Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pumpkin Carving

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 of Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum’s many jobs at the church is programming.  So Michelle was constantly on the lookout for events and activities to encourage fellowship within the congregation.  Holidays frequently provided such opportunities.  When October rolled around, she suggested to Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell that they hold a jack-o-lantern carving contest the day before Halloween.

“Sounds like an excellent idea,” Pastor O’Donnell said.  “I can be a judge if you want.”  Being a judge meant that he would be the center of attention and that he wouldn’t have to get all messy carving a pumpkin.  O’Donnell liked attention and didn’t like getting messy so it was kind of the perfect arrangement.

Michelle figured they needed at least three judges.  For the second she recruited Ralph Billings who was always happy to help out in any way he was needed.  Then Michelle asked Missy Moore.  “I’d be a great judge,” Missy said.  “I went to art school, you know.”

“I did not know that,” Michelle replied.

“But I think I’d rather carve a pumpkin.  You know, put that art training to use.  If you don’t think that would be unfair to the other competitors.”

“No,” Michelle said, “I think that would be fine.”

Next Michelle tried organist Walter Tibble.  Walter had no interest in carving a pumpkin but didn’t really have any interest in judging either.  However once Michelle mentioned that she would be making cookies for refreshments Walter agreed.  Walter was a fan of Michelle’s cookies and, really, how hard could it be to pick out which jack-o-lantern he liked best?

A dozen people entered the contest.  Michelle and her boyfriend, Ian Wells, had bought twenty pumpkins from a local pumpkin patch – really a parking lot covered in hay to seem rustic.  They set them out on a table in the social hall for participants to select from.

Missy carefully perused the pumpkins, hoisting each one in turn and gazing at it critically.  “In art school they emphasize the importance of selecting the right materials,” she remarked.  “As Michelangelo said, ‘every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.’”

“You do know we’re carving pumpkins, not stone,” Ian said.

“Of course,” Missy shot back.  “And I want to find the pumpkin with just the right jack-o-lantern lurking inside.”

“Great,” Ian replied.  “I think I’ll just carve this one.”  He grabbed the pumpkin closest to where he happened to be standing at that moment.

“No!” Missy cried.  “That was one of my top choices.  That’s why I set it back from the edge of the table.”

“It’s first come first serve,” Ian said.  He didn’t really care which pumpkin he carved, but Missy was starting to annoy him.

“Are you even eligible for the contest?” Missy demanded.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’re dating the organizer.”

“Let’s let Pastor O’Donnell decide,” Ian said.

“I think the judges can manage to remain objective,” O’Donnell replied when they asked him.  “Besides, Katie wants to enter, too.”  He nodded toward his teenage daughter, Katie, and her friend Tabitha who were picking out their pumpkins at that very moment.

“Okay, Ian can have the good pumpkin,” Missy said grumpily.  “I suppose it’s only fair that I’m handicapped considering my art school training.”

“How magnanimous,” Ian muttered.  He grabbed a knife and went to claim a workspace.

Missy picked a replacement pumpkin and found her workspace.  She pulled a bundle out of her big purse and unrolled it.  It contained a selection of carving and scooping instruments.

When Ian saw this he summoned Pastor O’Donnell again.  “Is Missy allowed to use those fancy tools?” Ian asked.  “The rest of us just have knives from the kitchen.”

“It doesn’t say you can’t bring your own tools!” Missy protested and held up the flyer advertising the event.

“It doesn’t say you can’t smash your opponents’ pumpkins, either,” Ian pointed out.

“That’s not the same thing at all,” Missy argued.

 “I’m going to make an executive decision,” O’Donnell said before the argument got out of hand.  “Missy can use her own tools.”

Ian and Missy glared at each other as they returned to their pumpkins. 

Over at the judges’ table Michelle called for everyone’s attention.  “You will have one hour to carve your jack-o-lanterns,” she said.  “Ready…set…go!” 

The contestants immediately bent to their work, cutting the tops off their pumpkins and scooping out the insides.  Michelle collected the pumpkin seeds to roast them with spices in the kitchen.  The judges amused themselves at the refreshment table.

After about ten minutes Katie pushed her pumpkin away with a groan.  “I screwed up.  Can I start over?” she asked.

“Sure,” Michelle said.  “There are still half a dozen pumpkins left.”  Katie found a new pumpkin and resumed work.

