CHRISTMAS STORY: One Maine Christmas by Steve Burt

One Maine Christmas by Steve Burt

Whoa, now!  Hold it!  Perley, DJ, James.  Stop horsing around back there.  We’re down to two practices before the Nativity pageant, and I want us to get it right.

Mr. Gamage, the Sunday school superintendent, had a way of getting order without yelling.  It was a gift he had.  Now he stood at an easel and wrote on a pad with a Magic Marker that was going dry.

Perley Alley, Mr. Gamage said.  Would you please go to the Sunday school cabinet and get me a fresh Magic Marker?  There’s a new package on the top shelf.

Perley was back in a flash, handing the Magic Marker to Mr. Gamage, who thanked him and continued on.

Okay, one more walk-through and we can call it a day.  Places, everyone.  Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise guys – lights, camera, action!

James, Perley, and DJ walked home together from the church.  James hardly spoke.

Whatsa matter, James? DJ asked.  You’re like my sister when she didn’t get asked to the prom.

James was glad to have these two friends.  DJ and Perley meant a lot to him, because acceptance had been slow in coming since he’d arrived on the cove.  He didn’t know if it was because he was new in school or because he was the only black kid – the only black person – in this Maine coastal village.  His dad was the new preacher and they had been in the parsonage barely five months.

James had been adopted at four months, and now that he was ten, he’d been experiencing a gnawing, something more than simple curiosity, to learn about his history and to claim his black heritage.  With that gnawing came a sense of alienation, of differentness.

Although no one mistreated him, James was painfully aware he was the solitary black in a coastal village made up of generation upon generation of white lobstermen, white loggers, and white blueberry rakers.

Yeah, James, Perley added, curly red hair unmoving in the breeze.  What’s buggin’ you?

James looked at his freckled, pale-faced friend, hesitant to answer.

Well? DJ pressed, his long blond hair rippling like cornsilk across his eyebrows.  He swept at it futilely.  Something’s up, James.  This ain’t you.

I dunno, James answered, realizing his friends had caught him sleepwalking.  Guess I must be homesick for our last home.

This was only a half-lie.  He did miss the friends he’d had back when his Dad had been a seminary student.  Between seminary families and the kids he’d known in elementary school, he’d had quite a few friends, several of whom were black children.

Maybe it’s because it’s close to Christmas, James added, smiling weakly.  His two new friends let him drop the subject and the three of them split up for home.

The next day at practice everybody walked through their parts as Mr. Gamage narrated the script for the pantomime Nativity.  Each actor listened closely for cues.

And while they were there, the time came for Mary to be delivered.  And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

DJ, playing Joseph, watched as Mary, whose name really was Mary, placed the swaddled doll in a crib of weathered lobster-trap slats which Mr. Gamage had filled with straw.

Tears streamed down James’s cheeks, shining like silver ski tracks on his dark skin.  DJ motioned Perley to look, and the two of them stared at James.  Nothing was said until the three of them were walking home.

What was that all about, James? asked DJ.

What was what about? James said.

We saw you, Perley said.

Saw me what? James said sharply.

Perley and DJ backed away, staring at a red-faced James.

I don’t think anybody else saw, Perley said.

James relaxed his hunched shoulders.  I’m not exactly sure what happened, he said.

The three of them continued walking.

Musta been something, said DJ.

C’mon.  You can tell us, Perley said.  We’re your best friends, ain’t we, James?

They stopped walking, and James stared blankly out on the blue-green waters of the cove, then up at the slate gray sky.  He pondered the question and the trust level.

Perley’s soft brown eyes were as inviting as a pile of raked autumn leaves.

James let his breath out loudly, not realizing he’d been holding it.  With the outrush of breath came the loosening of his tongue.

It was that story, he said.

What story? asked DJ.

You know.  Mr. Gamage’s story.

I think he means the Baby Jesus story, interrupted Perley.  Right, James?

