(From the 2013 December issue of the Dead Mule. Truly a classic.)
We had to borrow a baby. That was the least of our troubles. There were half a dozen teen mothers in the parish who were more than glad to give up the kid for a couple hours twice a week.
We made a list. We didn’t want a kid from a mom who was never coming back, once she got a greedy taste of teen freedom again. The pastor was pretty adamant that even though little Willy Schafer didn’t scream much on account of his vocal cords weren’t fully formed, that we couldn’t take him. His mama, Tina Schafer, would be on the first bus out of town. Even Tina’s own mama wouldn’t look after the baby.
So we couldn’t have a quiet baby.
The next best baby, we all agreed, would have been Lacy Sparks, on account of her not being smelly. Lacy was pretty young, and you know that age, they don’t stink nearly as often as the ones just a few months older.
But one of the wise men, a man named Esteban, said we couldn’t use Lacy Sparks ‘cause she was a girl. Esteban was really into his role as wise man. He came bearing Frankincense, you know. And he was a perfectionist. He said if we were going to do some sham nativity, he didn’t want a part of it, not even at Christmas. Christ was not a girl, and so we couldn’t use Lacy Sparks. Of course, the other two wise men said that it shook Esteban because there was a rumor going around that of course Christ the Savior had been a girl.
And I was Joseph. Joseph didn’t have a lot to do. Joseph got overlooked. Joseph usually ended up in a corner helping the two kids playing the fatted calf up and down the back stairs and helping them bow without their head falling off. Joseph had to make sure the ass didn’t forget its cue and the person playing the lamb didn’t get any funny notions about Method Acting and start chewing the baby’s swaddling clothes.
Tina Schafer begged to be the Virgin Mary, but then there would have been a scandal. Everyone in town would talk. Tina said all she really wanted was to be accepted into the congregation again. She said she missed all the townsfolk while she was in the convent waiting to give birth. She never once spoke about the nuns at the convent. But apparently she had regained the Fear of God.
Too bad she couldn’t be the Virgin. She looked real swell in blue, ‘cause she had that real dark hair.
There were rumors going around that this baby of hers, Willy, wasn’t really her first. The rumors said that she “fell down the stairs” when she found out she was pregnant a couple years back, probably with her cousin’s seed, and when that didn’t work, she fell down the stairs again. Even that didn’t work. Her cousin’s seed was pretty potent. Everyone knew, because he was the one most likely to be fingered by the tight-sweatered cheerleaders, usually around baseball season. Nine months earlier would have been the start of football season, when Tina’s cousin was particularly randy. He was the type who actually joked about doing it with goats.
The pastor of our church didn’t like Tina’s whole family.
But Willy was a quiet baby. We all had quite an argument because Linda, who ended up playing the Virgin Mary, wanted an extra quiet baby since she was going to have to shove him up under her robe for the birth scene. But then she found out baby boys can pee in any direction, so she said she wanted baby Lacy. But then baby Lacy bit her, and there was a rumor going around that Lacy had mono and mumps and distemper because she had been bit by a dog and that’s why her head was misshapen and ugly like that… The truth of it was, Lacy really did have fleas.
So we ended up with this kid called Burt. Who names a baby Burt? It’s not something a kid can grow into. And it was me and Linda and Burt, and then five kids who were stuck playing the ass, the calf, and the lamb (only one kid needed to be in the lamb, so the shyest kid was usually picked for that part—well, the lamb was usually shyest until the shy kid realized that no one knew who they were inside, and so then they were free to f**k around all they wanted—you know what they say about shy kids…). So three animals, a trio fake family, and three wise men. It’s the “trinity”, ya know, all Biblical, we were really hammering it in.
I was going on twenty and Linda was ripe. I don’t mean it in a non-Biblical sense. I was real appreciative of what she’d got. Like, that shapeless robe looked real good on her. She was… as I already said, she was ripe. Melons. Big ones.
Of course, Linda was fourteen. Everyone was going for authenticity that year, and of course the real Virgin had been just a kid, too.
