Our baseball team sponsor’s store was where a guy would go if he had a pocket full of paper instead of coin. Mike and I never had occasion to make a purchase at the store although we walked in heads held high knowing we were a part of the team and expecting to be recognized by the lanky Mr. Greenberg himself. In a three-piece suit befitting of Mister Monopoly or a Memphis pimp, he approached my father, with hand extended, and a Yuletide grin for the shopping season. An act my father took as the prelude to a rear assault on a wallet that seldom saw the light of day. Mr. Greenberg patted our heads, something we’d outgrown with cloth diapers, and acknowledged our team’s outstanding season record, a pretense my father would later explain was an amateur’s effort to soften him up. My father recoiled a step and the salesman moved in for a pin, gripping his elbow and dragging him towards the women’s dresses. Mike and I settled into the stiff wooden chairs to trade outrageous guesses at what we’d bought each other, each of us carefully avoiding what we’d strongly suspected to be the right answer by giving misleading clues the likes of which would have led me to conclude that Woolworth sold ponies out of the back door.
The wrestling match featuring my father and the slick salesman took longer than regulation, into overtime. At about halftime, I spotted Lucky Joe and ran out to talk to him. He was walking with his brother, the one who had a wooden leg replacing the one he’d lost in the war, and two boys, my age, who he’d introduced as his sister’s sons. He was taking them shopping, down to the dime store. The boys with long ponytails and impatient faces tugged at their uncle’s sleeves to go. I identified with the urgency, wished them all another Merry Christmas and returned to my brother’s side.
At the end of the match, it was a draw. Mr. Greenberg made the sale and Dad got the floral print dress at a price that the storeowner cried would cause him to lock the doors and move to the poor farm. Both wore a winning grin as they marched to the front of the store. “Let’s go boys, we’ve got presents to wrap and you two have to get ready for the church pageant.”
Getting ready included a bath that required cleanser and shampoo instead of the usual dip in tepid water and a brush with a bar of the gritty Lava soap favored by my father. And water so hot my skin turned red under the bubbles that floated to my chin offering the opportunity to form a beard the likes of Santa Claus himself sported. Wrapped in two towels and still wearing the white bubble beard, I made a dash up the steps to our bedroom and slipped into the clothes my mother had laid on the bed. There was still no mention of the missing presents, although she seemed more her old cheerful self even singing along with a tinny version of “Silent Night” playing through the kitchen radio. Even though everything she ever sang quavered so far off key that it caused Coffey, the neighbor’s Chesapeake retriever, to howl in the summer, I was glad to have a reason to think Christmas was back on.
The bell in the church steeple rang four times which meant we were on time as we ambled through the vestibule carrying our costumes and wrapped gifts, usually mittens or socks, to be laid under the spindly tree and later distributed to the less fortunate as my mother referred to them. I believed they were less fortunate because they got mittens and socks for Christmas. The church basement was alive with excited kids and fussing mothers. The fathers huddled back near the kitchen drinking coffee sharing jokes, smokes, and old war stories. I found my class by listening for Butch’s high-pitched laughter that sounded like a chicken being plucked alive. The pageant director, a large stern woman of German descent revealed by an accent that bordered on incomprehensible to our young ears, hit on a bit of genius this year. She found the perfect part for Butchie. A role that was unlikely to allow him the freedom to bring the unexpected disasters we’d come to expect from the towhead little monster as my father referred to him after he’d wet my new mattress in a moment of nocturnal incontinence during a sleepover.
Every pageant, the boy outdid himself. The previous year, the mischief-maker played a shepherd. Dressed in a long brown robe, he strode forward, toward the manger where Mrs. Berger had put her own living infant in a wooden crib – an arrangement my mother, the Sunday school superintendent, later banned as being unnecessarily realistic. Butchie, the moniker for Melvin that his mother used endearingly and we used mockingly, closed on the infant with the intent to deliver his one line and retreat. It would have been uneventful except someone had furnished Butchie with a staff, presumably to herd his nonexistent sheep. Butchie began his six words and in an expansive move to emphasize those lines, he swung the staff across the stage, snagging Joseph’s beard and continuing the wide swing with the fuzzy beard now on the tip into the three candles, representing the completion of the trinity. The cheap beard caught fire and Butchie dropped his staff onto the bales of straw.
In a heroic act, Pastor Tuttle, the church’s senior and elderly minister, sprang to his feet, grabbed the water from the baptismal font, rushed to the straw bales and doused the fire like Smokey with his tail ablaze. It was Easter before folks stopped talking about that, but my mother clung to the memory and insisted that the pageant director, Mrs. Hildebrand, find a role that would assure no repeats of last year’s spectacle. That’s how Butchie landed the role as the south end of the northbound donkey. I’m not certain who won the coveted lead role as the student refused to remove the donkey’s head.