menu Language Is A Virus

A Christmas Pageant by Donna Tartt

Harper's Magazine, 287, December 1993, 1723

The lunchroom, even with all its tinsel and lights and cutouts of Santa Claus, still looked like the lunchroom concrete floor, windowless cinder-block walls, long humming lights that were encased in things like egg cartons across the ceiling and were different from the lights Sally had at home. She remembered sitting under those same lights in the first grade, hungry but not wanting to eat her chicken sandwich because Leah had made it, because it was something from home, and the thrumming, greenish light had made her want to cry. Now she was in the fourth grade, but the lights still made her feel homesick and sad. She had never been in the lunchroom at night before. Even at night it was exactly the same, and made her feel the same way.

Tonight the tables were folded up and the chairs were arranged in rows. A wooden platform that looked homemade stood against the back wall. Mrs. Mills's fourth-grade class was having its Christmas pageant.

Everybody was dressed up, and some of the little girls looked as though they had been at the beauty parlor, but Sally's hair was short and she hadn't gone. She was wearing a plaid pinafore, a white shirt and red leotard, and black patent-leather shoes. Usually she liked this outfit but tonight she had not wanted to wear it because it seemed irreverent. In her room, before leaving home, she had searched about hastily for something that would make her look more religious; at last, she draped a white dresser-scarf over her head. It made her look like a bride, or the Virgin Mary. For a while she practiced supplicant poses in the mirror--holding her hands out, palms up, eyes fumed to heaven. Then Leah, the maid, had come in without Sally seeing her and laughed. It irritated Sally, but still she wanted very badly to wear the dresser-scarf; she had lied to Leah, telling her that everybody was supposed to wear them, and had gotten a swat on the hand.

Sally's part was the letter T in the word Christmas. Each child was to wear a big sign with the proper letter, and they were to step forward and explain what their letter meant when the time came. The C in Christmas stood for candy, the H for holly, and so forth. Sally's part went like this:

T is for tinsel

Bright as the dawning

Which makes us so happy

On Christmas morning.

It was a silly poem, not a real one. Mrs. Mills had made it up. Besides which, the letters did not stand for what Mrs. Mills said they did. C stood for Christ, not candy; H was certainly for Herod. Sally had wanted to be M because that stood for Mary, but she was glad that Mrs. Mills had picked Kenny Priddy and not her because Mrs. Mills had made it mean mistletoe, and that meant kissing, and people would laugh.

Sally had tried to explain this to her best friend, a little girl named Tammy Dankin. Tammy was not popular and sometimes her nose ran, but Sally liked her because she would play the games that Sally liked to play, games that were generally religions in nature and that usually involved Sally falling on the ground and pretending to be dead while Tammy knelt at her side and implored God revive her. Sally had a gift for remaining completely motionless in these postures, hardly breathing even when Tammy shook her or pulled her hair, sometimes she would lie so still that Tammy would become frightened and begin to cry.

Tammy was sitting with another girl, a little fat girl, across the room; both of them had reindeer horns tied to their heads and they were sharing mixed nuts from a paper cup. Sally saw Tammy looking over at her wistfully and she turned her head away very slowly, so Tammy would know it was on purpose and that she was still not speaking to her.

A few weeks before, at recess, Sally had drawn Tammy aside from a game of jump rope especially to explain how Mrs. Mills had left all mention of Christ out of the Christmas pageant, and why the Christmas pageant was sacrilege, and how they must both take up the burden of prayer and penance in order to appease God's wrath against Mrs. Mills. "It shall be better for her," Sally had explained, "if she had had a millstone around her neck and were thrown into the sea." But Tammy was impatient; she kept glancing around and bumping her knees together; at last, she had said, "I like Mrs. Mills," and had run back to her game.

Before, Sally had asked God for mercy; now she prayed to Him for vengeance. She felt that her prayer would be answered, as her penance had been quite severe. She had walked around the house blindfolded until Leah heard her bumping into things and made her take the blindfold off; she had brought the scratchy wire doormat up to her bedroom from the tool shed so that she could kneel on it at night to pray; for the last week she had thrown away her sandwich at lunchtime and refused her dessert at night. She had prayed for the most spectacular things she could think of, all the very worst things in the Bible she could find: for rains of fire, for locusts, for the profaned lunchroom to tumble down around her ears like the temple had fallen around Samson. Now, with the pageant starting soon, she rested in the knowledge that God would deliver her.

