Sunday, May 30, 2010

Katie's Accident

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 recent Wednesday evening Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s daughter Katie was slumped forlornly in his office. “It wasn’t my fault,” she protested.

“Just tell me what happened,” Henry said, trying not to lose his temper.

“Mrs. Miggins’ has to take some medicine that affects her eyesight so she hired me to do some chores for twenty bucks.”

“Yes, I know all that,” Henry said. “I dropped you off at her house.”

“Well, I’m pretty sure Mrs. Miggins medication affects more than her eyes because she kept telling me to feed the cat, but she doesn’t have a cat. But when I tried to explain that to her she accused me of killing the cat. So I told her I would feed the cat if she told me where the food was. She said it was under the sink but there was no food there because, you know, she doesn’t really have a cat. So finally I just made a bowl of cereal and put it on the floor by the back door.”

“Get to the part about the car,” Henry demanded.

“I am! Sheesh.” Katie rolled her eyes. “Okay, so it was about 6:45 and Mrs. Miggins said she had to get to the Trustees meeting. You were supposed to pick us up and take her there but you were late.”

“Yes, I know,” O’Donnell replied. “Something urgent came up.” He purposely omitted the details of what had delayed him. He didn’t think Katie needed to know he was late because he’d gotten into an argument with a seventeen year-old classmate of hers, who also happened to be the manager of a nearby fast food joint, over what size fries he’d ordered at the drive-through.

“Well,” Katie continued, “Mrs. Miggins was getting really upset. I tried to call your cell a bunch of times, but you didn’t answer.”

Henry had left his cell phone in the car while he went inside to debate the teenage fry dictator. “You should have waited,” he told Katie. “I would have been there soon.”

“I wanted to wait. But Mrs. Miggins was getting angry. She didn’t want to be late to the meeting. She was afraid they would vote on what color to paint the narthex without her. When she found out I have my learner’s permit, she said I could drive her in her car. I told her I didn’t think that was a good idea but she said if I wanted to get paid, I’d do it.”

“You aren’t supposed to drive without being supervised by someone over 21.”

“That’s what I told Mrs. Miggins. She said she was a lot older than 21.”

“Yes, but she couldn’t see!”

“I pointed that out to her as well. She said she would be able to hear if I did something wrong. I kind of believed her, actually.”

“Okay,” Henry said, rubbing his temples. “But Mrs. Miggins’ car is a stick shift. You don’t know how to drive a stick shift.”

“I told her that, too,” Katie replied. “She said that was a travesty and that she would teach me. She also said a lot of nasty things about you because you weren’t teaching me to drive a stick shift, by the way.”

“I’m sure she did,” Henry sighed. “Look, you clearly weren’t ready or you wouldn’t have wrecked her car.”

“First of all,” Katie informed him, “it’s not wrecked. The fire hydrant had a lot more damage than that old monster Ford Mrs. Miggins has. And second of all, I drove it very well. And it wasn’t easy, either, with Mrs. Miggins yelling at me all the time about the squirrels in the road. I kept telling her there were no squirrels in the road but she kept insisting I was slaughtering the poor little rodents. That’s the way she said it: slaughtering the poor little rodents.”

“Get to the accident,” Henry snapped.

“That’s just it,” Katie practically shouted. “I didn’t have an accident. We got to the church just fine. I parked in the parking lot but Mrs. Miggins had fallen asleep. I couldn’t wake her up so I decided to leave her there and get help.”

“So how did the car end up hitting the fire hydrant? Did Mrs. Miggins drive it away?”

“No, Dad. Apparently when you park a stick shift you can’t leave it in neutral or it rolls. And nobody told me that.”

“So the car rolled down the hill and hit the fire hydrant while you were in the church.”

“Yes!” Katie exclaimed triumphantly.

Henry sat back, jaw clenched, face red with anger. “Katie, if you ever want to get your driver’s license you need to be a lot more responsible.”

“But Dad,” Katie pleaded, “I told you, it wasn’t my fault!”

At that moment Henrietta Miggins stepped into the office. “She’s right,” Henrietta said.

“I thought you were going to the hospital,” Henry replied.

