Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Boyers Buy A Tree

The following is based on an excerpt from the novellette "The Christmas Tree Lot" available in the book, "The Christmas Tree Lot and Other Holiday Tales from the Little Church Stories" now available at:

(Hear the story read by the author.)

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there's a little church on the corner of Wilson and Elm.  This year the church decided to start a Christmas Tree lot to raise money.  Ralph Billings was in charge of running the lot and Henrietta Miggins was in charge of recruiting volunteers.  So far Henrietta’s recruitment efforts had been quite successful.  When the lot officially opened for business on the Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving, she had Ralph, Pastor O’Donnell, Walter Tibble, Thad Wheeling and Missy Moore scheduled to work – though Walter didn’t show up, sending word that his back was hurting and he thought he better go home and lay down.

Missy arrived wearing jingle bell earrings and a sweater featuring a picture of a reindeer with a jingle bell sewn to its nose.  “I love Christmas!” she announced as she jingled up to the card table that served as the lot’s base of operations.

“Apparently,” O’Donnell mumbled.

“I brought Christmas music,” Missy continued, her bells tinkling merrily as she set a small boom box on the table, “And Christmas cookies.”

She opened a tin full of brightly decorated sugar cookies.  O’Donnell decided Missy’s Christmas mania definitely had its benefits as he helped himself to a tree shaped cookie.

And then he took a bite. It seemed what he had thought was a sugar cookie was actually made of granite with cement frosting.  He managed to chew and swallow that first bite but feared it might have cost him a visit to the dentist the next day.

While Missy went to find an extension cord for her boom box, O’Donnell ditched the cookie in some bushes.  He noticed the other volunteers were finding similar hiding places for their cookies as well.

When Missy returned they all complimented her on her baking skills.  She put on her first CD.  It was an album of fifteen different versions of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  “Isn’t that clever,” Missy asked as a calypso version played.  “Who would have thought that song could be done in so many different ways?”

Certainly not Pastor O’Donnell.

Ralph declared the lot open for business at noon.  Their first customers were the Boyer family:  Kevin, Jill and their daughters Mary, age four, and Susie, age two.  Jill was hosting the Women's Group Christmas Party this year.  It was a big responsibility so she determined to get everything done as early as possible for the holiday season.  Her plan included getting her tree as soon as she could.

Unfortunately the members of the Boyer family all had different criteria when evaluating the trees.  Jill wanted a perfectly formed tree.  Mary and Susie wanted the biggest tree on the lot so Santa could fit lots of presents under it.  Kevin just didn’t want to spend a bunch of money on something they’d throw away in a month.  It turned out to be quite difficult to find a tree that fulfilled all of those requirements.

The trees were arranged in rows organized by height and type.  Mary and Susie immediately ran to the back row where the eight-foot and over trees were kept.  “Those won’t fit in our living room,” Kevin called as he moved to the four and five foot Douglas firs.

“I think Nobles are prettier,” Jill said, heading toward the other side of the lot.

“But they’re more expensive,” Kevin replied.  “Let’s see if we can find a Douglas that you like first.”

Ralph and Thad were in back making fresh cuts to the bottoms of trees waiting to be mounted in stands, while Missy filled the stands of the trees already on display with a hose. That left Pastor O’Donnell to assist the customers.  “Do you have any questions?” he asked Kevin.

“Not yet,” Kevin replied. “I have a feeling this might take a while,”

“Just let me know if there’s anything I can do,” O’Donnell said and returned to the card table.

Jill had Kevin bring likely candidates out into the aisle so she could observe them from every angle.  Whenever she seemed to be fixating on a particularly expensive tree, he would note that it appeared to be leaning one way or another and urge her to keep looking.  The girls pouted whenever the adults considered anything that was less than seven feet.

After about forty-five minutes Jill had found a tree she thought was just about perfect.  It was a more expensive Noble fir, but Kevin was pleased it was only five feet tall.  The girls wailed and cried but Kevin assured them Santa would figure out a way to stuff plenty of presents under it.  Jill had Kevin turn the tree this way and that as she did a final inspection to make sure there were no holes or bent branches.

Mary sat on the ground pouting and debating whether a bicycle would fit under the tree if Santa laid it on its side.  Then she noticed something moving on one of the branches.  She jumped to her feet and yelled, “Spider!”

“Where?” Kevin screamed in a high-pitched voice.  He leapt back, releasing his grip on the tree.  It fell backwards, striking the row of trees behind it. One by one they tipped over like dominos.  One of them bumped Missy, causing her to stumble and lose control of the hose.  The icy stream of water arced into the air and hit O’Donnell in the back of the head.  O’Donnell’s screams were even higher pitched than Kevin’s as the water ran down the back of his shirt.

