A County-Colored Christmas

“But Momma,” I whined like a little brat. “Why can’t we spend Christmas here? I want to open my presents this morning.”

My mother squeezed my fat little arms into my jacket, then zipped me up without mercy. “You’ll just have to wait until tonight, we’re leaving, and that’s that.”

There were no other cars on the highway that morning. All the children of the world were happy at home, snug by a fireplace. And by that time of day, they would’ve already opened gifts, and moved on to their biscuits. I knew for certain what I’d be doing if I were home. I’d be gnawing on a Bible-Belt Classic: Virginia ham on white bread, slathered with enough mayonnaise to paint a barn.

After an hour in the car, we arrived at a cinder-block, county-brown-colored building. The surrounding chainlink fence was topped with rolled barbed wire, sentinel towers perched on the corners of the property.

A guard tipped his hat to Mother. “Merry Christmas, ma’am.”

Thirteen of my friends and I congregated in the parking lot. We stuck close together in a single-file line, our mothers hovering near us.

“Dammit,” whispered Andy. “We ought to be home opening presents. It’s Christmas.”

I moaned in agreement, imagining hunks of fine-cured Virginiaian hog, wedged between two slices of God’s gift to humanity. Bunny Bread. And cider. I could almost taste the Christmas cider Mother made from Winesaps.

After a series of checks, we found ourselves in a room filled with empty chairs and red garland. After a few moments, guards trickled in, followed by a slew of women in khaki-colored jumpsuits.

Mother gave a brief introduction, then, fourteen of us sass-mouths marched to the front. We stood before one hundred inmates, and sang carols. Just the way we’d rehearsed for the last three months. We sang for thirty minutes.

In the silence between songs, we heard sniffles coming from the audience.

Afterward, a large black woman zeroed in on me. She shook my hand and said, “You look just like my son.”

I checked the color of my lily-white forearm.

She went on, “Would it be okay if I gave you a hug?” She looked to Mother for permission.

The woman squeezed me so damn hard, I heard my back pop. She must’ve held me that way for five minutes. “I want to thank you,” she said. “It’s been a long time since I hugged a little boy.”

So she hugged me again.

And this time, it was I who squeezed.