Ian hadn’t gone to art school but he was a pretty creative guy.  He planned to carve the jack of hearts from a deck of cards as a pun on the word jack-o-lantern.  Since the jack of hearts was a one-eyed jack, he made an X for one of the eyes as if it had been gouged out.  He sketched out his plan on the pumpkin with a pencil.  He was pretty proud of himself – the thin curling mustache and the hearts on the side sold it.

He glanced over to see how Missy was progressing.  She caught his look and immediately moved to block her pumpkin with her body.

“Aaaarrrrgh,” Katie yelled and kicked her pumpkin away.  It rolled across the floor into the corner.  She stomped over to the remaining pumpkins and grabbed a new one.

Ian was just putting the final touches on his jack-o-lantern when Michelle announced ten minutes left.

“No,” Katie wailed and ran for a new pumpkin.

Ian noodled with his entry for several more minutes.  He was happy with what he had done but since Missy was being so protective of hers he figured he would keep his hidden until the last moment as well.

Finally Michelle announced that the contest was over and instructed the participants to bring their jack-o-lanterns up to the judges’ table.  When Missy saw Ian’s jack-of-hearts, she snorted.  “What’s scary about that?”

“It’s a one-eyed-jack-o-lantern,” Ian said.  The judges chuckled and Missy flushed with momentary annoyance. 

“Let’s see yours,” Ian demanded.

Missy revealed her creation.  She had carved a demonic face on her pumpkin, cleverly using pieces of pumpkin that she had cut out from the eyes as horns.  Ian shuddered a little.  It was surprisingly evil looking.

O’Donnell cleared his throat.  “That’s very…well…”

“Disturbing,” Ralph finished.

“It’s supposed to be scary,” Missy replied.  “This is Halloween, isn’t it?”

“I guess it is,” Michelle said.  She found the demon a bit unsettling as well.  “Is that all of the entries?”

“Wait for me,” Tabitha called out.  She scurried over and set her jack-o-lantern on the table.  Everyone gasped.

“It’s you!” Katie said.

It was indeed.  Tabitha had carved a strikingly lifelike self-portrait on the side of her pumpkin, leaving just enough of the flesh intact within the image that it glowed.  “I got the idea off the internet,” Tabitha said shyly.  “You tape a picture to the pumpkin then poke holes through it with a big needle to create the outline.”

“Is that fair?” Missy mumbled.

“You got to use your special tools,” Ian pointed out.

“I hate jack-o-lanterns” Katie whispered under her breath, looking down at her entry.  She’d ended up carving two triangular eyes and a jagged mouth.

“Okay, let’s let the judges get to work,” Michelle said.

It didn’t take long for the judges to make their decision.  O’Donnell called Tabitha up and presented her with a blue ribbon and a gift certificate to Roger’s CafĂ©.

Then O’Donnell announced the other awards.  “Ian gets the funniest jack-o-lantern award.  Missy gets scariest.  Katie gets most traditional…”

“Wait a minute,” Missy interrupted.  “What kind of awards are those?  Tabitha’s pumpkin is great, I’ll admit.  Kudos to her.  But who gets second place?”

“Nobody,” Michelle replied.  “There was only one ribbon and gift certificate.  Everyone else gets these fun awards.  It’s, you know, fun.”

“But…but…” Missy sputtered.  “We all want to know whose was second best, right?”

“Yeah,” Ian agreed.

“Not really,” Katie grumbled.

Michelle turned to the judges.  Walter was the one that spoke up.  “It was a tie,” he said.  “Everyone came in second.  Everyone except Tabitha, of course.  She was clearly first place.  She’s quite an artist.”

“Well,” Missy muttered under her breath, “great art is never appreciated in its own time.”

Perhaps that was true, but within three days her jack-o-lantern had decayed into a puddle of goo so future generations never got to weigh in on the issue.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Runaway

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.  Eight months ago church members Carlos and Carrie Lopez had their first child, a beautiful boy named Scott.  Recently, Scott learned to crawl.  This elicited a variety of emotions in the young parents.

Both were of course delighted to see their child reach this milestone.  But in Carrie this delight was mixed with dread over all the new dangers her precious baby would now be exposed to.  Carlos and Carrie were living with Carrie’s parents, Del and Karen Winslow.  Minutes after Scott first pulled himself three feet forward to reach a favored toy, Carrie raced to the store to acquire two large bags of baby-proofing devices.

Del was quite amused watching Carrie spend the next few days ensuring that every corner, door, drawer and liquid was covered or locked down.  He followed her around telling stories about the trouble she got into when she first started crawling back in the days before all those fancy safety gadgets.  His intention was to reassure her that everything would inevitably turn out okay, but the tales of Carrie’s young brushes with injury had the opposite effect on his daughter.

