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The Christmas Caper


Michael Massee

What you are about to read may contain statements that are not politically correct and deemed offensive to todays sensitive society.  Keep in mind that this story took place sixty years ago and we said and did things then that are unacceptable now.


             I don’t remember whose idea it was.  It might have been mine, although, Danny O’Toole is a more likely suspect due to his intense hatred of the nuns.  I’m Martin Esposito but my best friends called me Marty.  Danny and I and Joey Jackson were the “Unholy Three” who had been together since kindergarten and were now in the eighth grade at St Alexis’s middle school.  Having moved into puberty, we worked very hard at getting bad grades and disrupting the classroom as much as possible.  All this paid for by our poor parents.  Actually my tuition was funded by my Aunt Rosa since both my parents were dead.  (Sorry I was such a pain in the ass, Zia Rosa.)

             We would roll our uniform pants up to the knees or powder the back of our navy-blue jackets with chalk dust. One of our favorite ploys was to make strange squeaking noises, while Sister Mary Benita was trying to explain the mysteries of algebra. I think, due to our unique approach to education, we actually spent more time in the Mother Superior’s office than in any of the classrooms.

             In school, holidays were always a welcome diversion and Christmas was one of the bigger ones and maybe the best.  All that music and the sugary treats, the gifts and the TV shows and the promise of ‘Peace on Earth,’ (an impossible promise that has never been kept.)  At St Alexis’s there were chorus and band rehearsals and the casting of the nativity play.   Danny, Joe and I were not the actor type so we weren’t really interested in wearing a bathrobe and wrapping a dish towel around our head so we could embarrass ourselves in front of friends and family.  I, on the other hand, had a sort of artistic bent so one year I volunteered to help paint the scenery, anything to get me out of going to class.  But Sister Mary Lumena, the director of the pageant, didn’t think my choice of hot pink was appropriate for the cow barn that the Holy Family was going to be stuck in, so my career in show business was cut short and it was back to Religious Studies with Sister Mary Felician.


             Anyway, December, 1964 found us, the “Unholy Three,” without any assigned role in the Christmas festivities.  Now, you have to understand that this was alright with us.  Sitting behind the handball court, where Sister Mary Ermengarde, the Physical Ed Punisher, couldn’t see what we were up to, was just fine with us. We smoked our Kool cigarettes and talked about sex---and other less important things.
             “Claudine Jacobson has the most beautiful hooters this side of Brigitte Bardot,” announced Danny.  He pronounced the actress’s first name like Bridget---very Irish.
             “When did you ever see Claudine’s boobs?” accused Joey, trying to blow a smoke ring, unsuccessfully.
             “You can see their outline in her blouse like they’re trying to escape.”
             “Doesn’t count, you doofus,” argued Joey.
             This intellectual banter continued until I stopped it with an announcement.  “We need to find a way to celebrate Christmas our way, a way that everyone will remember forever.”
             “What do you mean?” asked Joey, finally puffing out a lopsided smoke ring.         
             “We gotta give a Christmas gift to the whole neighborhood that has the stamp of the ‘Unholy Three’ on it.”
             “What are you talking about?” replied Danny.
             “Everyone is getting all revved up about the holidays; the Nativity play, the band concert, trimming that tired old Christmas tree at the side of the school, right?  So what can we do to liven things up?” I could see Danny’s bright blue eyes begin to sparkle.
             “You mean something like the dead cockroach we put in the slide projector in Mr. Owens science class when he was teaching us about cloud formations?”
             “Oh, right, and then the projector caught fire!  The famous Cockroach Cremation!” said Joey, as he watched his spelling test paper go up in flames from having been touched with the end of his cigarette.  He’d gotten an F.
             “Yeah, like that,” I agree, “but bigger and better and more in keeping with the theme of Christmas.”
             “What are you thinking about doing?” continued Joey, “Something like spray painting ‘Santa is Dead’ on the wall in the girl’s restroom?  We could do it in red.”
             “You just want to get your rocks off in the girls' room,” laughed Danny, “like walking into no man’s land!”
             “We’ve done the graffiti game already,” I reminded the boys.  We had sprayed ‘Father Owens Sucks’ in black on the entrance to the metro train tunnel.  Not being sophisticated enough to get the sexual inuendo, we just thought we were saying that he was a lousy priest---which he was.  However, commuters, going into the city, were treated to the shame of Father Owens every day until the lettering was finally scrubbed away.
             “Let’s do what my aunt calls ‘brain storming,” I recommended, “That’s when you say any idea that comes into your head.”  I knew Danny had a pretty swift brain.  I wasn’t so sure about Joey.


