A collection of fictional short stories based in the small town of Cardinal City.
©2011 Aaron M. Fugate

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Tricky Play



                “Hut-twenty-nine-thirty-eight! Zee-sixty-four!” called Jefferson High School Quarterback Rich Metcalf, during football practice on a crisp autumn afternoon on Riddle Field in Cardinal City. Practice had been going smoothly until Coach Wagner had introduced a new play that was supposed to beat the Centralville defense. However, the team had not perfected it yet, and practice was winding down on Wednesday.
                “Hike!” The ball snapped back to Rich, who handed it off to his fullback, Steve Gaines. Steve then tossed the football back to Halfback Will Zimmerman, who rocketed a long pass that came up just shy of Anthony Jones, the wide receiver.
                “Will, I told you! You have to put some more muscle into it!” shouted Coach Marcus Wagner from the sidelines.
                “Coach, I don’t have any more muscle to give it!” Will retorted. “I aired it out as far as I possibly could.”
                “Well, all right. I guess we’re just wasting our time with this play. Let’s work on the fade routes with our receivers. I want Zimmerman, Gaines, Stone, Jones, and Armstrong to line up and run fade routes from the left split. Rich, when you throw ‘em, throw ‘em high. Centralville has some tall cornerbacks.”
                “All right, Coach,” Rich replied.
                Eric Metcalf was the third-string runningback. He had stood on the sidelines all day except when called on to test the defensive reserves. Now, however, he approached the coach with a request. “Coach, I think I could probably hit Anthony on that curl route.”
                Coach laughed. “Hah! You mean on the z-sixty-four play? Listen, just because your brother is a star quarterback doesn’t mean you can throw it a mile. Anyway, you’d probably fumble it.”
                Eric rolled his eyes. He knew that Coach Wagner was surreptitiously referring to last year’s state championship game against Centralville, in which Eric had fumbled a punt return, allowing the Centralville Rams to score the go-ahead touchdown late in the game. Now the Jefferson Red Hornets were facing the Rams in the championship again, and Coach wasn’t likely to let Eric play at all, much less pass. Eric returned to his spot on the sideline and waited for practice to be over.


                After practice with the team and dinner with their family, the Metcalf brothers spent the few remaining minutes of daylight practicing on their own in the Metcalf backyard. Sometimes they were too worn out from practice to play any more, but on this particular evening, Rich wanted to prepare as much as possible for the upcoming game and Eric was determined to help him. Eric had something else in mind besides this, and after catching one of Rich’s long passes, he asked, “Rich, how about we switch up this time? You go deep and I’ll hit you with a long one.”
                Rich chuckled. “Are you serious? What route do you want me to run?”
                “How about the z-sixty-four route?”
                “Okay. I hope you hit me!”
                Rich’s good-natured teasing simply pumped Eric up. After receiving a clean snap from Rich, he went through all the steps of the play, faking the handoff and toss, and finally acting the role of the halfback. Rich went out for the pass, and ran the route just the way he would want it run by a receiver. When he turned to face Eric, the ball was in his hands. He was so surprised at its perfect placement that he almost dropped it. “Eric! That was a great throw!” he exclaimed.
                “Well, of course!” Eric exclaimed. “What did you expect from the little brother of Jefferson High’s star quarterback?”
                Rich laughed. “Eric, I’m really impressed. Have you asked Coach if you can throw it on that play instead of Will?”
                “Yeah. I have.” A cloudy look filled Eric’s face. “He said I’d probably fumble it,” Eric said with a hint of anger in his voice.
                “Oh. I see. Well, maybe I can talk to him about it. Wait – is that why you had me catch the ball while you threw it? So I could see how good you are at it and then want to persuade Coach to let you play?”
                A devious look replaced the anger in Eric’s countenance. “I knew I could get you to try it, at least,” he grinned.
                “Well, Eric, I can’t promise anything, but I’ll talk to Coach about it. But remember – in the end, it’s his decision.”
                “I know, and I hope he makes the right one.”


