else was seated there. That someone was a trim woman of about Henrietta’s age, well dressed in a floral dress with matching hat and shoes and a string of pearls. Henrietta didn’t recognize her. And if Henrietta didn’t recognize her, that meant she must be a newcomer.

Henrietta stared at the woman. The woman looked straight ahead, apparently unaware of Henrietta’s attention. Henrietta mulled what she might say to the woman. She finally decided it would be inappropriate for her to ask the woman to move. The head usher, Ralph Billings, ought to be the one to do that. Henrietta went to talk to Ralph.

“You have to make that woman move,” Henrietta said to Ralph.

“What woman?” Ralph asked.

“The one sitting in my spot.”

“There’s no assigned seats, Henrietta.”

“But I always sit there,” Henrietta protested.

“There’s space in the pews behind and in front of her,” Ralph pointed out.

Henrietta’s eyes narrowed. “Ralph Billings, you know my grandfather was a founding member of this congregation. There’s a plaque on the wall outside that says so. My grandfather and his family always sat in the tenth pew back on the left. My father and his family always sat in the tenth pew back on the left. And that is where I always sit.”

“She got there first,” Ralph explained. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Henrietta’s eyes narrowed to the point Ralph wasn’t sure if they were even still open. “We’ll see about that,” Henrietta said.

She marched up the right aisle of the church to where Pastor Henry O’Donnell was sitting behind the pulpit going over his sermon in his head.

“Pastor,” she hissed, leaning over the rail.

Pastor O’Donnell sighed. “What do you need, Henrietta?”

“You must make that woman move. She’s sitting in my spot.”

“There are no assigned seats,” the pastor replied.

Henrietta launched into her recitation of the long history she and her family had had with that church, and particularly their long history with the tenth pew on the left side. Pastor O’Donnell was unmoved.

“You’ll just have to find somewhere else to sit today,” he told her. “Service is starting.”

Henrietta did find another place to sit. Directly in front of the intruder. Henrietta sat straight and tall. She was quite disappointed when the end of service arrived and the woman hadn’t complained once about her view being blocked.

After the service concluded, Henrietta waited until the end of the postlude so she would have ample time to give Pastor O’Donnell a piece of her mind on the way out to coffee hour.

As a result, by the time Henrietta entered the social hall most everyone had already helped themselves to refreshments and was engaged in conversation. Henrietta went to get her usual piece of cinnamon coffee cake. However, the plate that normally held it was empty save for a few crumbs.

“Where’s the coffee cake?” Henrietta asked Tammy Billings who was manning the table.

“I guess it was popular today,” Tammy said.

“But I always have a piece of coffee cake and tea after church.”

Tammy shrugged. “There’s plenty of tea.”

Henrietta made herself a cup of tea, grinding her teeth and mentally adding Tammy Billings to the growing list of people who needed a good talking to. Then Henrietta went to find her customary seat on the couch against the back wall, the one with the good vantage point to observe and pass judgment on everyone in the room.

And guess who was sitting on Henrietta’s couch. That’s right, the same woman who had sat in Henrietta’s pew. And to make matters worse, she had a big piece of cinnamon coffee cake on her plate.

Ralph Billings was talking to the woman. When he noticed Henrietta, he introduced them. “Henrietta, this is Betsy Davis. She’s new.”

“How do you do,” Betsy said in a Southern lilt.

“Well enough,” Henrietta replied evenly.

“You’re the woman who was sitting in front of me,” Betsy said. “I couldn’t stop admiring your hat the entire service. You just have the best taste, bless your heart!”

“I’m going to check on Tammy,” Ralph said and made a hasty exit. He had no desire to engage in further conversation with Henrietta.

“Do sit down,” Betsy said and made room on the couch. Henrietta reluctantly complied.

“So, are you just visiting or are you planning to stick around?” Henrietta asked.

“I do believe I’ll return. I used to attend the church over on 3rd Street, but unfortunately they’ve closed it. Membership had been dropping for years. If you ask me, it’s the lackadaisical attitude of the younger generation. They come only when they feel like it. I suggested to the pastor several times that he ought to call people when they were absent and explain the necessity for self-discipline, but he was never able to muster up the courage, bless his heart. It’s no surprise really. He was practically a child himself.”

Henrietta grunted. “You won’t find it much different here. Pastor O’Donnell’s the same way. Soft.”

“I’m not surprised,” Betsy said. “I saw how he allows his daughter to dress, bless her heart. What must the boys think of her?”

“I’m too polite to say,” Henrietta replied. This Betsy might be a pain, but she did seem to be a good judge of character.

“I’d better be off,” Betsy said. “Perhaps I’ll see you next week.”

“Perhaps,” Henrietta replied.

The following Sunday Henrietta made sure she got to church twenty minutes early. She strode in while the choir was still warming up and took her place in the tenth pew on the left side near the center aisle.

Ten minutes later, Betsy arrived. She walked up the center aisle, stopping suddenly when she arrived at the tenth pew on the left and discovered Henrietta sitting there.

Henrietta looked up at Betsy and forced her cheeks into an unaccustomed expression that vaguely resembled a smile. “Good morning,” Henrietta said.

“Good morning,” Betsy replied, and turned to look for another spot.

Then something quite unusual happened.

“Why don’t you join me,” Henrietta asked.

“Thank you,” Betsy said. “Did you notice that the head usher appears to need a new razor, bless his heart.”

“I did notice,” Henrietta said as she scooted over to make room for her new friend.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

First and Long

by Douglas J. Eboch

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In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. One recent Sunday Jill Boyer read the scripture in service. Reading from the Bible in front of a church full of people was slightly more terrifying to Jill than taking a honey bath in the bear habitat at the zoo. But when church secretary Tammy Billings approached her, clipboard in hand, during coffee hour and asked her to read, Jill swallowed her fear and accepted. She felt turning down such a request from Tammy would be akin to turning down a request from God.

Jill practiced her passage from the thirty-seventh chapter of Genesis repeatedly in the days leading up to her performance. She always tripped on the same word: “Midianite.” Joseph of the many-colored coat fame was sold to Midianite traders by his brothers. However when Jill read the passage Joseph’s owners always became “Midnight traders.”

