Sunday, March 21, 2010


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. All week long Normal had been bombarded by a late winter snowstorm, but Sunday morning the sun rose in a clear blue sky. The little church looked like something out of a painting, draped in a pristine blanket of sparkling white. Most of the congregation arrived for worship in good spirits, delighted to be out and about after so many days cooped up inside.

The one person who wasn’t charmed by the beauty of the fresh snow was Tammy Billings. She and her husband Ralph, the head usher, arrived at the church extra early that morning. Ralph was the one who had to shovel the thirty-foot sidewalk leading from the parking lot to the church entrance. Ralph was fifty-nine years old and Tammy worried about him over-exerting himself.

Ralph had no such concerns. He liked a little physical labor in the crisp winter air. “Gets the blood flowing,” he said.

Ralph had cleared about a third of the walk when Pastor Henry O’Donnell and his teenage daughter Katie pulled into the parking lot. Tammy met the pastor as he got out of his car.

“Good morning,” O’Donnell said. “I knew Ralph would be here hard at work already. You can always rely on good old Ralph.”

“Yes you can,” Tammy agreed. “But that’s a lot of snow for one man to shovel. Do you think you could give him a hand? He won’t let me because of my carpel tunnel.”

“I would,” O’Donnell said with an apologetic shrug, “but I’m wearing my good leather shoes.”

“I’ll help,” Katie volunteered. She wasn’t a fan of hard labor so early in the morning but she liked Ralph and hated to see him working when everyone else was standing around.

O’Donnell smiled with pride as he watched his daughter and Ralph shovel the walk together. I’ve raised a good kid, he thought. If more parents were better roll models for their teenagers it would solve a lot of problems in this country.

Then he looked at his watch. “How much longer,” he called out. “I have to start preparing for my sermon pretty soon.”

It was only a few more minutes until Ralph and Katie had cleared the path enough for O’Donnell to get into the building without damaging his good shoes. As the two of them stood leaning on their snow shovels and surveying their handiwork, Ralph pointed at the mound of snow they’d created and said, “what say we turn that into a snow sculpture after church? We could make a big dragon or something.”

“Cool,” Katie said with a grin.

After church was over most of the congregation gathered in the social hall where Tammy had whipped up a batch of hot cocoa in addition to the usual coffee and tea. Four year-old Mary Boyer knelt on a couch, her nose pressed to a window, watching Katie and Ralph sculpting their life-size snow dragon by the front walk.

She ran over to her father, Kevin Boyer, and tugged on his pant leg. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” she cried. “I want to build a snowman!”

“Maybe later,” Kevin said. “I’m having some cocoa.”

Kevin’s wife, Jill, gave him a stern look. “Go play with your daughter.”

“Yay,” Mary shouted. Kevin grumpily slurped down the rest of his cocoa and took Mary out behind the church.

“Let’s make a unicorn!” Mary exclaimed. She had been inspired by the dragon to think beyond the typical snowman made of three stacked balls. Kevin agreed and they began mounding up snow to form the body. For practical purposes they would only sculpt the unicorn from the hips up.

As the creature took shape, Kevin’s grouchiness vanished. He got caught up in the artistry of the task and began to sculpt the figure into an ever more realistic form.

“What should I do, Daddy?” Mary asked.

“Why don’t you add snow to the flanks,” he replied as he carefully molded the head.

“What’s the flanks?” Mary said.

“The sides.”

Mary started slapping handfuls of snow onto the flanks of the unicorn. But she quickly grew bored of the mundane task. “I want to help with the head,” she said.

“No, honey, why don’t you make the tail,” Kevin mumbled.

Mary didn’t want to make the tail but she knew the look on her Daddy’s face. The unicorn was now his project. She decided to go make her own snow sculpture, one that would be bigger and cooler than the unicorn.

That mission was derailed, however, when she spotted a round plastic sled leaning up against the church building. Suddenly sledding sounded a lot more fun than building a snow sculpture. She took the sled over to where snow had drifted up against the church’s tool shed forming a slope just the right size for a girl her age.

A bit later, six-year-old Tyler Park trudged by Mary’s sledding slope.

“Want to sled with me?” Mary asked.

“That’s not much of a hill,” Tyler replied. “I used to race bobsleds with my Dad. We would sled down huge mountains that were really steep. We’d do jumps and loop-de-loops and everything.”

“Really?” Mary said.

“Sure,” Tyler nodded. He had a rather active imagination. “If we had a mountain around here I’d show you.”

“What about the roof of the church?” Mary asked. “It’s not a mountain but it’s pretty high and steep. If you sled down the side you could jump the sled over to the roof of the tool shed, then slide down onto the snow drift.”

Tyler studied the route Mary indicated. “I guess that would be cool,” he said. “Too bad we can’t get up on the roof.”

“Sure we can,” Mary said. “Follow me.”

