Humor Fiction posted July 6, 2011


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A story about superficiality

Trimming Trees For God

by JeffreyStone

A sprawling live–oak reached skyward, its roots no more than twenty feet from Edward Tinsley’s backdoor. It was one of many such trees populating his sixty-acre estate. The hundred-year-old limbs provided an umbrella of shade over the backyard. The  trunk was the altar at which he gave thanks to a mythical being each morning as he and Bowser, the dog, peed against the mighty oak.   
 
Mr. Tinsley was not a pious man. He did not attend church regularly. However, once each year, he donned a suit and tie for the annual Christmas play at The One and Only True Baptist Church of Galaxy, Mississippi. He also accompanied his demure little wife, Juniper, to the Sunrise Service every Easter Sunday. As far as Edward was concerned, this was almost enough to get him into heaven, if there was such a place—this and his generous contributions to the church.
 
The Baptist absolutes, instilled in him from childhood, had mutated into dubiousness over the years. Even so, Edward’s doubts had not entirely silenced the small internal voice occasionally reminding him a greater power than he was still in control. He had no desire to evoke God’s wrath and was determined to compensate for the burgeoning agnosticism gradually anchoring itself to his religious thought. By giving generously to the church through his proxy, Juniper, he attempted to assuage any possible ire directed at him from Jehovah.    
 
If the Good Lord accepts second-hand devotion then Edward’s salvation was assured by Juniper’s representation. She attended church twice on Sundays, prayer meetings on Wednesday, and choir practice two other nights of the week. She was active in all manner of volunteer and fundraising events for the poor.  Edward was content in the good works of his saintly wife and happy to provide a monthly tithe to the church that exceeded all its collections from other sources. He also donated a large portion of the mortgage payment each month for the training hall being erected as an adjunct to the church.
 
 While Edward may have questioned his own eternal salvation, there were no such doubts in the mind of Pastor, Elvis Goodfellow, who would never look a gift horse in the mouth. And although he might have viewed Mr. Tinsley as a queer sort, his nouveaux riche financial support and petite little wife were highly valued by the reverend. It was perfectly fine for Edward Tinsley to play golf on Sunday morning while the church accepted his tithing and prayed for him in absentia. However, unbeknownst to everyone, a fateful event was about to occur that would throw a kink into the cogs of this smooth functioning arrangement.  
 
Following a Sunday morning golf outing, Edward turned his A.M. radio dial toward the sounds of Classic Country Music. Mistaking the nasally voice of the announcer with that of his favorite country disk jockey, he stopped searching and listened to Brother Jimmy Swindle’s Trimming Trees for God Ministry.   
 
As the organ rendition of All Is Well With My soul—played by the preacher’s wife—faded, Brother Jimmy began to speak. 
 
“We,” he said, “are like those giant live-oak trees you see growing all over this part of our state. They are magnificent indeed, but like each one of us, they are not perfect. Limbs die, branches grow excessively long, and carpenter ants invade their trunks. Like us, dear friends, they need an occasional trimming; they need to be treated to kill those destructive ants. 
 
I am coming to you over the radio this afternoon, doing God’s trimming, to tell you what you need to do to prune your unsatisfactory life. I’m telling you how to cut off those dead branches. I’m coming to you to tell you how to find salvation today.” 
 
Edward listened, taking stock of his own life. He even lifted an arm skyward, examining it for dead branches. Is my tree in need of trimming? He settled back into his oversized easy chair, sipping on a beer, and listened to the remaining ten minutes of Brother Jimmy’s sermon. 
 
“Let me ask you, dear friend, did you find time to attend church this morning or did you find some other diversion. Did you fritter away God’s Sunday morning doing something selfish for yourself? Did you ignore God’s law that says this is his day?” 
 
Edward nodded. He’s preaching to me. That man can see right into my soul. He hastily downed the last ounce of beer, walked over and turned up the volume on the radio. 
 
