Saturday, December 22, 2001

Jack Fear’s Strange But True Xmas Story

By popular demand, the tale that’s bringing me worldwide fame and reknown...
A Christmas story, I know, has a strike against it just going in: the entire genre is built around the cliché that the holiday season brings out the best and/or worst in human nature—yawn. But hell, for what it’s worth, here it is.
I help out with the music at my parish. The choir rehearses on Wednesday nights. This happened the Wednesday before Christmas a couple of years ago. We had just finished up rehearsal at the church. The decorations were already up—wreaths on the columns, real boughs, which filled the church with a smell of pine. In the sanctuary, opposite where the choir stands, there’s always a big artificial Christmas tree. It’s a drop-off spot for the Toys For Tots program, and there was a small pile of presents underneath it.

It was late—almost midnight—and we had finally gotten our Christmas music wrapped up. I was standing in the parking lot chatting with a friend of mine; the other members of the choir had already gone home. We’d shut of the lights in the church and locked the front doors, but by custom, the side door—the chapel door—stayed unlocked. So we were standing on the curb by the doorway, talking about how the music sounded.

As we were talking, a red Jeep 4x4 came oozing lazily into the parking lot, slowed down, and seeing us, oozed out again.

This was strange, and it worried me. Churches get vandalized: in God’s house the door is always open, and occasionally some drunk will stumble into the chapel to sleep it off—or maybe to drink the wine and steal the gold altar service. But the odd, appraising driveby of an expensive SUV—that gave me pause. I mean, after all, if you had legitimate business in a pitch-black church at midnight, you’d probably be glad to see two folks in the parking lot... but the Jeep had rolled right by. Whoever was driving it was not interested in talking to us.

My friend and I said nothing of it, but finished our conversation and left. I got in my car, but I didn’t go home: I circled the block and returned to the church. When I came back, the Jeep was parked by the chapel door and the lights in the upper church were on.

I sat in my car, shaking, for a moment—then I got up and went into the church.

I’ve seen too many movies: I was expecting at any moment to take a bullet in the head as I went through the lower church, flipping on light switches, making a whole lot of noise so they’d know I was coming—I didn’t want jumpy, startled intruders on my hands. Halfway up the stairs I found myself singing “King of the Road” at a decent volume (don’t ask me why).

I rounded the bend in the stairs and came out into the sacristy, and there, by the altar, I saw a man and a woman whom I knew them by sight as members of our parish; from my spot in the choir I see everybody. The woman always sat on the center aisle, seven pews back on the right. She had a strong, pure soprano voice—I’d spoken to her once, asked her if she’d considered joining the choir, but she was too shy. She usually came to church alone, but I’d seen the man a few times, and knew he was her husband.

They were each holding huge white plastic shopping bags, as big as garbage bag, both of them filled with new toys—there had to be $500 worth of stuff. They were piling the toys beneath the artificial Christmas tree for the Toys For Tots program.

The woman gave me an embarrassed half-smile, and raised a finger to her lips. “Please,” she said, “not a word to anyone.”
I nodded dumbly, and left.

This woman and her husband—they were in their late forties. I knew a little about them. They had no children. They’d never had children. Couldn’t have children.

There’s no punchline here: this is just something that happened. But when I got in my car and drove home, I was shaken by sobs that did not stop for a long time.

First appeared, in slightly different form, in the book I Thought My Father was God, edited by Paul Auster: published in the UK as True Tales of American Life.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

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