There at the dinner table on Christmas Eve, I was looking down at the remnants of my meal, using my fork to poke at what was left of my mashed potatoes and swirling them around in some leftover gravy that pooled along the edges of my plate. I tried to focus on things like the wax dripping from the candles that sat in the middle of the table or the grandfather clock against the wall which I noticed was only minutes away from chiming that loud and prominent grandfather clock chime. I took a moment to focus on my cousin's girlfriend from across the table. The way they were sitting, I could tell he was rubbing his hands up and down her leg and at one point I saw her jump a little as if he'd gone a little further up the leg than she had expected he would and then she turned towards him, smiling one of those mischievous and turned-on smiles. The ones that say, 'stop it,' but also 'keep going.' I looked down at her breasts for a moment and pictured what they looked like and then I felt strange about doing so. My stomach was full as it always seems to be at every family potluck and for a while I could only focus on my misery. I imagined all of the food inside of me forming fists and punching the insides of my stomach, protesting the lack of capacity and looking for any means of escape. Eventually, I ran out of things to focus on and was left to give my attention to the thing I'd been trying to avoid ever since we sat down to eat.
My family surrounded the table; parents, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, my cousins' girlfriends and boyfriends and the children of my older cousins. Seated at the head of the table is my uncle pat. Uncle Pat is a preacher at the Church of Christ and he sits at the head of the table because he's a 'man of God,' and my family thinks this makes him the head of the family. Pat used to be a tweaker and he hit rock bottom and then supposedly, while laying in an alleyway after a night of heavy drinking and getting fucked up, he was approached by an angel who told him how to turn his life around and start living his it the way God had intended. He told us that the angel was dressed in a referee uniform along with a trench coat and fedora. It never spoke to him but rather motioned. It was something in the way it smiled and stared at him, moving it's hands in such a way that said to him, "everything was going to be ok now." Since that night, he started attending church and drinking a lot of iced tea. He met some woman at a church sponsored bingo game and he married her and although I've met her a number of times, I still don't know her name.
The funny thing about this angel story, to me anyway, is that nobody in our family ever considered the possibility that maybe uncle Pat was simply tripping his balls off in an alleyway and had some crazy hallucination. Instead, they all just prayed extra hard over the course of a year for Pat's recovery from drug and alcohol abuse and thanked the good lord daily for sending one of his angels to point uncle Pat in the right direction. Everyone in my family loves to hear the alleyway story. Everyone fancies it a tale of another one of God's miracles, viewing it as an audience once probably viewed Houdini; shocked, amazed and perplexed. Amongst the amazed however, there are always the skeptics; the ones searching for all the loopholes and trying best to figure out the illusions. You could say I'm one of the them.
After the meal, someone always says, "Hey Pat, let's hear the story." And then someone else pipes in, "Yeah Pat, tell us the story!" Everyone loves the story but me. I didn't like hearing it the first time it was told and I especially don't like it right now. But when you're the only atheist in a family of christians, you might as well just suck it up, fold your hands and bow your head and say the lord's prayer like a good boy because if they were to ever find out that you, their own flesh and blood, don't believe in God's love, one might just as well disown himself because nobody takes kindly to godlessness in this family.
"I don't remember much before it happened," started uncle Pat's story. "I was out with a 'friend' of mine. We were drinking and smoking and giving in to all of Satan's temptations. The last thing I remember before the alleyway was this man at the bar who made me very sad. He was sitting by himself, keeping quiet and drinking from a mug. I hadn't payed him much attention but all of a sudden he turned to me and he said, "Salvation is near." I turned to him, a shot of Jim Beam in my hand, and asked him to repeat himself and he said, "The lord is coming and salvation is near." My initial response was to laugh. I saw him as just a crazy old boozer and thought nothing of it. I took my shot and I turned to walk away. When I did however, I was sad. I don't know why but I was sad and that's the last thing I remember before waking up."