Suddenly Sally felt a large hand dig into her upper arm; she turned and saw Mrs. Mills towering over her, her big silly eyes popping like Bing cherries. She had on the Christmas corsage the class had given her and she was wearing a red knit dress with a tie at the waist that made her stomach pooch out even more than it usually did. Her brittle, peach-colored hair was piled high on her head but already the curls looked rubbed and worn, like doll hair; Sally thought, with some satisfaction, about the time she had heard her mother say that Mrs. Mills ought not to go around with such messy hair. "Poor old thing," her mother had said. "Maybe she can't afford to have it fixed."

"Sally," said Mrs. Mills severely. She did not let go of Sally's arm, which made Sally mad; she did not like it when Mrs. Mills touched her. "I don't know what you think you're doing over here. You ought to be over there with the Christmas letters. You don't even have on your costume yet."

"Yes, ma'am," Sally said quickly and tried to pull away.

"Now scat," Mrs. Mills said, and gave Sally a swat on the behind with the copy of the program she was holding.

There shall be weeping, thought Sally, face burning, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

The Christmas letters were all standing in a straggly line by the lunchroom door, waiting to have their costumes fixed and drinking cups of punch. A couple of mothers were helping with the costumes, and Sally was unhappy to see that Tammy's mother, Mrs. Dankin, was among them. Toward the beginning of school, Sally had been in the grocery store with Leah, and Mrs. Dankin, pushing a shopping cart, had come up to speak to them. After asking Sally a question or two about school, she had turned to Leah. "This one," she said, nodding at Sally, "has quite an imagination."

"Ma'am?" said Leah.

"You really wouldn't believe," said Mrs. Dankin, in a bright voice, but with a mean sideways look at Sally, "some of the crazy stuff she's been telling Tammy." It had looked for a moment as if she would elaborate, and Sally had thought she might cry, but Leah, unexpectedly, had been very sweet. "This baby is mighty smart," she said sharply to Mrs. Dankin. "She knew how to read when she was three." Still, it had all been very embarrassing. She was glad her mother hadn't been there; then again, her mother had Leah and never had to go to the grocery store like Mrs. Dankin did.

Mrs. Dankin, together with somebody else's mother, was fixing Frankie Detweiler's costume. He was to be the letter I, for icicle; the mothers were absent-mindedly draping Christmas-tree icicles over his shoulders and talking. Sally, keeping her eyes straight ahead, listened to their conversation. It was very interesting. Mrs. Dankin was telling the other mother that very early the morning before, she had woken up to someone beating on the glass pane of the back door of her kitchen. "Beating," said Mrs. Dankin, "just slapping up against it with both hands, over and over." She let the icicles she was holding fall on Frankie's shoulder and held up both palms to demonstrate.

"That's awful," said the other mother, fascinated.

"Well, do you know who it was? It was that awful Henry Lee Priddy." (Was that Kenny's father? wondered Sally.) "And he just kept beating on the glass and yelling, 'I'm drunk, I'm drunk, call the police, I'm drunk.'"

"Did you wake up Ray?" said the other mother.

"I sure did," said Mrs. Dankin grimly.

The voices sank to a whisper.

Sally thought about this. Why had this been such a bad thing, when Mr. Priddy had only wanted to turn himself in? She was still wondering about this after they had stopped whispering and resumed normal conversation, which was very boring and about people she didn't know. Then, with a horrible start, she heard her own mother's name: Christine Farquhar.

". . . not surprised she's not here."

"I don't know what Christine does with her time."

"I don't either. She's got a maid, and a cook, and she doesn't have a job, and she just gives that little girl to the *****s to raise."

Little girl, thought Sally, her face reddening. So now they were talking about her. And they had called Leah *****. Anybody knew that wasn't nice.

"Maybe it's the *****s tell her all that nutty stuff about hell. I can't figure where else she gets it. It scares poor Tammy. The other night she woke up crying. Ray had to go in and talk to her."

