WARNING: STRONG LANGAUAGE AND CONTENT.
When Tony went out in the morning to bring the trash cans back into the driveway of his little Brooklyn house, he stopped in stunned amazement outside the fence to his front yard. The Nativity Scene which he and his wife had set up with such care over the last few days had been desecrated in the middle of the night: Baby Jesus was gone!
"No, canít be!" he exclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief as though he had just awakened on another planet. Joseph and Mary were there, along with a little lamb, a camel, and a bed of straw. The 3 Magi, Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar, would not be added to the scene until January 6, when tradition had it that they arrived with gifts for the newborn Messiah after following the Star of Bethlehem from their mysterious kingdoms in the East. Baby Jesus had been placed into the straw bed, illuminated in the nighttime by a powerful lamp, on December 24. But now he was gone! There was only the empty bed of straw in the manger, and his two blessed parents kneeling by the void.
"What the hell?!" gasped Tony. He put down a garbage can in the middle of the sidewalk, and went into his yard to look around. Maybe the wind had blown Baby Jesus away. Although that didnít seem possible, given the high sides of the bed, and the relatively undisturbed condition of the straw inside it, which any wind that was strong enough to carry away the Baby Jesus should have blown all over the yard, it was human nature to resist loss. "Maybe some animal," he thought. A dog couldnít get over the fence Ė maybe a cat or raccoon. But that was crazy! He got down, and looked under some bushes, and in a little space beneath the steps.
"Tony!" a woman called to him from the doorway to the house. It was his wife, Ann, whose arms were crossed to take the place of a jacket, concerned that her husband was spending too long outside without his coat. "Didnít you put the cans away yet? Come back inside, itís freezing out there! We have to go out on New Years, you canít afford to get sick! What am I going to do, go by myself?"
Tony looked at her, expressionless for a moment, before his features finally registered the obvious.
"Tony, whatís wrong?" demanded Ann, anxious to see the anger suddenly emerge on his face.
"Son of a bitch!" he exclaimed. "SON OF A BITCH!"
"Some god-damned son of a bitch just stole our Baby Jesus!"
Ann stood bewildered in the doorway, like a plant which you cut down which doesnít say a thing. Then, finally, in a weak voice she managed to stammer out: "What?"
"Some god-damned SON OF A BITCH!" roared Tony, "just stole our god-damned BABY JESUS!"
Horrified, intensely maternal, she rushed down the steps, like a turtle running at full speed. Ann made wonderful pies during the holidays, and too much of what she made had stayed inside her. "Oh my God!" she exclaimed, standing beside Tony now. "Someone took our Baby Jesus!"
"What, did you think I was lying?" said Tony. He saw the tears well up in her eyes, sheíd spent so much time advising him on how to set it up: where Joseph and Mary should go, where the lamb and camel should be positioned, what space should be left vacant for the arrival of the 3 Kings, how the light should shine. Besides that, she couldnít stand cruelty. He remembered the time vandals had thrown paint onto his car from an overhead pedestrian walkway above the highway as he drove home from work, completely trashing it. When he drove up into the driveway, and she saw the condition of the car from the living room window, she came running out of the house in shock. And when he told her what had happened, she just stood there looking at the car and couldnít stop weeping and crying out: "What a cruel, unfair world! How cruel people are! I donít want to live in a world like this anymore! Itís too cruel! You canít get anything, take one step of progress, before people become jealous and hate you and want to destroy you and everything you have! They want everyone to be poor, forever! You work and they donít, but you canít have anything, or youíre the oppressor, and they have to throw paint on your car!" On that day, heíd wished heíd had a gun, and if he had, he would have gone back to the pedestrian walkway and searched for those kids who threw the paint all over his car and shot every one of them, thatís how much his wifeís crying affected him. And now this god-damned SON OF A BITCH who dared to steal the Baby Jesus, as though nothing in the world was sacred!
"Donít cry, Ann," said Tony, trying for a moment to be tender like a gorilla holding a butterfly. But she wouldnít stop crying, and he, feeling as useless as a man whose wife is making love to another man in his bed, raged, "God damn it! God damned son of a bitch! If I knew who it was, Iíd kill him! I swear, Iíd kill him!"
Mr. Costa was walking by with his dog at that moment, and seeing the commotion, he stopped to ask Tony what was wrong. "Take a look," Tony told him.
