Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Eve Miracle

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. Christmas was Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s busy season. Sure, Easter was the more important holiday from a religious standpoint, but Christmas brought with it all the cultural demands of decorations and gifts and social events as well. So by Christmas Eve, Henry was even more worn down than the average American. And the average American didn’t have to perform two candlelight services like the good pastor did.

Every year Henry promised himself he would get a jump on the season by finishing chores like gift buying in November. And every year Henry failed. This year he had purchased his gift for his wife Jennifer the afternoon of December 24th. He would have preferred that Jennifer just tell him specifically what she wanted for Christmas, but she liked to be surprised. Because she knew his holiday season was stressful, she did always try to make it easier on him by insisting anything he got her would be fine

However after eighteen years of watching Jennifer attempting to fake delight at some sweater or kitchen appliance she clearly didn’t want, Henry had concluded “anything he got her” was not fine. And he’d spent an enormous amount of time this year wandering the four malls in Normal seeking out something that would elicit genuine joy from his wife.

He finally settled on a pair of diamond earrings. Which, he thought, should not have been such a hard gift to come up with. Diamonds, after all, were a girl’s best friend. True, they had cost about six times what he’d planned to spend, but his normal thriftiness had been beaten into submission during the many hours trekking through the malls. With that annoying trait in a coma, picking a gift had been much easier.

Henry had accepted the bubbly young saleswoman’s offer of free gift wrapping since he was not very adept with tape and scissors. She had done a beautiful job, but had taken longer than he’d anticipated because there was a line of men in front of him waiting for their gifts to be wrapped. It seemed Henry wasn’t the only husband picking up a last minute present for his wife at the mall jewelry store.

Henry finally reached the church less than half an hour before the 7:30 pm service. Despite his rush, he paused at the church’s nativity scene on the way in. The display’s life sized figures were dusted with snow from a storm the previous evening. The baby Jesus was nearly buried in his manger. That would never do for Christmas Eve, so Henry carefully brushed off each of the figures and dumped the snow out of the manger. He re-wrapped the swaddling clothes around the plastic doll standing in for baby Jesus and set it back in place.

“There you are!” It was his wife’s voice. Henry quickly grabbed the beautifully wrapped present from where he’d set it by the manger and slid it into his coat pocket. When he turned around, Jennifer gave him a kiss. “I brought your dinner,” she said.

Henry looked at his watch. “I’m afraid I’ll have to eat it between services.” He rushed to his office, stuck the earrings in his desk drawer, and changed into his vestments.

The 7:30 service went off reasonably well. The sanctuary looked festive in its Christmas d├ęcor, a “tree” made of poinsettia plants crowning the chancel. The choir performed beautifully. And Henry summoned the energy to deliver a moving sermon reminding the congregation of the original impetus for the holiday.

Afterward, Jennifer sat with Henry in his office while he ate the dinner she’d brought. He was so grateful for the lukewarm ham and mashed potatoes that he began to wonder if he should have gotten her a diamond necklace as well as the earrings. He wasn’t even bothered when she told him she wouldn’t be staying for the later service as she still had some gift-wrapping to do back at the house.

A full tummy did not help Henry fight his exhaustion. At the 11 pm service, he fell asleep twice during hymns. Organist Walter Tibble had to kick him to wake him up for the sermon, which was a little less energetic than his earlier performance. And Henry almost lit his stole on fire during the candlelight procession out of the church at midnight. He decided he’d better make himself a cup of coffee before attempting to drive home.

Rejuvenated by the caffeine, Henry stuck the earrings in his coat pocket and turned out the lights. But when he went to lock his office door, he discovered his keys were not in his pocket. He searched his desk and the floor of his office, but no luck.

He went to the sanctuary to see if perhaps the keys had fallen out of his pocket there. And while he was crawling around on the floor of the chancel, he bumped the stand holding the poinsettia plants. Half a dozen pots fell, spilling black soil across the carpet. Henry felt like crying. He knew he couldn’t leave things in that state, so he took off his coat, got the vacuum and cleaned up the mess.

But he still didn’t have his keys. He checked the coffee room, even digging through the old grounds in the trash. Nothing. He sat in the middle of the floor and tried to focus his sleep-deprived brain.

“Maybe I left them in the car!” he exclaimed.

He ran outside. The brisk air quickly reminded him he had left his coat in the sanctuary. He jogged over to his car and peered through the window. The ignition was empty. Henry cursed and dashed back toward the church, rubbing his arms to keep warm. But he made the poor decision to take a shortcut across the lawn and slipped on a patch of wet snow, his feet shooting out from under him. He landed on his back, his head slamming painfully into the frozen ground.

Despite the overcast sky, he saw a roiling constellation of stars. They soon dissipated, except for one bright star in the East. Henry rolled on to his hands and knees dizzily. The star seemed to be beckoning him. He crawled through the snow toward it. It led him in the direction of a clutch of shadowy figures. As he crawled closer, he realized it was the nativity display.

Henry kneeled in front of the Christmas scene. A warm feeling of spirituality washed over him. Henry chose to believe it was the Holy Spirit, though a piece of him worried it might be the onset of hypothermia. He smiled as he looked at the baby Jesus and thought about the true meaning of the holiday.

And that’s when he saw his keys lying in the manger. He must have dropped them when he was cleaning the snow out. He looked up at the star that had guided him and realized it was actually a streetlight. This discovery didn’t dampen his Christmas spirit in the least. God worked in mysterious ways. He said a little prayer of gratitude.

Keys in hand, Henry retrieved his coat from the sanctuary and headed home. There he deposited Jennifer’s gift under the tree. It was after two when he finally crawled into bed.

Their daughter Katie roused them a mere five hours later. Though she was fifteen, she was still very much a small child when it came to opening presents on Christmas morning. Henry managed to stumble downstairs to the couch, where he promptly fell back asleep amidst the gift opening frenzy. So he missed the look of true delight on Jennifer’s face when she unwrapped the earrings. But Katie got a picture of it on her cell phone.

After breakfast, Henry went back to bad and slept until noon. It was a very merry Christmas in the O’Donnell household.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Orphans' Thanksgiving

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. The church’s young associate pastor, Michelle Tellum, loves Thanksgiving. She loves the camaraderie of a big gathering of loved ones, the spirit of gratitude, and, most of all, the big, fancy meal. But Michelle’s family lives out of town, and her boyfriend Ian’s parents were spending this year’s holiday in California with the family of his older sister who had recently given birth to their first grandchild.

So Michelle decided to host an “orphans’ Thanksgiving” at the church for all the congregants with nowhere else to go. She would make the turkey and stuffing and others could sign up to bring sides, salads and desserts. She was very excited – it would be the first Thanksgiving she’d ever hosted and she wanted it to be spectacular.

Michelle and Ian got to the church early on Thanksgiving Day to begin the preparations. She had bought nice tablecloths, borrowed some fancy dishware from Ian’s parents, and handcrafted napkin rings out of twigs. While she set all this up, Ian moved the TV from the lounge to the social hall so they could put the football games on. Michelle was not a football fan, but she knew if she didn’t allow this, Ian and probably many of the other guests would just spend the day in the lounge and that would dampen the fellowship she so valued. Besides, guys watching football on Thanksgiving brought back nostalgic memories of her childhood holidays.

Michelle had been brining the turkey since the previous morning. It was a process she’d read about in one of her gourmet cooking magazines. She was just lifting it out of the brine to place it in the roasting pan when the first guest arrived.

It was Thad Wheeling, a thirty-year-old single man who was an infrequent attendee at worship but who played on the church softball team. Thad handed her a casserole dish containing string beans in a Swiss cheese sauce. “Fancy,” Michelle said.

“Thanks, I got the recipe online. It needs to go in the oven for fifteen minutes or so to warm up before we eat.” He looked at the bucket of water with the turkey in it. “What’s going on there?”

“I brined the turkey,” she told him. “It’s supposed to make it a lot more juicy and flavorful. I’m also going to make an apple-walnut-sausage stuffing. It’s my own recipe – can’t wait to see what you think.”

“Actually,” Thad said, “I won’t be able to give you a review. I’ve become a vegetarian.”

Michelle’s face fell. “Oh. I wish I knew. I would have arranged a vegetarian entre.”

“I didn’t want you to go to that kind of trouble. I’ll be fine. I love side dishes and can easily make a meal of them.”

“Tell you what,” Michelle said. “I’ll make a little of the stuffing in a separate dish without the sausage.”

