And a Child Shall be Born Unto You
"… And A Child Shall Be Born Unto You."
James C. Hays
The harsh December wind churned inconsolably through the concrete labyrinths of downtown Kansas City. Sleet exploded against the empty buildings like ice pleshettes shot from a large-bore cannon. Huddled in the doorway of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Canton Fish buried his head deeper inside the dirty, tattered military long-coat trying to fold himself into an impenetrable ball. The exercise offered meager relief from the pitiless weather.
It was a sad and lonely journey that brought the seedy man to this doorway. Once a "wanna-be" writer, Canton purchased a ride on 'The Derelict Express' after a highly publicized, seven-figure book and movie deal went belly-up, punching his ticket 'One Way Only'. He counted on that money--money he spent--money that never came.
After decades of writing in obscurity, the promise of prosperity and recognition captivated the writer, inviting him to the cradle of dreams. On the assurance that West Coast dollars would soon be coming his way, Canton embarked on a reckless spending bender. He purchased a new home in up-scale Overland Park, Kansas and filled the three-car garage with fancy automobiles. His wife, Janelle, and the twins, Michael and Jessica, spent freely on new clothes, toys and computers. Janelle opened no-limit charge accounts in posh boutiques on the Country Club Plaza. Canton quit his factory job to do writing full-time, determined not to be a 'one-hit-wonder'. The American Dream lived in the heart of Canton Fish.
But the fantasy disappeared when negotiations turned to ashes. There would be no national book deal and producers held no real interest in his work. Penniless and without a job, debt collectors circled like buzzards above the carcass of Canton's world.
The legal description of his new estate made its way to the courthouse steps and the fast cars sped quickly through the auction block. The snobbish furnishings, purchased through exclusive auction houses around the world, went for pennies at the public sale. Canton Fish was over a half-a-million dollars in debt and his family left to sponge meals and shelter from relatives. Save winning the lottery, which he had no money to play anyway, Canton felt he would never see the top again.
The loss dashed any hopes of making it in the writing world. He became bitter and angry, blaming the "heretics of Hollywood" and "pusillanimous publishers" for his position. Omitted from his accusatory catalog was the common denominator-himself.
And, what of the shame cast upon Janelle, Michael and Jessica? How could he go on letting friends, family and the government take over his role as provider? The "lying poltroons" in California made him feel like an itinerate carnival worker. He knew his family believed he was the one responsible for their letdown and it became increasingly hard to deal with. He had nothing left to give and all because of the empty promises made by the West Coast connection.
One night while his wife and children slept, the would-be millionaire left the house of his compassionate brother and never returned. There was no other way. Canton joined other wandering souls of the Kansas City streets. He lived where losers live and
ate where losers ate. That's what defeated deserters like Canton Fish did. He left Janelle
and the children to fend for themselves. His departure made them responsible for the massive debts he'd accrued. Canton Fish took the "chicken's exit."
Four years had passed since he went for his "walk" and, in that time, Canton fell deep inside his cups watching season-after-season come and go. Sometimes he thought about calling Janelle to see how she was doing, but always stopped short. He used his telephone money on more important things such as cheap booze and strung-out whores. He rode the rails and hitched around the country vainly attempting to find solace from the demons screaming in his head. The underbelly of his addictions paralleled the darkness of his depression.
Since his departure, Christmas meant nothing. Just another day of digging through trash bins and trying to panhandle a bottle. One day bled into the next, except that people seemed more generous during the Christmas season. He might get five dollars instead of two and the whores might give it up for free. Nobody wanted to be alone on Christmas
After getting evicted from the "Savior of the Streets" shelter in Los Angeles for stealing from another resident, Canton decided to return to Kansas City. He tired of the transient life and wanted to atone for his sins. With no place left to go, he would locate his wife and family, hoping they'd take him back. After all, it was nearly Christmas.
As the freight train shortened the distance, Canton's apprehension increased. When it finally came to a stop in the wretched Kansas City December night, the booze in his veins offered an alternative. The liquor suggested to Canton that he not bother his
estranged family. Inebriation convinced him that Janelle probably had someone new anyway and she and the kids would be better off without a loser disrupting their lives. Canton's brain, dog-paddling in whiskey, agreed.
He stumbled from the boxcar and made his way across the rail yard to the foot of Quality Hill. Above him, like a beacon for the lost, was the gold-leaf minaret of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, heart of the Kansas City/St. Joseph Catholic Diocese. With the rain freezing to his tattered overcoat, the besotted "man-of-letters" ended his pilgrimage at the entrance of the great structure.
