"Tell me a story, Granpa!" little Jordan demanded imperiously from his sickbed.
"A story?" Maurice repeated in his raspy old voice. He laboriously settled his old bones down in the chair next to Jordan's bed. Not as young as I used to be, he observed to himself.
"Yeah! 'Bout when you was my age."
"When I was your age.... Have I told ya about the Christmas we almost spent in jail?"
Jordan's eyes grew wide and he shook his head, then groaned and fell back against his pillow.
"Careful now. Don't you be makin' yuhsself sicker, o' yo mama'll have my head," Maurice chided, his voice gentle and soft.
"I'll be careful. Tell me the story," Jordan begged, still feisty but with more restraint than before.
"Well now. Back then Mama and Papa--yo' great-grandparents--was workin' for this real fancy family, the Whittakers. They lived in this grand old house--more'n a hunnit years old, orig'nal woodwork, crystal chandeliers, one o' them big' ol grand staircases--"
"I've heard all 'bout that house, Granpa. Tell me the the story!"
"All right, all right. Coulda sworn you had better manners'n this. Ain't yo mama ever taught you not to interrupt a storyteller?"
Jordan rolled his eyes and mimed locking his lips, then throwing away the key.
"Now that's better. So it was Christmastime at the Whittakers' house, and they was gettin' ready to go on some trip for they's Winter break. That whole grand ol' house was decorated top t'bottom with Christmas things, but the most impressive was the great big evergreen tree in the parlor, lit up like the fourth o' July, with a bona fide mountain o' presents underneath it."
"Whoa," Jordan breathed, then gulped and covered his mouth with both hands, afraid his Granpa would stop telling the story because of his outburst.
To the contrary, Maurice just chuckled good-naturedly and went on. "So my Mama an' Papa was the Whittakers' hired help. Mama cooked an' cleaned, an' Papa did the lan'scapin' an' the snow shovelin' an' all that kinda outdoor work. They was in the Whittakers' house this day cuz they was meant to be watchin' the place while the Whittakers was out o' town, and Sally an' Mirabelle an' Roland an' me was there, too, cuz we was too young fo' Mama an' Papa to leave us all home wit'out 'em. An as the Whittakers was headin' out the door, they was havin' an awful row, just yellin' at eachotha sumthin' fierce. Sumthin' 'bout money, Mama always said, but I didn't unnastand none ovit, just that they was powerful angry.
"So the Whittakers went out the front door to get in they car, and Mr. Whittaker done slammed that big ol' front door so hard, that whole mountain o' presents in the parlor jus' fell over."
Jordan gasped and covered his mouth with his hands again, caught up in the drama of it.
"That's jus' what my Mama did," Maurice nodded. "When them presents fell to the floor, there was such a thumpin' and a crashin' we thought fo' sho' the Whittakers would come right back in an' see what their wrath had wrought. But they didn't. They jus' hopped in they car and started drivin' away, still yellin' at each other loud as can be. Maybe they ain't heard them presents fall cuz they was shoutin' so much, I don' know. But we was left there, starin' at the wreckage, knowin' that since them Whittakers ain't turned 'round, that when they got home from they trip, we was gonna be blamed for that big ol' mess an' all them ruined presents."
"So what didja do?" Jordan prompted, wide-eyed with suspense, his illness forgotten.
Maurice smiled, seeing more than a little of his young self in his enthralled grandson. "Well, Mama stepped inna the parlor first, an' she started pickin' up presents an' shakin' 'em gently, tryin' to figger out which ones was broke an' which ones wasn't. She handed the broke ones to Mirabelle, who always had a gift for openin' presents wit'tout tearin' no paper, and asked her to get 'em open so we could try to fix 'em an' put 'em back the way they was. Papa started helpin' Mama sort an' rebuildin' the mountain wit' the ones she thought was fine. Sally ran t'find some glue o' model cement o' sumthin'--memory o' that bit's kinda foggy, cuz I was helpin' Papa with the pile o' presents--but she was gonna try to fix whatever was broke out the pile.
