Context: Back in 2004 I began a novel about a priest who resigns from the Roman Catholic church and falls in with a little house church in a Chicago bungalow. The very eccentric Old Catholic Parish of St. James and St. Julian of Norwich welcomes him and makes him one of their own during a cold Chicago winter. I never finished the novel and don't quite know what to do next, but the excerpt here is the first half of St. JJ's Christmas celebration. It captures the whimsy and gentle human comedy that I was reaching for. I posted a slightly earlier excerpt here on Christmas Eve 2013.
I'm alone this Christmas Eve, looking after poor Mr. QBit. Carol is in Chicago. I think I'm going to take another run at the story a little later today. Something made me start this, and I have 38,000 words down. It's probably the strangest thing I've ever written as an adult. I don't even know how it ends. Maybe I should finish it and find out.
Christmas Eve's late afternoon was clear but very cold, and the sky's rich blue was fading by the time Suzy parked the Volvo behind Schwartz's Shoes. When they rounded the corner from the alley onto Campbell St, Rob saw Deacon Dan and PJ working on something set onto a shoveled-out circle in the middle of the snow-covered front yard. Rob had expected a crèche, but it was not a crèche. Atop a tripod was a black device that Rob slowly recognized as a small telescope, the little stubby computer-controlled type that he had seen advertised by Fry's in every Saturday Chicago Tribune since before Thanksgiving. Over the end of the telescope someone had pulled a bright blue foam hand with the Chicago Cubs logo on it, its foam index finger pointing straight up.
Rob paused on the sidewalk, Suzy still clutching his arm and holding herself close to him against the chill. PJ waved to them, smiling. Dan nodded solemnly, with the pompom on his ratty stocking cap batting forward and back.
PJ stood to one side, tapping on a tablet computer. "Wi-Fi's good now. Ok, here goes. I hope." The little telescope began to pivot around, its motors whirring softly. The blue foam finger purred down from the zenith and swung toward the east. It came to rest at last, the motors falling into silence with the finger aimed at the front door of a bungalow across the street.
"That ain't a star," Dan said.
"That's where Sirius would be if we could see it. It's only just barely risen. I guess we need another star." PJ tapped on the tablet. The telescope went into motion again. "The second-brightest star in the sky is Canopus."
Dan made a face. "What dipshit would name a star Can o' Pus?"
"It's ancient Greek." The foam finger again came to rest, now pointing down into the dirty snow beside the front walk. "Named after Menelaus' navigator. It's below the horizon. I don't think we can see it from here."
"Not if we're lookin' in the goddam dirt."
PJ was pinching and spreading an area on his tablet that might have been a star map. "We need to skip the next three. I don't see how to skip stars in this app."
"I coulda gotcha an iPad for ten cents on the dollar, but no…"
PJ's voice was resolute. "It's Android or nothing. I only use closed systems when somebody's paying me."
Sensing that an argument was being held back while they watched, Rob nodded to both men and headed for the little house-church's front steps as quickly as Suzy's spike heels could manage. The front door was ajar. Taped to the wood below the leaded glass lights and the Robert Lenz icons was a hand-lettered sign reading:
"Come in! There is always room at Christ's table!"
There was muted clatter and muffled conversation from the little kitchen at the back of the house, and the smells Rob would expect at one of Chicago's famous North Side ethnic restaurants: sauerkraut, onions, orange zest, melted butter, baking bread, cinnamon, fried fish, mushroom soup. Rob hung Suzy's coat on the peg behind the door and shook off his own, thinking that he also smelled pickled herring and the sharp tang of horseradish.
Between the last pew and the bungalow-church's front windows was a long folding table close-set for eight. The chairs were simple folding chairs with much of their pale green paint worn away, and the tablecloth was rough white linen with tattered edges. The tablecloth seemed lumpy somehow. Rob leaned down and saw yellow-green straw peeking through small holes in the cloth. The plates were simple white china, and although the utensils were silver, they were not all the same pattern.
Mother Sherry blundered down the hall from the kitchen, edging past TV trays bearing crock pots and electric skillets. She held a cardboard box of plastic wine glasses.
"Hiyee! We're so glad you could make it! Merry Christmas!"
From down the hall, Mrs. Przybysz's voice was crystal clear: "It's not Christmas yet!"
