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.