A Christmas Tale of Lost and Broken Things
My mother carefully constructed a nativity scene every Christmas. She started with sheets of cotton for snow, then a round, head-sized mirror for a lake, and then the stable with an actual straw roof. Then came the artistic arrangement of figurines: Mary, Joseph, the wise men, a cow and two sheep a bit to one side but still within earshot, and my favorite, a family of swans for the lake. And, of course, Baby Jesus in his manger.
We had our objections about her nativity’s implications for the Christmas story. Had it really snowed that night? For that matter, did it ever snow in the Mediterranean weather of Bethlehem? And swans, really? Were there decorative swans at the birth of Christ, let alone a lake right outside the stable? It didn’t really matter — Mom’s desire to have things peaceful, pretty, and proper always won out. That nativity scene shines clear in the Christmas memories for me and all my brothers and sisters.
Over the years, some of the figurines broke or got lost. And the struggle to find replacements was brutal. The first to go was a lost sheep — literally. No trace of it was ever found. My brother, Deacon, suggested it had gone to seek its fortune in a more upscale nativity. We replaced the sheep with an albino tiger we found in our long-abandoned toy box. Of course, Mom protested, but we won her over with teenage logic, that is, constant pestering. “Why couldn’t a tiger have been there, the same way swans could have been? Peace on earth means peace for tigers, too. It’s not like he’s pouncing on anybody, or devouring the holy family.” She gave in, but placed the tiger as far away from the manger as the scene would permit. Deacon and I would move the tiger next to the manger whenever we passed by. Every baby needs a fluffy animal to snuggle with, after all.
The next year, we lost a wise man. He fell — some say he was pushed — during transit from the attic, and broke into too many small pieces to glue him back together. We subbed in a toad with a porkpie hat and a fishing pole. “Oh, come on,” Mom said. “This is just silly.” We argued that he was the best we could find, unless she wanted a Charlie Brown plushy that was off-the-charts too big. And didn’t the hat make Toady look wise? She sighed and agreed that Wise Fishing Toad could stay…temporarily. Until we found someone better; which we never did, because we never looked. Our nativity had Toady, the Wise Fishing Toad — how many other nativities could make that claim? Why would anyone want to change that?
The team stayed injury-free for two years, but then lost the remaining wise men, the cow, and all three cygnets from the swan family in a horrific mass-crushing incident in the attic. Several boxes of books were involved, but no arrests were made. When a triceratops, a blue robot, and seven goldfish crackers on the lake were called in to replace them, Mom just sighed and fed the crackers to our dog. After all, the first string, the varsity squad — Jesus, Mary, and Joseph — was still intact, and that was the important thing.
But then came the worst year of all. It was the year my brother Will left for college, leaving Deacon and me the only two kids in the house; it was the year my parents told us, just before Christmas, that they were getting divorced; and it was the year we lost the Baby Jesus.
I unpacked the nativity, and when I unwrapped the manger, there was no Baby Jesus in it, just an empty space. I pawed around the boxes, but couldn’t find him.
“Deacon, did you see Baby Jesus? He wasn’t with the nativity scene at all, so he could be anywhere in the Christmas boxes.”
“Escaped, huh? Can’t blame him. Hanging out with a tiger who hasn’t been fed in years? Better safe than sorry.”
Mom’s eyes narrowed when we told her about the missing Messiah. “That’s weird,” she said. “He’s never gone missing before.”
Deacon and I set aside the theological ramifications for the moment and dug through all the boxes again, but with no luck. I closed the last one marked Christmas and looked around. “No more Christmas boxes. Jesus has left the building. Hey, did Dad tell you why they’re getting divorced?”
Deacon wound a strand of tinsel tightly around his finger and watched it turn purple. “He said something about needing help with money, but Mom not wanting to go back to work to help. It’s bullshit, though. He wants to be with Elaine.”
Elaine had been Mom’s best friend since middle school, and our families, the Wellses and the Penfolds, were like peanut butter and jelly, always together: day trips, holidays, vacations, birthdays, you name it. But ever since I could remember, it was Dad and Elaine who were always talking with each other and hanging out; and I couldn’t remember Mom and Elaine saying more than hi and goodbye to each other in years. Even oblivious, self-centered, thirteen-year-old me could do that math.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” I asked.
