by Bonnie Randall Schutzman
Dr. Macallister’s supper break gave him just enough time to walk to St. Mark’s for part of the midnight service. He’d been on duty in the emergency room for thirteen straight hours with no end in sight, covering for young Dr. Melendez who so wanted to spend Christmas Eve with her sons. Dr. Macallister had long since married his profession. He would stand this night’s vigil.
He hurried across the slushy street and slipped into the musty old chapel as the congregation sang the Agnus Dei. He sang with them, from memory, as he found an empty seat at the end of a pew near the back, where an open beam partly obscured the altar and its lurid twisted Christ rising into the shadows.
The elderly couple at the pew’s other end glanced at him incuriously. He vaguely remembered them from the old days, but he had not been here for many years now. He suspected they would have been young parents then.
He brushed the snow from his coat sleeve and touched his shirt pocket. The small envelop was still there, waiting. He bowed his head while the pastor offered the prayers of the congregation.
The church hadn’t changed much since his last visit — a little drabber, in need of more repairs. A different pastor, who rubbed his balding head as he stepped to the pulpit. “Tonight, in honor of this sacred night, we re-enact the miracle that blessed us with our savior.”
Good. A simple style. He liked that in a man of the cloth.
The children filed in. Mary knelt to place the rag-doll baby in the manger. Joseph, in a too-large bathrobe, toppled the cardboard donkey. The pastor quickly set it to rights while the angels and shepherds crowded at one end of the little tableau.
Outside, a siren, heading toward the hospital. Modern angels, modern miracles. Lord have mercy upon us.
The congregation joined in the hymn — It Came Upon The Midnight Clear. The hymnal came apart in his hands. Joseph turned to Mary; the donkey went down again. This time the pastor left it.
How serious they looked, these two children, serious and awkward and grave, as if they understand the love this ancient couple shared. He remembered many years ago when he played Joseph in a pageant much like this, how he stood silent behind his Mary, holding a staff made from the handle of his mother’s mop. How Mary never looked up, wrapped up as she was in the baby and the drama.
His mother had made his headcovering from a brown bath towel bound in place by one of his father’s ties. His mother had wanted to use something else, something cheaper, but his father said no, no, what could happen to it there on his head?
Holiday punch happened to it, spilled from the organist’s careless hand at the reception downstairs afterwards. His father never said a word about the loss, not to him, not to his mother, probably not even to God.
It seemed so trivial now, looking back through the reversed telescope of memory, but the expense alone made it — not a disaster, exactly, but certainly a hardship, and one which there was no righting.
In those days, a great many things seemed more significant. The pageant played in the space in front of the altar, not on the first level of the sanctuary, because it was felt to be disrespectful. He and the angels were allowed to stand on the first step, that was all.
Doreen. That was his Mary’s name. Doreen Dunfrey, freckled and bold, Scottish and Irish as were they all in this part of town in the old days. But the mills were shutting down and the Dunfreys, like so many others, had moved on, and he lost track of her.
A roaring chord from the organ announced the three kings, entering from the vestry, accompanied by a camel — somebody’s yellow-brown mutt wearing a blanket like a saddle. The girl in the pew in front of him tittered. He shushed her sharply. She frowned and flounced in her seat as she reached for the hymnal.
Of course. We Three Kings.
Did the organ squeak like this on the high notes when he was a child? He couldn’t remember. Perhaps he never noticed.
The Wise Men stepped forward one at a time to prophesy in halting Biblican verses the greatness that lay ahead for this baby. Mary lifted the doll and rocked it, as if it were a real baby. Dr. Macallister guessed her to be about ten, thin and angular and dark, with full lips and a fringe of kinky hair braided tightly. The Madonna of the new age.
Another siren blasted by outside. He turned, as if he could see it through the wall. Two ambulances in such a short time — has there been a traffic accident? A knife fight in the weedy darkness beneath the walkway between the railroad station and the parking garage? A spill at the shampoo factory? Two separate victims of too much holiday cheer?
Was one of them a father who locked up his anger and his disappointment and the memory of a best tie ruined until one day they exploded into his mouth from the barrel of a shotgun?
His pager remained silent. He turned back to the pageant.
Joseph helped Mary to her feet. He stood with his arm around her waist while she said loudly, “I thank you for your gifts. I will keep your words and ponder them in my heart.”
Then the last hymn — Silent Night, of course. The children left the altar. Joseph came last, ever mindful of his duty to guard and protect the child and its mother. Mary held the doll against her shoulder. As soon as she reached the aisle, she ran to her parents in the first pew. The doll dangled by one arm.
He stared at the crucifix above the altar. He was told once that one of the congregation brought it back from Italy after the war; certainly it was in the Renaissance style — Christ emaciated and tortured, blood running from the gaping wound in his side and dripping from his feet. The shadows hid his hands. Dr. Macallister can’t remember if he ever saw them.
An odd choice for a good Protestant congregation.
His mother looked much like that in her final illness, mouth agape, limbs twisted, gasping for breath. Her rings fell from her withered fingers. She pressed them into his hands. The old-fashioned diamond, the slender golden band. “These are yours now.” She barely had breath to shape the words. “Save them for the woman you love.”
“But I haven’t got anyone, and I’m not likely to at my age.”
“You will find someone.” She smiled with the confidence of her prediction.
“But these are yours. You haven’t taken them off since Dad put them there.”
She had to stop to cough. Her voice came roughly, between gasps. “My mother’s — she gave me — you give her — ”
He had to ring then for the nurse and the medication that brought sleep.
For many years he believed her. For many years he tried to do as she said. For many years he hoped.
The hymn ended. Sleep in heavenly peace. The pastor handed the collection plates to the ushers. The organ played softly. Cash and pledge envelopes rustled. Sometimes coins chinked against the metal plate. Mary, seated between her parents, still clutched the doll. The light from the candles gilded her dark skin.
Slowly he took the envelope from his pocket. The diamond made a hard lump between his fingers. He takes one of the offering envelopes from the rack on the back of the pew in front of him. It had a space for name and address, but he left those blank. Still, in the offering envelope, they would know it was no mistake.
In another church, he might have written, “For Mary, whoever you are,” but that would not be a good Protestant sentiment, either.
The usher handed him the plate. He placed the envelope gently on top of the offerings and passed it to the elderly couple. The gentleman smiled at him. He nodded in return.
Mary whispered to her mother. The mother handed her a coin, which Mary placed in the plate. She hugged the doll who had been Jesus tightly. Behind her, the crucifix loomed.
His pager vibrated silently against his thigh, the only lover he would know this night.
Quietly he stood up and buttoned his coat. The doors closed on the congregation singing the offering song.
Today’s post was inspired by the “Holidays” writing prompt in the Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour, an ongoing tour where you, the reader, travel around the world from author’s blog to author’s blog. We have all sorts of writers at all stages in their writing career, so there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
If you want to get to know nearly twenty other writers and find out what’s on their nightstand, check out the rest of the tour! Up next: Raven O’Fiernan at Raven’s Scribblings.