Me and Linda, we got on swell. She had all these ideas. She really wanted to be a flower child, all naturalness, and she actually got some hay from her granddad to thatch the roof of the fake manger on the dais at the front of the sanctuary. She climbed up there without a ladder, using the choir loft to lower herself down with a big pot of glue. Barefoot, covered in glue, all giggly, and from below, she didn’t know it, but everyone could see up her dress. Her mother was negligent. Her mother didn’t tell her to always wear clean underwear when she left the house. Linda’s mother didn’t check to make sure Linda was wearing underwear at all.
And her breasts ran free and clear.
How the Virgin Mary ever made it to fourteen without getting impregnated by a randy shepherd out f**king his sheep all day long and then taking one look at her, well, hell, I don’t know. If I were Joseph—
And I am. Joseph. So, then, as Joseph, I wasn’t too surprised when Linda—I mean, Mary—got knocked up. Linda didn’t, Mary did, the whole Holy Ghost thing. (Yeah, right.) Mary’s folks shouldn’t have been too surprised either.
The only people who were surprised by Mary’s actions—I mean, Linda’s—were the inn keepers. I mean, the pastor and his wife.
They kept telling her, “Linda, you gotta come down off that manger before any of these boys get any ideas about you. Linda, Linda, you come down now!” Then they took her in back and Pastor Williams stood outside his office like a sentry while his wife inside did something to Linda. Like showed her the stretch marks left over from the five kids the Williamses had.
Linda came out crying, and she vowed to remain a virgin forever.
There went my plans for winter vacation.
Some kid named Elroy shaved his dog and glued it to my face. He only told me what he’d done after he’d glued it on tight. And it wasn’t a nice rubber cement, either, but a proper epoxy. That stuff didn’t come off until halfway through 1971, but it was okay, in the end, because when the draft board saw it, they let me off. It had given me quite a rash along the jaw line by then, and fallen off in tufts. I looked like I had the mange. But yet, when I met my future wife, Susan, the year of the mange, she still married me, but of course the marriage itself wasn’t for years and years to come. I guess to be honest, when Susan met me, she hated me. Hell, I looked like I had mange. How romantic is that?
Now, if you want romantic, take a ripe fourteen-year-old brat barefoot in a blue tunic with great hair, shove a baby into a little holster around her belly, and then make us walk hand in hand with two kids in an ass bumping us the whole way down to the front of the church.
I still swear Linda and I are married. We’re closer than God could’ve ever made us.
Well, of course you know the first thing that happened was that Burt was premature. He could only be stuck loosely in this sling thing, like a hammock, on account of we were supposed to birth him without Linda mooning the congregation. I don’t know why they’re such prudes about it. I mean, she’s only fourteen, and most of them have kids her age, so they shouldn’t be tempted by dirty thoughts. They should just, you know, reminisce. Like, oh, those were the days, when my kid was little and we used to scrub her rear end in the bath. You know, nostalgia that then makes you think about the Virgin Mary and how tough it must have been for her, being just past puberty, and her mom probably still scrubbed her rear in the tub, and there she was, mother to this precocious little bastard who was all: Hey, I’m gonna save the world, Ma!
Yeah, so Burt falling out onto his head was no big deal. He was a pretty big baby, and it wasn’t the first time he’d gone crashing down onto his head. His whole family are a bunch of numbskulls. Literally, they don’t feel it, and when their kid goes kablooey, they think it’s funny.
So you had like thirty people in the congregation laughing their asses off. Not literally. Though that would’ve been pretty funny.
And then you had like all the old biddies and these grumpy people in cardigans who freaked. A couple women screamed. One ran up and totally stole the baby Jesus right before I could scoop him up. Burt was laughing hysterically, that baby giggle that’s kinda creepy, but then, he’d just been shoved up into the sacred realm of this ripe hottie. He was going to grow up all sorts of warped just for the fact that he got to play Jesus at such a “tender and impressionable age”. As the biddies called it. I didn’t think he’d remember it at all, which was a shame.