“Why should it?” Deacon said. “Mom got fat, Dad doesn’t want anything to do with her anymore. Can you blame him?”
“You’re an asshole, Deacon.” It bothered me. Mom would lose her friend, husband, family, support, and who knows what else in the divorce, and she was the reason they knew each other in the first place. It was shameless. It was a betrayal.
I put the blue robot in the manger, then swapped it out for the triceratops; Topsy fit better. But I knew his time as Our Lord and Thunder Lizard was limited; Mom would snatch him out of the manger faster than you could say Three-Horned Messiah, and he’d probably go straight into the trash out of pure religious indignation.
* * *
We threw a big Christmas Eve party every year for family and friends. Adult friends, meaning my father’s business contacts. And every year it was a race to finish the house decorations in time for the party. This year, without the Reason for the Season in his manger on our coffee table, Mom seemed to be in denial, or at least in slow motion. The tree was up and lights were hung, but no ornaments. Too many things were missing: the extra-pointy star for the top of the tree, the elf ladder that creeped me out and which I wasn’t missing at all, and everyone’s favorite decorations, the bubbling lights for the tree that heated up to burning temperature within two minutes. Some might say, “fire hazard” — we say, ‘’bubbly!”
Mom thought our dog, Pickles, could have eaten Baby Jesus, so she made me poke through his poop for three days. It wasn’t too crazy an idea; more than once, I found bits of silver in his poop — tinsel that Pickles had begun to happily play with and eat. But no figurines; nothing like ceramic pieces of a Christmas decoration of any sort. I wondered, though, what if Pickles had eaten Baby Jesus and I had found him in a pile of dog shit? Would she have just washed him off and put him back into service? Or would there have been some more involved ceremony? But Mom relented after I started giving very detailed descriptions of what I had learned during my explorations. The phrase tangy aroma with woody overtones describing Pickles’ feces was the phrase that finally ended it.
The morning before the party, Mom finally caved. “We have to get something on the tree. You haven’t seen the bubble lights or the pointy star?”
“I can’t find them,” I said. “And believe me, we’ve looked in the attic. Are you sure they didn’t get thrown out?”
“When was the last time we threw anything out from the attic?” Mom countered. “They’re up there. You just haven’t looked everywhere yet.”
“Mom, I have scoured the attic. I have looked in every box in every corner of every room. They are not up there.”
Deacon breezed in. “What are we not finding, that I’m not going to help with at all because that’s totally not my job?”
“The bubble lights. Haven’t seen them. I remember the box they were in, but haven’t seen it either.”
“Because Dad has them,” Deacon said. “They were like the first box I carried down. Dad must have taken them to his place that day. They’re on his tree.”
Mom spluttered. “Well, what in the world does he — why didn’t he — “
Deacon held up his hand. “Let me save a little time, Mom. I’m guessing it’s because he didn’t want the discussion, he just wanted the lights. So he took them. Probably something to keep in mind when things start getting divided up for the divorce.”
Mom looked at him, wounded, and ran out of the room.
“Why do you have to be such a dick to her?” I said. “Can’t you just be nice for once in your life?”
“She needs to know what’s going on,” he said, and left the room.
“You’re an asshole,” I yelled after him. Pickles galumphed into the room, pulled some tinsel off the tree, and chewed it like it was peanut butter.
* * *
The kids usually didn’t get to enjoy the party; we had to work the party. Take coats, smile and nod, put out hors d’oeuvres, get drinks, gather empties, wash dishes, repeat, repeat, repeat. But this year, we had some younger cousins who would bring out the food and the wash the dishes. Deacon and I were designated as bartenders, and had been told to keep the eggnog and Old Fashioneds flowing.
With less than a minute to go before the party officially started, Mom came into the back room where Deacon and I were setting up shop. “Don’t talk about…family topics with anyone tonight, please,” she said. “Your father and I haven’t really told anyone and we’d both rather not deal with it tonight.”
“Sure, Mom,” I said.
“You can say the word ‘divorce,’ you know,” Deacon said. “You don’t have to be afraid of it.”
