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SunLit

Sunlit Excerpt: From “St. Christopher on Pluto,” a hardscrabble holiday tale

Author Nancy McKinley weaves a story of insurance fraud with the flipside of humanity at a church's Christmas gift giveaway that comes up short

Navidad

Colleen yanks open the passenger door of Big Blue, rattling me and the car as she hoists herself onto the seat. Instead of her usual black attire, chosen for its supposed slimming effect, she wears a red sweater matched by a voluminous skirt that cascades over her knees. 

“Ho! Ho! You like?” she asks. Her fingers tug at silver garland edging the hem. “My skirt was half-price at Salvo.”

I smile, for Colleen takes pride in snagging deals from the Salvation Army Thrift Store. 

“It’s handmade, but the seams weren’t finished. No clasp at the waist, so I used duct tape.”

And that’s when I realize she’s wearing one of those round felt covers people put under Christmas trees. I decide not to say anything. She’s been a grump ever since she couldn’t collect insurance for her car.

“Where’s your holiday spirit, MK? Couldn’t you put on something nicer than jeans and a green turtleneck?”

I point to my necklace. The strand of miniature, plastic tree lights is quite festive if you ask me, but Colleen is on a roll. 

“Are you depressed?” She raises her eyebrows, arched like the curved tops of candy canes. “Lots of people get depressed this time of year.” 

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Sighing, I shift Big Blue from park to drive. The front-end shakes as we lurch away from the curb. Big Blue scolds me, for, yet again, agreeing to give Colleen a ride. We’re taking the Anthracite Expressway to the community outreach center at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. Colleen and I no longer belong to the parish, but we went there as kids, and recently she joined their volunteer services. Today is the gift party for children from low-income families. Colleen’s not sure exactly how many kids will attend because the church doesn’t require parents to fill out forms like they do at Giving Tree or Toys-for-Tots. She said putting names on paper meant high risk for people lacking W-2s or green cards. A date with Santa could translate into deportation or jail time. This troubling realization, heightened by visions of poor children being denied presents, prompted me to drive. 

Big Blue wheezes up the steep rise, and I peer through the windshield. The sky, razor blade grey, has been dismal all week. Snow might soften the barren hills, but there’s none in the forecast. I grip the wheel and coax us past potholes and other hazards. The area is known for black ice. Below us, the Susquehanna River weaves through Northeast Pennsylvania like a vital force. Only it’s not. I can hear my grandmother, who willed me this Buick eons ago: We have the longest non-navigable river in the United States, but it’s not safe. Each winter, at least one vehicle turns too fast and plummets into the waters of the-ever-after. How easily Colleen and I could join the departed. I picture headlines rife with irony: Two women check-out while doing a good deed. Quickly I purse my lips. If Colleen sees me smile, I’ll have to explain why. 

Colleen is the real reason we’re doing Santa-Fest. Undoubtedly, she thinks her charitable work will erase the not-so-little fabrication of her missing car. What happened reeks of bad karma, and worse, she involved me by asking for a ride so she could drop off her Honda. I figured she was going to a mechanic and needed a return-lift to the mall where we work. No way did I think she’d dump her car on the floodplain and claim it as stolen. Hers was the malfeasance of a deadbeat, not a middle-aged woman who works at the Hallmark Store and organizes the mall parking lot clean-up day. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“My insurance company is a rip-off, taking my premiums for years. I’m owed a payback,” she claimed.

Talk about skewed logic. But rather than address her fraud, I worried about being put on the witness stand, picturing myself in an ivory pantsuit, a paragon of veracity as I placed my hand on the Bible to testify. I merely drove. I was not an accessory.  

Thankfully, a fisherman discovered the car and got it hauled away, causing Colleen’s eyelids to flutter: “No-fault insurance! There goes my money.”

“Be glad the car got towed to the dump where it always belonged.”  

Is it any coincidence that Colleen signed onto the Perpetual Help Outreach Center? Clearly her do-gooder action reflects a need for penance, but rather than admit her guilt, she told me, “I can use this as material for my book.” 

Ha! Colleen writes the novel in her head. She hasn’t put a word to paper, yet claims to draft a new chapter each time I drive her in Big Blue.

“Your silence is deafening,” says Colleen, pounding her fist on the dashboard. “Why won’t you talk to me? You’ll stifle my creativity.”  

Reluctant to encourage her so-called novel-in-making, I fumble with the radio knob. We have discussed more plot scenarios than I can count, but whenever I suggest taking notes, she dismisses me. Colleen says the act of pen-to-paper is premature.  

Froggy 101 fills Big Blue: “Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer.”