Jill’s husband Kevin was sympathetic to his wife’s nervousness and did his best to be supportive. That is until he realized his favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers, were playing a game at noon on the Sunday in question. He suggested maybe Jill would want to trade for a different Sunday to do her reading.

“I’ve practiced this passage fifty times and now you want me to switch?” Jill asked.

Kevin noted the tone in her voice and wisely decided that he did not want her to trade Sundays after all. Instead, he laid careful plans to leave church immediately after the service was over so he could get home in time for kickoff.

He instructed his two daughters, Mary and Susie, to be ready as soon as Sunday school ended. Normally it was pointless to rely on the little girls’ sense of responsibility for anything, but they had long ago learned the dangers of interfering with Daddy’s football viewing.

When they arrived at church, Kevin parked right beside the exit of the parking lot.

“Why are you parking so far away?” Jill asked.

“So I don’t get stuck in a line of cars on the way out,” Kevin told her.

“That’s sill--hic.” The color drained from Jill’s face.

“Did you just hiccup?” Kevin asked.

Jill answered his question by hiccupping again. She often got the hiccups when she was nervous.

“Okay, don’t panic,” Kevin told her. “We have ten minutes until church starts. Go hold your nose and drink a glass of water. I’ll take the girls to Sunday school.”

Kevin dropped Mary and Susie off at the Sunday school classroom and climbed the stairs to the social hall. He saw Jill, her back turned to him, and got an idea. Scaring people was supposed to cure hiccups, right? He tiptoed up behind her, clamped both hands on her waist and yelled, “BOO!”

Nobody said it was a good idea.

Jill jumped and screamed. Then she turned slowly toward Kevin. She had a furious look in her eye and a big red stain on the front of her blouse.

“They didn’t have the water out yet,” she said, “so I was holding my nose and drinking punch.” She crumpled the now empty paper cup in her fist and hiccupped.

Stupid old wives tales, Kevin thought.

“What (hic) am I going to do?” Jill said. “I can’t go up there to read the scripture looking like this (hic)! The service is going to start in a couple minutes!”

“I have an idea,” Kevin said and ran toward the door. He returned moments later proudly carrying a sweatshirt. “I had this in the car. Lucky, huh?”

Jill held up the sweatshirt. It was emblazoned with a Green Bay Packers logo. “Yeah, (hic). Lucky.”

But Jill had few options at that point. She put the sweatshirt on over her stained blouse and they raced into the sanctuary just as head usher Ralph Billings was closing the door. “I don’t know if I can let you in wearing that!” Ralph said with a wink.

You see, Normal, Pennsylvania didn’t have its own pro football team, but due to its proximity to Pittsburgh most of the locals were Steelers fans.

Jill and Kevin took seats in the back. As it got closer to her time to read, her hiccups seemed to get worse. Finally, the choir finished the anthem and sat down. The big moment had arrived.

Jill walked up the center aisle to the lectern. When she stepped up to the microphone a ripple of whispers went through the congregation. Her gaze fell on Kevin. If looks could kill Pastor O’Donnell would have been doing a funeral service that afternoon. But the good news was Jill’s hiccups had stopped. In fact, the cold fury that flowed through her veins so calmed her, she even pronounced “Midianite” correctly. However if Kevin thought she’d thank him for that, he was more foolish than Jill looked.

When she returned to the pew, Kevin leaned over and whispered, “great job, Honey.”

“Thank you,” Jill replied.

“Are you mad?” he asked.

“No,” she lied.

As soon as service ended, Kevin grabbed Jill’s hand and made a bolt for the door. As they left the sanctuary and headed toward the Sunday school rooms, however, Jill held him back.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked.

“To get the girls. The game starts in fifteen minutes.”

“We ought to at least stop by coffee hour,” Jill said.

“But…kick off…”

Jill shot him another near fatal look. Kevin resisted the urge to duck. “Okay, but can we make it quick?”

“Sure,” she lied again.

For the next hour Jill was the most vivacious social butterfly at coffee hour. She elicited long stories from nearly everyone present. When the Boyers finally made it back to the car they were among the last ones left in the parking lot. “Guess you didn’t need to park so close to the exit, Daddy,” Mary said.

In the end, Kevin had ensconced himself on the couch by the middle of the second quarter. Jill felt a little bad for delaying him and made some hot wings for him to snack on during the game. And the Packers won, so as far as Kevin was concerned, it had been a great day.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Miracles: Game One

By Douglas J. Eboch

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In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. This year, choir director Shane Reed organized a church softball team called The Miracles to play in the Normal Interdenominational Summer Softball League.

The Miracles first game was against a Presbyterian mega-church located in downtown Normal. The Presbyterian’s team was called The Shepherds. They had won the league trophy three of the past four years due to the large pool of young, athletic congregants. This game would be a real test of the Miracles’ readiness.

The Miracles hit first. Shane, the leadoff batter, stepped up to the plate. As he stared down the pitcher, he noticed one of the Shepherds’ secret weapons: their second baseman, Kelly.

Kelly was a pretty, twenty-five year-old blonde with perfect skin who jumped up and down and clapped before every pitch. Since her position placed her behind and just to the right of the pitcher, this energetic display of team spirit caught Shane’s eye. Shane was noting just how perfectly straight and white Kelly’s teeth were as the first pitch sailed by him.

Shane blushed and tightened his grip on the bat. He tried to focus on the pitcher and ignore the bouncing blonde. He managed to actually take a swing at the second pitch. Unfortunately it was way outside the strike zone and would have been a ball had he let it go. As it was, he missed by a good eight inches. Strike two.

By now Shane was completely discombobulated. He did manage to connect with the next pitch but he had reached for another poor throw and grounded straight to the first baseman.

As Shane slumped sullenly back to the dugout, Del Winslow went up to hit. Shane was not surprised to see Del whiff at his first pitch as well, then pop up an easy ball to the third baseman for a quick out. He suspected Del’s concentration may also have been affected.

Shane was not about to let a similar fate befall Thad Wheeling who was warming up for his at-bat. Shane jogged over to warn Thad about the distraction at second base.