“I’m fine,” Henrietta huffed. “I was wearing my seatbelt. And there’s no way I’m going to let those trustees paint the narthex some outlandish color. Ralph Billings wanted to paint it olive, if you can believe that.”

“I’m glad to hear you’re alright,” Henry said. “And don’t worry. Katie will pay for the damage to your car as part of her punishment.”

“Nonsense,” Henrietta said. “You’ll pay for the damage to the car. It was your fault after all.”

“My fault!” Henry exclaimed.

“Of course,” Henrietta said. “Who doesn’t turn on their cell phone in this day and age? And what kind of father doesn’t teach his daughter to drive a manual transmission?”

“See Dad,” Katie said. “I told you it wasn’t my fault. It was yours.”

“Don’t back talk your father,” Henrietta snapped at Katie. Then she handed her a twenty-dollar bill. “You did a fine job today, dear. Pastor, I want you and Katie to pick me up on Friday and take me to get my car from the shop. Katie can drive me home in it. I’ll finish teaching her how to operate a manual transmission.”

“Fine,” Henry sighed. His head hurt and he didn’t want to argue. Katie was considering which would be worse – letting her Dad punish her or learning to drive from Mrs. Miggins.

Henrietta fixed the pastor with a stern gaze. “Honestly,” she said, “I don’t know how you get any work done with all these squirrels running around in here.”

She turned and stomped out of the room. Katie just shrugged to her father. There wasn’t a squirrel in sight.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Water Balloons

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 day this May summer decided to pop in early for a quick scouting expedition. By 10 am local thermometers were venturing into the eighties and Normal’s television meteorologists began planning their big stories on breaking the record high for the date.

The folks at the little church welcomed this unseasonable warmth. It had been a long and bitter winter and they were happy to leave their hats and coats and scarves and mittens at home. Thirty-seven year-old Kevin Boyer even decided to wear shorts and sandals to church, much to his wife Jill’s chagrin.

Seventy year-old Henrietta Miggins made no such concession to the heat. She was of the school that believed you dressed for church in your Sunday best regardless of the weather. She even had mixed feelings about the air conditioning that had been installed in 1985. Such attentions to comfort smacked of the Devil’s temptations to her.

Henrietta clucked her tongue at Kevin’s shorts and sandals, but she had come to expect such crassness from him. What brought her stew of disapproval to a roiling boil was Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s decision to forgo his clerical robes in favor of a Hawaiian print shirt that morning.

As for the pastor, he felt not just comfortable but downright progressive. As he looked in the mirror that morning he thought, “I am one cool clergyman.” The early warmth had put him in a particularly cheerful mood. Even Henrietta’s disapproving glare and the inevitable rant he anticipated from her at coffee hour could not dampen his spirits.

The children of the church were even more delighted by the weather than the adults. Pastor O’Donnell’s fifteen-year-old daughter Katie and her friend Tabitha had discovered a bag of balloons in the church kitchen and planned to have a water balloon fight after service. Meanwhile, Karen Winslow decided to conduct her pre-school Sunday school class, the Guppies, outside on the lawn.

Kevin and Jill’s daughter Mary was in the Guppies Sunday school class. She and the other kids were having such a good time playing outside that when service was over Karen offered to continue watching them through coffee hour. Kevin and Jill happily agreed to leave Mary in Karen’s care for a while longer.

Mary was on a quest to capture slugs from the flower garden when she saw Katie and Tabitha filling up their water balloons from a garden hose. Mary was fascinated. It had never occurred to her to put anything besides air in a balloon.

Katie and Tabitha each took two water balloons and stood back to back. They then paced off ten steps, turned and fired, as though engaged in an eighteenth century duel. Katie’s first balloon hit Tabitha right in her belly, soaking her. Tabitha’s balloon sailed over Katie’s head, bursting harmlessly on the ground. Katie fired again but missed. Tabitha wound up to throw her remaining balloon and Katie took off squealing. Tabitha pursued.

Mary had watched all this and now her eyes were fixed on a bright red sphere resting on the grass. It was Katie’s second balloon. It hadn’t burst when it hit the ground.

