Nativity (An excerpt from The Bystanders)
By Dawn Major
THE BYSTANDERS weaves together small-town eccentricities and characters, beginning with the invasion of the Samples family to Lawrenceton, Missouri. Townie, Eddy Bauman, and newcomer, Shannon Lamb, come of age in the 1980s when big hair is big and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” blasts over the airwaves, but they couldn’t be more different. The real town of Lawrenceton and the surrounding area were part of the Louisiana Purchase. Centuries later, the old-timers still speak Paw Paw French and time-honored traditions run deep.
Some say small towns are big families, but Lawrenceton, doesn’t want anything to do with the black sheep of the family. Shannon Lamb, and her “Girls Just Want to Fun” attitude and fashion, along with her hard-partying, cheating, abusive, stepfather, Dale Samples, and Pagan, tarot card-reading mother, Wendy Lamb-Samples, are outliers from Los Angeles who might as well have landed on Mars. Though Shannon is none too pleased, Eddy is enthralled by Shannon. In a town of annual church picnics and beautiful landscapes, the trailer inhabited by the Samples is an eyesore to the townsfolk and the family is quickly labelled white trash.
The title, inspired by the psychological phenomenon known as the bystander effect, is a theme that is subtly explored throughout. As William S. Boroughs said: “There are no innocent bystanders…What are they doing there in the first place?” The characters often feel they are mere witnesses to what life throws at them, incapable of change. Though Shannon and Wendy escape an abusive Dale, they leave Lawrenceton shell-shocked.
THE BYSTANDERS, sometimes light and humorous, other times dark and tragic, pays homage to Americana.
Chapter Two: Nativity
Lena and Holda were twins; however, most parishioners didn’t see them as two eccentric hens, but as one big lady who cracked in half. They lived in a ninety-eight-year-old house that once served as the rectory for Saint Lawrence Church. After the last full-time priest passed, the diocese decided the new priest, Father LeClair, should split time between the two town parishes—Lawrenceton and Bloomsdale. Hoping to preserve one of few original structures left in town, the ladies bought the rectory, and moved in. In turn, the parish supplied them a tiny income to keep up the church. They attended every Sunday Mass, every wedding and Baptism. They were at church for each feast day, every saint day, and most importantly, Midnight Mass—they had overseen Christmas almost as long as Christ.
The sisters kept a strict routine, waking up without alarms, never asking what should be done today. On Monday, they polished pews. Tuesdays, they rolled out buckets of water, applying liberal amounts of Murphy’s Oil to the hardwoods—the scent of oranges lingering in the air for Sunday Mass. Wednesday, windows. On Thursday, while Lena wiped down the altar and baptismal font, Holda replaced the votive candles and cleaned any dust found in the crevices of St. Lawrence himself. Friday mornings they put out the Sunday programs and wrote out the hymn list. Saturday needed a quick once-over and a broom to the steps under the bell tower.
The rectory sat on a hill overlooking the church, cemetery, and the homes of the few families who lived in Lawrenceton. The two sisters watched Eddy Bauman raking leaves with Anna Schmidt standing over him with a piece of paper in her hand, gesticulating passionately with her hands as if giving him orders.
“Boy, Lena, that Anna Schmidt sure trimmed up. Poor thing. Kids can be cruel. Her mom put her in some camp, called, camp what’s its name? Go, go . . . mmm . . . go something.”
They walked into the church, dipped their hands in holy water, genuflected, and got to work. The church had a lonely feeling when it was empty, like it was waiting for everyone to return, but the ladies got to work, shaking off the feeling.
Hold opened a new box of votive candles while rambling on about the Samples family, the newest members of the parish. But Lena wasn’t really listening to her sister; she had a confession to make, and church was the perfect place for it. Holda couldn’t get upset on sacred ground.
Lena put the cap on the polish and said, “Holda, I know we’ve discussed this for quite some time now, but we really must do something for our nativity this year, and so . . .”
Holda started into her “I know, but the cost” speech, but Lena wouldn’t hear it this time and interrupted her. “I’ve found the perfect nativity, and I ordered it already so there’s nothing left to it.”
It was true. The old nativity had plagued them since last year’s Midnight Mass when the re-glued head of Joseph fell off his body into Baby Jesus’ manger. The figures were in too bad of a state for another coat of touch-up paint. They’d considered replacing the main characters, and reusing the old animals to reduce the expense, but the thought of attaching another hoof onto an already limping lamb seemed unsuitable. They must invest in a new scene.
“Lena, you devil sister.” She didn’t mean it. “And yes, how much?”
“Oh, it’s worth it, Holda. The Vatican commissioned it, so you know the Pope, himself, approved it and besides, I chucked the old one. You pay as you go, and we get a new piece each month.”
That did change things for Holda. Though pricey, it seemed more precious, almost holy, being a Vatican edition. Who could put a price tag on perfection?
* * *
On the first day of seventh grade, Anna took one look at Shannon Lamb, and it was instant hate. Anna had spent her entire summer at Go-Go Girls, a fat camp disguised as a girl building experience, daydreaming non-stop about Eddy, had lost thirty pounds, but when Shannon climbed the bus steps, he went goo-goo eyed.
Tonight, she had to look her best.
Anna had snuck her mother’s makeup bag upstairs to her bedroom and was concentrating on applying eyeliner to her lower lids. The lighted magnifying mirror showed every single blemish on her oily cheeks. She smeared too-dark foundation over her face. With her pale neck, the makeup gave her face the effect of wearing a mask, but she decided it was better to cover up her blemishes.