“Don’t worry,” said Thad. “I won’t let her get to me.”

“It’s the smile that does it,” Shane explained.

“They probably put her there just for that purpose,” Thad said. “I bet she can’t field at all. I’ll hit it right to her.”

Thad was as good as his word, sending the first pitch on a line drive right between the first baseman and Kelly. Thad took off along the first base line with a confident smirk.

Then the most amazing thing happened. Kelly launched herself into the air, stretching parallel to the ground, and snagged the ball as it sailed past. She tucked and rolled back to her feet as if she hadn’t just performed the most acrobatic catch in the history of religious sports leagues. Thad stood halfway to first base, mouth agape, as the Shepherds headed in and Kelly casually tossed the ball to the umpire.

The Miracles took the field. Well, most of them. The two teenage girls on the team, Katie and Tabitha, were locked in a heated discussion. Another girl at their school had spread a mean and only partly true rumor about Katie burping uncontrollably in fifth period Friday. They were so involved in dissecting the scandal that they didn’t even realize the inning was over until Shane called to them by name.

While the girls took the field, Missy Moore, the Miracles’ catcher, introduced herself to the umpire, a young man in his twenties with a goatee. As Missy settled into her crouch, she commented, “that blonde girl on the other team is really good.”

“Yeah,” the umpire agreed. “She played softball on scholarship in college. She’s the best player in the league.” Kelly was not the Shepherds’ secret weapon because of her attractiveness.

The first batter for the Shepherds hit a pop fly out to center field - an easy catch for the Miracles’ center fielder, Tabitha. Except Tabitha wasn’t there. She had slid over to right field so she could continue planning “burp-gate” damage control with Katie. By the time Pastor O’Donnell chased down the ball from left field and made a wayward toss toward third, the Shepherds had scored their first run.

Shane tried to keep his cool as he walked over to Tabitha. “Why don’t you switch positions with Pastor O’Donnell,” he said as evenly as he could.

Tabitha pouted as she trudged over to left field and the pastor took his place in center between the two teenage girls. Didn’t Shane understand that Katie’s high school reputation had been jeopardized? Who cared about a silly softball game in the face of such disaster.

The next batter hit a pop fly to right field, right to Katie.

It bounced at her feet and rolled by. Katie was too busy using her cell phone to send Tabitha a text message to notice. The Shepherds went up 2-0.

Then Kelly stepped up to the plate. Shane tried to focus on the game as she got into her batting stance with a little hip wiggle. Kevin tossed the first pitch in.

Kelly uncoiled and pounded the ball. It sizzled right past Kevin before he could even raise his glove, leaving a smell of burning ozone hanging in the air.

The ball rocketed straight toward Shane’s head. He stuck his glove out, relying more on an instinctive reflex for self-preservation than any athletic skill. The ball hit the glove but the force of the impact drove the glove back into Shane’s nose.

The next thing Shane saw was Kelly’s pretty face framed by blue sky. She looked like an angel, he thought.

“No, I’m a Shepherd,” she said. “The Angels are playing on the next field over.”

Shane realized he might have been thinking out loud. It also occurred to him that he was laying on his back.

“Are you all right?” Kelly asked.

“I think so,” Shane said, and sat up. “Did I get you out?”

“No. The ball rolled out of your glove when you fell,” she told him. “But good reflexes.”

After staunching the flow of blood from his wounded nose, Shane returned to his position. Thanks to Kevin’s pitching, they finally managed to get out of the inning having given up a mere ten runs. Shane said a little prayer of gratitude that the league games only went seven innings.

The Miracles did start to gel a little bit in the next inning and handled themselves respectably thereafter. As the game came to a merciful end in the quickly fading evening light, the Normal Miracles were relieved that the final score was only Shepherds 34, Miracles 2.

Afterwards, Shane sat in the bleachers icing his sore nose. He held the ice bag in his glove hand, since that palm had been bruised by the force of Kelly’s line drive. His mood brightened a little when Kelly came over to see how he was.

“Oh, I’m fine,” Shane said, striking what he hoped was an air of masculine nonchalance. Kelly was worried that he might have a concussion but she needn’t have been. Shane’s goofy smile was not a result of his injury. Then the umpire came over.

“Ready to go, Babe?” he said.

“Yeah,” Kelly replied and gave him a quick kiss. They walked off toward a giant, black pick-up truck holding hands.

Del was sitting nearby. “She’s dating the umpire?” he snorted. “That’s not fair!”

“No, it isn’t,” Shane agreed. But they weren’t talking about the same thing.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


By Douglas J. Eboch

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In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. A rather large but perfectly harmless spider has made his home in the rafters of the little church’s sanctuary where he keeps himself fat and happy catching flies and mosquitoes. Last Sunday however, the spider decided to take a trip down to the floor. Perhaps the hunting had been bad in the rafters of late or perhaps he was moved by the hymn the choir was singing. Who can really understand the mind of a spider, after all.

Kevin and Jill Boyer were seated behind Henrietta Miggins that morning. Kevin had dozed off, as he frequently did during church service. Since he wasn’t snoring, Jill let him sleep. Meanwhile, Henrietta, a dignified and dour sixty-nine year-old wearing a wide brimmed hat topped by three large fake flowers, frowned at the hymn selection. Choir director Shane Reed favored bouncy, jazzy hymns. Henrietta thought “bouncy” and “jazzy” were attributes more suited to cheap dance clubs than to church service.

As Henrietta frowned and Jill tapped her feet happily to the music, the spider descended on his thin strand of web. His trajectory took him a few inches in front of Jill’s face. Jill was not a fan of spiders. When it came into her field of view, she jumped, barely managing to stifle a small squeal.

The spider continued his decent unperturbed. Jill shimmied and gyrated like a gymnast having a seizure to avoid the little arachnid. Her flailing right hand bumped the brim of Henrietta’s hat, tilting it at a rakish angle. Henrietta turned with an icy stare. She was not rakish and did not appreciate such an adjustment to her headwear.

Jill leaned in to apologize, being careful to give the spider a wide berth. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “there’s a…”

“Shush!” Henrietta hissed, cutting Jill off. Henrietta believed one should sit and listen respectfully in church no matter how outlandish the musical selection was.