Mary looked over at Karen Winslow. She was occupied with Mary’s classmate Sierra who had fallen and skinned her knee. Mary walked over to the balloon. She picked it up.

It felt surprisingly heavy in her little hands. She noticed Tabitha and Katie had restocked with more balloons and were chasing each other around the yard shouting and laughing. It looked like a lot of fun to Mary. She decided to join in.

Unfortunately, Tabitha and Katie’s legs were considerably longer than Mary’s and she had difficulty catching up. And the teenagers’ duel was morphing into something more like guerilla warfare as they sought out hiding places from which to launch sneak attacks. Mary eventually lost track of where they were.

Where Katie was, was hiding behind the tool shed waiting to ambush Tabitha. She crouched, two water balloons in hand, as Tabitha stalked up the path searching for her.

Pastor O’Donnell had been watching the girls’ game from the steps leading to the social hall as he munched on a handful of grapes. The teenagers carefree romping warmed his heart. But he noticed that Katie had definitely gotten the better of Tabitha. Tabitha’s clothes and hair were drenched while Katie had only a single damp spot on her shoulder blade. From his vantage point the pastor could see the impending trap Tabitha was approaching.

O’Donnell tossed a grape at Tabitha to get her attention. Then he pointed toward the tool shed with a wink.

Tabitha grinned. She changed direction and circled around the other side of the shed. She caught Katie off guard, soaking her with two quick direct hits to the back of her head, then dashed off the other way.

O’Donnell’s view of the resulting chase was blocked by Henrietta Miggins. She strode up to him and demanded to know why he had chosen to dress so offensively. It was a bad example to set for his delinquent flock.

“Lighten up,” O’Donnell said. “There’s no rule against a pastor leading service in a Hawaiian shirt.” He probably shouldn’t have used the words “lighten up,” but he figured he was in for a lecture either way. And he was correct.

Just as Henrietta was reaching the apex of her fury, one finger jabbing into the air for effect, Tabitha bolted past behind her. And at just that moment Katie, focused only on revenge, launched one of her water balloons. Unfortunately her aim was off and it sailed over Tabitha’s head – and struck a direct hit on Henrietta Miggins’ backside.

Katie and Tabitha pulled up short. Henrietta’s mouth opened and closed as though she had suddenly lost the ability to speak. Her finger remained in the air without apparent purpose.

O’Donnell began to laugh.

He couldn’t help himself. Henrietta looked ridiculous. She regained her senses and fixed him with an icy glare. It only made him laugh harder. She shoved him aside and stalked into the social hall. O’Donnell stumbled to the ground, rolled onto his back, and continued laughing as tears ran down his cheeks.

Ten minutes later Henrietta emerged from the bathroom where she had done her best to dry her dress with paper towels. As she was heading back toward the social hall planning the withering speech she would deliver to the pastor, she noticed little four-year-old Mary walking down the hall with her water balloon and peeking into various rooms in search of Katie and Tabitha.

“Little girl!” Henrietta said. “What do you have there?”

Meanwhile, outside Pastor O’Donnell had regained his composure. As much as he enjoyed seeing Henrietta become collateral damage in the water balloon fight, he knew he had to do the responsible thing. He summoned Katie and Tabitha to him for a stern reprimand then told them to find some other way to enjoy the day’s warmth.

As they sulked away from him, a red orb flew out of an open window behind him. It hit O’Donnell square on the top of the head and burst, spilling water down over his face and drenching his Hawaiian shirt. Now it was O’Donnell’s turn to gape in shock.

He dashed into the Social Hall to find the culprit but the room was empty. Everyone was outside enjoying the weather and the balloon assassin had made a clean getaway.

Out on the lawn Karen finally located Mary and scolded her for leaving Karen’s sight. Mary took it with aplomb. She received such scoldings several times a day. She just wished she had another water balloon.

Meanwhile, Henrietta Miggins joined her friends Celia and Betsy. Betsy raised an eyebrow and asked, “did you throw that water balloon at Pastor O’Donnell?”

“Do you really think me capable of something so childish?” Henrietta snapped. But she said it with a sly smile that suggested maybe there was indeed a bit of child left in Henrietta. Neither Betsy nor Celia pursued the matter further.

