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Christmas in Lake Wobegon.


It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. Warm and foggy on Tuesday, and late in the day, as the temperature fell, fog froze on the trees and made white bare trees in which the fog appeared ghostly beautiful, as if you could walk into these trees and receive immortal powers of a sort we all want at Christmas: the power to gather our friends and loved ones close around us and prevent suffering and evil and death from touching them.

When I was little, I worried about a group of men I called the Murderers, who had killed before and would kill again because killing meant nothing to them, they had nothing to lose, it was the electric chair for them either way. They were now driving in a stolen black sedan toward a Y in the road where two roads diverged, and if they chose one they'd come to our house and kill us, and if they didn't they wouldn't. I could keep my family safe by prayer. At night I crawled into bed between cold sheets like sheets of ice and prayed for God to keep the Murderers away from us, and as an extra precaution, in addition to prayer, I always got into bed from the left side. I lay on my right side. I prayed the exact same prayer. And although I knew I shouldn't, in the dark I made the sign of the cross, on the odd chance that God was not Protestant. I pulled the blankets up and lay warming my little hollow, listening to the house creak, smelling the Vicks my mother put on me as a precaution, and felt I had kept the Murderers from our door. Then, one night, I got into bed from the wrong side, exposing my family to evil because I was in a hurry, so I got out and got back in on the correct side. But I was still afraid. So I took my radio into bed with me. It was the size of a breadbox. I pulled the covers over my head and tuned in Bob Franklin, host of "Music by Moonlite'--the "Old Smoothie,' he was called, because he made you feel like you and him were close ("Hello, friends, Bob Franklin here--say, I believe that I know you well enough to say that you're discriminating when it comes to the finer things and particular about the details being just right, just the way you want them, and that's why I know that Jirasek's Dry Cleaning in Albany is just the place for you . . .'). It thrilled me as a boy to hear a man take me into his confidence that way, but instead of old Bob playing Glenn Miller, there was a preacher on the air who wasn't friendly at all and didn't think I was discriminating and didn't think dry cleaning would do me much good one way or the other. He seemed to suggest that the Murderers were standing over my bed about to stab me with an ice pick and that it was exactly what I deserved. What was "Brother Carl and His Wall of Hope Revival Show' doing in place of old Bob and "Music by Moonlite'? Then I checked my clock: it was five-thirty in the morning. We were safe for another day.

Corinne Ingqvist came home for Christmas on Sunday. She came barreling north in her red VW from Minneapolis, arguing with a preacher on the radio, telling him his theology was repressive, when she noticed she was going 75 mph. She cruised through the lights of town and turned down the long-familiar driveway to their house by the lake. In the back seat were two tins of tea for gifts and 132 critical essays by her 17-year-old students on Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken' ("Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, . . . and I--I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference') that she was planning to grade on Monday. Her parents' house seemed like a quiet retreat with only her and Hjalmar and Virginia for Christmas.

She pulled up the driveway and parked by the old limestone wall. She got out the shopping bag of presents and essays and walked up three steps to the back door and put her bare hand on the cold brass knob and a sudden cold thought came to mind: This soon shall pass. And it won't be too long. She swayed slightly and then went in. "Hello,' said Hjalmar, and kissed her. "Hello, dear, you look so wonderful,' said Virginia. The tree was in the same place, beside the old piano, in front of the bright fish tank. Orange and silver guppies seemed to swim among the ornaments, drifting to and fro, like orange and silver snowflakes that never reach the ground, fish in the branches among the lights.

Dozens of exiles returned for Christmas. At Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, Father Emil roused himself from bed, where he's been down with cancer since Columbus Day, and said Christmas Eve Mass. He was inspired by the sight of all the lapsed Catholics parading into church with their unbaptized children, and he gave them a hard homily, strolling right down into the congregation. "Shame. Shame on us for leaving what we were given that was true and good,' he said. "To receive a great treasure in our younger days and to abandon it so that we can lie down in the mud with swine.' He stood, one hand on the back of a pew, and everyone in that pew--children of this church who grew up and moved away and did well and now tell humorous stories at parties about Father Emil and what it was like to grow up Catholic--all of them shuddered a little, afraid he might grab them by their Harris-tweed collars and stand them up and ask them questions. "What a shame. What a shame.' They came for Christmas, to hear music and see the candles and smell incense and feel hopeful, and here was their old priest with hair in his ears whacking them around--was it a brain cancer he had? Shame, shame on us. He looked around at all the little children he'd given first communion to, now grown heavy and prosperous and sad and indolent, but clever enough to explain their indolence and sadness as a rebellion against orthodoxy, a protest, adventurous, intellectual, which really was only dullness of spirit. He stopped. It was so quiet you could hear them not breathing. Then he said that this was why Our Lord had come, to rescue us from dullness of spirit, and so the shepherds had found and so shall we, and then it was Christmas again.

