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The Battered Road to Bethlehem

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She's been twenty-one for four weeks before her new employer denies her claim for dental insurance because her driver's license has expired and therefore doesn't qualify as legitimate photo ID. She'll have to wait another three weeks before she can file again, and in the meantime she just has to try not to eat anything too hot or too cold, both of which are incredibly painful on a chipped canine.

She spends the afternoon at the DMV, waiting on hard-backed chairs with a dozen other people filling out forms and then using them to bat at the stale air, hoping to stir a breeze and cursing how bizarrely hot it is for early October, the way everybody does.

She tucks her legs up underneath her chair, saying, "stay where I can see you," to Percy at five minute intervals, and turns her driver's license over in her hands. She remembers getting it three years ago; remembers being flustered and a little ashamed because she hadn't showered that morning and her hair was greasy -- she didn't want that immortalized in her license photo. So she'd run out to her friend who was waiting in the car and borrowed her spare headscarf, tying her hair back with it. In the picture, a few wisps are escaping from underneath it, but it's too pixelated to tell the color: at first glance, it looks like Sally's head is a rainbow of oranges, reds, and yellows, and only the stodgy "BRN" beside "HAIR COLOR" gives her away. She's smiling, wide and carefree in the face of having thwarted a photo-op disaster. It'd seemed so important at the time, not having a horrible picture, when four weeks has gone by without her even realizing that she's due for a new one.

She runs her fingertips along the edges of the hard plastic, looks back at the girl with the hoop earrings and the Indian scarf smiling triumphantly out at her and thinks to her, this is September, two days after your birthday, and in three weeks and four days, your grandmother will be dead. In two months, you'll meet a stranger who smells like seabrine and treats you like a fairy tale and in eleven months, you'll give birth to a son. You, little girl, are history.

There's a giggle from underneath her chair, low and obviously delighted, and she ducks her head down, hooking her knees to one side, and meets her son's bright-eyed gaze.

"Hi mama," Percy burrs.

"Hey, baby," she answers.

He reaches out and begins tugging on the snake-tail end of her shoelaces, where the the plastic is starting to peel away from the lace. He's not even fully potty-trained yet, so it's too early to start teaching him how to tie shoelaces -- all he's good at, right now, is pulling on them until the little bow falls apart.

-

At twenty-one, Sally Jackson has three things to her name: a high school diploma, one serviceable winter coat, and a three-year-old special needs son.

The first is hard-won, gotten from the small, private academy that her father had put her down for almost as soon as she was born. She worked hard to get into it and worked hard to stay in it, sat at the front in AP History and recorded each lesson in her Pre-Calc class, even the ribald jokes that Joey Murns had saved up like bottle caps, the ones that fell flat on Mondays and were what everyone looked forward to on Fridays. She'd graduated on a Thursday, when traffic was the lightest coming into the city, walked up the sanctuary steps of the academy chapel and accepted her diploma from the dean; Sally Anne-Marie Jackson, graduating with Highest Honors and recipient of the Kinesman Scholarship Award. It'd felt like the greatest day of her life, that brief second when she turned from the dean with little coverlet in hand and saw, for a second, all the way to the back of the chapel, where her grandmother sat in the pew reserved for family, respirator her only company and her smile watery with pride.

The second used to belong to Joey Murns. She found it in Salvation Army, a bright red on the rack that attracted her attention immediately like a poppy in a dead field. It was buffalo plaid, the cuffs faded to white and a stain that was possibly soy sauce on the collar. The only way she knew it was Joey's is the "JM" written in block letters on the washing tag, and the folded up note tucked in the breast pocket with Kuzima Jabi's phone number on it, tearing a little bit at the crease where it's been folded so many times. All the jokes in Pre-Calc had been for Kuzima's benefit: she tucks the note into her dresser mirror, and wonders if Joey had ever called.

The third she named for the summer afternoons when she was fourteen, flopped on her bean-bag chair and flipping through dog-eared pages of Edith Hamilton, the garage-sale copies of The Odyssey and The Iliad with student's pens underlining key phrases, all the tragic plays that were on the library's recommended reading list, where choruses sang out the woes of the key players, dramas played out on planes too big for humans with human flaws to handle. She named him for the autumn after her grandmother died, the beach house in Montauk where she swept sand and browning leaves off the front porch and turned back to kiss a lover who always made her feel like she had her ear pressed to a seashell; her own heartbeat, mirrored back at her like the roar of the universe tumbling down.

She named her son Perseus because out of all the stories she read, only one Greek hero ever got a happy ending.