                After practice the next day, Rich went up to Coach Wagner, who was on the sidelines, head down, studying the playbook that he held. “Rich, what would you do if the linebacker dropped to cover Todd instead of Will on x-forty-five?” he said, pointing to a jumble of x’s and o’s spread across a page of the book.
                “Well, I’d pass it to Will quickly, and hope he could make something out of it,” Rich responded. “But Todd should be open, usually.”
                “Yes, but I want you to make sure he is before you throw it to him,” Coach stated without looking up. “You have to make the right read, or you could be intercepted.”
                “All right,” Rich agreed before asking, “Coach, can I talk to you about something?”
                “Sure, Rich. Why don’t you follow me back inside to my office? We can discuss it there.”
                “Okay,” Rich complied.
                When they were comfortably seated in Coach Wagner’s office, Rich began. “Coach, I don’t think you should completely scrap the z-sixty-four play.”
                “What are you talking about? You saw that Will couldn’t throw it. We have too much preparation to do to worry about that.” Coach was still looking at his playbook.
                “I know that Will can’t throw it. But I know someone who can.”
                Coach’s eyes rose to meet Rich’s. He suddenly realized why Rich was there. He groaned and looked at Rich with disgust. “You’re going to tell me to let Eric throw it, aren’t you?”
                Rich merely nodded sheepishly.
                Coach sighed. “Rich, I wish you’d just forget about that; you and Eric both. I’m just not ready to let him play in the championship game.”
                “I understand, but I’ve seen him throw that route perfectly with my very own eyes!”
                “How many times? Rich, a quarterback needs a lot of repetitions to perfect even the simplest of routes. How do you know he won’t overthrow you next time?”
                “Well, Coach, I trust him. I really think he would do it fine.
                Coach was silent for a moment. Then he queried, “Would you be doing this for Eric if he weren’t your brother?”
                “Yes, I would.”
                Another long moment passed before Coach broke the silence abruptly. “Rich, frankly, the only experience Eric has in the championship game is some very bad experience. Now, I won’t have him throwing the ball, and I won’t hear another word about it. You need to focus on what you’re going to be doing Friday night, not on some crazy idea from your brother.”
                Rich stood and threw up his hands. “All right. Like I told Eric, it’s your decision. I just hate to see the look on his face when I tell him you rejected it.”
                “Richard Metcalf,” Coach said vehemently, “not another word.”
“Right – not another word. Well, see you tomorrow afternoon. Hope we beat ‘em.” With that, he turned and left the office to head home with Eric.


                Riddle Field in Cardinal City was crammed for the championship game. Almost everyone in Cardinal City wanted to see if the Red Hornets could finally beat their longtime rivals in the ‘big game’, even though Jefferson High was a private school and had a small enrollment compared to the public high school, Cardinal City High. The many fans who had made the trip from Centralville were longing for a repeat championship.
                Rich Metcalf was determined not to let the Centralville fans get their wish. If the Red Hornets were going to win the game, it would probably have to result from a stellar performance from his arm. His determination was mixed with sadness, though, from having seen how Eric was hurt when he heard how the conversation with Coach Wagner had transpired. He pushed thoughts of that subject from his mind and prepared for the intense concentration required in the game.
                The game was a defensive struggle, which disappointed Rich. He was unable to lead a successful aerial attack all game. The Centralville defense had his number, intercepting him twice and allowing him to complete only nine passes. Nor did the running game accomplish much. The upside of that was that the Rams offense did not do considerably better against a well-prepared Jefferson defense. With only a minute and a half to play in the fourth quarter, the Red Hornets trailed, ten to six. Rich’s offensive unit had the ball at their own thirty-eight yard line. Rich called a play in the huddle. “Ex-forty-five! Let’s get this done!”
                Shouting out directions at the line of scrimmage, and then dropping back under center, Rich tried not to let nervousness overcome him. He recalled his Coach’s instructions on the play from Thursday afternoon. He took the snap, made his read, and dumped the football to Will Zimmerman. Will broke a few tackles and went out-of-bounds at midfield. Rich punched the air in joy. His team was moving the ball, finally. Three plays later, with twenty seconds left in the game, one timeout, and twenty-five yards left to the end zone, Rich yelled above the crowd noise to lead his team to set up a play without a huddle. When he took the snap, he saw only two things. First, he saw a massive Centralville defensive lineman breaking through the line and advancing toward him. Then he saw stars.
                Eric and the Red Hornets team were watching from the sideline. They watched Rich go down. He didn’t move for a few minutes. The Centralville fans were celebrating, because Coach had been forced to use his final timeout so that Rich could be helped off the field and over to the bench. Coach motioned to Rich’s backup to go into the game. Centralville’s vast cheering section had reason to be happy with Quarterback Craig Romberg at the team’s helm. The freshman had not played yet in the season, and would have difficulty scoring from thirty yards away with only twelve seconds and no timeouts.
                Eric hung his head, upset with his brother’s condition and the dim prospects of winning. Nearly everyone else on the Jefferson High sideline did the same. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up into Coach Wagner’s face. “Son,” Coach said, “get out there and run the z-sixty-four play.”
                Eric started with surprise. “What – thank you, Coach! I won’t let you down!”
                Coach replied, “You’d better not. Now, get a move on. Time’s a-tickin’.”
                Eric rushed onto the field and listened as Craig called the play. Craig snapped the ball, and handed off to Steve Gaines, who tossed it back to Eric. Eric put all of his strength behind the throw, which fell right into the hands of a Centralville defender. However, his were not the only hands on it. Receiver Anthony Jones wrestled the ball away from him and took it into the end zone for the winning Jefferson High touchdown as time expired. The offensive unit ran off the gridiron, leaping and pumping their fists in the air. The special teams came on and kicked the extra point. Eric hugged Coach, and then ran to find his parents in the stands. Accompanying him at a much slower pace was Rich, who had recovered his senses, but still walked gingerly. Riddle Field was a confusion of exultant Jefferson High fans and players, and disappointed Centralville supporters who were trying to leave as quickly as possible.
                At home late that night, the Metcalf family took chairs around the kitchen table and discussed the game.
                “Eric, I just about had a heart attack when that Centralville guy caught the ball,” Mrs. Metcalf admitted.
                “I think just about everyone from Cardinal City had problems with high blood pressure tonight,” Mr. Metcalf agreed.
                “I was so shocked when Coach asked me to throw it,” Eric related. “I guess he didn’t really have very many options at the time.”
                “Not with me out,” Rich quipped. “Thanks for winning the game when I couldn’t, although I should probably give the credit to Anthony.”
                “It was a team effort,” announced Mr. Metcalf.
                “Well, Rich, thank you for telling Coach about my wanting to throw that play,” Eric said. “Without that, we probably would’ve lost.”
                “No problem,” Rich answered. “That’s what brothers are for. I just hope next time I don’t get injured, so I can take all the glory for winning instead of my little brother.”
                Eric rose from his chair to put his brother in a playful headlock while the brothers and their parents erupted in laughter.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011