Dozens of exiles were back, including some whom their families weren't expecting because they'd said they weren't coming, couldn't come, were sorry but it was just out of the question. But Christmas exerts powerful forces. We turn a corner in a wretched shopping mall and some few bars of a tune turn a switch in our heads and gates open and tons of water thunder through Grand Coulee, the big turbines spin, electricity flows, and we get in our car and go back, like salmon.

Larry the Sad Boy was there, who was saved twelve times in the Lutheran Church, an all-time record. Between 1953 and 1961, the threw himself weeping and contrite on God's throne of grace on twelve separate occasions--and this in a Lutheran church that wasn't evangelical, had no altar call, no organist playing "Just As I Am Without One Plea' while a choir hummed and a guy with shiny hair took hold of your hearstrings and played you like a cheap guitar--this is the Lutheran church, not a bunch of hillbillies --these are Scandinavians, and they repent in the same way that they sin: discreetly, tastefully, at the proper time, and bring a Jell-O salad for afterward. Larry Sorenson came forward weeping buckets and crumpled up at the communion rail, to the amazement of the minister, who had delivered a dry sermon about stewardship, and who now had to put his arm around this limp soggy individual and pray with him and see if he had a ride home. Twelve times. Even we fundamentalists got tired of him. Granted, we're born in original sin and are worthless and vile, but twelve conversions is too many. God didn't mean us to feel guilt all our lives. There comes a point when you should dry your tears and join the building committee and start grappling with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof and make church coffee and be of use, but Larry kept on repending and repenting. He came up for Christmas and got drunk and knocked over the Christmas tree. That was before 2:00 p.m. He spent the next eight hours apologizing for it, and the penance was worse than the crime.

Eddie the Jealous Boy came home. He told his parents that he wasn't going to come, but they didn't protest enough, and he felt unwanted and so he came up with his lovely wife, Eunice. She is the most beautiful woman ever to leave Lake Wobegon, having been elected Tri-County Queen in 1960, Miss Sixth Congressional District the same year, first runner-up in the 1962 Miss Midwest contest, and then Miss Upper Mississippi Basin by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and having won them all, she retired from royalty because it made Eddie crazy to see other men look at her and like her. If she so much as touched a man on the arm in a friendly way, it meant she'd later spend hours listening to Eddie's hot dry angry voice and endure days of his silence, and so this funny and lovely woman has tried to please him and make herself quiet and dull and unattractive, but he's more jealous than ever. On Christmas afternoon, when he looked up from a robot he was assembling and noticed that Eunice and her brother-in-law Fred were nowhere to be seen, he tore around in a frenzy, ran outdoors, got in the car (there is no motel in town), and headed for the skating rink. The warming house was open. Maybe they were kissing in there. Maybe they were skating together. Maybe they were off in the woods, naked in the snow. He saw her alone, walking. He jumped out, ran up, and said, "Where is he? Where's Fred?' She stared back at him with a dull look in her eyes. "Fred didn't come for Christmas this year,' she said. "Don't you remember? He and Marcie went to Des Moines.'

Corinne put off grading those papers until Monday and got busy baking cookies and some little currant buns from an old Norwegian recipe. She hadn't had them since she was little, and now she was baking them herself. Amazing: a delicious smell from childhood that brings back every sweet old aunt and grandma as if they're there beside you, and you do it with just a little saffron. Monday night she made herself start those papers, and then carolers came, and it wasn't until Tuesday afternoon that she really faced up to it, 132 essays of 500 words each, about 70,000 words about the poem "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, . . . and I--I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.' And of those words at least 10,000 were I, me, or mine--This poem makes me think of what happened to me when I was ten and my parents said to me . . . For them, all roads converged into the first person singular. It was hard reading, very had, and their teacher finally chose the road that led away from the stack of essays toward the Christmas tree and the fish tank. A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together, it's not individual, it's sociable.

