Sunday, October 19, 2008

Howl in One

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. 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

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. 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.