by: Wes Ishmael

Aunt Pinky listened to the howling wind rattle the windows of her kitchen. She heard the icy sleet pelt against the glass. The lights flickered. She said a quick prayer that if the power went out that it would be for only a little while.

Laughter and chatter echoed from the living room: Hooter and his old rodeo pal, Squeak Jablowski, who had since become a successful kid show magician; and Bugsy.

The house smelled like it did at this time each year, the smell of the Noble Fir, mixing with that of baking, wet cold clothes from tamping in and out and wood crackling in the fireplace.

It was Christmas Eve. Everything looked and smelled perfect. But, Aunt Pinky felt bluer and darker than sapphire at midnight. Some years were worse than others, the memories of Chirstmases gone with so many loved ones.

Aunt Pinky shivered and started back to the dining room with a fresh plate of cookies. She had just set the plate down when there was a knock on the door.

“What kind of numbskull would be out on a day like this?” Hooter grumped, getting ready to slide back his chair. Aunt Pinky was already cracking open the door.

The man on the other side was tall and lanky, grizzled and weather beaten but with a smile like summer.

“M'am,” said the stranger, hat in his hand. “I hate to bother you. I had to stop back up the road and…”

“You get inside this instant,” Aunt Pinky interrupted. She grabbed his arm and pulled him inside. “Give me your coat and hat.”

There was something about him that seemed so familiar.

Aunt Pinky led the man to the dining room just as Squeak was completing another amazement.

“Hooter, Squeak, Bugsy,” Aunt Pinky said, pointing to each as she named them by way of introduction, “This is Mr…ummm…I don't think I thought to ask your name.”

“Joe, Ma'm. Just your average Joe,” came the friendly voice with a grin so wide that the creases on his left cheek seemed to sink another two foot.

Aunt Pinky guided Joe to a chair. ‘Well, anyway, Joe broke down up the road.”

“Well, I…” Joe tried.

“I'm going to get something to warm you up,” Aunt Pinky said, her hand lingering protectively on his shoulder. “We'll have our noon meal in a little bit, and then Hooter and Squeak can help you do whatever it is that needs doing.”

Hooter and Squeak cast a sideways glance at each other. Neither saw much appeal in leaving their toasty confines to try to pull a car out of a ditch or to stare helplessly beneath the hood of one on the fritz.

“That's most kind Ma'm. I don't want to put anyone out. I just needed to warm up a bit,” Joe said. He grinned at Hooter and Squeak and then whispered as Pinky headed for the kitchen: “Don't worry, I won't ask anyone to go out in this.”

The lights flickered again as another mighty blast of wind shook the house.

Squeak and Hooter looked at each other like kids caught trading notes in class.

“We'll be happy to do whatever needs to be done,” Squeak said.

“Yep,” said Hooter.

“I know you would,” Joe said with another grin. He winked and continued, “You know, it's not a sin to want to stay comfortable and continue to do what you're enjoying.” He pointed to the deck of cards that Squeak had been holding and riffling with a thumb.

“Squeak here was just entertaining us with some of his magic tricks,” Hooter explained. “You know, he's one of the top kids' magician in the Southwest.”

“That so?” Joe replied, accepting a steaming cup of coffee from Aunt Pinky.

“Go on, Uncle Squeak, show him the one where the card you put in the middle always comes back to the top,” said Bugsy. She absolutely loved magic tricks and Squeak.

“Now Bugsy, this gentleman probably doesn't want to be bored with any tricks,” Squeak said, hoping just the opposite.

“I'd be honored to see anything you care to share,” Joe said.

Squeak was off and running with a fast-paced routine using the cards, coins and match sticks. Hooter and Bugsy had seen some of them before but they still had no idea how Squeak was able to break the laws of nature and physics.

Aunt Pinky finally had to make them stop so she could serve dinner: chile and her famous yeast rolls. After saying grace and ladling out the meal, Aunt Pinky said, “Joe, I'd invite you to Christmas Eve service, but as you know, the roads may force its cancellation.”

The lights flickered again, threatened to remain off and then sparked back to life.

“Miss Pinky, I'm much obliged for the invitation, but I'll have to be on my way before dark.”

Hooter and Squeak shared another glance. How anyone could contemplate going anywhere in this weather was as beyond them. So was how he'd gotten this far, for that matter.

“You'll stay until it's safe to go back out,” Aunt Pinky said, as only she could—an order couched in kindness. “Anyway, as I was saying…the Christmas service…it's a joint service between our Methodist and Baptist churches; neither as large as they once were, I'm afraid.”