The door was locked, for the hour approached midnight. And so Canton Fish, a miserable lump of ragged human refuse, huddled in the cold, thinking of how to end his misery. Impaired thoughts decided that he should launch himself from the Broadway Avenue overpass onto Interstate 35.
"Merry Christmas, World," he saluted, taking a pull from the whiskey bottle. "You win. I give up! I offer you now what you wanted all along."
As he leaned against the heavy wooden entrance, he heard a muffled click from inside. The door creaked and acquiesced to the weight of his crouched figure. Lost in the drama of his own death, Canton didn't realize the door was opening. Before he could react, he was on his back in the great foyer. Scrambling inside he closed the door against the wind. The immense cathedral, not unlike the great fish of the Old Testament, swallowed the man into its belly. And it was warm.
Candles burned throughout the church. The soft, flickering light seemed to give
life to the statues making them appear to dance against the walls. Canton tried to take in
the mystery of the scene, but the liquor in his head and the cold of his body confused him. His head reeled as he staggered in the back of the church, falling heavily onto a wooden pew. Canton took a deep breath and, after regaining what little composure he possessed, continued designing the final moment of his life.
Lying on his back in the pew he stared up to the distant ceiling thinking that his wife and children would never hear of his death. And if they did, they'd be happy.
"As far as they're concerned, I died four years ago," he mumbled to the silence, "or more precisely, they hope I'm dead."
Canton carried no identification and felt sure his death would be listed just as it seemed--the suicide of a depressed, lonely alcoholic tramp. But he decided to stay here awhile and get warm before wandering outside to permanent coldness.
The booze in his body and the warmth of the cathedral made him sleepy. Through the gray threshold between conscience and slumber came the shuffling of feet. In the silence of the cathedral the footsteps seemed magnified. Canton slid quietly to the floor and raised his head up enough to peer over the top of the pew. He looked like a bedraggled Kilroy with blood-shot eyes. He strained to detect any movement.
And then he saw it. A life-size Nativity scene sat in the corner of the apse to the left of the altar. Was it the flicker of the candles that gave the statues life? Or was it the intoxicants of four years of abuse? He crawled into the aisle and, on hands and knees, made his way slowly to the front of the church.
Suddenly, a voice from behind invited Canton to stand and join him at the altar.
The voice was soft and reassuring. Canton fell to his stomach and lay still, his face
. pressed against the cold marble floor. An eternity passed before he turned to meet the voice. Standing there was a man, hand extended, offering to assist Canton to his feet.
"Welcome, Mr. Fish. Welcome to the house of the Lord," the man said.
Canton stood, and with much trembling took his place beside the figure. In the dim light the man appeared but a shadow.
"I'm sorry, Father," Canton garbled. "The door was open and I just came in to get warm. I'll be leaving now."
"Nonsense," the man responded. "It's nearly Christmas and you have nowhere else to be, besides I'm not a priest here. My name is Mr. Love. And, as you can see," he continued, walking into the light, "I'm just like you. Come, I want to show you something."
Canton saw that Mr. Love's attire was poorer than his own. It seemed as though this Mr. Love was here in the cathedral for the same reason--warmth and protection from the bitter winds outside.
The two men walked to the front of the church and sat down on the steps before the altar. They sat in silence for a long period, and then the stranger looked at Canton.
"Why do you think thoughts of death, especially in this sacred place? Look upon this scene," he continued, pointing to the stable and plaster figures. "Can you not see that yours is a life to be lived?"
Canton was taken aback by the wisdom of his newfound acquaintance. How did he know the thoughts rattling around in his head? How did this guy, a bum like himself,
know what Canton planned for the early morning hours out on Interstate 35? I must have
been thinking out loud, he thought. That's the only logical explanation. But, he followed Mr. Love's outstretched arm and looked upon the Nativity scene.
As he watched, the molded faces of the statues took on texture and the plaster robes began to change. Sweat appeared on the brow of the woman as she lay on her back in the straw. The bearded man kneeling beside her stood and walked over to a cauldron, retrieving a damp cloth. He dabbed the woman's forehead while his lips moved in whispers. The man prayed for the woman. He prayed for the safe deliverance of his first-born son. There was sadness in his face.
Canton looked upon the woman. She was beautiful and much younger than the man tending to her comforts. He turned his gaze upon the tired, weathered man and noticed his strong callused hands, the hands of a skilled workman. These same hands tenderly stroked the woman's cheek.
"Is this a living play?" Canton asked. "Isn't the old man Joseph and the young woman Mary?
"Yes, they are Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary. And it is indeed a living play, a play that lives daily in my heart and the hearts of believers everywhere. Just watch."