Carlos’s delight was not tinged with anxiety so much as exhaustion.  His job while Carrie was baby-proofing was to wrangle Scott manually away from any danger.  Once Scott realized that he was now able to move about the house unassisted he took maximum advantage of the skill.  And Scott turned out to be a natural speedster.  It was all Carlos could do to keep up with him.

That Sunday the Winslow’s trooped off to church.  Del was in the choir and Karen taught Sunday school.  Carlos, Carrie and Scott took their usual place in the back pew, which had extra room to accommodate strollers.

Now that he could crawl Scott’s patience for being strapped into a stroller or car seat was extremely limited.  Once the little family was settled and the service started, he began to get fidgety.  Carlos took Scott out of the stroller and held him on his lap, hoping that would calm the little guy.  It did not.

As the offertory began Carlos allowed Scott to crawl up and down the pew.  Scott was pleased with this solution but Carrie was not.  She elbowed Carlos and hissed, “What are you doing?  He could fall off.”

So Carlos set Scott down on the floor.  It seemed a reasonable idea in the moment, but one he would quickly regret.

From little Scott’s perspective, the carpet stretched out in a broad plain populated by people’s legs and roofed by the pews.  It looked like a fascinating place to explore.  And so that’s what he did.

From Carrie and Carlos’s perspective, their baby had just vanished under the pew in front of them.

Carrie immediately dropped to her hands and knees.  But she was too slow – Scott was already three rows away.  Carrie wriggled after him, but while little Scott could easily crawl under the pews Carrie had to follow on her belly.  Even so, she banged her head several times.

Carlos meanwhile scrambled out to the side aisle to pursue his child.  He got there just as head usher Ralph Billings was coming by with the offering plate.  They nearly collided, then did a little dance to maneuver around each other.  Though the delay was only a few seconds, it allowed Scott to extend his lead by several more rows.

Carrie almost caught Scott when he stopped to investigate Missy Moore’s purse, which was sitting on the floor.  He pulled the purse over, spilling out the contents.  Missy looked down in time to see Scott crawl after a silver pen that was rolling toward the front of the sanctuary.  A moment later Carrie lunged out from under the pew, her fingers missing Scott’s heels by an inch.

Carrie felt several sharp pricks in her hands and arms.  She lifted them to discover she’d been skewered by thumbtacks that had spilled from Missy’s purse.  She looked up at Missy and asked, “Who carries thumbtacks in their purse?”  Missy sputtered, still trying to comprehend exactly what was happening down there under the pews.  Carrie didn’t wait for an answer.  She scrambled after Scott, ignoring the pain.

Quite a few other members of the congregation were startled when a baby crawled past their legs, followed soon after by a slithering young woman.  Some inadvertently stepped on Carrie’s fingers, though miraculously none impeded Scott’s progress in any way.

Once the offering was collected, the congregation stood and sang the Doxology as the ushers brought the plates up the center aisle to the altar.  Out in the side aisle Carlos had gotten parallel to Scott and could see him crawling relentlessly forward in the middle of the pews.

Carlos jogged ahead to intercept the baby.  He selected a pew to make his move just as the congregation was sitting back down.  With no time for elaborate explanations he climbed over eighty-six-year-old Donald East.  But he tripped on Donald’s cane and fell face first into Seventy-year-old Henrietta Miggins’s lap.

“While I never!” Henrietta hissed.

Carlos mumbled an incoherent explanation as Scott cruised past between Henrietta’s legs.  Carlos made a belated grab for the child, but missed.  He scrambled back out to the side aisle ignoring Henrietta’s indignant glare.

Normally the ushers left the offertory plates on the altar, but today was a communion Sunday and the altar held the bread cubes and thimble size glasses of grape juice for the ceremony later in the service.  So they took the offering plates with them as they returned to the back of the church.

Next up on the program was special music.  As it happened this Sunday’s special music was a solo performed by Del, accompanied by organist Walter Tibble.  Del came out of the choir area and stood at the front of the chancel.  At his nod, Walter began to play.  Del closed his eyes and sang, unaware that Scott had just crawled out from the front of the pews. 

Little Scott looked up and saw grandpa singing.  Scott liked grandpa.  So he headed that way.

Scott struggled up the two steps to the chancel.  Of course by this point the entire congregation could see the runaway baby.  But nobody quite knew how to respond to the situation.