                “Hey, Randy, did you fix the transmission on the Grand Prix?” asked Marc Bevel, the “new guy” at R&T Automotive in Cardinal City. Marc had been working for about two weeks at R&T, having impressed Randy and Troy Alliman, his new employers, with his résumé of nearly a lifetime fixing vehicles.
                Randy paused for a moment, surprised. “Marc, you-you don’t just ‘fix’ a transmission like that. It needs to be replaced. I should think you would know that,” he replied.
                “Well, of course, that’s what I meant. Have you changed the transmission yet?”
                Randy slowly put his grease-coated tools into his tool belt and walked over to where Marc was standing, his head poked under the hood of the Grand Prix. Randy chuckled. “I don’t know, Marc. You tell me. Have I changed it?”
                Marc shot Randy a displeased look. “Randy, you know I’m rusty. Even though I’ve been fixing cars for pretty much my whole life, I haven’t done it in a while. I’m not as sharp as I used to be. We’ve gone through this before.”
                “Yes, we have. Too many times, I think. Marc, you’d better sharpen up real quick, or look for a new job. Now, back to the matter at hand. How would you be able to tell whether or not this has a new transmission?”
                The door blew open with a blast of fresh spring air, and Troy Alliman walked into the garage. “Sorry, I’m late, guys, but my wife insisted on teaching me diaper-changing one-oh-one,” he announced.
                “Say, how’s Nathan doin’ these days? I don’t get to see my nephew very often lately,” Randy queried.
                “Growin’ like a weed! He probably eats more than his mom does. At one and a half, he’s got the appetite of a three-year-old! Now, before he was born, it was Shawna who was about to eat me out of house and home, since she had to eat for the both of them,” Troy said, laughing. “So, what’s going on with the Grand Prix?”
                “Randy’s givin’ me the ol’ third degree about the transmission,” Marc spoke up.
                “Oh, you mean the one I replaced yesterday? What’s wrong? Somethin’ wrong with it?”
                Randy glared at Marc. “Lucked out this time.”
                Marc shrugged. “That’s what I was gonna say,” he grinned.
                “Well, guys, let’s put aside our differences and get to work,” Troy said, breaking a moment’s awkward silence. “We have a ton of work to do. Marc, can you call Greg Cutler, and tell him the Grand Prix is done? His number’s in the pile of papers on my desk.”
                “All right. I’ll be right back,” Marc replied as he headed toward the office.
                After Marc was gone, Randy headed over to his brother. “Troy, this not about personal differences, and you know it. Marc simply doesn’t know what he’s doing around here. He asked me today if the transmission had been ‘fixed’. He probably doesn’t know a fan belt from the Sunbelt.”
                “Randy, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Just because Marc is a little out of practice doesn’t mean he can’t be a help around here. I’m sure he isn’t messing up that phone call,” Troy returned.
                “If he isn’t, it’s about the only thing he knows how to do right. We’re lucky he hasn’t put us out of business. Did you see how long it took him to change the oil on that Silhouette last week? He must have been trying to set a world record for most oil wasted and longest oil change.”
                “You know what? It wasn’t that bad,” Troy shot back. “You have got to let up on him. He’s gonna be fine. Besides, you need to start working and stop talkin’ so much.”
                “What?! Listen, Troy, if you weren’t my brother, I’d – Listen to us, arguing like we were schoolkids. Whatever the case, we gotta stop fighting with each other.”
                “Yeah, whatever,” Troy answered, obviously not in a peacemaking mood, and turned away to start work on a green coupe.


                “Marc told me something yesterday,” Troy informed Randy the next day, which was Tuesday, and Marc’s day off.
                “What was that?” Randy answered coolly. The tension between the two brothers had not relaxed overnight.
                “He said that you didn’t let him drive any of the cars around the garage.”
                Randy started. “What’s wrong with that? I don’t want him drivin’ off with one, or running into somethin’.”
                “Hah! You make it sound like he’s a jailbird or something. What’s he gonna run into? He’s a good driver.”
                “Yeah, well around here you have to earn responsibility like that. And in my opinion, he’s not even close.”
                “Well, in my opinion, he’s plenty ready. I’m gonna start letting him drive some of the cars around here.”
                “Troy, don’t! He can’t handle that!”
                “Listen, bro, who was born first, huh?”
                “You were. What does that have to do with anything?”
                “Well, who got more of the auto shop in his inheritance?”
                Randy growled, “You did.”
                “All right. That means I get to make those decisions! Besides, I hired him!” Troy said triumphantly and strode over into the office.
                Randy merely glared after him.

