“Nativity,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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It was long past the time when Madeline made an entire village of gingerbread houses for each room of the first floor –gumdrop streets lined with gingerbread men and women, M & M rooftops with chocolate Santa’s waving from chimneys, forests of festooned trees, and front yards with cheery snowmen. Still, she thought to herself, this Christmas will not be a shit show. It can’t be.

Christmas Eve was always her favorite. The calendar wound relentlessly down to the shortest days, the barest amount of daytime to illuminate a bleak winter landscape; yet a day that seemed to stretch out with the bright promise of going on forever, as a day in the middle of July.

Dan had wandered off to spend some time with his family. Savannah had been holed up at her Aunt Carol’s with Dylan for several days, and Marie had left early in the morning to join them. The only ones in the house that morning were Madeline and her two children.

Madeline was finishing the frosting on the Christmas tree-shaped cakes that had been an unbreakable traditional for years. The tin foil pans had likely been designed for one-time-then-toss-them-away use. About twenty years ago. Each year, Madeline consulted her kids for Christmas Eve menu planning. Each year, she asked them what they wanted for dessert. With cheery over-enthusiasm, she mentioned a few yummy possibilities she’d been wanting to make for them. Even if the two of them were on the phone, Madeline could hear Kate’s face fall; she could see the tears that threatened at the corner of Kate’s eyes. Each year, Madeline babied the weary pans into a shape that reasonably resembled a Christmas tree, and filled the ever-increasing holes with scraps of aluminum foil so they had a reasonable chance of holding the batter.

Madeline hummed a medley of carols to herself as she swirled the finishing touches of bright green frosting. She imagined the conversation that was about to take place–

“OK, guys, the cakes are ready for you to decorate!”

“Come on, John!” Kate would say.

“Ah, you do both of them this year, Kate. I’m in the middle of trying to finish this (fill in the blank, critically-important thing).

“No no no no no no. Come ON! It’s your cake! Your CAKE!”

This would go on for a bit, John resisting, Kate getting increasingly filled with flustered affectionate pique.

In the end, John would create a masterpiece in a shockingly short amount of time. Kate would take her time, study, plan, go back to her work again and again for fine tuning. In the end, they would both be so pleased with their work that they would carve and gouge around their favorite bits of decoration until the last few bites at the bitter end.

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Before Madeline could call out to signal her final flourishes, caught right in the transition between her humming of “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night,” the sound of Kate and John tuning up their instruments in the living room drifted in. “Yeah!!!” she said.

“Surprise!” shouted Kate. “Impromptu Christmas carol serenade!”

Madeline went into the living room with a knife full of frosting still in hand, holding it out first to Kate, then to John, as they plucked strings and turned pegs to tune.

“Let’s do ‘O Holy Night’ first cause it’s my favorite and Mom was just about to sing it,”

Kate said.

“OK,” John replied. “I don’t really know it, so you start, and I’ll come in and follow.”

“What do you mean you don’t know ‘O Holy Night?’ That’s, like, blasphemy or something.”

“Are we gonna have this conversation again?”

Madeline plopped onto the couch, happier than she could remember being in a long, long time.

“Oh man. This is the greatest. I suppose I should think about starting to get dinner ready. Did Marie give you an idea of what time she’d be back here?”

“Um, I’m not sure she’s gonna make it back for dinner,” John did his very best to sound casual, but his head remained turned and his eyes on the floor as he answered his mother.

“What?” It was nearly a whisper.

“I don’t think things are going real well there. At Aunt Carol’s. I don’t think anybody’s in a very good mood.”

“What’s going on, John?”

John sank into a chair and ran his fingers through his hair, still looking at some point on the floor, then at the ceiling as he combed his fingers through his hair a few more times and let out a big, audible puff of breath. “I guess I mean that Savannah’s really, really down, so Marie is really down, too. Because her sister is. You know?”

“What’s up with Savannah?”

