By Michael McSweeney
I decided late on December 29th that I wanted some Christmas decorations for my apartment. Tim and I were drinking cheap beer because nobody in town could get the stuff I really wanted. The stuff I really needed. I was irritated, the beer too warm, stomach full of hot knots. I thought about decorations after Tim said that I had all this empty space in my apartment right after we’d talked about the nothing we’d each gotten up to for Christmas.
I’m gonna get some Christmas decorations, I said.
It’s too late, Tim said. He slumped in my dad’s old sunken armchair and for a few quiet moments we decayed within my apartment’s bare walls.
Like we had when I was a kid, I said. Mom had these big boxes of decorations. Took her days to set it all up. Stockings, little train, all that shit.
Then Tim asked, Where are you gonna get decorations?
I felt my pants for my phone and didn’t find it, then asked, What time is it?
10:46. Nothing’s open.
What about that house next to Anne’s?
What about it?
They got that big inflatable Santa.
Set it up in the living room. Right here. Sit him on the couch.
Tim drained his beer can and squeezed his fingers. Made the metal croak.
Ho-ho-ho! I bellowed.
Tim winced and shifted in the chair.
Those things are loud as hell, he said. The fans for them, I mean. To stay inflated.
I bet they cost a fortune. All that power.
How do people afford those?
What do you call them, rich people but not from around here?
I finished my beer and nestled the can against its brothers and sisters on the living room table. I took my pack of cigarettes from the table and opened it. The only one left was the lucky, filter up, and I’d long held to the custom of smoking the lucky on the way to the gas station around the corner. Old dying into the new. Keep the gap of nicotine at bay. My call center job was a shit gig but it brought enough cash in to maintain a steady flow of smokes.
Let’s go to the store, I said.
It’s too fucking cold, man.
We opened new beers on the drive to the gas station and opened two more on the way back. I didn’t know how many I’d downed. My field of vision slipped a belt. Mixed and molten. Windows, streetlights, a fractal Christmas smash still hoary from predawn snow. Glowing fir trees winked as we passed. I told Tim about the time I, small and six years old, snuck down the stairs for water and found my parents drunk and laughing and shoving presents beneath the tree in the den. Told him how it was the lie to which my parents first confessed. How I always questioned whether they told me the truth, even if I really did believe them, just to press the nerve of that early mistake.
I felt the gravity of an answer and hit the brakes. Shoved my door open.
Zack, Tim said.
This is it, I said. Tim. Tim, I said again. Come on.
My boots crunched across the snow-glazed lawn of the church, Unitarian I think. Days difficult to remember. A scrapwood stable framed a plastic nativity scene. Plastic Mary, plastic Joseph, plastic lambs, plastic baby Jesus. An angel hung from a nail. A small spotlight cradled them in a dim-white oval.
Come on, I said to them.
Tim came up behind me as I stooped to scoop the lambs.
Grab them, I said. C’mon.
I opened my trunk and placed the lambs inside, then turned to receive plastic baby Jesus from Tim. I cradled plastic baby Jesus. I didn’t want to hurt it. Him. I nestled plastic baby Jesus between the lambs.
Don’t want you to move, I told plastic baby Jesus.
Tim came back with Joseph and Mary tucked beneath his arms. We laid them on top of the others and I lowered the trunk door carefully. Back in the car, I felt around for a beer but only found one so I handed it to Tim.
Lemme get a sip of that, I said as he opened the can.
Tim drank some of his beer and then gave it to me.
Family, he said. Family drive. Whole family.
That’s the spirit, I said.
Christmas spirit, said Tim, and he laughed.
We recreated the nativity scene in my living room. Draped scarves around Mary and Joseph. Constructed a manger for plastic baby Jesus with an empty 30-rack and some old newspaper. I pulled some ratty ski hats over the ears of the lambs. I took the pile of old pizza boxes from the kitchen and assembled an unsteady stable. When it was done, we staggered back onto the couch and gazed in silence.
When was the last time you went to church? I asked.
Tim rubbed his lips with his fingers. Years, he said. When my cousin got married.
I used to go.
All through school. Something about it helped. Anxiety didn’t feel so bad.
I stood and tottered into the kitchen. Searched the refrigerator until I found a can of beer. An old one with a taste I didn’t like. On my way back I stopped by the pizza box stable and adjusted Joseph’s scarf. He looked cold. Like my dad always did.