The next guests to arrive were choir director Shane Reed, his girlfriend, Audra, and her six-year-old son Tyler. Shane brought mashed potatoes and Audra brought sweet potatoes. They were calling themselves “Team Potato.” Even Tyler contributed with a can of cranberry sauce.

Then eighty-six year-old Donald East arrived. “Donald,” Michelle said, forcing a smile, “I didn’t know you were coming.” She didn’t know because he hadn’t told her despite clear, bold-faced text on all the announcements that an RSVP was required.

“I brought this,” Donald said, handing her a bag of potato chips. “Ah, you have the game on.” Donald shuffled over to join Ian in front of the TV.

Michelle looked at Shane and Audra and sighed. “I’m sure we can accommodate one extra. I don’t imagine he’ll eat that much.”

“I’ll put these in a bowl,” Shane offered with a wink, taking the bag of chips.

Missy Moore, a bubbly, heavy set, forty-four year-old woman who was always covered in cat hair, arrived shortly after that. She brought two pies, pumpkin and apple. By this time Michelle was at work on her sausage-apple-walnut stuffing. Missy oohed and aahed over the recipe. “It sounds wonderful,” she said. “Unfortunately I don’t like nuts.”

“I suppose I could make a separate batch without nuts,” Michelle said. “I’m already doing one without meat for Thad.”

Missy clapped her hands together. “Oh, that would be awesome! But keep the sausage in mine.”

It took Michelle a little longer than anticipated to get the turkey stuffed and in the oven due to extra effort involved in making three varieties of the stuffing. She was washing her hands when Ian poked his head in. “The Veckenshims called. They’re not coming after all. Pete’s not feeling well.”

“But they were going to bring salad!” she moaned.

“I think we can get by without it,” Ian said. “I mean, nobody goes to Thanksgiving dinner for salad.” A loud roar came from the TV. Ian hurried back to see what he’d missed.

Michelle knew Ian was right about the salads, but she wanted her Thanksgiving to be perfect so she made a quick trip to the grocery store up the street. Fortunately they were staying open until 3 pm for people who needed last minute items.

She’d just finished assembling the salad when Ian came in again. “We’re out of potato chips and everyone’s getting hungry,” he said. “Do we have any other appetizers?”

“I suppose we could put out some cheese and crackers from the coffee hour supplies.”

“Perfect!” Ian headed back to the social hall.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get them,” Michelle said to the empty kitchen.

Michelle sliced some cheese and arranged it artfully on a platter with crackers. She checked the turkey and found she still had about an hour to socialize with the guests before it was ready.

She brought the snacks out to the social hall and squeezed in beside Ian on the couch. He gave her a quick peck on the cheek, then resumed his discussion with Thad and Donald about the relative merits of the zone defense. After ten minutes of trying to comprehend what they were talking about, Michelle decided to visit with some of the other guests.

She walked over to Shane and Audra who were lounging in the far corner of the room. “Am I interrupting?” Michelle asked.

“Not at all,” Audra said. “We were just taking the opportunity for a little adult conversation while Missy entertains Tyler.” She gestured to where Missy and Tyler were seated on a love seat reading a book.

“Great,” Michelle said. “So what are you talking about?”

“Twin Peaks,” Shane replied. “We’ve been watching the DVDs.”

“I’ve never seen it,” Michelle said.

“Oh, it’s brilliant.” Shane launched into a sprawling description of the show, in the midst of which he and Audra got sidetracked into a debate about the meaning of a dwarf that talked backwards. It made even less sense to Michelle than the zone defense, so she politely excused herself and went to join Missy and Tyler.

Missy was reading Tyler a story, or at least she was trying to. Tyler kept embellishing things with improvised subplots based on the pictures in the book. Michelle settled into a nearby chair to listen, and soon drifted off to sleep.

She was awakened when Thad called out, “Hey Michelle, did you remember to put my beans in the oven?”

“I was just about to,” Michelle said, groggily.

A short time later the turkey was carved and everyone was gathered around the table. It had taken two hours longer than Michelle had planned and she hadn’t managed to do much socializing. She was pretty sure this would be the last orphans’ Thanksgiving she would host.

Michelle said grace. The hungry diners lunged for the food as soon as they heard the word, “Amen.” She watched them shovel the turkey and various kinds of stuffing into their mouths with barely a pause to taste it. Michelle found she didn’t have much appetite herself.

And then Missy said, “I have an idea! Let’s go around the table and say what we’re grateful for. I’ll start. I’m grateful for my cats, Cinnamon, Vanilla, Pepper, Salty and Chocolate.”

She looked at Ian who was sitting next to her. “I’m grateful the church has cable so we could watch the games,” he said.

Michelle found she was having a hard time thinking of anything very specific she was grateful for at that moment, so she went to an old standby: “I’m thankful for my health.”

Shane was next. “I’m grateful I found Audra, the love of my life.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet,” Audra said. “I’m grateful for both my boys.” She gave Shane and Tyler each a kiss. Tyler made a face.

Audra asked Tyler what he was grateful for.

“My scooter,” he answered.

Donald was next in line. He was hunched over his plate, mechanically scooping stuffing into his mouth, apparently ignoring the conversation.

“Mr. East,” Missy prodded, “what are you thankful for?”

“Wazzat?” Donald asked, looking up. He was hard of hearing.

“We’re going around the table saying what we’re thankful for,” Missy told him.

“Oh.” Donald thought for a few moments. “I’m thankful for the company. Since my wife passed and our kids live out of state, I was going to have to have Thanksgiving dinner by myself. I’m also thankful for this amazing stuffing. You’re quite a cook, Pastor.”

Then Donald returned his attention to his plate.

Thad was the last in line. “I’m thankful for Pastor Michelle’s hospitality,” he said. “And as a gesture of that gratitude, I’ll take care of the clean up after dinner.” The others quickly offered to help him.

Michelle beamed. “Thank you,” she said. “Pass the sweet potatoes, please.” She had finally found her appetite.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Church of the Living Dead

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. Recently, fifteen-year-old Tabitha Dunkleman found herself sitting in Pastor O’Donnell’s office anxiously awaiting a decision on a request she had made. She was with her best friend Katie who also happened to be the pastor’s daughter. Tabitha hoped that would make a difference. If the pastor didn’t let her shoot in the church, there was no way she could make her short film.

Tabitha had only recently decided she wanted to be a movie director. And the kinds of movies she wanted to make were horror movies. She’d written a short script about zombies attacking a wedding called “Old, New, Undead, Blue.” She’d asked Katie to star in it because Katie was her best friend. The fact that her father also happened to have access to a church was a bonus. Now they just needed him to say yes.

“When did you want to do this?” O’Donnell asked.

“A week from Friday,” Tabitha said.

The pastor checked the church calendar. “Well, there’s nothing scheduled for that Friday, but the Humpleman wedding is in the sanctuary on Saturday, so you’ll have to make sure you leave everything the way you found it.”

Tabitha grinned and swore they’d be extra careful.

With their location secured, Tabitha spent the next ten days meticulously planning her shoot. On the designated Friday, the cast and crew gathered at the church after school. Tabitha had recruited a quiet boy named Ben from her art class to do the zombie make-up and effects. Tabitha knew that Katie thought Ben was creepy – he always wore black and drew bizarre pictures all over his notebooks. But creepy was just what Tabitha needed for her movie.

Ben had been at work all week creating a crucial prop for the film – a severed arm. When he unveiled it to Katie and Tabitha they both took an involuntary step back in disgust. “That’s not real, is it?” Katie asked.

Ben laughed. “Of course not. It’s made of latex and gel. I found a video online that showed how to create realistic body part props.”

Tabitha smiled. “This movie is going to be awesome.”

Ben began doing make-up on the actors who were to play zombies while the crew set up the camera and equipment. The crew consisted of two people – Tabitha and cinematographer Becky Goodhart, a twelve-year-old member of the church whose primary qualification was that her parents owned a top-of-the-line digital video camera.

It took longer than Tabitha anticipated to set up the gear, but they still finished before the make-up was done. Tabitha checked her watch nervously. She called Ben aside to ask what was taking so long. “It’s the little girl you got to play the ring bearer,” he told her. “Her dad’s made me redo her make-up three times.”

Tabitha had cast Sierra Smith, a five-year-old girl from the church, to play the part of a zombie ring bearer. Her father, Arthur, was certain Sierra would be a movie star some day. Either that or President.

