illustration Peter Diamond

I argue with my mother over church. I can’t ruin a family tradition of going to church once a year, Christmas Eve, see, but I worry that my atheism might spoil the mood more. And later we go smoke cigarettes under the bridge, Mary and I, and she’s got her hair done up all loose and beautiful, her cheeks red with cold. This Christmas isn’t a white one, but it’s cold as hell, it’s freezing up between my legs, Mary says, and I tell her off for being crude. If there was a baby born tonight in a stable two thousand some-odd years ago, what does it matter? We’re city people, both of us, and we don’t know stables; a manger may as well be a spacecraft and sheep and donkeys extra-terrestrial creatures. I pull my coat around me, navy-blue wool, this coat I think Mary thinks I look good in, but maybe only because I’ve imagined her saying it so many times. We smoke, and I bring up church and my overbearing atheism. Who cares, Joe, Mary says, I’ve been to church every Sunday of my life save for the ones I was too sick or too hung over, and I’m still going to hell. A column of white ascends from her lips, smoke or breath, what difference does it make? What about the baby Jesus, I ask, do you think he was born tonight? It doesn’t matter, Mary says, staring off, ignoring her cigarette burning down to a tiny ash-tipped stub, even if he was, it was the adult Jesus who made a difference. Goddamn wise men, nobody cared, a kid in a stable born to some poor young couple. You think anyone visited that night, Joe? she asks. There was no star, just a baby. Babies are nothing special. They’re everywhere, they’re in abundant supply, nobody’s going to worry about this kid until he grows up and tells everyone he’s God’s son. Right now he’s just a baby. Remember two millennia ago, when Decembers didn’t matter? I guess you wouldn’t, eh, she laughs. So no wise men, no star. It makes sense, I guess. There are no stars tonight, not in the city. Look around any bus and there won’t be any wise men either. I pull out this stupid sprig of mistletoe I ripped off a doorway at my uncle’s house, from my coat pocket, and hold it up over us, kiss Mary on the lips. Fucking mistletoe, she says, taking my cigarette. I can’t believe how slow you smoke, she mutters, and finishes the cigarette, flinging it down below us, where the barely frozen river runs under the bridge. I’ve got to get home, she says looking away, it’s past my curfew. So we walk up the hill together, where the houses climb up the side, Christmas lights gleaming in reds and greens, and I stuff my church program into an overflowing garbage can. No stars, only streetlights. Mary pats my arm and says, I’ll see you later, Joe, you owe me a cigarette. I walk off and think about what Brodsky wrote, that we’re all magi at Christmas. I have to go walk the dog, which is no fucking camel, and I’m giving Mary rum for Christmas because nobody wants frankincense or myrrh. There are no stars in the city and the ten-minute walk to the bridge for a smoke’s no pilgrimage, the dirty river no Bethlehem.

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