The spider had reached the floor. Jill pulled her knees up to her chest to keep her feet away from it. She elbowed Kevin in the arm.

Kevin awoke with a snort and looked over at her. “What?” he hissed.

Henrietta turned and gave the Boyers another “shush.” When she turned back, Kevin stuck his tongue out at her.

Jill pointed frantically down at the floor where the spider was meandering around exploring this new territory. Kevin rolled his eyes and stepped on the spider.

The spider managed to slip into the small space between Kevin’s sole and heel, thus avoiding being crushed. The near death experience got the little creature’s arachnid adrenaline pumping on all cylinders. As soon as Kevin lifted his foot, it scurried forward as fast as it could.

Jill gestured frantically for Kevin to finish the job. The spider had vanished under the pew in front of them. Kevin rolled up the bulletin and slipped down on his hands and knees to pursue. He could see the spider crawling along the edge of Henrietta’s shoe. He reached forward to smack it with the bulletin.

He missed.

However he did manage to swat Henrietta’s foot. She looked down and saw his hand, but did not see the spider. She did not know what kind of shenanigans he was up to, but she was certain they were quite rude and inappropriate. She placed her foot on his hand, not firmly enough to cause pain, but firmly enough to trap him. Then she turned back to Jill with an expression that said a great many things, none of them particularly nice.

Jill opened her mouth to explain. Henrietta shushed her.

Thinking the issue resolved for the time being, Henrietta released Kevin’s hand. When she placed her foot back onto the floor, however, the spider climbed on to her shoe.

The spider did not stop there. He climbed up onto her ankle. Henrietta felt the ticklish pull on her panty hose and looked down.

Henrietta was no more a fan of spiders than Jill. The sight of the eight-legged creature crawling up her shin caused her to jump to her feet with a yelp.

The choir had just completed the hymn, so Henrietta’s outburst happened as the sanctuary fell quiet. Everyone looked at her. Startled and embarrassed, Henrietta did the only thing she could think of. She raised her hands and said “Hallelujah.” Then she quickly sat back down.

Choir Director Shane Reed smiled. He knew Henrietta was not the type to express enthusiasm in church, or anywhere else for that matter. He figured she must have really loved the hymn to do something so uncharacteristic. He made a mental note to pick similar upbeat music in the future.

Meanwhile, the spider had jumped off Henrietta’s leg and was scurrying toward a pillar to return to the rafters. He’d had enough of exploring the lower parts of the sanctuary to last him quite a while.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Practice Makes Miracles

by Douglas J. Eboch

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In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. This year, choir director Shane Reed organized a church softball team called The Miracles to play in the Normal Interdenominational Summer Softball League.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon The Miracles gathered at a city park for their first practice. Shane arrived early with a cooler of water and sports drinks. Del Winslow, a heavyset sixty-two year-old member of the choir, was already waiting for him.

“Great day for playing ball, eh coach?” Del called out as he approached.

“Sure is,” Shane agreed.

Del swung his arms vigorously from side to side to loosen up. “If you need any help today, I was captain of my college intramural baseball team, you know.”

Shane did know. Del had told him on at least three occasions. Shane thanked Del for his generous offer.

Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s car pulled into the parking lot. Henry, his fifteen year-old daughter Katie, her boyfriend Joe and her best friend Tabitha piled out. Katie and Tabitha looked excited to be there. Henry did not. Joe looked sullen and bored, but then he was a teenage boy so Shane figured that was probably his normal expression.

Del noticed the shiny, unblemished mitts the newcomers were carrying. “Are those new?” he asked Henry.

“Yeah,” Henry replied. “We swung by a sporting goods store on the way over.”

“Make sure you oil them,” Del instructed, “And tonight put a ball in each one and put rubber bands around them. It will help shape them.”

“Will do,” Henry said, but in fact the mitts would spend the night forgotten in the trunk of his car.

Before long the rest of the team had arrived: hard core amateur athlete Kevin Boyer, his new coworker Thad Wheeling, and bubbly, rotund Missy Moore. Missy brought homemade brownies to celebrate their first practice. As a result, they didn’t get started quite as quickly as Shane had planned.

“All right, let’s warm up,” Shane called out when the pan of brownies was reduced to a pan of crumbs. “Pair up and toss the ball around.”

As the players began warming up, Shane got his first look at his team’s skills. There was some cause for concern. Katie was playing catch with Tabitha. Katie could throw the ball okay, but whenever Tabitha threw it back, Katie would squeal and dodge instead of catching it. Shane had the two girls move closer together and instructed Tabitha to throw underhand until Katie wasn’t as afraid of the ball.

As he turned away from them, he noticed that Del was red-faced and sweating. “You all right, Del?” Shane asked.

“Oh sure, Coach,” Del responded. “Bit warm today, isn’t it?”

Shane actually thought it was pleasantly cool but he agreed with Del’s assessment just to be polite.

Kevin and Thad were a bright spot, making crisp, clean throws back and forth. And Joe looked like he might be pretty decent, even if his method of communication consisted mostly of annoyed grunts.

After twenty minutes or so, Shane called for a break. Del hustled over to the cooler and downed a bottle of bright red sports drink. After he finished, he whispered to Shane, “We’ve got some work to do to get this team in shape, eh coach?”

Shane smiled and nodded, then called for everyone to gather around. “We’ll take it easy since it’s our first practice,” Shane told them. “Let’s take the field and we’ll rotate through hitting.” He then assigned them each positions.

Shane put himself on second base. Del had insisted on playing first base as he had in college. They jogged out to their places. When Del reached first base, he bent over, hands on his knees, and sucked in big gulps of air.

“You okay, Del?” Shane called out.

“Fine,” Del responded, quickly straightening up. “Boy, I’ve missed the ol’ ball park.”

Pastor O’Donnell came running up to Shane.

“You’re supposed to be in right field,” Shane told him.

“I know, but there’s a bee hive over there,” the pastor said.

“Don’t be a wimp,” Del said between gasps, “bees won’t sting unless provoked. Don’t bother
them, they won’t bother you.”

