Friday, December 09, 2005

A (True) Christmas Story

by Christa Forster

“I’m sick of living in a pig sty,” my mother says. “We’re getting all this crap out of here.” She is standing in the middle of our one-car garage, hands on her hips, surveying the wreck. My brother Antonio kicks his skateboard across the concrete driveway, pretending he can’t hear her.

“Antonio!” I say. "Get in here and help us.”

“Shut up, Stupid,” he says. He scrapes his skateboard on the asphalt.

My mother abhors clutter. Living in a pigsty is not what she envisioned for herself, oh so many years ago.

Where we live on Mission Hill, the neighborhood fences sag under fuchsia and golden Bougainvillea. Hedges of prickly Aloe Vera guard whole front yards. Jacaranda trees, whose fanlike leaves droop with deep lavender flowers, line the streets. And Eucalyptus trees – my favorites -- tower into the blue, emitting their mentholated medicine into every breath I take. To me, our house on Guadalupe Street seems like heaven and smells like the sea, which we can just see if we stand on our tiptoes and look out the picture window at the top of the staircase.

My mother begins directing me amongst the junk: roller skates, broken Barbie body parts, kites, lawn equipment, baseball bats, leather gloves, tool boxes, book boxes, boxes of who-knows-what-and-how-long-it’s-been-in-here. Every few minutes, I hold up an object, confused about what to do with it: an old record player, a stack of opera albums, a lame ukulele.

“Throw it out!” mom says, “When was the last time anyone touched it?"

Sometimes I say “But I want it.”

“Then take it to your room,” she says.

Next door, Mrs. Banda’s goat Mephisto bleats loudly and poops all over her patio. The sound and smell of Mephisto confirms my mother’s conviction that our house is, indeed, a pigsty. Antonio and I love Mephisto. He’s better than a dog because he has horns and tries to butt us all the time and eats the clothes we’re wearing.

“Here,” mom yells, “take this and throw it in the dump pile.” She tosses a large, plastic figurine into the driveway.

“Antonio!” I yell. "Mom wants you to throw that in the truck.” He gives me the finger. “Mom SAID, “ I say.

“I gotta go to the bathroom,” he says.

It's the Virgin Mary figurine from the illuminated lawn Nativity scene that my mom bought at St. Vincent de Paul’s two years ago. When my mom sees me pick it up and hesitate, she yells at me to throw it directly into the back of the truck. “Straight to the dump!” she says.

“Mom,” I say, “you can’t throw the Blessed Virgin Mary away. It’s, like, a sin probably.”

“I got her at the thrift store, for god's sake. I'll get a new one. K-Mart has a bunch of them. I saw‘em there just the other day.”

I look at the Virgin’s face.

“If you want her,” my mom says, “take her to your room.”

Her blue mantel has faded to a hint of its former glory, and her eyes are pretty much gone. “I guess I don’t want her,” I say. I lift her into the back of the Dodge pickup. Antonio appears, zipping his fly.

“Antonio,” my mom calls, “put these in there, too." She’s pointing to the rest of the set: Joseph, Baby Jesus in the crib, the Sheep, the Ducks, “they're all going to the dump.”

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I say.

That evening as she's cutting up carrots for dinner, my mother stops chopping, knife midair, and stares off into space, as if she's forgotten something. Then she turns to me and asks, "Do you think I should not have thrown that Holy Family away?"

On Christmas day, my family sits in the second row of folding chairs set up in the church’s gymnasium for the 11 a.m. folk mass. Father Esparza, standing at the pulpit, retells the famous “No Room at the Inn” story, the one where Joseph and Mary search the little town of Bethlehem for lodging to no avail.

“There is no room at the end,” says Father Esparza. “And Mary and Joseph must stay in a manger on the outskirts of town. Hence, our savior was born in a pigsty.”

Until he points directly to it, I haven’t focused on the Nativity scene set up in front of the altar. This one's colors are bright and the faces detailed, way prettier than the set we had. Father Esparza explains how a member of the congregation -- Debbie Marshall – arrived at the rectory one afternoon with the same Nativity scene in her car trunk. The figures, covered with black gook and slime, she’d rescued from the city dump. She cleaned and repainted them. She was there to donate them to the church.

“She found them there,” Father said. “cast away, like they were 2000 years ago in the little town of Bethlehem. I want you all to contemplate the question: what would you do if the Holy Family came knocking on your door? Would you invite them in? Or would you, too, cast them away?"

Suddenly, my mom pushes my dad and he bumps into me. I look up and see that they are both stifling hysterics.

On the way home from church, my dad says, “You know she killed herself.”

“Who killed herself?” Antonio says.

“Debbie Marshall.”

I don’t say anything because I am never talking to my family ever again.

“She was depressed,“ says my dad.

“She was an artist,” says my mom.

“Maybe she killed herself because she was depressed that someone threw away the Holy Family,” Antonio says, laughing.

“Highly improbable,” says my mom.

“You know, she probably did,” says my dad.

“Warren,” says my mom, “don't say something like that.”

“What?” says my dad. “I think it would be great if she killed herself because you threw away the Holy Family.”

“Oh go to hell, Warren,” she says. She turns around and looks me in the eye. “When we get home, Missy” she says, “I want that room of yours spotless.”


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Christa, your fiction is REALLY good!

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