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.