I was not the Virgin Mary. I was, however, in love with Joseph. Live nativity scenes for Christmas had been all the rage for the last few years in the small town where I grew up. Jean-Paul was a high school exchange student from France which is why, of course, our minister’s wife had chosen him to be Joseph. Another girl, however, not myself, got to be Mary.
Jean-Paul was slighter and thinner than our local boys. However, all the girls were abuzz about his “bedroom eyes” and French accent. Jean-Paul had sandy brown hair. Alicia Faye Wilson was a year older than myself, a blonde of sixteen. Also she was our mayor’s daughter and a varsity cheerleader. She, not I, got to be Mary.
I, Margaret Ann Anderson, was one of the angels in the manger scene. There were two of us, one tall and dark, and the other small. Jean-Paul had fastened onto the word “cherub” and called me “une cherub” because I was the small one, that is to say short, not to mention flat. I hated being only a sophomore, short, and flat-chested. Plus, though I tried not to, I did love Jean-Paul Bourgeois as much as all of the other girls.
Our live manger scene had a real cow in it, Aphrodite. She’d been donated by one of the young hippie farms so newly migrated to the area. Twenty-something “rough diamonds” schooled in the classics.
Our church group had not been able to acquire a real donkey. We did, however, have real bales of hay covered with frost. Our Reverend James D. White had had to decline the use of a real baby. Blonde Alicia Faye had actually offered our church the use of her baby brother as the Christ Child. Though I did not say it, I realized Alicia Faye was embarrassed to death that her parents actually had a baby at their age, as I was also sure, most in town thought she should be.
It took me, old straight-A Margaret Ann, who understood the Reverend White’s thinking, to prevail upon my classmates and explain that we, as Christians, could not consider the use of a real baby as the Christ Child. Obviously, little children had to be protected from the cold as well as from cows. Also little brothers were of great, if not primary, importance. Not to mention, any passersby could very well use their imaginations on the baby doll we were going to use as they had for thousands of years.
I hated Alicia Faye Wilson for getting to be Mary. I hated her for getting to be everything that I was not.
Jean-Paul considered me closely as I explained our responsibility toward children. I could actually imagine his eyelashes as if touching my cheek. Indeed, Jean-Paul did put his long, slender hand on my winged shoulder in support. “The children, they are the delicate among us,” Jean-Paul intoned. He handed me the baby doll. It was I, Margaret Ann Anderson, who lay the baby in the manger and arranged the straw around its little plastic face.
However, Alicia, as the Mother Mary, wore a floor length robe and a long blue headdress to match her eyes. Each night Jean-Paul invariably offered his hand and helped Alicia Faye to sit on her bale of hay. Unlike the boys in this town, Jean-Paul ran to open doors for women. He stood if teachers walked up to join in a casual conversation.
Our congregation planned to continue its Bethlehem scene for three weeks, right up until Christmas Eve. Besides Mary and Joseph, there were two of us as angels, two shepherds—one holding a stuffed lamb, three wise men, and Aphrodite, our cow.
One night, Lonnie Reynolds used his shepherd’s staff to poke at Steve Carson, the other shepherd. Lonnie called Steve, “Little lamb. Hey, little lamb!”
Steve grabbed at Lonnie’s sash, “I’ll show you little!” A scuffle ensued. Aphrodite munched hay.
As the church could only afford one spotlight, the light shone at all times upon Alicia and her doll. Mary and the babe. The rest of us faded into stages of dark until a car’s headlights picked us out, night after night.
Another night, Richard Taylor, one of the wise men, claimed to have whiskey from his father’s liquor cabinet in his frankincense and myrrh bottle. Lonnie called him a liar, and so Richard belched loudly. Steven Carson then farted. The wise men challenged the shepherds to a belching and farting contest.
Each night, I thought anyone could see the way Jean-Paul Bourgeois looked at Alicia Faye Wilson. I also wondered that no one noticed how Alicia laughed so crassly at both the bouts and the scuffling, but what did I know? Our Frenchman proved no different than all the rest. Jean-Paul loved Alicia Faye Wilson, just like any other boy in our small town. Joseph loved Mary, and so the scene continued.
One particular night though, Aphrodite stopped munching her hay. The cow took deliberate steps toward me. She nuzzled for a moment at the feathers at my shoulder. Then she blew and she snorted.
Jean-Paul immediately called out, “Flee! Flee, une cherub!”
I started and stumbled over my floor length robe. Everyone laughed at me, while Aphrodite proceeded to graze. The cow nipped at my breasts with gentle lips.
“My little angel,” Jean-Paul bemoaned. “Littlest angel!”
“What in the world is Aphrodite tryin’ to get at, Margaret Ann?” Lonnie Reynolds guffawed and poked at my flat chest with his staff. He sang out, “Oh, littlest angel…”
“Fallen angel,” I finally managed to rise and sweep the gold-painted cardboard halo from off the top of my head. I even took a bow. Aphrodite, meanwhile, helped herself to a big bite out of my wing.
“Margaret, maybe we can glue some of these back on,” Alicia Faye, the Mother Mary, actually stood and began to piece some of the fallen feathers together. Meanwhile, Aphrodite chewed and swallowed the rest.
“I’m fine,” I protested. How dare Alicia Faye Wilson, varsity cheerleader, be kind to me? Now I would’ve sworn, Aphrodite’s brown eyes gleamed. She could not turn her attention from me.
Finally, at the appointed time, Alicia’s father came to pick her up, as he always did. I just hated having to admit that Alicia Faye was, after all, very probably a very nice girl. The others in the nativity scene then began to leave one by one. I had already begun to wonder where my own mother and father were when I realized Jean-Paul had been talking to me for quite a while.
