I was sitting at my desk wearing a white-collared shirt with a rust-colored stain shaped like New Jersey on one sleeve, right where a tattoo ought to be. My shoes were spit-polished, and my pin-striped trousers had creases sharp enough to thin-slice Taylor ham.
I looked exactly like a private eye.
Not that I am a private eye. The road of life takes some crazy turns, and one doozy of a jughandle turned me into a preacher instead. Served a quarter century at the only Jesus Joint left in town: Third First Presbyterian of Morris Mill. It’s a one-horse church in a one-horse town. But a town without a cop, a slammer, or even a bank to rob still has all those troubles that fester in the human heart.
It was a Saturday morning in early June and already hotter than sin. The good citizens of Morris Mill were at home praying — praying their air conditioners still worked now that the season for furnace prayers had been snuffed out.
Not me. If I prayed for a luxury like air conditioning, it would only be cancelled out by the prayers of the Building Maintenance Committee that their two-bit budget could cover the latest water stains and plaster cracks. Right then, the only things covering those eyesores were needlepoint Bible verses, scads of them, slapped up on every surface and about as useful as Band-Aids on a stiff.
No, I sat in my needlepoint-enshrouded office that morning — eyes closed, hands folded, sweat flowing free as salvation — praying that the people of Third First Presbyterian would spend less time stitching The Word and more time living it. A knock at the door shook me like a wet dog.
“Enter,” I called.
Two dames stood in my office doorway. I looked them over from their silver hair to their white orthotics and all the pastel leisurewear in between. The usual culprits. Eunice “The Mop” Masterson and Janice “Dust-Up” Dickens, elderly cousins who scrub the sanctuary with soap on Saturdays and polish the pews with their posteriors on Sundays. And apparently spend the rest of the week stitching samplers.
“Pastor Eekhorn, we have a problem.” Janice’s bright pink lipstick grimaced. No sweat, I thought (metaphorically speaking). Every week these dames call on me to solve some problem. Last week’s were The Mystery of the Missing Mop and The Secret of the Stained Sink.
Eunice nodded and giggled. “Big problem. We’ve got uninvited guests.”
That socked me in the gut. I was nineteen sermons into a ten-sermon series called How to Make Like a Church and Welcome Anyone. I threw in a twentieth, on the spot and free of charge: “Uninvited? No such thing. Anyone can board at this Sanctification Station. Guests are to a church what gin is to a martini: the more, the merrier.”
Janice pursed her pastel pouters. “We have enough problems keeping our beautiful, historic church preserved without hordes of outsiders adding to the wear and tear.” She pointed to a sampler on my left: “Charity begins at home.”
“That’s not from the Good Book,” I told her. “But that is.” I pointed to a bigger sampler on my right: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
“We’re off topic,” she huffed. “Eunice didn’t mean uninvited guests; she meant uninvited pests. Squirrels.”
Squirrels. The bane of Morris Mill. Gangsters in fuzzy, gray suits. Squirrels are the reason you won’t find an egg hunt on the church lawn after our Easter service. Three years ago, all the visiting grandkids ran outside in their spiffy new Easter threads holding their spiffy new Easter baskets only to find every last plastic egg lying open in the grass, empty as the grave. The Easter symbolism left my eyes misty, but not as misty as those kids’ eyes.
“We went up the belfry tower to tidy the storage room and found compromising evidence,” Janice continued. “Leaves and twigs everywhere.”
Ah. The Case of the Cluttered Cupola. The Legend of the Leaf-Littered Loft.
“I’m on the case,” I announced, standing up.
Eunice rubbed her hands together and giggled. “Judgment Day for those soulless little buggers.”
Strong words coming from the dame responsible for the stitching over my office door: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
I led the way up the narrow stairs to a small room in the bell tower to stake out the alleged lair. The hot, humid air pressed in like a guilty conscience. Outside the grimy windows, a handful of businesses and houses stretched down Main Street to the Millstone River like a boozer reaching for another pint. Inside skulked shifty piles of cardboard boxes, Christmas decorations, and rummage sale leftovers, as dusty and under-used as the average household Bible. Scattered among them were twigs and dead leaves. Possibly blown in through the broken tower windows, possibly carried in by squirrels.
“Look, Pastor Eekhorn!” Janice pointed to a corner where the thick dust was sprinkled with tiny, cross-hatched prints.
“Squirrel prints,” I said grimly.
A shudder passed over Janice and Eunice like a boardwalk gull over a fresh funnel cake.
I grabbed a large box labeled “Nativity Costumes” that held brown shepherd robes and purple wise-guy tunics. We hadn’t done a Nativity play in donkey’s years. Apart from the bewildered grandchildren in the C&E (Christmas and Easter) crowd, the average attendee on any Sunday would need a cane, a crane, and a chiropractor after dressing like a shepherd and kneeling before a manger.
“Check these costumes for damage,” I told Eunice. She eyed the box the way a newcomer eyes the collection plate, then picked up a blue shawl between finger and thumb and gave it a wary shake. No squirrels fell out, so she went back to breathing. I went back to the pile. I was determined to get to the bottom of this.