She was wearing her new pink puffy-shouldered sweater with horizontal white and purple hearts and blue unicorns. She insisted her mom buy it for her from J.C. Penney’s even though she dipped into two months’ worth of allowance.
The seventh-grade class was having their first social tonight at RollerRama Rolling Rink. She had to look perfect so Eddy would know what he was missing. She looked herself over in her mirror and said, “Like, duh,” spun around and said, “Totally.” Somehow, it didn’t sound right, though.
“What’s that honey?” Her mom called from below.
“Omigod. Nothing, mom.” And under her breath, “Dipshit.”
Anna’s bedroom was in the attic above the dining room they weren’t allowed in but twice a year, and her mom used for company. The staircase leading to her room was walled off with a door at the bottom. Tonight, the door was open, and Anna could easily overhear her mother and Doll Mueller’s conversation. She walked downstairs to close the door—it was nothing for her mother to tell Doll the most embarrassing things about her, which is how Go-Go Girls got around, but today, nope, they were bitching about the increased prices in baked goods. Really, banana bread? Get a life!
Halfway down the stairs, she caught Shannon’s name; she stopped to eavesdrop. If her mother and Doll were fans, she would puke. On top of everything else, she read a note from Eddy to Shannon asking if she’d go with him tonight. When Anna asked Eddy who he was going with he’d rolled his eyes and asked, “Isn’t everyone just hanging out? I mean . . . . no one is really going with anyone.”
This was pretty close to true except April was going with Dan and Becca was going with Brian, but mostly everyone else was just showing up so she dropped it until Eddy incriminated himself. On the bus ride home Shannon tossed a folded piece of paper at Eddy and said, “Sure, I’ll go,” while flipping her hair back like she always did around boys.
Eddy, excited and dumbfounded by Shannon’s verbal acceptance, stood up when the letter landed in his lap. The letter slid under his seat and, Anna, quick on the uptake, snatched it up, and climbed on top of her bus seat. She held it high over her head while Eddy tried to reclaim it; he jumped around her upheld hand like a bouncing Pomeranian. Eddy almost had it and would have gotten it back if the bus bully, Danny Wegman, always tuned into tyranny, hadn’t yanked it from Anna’s hand.
Danny opened the letter and gushed the contents to the entire bus.
Do you like me? Check the following:
*Do you want to RollerRama with me?
** We can still go as friends.
Danny tossed the letter back to Anna. She kept it in her nightstand and tortured herself with nightly readings.
But hearing those words (and aloud on top of it) nearly killed her. Of course, in front of everyone else she acted like she didn’t care and tormented Eddy along with Danny and the rest of the bus by chanting, “Yes, no, maybe,” or teasing him, “Want to go to RollerRama?” every time Eddy boarded the bus.
And then she did something really stupid. She asked him about it. Why, why, why?
“Why’d you say you weren’t going with anyone and then ask Shannon?”
“I don’t know. Me and you. We’re just friends.”
Just friends. Just friends!
She needed to punish him, but more than anything she wanted a note like that for herself. Why not me?
Doll interrupted her thoughts. “You weren’t as close up as I was last Sunday, but did you see what that child was wearing? Where do you even buy clothes like that?”
Shannon, who dressed like she’d walked out of a MTV video, wore an oversized Frankie Goes to Hollywood “Relax” tee last Sunday Mass with a black bra you could make out under the T-shirt.
“A lingerie store (gulp wine), her mother’s underwear drawer (cackle).”
Fridays was her mom’s Blue Nun night. They’d get louder as the evening progressed, but Anna didn’t mind because it felt good to have Doll and her mom on Team Hate, even though she wished she had Shannon’s wardrobe.
“Some mothers allow makeup at thirteen, but not me. Top up?” Doll didn’t have any kids, just opinions on other parent’s kids.
“I know. Well, Anna is always asking, but I say not until you’re sixteen, and even then, there’s limits.”
It was silent for a bit and Anna was about to head upstairs and find a coat with a hood to cover her face when she heard Doll whisper, “Trashy.” It was what Anna thought every time she watched Shannon board the bus. She smiled.
They weren’t exactly neighbor, neighbors. Anna lived in a two-story brick near the town limits, and Shannon lived in a trailer on the edge of town. The distance between passing the “NOW ENTERING LAWRENCETON” sign and the “NOW LEAVING LAWRENCETON” sign was almost a mile, but the townsfolk early on decided the homes closest to the church were where the respectable people resided. If there was a bad side of town, Shannon lived there. The trailer demanded this designation.
The trailer itself was a rusted, run-down contraption that when new, once housed a nice elderly couple who died in a tragic car accident trying to cross a flooded road. They never got to build their dream cabin on the lot. Their son listed the property for over a year before giving up and started slum-lording it to first potheads whose kids ran around sticky-faced, barefoot, dressed in grimy oversized tees, then construction workers, in town for the Goose Creek development, who built bunkbeds from floor to ceiling and raised huge bonfires feet from Highway Y, partying all weekend long. There were failed pleadings to the landlord and then petitions that resulted in temporary cleanup jobs.
The two Samples and the one Lamb were an upgrade. A family is what the Lawrencetonians needed, but they did not see it that way. The town, nestled between old wood forest on the Fourche a Du Clos Creek with a sprinkling of fairytale settlements and tidy brick homes, wanted the trailer and its inhabitants erased from their once perfect landscape.
