Christmas Eve, about eight years ago, my family invited the neighbor man to dinner. We’d known him a couple years but never asked him to our home. He kept to himself and his campfire, and sometimes his rollicking, noisy, beer-chugging friends. His place was set back from the road and a person only knew it was there if they knew it was there. Ya know what I mean? He called a camper home. The next year as an upgrade, he parked another in front of it. One for cooking, one for sleeping.
His face was rough with beard and his head topped with longish, mousy gray hair. It’s hard to tell the age of someone layered in hair and flannel and time.
Near about dark he clang-banged his boots on the deck and we invited him inside. Inside of the home that formerly belonged to his mother and father. I’d not thought that through… he said something about the carpet we’d replaced with laminate and the pine with which we’d lined the kitchen walls. The way he chewed his lip and sucked air through his front teeth and nodded ever so slight, I took as good signs.
As per our family’s Christmas Eve tradition, we supped on a big meal of lasagna and salad and cran-apple sauce and stuffing. I’d set the table with placemats and mostly non-chipped dishes. Glasses (actually Mason jars) of bubbly cider and small plates of chocolate pie were our only tabletop decor.
I can still see us sitting there, my husband, me, our 3-year old son, my visiting mother-in-law, and the neighbor man. The flooding was extraordinary that year – whilst our collective elevation was high enough to have only snow, the lowland freeway and neighborhoods and cities were covered in water. He cut through the weather talk and smalltime chit-chat with conversation, questions, and the occasional curse words so red my ears near ’bout fell off.
My young son sitting next to me asked, “Whazzat mean?” over and over again.
I hushed him with below the table squeezes to the knee and promised him extra pie if he’d only concentrate on his dinner. My husband’s mother went slack jaw and pale a few times. I bit my cheek and refilled the neighbor man’s mug with coffee. Over and over again.
After a couple hours we said we needed to go and asked if he’d like to come along to a candlelight service. We told him he could ride with us as we knew his rig wasn’t winter-worthy.
With a nod, slow and low, he declined. “Churches aren’t for people like me. I don’t think they’d want me there.”
We gave him protest, but to no avail.
Fast-forward another year, not quite, but darn close to Christmas Eve… a little boy tromped about as a shepherd in a play, and when the service was done, the pastor man apparently took too long with his concluding remarks. An impatient boy, my son, in all of his 4 years of wisdom, clamored over my lap, ran down the aisle, with his shepherd clothes flapping around his cowboy boots. When the pastor bent low to assess the commotion, my boy grabbed the microphone outta the pastor’s hand.
My shepherd turned to the people and yelled into the microphone, “What he’s trying to say is this part’s over and Jesus is celebrating His birthday downstairs. And we brought the cake!”
As I covered my mouth and tried to flee the sanctuary, a man, flanneled to his utmost, hairy head combed smooth and beard trimmed a bit, nodded at me from where he stood at the back.
We all went downstairs and my husband introduced our neighbor man ’round. Everyone sang Happy Birthday and ate most all the sheet cake.
Some odd days later the neighbor man stopped me near the end of our rural road and said, “Ya know, those church folks where you all go to Sunday service, where I went to the Christmas play?”
“Well, those folks didn’t seem bothered by me,” our neighbor man said as he gentle-waved his hands over beard and flannel.
* As you know, sometimes I like to spin a yarn hereabouts, but all of this story is the actual-factual truth.
Merry Christmas, buckaroos!