Everyone saw something different in the stain, but everyone agreed there was something there. Ms. Nancy, who was always trying to get us to talk about our feelings, saw an opportunity in the stain and encouraged us.
Franky Six Fingers said he saw a cherry red Gibson hollow-body guitar with three pickups. How it is he could get cherry red out of the brown sludge seeping through the plaster was anybody’s guess, but then again Franky Six Fingers saw that guitar in all sorts of places, even when it wasn’t almost Christmas. It boiled up in the meat scum floating on top of the Sunday stew they served us and drifted just out of reach in the fog that swept the exercise yard on misty mornings.
Fixing my eyes on the stain, I told the group it looked to me like old Saint Nick or maybe old Walt Whitman. I told how I was hoping Aunt Rosa would send me a copy of Leaves of Grass for the Christmas. They rolled their eyes, having heard me go on about it for what must have been the umpteenth time. But talking about it made me think about it, which was almost as good as having the book in my hands.
You give on Christmas and you get on Christmas and finally you give way to Christmas even if you don’t get it, like the strange music of a poem.
In the meantime, I’d been busy carving Aunt Rosa figurines in the hopes of mailing her a manger set before the holiday rolled around, but they wouldn’t give us nothing sharp in woodshop. Here it was, Christmas Eve, and I hadn’t even managed a baby Jesus yet, just a couple of knobby wise men. I’d figured I’d start with them, imaging grown men would be easier than the intricacies of the tiny Christ-child but grown men, philosophers no less, had proven complicated as well.
Anyway, the warden came down to bid us good tidings, found us huddled around the stain like a bunch of art critics and wanted to know what we were up to. We were all interested in his take on the stain, given that he was likely its source. It had begun appearing on the wall in the breakroom directly below his executive bathroom shortly after work was finished on the new power-flushing toilet with heated seat he’d gifted himself.
The warden said he saw the great Norman Vincent Peale and when he took in the blank looks on our faces he said he was off for the holidays but would be sure to tell the prison librarian to order some of the good doctor’s books before he left. “Keep it positive, boys,” he said, slapping the nearest back, which happened to be mine. “That’s the key to success.”
You always got the feeling the warden was talking down to you, even when his words said something different. We all just kind of looked at our slippers and nodded in the affirmative.
We weren’t so much interested in the key to success as the key to getting out of this place and that meant staying in the warden’s good graces.
Once her boss was off, Ms. Nancy turned to the priest and asked him what he saw. You might figure he’d see J.H.C. in the stain or maybe the Virgin Mary. This, however, was not your typical padre. For one thing, he wasn’t here as a missionary but was locked up just like us. When he’d arrived three days earlier he’d already been the subject of much rumor and speculation. We figured he were probably in for diddling little boys, that seeming to be a pretty popular activity among priests these days. Handsome Ralph and Nostalgic Ned said they were going to beat him up if that were the case. It wasn’t, however, which, since as I was to be his cellmate, came as quite a relief to me. Being nineteen and still plenty boyish-looking, I’ve had to deal with plenty of that in here already.
No, it turns out, he’d snuck onto a national security site and tossed a bunch of pig’s blood around. We didn’t believe him at first but Ms. Nancy said that’s what was in his file and we believed her.
“Why you going around throwing hog juice?” I asked him during group the day he arrived.
“I wanted to wash our sins in the blood of Christ and stir people of conscience to action.”
“Did it work?” I wanted to know.
“No,” he said, wincing in the place where tears come from. None fell but his eyes got moist. The water just kind of trembled there like Aunt Rosa’s green Christmas jelly on his wrinkled face. “I don’t know if there are people of conscience in this world anymore,” he said.
Well, go figure, I thought, hog’s blood ain’t Christ’s blood and even if it were, there ain’t enough of it to wash away all of our sins. I kept that to myself, however, and went back to my snowflakes.
Christmas lights were a suicide risk, according to the warden, but Ms. Nancy gave us some white construction paper and sets of scissors — the dull kind, like you get in kindergarten — and asked if we’d decorate the cell block. I was hoping the real thing would come this year, but so far we’d had plenty of Christmas cold and none of the Christmas snow. Tacked to the bars of our cells, our own snowflakes looked more like chunks of rock salt under a microscope. What I wanted was a blizzard.
Later in the mess hall, Handsome Ralph and Nostalgic Ned asked the priest if he wouldn’t mind saying mass on Christmas, seeing as the only holy man who came round the place was a Dutch Reformer who thought the Mother of God was a false deity, but the priest said that wasn’t his thing anymore.