The Samples could have been better neighbors too. It wasn’t one-sided. Trash piled up outside waiting to be delivered to the dump. Their front door was smeared with muddied paw prints and gouged with deep scratches caused by their half-rabid dog, Rebel, as though a werewolf tried to slash its way through their front door. They never bothered to wipe away the mud. When he wasn’t chained to the picnic table, he crouched in a ditch and terrorized cars traveling down Highway Y, snapping and biting at tires. A good many ran off the road. And Dale, Shannon’s stepdad, sat smoking on the picnic table laughing over the havoc Rebel caused. They didn’t even have a driveway, just hardpan mud. Dale always parked his Chevy all squirrelly in the yard, as close to the front door as possible. No porch, either. They’d stacked cement cinder blocks for steps and gathered rocks from the creek to make a pathway to the road.
When it rained the rocks on the pathway became wobbly in the mud and Anna would hold her breath, hoping just once Shannon’s feet would lose their balance and she’d fall in the muck. She prayed, lips silently moving, “Just one time, Lord, and I’ll never ask for anything wicked again. I’ll stop cursing. I won’t even think bad words.” The image of Shannon’s too short plaid jumper muddied and wet and with clumps of sludge in her mane of copper hair made her laugh out loud, but Shannon knew those rocks well. She never once fell. There was a grace in her dance, zigzagging from rock to rock, towards the open bus door.
The unfortunate thing for Shannon was she was one of the last to be picked up, which meant all her trashiness was on display for a full bus. There was no hiding it with a long drive or shrubbery. Rebel despised the squealing bus brakes and lunged snarling from his chain secured around the leg of the picnic table.
Anna heard her mother say, “That stepfather, now, he’s a looker…if you’re into America’s Most Wanted type (cackle, cackle).”
“With an eye on him, too. The few times he’s been at church I’ve caught him staring,” and then in a voice she must have believed was hushed said, “practically undressed me with that stare.”
Gross, gross, gross, gross. Doll was delusional if she thought Dale Samples was undressing her with his eyes. The only mistress she’d ever hope to be was Lawrenceton’s postmistress.
Her mom called up to her, “Anna! You almost ready up there? Daddy just went out to the car…he’s waiting.”
He’s not waiting. He’s just sick of listening to you two. She climbed to the top of the stairs so as not to sound too close, stood on the top step, called back in a faraway voice, “coming,” and then waited for more dirt on the Samples.
“Oh, she’s a sweetie, though, and Go-Go was so good for her,” her mother said.
They were back on her again. So annoying. Her mother whispered-yelled, “Well, she started her period at camp.”
With this comment, Anna ran back down the stairs and slammed the door. Her dad could wait all night. She didn’t want to walk out in front of Doll now with her knowing this.
Why can’t they stick to the church hags price gouging their stupid pies?
* * *
After Sunday Mass, Father LeClair asked the sisters if he could speak with them briefly. When his congregation finally left, the sisters stayed behind to lock up and Father LeClair waited in the shade of the bell tower. The weather was cooling down and with it the fall bake sale was fast approaching, set for the first week of September, and before anyone knew it there would be icy mornings and soft layers of snow blanketing the parish, and then of course, Christmas would be here.
Lena and Holda bustled down the steps with Father LeClair behind them. They were pleased to have company, and content to discuss the bake sale—recipes for Dutch apple muffins, quick breads, and maple-nut-chocolate chip, cookie bars swirled through their heads. They never sensed something else would be on Father LeClair’s mind.
Lena said, “Now, why don’t you come up to the rectory (they still called it the rectory) and we’ll put on the kettle for some tea, or coffee if you prefer—”
“Lena, Father is a coffee drinker. Oh, I hope you remembered the flavored creamer he likes.”
“Ms. Lena, Ms. Holda—”
“Was it on the list? Holda, I don’t think it was on the list.”
“No, don’t you remember. You were already in the car. You said not to worry. You—”
“Ms. Lena, Ms. Holda—”
“Well, if it wasn’t on the list, Holda, you can’t—”
“Ms. Lena, Ms. Holda—”
The ladies were halfway up the hill before either of them noticed Father LeClair didn’t follow them.
“Please. Just please.” Father LeClair put his hands out. “Listen. I’m awfully sorry, but I can’t stay. Next time. Just a quick chat this time.”
“Well, it’s a good thing since Lena forgot your flavored creamer.”
Lena huffed and then huffed again but before the argument resumed, Father LeClair interjected, “There’s been some grumbles around the rise in prices for the fall bake sale. I understand everything costs more nowadays, but we should remember not all of us in the parish have the means.” Father LeClair swallowed hard. “And I’m afraid it may send a message…not the one I’d like, or, or, or that is . . . what . . . I’m sure you ladies intended. Is there a reason for the increase?”
This was the speech he said to himself on the way to morning Mass—words put into his mouth from another source, Doll Mueller, but now it came out rushed and more than a little guilty-sounding. He did not like quarrels, even if they were minor spats. Differences of opinions led to clashes and clashes led to him acting as a mediator. All Father LeClair wanted was for his parishes to be happy and to get along. There was always a Doll, though.
The sisters glanced sideways at each other, their eyes like those of startled children. There was no getting out of an explanation, and so they told him about their perfect and new nativity. This Midnight Mass would surpass all others. A Vatican edition nativity scene naturally justified higher priced mini-berry pies.