Coffee hour was winding down. After all, several of the church members needed to get home and change out of their wet clothes.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Breakfast in Bed

Note to my readers: If you follow this blog regularly you may notice that I am not scheduled to publish a story this week. This is a special "bonus" story in honor of Mother's Day. And it is dedicated, of course, to my mother. Love you, Mom!

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Karen Winslow has taught Sunday school there for many years. And every year on Mother’s Day Karen’s daughter Carrie provides breakfast in bed for her mother before they go to church.

The tradition started when Carrie was three years old. The first breakfast was cold cereal and orange juice that little Carrie prepared with the help of her father, Del. As Carrie grew older she tried to make more complex breakfasts. However Carrie seemed to have inherited Del’s ineptitude in the kitchen instead of her mother’s expertise. After enduring rubbery, slightly greenish eggs when Carrie was eight, blackened French toast that tasted strangely of garlic when Carrie was ten, and pancakes that required a steak knife to cut when Carrie was thirteen, Karen remembered the days of cold cereal with longing.

All that changed when Carrie got her driver’s license. Unable to face her arch nemesis, the stove, one more time, Carrie instead woke up at five in the morning to drive to a bakery in the town of Tenor Falls thirty miles away. There she purchased a bag of hot, fresh cinnamon rolls.

These were no ordinary cinnamon rolls. They were buttery, flaky, melt-in-your-mouth cinnamon delights. They were the one commercially purchased baked good that Karen acknowledged as superior to what she produced in her own kitchen. Upon tasting them for the first time during a family road trip, Karen half seriously suggested they move to Tenor Falls just to be able to enjoy the treats on a more regular basis.

Needless to say the cinnamon rolls were the best Mother’s Day breakfast Karen had ever had. So the following year Carrie did it again. And thus a tradition was born. With her father’s help, Carrie managed to keep the tradition up even after moving to Cincinnati for college and after marrying a handsome young man named Carlos Lopez.

This year Carrie was back in Normal. Carrie and Carlos had moved in with Del and Karen after the company they worked for in Cincinnati went bankrupt. And this Mother’s Day would be different for the Winslow family due to an even more significant event:

Carrie had recently become a mom herself.

A few months earlier She had given birth to little Scott Lopez. Scott was too young yet to grasp the significance of the holiday, of course, but Carlos was not about to let Carrie’s first Mother’s Day as a mother go by without an extravagant celebration. When Carlos learned of Carrie’s plan to wake up before dawn and drive forty minutes each way to buy cinnamon rolls he had to intervene.

“You should sleep in,” Carlos insisted. “I’ll make breakfast for both you and your mother.”

Now Carlos was an excellent cook, but to Carrie the best part of his proposal was the sleeping in. At this stage in his brief life, Scott rarely slept more than four hours in a row. Carrie could no longer remember a time when she wasn’t exhausted.

So the next morning after feeding Scott at 5 am, Carrie went back to sleep while Carlos took Scott and went down to the kitchen to whip up a spinach quiche.

Carlos sat Scott in his infant chair on the counter while he worked. He made a crust, mixed the filling, scrubbed the floor after Scott knocked the mixing bowl off the counter, mixed more filling, poured the filling into the crust, slid it into the oven and set the timer for fifty minutes. Then he took Scott out to the living room and lay down on the couch. As a good modern husband Carlos shared equally in the childcare duties, which meant he was just as exhausted as Carrie. So whenever he had a few minutes he grabbed a quick nap.

He was awakened not by the oven timer but by Scott’s crying. Carlos leapt off the couch and scooped Scott out of his infant chair. “Shh,” he cooed to the baby. “Don’t wake Mommy up. We’re letting her sleep in for Mother’s Day.”

The cause of Scott’s unhappiness resided just where Carlos suspected it would – in his diaper. Carlos glanced at the oven timer. He still had ten minutes. He whisked Scott into Del’s den, which had been temporarily converted into a nursery.

Carlos unfastened the sticky tabs on the dirty diaper, disposed of it in a magical contraption whose inventor Carlos would have recommended for a Nobel Prize, and cleaned Scott off with a baby wipe. He was just placing a fresh diaper under Scott’s bottom when the boy decided he hadn’t quite finished what he’d started in the last diaper. Carlos sighed. This was not an unprecedented event.