                Randy had finally become fed up with the pressure between himself Troy. He had made it clear that he was not going to come in the following Monday, unless Troy let Marc go. Troy, of course, would not agree to that, and that was why he and Marc were alone that spring Monday, working in the garage.
                “All right, Troy, I’ve got the windows cleaned on the Voyager. What’s next?” asked Marc.
                “You can drive the LKX5 onto the lift for me,” Troy responded. Something nagged at the back of his mind, however. This is one of the most expensive cars I’ve ever serviced. Should I really let Marc drive it? He pushed the thought out of his mind quickly as he handed the car’s keys to Marc.
                “Okay. Hey, Troy, how much do you think this car costs?”
                “More than the three we did on Saturday put together, that’s for sure.” Troy turned his back to Marc and began wiping the hood of a gray sedan. He was not surprised when he heard the roar of the car as it started. What surprised him was when he heard it pulling toward the open garage door. He whirled around and saw Marc pulling the car out of the garage quickly, with a menacing look on his face. He ran after the car, but he was too late. There was nothing else to do but to call the Cardinal City police department. After giving a detailed description of the vehicle and of Marc, he gave the license plate number to the officer.
                “All right. That will help. Are you sure that those license plates are on the vehicle?” asked Officer Kramer.
                “Well, no. He may have switched those plates with any others in the garage.”
                “Okay. We’ll put an APB out on the vehicle and Marc, and we’ll have state troopers out looking for the car immediately.”
                “Thank you,” Troy replied, and hung up.
                Just then the door opened in the office, and Randy walked in. “What’s going on, Troy? Where’s Marc? And what happened to the LKX5? It wasn’t supposed to be done until Tuesday!” he exclaimed.
                “It’s a bit of a long story,” Troy began, sighing, and related the entire account.
                After he had finished, Randy broke the silence. “Troy, I have every right and reason to say, ‘I told you so’ right now. However, I actually came over to apologize for arguing with you and walking out on you. I guess it doesn’t really matter very much right now. I’m sorry about what happened. Maybe if I’d been here, it wouldn’t have happened.”
                “Oh, don’t blame yourself. I never should have trusted him over you, my own brother. I’m sorry, Randy. Will you forgive me?”
                “I sure will. Now we have to figure out what to do from here.”
                “Well, the police said that they would alert the owner. They’ll call us if anything happens.”
                “We are going to have to learn to work together again. In a way, we were both in the wrong for letting this take precedence over our jobs,” Randy said.
                “In the meantime, we’ll have to find someone else to do Marc’s job. I think I’ll let you do the hiring this time.”
                “Thanks,” Randy laughed.


                Marc couldn’t hide from the law for too long. The Alliman brothers were able to assist the police department by checking all the license plate numbers in their registry (it had been Troy’s idea to keep such detailed records) and found that Marc had indeed switched the plates. The police were then able to trace the car and its thief to a statewide car-larceny ring. The gang trained its members in assuming fake identities and forging résumés so that they could steal autos from shops where they became employed. The vehicles, usually very expensive, were sold for huge profits in a neighboring state. Through working together, the Allimans were able to keep their auto shop running smoothly, and to help oust a car-robbery operation. They introduced a new person on the payroll soon, and were always very much more careful in hiring employees in the future. Meanwhile, Marc served an appropriate corrective sentence, and never again claimed to have knowledge of cars. After prison, he entered his more natural field of financial advisement



When Danielle Gutzman pulled into the Best Burger Restaurant Thursday morning, she was in a quite pleasant mood on a bright winter day in Cardinal City. It wasn’t very long, however, before she was quite disgusted. She had been employed at Best Burger for a year and a half and was very disappointed by the lack of hours which she was scheduled to work. This was the first day that she had worked in the week, and when she saw her schedule on the bulletin board, she realized that Saturday was the only other day that she would work in the week. After serving her first customer, she decided to ask her boss why her hours were so few.
“Virgil, why haven’t you scheduled me for any more hours this week?” she questioned her middle-aged African-American boss.
“Now, Danielle, ya know how business gets around here in the winter. Slow’r’n molasses in Janyary, if yu’ll pardon mah cliché. I simply cain’t afford to pay ya to work any more than that.”
“Well, yeah, but you know I’m trying to save up for college. I’ll never have enough for Loganston State at this rate.”
Virgil shrugged his shoulders. “Danielle, we’ve been through all this before. If you want to quit and get another job, that’s okay, but it’ll shore make things hard on us come summer. And I’m not firin’ you unless you practically force me to.”
The workday passed slowly, with a small amount of customers. Danielle drove home quickly, still upset at her boss’s seeming indifference to her situation. Since she worked after school, she usually arrived home after her family had eaten supper, so she ate by herself. After greeting her dad, mom, and two little sisters, she went to her changed out of her Best Burger uniform and prepared for supper. Her dad had cooked up a quick skillet dish after getting home from work. Her mother had to work late, so it looked like Danielle wouldn’t eat alone after all.
“How was your day at work, sweetie?” asked Mr. Gutzman.
“It was okay,” Danielle murmured.
“What’s wrong, Danielle? Did you have a rude customer like you did last week?” Mr. Gutzman queried.
“No, I’m just not getting any hours anymore. I wish I could find another job, but there’s no way I’m quitting. Virgil could never get a replacement for me.”
“No, Danielle, you’re not quitting. It’s not fair to your employer, and you know business will pick up in the summer. And I won’t have my daughter growing up to be a quitter. Look, there’s your mom. Would you open the door for her, please?” Mr. Gutzman said as he served Danielle her meal.
As Danielle related her predicament to her mother over dinner, she was formulating a plan. It may be my only chance to get more hours without quitting, she told herself. I’ll see what I can do on Saturday.