Brother Jimmy continued, and after several more minutes, wound down his sermon with an inevitable plea for donations. “Friends, if my message touched your heart today and you feel called to send a donation to support this weekly ministry, the address is Brother Jimmy Swindle, that is Brother Jimmy Swindle, S-W-I-N-D-L-E, Post Office Box 222, Galaxy, Mississippi…” 
 
Edward felt the calling deep within his heart. He quickly jotted down the address then turned his attention back to Brother Jimmy’s final words. 
 
“I am grateful for the donations this ministry receives. But most of the costs of this broadcast are paid from the proceeds of my tree-trimming business. So, if any of you have large trees, such as live oaks or pecans, call me at 228 666 5656. If those trees have dead limbs or have grown too large and need shaping, call that number, 228 666 5656.”

Edward thought of the spreading oak right outside his back door and the hundreds more like it on his property; most of them needed trimming. He reflected on the generous contributions he made each week to The One and Only True Baptist Church. As any good business man would do, he contemplated the return on his investment. He did not discount the piety and satisfaction Juniper realized from the donations made on her behalf. But Pastor Goodfellow had never delivered a sermon that touched Edward the way Brother Jimmy had that afternoon. It seemed fitting to consider an equitable adjustment based on the relative benefit derived from each preacher. Without further deliberation, he decided to give equally to the two ministries. Thus, he would reduce his donations to The One and Only True Baptist Church by half.   
 
To say that this decision did not sit well with the dainty little Juniper would be a massive understatement. She burst forth with expletives highly unbecoming of one so steeped in religiosity. When she saw that Edward was unflinching, her ire turned into self-pity. She bemoaned the ill effects a reduction in the weekly stipend to Pastor Goodfellow would have on her elite standing in the church. She then resorted to the wiles of ordinary women, climbing upon her husband’s knee and cooing into his ear. But Edward was unmoved and continued sipping his beer. Finally, she ran up the stairs, slammed the door shut and fell onto her bed crying. Her shrill voice penetrated the solid oak bedroom door. “I hate you, Edward Tinsley. I hope you rot in hell.” 
 
Bowser curled up in his dog bed and covered his ears with his paws. Edward popped the top on another Miller Lite.  
 
A pall settled over the household at 2100 Thousand Oaks Drive. Hardly a word was exchanged by the occupants during the next week. Edward slept in one of the guest rooms and kept a respectable distance between himself and his seething spouse. And Bowser walked on tiptoes in the presence of Mrs. Tinsley. 
 
When Sunday morning rolled around, Edward met his golfing buddies for their 8:15 tee time. Juniper dressed for church and climbed into her Jaguar XK, looking ravishing as always. Inside her purse was a check signed by Edward P. Tinsley, payable to the One and Only True Baptist Church for half the usual amount. She was prepared to explain to Reverend Goodfellow the temporary nature of the downsized donation and the steps she was taking to restore the full amount. 
 
After golfing, Edward opened a beer, turned on the radio and settled back for the afternoon sermon by Brother Jimmy Swindle. The message was particularly poignant considering the state of affairs between the Tinsley’s.
 
“Good afternoon, friends. This is Brother Jimmy Swindle coming to you over WWPZ radio in Galaxy, Mississippi. The Trimming Trees for God Ministry is on the air again today thanks to the many supporters who have sent in their donations. Special thanks go out to Mr. Edward Tinsley of Galaxy, who has helped us mightily with his generous donations. All this past week, we trimmed and pruned the great oaks on Brother Tinsley’s property. We hope today’s sermon will help him and all of you, dear friends, trim your tree of life.”
 
Edward set down his beer and cocked his head to take in every syllable spoken by the evangelist. Brother Jimmy continued. “Today’s message is taken from Ephesians 5, which I read in part: …Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church...”
 
Before Brother Jimmy could begin explaining the theme of his sermon, Edward’s mind had seized upon the Bible reading. A nascent resentment at being locked out of his bedroom by his wife began taking shape. He was convinced that the hand of fate had turned his radio dial to 960 kilohertz, where the tree-climbing preacher broadcast his message each Sunday. It must have been ordained by a higher power that Jimmy Swindle would show him the way, the truth and the light.
 
