Wednesday, March 20, 2013

An Agnostic Christmas

A short story from the novel The Popcorn Girl

by Michael J. Vaughn

The neighborhood that Scootie Jones grew up in was populated also by Santa Claus, and his reindeer, and the three wise men, and General Electric. Scootie’s cul-de-sac was one of those where the neighbors made of the December holidays a dazzling, block-long forest of electrical lights. Even the Applebaums, who erected a huge menorah covered in aluminum foil.

Of all the neighbors, none were more enthusiastic nor better equipped than John Sorenson. The Sorensons’ was the biggest house on the block, a sprawling two-story affair with a balcony and a barn-style garage. He wrapped the balcony railing with a zig-zag weave of colored lights. He strung the rooflines with large outdoor bulbs, dangling from the eaves like ripe fruits. A Styrofoam snowman greeted visitors at the head of the walk, and in the large front window stood a fifteen-foot Douglas fir, banked in white lights, silver balls and silk angels. The lawn hosted a nativity scene of illuminated figures, possessed of that inner glow one might expect from a holy family. Their paperboy, Markie Rodriguez, took great pleasure in placing the Chronicle in the crib so that it would appear the infant messiah was perusing the headlines.

The crowning achievement of John Sorenson’s holiday assemblage was a fully rigged sleigh – Santa, reindeer, bag of gifts, three elves – lofted on a wire from the TV antenna to the center beam of the garage. The effect was such that Santa appeared to be circling the house in preparation for a landing. Every Christmas Day at noon, the neighborhood kids gathered in the driveway as Mr. Sorenson pulled a special cable and released a shower of candies and small toys on their heads.

The other twenty-two households followed suit, and the weeks preceding Christmas attracted a steady stream of visitors. Every third year, the Chronicle sent a photographer and featured the court in its holiday supplement.

The only chink in the neighborhood’s collective armor was Scootie’s father, Harman Jones. Declaring himself a “devout agnostic,” Harman declined to take part in any activity which would seem to favor one religion over another. Thus, viewed from above, Arbor Court resembled a long electrical smile with one tooth missing. This caused no end of frustration to John Sorenson. A tense discussion of the issue worked its way into the Yuletide rituals right along with caroling and mistletoe. Harman Jones would be taking out the trash on the day after Thanksgiving, and John Sorenson would just happen to be strolling by with his poodle, Spikey.

“Hello, Mr. Jones! How are you this morning? Did you have a fine Thanksgiving?”

“Very fine, Mr. Sorenson. My wife makes a pumpkin pie that you would not believe. I must have eaten five slices all by myself.”

“Wonderful, wonderful.” John Sorenson ruffled Spikey’s head, working up courage for the battle to come. “So tell me, Mr. Jones, have you given any thought to maybe doing some decorating for the holidays?”

“Why yes, Mr. Sorenson. We are getting a tree. Fine pagan tradition, putting up an evergreen in the darkest time of the year. And I do enjoy the smell of it.”

“Well, Mr. Jones, I was thinking in terms of outdoor decorating.”

“Oh, that!” Harman Jones scratched his head in false contemplation. “Why, I can’t see why I would do that, Mr. Sorenson, seeing as how I don’t have any particularly religious feelings on the matter of Christmas.”

“Well, Harman, I certainly wouldn’t expect you to change your feelings on the subject. Not at all! I was just hoping you might perhaps put up a few lights. Nothing complicated, just something to fit in with the general spirit of things.”

“The general holy spirit of things.”

Thus, the first shot was fired, and John Sorenson was free to speak bluntly. “Now Harman, you know how beautiful the block looks all lit up every year. You know the kids come from all over to see this thing. Wouldn’t you like to take part in something that brings pleasure to the children?”

“Not if it doesn’t agree with my religious beliefs.”

“But you haven’t got any religious beliefs!” said John Sorenson. “You told me so yourself.”

“What I have told you is that I have chosen not to choose, and to put up a string of lights in celebration of the Baby Christ would be an act favoring one line of thought over all others. I won’t do it.”

“How about a reindeer, or a snowman, or some candy canes? They’re not very religious. I’ve got extras. I’ll loan you anything you need.”

“But don’t you see, John? These are all things which have become tied up in one way or another with a Christian holiday. Now, granted, that holiday was stolen from the Roman pagan holiday of Saturnalia, but still, in this country, in this context, it is a religious event. I know I’ve tried to explain this to you before, John, but I derive a certain power in leading a life in which I know that I do not need to have answers, and that is why I insist on things like this. It leaves one’s intellectual and spiritual channels so much more open than investing oneself in a specific, organized body of beliefs.”

By this time, John Sorenson was teetering from one foot to the other, like a captain on a foundering ship. He gathered himself for one last foray. “You’re a stubborn man, Harman, and half the time I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. But just think about it. Please? It would mean so much to the neighborhood.”

One of Frank Bella's illustrations from the original Dragonfly Press storybook.
For twelve years of Scootie Jones’ young life, the dialogue around the trash can remained pretty much the same, a tiresome conference between a religious man, a secular man, and a poodle who really couldn’t care less, so long as he was fed. But then, one year, something changed. John Sorenson’s wife, Felicia, took up the banner.

Thanksgiving was larger than ever, with more relatives than Scootie knew he had crammed into the Jones’ modest ranch-style home. The next day, his father had to cart six bags of garbage out to the trash cans. Felicia Sorenson came by on bag number three, poodle in tow.

“Good morning, Harman.”

“Oh! Good morning, Felicia. Hi, Spikey.” He set down his bag and fluffed the old poodle’s head. “Where’s your husband? Did he finally give up on me?”

