A Christmas tale

jesus faceIt was love of Jesus that made my neighbor Walt a criminal.

He had seen the statue countless times in twilight walks through the town cemetery. It stood near a marker high up the slope, a big stone lettered with six names – the Croffs and Mintzlers and Walt’s favorite, Olive Brown, who sounded less like a woman than a color.

It was inconceivable that a half-dozen people could lie in this small area, but that didn’t trouble Walt. It was the three-foot-tall statue of Jesus.

The jagged profile – the nose was missing, and one cheek, along with most of the mouth and chin — was downcast in a broken benediction to those beneath the stone. The left hand, which cradled the remains of a large cross, was absent the better part of two fingers. The knuckles of the right, held across the robed chest, were gouged, the tip of the index finger missing entirely. Only Jesus’ toes – slender and elegant, like a girl’s – were unscathed.xmaswreath

Walt was old and accustomed to the oddity of cemeteries: colorful pinwheels spinning frantically on the graves of children, seasonal decorations – artificial Easter flowers and Christmas wreaths  – that persisted unnaturally after the holidays. There was a helplessness about these offerings, a big grief and the small lie that those beneath the earth still share our mortal time.

Nature’s embellishments were different. Walt had watched the elements and the years work on the headstones, mellowing the bright white quartz to a rich cream, dulling the sharp inscriptions of names and dates to indecipherable curves that erased the distinction between individual lives. The features of the old statues, too – the saints and animals and angels – possessed a gentle vagueness that no longer insisted on anything.

jesus profileBut there was a violence about what had happened to Jesus. The statue looked as if it had been attacked with a chisel, or thrown from a truck onto harsh asphalt. Nature would never erase the meanness of those wounds, at least not in the lifetime my neighbor had left.

So one November night some years ago, Walt made off with Jesus, bundling the scarred statue in a soft, tattered blanket and hefting it gently into the back of his old Chevy. He made an awkward apology and a promise to the Croffs and the Mintzlers and Olive Brown, then rumbled off into the dark.

From that day forward, Walt labored in his workshop with the kerosene heater running full-bore. Each Friday, he leafed anxiously through the pages of the weekly newspaper until he reached the town police blotter. It was a reliable record of curious and dubious delinquencies – including, one summer past, a complaint against two women dancing naked in the rain – and Walt knew the missing Jesus would eventually be noted there. Then, he’d be out of time.

But meanwhile, he was beholden to a higher authority. Walt possessed a sensitive nature, a kind heart and a big box of Concrete Fixall, and by applying the combination meant to restore Jesus to a finer state.

It was a tricky business: The powdered quartz, limestone and cement made Walt cough, and getting the right proportion of water took some practice. Jesus’ new nose fell off several times, and the first version of the right index finger looked like a Vienna sausage. The reconstructed features dried a shade grayer than the rest, but Walt figured the elements would eventually even things out.

He finished just after the newspaper reported the statue stolen from the town cemetery. “Face and hands badly damaged,’’ the blotter item said of the missing Messiah.

Right before Christmas, though, the caretaker reported that Jesus was back – and whole. True, the resurrected statue’s complexion seemed darker, and the nose lacked the delicate refinement of the other features. But the hands were again beautiful — the fingers long and elegant, like the toes – and the upturned corners of the restored mouth hinted at a smile.cemeteryoverview

Walt’s gone now, beneath the earth not far from the Mintzlers and the Croffs and Olive Brown. But he was right about Jesus: The statue’s complexion has evened out, and even the nose seems just right.

I like the smile best of all, though. It’s a benevolent beat of Walt’s criminally good heart, shining through that unbroken benediction for every Christmas to come.

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