At first, Ben had just dusted Sierra with powder to make her pale and smeared dark eye shadow under her eyes. But Arthur noticed how much gorier the other zombies were, and insisted Ben make Sierra similarly gruesome. So Ben added gaping wounds on her cheeks and forehead. But when Arthur saw this, he worried that when Hollywood agents saw the film, as he was sure they would, they wouldn’t be able to tell how cute Sierra was. So Ben tried to split the difference, but the result was neither horrific enough nor cute enough to satisfy Arthur.

“None of my books explain how to do make-up that’s both horrifying and cute,” Ben confided to Tabitha.

While Ben reworked Sierra’s make-up for a fourth time, Tabitha decided to shoot some of the scenes with the non-zombie characters. Katie was starring as the bride. She had convinced her boyfriend, Alex, to play the groom. The idea of dressing up in a wedding dress and marrying Alex in the church thrilled Katie, even if it was just pretend.

They began with a scene where the groom professes his love for the bride as the zombies close in. Katie was terrific, but Alex couldn’t seem to remember his lines. Or rather he remembered them, but never in the proper order. After fourteen takes, Tabitha suggested the two take a break so Alex could study his script some more. They were now two and a half hours behind schedule and hadn’t gotten a single shot. Tabitha was starting to worry that she wouldn’t even finish the film.

Tabitha went to check on the status of Sierra’s make-up. She was pleased to discover that Arthur had finally approved a look – basically the same pale, hollow eyed effect Ben had started with. They set up for the shot of the zombie ring bearer chowing down on the fake arm. Unfortunately, when Sierra saw the arm, she began to cry. It took half an hour to convince her it wasn’t real, and another half-hour to get her to pretend to bite it.

When they finally did get Sierra to chew on the arm, it was delightfully disturbing. Tabitha’s confidence returned in a flood – only to abandon her just as quickly when they tried a shot of Sierra shuffling up the aisle. Sierra did a very convincing undead shuffle, but could only go two steps before breaking into a giggle. Tabitha did her best to demonstrate a proper zombie moan, but it only made Sierra laugh more.

Tabitha decided to give Sierra a break and return to the bride and groom scene. She found Alex running lines with Ben. “How’s it going?” she asked.

“Great,” Alex replied. “Ben’s going to be the groom. He’s a much better actor than I am.”

Tabitha looked at her watch. She was almost four hours behind schedule. “Fine,” she said.

“So you’ll tell Katie, right?” Alex said.

“Why me?” Tabitha asked.

“You’re the director.”

Tabitha went to break the news to Katie. Her star was not pleased. “Ben’s a nerd!” Katie hissed. “Nobody will believe I’d marry someone like that.”

“They will because you’re such a great actress,” Tabitha replied. She was a natural at dealing with actors.

It took quite a bit more buttering up, but finally Katie agreed to do the scene with Ben. They got into position and Tabitha called, “Action.” At first it didn’t go very well. Ben was indeed a fine actor, but when he took Katie’s hand, she wrinkled her nose as though he were already undead. And when he went to kiss her, the rest of Katie’s face scrunched up just like her nose.

But then something happened. As the kiss lingered, Katie relaxed into it. When she and Ben separated, Katie stared at him slack jawed.

“Cut!” Tabitha yelled. “Katie, that’s your line.”

“Sorry,” Katie mumbled.

“From the top,” Tabitha ordered. “Action.”

This time, the romantic tension was electric. Tabitha got so caught up in the scene, she forgot to call cut until Becky nudged her. “That was amazing!” Tabitha shouted. “I bet we win awards for this film.”

When Ben went to put on zombie make-up for his next scene, Katie pulled Tabitha aside. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” she whispered. “Don’t tell Alex, but Ben is an excellent kisser. Alex is kind of… slobbery.”

Tabitha went to see if Sierra had gotten over her giggles. She found the little girl curled up on one of the pews asleep, using the fake severed arm as a pillow. “It’s an hour past her bedtime,” Arthur said apologetically.

“I guess we can cut that shot out of the movie,” Tabitha said with a sigh. Just when things were going so well.

Arthur apologized again and gently shook Sierra. “Time to go home, honey.”

Sierra climbed to her feet and staggered out into the aisle, her eyes glassy and half-closed and her mouth hanging open loosely. She looked just like the walking dead. “Start rolling,” Tabitha hissed to Becky. They got the shot.

It was now 11:00 p.m. and there were still several scenes left to shoot. Becky’s mom had come to pick her up, but Tabitha convinced her to let Becky stay a while longer by offering her the hastily added part of the bride’s mother.

They were setting up for the last scene, the tragic revelation that the groom had become a zombie, when Becky’s mom finally ran out of patience. She insisted Becky come home, but did agree to let the camera stay behind. Alex took over as cinematographer.

At 3:00 a.m. Tabitha finally sighed, “That’s a wrap.” Only she, Katie, Alex, and Ben were left to clean up. Tabitha was so exhausted she no longer cared whether the film was any good, she was just happy to be finished. Ben, however, was still full of energy. As Tabitha was making a final sweep of the sanctuary picking up props, he jumped out at her from between the pews, still in his zombie make-up, growling.

Tabitha was too tired to be startled, so she just chuckled.

“Is that how you react when the undead tries to bite you,” Ben said, pretending to pout.

“Better be careful,” Tabitha replied. “I might just bite back.” And then she kissed him.

A second later she pulled away, her face flushing. “I don’t know why I did that,” she stammered. “I guess… Katie told me you were a good kisser.”

“Do you agree?” Ben asked. Tabitha felt herself blush even deeper but couldn’t muster an answer. “Well, I think you’re a pretty good kisser,” Ben said with a smile and kissed her again.

“A-hem!” It was Katie. She was looking at them in utter shock.

Tabitha wiped Ben’s monster make-up from around her mouth. “We were just—”

“I saw what you were just,” Katie said. “Come on, I have to lock up and I’m tired.”

The filmmakers headed home for some well-earned sleep.

The next day Pastor O’Donnell was presiding over the Humpleman wedding when in the middle of his musings about the nature of commitment, someone let out a blood-curdling scream. It seemed the bride’s aunt had discovered the fake severed arm that had been forgotten under one of the pews.

Happy Halloween!

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Car Wash

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. Recently, Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell invited a visiting African aid worker to speak at a potluck mission luncheon about her work with refugees in Uganda.

Pastor O’Donnell sat with his fifteen-year-old daughter Katie. As the presentation started, Katie felt a special kinship with the Ugandan victims of political oppression. After all, she was being forced to attend this snoozefest against her will. She would much rather have been at the movies or shopping or even doing homework. But her dictator of a father insisted she be subjected to the torture of tuna casserole, ambrosia salad, and a depressing slide show.

The tuna casserole and ambrosia salad were as tortuous as Katie expected, and the slide show was indeed depressing. But as the speaker told the stories of several African kids living in a refugee camp, Katie’s resentful attitude began to change. Halfway through the presentation, Katie felt silly for comparing her hardships to those of the unfortunate Ugandans. Though she doubted even they would’ve wanted the tuna casserole.

As the lights came up, Henry noticed Katie wiping at the corners of her eyes. “Are you crying?” he asked.

“Weeping with boredom,” Katie mumbled. She was not about to admit to her father how touched she was by the plight of those heroic kids. It would set a bad precedent for future mission luncheons.

The presentation was still gnawing at Katie’s mind during the youth group meeting that evening. The group’s leader, Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum, noticed how quiet Katie was. After the closing prayer, Michelle asked her if anything was wrong.

“I think we should do something to help the poor refugees in Uganda,” she said.

“What did you have in mind?”

“And don’t tell us you want to go to Africa,” interjected Tabitha Dunkleman, Katie’s best friend. “It’s way too hot there. I don’t like to sweat.”

Twelve-year-old Becky Goodheart rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that’s why we won’t be going to Africa.”

“I think we should have a car wash,” Katie answered, ignoring the other girls. “We can donate the proceeds to that woman’s organization.”

“What a compassionate proposal,” Michelle said. “I have to say, I’m impressed.”

“Well, we have so much. When we get a chance to help others, we ought to seize the opportunity.”

With that Katie and the rest of the group headed home, leaving Michelle to clean up.

They planned the car wash for a Saturday morning. Katie, Tabitha, Becky, and Katie’s boyfriend Joe showed up bright and early, ready to work. Michelle suggested they make signs to attract passing cars.

Katie labored over her sign, determined not to let the Ugandan kids down. She outlined every multi-colored letter in glue and glitter. She also drew a picture of Africa. Or at least she tried – Katie was no cartographer. The shape resembled a bunch of bananas more than a continent. Katie put so much care into the manufacture of her sign that by the time she was finished, the others had already lured in three customers and were hard at work washing.