Pastor O’Donnell didn’t look convinced but he returned to his position.

They each took turns going up to bat. Kevin, the pitcher, threw in pitches until each batter hit one, at which time the fielders practiced throwing to the correct base. Usually that base was first which meant Del was getting quite a workout. Shane grew more concerned as Del’s face grew more red. “Do you need a break,” he called over.

“Me?” Del asked. “No, no. I’m just beginning to get into the groove.” He flashed Shane a thumbs up and grinned as sweat dripped from his nose.

Most batters got a hit within two or three pitches. Then came Katie’s turn.

Katie’s fear of the ball was not just limited to catching it. Kevin took it easy on her, tossing pitches in as gently as he could. Still, she yelped and ducked every time. After a few dozen attempts, Shane could tell the team’s patience was wearing thin.

Shane jogged over to Katie. She was clearly embarrassed.

“It’s okay,” he told her. “Just relax. Kevin’s going to pitch nice and slow. The ball won’t hurt you. Just try to keep your eye on it and swing when it gets close. Think you can do that for me?”

Katie looked into Shane’s big blue eyes. Shane didn’t know it, but Katie had a little crush on him. She nodded.

Shane jogged back to second. Katie took a deep breath and planted her feet firmly. She was going to swing at this pitch no matter what. Kevin tossed the gentlest, slowest lob he could manage. Katie closed her eyes and swung.

Amazingly, the bat connected right in the sweet spot. Katie hit a nifty line drive right down the first base line. Del waved his glove half-heartedly toward it, but it skipped past him. Katie opened her eyes and asked Missy, the catcher, “what happened?”

“You hit it!” Missy shouted. “Run!” Katie took off toward third base.

Meanwhile, the ball bounced toward pastor O’Donnell. He scrambled forward to catch it. It rolled between his legs. He reached back, snagged it, and turned to throw toward first. But as he released the ball, his legs got tangled and he fell on his backside. The ball sailed off in a completely unintended direction - right toward the bee hive.

The ball struck the beehive and it exploded in a shower of honeycomb and bees. The buzzing of the angry swarm could be heard across the entire field as the bees spread out in an insect mob looking for vengeance.

“Run!” Shane shouted, though he needn’t have bothered. Every player was already dashing for the cars. Even Del.

Shane dived into Kevin’s car because it was closer than his. As they sat there catching their breath, they saw Del open the door to his car, lean out, and throw up red sports drink.

“I guess practice is over,” Shane said. “But I think we got off to a good start for our first time.”

“We’re gonna get killed,” Kevin muttered.

“It’s only a church league. Maybe all the teams start out like this.”

All the teams did not start out like that as they were soon to discover.

The Little Church Stories will take a break from the Miracles, but they’ll be back soon for “Game One.”

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Normal Miracles

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. This year, choir director Shane Reed proposed organizing a church softball team to play in the Normal Interdenominational Summer Softball League. Pastor Henry O’Donnell thought it was a fine idea as long as he didn’t have to play. When Henry was a boy he’d gotten his exercise chasing the ice cream truck. As a teen, he’d stayed in shape by running from bullies. But as an adult he’d become completely sedentary.

The deadline to register teams was just over a week away. Shane had two tasks to accomplish before then: Find a minimum of nine players and come up with a team name. He focused first on recruiting.

After announcing the team in church, Shane quickly got three people to sign up during coffee hour. First was Kevin Boyer. Unlike Pastor O’Donnell, Kevin loved sports. He was already on a city league softball team, not to mention tennis and flag football teams. Any leisure time Kevin couldn’t fill by playing sports, he tried to occupy by watching sports on TV.

Second was Del Winslow, who despite being 62 and a few dozen pounds overweight, assured Shane that he was an expert first baseman. “I was the captain of my college intramural baseball team,” Del informed him, leaving out the additional information that the team had finished next to last every year but one. That year it had actually finished last.

The third was Missy Moore, a rotund, energetic woman who said she’d be delighted to play, though she admitted she wasn’t very good. Shane gladly signed her up mostly because the league required three women on the field for each team. He figured she could be the catcher.

Four people wasn’t enough to make a basketball team, let alone a softball team. Shane cornered a few other congregants but he wasn’t having much luck. Then Katie O’Donnell, the pastor’s fifteen year-old daughter, and her friend Tabitha skipped over. “Hi Shane,” they said simultaneously in singsong voices. “Whatcha doing?”

“Signing up people for the church softball team. You two wouldn’t be interested, would you?”

The girls looked at each other with knowing smiles. “Sure,” Katie said.

“Yeah,” Tabitha agreed.

Shane hid his surprise and handed them permission slips for their parents to sign.

As the girls walked away, Katie whispered to Tabitha, “Mr. Reed’s hot, huh?”

“Yeah,” Tabitha agreed. “I wonder if he’ll take his shirt off at practice if it’s warm.” The girls giggled and went to get coffee.

That still left Shane three players short of a full team with the league kick-off meeting the following Sunday afternoon. Kevin helped by recruiting a new co-worker named Thad Wheeling who had just transferred to town. With two open spots to go, Shane started making phone calls.

He was nearing the end of his list with no success when he dialed organist Walter Tibble’s number. Walter hadn’t participated in anything resembling organized sports in thirty years but he owed Shane a favor for helping him move an old refrigerator a few weeks earlier. Walter had inadvertently dropped the refrigerator on Shane’s foot increasing the size of the debt. Shane poured on the guilt trying to overcome Walter’s reluctance.

And just as he thought Walter might be wavering, Shane’s call waiting beeped.

It was Kevin. “Jill says I can’t join the team,” Kevin told him. “She says I spend too much time playing sports while she has to watch the kids by herself.”

Shane knew Kevin and Jill’s two daughters and could understand Jill’s feelings. But his primary concern was the potential loss of his most promising player. “Can we discuss this,” he asked.

“Sure, but Jill’s the one you have to convince,” Kevin told him. “Maybe if you could find her a baby sitter. We seem to have trouble keeping them.”

“Okay. I’ve got Walter on the other line. Let me finish up with him, then I’ll…” Shane trailed off. He was getting an idea. “I’ll call you right back,” Shane said.