I aimed a kick at his shin, but Mom stepped between us. “I know, sweetie. I’m not afraid of it. It’s just easier for me to think about it in the abstract, not the impending. So for tonight, I’ll be avoiding it.”
Guests began to arrive, and I hung coats while Deacon provided the glasses of lubrication. Most people happily accepted Old Fashioneds. No one wanted eggnog.
“Hi, boys,” Elaine called from the hallway. “Merry Christmas to you both. No, don’t get up, we can hang our coats. How’s the party so far?”
Her husband, Milt — he was Mister Wells to us, even though we called Elaine by her first name — passed her an Old Fashioned. “I’ll catch up with you. I wanted to have a word with these gentlemen.” He waited until she was out of sight. “Boys, could you pour me a full glass of nothing but bourbon, please?” Deacon poured it and handed it over. “Thank you, sir.” He drained it in one swift gulp. “One more? You are a scholar and a gentleman. Merry Christmas to you both.” He downed the second even faster than the first, set the glass down and sighed, then made his way to the living room.
“I wouldn’t trade places with that guy,” Deacon said. “He’s gonna have the shittiest night. I should have just given him the bottle.”
“It wouldn’t be enough.” I poured a glass of eggnog and drank. “This is some pretty disgusting shit. It has the consistency of snail semen, and a lot of the taste, too.”
Deacon sniffed the carton. “How do you know what snail semen tastes like? Wild weekend at the aquarium?”
“Merry Christmas,” came a voice from the doorway. Mr. Lutz, Deacon’s swimming coach, stood there holding his coat. “I’m told I need to see you gentlemen about outer apparel storage and libations?” When I took his coat, he paused. “Boys, I want you to know that if you need to talk about things — anything — you can come talk to me, okay?” He patted me on the shoulder. “I mean it.” We stared at him as he took an Old Fashioned and went out to the party.
“What the hell was that?” I said. “Was that super creepy, or was it just me?”
“Of course it’s you,” said Deacon. “I think he knows about mom and dad. But let’s definitely not talk about it with anyone, right?”
“Well, this is gonna be fun,” I said. “Not talking about it with everyone who tells us we can talk about it with them. There’s a bad joke in this somewhere.”
“I hate this stupid party.” Deacon took an Old Fashioned and swilled it down. “Ugh. That’s foulness. How can people drink this? It should go in your lawnmower, not in your mouth.”
Deacon was thoroughly drunk by eight o’clock, but covered it by not talking. I started hitting the rum then, and was feeling pretty good by eight-thirty. I did the talking and Deacon made the drinks. Some guests commented that the drinks were getting pretty strong.
By nine, the Christmas spirit had descended fully upon us and we had come up with new words for Adeste Fideles: Massag-ay, clitoris! Genitali wartis —
Dad appeared in the doorway and I elbowed Deacon to stop. “Guys, maybe tonight, since we have guests, you could stick to the more traditional carols? Or at least not the X-rated ones? And do not let your mother hear you singing that; she’s already got enough to deal with without you both blaspheming the entirety of Christmas. Also, it would be great if you could take the drink tray around the living room. And could one of you find another tape of Christmas songs to put on? The one we had down here just got eaten by the tape deck. Thanks.”
Deacon and I stared at each other. “I’ll get the tape,” we both said at the same time. “I’ll get the tape,” again at the same time.
“Guys. NOW. I don’t care who does what.” Dad left the room.
Now we glared at each other. “Scissors-paper-rock?” Deacon asked.
I nodded. “Okay, one throw, winner gets the tape. One, two — “
“Suck it, bitch,” Deacon said, and ran upstairs.
I dreamed of a day when all his negative karma would come crashing down on his shoulders and turn him into a slug amid a desert of salt; and hopefully, that day would be soon. I loaded up the tray with all eggnog and no Old Fashioneds; that should make it a short drink run.
The party was in full swing. Small bunches of people talking everywhere, leaning against walls, propping up on chairs, but no one sitting on the sofa. Pickles occupied one end of it, chewing furiously on something, giving off a continuous sound, something between a growl and an om-nom-nom. Unless he was actually eating a guest, better to leave him alone. There was Dad, talking with some business guy I didn’t know, and at his elbow was Elaine, stirring an Old Fashioned and sipping it intently. On the other side of the room, Mom in a chair and Deacon hovering over her.
