It starts early, this show biz thing.
Third or fourth grade, the Christmas pageant, the best costumed Wise Man since my mother works in a piece goods store and is a master sewer of everything she wears. So my costume has the blue and white striped look of a shepherd's blowsy outfit cinched up at the waist for authenticity with a rope taken from an old box in the garage. The headpiece is a complimentary subtle tan with a white dressing gown cord with blue touches tied around the forehead that pulls the entire outfit together. No large pillow case with holes for head and arms like the other children. No dung-stained sandals to complete it all but the length of the robe covers the brown school shoes. I am Cary Grant at a Hollywood premiere and the other guys in pillow cases are the publicist and the limo driver.
And it is on that stage at Bernard Terrace Elementary when I get my first laugh. Not by tripping over the robe or waving to my mother during the dramatic part of the tableaux, but during rehearsal, standing around, bored, wondering why the other kids are having so much trouble with their blocking. What's so hard about remembering to approach the manger and look down into it? So standing around, bored, noticing some of the older kids from other grades watching the rehearsal. So my staff--did I mention I have an actual crooked staff to go with the costume my mother made? So when I get a few chuckles by waving it around like a baton, one end goes between my legs and the other end becomes a divining rod, a Holy Geiger counter pointing to the girls offering the Baby Jesus doll baskets of plastic fruit and jewels, and, finally, actually, God as witness, finally seeking out Mary, portrayed by the prettiest girl in the school, Mary Toups, the younger girl by one grade I have a stomach-churning crush on. Dark haired, serene, friendly to everyone, the lovely Mary. And the laughter rushing over me from the kids watching is holy water.
The crush is long-lasting. Mary Toups, performance leanings later taking her to the sidelines of the football field and the homecoming court, cheering and bouncing on toes, short white pleated skirt always revealing toned junior high legs and flashes of white shorts like the brief glimpse of the white on the tail of a deer gone in one quick jump.