"I wonder why she's like that," said the other mother. "Christine doesn't seem very religious."

My mother is prettier than you, Sally wanted to say to them, lots prettier, she has more money and her hair is really red, not dyed like yours is. They would be sorry for this. She would go home and tell Leah and Leah's husband would go out and shoot them. Leah's husband was named Jackson. He had been in jail before.

Sally was thinking about Jackson, about how Mrs. Dankin would look if she opened the back door of her kitchen and saw Jackson standing there with a gun, when she felt a sharp jab from a fingernail in her left arm. She turned, irritably, and saw Kenny Priddy, who was the letter M, holding up two crossed fingers. "Sally germs, vaccinated," he said, in a twangy, leering singsong; with a shiver she noticed how dirty' end long his fingernails were. For a moment she thought of telling him that he wasn't playing the game right, that what did she care if she got a dose of her own germs; instead, she turned away.

"Is your mama here?" said Kenny, leaning over. Sally did not answer. "Hey, I'm talking to you," he said, grabbing her by the arm. "Is your mama here or what?"

Sally looked at him, at his eager, rattish face, at his dirty hair and clothes. He was trembling all over with excitement like a Chihuahua. You were supposed to feel sorry for people like Kenny because he lived in a trailer and was poor. Sally did not see how anyone could feel sorry for Kenny, though, even Jesus. He was mean to animals and had failed a grade. "No," she said.

"That's 'cause your mama don't love you," said Kenny, looking satisfied. "Your mama is a big fat snotwad."

"My mother is not here," said Sally, "because she is in the hospital having her appendix removed." This was a lie. Sally's mother was actually at a party out at the country club.

"My mama's here," said Kenny, and pointed to a woman in the sixth or seventh row. The woman had Kenny's close-set eyes; her hair was gray-blonde like his, too, and all dirty and limp. Unlike the other mothers, who were all dressed up, she had on blue jeans with a hole at the knee and a T-shirt from a motorcycle dealership. Under the T-shirt her chest was all caved in, flat as a man's. Nobody was talking to her, not even the other tacky-looking mothers. and she had her arms folded over the purse in her lap as if she thought somebody would want to steal it. Then the purse moved; Sally, startled, saw that it was not a purse at all, but a baby.

"Ain't she pretty," said Kenny. He meant it, too, and that was sad. "Them's my brothers next to her, Darryl and Wayne. That baby in her lap's only my stepsister. Her name's Misty Darlene."

He went on talking about the new baby but Sally wasn't paying attention. Mrs. Dankin and the other mother were putting the final touches on S for snow's costume. Next in line was her.

"I almost didn't have to be in this stupid play," said Kenny conversationally. "My daddy came to town to get me for the weekend but they're not suppose to let me see him. He lives at French Camp. I got a brother down at the reform school at French Camp. My daddy," he said proudly, "just got out of prison."

"Really," said Sally, fuming around to look at Kenny. Saint Paul had been in prison. "What did he do?"

Kenny shifted to the other foot. "Something about statutory," he said.

"That's very interesting," said Sally. She was about to ask what that was when suddenly there were Mrs. Dankin and the other mother, leaning over her. "You're T for tinsel," said Mrs. Dankin as if Sally didn't know what her own part was. Meekly Sally bent her head, like a pony waiting for the bridle, and allowed the sign that said T to be put around her neck.

"Know why you have to be T?" crowed Kenny. He was hopping from foot to foot and trembling with joy. "Because you smell just like tee-tee, that's--"

"Hush up," said Mrs. Dankin to him nastily. "You'll be wearing one of these yourself in a minute." Mrs. Dankin didn't like Kenny any more than Sally did.

The other mother, her arms draped with tinsel, walked around Sally and looked at her in a dissatisfied fashion, lifting up a piece of Sally's hair--dark, bobbed at the nape like a Chinaman's. "I don't know why a child with long hair wasn't chosen for this part," she said. "We could have braided the tinsel inn' if it was just a little longer."

"Sally, what'd you want to get your hair cut short for?" said Mrs. Dankin pleasantly.