The evangelist preached. “Now, friends, I know there are some modernists out there who will take offense at the basis for this sermon. They will say that the word obey should be removed from marriage vows, that men and women are entirely equal.  But you and I know what the Bible says. It is clear: Women submit to your husbands.”
 
Edward lay back on his chair listening intently; unaware the Miller Lite can in his left hand had been sucked dry.
 
From Galaxy, Mississippi, the deliverer of God’s message continued: “It is the man who is head of a happy home. You want to find trouble between a man and wife, just ask: Who wears the pants in this home? If there is trouble in the bedroom, friends, you will find that wife is in control. But is she happy? Is the husband happy? No, friends. And why not? Because God says that the man is head of the household, the woman is to submit to him.”
 
Edward nodded in concurrence. He smiled with satisfaction as he scurried to the kitchen to retrieve another beer, keeping his ear cocked to hear every word spoken by the bold country preacher.
 
“Listen, all you husbands,, if the branches on your tree of life are growing out of control, if they are reaching into your home, into your bedroom, maybe it is time for a trimming; maybe you need to discuss these matters with your mate; come to an understanding that is pleasing to God and you will have a home pleasing to both the husband and wife.
 
 If you want to know why there are so many divorces—there I have said that nasty word, divorce, d-i-v-o-r-c-e—just take stock of the way we are living today. The wife does her thing; the husband does his. That leads to too much independence and to trouble, trouble at home, trouble in the church, trouble in the bedroom.”
 
As the sermon neared its end, Edward reflected upon his marriage. Maybe the current estrangement between Juniper and him was not entirely her fault. Perhaps, he could have been more diplomatic in his approach, let her down easy; he should have been firm but gentle, and still not yield his position as head of the household.  
 
He met his wife at the door when she arrived home after church and enfolded her in his arms. “Honey, we need to talk.”
 
Startled, she extricated herself from his arms, recoiling like a viper watching its prey. “About what?”  
 
Firm but gentle, he thought. “Our untenable situation.”
 
“Does that mean you have changed your mind about the church tithing?”
 
“Not entirely, but we can’t let that come between us. We need to agree on our roles as husband and wife. Have you ever read Ephesians 5?”
 
“Have you been listening to that tree trimmer again?” She turned her back and walked stiffly from the room.
 
Edward followed, thrusting his finger toward the back of her head. “Yes, and you might learn something from him instead of drinking that swill down at your church. Elvis Goodfellow wouldn’t know a meaningful sermon if it bit him in the ass.”
 
His comment brought fire to her eyes. Speechless, she turned for the stairs. That night she locked the bedroom door leaving the head of the home muttering to himself and vowing to cut off all donations to The One and Only True Baptist Church. Bowser pounced through the doggie door and took shelter in the swimming pool cabana.
 
The interminable week passed without one verbal communication between the Tinsleys. When they met on the stairs, Edward gave Juniper a menacing scowl, which she avoided by looking straight ahead. She attended prayer meeting on Wednesday. At Tuesday and Thursday choir practice, she sang soprano like a bird, her voice joyfully rising above the rafters. As usual, Sunday found her before her mirror, preening and powdering in preparation for the eleven a.m.  service.
 
Edward bowed out of his scheduled morning golf match. He called his long-time partner to complain of a strained back muscle. Although he would never admit it, the disagreement with his pretty little wife was beginning to prey on his mind. Juniper’s continuing rigidity was entirely unexpected. He might have to consider a modification to his own unflinching position for the sake of harmony. Perhaps, he would offer to restore the tithe to The One and Only True Baptist Church to seventy percent of the original amount. That should appease her and make life a little more pleasant around here. He smiled at the thought. 
 
Edward reached down and patted Bowser’s head then reclined his chair. He settled back for a nap before the start of Brother Jimmy Swindle’s radio sermon. The dog stood and whined obediently at the knee of the man of the house. No doubt, Bowser appreciated the message from Ephesians 5 much more than Juniper did.
 