Mother Sherry leaned forward and lowered her voice. "It's Mrs. Przybysz's night, really. I'm still trying to figure out what all the, uh, traditions are about." She cocked her head toward the front door, and (presumably) Deacon Dan and PJ searching for the first star of evening. "Dan found fresh hay somewhere for under the tablecloth. Mrs. Przybysz said it all had to be green, and he spent this morning picking the dead stalks out of it one by one. Those catfish fillets you're smelling were swimming around in our bathtub until Dan cleaned them after lunch. You should see our kitchen. Boy."
She launched off around the corner and began placing plastic wine glasses beside each plate. Rob and Suzy threaded their way up the hall, Rob resisting the temptation to lift each lid along the way to catch a little more of the delicious smells that hung above them. Suzy was an excellent cook, and he was hardly a stranger at good restaurants. Still, the fare of his daily bachelor life ran heavily toward peanut butter and microwaved bratwurst. To be invited to this sort of home-cooked feast was not an everyday thing.
As they approached the kitchen, they got the impression that Mrs. Przybysz was having telephone conversations with three or four people at the same time. Once they rounded the old wooden door, they realized that she was quite alone.
"Mona, look, I told you last year, cinnamon ain't what it used to be. The crap I get at Jewel you have to throw in with a shovel." The old woman held no phone. She was turning sizzling fish filets on a large pan on the stove. Her apron was pulled tight, and her hair was up under a lace cap. When she spoke, she was looking at the counter to one side of the stove. "Vietnam? Like hell I'll use spices from Vietnam. My nephew died there. Look him up. You'll get an earful."
Abruptly, Mrs. Przybysz spun to one side and lifted the heavy glass lid from a stock pot. "Thanks, Virginia. You're better than a timer." She peered into the pot. "This still looks thin to me. Whatcha think?" For a second or two there was silence. Rob blinked. It almost looked as though a smiling woman's face had appeared for a moment in the roiling steam rising from the pot. "I know, I know. Lowfat sour cream just doesn't do the job. It was on sale. My mistake." Mrs. Przybysz set the lid aside and tapped some flour into the pot from a measuring cup. She plunged a long-handled wooden spoon into the pot and stirred. She glanced briefly out at the deepening darkness outside the kitchen window. "We don't have half an hour. The boys will spot the gwiazdka any minute now and everything had better be done." The wooden spoon paused. "Unsweetened yogurt? I think we have some here. Will that work? Hmmph. Ok." The old woman crossed to the careworn refrigerator and began rummaging around on its shelves.
Mother Sherry trudged up the basement stairs into the kitchen, a bottle of wine in each hand and a third tucked under her arm. She edged around Mrs. Przybysz and handed one bottle to Rob. "I keep praying for a miracle: another hundred square feet in this place. God created the whole universe from nothing. How hard could it be to give us a little more nothing?"
Mrs. Przybysz pushed past Mother Sherry while tearing the foil seal from a yogurt cup. The wooden spoon was soon at work again in the steaming pot. "God's working on it. I told you that last year. Give Him some time."
Rob heard the front door open and close, and feet shaking off snow. "We got it! Scapular! Right over the light pole!" Deacon Dan stomped his way up the hall, triumph on his battered face.
PJ shook his head. "No. Not 'scapular.' Capella. Alpha Aurigae." The young man waved the tablet in the air as he pressed into the kitchen. "Right ascension five hours sixteen minutes. Declination forty-six degrees. Approximately. But close."
Mrs. Przybysz laid the wooden spoon down. "Gwiazdka. The first star of evening. Good work, boys. Now go wash your hands and help me carry food."
Bishop Hughes stepped into the kitchen from the sacristy, in a black cassock with a purple stole. "My friends! Welcome again! Veni Emmanuel! As the prophet Nehemiah told the Hebrews: 'Eat fat, drink sweet wine, and send portions to those who have nothing, for this day is holy to our Lord!'"
There was a half-empty can of lard on the piled-high kitchen table. Rob looked down at the bottle Mother Sherry had handed him. Mogen David Concord Grape. Yup. Nehemiah could relax: St. JJ's had it covered. Wigilia supper could now begin-if the community could somehow squirm their way out of the tiny kitchen.