The news traveled throughout the parish and the church saw record high turnout for the fall bake sale. Of course, Father LeClair told someone about their new nativity scene coming all the way from Rome, and that person told someone, and that person told someone, and on and on until the first delivery arrived. It was no surprise when Doll called from the post office. It wasn’t just the parish ablaze over the new nativity; the entire town was. Even some of the Christmas-Easter Christians made an appearance and bought more than their share of zucchini bread.
* * *
“Ms. Lena, this is Doll. You’ve a delivery here, three actually. See, two arrived yesterday, and then this one. I hadn’t noticed the first two packages, because Franc sorted them, but when he showed me the third and I said, ‘Gosh Franc, I think these are the first of our nativity pieces from the Vatican.’ Funny thing, they didn’t come from Italy. No, the address is New Jersey.”
When there was a tiny break in the chatter, Lena cut her off. “Thank you, Doll. You needn’t have called, but we do appreciate it. I’m coming that way today, so I can pick them up later.”
Doll was such a nosey thing, always wanting to know what was in everyone’s packages. Without taking a breath, she continued, “It’s no trouble, Ms. Lena . . . for me to come by. I mean, I drive right by the church, and Franc can load them in the back of my car.”
Doll’s drop-by wouldn’t end until all the packages were opened. She could barely stop herself from unwrapping them at the post office; everyone had heard the gripes—though no formal complaints—about packages with tears and two different types of tape.
As Doll was saying she got off in an hour, Lena broke in, “I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Bye, Doll,” and hung up.
When Lena arrived at the post office, she left her driver’s door open and popped the trunk before going in, hoping to make a quick getaway. Even with these tactics, Doll followed her outside, clucking behind Franc as he loaded the boxes inside the trunk. Lena was glad she hadn’t rolled her window down for surely Doll would have stuck her talking head inside and never let her leave.
Back at home, although only a weekday, Lena waddled down to the cellar and pulled a jug of elderberry wine. The cranberry glass pitcher and glasses, reserved for holidays and special occasions, were kept on the highest shelf in the kitchen cabinets. Lena struggled some but managed to get them down using a step stool.
Holda was already outside, perched in her chair, watching the sun go down behind the church. She looked up when the screened-in porch door slammed shut and noticed Lena carrying the jug. “What’s this about?”
“You’ll see,” Lena tutted, spreading a yellow linen tablecloth over the table between two, well-worn wicker chairs. She placed their glasses and elderberry wine on the table. Then, she went back inside to get two pairs of scissors and lugged out one of the packages.
“Oh, is it really? Already? Let me help.”
Once all three packages were out, they cheered to a festive Christmas, and like children in front of a Christmas tree, they tore into the packages. They knew, of course, what the boxes held. Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. They knew this deep in their hearts.
Holda was the first to make it through the packaging, but remained quiet, so Lena surprised by her sister’s silence, stopped her scissor work, and asked, “What do you have, Holda?”
“It’s, a, a lamb.”
“Oh, but what a pretty lamb! Just look at the detail on his face. Let’s see what I have here.” Lena giggled nervously at her discovery. “I’ve got a cow.”
Something was not right. Together, they opened the last package, and unable to hide their disappointment, they shook their blue-haired heads and simultaneously sighed, “An angel.”
They reassured themselves it was the right thing to get the nativity. The pieces themselves were exquisite—hand-painted in soft honey colors and gold leaf. Pure perfection.
The payment plan did not go as expected either. They started receiving two to three figures per month instead of one. With all this inventory, the monthly payments increased way beyond what Lena calculated. The figures, stored in the spare guest room, were turning into quite a gathering. They peeked in on them daily. In those moments, some small bit of apprehension would melt away as they gazed upon their new roommates, until another box appeared without Mary, Joseph, or Baby Jesus.
As the months inched closer to December, they received shepherds, sons of shepherds, goats, cows napping in straw, sheep, and even the manger. An empty manger!
So much hope depended on that vacant space that held the form of Baby Jesus’ little body. The indentations where his tiny elbows and bottom should meet the simple cloth laid out to protect the Lord was nothing more than a teaser. They felt sort of suckered, though neither would admit it.
Holda went through the paperwork, which didn’t specify when and what pieces they would get, only the purchaser’s commitment to an expensive pay-as-you go plan. With new characters showing up for the birth in Bethlehem, those convenient monthly payments were adding up. Who would have known it was a full house the night of the Lord’s birth? Holda even consulted the Bible.
“Did you find it, Holda?” Lena impatiently stood over her while Holda flipped through the family Bible.
“Read out loud. I can’t hear what you’re thinking! Christ!”
“I’m getting to Him. Just, just don’t hover, Lena.”
Lena retreated and Holda began to read. “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, blah, blah, blah, into Judaea, which is called Bethlehem. Mary being great with child…but we know all this already . . . she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger—”
“Holda, who was there?”
Holda continued, “There was no room in the inn . . . and . . . yes, yes, here it is the . . . And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them… and said unto them: Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Holda’s voice shook some; she was quite taken by the scripture.
Lena gently took the Good Book from her sister’s wrinkled hands. It was their family Bible and held the names of all their ancestors along with births, baptisms, weddings, and deaths. Their own names were scrolled there, but they were the last of them. Someone else would have to enter their dates of death.
No one was dying today, Lena thought. Today, we’re getting to the bottom of someone’s birth.
Lena skimmed the book looking for characters until she landed on an angel and read, “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will toward men . . . the shepherds said one to another, let us now go even unto Bethlehem . . . and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. Ahhh.”