He clicked over to Walter. “Walter,” he said, “I’ve thought of another way you can pay me back for helping with the refrigerator. How about giving a couple kids piano lessons for me during the games so their father is free to play ball?”

Walter jumped at the chance to avoid regular exercise. “I could do that. Who are the kids?”

“Mary and Susie Boyer.”

“Oh no!” Walter howled. Mary and Susie were legendary around the church and not for lady like behavior or childish adorableness. Shane had to throw in washing Walter’s car after every game to get him to reconsider.

After an hour of back and forth phone negotiations that would have made the United Nations proud, Shane brokered a complicated three way deal. He managed to overcome Walter’s objections that the girls were really too young for piano lessons and that the Boyers didn’t have a piano for them to practice on. Jill assured Walter she didn’t expect the girls to achieve any actual musical proficiency. The truth was, she just wanted a few hours for herself. With the girls tormenting Walter, she didn’t particularly mind that her husband wouldn’t be around. Visions of long bubble baths danced in her head.

Shane was relieved he’d averted that crisis, but he was still two players down when he arrived at church Sunday morning.

Katie solved half his problem by informing him that her boyfriend Joe wanted to play. Katie was clearly delighted at Joe’s taking interest in one of her activities. What she didn’t know was that he had overheard Katie and Tabitha talking about Shane’s muscular forearms and figured he better protect his territory.

Still, when Pastor Henry O’Donnell saw Shane at coffee hour and asked him how the team was coming together, Shane was despondent. “I’m still one player short and the registration deadline is in an hour,” he told the pastor “It’s going to take a miracle to make this work.”

Unfortunately for Henry, his wife Jennifer was standing next to them. “Why don’t you play?” she asked.

“I’d love to but I’m too busy,” Henry told her, shrugging apologetically at Shane.

“Please,” Jennifer scoffed. “It’ll do you good to get some exercise. Besides, Katie’s on the team. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some father-daughter time with her?”

“But honey…” Henry started to protest.

“Sign him up,” Jennifer told Shane. Shane looked at the pastor, unsure what to do. Henry sighed and nodded his agreement.

“Great!” Shane said. “We could still use an alternate. Do you want to play, too, Jennifer? Then it would be family time.”

“Oh no,” Jennifer said. “I’m way too busy for softball.” She hurried off before her husband could come up with a snide comment.

“Guess you got your miracle,” Henry muttered.

Shane rushed off to the kick-off meeting before anyone could bail out. When he handed the coordinator his form, she pointed out that he had neglected to fill in a team name. In all the chaos of recruiting he had forgotten to think of one. Shane smiled. “Put down The Miracles,” he told her.

Coming soon: The Normal Miracles have their first practice.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Open Mic Night

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. During services, Pastor Henry O’Donnell likes to use a lavalier mic, a type of radio microphone that clips to his tie, so he can walk around unencumbered by cables and still be easily heard. He feels it made his sermons more dynamic - and a little razzle dazzle helps get the message across.

Last Sunday morning, however, when he stepped to the front of the sanctuary to welcome everyone, Pastor O’Donnell discovered he’d forgotten to put the lavalier mic on.

It was an annoyance but hardly a disaster. He would just have to use the pulpit microphone or the microphone on the stand by the piano that was used for announcements or special music. It would limit his movement, but he would just have to make up for the reduction in showmanship with more forceful preaching.

Things proceeded fairly smoothly until the pastor’s prayer. Pastor O’Donnell moved the microphone on the stand out to the center of the dais and delivered what he thought was one of his more eloquent prayers. Then, as was his custom, he said, “now we move to a time of silent prayer.” The sanctuary fell quiet as the congregation made their private requests of God.

And then Katie O’Donnell’s voice broke the silence, filling the sanctuary. “Is my Dad boring or what?” she said.

O’Donnell was startled. He looked up to the balcony where his fifteen year old daughter Katie normally sat with her friend Tabitha so they could worship away from all the stodgy grown ups. But they weren’t there.

“I need some coffee if I’m going to sit through any more of that,” came Tabitha’s voice, loud and clear. Pastor O’Donnell realized the voices were coming over the speaker system. And that’s when he remembered where he’d left his lavalier mic.

Right before service, Ralph Billings, the head usher, had asked the pastor to help him move the large table into position for coffee hour. O’Donnell had taken off his sports coat and the lavalier mic to do so. The whole process had taken longer than expected due to a misadventure with a wobbly table leg and a stray nectarine. O’Donnell had to rush to make it up to the sanctuary by the start of service. He must have left the microphone in the lounge, where it was now picking up the conversation between Katie and Tabitha who were apparently playing hooky from the service.

O’Donnell found the congregation was staring at him. “Amen,” he said, since it appeared everyone had run out of things to pray silently about.

“I can’t believe your Dad is letting you go to the concert with Joe on Friday,” Tabitha said.

“It’s only so I won’t tell Mom what happened when he was giving me a ride home the other night.”

Pastor O’Donnell’s face went pale. He lunged for the small door at the back of the dais where the audio controls were kept. Unfortunately, he had forgotten about the unaccustomed microphone cord trailing behind him. He tripped and fell flat on his face, banging his knee badly.

“What happened,” Tabitha asked Katie in a conspiratorial tone that was still plenty audible over the speakers.

O’Donnell leaped to his feet and raced for the audio controls, ignoring his throbbing knee.

“He was talking on the cell phone and drove through a stop sign. Of course there was a cop waiting right there,” Katie said.

O’Donnell made it to the door and threw it open, slamming it on his thumb.

Katie continued her story. “My Dad tried to argue with him and the cop gave him a ticket for speeding as well as for running the stop sign.”

O’Donnell hit the switch for the lavalier receiver. Tabitha’s voice was cut off in mid “wow.”
O’Donnell glanced over at Shane, the choir director. Shane was furiously chewing his lips in a desperate attempt not to laugh. “Start the anthem,” O’Donnell hissed.

As Shane directed the choir to stand, Henry slipped back to his seat behind the pulpit. When the choir reached the second verse of the anthem, he ventured a peek out at the congregation. He located his wife Jennifer in the middle of the left section of pews. She was staring straight at him with a furious look. O’Donnell ducked back behind the pulpit.

