At last I learned that it is wrong to take money from mangers, that I should not put my fingers in. Before that I believed that Jesus loved me and that he would give me anything. He would give me how to pick money from the trees as I passed, though he would wait to see if I was wanting something different. I said having this or that is never an issue with me. Fifteen minutes scatters things easy to decide in every wind. I am your Father Christmas, he said. I thought I had heard three bags scraping down the full length of the chimney. He was out of breath.
He heard me scream from the bridge when I saw my father’s truck in the river. I heard Jesus scream too. But I heard it ring wrong in my ears and uncertain. To me, it was someone practicing a borrowed violin no one wants to own, someone practicing violin on Christmas. Or getting a trumpet for their birthday and having to thank their parents. In loud meetings, the minister I cursed in my heart, my father worshiped, almost kneeling. But he said it could not be called idolatry, not yet. Good God, he said, looked down while your poor father hobbled back to his pickup. That night the liquor struck cold lightening. Some nights he called me from the truck and I talked him onto the highway. He said I could guide him like reindeer. He told me the highway was black ice. It could have been an avalanche, so white the heading lights. I told him to honk the horn, but it was stuck. When he took his hand away, I could still hear beeping over the phone.
Just then I heard he had thrown up out the window. His voice left my ear and I said, Yes or no was he still there? He told me the warmer the beer, the easier to fall asleep. He laughed. I said I could not guarantee all my words but that I thought we should try singing. Out of tune, we sang I Saw Three Ships, and we sang What Child Is This? Under the moonlight and through the night, my father made his way. If he stopped at signs and traffic lights he did not tell me as I held the phone to my head and felt my ear begin to swell. I thought, His phone just dropped me. But I continued singing.
Jesus would fluff my pillow and shape the feathers to fit my head. He would smooth my blankets with his hand. I rolled over on my stomach so I could not see him, and when he was finished he told the very story that helped his headaches when he went to bed. As he read to me all I saw was his feet near the foot of the bed, and I saw the size of his nails and the cuts I told myself his words came out of. While reading, he shook me beneath him and told me not to sleep. I told him I could count flocks of sheep that graze in starry skies, and I would not dream of sleeping. I felt how his hand slid silently between my shoulder blades, though I could not feel the hole, as he finished telling me his story. His hand was a dove landing on my back. It made my hair rise. He told me his mother taught him to fall asleep with his arms stretched open wide. When he slept he would dream he was flying. He had a small wart, like it was a tick, on one of his fingers. My hand sometimes reached back to slip into his own. I said, What would he give me to bite it?
I heard my father curse at the moon and the beast of a winter. Father had long hair. He told me not to touch it or he would cut mine short. He was the one who touched his hair. He told me so, told me that he understood the layers, knew his hair’s behavior, how the wind would hit it from the window, how it should look like he was rising out of the river. After he turned the key, he would lean back and arch like a bridge in his seat. He blew rings with his cigarette. He asked if I was buckled in. He said he would not feel like a real father unless I was strapped down tight. Then he lifted his legs onto the pedals and pushed them down. The truck moved back.
I wished we would have prayed first, truly. It felt like we were flying, and so I asked him if I could have a drink, to help me feel my stomach less, like when we flew to Grandma’s house. My father put his hand between his legs and handed me one of the bottles he had there. The other he kept for himself, uncapping it with just his thumb. My father showed me how to drink, touched my chin and made it rise and fall with the mouth of the bottle. I hated my father watching me drink. He was always waiting for me to spill, looking at my hands on the bottle, looking if I dribbled, looking at me look at the window instead of what I was doing, always looking at something other than his business. I never felt completely scared. Maybe his eyes should have been on the traffic lights, the yellows and the reds, and less on me. Maybe they should have been less on his legs when they needed to be lifted back off the floor and onto the pedals they belonged on.