Lena stopped reading, allowing the beauty of those words to settle around them. She too was taken by their meaning until Holda blurted out, “Did you say multitude of angels?”
The sisters silently considered all the plurals of animals, insects, and people: a group of hummingbirds made a charm; a group of butterflies was called a kaleidoscope; seven people together were called a septet, but how many angels made a multitude? More than two, three, four? Fifty?
By November, when the first of the wise men arrived, and still no Mary, Joseph, or Baby Jesus, the sisters admitted they were in trouble. Doll made quite a stink about the number of packages coming in, and no one being allowed to see the characters. Hadn’t everyone invested?
“I just don’t understand, Lena. A wise man before Mary and Joseph? I thought we’d at least get the Baby Jesus after the crib arrived.”
Being well-versed in their scripture, they knew for a fact the wise men were not present for the actual birth.
“It does seem better he isn’t glued to his crib, though. More realistic, you know?”
“Yes, but I’m concerned, and why so many animals?” There was nothing in Luke about the number of shepherds, nor the number of animals they cared for, and then there was that multitude thing.
Joseph arrived, to their great relief, the first week of December, but still no Mary or Baby Jesus. They were in a pickle. Holda finally admitted it out loud.
“Lena, I think we have to call someone. I mean what if we wait and they never show?”
“If it comes down to it, I suppose we could find a filler Jesus and heavily swaddle him, but without Mary . . .”
Holda picked up the phone and said, “I’m calling. Read off the number for me.”
“Gosh, won’t it be expensive to call Italy?”
A little frustrated with always being the one to set things straight, Holda snorted and said, “Lena, put on your glasses. It’s at the bottom. See, the 1-800-number.”
A nasally, New Jersey woman informed Holda there was a total of twenty-two pieces, but the next scheduled delivery wouldn’t arrive until January. She was at least able to tell her what the next piece was, though. Another angel! The woman reminded Holda that the set was a limited edition and if she discontinued now, they wouldn’t have all the figures. She’d never find matching pieces.
Holda was taken aback by a third angel knowing what she did about the multitude thing. “I see, well, can you tell me what’s included in the entire set?”
In rapid-fire, the woman said, “Sure, you got Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, three angels, two shepherds, a shepherd boy, three sheep, one dog, one goat, one camel, two cows, one donkey, that was the one Mary rode on you know, oh and his crib, it’s the one with the hay, but you should already have it, and three wise men.”
The girl started in about a new collection based on Noah’s Ark, but Holda had stopped listening. She thanked the woman, hung up, and delivered the news to Lena. A con job. It couldn’t be. They were Roman Catholics. This was the Vatican, their Pope, and not some Baptist TV evangelist promising salvation for donations.
A nativity divined from the heavens wouldn’t matter if the starring actors never arrived. At night, they sat wordless in their chairs, close to the fire, until it was time to go to bed.
The next morning at breakfast, before Holda could take her first sip of coffee, Lena blurted out, “I know what to do.”
“Oh, Lena. I do, too!”
“A live nativity.”
“You know that’s what I was thinking, and it’s never been done. I can’t imagine anything more perfect, other than having Baby Jesus miraculously appear. Let’s do it.”
When they told Father LeClair about the plan for the live nativity, he thought it was a great idea, but nonetheless inquired into the Vatican nativity.
Lena mumbled and started fidgeting. Holda took over.
“Father, the truth is, there was a problem with the order. It’s on backorder. Oh, but you should see them. Breathtaking, aren’t they, Lena? By next Christmas we should have the full set. We think it’s because they’re terribly busy in Rome with Christmas and all. So, we thought, what a wonderful thing for the children.”
“Backorder? Well, that’s a shame. I know there’re a lot of people looking forward to seeing it. I suppose you could just use the old one, mix in the new with the old pieces.”
The sisters didn’t respond, shamed into silence, and then Father LeClair realized what they couldn’t say and asked, “You don’t have it, do you?”
Holda answered, “No. We don’t . . . Father, you saw the state of it. Remember last Christmas Eve? The incident.”
“Oh, yes, the head. Joseph’s, wasn’t it?”
“It was and anyway the live nativity will be fun for the kids, and we could use the new animals and all the angels around the manger.” Holda looked to Lena, who was bobbing her head in affirmation and adding, “And angels, loads of angels, a multitude even.”
“Ladies, I’m sure it’ll be simply divine, and if anyone asks, tell them it was my idea. No harm done.”
“Thank you so very much, Father.”
As Lena and Holda got up to leave, Father LeClair suggested it would be a nice gesture to offer the role of Mary to Shannon Lamb, the new girl from California. The transition from public school to Catholic school was not an easy one, he imagined. She had a difficult time adjusting. He liked the girl. She was different, but he believed old towns benefitted from a little variety. And then there was the school principal, Sister Bienenkönigin, who was not a pleasant person. He heard the kids had nicknamed her Sister Evil.
“But, let me give Shannon the news,” he said. “I don’t want her to be overwhelmed by anything else.”
After the discussion with the ladies, Father LeClair wasted no time in telling Shannon. It was easy to catch her by herself; he happened upon her later that week at school in the library. She was seated at a corner table flipping through a book.
“Hi Shannon, how are you?”
She stiffened, tried to look serious as if she were actually reading The Robe and said, “Good,” and then as if recalling she was supposed to ask about himself. “How are you?”
“I’m well. Thanks for asking.” He paused a moment and then said, “Well, we do have a slight problem. We’re in need of an actress for a serious role, and I was hoping you could help me.”