Yeah, James answered.  I could feel it, the alone feeling of being in a strange town.  It made me feel sad.  Being all alone like that, in that manger, it musta been terrible lonely for the baby.

But he had parents, James, DJ said.

Perley simply listened.

I bet they were lonely, too, countered James.  They didn’t know anybody.

Silence.  DJ was finally at a loss for words.

You feel lonely, James? asked Perley.  A foghorn moaned beyond the cove.

Lots, James said.  Silence again, and the foghorn.

But ain’t we your friends? DJ asked.

Yeah, James said. But –

But what? snapped DJ.

Perley waited.

But –, James said, I’m – I’m – black.

Again the foghorn.

We know that, James, said DJ.  It’s not exactly something you can hide around here, is it?  It’s a small town.  Newcomers stand out.  Besides, what’s being black got to do with it?

Perley listened as James tried to explain to DJ.

I’m the only black person in this entire place, DJ, he said, including my parents, who are white.  Don’t you see?  You’ve always been here, always been a part of things.  You don’t know what it is to be different or lonely.  It’s just not the same for me.  It’s very different.

DJ shook his head, yes, even though he didn’t really understand, and Perley said nothing.

Pageant night arrived, and the church overflowed with parents and grandparents eager to watch the young actors recreate the story of the first Christmas.  James’s father flitted among the people, shaking hand and smiling, inviting people to Sunday morning services.  The children giggled nervously as they took their places.

James’s father offered an opening prayer, Mr. Gamage made the introductions and praised the kids for their hard work, then thanked the mothers for helping with costumes.

The drama began.  Shepherds’ staffs clunked the floor loudly as they marched in.  Angels burst out from behind the old upright piano, tin-foil wings snagging the other angels’ halos.  Mr. Gamage stumbled over the name Quirinius – which he’d always gotten right in practice – this time adding a syllable and pronouncing it Qui-nin-rin-i-us.  Otherwise things proceeded without a hitch.

DJ and Mary trekked down the center aisle leading their cardboard donkey, arriving at the Bethlehem manger.  The betrothed couple, Mary bulging with pillow, knelt behind the straw-filled lobster-trap crib.

The organist played We Three Kings of Orient Are as the Three Wise Men arrived via the side aisle bearing their gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  James walked second in the caravan, typecast as the shining black Abyssinian Prince carrying his gift.  The Three Wise Men approached the manger crib and fell to their knees before the newborn King.

When the last gift was laid down, the entire cast leaned forward as Mary drew back the swaddling cloths that covered the babe.  But the other children’s eyes weren’t on the Christ child.  They were on James, who knelt staring open-mouthed into the crib.  After a moment he turned his face up toward them and managed a tight-lipped grin.  Tears welled up in his eyes.

He looked into the manger crib again to be certain.  Yes, he’d seen correctly.  The Bethlehem Babe lay there, all right.  But this doll was different from the one he’d seen at practice, for this one’s plastic body shone black-streaked and smeared and carefully colored in black Magic Marker.

DJ leaned forward and whispered, James, looks like you’re not the only black kid in this town anymore.  As he said it, he and Perley each placed a hand beside James’s on the edge of the crib.

The lump in James’s throat wouldn’t let him swallow, try as he might.  That’s when he saw the black stains on DJ’s and Perley’s fingertips, Magic Marker stains from their small hands gripping the markers in pencil-fashion, too near the tip.

You’re right, James whispered back hoarsely, nodding toward his two friends’ fingers on the crib.  Counting Jesus, there’s four of us.

At least four, Perley said.  Which was when the other children leaned in and laid their writing hands on the crib.  Each hand’s fingertips were stained black, stained black from gripping – pencil-fashion, too near the tip – what had been left in Mr. Gamage’s box of Sunday school markers.

James couldn’t help but break into a broad grin.

Cameras flashed and the cast stood to take its bows.  People who remember say that year’s pageant was the best ever for pictures.


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