Sally's face felt very hot. "My mother won't let me have long hair until I'm old enough to take care of it myself," she said. "My mother says long hair on little girls is tacky."

Mrs. Dankin exchanged a disgusted look with the other mother, and suddenly Sally remembered: Tammy Dankin had hair halfway down her back. But it was true: her mother really did say that. Besides, having short hair meant that you Denied the World.

Mrs. Dankin cleared her throat and picked up a string of gold tinsel. "Will your mother be here tonight?" she said as she wound it in a circle around Sally's head.

The tinsel prickled her forehead. "No, ma'am," she said.

Mrs. Dankin raised her penciled eyebrows as though she were really surprised. "Oh, no? That's a shame. Why not?"

"She is out of town," said Sally. All of a sudden she felt like she might cry.

"That's not really festive enough, do you think, Carol?" said the other mother, stepping out from behind Sally's back and looking concerned. "Just that little piece on her head makes her look like she's supposed to be an angel."

They were quiet a moment, looking at her. All of a sudden Kenny began to jump up and down. "I want my costume, I want my costume," he sang in a high, breathless voice.

Mrs. Dankin turned on him. "Do you know how to stand still?" she snapped.

"I've got some mistletoe," sang Kenny to Sally, holding a sprig of mistletoe that he'd torn off this costume up over her head and sticking his face in hers. "I guess that means we should kiss." There was a big red smear across his mouth from the Christmas punch. Sally turned her head away.

The Christmas letters, shuffling, restless, were waiting in the hall outside the lunchroom, being watched by a couple of mothers. They were to go on after Santa's Elves. She could hear them in the lunchroom now, singing their stupid song. Mrs. Mills was making some mistakes on the piano. She couldn't play very well. Kenny nudged Sally in the ribs with his elbow. "If I wanted to," he said, "I could beat you up. Right here."

Sally paid no attention to him. Her stomach hurt and the lights were too bright; "Jingle Bell Rock" had given way to the Elves and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"; already the birth of Christ had been sadly profaned, yet somehow God allowed the pageant to go on.

"What you looking over there at the pay phone for?" Kenny said to her. "You think your boyfriend's gonna call you or something?"

God will put out the lamps of the wicked; He will banish the unclean.

"Who's your boyfriend?" said Kenny, leaning closer. "I bet he's retarded."

With a sinking feeling, Sally heard Mrs. Mills bang out the final notes on the piano. The mothers, inside the lunchroom, began to clap.

"I know a retarded boy," said Kenny pleasantly. "His name is Tom Bibbett. What he does, is, go around all the time with a straight pin and pretend to give everyone shots. He's my first cousin, I guess."

"Hush," said a mother who was coming along the rear of the line. "Single file, everybody."

Kenny waited until she had passed and then resumed. "Every day Tom Bibbett has to take the bus into Tupelo to the Mental Retardation. He knows a lot of other retarded kids. Probably he knows your boyfriend."

The mother, now at the head of the line, turned. "Who's that still talking back there?"

"Kenny," said Rosemary Mitchell and Frankie Detweiler at the same time, in tired voices.

"Well, you tell him to hush up." She opened the door to the lunchroom; a flag of light fell into the hall. "Go on," she whispered to the C, and gave him a little push.

Sally couldn't see anything, just a few stout, beaming faces in the first row; the sound of applause rolled over her. Flashbulbs popped here and there. Somebody had a movie camera and was walking backward with it down the aisle, all crouched over. Then the clapping died down and there was no sound at all except the rustling of programs and the whir of the movie camera.

C is for candy

said the C hesitantly; he was in the slow reading circle:

Chocolate and mints That we get in our stockings After lots of . . .

"Small hints," said a voice somewhere near the stage.

"Small hints," repeated the C, gratefully.

Without waiting for the C's applause to stop, the H rushed into her poem, saying the words really fast so everyone would know how well she knew them by heart:

H is for holly All red and green It's the prettiest thing That I've ever seen.

Next was Tammy Dankin. She had her head to the side and was making her eyes big on purpose:

R is for reindeer

she said, in a high, babyish voice; did she think people didn't know she was putting it on?

Stomping their hoofs

And bringing us presents

When they land on our roofs.

