The conclusion of our ghostly yarn...
Ebenezer felt the presence of the third ghost before he saw him. It was as though a hundred windows had been thrown open in the dead of winter. The shiver he felt, though, had nothing to do with the temperature.
“Are you... are you... The Ghost of Per Capita Yet To Come?
Standing at the foot of his bed was a truly spectral figure, whose emaciated form made the other two wraiths look positively corpulent by comparison.
Ebenezer’s latest visitor was wearing a threadbare pulpit robe. Emerging from the robe’s neck and arm openings were the bleached bones of a skeleton. The ghost seemed to stare at him through its gaping eye-sockets, but Ebenezer could discern no hint of emotion nor personality within those dark recesses.
By way of response, the specter only raised its arm and crooked one bony finger in a beckoning gesture.
Ebenezer had barely swung his feet off the edge of the bed and into his slippers before he found himself, along with the ghost, standing inside a dusty antique shop.
“How may I help you?” asked the clerk of a customer.
“I have something to sell.” The customer, a balding, middle-aged man with bags under his eyes and a glum look on his face, reached into a battered cardboard box and pulled out a sterling-silver communion set: four plates, four circular cup-holders, and two slightly-tarnished silver covers.
“And how did you come by this?” asked the dealer, her eyes narrowing.
“Don’t worry, it’s not stolen. You know Second Presbyterian Church, on the east side of town?”
“That’s the one they built in the 1950s as the new suburbs were starting to go up, right?”
“The very same. I can see you know your local history. Well, that church closed its doors a couple months ago. I serve on a Presbytery committee in charge of liquidating the congregation’s assets.”
“A sad business, no doubt about it. This has always been a town of church steeples. Yet, if the community’s affection for its churches goes no deeper than admiring historic architecture – God help us!”
“Tell me about it. Anyway, what can you give us for this communion set?”
The dealer looked back at him for a moment, as though choosing her words carefully. “Let me show you something.” The dealer led her customer back behind the counter, into a storeroom. “Look up there on the shelf.”
The customer looked, and saw a whole row of communion sets, visible through the twist-tied plastic bags in which each of them were wrapped.
“These are all similar to your set. Products of church-supply houses in the fifties or sixties. Good silver plating, well cared-for, but too recently-manufactured to have any antiquarian value. I’m not sure I’ll be able to sell these I’ve already got. They may have to go to the scrap dealer. There’s just no market for them anymore."
“Sorry to say, I can’t even make you an offer. But, let me ask you this. Are you getting rid of any church pews? Restaurants love to have those, so their customers have someplace to sit as they’re waiting for their tables. If you’ve got pews, and they’re in decent shape, then we can deal.”
With a creaking of bones, and with surprising swiftness, the ghostly guide swung the loose drapery of its robe over Droodge’s head, as a matador mastering a bull. When the specter brought it back down again, the two of them were standing in a church meeting-room, where a group of people sat around folding tables.
“It appears you’ve brought me to a church, spirit,” said Ebenezer. “But, which one?”
His question was answered momentarily. “Please call up page A-5 from your Session packet on your smartphone and have a look at this proposal,” said the minister (who was nobody Ebenezer recognized – no surprise, this being the future). “As we finalize First Church of New Geneva’s budget for the coming year, we’re going to have to take into account some new expenses we haven’t had to consider before. We’re due for our triennial visit from the Committee on Ministry, and you know their consultant fee has been set at $250. It’s going up to $300. We’ve grown quite used to paying that lower fee, which as you know is called the Presbytery Triennial User Interaction fee – PTUI, for short.”
“I remember the days when the Committee on Ministry people used to come for free,” said one of the elders, wistfully.
“Me too,” said the pastor, “but I’m afraid those days aren’t coming back. Now, we’ve been told, the Presbytery is levying a new fee. They’re calling it the Rental Offset Transfer fund, or ROT. You know the user fees local churches have been charging the Presbytery when they host Presbytery meetings? Those keep going up, so the only way the Presbytery can cover those fees is to create this ROT fund, and bill every church a hundred bucks a year to fill it. (That doesn’t sound like much, I know, but you can count on that expense going higher in future years.)”
The same elder leaned back in her chair and sighed. The pastor noticed, and jumped in: “Yes, Phyllis, you and I both remember when congregations considered it an honor to host a Presbytery meeting, and wouldn’t have dreamed of charging user fees. Some of them even refused the offering taken up to cover the cost of lunch, suggesting it be used for mission. Yet, after the per capita system fell apart and presbyteries changed over to a fee-for-services philosophy, the churches retaliated with the user fees. It’s been downhill ever since.”
Speaking again to the whole Session, the pastor continued: “In case any of you are wondering, that’s why we’ve been holding a couple Presbytery meetings by Skype each year – we lose something in the face-to-face contact department, but at least the Presbytery can save on user fees. A big difficulty with the Skyped meetings, of course, is that there’s no good way to celebrate Communion. Somebody’s come up with a creative solution, though. They’ve located a supplier of communion elements that’s still selling an ingenious, older product. It looks like two restaurant single-serving creamers glued together at the base. They say they used to use them in the old drive-in churches that were popular towards the end of the 20th Century. One side has a cube of bread inside it, and the other’s filled with grape juice. Presbytery commissioners will be able to order those online, in advance, using a major credit card, and have them shipped right to their homes. A larger church like us, that sends several commissioners to Presbytery, can save money by submitting a bulk order and asking our commissioners to pick them up here at the church. You’ll see that on line 127 of the proposed church budget. It’s listed as ‘ERP,’ or ‘Elements Redistribution Plan’”
Ebenezer looked plaintively at the Ghost of Per Capita Yet To Come. “Can we please go now?” he asked.