"Well, we was workin' for a bit befo' there was a frightful poundin' at the door. Sally an' Mirabelle, bless they hearts, kept right on puttin' things back together, but Roland an' I was so young, that door-poundin' scared us haf to deaf, an' we went an' hid behin' Mama's skirts. Papa went to the door, big an' tall an' strong as an old oak tree. He opened it up, an' who you think he found outside?"
"Who?" Jordan asked breathlessly.
"Why, the police, of course. They said someone called them 'bout a robbery at this address. They asked Papa if he owned the house an' he said no, but he worked there, he an' his wife bof did. So they asked him who did live there, an' he telled them the Whittakers, an' that they'd jus' left on vacation but they can't've got too far. They didn't let him explain no further. They tol' him to put his hands on his head an' let them search him for a weapon--"
"No!" Jordan interrupted, equal parts shocked and angry.
"They did, an' this ain't much different from what might happen today if you was caught in a sim'lar situation, so listen close," Maurice responded, serious as the grave. "Papa did what he was told. He didn't want no trouble, he kept tellin' the police. If they'd jus' let him explain--but they wasn't havin' it. Mama stepped forward then, with me an' Roland jus' behind her, and asked the officers if there was a problem. They asked her what she was doin' in this house, an' she told them jus' what Papa did--that they work here, an' that the family owns the house jus' left on vacation, an' we was tryin' to clean up. The police said it looked for all the world like we was stealin' the Whittakers' Christmas from them soon as they got out the door."
"But you wasn't!" Jordan protested. "You was jus' tryin' to help!"
"Yes, we was," Maurice agreed, "but the police weren't seein' it that way, even when they come inside an' seen Sally an' Mirabelle gluin' together some figurine just as careful as they could. By that time Papa was in handcuffs an' they was pattin' Mama down. They was sayin' all kinds of things to her I only haf-heard, an' her face was like stone. I ain't never seen Mama like that befo' o' since. But jus' that moment, you'll never guess what happened."
"The Whittakers' fancy car come screechin' back into the driveway. Found out later they'd forgot sumthin'. But Mr. Whittaker popped outta that car face as red as a beet, an' he demanded to know what the police was doin' with his people. The police tol' him that soon as he'd left they'd been a break-in, an' he said No Suh these are my people they wouldn't do nothin' like that, an' then he asked my Mama an' Papa what been goin' on. Mama an' Papa tol' him exactly what happened--jus' as I tol' you--an' Mr. Whittaker took a look inside the house and seen Sally an' Mirabelle fixin' that figurine he got for Mrs. Whittaker, an' how careful they was bein' wit' all the wrappins, an' he asked them officers if they was blind."
"An' they let y'all go?" Jordan's expression was hopeful, eyes glowing.
"They sho' did. Even apologized to Mama an' Papa, after Mr. Whittaker put 'em t'shame. Then Mr. Whittaker tol' them to help themselves to the pantry, an' he'd give 'em a bonus if the parlor was spick-an'-span wit' everythin' fixed by time he and his family got back from they vacation. They said Yes suh o'course suh anythin' you want suh, an' once the police left he got whatever it was he came for out the master suite an' the Whittakers was back on they way."
"An' y'all fixed they parlor?"
"'Course we did. Was what we intended on doin' in the first place, 'fo' the police showed up an scared us out our minds. An' then we had ourselves a feast out the Whittakers' pantry."
"Wow." Jordan looked satisfied, and more than a little sleepy. "Great story, Granpa. An' it's all true?"
Maurice smiled at his grandson. He didn't think it was worth mentioning that the police kept driving by the house multiple times a day until the Whittakers returned, or that he and his family had their feast in the cellar, away from the neighbors' prying eyes.
"You betcha, sonny. It's all true."