It was a warm day and Katie wanted to get a little sun, so she stripped off her shorts and T-shirt to reveal the bikini she’d worn underneath. She stood at the edge of the driveway, jumping up and down with her super-cute sign and shouting at passing motorists.

It proved quite effective. Soon a line of cars was waiting for a wash. However, Katie’s enthusiastic dancing and scanty attire was also distracting poor Joe. It got so bad that at one point he accidentally hosed off Tabitha instead of the car he was washing. Tabitha expressed her displeasure with considerable vehemence. Joe could only stammer, “It was an accident.”

Tabitha released the poor hormonal boy from her verbal tirade and stomped over to Katie. “Maybe you should take a turn washing and let me hold the sign for a while,” Tabitha suggested.

Katie looked her friend up and down. Tabitha’s old jeans and T-shirt were dripping wet and stained with grime, and her hair hung in tangled strands around her face. “Listen,” Katie said as gently as she could, “you’re kind of all messy and gross. I don’t know if that image is going to appeal to potential customers. Remember, this is about the Ugandan kids, not us.”

Tabitha considered having her own “accident” with the hose, but she didn’t think it would reach all the way to the edge of the driveway.

About then, Pastor O’Donnell pulled in. He took one look at Katie and ordered her to put her T-shirt and shorts back on. “I won’t have my daughter jumping around on a street corner in her bikini,” he bellowed.

Katie sighed and rolled her eyes and mumbled something about “old prude” under her breath as she dressed. But O’Donnell was used to that kind of behavior from his daughter and barely noticed.

Instead, he surveyed the church parking lot in amazement. “Wow, this place is packed. I’m really proud of you, Katie. You too, Tabitha. So, which one of you is going to wash my car?”

“You have to wait in line, Dad,” Katie told him.

O’Donnell’s smile faltered slightly. He hadn’t counted on a line. He was supposed to play golf with the imam from the local mosque in an hour. But he wanted to support Katie’s newfound altruistic streak.

As he pulled into the line of cars, Katie nudged Tabitha. “You better get back to washing. People are going to get impatient and might leave. Remember the Ugandan kids.”

“I’m so proud of you,” Tabitha said, giving her a big, wet hug. Then she returned to washing.

It was a good thing, because neither Becky nor Joe were making much progress. Joe had been working on Henrietta Miggins’ big old Ford for an hour. Every time he thought he was done, Henrietta would point out several spots she claimed he’d missed, though Joe couldn’t detect any dirt where she indicated. And Becky was taking a break after getting lightheaded while cleaning interior windows. She had perhaps been a little too overzealous with the ammonia-based cleaning spray in the enclosed space of the cars. But Tabitha was an efficient washing machine. She could scrub the average car bumper to bumper in under ten minutes. At ten dollars a car, she was raking in a bunch of money for the cause.

Thirty-seven minutes after Pastor O’Donnell arrived, Tabitha finally got to his car. He watched her work, trying not to look impatient. As soon as she was done, he handed her ten dollars and hopped behind the wheel. “You might want to let that dry,” Tabitha suggested.

“No time,” O’Donnell replied. He hit the gas. As the car pulled away, it splashed through a puddle, spraying Henrietta’s car with mud. Joe sighed. Henrietta had finally declared him finished moments before. He went to get a new rag.

As O’Donnell sped down the street, he passed a man on a riding mower trimming a school lawn. It was windy, and a cloud of grass clippings wafted away from the mower and across the street. The pastor was unable to avoid driving straight through it. Hundreds of little green blades stuck to the wet car.

O’Donnell circled the block and pulled back into the car wash. “You were right,” He told Tabitha, “I should’ve let it dry. Can you hose it off again?”

“Sure,” she said. She got the hose and sprayed the car clean. “That’ll be ten bucks.” The pastor opened his mouth to protest that a simple hose down wasn’t worth full price, but before he could speak, Tabitha added, “You know, for the Ugandan kids.”

The pastor forced a smile as he dug out his wallet.

Two hours later they closed the car wash. Tabitha, Joe and Becky cleaned up the buckets and rags while Katie helped Michelle count the money. They were just finishing up when Pastor O’Donnell pulled back in, his car covered in dust. As he got out, an exhausted Tabitha looked at him with one eyebrow raised. “Can you wash it one more time?” he asked. “They were doing construction by the golf course.” He held up a ten dollar bill. “Please?”

Tabitha sighed and refilled her bucket with soapy water.

She was about done when Katie called, “Hurry up, Tabitha! We want to take a group picture.”

Tabitha clenched her teeth and wiped down the pastor’s car with exaggerated care. Katie fixed her with an impatient stare, but that only made Tabitha move slower. Finally she strolled over to join the others.

“About time,” Katie snapped. “How’s my hair?”

Tabitha studied Katie through the wild, muddy strands of her own bangs. “Perfect. Nobody would ever know you spent the whole day working at a car wash.”

“Good,” Katie said. “Boy, I’m beat. It’s hard jumping around with a sign and smiling for so long.”

As they were getting in position for the photo, Tabitha asked Pastor Michelle how much money they’d raised. “Three hundred and twenty dollars,” she replied. “I’m very proud of you kids.”

Katie beamed. “It’s so rewarding to do something good for the world, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Tabitha admitted. She realized that she was in a surprisingly happy mood despite her sore muscles and drenched, dirty clothes.

But it didn’t stop her from holding up her fingers like rabbit ears behind Katie’s head when Pastor Michelle snapped the photo.

--

I've published a new Little Church Stories book!  It's called L.O.L.: Little Old Ladies and collects eighteen stories from the blog about Henrietta Miggins, Ceila Simmons and Betsy Davis.  You can order it in hard copy or as an e-book at Lulu.com.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Sunburn

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 morning, Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell stood in his bathroom in his underwear examining himself in the mirror. For the most part, the pastor’s complexion was his usual pasty white. But most of his left arm glowed bright red like a freshly boiled lobster. Which was ironic because a lobster was the cause of his sunburn.

He had been driving back from a meeting in Harrisburg on Saturday at about one in the afternoon, heading for practice with the church softball team, the Miracles. A sack lunch his wife Jennifer had made sat on the passenger seat, though Henry wasn’t enthusiastic about the contents. Jennifer had been attempting to get him to eat healthier for years. It was an uphill battle. The one weapon she had was that Henry didn’t like to cook. So she made him salads and he ate them because it was easier than making something for himself.

He had just about built up enough of an appetite to be tempted by the salad in today’s sack lunch when he passed Muriel’s Seafood Shack. A hand-lettered banner advertised a fresh Maine lobster special.

He knew he shouldn’t stop. He was already going to be late to practice and it was no secret Henry needed more practice than most of the team. The Miracles’ next game was against the Shepherds, a team from a Presbyterian mega-church. They had become something of a rival in the mind of the Miracles’ coach, Shane Reed, as the Shepherds trounced the Miracles every year. Shane had told the team that he intended this year to be different.

Henry spun the car into Muriel’s dirt parking lot. Truth be told, Henry didn’t care nearly as much about beating the Shepherds as Shane did.

“Shack” was an apt descriptor for Muriel’s establishment. Muriel and her small staff did the cooking in an unpainted wooden hut, and the diners ate outside at a motley collection of picnic tables. After getting his fresh lobster platter at the shack’s window, Henry decided to skip the tables and eat in the shade of a nearby tree. He had the salad Jennifer made him as his side dish.

Afterward he decided he better let the big meal settle for a few minutes before engaging in any athletic endeavors. But the day was sunny and warm, and with his belly full of lobster, Henry fell asleep. Unfortunately, his left arm sprawled out of the shade, and thus the sunburn that he was currently examining.

The burn stung, but that wasn’t Henry’s chief concern. Because of his unplanned nap, he’d never made it to softball practice. He had called Shane’s cell phone as soon as he’d woken up and left a message that he had, “been delayed coming home from my meeting.” Henry felt a little guilty that he was vague about what had delayed him, but reminded himself that the commandment was “Thou shalt not lie,” not “Thou shalt not be vague.”

However if Shane saw the sunburn at church that morning he might start asking uncomfortable questions. Fortunately, once Henry put on a long sleeved dress shirt, the only part of the sunburn that was exposed was his hand. It was another warm day, but the church was air-conditioned and it wasn’t at all unusual for Henry to wear a suit to preach, even in the heat of summer. “I’m doing it out of reverence to God, not an attempt to deceive Shane,” he told himself.

All through the service, Henry kept his left hand hidden behind the pulpit, making all his gestures with his right hand. And he tucked his left hand behind his back when he greeted the congregation as they departed the sanctuary. Not a single person noticed the sunburn.

