Sunday, February 22, 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. As winter lurched toward spring with considerable backsliding, a rainstorm moved into town one Tuesday in late February. Church secretary Tammy Billings, normally an upbeat and optimistic person, hated rain. It put her in an inexplicably foul mood.

Her husband Ralph knew this about her, of course, and had long ago given up trying to brighten her spirits on such days. As he drove her to the church that morning he was careful not to say anything that might unleash her ill temper. Which meant they didn’t speak at all during the drive.

When he dropped her off, he reminded her that he’d be picking her up for their weekly lunch date at noon. Even that simple sentence resulted in a tirade to the effect that yes, Tammy was smart enough to know it was Tuesday and she did remember that they had lunch together every Tuesday for the last six years. Ralph was rather relieved when she slammed the car door.

Pastor Henry O’Donnell didn’t particularly love or despise rainy days, but on this particular day he was in an excellent mood. That morning he’d found a small game as a prize in his cereal box, the kind with a little ball that you had to roll through a maze without letting it fall into any of several holes. He derived great joy from such simple treasures.

Unlike Ralph, Pastor O’Donnell had not learned to avoid unnecessary interactions with Tammy on rainy days. He’d known her long enough to recognize the impact precipitation had on her spirits but he stubbornly believed he had the power to cheer her up despite all the historical evidence to the contrary.

He thought perhaps his good mood would rub off on her over the course of their day, but in fact quite the opposite proved to be true. By mid-morning all memory of the little cereal box game had been erased and he was stomping around snapping at anyone who crossed his path.

And then the light in his office burned out.

“Tammy!” he bellowed. “My light just burned out. Can you go get me another bulb?”

“Why? Are you stuck in a bear trap or something?” she shot back.

“No. But I’m right in the middle of doing my status report for the district.”

“Well you certainly can’t work on it while your light’s burned out so you might as well go get the bulb yourself.”

Henry grumbled under his breath the entire way to the supply closet. His grumbling rose several levels above his breath when he discovered they were out of the specific kind of halogen bulb his light required.

“We’re out,” he informed Tammy upon his return.

“Tragic,” she replied.

“Would you go out and buy me another with petty cash?”

“Ralph has the car today.”

“There’s a hardware store right across the street.”

“A nice stroll will do you good.”

Henry gave up. “It’s the middle of the day. I can work without a light,” he snapped.

Though it was the middle of the day, the heavy overcast meant only a gloomy gray glow penetrated the two windows of his office. He could use his computer without much trouble, but he was working from printed records and he found he had to hold them inches in front of his face to read the type.

“Having difficulty?” Tammy asked.

Henry looked up over the paper he had pressed to his nose. Tammy was standing in his door with an armload of files. “Not at all,” he replied.

Tammy smirked and went to the filing cabinets that were opposite the windows in his office. Unfortunately for her, the lack of light also made it extremely hard to read the file labels.

“Having difficulty?” Henry asked.

Tammy realized she was bent half over squinting at the labels. “Not at all,” she replied.

They went on like that for several more minutes, neither wanting to admit the lack of light was troubling them. Finally Henry could take it no more. But he did not want to give Tammy the satisfaction of winning their passive aggressive battle.

He claimed he was heading to the bathroom but in reality he planned to sneak over to the hardware store. He figured he could claim he found a spare bulb pushed into the back of the supply closet while he was getting a refill for the paper towel dispenser.

Meanwhile, Tammy was losing patience with the inefficiencies of filing blind. But she didn’t want to give Henry the satisfaction of seeing her give up, either. So she crafted a plan nearly identical to his. She would sneak out the back door and go across to the hardware store. She could claim the bulb was actually in the supply cabinet all along and the pastor simply hadn’t looked hard enough.

Henry grabbed a hooded jacket from the lost and found and went out the main entrance. As he stomped down the short staircase, he slipped on the last wet step and stumbled forward. His left foot landed smack in the middle of a deep puddle. Immediately he felt icy water seep in and soak his sock. He hopped back only to plant his right foot in another puddle.