Linda turned to me and said, “Hey, Frank, I mean, Joseph, she’s got our kid, you know?”
“Yup.” I watched the woman run off toward the first aid kit they’d installed at the front of the sanctuary for all the kids who ate the poinsettias. You know, bandages and ipecac and stuff. I don’t know what she was thinking, but in just a few moments, Burt was vomiting all over.
A friend of mine who’d come up from college to stay with my family, and he’s Jewish, mind you, stood up and yelled, “Hallelujah! The holy vomit of the Christ!”
Which didn’t go over well. We were already in two factions. Burt’s family, who thought we should just shove him back into the sling and continue, and maybe drop him a couple more times just to get a good laugh, and then the people who thought Burt was actually representing something here.
Like hell. Representation. Burt was the only thing keeping me from ravaging this precious virgin next to me. Because he seriously represented the only reason I knew of to not do it.
And our ass had got ahead of us and gotten tangled in the evergreen garland that we’d used to rope off the stage from curious kids. We were supposed to be there to keep our ass out of the garland. Instead, Linda had pushed me into one of the pews where a woman was sitting with a quietly sleeping babe. I guess Linda was looking to expedite the birth, and she didn’t want to shove Burt back up her skirt, in case he vomited again.
“Can I have your kid, ma’am?” I asked. I mean, I was polite.
But she said no anyway.
So I took her Bugs Bunny doll and, real careful, I shoved it down the front of Linda’s robe, because until I was seated behind the little feeding trough, you’d have had a good view of my hard-on if I wasn’t careful with that Bugs Bunny. This wasn’t a good time. My grandma was in the audience.
“Hey!” the lady with the baby said.
“It’s the blessed baby Jesus,” I said. “The angels told us. That’s why I’m still marrying this hot chick here, even though it’s obvious something’s up.” I tried to be Biblical and remain true to the story, you know.
But all that bunny made me think of was how often bunnies… procreate. And how soft those melons had been, one on each side of my wrist.
I scratched my beard and pushed Linda ahead of me. She moved easier now that she didn’t have a real kid in her craw. She clutched her stomach to hold Bugs Bunny in.
Burt’s family all thought this was real cool, I guess. They were high-fiving each other and stuff. I turned and high-fived them back. “Yeah! I’m Joseph!” I cawed. Joseph gets overlooked, sure, but think of how important he really is. He’s the world’s first schmuck.
Burt was still vomiting. You know. Ipecac. That’s what it’s for.
The lady who’d taken Burt came up to us and she had some more Ipecac and she held it up to my face and she said, “Begone, demons!” I jerked my head back.
Linda grabbed her and said, “Hey, lady!”
Obviously this was a visiting lady who didn’t go to our church. Most of the congregation wasn’t too worried yet. They’d seen the play last year. And the year before. They knew we’d get to the end.
“I know drug abuse when I see it!” the woman insisted.
Linda stole the ipecac and the lady ran back to the first aid kit to see what other trouble she could do. “Shoving a real baby up the Virgin Mary’s robe? That’s the sign of an unhinged mind.”
And we all, you know, turned to look at Pastor Williams, ‘cause it had been his idea, ever since he first joined the congregation to Lead us little sheep, to be all authentic and give us all a taste of what The Miracle must have been like.
I decided just to get on with it. I stopped at a pew and said, “Hey, yall got any room here? We’re tired and gotta rest and my wife’s about to pop.”
The people who sat at the ends of the pews had all been given prompt cards that said things like, “Get out of here, we’re full.” And “Can’t you see we don’t have any room here?” And my favorite was one that one of the guys on the set building crew had promised to slip in: “She’s one fat hussy, huh?” Even though it didn’t apply so much anymore. Bugs Bunny was pretty svelte compared to Burt.
The guy who ended up with that card was about eighty years old, with real white hair and a couple hearing aids, but he was a sport and he raised his shaking finger and said it loud and tremulous as could be. “She’s one fat hussy, huh?” Then he stared at Linda and whispered, “Sorry, baby.” I guess it was her granddad.