Mom wiped at her eyes and I went over to accidentally spill some eggnog on Deacon. He moved out of range.
“Why’s she crying?” I said, setting the tray of drinks on a side table. “What the hell did you say to her this time?”
“Settle down,” Mom said. “Deacon and I were just talking.” Her hands shook as she sipped at an eggnog.
“I can’t believe this. He’s always a roaring asshole and you always take his side. What the hell did he ever do to deserve that?”
“Shut up,” Deacon said. “You have no idea what we were talking about.”
“I’ll shut up when I want to shut up, asshole,” I said in his face, squaring off. Deacon raised a fist.
“Boys,” Dad came over. “Get yourselves together, please, and get back to being hosts. I don’t know what the argument is about, but it’s done. Your mother and I don’t need this kind of scene — “
Mom hissed. “Don’t you dare say your mother and I like we’re together. Don’t you dare. You steal — STEAL from us, instead of asking — “
“I didn’t take the goddamn Baby Jesus,” Dad said.
“Then where did he go? And the bubble lights, and the pointy star, and God knows what else I haven’t noticed yet? You took them without even the courtesy of a by-the-way.”
“That’s not what happened,” said Dad. “And now is not the time for this discussion.”
“It’s never the time for this discussion,” Deacon muttered.
Dad grabbed him by shoulder and turned him so they were face to face. “I think you’re done. I think you need to go to your room.”
“No one gives a damn what you think!” Deacon shouted into Dad’s face. “No one wants you here, you and all your fake goddamn friends. Just go away and fuck Elaine. That’s all you want to do anyway.”
The room fell silent. Dad grabbed Deacon by the front of his shirt and pushed him back two steps. Dad’s jaw clenched, and Deacon’s face went white.
From the far end of the couch, Pickles growled and sprang. He bounced through the nativity on the coffee table, scattering the figurines, and landed in front of Dad, gnashing his teeth and snarling with uncontained rage. Dad stepped back.
Deacon shouted, “Thass right! You fuck im up, Pickles!” and ran — well, lurched was more like it — out of the room. And then no one wanted to look at anyone else.
* * *
The guests began to excuse themselves, saying quick thank-yous and goodbyes to Dad, who couldn’t muster anything more than a nod in response. Mom sat in her chair, looking at the floor. I sat down with Pickles and cautiously petted him. In the hallway with her coat on, Elaine stood watching Mom, as if she were about to say something. But she hesitated and then looked back at Dad. Mom saw her looking and left the room.
“Deacon was right,” I whispered to Pickles. “Everybody knows it, but no one will admit it. Deacon was right.” Pickles growled.
Elaine heard me, and she and I stared at each other. Then she went to Dad and they spoke for a minute, and she left. She glanced at me once more as she walked out the door.
Dad sighed. “Come here a sec. I want to ask you a question.” He sat down and pulled around a chair for me. “Sit. One question, but there’s a little background, so bear with me.”
“Once upon a time a man fell in love with a woman. She was beautiful, proper, and kind. They had fun, they liked each others’ families, they had big dreams. And so they decided to get married. Everyone was happy. And then, on the day of their wedding, the man met his bride’s best friend, and boom, he knew what love really was. They could talk, I mean really talk, and laugh, and they knew that they belonged together. From the very first minute, they both knew, and they felt it more and more the more they talked.”
“But it was his wedding day, and she was already married. How crazy would that be, to call off a wedding for someone, married, who you didn’t even know a few hours before? So the man and the woman got married like they planned, and the man figured the feeling for his wife’s best friend would go away with time.”
“But it didn’t. Every time they talked, every time they were together, they both felt it stronger. With his wife’s friend, everything seemed better — everything was better. Everything was complete. He was a better person with her, and the world was a better world with her. His wife? He liked her well enough, but how could she compare with real, honest, true love?”
“So here’s the question: what would you do? Would you leave your wife and run off with her best friend, your true love for all time? Would you try to keep your word and stay married to your wife? Would you be the husband everyone expects you to be, raise a family and provide for them, knowing that something else, something better — something true — might have been? Would you stay in close touch with your true love for all time, because it’s only with her that you’re truly happy? What would you do?”