Colleen elbows me in the side, hoping I’ll sway like she does. She knows I dislike these dopey songs, but she laughs, “Don’t you love how people decorate?”

Are we looking at the same place? Houses stand close, leaning side-by-side for balance. If one drops, they’ll all collapse—swoosh—like dominoes. Styrofoam candy canes dangle from porch rails where paint peels like curled ribbon. Artificial wreaths are tacked to doors, and the few windows without plastic insulating them against the cold yield stick-on snowflakes. Icicle lights droop from roof gutters. Maybe they’ll sparkle when lit, but the wires resemble wet spaghetti. Several yards have signs with red, white, and blue lettering: We Support Our Troops. Then I spy the deflated blow-ups. Those decorations are pricey; I can’t imagine how people can afford them. When filled with hot air from whirring motors, they expand into a toy shop, snow globe, or gargantuan Santa. But flattened against dirt yards, they remind me of condoms littering the mall parking lot after a Saturday night. 

“Check out Rudolph,” smirks Colleen. Four reindeer line up in procession. Each has a mechanized head. The one in front flashes a red nose as the next deer sways its snout, seeming to sniff Rudolph’s butt. 

I pretend not to notice. Last year, at the mall’s employee party, Colleen made a meal of red and green Jell-O shots. Afterward, I gave her a ride, and she yelled, “Pull over.” I thought she was going to hurl, but as I stopped Big Blue, she hopped out, lumbered across the lawn, grabbed a couple of reindeer, and repositioned them in a Yuletide hump. 

Big Blue rumbles down the hill onto River Street. We pass a stout, plastic snowman, the kind my grandmother displayed back in the 70s. It’s probably a collector’s item from when Coal was King and the farms thrived. Now people celebrate with acrylic stars atop molded nativity sets. I’d like to think the real straw in mangers flanked by cows and donkeys offers reassurance. But for what? 

“We’re here,” says Colleen, donning a Santa hat. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The outreach center, formerly called Church Hall, looks like a train car with narrow windows zippered into grey siding. Above the doorway, red-and-white lights, the size of fishing bobbers, flicker with incandescence. I ease Big Blue curbside, under a street lamp. “We’ll want light after we finish.” 

Colleen plucks garland from her hem and crowns the St. Christopher statue on the dash. “Keep us safe, St. Chris.”

Soon as I lock Big Blue and place the keys in my pocket, I notice a guy standing near the alley. He’s thin and wears baggy jeans weighted by a chain on his belt loop. The pants sag below his hips, showing the top of boxers. His hair, flat along the sides, is buffeted up on his skull like the peak of a conquistador’s helmet. He waves his right arm behind his back. Out marches a little girl in a pink fuzzy jacket, so big it hangs to the ankles of her white tights. She taps her scuffed shoes, followed by four more preschool-age kids, and then a cluster of ten bigger kids. 

Colleen walks, jangling bells on her skirt. The kids point her way.

Mira,” says the guy, and I figure that means look at her.

He’s in his twenties, half Colleen’s age, but she gets all flirty. She rolls back her shoulders and grins. “Ho, Ho,” she says, 

The kids laugh. A boy wearing blue mittens waves to us. Then more little bodies bunch into the pack.

These kids with dark eyes and straight black hair do not look anything like homegrown towheads. “Where are they coming from?” 

“Sshh,” says Colleen. 

Then I remember her gag order: No asking where they live or how they got here. 

Last summer, The Riverside Gazette featured headlines about the mayor in Hazleton, forty miles away. He blamed Spanish speakers for the bad economy and instituted an ordinance to fine landlords for renting to illegal immigrants. Next thing, all Latinos got blamed for the city’s many woes. Rocks got thrown at their windows. Tires were slashed. When families left, no one asked where they went. 

It doesn’t take much to track their path. Our school district has want ads for teachers of English as a Second Language, and Weiss Market stacks a shelf with Goya food products. Yet less said is the dictum at the outreach center. That’s why our newspaper won’t cover the event for its lifestyle section, and there will be no human-interest clips on TV-28. 

“Too much attention and they’re gone. Then what do these kids have?” 

Colleen says Perpetual Help is doing the right thing by providing them assistance—legal or not. 

Leave it to Colleen to involve me in a covert Christmas party. 

I pull open the front door and smell kettle corn and hot chocolate. Father Ryan stands in the entrance, his face is as white as his collar. “I expected twenty kids, same as always, but there’s way more. We won’t have enough for them.”

Colleen jokes, “Multiply loaves and fishes?” 