Mary led Tyler around to the side of the church where snow was mounded on top of the garbage bins to within two feet of the eaves. She clambered up the snow bank and pulled herself onto the roof. Not one to be outdone by a four year-old girl, Tyler followed.

They made their way up the slope of the roof to just below the peak. Tyler stood there, the plastic sled under his arm, surveying the proposed route. It looked a little steeper from this angle and the gap to the shed was wider than he had thought.

“Well,” Mary said. “Go ahead.”

“Just a minute,” Tyler snapped. “A real sled racer plans his race carefully.”

“Oh,” Mary said, suitably impressed to know a real sled racer.

Meanwhile, Pastor O’Donnell stepped out the front door of the church with his cup of cocoa. He called to Ralph, who was at that moment sculpting the dragon’s left wing with Katie.

“I’ve been wondering,” O’Donnell said. “There’s a lot of snow up on the roof. Do you think it’ll be a problem?”

“I suppose I could go up there and shovel it off,” Ralph said.

“That would be great,” O’Donnell replied around a sip of cocoa.

When Ralph climbed up on the roof a couple minutes later he was shocked to find two children standing there with a sled. “Just what do you two think you’re doing?” Ralph asked.

“Tyler’s going to sled down the roof of the church, jump onto the shed and then slide down the other side. He’s a real sled racer,” Mary said.

“Oh no he’s not,” Ralph said. “Give me that sled and get down from here. The roof is much too dangerous for kids.”

“Aw, shoot,” Tyler responded, quickly handing the sled to Ralph. “Oh well, come on Mary.”

Ralph watched to make sure they got off the roof safely. He shook his head as he looked down at the sled path the children had planned. “Crazy kids,” he muttered.

Still, it might have worked. The shed was perfectly in line with the roof. The sled would probably clear the gap with ease. And it would then be a simple matter to ride down onto the snowdrift. Not something a child should try of course.

But, Ralph thought, I’m not a child. He looked around to make sure nobody was watching. Tyler and Mary had gone back inside for cocoa and Kevin was absorbed with putting the finishing touches on the snow unicorn.

Ralph set the sled down and hopped on. It immediately plummeted down the church roof. It made the jump to the tool shed just as planned, bouncing once then rocketing down the drift.

The bounce, however, threw Ralph off balance and the sled began to spin. The spin caused it to arc off to the left as it came off the slope.

The sled had gained quite a bit of speed on its journey down the roof. It skipped across the expanse of snow-covered lawn, still spinning out of control, and plowed right into the snow unicorn just as Kevin was fixing an icicle into place for its horn. The sculpture exploded in a shower of snow that blanketed Kevin. Ralph did two summersaults and came to a stop on his back laughing uproariously.

Meanwhile, up on the roof, Ralph’s little ride had disrupted the integrity of the snow cover. A big chunk slid off and landed in a pile on the ground. The vibrations caused a similar chunk on the other side to come loose.

Out front Pastor O’Donnell was just about to suggest to Katie that a dragon may not be the best sculpture for in front of a church when the dislodged snow cascaded down on his head. He stood blinking in shock as steam rose from the dissolving lump of snow in his cup of cocoa.

He looked down. His nice leather shoes were ruined.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Drinking Water

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. Last Sunday was a big day at the church. The women’s group was having a bake sale to raise money for their mission project – providing funds to dig a well in a small village in Africa.

Jill Boyer had spent the evening before baking brownies for the bake sale. Jill’s husband Kevin and her daughters – Mary, age four, and Susie, age two – loved her brownies. But Jill was more anxious to see what the other ladies in the women’s group thought of them. For though the stated purpose of the bake sale was charitable, it was also an unspoken competition among the women. Jill knew she wasn’t adept enough in the kitchen to win this secret competition, she just hoped to put in a respectable showing.

When Jill and Kevin entered the sanctuary Sunday morning, they found a man sitting in the pew they usually occupied. He looked to be in his late forties, though his deeply tanned and weathered skin may have made him appear older than he actually was. And though he himself didn’t look particularly unclean, his clothes were old, ragged and stained; and his hair was unkempt and stringy.

There was still plenty of room on the pew – the man was alone after all – but Kevin suggested he and Jill sit across the aisle this morning and she readily agreed. The area of the sanctuary around the man proved quite unpopular. Nobody else sat in his pew – or the one behind or in front of him, either.

Seventy year-old Henrietta Miggins was the chair of the women’s group. She sat with her friend Betsy Davis in their accustomed place several rows behind the stranger. Henrietta had made three of her legendary apple tarts for the bake sale and Betsy had baked five pies. The two women studied the stranger as they waited for service to start. “I wonder how someone like that ended up in a nice neighborhood church like this,” Henrietta whispered.

“It’s sad, really,” Betsy sighed. “Bless his heart.”

Up in the chancel Pastor Henry O’Donnell had also noticed the man. Henry had not brought anything for the bake sale, of course, as it was a women’s group activity and he was of the wrong gender to participate in that way. But he was anxious to purchase one of Henrietta’s tarts. He looked forward to the bake sale every year because of those juicy, tangy-sweet tarts.