Linda said, “That’s okay, Pop, we’ll go somewhere else, where we’ll be appreciated.”
Tina Schafer was scratching herself real hard at the next pew. Fleas, you know. She tried to hand us her baby. “For authenticity.”
“No thanks,” Linda said. She backed away. Can’t say I blame her.
Baby Burt, who had been taken away to be cleaned up, was brought back in, but then he started screaming. He’s one of those kids. Loud. Got a good laugh out of his family again. Sort of stole the show. I mean, you just can’t compete with the drama he was putting up.
Linda helped me untangle our ass and get the two kids seated next to the feeding trough in the least creepy way (if they did it wrong, the stomach would bulge out like it had gotten into some sort of poison). Then Linda screamed and fell to the stage and writhed around a little and said every swear word in the book. She had said she didn’t need to practice this, on account of her aunt giving birth last year, and Linda had been there to help the midwife. She told Pastor Williams she’d be all sorts of Authentic.
I gaped down at her.
Yeah, Jesus was sure a deterrent. I didn’t even want to touch her anymore, I don’t care how ripe she was.
Which is how come, I think, I ended up marrying Susan and never laying a hand on Linda.
Far as I know, no one has ever laid a hand on Linda. Well, except for her creepy uncle, who was in the audience, as he used to molest her and rub her melons and stuff, but after this performance, I heard he never dared do it again.
Linda kicked, and see, she’s always been a gymnast, real flexible, and she threw her legs wide open like they were in some stirrups, and then she did a little sleight of hand and threw Bugs Bunny at me.
I barely caught the toy. Good thing we hadn’t done this with a real baby, since we hadn’t practiced the actual birth.
Linda sat up and said, “Frew! I don’t see how I’m going to ever do that again, Joseph, since this kid was nothing but faith and spirit!”
I set the toy in the feeding trough in all the hay.
Three kids started screaming out in the congregation. It was good sound effects. I stood with my hands on my hips over the trough and said, “This kid is going to save everyone, huh?” I was supposed to adlib a few things about the baby. Scrawny and furry were the first ones out.
And then three wise men popped their heads in through the three glassless windows and started to sing, like a barbershop quartet, only there were only three of them. Authenticity. They really wanted a fourth wise man, but we weren’t allowed. Esteban again. So the barbershop quartet had to draw straws. Mickey didn’t get to participate. He had to run the lights instead.
And he turned them off then, in the middle of the wise men’s song, and said, “F**k you all, I hope your heads get stuck!”
Turns out he’d used some pretty strong glue in the windows, too.
We learned a lot that year. Most of it about the strength of glue. And quite a lot about never laying a hand on a virgin.
Pastor Williams stood up front in the dark while we stayed in our tableau around him (we couldn’t move, that’s how dark it was), and he said a bunch of stuff that was supposed to get us thinking, from then until Easter, about the journey Jesus had taken.
Burt threw up again. But a little knock on the head didn’t do much damage, I don’t think, because he played Jesus for Christmas and Easter for the next twenty years. He only vomited the first five years. Our psychiatrist who taught Sunday school said it was probably a conditioned reflex. Baby Jesus, aged twenty, that’s another story altogether.
After that year, Mary wasn’t allowed to give birth in the open. They do it behind a white sheet now, so it looks sterile, and they shine a light, so it’s all light and shadow. They think that’s meaningful. That it’ll get people to think.
But I’ll tell you what, I caught my own folks one night doing a striptease with a white sheet between them. They alternated turning on and off lamps on their sides of the bedroom. It was creepy to watch, even from the elm outside their window, clutching a pair of binoculars and trying to watch a sweet little gal named Patricia. She lived across the street and she’d just had her cotillion.
You know Joseph did stuff like that in Bethlehem. His wife was pregnant by a “spirit”. Turnabout’s fair, especially when you’re just watching. I’ve emulated Joseph ever since. I really got in touch with his spirit that year. Poor bastard.