Ruthie tapped Max’s newspaper. “Daddy, who’s Jesus?” With each s, her tongue slipped through the gap in her front teeth.
Uneasily, Max lowered the sports section, its bottom half crinkling onto his lap. He bought himself some time. “Whaddya mean, honey?” He bit down hard on the unlit stogie wedged in the side of his mouth.
“You know, Dad, Jesus. The one all the songs are singing about now. And the one you say when you’re mad. Who is he?”
Max silently cursed those songs. Christmas was an invented holiday, nothing but a commercial racket for the stores. He folded the paper, let it drop to the floor next to his chair and took a deep breath. He pulled the chewed cigar from his mouth and placed it in the ashtray on the end table beside him. Then he lifted Ruthie onto his lap, the whiff of tobacco etching itself in her memory.
“Sweetheart, Jesus was a man who lived a long time ago. He was very smart and he was what people call a revolutionary. That’s someone who doesn’t do what everyone else does. He taught about being good and kind to people, even when they’re mean to you.”
Ruthie scrunched her face and bit her lower lip “Then why do you say his name when you’re mad?” Her words shook in the air, like a finger. Max was saved from replying when Betty poked her head around the hallway.
“Hey Max, can you run out before dinner and get some milk?” Then she walked into the room, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “You guys look awfully cozy.”
“I asked Daddy about Jesus and he’s telling me.”
Max felt the rush of blood to his face.
Betty’s clear blue eyes widened. “Really?” She cocked her head. “And what’s he telling you?”
“That Jesus was very smart and he told people to be nice even when people weren’t nice to them.”
“Well, that’s true honey.” She glanced at Max, their eyes momentarily locking in an age-old battle. “Why don’t you go finish up your homework and I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”
“Okay, mom.” And she hopped down the hall on one foot.
Betty sat on the hassock in front of Max’s chair. The white dishtowel was splayed across her lap, daring surrender. She placed her hands on his knees. “Max, I know you don’t believe what I do, that you were raised a secular Jew. But Ruthie’s old enough now to know about her heritage, yours and mine. When she stays home on Jewish holidays, she should know what they mean. And when she asks a question like she just asked you, she should be told the truth.”
“And I told her the truth! Look, Betty, you know I don’t buy all that virgin birth stuff, Jesus being God and coming to save mankind.” Max’s misguided indignation gloated. “And if he came to save the Jews like all of you say, why did he let six million die?”
Flinching at the familiar clink of armor, Betty stood. “I don’t know why, Max. No one does. We’re not meant to.”
Betty’s quiet confidence gnawing, Max headed toward the convenience store, a wet snow splattering the windshield. He reached for the defroster as he made a right turn. But it was much too wide. The oncoming headlights erased every thought but one. Like flares in a midnight sky, the words exploded in his mind, echoing with a newfound fear and trembling. “Jesus Christ!”
He was watching, but didn’t understand how. Two people in scrubs and masks were bent over him on either side of a bed. Monitors blipped and displayed jagged lines of primary colors. He remembered the conversations, the milk, the snow, the car. Then a third person was in the room, a man, standing at the foot of the bed. Points of silver light shadowed his movements. As he lay on top of Max, the others ignored the man, as if they didn’t see him.
Then, no longer observing, he felt radiating warmth, as if he had swallowed the sun. And he heard the music, as clear as the truth:
Chri-ist the savior is bo-orn, Chri-ist the savior is born.
He opened his eyes and Betty caught his gaze. In it, the armor fell away.
“Mom!” Ruthie rushed into the room. “The nurses let me pick the Christmas musi…Daddy! You’re awake!”
“I sure am, sweetie. More awake than I’ve ever been before.”
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