"A beautiful Nativity scene," Mr. Costa said. "Itís even better than the one at the church. Youíve done a great job. Mrs. DeAngeles, you must be an artist. You must be descended from Michelangelo."
"A beautiful Nativity scene," said Tony, "except for one thing."
"What? The 3 Kings? Those figures are expensive."
"Moneyís no issue, this is our faith. Right? We have the figures, all three of them, with the turbans and everything. In the basement, all nice and covered so they wonít get dusty and ready to come out for the Epiphany. Jeese, Mr. Costa, canít you see? What about the star of the show?"
Mr. Costa looked at the stable, then back at them.
"Yeah, thatís right!" said Tony. "The Baby Jesus! Some punk-ass n*gger came in the middle of the night and stole our f**king Baby Jesus, right out of the f**king stable!"
"Tony!" Ann chided him.
"Thatís right!" Tony shouted, again. "I said some punk-ass n*gger! Some irreligious SON OF A BITCH, whose god-damned mother canít even watch him cause sheís too busy getting f**ked, and he doesnít give a shit about Christmas or God, or Mary or Jesus, or anything except some dollars in his pocket, which heís too lazy to work for, cause heís got to get his crack and his baggy pants and his CDs raging against white people!" And Tony began to imitate a rap: "White folks suck, shoot Ďem in the brain, rob Ďem on the train, take their lives, and f**k their wives! Stab Ďem with knives. Yo, word-up."
"TONY!" Ann protested.
"Be real! F**k this crap, they stole Baby Jesus right out of the manger of Bethlehem! F**king animals! Who else but the n*ggers?!"
"Really," said Mr. Costa, "you shouldnít use the ĎNí word, Tony, itís not right. It sounds like something from a swamp down in Louisiana."
"What the hell, are we all, like, brainwashed, or afraid? Canít we be real, too!? They rob and steal, and all of Ďem want to be with a white woman"
"and we have to bend over backwards to pretend it isnít happening? N*ggers! And Iíll say it again! N*ggers! Jesus Christ, itís what they call themselves! ĎYo, n*gga, whatís up?í Why canít I call them what they call themselves? Donít go PC on me, now, Rico! What, you need god-damned CPR? For Christís sakes, they call themselves that!"
"Thatís them," Mr. Costa said. "You donít belong to the club. You know, like, if itís the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and you havenít been to Korea, or Vietnam, or Iraq, you donít go to the god-damned meeting. Itís the same thing. You havenít been in their battle, you canít sit in the room with them. Donít call Ďem like that."
"What, youíre so browbeaten that you canít even say it? Here, let me show you how itís done. Itís easy. First part of the sound comes out from the front, the tongueís on the roof of your mouth Ė ĎNií Ė and then the last part comes out from further back- Ďgerí." And he said it slowly and deliberately: "N*-gger."
"Please!" Mr. Costa said again.
"Please!" said Ann.
"My favorite pitcher from back in the day," Mr. Costa said, "happened to be black, and he said he couldnít stand to hear that word. And when he heard people saying it in a movie, I mean the actors on the screen, it made him sweat, and he was famous and a hero in his city, and it still made him sweat, that one word, thatís how deep it went. Whenever I hear that word, Tony, I think of him, like he was standing by my side, and I can see him upset and sweating. Tony, I loved this guy, I was young and got all into the dream of winning the World Series through this team I pinned my hopes on, and he did it for me, Tony, he pitched me into heaven! Please donít say that word."
"Yeah, theyíre good at sports and singing, though now most of them just talk and donít sing anymore. But you know what theyíre really good at is stealing. You know, those religious figures donít come cheap, like I said, some people canít see anything except money. For them, thereís nothing sacred except a wet p*ssy"
"and a crack vial. Theyíd steal the staff right out of the popeís hand, if they could. Iím sure our Baby Jesus is going to make someone a nice bit of money, and go straight into the pockets of the Colombians or some sleazy Harlem hooker."
Ann headed slowly back into the house. Mr. Costa thought it was because she could finally stand no more of her husbandís angry tirade, but in actuality, she was going back in to bring him his coat, and to put one on herself.