When the sanctuary was empty, he thrust his left hand into his pocket and went into the social hall. He was distressed to see that the mission committee was hosting coffee hour and Missy Moore had brought mini cinnamon rolls. Henry loved mini cinnamon rolls. But he couldn’t figure out a dignified way to hold a plate and eat them with only one hand. So he settled for a cup of coffee.

Shane and Missy joined him. “Did you get some cinnamon rolls, pastor?” Missy asked.

“No,” Henry said, “Jennifer’s been on me to lose some weight.” He privately congratulated himself on the truth of that statement.

“We missed you at practice yesterday,” Shane said.

“I know,” Henry replied. “Some of those meetings I have to attend can be pretty boring.” No lie there, either!

“You missed a hilarious moment,” Missy continued. She was the team’s catcher. “Del was running to home plate and he tried to slide and came to a stop a good three feet short!”

She guffawed, and in her mirth, grabbed Henry’s left arm. Stinging pain shot through him as her fingers dug into the sunburn, but Henry managed to fake a chuckle. He wiped a tear away from his eye with his right forearm and said, “Hilarious.”

Henry downed the rest of his coffee so he would have a reason to excuse himself. As he was refilling his cup, Del Winslow came over.

“I have some books to donate to the reading room,” Del said, “but they’re in my trunk and I hurt my back at softball practice yesterday. Would you mind giving me a hand?”

“Sure,” Henry replied and followed Del out to the parking lot.

“We have to do something about Missy Moore,” Del said as he handed Henry the box of books. “The woman is a menace. Her ineptitude is the reason I hurt my back.”

“Was that when you were sliding into home and came up short?”

“Did she tell you that?” Del demanded. “I came up short because she was playing out of position. If she’d been where she was supposed to be, I would have been able to time my slide properly and I wouldn’t have gotten hurt.”

“I sympathize,” Henry said, “but Shane’s the coach. This sounds like a matter for him.”

“I agree, and there he is. Shane!” Henry looked over his shoulder and discovered that Shane had just exited the church. Henry quickly shifted the box of books under his right arm and stuck his left hand in his pocket.

Shane joined them and Del proceeded to explain again how Missy’s poor play had resulted in his injury. He then added several other complaints, including her offensive sense of humor, laughing at him when he was injured. Frankly, Henry didn’t think he had much of a case. However, to be fair, the pastor pretty much quit listening after ten minutes. The sun was beating down mercilessly and his arm was aching from the heavy box and he could feel sweat trickling down his back and beading on his forehead and now his arm had gone completely numb and Del’s face was starting to look weirdly blurry…

“Are you alright?” Shane asked, bringing Henry back to the conversation. Both Del and Shane were studying him with concern.

“It’s just, it’s kind of hot out here…” Henry replied faintly.

“We better get you inside before you get heat stroke,” Shane said, taking the box of books from him. As the circulation returned to his weary arm, Henry felt a sudden urge to kiss Shane, possibly a sign that heat stroke had already set in.

They brought Henry into the social hall and Shane got him a cup of water. “Take off your tie and roll up your sleeves,” Del suggested.

“Um, actually, I have a T-shirt in my office. I’ll go change into that.” It was true; Henry did have a T-shirt in the office. A church camp had given it to him as a thank-you for filling in at their chapel service once. It was too small for him, but it would be cooler than his dress shirt.

Henry staggered into his office and closed the door. He immediately peeled off his sweat-soaked dress shirt and tie, and stood under the air conditioning vent, letting the cool air wash over him.

His body temperature had just about dropped back to normal when someone knocked. “Pastor, are you all right?” Shane asked through the door.

“Uh, just a minute!” Henry called. He scrambled for the T-shirt, but realized it would not cover the sunburn on his arm. He turned to get his dress shirt and, in his haste, tripped over his chair. He sprawled on the floor with a thud.

Shane threw open the door, fearful the pastor had fainted.

“What happened!” Shane cried.

“I tripped,” Henry said. “I’m okay though.”

Then Shane noticed his arm. “How’d you get that sunburn?”

Henry sighed. It was time to tell the whole truth.

He explained about the lobster and falling asleep and added a profuse apology for missing practice. When he was done, he waited to see what Shane would say.

Shane thought for several moments. “Tell you what. You handle this thing with Missy and Del and we’ll call it even.”

Henry nodded his agreement. He supposed it was a fitting punishment for not coming clean right away.

Later that afternoon the Miracles lost to the Shepherds once again, but it had nothing to do with Henry missing practice or even Del’s injured back. The Shepherds were just superior ballplayers.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Serpent in the Cupboard

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 warm and breezy, and the windows of the social hall had been thrown open for coffee hour. Audra Park, however, was too preoccupied to enjoy the weather. She was telling Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell about her ideas for mission projects when she spotted her six-year-old son Tyler making his fourth trip to the refreshment table.

“You’ve had enough cookies,” Audra snapped as she intercepted the boy.

“But I’m hungry,” Tyler whined.

“We’ll go to lunch as soon as I finish talking to Pastor O’Donnell,” Audra replied. “Can you please go play?”

Tyler sighed as only a six year-old unfairly denied a cookie can sigh and trudged off.

Audra returned to the pastor, apologizing for the interruption. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I remember when my daughter was his age.”

As Audra continued to explain her mission idea, she noticed that O’Donnell had grown distracted by something behind her. She turned and let out a gasp.

Tyler was creeping along the wall with a ten-inch carving knife in his hand.

“Tyler!” she shouted, running over to him. “Give me that. What were you thinking?”

“I was hunting a snake,” he said.

“There are no snakes in here,” she replied. “You know you aren’t allowed to handle knives without supervision.”

“There is a snake,” Tyler cried. “It bit my shoe!”

He stuck his left foot out revealing two puncture holes about half an inch apart on the tip of his tennis shoe. “Tyler Park, what did you do? Those were brand new! Why would you poke holes in them?”

“It was a snake, Mom,” Tyler insisted.

Audra sighed. “Are you familiar with the boy who cried wolf?”

“It was a snake, not a wolf! Geez, will you listen to me?”

“We’ll talk about this when we get home,” Audra said. “Now sit right here until I’m finished.”

Tyler flopped onto a chair and folded his arms, his lip protruding in an exaggerated pout. Audra returned to the pastor. “He said he saw a snake,” she sighed. “My son has an active imagination.”

O’Donnell chuckled. “They probably discussed the Garden of Eden in Sunday school. Last week’s lesson was about Daniel, and Tyler told me bullies at his school were throwing kids to the lions.”

Just then there was a high-pitched scream from the kitchen. The pastor ran toward it, Audra following close behind. They found church secretary Tammy Billings standing in the middle of the room looking even paler than normal, her fingers fluttering about her mouth.

“What happened?” O’Donnell asked.

“Snake,” Tammy squeaked, pointing at the cupboard.

Audra’s face went pale. She dashed from the kitchen, shouting Tyler’s name.

O’Donnell reached for the cupboard. “Don’t open it!” Tammy exclaimed.

“Relax,” the pastor said. “I’m sure it’s more afraid of us than we are of it.”

Tammy thought snakes must be timid creatures indeed if this one was more scared than she was. She remembered that the offering still needed to be counted, and decided now would be a terrific time for that task. She bolted for the church office before Pastor O’Donnell could open the cupboard.

It so happened that as a boy O’Donnell had been fascinated by snakes and even kept a garter snake as a pet for a while. He knew most were harmless, though there were a few species of rattlesnake in Pennsylvania. So he opened the door calmly but cautiously.

All that he could see in the cupboard were boxes of tin foil and plastic bags.

For a moment he wondered if Tammy had imagined the snake. But given Tyler’s claim, that would be too much of a coincidence. He opened the cupboard a little farther. Inside, the shelves ran the entire length of the cabinetry with no sides separating the individual sections. The snake had most likely slithered along the shelves after Tammy disturbed it. O’Donnell began methodically opening each door in turn, using a wooden spoon to shift the contents around. But there was no sign of any snake.

Meanwhile, Tyler was writhing on the floor as Audra wrenched his shoe and sock off to examine his toes. “Where did it bite you?” she cried.

“It didn’t!” Tyler said. “It just bit the end of my shoe.”

After a ten minute inspection, Audra was finally satisfied that his skin hadn’t been broken and that he wasn’t about to go into a poison induced coma. She hugged him tightly. “Mom, you’re hurting me,” he mumbled against her shoulder.

“Sorry,” she said, releasing him.