-

At five, Percy is more leggy and isn't quite as bald; his hair has enough density now that she thinks she might have to start cutting it soon. She strokes it every opportunity she gets, because he's waist-high and his head bobs along just within hand's reach, a thick natural black that's really just a very, very dark brown. It's not a color that runs in her family, so she thinks Poseidon's spiel about gods not having DNA and therefore being able to get away with a lot of kinky things might, in fact, be bullshit. She wonders how much of the planet is covered in descendants of the gods: if something could tap into that recessive gene in humanity and control them like some horrible plot from the X-Men.

She keeps Polaroids in her wallet the way other moms have professional portraits and lovers have photobooth snapshots, each one documenting the new things she notices about her son. She doesn't have anybody to share them with, these hundreds of thousands of little things she learns every day, but she keeps the occasional landmark picture anyway, as some sort of proof that she's made it this far. She hasn't done anything horribly wrong yet.

It's seven in the morning and she's walking Percy to school, his Land Before Time backpack too big for his narrow shoulders and a little out of date for 1998, but he's not the age where he notices that kind of stuff and Sally isn't far enough removed from it yet not to notice it.

They pass the chain-link fence of a postage stamp yard of somebody's clapboard house, Percy chattering the whole while, repeating the same story he told her yesterday about what letter of the alphabet they're currently learning in his class. Each letter has a mascot, a cut-out cardboard figure that the teacher sticks in the middle of the blackboard while she teaches them how to write it, as well as all the ways you can say it. Yesterday was Mr. M and his Munchy Mouth, and had Percy running around the house all afternoon making "mmMmmMmm" noises in the back of his throat.

A rangy dog on a tie-out lifts its head as they go by, nostrils flaring curiously. She looks at it only long enough to acknowledge this, before she turns away -- and as she turns her head, the dog catches in her peripheral vision, where the Mist blurs and lifts and she finds herself in the company of a red-eyed, long-tongued, bus-sized hellhound.

She doesn't think, she acts: she grabs Percy by the scruff of the neck, ripping his backpack from him in one clean movement and tossing it to the side just as the hellhound springs, clearing the fence in one long, sinewy bound. It catches the pack between its jaws and snarls, throwing its head side to side to rip it apart.

Sally seizes her son under the armpits and throws him unceremoniously over her shoulder, which is the easiest way to carry him and take off at a dead run at the same time. His squawks of protest cut off sharp with each jarring stride she takes. Behind her, she can hear the hellhound give one low, spine-shuddering snarl of frustration when it realizes the backpack isn't attached to the small child anymore, and a sob of pure panic escapes her throat.

She ducks sideways into an alleyway, cuts two blocks east and doubles-back via the back entrance of a dim sum restaurant and winds up right in front of a church. She darts up the steps just as she hears the hellhound's nails scrabbling against the cement sidewalk and dives inside the open door.

She winds up with her back pressed up in the alcove under a basin of holy water. She closes her arms and legs around Percy and tucks him as close to her as possible, back curved around him: he's clued in that something's up, because he's trembling all over, silent as a game of hide and seek. She mumbles, "shhh," "shhh, baby," mindlessly against the downy hair at his temple.

When the hellhound doesn't immediately stick its nose in, her heartbeat slows down, and other sounds begin to filter in: the tonal humming of the priest up in the sanctuary, inviting the congregation to prayer -- the 7:30 Mass, called by Sally's high school classmates as Mass Express because the early-morning Masses don't have music and only last half an hour -- and the smell of burning incense right inside the door.

At that moment, a woman stops in front of the holy water and bends down, a little old lady in orthopedic shoes and pageboy-cut salt-and-pepper hair and a vest with a silvery pattern of wisteria. "Are you all right?" comes out of her mouth, whispering the way everybody does during a church service, regardless of whether or not they're sitting in the congregation.

"I'm --" Sally starts, falters a bit. Trying not to let my son get eaten by a monster only I can see is a monster doesn't ever go over well, not even in movies. "Hiding from that big dog out there," she improvises, because it's not exactly untrue. "It chased me here."

The woman straightens and sticks her head around the door. "Yup," she goes, coming back. "Ugly ole bloodhound looking thing. Still there, pacing a track around that street lamp down there. It's probably the incense," she chuckles with a wave of a blue-veined hand. "If I had a nose that sensitive, I probably wouldn't set foot in here either. Come on out from under there, sweetheart."

Sally waits just long enough to take a deep breath, kiss the crown of Percy's head and just let his pulse beat rabbit-time against her lips for a second, the sweet oatmeal smell still lingering on him from breakfast and reveling in the way he shifts a little bit, not too old yet that he won't bury his face into her neck, seeking comfort. And then she unfolds herself from underneath the holy water and sets him on his feet.

"But I have to go to school," he protests in a mumble meant for her ears only.

"You will," she assures him, hands compulsively running through his hair again to hide their residual shaking.