             Over the next few days, during our lunch break and after school, we threw out our ideas---literally.  They were all pretty weak.  There was the plan of using the P.A. system to announce that, as a gift from the diocese, school was closed until February 31st.  Then Danny came up with the idea of giving all the nuns, as a Christmas present, s’mores made with Exlax.  Joey had the impractical suggestion of switching the bags of salt, used to de-ice the front sidewalk, with sacks of sugar.  “It’ll turn to syrup when it mixes with the water in the ice,” was his rationale.
             It was during Sunday mass when the answer came to me, kind of like when the angel Gabriel came to Mary.  I couldn’t wait to tell Danny and Joe!  I called both of them and told them to meet me ASAP at the playfield in Seaton Park.
             Danny was the first to arrive and we sat on the bleachers and waited for Joey who was always the last.
             “So here’s what I think we should do,” I announced, as we lit up our Kools, “We’re going to make a crèche disappear!”
             “What?” asked Joey, “What crutch, whose crutch?”
             “Creche, you dummy, not crutch!” explained Danny, “the holy family in the stable---the wisemen---the shepherds---the donkey?  Get it?”
             “Oh, yeah,” replied Joey, “you mean those white plywood figures out in front of the school that are supposed to be Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.”
             “Right,” Danny affirmed, exhaling a small cloud of cigarette smoke.
             “Well, I was actually thinking of the nativity scene over at St Casimir’s,” I corrected.
             “What?  You mean the polack church over on Pulaski street?” asked Joey, with a bit of distain in his voice.
             “Wow!” exclaimed Danny, “that creche is badass.  But it’s huge.  I mean the figures are full-size.”
             “Yeah,” agree Joey, “We’d need a truck to move that fucker, Marty.  We would do better with stealing the school Crush.  It’s flat and lightweight and---”
             “I was thinking,” I interrupted, “that we could each carry away a different statue but you’re right, we couldn’t move the whole thing.”  And that’s when we all hit on the same idea.


             St Casimir’s Polish Roman Catholic Church (its full name is chiseled in stone above the front doors) is a beautiful old church sitting on a slight hill in Polish Town.  They really do a whizbang Christmas there with big boughs of fir and giant red bows and enough lights to create a glow seen all the way to the moon.  Danny, Joey and I did reconnaissance there one afternoon, after school, and discovered several things.

             Firstly, the Creche was inside the church, not outside.  Secondly, it was gorgeous!  We’d all seen it when we were younger and hadn’t paid much attention but now it’s beauty was overwhelming, at least to me.  The three wisemen were as tall as Danny, who was the biggest of the three of us.  They were clothed in velvet and fur with gold crowns adorned with glass rubies and emeralds that looked like the real deal.  The angels floated above the full-sized wooden manger and wore wings made of real feathers.  The shepherds were clad in rough woven garments and tended their flock of full-sized plaster sheep.  The repressed artist in me was stunned. There was even a sweet little donkey peeking over Mary’s shoulder to gaze at the baby Jesus.  The baby Jesus---not asleep in the manger but wide awake and extending his arms, asking to be picked up and loved.


             “So, here’s the plan,” I said quietly, to the other members of the “Unholy Three” as we spread out in my bedroom.  “Danny, you’re in charge of the baby carriage. Did you round one up?”

