Monday, January 24, 2011

Hearing Better

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, the church got an assisted listening system for the hearing impaired.

This was a great development for eighty-six year-old Donald East, whose hearing had deteriorated to the point that Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s deep, soothing voice sounded more like an idling tractor engine than human speech. Because of this, Donald frequently fell asleep during the pastor’s sermons. When Donald slept, he snored. And since most of those who sat near him found Donald’s snoring to be less pleasant than Pastor O’Donnell’s homilies, they were also heartened by the new system.

On the Sunday that the assisted listening system was introduced, head usher Ralph Billings clipped one of the radio units to Donald’s belt and helped him insert the little earphone into his ear. The radio unit picked up a broadcast of everything that went through the speaker system and allowed Donald to control the volume of his individual unit to meet his needs.

Donald was delighted. He heard the choir fine and clear. They were more talented than he remembered. He could hear the announcements – which was a good thing because he learned of an upcoming pancake breakfast hosted by the men’s group. Donald loved pancakes. And of course he could finally hear the content of Pastor O’Donnell’s sermon. Though he still fell asleep half way through it.

As Donald was leaving the sanctuary to go over to coffee hour, he was distracted by the sight of seventy-five year-old Betsy Davis wearing a sleek cardigan. Donald thought Betsy was hot. And he’d become so used to the earphone that he forgot he had the assisted listening unit on and walked right out without returning it.

Meanwhile, Pastor O’Donnell forgot that he was supposed to power off the transmitter after service. Not only was it an unfamiliar task, but he was preoccupied by a parental concern. His daughter, Katie, had been invited to the senior prom. This would have been fantastic if Katie had been a senior, but she was only a sophomore and Henry was not sure he liked the idea of her dating a boy two years older than her. And he was definitely concerned about what might go on at prom. He would prefer to put off thinking about that topic for another couple years. In any case, the new assisted listening system was not foremost in his mind.

After enjoying a cookie and cup of coffee, Donald found he needed to visit the restroom. Donald’s restroom visits took a while these days and by the time he came out, most everyone had left. As he grabbed one last cookie, he waved to Missy Moore and choir director Shane Reed, who were heading into the sanctuary to rehearse a special music selection for the following week.

Missy was going to sing while Shane accompanied her on guitar. Missy wanted to do a full dress rehearsal so she set up a microphone while Shane tuned his instrument. “Are you ready?” Missy asked.

Out in the social hall, Donald heard Missy’s voice broadcast through the assisted listening system. But he didn’t realize that’s where it was coming from. He looked around the empty room. “Ready for what?” he asked nervously.

Shane wasn’t speaking into a mic, so Donald didn’t hear his reply. Instead, he heard Missy say, “Do you think I should introduce it or just launch right in?”

“Introduce what?” Donald asked, beginning to feel desperate. “Who’s there?”

And then Missy started her song: Lord of the Dance.

Donald stumbled back in shock. The angelic voice that was coming from nowhere seemed to be claiming it was the Lord.

About that time Betsy returned to the social hall to retrieve her cardigan, which she’d left behind. Donald rushed over. “Do you hear that?” he asked.

Betsy eyed him uneasily. The old guy looked kind of crazed. “Hear what?”

In the sanctuary, Missy and Shane paused in their rehearsal. The music in Donald’s headphone went suddenly silent. The next thing he heard was Missy responding to some question Shane had asked: “I don’t like that,” she said.

Donald thought maybe God was unhappy he was talking to Betsy. “Oh, it’s gone now,” Donald lied.

“Okay,” Betsy said with a smile and patted him on the arm. Then she hurried out to her car.

The voice started singing Lord of the Dance again. Donald was familiar with the song, but now he listened carefully to the lyrics. He wondered if maybe God wanted him to dance. Donald hadn’t danced since his wife had passed away, and truthfully probably hadn’t even danced for a decade before that. Donald didn’t particularly like to dance, but who was he to deny God?

He started to do a little box step with an imaginary partner.

About a minute later the music stopped. The voice in his ear said, “Let’s pick up the pace.” Then it started singing again at a faster tempo. Donald wondered if God appreciated what this exertion was doing to his eighty-six year-old heart. But he danced.

Katie O’Donnell happened to pass by the door of the social hall just then on the way to her dad’s office. She observed Old Man East hopping crazily about in the quiet room by himself. When she reached the office she said, “Dad, I think Mr. East is having a stroke.”