"Aww," said the mothers when she had finished, and clapped very loudly. They had been taken in by the baby voice and by Tammy's size; she was the littlest girl in the class. Tammy giggled and, to Sally's disgust, curtsied. Tammy was like one of those bad children of Israel in captivity; she knew better and yet was happy to do wrong and show off if anyone at all approved.

It was all going so fast, much faster than Sally had expected; somehow she had thought it would take hours. In a few moments it would be her turn. Her eyes were filling with tears; she couldn't see anything but a fuzz of brightness.

I is for icicle

whined Frankie Detweiler; he was trying hard to be cute, too:

So frosty and white

Which hangs from the roof

On a long winter's--

All of a sudden the door to the lunchroom flew open and slammed against the wall with a crash.

Sally jerked her head up; the mothers, startled, all craned to look. Mrs. Mills got up from her place at the piano and flustered over to the door.

The mothers all began to whisper.

"Hey," said Frankie.

They could hear Mrs. Mills by the door now, squeaking, breathless. "I'm sorry, sir, but we're in the middle of our little program right now. Why don't you just come in and--"

"Outta my way."

Mrs. Mills pattered backward, her big loony eyes rolling, and the hum of whispers from the mothers stopped.

It was a man, in a greasy T-shirt, cowboy, boots, and jeans. He was huge, red-eyed, unshaven; blue and black tattoos snaked luridly up his forearms; there was a bottle of whiskey in his hand. He staggered out to the front of the stage and stood there for a moment, blinded by the spotlight, one arm thrown up to shade his eyes, blinking, reeling. "RaeLynn," he said hoarsely. "Where are you, RaeLynn Priddy?"

"Hey," said Kenny, interested. "That's my Dad."

There was the quick sound of a chair being scraped back, and Kenny's mother jumped up. "Get out of here before I call the cops, Henry Lee," she yelled at him. "You ain't got no--"

Mr. Priddy lurched forward) his foot caught in the cord to the Christmas lights and he almost fell. With a savage kick he sent the cord flying out of the socket, and half the room went black. Someone screamed. "I come for my kid," he said.

"Over my dead body," yelled Kenny's mother.

"Maybe," said the man.

There was a click and a glint in the spotlight; someone else screamed, and then someone else. Mr. Priddy had a big deer knife in his hand.

"Mr. Yopp!" shrieked Mrs. Mills. "Somebody run find Mr. Yopp!" Mr. Yopp was a retired electrician; he was the janitor at the elementary school.

Mr. Priddy came toward Kenny's mother with the knife, walking very carefully, one foot placed cautiously in front of the other. The mothers in the front rows began to scatter.

Kenny's mother was holding Misty Darlene in front of her, like a shield. "Get that goddamn knife away from me."

Mr. Priddy, with a jerk of the knife, motioned toward the stage and licked his lips. "Go on up there and get him," he said.

"Get him yourself," said Kenny's mother, holding Misty Darlene defensively in front of her face.

Mr. Priddy made a quick feint toward the side of her face with the knife. "You better go get him," he said, "if you don't want me to slit your nose wide open with this here knife."

Kenny's mother lowered the baby and stared at him contemptuously. "You ain't gonna do *****," she said.

There was a quick flash of silver; the next second, Kenny's mother was standing very still, and her eyes were wide, and Mr. Priddy had his arm around her neck and the knife at the end of her tiny, pinched nose. "Hell, RaeLynn," he said in her ear, in an aw-shucks kind of voice, full of regret. "You know I will."

Mrs. Mills was still crying for Mr. Yopp. Sally wondered what she thought Mr. Yopp would be able to do even if he had been there. Mr. Yopp was about seventy years old; he had lost an arm in an accident down at the power plant.

Mr. Priddy was behind Kenny's mother now, his elbow still around her neck and the knife at her nose. Roughly, with his knee in the back of her legs, he was making her walk down the aisle toward the stage, Misty Darlene still in her arms, blinking, somber.

"The kids!" somebody screamed.

"Run," screamed somebody else, but most of the kids had already scattered. Only Kenny remained on the stage, and Sally, and Tammy Dankin, who was crying and too scared to run.