             “I’m borrowing my sister Shannon’s.  She’s between babies right now.”
             “Great!  Now, Joey, after you help Danny and me get the carriage up the church steps, you’ll stand watch outside for any trouble on the street.”
             “What trouble?  Why can’t I be with you guys?”
             I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the brown color of his face would make him stand out in a church full of pale white Poles.  “There might be cops or a patrol car and you may need to alert us.  Okay?”
             “No okay.  You guys get to have all the fun.  I wanna---”
             “Joey, we’re depending on you.  We can’t do this if you won’t be our lookout.  It’s probably the most important job in the plan.  Our success depends entirely on you.”
             “Well, only if you---”
             “Great!  Now, Danny, you got those clothes I asked you to find?”


             We decided that Wednesday’s 12:00 afternoon mass would give us the best opportunity to achieve our goal.  It wouldn’t be too crowded but there would be enough attendees there to help add to the confusion, most of them being older women. We agreed to meet in front of the church at exactly 11:55 so as to be the last parishioners to enter the service.

             Now, as I write this, I wonder how we ever got away with it.  I mean it was like one of those heist movies akin to ‘The Lavender Hill Mob,’ you know, with dumb disguises and stupid mistakes.  I can’t imagine what those sweet old Polish ladies thought when they saw this strangely-dressed mother pushing a big gray baby carriage down one of the side isles and parking it in the ambulatory.  She was quite a vision, dressed in a turquoise cotton shift with a big black knitted cardigan that reached down to her knees.  She wore a pair of yellow rubber rain boots and her hair was covered with a red scarf printed all over with white polka dots.  Her face was hidden behind a pair of Jackie Kennedy-like extra-large sunglasses. Walking beside her was this very pale young boy in his catholic school uniform.  They seated themselves in a pew way off to the side.
             What I’ve just described to you was what one of the witnesses told the police officer.


             How I ever convinced a 15-year-old testosterone-riddled teenager to put on his sister’s clothes was the miracle of the century.  He resisted at first but once I pointed out that this was going to happen outside of our neighborhood and that nobody would ever know it was him, and that if he did this he could borrow any of my old Playboy magazines, it was a green light all the way.

             Danny changed into Shannon’s clothes at a gas station near the church, while I guarded the empty baby carriage, and then we hurried down the street to meet Joey at the front steps.  When Joe saw Danny he doubled over in a fit of hyena-like laughter and I had to kick him hard to get him to stop.
             Once we were seated inside, with Joey outside on lookout duty, it was hard for us to hold still while the priest droned on in Latin and Polish.  When the mass, which seemed to go on for hours, was over and the parishioners got up to leave I went into my act.
             I had a cousin who was epileptic.  The poor guy took medications but every once in a while he would slip into a seizure where he would fall down and jerk and flail and foam at the mouth.  It scared the shit out of me then but now, when I was trying to come up with a way to create a distraction, I realized I could use this behavior to help shift the focus off of the Danny/mother.  So, the pale little school boy, working his way up the aisle, on his way to the exit, was seen to slide down to the stone floor and begin thrashing around like a person having a grand mal seizure.
             While the sweet little old Polish ladies gathered around me to help me recover from my fake convulsions, the Danny/mother completed his task and, with the now-occupied buggy, exited one of the doors and descended the stairs with Joey’s help.
             After a few minutes I assured the ladies that I was feeling better and, politely refusing the offer of a ride home, I slowly walked to the big open entrance.
             “Young man,” came a elderly female voice behind me, “where is your mama?”
             My heart and I stopped at the top of the steps.  I looked out at the sidewalk and then pointed down the street.
             “She’s there waiting for me,” I shouted as I stumbled down the steps, heading as fast as I could to where Danny and Joey where speeding away.
             A witness told the officer that the poor boy’s mother was obviously a bad mother.