Every kid has a moment when the balloon bursts, and they see that their parents are flawed, wounded, broken, and pathetic, just like everyone else. For six days, I had wanted to punch my father in the face for hurting my mother; now I wanted to punch him in the face for being human.
I got up to walk away from him, but he stopped me. “Hang on, what’s that?” He pointed at the nativity, now wrecked, figures scattered around the floor. He picked up one of the figures, turned it around, humphed, and handed it to me. “Show that to your mother.”
It was the Baby Jesus in his manger. One piece, not two. Impossible to have one without the other. I turned it over; underneath, what had been showing for the past week, was a hollow space that now only sort of looked empty-manger-like. Sort of. I hadn’t turned the damn thing over when I was setting it up. No one had thought to.
Dad didn’t say anything else. He opened the front door and walked out.
“Merry Christmas,” I whispered to the space he had filled before.
* * *
“Deacon’s gone,” Mom said. “He’s not in his room. He was running away from your father; where would he go if he didn’t feel safe at home any more?” She turned and walked toward the kitchen, toward the phone. “A relative or a friend, maybe?”
“Mom, calm down. He’s here. After he yelled at Dad, he took off upstairs, and I don’t think he came back down. And he might be…asleep. Let’s have a look through the house.”
“You think he might be asleep? After almost getting into a fight with your father?”
“Well…asleep…or passed out.”
“Passed out? Are you kidding me? You boys were drinking?”
“Mom, let’s find him now, then you can yell at us later. You take the second floor; I’ll go look in the attic.” I sprinted up the stairs without waiting for her answer. After I had shifted a roomful of boxes about with no sign of him, Mom called from below.
“He’s here…the bathroom.”
Deacon was still in his evening regalia — blazer, tie, khakis, and polished shoes — curled up in the bathtub and snoring. Mom undid his tie and pulled it from his neck, then held her hand on his cheek. “He’s out cold. Do you know how much he had to drink?”
“Uh…three Old Fashioneds, I think. That I saw.”
Mom blinked and I knew she was doing Teen Drinking Math: double the Old Fashioned count I had given, add in surreptitious bottle swigs, brazen shots, and illicit finishing half-dead drinks while bussing the dishes back to the kitchen. We hadn’t really been supervised while serving drinks for three hours, after all. Alcohol poisoning and trip to ER? Or just let him sleep it off?
“Can you bring me the director’s chair from our bedroom? And a pillow and blanket?” I brought them and she tucked Deacon in as well as she could, then positioned the chair where she could see his face. “You know, Norman, your father and I…it’s my fault. Not the whole thing, but the timing, right before Christmas. Your father didn’t want to go — I told him to. I told him to go now. There was no sense in waiting any longer.”
I sat down against the wall. “Did you tell Deacon that?”
“He doesn’t believe me.”
I didn’t remind her yet again that her older son was an asshole. Pickles trotted in and lay down next to me, eyeing the bathtub with distrust. Deacon snored. Mom started humming carols, trying to time them with the rhythm of his breathing. When she hummed O come, let us adore him, something clicked.
“Mom, I forgot to tell you — Dad found Jesus. Uh…I mean…” I pulled the figurine from my pocket and passed it over. “Look at the top and the bottom. Pickles knocked everything over when he jumped in front of Dad. If it hadn’t been for that…” At the sound of his name, the dog looked up and thumped his tail. I scratched his ears and told him he was a Good Boy for saving Christmas.
Mom laughed, turning the piece over and over. “I knew something wasn’t right. I didn’t remember that it was one piece, not two.” She set Baby Jesus on the sink, right side up and facing us.
“I know he wasn’t really gone, just hidden…but I’m glad he’s back,” I said. “He’d be kind of tough to replace.”
Mom smiled and tousled my hair. “Give me a break; you’re not glad. You’d rather have anyone or anything but Jesus in the manger. But thanks for trying. And I thought the triceratops was a nice touch, by the way. He can stay in.”
And there we waited for Christmas to come, wondering what the new day would bring.