“For real? Omigod, I mean. Sorry. Yes! What part?”
Father LeClair’s fears of overwhelming her were clearly fabricated in his own mind. He told her it was fine to tell her parents, but no one else until he made the announcement on Sunday.
* * *
Father LeClair asked the parishioners to remain seated after church and explained the live nativity. Anna’s mother squeezed her leg in excitement and Anna didn’t even mind, because she knew she was a shoo-in. Her ancestors were some of the founders of Lawrenceton; the church was named in honor of Henry Lawrence, Anna’s great, great something. The entire Schmidt family had been baptized at the church. It only made sense that she would play the part of Mary.
Father LeClair unfolded a piece of paper and read the names.
“Eddy Bauman will play the part of Joseph. Shannon Lamb will play Mary. Anna Schmidt has the role of the shepherd. The wise men are…”
The shock made Anna bolt straight up from the pew and scream (but only in her head), Are you kidding me? She gets to be Mary and I’m a Goddamned shepherd. A boy’s part! She shouted a silent tirade of curses to herself. Her lips twitched, but she managed to remain mute until her mother pulled at her blouse to sit back down. If she could have crawled under the pew, she would have.
Father LeClair responded by asking the rest of the crew to stand so the parish could see the faces of their new nativity members. Anna’s mother elbowed her, and she grudgingly stood up again. Eddy and his family were sitting three pews in front of her. He was wearing a smile like the donkey in the “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” game. She moved from his dorky grin to his eyes but knew before she arrived at their destination that he was smiling at Shannon. Asshole.
* * *
For the most part, the live nativity created a warm buzz throughout the church. Weeks of listening to Father LeClair speak of Joseph’s faith in Mary and their perilous escape from Herod to Egypt increased the anticipation, not only of the children, but also the adults. The investment in the new nativity was almost forgotten by the parishioners as parents looked forward to their young ones playing such important roles. There were a few people, however, and one particularly bitter twelve-year-old girl, who were not happy about the live nativity at all.
“Doll, I’m surprised at you.” Lena was now. “She’s part of this parish now, too.”
“Ms. Lena, maybe, next year give the role to her, but Anna Schmidt has been going to this church since she was a baby. Father LeClair baptized her. And, I’m just saying, more than a few of us are still disappointed about not having the new nativity.”
Holda cut in, “We know perfectly well, Doll. We keep all the records but let me say something. Shannon Lamb struggles to fit in, and how many times do we have to tell you? It’s on backorder. No one is trying to keep anything from anyone. We just wanted it to be a surprise. And there will be the animals, angels, shepherds…”
“Okay, I didn’t want to say it, but she is tawdry. There, it’s done. Not just me, but some of the mothers—”
Lena, who was topping up Doll’s coffee, set the pot down and interrupted her, “Doll Mueller, really? To pick on her when Father LeClair himself thought she’d be perfect.”
“Lena, hush,” Holda scolded.
“What? Father LeClair?” Doll whined. “I had no idea, but why her?”
Lena held her hand to her lips, afraid to reveal more, and let Holda talk.
“Doll, it came from above. That should be enough. Now, we really are quite busy today.”
Of course, Doll protested all the way out the door that Father LeClair didn’t know any better.
On those final Sundays before Christmas, when mothers raised their brows in the direction of Shannon, the sisters scowled back at them, or rather squinted; they were incapable of true meanness. They had their Madonna, and nothing Doll, or the rest of the parish said would discourage them.
* * *
When the hour at last arrived, mothers guided their children to the stairs at the bottom of the choir and then took their seats with the rest of the congregation who were gazing tenderly at the shining new sheep (and cows, camels, donkeys, dogs, etc.) resting in hay around the manger. Three celestial angels surrounded the scene with upturned eyes and hand spread out. The feathers on of their wings were so realistic that a toddler who’d managed to escape his parents, ran up to try and touch them. He was captured just in time. Fresh greenery of cedar, pine, and juniper adorned the pews, altar, and even the roof of the barn where the empty manger waited. “Silent Night” hummed softly in the air. Every man, woman, and child breathed in the scent of the garland and the wax from the burning candles and believed. It smelled like Christmas.
Teeny wise men trailed up the stairs to the choir. Their boyish feet stepped on their too-long robes that their mothers had cut from old white sheets. Lena lined them up in procession and fitted plastic crowns atop their heads, while Holda tied silky cords around their tunics recycled from gaudy Goodwill drapes. Eddy/Joseph wore a beige bedsheet and burlap tunic with a rope strung loose around his waist.
Anna petulantly tapped her staff, her eyes laser-focused on Eddy. She recently started calling him Judas. He was wearing his characteristic horsey smile and was cheerfully scratching under his headdress, which was cut from the same piece of itchy burlap as his tunic.
She wanted to hate him, but his complete indifference to her made her long for him more. She hated everything else about the night, though. The stupid sheet, the stupid staff, and the stupid stuffed sheep she was made to carry. More than anything she hated Shannon, who not only got Eddy, but also had a proper outfit made for the occasion. Any minute, Shannon would appear, gliding up the choir stairs in her blue silky gown that actually complimented her perfect shape, and a white lace veil draping over her glossy strawberry-blonde hair.
The only problem was it was already ten minutes to midnight, and there was still no sign of Shannon. Holda kept looking at her watch and repeating, “Where is she? I know we said 11:30?”
At 11:55, Shannon was still missing. Anna saw her opportunity. She casually mentioned to the group, “You know she’s not coming, right? You are going to need to replace her.”
