Jesus loves me, I say.
That’s more than true, says Grams.
Mommy says it can’t be any other way.
Daddy is driving, and Mommy rides beside him. Grams is next to me, except she isn’t. She’s old and tiny and sits all crooked and I can’t touch her from where I sit, protected with belts and buckles.
I’m even tinier than Grams.
I love Jesus, I tell them.
His birthday is coming, I remind them.
And I pray to him everyday for gifts, I say.
The adults let me talk.
Daddy drives. This isn’t supposed to be a long trip, but it feels long. I ask how soon we’ll get there. Good boys need to be patient, Mommy tells me. But she doesn’t look patient. Her mouth closes tight, like when she doesn’t like the program on television, or when Grams tells one of her stories.
I like Grams’ stories.
I look at Grams. Tell me about the War, I say.
Mommy makes a tiny sound.
Daddy says there isn’t time for stories.
But I don’t need to hear everything. Grams knows what I want.
Grams looks like Daddy and she looks like nobody else. Both ways at once. Her face is happy and old but she sounds young, sounds like the girls at my school.
You want to hear about the red suit man, she says.
My hand wants to touch her. That’s why it reaches out.
Her arm stretches across the seat. Cold fingers fall into my hand. I was about your age, she says, and the war was a little younger than I was, and my father, your Daddy’s grandpa, brought the red suit man home. The man was our guest, she says. The man was a special task, she says. That’s what Grams always says, with that little girl voice and parts of Daddy’s face.
You wanted to make him good, I say.
If anyone could, she says, smiling.
Because the red suit man was bad, I say.
More weak than bad, she says.
Then our car turns, and Daddy slows us down, taking a big breath before telling us that we are at church.
Christmas comes in winter. Except there are places that have summer now, and they have Christmas at the same time we do. And different places never have snow or cold, and they believe in God just like we do, or they are wrong. The world is big and complicated, Mommy says. Daddy says that I’ll figure it all out someday. He says I’m smart enough and time teaches everybody.
I like that. I like knowing that my stupid parts are going to be left behind, like shoes that get small, like underwear decorated with dragons.
So Grams must know everything, I said. Just once.
Mommy made her little sounds. And Daddy laughed, half-happy and half-something else. I don’t know what he means when he laughs like that.
But I’ll know a lot more someday.
Maybe before my next new shoes.
We park in front of the church and get out into the cold.
I walk next to my Grams and she walks next to me.
The red suit man, I say.
The heretic, she says, laughing.
I don’t like that word, Mommy says.
This conversation needs to wait, says Daddy.
Not loud but not whispering either, Grams talks. She says that she knows what I like about that man. You’ve seen his picture, she says.
I see him now, inside my head.
And he came from you-know-where, she says.
Mommy looks back. We’re inside a church, she says. Mommy sounds like she’s talking to me. But she’s looking only at Grams.
Later, Grams promises.
The air has turned warm. That first room is big and full of adults walking and talking, and kids who are just walking. Everybody wears Christmas clothes. I look at one boy. I’m bigger than him. But two other boys are older and much bigger. I wish I was that big. I wish Jesus gave that kind of gift to good boys. I could ask to be made tall and big and tough, and that would be wonderful. But everybody would ask for that gift, and everybody would be strong. So I’d also ask Jesus to teach me everything too, which had to be a good gift. Wouldn’t it be?
The big room ends with doors and an even bigger room. The ceiling is high and dark. People are walking inside that room, finding friends. Finding places to sit. We always sit on the right side, not near the front and not at the back. Daddy always sits last, closest to the aisle. That means something. I don’t know what it means. And I sit between him and Mommy, with Grams out of reach.
Grams and I aren’t good together. That’s what Mommy says.
She says we talk too much, particularly in church.
I can’t talk to anybody. That’s the rule. I have to sit on the hard seat, ready to pray. There’s a little bench down below. It’s waiting for my knees. But Christmas isn’t going to start right away. So I just sit and look at the tops of heads, and I look past the heads, watching God’s only son standing beyond the altar.
Like me, he was born. He began as a baby, the same as everyone. But growing up, he became a magical old man with a white beard and fat in his belly. Where he lived, in the German north, is a place where it’s winter most of the time, and that’s where he did good things for people who needed it. He fed the hungry and cured the sick. And he flew through the snowy skies, which is how we know that he was the real son of god. He was a lot more than just a white-haired old man who was kind and sweet, living in old times.