At this point in the story, uncle Pat likes to ask everyone to join hands so they can say a prayer for the old man. Wherever he may be. It's aunt Paula's theory that the old man was the guardian angel. That he was always there, keeping to himself in the corner and silently looking out for Pat. Everybody nods in agreement, assuring themselves that these things really do happen. After the prayer, throughout which I bowed my head and wondered how a stick of butter doesn't melt or spoil at room temperature, uncle Pat continued with his tale.
"I have no idea how I wound up there or what I had done hours prior to it happening but the first thing I remember thinking was that my pants were wet. I thought maybe I peed in my pants but then realized the wetness was in my shirt as well. So I slowly opened my eyes and saw that I was sitting next to a dumpster in a puddle of something that was leaking out the side of it. I slowly stood up. I immediately started feeling dizzy and my stomach started turning and I vomited. I felt too weak to do any walking and so I slowly fell back down to the ground, partially in my own vomit and partially in the dumpster goop. I started to fall back asleep but this bright light that came out of nowhere filled the alley. It wasn't sunlight and it wasn't light that could have come from any lightbulb. It was a light unlike any I've ever known. I knew immediately that this was something holy and something important and something not to be ignored. Something in the light itself told me that. And then, from the light, a figure came. It floated down towards me with grace and elegance. The light was blinding but I couldn't bring myself to look away. I was filled with this overwhelming sense of comfort. The alleyway disappeared and everything was this glorious bright light. The figure floated down in front of me and he was wearing a zebra striped shirt underneath a trench coat and wore a fedora that tilted forward just enough to shadow his eyes. At first he just looked down at me, saying nothing. His gaze, though, it was power. It entered me and stirred me up inside. He then hunched over and extended his hands to me. I slowly reached out for them and embraced them. The angel then closed his eyes which made me close my eyes and I could feel the devil being drawn out of me. I could feel him clawing and grasping to stay inside of me but the angel was stronger and the devil lost. I opened my eyes and I was back in the alley. The bright light was gone. I could no longer see it. But I could feel it inside of me. It got me on my feet and it led me home. I took a shower, cut my hair, threw out all of the liquor and the drugs and I found a church. And that's how I found Jesus."
There's a moment of silence after the story is told in which my family members look upon Pat with eyes of remorse and mouths curved into adoration. They tell him how brave he is and how much he inspires them all. "God has blessed this family." said grandma. "Praise him." They all close their eyes and they say "Amen." Finally, it ends. We all go back to discussing the weather and the Illini stats and the people at work who make them angry and tupperware and deer season.
My cousins and I have nothing in common and so none of them really talk to me. They'll say hello and they'll be interested in where it is I work and whether or not I have a girlfriend yet but after these topics are covered and briefly discussed, it's off to the next person and I'm left feeling awkward amongst my own family. My aunt Jackie is the only person I care to talk to. She tells me how handsome I've gotten and always hugs me when I arrive and hugs me when I leave. She jokes with me and when I offer her a beer she accepts it. She goes to church and loves the alley story just as much as the rest of them but If I told Jackie that I thought the alley story was bullshit and that God wasn't real, she would shrug her shoulders and say something like, "Eh. You're allowed to think anything you want, sweetheart."
I was talking to no one, however, when the grandfather clock struck 8 o'clock and began its chime. It momentarily muted everyone's conversation and in that moment I decided I would leave. I've eaten, I've said hello to at least half of them, I've heard uncle Pat's story and the end of its telling usually signifies the end of my commitment to be there. I got up from the table and excused myself to the bathroom. I like to pretend I'm using the bathroom before I leave a place so that I can re-enter the dining room, coat on and car keys in hand, and be able to walk in and quickly say goodbye so that everyone hears it at the same time and so that everyone can say it back at the same time and no one feels obligated to get up or shake my hand or hug me.
I went through all of the motions to strengthen my ruse. I didn't have to pee but I went ahead and tried to. A couple little dribbles came but that was all. I washed my hands. There wasn't a towel to dry them with so I used my shirt. I opened the medicine cabinet to see if there was by chance any Vicodin. There wasn't. I left the bathroom, found my coat amongst the rest of the coats stacked in a corner and re-entered the dining room, keys in hand.
