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

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