Janice grabbed the blue shawl from Eunice. “Is this the Mary costume? I haven’t seen this in ages!”
“I miss Nativity plays,” said Eunice. “They were such a meaningful part of Christmas.”
I couldn’t resist pushing my usual agenda. “If we start that after-school childcare program I keep proposing, we could help working parents in our community and stir up enough kids to do a Nativity play.”
That got their knickers in a knot. “Neighborhood kids? In here? The same ones who tear across my lawn? Imagine the mess! Imagine the plaster they’d shake off these historic walls!”
I mentally re-titled tomorrow’s sermon Living the Word, Not Flipping the Bird: Cultivating a Loving Spirit for Your Community, as I wrestled aside a heap of heavy black curtains. The dust cleared to reveal a rough wooden box stuffed with moldy straw.
“The Nativity manger! What a nice surprise!” Janice exclaimed.
That wasn’t the only surprise. As I approached it, the straw stirred. Out popped a squirrel.
We stared at it, and it at us, with all the horror of an atheist at the Second Coming.
As a seasoned man of the cloth, I’m not proud to tell what happened next: I screamed in unholy terror. Eunice and Janice joined in with the soprano line.
At our noise, the squirrel began whizzing around the joint — pile to pile and rafter to rafter — like an apocalyptic pinball.
I stood there with my mug in my paws, my ticker in my gut, and a final prayer on my lips. Until the squirrel cut short. It perched on a rafter above us, panting and scolding.
Janice and Eunice stayed glued in place, eyes wide, mouths wider, still squealing like middle-aged moms at a Bon Jovi concert.
“Can it!” I barked. Janice and Eunice, stunned by my un-pastor-like tone, canned it like Campbells. My eyes stayed locked and loaded on the squirrel. I grabbed the nearest weapon ― a shepherd staff from the Christmas props.
Then we heard another sound. A rustling sound. It came from the manger.
We looked down. Three newborn squirrels squirmed in the straw, barely able to lift their heads. They were naked, pink, and shiny with dark bulges for eyes and maggot-like tails.
Janice and Eunice gasped in horror. “Disgusting!” whispered Eunice.
“Hideous!” added Janice. “But that should make your task easier, Pastor.”
“My task?” My task was solving a mystery. And now it was solved: Squirrels. In the belfry.
“Your task,” Janice repeated firmly. “Eliminating these future garden-plundering, belfry-squatting reprobates. What’s your plan? Something Biblical perhaps? A fiery furnace? A stoning? A thump with that shepherd’s staff? What’s your modus operandi?”
That stopped me. Do preachers have an M.O.? I realized I did. Moving stealthily, I chucked the staff, nabbed the Mary costume, and gently tucked it around the babies. That hay looked scratchy.
“Pastor Eekhorn! What are you doing?” Janice demanded.
I stood up. “My M.O. Learned it from the Big Guy.”
“Don’t start that whole ‘His eye is on the sparrow’ bit! These aren’t sweet, innocent birds nibbling at our feeders. These are hideous, gluttonous, useless, destructive vermin responsible for ruination and despair!”
“Agreed,” I said. “Nothing like sparrows. More like us.”
Janice and Eunice couldn’t have looked more outraged if I had rerouted Route One through their front yards. I clarified in my deepest, most sonorous preacher voice:
“We are all naked baby squirrels in the eyes of the Lord.”
There’s a line they don’t teach at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Before Janice and Eunice could call down Levitical curses on my head, a ray of sunshine broke through the dirt-streaked windows and shone down on the manger. The naked pinkness of the baby squirrels seemed to glow and pulsate. Eww.
Janice gaped. “God doesn’t see me as being that disgustingly, hideously…”
I gave her a stern, convicting look. That’s something they do teach at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Janice looked from me to the squirrels. I was watching her face, when seven decades of sermons about undeserved grace sunk in at once. Her eyes lit up like the MetLife Stadium.
“Good God!” she exclaimed.
“Merciful heavens!” added Eunice, laying her hand on her heart.
They backed down the belfry stairs with a reverence usually reserved for Cake Boss sightings, leaving me with the squirrels. The mother clasped her paws together as if in prayer.
“Ha,” I told her. “I’m not impressed. A praying squirrel is nothing compared to what I just witnessed. Who knew a rodent could pack more punch than a month of Sundays?”
That’s when I realized I was talking to a squirrel. I hightailed downstairs before it could talk back.
Janice and Eunice were standing in front of a sampler reading, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.”
“Morris Mill children like squirrels, right?” Janice said slowly. “If neighborhood children gathered here after school, do you think they’d help us deliver little dishes of birdseed to the belfry?”
“Maybe they’d like to learn needlepoint!” said Eunice. “They could help stitch samplers to cover those water stains in the bell tower. Ooh! And little nest quilts!”
They scooted off to scheme and scrub. I stood there feeling more shaken and stirred than a Ritalin addict’s martini. Third First Presbyterian hadn’t dropped its stitching habit. But it was one baby-squirrel-sized step closer to something big.
Sharri Bockheim Steen is a freelance medical writer and member of the Princeton-based writing group Room at the Table. She lives in Rocky Hill with her husband, two children, and a yard-full of well fed squirrels.