On Saturday morning, Danielle got to work right on time at eleven o’clock. She had a plan. It wasn’t really a good plan, but as far as she was concerned it was the best she could devise.
“Danielle, can you get a bucket of water ready and wipe off all the tables?” requested Virgil.
“All right,” Danielle answered. Perfect, she thought. Here we go.
It wasn’t a long while before Virgil confronted her. “Danielle, why are there suds in your water? You know we use sanitizer water in the bucket now, not soap and water.”
“Oh, that’s right! Whoops! Should I change it?”
“No, you can use it just this once. But next time, use the sanitizer water.”
“Okay,” Danielle replied. Her scheme was working perfectly so far, so she wasn’t really discouraged.
The Saturday lunch rush went very poorly, due to Danielle’s scheme. She purposely made mistakes and even ended up arguing with Carly, the cook. She was sure to show Virgil she was obviously doing a very careless job. This went on the whole day, but Danielle didn’t stop there. She continued on Wednesday, the day she worked next, and also on the next Friday and Saturday. Finally, Danielle thought it must be enough after work on Saturday. I’m going to go to Virgil and tell him I’m making all these mistakes because I’m rusty from not working enough. Surely he’ll give me some more hours now.
Danielle knocked on the door of Virgil’s office, even though it was open. “Virgil,” she addressed her boss, “I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“I’ve been wantin’ to talk to you about something, too, young lady; yer unsatisfactory job performance. For two weeks, you’ve been working lahk a new trainee, and it’s jist gone on too long.
                “You’re right, and I’m sorry. I haven’t been myself lately; I’ve been rusty. I’m afraid there’s only one thing to do: you’ll have to give me some more-”
“That’s right,” Virgil interrupted, “There’s only one thing to do. I’m sorry to say this, Danielle, but I’ll have to terminate ya.”
Danielle was shocked. “You mean – you mean, fire me?”
“That’s exactly what ah mean, Danielle. If you were trahn to git yerself fahred, you did a fine job of it these past few weeks. You’ve left me with no choice. With finances this tight, ah cain’t afford to pay ya if yer not doin’ any good. Ah’d ruther pay somebody ah kin train in.”
“But Virgil!” Danielle was on the verge of tears. “Don’t I get two weeks or something?”
“Nah, I won’t need ya much over the next two weeks anyways. You kin use the time to look for a new job, and ah’ll use it to train somebody new in. Lahk ah said, Danielle, ah’m sorry it has to be this way. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” Danielle said vaguely. The rapid change of events had nearly paralyzed her, and she walked numbly out the Best Burger door, and into her car, where she let all the tears and sobs out on the obliging steering wheel.
Now she had to determine what to do. She briefly considered taking the car and running away from home, but knew better than to escape a loving family. She finally made the difficult decision to go back home and tell her dad and mom, who would be home, all that had happened.
When Danielle walked in the door of her home, she knew her dad would be able to tell she had been crying. Somehow, he always could. Her mom would ask what was wrong and whether or not she wanted to talk about it. There was no use hiding it, and in this particular instance, she was not surprised. She told her parents everything, starting at the beginning. Mr. Gutzman, whose expression had scarcely changed through the conversation, told her what she needed to do. “Young lady, you’re going to go right back to Virgil, and confess what you did. You also never should have taken matters into your own hands that way. Didn’t you even pray about it? I didn’t think so. You’re going to tell him everything you told us now.”
“Right now?” Danielle asked.
Mr. Gutzman took a deep breath. “No. Monday.”
Mrs. Gutzman agreed. “That’ll give him a chance to realize how important you are to his restaurant.”


Monday came far too soon for Danielle. However, after school, she drove to Best Burger, parked, and hesitantly got out of her car. She would meet her dad there so that they could talk to him together, they had determined. However, Mr. Gutzman had made it quite clear that Danielle would take all the responsibility for her own actions.
Mr. Gutzman arrived soon, and he and Danielle went in at the same time.
Virgil had news for her, though, after accepting Danielle’s apology, and asking forgiveness for his perceived rashness. “Ah’m afraid ya cain’t have yer old job back.”
“What?! Did you already get someone new?” Danielle asked, surprised again.
“Yup. Had an interview this morning. He’s out there shovelin’ the snow as we speak. Real nice boy. I cain’t pay ya both, and he needs the job desperately for his family. Danielle, maybe this’ll work out fer the both of us. I’m sure a nice, honest young lady lahk yerself can find a job real quick in this town. I’m sorry, but yer days at Best Burger are over fer now.”
“No!” Danielle cried. “I love it here. There’s just no other job like this. Not even in the whole state.”
“Danielle, you’ll have to move on,” Mr. Gutzman insisted. “This job couldn’t supply the money that you need to make anyway. I promise we’ll still eat here often.”
                “You’re right, Dad,” Danielle sighed. “I guess there’s no sense wishing for something I can’t have.”

