Christmas in the Alley

Original Photo: Dean McCoy Photography, Flickr. Creative Commons 2.0. The photo has been altered.

Without close inspection the two hands, one firmly clasped in the other, appeared quite similar, although the chipped mauve paint on one set of fingernails declared one hand belonged to a woman. Besides the color, the two hands looked quite the same—rough, calloused, and hard-worked. They were both working class hands that had never seen the inside of a nail salon and weren’t intimate with the greasy luxury of moisturizers. Tears dripped on them, adding to the dampness of a mid-December’s day in Portland.

However, the contrast between the two people clasped together by their hands couldn’t have been greater. The man on one side of the bench in Pioneer Courthouse Square looked much like any other Portlander—indistinct and decidedly without pretension in his dress. Somewhere between thirty and forty, he wore a small black stocking cap to warm his balding head. His older pair of jeans hung just a half inch too low on his wiry frame and thus had frayed at the cuffs. However, frayed cuffs went right along with his well loved pair of low-top converse. Their minimal tread had been worn flat through miles of use. On top, he wore a blue and red padded flannel coat, meant to keep him warm against the cold. Underneath the jacket—a Lucky Lab Brewery t-shirt.

He sat straight, quiet—undeterred in his affection by the messy tears from his companion.

In contrast, his companion looked no younger than her mid to late thirties, most would have said somewhere in her early forties. She was twenty-six. As was the way of many Portland young women, she wore an old flower print dress, but unlike others, hers didn’t come from Buffalo Gap. She was just grateful that the lack of fashion attitude in Portland allowed her to mask her poverty. Alone and isolated, she had few prospects this holiday season. Her boyfriend had finally had enough of her and thrown her onto the streets, declaring her used-up, old and ugly.

When she was thirteen, she had left home to follow him because he said he loved her and showered her with attention. When he asked her to sleep with another man to help pay the bills—mostly their drug habit—she didn’t hesitate. She would have done anything for the safety this father-lover provided.

Now half a lifetime later, he had moved on to another, less ugly woman, and she didn’t know who she was any longer, so she cried. She cried for the little blue dress she used to twirl in as a four-year-old; she cried for that Christmas she had when she was eight at her grandparents home—where no one fought, and everyone said they loved each other; she cried for her soul, crushed into dust and beyond repair.

Around the pair, holiday revelers hurried to finish their shopping on the last Friday before Christmas. Few took notice of the couple on the bench. Those that did quickly found something else to pay attention to. Most assumed they were just another homeless Portland couple. Probably the invisible kind who couch surf all over the city, staying with friends until they are no longer welcome.

However, two young women paid more attention. Loaded with shopping bags of the sort which declared their firm stand in middle-class, they quickly crossed the square in their designer jeans and modest shopping heels.

“Jesus!” one of them said as they approached. She put her bags down on the damp bricks and coming close, wrapped her artificially brown arms around the man from behind. She gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek through lips painted an absurdly shiny color of pink. “How are you? So good to see you”

Jesus smiled.

His distraught companion clearly thought it would have been preferable if hell had opened beneath her and swallowed her whole. She rose to leave but Jesus held her hand.

The shopper seeing the awkwardness she had created, smiled politely at the stranger but didn’t speak to her. “Anyway, I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I just wanted to come say ‘hi!’ I can’t wait to hear all about what you’re doing in Africa at church on Sunday. Happy Birthday!” She disengaged herself from Jesus and with her companion walked briskly toward the light rail train just pulling to a stop nearby, packages in tow.

******

The hand which rang the bell at the red kettle near a downtown store belonged to a prominent member of the Portland City Club. He had been ringing bells for the Salvation Army at Christmas for over twenty years. As he rang, shoppers put little bits of change into his kettle, making charitable offerings to assuage their consciouses as they walked into a temple of consumer idolatry. Inside a local high school choir sang of ‘peace on Earth’ while shoppers pawed through an orgy of consumer goods made in factories where the lives of the workers were anything but peaceful. Feeling vaguely uneasy about their consumer gluttony, some shoppers chose to do their penance at the red kettle on their way out.