Then I said, I really believed. Man. I really did. Then those fucking, those child fuckers. Right? I couldn’t like, couldn’t stomach that one. Just shitty answers to it all. All of them.
All of them, said Tim.
My mom really believed, I said. I used to go with her. Not every Sunday but a lot of Sundays. I had a good childhood. I guess I don’t remember a lot of it now. It feels good, from here.
I cleared some of the debris on the table to make room for my beer. My childhood felt like a good thing as I shoved the empty cans and food cartons aside.
I miss it. I miss her, I said.
I looked over at Tim. His head rested back against the couch and his mouth hung open. I thought of the lips of a whale.
Do you believe? I asked.
I shook his arm and Tim opened his eyes.
Believe, I said. Do you?
Don’t know, he said. Tim scrunched his face and shifted his body. Goddamn back, he said. Goddamn.
Did you ever ask God for something? I asked.
Sure, said Tim. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and bits of lip skin clung to it as his hand fell away. I ask God for things all the time, he said.
God, let me wake up tomorrow.
Why do you ask that?
Uncle died in his sleep. Don’t ever want that. Not knowing. Goddamn way to go. Like, would you even know?
One long dream.
I wish my mom died in her sleep.
She was awake. Looking right at me.
Tim looked at me, then said, I’m really sorry.
He looked like he meant it.
I miss going to church with her, I said. I miss her.
Tears stared back at me as I wiped my face on my sleeve. Still wearing my jacket. I pointed at plastic baby Jesus in the pizza box stable.
We don’t know shit about him, I said. I mean, we got the Bible. But who knows what they cut out? Next to nothing about his childhood. Wonder if he went to church with his mom. Temple.
Temple, Tim said.
I hope he had a good one, I said. A good childhood. Here’s to you, I said to plastic baby Jesus.
Tim and I said nothing for a long time. Then he said, I gotta go, man.
Tim rose from the couch. His knees crackled.
You good to drive? I asked.
Not really, he said.
Tim departed. Left the door ajar. I stared into the dark cavity of the hallway outside my apartment. Wondered what might emerge from it. Approach, consume, absolve me. I’ve done a lot of wrong things and there alone another crept up on me. Plastic baby Jesus. He deserved to be home, his real home, not the fake one I’d made. I thought about what my mom would say but couldn’t remember exactly how she spoke. Her vocal river bends. Memories buried too far, ignored too long to be unearthed when I needed them. I wept and gazed at the holy family across the room, frozen in time.
I stood and took plastic baby Jesus from the 30-rack manger. Pulled the scarves from Mary and Joseph and wrapped him. In me stirred a flickering purpose, something dim, something maybe enough. I don’t remember leaving home or locking up. But there was sweat and a hill and a wooden stable washed in pale floodlight. Miles walked and burnt into my ruined feet, my pebbled knees. I tightened the scarves as I laid plastic baby Jesus in his bed of straw.
Not enough, I said.
It was easy to break into the church. I found an unlocked window and lowered myself, plastic baby Jesus hugged against my chest, into a wide recreation room. Metal folding chairs stood in half-moon obedience. I found the chapel upstairs, stole a splash of holy water and took a pew near the back. Somewhere distant, maybe in my head, an alarm squealed. I didn’t care. Warmth swelled inside me. Plastic baby Jesus was safe. I remembered midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, white candles in paper-plate bouquets, being part of something greater. My mother’s singing. Mezzo-soprano, a breathing loving lullaby. I sang, too, not well, but it made her smile. No forgetting that. Her hand on me. Me.
A hand on me. Burned my shoulder. Let’s go, asshole, a man’s voice bled.
On my feet again. Plastic baby Jesus banged against the floorboards, unraveled from his bed of scarves. Christ exposed, me exposed, now banished against a squad car’s glare. An anger red and blue.
Has God arrived? I asked the hand on my shoulder. No answer. Just force, toward the end, the law’s own church.
I hurled my body and escaped the hand. Chewed the dirt and snow. Wriggled like a legless dog, closer to my mom. I could see her through the church walls, past the priest who shivered by the door. Bathed by Christmas fire, wings sprouted from her lips, clutching plastic baby Jesus while she sang. Oh come let us adore him.
Michael McSweeney is a writer and editor from Massachusetts. His first novel, Heroman, is forthcoming from Expat Press.