Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Sweetheart Dance - Part I

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm.  During coffee hour on the first Sunday in February, Kevin and Jill Boyer asked Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s fifteen-year-old daughter Katie if she would babysit for them on Valentine’s Day.  Unfortunately, Katie already had plans to go out with her boyfriend, Alex.

In a small town like Normal, Valentine’s Day was a perfect babysitting storm.  Everyone with kids needed one and most of the older teens wanted to go out on dates themselves.  Kevin and Jill compared notes with some of the other young parents at the church.  Audra Park, a single mother who had just started dating the choir director, Shane Reed, hadn’t found a babysitter for her six-year-old son Tyler either.

Carrie and Carlos Lopez smiled sympathetically.  They knew who they were going to have watch their baby – Carrie’s mother, Karen Winslow, who also happened to be a Sunday school teacher at the church.

“I wonder if your mother would be willing to babysit all the children,” Audra mused.  Kevin and Jill immediately perked up.

“I don’t know,” Carrie said.  “I mean, she might if it were for a church event or something, but otherwise…”

“Maybe it could be a church event,” Kevin suggested.  “Maybe the church should hold a Valentine’s Day dance.”  Kevin was finding it as difficult to get a dinner reservation as it was to get a babysitter and this sounded like killing two birds with one stone.  Carrie and Carlos agreed it was a good idea.  They had moved in with Carrie’s parents, Karen and Del, after the company they worked for went bankrupt.  A church dance would be a nice yet economical date.

It was kind of last minute to put something like that together, of course, but when they proposed it to Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell he was surprisingly enthusiastic.  It turned out he was having trouble getting dinner reservations as well.

Henry rushed over to twenty-eight-year-old Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum and her boyfriend, Ian Wells, who was a jazz guitarist.  “We’re thinking about having a Valentine’s Day dance,” Henry said.  “Ian, do you think your band would like to perform?  We could pay you, say, $200.”

“Absolutely!” Ian replied.  His band usually played in clubs for free drinks.

Michelle frowned.  This was the first time since college that she had a boyfriend on Valentine’s Day and she was kind of hoping for a romantic evening alone with Ian.  Spending it at the church felt a little too much like work.  She didn’t want to come off as selfish, though, so she tried to be subtle.  “Won’t that mess up the plans you made for us?” she asked, hoping Ian had actually made some plans.

“Nah,” Ian said.  “I was only able to get an early reservation at the restaurant anyway.  We’ll have plenty of time to eat before the dance.”

“It’s settled then,” Henry declared.

“Great,” Michelle sighed.

The first major wrinkle in the plan came when Henry talked to Karen about handling childcare.  “Absolutely not,” Karen said.  It turned out Carrie and Carlos had just assumed she would babysit for them.  They’d never actually asked her.  “Del and I are going out to dinner,” Karen sniffed.  “He made the reservations a month ago.”  Henry decided Del could be pretty annoying sometimes.

The organizers were in a bind.  The childcare was a key reason for the event in the first place.  Without it, many of them wouldn’t be able to attend.  It was looking like they would need a miracle to save the dance.

And then Katie’s boyfriend dumped her. 

It was all Henry could do not to jump for joy.  Alex was two years older than Katie, and Henry had never approved of their relationship.  He forced himself to wait a decent amount of time before broaching the subject of childcare at the church dance.  He figured half an hour was a suitable mourning period for a teenage romance.

Henry obviously didn’t know much about teenage romances.  Katie burst into tears when he proposed she spend Valentine’s Day watching little kids.  Henry, never particularly skilled at handling crying females, quickly offered to pay her double her regular babysitting rate.  Katie stopped crying.  There was a pair of shoes she really wanted and the gig would just about cover them.  She agreed.

The dance was on.

Valentine’s Day evening started out pretty good for Michelle.  Ian gave her an appropriately lascivious compliment on the sheer white dress she wore.  The restaurant he’d chosen was quite romantic, though the candlelight might have had more impact if the sun wasn’t still shining in around the curtains while they ate.

