A faux fir stands trimmed in silver garland and twinkling lights in the Vocations Department. Crimson poinsettias deck the Food Service Management classroom. Meanwhile in the dormitories the bulletin boards have been lined with shimmering gift wrap, on top of which are posted various announcements. A notice from Commissary informs us that Christmas cards are sold out. A menu from Food Service promises Cornish hen for the holiday dinner. A message from the Bureau of Prisons, scribed in both English and in Spanish, implores us to report incidents of sexual assault to executive staff, while another multilingual bulletin directs us to report suspected suicidal ideation among our peers to Psychology.
Stapled atop the tessellated ornaments and candy canes, and beside the handmade sign offering a reward for a lost set of headphones, another flier announces the return of the annual Christmas pageant. Jay induced me to go, promising there’d be cookies.
The chapel was packed come Christmas Eve. All chairs as far back as the baptism pool were filled, and extra seating had to be arranged off the pulpit near the band. The keyboardist donned a white bed sheet and cardboard wings. Behind the microphones a black and a Mexican man crooned a jazzed up version of “O Holy Night.”
“Quite a turn out,” Jay said. “Looks like every SO on the compound showed up tonight.”
I turned in my seat. Sure enough the audience was almost entirely sex offenders. I recognized several men from my fitness class, including the instructor, who was sipping punch beside the Christmas tree. According to the program most of the performers and stagehands themselves were SO’s, as was the playwright, Deejay Castellon, a former disc jockey serving time for molestation. It isn’t that these misfits seek God so much as they seek His hospitality; the church is one of the few places where the sex offenders are welcome, if only because the more dominant affiliations have no practical use for religion.
The outcasts applauded as the opening act came to a close and an accordion partition was drawn across the pulpit, creating an informal backstage. Bailey, who had enlisted in the pageant only after another stagehand dropped out at the last minute, tried his best to maneuver the unwieldy contraption. Meanwhile a second crew member dragged a podium to the center of the floor, on top of which sat an old rotary. The phone rang from somewhere overhead. The keyboardist cum angel rose from behind his instrument to take the call.
“Hello. Angel Assignment Headquarters. Merry Christmas . . . Yes, Sir. Of course, Sir . . . It will be done according to Your will.”
Just then a second angel emerged from behind the partition, played by a bearded, ruddy-faced sex offender known among the merrily self-degrading SO crowd as Pedo Clause. “Good morning, chief,” he said. “Angel Mitchell checking in. No occurrences to report; all quiet on my watch. Was that the phone I heard?”
The archangel set the receiver in its cradle and explained that the Most High had chosen him, Angel Mitchell, for a very important assignment. “At precisely 8:21 A.M. you and your charge John will come into brief contact with one Joe Smith, whose life is scheduled to end at 2:53 P.M.”
Pedo Clause clasped his rosy cheeks. “That’s so sad! And on Christmas too!”
The archangel nodded. “Your assignment is to get your man John to witness to Joe at the bus stop. It will be the last opportunity for Joe to hear the gospel before he dies.” The chief waggled his finger. “But remember the enemy will be on the defense against any attempt to rob him of his prize, so stay on guard.”
The PA clicked on: “And now a message from our sponsors.”
Bailey took his cue and proceeded in manhandling the partition while Pedo Clause absconded with the podium. The archangel resumed his place behind the keyboard. A haunting organ riff emanated from the instrument as the partition was jerked aside to reveal the backstage on fire. Standing amidst the smoke and flame projections was Satan, who appeared in the form of a curly-haired sex offender named Carlson.
“Hi,” Carlson said. “I’m Satan, and I’m inviting you to my annual fire sale.”
Carlson fiddled nervously with his horns.
“That’s right, folks. I’m selling slightly-used goods at low, low prices, all obtained from knuckleheads who thought they could take it with them.” He motioned to a table laid out with various props. “You like money? I’ve got thousands here, barely singed, and available to you for pennies on the dollar. Electronics your thing? I’ve got deeds to houses and titles to cars. And here’s a real collector’s item—an authentic German Luger.”
It was the one prop the prison staff absolutely would not let the inmates replicate, no matter how inconceivable its fabrication. For this, Carlson fashioned his hand into the shape of a pistol and pressed it lovingly to his chest.
“No job? No credit? No problem! Perhaps you have a soul you wouldn’t mind trading.” The Luger went off, startling the audience. “That’s Satan’s fire sale, across the Lake of Fire. Hurry now for the hottest deals in town!”
I tapped Jay on the elbow. “This is better than a Charlie Brown Christmas special.”
Bailey sealed off the pits of hell and the stage was again transformed, this time from fire and brimstone to a sunny bus stop where two strangers sat reading newspapers. Neither pedestrian noticed the angel standing over the older man’s shoulder.
“Listen to me, John,” said Pedo Clause leaning into his charge’s ear. “That man needs to hear the good news that Jesus saves. You’ve met him here many times before. Don’t you think it’s time you told him about Jesus?”
John, a child pornographer, stared down the middle aisle as if considering his subconscious. He turned to his fellow commuter. “Any good news?”