As Scott clambered up the final step to the chancel he became distracted by the shiny gold trays holding the communion sacraments.  His attention span was pretty short at this stage of his mental development.  Scott crawled to the altar, grasped the crisp white cloth covering it, and pulled himself up to standing.  Standing unassisted was a skill he had not yet mastered.

Scott didn’t weigh much, but he weighed enough that when he tugged on the cloth it started to slide.  And as the cloth slid it brought the communion trays to the edge of the altar.  The congregation gasped in unison at the impending disaster.

Del heard the gasps and opened his eyes.  He knew he was a good vocalist but couldn’t see any reason why he should elicit such a reaction mid-song.  When he discovered everyone’s gaze was fixed on a point behind him, he turned around.

The communion trays tipped precariously above Scott as he wobbled, clinging to the altar cloth.  Without missing a note, Del stepped back and scooped the baby into his arms.  Then he calmly stepped forward again and launched into the next verse as Scott squirmed and gurgled and tugged at the collar of Del’s choir robe.

When the song was over Del handed the infant to Carlos and Carrie who were waiting anxiously at the edge of the chancel.  Carrie hugged Scott tightly, a tear trickling down her face.

Del chuckled to himself as he returned to his seat.  “New parents,” he thought.  “They panic so easily.”

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Best Annual Meeting Ever

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. Like most churches, this one has an all-church annual meeting to elect committee members and hear reports from committee chairs. And like most churches it is difficult to get many people from the congregation to attend. Who could blame them? Annual meetings are universally tedious.

But this year Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell had an idea to lure a bigger crowd. They would make it a luncheon. Free food always increased participation in church events, no matter how tedious.

When O’Donnell brought up the idea to Florence Barker, head of the pastor-parish committee, she took to it immediately. At seventy-eight Florence was one of the senior members of the church, but age hadn’t slowed her down in the slightest. She even offered to coordinate the food for the luncheon. O’Donnell had envisioned something simple like pasta or a six-foot submarine sandwich, but Florence thought they needed a theme. “How about a Biblical Times luncheon?” she suggested. The pastor agreed it was an excellent idea.

O’Donnell scheduled the luncheon for noon on a Sunday so that he could boost attendance by applying guilt as people left worship. He also enlisted Sunday school teacher Karen Winslow to supervise a kids’ table for the younger children hoping that would be added incentive for the parents to stick around. The result was the best attended annual meeting to date.

O’Donnell had spent the previous week coming up with his own way to embrace Florence’s theme. So when it came time to welcome everyone, he stepped out of the church office dressed in an authentic period shepherd’s outfit consisting of a robe, sandals, rope belt and staff.

The costume got the amused attention O’Donnell had hoped for. He opened the meeting with a brief lecture about the culture of Jesus’ time. “Brief” by pastors’ standards, that is. But the attendees listened politely for the entire ten minutes. Finally O’Donnell delivered a blessing and then invited everyone to help themselves to the buffet.

Florence and her volunteer assistants had prepared pita bread and hummus, tabouli salad, stuffed grape leaves, olives, dates, rice, and lamb kebabs. Though in Jesus’ time meals were typically accompanied by wine, it was agreed that grape juice would make a better substitute. There was also ambrosia salad. It wasn’t true to the theme, but somehow no church meal was ever complete without ambrosia salad.

Over at the designated kids’ table, Karen did her best to keep the ravenous little beasts at bay while the adults filled their plates first. Once everyone over the age of twelve had a shot at the buffet, the youngsters were turned loose. Typical for children their age, they avoided the more unfamiliar foods, focusing on the pita bread and ambrosia salad. But Karen made sure they each took a little of everything and didn’t overdose on ambrosia.

Unlike the designated kids’ table, there was no designated senior citizens’ table. But one emerged anyway. Seventy-year-old Henrietta Miggins, seventy-three-year-old Celia Simmons and seventy-five-year-old Betsy Davis, collectively known around the church as the “Little Old Ladies,” chose a table near the microphone and were joined by eighty-six-year-old Donald East.

Florence, though from the same generation, was not part of the Little Old Ladies. She considered them fuddy-duddies and they found her a bit too free spirited for their tastes. But Florence joined their table anyway once her chores in the kitchen were finished.

“Look at those kids,” Florence said, gesturing to the buffet as she sat down. “They’re having so much fun.”

“I suppose they are,” Henrietta replied. “And here I was thinking the annual meeting was supposed to be a serious affair.”