"Tammy!" screamed Mrs. Dankin. She was kneeling on the floor to the left of the stage, her arms outstretched. "Run here! Run to Mama!"

Mr. Priddy was walking up the steps of the stage with Mrs. Priddy in front of him; as he got her up on the platform and was edging her across it, he bumped against Tammy--weeping, the reindeer horns now slipped from place and poking out from the side of her head--and made her stumble. Mrs. Dankin screeched and rushed onto the platform, almost knocking both Mr. and Mrs. Priddy over (more horrified screams from the audience, as for a moment it looked as if Mrs. Priddy were not only going to drop the baby but lose her nose); the whiskey bottle slipped from Mr. Priddy's free hand and broke on the floor.

"Sorry, Rae," said Mr. Priddy breathlessly and pulled himself up. "What the hell, lady," he snapped, and then he stopped and looked at Mrs. Dankin more closely.

Mrs. Dankin, her eyes glassy and her arm around the sobbing Tammy, began slowly to back away.

"Just a minute," said Mr. Priddy, narrowing his eyes at Mrs. Dankin, who was still inching backward. "I said just a minute," he snarled, catching Mrs. Priddy in a half nelson with his free arm and swinging the arm with the knife around, and Mrs. Dankin stopped, the tears drying on her cheeks and her eyes round with terror.

"Oh, no!" screamed somebody in the audience. "He's going to kill them!"

"You," said Mr. Priddy to Mrs. Dankin, between his teeth, "are the bitch who sicced that dog on me the other night."

Mrs. Dankin, stuttering, tried to say something or other that didn't come out right at all.

"That damn dog like to chewed my leg off. Get the boy, RaeLynn," he said unexpectedly, with a jerk of his head, and let Mrs. Priddy slip out from under his arm and go to Kenny, who was so proud and excited that he had thrown his sign halfway across the stage and was jumping up and down. Then he fumed to Mrs. Dankin and Tammy. Both of them were motionless with terror; he took a step toward them, the knife outstretched and his eyes glittering. "I get a bruise on my leg," he said, "the size of a grapefruit." His voice was kind, almost reasonable. "I ought to cut you and this brat of yours wide open."

There was the sound, outside, of feet running down the hall and of Mrs. Mills yelling frantically, "In here! In here!" The next second, two policemen ran in the door. They both had guns.

Mr. Priddy looked around, confused. Mrs. Priddy took his arm.

"Hold it right there, Henry Lee," the first policeman said.

Without anyone noticing, Sally walked quietly around Mr. Priddy and off the stage, through the wailing mob of mothers, past the policemen with their drawn guns, into the empty hall. Then she went to the pay phone to call Jackson to pick her up in the car. Leah had given her a dime to keep in her pocket so that she could call somebody to get her when the program was over.

While she was on the telephone with Leah, the door to the lunchroom flew open and Mr. Priddy, his hands cuffed behind his back, stumbled out. The policemen were being rough with him, kicking and pushing even though he only looked very sad and bewildered and wasn't fighting them at all.

After she hung up the phone, she went outside. There was a lot going on. Two police cars were there, and an ambulance, and lots of people. Over in the parking lot some cars were pulling out, but there were still knots of gabbling mothers and children in the lights by the school doorway. The ambulance men in white were bringing out people on stretchers. Several mothers had fainted, Frankie Detweiler had had one of those fits of his, and some mother had been trying so hard to get away that she had tripped over something and broken her leg.

Mrs. Mills had just come outside; Sally listened with one ear as she began to tell a policeman her story of what had happened. It was funny: she was saying that Mr. Priddy had shoved her at the door and threatened her with the knife. He had done no such thing.

Everyone was talking very loudly, but their voices seemed far away. Sally took her sign off her neck and put it down on the ground and sat on it, looking out into the dark at the end of the driveway for Jackson's car. It was funny, how ignorant they all were. Tonight they had seen the work of the Lord and understood it not; they had seen a miracle, and yet had not believed.

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Terrific short story by the brilliant Donna Tartt.

This was hilarious! I like Sally's perspective especially how she believed her prayer had been answered! I'm an atheist but amused me how Sally saw things in her own way.