Since it was established there would be neither diddling or praying out of him, we all sort of left the priest to his lonesome after that. Aside from his past, there didn’t seem to be much to him at present. The stain, acting as it were as a kind of window to the soul, appeared to confirm this.
“I see the result of shoddy plumbing,” he told the group.
Handsome Ralph and Nostalgic Ned were the pair responsible for installing the power flusher and took offense to this remark. They resolved once more to beat the priest up.
That evening I got a letter from Aunt Rosa telling me she and everyone back home were thinking of me. No Leaves of Grass this year, she apologized. It was considered pornographic material by the authorities. The authorities see pornography everywhere. We’d learned that the hard way. When I was first sent up here, Aunt Rosa spent the savings she’d accrued from her job at the auto-body shop purchasing a cloth-bound set of Faulkner’s Jefferson novels to keep me company — only for the books to be promptly confiscated once it was discovered what I was reading in my cell. Now she always checked with the warden first before she mailed anything my way. He has about as much of a fondness for literature as he does for Christmas lighting
Enclosed instead was a membership card to the Kankakee public library where I could go and pick up all the Faulkner and Whitman I wanted when I was out. And though that seemed like an awful ways away, Aunt Rosa reminded me that in addition to teaching me how to read she had taught me to be patient.
After lights out, I lay in the dark thinking about her and all the folks back home I was missing that Christmas Eve and I suppose the priest was thinking about all the people of conscience missing from the world, when the warden’s toilet groaned upstairs. The bossman himself had long since split but the guards had taken to sneaking into his executive bathroom when he weren’t around to take advantage of the futuristic facilities. Though I’d never laid eyes on it, I’d almost grown to admire the toilet, like a shiny motorcycle parked on a neighbor’s yard. But the power flusher was a noisy, proud-sounding thing and its moan broke our reverie.
“Hey, Christopher,” the priest said in the unsteady quiet the septic waterfall left in its wake. “Do you want to hear a poem? It’s a poem to Brazil.”
This was a bit of a disappointment. “I hate to be picky, Father,” I told him, “but ain’t you got any Christmas poems?”
“It is a Christmas poem, only it’s to Brazil. Brazil was a brand new country when this was written and the author wanted to wish its citizens a bit of Christmas luck.”
I supposed a tropical Christmas poem was better than no Christmas poem at all.
“Go for it, Father,” I told him.
He cleared his throat:
“Let the future care for itself,
where it reveals its troubles,
Ours, ours, the present throe,
the democratic aim —
the acceptance and the faith.”
“I’d recognize that crazy sing-song talk anywhere,” I had to interrupt. “That’s old Walt Whitman.”
“May I continue?”
He started again from the beginning, got back to where he was and continued:
“To thee today our reaching arm,
our turning neck — to thee
from us the expectant eye,
thou cluster free!
Thou brilliant lustrous one!
Thou, learning well the true lesson
of a nation’s light in the sky, more shining
than the cross, more than the crown,
the height to be superb humanity.”
I could tell the priest had commanded a fiery pulpit in his day, even if there was a lilting sadness to his voice, one he couldn’t quite toss despite the lofty words on his tongue. I let the words and the music the combination of them made wash over me.
The poem itself didn’t make much sense as far as I could tell, but if you think about it, Christmas doesn’t make much sense either. Not just Santa and his reindeer sleigh in the sky, traveling round the world in one night, but the virgin birth and the wise men and, just down the line, Calvary Hill. How could God let his baby boy go that way? But you give on Christmas and you get on Christmas and finally you give way to Christmas even if you don’t get it, like the strange music of a poem.
It was real silent when the priest was finished, a silent night, as if the whole jail and everybody in it had been listening and lay still, as I did then, turning the words he’d recited round like a diamond in the mind. More shining than a cross… the height of superb humanity.
“Father,” I said after a while. “I think there are people of conscience out there in this world.”
“Maybe there are,” he sighed. “But they better make themselves heard, and loud.”
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
“Merry Christmas,” he growled.
I lay awake a while longer. I prayed Aunt Rosa would get a raise and that Franky Six Fingers would get his guitar and that the U.S. Government would find it in its heart to forgive the padre his pig’s blood and that he’d say mass for Handsome Ralph and Nostalgic Ned and all the rest of us and that there’d be peace on earth. Peering up at the dusty, barred window high above, I prayed too that snow would come. Soon it arrived, falling lazily on the tops of the palm trees my cellmate planted in my dreams, and I was far away from this place I still haven’t learned to call home.
Photo credit: Hope Abrams.