Sunday, January 24, 2010

Special Music

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 week, Del Winslow was scheduled to sing a solo for the “special music” portion of the service. He was very excited. Not that this was his first time or anything. He had one of the best voices in the choir – Del thought his was THE best but was usually too modest to say so – and he had performed solos on numerous occasions.

But he hadn’t performed one lately.

Del’s life had been a little busy lately. His wife Karen had recently gone through treatment for leukemia. Plus, his daughter Carrie and son-in-law Carlos had moved in with them eight months earlier when the company they worked for went bankrupt. And immediately after that Carrie had discovered she was pregnant.

So though Del continued to sing in the choir, he had declined to perform solos for half a year due to the chaos at home. But in the last few weeks things had kind of settled down a bit and he thought it was about time he graced the congregation with a little of his talent.

Karen and Carrie would have to miss the performance. Karen was the teacher of the Guppies pre-school Sunday school class, and Carrie had been helping her with that job ever since Karen got sick. But they had heard Del practice all week and predicted it would be a goose-bump inducing show. And Carlos would be in the sanctuary to represent the family.

Shane Reed, the choir director, was as excited as Del to have him doing a solo. It was hard to get people to volunteer for the extra work of performing special music and Shane had come to rely on Del to fill out the calendar.

On the morning of Del’s performance, the Winslow’s took separate cars. Del and Karen went early in Del’s sports utility vehicle so Del could rehearse with the choir. Carrie wasn’t ready to leave yet so she and Carlos decided to follow later in their hatchback. Carrie blamed the delay on the fact that she was eight and a half months pregnant, but the truth was she’d been chronically tardy to church since she was a little girl.

As Del sang the first hymn with the rest of the choir and congregation, he heard some kind of commotion out in the pews. He stole a glance to the side but couldn’t see what it was. He shook his head at the rudeness of “some people.”

He probably would have had a different reaction if he knew it was his wife that was causing the commotion. She had hurried into the sanctuary to get Carlos because Carrie was going into labor. It had happened just as the Sunday school class was starting. Carrie was letting four-year-old Mary Boyer place her hand on Carrie’s pregnant belly to feel the baby kick.

“Wow,” Mary exclaimed. “The baby kicks hard!”

“That wasn’t a kick,” Carrie said. “That was a contraction!” It wasn’t long afterwards that Karen went to retrieve Carlos. She tried to do it quietly, but when Carlos heard the news he reacted as many first time fathers did – with blind panic. He climbed over seventy-year-old Henrietta Miggins to get out of the pew. Henrietta didn’t find that as amusing as the people sitting around her did.

Karen tried to get Carlos to calm down. She succeeded to the extent that Carlos stopped hyperventilating and avoided passing out. However she did not succeed to the extent that Carlos delivered Carrie safely to the hospital. In fact, on his first attempt he didn’t even get her out of the parking lot.

The weather in Normal that day was pretty good for late January. It was clear and sunny, but it was also cold and there was still some snow on the ground from the last storm. Carlos was normally a fairly competent driver but in his present state he hit the gas a little too hard backing out of the parking space and the hatchback skidded on the icy pavement.

Fortunately there were no other cars directly behind him. Unfortunately there was a ditch back there. Fortunately the ditch was filled with crusty old snow so the impact was gentle and the only damage was to the passengers’ nerves. Unfortunately the snow was deep enough that the car was stuck.

Carlos left Carrie at the edge of the parking lot without waiting to hear the end of her critique of his driving skills. He sought out head usher Ralph Billings for help who in turn summoned Kevin Boyer and Thad Wheeling from the congregation. By sheer coincidence this occurred during the next hymn. Up in the chancel Del shook his head again at the congregation’s rudeness and hoped he wouldn’t have to endure such behavior during his special music presentation.

Ralph, Kevin, Thad and Carlos debated how best to free the car from its predicament while Carrie moved on to analyzing the relative intelligence levels of the four men, throwing in the Guppies’ class rabbit as a point of comparison.

Ultimately it was decided that due to the terrain it would be easier to push the car through the ditch and out the other side where there was a driveway for a neighboring shopping complex. Carlos took the wheel while Ralph, Kevin and Thad got behind the car to push. Carrie watched, momentarily silenced by another contraction.

With barely any effort at all the car sprang forward and out of the ditch. And then it slid across the icy drive and into the ditch on the other side, which was even deeper than the one it had been in.

As the four men surveyed the new predicament Carrie joined them. “Excuse me,” she said. “Just thought you should know the contractions are now four minutes apart.”

Carlos started hyperventilating again.

“Maybe we should borrow my parents’ SUV,” Carrie suggested.

Ralph went to get the keys from Karen while Carlos sat on a step with his head between his knees. Kevin and Thad tried to comfort him. Carrie abandoned her analysis of their characters. There was simply too much to criticize.