Tyler saw the worry in his mother’s eyes. It kind of scared him. It also gave him an idea. “Could I maybe have a cookie?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” Audra replied.

Most of the congregation had already departed to enjoy their Sunday afternoons, but there were still a few cookies on the table. As Tyler and Audra finished them off, neither noticed the snake slithering across the linoleum behind them.

The snake was not trying to scare anybody, of course. It had only bitten Tyler’s shoe because he nearly stepped on it while running after a ball. And it was drawn to the church office by a shuffling noise that it thought might be a rodent. Had it known Tammy was in there, it would have chosen a different route. But its eyes were at floor level, so it didn’t even notice Tammy sitting behind the desk.

However Tammy, from her vantage point, definitely noticed the serpent gliding across the office threshold.

She scrambled up onto the desk. She watched as the snake curled itself into a swirl in the middle of the office floor, sunlight glinting off its reddish brown and white scales, its malevolent obsidian eyes scanning the room, its tongue tasting the air. Tammy imagined it tasted her fear. She wondered what flavor fear most resembled.

The snake was between her and the door. She leaned over slowly to peer into the social hall, hoping someone would be there to rescue her, but Tyler and Audra had already left and the room was now empty. She needed another means of escape. She could reach the window from the desk, but when she tried to raise it she discovered it had been painted shut.

Tammy glanced back at the snake. It gazed implacably at her. Panic swelled in her throat, threatening to choke her. She had to get away from those unblinking eyes or they would drive her mad! There was only one place to go: The closet.

Slowly she climbed down and slipped through the closet door. She stuffed her sweater in the gap at the base of the door so the snake couldn’t get in. But now the small space was completely dark. She triggered her cell phone display for light.

Her cell phone! Help was but a call away. She dialed Pastor O’Donnell’s number. “I’m trapped in the closet in the office,” she whispered when he answered. “The snake is right outside. Stop laughing, it isn’t funny!”

She hung up angrily. Several minutes passed. She held the cell phone in her left hand, aiming the light at the bottom of the door, as she used her right hand to dab away the beads of icy sweat that kept forming on her temple.

Suddenly, the door swung open. Tammy yelped, momentarily imagining the snake had figured out how to turn the knob with its mouth. But it was only Pastor O’Donnell.

“Did you see the snake?” she asked.

“Yes,” O’Donnell whispered. “It’s right above you.”

Tammy screamed and climbed the pastor like he was a tree. But since, unlike a tree, the pastor lacked roots, both of them tumbled onto the carpet. O’Donnell was laughing so hard he was crying.

Tammy scrambled to her feet and looked into the closet. “Where is it!” she screeched.

“Under there,” O’Donnell gasped, pointing at an overturned plastic wastebasket in the middle of the office floor. “It was sleeping in the sunlight.”

Tammy seethed at the prank he’d played on her, but could not at the moment think of an appropriate comeback. She stalked out of the office while O’Donnell called Normal’s animal control department. She intended to head straight home, but she forgot to take her purse with her and was unwilling to reenter the office while the snake was there, wastebasket or no wastebasket.

Once the animal control agent had captured the snake, Pastor O’Donnell insisted that Tammy take a look at it. “It’s in a cage,” he told her. “Come on, it’ll make you feel better.”

Reluctantly, Tammy entered the office and studied the cage from a safe distance. She wondered if they’d gotten the right one. The snake didn’t look as big as she’d remembered.

“It’s a milk snake,” the animal control officer said helpfully. “Non-venomous. See that bulge behind the head? It’s fed in the last half hour so it’s pretty docile.”

“Fed on what?” Tammy asked.

“Probably a mouse. See, it did you a favor.”

“A… mouse?” O’Donnell stammered, then dashed from the room.

Tammy walked the animal control officer out to his truck. Pastor O’Donnell was in the parking lot waiting for her.

“Call an exterminator Monday,” he told her. “I won’t have mice in the church. Sneaky, filthy little rodents.” He shuddered.

“Will do,” Tammy said with a smile. She was remembering how O’Donnell had intentionally scared her earlier. And she was pretty sure she’d seen some rubber mouse toys for cats at the pet store.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Overrun



In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm.  On Mondays Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell goes over the following Sunday’s service with church secretary Tammy Billings so she can make the bulletin.  The basic liturgy is the same every week; so usually it’s just a matter of filling in the sermon title, hymn numbers and any special events.  But during one recent Monday meeting, Tammy raised a concern about the number of special items that had converged for that particular service.

“We ought to cut something or we’re going to run long,” she said.

“What would we cut?” Henry asked.  “People complain if we cut the hymns, the choir complains if we cut the anthem, and we always do communion on the first Sunday of the month.”

“Maybe we could move the Sherfield baptism to next week.”

“This is the only weekend both sets of grandparents are in town.”

“Hm.  Well, what’s this finance committee moment with Donald East?”

“He wants to say a few words about the fundraising campaign to fix the organ.”

“Donald rarely stops after only a few words,” Tammy pointed out.

“True,” Henry said, “but the fundraising is not going as well as we hoped.  I don’t think we can afford to put it off.”

“Could we cut the special music?”

“Celia Simmons’ solo?  Do you want to ask her?”  Celia had a tendency to see personal insults in the most innocuous comments.  She would undoubtedly find a slight in a request not to sing.

“Well if we keep everything, you’re going to have to do a really short sermon,” Tammy snapped.

“So it’ll be a long service,” Henry replied.  “People will just have to deal.”

“Is that what you’re going to tell Del Winslow?”

Henry chewed his lip.  Del was of the firm belief that church service should last exactly one hour.  If it ran over by even two minutes, Del would subject Henry to a long rant at coffee hour.

“Yes,” Henry said petulantly.  “Del will just have to deal, too.  Now if there’s nothing else, I’m going for a walk.”

Henry stomped outside and stood at the edge of the parking lot, rubbing his jaw.  Why did people insist on trying to force worship into a little box?  It wasn’t right.  In fact, he decided, that would be his sermon topic.  It was a much better topic than the one he’d been planning on the linguistics of one of the psalms.  He would make such a compelling case against clock watching at church that Del wouldn’t dare to complain no matter how long they ran.

Henry noticed that Jose, the church janitor and maintenance man, had joined him and was rubbing his jaw in the same manner as Henry.  “The soil is no good anymore,” Jose said, “And the teenager you hired to mow does not do any maintenance.  The grass needs reseeding.”

Startled, Henry realized that Jose thought he was looking at the lawn in front of the church.  So Henry looked.  Jose was right – it was in awful condition.  There were large patches of dirt, and much of the remaining grass was a sickly grey color. 

“I suppose we’ll have to hire landscapers,” Henry sighed.

“Or I could do it,” Jose replied.

“Would you?” Henry asked.

“Sure.  If you’ll pay me for the extra time and the supplies. But it would be best to wait until fall when the heat is less.”

“I can’t have the lawn look like this all summer.  Do it as soon as you can.”

“I will do it this week,” Jose replied.

And he did.  Henry stayed in his office late every night that week, toiling over his sermon.  It had become something of a holy mission in his head.  Whenever he paused to chew over exactly the right word to use, he would see Jose through the window working on the lawn.

Late Friday afternoon, Tammy fielded one last call from a young couple who was looking for a place for their wedding.  Tammy arranged for them to drop by before the service on Sunday.  Then she packed up and said goodbye to the pastor.  He grunted, barely looking up from his opus of a sermon.  As she left, she waved to Jose who was aerating the lawn.  It looked like hard work and the day was quite warm.  Sweat streamed down Jose’s face.

Sunday morning Tammy returned to the church to meet the young engaged couple.  The moment she stepped out of her car, she was reminded of a week she’d spent at her Uncle’s farm as a little girl.  Scientists say smells are the best triggers of memory, and the scent that Tammy encountered was exactly like the one in her Uncle’s pigsty.

It seemed Jose had fertilized the new grass before he left Friday.

A few minutes later the couple arrived.  Tammy could see them reel back when the odor hit them, but they were too polite to comment.

After introducing herself, Tammy said, “We’re doing some work on the lawn.  It’ll be finished long before your wedding.  It’s a lovely place to take pictures with the brick church in the background.  But perhaps you’d rather head directly inside.”

“Yes please,” the young bride said.

As they walked up the path, they encountered Henry.  “Good morning, Pastor,” Tammy said.  “How are you?”

“Allergies are acting up,” Henry grumbled in a nasal voice.  He turned to the couple and flashed a warm smile.  “And who have we here?”