“He did. But I didn’t. Listen, Harman Jones, this is a perfectly wonderful thing the people in this neighborhood do, and folks really seem to enjoy it. I know my husband’s a bit of a fanatic, but you know, in a life of bills and labor strikes and all the crappy little things that get you down on a regular basis, the holiday fair is one thing that really gets my hubby excited about life. And the only thing that keeps it from being perfect is you, Harman. I know about your religious sentiments and everything, but couldn’t you just once see your way to putting up a string of lights or something? Look at the Applebaums – they’re Jewish, and they don’t seem to mind taking part.”

“Ah, but the Applebaums are religion-impaired, just as you are, Felicia. Mine is the only free-minded household on the block, and God bless me but I see no reason why I should add to my electrical bill just to provide a false sense of neighborhood unity. Much as I would like to please you, I’m afraid I can’t go against my beliefs.”

That would have seemed a conclusive response, but Felicia Sorenson was no quitter, and she was well-acquainted with the ways of persuasion. So, she tried another tack.

“How about this, Harman? I make a chocolate cake that my husband refers to as Heaven’s Own. And you know how my husband feels about heaven. So here is my deal: for every strand of lights, for every illuminated figure, for every festive object you place on the front of this house, I will produce one of Heaven’s Own and deliver it to your doorstep. If you do a really fine job, I may just lend a few more personal tokens of affection as well.”

If there were any doubt as to the exact meaning of this last comment, it was erased by the sight of Felicia’s tongue stroking along the edge of her finely shaped lips. Harman gave the matter more thought than usual.

“This thing really means a lot to you, doesn’t it, Mrs. Sorenson?”

“When the lights are up, Mr. Jones, my husband is happy. When my husband is happy, I’m happy.”

“Well then,” said Harman. “I suppose I will be putting up something for the holidays this year.”

Felicia Sorenson found herself fixed squarely between shock and jubilation. She burst upon Harman and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Oh, Harman! I knew you would do it. Thank you. Thank you so much!”

Harman, cognizant of neighborhood gossips, held Felicia at arm’s length and wiped the lipstick from his cheek.

“It’ll be my pleasure,” he said. “Happy holidays, Mrs. Sorenson.”

“Happy holidays, Harman! Come on, Spikey, let’s go tell Daddy!” Felicia and Spikey trotted off down the street. Harman laughed and turned to fetch bag number four.

Spikey's cousin, Java.
Jilly Skamadjian-Jones and her three children had no idea what force had gotten hold of Harman. He locked himself up in his workshop, ignored all televised sporting events, and refused to let anybody see what it was he was working on. Each night, he would arrive home an hour late and slip some large object into the garage before anybody could catch a glimpse. On the morning of December 5, after the rest of the neighborhood had completed its transformation to Messiahs ‘R’ Us, Harman Jones called in sick to work when he did not seem to be sick at all. The kids went off to school, Jilly went off to do some shopping, and Harman went back to his mystery cave.

Just imagine you are John Sorenson, respected banker, treasurer of the Santa Ana Presbyterian Church, grand poobah of the Arbor Court holiday bonanza. Imagine that the one holdout who has plagued your favorite time of year with his dark front porch has finally agreed to hoist up his lights for the good of the neighborhood. Every night you drive home in your Olds Cutlass, and you round the corner at Valentine Street and you drive past your home in order to check the Jones house. And then, one clear, cold evening, you round that corner and you realize right away that something is different, because the front lawn that has always been dark and plain is suddenly brilliant with color and light.

And imagine that you drive slowly to the front of the Jones house, home of Harman and Jilly and Jennifer and Steven and Leonard who they call Scootie, and you have begged this man every day-after-Thanksgiving for the past decade-plus, and finally there is something there and your heart is beating faster than a one-horse open sleigh and you will give your wife the biggest kiss when you get home… And then you take a look.

Perched in the center of Harman Jones’ lawn is a barber pole, lit up from the inside, festooned with tinsel, and on top, a single shining star. Positioned around the pole are four luau-style tiki torches with electrical orange flames. Over the garage door hangs a classic holiday snowscape interrupted by the large neon letters of a popular brand of beer. Attached to the front door, at the spot usually reserved for a wreath, is an illuminated clock from a fifties-style diner, its hands fixed at twelve-twenty-five. Near the sidewalk, next to the mailbox, stands a small billboard advertising the kind of after-shave commonly endorsed by quarterbacks and home-run hitters. The front walk plays host to a strip of bright green astroturf equipped with a putter, a dozen red and green golf balls and an automatic putt return.

Finally, spread along the front window there stand eight plastic pink flamingos, silver bells around their necks, led by a stuffed Saint Bernard with a glowing red nose. The team is reined up to the kind of vibrating electric rocket ship you might find at the front of a supermarket. Astride the rocket ship is a life-sized cardboard cutout of Gene Autrey in full cowboy gear. Gene has one hand flung back, an old guitar strung around his neck, and a red cowboy hat with a white puff on top. Over his shoulder he carries a large bag full of laundry.

Harman Jones never did receive Heaven’s Own or any other favors from Felicia Sorenson. Somewhat disappointed that he had held to the letter of their contract yet received nothing for his efforts, he took great satisfaction, nonetheless, in having made his point. He received no further post-Thanksgiving visits from the Sorensons – husband, wife or pooch – but continued to participate in the annual holiday fair, consistently drawing the largest crowds in the neighborhood to see his collection of post-modernist illuminated agnostic artworks.

First published 1999 by Dragonfly Press.

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