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by Bob Stevenson
11/08/2012 / Short Stories
The young minister had just finished his sermon. Pastor Tom Hinds looked out at his congregation and was relieved that it was finally over. Turning the service over to his song leader he walked back to his chair and sat down. This was an unusual gesture because it had always been his custom to remain standing for the closing hymn. Tom bowed his head. To the folks sitting in the church it must have looked as if their pastor was imploring God to further bless them. But he had other thoughts and as he prayed the voices all around him faded away. Tom was both physically exhausted and emotionally drained. When the music finally stopped he knew what was expected of him. Somberly walking back to the pulpit he gave the benediction, stepped off the stage and began to walk down the aisle of the sanctuary to the vestibule where he would greet everyone as they left the building.
Tucked carefully in his Bible was a handwritten letter he had received on Saturday afternoon. The timing of its arrival just before Sunday seemed to be deliberate. Tom was sure that the author was aware of how its content would affect his performance on Sunday. The only other person who knew about the letter was Anne. She had purposely chosen a seat in the back of the sanctuary to avoid eye contact with her husband. She quietly prayed for him throughout the service.
Star Valley was a popular destination for day-trippers wishing to escape the heat of Sacramento. A railroad spur off of the main line going east brought folks right into the center of town. The old adobe train station was the hub of activity. Across the street was Miss Sally's caf, which logistically made it the official meeting place for both locals and visitors. A fried fish sandwich topped off with her homemade cabbage coleslaw was the specialty of the house.
A short walk down Tyler Street led to the old stone footbridge that crossed over Star Creek. Chinese immigrants had been hired by the railroad to build the bridge during the Gold Rush days. If you looked closely at the walls you could still see the numerical markings chiseled into the stones by those laborers. To the right of the bridge you would follow a wood-planked walkway to the picnic grove.
Just beyond the grove Harold Potts had built an earthen dam on his property. This altered the flow of water coming down from the mountain creating a small pond by its base. A primitive looking sign painted yellow and shaped like a fish hung from the limb of an ancient oak tree. The pathway from there led folks directly to "Potts Fishing Hole." A big homemade sign that said "Welcome!" hung from the doorway of a small ramshackle shack where Mr. Potts rented fishing poles, sold cartons of worms and dispensed cold bottles of Coca-Cola from the metal ice chest inside.
Todd and Harry Hunt delivered fresh baked apple pies twice a day during the summer months. Deborah would send her sons off to the grove on specially equipped three-wheeled tricycles to sell the pies. Mr. Hunt was sickly so the family depended on the profits of Deborah's pies to survive. Several others in town profited from the grove. Joe Bender made homemade donuts, Betty Monday sold watermelons, Trent King baked sourdough bread, Brenda Combs brought baskets of fresh strawberries and Uncle Roy Buck was famous for his peanut butter, banana and jelly sandwiches.
Star Valley Community Church was built on the land where the Wells Fargo stage depot had once stood. It was on high ground and was considered prime property because of its location. The new sanctuary was fairly modest in comparison to the older places of worship in town. Everyone seemed to agree that the prominent steeple and bell tower was its best architectural feature. It was easily seen from any direction in town. The old carriage house had been remodeled and was now the home of Pastor Tom and his wife. Located up a small hill just behind the church it commanded an impressive view of the picnic grove, Star Creek and Mr. Potts Fishing Hole.
On Saturday Wilber Black delivered the mail in a 1967 Country Squire station wagon that he had bought right off the showroom floor in Stockton. The big Ford was showing its age but it was still his pride and joy. Tom enjoyed calculating the time it took Wilber to reach the top of the hill. He measured his walk methodically from the house to the road so that he could be at the mailbox within minutes of the postman's arrival. It was here that the pastor recognized the unmistakable aroma of fresh baked apple pie coming from Deborah Hunt's kitchen just across the street. Tom thought that it was truly a remarkable smell. Since Anne rarely baked he was already thinking of some excuse to visit his neighbor in hopes of getting a sample.