“She’ll be here, dear. It’s Christmas. Everyone’s busy. She’ll show.” Holda tried to reassure Anna and herself.
“She thinks the whole thing is dumb,” Anna revealed. “She told me at last practice.”
“You’re a liar! She never said that.” Eddy protested.
At least she got Eddy to finally stop smiling, but his treachery hurt. She refused to relent.
“Am not! She did. She also said you are the biggest dork she ever saw.”
“Shhhh,” Lena demanded. The sisters moved into a corner to discuss the possibility of converting Anna from a shepherd to Mary with only minutes left.
At 11:59 exactly, the organist started playing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It was Mary and Joseph’s cue to walk down the choir stairs and continue to the manger, to be followed by the shepherd and wise men. When he was nearly through the song he mouthed, “What now?”
In hushed voices the sisters said, “Play it again.”
He shook his head no, tormented by the idea of repeating a song. He held the last chord for as long as he could and then in a panic went with a Christmas favorite. After the second round of “Jingle Bells,” the wise men began fighting over Anna’s staff and Lena prepped an incredibly pleased Anna on what to do when she reached the altar.
“I know, Ms. Lena. I studied her part because I just knew something like this would happen. She’s not reliable. I mean at school, um, like she sometimes turns in papers late.”
“You’re a liar!” Eddy accused.
“I am not! Remember our last book report?”
“She was sick.”
“Please, enough children,” Holda interjected, but the two continued to argue quietly amongst themselves anyway. Eddy defending, Anna condemning.
“Yes, well, I just hope nothing has happened,” Lena said to Holda.
The sisters were legitimately worried about Shannon and her family. Both went one more time to peek over the choir to see if the girl’s parents were seated, and to their dismay they were. By the time the ladies turned back around to deal with the nativity cast, Shannon was bolting up the choir stairs. All the anxiety Lena and Holda felt in those last very tense minutes melted away; both gave one unanimous and giant sigh. Their relief was short-lived, however. Shannon looked more “like a virgin” than the actual Madonna.
Her eyelids were caked in frosty blue eyeshadow and the lace veil meant to drape elegantly over her head was rolled and tied into her over-sprayed, over-teased hair. Sharp streaks of deep rose blush meant to highlight Shannon’s cheekbones, announced she was coming from twenty feet away. Her eyeliner, the darkest kohl black, had the effect of making one eyelid look feline and the other somewhere in the realm of a gypsy.
“Well, look at you, Maarryyyy,” Holda said emphatically to Lena and then, “Lena, get your hanky.”
Lena dug in her bra where she kept everything from her keys to gum, but no hanky this time. Shannon apologized for her lateness and then listed off everything she got for Christmas, most of which had made it onto her face.
“Ms. Lena, Ms. Holda. Look at my eyes.” Shannon kept her eyes closed while telling the sisters and the rest of the live nativity that her eyeshadow was called “Sparkle til’ morning,” and “look,” she opened her lids and pointed to her electric blue eyelashes.
In the Christmas chaos, Lena and Holda had forgotten about poor Anna. They made quick adjustments to Shannon’s face. Holda licked a thumb and managed to go over her lids, hoping to downplay the effect of “Sparkle til’ morning,” but really only reassuring herself that she had at least removed a portion of her eyeshadow. Lena untied the oversized lace bow and draped it over Shannon’s hair, creating a pseudo-veil she hoped would conceal the effect two tons of makeup would have on the congregation below.
“I put a little extra on, you know for stage makeup,” Shannon explained. “You’re supposed to do that so the audience can see your face. It’s true. I read about it.”
Eddy beamed at Shannon, nodding his head in agreement.
Anna stood in a state of shock while one of the wise men poked her back with his newly-acquired-now-forfeited shepherd staff and told her to take it. Her face took on a shade of crimson. Her lips were moving—though nothing came out. Her brain roared with rage. And then, Eddy told Shannon she looked beautiful and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the sheep, the goats, and the cows.
Anna shrieked, “You look like a whore!” and yanked the swaddled baby doll they were using for the absentee Baby Jesus from Shannon’s arms. This time, the words did come out of her mouth. The organist stumbled on “Jingle” which came out more like “Jangle.” There was an audible “ooohhhh” from the congregation below, and the littlest wise man asked, “What’s a whore?”
The look on Shannon’s face was worth it. Anna didn’t care if she was grounded forever. Besides, she figured, you can’t get grounded on Christmas.
Somewhere beneath all Shannon’s make-up, were real eyes and now real tears began to well up, and slide down Shannon’s rouged cheeks, fashioning Freddy Krueger-like slashes across her entire face.
Holda, somewhat surprised said, “Oh, it’s not waterproof.”
By this time Lena found a hanky and started wiping down Shannon’s face while telling her she looked splendid, just slightly less stage makeup next time. Anna watched in shock and utter unadulterated fury as Lena rearranged Shannon’s face. It was now or never.
“Come on Eddy. Let’s go.”
Anna struck Shannon with her crozier, grabbed Eddy’s hand, running down the stairs with him in tow, and then up the aisle. Eddy was stunned and went along, obviously not knowing what else to do. The wise men, or rather boys, trailed behind them, followed by Shannon, and Lena, who was followed by Holda.
The congregation rose to their feet with the arrival of the kids. Seeing the procession finally doing what it was supposed to do fifteen minutes ago, the organist raced through the last stanza of “Jingle Bells,” and without skipping a beat switched to “Away in the Manger.”