The ghost nodded, slowly and deliberately, then cast the loose end of its robe over the treasurer’s shoulders once again.
Their next destination was very different. It was a dirty, noisy, honky-tonk bar – complete with neon beer signs on the wall, a couple of blaring jukeboxes competing with each other and a continuing chatter of billiard balls in the background.
Ebenezer squinted his eyes in the semi-darkness. At the end of the bar sat a hugely overweight man in his mid-30s, wearing a sleeveless denim shirt with the words “Hell’s Angels” embroidered across the back. His head was shaved, his scraggly beard was braided and a gold earring dangled from one ear.
“Hey, Tiny!” shouted the bartender. “Looky what just came in the door. Fresh jailbait!”
A heavily-eyeshadowed teenaged girl had just tottered into the place on high heels. She looked to be no older than 15 – although, in the dim light of the place, it was hard to say.
“Yeah, Tiny,” the talkative barkeep continued. “She looks real fine, just the way you like ‘em. Should I tell her you’re buying her first drink?”
Tiny only grunted.
“She looks so fresh and innocent, like she just walked out of Sunday School class or something.”
With surprising quickness, Tiny swung his meaty hand across the bar and grabbed the bartender by the throat. In a low whisper, he growled these beery words into the bartender’s face: “Tiny’s only gonna say this once, punk, so listen up. I put up with a lot of your drivel, but let me warn you about one thing. Tiny don’t like it none when you talk bad about Sunday School!”
“Okay, okay,” said the rattled bartender. “No offense. Who woulda guessed?”
Ebenezer turned to the ghost. “Tiny... Tiny! You’re not trying to tell me that’s...”
The specter nodded gravely.
“Barb Cratchit would be devastated to see this. Please, I can’t take it anymore. Can we move on?”
Moments later, Ebenezer found himself on a sidewalk, next to a stone building. Night was falling. The street looked vaguely familiar to him, but he couldn’t quite identify where they were. But, wait, he thought to himself. The outline of the building against the starry sky – he had seen it before. Of course! It was his beloved church!
Ebenezer noticed a soft, orange glow emanating from a new electric sign that pointed away from the place where he and the specter were standing. “Well, well, I guess Earl must have finally gotten his way,” he chuckled to himself. Earl chaired the church’s Evangelism Committee. He’d always been after the Session to put up a better-quality illuminated sign. Ebenezer had opposed the new sign, back in the day, as being too extravagant an expense.
Ebenezer walked over to the front of the sign to see what kind of job Earl had done picking it out. Knowing Earl, it would be eye-catching – everything a good marketing aid should be.
What he saw on the front of the sign took the old Presbyterian’s breath away. At the top was a single word, a bright orange beacon to the community:
“Noooooooo!” wailed Ebenezer as his legs buckled under him. He collapsed to his knees, before falling flat on his face on what had once been the church lawn.
The next thing Ebenezer knew, the morning sun was shining through his bedroom curtains. He sat bolt upright in bed and looked around. There was no sign of any of his ghostly visitors.
What day is it, he asked himself? How long had he been asleep?
Running over to the window, he threw up the sash. Sticking his head out, he saw a boy lazily rolling down the sidewalk on a skateboard. “Boy!” he called out. “Boy!”
Startled at the voice that seemed to come from nowhere, the boy looked all around him, then finally upwards at Droodge’s second-story window.
“Boy, do me a favor, please. Could you tell me what day it is?”
“Sunday! Praise God, the spirits have done it all in one night!”
The boy looked up at him like he’d gone off his meds.
Just then, a nearby church bell started ringing. Ebenezer would have recognized the tone of that bell anywhere. It belonged to his own church. “That bell!” he called down to the boy in the street. “Do you hear it? Isn’t that the most beautiful sound in all the world?”
The boy could think of quite a number of sounds he liked better, but he decided to humor the old codger. He nodded his head.
“O blessed bell!” cried Ebenezer. “Oh, glorious church! I knew, in my heart of hearts, they could never make you into a Hooters!”
The kid gave up all pretense of politeness, then, and set off down the sidewalk as fast as his board could carry him.
Sunday, Sunday, Ebenezer said to himself. Wasn’t there something special happening at church this Sunday?
It came to him, then. The Congregational Meeting! Ebenezer calculated that, if he threw on yesterday’s wrinkled clothes, without wasting too much time contemplating his unshaven face in the mirror, he could just about make it on time.
As he was pulling on his trousers, a wave of mirth washed over him, so he very nearly lost his balance and fell. “I know what I’ll do!” he cried out in glee. “It’s perfect! It’s something they’ll never expect. I’ll walk into that Congregational Meeting and announce that I’m writing a check for the entire outstanding amount the church owes for per capita this year!”
Droodge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim – who did not join the Hell’s Angels, after Droodge helped pay for his college education – he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a treasurer, as good a man – and as tireless an advocate for per capita – as the good old church knew, or any other good old church in the good old world.
The (Great) End
Copyright © 2010 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved, although the author gives permission for this story to be reproduced in publications of local congregations or governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as long as proper attribution is given and it is not used for commercial purposes.