The Romans didn’t like Germans and they hated God’s son. That’s why they sent soldiers into the forest to find him. But how can you catch a man who flies? You trick him. That’s what the Romans did. And maybe he got too fat and too old. That’s what I think, sometimes. Whatever the reason, God’s son was put in chains and brought back to Rome, and on a very hot day, he was nailed to a cross and left dangling in the sun. He was still wearing the fur robe that he wore in the north. The bad Romans didn’t let him wear cooler clothes. He bled and got too hot and died for a little while. Then he came back to life and helped more people before going to live with his Father in heaven.
In our church, he wears a black fur robe.
Black is the good color. Every other color is wrong.
All of the sudden the singers are singing behind us. The priest walks past me, on his way to the front. And I think a secret thought. Black isn’t a nice color. I don’t like black. God’s son would look a lot better in a bright red suit, and fighting wars and killing people doesn’t make that any different.
Clocks move slowly when people sing and pray. But the Christmas service ends without me falling asleep and being pinched by anyone.
Grams falls asleep.
I see her head drop, and I push Mommy with my elbow, showing her Grams isn’t paying attention.
Mommy clears her throat, and the singers roar, and the organ plays too.
Grams wakes and sits up and then falls asleep again.
Then it’s over. Except for the part where we go downstairs to the little feast. But that part isn’t as bad as the rest of it. The feast has bright candy that tastes old, and there’s sweet red juice that isn’t the blood of our savior. I can’t drink real wine yet. But I like the red juice, and I forget how bad the candies are. Drinking and chewing, I stand close to my family. Grams is talking to an old person. My folks are talking to each other. And there’s a girl on the other side of me. I know her. How do I know her?
She says hello.
Now I remember. She goes to my school, only she’s one grade older.
This is boring, she says.
I nod, and she asks my name.
I tell her.
My name is Mary, she says.
The girl is taller than me. And pretty. I’m not old enough to fall in love, and I won’t be for a long time. But she is dark and pretty with a beautiful nose. I like her nose, and I tell her so.
She laughs at me.
But not in a bad way, not like some kids laugh.
I don’t belong here, she says.
I ask why not.
I’m not Christian, she says. I’m Jewish.
Jews are a different kind of people, I know.
I’m here because of my stepmother, she says. My father married a Christian woman, she says.
I say her name again.
Mary, I say.
She has a nice laugh.
Jesus’ mother was named Mary, I tell her.
The pretty girl looks at the other adults. All at once she seems ages older than me. I don’t know how, but she’s acting like just another grown up.
She asks me if I like Jesus.
Of course I do.
You like the toys he brings, she says. Assuming that you’re good, she says.
I am good. I tell her so, and I believe it.
She touches me. Without asking, she puts the tip of a finger on my little nose, and she laughs, and then she tells me that I’m too old for this game.
I know what she’ll say next.
Jesus is a fable, she says. He’s a story told by adults to fool foolish kids.
I don’t believe that, I say.
Oh but that’s true, she says. And even if Jesus was real, he wouldn’t ride magical camels out of the desert just to give plastic soldiers to silly little boys.
I look everywhere but at her.
You’re too old to believe this fable, she says.
I’m thinking about Jesus and his camels moving in a caravan, coming through our neighborhood in that quick little bit of night at the beginning of summer.
For us, Jesus’ birthday comes when it’s hot.
But not for everyone, no.
Different parts of the world follow different seasons and different gods. But I’m thinking how everybody believes in the bearded carpenter who builds toys for the best children.
Mary bends low.
Stop being silly, she says.
Leave me alone, I say.
She tries to touch my nose again.
I slap her hand away.
Then she tries once more, and I don’t slap her hand this time. What I do is wrong and I know that, even before the adults are shouting.
But I feel good hitting her, just the same.
The ride home feels extra long.
Daddy drives slowly. He’s driving carefully. I can see his hands squeezing at the steering wheel, and he doesn’t talk.
Mommy talks. She says something about being ashamed. Somebody should be ashamed. Maybe she means me, although it could be Mary that makes her angry. Or maybe herself. I hear all of that in her voice, and then I hear it in the quiet that comes after.
Grams reaches for me.
We touch fingers, and the old face smiles.
The red suit man, she says.
I want to think about him, yes.
The red suit man looked exactly like Jesus, she tells me. Even his long hair and beard were the same as in the old drawings, she says. And he grew up in the same little city where Jesus was born all those centuries ago.
I like this story. Particularly today.
She tells it to me again. Her red suit man was a heretic and a soldier caught in the war, and he was given to her family as a project. He was told to work on their farm until he converted or until he died. Which was why that man spent five years with Grams’ family, back when she was my age and a little older too.
I see the prisoner inside my head. In my thoughts. He was handsome and tall and his hair was like a girl’s, except a little bald on top, and he had straight teeth in a smile that looked friendly. Maybe he was a heretic and a warrior for the wrong side, but on Gram’s farm, he was a good worker who didn’t complain and never tried to escape.