After they’d finished a juicy prime rib for two, the waiter asked if they’d like to see the desert cart.  He mentioned a special Valentine’s chocolate fudge cake and assured them it was quite decadent.

“We better not,” Ian said.  “I’ve got to get over to the church to set up for the show.”

Michelle looked at her watch.  It wasn’t even seven and it looked like the Valentine’s Day romance was over.  She’d spend the rest of the evening sitting alone watching Ian perform on stage.  And she wouldn’t even have the aftertaste of chocolate fudge cake to tide her over.  She sighed.

Little did she know her evening was destined to get better.  Of course it was also destined to get a lot worse, first.

To be continued…

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm.  One morning church secretary Tammy Billings informed Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell that Abigail Leary had passed away.  This was sad news, of course, but Abbie was ninety-seven and had been a shut-in since before Henry had become pastor, so it wasn’t exactly unexpected.  Henry had visited Abbie regularly, as he did all shut-ins who were members of the congregation, but many people at the church had never even met her.

A couple days after Henry delivered a touching message at Abbie’s memorial service, Tammy brought him more news.  “Abbie left her car to the church in her will.”

“Just the car,” Henry asked, without looking up from his newspaper.  “No cash?”

“Afraid not,” Tammy said.  “I’ll call the donation service.”  The church had no use for an old car, so when one was donated the standard procedure was to sell it to a company that auctioned them on behalf of charitable organizations.

“What kind of car is it?” Henry asked.

“1974 Corvette Stingray.”

Henry dropped the newspaper.  When he was in high school he’d loved the Corvette Stingray more than the girl in his English class who had developed early.  But the car was too expensive for him to buy on the money he earned from his part-time fast food job, so, like the girl, he had to simply admire it from afar.  And by the time his income was sufficient, he was married with a little baby and needed something more practical – or at least that’s what his wife Jennifer told him when he suggested they buy a Stingray. 

“Hold on,” he told Tammy.  “Find out what the donation service will pay for it, but don’t sell it to them just yet.”

It turned out, for a Stingray in the condition of Abbie Leary’s, the donation service would only pay $1,000.  Abbie had stopped driving altogether when the car’s carburetor failed.  She’d kept meaning to sell it but never got around to it.  And two decades sitting in a garage without maintenance hadn’t done the vehicle any favors.

So Henry decided to buy the car from the church himself.  Jennifer was not pleased when he informed her of this over dinner.  “What are you going to do with an old car that doesn’t run,” Jennifer asked.

“I’ll fix it up,” Henry said.  “My Dad and I fixed up an old Ford when I was a teenager.  That was my first car and I loved it, though it wasn’t anywhere near as cool as a Stingray.  Katie can help me and then it can be her car when she gets her license.”

Katie was Henry and Jennifer’s fifteen-year-old daughter.  She looked up from her plate and moaned, “I don’t want some lame old junker car!”

“Do you even know what a Corvette Stingray is?” Henry asked.

“Is it, like, one of those cars you have to turn a crank on the front to start?” Katie asked.

“No, it’s not,” Henry replied.  “When you see it I think you’ll change your mind.”

But when Katie saw it she did not change her mind.  This had more to do with the car’s condition than the design.  After Henry had the Stingray towed to his house, he and Katie stood and looked at the dusty vehicle, it’s tires flat, it’s leather seats cracked, and it’s paint damaged by sun exposure.  “It’s a piece of junk,” Katie said.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get it cleaned up and running in no time,” Henry replied confidently.

Katie’s enthusiasm for working on the car was minimal at first and completely gone after about half an hour.  The biggest problem was the grease and dust.  Katie did not like to get dirty.  As the weeks went by Henry had to resort to ever-greater threats and cajoling to convince her to join him in the weekend repair sessions, and even then she mostly just handed him tools as he requested them.  And usually they were the wrong tools.