I grew an extra finger when I was three. Father said that if pee passed through it then it wasn’t a finger. But I did not believe him, not when I would touch things with it from morning till midnight. That was the simple truth, before God. I opened drawers that were shut tight, the hair on my arms getting chicken. I touched the smooth cloth that was made for a lady’s skin. It had no nail, it was soft like a lady’s cloth. Jesus said I could pee through it and it would still be a finger. He told me in my ear. One night I was lying flat on my pillow to feel the feathers in it. He wore the robe I told him not to. I told him look at the thing on him that he wove, that it was dirty as cinders. On the edges, slush had soaked into the threads. I thought I could smell the chimneys he had been crawling in. Working in chimneys was dirty. His robe had that smell to it.
I stayed on my pillow and would not let him touch it, even after he had set his robe aside. All night his smell stayed on my bed. I took my blankets into the basement the next day and I was afraid my father would smell Jesus had been reading to me, because he always held the laundry up to his nose. Unless he could not smell a thing he would hit me. He did not hit me hard and he cried before he took me onto his knee. I should not have learned to look him in the face. Because that was where he hit me. I could not look away when he told me to hold my chin up. He did not look away when he hit. We saw the pain in each other’s face. But Jesus could see us too, I thought the whole spanking. I thought, If my finger pees the sheets as soon as they are clean, then it is still a spanking if he hits me in the face.
Before he sniffed the wash he put his feet up on the machines, thinking I couldn’t see him, couldn’t smell the fabric softener. He cried as he folded our socks into balls. He folded my pajamas. Thinking I couldn’t see him, he leaned back like he was starting the car, his legs lifted, one lift at a time, onto the washer and drier. I watched him inhale. He wiped his eyes with my pajama top. He was not finished till he had sniffed every lost sock in the bin. He must have thought fabric softener could smell different depending on the clothing. But to me it was always Downy that came out every time, came into my bedroom, from him. I could be naked and he would not tell me to get dressed. He did not need me to be anything for him but dry and clean at night.
My bed felt like ice. I had trouble staying still, like in meetings. They were a long time. My back hurt. My father sat me in the pew. I looked at him as if hating to go to church, was there something wrong with it? Didn’t he know Jesus wasn’t here? He did not rise above for nothing. He had a home, didn’t he know he had a home to go to? They did not nail him down for nothing. There was a reason. He was floating up. He had never looked at it that way before. He had been living not to look at the holes in Jesus’ feet. My father thought thinking of Jesus that way was not truly Christian, that how dare they make him into a victim while still looking to him to listen to their prayers all night long? It was their prayers to him, though, that had driven him away. And so they would make him stay with nails. It did not keep him, they would see, and that very day he stopped hearing them, started listening to his father, wondering if his father was still listening to him. He wondered why his father had stopped talking to him as he used to, starting when he was at school.
He had just learned to read. He wanted to sleep at school all night and wait for the teacher and eat breakfast with him. He wanted to make him bacon and eggs. He knew it was forbidden. He thought he could teach the teacher to eat bacon and eggs without sinning. He did sleep there, I told my father. He did not know the Jesus I did was always first at school. Not even the teacher was before him. Though sometimes he needed to rest his aching head, sleeping in class as his disciples would do to him, waiting for his life to change. I said he would not be the same Jesus if that part of him was left out of the story.
At home, I made an angel in the snow for Jesus. The cold of the snow on me passed through to my back and even to my finger. I pictured it that was my bed from then on. Not to sleep indoors ever again, but to let the snow be my only covers. That night I tried the experiment. I tried to sleep. My luck wasn’t any better than it was in my old bed. I woke up in the bathtub by feeling his hand against my skin and the sound of lapping water. He was laughing in reverse, it seemed to me, because it sounded like him over the answering machine run backwards. But he was the minister. He Jesus-named and took his hand away. From then on I slept with my father. He tucked me in beside his pillow. He walked to the foot of the bed. He must have felt this is why he gave his whole paycheck away, as a Christian, to be able to receive a miracle. His strong arms were complicated to cross. One did not look like the other. His right arm should have bent at the elbow, owing to the operation he said was successful. My father lied.