That was about the time Sunday school was ending at The One and Only True Baptist church. The main chapel was beginning to fill. The choir, in their flowing robes, sang Great Is Thou Faithfulness. Notably missing from the harmony were the high soprano tones of Juniper Tinsley.
 
Assistant Pastor Dan Forthright took to the pulpit. He raised his arms in praise then stood in silent prayer as the choir sang the last verse. “Friends, as you can see, Reverend Goodfellow is not with us this morning and neither is Sister Juniper, whose sweet voice is missing from our choir.”
 
There was a buzz and a low rumble of incredulity that moved like an ocean wave across the chapel.
 
“It pains me to tell you that Reverend Goodfellow will not be returning to our church.”
 
The rumble from the pews was louder and there were lots of I told you so looks exchanged by the members.
 
Assistant Pastor Forthright continued. “Reverend Goodfellow asks for your forgiveness and prayers as does Sister Tinsley. I have a short letter here.” He held it up, waving it briefly near his microphone. “I will read it now, and I ask that you be charitable in your judgment of our Pastor and Sister Juniper. I also ask that you pray for Mrs. Goodfellow and Brother Edward Tinsley.”
 
                                                                                                       * * *
 
The phone rang at the Tinsley home a few moments before the scheduled start of the Trimming Trees for God sermon. Edward ignored the ringing and turned up the radio to hear the message from Brother Jimmy Swindle, which was about to start.
 
The introductory organ music began with Nothing But The Blood Of Jesus. After a moment, the announcer spoke. “Hello, radio friends. As you may have learned already, Brother Jimmy Swindle fell from a pecan tree this past week. He is critically ill in Swan River Hospital with a broken back and neck.  He will probably never walk again. His great voice for God may be forever silenced. Please pray for Brother Swindle. But the Trimming Trees for God Ministry must go on. Obeying the will of God and her husband, Sister Swindle will bring you the message today.”
 
For the first time in his life, Edward Tinsley felt lost and alone. He missed his wife. He got up from his chair, clicked off the radio and turned for the stairs. At the top, he opened the bedroom door and looked in. A small pink envelope, propped against the pillows, caught his eye. He sat on the edge of the bed, opened it and read Juniper’s short note.
 
       Edward:
 
      God controls our lives, sometimes leaving us without our own free wills.
      He has seen fit to make me fall in love with Elvis Goodfellow. It is God’s will,
      and is beyond my control.
      I doubt that you will miss me. You have much in your life to make you happy.
      I have only Elvis.
      Be sure to water the plants in the sun room.
 
      Juniper
 
 The man of the house sat for several minutes, slowly turning to view everything in the room. His attention was drawn to the arched doorway to the bath and steam room.  On the right of the entrance was Juniper’s walk-in closet, filled with dresses, shoes, handbags and accessories that made her the envy of her female acquaintances. Maybe I gave her too many material things. The lights from her dressing table shone through the doorway. Edward got up and flicked off the switch. He could almost hear her voice as she sat before that mirror, singing while she prettied her face.  
 
 He left the bedroom and closed the door. Bowser lay at the foot of the stairs. He stood and licked Edward’s hand then followed his master outside.
  
The sun shone brightly with scattered shards of light flickering through the leaves of the giant oak.  Edward looked up through its branches. I wonder how high Brother Jimmy climbed before he fell. He struggled against the oak, attempting to climb to the notch where the tree branched into two separate trunks.  
  
Bowser whimpered. Edward stepped away from the tree. For a moment, he admired the symmetry of the recently trimmed oak. Bowser whimpered again. Edward bent and stroked the dog’s head. He glanced back to the top of the tree. “You’re right, boy. That would be a stupid thing to do.”
  
Bowser raised his leg and urinated against the trunk. The man of the house smiled, unzipped his trousers and peed alongside his dog.
 
 



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My appreciation to Cara Emily for the very apt painting, Tree Woman.

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