Naturally, Karen didn’t have her keys with her. Ralph would have to get them from Del. At this point, Ralph was beginning to panic. He ran to the sanctuary, where, as luck would have it, Del was just stepping up to the center of the chancel to begin his solo.

“Del,” Ralph yelled as he sprinted up the center aisle.

“Oh this is really just too much,” Del said.

Ralph stumbled to a stop at the foot of the steps leading up to the chancel. Between gasps he said, “I need…your keys…for the SUV…Carlos…drove his…car into…a ditch…and they’re four…minutes apart.”

“Who is four minutes apart?” Del asked, thoroughly confused.

“Carries’…contractions,” Ralph wheezed.

Del stood there for a few seconds taking that in. Then he took off running up the center aisle and out the front door. Ralph sat down on the chancel steps to catch his breath. Nobody else seemed to know what to do.

Finally Shane, the choir director, stepped forward. “Looks like there’s going to be a change of program,” he said. “Would everyone please turn in their hymnal to page 342.” He didn’t know what hymn 342 was off the top of his head, but he figured it didn’t really matter at that point.

Del got Carrie and Carlos to the hospital in less than twenty minutes. And fourteen hours later Carrie gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. As Del held his first grandchild in his arms he softly sang the song he never got to perform at church. His audience loved it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Movie Night

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. Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell is always looking for program activities that will appeal to the younger members of the congregation. One of his recent ideas was to have a “Day at the Movies” on a Sunday afternoon at the local multiplex.

The film the pastor chose was “Stock Car Cat,” a family comedy about a cat that learned to drive racecars. Several people quickly signed up, however most were older than the teen and young adult crowd O’Donnell was aiming for. As the deadline approached for him to order the group tickets, he asked his fifteen-year-old daughter Katie if she was going.

“Do I have to?” Katie asked.

“Of course not,” Pastor O’Donnell said. “You could always stay home and clean your room instead. I know your mother’s been bugging you to do that for weeks now.”

“Get me a ticket,” Katie grumbled.

The group met for lunch in the mall food court before the movie. In addition to Pastor O’Donnell and Katie, the “Little Old Ladies” were in attendance. This was the nickname for three of the senior members of the congregation: Henrietta Miggins, Celia Simmons and Betsy Davis. Church Secretary Tammy Billings and her husband, head usher Ralph Billings, were also present; and Carlos Lopez and his eight-months-pregnant wife Carrie completed the little group.

Despite just having eaten, the first thing the moviegoers did upon arriving at the theater was head for the concession stand. The place was crowded and the lines long. Katie ended up at the back of their group. Three teenage boys fell in behind her. Katie snuck a peek back at them. They weren’t from her school…but they were cute!

At the front of the line Carlos and Carrie had just completed their order. Tammy and Ralph Billings were next up.

“What do you want, sweetheart?” Ralph asked.

“Oh, let me see…” Tammy said. She began studying the concession menu as the cashier feigned patience. “Oh my, everything’s so expensive!” Tammy exclaimed. “What’s the difference between a small and a medium soda?”

As Tammy questioned the cashier at length about the various menu items, another line opened up. The three teenage boys quickly rushed over to it. Katie decided to follow.

“Hey, let her go first,” the cutest of the boys said. “She was ahead of us in the other line.”

“Thanks,” Katie replied.

“Isn’t it annoying when people don’t decide what they want until they get up to the counter,” he asked her.

“Yeah,” she laughed.

“So what’ll it be,” the new cashier said.

“Uh…” Katie realized she didn’t know what she wanted. But she dared not spend time perusing the menu. “Medium popcorn and medium soda,” she blurted out.

As the cashier went to retrieve her concessions, Katie turned back to the boys. “So what are you seeing?”

“Stock Car Cat,” Cute Boy said. “What about you?”

“Same thing,” Katie replied. Normally she would have considered the fact that the cute boy was going to the same movie as her to be a romantic sign straight from cupid. But as she glanced over at the other line and saw her father arguing with the cashier about not putting enough fake butter on his popcorn she kind of wished the boys had picked an action movie. Why were teenage boys going to a family comedy, anyway?

The cashier brought her refreshments and Katie paid. “Well,” she said to the boys, “guess I’ll see you in there.”

“My name’s Todd,” Cute Boy said.

“Katie,” she replied, feeling herself blush a little.

“Katie, come on!” she heard her father shout. She felt her blush deepen. She turned and saw the church group waiting by the theater door. Her father waved wildly at her. She walked over forcing herself not to look back at the boys. She imagined they were laughing uproariously and she didn’t particularly want to see that.

“Cute boys,” Carrie Lopez said. “Do you know them?”