After some friendly banter with Wilber, Tom began to idly sort through the assortment of letters and periodicals meant for the church. He wasn't really waiting for anything special, but the blue business size envelope, with his name on it, looked interesting. Curious as to its content, he opened it and began to read the letter. That is when he decided the pie could wait.
By the time the pastor approached the place where Anne was standing, his obsession with apple pie had completely vanished. She had been watching him, and had taken note
that his pace back to the house was deliberately slower than usual. She sensed that something might be wrong, and wondered what it might be. And when he nervously looked away from her gaze, she was certain of it. Walking up the steps that led to the gate, he took the blue envelope out of his back pocket, and without saying a word handed it to her.
The first thing that Anne noticed was how beautiful the cursive handwriting on the envelope was. She had been helping 14 year old Maria Sandavol with her homework recently. Maria and her girlfriends were typical teenagers, and as such they rarely wrote anything down on paper. Their homework assignments were usually scribbled out on note paper and barely legible. Anne would routinely make them correct grammar as well as spelling. She was convinced that young people were no longer concerned about good penmanship.
This was definitely not the work of anyone from the younger generation. Tom's name and address were spelled out beautifully in cursive. Each capital letter had been created with a flair that continued flawlessly, flowing together with the smaller letters. She knew that whomever wrote this had to be someone over 30. As she studied it she made note that there was no return address. Only the postmark on the stamp gave a clue to its origin, and it bore the mark of the Star Valley post office, dated two days prior to delivery.
Tom had noticed this too. That's why he wasn't at all surprised that the letter inside was unsigned. In the six years he had served the church there had only been two other unsigned letters. The first was during his second year of ministry. It contained a rather lengthy complaint about how offensively loud the piano playing was every Sunday. The other letter had arrived a year ago, addressed simply to "The Reverend." The unknown author had taken the time to list all the misspellings found in the monthly newsletter, as well as every Sunday bulletin that month.
The Baptist, Methodist and Congregational ministers in Star Valley met every Tuesday morning at 7:00 a.m. for breakfast at Miss Sally's Caf'. Tom enjoyed the fellowship each week. Whenever his peers talked about their own experiences with anonymous letters, he had felt extremely thankful that his own seemed so trivial. It was amazing how rude or nasty church members could get without identifying themselves The consensus of the group favored that the proper place to file such letters was in the trash bin.
With the deftness of a skilled surgeon Anne removed the letter gingerly from the blue envelope. As she read the letter, Tom was watching closely for all the little telltale signs he knew so well. Unlike her husband, Anne had difficulty displaying emotion. With Tom there was never any guesswork as to what emotion he was feeling. He was very animated with his body language. His eyes would light up when he was happy, or stare right through you if he was serious.
In contrast, Anne's demeanor was much more subdued. She was the more serious of the two, and usually chose her words carefully. Tom was known to say things "off the cuff," but not so Anne. She approached almost everything in a defensive manor, as if someone was challenging her. Her facial expressions were very subtle, which was deceiving to anyone trying to discern her mood. But the pastor thought he knew his wife well enough, and had prepared himself for this moment.
Holding the letter with steady hands, Anne's eyes focused carefully on each word. There was a momentary furrowing along the brow line. This signaled to her husband that she was struggling to understand the content. She was now carefully examining each word or phrase. The look on her face puzzled Tom for a moment. Was she trying too hard? This wasn't some secret code to decipher. He had grasped its meaning, why didn't she?
After what seemed like an eternity Anne finally removed her eyes from off of the letter. This was the sign Tom had been waiting for because her next gesture would tell him she understood.
"Is this true?" She said this, in what sounded like a little girl voice. Placing her arms on his shoulders, she paused for just a moment, and then kissed him with passion.