“Great,” Henry thought, “Just great. Stupid rain.” He tromped down the path, not bothering to avoid the puddles anymore since his feet were already wet. In fact, as he went, he made it a point to splash into every puddle no matter how small. “There, does that make you happy?” he shouted at the muddy water.

About that moment Tammy trudged around the side of the church huddled under an umbrella someone had left in the social hall and discovered Henry jumping up and down in the puddles like a five year-old, water splattering everywhere and soaking his pant legs.

Tammy began to laugh.

She laughed deep belly laughs. She was so consumed by the laughter she let the umbrella fall to her side, completely ignoring the drizzle that dampened her hair.

Henry, startled, stopped his prancing. He stared at her for a few seconds then began to laugh himself. He wasn’t even sure why. When Tammy was finally able to speak again, she gasped out, “What in the world are you doing?”

“I…” Henry started to say. Then he just shrugged. This sent Tammy into another fit of laughter. Henry was heartened by this and did a little jig in the largest puddle. He hooked Tammy’s arm in his and spun her around. She was laughing so hard tears were mixing with the rain rolling down her cheeks.

When Ralph pulled into the parking lot ten minutes later to pick his wife up for their lunch date, he was shocked to see her dancing in the rain with Pastor O’Donnell, their soaked hair pasted against their foreheads, kicking water at each other.

“Well, I guess that’s that,” he said. “The rain has finally made my wife completely bonkers.” He couldn’t imagine what Pastor O’Donnell’s excuse was.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Investment - Part Two

(If you missed part one, it is available below this story on the blog)

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 who called himself Gerald Huntsman III came to the church. Gerald claimed to be an investment manager who had come to Normal on behalf of a group of venture capitalists to organize financing for a start-up that owned the rights to a mysterious new technology which Gerald described in a flurry of meaningless terminology.

This mission was supposedly top secret, of course, but Del Winslow, a member of the church choir, and Pastor Henry O’Donnell had managed to weasel the details out of Gerald with surprisingly little effort one evening over a game of pool in Del’s rec room. Del, sensing an opportunity, begged Gerald to allow him to invest his life savings in the venture. Pastor O’Donnell wanted to invest as well, but his naturally skeptical wife Jennifer wouldn’t hear of it. Gerald finally relented and allowed Del to invest, admonishing everyone present that evening to keep the matter completely confidential.

Which is why Del was nearly apoplectic when he cornered the pastor during coffee hour the following Sunday.

“In the last twenty minutes five different people have told me about Gerald’s secret investment opportunity!” Del hissed. “Did you tell anyone?”

“No, of course not,” Henry said. “Well, Tammy. And Shane. And I might have mentioned something to Walter. But I swore all of them to absolute secrecy.”

Del buried his head in his hands. He felt like crying. “What will Gerald say? You might have jeopardized the whole thing!”

Gerald, of course, would have thanked the pastor. He was counting on the “secret” getting out. Every time someone approached him at coffee hour with that conspiratorial look in their eyes he knew he was about to make more money.

Meanwhile, Gerald had been charming a trio of older women from the church – Henrietta Miggins, Celia Simmons and Betsy Davis. He had become a regular at their Sunday afternoon tea, much to Celia and Betsy’s delight and Henrietta’s consternation. However, over a three week period he had also fixed Henrietta’s toilet, dragged some large furniture items down from her attic and shoveled her walkway several times – not to mention countless smaller chores like changing light bulbs and taking out the trash. So Henrietta tolerated the temporary male intrusion into the previously all-girl teas.

During that Sunday afternoon’s tea, after they’d gone through the routine criticism of the café’s scones which somehow still never went uneaten, Betsy said, “Gerald, I understand you’re handling some investments for members of the church.”

“Why yes,” Gerald replied. “A few of the nice folks here have asked to buy into the start-up for which I’m arranging financing. Why? Were you interested in investing?”