All her life, Aunt Pinky had been a devout Methodist. It still roiled her to have to share a service with the Baptists.

“Are you a religious man?” Aunt Pinky asked of Joe.

If she wasn't his aunt, Hooter would have kicked her beneath the table. Far as he was concerned, asking such a thing of someone outside the family was akin to asking a man how many cattle he owned.

“I guess that depends on how you define religious,” Joe said with a gentle smile. “If you're talking about denominations and rituals, it seems to me that kind of religion is where faith goes to die.”

Hooter cringed when he saw his aunt set her jaw for an instant. What he didn't understand is that his aunt's reflex was in response to being convicted: she'd often thought that very same thing.

Joe continued in the same gentle voice: “Now, if you define religion as trying to live by faith in God alone, through my Savior, Jesus Christ, then I'd like to think I'm religious. I try to be.”

There was plenty of silence and the lights flickered some more.

“Could I borrow your cards?” Joe looked at Squeak. “I'll show you what I believe.”

Joe stood up and held the cards in his left hand. He never shuffled them. He pushed the top card ahead with his gnarled left thumb and turned it over on the table—the ace of hearts.

“A little more than 2,000 years ago, there was born to us in the town of Bethlehem, the King of the world, our Savior, just as God promised through Micah and the other prophets.”

Joe pulled off the next four cards in rapid succession—all jacks—laying them on the table beneath the ace.

“Shepherds and the lowliest among the people recognized the birth of their Savior and came to worship the baby in the manger.”

He dealt the next three cards—the kings of hearts, diamonds and clubs.

“Even some of the most royal and most educated came bearing gifts to their savior.”

Joe turned over the next card—the king of spades.

“Another king, knew this baby was the savior, too. But he was afraid of him, so he conspired to kill him.”

Joe flipped over the queen of hearts.

“But our Savior's earthly mother and father listened to the warnings of an angel and kept the baby safe.”

Joe began dealing off the next nine cards—2 through 10—while saying, “Jesus grew. He stunned everyone with his knowledge of God. When he was 30-years-old best as anyone knows, he began his public ministry. He taught in parables about God's Kingdom, challenged the authorities who claimed to believe but didn't. He even performed miracles.”

Joe held up the remaining deck in his left hand. With his right index finger, he made a come-here motion and a card began to rise. He plucked out the card—a joker.

“But, I took out all of the…” Squeak began, but Hooter kicked him.

“Magic tricks,” Joe said. “That's what the Pharisees and Scribes said of the miracles, even while they used illusion and sleight of hand to try to convince the masses that they themselves were capable of miracles.”

Joe looked at Squeak, who was looking a might sheepish. “I might add, brother, that none of them could hold a candle to your talents.”

“But, how did you…” Hooter kicked Squeak again.

“Those who opposed Jesus out of fear finally convinced the people,” Joe continued as he turned over the next card—the ace of spades. “Actually it was satan who convinced them.” He dealt off another ace of spades. “It was satan who convinced Judas Iscariot, one of the original 12 apostles, to betray Jesus.” He dealt yet another ace of spades. “It was satan who convinced the people that Jesus should be crucified in the place of a common thief.”

Joe dealt one more ace of spades. “And it was satan who convinced Peter, the leader of the apostles, to deny Jesus three times.”

Joe looked up. A single tear was caught in map-like crevices of his face. He looked at each one sitting around the table.

The lights flickered again.

Finally, Squeak spoke up, “And?”

“Ahhh, And,” said Joe. “Indeed, And. There's more to the story, isn't there? The people sensed it then, and we know it today.”

“And,” Joe repeated, dealing off the next card, the ace of hearts. Hooter and Joe looked at each other and then at the table where the ace of hearts dealt earlier had disappeared.

“And, the saviors in all of the other religions (he emphasized the word and looked at Aunt Pinky as he said it), they all died and remained that way. But, Jesus Christ, who was crucified, died and was buried in a tomb, well, Jesus rose from the dead and came back.”

Joe looked around the table, dealt off another ace of hearts. “And, that's not a story, it's an historical fact.”

Another ace of hearts. “And, Jesus tells us that anyone who follows him will also have life eternal. That's not magic, it's a miracle.”

Another ace of hearts. “And, all we have to do is love one another as he loves us, just as you have loved me, a stranger, with your kindness today.”

Joe turned over the remaining deck in his hand and fanned it show they were all aces of hearts. He motioned to the cards on the table, now also all aces of hearts.

The lights flickered and went off this time, for a second, maybe three.

The cards were still there. Joe was gone.

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