Sunday, September 21, 2008

First and Long

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. 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

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 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.