                Virgil was right. Danielle did find another job soon, working a job five days a week, four and one-half hours a day. She also got into Loganston State University the next fall, and graduated with minimal college debt. She also was employed near the Loganston campus. It may not be worth mentioning that she was very up front with her employers about her jobs from then on.


“Good morning, Pastor,” Todd Newhelm announced as he entered the 15th Street Biblical Church on a clear, bright Sunday morning in September in Cardinal City.
Middle-aged Pastor Brooks greeted him and shook the elderly member’s hand. “It’s good to see you today, Todd. Have you been feeling poorly lately? We’ve missed you around here.”
 “Oh, I was in bed with the flu last week. The week before, I was traveling to Texas to see my son and daughter-in-law.”
“You went to Texas? You never told me about that. How was it?”
“It was good to see a lot of my family again. I must’ve forgotten to tell you, though.” Todd paused. “You know, even with health problems and failing memory, it still gives me joy to come into the house of the Lord.”
“That’s good to hear, Todd,” Pastor replied, and smiles broke out on both their faces.
 After the congregational singing, Pastor Brooks went to the pulpit to deliver his sermon. He preached on the eschatological meaning of Ezekiel 38. After the final prayer, he went to the back of the church to shake the attendees’ hands.
Todd came nearly last of all the people and complimented Pastor on his message. “You make everything seem so clear. That’s a tough passage, and you got through just fine, and I was able to understand it all. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Todd. Honestly, I worry about how hard it’s going to be for people to catch the concepts in some of my messages,” Pastor Brooks replied.
“Well, I’ll probably see you next week.” Todd did not attend evening services because he liked to be in bed by eight o’clock at night.
“Yes. Have a good week.” Pastor smiled and waved as Todd exited the old small-town church, which had existed for over one hundred and fifty years in Cardinal City.


That night, Todd was watching the evening cable news when the phone rang. He picked it up and heard Pastor Brooks’ voice on the other end of the line.
“Todd,” Pastor began, “are you busy?”
“No,” Todd answered, “I’m just watching the news. Oh, for the good ol’ days with Walter Cronkite,” he grinned.
Pastor chuckled, and then asked, “Can I have a talk with you about something tomorrow morning?”
“Sure,” Todd responded. “Did you want to meet somewhere?”
“Yes, preferably. How about Jane’s Coffeehouse at seven-forty-five?”
“Sounds good. I’ll see you then.”

                When Todd walked up to the counter at Jane’s Coffeehouse the next morning, Terry Cole, the proprietor, gave him a broad smile and asked, “How may I help you?”
                Todd ordered a bagel and a mug of freshly-brewed coffee. He paid for his meal, and soon Pastor walked in, greeted Todd and Terry, and ordered a donut and a mug of hot chocolate, and prepared to pay for his order.
                “Put that wallet away, Pastor,” Todd ordered, “I’ll pay for this.”
                “No, that’s all right; I can pay for my own meal,” Pastor argued.
                “No, I insist.”
                “Am I gonna get paid for this or not?” Terry Cole grinned. “I have to make a living somehow, you know.”
                “All, right, Todd, you can cover it,” Pastor Brooks finally relented.
                The two sat down after receiving their food, and quickly commenced a conversation. “Uh, Todd,” Pastor began, “I don’t know exactly how to say this, but somehow I feel there’s something wrong with the way I’m leading my congregation.”
                “What do you mean?” Todd asked.
                “Well, I don’t know, I guess I just don’t see people getting enough out of my messages anymore.”
“Could you give me an example?”
“Well, last Sunday morning, I gave a sermon on the eschatological concepts found in Ezekiel thirty-eight. On Sunday night, actually, after I called you, I gave a quiz to test how much people remembered from the message. Only a very few people got more than a couple questions right! You yourself said that I’d explained the passage well, but no one seemed to really take anything away from it. What am I doing wrong, Todd?”
“Pastor, I have an idea what your problem might be. However, I also have an idea on how I can pinpoint it for sure.”
“Well, next Sunday, give a sermon on Psalm twenty-three. Mention how it has impacted your life, and give encouragement about how it can apply to any Christian’s life. Don’t focus on the meaning of each Hebrew word, focus on what the Lord is saying in the chapter and try to emphasize the power of the Lord’s protection that’s found in verse four.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem like much of a challenge to a preacher, but I’ll give it a try.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear! Now you’ll need to give a quiz on Psalm twenty-three on Sunday evening. Meet me right here, next Monday, and tell me how it went.”


