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.