Okay, this little story feels for all the world like urban myth, but some stories just beg to be told whether or not they happened, truthiness being, at times, far superior to plain old reality. After a Christmas reading in Calgary a week or so ago, a man came up to me, didn't identify himself, but told me, with some urgency, that he simply had to tell a story he knew I'd like. He was right.
This is it.
So Clayton was looking forward to the Christmas pageant at church because he knew that the sixth grade boys, the oldest in the program, would get the speaking parts. If he was lucky, he thought, he might get Joseph.
But it didn't happen. He wasn't upset or envious, because there was so much joy at Christmas anyway--and the candy afterwards too. All of that. You just have to love Christmas, Clayton told himself, and he did.
When the cast was announced, it turned out Mrs. Sperling said Clayton would be the Bethlehem innkeeper. She'd printed out the lines that everyone had to speak, and then told them she thought it was certainly going to be one of the best Christmas pageants that Park Lane Church ever had.
Clayton had just three lines, and one was really easy: "Can I help you?" The other one he knew too really, just hadn't thought about it much: "I'm sorry, but I've got no room for you anymore in my motel." And then the other: "I can put you up in the barn."
There was all of it. Really easy. But right from the get-go he wasn't thrilled because after all it was awful that he had to be the one to tell Mary and Joseph they couldn't stay overnight, and then just add to it that Mary was going to have a baby yet that very night too. All the way home after practice, he worried. Why him?
The next week they practiced again, and Clayton had no problem with his lines, even when some of the other kids stumbled or had to read 'em off the sheet. He was ready. They went over it four times at least, maybe more.
That afternoon Clayton's mom asked him how practice had gone, and he told her everything was just fine. You know how mom's are--she sort of kept at him because she saw that he wasn't thrilled, that something was just wrong. "Is there a problem?" she said. "You look like you lost your best friend, Clayton."
"It's nothing, Mom," he told her.
"Okay, come on--just tell me what's going on," she insisted.
He thought maybe she'd laugh, and he didn't want that. But he did want to tell her, so he did. "I don't like to do my part," he said. "I don't like to be who I am. I'm the guy that says no."
Just like that, she put her arm around his shoulders. "You're not a bad guy," his mother told him. "Poor man didn't have any rooms, Clayton," she said. "Probably if he did, he would have given Joseph a good place--soft bed and everything."
Clayton hadn't thought of that. "Think so?" he said.
"I'm sure he would have."
He looked up at her and smiled. "Still," he said, as if the hurt wasn't entirely gone.
On Christmas Eve, all decked out, Clayton looked just like some gent from the Bible--cape and sash and robe and sandals. First there was singing, of course, lots of it; and then, when everything got quiet in the church and the lights were lowered, the story started, Mary and Joseph walking up from the back. Clayton stood right in front of a big cardboard hotel, his hands sort of folded like Mrs. Sperling had said. Once Mary and Joseph were on the steps in front of him, he made it through his first line: "Can I help you?"
"Do you have a room for us?" Grady Williams asked him. "We've been traveling a long, long ways and we need a place to sleep."
The lights were way down in church, most of them, and it almost seemed to Clayton as if it really was night, like Bethlehem. He knew his line, of course, but he didn't like it, not at all. He looked around, even looked behind him. "I'm really, really sorry," he said, because he was, "but there's no room for you anymore in my motel."
"But this is Mary," Grady insisted, just like he was supposed to, "and she's going to have a baby."
There he stood, the innkeeper, looking into Jasmine's face that wasn't Jasmine's face at all, but the face of a girl who was almost crying because after all they'd come a long, long ways and there was no room for them in his inn, no room at all, and she was going to be having this baby, not just any baby either, he thought.
He waited for a moment again, thinking that maybe he could think of something. After all, it was the Savior of the world, people said, it was Jesus who was going to be coming, and the wise men and the shepherds and the animals and all of that.
He took a deep breath, wet his lips, bit 'em a little, and said, "I can put you up in the barn." He said it as lovingly as he could, sniffing almost. And then he just couldn't help himself. "Listen," he told them. "Why don't you come in for a cup of coffee?"
Grady didn't know what to say. There they all stood, and it was pure blessing from above that Clayton didn't hear the chuckles from the crowd, pure blessing because he likely would have cried had he heard people laughing. But he didn't hear them because he was, just like Mary, pondering all of this in his heart.
Third row back, his mom giggled and wiped at her eyes with the back of her fingers.
"Why don't you come in for a cup of coffee?" Clayton had said, and it was, for Park Lane Church, the finest single moment of a Christmas Eve pageant everyone talked about that next Christmas day.