Henry rushed out. He was relieved to discover the stroke was really just Donald’s herky-jerky attempt at dancing. He was less relieved when Donald started babbling something about God speaking to him.

“You mean you hear Him right now?” Henry asked.

“Yes, except it turns out God is a woman. She told me to dance by singing that hymn, Lord of the Dance. And now she just told me She wants everyone to be tapping their toes along with Her.”

“Dad,” Katie said, “I think it’s a sign!”

Henry thought it was more likely that Katie had been right with her first guess of a stroke. But he asked, “A sign of what?”

“That you should let me go to the prom.”

Henry really had his doubts about that interpretation. But he looked at Katie’s eager face and found his will to deny her was crumbling. “Okay,” he said, “you can go to the prom.”

“Thanks, Dad!” Katie squealed and hugged him. Then she looked back at Donald. “Mr. East, you forgot to return that new radio thingy.”

Donald pulled the earphone out of his ear. It suddenly became clear to him what had happened. He flushed crimson.

As Katie ran off to call her date and tell him she could accept his invitation, Donald and the pastor looked at each other sheepishly. “I guess it wasn’t a message from God after all,” Donald said.

“I don’t know,” Henry replied. “Did you see how happy Katie looked?”

The following week Betsy invited Donald to a dance at the senior center. She’d seen him dancing through the windows as she got in her car the week before. Turns out the old dude had moves.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm.  Every year for the last six years, Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell has made a New Year’s resolution to lose ten pounds.  But he’s ended every one of those six years heavier than he began it.

A few years ago he tried to achieve his goal by joining a gym.  However his busy schedule caused him to stop going after two visits, even though he’d paid for an entire year up front.  The following year he vowed to walk a mile every day, but the winter weather in Pennsylvania put a quick end to that. 

He thought this year would be different, though.  This year, he planned to work out in the warmth and convenience of his office at the church.  On his lunch break he would do sit-ups and push-ups, and he purchased a set of dumbbells so he could do some weight training.  His resolution was simply to do this workout every day.  He figured a couple hundred calories burned every day would add up.

Meanwhile, church secretary Tammy Billings had resolved not to be so critical of others this year.  Not that Tammy was particularly critical.  But she believed the best New Years resolutions were about changing one’s attitude and it was the only thing she could think of that she could improve.  (Increasing her humility did not occur to her.)

Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum made a whole bunch of resolutions.  Michelle was an ambitious young woman, after all.  One of her resolutions was to keep her desk clean.  However before she could keep the desk clean, she first had to get it clean.  This was no small chore.  It had been at least two months since she last saw any of her desktop.  The surface had been completely subsumed by an ever-shifting pile that Michelle referred to as The Mound. 

Though she was part of the digital generation, Michelle had a nagging distrust of computers, so she made it a point to keep hard copies of all important paperwork.  She also liked to jot down ideas for sermons and church activities on little sticky notes.  And she collected knickknacks.  The paperwork, sticky notes and knickknacks all fed The Mound. 

The Mound also liked to hide things – things like Michelle’s phone and computer keyboard.  Michelle thought of The Mound like a creature from an old 1950’s sci-fi movie slowly sucking anything that came too close into its belly.

So when Michelle arrived at the church the Monday after New Year’s Day, she went immediately to the main office to order a new file cabinet with which to cage The Mound.  She found Pastor O’Donnell showing Tammy the new dumbbells he’d purchased for his resolution.  Michelle told them about her resolution as well.

Tammy had some doubts about both pastors’ plans, but, remembering her own resolution, she said, “I’m sure you’ll both be very successful.”  Then she got out the office supply catalog and gave Michelle an order form.  She suggested Michelle fill out the form there, rather than take it back to her office downstairs.  After all, The Mound hadn’t been tamed just yet.

It would take a couple days for the filing cabinet to arrive, so in the meantime Michelle set about surgically disemboweling The Mound and dividing its innards into piles that would go into carefully labeled individual file folders.  As The Mound gradually shrank, its offspring spread across Michelle’s floor and out into the hallway.

Michelle uncovered several unusual things as she dissected The Mound over the next two days.  The most disturbing was the petrified remains of a half eaten sandwich that she dated back to November based on papers in the surrounding strata.  Most surprising was a necklace made of seashells – surprising because Michelle didn’t remember ever owning a necklace made of seashells.  Most valuable was a check reimbursing her for food she had bought for a church activity in October.  She smiled as she considered how great it was to find money, even if it was your own money that you simply misplaced.