Missy stepped on the spider, thereby completely destroying any remaining semblance of Kevin’s manliness.  He picked the tree back up and apologized for the mess.

“No problem,” Missy said brightly and proceeded to right the other fallen trees.

“Oh no,” Jill whispered to her husband.  “When you dropped the tree, the branches on that side kind of got crushed.  We better find another one.”

Kevin moaned.

Thirty minutes later Jill had settled on a new tree.  It was seven feet tall, which pleased the girls.  By that time Kevin would have happily paid a hundred dollars for a potted begonia.  Since O’Donnell was still inside drying off, Ralph made the transaction. He offered to put a fresh cut on the tree, but Kevin just wanted to pay and get out of there.

Ralph happily entered the sale in the brand new ledger he’d bought for the lot.  For the next several hours that was the only entry in that lovely ledger.

“Don’t worry,” Missy Moore said, wiping her brow.  The day was turning out to be a little warm for her reindeer sweater. “I’m sure sales will pick up as Christmas gets closer!”

O’Donnell hoped she was right, though he wasn’t sure he would live to find out.  The last version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer on Missy’s album, a novelty take done with synthesized bird tweets, was making him a bit suicidal.

Read what happens next at the Christmas Tree Lot in the book available on!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Laity Sunday

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 Sunday every year is designated Laity Sunday when the members of the congregation run the worship service.  The clergy do not get the day off, however.  Traditionally they make luncheon for the congregation as a gesture of gratitude.

This year, Del Winslow was in charge of Laity Sunday.  Del had a personal agenda for the day.  He wanted to have a tight, efficient service that ended in exactly one hour.  Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s services typically ran long by ten or fifteen minutes.  Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum was only slightly better.  Such overages annoyed Del greatly. In fact, he would have gotten up and walked out at the hour mark if he wasn’t a member of the choir.  So Del wanted to demonstrate to pastors O’Donnell and Tellum how a properly run worship service should go.

Del convened a meeting of Laity Sunday volunteers two weeks in advance for the purposes of assigning parts of the service.  Thad Wheeling was assigned the welcome and benediction.  Church secretary Tammy Billings agreed to do the invocation and call to worship.

The trouble started when Del asked for volunteers for the pastoral prayer.  Missy Moore, an enthusiastic, heavyset woman had been sitting quietly in back, but now her hand shot into the air.  Del was not a fan of the way Missy tended to babble on endlessly in conversation.  He dreaded what might happen if he gave her free reign at the microphone.

Del turned to his thirty-year-old daughter, Carrie.  “Carrie, why don’t you do the prayer?”

Carrie seemed startled.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “Do I have to make it up myself?”

“Well, yeah,” Del replied.

“I was hoping I could just read the scripture or something,” Carrie said.

“Come on, I know you’ll do great.”

“Okay,” Carrie muttered, not nearly so sure.  In the back, Missy put her hand back in her lap with a frown.  She had really wanted to do the prayer because she felt moved to express her gratitude for her church family and thought a group prayer would be the perfect opportunity.

The choir did the hymns and anthem as normal on Laity Sunday, but Del needed someone for special music.  Pastor Michelle’s boyfriend Ian Wells got that assignment.  Michelle wanted Ian to participate but Ian wasn’t fond of public speaking.  However he did play guitar in a jazz ensemble so special music was right up his alley.

Tammy’s husband Ralph volunteered to read the announcements.  Missy again raised her hand to do the Offertory figuring she could use the Prayer of Dedication to express her gratitude, but Del assigned those jobs to Jill Boyer.  Next Del called for a volunteer to read scripture.  “Missy, how about you?” he asked.

Missy was startled.  She hadn’t raised her hand this time.  “What else is left?” she asked.

“Just the sermon,” Del said, “and I’m doing that.”

“Fine,” Missy grumbled.

Meanwhile, Pastor Michelle was also out to prove something.  It always annoyed her that food at church events tended toward the cheap and unsophisticated.  She fancied herself a bit of a foodie and wanted to demonstrate a more gourmet approach.  Of course she also had to feed a hundred people without much help, so she needed to keep things simple.  She settled on a spicy seared scallop salad.

Pastor O’Donnell was a little skeptical when she told him, but didn’t want to crush her enthusiasm.  He was planning to make bagel pizzas for his contribution.  Michelle smiled indulgently.  They would probably make the kids happy, she figured.

