Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Investment - Part 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. Recently, a con man came to the church. The con man’s name was Gerald Huntsman III. It wasn’t his real name, of course, but it was how he introduced himself at coffee hour that first Sunday. “I find the ‘third’ at the end of my name a bit pretentious,” he told everyone. “So you can just call me Gerald.”

The so-called Gerald Huntsman III was a short man in his mid-forties with salt and pepper hair and just enough of a paunch to appear truly ordinary. He wore brown leather loafers and a brown belt that didn’t quite match. He also wore a gold watch that looked quite expensive as long as you weren’t in the watch appraisal business.

Gerald often found his marks at churches. People trusted folks they met at church…as long as they didn’t know them very well. And the congregation of this little church was quite warm and friendly. When Gerald, in an upbeat voice, described the dreary, lonely hotel room he was staying in, he immediately received an invitation for dinner at Del and Karen Winslow’s house for that Thursday evening.

Thanks to a fortuitously overheard conversation shortly thereafter, Gerald learned that a group of the older women at the church consisting of Henrietta Miggins, Betsy Davis and Celia Simmons had tea every Sunday afternoon at a little café. That afternoon Gerald just happened to drop in at the same café. He went over to the women’s table and greeted them, expressing his amazement at the odd coincidence of the encounter.

Upon learning Gerald was alone, Betsy, a gracious Southerner, invited him to join them. Henrietta frowned, certain this strange man would ruin their afternoon, but refrained from commenting on that belief in his presence.

Over the next hour Gerald charmed Betsy with his gentlemanly manners and flirted shamelessly with Celia, a proud, seventy-three year-old African-American woman. The only one he couldn’t seem to win over was Henrietta. He thought he might have found his in when the conversation turned to the troublesome plumbing in Henrietta’s upstairs bathroom.

“I used to work for a plumber,” Gerald said. “Perhaps I could be of service.”

Gerald had indeed worked for a plumber for several months, embezzling the poor fellow out of several tens of thousands of dollars. But he had picked up a few tricks of the trade as well, one of which proved useful when he went by Henrietta’s house the following evening. He quickly solved the problem of her running toilet. He also managed to ascertain that Henrietta was quite well off.

He volunteered to help with many other chores for her over the following weeks.

But before that came dinner with the Winslows. Del had also invited Pastor O’Donnell and his wife Jennifer. Karen Winslow made a lovely pot roast which was the best meal Gerald had eaten in several years – at least if his compliments were to be believed. In truth, Gerald was so accustomed to giving false compliments he wasn’t even sure himself whether he actually liked the dinner or not.

Afterwards, the group retreated to Del’s basement game room to play some pool. Karen would have preferred to have tea with Jennifer in the living room, but Jennifer’s father had owned a pool table and she was delighted at the prospect of a game. As Karen watched and Jennifer methodically slaughtered the men, Del’s curiosity got the better of him and he worked the conversation around to Gerald’s business in Normal.

“Well, I suppose I can trust you folks to keep a secret,” Gerald said. “After all if I can’t trust people from church, who can I trust, right? I’m handling an investment pool for a group of venture capitalists. We’re funding a company that’s acquired rights to a patent on a new wireless social networking interface application. It’s already been released in Norway and reached 85% penetration in only eighteen months.”

Del and O’Donnell nodded in unison. Neither quite understood what Gerald was saying but it sure sounded impressive.

“You know,” Del mused, “I have a little bit of a nest egg just sitting in a money market account. I’ve been thinking about moving it into something more aggressive. Is there any chance I could get in on this?”

Gerald pondered. “Well, the fund’s fully subscribed. I might be able to work some things around, increase the shares. But there’s a half million dollar minimum.”

“Oh,” Del said, his face falling. “I don’t have that much.”

They each took a few more shots. Del seemed distracted and scratched when it was his turn. Finally he broached the subject again. “If I came up with $100,000 do you think there’s any way you could make an exception?”

Gerald frowned and furrowed his brow. “Well…” he finally said, “I’ll probably take some heat, but hey, you seem like such a great guy and you’ve made me feel so welcome I guess I owe you one.”

Del beamed. “Excellent!” he said.

Gerald looked over at Henry. “How about you, pastor?”

Pastor O’Donnell’s face reddened. “That’s a little out of my league.”

“What league are we talking about?” Gerald asked. “I could always merge your investment with Del’s in a side fund.”

“I might be able to scrounge together something like $10,000.”

“I could work with that,” Gerald said.

Jennifer took a shot, hitting the cue ball extra hard so it cracked loudly off its target.

“What do you think, honey?” Henry said, having gotten his wife’s hint.

“We should discuss it when we get home” Jennifer replied. Everybody in the room except the pastor knew at that moment that the O’Donnells would not, in fact, be investing in Gerald’s fund.

“Okay,” Gerald said. “But let’s keep this absolutely secret. I don’t want to be bombarded with a bunch of people begging to get a piece of the action.”

Which of course is exactly what happened the following Sunday…just like Gerald had planned.

(To be continued in two weeks)

Sunday, January 11, 2009


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 Sunday during coffee hour Pastor Henry O’Donnell approached Kevin Boyer to ask him to serve on the church board of trustees. The pastor explained that he liked to rotate new blood onto the decision making organs of the church from time to time to keep things fresh and involve the younger generation in leadership.