“No,” Katie mumbled.

“You’re better off,” Henrietta Miggins snorted. “They look like hoodlums. Someone ought to tell them it’s rude to wear baseball caps inside.”

“Please don’t, Mrs. Miggins,” Katie said.

“You should invite them to join us,” Carrie said with a wink.

“Wait a minute,” Pastor O’Donnell interjected. “Who are these boys?”

“Forget it, Dad,” Katie hissed. “Let’s just get our seats.”

Finding seats turned out to be a complex problem. Not because the theater was full, but because nobody could agree on what area of the theater was preferable.

The Little Old Ladies wanted to sit toward the back. Carlos, who fancied himself a movie connoisseur, wanted to sit in the middle where the picture and sound were best. Carrie protested that she needed to sit on the aisle since she had to use the restroom roughly every forty-five minutes in her condition. Ralph Billings favored sitting close to the screen since he’d forgotten his glasses. As they were arguing other moviegoers kept taking people’s preferred seats. Finally they compromised on a location about two thirds of the way back and a bit left of center.

Katie quickly slumped down in her chair as the three boys from the concession line entered and took spots in the second row. Despite her best attempts to hide Todd saw her and gave her a little smile.

Carrie leaned across Carlos and said, “Did you see that? I think he likes you.”

“I highly doubt that,” Katie sighed.

“Why don’t you go see if they want to join us,” Carrie persisted.

“And invite them to come to youth group,” Tammy added helpfully.

“Maybe I ought to meet these boys,” Pastor O’Donnell muttered.

To Katie’s relief, Henrietta leaned over from the row behind them and poked the pastor on the arm, derailing the conversation.

“Pastor, why did you choose such an expensive theater,” Henrietta groused.

“What are you talking about?” O’Donnell replied. “This is a normal theater. This is what movie tickets cost.”

“Really?” Henrietta gasped. “That’s appalling. In my day a person could go to the movies and get refreshments for less than a dollar. A small soda here costs more than twice that!”

“They had real movie stars back then, too,” Betsy chimed in. “Cary Grant and Bob Hope. Men who had style and grace and charisma, not like the scruffy boys they put on screen these days, bless their hearts. Who’s in this movie, anyway?”

“I think the cat’s the star,” O’Donnell volunteered. The Little Old Ladies huffed their disgust in unison.

“It’ll probably be full of swearing and sex,” Celia moaned.

“Hollywood has gone to the dogs, alright,” Henrietta concluded as the lights came down.

If Katie hoped that was the end of her embarrassment, she was immediately disappointed.

As the first preview started, Henrietta shouted, “Why is it so loud? Turn it down!”

A moment later Pastor O’Donnell’s cell phone rang. “Oh Jeez,” he said. “Sorry, I forgot to turn it off.” He fumbled around trying to find the phone in the pocket of his coat. He finally got it out after only six rings, but spilled his popcorn in the process.

“Dang it,” he said, as he opened the phone. “I can’t really talk now,” he told the caller. “I’ll call you back.”

“Why didn’t you just hit the volume button on the side to silence it?” Katie hissed.

“It does that?” he replied studying the phone like some alien artifact. Katie rolled her eyes at her father’s lack of technical sophistication. O’Donnell didn’t notice. He was now looking down at his spilled popcorn. “Do you think they’ll refill this for me?” he wondered.

“I don’t know,” Katie moaned as the surrounding patrons cast annoyed glances their way.

“I’m going to find out,” O’Donnell said and shuffled to the aisle, eliciting a yelp from Carrie when he stepped on her foot.

“Tell them to turn it down while you’re out there!” Henrietta shouted after him.

The previews were over and the movie started. Maybe now everyone would finally be quiet, Katie thought. But her optimism was soon dashed yet again.

In the middle of the first scene, Henrietta leaned over to Celia and asked, “What did he say?” in a voice that was louder than the movie’s dialogue.

“He told his son he can’t have a cat because he’s allergic,” Celia responded.

“Oh,” Henrietta said. “And what did the kid say?”

“I don’t know,” Celia replied, “I was talking to you.”

Just then Pastor O’Donnell came back with a new tub of popcorn. “Excuse me, excuse me,” he said as he made his way back to his seat, somehow managing to step on Carrie’s foot again.

“Sit down, Pastor,” Henrietta said. “I can’t see.”

“SHHHH!” The reprimand came from the second row. Todd and his two friends were looking back at the group angrily. Katie sunk so low in her seat she could no longer see the screen.

“Well I never,” Henrietta grumbled. “Teenage boys these days are so rude.”

“What did the racecar driver just say?” Celia asked.

As Betsy repeated the line, Katie decided that next time the church did a ‘Day at the Movies’ she was going to stay home and clean her room.