Recognizing a fellow member the club on the bell, Bill made sure to reach in his pocket and find something to contribute. After, exchanging greetings, he and his wife Mary hurried on their way. Dressed in a formal evening gown, Mary’s heels clicked on the sidewalk. Stuck late at work, Bill hadn’t been able to change from his suit into his tuxedo before he and Mary went out to dinner. As they walked, he chuckled to himself. In Portland, he would probably still be way overdressed.

As they passed by a stone church, Mary spoke. “Bill, look. Isn’t that Jesus?”

Bill looked where Mary nodded with her head.

Outside the church, Jesus stood with a young man in a hoody in a small line of people waiting to go in a basement door. An A-board on the sidewalk declared, Twelve-step Meeting Here Tonight, 7:30.

Seeing Jesus, Bill started. He looked a little nervous around the eyes as he said to Mary, “Go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

Bill walked over to Jesus and stuck out his hand.

Jesus returned the handshake, but the smile on his face looked wary.

“Jesus, I know you’re a busy man.” Here Bill nodded toward the young man with his head down. “But I need a moment of your time.”

He didn’t wait for Jesus to answer but plunged ahead. “It’s about the gift you suggested for my son. I know he keeps saying that he would like to learn golf with me, but I won’t have time this year. After all, you helped me make senior partner, and that means more time in the office.”

The hesitant smile disappeared off Jesus’ face. When Bill said that Jesus had helped him make partner, Jesus shook his head slightly.

“I don’t want to promise him something I can’t follow through on—I know you understand—so I thought I would just get him his own custom set of clubs instead, and a few lessons with one of the pros.”

Whether Bill noticed Jesus’ disappointment was hard to tell as he continued without pause. “Also, I know that you’re concerned about Mrs Jamison next door. I’ve seen you over there several times since Ralph died last year. Last week you mentioned that she was having financial trouble after the water company truck was there, but you must understand, I cannot set the precedent of paying her utility bills. After all, I can barely afford my mortgage as it is, and I don’t want her to see me as the answer to her problems. It would not be good for her if she became dependent on me.” Here Bill closed the deal with his most charming smile. It was the smile he used when delivering bad news to one of the mid-level managers under him at the firm. “I know you understand. You always do. Anyway, I’ve got to run. Mary and I have front row seats to the Singing Christmas Tree. Will I see you on Sunday? What am I saying? Of course I will. That’s your big day.”

Without waiting for a response, Bill patted Jesus on the arm and walked hurriedly away.

Jesus stared after him for a moment, forehead wrinkled in a scowl. Then he turned back to the man at his side as they entered the church basement.

******

Jesus skipped down the sidewalk as he held the hands of the little boy and little girl on either side of him. Behind him, their father and mother walked nervously. As they turned to walk up the sidewalk to the front doors of the church, the man dropped the cigarette hanging loosely in his lips and smashed it out with his foot.

The children in front of him had clearly been cleaned up for church, the result was an absolute failure. The My Little Pony hair-clip which the four year old daughter insisted on wearing didn’t seem to fit the evening or the green velvet dress purchased for the occasion. The sneakers and jeans with a hole in the knee didn’t really go with the clip on tie and dress shirt of the little boy, either. Their mother was clearly worried about all of this, but she bravely soldiered on. She frowned like she was going to a funeral, perhaps her own.

Seeing their nervousness, Jesus founds seats for the five of them at the back. He took out a small bible he carried with him and quietly started to talk with the family, while others around them milled about, talking with their friends. No on spoke to them until just before it is time to begin, at which point the pastor noticed Jesus sitting at the back. He quickly marched down the isle, flesh colored microphone glued awkwardly to his cheek.

“Jesus, what are you doing back here? This is your day. We have a place of honor for you up front.” The pastor lifted Jesus by the arm and started to escort him out of the pew.

Jesus grabbed for his bible.