Two of the people O’Donnell had shanghaied after church were Kevin and Jill Boyer. Free food and guilt would not have enticed Kevin to stay when there was football on TV at home, but Jill was won over by the children’s’ table. She appreciated any break she could get from her daughters Mary and Susie.

Kevin and Jill sat with Carrie and Carlos Winslow and their baby boy, Scott. Carrie was Karen Winslow’s daughter. Carrie’s father, Del was sitting at the next table over, his back to them. Across from Del was Ralph Billings. Del was complaining to Ralph about how his wife never got to enjoy these events because she was always saddled watching “that unruly gang of kids.” Del had a deep voice that easily carried to Kevin and Jill, whose kids were among those Del was referring to, but they pretended not to hear. After all, he wasn’t wrong.

Aware that once the eating was done people would find excuses to leave, Pastor O’Donnell opened the business part of the meeting as soon as Karen had the kids seated again. First on the agenda, each committee chair came up in turn to report on their committee’s activities. The reports were universally upbeat, self-congratulatory, and overly long.

While Henrietta was giving the Trustees report, over at the kids’ table four-year-old Mary Boyer picked up a date and quietly asked, “what’s this” to nobody in particular.

Six-year-old Tyler Park answered, “it’s a boiled caterpillar cocoon.”

“Is not,” Mary shot back.

“Sure is,” Tyler said. “They collect them in the desert around Bethlehem. It’s what the three wise men ate when they were going to see Jesus.”

“Eeeewwww,” Mary said.

“That’s not true,” Becky interjected. At twelve she was really too old for the kids’ table but she found sitting there just barely preferable to sitting with her parents. In her mind she was helping Karen supervise the children. “It’s a date,” Becky continued. “It’s a kind of fruit.”

Tyler responded by throwing his date at Becky.

Becky turned to Karen and said, rather loudly, “Tyler threw a date at me!”

Up at the front of the room Henrietta stopped mid-sentence to glare at the interruption.

“Tyler, don’t throw food,” Karen commanded. She gave Henrietta an apologetic look. Henrietta sniffed and continued her report.

As soon as Karen’s attention was otherwise occupied, Tyler bounced an olive off of Becky’s nose. “Tattle Tale,” he hissed.

Becky picked up the olive and hurled it back at him. It went down his shirt. Mary thought all this looked like great fun. She grabbed a handful of tabouli and threw it at Tyler. Tyler winged a stuffed grape leaf at Mary in response. He missed, and the biblical delicacy landed in the middle of the old people’s table.

“Enough!” Karen shouted. “You kids quit goofing around and eat your lunch. We have important church business to do here today. The next one who throws anything is going to be sorry. Am I clear?”

The children slumped silently in their chairs.

And then an olive hit Karen in the ear.

Everyone was too startled to react at first. The olive came from the direction of the old people’s table. Karen looked over and saw Florence Barker grinning from ear to ear.

The kids’ table erupted in flying food.

Del Winslow shook his head at the sight and said, “This wouldn’t happen if parents today knew how to discipline their kids.”

Behind him, Carrie noticed that Jill Boyer’s face reddened. “I’ll go get Mary,” Jill mumbled to her husband.

Carrie thought back to all the trouble she had caused as a kid and decided her father’s judgmental tone was uncalled for. So she hurled a piece of pita bread at the back of his head. Del spun around, sputtering indignantly. Carrie tossed another piece of bread. Del ducked. The bread hit Ralph Billings.

In short order half of the adults had joined the kids in the food fight.

Up at the front of the room Henrietta looked like she was about to explode. Pastor O’Donnell stepped forward and raised his staff. “Stop this!” he commanded, looking a little like Moses reprimanding the fractious Israelites. He was rewarded by a glob of hummus that smacked him square in the chest. This was followed by a shower of olives, dates, rice, tabouli and ambrosia salad. O’Donnell was forced to retreat to the church office. The Israelites were models of obedience compared to the congregation of the little church.

About ten minutes later the more sober adults had finally managed to bring the food fight to a halt. It was decided that perhaps the children should play outside during the remainder of the meeting.

With a more dignified atmosphere restored, voting commenced to elect new committee members where needed and reelect those who wished to continue in their roles. The voting went quickly since there was only one candidate for each position. It was hard enough finding one person to take on each job without recruiting opposing candidates as well.

After O’Donnell declared the meeting over and delivered a final prayer, Florence leaned back and said, “best annual meeting ever if I do say so myself.”

Henrietta stood up and patted her on the shoulder. “I’m glad you enjoyed it. Have fun with the clean-up.”