                Pastor Brooks was at the coffeehouse early on the following Monday, and nearly beat Todd. When the time came for Todd to pick up his tab, Pastor smiled and said, “Now, Todd, I’ll pay for that.”
                “Well! It’s nice to see you have some compassion on an old man like me, instead of making me pay for everything like you did last time!” Todd Newhelm joked.
                Pastor rolled his eyes. “I just had to wait till you were finished ordering, or you might have splurged on me!” he retorted.
                When their food was served, Pastor sat down with a glow in his eyes. “Todd, the most amazing thing happened on Sunday!”
                “Really?” Todd grinned.
                “Yes! Everyone had something to say about my sermon. It seemed that there wasn’t a person there who didn’t take something away from the message. Todd, what did you do?”
                “It wasn’t anything I did. And, yes, I got a lot out of your message, too. Something seemed to be different about the way you preached.”
                “Todd, what was it? What did you do?” Pastor persisted.
                “Like I said, I didn’t do anything! You did it – you actually preached from your heart.”
                “What do you mean?”
                “All that doctrine, everything you preached on from Ezekiel thirty-eight – all of that came from your head. It was ‘head knowledge’, if you will. You knew it perfectly, and had great understanding, but it didn’t have any effect on your deeper emotions. But it’s different with Psalm twenty-three, isn’t it? When you read that first as a child, and then later as an adult, it’s etched into your heart. On the other hand, with a passage like Ezekiel thirty-eight, it’s just in your head, and hasn’t translated into your heart yet. Pastor, there’s nothing wrong with preaching on Ezekiel thirty-eight, but unless you familiarize yourself with something other than all the technical ideas and apply it to your life – and then preach that way, from your heart, then no one’s going to take away anything that they can apply to their life. You were so caught up in the intellectual aspect of the passage that you forgot the bigger picture. But Psalm twenty-three, well, as a child, when you learn that, you’re never concerned about anything technical, you simply find comfort because ‘His rod and his staff, they comfort’ you.”
                “I get it!” Pastor exclaimed; then he paused. “Todd, thank you so much. By the way, most everyone aced the quiz I gave in the evening.”
                “I’m not surprised.”
                “I guess there’re going to be a few changes at 15th Street Biblical Church from now on. I’ll try to put what you said into practice.”
                “Remember to pray about it, too.”
                “I’ll do that. You know. I’m very glad I called you up last Sunday evening.”
                “So am I – even if you did interrupt my watching the news,” Todd chuckled, and after groaning, Pastor joined in laughing.


 “Now, were we working on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” last?” Music teacher Sara Burke sat down in a chair next to the piano bench on which her student, Matt Ramsey, sat, at her home in Cardinal City.
“Uh-huh,” Matt mumbled.
 “Well, let’s hear it,” she said brightly.
The piece was full of mistakes. Matt couldn’t grasp the rhythm or seem to hit the right notes without struggling for each one a few times. Thus, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” sounded as sweet and joyful as the howling of a wolf in the desert. It was not pleasant. Mrs. Burke sighed. Again she would admonish Matt to practice and play with confidence. She did every week, so it was nothing new.
“Matt, what do you think of when you hear this song?”
“I dunno. Joy, I guess,” he muttered.
“Did it sound very joyful?”
Matt hung his head. “No.”
“Matt, why can’t you play this with any confidence? We’ve been working on it for over a month. I know you know this piece, if you’ve been practicing as well as you say you have been. If you know a song, you have to have faith that your fingers will find the right notes. You can’t be straining like that. Why don’t you relax and just let your knowledge of it carry you through playing?”
                ‘I can’t… play – with other people around. I get – n-nervous.”
                “But, Matt, you know me. I’m your teacher!”
                “Doesn – Doesn’t matter.” He sniffled.
So the lesson went. Matt would play a piece poorly and feel whatever miniscule amount of confidence that he had disappear. Thirty minutes went by and all of Mrs. Burke’s encouraging and admonishment was of no effect. When Matt went home that day, he was no more confident than a snail facing a cheetah in the 100-yard dash.
Mrs. Burke sighed again. “I have to find a way to get for Matt to get some confidence in himself,” she said to herself after he had left.
The next week was a special event for Mrs. Burke and her piano students. “Today I want you to choose a recital piece, Matt!”
Matt looked at her strangely. “A… recital piece?”
Mrs. Burke paused. Then she said, “Matt, we’ve been through this countless times before. Sooner or later you’ll have to play in front of people. If you don’t learn it now, you’ll never know how.”
“But I can’t play with an audience. I just can’t!”
Mrs. Burke studied Matt. He was a young boy of thirteen years, an introvert to the extreme, but nonetheless very polite, studious, and talented in many respects, including piano-playing. “Matt,” she inquired, how do you play this piece when you’re alone?” she said, referring to “Ode to Joy”, and placing it upon the music rack.
“A lot better than when people are around. I can’t even play with my parents in the house.”
“When do you practice?”
“When they’re both at work.”
“Well, you need to practice this when you can. If it’s your recital piece, that is.”
“Mrs. Burke, I can’t do a recital piece!”
“Matt, we’re not going to argue about this. You’re going to play something at the recital. I won’t have one of my students not participating while the rest are giving this their best efforts. Matt, it’s not that difficult. Just allow the piece to flow through you. Focus on the music and what it means to you instead of the people who are hearing you. If you don’t make mistakes, they won’t laugh at you.”
“I – I’ll give it a try.”
“That’s good enough for me.”
After a much more productive lesson, Mrs. Burke addressed Matt. “Matt, you’re my last student today. Would you like a cup of tea before you leave?”
Matt obliged. He and Mrs. Burke had a conversation over the beverage at the kitchen table. “Matt, I want you to succeed as a pianist. I want you to do your best. And I know you know these songs. Today you did a lot better at your playing. You just have to focus on what the composer intended to be said through what he wrote, not on your audience.”
“I understand,” Matt replied. “I’ll try to do that. It’s just difficult for me because I’m not around a lot of people very often.”
“Well, you’ll have to work through that. You’re a tough boy; you can handle a lot. Personally, I like to think of the worst possible scenario, such as you messing up and everyone making fun of you, and then going through that in my mind and logically realizing why that won’t happen. If you do that, you’ll recognize that there’s not much for you to fear.”
“’The only thing we have to fear is… fear itself!’” Matt intoned, mimicking Franklin Roosevelt.
                Mrs. Burke chuckled. “Franklin Roosevelt probably had more to fear than he realized.” She paused. “Matt, I have problems with something, too. I’ve always found it very hard to be alone for an extended period of time. I’m constantly afraid something will happen that I can’t control. I get so nervous some afternoons when Frank’s at work that I don’t even think to do my worst-case scenario exercise. But I know better than to hide in fear of the unknown. I try to confront my fears.”
                “Mrs. Burke, I don’t know how you can be afraid of being alone! It’s great to have all that privacy, no one to expect anything of you, no one to have to try to talk to. I enjoy my time alone the most! Although I can see how it would be hard to be away from your husband.”
                “Well, that’s the difference between us; you enjoy being by yourself, I enjoy being with other people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either type of personality; it’s simply when we are reluctant to get out of our comfort zones and aren’t relying on the Lord to give us strength that we slip into the pitfall of fear. I guess I hadn’t brought that up yet. You need to pray about this, Matt. If there’s one person with whom you feel comfortable talking, it should be God.”
                “Yes, that makes sense. Well, thank you very much for the tea. I enjoyed talking with you. I’ll try to put everything you said into practice, but, for now, I need to get home.” He moved toward the door.                                “I’ll see you next week!”
                “See ya. Thanks again!”
*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