Seeing this, the pastor continued with a kind of sheepish grin. “There really won’t be any time for you to teach today. I mean after all this is your birthday, and we wanted to celebrate, so we have some extra music, a short play by the drama team, and then of course the annual kids nativity. I guess we kind of over-programed it a little, like usual, but I think you’ll like it.”

Throughout the service Jesus sat prominently on stage as the bizarre rituals of a church Christmas play out in front of him. Throughout, he kept an eye on the family in back. The kids looked bored and acted up toward the end, their dad finally threatening them to get them to comply and keep quiet. Really they were behaving no differently than the little shepherd on stage who took off his bathrobe half-way through the nativity scene and started jumping up and down on the hay bale at the back. Among those in the auditorium however, the kids at the back were a nuisance, and the kid at the front was cute.

After the service, Jesus quickly left the stage and sat back down in the pew with the family he had brought with him. He went right back to teaching them as he had been before the service started. He was a few minutes into the words he desperately wanted to communicate when the pastor again approached and lifted Jesus by the arm out of the pew. “Jesus, I need your help. It’s Mary. She’s having one of her holiday meltdowns. Could you talk to her? I know you can make it better.”

The pastor was so consumed with his own concerns, he really didn’t notice the murderous look Jesus gave him this time. Jesus retrieved his elbow from the grasp of the pastor, and gesturing to the family in the pew to stay where they were, he followed the pastor out the door into a corner of the foyer where Mary, Bill’s wife, sat daubing her mascara into a tissue.

Jesus rolled his eyes just a little and sat down.

As soon as he sat, Mary grabbed his hand and started to cry. “Jesus thank you so much for listening to me. I just don’t know what I’m going to do. I haven’t got a thing wrapped. That is going to take hours, and the gingerbread cookies for the top of the homemade ice cream haven’t been finished. That alone will take me until the kids are up at five AM, but I still have to find a present for grandmother before I go home, and on top of it I left my lights on before church and my battery is dead.” Mary broke down sobbing.

Jesus took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Once calm, he patted Mary on the arm in a ‘there, there’ kind of way, gently let go of her hand, and walked back to the family he was trying to teach.

Later the five of them stood outside in the cold while Jesus greeted his friends on their way out the door. Most stopped and said, “happy birthday!” Some gave him hugs, but not a single person said anything to the family with him. Behind him, the children got progressively more restless. At one point, the little girl stained her white tights and ripped the hem of her dress when she fell down in the grass while chasing her brother.

As the last of the lights went out in the church, the Pastor stopped to lock the front door. Smiling he said, “Jesus, thank you so much for your help with Mary tonight. I swear that woman has some kind of crisis every other day. She can take fifty percent of my time if I’m not careful.” He reached out and warmly shook Jesus’ hand.

Jesus looked over his shoulder to the family behind him.

Seeing the gesture, the pastor smiled and nodded awkwardly before he said, “Good night. I hope you enjoyed our service.”

Without another word, he turned and walked away.

Dumbfounded, Jesus turned to the family behind him and shrugged his shoulders, embarrassed. Eventually, he grabbed the two children by the hand and started to skip away from the church. Behind him their father lit up a cigarette.

******

The next morning, Jesus knocked on the door of a two story brick home with a red door and shutters painted black. A large evergreen wreath hung from the door. Mary answered, puffy-eyed but presentable—hair in place, makeup on.

“Jesus, so glad you could come. Welcome. I think you’re the last one. Come on into the living room.”

Jesus stepped into the house, removed his shoes in the hall, and entered the festive heart of Christmas in the home.

As he walked in, cries of “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” erupted from around the room.

Jesus greeted his friends with hugs, pats on the back, and words of love.

The room itself wasn’t overly large for the thirty or so people gathered there. Perhaps twenty of them were adults while ten or so were children. At one end there was a fireplace with a pile of empty stockings on top of the mantle. In one corner stood a noble fir, decorated with large bulbs, dime-store Christmas balls, and the sentimentality of years past. Underneath, heaps of packages— most wrapped precisely—waited for their unveiling.