O’Donnell suspected he was going to be in for quite a lecture after the service. But he had a more immediate problem.

His sermon topic was honesty.

On the ride home, Jennifer informed Katie that she would not be going to the concert with Joe.

“But Dad promised!” Katie shouted.

“I know about the deal you made. You and your Dad will be spending Friday night cleaning out the garage.”

“It’s not fair,” Katie pouted.

Henry turned back with a severe glare. “Serves you right for ducking out of church,” he said.
But the distraction caused him to miss the stop sign just ahead. And unfortunately there was a motorcycle officer waiting to cross in the other direction.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

White Board Heat

Hear the story read by author Douglas Eboch

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. It’s a quiet little church…or so it seemed until she walked into his office one drizzly gray Monday morning. She looked like trouble with her white-gold curls and her floral print dress. “We’ve got a problem,” she said, confirming his fears. She was Tammy Billings, church secretary, and she was about to drop a family size can of worms in his lap. Who was he? O’Donnell. Pastor O’Donnell.

“The white board in the choir room is missing,” Tammy told him. “And we need it for the Finance Committee meeting tonight.”

O’Donnell supposed the white board could have miraculously grown legs and decided to relocate to nicer digs on its own. Only problem was, O’Donnell didn’t believe in miracles. Okay, actually he did, but not when it came to ambulatory furniture. No, he was fairly certain this inanimate object had flesh and blood help vacating its premises.

The solitaire program on O’Donnell’s computer would have to wait. He had a more dangerous game to play.

O’Donnell’s first call was to the choir director, Shane Reed. The kid had a voice like an angel but that didn’t mean there was a halo over his head. O’Donnell wanted to see what kind of song he’d sing.

“The white board was there after the service yesterday,” Shane told him.

“Was the door locked when you left?” O’Donnell asked.

“No,” Shane said. “Walter’s stuff was in there. He said he had a few chores to take care of and he’d lock up after he was done.”

Walter was Walter Tibble, the church organist. During the week, he made his nut by teaching piano to squirrelly kids. O’Donnell reached him at home where one of the animals was murdering a long dead composer in the background. That particular tune was not music to O’Donnell’s ears.

Walter said he couldn’t remember if the white board was still in the choir room when he locked the door. “Did you see anyone unusual at the church when you left?” O’Donnell asked.

“The only people I saw were the women’s group. They were having their monthly tea.”

A few members of the women’s group definitely qualified as unusual. O’Donnell also suspected he knew what Walter’s “chores” were.

“What kind of cookies did they serve,” O’Donnell asked.

“Chocolate chip and peanut butter,” Walter said without thinking. Suspicions confirmed.

Tammy was a member of the women’s group and would have remembered if they borrowed the white board for their meeting. He asked her who else attended. As she went down the list, one name jumped out at him like a cat in a horror movie: Jill Boyer.

“Were her girls with her,” O’Donnell asked.

“No. I think Kevin was watching them downstairs,” Tammy said.

Jill and her husband Kevin had two little girls, Susie, age two and Mary, age four. Mary and O’Donnell went way back. At least as far back as you could go with a four-year-old. She had the face of a cherub and the personality of a sociopathic anarchist. They say good things come in small packages. Mary was proof that chaos comes in a pretty small package as well.

O’Donnell placed a call to Kevin. Kevin told him that he let Mary and Susie play in their Sunday school classroom during the Women’s Group meeting.

“Were you watching them the whole time,” O’Donnell asked?

“Of course,” Kevin said.

It had been quite a while since O’Donnell took a tumble from a truck of turnips. “Are you sure,” he pressed.

Kevin cracked like a glass trampoline. “Well, I was in the room right across the hall. There was a baseball game on the radio and the girls were being really loud. They didn’t break anything too valuable, did they?”

“Not that we’ve discovered yet,” O’Donnell told him and hung up.

The classroom was just two doors down from the choir room. Even Mary’s short legs could make that journey in less time than it took a professional ball player to round four bases. O’Donnell went to investigate.

The classroom looked like a couple bombs had gone off in it. O’Donnell guessed these bombs were named Mary and Susie. They’d constructed some kind of fort in the middle of the room out of desks, chairs and blankets. Apparently, the defenses were good enough to repel anyone who had asked them to clean up after themselves.

O’Donnell grabbed one of the blankets and pulled. Just as he suspected – the central support for the construction was the choir room white board.

O’Donnell returned the white board and went back to his office. He put his feet up on his desk and poured himself a shot of herbal tea. He doubted this would be the last time he’d be cleaning up after one of Mary’s messes. But that’s just the way the sugar cookie crumbled in the mean halls of the little church. He drank his tea. Case closed.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Photo Directory

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. Every few years they do a photo directory of all the members. A company sends a photographer to take everyone’s portraits. The photography is free, the company making their money by selling portrait packages to the participants. The whole process takes three long Saturdays.

Church secretary Tammy Billings was in charge of signing everyone up for a time slot. She met the photography people at 8 a.m. on the first Saturday with a neatly printed schedule for the day. The photographer this year was an energetic young man named Marcus. He was accompanied by a considerably less energetic young saleswoman named Kelly.

Marcus asked Tammy to pose as a stand-in on the stool while he set up his lights and backdrop. He took his job very seriously, as though he was shooting the cover of a national magazine. Kelly, on the other hand, simply set her laptop on a folding table and began playing computer solitaire. As Marcus was trying different colored gels on the backlight, he told Tammy she had lovely bone structure and asked if she’d ever been a model. Tammy giggled and reminded herself that she was a married woman.

At 9 a.m. the first subject arrived. Marcus declared himself ready to start shooting at 9:30.

Tammy liked Marcus’s spirit. She did not like the fact that he was an hour behind by 11:30 a.m. The lounge was filling up with people waiting for their turn.

The Boyer family had been scheduled at 11:00 a.m. They arrived twenty minutes late, which would have annoyed Tammy if everything weren’t already so far behind schedule. Tammy informed Kevin and Jill Boyer of the delay and asked them to take a seat.