"Welp, I think I'm gonna take off," I tell them.
"Oh you don't have to go so soon now do ya?" my grandma asked. "Are you going to be at church tonight?"
"I'll try to," I said.
Everybody said goodbye and aunt Jackie gave me a hug. As I was saying my last goodbye and turning towards the door, uncle Pat spoke up and said, "You should really try and make it to church. It's going to be a very lovely service."
"Yeah. Ok." I replied.
I rolled a joint on the dashboard before I drove off. It was Christmas Eve and I was getting high and driving through the country with an especially heavy sense of loneliness. It seemed to me that I was the only person driving right then. It seemed to me that everyone else was asleep and I had the road all to myself. So I drove further and I turned on the radio. I rolled down the windows and made my hand float waves against the wind while some choir from California was singing Christmas songs to me on 90.3.
I'm not a big fan of Christmas songs and I don't particularly like choirs. But I listened to them and it reminded me of the way Christmas Eve used to feel. When I was a kid, I mean. When Christmas was very literally, in my head, a magical time. I mean we all had to have felt that way. We all believed that one single man who lived in the Arctic amongst a bunch of elvish factory workers went out one night a year with his flying reindeer and his bag of endless presents and delivered toys and gadgets and gifts to everybody in the world who had been "good" according to his carefully observed and scrutinized list of those who were naughty and those who were nice. We believed that it was all real and life didn't get any better. But as you know, Santa turned out to be fake. He turned out to be a ploy created by parents to keep their children in line. And once the magic was gone, the world grew darker and Christmas was just another reason to eat retarded amounts of deviled eggs and a time to figure out which of my cousins has a new boyfriend or girlfriend.
My parent's had not yet returned from midnight mass. The house smelt of mom's pumpkin spice candle that sits on the kitchen counter. There was a faint smoky undertone to the smell and I noticed that the wax had not hardened yet and so I gathered that my parents had stopped home before heading to church and that they hadn't left very long ago which meant I had about an hour and a half to myself. I grabbed a couple beers from the fridge and headed for the couch. I started feeling sleepy immediately after sitting down but I cracked open the first beer anyway and drank it in just a couple minutes. I stared at the lifeless television screen and saw the Christmas tree in its reflection, standing there behind me all lit up and alive. I opened the other beer, not really wanting it and took a sip. I felt my eyes become heavy and decided to close them for just a minute. When I opened them again I decided I didn't want the beer so I set it on the coffee table and laid down on the couch, deciding that this is where I would sleep for the night.
In the moments before I lost consciousness, I thought about how when I was little, it was always my plan to hide behind the living room chair so that I could catch Santa Clause in the act. I wanted to see him. I wanted to talk to him and ask him so many questions. It wasn't about finding out if he were real or not. Mom and Dad told me he was real and so I felt no need to question the matter any further. However, I usually just fell asleep within minutes and dad would carry me to bed so that he and mom could lay out the presents and eat the cookies and drink the milk that my sister and I left out. I can't even imagine the excitement I must have felt each and every Christmas Eve. And here it is, 20 something years later and I'm half drunk and a little stoned and I'm realizing that I completely understand why someone like uncle Pat is the way he is. Hallucination or not, if someone truly believed that they saw something so beyond our reality that it transcends description, It's no stretch of the imagination that they could, right then and there, transform into a person completely opposite from who they were. Because it takes you back to Christmas Eve as a kid. It proves that there is something else. It might not be Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny but there is something magical and upon realizing this, all of that excitement that had been tucked and hidden away for so long comes rushing back to you and why give up a feeling like that? That's what everyone wants. That's what everyone is looking for. And if they find it, good for them.
For me, the stories and opinions of other people are proof of nothing. I have to catch Santa Clause in the act. I'm not about to be tricked again.
I laid there for a while longer with these thoughts and then I stopped and fell asleep.