By the time the live nativity made it to the front of the church, it was as lively as anyone could have had hoped with the addition of first one Mary—Anna—being pursued by a second Mary—Shannon.
Doll Mueller, who was sitting next to the Schmidt family in the front pew, took one look at Shannon’s face and blurted out so the entire church heard, “Good Lord, there are drag queens with a lighter touch than that girl.”
Wendy Samples yelled from the back of the church, “Excuse me, Doll. That’s my kid you’re talking about,” followed by Dale Samples who added, “You’re just jealous because no amount of make-up would help you.”
With barbs flying from the front pews to the back pews, heads swiveled back and forth, their attention redirected from the kids in the nativity—most of which had made it to their assigned spots—to the argument at hand. Lena and Holda broke up another squabble between Mary, Mary, and Joseph and finally resigned themselves to that they had two leads tonight. Anna refused to forfeit Baby Jesus or put him in the manger, fearful Shannon would pluck him up. Before heading to their own reserved spaces in the front pews, Lena and Holda worked out a compromise: Anna would stand on one side of the manger while Shannon and Eddy stood on the other side. Most of this was ignored by the churchgoers who were still invested in the Mueller/Samples takedown.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Doll accused.
“It means you’re battle-axe, lady. You can’t cover up ugly.”
All eyes were on Doll who had inhaled all the air from the Church. Even the flames on the candles seemed to flicker.
Father LeClair, recognizing his moment, said, “Everyone, please be quiet. Listen.” Foregoing introductory rites, he launched in the liturgy. “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree,” and so on and so forth until the Savior was born.
Their live nativity was flawed. Yet, when Lena intwined her pudgy fingers in Holda’s equally pudgy fingers and squeezed, they recognized it was their thinking that was flawed; a Vatican edition nativity scene wouldn’t make Christmas any more perfect than it already was. With all its imperfections—soured eggnog, rock hard fruit cakes, foul-mouthed and harlotted virgins, spats between church members, and even with Lena and Holda’s failures, it couldn’t be any better.
Father LeClair delivered the news of the Savior born and everyone rejoiced, especially two sisters who realized they had found their multitude of angels amongst their town, who were presently singing carols at the top of their lungs, slightly out of tune, and more than a little slurred.
Inspiration for “Nativity”
Writers are always attuned to everyday sources of inspiration. A word, an expression, or even the smallest shared story works its way into an author’s headspace and becomes the basis of stories, poems, novels. The chapter titled “Nativity” is a collage of two real pieces of inspiration that came together in my novel, The Bystanders. It may be read on its own as a story, or as a chapter from the novel.
When my family moved from Los Angeles in the early 1980s—to live off the grid—we found ourselves outside the small town of Lawrenceton, Missouri. It was quite a culture shock. We went from the city to rural living, but it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever lived. And the people were amazing.
At my family’s first Midnight Mass at St. Lawrence Church, I was selected to play the part of Mary in a live nativity. I was in third grade at the time, and I recall being concerned people might think I gave birth to Baby Jesus, so that was kind of funny. But the live nativity element was the first bit of inspiration for this chapter/story.
The second part that influenced “Nativity” was one of my mom’s most precious possessions, a Vatican commissioned nativity scene that cost a fortune. It’s stunning, but it was a pay-as-you-go program and every month a new piece arrived, except the most important character of all, Baby Jesus. For three years mom received, lambs, cows, multiple angels and shepherds, but no Baby Jesus. As you can imagine, she was getting upset. And then one day Baby Jesus arrived, and my dad and sister got to him first. Big pranksters, these two. They wrote an official looking letter from the Vatican apologizing because they weren’t going to be able to send Baby Jesus, they had discontinued the collection, and to please accept a cow in his place. They found one of the many cows in the collection and replaced the cow with Baby Jesus. My mom was livid when she opened that box and read the letter. Eventually, they fessed up and now the nativity scene takes up her mantle during the holiday season.
With “Nativity” I wanted to write a classic Christmas story. So many of our modern holiday stories are really new versions of classics. I also wanted to share one of my favorite family memories. I hope you derive some mirth from “Nativity” as my family and I have over the years.
Dawn Major received her MFA in Creative Writing from the Etowah Valley Writing Program at Reinhardt University, her BA in English from Kennesaw State University, and a Creative Writing Certificate from Emory Continuing Education. She was awarded the James Dickey Fellowship and acted as editorial assistant for the James Dickey Review. She won the Dr. Robert Driscoll Award for Excellence in Writing on Regional Themes and the Faculty Choice Award also for Excellence in Writing. Her published work may be found at Springer Mountain Press, Five Points-A Journal of Literature & Art, James Dickey Review, Sanctuary Journal, Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, and Family Life Publications, with forthcoming work in the Georgia Gothic Anthology. She is a member of Atlanta Writers Club, Broadleaf Writers Association, Georgia Writers Association, and Broadleaf Members Association. She provides editorial assistance on the works of the late southern author, William Gay, who she also enjoys lecturing about at literary conferences. To learn more about Dawn Major, visit her website at https://dawnmajor.com/ where she shares her work and collaborations and advocates for other authors.
Dawn is originally from California but made the exodus from Los Angeles in the early 1980s and lived in rural Southeast Missouri— a setting that became the inspiration for The Bystanders. She now resides in the Old Fourth Ward in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, Nick, son, Harry, two doxies, Bruno and Lucy, and a mischievous cat named Chief. She is currently seeking publication of her debut novel, The Bystanders. If interested, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org