Then her smile faded as she noticed the little message on the check that read, “not valid after 90 days.”  She did a quick calculation.  Today was the eighty-ninth day since the check was cut. 

She folded the check, stuffed it in her pocket, and headed out to the bank.  Tammy caught her before she reached the front door.  “Your filing cabinet just arrived,” Tammy said.

“Great,” Michelle exclaimed.  “I’m going to the bank now.  I’ll get started on the filing tomorrow morning.”

Tammy frowned.  She knew Michelle was making progress on her task, but the little piles spread out down the hallway bothered her.  She wanted them gone as soon as possible.  However, she had resolved not to be critical.  “That’s great,” Tammy said, choosing her words carefully.  “I’m sure when the choir comes for rehearsal tonight they’ll be careful not to step on your papers.”

“Oh that’s right,” Michelle said.  “I forgot about choir practice.  Well, I guess I do have one more day to cash this check.  Let’s get the file cabinet downstairs and I’ll get everything put away today.”

Getting the file cabinet downstairs turned out to be a problem, however.  The delivery people had left as soon as Tammy signed for it, and it was a lot heavier than either of the women expected.  “Maybe I’ll call Ralph to come over and give us a hand,” Tammy said.  Ralph was her husband and the church’s unofficial handyman.

Pastor O’Donnell happened to be walking by just then and overheard.  “Don’t bother Ralph,” he said.  “I’ll move it for you.”

“Are you sure?” Tammy asked.

“I’ve been working out all week,” O’Donnell said.  “Time to put my new muscles to use.”

O’Donnell had indeed been working out every day and he felt great.  According to the scale he hadn’t lost any weight, but he’d already noticed it was easier to do his exercise regimen.

O’Donnell retrieved the hand truck from the storeroom, slid it under the file cabinet, and wheeled it to the stairs.  The file cabinet was heavier than he had expected, as well.  His confidence in his improved conditioning began to waver.  He lowered the file cabinet step by step, his face red, sweat trickling down his temple.  He managed to get it wheeled into Michelle’s office, but just barely.

“Thanks so much,” Michelle said.

“Any…time,” O’Donnell panted.  “Okay…I’m going…to do my workout.”  He staggered out of her office and back upstairs.  When he reached his office, he closed the door and lay down on the floor.  He glanced over at the dumbbells, but left them where they were.  He decided moving the file cabinet would count as his exercise for the day.

Michelle immediately got to work filing her little stacks of paper in the new file cabinet.  She worked late, finally shoving the last file folder in just before nine.  By then every drawer of the cabinet was filled to near bursting.  She had to wriggle that last file back and forth to force it into place.

But The Mound was gone.  Michelle looked proudly at the clean, empty expanse of desk.  The year was getting off to a good start.  She went home to make herself some dinner.

The next morning Tammy came down to admire Michelle’s success.  The desk wasn’t quite empty anymore – Michelle had some sermon notes out, and she’d set the old expense check by her monitor so she wouldn’t forget to deposit it before the end of the day.  Still, the transformation was miraculous and Tammy told her so.

“I think I’m going to need another filing cabinet if I’m going to keep it clean,” Michelle said.  “This one’s already full.”

Tammy ran up to get the office supply catalog and order form.  As she passed Pastor O’Donnell’s office, she noticed he was lying on the floor.

“Doing your exercises?” Tammy asked.

“No,” O’Donnell replied, “my back really hurts today.  I think I better take the day off.”

When Tammy got back to Michelle’s office, Michelle was on the phone so Tammy just slipped the catalog and form onto the desk.

Later that afternoon, Tammy went to Michelle’s office again to bring her a report sent over by the district.  “Thanks,” Michelle said and set the report on what was now a small pile by her monitor. 

Tammy frowned as she realized that pile was a new baby mound, and it was growing fast.  “Did you fill out the order form for that second file cabinet?” she asked.

“Oh,” Michelle said.  “I forgot.  Let’s see, the catalog is under here somewhere…” She dug through the pile until she came across her still un-cashed check.

“Oh shoot, I’ve got to get this to the bank before it closes!” She leapt up and ran out the door, calling back over her shoulder, “I’ll get the order form to you tomorrow.”

“Yeah right,” Tammy muttered as she headed back to the main office.  “That woman will never get herself organized.”

It was the seventh day of the year and O’Donnell, Michelle, and Tammy had all failed in their resolutions. 

Which was two days longer than it had taken the previous year.