As Jesus finished greeting people, he noticed that no chair had been left empty. He soon found himself awkwardly squeezed on a short ottoman between two other guests in much taller chairs. He had to wrap his arms around his long legs—bringing his knees up to his chest—in order not to intrude into the room.

Once Jesus was situated one of the younger boys around age eight, got up and, putting his hands behind his back, said “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that census should be taken of the entire Roman world…”

Jesus listened in rapt wonder as the boy retold from memory Luke’s narrative of his birth. When the child finished, Jesus was the first to clap.

Someone said, “Well done, Andrew.”

Jesus thought for a moment about what he wanted to say. Just as he gestured with his hands and took a breath to speak Bill interrupted him.

“Well, everyone, now it’s time for the main event! Everyone better like what I bought them, because I know my credit card is TKO’d.”

All ten of the kids squealed in glee. “Presents”

The moment passed and Jesus waited.

Forty-five minutes later, he sat surrounded by torn paper, crumpled ribbons, and innumerable twist ties used to keep their prisoners perfectly positioned in the clear plastic of their boxes. Around him children played, and adults laughed. He sat slumped on the ottoman looking glum. There were no presents near him.

Across the room, a little boy picked up a snow-globe and shook it violently.

Mary quickly intervened. “Max, please put that down. We don’t want to break grandma’s snow-globe, Ok?”

As the snow settled, Jesus’ mouth drooped, a tear trickled down one cheek. Inside, the Styrofoam snow settled to reveal a stylized Jesus with long hair, beard, and a white robe with a blue sash. His face was stern as in one hand he pointed a ladle skyward. In the other he held out a bowl of soup to a homeless man who knelt before him, hands folded and raised in supplication.

Next to Jesus, in a chair on his left, sat a young man in his mid-teens with a shiny new bag of golf clubs. His mood mirrored Jesus’. He sighed, and looking down realized that Jesus didn’t have any gifts around him. He searched through the detritus in his chair until he found a fresh deck of Uno cards. Reaching down, he handed them to Jesus.

Jesus looked up at him, and smiled

******

Jesus was the last person through the line at the buffet. As he carried a plate overflowing with mashed potatoes, ham, and roasted brussel sprouts into the dining room, he paused. Despite the red and green banner hanging with care above the table, which read Happy Birthday Jesus, there was no seat left available for him. His forehead wrinkled up in confusion. Then as quietly as he had entered, he slipped back into the kitchen after retrieving his shoes from the entry.

The young man who had given him the Uno game saw him go. Picking up his own plate and glass he followed, unobserved by the other guests, who already courted holiday disaster by discussing which political party should take the blame for the country’s current ills. Making his way into the kitchen, the young man was surprised to find it empty. The bang of the screen door to the back yard told him where Jesus had gone. He followed.

Arriving in the alley, the young man saw Jesus pointing out something delicious on his plate to the homeless man sitting there wrapped in a sleeping bag.

The thought of what his mother would say if she could see the dirty fingers caressing her clean china was too much for the boy, and he laughed. “May I join you, Jesus?”

Jesus scooted over to make room for him to sit and lean against the building with them.

******

Late in the day, the young man walked in the back door of his home carrying both plates and two glasses as well.

His father greeted him in the kitchen while downing a glass of water with Alkaseltzer. “Where have you been all afternoon, David?” His tone could hardly have shown more disappointment.

“In the alley playing Uno with Jesus and a homeless man named Allen.”

The comment startled Bill a little. He raised his eyebrows, and seeing there was nothing more he could say about David’s behavior, he shrugged. “Oh,” he said.

David set the dishes on the counter.

Bill stared absently at the cabinetry across the kitchen. “I just don’t understand him, David. I wish he would say something. You know, something clear.”

David turned to his father and said with a tinge of frustration, “Perhaps he is saying something clear, Dad. Maybe, you just don’t want to listen.”

on December 16 • by

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