And that’s when he heard the oven timer go off in the kitchen.

Carlos shifted into high gear. He quickly stripped off the newly soiled diaper. But in his haste one of the sticky tabs brush against Scott’s onesie where the adhesive grabbed onto the cotton and pulled it toward the danger zone. Carlos yanked the dirty diaper free but it was too late – the onesie was now soiled.

Carlos peeled the onesie off, disposed of the second diaper and reached for more baby wipes.

The container was empty.

Now Carlos was beginning to panic. He found a fresh container of wipes in the cupboard but when he returned to his son he discovered that for a person who hadn’t yet learned to roll over, Scott had somehow spread the mess across his entire lower body.

Carlos disposed of another half container of wipes frantically scrubbing his son clean. But Scott demonstrated his emotional bond with his father by feeding off Carlos’s frenzy. As Carlos tried to affix a new diaper, the baby pinwheeled his little legs like he was riding a bicycle. This made the task considerably more difficult. Carlos had to redo the diaper three times before it was secured properly.

By the time he ran back into the kitchen and deposited Scott in the bouncy chair there was a distinct acrid smell in the air. He opened the oven door and his shoulders slumped as he saw the blackened top of the quiche.

Del wandered into the kitchen and looked over Carlos’s shoulder. “That doesn’t look right,” Del said.

“I burnt it,” Carlos moaned.

“Maybe you can scrape the burned stuff off,” Del said. He was used to having to do such surgery on the rare occasions when he tried to make food himself.

“No, no,” Carlos replied, pulling himself together. “It’s no good. I’ll make French toast instead.”

Del shrugged and got himself a cup of coffee as Carlos started his new culinary project. Del retrieved the newspaper from the front step and retreated to the garage, which had replaced the den as his personal refuge since Scott’s arrival.

This time Carlos had finished the breakfast and had it all set out on two trays, one for Karen and one for Carrie, before Scott started crying. He checked Scott’s diaper but it was empty. This was just one of those mysterious bouts of unhappiness that babies seemed to have regularly.

Carlos covered the trays to keep them warm and took Scott back into the den. He sat in the rocking chair and rocked his son gently. Scott stopped crying after a few moments and drifted off to sleep. By that time Carlos had also fallen asleep.

That’s where Carrie found them when she came downstairs an hour later wondering what had become of her breakfast in bed. Carlos was snoring lightly with Scott on his chest. Carrie’s heart welled with love as she observed the tender tableau.

Karen came up behind her and smiled. “Happy Mother’s Day,” Karen said.

“You too, Mom,” Carrie replied and squeezed Karen’s hand.

The two women went into the kitchen and discovered the French toast, now cold and unappealing.

“Guess we’re having cereal,” Carrie said with a smile.

“Not necessarily,” Del said from behind them. They turned to see him standing in the door holding a bag of cinnamon rolls. “The kid looked like he might need a back up plan.” Del dropped the bag on the table and headed out of the room, calling back over his shoulder, “remember this on Father’s Day.”

The two mothers sat down together at the kitchen table and enjoyed their cinnamon rolls while they discussed the joys and tribulations of raising kids.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Rock Around the Flock – Part Two

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. In an effort to attract more teens and young adults, Pastor Henry O’Donnell had recruited several congregants to form a church rock band. The hope was the modern music would appeal to a younger generation more than the usual dusty old hymns.

Two of the recruits for this band – lead singer Audra Park and guitarist Ian Wells – were excellent musicians. The rest of the group consisted of forty-four year old Missy Moore on drums, Kevin Boyer attempting to relive his high school garage band days on rhythm guitar, and church secretary Tammy Billings reluctantly rounding out the group on her upright bass.

Most of the congregation was skeptical of the idea, particularly the choir who had been replaced by the rock band and the three older women known collectively as the Little Old Ladies. But Pastor O’Donnell urged everyone to give the new music a chance. If it worked, the pews would be filled with new, young members, he promised.