From the shadows of the stable, animals moved closer to the couple. An old milk cow, a goat and some plump sheep edged into the light. The woman stirred and turned loving, blue eyes toward her husband.
"It's time, Joseph," she announced with a whisper.
Joseph lay down beside his wife and held her tightly. The leathery skin of his face pressed against the soft, beauty of his wife's cheek. And the animals crept closer.
Canton turned to ask Mr. Love what it all meant, but there was no one there. He sat alone at the base of the altar, staring at the drama being played out before him.
The candles of the cathedral burned brighter, illuminating the entire church, as though the sun dawned in the ceiling. Mary moaned and a baby cried, breaking the silence. The old man picked up the newborn child and carried Him to the cauldron. With gentle strokes he washed the baby clean. Wrapping the infant in a soft blanket, he returned to his wife, kissing her tenderly on the forehead as he bent to hand her the baby.
The young woman held her infant son protectively, and the old man enveloped the family in his tremendous arms. And, they cried. The cows began to low and the goat and sheep bleated with excitement. The church came alive with praise of the glorious event. Somewhere in the darkness, a choir sang hymns of joy.
"Come here, Mr. Fish." Mr. Love appeared now upon the straw floor of the stable. "Come hold the newborn child."
Canton was alarmed to see Mr. Love again, but he rose and walked cautiously toward the parents, hearing the straw crackle beneath the soles of his worn shoes. Joseph relieved his embrace and looked up into Canton's eyes. His old face smiled warmly as he solicited the tattered bum to join his family.
Canton looked down upon the new mother. This close, she was prettier, more radiant than he'd noticed earlier. She unwrapped the baby so he could see the child. The small face bore innocence and love and promise. The child was the most beautiful he'd ever seen. Mary took Canton's hand and invited him to sit beside her. She offered the baby for Canton to hold.
"I can't," he whispered. "I'm nothing but a lost, broken-down drunk. My clothes and skin are dirty and lice-ridden. My soul fares no better. I would only soil your child."
"Hold the child," Mr. Love said softly. "He needs you to hold Him. He needs you to love Him and care for Him."
Canton knelt beside the woman and gently took the baby in his arms. The child opened His eyes and looked at the ragged, scraggily face before Him. And Canton wept.
"Forgive me," he whispered. "I've been a sinner. I'm not worthy to hold You." A small hand reached up from the wrappings, touching a tear on Canton's cheek. As Canton cradled the child in his arms, the baby smiled and closed His eyes to sleep.
"You thought you'd reached the end of the line," Mr. Love said, looking down as Canton wept, his face pressed against the swaddling raiment's of the infant. "You thought there was no reason to continue with your life. What about this child in your arms? He will be only two-thirds your age when His life will be over. But, His end will be the beginning for you and for all men. This, Mr. Canton Fish, is your reason to live."
The candles in the church dimmed and Canton found himself kneeling in the straw of a makeshift stable, holding a plaster cast of the baby Jesus. Around him stood other plaster Nativity statues. Tears crept down Canton's face as he tenderly placed the figure Jesus in the rough-hewn crib between Joseph and Mary.
"Let's go, Mr. Fish," Mr. Love said. "I think it's time for you to go home. Your journey is finished. It is nearly Christmas, you know."
Canton looked around to thank Mr. Love, but saw that he was alone once again. He lay back in the straw contemplating his life, and he prayed.
At first light, Canton left the cathedral and was greeted by a clear December sky. The night's winter storm had passed and soft, pink fingers of a "new promise" spread across the heavens. The air smelled clean and Canton's mind and soul felt refreshed as he took in the beauty of the dawn.
Standing on the steps of the cathedral, Canton watched a taxi slide to a stop at the curb. The rear doors opened and, to his shock, Janelle, Michael and Jessica ran toward him. It had been four tormented years and he stood there not knowing what to do. Janelle stood before her husband. Canton lowered his head, ashamed to face his wife. Her hand slowly raised his chin and they looked into each other's eyes. Suddenly, she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his chest.
"Welcome home, Canton," she whispered.
He embraced Janelle tightly and they cried. Michael and Jessica held fast to his pants legs and wept into the dirty material. Together the family knelt and Canton wrapped his arms protectively around them.
"Let's go home," his wife whispered through the tears. "It's Christmas. And, we've waited so long."
They climbed aboard the taxi, and huddled in the back seat. Canton sat in the middle with one arm around his wife and the other around his children. His grip was firm and assuring and showed his family that he would never leave them again.
"Merry Christmas, folks! Where can I take you?" the driver asked merrily, turning to greet at his fares.
Canton Fish studied the man's face and smiled, "Home, Mr. Love. Take us home."