At the downtown police station, there’s a chain link cage behind the front desk where you get fingerprinted and processed. You can watch what’s going on in the lobby, which makes it feel like freedom is taunting you: You’re so close to the outside world, yet so far away.
I happen to be posing for my mugshot when Mary and Joseph turn up an hour later. Out of costume, they’re just a short squat couple about my age. Mary has boy-cut blonde hair and nervous blue eyes darting around the room. Joseph sports a hipster beard, glasses, and a paunch.
One of my fellow jailbirds calls out to Mary: “What’re you in for, baby? You think they’ll give you the needle?”
I laugh appreciatively as Mary grabs for Joseph’s hand.
You always hope the charges won’t stick when you get arrested. Maybe the prosecutor won’t have enough evidence. Maybe she’ll decide you’re not worth the trouble. But that’s not gonna happen this time. If the victims come file a complaint, you’re toast — especially when they’re the Holy Family.
Plus, this is my fifth arrest — or is it sixth? — since I turned 18. I’m going to do some time.
Joseph approaches a bored cop at the front desk. “Hi . . . we’re from the living nativity at First Lutheran?”
“Oh . . . the church theft, right?”
“Well, I don’t think it was theft,” Mary says. “I mean, nothing was stolen . . .”
“Hang on, I got a statement here” — the cop rustles some papers — “from, uh, Desmond Jefferson . . . he caught this Landon Carlson with a wallet and purse.”
“That was my fault,” Joseph says apologetically. “Landon asked for food, but we were in the middle of our shifts. We were Mary and Joseph in the nativity—”
“—So I told Landon he could take one of our debit cards and get something to eat,” Mary continues. “Now, I didn’t mean for him to take my whole purse—”
“—But it was an honest mistake,” adds Joseph hastily. “We could see he was . . . well, down on his luck. It’s kinda our fault he got arrested.”
The cop looks confused. So do I, because that’s not what happened at all.
“What about Desmond Jefferson?” asks the cop. “Says he’s a reserve deputy. He told the arresting officer—”
“Mr. Jefferson was trying to help,” Mary says, laughing nervously. “When he saw Landon with my purse, he assumed . . . but like I said, I told Landon to take it. It was a big misunderstanding.”
I don’t know why these two Jesus Freaks are trying to save my bacon, but they’re not doing a very good job. They’re horrible liars.
The cop eyes them skeptically: “So if I call this . . . Desmond Jefferson . . .”
“He’ll tell you the same thing,” Mary confirms.
“Did Landon Carlson . . . intimidate you somehow?”
“Why would he do that?” Mary asks innocently.
“If this is anybody’s fault, it’s ours,” adds Joseph.
“Okay . . . I have your, uh, statement,” the cop says. “Thanks for coming in—”
“Does this mean Landon gets out?” asks Joseph. “Like I said, we feel responsible—”
“It’s up to the prosecutor’s office.”
“Well . . . we want to make sure—” says Mary.
“—We’ll wait,” says Joseph. “In case the prosecutor needs to talk to us.”
The cop clearly has no idea what to do with these stubborn, do-gooding liars who have turned up on his doorstep. He stares at them blankly before he finally says,
“Let me talk to my captain.” Then he disappears into an office.
Three minutes ago, I was headed where the sun don’t shine. Now, maybe I’m about to walk — thanks to two strangers whose wallets I swiped. I stare at them in disbelief as Joseph smiles and Mary waves weakly.
Why are they doing this? They must be hardcore Christians like Foster Mom #8, determined to preach me a turn-or-burn sermon when I get out of lockup. Well, I didn’t ask them to come down here and sell the cop their line of bull. I’m heading straight for the door — if I get the chance.
The cop reappears with the captain, who motions Mary and Joseph into his office. While they’re in there, the 6 o’ clock news comes on the lobby TV. I get the pleasure of watching myself stammer to Aubrey-the-Reporter’s camera, looking like not only a crook, but an idiot.
“Hey . . . that’s you!” says the jailhouse comedian who yelled at Mary. “You’re on TV! Lemme have your autograph.”
I show him my least polite finger and turn to face the wall.
After what seems like hours, Mary and Joseph and the cop come out of the captain’s office. They all look . . . serious.
Maybe the prosecutor wouldn’t drop the charges. Maybe the cops found out about the cash I swiped at the shelter last week. Maybe my buddy Desmond told them
Mary and Joseph are a couple of liars, and we’ll all land in jail together . . .
“Carlson!” the cop says sullenly, opening the cage. “Captain says we gotta kick you loose.”
The jailhouse comedian stares at me like I grew another head — and I’m pretty shell-shocked myself. Without a word, I robotically walk out of the cell.
I collect my personal stuff at the barred window . . . shuck the blue jumpsuit and put my clothes back on . . . walk through two steel doors . . . it seems like a dream, and I’m terrified I’ll wake up.
Finally, I’m standing dazed in the lobby without handcuffs or chain link or bars between me and the free world. But that’s when I remember — they’re waiting to preach at me. Before I can escape, I’m surrounded: Mary’s on one side and Joseph’s on the other.
“Mr. Carlson? I’m Jeff Kelvin,” says the man, extending his hand. “This is my wife Peyton—”
“I gotta go,” I interrupt. “Gotta . . . get home.” I head for the outside door.
But then I hear Peyton-Mary’s voice behind me. “Mr. Carlson? You forgot something.”
Against my better judgment, I turn back . . . and see the woman holding out the 80 bucks from her purse.
Is she serious?
She nods her encouragement. So does Joseph.
I snatch the cash from her outstretched hand with a mumbled “thanks” and head for the sidewalk.
I start walking, partly to stay warm in the 30-degree cold, but mostly to put as much distance as I can between me and the police station and Peyton-Mary and Jeff-Joseph.
It’s only 80 bucks, I tell myself. Another empty gesture like a toy dinosaur or an unfunny t-shirt from the Angel Tree. It’s a Band-Aid for Mary and Joseph’s nice middle-class consciences, ‘cause $80 won’t buy much.
But on the other hand . . . what’s in it for them? They sprang me from jail after I stole from Baby Jesus, and I don’t think they got a warm fuzzy from spending the evening at the police station.
I catch myself dreaming about what I could do with 80 bucks, just like the Christmas money from Dad years ago. It’s plenty for a warmer jacket, or some food that’s not from the shelter kitchen, or maybe I could put it towards getting my own place . . .
Suddenly, I realize I’m at the Metro station where I catch my train back to the shelter. I see a guy with a matted gray beard and a filthy neon-yellow coat working the stairway, shaking down commuters as they go up to the platform.
“Sir, could you spare some change? I’m tryin’ to get a burger,” he croaks piteously, tugging at my coat sleeve.
Normally I’d cuss the guy for touching me and tell him where he can go. But tonight . . .
Tonight, I have no idea what to say. I stare at the guy for a long time.
I guess that creeps him out, because he backs away and says, “No harm meant, sir. You have a nice Christmas.” Then he walks off to find a safer street corner.
But before he goes a dozen steps, I say, “Okay.”
He turns warily. “Okay what?”
“Okay, I got some money.”
He looks at me quizzically. I motion to the McDonald’s across the street.
“C’mon, buddy, let’s go get warm. Baby Jesus wants to buy you dinner.”
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Copyright 2019 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.