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.

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