              Later that day we all reconvened at Danny’s garage which stood about twenty feet away from his family’s house.  The baby Jesus lay in the buggy, covered in Shannon’s black cardigan, and Joey hovered over it, like an expectant father, nervously puffing on one of his Kools.  Danny was pacing back and forth on the oil-stained cement floor.
              “Man, that was scary,” admitted Danny,” I was just about to pick up the babe when one of the altar boys passed by.  I think I recognized him from school!  I hope he didn’t recognize me.”
              “Not possible,” I assured him, “He would be going to the school that St Casimir runs, not our poor little ole St Alexis.  Anyway, you did a great job.  We pulled it off!”
              The three of us high-fived and then gathered around the baby buggy.  I pulled back the sweater to expose the holy infant.  He seemed much bigger now that he was out of his environment.
              “The little sucker weighs a lot,” Danny announced.  “At first I thought he was attached to the crib, straps or screws or something, but then I got my hands underneath and I was able to lift him up.  When I dropped him into the buggy the whole carriage bounced and kinda sagged down.”
              “Well, he’s made of plaster,” I explained, looking at the beautifully sculpted features, the
little pink fingers, the sweet smile and the pale-blue and ivory-colored swaddling clothes, “probably weighs close to forty pounds.”
              “So what do we do now?” queried Joey.
              “We hide him and wait for the news to spread,” I replied.
              “Hide him where?” Danny asked, “where do we hide him?”
              “Here,” I answered, assuming that that had been our understanding.  Never assume.
              “No way, hoe zay,” Danny replied, shaking his head, “Dad comes out here a lot, mainly to drink his Budweisers.  Ma doesn’t allow drinking in the house.  And this may look like a mess---”
(and it did, with boxes and cartons and these weird shapes everywhere hidden under dirty tarps) “but he knows where everything is and he’d spot the kid in a minute.”


             While I worked on an alternative plan, Danny and Joey went next door to Dan’s sister’s house to return the baby carriage to the attic and her clothes to her closet.  Fortunately, Shannon was still at work as was Dan’s mom and dad.  They ran a family business downtown; ‘O’Toole’s TV and Radio Repairs.’

             I stared at the holy child lying, uncovered, on the cold cement floor and felt a pang of guilt.  It was like he was a live baby and the way he was reaching up to me was heartbreaking. I couldn’t just let him lie there, even if he was just 40 pounds of plaster of Paris.
             I struggled to lift the figure, not wanting to drop it and have it break into a hundred pieces.  I had already noticed earlier a few chips here and there, exposing the white plaster, that were evidence of many years of loving use.  Wrapping my winter coat around the infant I placed the heavy bundle on a wooden crate.  It was at that moment that I heard a car pull into the driveway.
             “It’s my mom,” Danny whispered as he and Joey slipped back into the garage using the side door, “She comes home early to start fixing dinner.  We gotta get the baby outta here, NOW!”
             It seems that while working out our master plan we hadn’t really spent much time on what we were actually going to do with the hot item once we had it in our possession.  Fortunately, Danny’s mom and dad didn’t park their cars in the junk-filled garage so we had a little time to figure out our next step.
             “I guess we could put him in my cellar,” Joey volunteered, “My mom never goes down there.  Too many spiders.”  Joey lived in a bungalow over in the colored section of town with his mom who was a single parent.  She worked as a cleaning lady and was one of the nicest persons I had ever met.  She made the best oatmeal cookies ever, better than my aunt.


             “The entrance is over there,” Joey explained, pointing to a beat-up double door resting at a 45 degree angle against the side of the house.  “I’ll open it. Be careful on the steps going down, they’re kinda crumbly.”
             Danny and I lifted the overweight baby Jesus out of Dan’s American Flyer wagon. We had used it to cart the holy child the twelve long blocks to Joey’s house.  It was wrapped in one of the dirty tarps and we hoped none of the neighbors saw what probably looked suspiciously like two white guys dumping a body in a stranger’s basement.
             The cellar was cold and damp and dark. The floor was made of packed-down earth that smelled like a grave in a cemetery.  Joey switched on the only light, a dusty web-covered 60-watt bulb, that did not send any illumination at all into the creepy corners.  A furnace and a hot-water heater stood like watch towers among the years of trash left by former tenants.  There were broken chairs, empty picture frames, moldy books and bottles and cans of unidentifiable substances.
             I spied a small loveseat with torn and stained cushions and a missing armrest.  “Let’s put him on this sofa.  It’s darker over here.  He won’t be seen so easily.”