                It was not long before the day of the recital arrived. The Cardinal City Center for the Performing Arts, located right next to City Hall, and used for recitals, plays, and concerts, hosted the event. Though Cardinal City was not a large town, many people attended. The residents of Cardinal City have always possessed a deep appreciation for music, so the center was ‘packed’, as Matt put it. “Packed,” he said, “with people who are all going to laugh at me if I goof up.”
                “But you won’t mess up if you just focus on the music, Matt!” Mrs. Burke laughed as she prepared for the recital, impending then in a half-hour. They had gone through this discussion numerous times in the weeks preceding the recital. Matt’s performance had steadily progressed during that time. Simultaneously, Mrs. Burke had felt a greater confidence while alone at home. Matt had been helping her.
                “Just think about something else. Occupy yourself with something useful and profitable,” he had said.” She was grateful for his advice. Here I am, trying to build up his confidence, and my confidence is growing, she thought.
                Soon the recital had begun, and Matt’s piece came quickly; perhaps too quickly for his comfort. He had indeed chosen “Ode to Joy”, a wise choice due to its expressive nature. He did not find it difficult anymore to let Beethoven’s nuances and wishes flow through him and onto the keys. When it was his turn, he simply shut out the mass of humanity watching his every move and concentrated on the music. It was a grand performance. From the first chord to the last, every note breathed of the joy and exuberance that its author had intended.
                The applause was thunderous. Matt had turned a simple tune into a masterpiece simply by letting its significance express itself in a way. He no longer strained to perfect every chord or time each note’s duration exactly. The perfection of his playing seemed effortless, but much hard work had gone into it.
                Mrs. Burke had observed with admiration. She was proud of him for his determination and his willingness to participate. During the time of refreshments following the recital, Mrs. Burke sat and talked with Matt. “Matt, I’m very proud of you. You did a fantastic job.”
                “I’m glad you talked me into it,” Matt grinned. “I was reluctant at first, but I enjoyed it. I guess being in front of people isn’t so bad if you really have a feel what you’re doing.”
                “And I’ve learned that being alone isn’t difficult if you can be occupied and not focused on the dangers.”
                “I guess we’ve both learned a lot, haven’t we?”
                “Next time, I’ll have to give you something longer than ‘Ode to Joy’!” Mrs. Burke grinned.
                Thus, they had both influenced each other; Matt would never be nervous again with a piece he felt and knew, and Mrs. Burke’s afternoons alone became much brighter and more productive. In trying to help each other, each had found the other helping him or herself. Two lives had been improved, and likely changed forever, by merely the persistence of a teacher, and the determination of a student.