“In the paper—anything good?”
“Oh, same as always,” the young man said. “Nothing but bad.”
“Yes,” said John sighing theatrically, “the world seems to be getting worst all the time. Makes you wonder what it’s all coming down to, doesn’t it?”
The two men had just begun introducing themselves when Satan came careening around the partition, inadvertently smacking his pitchfork against the leg of a front row seat. Carlson took his place behind the younger man, opposite Pedo Clause. “So!” he cried. “My source was right! Trying to steal what’s mine, huh?”
“It’s still open season!” Pedo Clause shot back.
“He’s mine, and he’s going to stay that way. So just make like a cigarette and butt out.”
“Fat chance, wormwood. We’ve already got him hooked.”
Unaware of the angel and demon bickering at their backs, John proceeded to preach the Word of God to Joe. He told Joe about the bondages of sin, about the peace that comes from knowing God, and about the eternal life He’s promised for those who believe.
“Don’t listen to him, Joe!” Satan hissed. “He’s one of those fanatics like you see on TV.”
Joe wavered. “I don’t know. Who says He even cares? Every day I read in the newspaper about earthquakes and plane crashes, murder and terrorism.”
The angel countered by prompting John to recall what he’d read in his morning devotional.
“Death,” John recited, “is the penalty man pays for having sinned against God.”
“But why doesn’t God do something about it, especially at Christmas?”
“He did. He sent His only Son to suffer the penalty on the cross so that we may be forgiven.”
Pedo Clause looked at his watch. Frantically he pulled from his bed sheet a cell phone and stabbed at its cardboard buttons. “Hello, Headquarters? Angel Mitchell here. We have an emergency situation. Joe is under strong conviction, but the bus is due any second. We need more time!”
A homosexual inmate wearing a stripped tie interrupted just then and asked us if our sins were the color of scarlet. He asked if our souls were sodden by transgression. “If you answered yes, you need new and improved Holy Spirit Soap! It brightens! It whitens! It removes even the toughest sin stains with its active ingredient—salvation!” When we returned from the commercial, the angel was praying, Satan was biting his nails, and Joe’s resistance was beginning to wane.
“I wish I could have peace,” he said. “Lately I’ve been so lonely and depressed. My life seems so empty.”
John touched the younger man’s shoulder. “Until you have Jesus in your heart, you’ll never know the fulfillment of peace. He’s the only One who can give your life real meaning.”
The angel’s phone went off and a faraway voice over the loudspeaker announced that an angel in the vicinity had successfully delayed the bus with an engine problem. Pedo Clause slapped the mock phone shut and pumped his fist.
“Today is the day of salvation,” John continued. “Don’t turn Him away. Jesus said, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.'”
Carlson brandished his pitchfork. “Don’t do it!” he cried.
“I want to do it,” Joe said, “but I don’t know how.”
“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Confess your sinfulness to God and ask Jesus to live inside you. Would you like to pray that with me now?”
Carlson gnashed his teeth and beat his fists on the floor, his horns slipping down his forehead.
“Man, I’d love that,” Joe said. And the two men, oblivious to Satan’s distress, joined hands and bowed their heads.
The audience applauded. The cast and crew assembled in front of the partition. Joining them was the playwright and former deejay Castellon, who assumed center stage under the guise of a hapless naif called “Eugene,” an alter ego of Castellon’s invention and one I imagine he summoned often on his radio program. With his inmate khakis hiked up and his Buddy Holly glasses pinching the top of his nose, Eugene waved enthusiastically to the audience causing his Santa hat to fall into his face. The sex offenders laughed, for in addition to his absurdity we recognized in Eugene’s bespectacled bewilderedness our own sense of displacement.
Behind Eugene the company made a show of clearing their throats before launching into the pageant’s final act, an inmate rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
“On the first day of Christmas a CO gave to me—first place at com-mis-sa-ry!”
The choir paused and Eugene, looking crestfallen, reached into his pocket and held up a red commissary ticket. “But I was first in line!” he cried. The ticket read “102.”
The song continued with each day of Christmas revealing some fresh iniquity of prison life: the pettiness of inmates, the incompetence of staff, the tedium of bureaucracy. The audience roared.
“On the fifth day of Christmas the Laundry gave to me—five-XL boxers!”
Eugene pulled out an enormous pair of white underwear and shook it out like a tarpaulin. “Are those skid marks?”
The next day Eugene was assigned a new bunkmate called “Killer.” On the ninth day he was reprimanded with nine hours’ extra duty for feeding the ground squirrels. My sides were splitting by the last day when all twelve of Eugene’s Christmas cards were returned by the mailroom for his use of the abbreviation “FCI” in the return address; policy requires that “Federal Correctional Institution” be spelled out.
Eugene bowed. The angels curtsied. Satan speared the oversized boxer shorts and waved them over his head in surrender. Every sex offender—every pedophile, voyeur, collector, pervert, queer, and freak—took to his feet to cheer, myself included. Jay remained where he was however, doubled over on the floor, his hands gripping his stomach. “It’s true!” he said, tears streaming down his face. “It’s funny because it’s so true!”