             We were just coming up from the dungeon-like cellar when we heard a voice.

             “Joey? What are you doing over there?”  It was Joe’s mom, peering around the corner of the house.
             “Ah---uh---just playin a game, ma.  Me and the guys.”
             “Playing in that filthy old cellar?   Are those your friends from school?”
             “Yes, ma’am.”
             “Well, I’m starting supper so best that they head home for their dinners.  It’s getting late. And wash up good after being down in that nasty cellar.  Honestly.  Sometimes I wonder!”
             Danny and I trundled off, dragging his little red wagon, as Joey shut the cellar doors and followed his mother into the house.


             Two days later became the start of the ‘where do we hide the baby next game.  Joey whispered to me, in Sister Mary Carmella’s history class, that we had to find another place for the baby Jesus because the furnace at his house went on the fritz.   “A repairman is coming tomorrow to fix it so we got to move the little kid somewhere else.”

             “It’ll be okay,” I murmured softly, “He’s covered up and way back in a dark corner.”
             “We can’t take a chance.  My mom said she saw something on the eleven o’clock news about the stealing of the baby Jesus from the Polish church.  She’ll kill me if---”
             The strident tones of Sister Mary Carmella’s voice interrupted our conversation.
             “Joseph Jackson, do you have something you want to share with the class?”
             Joey leaned away from me and, lowering his head, replied, “No sister.”
             “Then please turn your attention to what we are trying to learn.”
             “Yes, ma’am.”
             Which is?”
             Joey looked like he’d swallowed a gopher.  I hissed in his ear, “The war of 1812!”
             After a short pause he answered, “The war of the Angry Twelve.”
             The whole class became a noisy sea of snickers and guffaws.


             There wasn’t room in my overstuffed closet, between the stacks of Playboy magazines and DC comics and my collection of rocks, for baby Jesus to lay down his sweet head.  It was only after Danny and I carefully lifted up one end of my bed that Joey was able to slide the figure into a safe position.  We lowered the twin bed slowly until the slats almost touched the baby’s little pink fingers.  Thankfully the bedspread reached the floor so he was hidden and that was the best we could do for now.

             “Where’s your Aunt Rosa?” Joey asked, as he carefully sat down on the bed.
             “She’s at the church for a meeting of the Daughters’ of Isabella.  They’re setting up for some sort of Christmas charity dinner.”  I lowered myself to the floor where Danny joined me.
             “My dad’s newspaper had a story about the kidnapping of Jesus.  That’s what they’re calling it, Marty, a kidnapping,” Danny related, “They make it sound like it was a real live baby.  I think we’re in deep doodoo.”
             “Yeah,” Joey repeated, like a frigging parrot, “deep deep doodoo.”
             “No, no, guys!  This is exactly what we wanted to happen,” I explained, although I too was beginning to have some doubts.  “People are going to be talking about this and remembering it forever!”
             “But what happens if they search here and find the kid, under your bed?” Danny asked.
             “Yeah,” echoed Joey.
             “Come on guys,” I answered, defensively, “no one is going to come storming into my aunt’s house and running upstairs to search my room.”
             “But what are we finally doing with the kid?” Danny asked, “Are we going to keep it forever?”
             “Of course not,” I assured him, “Christmas is next week and we’ll be on holiday break so we’ll return him then.”
             “Return him where?  Back to the church?”
             “How will we do that?” asked Joey, fingering one of his cigarettes.  He couldn’t light up in the house because the smell would alert Aunt Rosa. “We can’t go back there.  They’ll be waiting for us.”
             Joey was right but I didn’t have an alternative plan yet so I bluffed an answer.
             “I’ve got it under control.  As soon as all the pieces of the plan are in place I’ll fill you in.”
             “Okay, double-oh-seven,” Dan responded, “It’s mighty big of you to include us.”
             “Yeah,” Joey added, “who made you the leader?”
             “Well, someone has to take charge,” I answered, defensive once more, “You want the job, Joey?  How about you Danny boy?  You wanna be the leader?” I took the silence that followed as a no. 
             After playing a couple rounds of Risk, the guys headed on home.  I put the game away and went downstairs to watch some TV to take my mind off of what had to be done.  I found myself staring at the Johnny Quest show but not really seeing it.  I was too worried about the problem that was lying under my bed and how to resolve it.  To say I was having second thoughts about the whole stupid thing would be an understatement.  I’d say I was stuck somewhere between anxious and panicky.