Somewhat embarrassed by the sight of the two kissing in their own backyard made Uncle Roy very uneasy. Roy was a big man with flaming red hair and an unkempt beard. His beard always had crumbs of bread or the remnants of a sandwich in it. He habitually showed up unexpectedly, always seeking the pastor out to debate theology or argue over some obscure Scripture passage. Roy's father had taught Sunday School at the Star Valley community hall on Mason street during the construction of the church. Most folks in town admired him for his religious fervor, but few ever socialized with him. Benjamin Buck was a tough old Irishman. His chosen obsession was collecting other people's discarded items. His yard, front, back and side, was a depository of junk. This feature of the Buck homestead was always a matter of concern with his neighbors. After his death four years ago, Roy moved into his father's house and seemed quite happy living in the midst of all the clutter. His only reliable source of income seemed to be the profits from his peanut butter, banana and jelly sandwiches.
Tom sensed that someone else was standing there, but he was not about to release his bride from her loving embrace. The big man was ready to reprimand the pastor for such a public display of affection on church property, but restrained himself. He had already spotted the letter in Anne's hand, but didn't say anything. So in spite of his curiosity he waved to the young clergyman blew a long whistle, and headed in the direction of Deborah Hunt's apple pies.
Anne had waited until most of the congregation had filed out of the sanctuary. Matilda Young was having difficulty with her walker, so she stopped to help the elderly woman with it. After exchanging some pleasantries, Anne navigated through the crowd and finally reached Tom, whom by now was standing at the doorway. As if to steady herself for what she knew was about to happen, she placed her arm around his waist. Tom immediately felt reassured by this comforting gesture. He looked at her and she at him. Both understood that it was going to be OK.
Embolden by his wife's closeness, Pastor Tom raised his hands, and with a clear voice asked everyone to remain in the vestibule because he had some very important news to share.
In a matter of minutes people stopped talking, and the room fell quiet. Some had been sensing that perhaps the pastor was about to announce that he was leaving the church. A few of the older women had been secretly speculating that Anne and Tom might be expecting a baby. Two of the Deacons looked at one another and worried that the pastor might be publicly trying to embarrass them, by asking for a salary increase. Everyone seemed nervous as they waited for Tom to say something.
It was now or never he thought. Tom held the blue envelope tightly in his hand. His voice was strong and he was ready:
"I have something I need to tell you all."
Now that he had everyone's attention he opened the envelope, took out the letter and held it in his hand. It seemed to Anne that all eyes were now fixated on her husband and the letter that he was holding.
With a touch of dramatic flair, Pastor Tom went on to explain that he had received an anonymous letter on Saturday from someone who lived in Star Valley. Wiber Black was standing in the lobby with his girlfriend and nodded his head, feeling a bit guilty because he was the person who had delivered that letter. Mr. Potts shuffled his feet thinking that perhaps the people would think he was the author because of his unsuccessful attempt to convince the pastor to post a sign on church property, advertising his fishing hole. Joe Bender was uneasy as well because it was well known that the pastor had recently turned him down over a request to sell his donuts after church.
Seizing the opportunity to make this a teachable moment, Tom shared with them how these types of letters were usually very hurtful to a pastor and his family. When it seemed to Anne that Tom was about to launch off into another sermon, she squeezed his arm. He quickly got the message and stopped talking.
With clarity he looked directly into the crowd and said: "I want to thank whoever wrote this letter. Yesterday, when I opened it, I expected the worst, and truthfully I didn't believe that something like this was possible." Holding up the letter once again for all to see, he continued to talk: "Anne and I had difficulty at first, accepting the words from this unknown person. What was said, was very humbling." Tom took a deep breath and said:
"WE ARE GOING TO DISNEYLAND!"
Spontaneous applause erupted as Tom shared the contents of the letter. This anonymous author was expressing appreciation for the pastor and his wife. Whoever it was recognized the dedication they had to the church, and the Star Valley community. In appreciation this person wanted to reward them with a fully paid vacation.
No one noticed Uncle Roy Buck as he made his way out the side door. Free from the crowded lobby he reached into his pocket, unfolded the wrapper and took a big bite out of a peanut butter, banana and jelly sandwich. Whistling, as he walked away, a smile came across his face and tiny bits of breadcrumb began to fall out from under his beard.
Bob is currently the pastor of a Chapel in Northern California. His ministry is to seniors living in an independent retirement community. His writing draws from his expeience as a minister of the Gospel for the past 25 years.
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