The church already had two regular teen attendees – Pastor O’Donnell’s fifteen-year-old daughter Katie and her friend Tabitha. They were simultaneously intrigued and skeptical about the rock band. But O’Donnell was pleased to see them in the front pew on the Sunday of the band’s debut. It seemed an indication that his plan was working.

The band’s rehearsals had been a little rough around the edges. Missy was certainly an enthusiastic drummer but her beat tended to wander around a bit. Kevin was gradually shaking the rust off his guitar skills but frequently became so distracted by his attempts to strike just the right rock and roll pose that he missed changes. And Tammy’s bass style was more Bach than rock. But Ian and Audra managed to hold the whole thing together most of the time. On the morning of their debut Ian wasn’t sure they were ready, but neither was he sure they could significantly improve by delaying.

The band gathered in the choir room before service. Missy was the last to arrive and she made quite an entrance when she did. She was decked out in a leather mini-skirt, fishnet stockings and a red bustier. Her pale flesh bulged out around the edges of the bustier in a way that Ian thought would probably upset the congregation a lot more than the change in musical style.

As shocked as they were by Missy’s appearance she was equally shocked by their rather preppie attire. “We’re supposed to be a rock band!” she wailed. “You all look like you work in a department store!”

“Or like we’re going to church,” Tammy replied.

“I thought the point was to make the church more rock and roll,” Missy countered.

“Well, there’s nothing any of us can do about what we’re wearing now,” Audra said, trying not to stare at Missy. “We’re on.”

When the band entered the chancel two minutes before the start of service the congregation immediately fell silent, except for Katie and Tabitha in the front pew, who had to bury their faces in their arms to contain their laughter. Pastor O’Donnell stared at Missy and for the first time began to question the wisdom of his idea.

The plan was for the band to open service with their first song. Everyone in the sanctuary leaned forward, including the choir members and the Little Old Ladies. Even the most adamant opponents of rock music in church were still curious to see how the band would do.

Missy tapped her drumsticks together to count out the beat and they launched into their first number, an upbeat if rather generic piece of Christian light rock. Any hope Ian had that they would rise to the occasion was quickly dashed. Missy’s adrenaline caused her to pick a tempo half again as fast as they’d practiced. Kevin had a hard time keeping up so he compensated by playing louder. The congregation slumped back in their pews. Their curiosity had been satisfied and now they were simply trying to get through the audio onslaught.

The band would have been better off just trying to get through it themselves. But Kevin noticed the lack of enthusiasm coming from the pews and decided what they needed was more stage presence. He began channeling the guitar heroes of his youth and tromped across the stage, head flailing.

The guitar heroes of his youth had probably practiced their stage moves, however, to assure that they wouldn’t make the kind of blunder Kevin made. As he danced backwards behind Ian during an instrumental portion of the song, he tripped on Ian’s guitar cord, simultaneously unplugging it and sending Kevin tumbling onto his backside.

Both guitars fell silent leaving only Missy and Tammy to carry the song. Missy tried to save things by launching into a prolonged drum solo. A few members of the congregation began to wonder if Missy was having some kind of seizure. Even more congregants discovered an urgent need to visit the restroom and slipped out of the sanctuary.

Pastor O’Donnell hung his head sadly. But through it all Katie and Tabitha thrust their hands in the air and swayed in time with the music.

Ian got his guitar plugged back in, Kevin regained his feet and mercifully the song came to an end. However Missy made a rather overly dramatic flourish as she struck the last symbol chime and heard a ripping sound from the back of her bustier. As Katie and Tabitha clapped wildly and the rest of the congregation stared in stunned silence, Missy slipped off the drum stool and backed out through the rear chancel doors, her hands holding the bustier precariously in place.

Missy returned in time for the next song wearing a choir robe, which pretty much everyone agreed was an improvement. The remainder of the band’s songs in the service went comparatively better than the first. But only comparatively.

After the service ended Katie and Tabitha ran up to Pastor O’Donnell. “That was awesome, Dad!” Katie said.

“Yeah,” Tabitha agreed. “Our friends will definitely come to church to see that!”

Then the two girls burst into laughter.

The following week marked the choir’s triumphant return with a selection of dusty old hymns.