             “Marty!  The phone,” my aunt shouted at the base of the stairs, “It’s Daniel!”

I rushed down the steps, two at a time, and grabbed the receiver from her hand.
             “Hi, Danny.”
             “Hey, Marty.  You weren’t at school today. Break isn’t until next week.
             “Yeah, well, I woke up feeling sick---” Aunt Rosa gave me the evil eye, as she started back to the kitchen, because she knew I had been faking it.  “Probably just a bug of some kind,” I explained weakly.
             “Is auntie standing next to you?”
             “No, she’s in the kitchen.  Why?”
             “They’re offering a reward,” he whispered.
             “500 dollars!  Five C-notes for the return of the Holy Child!”


             This was not at all what I had imagined would happen.  I thought that all there would be would be a mention, maybe, in one of the back pages of the newspaper or a quick news-brief on television.  After all, there was all that civil rights stuff going on and the Beatles and the trouble in Viet Nam.  Who would pay any attention to a missing plaster Jesus?  Oh, boy, was I wrong!

             It seemed the whole town was up in arms.  Even the Zion Lutheran church was getting involved as was Temple B’nai Abraham with both of them calling for an investigation and condemning the ‘vandals’ that committed such a sacrilegious act.  Oh, come on, it was just a silly joke and just a plaster statue.  And now a reward?!  Jeez!
             That night, when I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep.  I mean, there I was lying inches above the outstretched hands of the Christ child, who was the focus of a city-wide search.  What if someone ratted us out?  What if the police matched the finger prints, that must be all over the creche and the figure, to Danny, Joey and me?
             Let me take a moment to explain a few things to those of you reading this who weren’t around in the 1960s.  Very few places had CCTV back then; banks, a few 7 Elevens, the large department stores but there were certainly no cameras in St Casimir and no cameras on every street corner, like today.  DNA had yet to be used to identify a suspect, although, typing of blood was sometimes employed to narrow down the number of possible perpetrators.  No facial recognition APS, no vocal recognition APS, in fact no APS at all. The only real tool that the authorities had in 1964 was fingerprinting and that had been around in the United States since 1902.  So, I lay in bed, sweating, on that cold December night, not with visions of sugar plums dancing around in my head but with images of the ‘Unholy Three’ of us spending the rest of our lives in jail.  And all because of our fingerprints. 
             Why did we do this?  What were we thinking?  What was I thinking? 


             When Aunt Rosa left on Saturday, for her weekly grocery shopping, I moved the baby Jesus out from under my bed and slowly, step by step, lowered him down the stairs.  Then, wrapped in a large beach-towel, printed with a picture of Casper the Friendly Ghost, I dragged him out the back door, down the porch steps and across the frozen yard to the garden shed.  By the time I got him hidden behind a bag of fertilizer and the lawn mower I was covered in sweat and breathing like a steam engine.  I don’t know how I was able to move that forty-pound icon all that way into the garden when I myself only weighed about 100 pounds.  I guess it was like one of those stories you hear about some desperate father lifting a two-ton car off the top of his kid---gallons of adrenaline.

             I felt a little better now that I was no longer bunk buddies with Christ and I knew no one would be going near the shed until next Spring.  By then the Holy Infant would be---what?  Returned?  How the heck were we going to get it back to where it belonged without ending up in Sing Sing?