-

Sally's grandmother had been Christian the same way she'd been Polish and sweeter than iced tea: it just came with her, prepackaged into her genes and it never occurred to her to be anything else. You ate three meals a day, paid taxes like clockwork, and went to church every Sunday. That's just how things were.

And Sally didn't think about it too much -- it was just a part of what her grandmother was; the calm, weathered woman with cotton-candy hair and a Ford F-150 with a bumper sticker that said, "I read the Constitution for the articles." She used cinnamon toothpaste instead of mint because she grew mint in the red-and-white checkered flower boxes on her windowsill and she always said toothpaste tasted nothing like the way those plants smelled, it wasn't natural. (Personally, Sally thought the cinnamon stuff bore absolutely no resemblance to actual cinnamon, either, so she bought the bubblegum flavored kind up until she was thirteen. There wasn't anything natural about bubblegum.)

She took Sally in when her parents died behind the wheel of their hatchback, three blocks from home, and for all that the school counselor kept on telling her she was such a bright girl despite her "broken family," Sally never felt this was the case -- there wasn't anybody better than her grandmother, whose love felt like those overgrown cotton sweatshirts, soft and familiar and the most comforting thing to wrap yourself up in on lonely nights.

The way she believed in God felt like that, too; a deep, abiding trust that left no room in her for the knuckle-gnawing worry that plagued Sally every day since she hit adolescence. It wasn't forced or desperate, the way it looked on those evangelists on paid programming, or something so backwards and old-fashioned it was ridiculous, the way mandatory Mass attendance had been at school.

Faith hadn't settled as well on Sally as it had on her grandmother -- part it was her generation, 80s children raised by television and U2 on the radio, always thinking they knew more than the generation that came before, and part of it was she was just too smart and saw too much and always wanted to question it -- and now it seemed impossible. How could she reconcile the most basic tenement of belief (thou shalt have no God but me) when she knew what she knew? Where did the Greek gods exist in the hierarchy? It seemed too rude to assume that God (the God) had more power than the ones she met, simply because there was only one, but the Greeks had a deity for everything, so what did that leave for God to look after?

She'd met Zeus once, the mightiest of the gods, and stared up at his craggy, livid face and set her jaw and held the carseat with her rocking son in it against her hip, and at the time, he didn't look like a god that bowed to any other. Could they be mutually exclusive: both trying to do the same job and sometimes getting in the other's way? God didn't seem like the kind of god that would be okay with Zeus all but marching Poseidon out of the house at Montauk, leaving her alone, eighteen and unmarried with a three-month-old that cried all night, but neither did He intervene on her behalf, so she wasn't sure what to think. And she had no idea what she was going to teach Percy, when he started picking things up from the kids at school and started asking her: he had enough things coming at him to worry about, without solving her faith crisis on top of it.

Up in the sanctuary, the priest is saying something in Latin again, voice rhythmic, chant-like; a blessing, a prayer, she doesn't know -- it's been too long since she last was at a service, and somewhere above her head, the church bells are tolling, slow, long peals, muffled by the stone ceiling, and she can't think about any of this any longer.

She bolts upright like jolting awake from a dream of falling, and knocks into the knees of the couple at the end of the pew as she struggles to get out, apologizing softly, automatically. Her head's a mess of incense and bells and Poseidon's voice, learning the refrain of Amazing Grace as it warbled on the gospel station, the way she'd laughed at him, scrambling eggs on the stove.

Her son, who is braver than she is, stays.

-

Some days later, she's standing in the middle of the kitchen, crunching on a piece of uncooked spaghetti and thinking of nothing in particular, when there's a knock at the door.

Blinking, she puts the bag of pasta aside and pads barefoot across the linoleum to the door. The flooring is cheap, peeling up at the corners, and the brown diamond pattern has never matched any tablecloth she could find at Goodwill. She flattens it down with her toe as she pulls the door open: there are two Mormon missionaries on her doorstep, both her age, with little black nametags pinned to their dress shirts that proclaim them to be Elder Whitman and Elder Guiseppe.

She lets them in, because she supposes that's more than most people would do. She only has two chairs at the kitchen table, so she lets them sit and bustles about, looking like she's busy so at not to make them uncomfortable.

"Amelia sent us," says Elder Guiseppe as she restacks her Tupperware; he's olive-skinned and good-looking, in spite of the conservative clothes. "She's the woman you met at St. Joseph's last week. We're new in town and she said we could do with some friends, and she thought you looked like you could do with a friendly ear."

She looks at them, one eyebrow raised, and they both offer her self-depracating smiles, like, we know how dumb it sounds, bear with us.

Sorting lids by size, she goes, "But St. Joseph is Catholic, and Mormons are a branch of Protestantism. I thought you guys didn't share."