“I guess she’s spent all this time out there with her aunt thinking about how it’s Dylan’s first Christmas and how important that is, and well, she’s gotten more and more convinced, every day, that her mother was going to be able to get it together and have Christmas with all of them together.”

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“Oh shit.”

“Yeah,” said John.

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, what’s happening now?” Madeline asked.

“I don’t know. Savannah just really convinced herself that her mother would be there. Every day that Savannah’s been out there, every day since she left here, I guess she’s gotten her hopes more and more wound up. Now everybody has been calling Billie all day long – they started this morning – and she hasn’t picked up. They’ve texted about a hundred times, too. Anyway, finally Uncle Bob drove down there because Carol was losing her mind not knowing what was going on with her sister. So Bob gets down there and the apartment is totally dark. No lights. No nothing.”

“Perfect,” Madeline said.

“The poor guy is walking around the outside of Billie’s apartment peering in the windows and tapping on the glass. On Christmas Eve. Anyway, when he got back home, Savannah crashed and burned. She got really, really down and went pale and handed Dylan over to Marie and hasn’t said a word since then.”

Kate looked John square in the eye and said, “Do you want to play a few more, or go decorate the cakes now?”

John met her stare, held it. “So like I said, I don’t think anybody out there is in a very good mood.”

“Seems like that would be rather an understatement,” said Madeline.

“Marie is trying to talk Savannah into packing up Dylan and coming here. But I don’t know if that’s gonna happen,” John said.

“Well, what should I do about dinner? Should I hold off starting to cook?”

“No, don’t hold off,” Kate broke in. “We told them what time dinner was going to be.”

Both Madeline and John looked at her. “It’s Christmas Eve!” Kate said. “If they make it for dinner – great. If not, they’ll be here later on.”

“Well,” Madeline said, “looks like it may be just the three of us for dinner!” Her children knew her well enough to glean the carefully-disguised elation in her voice.

“Make a lot of food anyway, Ma. Please? They might be hungry when they get here.”

If they get here,” Kate said, with unapologetic accurately.

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Billie Calls Marie — new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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“I saw this shit storm coming a mile away, I fucking did.

You’ve always been out to ruin my life, always, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why, you ungrateful little fuck.

Savannah and I, we don’t need your ‘help,’ we don’t need it at all, not one bit of your fucking, condescending bullshit like you are so much better than me and you have everything all figured out and we can’t possibly get along for another second without you and without your help, and you are SO FULL OF SHIT it makes me sick.

Don’t move back here Marie. No one wants you here. Savannah doesn’t want you here. I don’t want you here. We are doing just FINE on our own here, we are doing great, and she is having a healthy pregnancy and I am making sure that she takes good care of herself and I am taking care of her, and we have a PLAN and we’re getting together a lot of things for the baby and NO ONE NEEDS YOUR FUCKING HELP like you are always so sure that we do, like we can’t get along without you and your meddling fucking bullshit.

Stay the fuck away from us, Marie.”

Just a few seconds after that, Billie left a second voice mail:

“Seriously, just leave us the fuck alone. Don’t call us. Don’t move back here.”

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And a third:

“You are so full of shit. You have ruined, completely ruined, my life.”

And next:

“We are doing GREAT. Savannah is doing GREAT. You lie about every single fucking thing, and you need to just LEAVE US THE FUCK ALONE. I was so happy before you ruined my life with your constant BULLSHIT and your lies, and everybody knows that when I knocked Savannah’s teeth out it was an accident, a total accident, but you won’t let anybody fucking forget about that, will you, you are determined to keep ruining my life and make me wonder what I ever did to deserve such a worthless, awful, mean daughter. A so-called daughter who keeps trying to knock me over and knock me down every time I get back on my feet and moving forward and making good things happen for myself, you’re right there, knocking me down. STAY OUT OF MY LIFE, MARIE.”

All was quiet for about twenty minutes, and then:

“STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME.”

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photos by Diane Arbus