“These lovely people are looking for a church for their wedding,” Tammy explained, trying to edge around the pastor without stepping in the fragrant soil.

“Fantastic!” Henry said.  “Let me tell you a little about what we do here…”  He then held the couple hostage for the next ten minutes.  Henry was not one to use only a few words, either, and apparently his allergies prevented him from smelling the fertilizer.  At one point Tammy thought the fumes might be causing her to hallucinate.  It appeared as though the young bride’s face had a strange bluish tint.  Then she realized it was because the woman was holding her breath.

Tammy was afraid the couple might be about to make a break for their car when Henry finally said, “Well, I’ve got to go get ready to preach.  I hope you’ll stick around.”  They did not.

Soon the rest of the congregation began to arrive.  Nobody dallied outside.  Unfortunately, the church provided little sanctuary from the stench.  The stealthy fumes had spent the last thirty-eight hours locating every tiny crack and gap to infiltrate the building.

Tammy shifted uncomfortably in her regular pew, attempting to breathe through her mouth and distract herself by surreptitiously pinching her thigh.  It didn’t work.

Pastor O’Donnell was still unaware of the olfactory assault being perpetrated on his flock.  What he was aware of was the speed with which everyone moved through the service.  Even Donald East kept his speech under thirty seconds.

Yet the service has already passed the hour mark when Henry stood to begin his sermon.  He glanced at Del, who was a member of the choir.  Del’s head was bowed and he was rubbing his forehead with his right hand so Henry couldn’t see his expression.

Henry launched into his sermon.  He spoke passionately, his voice booming, his hands punctuating the air with dramatic gestures.  Halfway through he glanced over at Del and almost lost his place.  The man was crying!  Tears trickled from the corners of his eyes.  Henry knew his sermon was good but he’d never seen Del so moved.  Then Henry noticed that Del was not the only one with tears in his eyes.  It seemed half the congregation was similarly touched.  It spurred Henry to even greater heights of elocution.

Tammy was one of the congregants whose eyes were watering, though it was not due to the sermon.  As the day had warmed up, the manure outside had grown even more fragrant.  It had taken on an almost physical quality, as though someone was spraying a mist of vinegar in her face.

Henry was disappointed at how few people stayed for coffee hour after the service.  They had run almost forty minutes over, but he had hoped the impact of his words would encourage folks to linger.  He saw Del with his wife, Karen Winslow, the Sunday school teacher for the pre-kindergarten class known as the Guppies.  She’d brought the class up to the social hall to wait for their parents.  Henry decided to see what Del had to say.

“Del was just telling me about your sermon,” Karen said as soon as Henry walked up.

“Yes, it seemed to have quite an effect,” the pastor replied.  “I noticed Del was particularly moved.  I guess the right subject matter is worth a few extra minutes out of the week, eh?”

Just then Jill Boyer arrived to pick up her daughter Mary.  “What took you so long?” Mary asked.  “It stinks in here.  Pee-Yoo!”

“Yes,” Del told the child, “it seems there’s an excess of fertilizer at the church today.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Panic Button

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 week, the church made the police blotter in the Normal Star Times. The mention was brief, but it had taken investigating officers Glenn Johnson and Cindy Beaumont the better part of an hour to sort out exactly what had transpired.

On the afternoon in question, Johnson watched as Beaumont poured water into the red, swollen eyes of the pastor, who was sitting on the church steps. Johnson skimmed back over the confusing jumble of notes on his pad with a sigh. The slim, stately woman in front of him looked to be in her mid fifties and was nervously fiddling with a button on her flower print cardigan. “Are you sure you don’t want me to call the paramedics, Mrs. Billings?” he asked.

“Oh no,” she said. “That’s not necessary. It’s just when you came into the office with your guns drawn it rather frightened me. I fainted, that’s all. I’m very embarrassed.”

“All right then. Why don’t you tell me what happened. From the beginning, please.”

“The beginning? Well, I guess the first thing you have to know is Pastor O’Donnell has been quite nervous about Dr. Walech’s visit for over a week. See, Dr. Walech was his favorite professor at seminary, and the pastor wanted to make a good impression. That’s why he asked me to keep an eye on Mary and Susie.”

“Are you related to the girls?”

“No, I’m the church secretary.”

“They’re the pastor’s girls then.”

“No. They belong to Jill Boyer.”

“Her,” Johnson said, and pointed his pen at the young woman seated cross-legged on the lawn with the girls in question.

“Yes,” Tammy Billings replied. “You see, she was working in the garden. The women’s group takes turns and it was her week. She brought the girls along because her husband was playing golf or something.”

“But it was the pastor who brought the girls to the office.”

“Yes. Apparently Jill had given the girls colored chalk to draw on the sidewalk. Then Susie had to use the bathroom, so Jill took them inside. But Mary had gotten chalk all over her and I guess she kind of left a trail in the social hall. When the pastor saw that, he thought maybe it would be better if the girls colored with crayons in the office while Dr. Walech was here.”

“Okay, I think I follow. But what does that have to do with the panic alert we received from your alarm system?”

“Well, once Pastor O’Donnell and Dr. Walech began their tour of the grounds, I thought it would be safe to start copying the newsletter. But when I looked up, Mary was gone.”

“Mrs. Billings, the panic button is for serious emergencies – violent break-ins, for example. You can’t push it whenever a child wanders off.”

“That’s what I’m trying to explain. It wasn’t me. It turned out Mary hadn’t left the office at all. She was hiding under my desk. She saw the button under there and pushed it. It’s all my fault. I should have known you don’t dare take your eyes off that girl for a second.”

Johnson looked over at the four-year-old in question. “She’s just a child,” he said. “I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm.”

“You don’t know her,” Billings said with a shudder.

While Officer Johnson was interviewing Tammy Billings, Officer Cindy Beaumont examined the eyes of the chubby, middle-aged man who she now knew was Pastor Henry O’Donnell. “Are you feeling better, sir?” Officer Beaumont asked.

The pastor blinked several times and squinted at the elderly gentleman who was admiring the flowers in the garden as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “My eyes are,” O’Donnell muttered.

“Good,” Beaumont said. “Now, can you explain again why you were climbing out the window when we arrived?”

“That man over there is Dr. Walech. He’s the pastor of a big church in Philadelphia with all kinds of programs and mission work and even a radio station. He’s had three books published and he teaches a legendary seminary class on semantics. I was so honored that he would come visit our little church, I just wanted everything to be perfect.”

“And that somehow involves you exiting via the window.”

“I was giving him a tour. While we were in the social hall, I happened to look out the window and saw that Mary had drawn that big picture of the devil on the sidewalk in colored chalk. It was frightening, really. Whatever else you can say about her, that girl has some artistic talent.”

Beaumont glanced over at the drawing. It was impressively horrific. The eyes seemed to follow you wherever you stood.

“Well, I didn’t want Dr. Walech to see that,” O’Donnell continued, “I was worried he might think Mary was typical of the children in our Sunday school program. So I directed him to a display on the bulletin board and told him I needed to use the restroom. I climbed out the restroom window so I could hose off the sidewalk. But I kind of slipped and fell into the bushes. And that’s when you saw me.”

“So why didn’t you just identify yourself and explain all that? Why did you come running out of the bushes waving your arms?”

“There was a spider in there…” the pastor said, his cheeks reddening to match his eyes.

“That wasn’t very smart, pastor. You could have been shot.”

“I know,” O’Donnell mumbled. “Thank you for only using the pepper spray.”

Officers Beaumont and Johnson got together to compare notes. Clearly this was all just a big misunderstanding, but it seemed hard to believe such a little girl could have caused so much chaos. So they decided to talk to Mary to confirm the story.

“I’m sorry I pushed the button,” Mary said, tiny, adorable tears gathering on her eyelashes. “I just wanted to find out what it did.”

“Well now you know,” Johnson said with mock sternness. “And you won’t do it again, will you?”

“No. I promise.”

“Why did you draw a picture of the devil on the sidewalk?” Beaumont asked.

“Oh, that’s from a funny movie I saw last night. I woke up and I was thirsty and when I came downstairs for some water, my Daddy was asleep in the reclimber chair and I saw that red man with the horns on the TV. I thought he was really cool so I stayed and watched.”

Johnson stifled a laugh.

“Can I go play now?” Mary asked.

“Sure,” Beaumont said. “But why don’t you draw something a little happier this time. Like a rainbow.”

“Rainbows are boring,” Mary scoffed as she skipped away.