"You know, Tony," said Mr. Costa, as his restless dog looked up at his master, confused, not understanding why the tension on his leash was telling him not to bark at this man who was so disturbing. "Chances are, the thief who took your infant Jesus wasnít even black. No, donít cut me off! I know you hate them, and you want the thief to be black! But think about it! Remember those two kids from Brownsville who came into the neighborhood to check out a used car for sale, and one of them ended up getting shot by one of our own boys. And that other kid from up in Harlem who was beaten up outside the pizza joint, and they put him in a coma?"
"Yeah, and what was he doing here? He didnít smell like roses, he had a record, and didnít have any business being over here. But now they raised him up onto a pedestal."
"The point is, Tony, how many black people do you see walking around the neighborhood? I donít see many, and the ones I do look nervous as hell, and I see them trying to get into the train station or onto a bus before the sun goes down. Itís like we were a god-damned neighborhood of vampires and they got to run before we come out at night. What, do you think Iím proud of this?"
"Who says you have to be proud of it, or ashamed of it? You didnít do anything wrong."
"I donít want to wash my hands of it, Tony. These are our boys, and we donít mind living behind the walls they build for us with their sins."
"Oh come on, Mr. Costa, stop being so good! God damn it, didnít you shoot people over in Korea or Vietnam?"
"Itís a different thing, Tony."
"How is it different?"
"Point is, around here black people stick out like a sore thumb. Why the hell would some ĎNí-word person come by to steal a figure of the infant Jesus from your yard, and then see if he could get away before the lynch mob got to him? Do you know, where I was, they had these guys called guerrillas?"
"Gorillas, as in the apes in the zoo, or the Commies, what are you talking about?"
"The ones who are people, and fight you hit and run."
"Sure, fine, and they try to ambush you and all that shit. I know, I respect you, Mr. Costa, thatís the only reason I donít tell you off for your liberal ideas. I know if someone had shot at my ass because I was defending my country I wouldnít be a liberal, but anyway, this is America, and you can be whatever the hell you want. So why are you bringing up the guerrillas?"
"Like fish in the sea," said Mr. Costa. "To get the job done, they got to blend in with their surroundings."
"As in wear camouflage and all that shit?"
"As in, if they are moving around between peasant hamlets, they got to look like peasants. Like the guys in Iraq, right now, have to look like your ordinary citizens except when they pull out their automatics and start shooting, or drive up with a bomb in their car. Well, Tony, crime is the same. I think itís like a guerrilla war, except itís every man for himself instead of being in the Viet Cong or Hamas, and thereís no ideology except for the very same one of the society theyíre fighting against. Face it, everyone here wants to have money, thatís our ideology. The criminal is in agreement with the ideology of the society he is fighting; he is not fighting to overthrow the system, heís fighting to participate in it. The point is," he pressed, heading off Tonyís objection, "that a black guerrilla in a racist white neighborhood doesnít make any sense. Do you understand?"
"What are you saying, then? This is like the History Channel. I just want my god-damned Baby Jesus back!"
"Iím saying, the thief is almost sure to be one of our own. Some nice young boy who goes to Catholic School, with a very nice white face, and a nice Italian or Irish mother. Or maybe a Russian kid. But white, whatever the nationality. Just drop this crap with the blacks, Tony, is this about solving the theft, or just venting?"
"Here, Tony, put this on," said Ann, coming back out to give him his coat. She was wearing a jacket better meant for springtime, with an American flag on the back, which she had bought shortly after 9/11.
"Mr. Costa, here, thinks it was a white kid who stole our Baby Jesus," Tony told his wife.
"What for?" she asked their neighbor.
"For money, of course!" replied Tony, exasperated by what he thought was her stupidity. "Those figures are worth good bucks."
"Or maybe it was just for fun," Mr. Costa said. "To make mischief."
"For fun? Mischief? For god-damned mischief with my f**kng Nativity scene!? Thatís not a prank, Mr. Costa, thatís a god-damned crime!"
"Iím not downplaying it, Tony, Iím saying what the motive might be. Thereís a lot of bored and angry kids around. Some of them got a lot of problems, like divorced parents, bad grades at school, peer pressure, dating issues, no faith in the future. For others, the problem is not having a problem, so theyíve got to make one. Thatís what vandalism is all about. Why the hell would you break the windshield wipers on someoneís car? But mine were broken last week. And Mrs. Marino had her garbage dumped on her lawn in the middle of the night, and looking out from a window, saw some big black car roaring away in the dark, like it was some kind of fun for somebody."