Henry struggled to maintain his own enthusiasm for the project.  He hadn’t done serious work on an automobile since that time in high school with his father, and some of the repairs required were more complex than he had anticipated.  Moreover, parts for a ’74 Stingray turned out to be pretty expensive.  Two months after the initial purchase he’d put several thousand dollars and quite a few weekend hours into the car and it still didn’t run. He was about ready to give up and sell it to the donation service, taking a loss on the money he’d spent.

And then a small miracle happened.

One Saturday morning Katie asked if they could work on the car that afternoon.  Henry wondered allowed what had caused the change of heart.

“I told Alex about it and he wants to come see it.  I guess he likes those old manta rays.”

“Stingray,” Henry corrected her with a frown.  Alex was Katie’s new boyfriend.  He was two years older than her and Henry did not really approve of the relationship.  Jennifer had convinced him that voicing the disapproval would only make Katie more determined to go out with the boy, so whenever Alex’s name came up, Henry bit his tongue and kept his mouth shut.  Still, if the kid got Katie interested in working on the car, maybe there would be some upside to Henry’s sore tongue.

Alex came over after lunch.  Henry put on his best stern father look as he shook the kid’s hand.  “How you doin’, Mister O?” Alex asked.

“You can call me Pastor O’Donnell,” Henry said.

“Daaaaad,” Katie moaned in embarrassment.

Alex seemed not to notice.  His eyes were fixed on the car.  “Awesome Stingray!” he said.  “It’s got the four speed transmission and T-top.  Nice.  You putting in the Holley carb?”

“Yeah,” Henry said, warming up to the kid slightly.  “Take a look.”  They popped the hood.

For the next four hours Henry and Alex were buried under that hood while Katie sat on the curb and texted with her friends.  At one point she suggested to Alex that maybe they should go see a movie, but he was too engrossed in the car.  She didn’t push him.  Dating a senior had made her super popular among her friends.

Alex turned out to be pretty handy around an engine.  Far handier than Henry, as a matter of fact, though Henry would not have admitted it to save his life.  As the sun settled on the horizon, they finished the last of the repairs and Henry slid behind the wheel to try the ignition.

He turned the key and the engine sputtered to life with a cough of blue smoke.  It struggled for a moment, then let loose a guttural growl.  Henry and Alex whooped with excitement and shared a high five.  Henry looked over at Katie.  She was obliviously tapping away on her phone.

“Katie, go get your mother,” Henry shouted over the engine.

“Why?” Katie asked without looking up.

“So she can watch us take your new car for its first spin around the block.”

Katie retrieved Jennifer from inside.  Jennifer was not any more enthusiastic about the impending test drive than Katie, but they both humored their men.  Henry and Katie climbed in the car, Henry behind the wheel since Katie didn’t yet know how to drive a stick shift.  Alex looked a little disappointed he wasn’t invited on the maiden voyage, but he didn’t say anything.

Henry eased the car out of the driveway and down the street.  The engine knocked and pinged a few times but it ran.  However, when they reached the end of the block and he pressed down on the brake, nothing happened.

The car shot through the stop sign.  Katie screamed, though there was no other traffic and they were only going about twenty miles an hour.  Henry kept his cool, shifted into neutral and applied the emergency brake.  He veered to the side of the road and brought the car to a stop against the curb with a painful scraping sound.

Alex and Jennifer ran down the street.  “What happened?” Alex asked.

“All the brake fluid must have leaked out,” Henry said.

“I am never getting in that car again,” Katie cried.

“We can fix the brakes,” Henry assured her.

“She is never getting in that car again,” Jennifer cried.

In the end they were all correct.  Henry and Alex fixed the brakes but Katie never did get in the Stingray again.  After a day tooling around town, Henry sold the car to a collector from Ohio and donated all of the profit to the church in Abbie Leary’s name.  Alex wanted to buy the Stingray but he was limited by the lack of income from his part-time fast food job.

For her sixteenth birthday Katie got a used Volkswagen Rabbit.  She was delighted.  Henry rolled his eyes as she jumped up and down around the car.  The girl had no sense of cool.