Jacob Lawrence, "Nativity" (1954)
Jacob Lawrence, Nativity (1954)
Can a Game Be Literature?

Mark's Pages

December 25, 2002:

The north side of Redlands is a suburb of identical one-story tract houses, side by side, where orange groves once were.

It's difficult for neighbors to differentiate themselves via these houses. They're the same, and, the people inside are largely the same. One neighbor could have a more expensive car, or a better lawn-mower. There's not much else.

One year at Christmas the family on the corner decided to go to status-heaven, installing the world's largest nativity diorama over their garage door. The thing could have been a movie set. The people were bigger than life-size; the donkeys were bigger than life-size; the manger was bigger than life-size; the infant Savior was the size of an elephant calf. The thing was lit from within, with carefully-hidden white and pastel lamps adding to the panache. It was more than a nativity scene, it was a monument. It deserved to become a post card. It was the ballsiest possible statement of "We're better than you, and we know it, and you know it too."

The entire street was awed. People stood in doorways to admire, and bitch, and acknowledge their unworthiness in forthright or clandestine ways.

That December, the family with the diorama walked a little taller than everyone else. There was a proudness in their blue Caucasian eyes suggesting, "We're above you all, and we acknowledge that." In school, their kids went straight to the front of the lines, and, we all let them. It was their place.

Christmas morning was alive with extra-special expectation. Of course, we all wanted to know what our own presents were. But there was a tiny part of each of us which wanted to know that the neighbors with the diorama got. It was understood by all that their presents would be one little step beyond ours. We were ready to be wowed.

The street began to fill with kids. But, there was a hush. Slowly we filtered to the corner where the diorama-neighbors lived, open-mouthed, gawking.

During the night the Baby Jesus had been destroyed by lighting. Where once there was a figure the size of an elephant calf, now there was a black and sinister hole ringed with wispy gray smoke that smelled like electricity. White and pastel lamps dangled from charred-black electrical cords. Joseph and Mary, stunned-looking, were spotted with soot. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and no-one had heard thunder.

Wide-eyed, the diorama-neighbors climbed ladders and tore the monument down. The crowd dispersed but, the neighborhood kids were already talking.

For the rest of the month, and the next month, and the month after that, the neighborhood avoided those people on the corner. Neighbors crossed the street rather than meet them. At the grocery store eyes were averted. At school, their kids ate alone, and sometimes found rocks or insects in their lunch boxes. They walked with stooped shoulders, as if carrying a secret weight only they understood. By March they'd moved away.

The north side of Redlands went back to being a suburb of identical one-story tract houses, side by side, where orange groves once were.