             “I went to confession today, Marty.” It was Joey on the phone, “It was so hard not to spill the beans.  Have you come up with a plan yet?  I’m so scared I’ll slip up and---and blurt out the truth!”

             “Don’t be a wimp, Joey.  Everything is going to be okay,” I replied, trying to reassure him and myself.  “Why don’t you come over and we can play some more Risk.”
             “I can’t.  I’m taking my cousin Nina down to Bamberger’s to see Santa.”
             “Geez, aren’t you a little old to be visiting Santa?”
             “I’m babysitting for my aunt.  She and mom are working an extra gig at some rich lady’s house.  A big party or somethin so they are payin me to look after Nina.”
             “Well, I hope they’re paying you a lot,” I admonished. “You want company?” I was up for anything that would get me away from the house---and the shed of shame.


             The line to visit Santa was long and Nina, who was a four-year old and therefore very impatient, was bouncing around like kangaroo.  There were a couple of elves dressed in green tights and red vests trying to practice crowd control but with not much success.  One elf, tall, skinny and waging a battle with teenage acne, kept trying to herd Nina back into line.  The other elf, short and chubby, was singing a song about Santa liking to see everyone being a ‘Smiley Riley’ who follows all the rules and eats his veggies.

             Standing in front of us were two rather large women and, what I guessed was, an eight or nine-year-old boy.  He looked about as bored as I was and was passing the time working a Yoyo up and down.  The women seemed to be more excited than the young man, who had probably stopped believing in the jolly old elf years ago.  Standing so close, I couldn’t help overhearing some of their conversation.
             “Why do we celebrate Christmas?” asked the youngest of the two ladies.
             “Sometimes I think you only have half a brain, Denise,” chided the other woman, chewing on what I only hoped was some Wrigley’s gum, “It’s Santy Claus’s birthday.”
             So much for a mother’s wisdom.  I felt bad for the Yoyo kid.
             When we finally reached the Sacred Throne of Santa, Nina started to cry.  Joey’s aunt had given him some money to pay for a photograph of Nina on Santa’s lap.  In those days the elves just took a photo automatically, gave you a slip and you turned it in to another elf if you wanted to pay for a lousy, blurry photo.  But you didn’t have to, no obligation.  Joey chose not to, with good reason.  Nina screamed bloody murder, beat Santa with her tiny fists, pulled his fake beard, which almost came off, and ended up upside down with her head in his crotch and her shiny black Mary Janes in his face.  Now, all these years later, I kind of wish we had purchased the photo. What a hoot!
             On the bus ride home Nina fell asleep in Joey’s arms, exhausted from her terrifying visit to Saint Nick.  The two of us were silent for most of the trip.  Finally, Joey spoke up when we got close to my stop.
             “So, what’s the plan, Marty?  What are we goin to do?”
             “I’ve got it under control.”
             “What’s the plan?”
             “I’ll tell you tomorrow, you and Danny.”
             I hesitated.  Aunt Rosa said never make a promise you can’t keep.
             “Yeah---I promise.”


             When I got home Aunt Rosa yelled from the kitchen that Danny had called and wanted me to call him back.  “He sounded serious so you better phone him right away.”  Which I did.

             “Hey, Danny, what’s up?”
             “They’re comin for us!” he hissed, “We are in such trouble!”
             “Who’s coming for us?” I asked, feeling a cold lump forming in my stomach.
             “The cops!  They’ve been going from house to house asking questions.  My folks are at work so I didn’t answer the door when they rang the doorbell.
             “Jesus Christ!  What the hell is going on?  It was just a joke, a prank!  It’s not like we stole the Crown Jewels!”
             “Somebody reported seeing three guys wheeling a red wagon the other day, with a body in it.”
             “A body?  There was no body!  It wasn’t a friggin body!” I exclaimed, “How did you hear about this?”
             “It was on the noon news.  They’re asking people to call in if they have any information!”
             I was so ready to call in and send them on a wild goose chase to somewhere far away like Mexico or Alaska.  This had turned into such a ridiculous ‘mountain out of a molehill’ event and we had to put an end to it---I had to put an end to it.
             “I’ll have a plan all worked out tomorrow.  You and Joey come over in the morning.  Just hold tight for now.”