Grams starts to laugh.
She always laughs, right before she tells me that her Jesus man never wore red. Of course not. And he wasn’t much of a carpenter either. But he worked hard every day, doing dull little jobs, and he eventually learned the best words in our language. Of course he was too old to marry a stupid little girl, but Grams tells me, like always, that she loved him. When she was older than me, she was sure that he would convert and they would get married inside a big church.
Wearing black, I say.
Oh yes, wearing black, she says.
Good people wear black to church, on Christmas and every other day too.
Bad people wear red or green or white.
I know all of this, except I don’t. Aloud, louder than I should, I tell Grams that I don’t like black. Black is ugly and sad, but I like red.
Mommy makes a sharp little noise.
Daddy moves his angry hands along the wheel.
But Grams just laughs.
Red and black are just colors, she says. Put them on and take them off, Grams says. It changes nothing about a man’s heart.
Mommy turns around.
This isn’t just about the color our Savior wore, Mommy says.
It’s history and it’s politics, says Daddy.
We’re driving faster now. I feel it.
Daddy talks about the changes in what people believed. Two beliefs had little differences to begin with and then the differences got huge, and it only looks silly when you don’t know the reasons.
I don’t know the reasons.
Really, I don’t know who does.
Mommy has turned around in her seat, looking at me and at Daddy’s mother. And she tells everybody that this was a long time ago, and maybe we should change the subject.
What was a long time ago? The son of God dying in Rome, or when Grams was a little girl in love with a strange man?
I almost ask.
I decide to be quiet.
Grams winks at me.
I know what you want, she says.
I want the Jesus story, I say.
So maybe for the ten thousandth time, she tells it.
There was a hot, dry summer. Crops were dying, and there was dust blowing in the sky, sometimes huge clouds of dust that made children hide indoors. But the man who looked like Jesus decided to do something good for the children. He dressed up in clothes like the clothes in the old books. Instead of a camel, he rode a mule. Instead of carving his own wooden toys, he used a little bit of money that he’d saved, buying dolls and rubber balls and putting them inside a big burlap sack. Then he rode the dusty roads to the next farmhouse and the farmhouse after that, covering as much distance as he could during that quick little night.
But he didn’t get home in time.
The sun caught him in the open, and the sheriff found him riding the mule. Being a prisoner, he wasn’t supposed to be roaming free. The sheriff thought the red suit man was trying to escape. But wasn’t the mule pointing home again? And wasn’t it obvious, looking at his clothes and the sack, that he was out giving toys to good children?
The sheriff had a gun, of course.
And as Grams always says, the sheriff was not a good man.
But she happened to look out the window in time. She saw the two men in the road, one of them holding the gun, and quick as she could, she ran down there and called to red suit man. Jesus, she said. Where is my doll?
The men were staring at each other, saying nothing.
I prayed for a doll, she said to him.
Oh Jesus, please, she said.
Then the red suit man reached into his mostly empty sack, and slowly now, he pulled out the last doll, holding it close, swinging one of his legs and dropping to the ground, leading the mule as he walked to the good girl who deserved a lot more than a doll that she was way too old to play with.
I know what happened to the red suit man.
But I ask anyway. Because that’s the way the story gets told.
My friend converted, Grams says.
Good, I say.
After five years with us, she says, he put the right words in his mouth and said them in the proper order, and the government let him move back home again. He was trusted, at least a little ways. And it didn’t hurt that Bethlehem was on our side of the front lines by then.
And you never heard from him again, Mommy says.
That’s how the story is supposed to end.
But this time, Grams asks, Why do you think that?
Daddy looks back.
He’s driving and staring at his mother at the same time.
Because that’s the way the story goes, he says.
Only because I lie, says the old woman.
Someone honks, and Daddy looks forward again.
Everybody sits quiet now.
Until I ask Grams what she means.
My red suit man became Jesus, she says. After he left us, he took the job for himself because he liked it so much. He got real camels and found the magic that made everything possible, and when your father was a boy, my old friend came by our house every year.
That’s what she says, with a plain simple voice.
Even today, in the middle of winter, my red suit man is getting ready for summer and giving presents. She says.
My folks make little sounds.
They can’t decide whether to laugh or scream.
But I like this new story. For about two minutes, I believe everything Grams says to me. And then it all turns silly inside my head, and I don’t why, but suddenly I don’t believe in Jesus anymore.
It’s funny, how easy it is to fall out of one kind of believing.
Grams laughs to herself, alone.
And I wait for something else to come into my head. Something good to believe. But then we’re home and there still aren’t any good thoughts, and it occurs to me that maybe I won’t believe anything ever again.
And is that so bad?