Kevin was reluctant. He told the pastor that he wasn’t sure if he had the time to give proper attention to such an important position (by which he really meant that he feared serving as a trustee might cut into his time watching football on TV or playing basketball with his friends on Sunday afternoons). Besides, Kevin added, he didn’t even really know what a trustee was.

“The trustees are responsible for the physical plant,” Pastor O’Donnell explained. “They approve repairs and improvements to the building, buying new furniture, that sort of thing. The church office handles all the actual contracting and so forth. The trustees simply oversee it. They meet every two months for an hour or so after church.”

Kevin hemmed and hawed but Pastor O’Donnell was persistent. Finally Kevin admitted that it sounded like something he could handle. “Good,” Pastor O’Donnell replied, slapping Kevin on the shoulder. “I think you’re going to enjoy it.” The pastor wasn’t above the occasional little white lie when recruiting church members to service.

A few minutes later 70 year-old Henrietta Miggins stomped over to Kevin. “So,” Henrietta said, “I hear Pastor O’Donnell put you on trustees. As chairwoman I need to explain a few things about your duties.”

Neglecting to mention that Henrietta was chair of trustees was another one of Pastor O’Donnell’s recruiting strategies.

“Our job is to make sure member’s tithes are wisely spent,” Henrietta continued. “There are people who would throw church money around like it has an expiration date. You wouldn’t believe the crazy stuff folks want to buy when they don’t have to pay for it out of their own pocket. This generation has no sense of thriftiness or responsibility. In my day people knew the value of the dollar. I expect you to show similar restraint. Do you understand me?”

“Yes ma’am,” Kevin said. He didn’t customarily use the word “ma’am” but somehow it seemed to fit Henrietta.

“Good.” Henrietta replied with a stern frown. “We’re meeting at noon next week. Be punctual.”

The following week, Del Winslow came up to Kevin in coffee hour and offered him a donut. “Just wanted to welcome the newest trustee,” Del said. “Don’t worry, it’s not so bad. Just be careful not to get Ralph going on some long rant about healthy snacks at coffee hour.”

“Frankly, I’m still not quite sure what trustees do,” Kevin admitted as he bit into the jelly donut.

“It’s not hard,” Del told him. “For example, notice how the linoleum in here is chipped and peeling?” He gestured around the room. The floor was in pretty bad shape.

“Today we’re voting to replace it with a hard wood floor which, incidentally, will improve the acoustics dramatically. The choir performs in here from time to time, and let me tell you, it’s pretty awful.”

Kevin nodded sagely trying not to let on that he knew about as much about acoustics as he did the chemical composition of the soil on Venus.

“Mostly it’s pretty straightforward stuff like that. That old crow Henrietta Miggins throws a fit over every dime we spend but I just ignore her. It’s our job to keep this place in good order. We can’t have it falling down around us now, can we? Enjoy your donut.” Del clapped Kevin on the back and headed off to refill his coffee cup.

As Kevin dabbed at a jelly spot on his shirt with a napkin, his wife Jill returned from retrieving their two girls from Sunday school. She asked if he was ready for his first big trustees meeting.

“I guess,” Kevin said.

“Well, I’m proud of you,” Jill beamed. “Missy was just telling me how you guys are going to put hardwood flooring in here. That will be so pretty. I’ll take the girls to get some lunch and we’ll pick you up when you’re done.”

She kissed him and headed out. Then Ralph Billings came over. “How do you feel about the environment?” Ralph asked.

“I guess I’m for it,” Kevin said.

“Good. I’ve been trying to get the trustees to approve several green initiatives for the church. I hope I can count on your support.”

Kevin began to suspect he’d wandered into a minefield without being aware of it. As he considered how to reply, Henrietta Miggins called for them to come to the church office.

“Our first item on the agenda is the floor in the social hall,” Henrietta said once all seven committee members and Pastor O’Donnell were seated. “We have to make a decision today – replace the linoleum that has served us well for twenty years with newer linoleum or switch to more expensive hardwood flooring.”

Within seconds a heated debate had erupted. On the one hand Del Winslow, choir director Shane Reed and Missy Moore wanted hardwood flooring for its acoustic value and attractiveness.

Henrietta of course thought hardwood was far too extravagant. She was supported by Celia Simmons, a 73 year-old African American woman who was a member of the choir but shared Henrietta’s opinions on thrift.

When Ralph’s turn came to talk he said, “The choir always gets whatever it wants. I think we should put in linoleum and use the savings to buy energy efficient lighting.”

Pastor O’Donnell declined to take a side, reminding them that as clergy he was not technically a voting member of the committee.

Kevin discovered he was the swing vote. As the two sides lobbied him on their respective points of view, he tried to give Pastor O’Donnell a dirty look but the pastor’s attention seemed focused on his cuticles and he never met Kevin’s gaze.

Finally Kevin said he needed to use the restroom and beat a hasty retreat.

As he was returning, he encountered Jose, the church janitor, mopping the social hall. “Hi Jose,” Kevin said. “Hey, can I get your opinion on something? We’re going to replace this floor. Do you think hardwood or linoleum would be better.”

Jose pondered the question then shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess linoleum. It lasts longer.”

Kevin thanked him and returned to the meeting. After another twenty minutes of debate, Henrietta called for a vote. It came around to Kevin tied 3-3. “Linoleum,” Kevin said. “It lasts longer.”

The hardwood camp groaned and protested but Henrietta declared the matter decided. Del glared at Kevin and he suspected he hadn’t heard the end of this subject. But for the moment he didn’t care. He was due at a basketball game with his friends.