“I bet that guy’s going to want to talk to me after the service,” Henry thought as he watched the man. “He’ll probably ask for a handout or something, too. Well, he’ll just have to wait until after I buy my tart.”

Church Secretary Tammy Billing’s specialty was banana bread. She had made six loaves to sell. She was also in charge of the cash register at the bake sale. But Tammy noticed how nobody greeted the newcomer. Tammy believed that everybody – no matter how they might appear – deserved to be greeted when they came to the church for the first time. So she made it a point to intercept the man after service and introduce herself.

“My name’s Bobby,” he told her.

“Welcome, Bobby,” she said. “Would you like to join us in the Social Hall for coffee?”

Bobby said he would so Tammy showed him the way and pointed out the table for coffee and refreshments. Then she excused herself so she could prepare the cash register. She took a quick detour to the bathroom to wash her hands before joining the other women at the far end of the social hall where the bake sale was being set up.

Kevin had retrieved his daughters from Sunday school and they got in the refreshment line behind Bobby. Kevin watched as Bobby carefully plucked a single cookie from a serving platter and placed it on a paper plate.

Once Bobby had moved on to the coffee machine, four-year-old Mary reached for a cookie. Kevin stopped her. “There are two dozen of your Mom’s brownies at home that she didn’t think were perfect enough for the bake sale. You can wait for one of those.”

He got the girls some juice and carrot sticks and then went to find a pair of tongs to put on the cookie platter. As soon as he was out of sight the girls ditched the carrot sticks and helped themselves to a couple of the forbidden cookies. They were confident they would still find room for brownies when they got home.

While Jill was setting her brownies out on the folding tables she happened to look out the window and notice a tan dog lying under the bushes across the courtyard. She couldn’t make it out very well, but it appeared to be a cross between a Labrador and some kind of hound dog. She pointed it out to Tammy.

“Do you think it’s a stray?” Jill asked.

“I don’t know,” Tammy said. “I’ll tell the pastor.”

Pastor O’Donnell was standing in the line that was already forming in anticipation of the bake sale. He had rushed over as soon as he finished greeting his congregants as they exited the service. There were five people ahead of him and he wondered anxiously how many of them were in the market for an apple tart.

Tammy marched up and said, “There’s a dog out in the courtyard.”

“What kind of dog?”

“I don’t know,” Tammy replied. “But we ought to do something before any of the children go outside.”

“Okay,” O’Donnell said grumpily. “I’ll find Ralph and have him look into it as soon as I’ve bought my apple tart.”

Henrietta, who was supervising the bake sale set up, had overheard this conversation. She went to the window to see the animal for herself. It sure looked like a mangy stray to her. She spotted Bobby standing quietly in the corner sipping his coffee and tromped over to him.

“Is that your dog?” she demanded.

Bobby followed the line of her finger out the window. “No,” he replied.

“Because if it’s a stray someone’s going to call animal control.”

“That makes sense,” Bobby said. Henrietta nodded sharply and returned to her post.

Tammy announced the bake sale open for business and the tables were mobbed. In the next fourteen minutes they raised over three hundred dollars toward the African well. Jill sold three of her five plates of brownies. All of Henrietta’s tarts sold, of course.

O’Donnell cradled the box containing his tart gently in his arms and congratulated Henrietta on the fine charitable work the women’s group had accomplished. “You ladies are truly a credit to the church,” he noted.

As the crowd started to thin, Bobby shuffled over to Tammy. “Excuse me,” he said. “Would it be possible for me to get some water?”

Tammy was about to tell him that she was a little busy at the moment, but Bobby looked so meek and earnest she didn’t have the heart. She asked Jill to watch the cash register and retrieved a bottle of water from the kitchen. Bobby thanked her and shuffled off.

As Tammy was sitting back down at the cash register, Jill said, “look,” and pointed out the window. Outside Bobby was approaching the dog. He crouched down next to it and poured water from the bottle into a paper cup. The dog lapped from it thirstily.

Tammy went outside. “I thought that wasn’t your dog,” she said.

“It’s not,” Bobby replied. “According to the tag it belongs to someone named Mona. There’s a phone number here.”

Startled, Tammy came closer. Through the window she hadn’t even noticed the dog’s collar, which was almost the same color as its fur.

Tammy dialed the number on her cell phone. It turned out Mona was thirteen and lived two miles away. Her dog Winston had gone missing two days before and she was very excited to hear that he’d been found. She said she’d be right over.

Bobby handed Tammy the empty plastic water bottle. “You know, these aren’t very good for the environment,” he said. Then he went inside and bought the fourth plate of Jill’s brownies. Jill gave him the last plate as a gift. He protested, but she assured him she had plenty at home.

Mona was reunited with Winston twenty minutes later. Nobody at the little church ever saw Bobby again.