"Churches don't," goes Elder Whitman -- he's got five red jelly bracelets on one wrist, she can see it under the cuff of his shirt. He's not as comfortable in his skin as Elder Guiseppe is, slightly hunched at the shoulder and looking somewhere left of her eyebrow when he talks. "But people do."

Elder, she learns, is just a form of address, the Mormon word for "mister," that doesn't actually connote age or experience. It's just the title they give young men out on mission, which all Mormon men are required to do so upon turning eighteen. In the oldest sense of the word, it meant going to third world countries and seeking converts in a way that has Sally thinking of Pocahontas, but in modern context, it just means going somewhere not their hometown and doing community service and occasionally going out and trying to clear the bad reputation their church has with the general public.

Elder Guiseppe's first name is Immanuel, and Elder Whitman is a Todd, and she sets two glasses of water down in front of them and asks, "so what brings you to New York City? It's a bit of an ambitious project, don't you think, compared to ..."

"North Garden, Virginia," Todd offers, and flashes a sideways grin at Immanuel, who flushes a husky shade.

"Well, there's this girl..." he goes, almost reluctantly, and Sally feels herself smile so wide it actually hurts her face.

He tells them about Violet, who came to New York to sing like something out of the movies, but Immanuel insists she's really good and has a chance, and he followed her here because she took his heart from him one evening in the flatbed of her truck by the Roanoke river, and he's been chasing her ever since, trying to get it back or maybe to get her to share it with him. ("I just came because I like the opera," Todd adds, and looks right back at her when she stares at him, like this is a perfectly normal thing to say.) They tell her about the Church of the Latter Day Saints, complete with accompanying pamphlet and educational picture book, and it feels less like they're trying to bring the fear of God into her, and more like they're telling a very strange origin story -- at the part where Joseph Smith takes 28 wives, she laughs herself sick. She tells them about Percy, not having a lot to say about herself anymore, but they coax it out of her anyway: how the money her grandmother left her has been eaten up by property taxes and the New York state court system, how miserable she is at the coin laundry where she works, how it's not enough to keep herself and her son clothed and fed, and she doesn't know what to do about her son's behavioral problems, and he's only in kindergarten. She shows them the Polaroids in her wallet, their edges broken with handling.

Immanuel tilts the glass back, tapping at the bottom so the last bits of ice fall into his mouth. He crunches them for a second, before saying, "You know, if you're looking for better employment, I think there's an opening at Violet's work."

She tilts her head at him. "Where does she work?"

He grins. "The best place ever. It's a stone's throw away from Times Square, and it's called Sweet on America. It's a candy store."

-

Once, when she was younger -- and by younger, she means, thirteen, fourteen, some kind of age where she didn't understand why she did half the shit she did -- she went outside just as a storm came in off the Atlantic, the sky firefly bright with lightning and rain coming down so hard the air felt airless, sucked dry like drowning on land. She stood until the grass under her feet turned to mud and there wasn't an inch of her body that wasn't soaked, just stood with her face turned towards the sky. It'd all felt so big then, like all the world should see it and everybody should feel exactly what she felt, something so strange and outside of herself that she had no name for it. There was no way to tell that she was crying, except she knew she was.

Now, standing out in a downpour just makes her cold, and wet.

"Mooooom," comes from behind her, low; Percy's standing on the porch of the Montauk house, the old salt-battered wood creaking a familiar protest to his weight. He rubs at his eyes sleepily. "Mom, can we have grilled cheese for lunch?"

"And tomato soup," she agrees with a smile. Out at sea, the storm rages, and Sally returns to the house, where things are still and quiet inside, except for all the spaces her son occupies, the way a lightning flash illuminates the surface of things, light briefly touching on the things in darkness.

Percy bumps into her as she washes the sand off her feet by the spigot, and she catches him around the shoulders, giving him a quick squeeze. She feels nothing in that moment but love for him, the most basic tenement of her being.

-

She defines her life in Percy's milestones now, so shortly after he turns eight, she meets Gabriel Ugliano at the customer help desk at the grocery store, both of them there to check their lottery tickets for the 20 million dollar jackpot. She buys a ticket every week, like clockwork, because she can afford a dollar to spend on chance, however slim it is. "If happy seems too difficult," says her grandmother's voice in her memory, "then just try to live hopefully ever after."

She doesn't win the lottery this draw, which surprises no one, and when she balls up the ticket and lobs it at the trash, she misses; it skitters across the linoleum to roll against the side of Gabe's shoe. They both kneel down to pick it up at the same time, and their eyes meet.

What she feels for Gabe isn't ever love, but nothing bad comes for them when she and Percy are with him. It seems like that should be enough.

 

 

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