“Is it a sound investment,” Betsy asked.

“I think so,” Gerald replied. “In fact, I’ve put a good deal of my own money in it.”

“Well, if you’re that confident then it certainly must be worthwhile.”

“I would be delighted to include you,” Gerald said, then looked over at Celia. “How about you, Celia? Would you care to invest?”

Celia shook her head. “My son handles all my money,” she said.

“I see. And you?” Gerald asked Henrietta. From his time in her house doing odd jobs he knew the old bag was loaded. He was determined to get some reward for all the work he’d put in.

“Hm. I’ll think about it.” She said. “But I don’t believe this is an appropriate topic of discussion for tea. If I may change the subject, you won’t believe what I found when I went into the garage this morning. My Ford has two flat tires!”

“You never drive that thing anyway,” Celia snorted.

“Whether I drive it or not I like to keep it in good working order. I’m not operating a junk yard.”

“Would you like me to come over this evening and fix the tires?” Gerald asked.

“That would be very kind,” Henrietta replied. “Thank you. And while you’re there, perhaps you could help me change the filter on my central heat. It would give us a chance to talk more about this business venture of yours.”

“I’d be delighted,” Gerald said.

As Gerald gradually secured interest from two dozen members of the congregation, he gave each of them paperwork to look over and asked them to return it along with cashier’s checks on the final Sunday of the month. He warned them that in good conscious he couldn’t accept any money they couldn’t afford to lose. Which only caused everyone to promise an even larger investment.

Pastor O’Donnell was feeling pretty miserable as he watched Gerald collect paperwork and checks from a quarter of the congregation during coffee hour that final Sunday of the month. He tried once more to convince Jennifer to let him invest a few thousand dollars, offering to spend the proceeds on a luxurious vacation in Hawaii which he pitched to her as a second honeymoon, though in his mind it would be a golf getaway. Jennifer cut him off by pointing out that their bank was closed on Sundays so he couldn’t get a cashier’s check even if she relented.

The pastor tried to console himself with a brownie and the idea that the church offering plates would be well filled once his flock became incredibly wealthy. But it wasn’t much consolation.

Gerald, on the other hand, was feeling pretty good as he put the checks and paperwork into his briefcase. The checks were going into a private bank account and the paperwork was going into the trash. In three weeks Gerald would be long gone and the bank account closed.

He was a little annoyed to find that Henrietta was absent from church that day. After all the time he’d put in he felt she would have been good for at least a few grand.

Then Betsy walked up and handed him her paperwork and check. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m very excited to be a part of this.”

Gerald gave her a big, warm smile. It was only his years of con man experience that allowed him to maintain the smile when he looked down and discovered the check was for $100.

Gerald hadn’t done as well as he’d hoped, but he had still taken in over $200,000 by the time he said his goodbyes and made his way toward the door. That would be enough to lie low for at least a year before he had to find another church full of nice, naïve folks.

That’s when his plan went completely awry.

When he stepped outside he found a dozen policemen arrayed around the building. Henrietta Miggins was standing next to the commanding officer.

Within a few minutes the whole congregation had spilled out into the parking lot. “What’s going on?” Del bellowed as the police handcuffed Gerald and eased him into the back of a squad car.

“That man’s a con artist,” Henrietta said. I did a search for his company online and got all kinds of warnings. There are seven warrants out for his arrest. The police were very interested to hear from me.”

Del huffed and sputtered and wondered why he hadn’t bothered to check Gerald out online himself. He tried very hard not to think about how long he’d worked to save up the money he had intended to bet on the phony investment.

The congregation erupted in a panic of accusation, confusion and gossip. In the middle of the chaos, Pastor O’Donnell crossed his arms and nodded sagely. “I knew it,” he said. “His whole pitch never sounded quite right to me.” Jennifer O’Donnell, who was standing next to him, just rolled her eyes and went back inside.

And Henrietta was happy to realize that her tea would be free of any masculine intrusion that afternoon.