Jean-Paul was busy explaining that Mr. Wilson always picked up Alicia Faye very promptly when she was anywhere with Jean-Paul. Jean-Paul believed Mr. Wilson did so, “He always does so,” Jean-Paul explained, “because the founding fathers of this town did not wish to leave off their daughters with a Frenchman.”
I listened for cars, but heard none.
Jean-Paul leaned into his staff, his robe swept up and circling his arm, and he proclaimed, “I have not, I swear to you, une cherub, that I have never once been alone with a young American woman!”
“Do you live in Paris?” I heard my own voice rise, high up and far off, much like a cherub’s.
Indeed, where was everyone—the Bigelows who kept Jean-Paul, Aphrodite’s young hippie farmer with her trailer, and the Reverend White who had appeared night after night to lock up the church? Our little town seemed deserted. Aphrodite munched again at her hay. I moved ever so close to Jean-Paul. My breath fell against his chest. My breath fell against his chest.
Jean-Paul laughed, “I have been to Paris only to fly away from it again. I flew away to here. To this town.” Jean-Paul paused to look at me, bedroom eyes and all. He added, “Not all of the French live in Paris.”
“Oh, really?” I countered. I blinked my eyelashes, but couldn’t get my chin up without bumping right into Jean.
“I am from Bordeaux where they grow the grapes for wine,” Jean-Paul’s voice sounded high up and far off.
I could barely see that his sandy brown hair had fallen down over his forehead. “You like to drink wine then?” I thought it a heady feeling, not being able to breathe like this.
Then Jean-Paul touched my face with his long, slender fingers. He lifted my chin up, himself, and he kissed me hard. On the mouth.
The baby doll stared up at us from the manger. I had a witness!
Then my parents arrived, as they always did, to pick me up. Would they be able to tell anything by looking at me? As the car headlights hit us, I leaned over casually to put my arm around Aphrodite’s neck as if I was busy petting her.
My mother was the first one out of the car, chattering along to no one really about how everyone had gotten held up by a train.
“Aphrodite bit me,” I pointed at my now decidedly lopsided wingspan. Aphrodite munched quietly. In fact, the cow turned away from all of us in order to eat. Jean-Paul held to his staff.
My father said, “So I see.” My father then faced Jean-Paul. “Awfully dark out here tonight. Sorry to be so late.” Jean-Paul held to his staff.
My father then offered his hand. “Good to know you were out here, son.”
Jean-Paul straightened then and shook hands. I waited for him to click his heels. Neither of the menfolk looked at me.
Then everyone pulled up at the same time—Reverend White, the Bigelows, and Aphrodite’s hippie farmer with her trailer. Aprhodite let him lead her away. I tried, but couldn’t get Jean-Paul to look at me.
My mother, who had not been abroad during World War II and so knew nothing of France, prattled first about the Christmas story and Jesus, the Son of God, and how it seemed a lot of people forgot that after all, Joseph was so very important to the story. Yes, it was important that Joseph stood there so steadfastly behind Mary, his young wife, and the innocent baby. Then all of a sudden, my mother wanted to know about Jean-Paul, was it really true what she’d heard, that all the children in France drank wine from the time they were old enough to lay money on the counter? Or some of them, even at home with their parents for dinner?
I thought at least a snicker was in order and tried to catch Jean-Paul’s eye, but Jean-Paul was definitely not looking at me. He answered my mother seriously that though drinking wine was more accepted in France, its use often differed as to the family.
Finally then, we were all loaded into the correct cars. I caught a glimpse of myself, a reflection of what appeared to be the same old Margaret Ann, with her head against the cold car window, staring out into the dark. Margaret Ann listening to her mother and father, just like always, while her father tried to joke. Margaret’s parents talked about whether or not they needed milk, and her father said, “We should have gotten our milk from old Aphrodite back there, right Margaret?!”
Funny, I was thinking, about a small town. Funny how a person could get to know a hometown so well, she didn’t have to see the roads anymore to know, for instance, that she was on her way home instead of the grocery store for milk. A person could tell by the way the car felt, by the way it was turning. Just like teenage Margaret Ann staring out the window at herself and into the dark already knew just how it would be at school tomorrow, and also in the nativity scene tomorrow night.
The very correct Jean-Paul would take up his place behind the spotlighted Alicia Faye Wilson. Joseph would watch over Mary, and Mary over the babe. The scene would continue. Jean-Paul would speak ever so politely to straight-A Margaret Ann, if she was lucky. Jospeh would continue to love Mary. Jean-Paul would act like nothing had ever happened with Margaret, and so “une cherb” had better learn to act like that too, unless “une cherub” was interested in appearing like a fool, that is.
“Are you all right?” My mother asked just like always when I was too quiet. Also just like always, I didn’t answer, and my father did not make me, just like always.
No, the brainy Margaret Ann watched herself stare out into the winter night and tried to imagine the warmth of French hillsides covered with grapes and with sunshine. The cold, though, made it easier not to cry.
Better perhaps not to care about tomorrow, as in tomorrow tomorrow? Why, could not one day this same little Margaret Ann fly right out of her own little town and into big, bad Paris if she wanted to? Indeed, I decided I might just live, myself, in Paris one day, something Jean-Paul Bourgeois had not yet accomplished!
Meanwhile, the young Margaret Ann knew how to handle not being shined upon where she’d been born, out here in the hills around a small town. I figured I had something Alicia Faye Wilson, cheerleader and Mary the Mother of God, did not have, at least so far.
I had a kiss from a Frenchman, and the Christmas stars twinkled over my head.