The two police officers gathered the others together. “Okay,” Johnson said, “obviously this was a false alarm. And I have to say, I’m a little embarrassed for all of you. You’re adults. You shouldn’t be passing the blame onto that sweet little—”

Johnson’s lecture was interrupted by the earsplitting wail of a siren very close behind him. After making sure he hadn’t soiled himself, he turned around to discover Mary Boyer behind the wheel of his police cruiser pretending to drive. He grabbed the door handle, but Mary had apparently locked the doors. Johnson pounded on the window to get her attention, but the little girl couldn’t hear him over the noise.

As O’Donnell watched this newest bit of chaos forlornly, Dr. Walech put a hand on his shoulder. “I know just how you feel,” Walech said. “We have a little boy at our church named James Mendelsen…”

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Car Trouble

Welcome to the 100th Little Church Story!  Hope you've enjoyed them as much as I have.

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 has been driving the same car for seven years. His teenage daughter, Katie, often bugs him to get a new one, usually when he’s dropping her off somewhere in front of her friends. And Henry always responds by lecturing Katie on the value of a dollar saved.

Henry’s father would have been proud of him. The old man was a child of the Great Depression and had worked hard to instill a sense of thriftiness in Henry and his siblings. Henry’s father would not have been so proud of Henry’s carelessness in maintaining the old vehicle. Henry just couldn’t seem to keep track of when it was time to change the car’s oil. The consequences of this lack of diligence arrived last Tuesday when the engine seized up as Henry was pulling into the church parking lot.

One advantage of being a pastor, however, was that members of the congregation often stepped in to assist in such situations. Upon learning about Henry’s problem, head usher Ralph Billings referred him to his mechanic buddy, Stan Pike. “I’ll talk to Stan and get you a discount,” Ralph assured Henry.

So Henry had the car towed to Stan’s shop. Stan was a short, thick man who continually rubbed his greasy hands on an even greasier rag. Stan’s analysis of the car was not good. The engine would have to be completely replaced. “But I’ll tell you what,” Stan said, “I’ll do the job for cost.”

“Really?” Henry asked. “That’s very generous.”

“Always glad to help a man of the cloth. Figure it’ll make up some for me never getting to church on Sundays. My poor, sick Mama can’t really be left alone, and Sunday is the nurse’s day off, so I have to stay with her.”

“I’m sure God understands,” Henry said. “But I do appreciate the discount. How long will it take?”

“Not long once I get the parts. Maybe two days,” Stan said.

“Great,” Henry replied. Even with the discount, the repair was going to take a hefty bite out of his savings account. For two days he was sure he could find people to give him rides, and that way he wouldn’t have to rent a car.

Once again, Ralph came to his rescue. Ralph’s wife, Tammy, was the church secretary and Ralph typically drove her to and from work every day. It wasn’t much out of their way to pick up Henry.

Wednesday the arrangement worked beautifully. But when they got to the office Thursday morning, Tammy discovered a message on the voicemail from Carrie Winslow. It seemed her mother, Karen, was in the hospital. Karen was in remission from leukemia and had begun feeling ill. They were worried she might be relapsing. Fortunately, Ralph had time to take Henry over to the hospital to sit with the Winslows.

Even better, it turned out Karen had simply come down with a case of the flu. As Ralph drove Henry back to the church, Henry noticed that it was almost 2 p.m. and he still hadn’t had lunch. He suggested they swing by a fast food drive through.

Ralph was aghast. “You know how bad that fast food is for you?” he exclaimed. “Why it’s chock full of sodium and saturated fats and cholesterol. You know what frying potatoes does to them? It makes them carcinogenic!”

“But I’m hungry and I don’t have time for a real meal,” Henry protested.

“I’ll drop you off at the church and then go get you a healthy organic salad,” Ralph said as they whizzed past the fast food restaurant. Henry looked longingly back at the colorful pictures of chicken wings and soda on the windows.

As Henry was picking at the salad in his office, he called Stan Pike to see if his car was ready. “Taking a little longer than I expected,” Stan told him. “But as the Bible says, ‘patience is a virtue.’” Henry knew that proverb didn’t actually come from the Bible, but didn’t bother to correct the man. “Just be a couple more days,” Stan said. “Give me a call Monday.”

On Friday, Henry’s wife informed him that she had to work late and asked if he could get his own supper. Henry assured her he could. He knew just what he wanted: a rack of baby backs from Big Tommy’s Rib Shack. But then he remembered that Ralph would be driving him home. He suspected Ralph might object to a stop at Big Tommy’s.

Henry decided perhaps he ought to make a follow up call to the Winslows. Carrie answered. “Mom’s fine,” she said. “She’s taking a nap right now so I don’t want to wake her, but I know she’s grateful you came out to the hospital yesterday. Sorry if we wasted your time.”

“Not at all,” Henry said. “But you should thank Ralph Billings, too. He’s been driving me around while my car is in the shop. I’m afraid I’ve been taking advantage of his good nature. And I’m going to have to impose again tonight because the repair is taking longer than expected.”

“I could give you a ride home tonight,” Carrie said.

Henry smiled. “Oh, that would be great. And if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, would you mind stopping by Big Tommy’s so I can pick up some dinner?”

“My pleasure,” Carrie replied.

Henry was packing up his briefcase at the end of the day when he heard what sounded like a bunch of sirens in the distance. As they got closer, he wondered if a nearby building was on fire. They continued to get even closer. It almost sounded like they were right outside in the front office. Henry peeked out to see what was going on.

What he mistook for sirens were actually the cries of Carrie’s baby boy, Scott. “He’s teething,” Carrie shouted over the wailing. “I decided to get him out of the house so my Mom could rest. He usually falls asleep in the car.”

Scott did not fall asleep in the car this time.

Fortunately they arrived at Big Tommy’s in record time, helped by several cars pulling over to let them pass, apparently having mistaken them for some kind of emergency vehicle. Henry wasn’t sure the ribs would be worth his temporary hearing loss, but once he was inside Big Tommy’s, the smell of barbecue revitalized him.

When Carrie dropped him off, she asked if he might need any rides in the future. “No thank you,” Henry shouted. He had a meeting across town on Tuesday but Stan had said his car would be ready by then.

Unfortunately, when he called Stan on Monday he got more bad news. “See, since I’m not charging you for labor, I was gonna do the work myself instead of giving it to one of my guys,” Stan explained. “We got busy Friday so I was gonna come in on Saturday. But my poor Mama took a turn and we had to spend the day at the urgent care. She’s fine now, God bless her.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Henry said.

“Give me a couple more days,” Stan told him.

That meant Henry needed a ride to his meeting. Since it ended at noon and he would have to get lunch after, he ruled out Ralph. Henry just didn’t think salad qualified as a meal. And since Scott would not likely be done teething yet, he ruled out Carrie.

Missy Moore saved him when she swung by the church to pick up a sweater she’d forgotten Sunday morning. When she asked Henry how he was doing, he couldn’t help unloading to her about his transportation tribulations. “I could give you a ride tomorrow,” Missy said.

Henry thanked her and promised to buy her lunch at a nearby burger joint in return. “I love that place!” Missy exclaimed. Henry grinned.

The next day Missy was right on time. Henry slid into the passenger seat once she moved a stack of papers and fast food wrappers to the back. Missy started the car and Henry almost jumped through the windshield as a blast of heavy metal music exploded from the speakers.

“This is a great song!” Missy exclaimed and began singing along as she screeched out of the parking lot, narrowly missing a passing car. Two minutes later Missy turned the music down. But only because she got a call on her cell phone. Perhaps some people are actually capable of driving safely while talking on the phone, but Missy was not one of them. By the time they reached the meeting, Henry was trembling so badly he could barely walk. The ride back was even worse.

On Wednesday Henry called Stan again. “Ran into a little trouble,” Stan began.

“How much longer?” Henry sighed.

“Couple days. Patience is a virtue.” Henry buried his head in his arms so Tammy wouldn’t hear him weep.

Ten days later Henry’s car was finally ready. As he wrote out a check, Henry wavered between wanting to kiss Stan and wanting to punch him in the face.

Henry’s first stop after leaving the garage was a fast food drive through. As he was pulling away, he accidentally squeezed his soda cup a little too hard. Apparently the kid working the window hadn’t fully secured the top, because it popped off and icy cola splattered onto Henry’s lap. He jumped, jerking the wheel involuntarily. The car hopped the curb and hit a tree.

Henry didn’t tell anyone about the mishap. Not because he was embarrassed, but because he was afraid they’d get him a discount with their mechanic. He took the car to a garage he’d never heard of and agreed to pay full price. “How long will it take,” Henry asked.

“Couple days,” the mechanic replied.