Father Ryan doesn’t laugh. Frail and wrinkled, he seemed ready for retirement when he came to the church as a temporary appointment in the 80s, yet here he stays. 

“Woohoo—this place is packed,” says Colleen, pushing me inside.

Father Ryan rasps, “Santa can’t make it. He got called to the pileup on I-81. There’s fatalities.” Bob Jenkins, the county coroner, plays Santa every year. What now? The group must tally over a hundred. Children shuffle in anticipation, forming one huge amoeba. Three boys with buzz cuts raise shoulders and giggle. They squish closer, clearing a passage for us. 

I turn, looking for a coat rack and notice the girl in the pink jacket cross the threshold. She stops due to the crowd. “Senora Santa,” she calls. Colleen spins as I survey heads and worry the kids outside won’t be able to fit in the room. Along the rear wall, I spy a folding table with cookie trays. A few women hold babies. Beside them hovers Mrs. Pavinsky, the elderly organist, sporting a sweater like my grandmother wore, festooned with beaded mistletoe and holly. 

“Time to sing,” says Father Ryan. 

“Let’s get you to the Tree,” Colleen tells him. She cups his elbow with her right hand and propels him toward the high-back chair intended for Santa. The seat swallows him like a shrunken elf. Kids smile. I glance toward Mrs. Pavinsky, thinking she’ll play the upright piano, but she sits on the bench with a baby in her arms. Colleen shrugs, then claps her hands and sings: “Jingle Bells.” 

The kids clap, but no one sings along, making me wonder if they don’t know the words. I wish I knew Spanish, so I could translate. Colleen thrusts her left hip and changes the tune to “Jingle Bell Rock.” Her voice gets gravelly as she twists and swishes her skirt. 

The children mimic her, wiggling and laughing. Their exuberance unnerves Father Ryan. Surely, he realizes the lack of gifts means disaster. His hands flap as he reaches for a bowl of candy canes under the Christmas tree. He signals for Colleen. “They’ll have to share.” 

I am aghast. What kid shares a candy cane? 

Colleen takes the bowl, grabs my arm, and pulls me to the middle of the room. She shimmies along, placing candy canes in outstretched hands. Amazingly, each kid who takes one peels away the cellophane, breaks off a piece, and passes the remainder to the next kid. They parcel out pieces without being told, and all the while they laugh. 

By the time we traverse to the open doorway, Colleen still has a fistful of candy canes. She distributes them to the kids at the top of the stairs. Like those inside, each breaks off a piece and passes it along to others on the sidewalk. 

“Senora Santa,” chortles the girl in pink, clutching fast to Colleen’s hand. 

A boy waggles chubby fingers and reaches for the girl’s other hand. Somehow the two of them set off a chain reaction, hands grasping for the hand that holds Senora Santa’s. They thrill by simply holding hands. 

“Ho Ho!” says Colleen. The children echo her. Their game of repeat ripples through the room and out the door. 

Why aren’t they upset? I expect them to look around, eyes hungry for gifts. But no one asks, “Where’s mine?” I try to compute what their actions imply. They hold hands, pressing palms together as if yielding an electric charge: the magic of the hands reaching for the next in the chain that holds Senora Santa’s. 

Without thinking, I pass a candy cane to a girl with a red headband. 

“Well, ’tis the season,” snorts Colleen.

“Ho, Ho,” cheer voices. 

I step outside to the cement staircase. On the sidewalk, children lace hands, forming a link that stretches all the way to Big Blue under the streetlamp. The kids laugh. They must be cold, yet they don’t complain. The guy we saw upon our arrival stands guard at the rear of the line. He gives a thumbs-up approval I can’t figure, but his gesture makes me warm to the spirit. “Ho, Ho,” I say, smiling with the sound of my words. 

A girl missing her two front teeth grins and tugs at my sleeve. She points at the surrounding hills where colored lights twinkle. 

My eyes widen. I know those houses need siding and new paint, yet the scene rivals a holiday image on the Hallmark cards sold by Colleen. 

The girl reaches for my hand. 

She lisps: “Feliz Navidad.” 

Puffs of breath rise with the night. 

She and I watch as exhaled vapors crystallize into tiny specks of snow.


Nancy McKinley is an award winning author of fiction and nonfiction. She earned her Ph.D. from State University of New York at Binghamton; M.A. from Colorado State University; and B.A. from College of the Holy Cross. A founding faculty member at Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing, she teaches fiction and nonfiction, and supervises the writer-as-teacher internships. She lives in Ft. Collins with her spouse, Mike Lester. “St. Christopher on Pluto” (West Virginia University Press) is her first novel-in-stories.


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