They sat next to Henrietta Miggins, age 69, who was scheduled just ahead of them. Henrietta did not like to be kept waiting and she was not the type to keep her displeasure to herself. Approximately every five minutes Henrietta went to Tammy’s check-in table to ask about the delay.

The Boyer girls, Mary, age 4 and Susie, age 2, were not good at waiting patiently either. Mary decided to amuse herself by poking Susie in the arm. Susie did not find the game nearly as amusing. Jill separated them and begged them to sit still and not mess up their nice clothes before the picture could be taken. She also had to throw an occasional beg Kevin’s way as he fiddled with his tie.

Without a little sister within striking distance, Mary became fascinated by the fake flowers on Henrietta’s hat. She suggested Henrietta put perfume in them to make them smell pretty. Henrietta gave the girl a severe glare then went to check with Tammy on Marcus’s progress again.

Missy Moore had been there longer than any of them, but she waited patiently and cheerfully. Missy was excited to have her picture taken. She’d worn her favorite pink dress and was in the bathroom reapplying her make-up for the third time that morning when the Boyers arrived.

Missy loved kids, though she had none of her own. When she came out of the bathroom and saw Mary and Susie, she squealed with delight. “Oh don’t you two just look precious in your pretty little dresses!” she exclaimed and gave them a big hug, one wrapped in each arm. Henrietta rolled her eyes, though she was thankful for the relief from Mary’s attentions.

Marcus finished taking Walter Tibble’s portrait and said he was ready for Missy. Kelly the saleswoman salivated as Missy checked herself in the mirror one last time. She suspected this woman would order lots of pictures.

Missy beamed as Marcus complimented her rosy cheeks and cheerful smile while he posed her atop the stool. He stepped back and said, “gorgeous.” Missy blushed.

Marcus went behind the digital camera and took hold of the shutter release cord that allowed him to take a picture without jostling the camera. “Big smile,” he said. Missy smiled her biggest. And just as Marcus depressed the shutter, a naked two-year-old girl ran past.

Susie had taken advantage of a distraction caused by Mary inadvertently yanking one of the fake flowers out of Henrietta’s hat. Susie slithered out of the frilly yellow dress her mother had wedged her into that morning and made a break for the door.

Missy was so startled by the diminutive streaker that she nearly fell off the stool. “That’s okay,” Marcus said, “We’ll just take that one again.” Marcus repositioned Missy on the chair as Jill ran by in pursuit of her daughter, spilling apologies.

Marcus returned to the camera. “Got another one of those ravishing smiles in you,” he asked with a wink.

Missy grinned. Marcus pushed down on the shutter release.

And got a great picture of the backdrop falling on Missy.

Mary was standing on the other side, giggling. Jill ran up with Susie under her arm, looking mortified. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Are you all right?”

Missy clambered out from under the backdrop. “I’m fine,” she assured Jill.

Jill turned on Mary and unleashed a tirade of anger on the rambunctious girl, saving a few choice words for her husband for not keeping closer watch. Missy stepped in before Mary started crying. “It’s okay, really!” Missy said. Then she knelt and pinched Mary’s cheek. “You’re just bored, aren’t you? This is no fun for a little girl like you. Maybe we can get you something to play with.”

“I’ve got something,” Marcus volunteered. He always brought toys with him to get his younger subjects to smile. He handed a plastic horse with a long pink tail to Mary, whose face lit up.

“Thank you,” Jill said, with as much relief as gratitude. “Come on, we have to put Susie’s dress back on.” She led the two girls away.

Marcus regarded Missy. Her precisely arranged hairdo had been completely undone by its encounter with the backdrop. “Would you like a minute to get yourself back together,” he asked.

“Oh yes, please.” Missy said.

Missy hurried off to the bathroom. Tammy suggested maybe they better go ahead and shoot the next person on the list while Missy cleaned up. “That’s me,” Henrietta said, striding over to the table.

Tammy peeked around her at the frazzled Boyer family. Mary and Susie were fighting over who got to play with the plastic horse. “Henrietta, do you think maybe we could let the Boyers go first?” she asked.

Henrietta fixed her with a steely gaze. “Who’s next on your list,” she demanded.

“You are,” Tammy sighed. Henrietta nodded triumphantly and strode over to the stool.

Marcus went to position Henrietta. “Don’t touch me,” Henrietta snapped. “You ought to show some respect for a lady, young man.”

“Okay,” Marcus said slowly. “Just put your hand in your lap then. And tilt your chin up.” Henrietta complied. “Now smile,” Marcus said.

Henrietta did not smile.

“Smile,” Marcus repeated louder.

“I’m not deaf,” Henrietta said. “I just prefer not to grin like a fool in my picture.”

“Don’t you want to look happy in your directory?”

“I’d rather look dignified.”

Marcus turned on the charm. “Come on, I bet you have a really pretty smile.”

“Mighty fresh, aren’t you,” Henrietta responded.

Marcus decided to try a joke. “What did the blue jay say to the robin,” he asked.

“I hate people who waste time telling stupid jokes?”

Marcus sighed. He was about to give up and take the picture when suddenly the plastic horse flew in and hit him in the groin. Marcus grunted and fell to his knees. Tears welled up in his eyes.
He looked at Henrietta who appeared as startled as he was. Then she bursts out laughing. Instinctively, Marcus pushed the plunger on the shutter release.

When the camera clicked, Henrietta stopped laughing. “Did you just take my picture?” she asked.

“Yep,” he said through clenched teeth. He checked the results on his laptop screen. Henrietta looked joyful and free spirited. Anyone who knew her would claim the photo didn’t capture her true nature at all.

“It’s great,” Marcus said. “Next!”

“Wait, wait,” Henrietta demanded, but it was too late. The Boyer family appeared and the two girls engaged in a game of tag around her. Kelly took Henrietta’s arm and led her away. When Henrietta saw the portrait, she was horrified.

“Would you like to order any photos,” Kelly asked.

“Certainly not,” Henrietta sniffed and walked out.

When the directory came out two months later, it contained the first picture of Henrietta smiling in church directory history.

(c) 2008 Douglas J. Eboch