Foxy the Proud Boy came home, but now he is Richard to everyone, except among his close pals in the grainfutures business in Minneapolis, where he is Pinky. He drove up in a pink 1987 Ferlinghetti, a car so fabulous that when he sits in it, even en route to his origins in a little house painted lavatory green, he feels attractive and special. He forgets his dull seedy relatives, who come out and look at his fantastic car, its red leather seats, the incredible instrument panel that shows you the tides, the movements of planets and galaxies. They peer in the tinted windows and say, "Cheess, there's no room in there, Richard--two seats--what are you thinking of--whaddaya do when you got things to haul?' They don't see that Richard is traveling light, he's secure in himself, and with Vanessa sitting next to him, that's a total reality and his life is complete, and yet--Why does he turn pale when he leads this fabulous woman in a silver-lame shirt into the dim little house? Why does he tremble? Is it the pictures on the walls: the praying hands, the Threshers by Millet, a Winslow Homer ship, needlepoint, "Ve Get Too Soon Oldt and Too Late Schmardt'? Is it his family, who never learned the art of making conversation because they only talk to people they know? A slow and terrible death, asphyxiation in your own past. All afternoon he's dying to get back in the Ferlinghetti and go home. At the first decent opportunity, he begins the long ritual good-by: Well, I guess it's time we . . . no, really, ma. Vanessa has to [lie lie lie]. Well, O.K., just one, but then we got to [lie]. No, I'd like to but we promised these friends we'd [lie lie]. Finally, with a wave and a roar, they pull away and she turns to Richard the Proud and says, "They were nice. I liked them.' But his eyes are full of tears, from exhaustion and relief and guilt and from pride--he really does love this car, it gives him so much pleasure.

Corinne didn't see Richard, Larry, or Eddie. She stayed home. On Christmas Eve, she and Hjalmar and Virginia sat and talked and listened to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, both sides, A and B, and their old scratchy record of Lionel Barrymore in A Christmas Carol. They watched Midnight Mass from Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York and ate the saffron buns. In the morning, Hjalmar took their dog, Puddles, for a walk. A mile away, the old dog was exhausted. Hjalmar had to pick him up and carry him home. Hjalmar was too tired to drive into Saint Cloud to the Powers Hotel for the elegant Christmas buffet, and so, because there were only three of them, Corinne said, "Let's not fuss, let's make a little turkey dinner with the microwave Daddy got you for Christmas last year.' "Fine,' Virginia said, "it's under the bed in the guest room, in the box.' They both studied the operating manual. In its attempt to describe the incredible flexibility of the microwave, its various functions and options and alternatives, the infinite variety and joy of the thing, it bewildered them. The control panel had buttons numbered from 0 to 9 and other buttons that said: Over, Stop, Clear, From, Time, Recall, Auto, Memory. Which brought back the memory of how lovely it was to put water in a pot, boil it, and drop stuff in--"No!' Corinne cried. "We can't let electronics defeat us!' They put the frozen turkey-dinner pouches in the microwave, pushed a combination of buttons that made the light go on and the fan whirr, and left the kitchen and went and conversed until the bell rang, but something was wrong: the peas were a bluish green, the pouch of turkey had flecks of silvery ash in it. They had each had two glasses of sherry and were in a philosophical mood. Corinne looked at her mother, her mother looked at Corinne. "Well,' said Corinne, "I'll never have babies.' "So,' said Virginia, "I'll never be a grandma.' "That's life,' they said, "let's go to David and Judy's and see what Christian charity really is worth nowadays. They invited us, didn't they--? It was a month ago and we said no, but we didn't know then what we know now, so let's go.'

The Reverend David Ingqvist and wife, Judith, were in the midst of an argument when they heard the knock on the door. They were arguing whether she is always wrong or not: she was saying that, yes, she can never do anything right, and never pleases him, and he was saying that, no, she was wrong now but she is usually right and, no, she often pleases him and, yes, he does tell her--when he opened the door, expecting to find someone with a gift in hand, and saw his aunt and uncle and cousin. "Hello,' said Hjalmar. "We thought we'd come down.' "How are you?' said Virginia. "Merry Christmas.' "What're you having for dinner?' asked Corinne. "Aren't you going to invite us in?'
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Keillor, Garrison
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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