No, Michael had not practiced this nöel before. Digging his black boots into the pre-trampled patch of snow, he struck ice and proceeded to bend at the knees to find his balance on the slippery border of dead grass and concrete walkway. Tonight’s chorus rang from the voices of his fellow youth group members, fresh-faced and windburnt, with eyes halfway shut to block out both the biting cold and the fluorescent grocery store brightness, beaming from bulbed branches that lined the unshoveled path on either side, simultaneously beckoning visitors to both enter and leave. It was a rule in this gated community, like so many others, that its residents (comprised mostly of aging doctors, drunken divorcés, and golf enthusiasts) string up at least *a couple* of strands for the festive season. Not too much to ask. Hairless hands fidgeted in coat pockets and Mr. Nice, standing at the front of the gaggle of singing boys. He held his lantern up to his chest with dry, cracking fingers, illuminating his bespectacled nose and angular lip line like an ivy-league Dracula, all the while casting a frosted shadow about the hollowed black space where his eyes, hooded by thick brow bones, sat scanning. The captain of this band of bored teenage boys searched about the front door for a red bow, wreath, or — maybe if they had left the land of the Gentiles upon turning back at the stop sign to walk down Culver Court — a Star of David or ‘X’ painted in lambs blood.
They had walked silently through oily and gray tracks of slush to this very point. Michael wished, instead, he was home next to the fire, listening to his mother and father argue over the order in which their dinner dishes would be cooked in three days time, should it be ham first? the dressing? (hm, certainly she would start by blanching the potatoes while her husband half-assed the pie crusts) But, here he was, out and about the clusters of homes bordering his church, clutching a book of hymns and responding only to Corey and Nico, the boys to his left and right, with distant yes-or-no grunts, as they marched down the streets and past the mailboxes, like some insurrection in the suburban Ardennes, armed only with their pubescent voices and a coffee can to collect the tithes.
It was with great gusto that Mr. Nice, who, throughout the night had seemed to grow more and more agitated at the overall success of the pious mobile concerto, promised the group of young men a great and rewarding time. Here he was, now, though, brooding, shoulders rounded and electric lamp swinging loosely, as if he had once been a crypt keeper, checking in on the house in front of them like it was a famous tombstone that had, in years past, attracted several graverobbers who would drop their shovels and canvas sacks and flee back to the sooty and smoked out thief dens from which they came, only because of his aptitude for casting a menacing glance, visible to all trespassers thanks to that portable ball of divine light. He approached the door with the choir’s warm breath flowing out behind him, the condensed exhalations serving as exhaust fumes for his aging body — a delivery vehicle carrying the Word. He knocked once, twice, three times. The arc of the lamplight trailed his torso by fractions of a second, illuminating his motion as if this pre-conductorial movement was fixed in a superposition, quantum, traditional, and ordered by the birthday boy himself. Mr. Nice raised his cleared his throat, and they all began in unison.
Once in royal Davids city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.
Then there was a gap in the wall of sound. The group, not anywhere near sophisticated enough to classify one another as tenor or alto, bass, etc., sounded hollow. It was Michael, ceasing to be tonal and noiselike, forgetting the next verse, and refusing to remove his hands from the damp pockets of his wool overcoat so that he could read from the pamphlet of notes and lyrics. He instead simply stared at the peers surrounding him, lost in their apparent disinterest, a prisoner aboard a ship adrift at sea, one who might lend a hand if only he wasn’t shackled in the hulk’s chapel, or, if managing to free himself from those barnacled chains, had any clue as to how to navigate the currents near Antigua. A real prisoner keeps their mouth shut, though. Not out of fear, but in order to absorb as much information about their surroundings as possible. And by saying nothing, he learned he was not the only prisoner. The entire ensemble, conductor included, simply did not want to be there. For the past seven years, exactly half of his total lifetime, his parents had orphaned him out on this night in December. And with his coat, hat, and gloves, he had traversed this very terrain with his Sunday School classmates, only to now realize, no one had even asked them to.
The song had ceased entirely and Mr. Nice, feeling in his bones the absence of Michael’s timbre, knocked once more upon the door then performed an about-face, staring the boy down through his foggy lense, glinting with flake. “Are we feeling all that well, Mr. Michael?” he asked.
Half of the boys glanced sideways, the other half began little conversations of their own. “Oh yes,” Michael answered, “I just forgot some of the words.”
“I handed you a hymnal back at the church, did I not?”
“I must’ve dropped it somewhere.”
He hadn’t. But without hesitation, as if he was a doctor handing over the documentation for some experimental drug, barbital in nature, but not strong enough to anesthetize Michael entirely, Mr. Nice drew out his own songbook and said: “Well then, just take mine.”
Under the sound of falling snow, and at the command of the conductor, a new song started and Michael joined back in, forgetting about the warmth of his house or the food he would eat, about the actuality of his situation entirely (he somehow managed to find comfort in that prison ship), and how their stops before this one, under the leafless hedges and brambles, yielded small results. No one came to their doors in sweaters the color of pine, smiling and blessing the little oratorios. He had remembered the previous years much differently, as had Mr. Nice. Lost in the annals were the sights and sounds of the season, replicated now only by movies on the television that they all respectively watched on a couch next to the family tree, sitting in silence, where viewers spoke up only to request a change in volume or a pause so that they may grab another blanket from their bedrooms, or so the adults could fix another drink. But they carried on and silently hoped for the clan that sat just beyond the threshold in front of them to break the trend of drunken socialites pitching only a penny into their little coffee can, a basket that Jochebed herself wove out of steel reeds.
Lifting their voices to the smattering of stars, the ones left visible behind the dusky winter clouds, their carols rose, and floated out somewhere untouched by boots that covered frozen toes. They waited in silence. There was a cold lapse in sonic reverie and Mr. Nice frowned, shivering under the pale fire of a porchlight left on by accident. Michael tucked the hymnal into his coat pocket, situating it against the one he already had, longing in some ways, to double his knowledge, despite their contents being the exact same. And Mr. Nice set the lamp at his feet and knocked on the door one last time.
But no one was home.