             A plan.  I needed a plan.  Okay, one idea was to just return the baby Jesus to St Casimir, apologize, and face the music.  However, it looked like facing the music in this case meant a jail term for the ‘Unholy Three.’  Looking back at it now I realize that this was what we really should have done.  We would have ended up with a mere slap on the hands, several lectures on the evil of stealing, an embarrassing ‘walk of shame’ back into school and being grounded for a few months, but no jail time.  And we would have felt better about ourselves.

             The other solution was to lie and say we found the Holy Child abandoned in the woods and claim the reward.  But the authorities would see right through that ploy and we’d end up in prison after all.
             I kept running scenarios through my tired brain as I lay in bed watching, on my clock-radio, the time rushing its way into the dawn.  I don’t know at what hour I finally fell asleep but when I did I had an extraordinary dream, a dream I remember vividly to this day.
             You know how in dreams everything seems so real and seems to make sense even when it doesn’t?  That’s what happened that night when I entered the land of nod.
             I found myself in the middle of the back yard and facing the tool shed.  The grass was so green, like an ocean of neon emerald, and it felt like a velvet bedspread under my bare feet.  The sky above was bruised purple with puffs of pink cotton candy and there were silver stars here and there, blinking off and on, like the star that topped our Christmas tree.  The tool shed, which in the waking world was made of gray-weathered wood, was the color of antique silver.  The door was painted a deep wine red and, as I stepped slowly forward, it began to open.
             As it says in the bible, I was suddenly ‘sore afraid’ and fell on my knees.  The light around the edges of the door was a golden yellow increasing in intensity as the door swung completely open.  It was like staring into the sun.
             Now that I am in my so-called golden years and being a lapsed Catholic, an agnostic, bordering on an atheist, you’d think that I would have written off what I saw in my dream, all those years ago, as nonsense.  Well, I don’t.  It was like those visions I read about in Sister Mary Felician’s class; the three little kids in Fatima or Bernadette in Lourdes.  Yeah, like that.  I know it was only a dream but it felt like so much more.
             In front of this blinding light appeared a silhouette, the shadow of a small figure.  As it waddled towards me I could see it was him, the baby Jesus, and he was glowing like a candle, white and translucent.  He was holding his arms out to me and, eventually, he reached to where I was kneeling and clasped me in a warm hug.   All fear and anxiety melted away.  And he spoke to me in a soft and loving grownup voice.
             “You are forgiven.  What you have done is a blessing.  It has revealed how much love there is in the world.  That so many could care about one lost child.  Now it is time for you to return this symbol of eternal love to its proper place.”
             And he told me what the plan was.


Nativity Figure Returned
Found in Wrong Creche

In what played out like a Christmas miracle, a missing figure of the infant Christ was found safe and sound this Christmas morning, resting in a manger.  But it was not the manger he was used to.  Instead of residing in the elaborate Baroque creche, that has been part of the St Casimir Polish Roman Catholic Church’s holiday display for over a century, it was left in a simple plywood cradle on the steps of the St Alexis Catholic School.
             Authorities from both the church and the school have no clue as to where the figure has been for the last fourteen days or the circumstances of its return.
             “We are just pleased that it has been found,” said Sister Mary Humilitas, Mother Superior, at St Alexis.  “We have returned the blessed infant to Father Kosinski over at St Casimir.  All is well.”
             However, an unnamed source revealed to this reporter that the figure of the holy child belonging to St Alexis is now missing.  It is described as a silhouette cut out of plywood and painted white which they are hoping will be found shortly.

And it was, under the tired old Christmas tree at the side of the school.  Written on the back in pencil were the words “Merry Xmas, from the Unholy Three.”


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