Michelle wanted to get the scallops as fresh as she could so she arranged to buy them on the way to the church the morning of the service.  However when she arrived the seafood store did not have as many fresh scallops as she wanted.  Michelle began to panic.  Fortunately Ian was with her to calm her down.  He suggested they swing by the grocery store to pick up some frozen scallops.  Michelle was disappointed by the compromise but didn’t see any other option.

The only downside was that Ian would miss the walk-through Del had scheduled prior to the service.  It didn’t seem like a big deal to Ian, but at the church Del was annoyed.  To make matters worse, Ralph had caught a bad cold a couple days before and coughed constantly through the rehearsal.

Del was just about to cut special music out of the program entirely when Ian and Michelle arrived.  Michelle went to the kitchen to begin preparing her salad while Ian sauntered into the sanctuary.

Del wanted to give the tardy youngster a piece of his mind, but it was a mere five minutes until the service was scheduled to start and he wanted to begin on time even more. So he simply ordered Ian to get to his seat and then gave Thad his cue to welcome the congregation.

After the opening hymn Tammy delivered the Invocation and Call to Worship without a hitch.  By the end of the second hymn the service was running two minutes ahead of schedule according to Del’s calculations.  That’s when the first hiccup occurred.

Carrie stepped up to the lectern to deliver the pastoral prayer.  She had written it out on a piece of paper, revising it through half a dozen drafts during the week.  She pulled the paper out of her pocket with shaky hands, only to drop it.  It floated down over the railing and into the third pew.  Del tapped his foot impatiently as Tammy scrambled down to retrieve the paper.  Well, it was only a small delay.  They could make up the time.

Carrie managed to get through the prayer without vomiting which she considered quite an achievement.  Next came the special music.  Ian got his guitar and pulled a microphone out to the center of the chancel.  However when he tried to introduce the song he discovered the microphone wasn’t working.  He verified that it was turned on then began tracing the cord to see that everything was plugged in.  Organist Walter Tibble came over to help.  “Just get a different microphone,” Del finally snapped, a little louder than he intended.  “This is why we rehearsed,” he muttered under his breath.

Ian’s song was wonderful but Del didn’t hear it.  He was busy editing his sermon to make up for the lost time.  Then came the announcements.  Ralph stepped up to the microphone and began to speak.  No sound came out.

At first Del thought Ralph was using the broken microphone.  But when Ralph coughed and it was amplified over the speakers it became clear the microphone was not the problem.  Ralph had lost his voice.  Del strode out and took over.  He didn’t have time for any more delays.

Then real disaster struck.  As Del was moving back to his spot, he tripped on the microphone cord.  His glasses fell off and by an unfortunate coincidence Del’s left knee landed right on top of them.  He heard the lenses crunch and began to feel sick to his stomach.  Without his glasses he wouldn’t be able to read his notes for the sermon.

Fortunately Jill managed the offertory without any problems but when Missy went to the lectern to do the scripture reading, she started by saying, “before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to express my gratitude for this church…”

Del felt his blood begin to boil.  He coughed pointedly but Missy ignored him.  She went on for ten minutes determined to deliver the message she would have done had she been given the opportunity to lead a prayer.  By the time she got around to reading the scripture, the service had been going for fifty-eight minutes.

Del gave up.  He had rehearsed his sermon several times and could deliver it without his notes, but he couldn’t edit it on the fly.  So he just did it the way he had originally planned.  Halfway through he was interrupted when the smoke alarm went off in the kitchen.  Michelle had left one batch of scallops in the frying pan a little longer than she should have.

It took ten minutes for someone to ascertain that the church was not on fire.  Del finished up his sermon, the congregation sang the final hymn, and Thad delivered the benediction.  The service had run a total of twenty-nine minutes over, considerably more than was common when the clergy were in charge.

The congregation moved to the Social Hall for the luncheon.  Tammy Billings was first in line.  She examined Michelle’s scallop salad closely.  “What is it,” she asked.

Michelle described the ingredients and manner of preparation proudly.  Tammy forced a smile.  “Sounds very fancy,” she said.  She took a small helping just to be polite, then grabbed one of O’Donnell’s bagel pizzas.  “Where’s the coffee?” she asked.

Michelle and O’Donnell looked at each other.  They’d both completely forgotten to make coffee.  They scrambled to go set it up.

By the time the luncheon was finished the bagel pizzas were completely gone but half the scallop salad remained.  And the coffee had finally finished brewing but by then nobody wanted it anymore.  As Ian helped Michelle pack up the leftovers he observed that she could have gotten away without the frozen scallops after all.  Ian wasn’t always the smartest boyfriend.

The following week the pastors were running the service again and Tammy was back in charge of coffee hour.  And everything went much more smoothly.