When my father lied to me, he must have known that he was unbelievable, that he sounded like he needed a hearing aid to fit his words into his own ears. I said to myself, I do not want to sleep with that man. Sleeping would get confusing. I would want to know whose hand was on my back. I would need to know. I slept between my father and Jesus from then on, and told myself my cup ran over. I told myself if I tucked my finger between my legs maybe it would not pee the bed. When my finger grew, I put it in his drink to feel it. When he caught me, he told me why to resist this temptation. He had succumbed to it himself. Then, both his lips were on the lip of the tumbler, and he drank. My print left on the glass did not distract him. I asked him to let my tongue taste just a drop from the bottle. He said what was in the liquor was not a mortal sin. One night though, he neglected to tell at that time, he would fill the sink with whiskey. Then, whenever he went to sniff the laundry and lifted the pillowcases to his face it was the liquid from a different bottle than Downy. He wept with legs crossed.
One morning I went down to breakfast and nothing was set. I went to the basement and took his legs off the machine, thinking if they stayed crossed for too long they might shrink till he couldn’t reach the pedals, or they might become too stiff for him to get into his seat. He let me do it, because in his dream his minister lifted gently and if he dropped them they might find that they were already resurrecting and lifting the rest of him just a little bit out of his seat, his strong arms keeping him there like the nails did Jesus. I thought, I do not want to see him lifted like Jesus, or lifted like St. Peter, to the skies. It would be better only to read of certain miracles.
Before his cross, he carried driftwood on his shoulders, and lay on stony beaches reading the birds and looking upwards for a sign. People told him one of these days he would be ashamed of lying there that way. He said he would wear the shame like netting thrown over the shoulders of his fishermen. It would feel natural to him as water lapping stone away, one wave after another, until the stone, old bald head, was worn even to the finger. Then the world would see that in the final instance it was the stone that had gained the victory, was perfected by its enemies. What finger could resist it?
That night, in my father’s bed, he said I ought to know something about him. I said, OK. He said it would be time soon for him to start looking for a mother for me, for me to have brothers and sisters, for him to take a firm step into the rest of his life. This would be the half of it that would matter. He took my hand in his. He held it there. That was the night Jesus stopped reading me to sleep. He told me I had grown too old to be listening to such things and that it was me who should be reading stories to him. I called him on the robe he wore. He was angry that I was just laying there, my head over the edge of the mattress, pointing at the boots he wore. He said that without the sandals he was still Jesus, just like if it peed it could still be my finger.
I poked the snow still clinging to them, the puddles spreading beneath his feet. The wind blew down the chimney as he was showing me these things. I could hear it. And it was as if it was something he wanted to make happen, like it was another of his miracles, though now it came between us. This time I no longer wanted to believe. I no longer wanted him to read to me, at least not unless it was Christmas Eve and he would read to me about the star and his nativity.
My father was on the telephone with someone I had never seen, though I had been told I would meet her in the morning, and her children would be with her. I told Jesus to take his book away. I said his boots had heavy nails and I could hear them clicking when he was still walking on top of the house. I was lying there in bed and my father was out lifting a tree onto the roof of his truck. I said him sitting on the bed rocking me from sleeping was unnecessary. It would be better for him to be a baby again, that he should go back to his manger and lay there while somebody rocked him.
He saw me from that instant on kneeling in front of him. The two of us locked eyes for the first time. We had suddenly so much to say to one another, but we stayed there silent as the animals surrounding his crib. He handed them straw and their mouths were fully filled. When he cried, I touched my hand to him. I thought he needed me to be as little as he was, but it was not possible for me. I saw where in the manger with him were twenty-dollar bills. It was real money that my father put there every year, thinking his savings would be bound to grow in stature as the Savior had. I don’t know why I thought he would think it was Jesus when the money disappeared. I took the money in my fingers as if I was taking it from the baby’s hands.
I felt a hand on the back of my pajamas and a burning in my ears. My father spun me, a sudden and frightening turn that turned me more than once around, like he was dancing with me for the first time in his life. He said two words to me. In my whole life, I never heard those words from him again. He said to me, Well done.