"What car? What make?"
"She doesnít know cars, Tony, she just said a big black car. But she could tell by the way that it was being driven and from the sound of laughter coming from it that it was teenagers having a good time. It was some kind of joy ride type thing."
"A cruel world," said Ann, shaking her head. Tony put his arm around her and squeezed her so tightly that she could hardly breathe. It choked the sorrow out of her. But as soon as he let her go, she said, "Maybe it was those kids who believe in Satan."
"Yeah," agreed Tony, "those nuts who spray-paint Ď666í on churches, and worship upside-down crosses. And donít they sacrifice goats?"
Ann crossed herself, and Tony, when he saw her, did so also.
"Have you filed a police report?" Mr. Costa asked, preferring not to get involved with that theory.
"Who do you think I am, the Flash?" asked Tony. "I just stepped out of the door ten minutes ago. I just discovered the theft right now! What, Iím going to talk to you and listen to your speech, and call the police all at the same time?"
"Oh, I didnít know," apologized Mr. Costa. "Well, this certainly should be reported to the police."
"Damn straight!" replied Tony.
Ann handed him a cell-phone.
"In a minute, honey, in a minute! Damn straight Iím going to report it! This is sick, this is sacrilege, really."
"Yes, sacrilege!" agreed Ann, grabbing onto the word. "Sacrilege! Is nothing holy? Whatís our world coming to, that people are stealing the Baby Jesus right out of the straw in the stable? Sacrilege! If theyíd stolen my purse on the street, it would have been different! Theyíd have deserved to go to jail, but whoever did this deserves to go to hell! Sacrilege! And all the time and effort we put into this, Tony!"
"No, please donít cry, Ann, youíll only make me have to buy a gun and go out looking for them!"
At that moment, they saw Mrs. Bastico walking by with her big son, Paul, smartly dressed in a green army uniform, with a bulging dufflebag slung over his shoulder. They hadnít been able to get parking in front of their home in a small apartment building nearby, so they were walking towards her car around the block.
"Hi, Bella, hi, Paul."
Greetings were exchanged and stretched out.
Mr. Costa could see that the mother had been crying, and was struggling to hold herself together. The young soldier looked sad, so very sad in his proud, green uniform, a mixture of bravery and mourning locked behind iron doors. He wouldnít show his feelings to anyone, but there was a leak in the plumbing of concealment, you could see his soul.
"Where are you headed off to?" Tony asked cheerfully.
"Back to Iraq," Paul answered.
"But it seems you just got back for Christmas leave," Ann protested.
"Yeah, well," he said quietly, "thereís too much going on to stay away for long. Itís time to head on back. The guys need me." His mother thrust herself against him, trying to disappear into his chest, and he put one of his arms around her with a faint but genuine smile.
Mr. Costa remembered watching Paul when he was a kid ride around the block on his new bicycle for the first time. "Well, good luck, son," he said, grabbing him by the arm for a moment. "Your mother needs you back," he added, struggling with his own memories and with something noble and irreplaceable in the kid. "Never think you can get away with another mistake, just because youíve gotten away with one. Watch yourself, boy. Always. God bless you, Paul. God bless you."
"Thank you, sir."
"Yeah, God bless you, Paul," said Tony, stepping up to give him a hug, while his wife waited in queue. "Youíre a big, strong, tough boy, I know youíll be all right. And I thank you for bringing honor to this country and for defending all of us and our freedom, and for doing Godís work in the dark places where his light doesnít shine. God damned Islamic militant bastards! But youíll be fine, Paulie, just fine because God is on our side. Thanks kid, and God bless!"
And Ann came next to hug the departing boy, and then they let him go with the giant bag heíd patiently held up on his shoulder all the while because he didnít want to deny them their wish to say good-bye to him, and it would just be more effort to pick it up again if he put it down.
"Heís a good, good boy," said Tony, as he watched the soldier and his mother disappear down the street. "I hope he comes back safe." And then, after a moment of unavoidable silence, he shouted out again: "God damn it, who stole the Baby Jesus?!"
Short Fiction Contents
Creative Safehouse Contents