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The moon was an eyelash of light above Laura’s right shoulder as she sat facing her husband across the dining room table. Jonathan had just replenished their wine glasses when he noticed the moon in the December branches tangling the last bright scraps of a mediocre sunset.

“It would mean a lot to me,” Laura said. “Why does it bother you so much?”

Jonathan shifted in his chair. It was important that he modulate his tone correctly, and it helped that he couldn’t see the features of her face, though he knew his own face must be easy to tell. “You forget that I’m an atheist.” He said this jokingly.

“I don’t believe that,” she said. “Deep down, you know there’s a God and a heaven and a reason for the world.” She was being sincere. This bothered him. Her sincerity sounded like pity.

“Look, being an atheist just sounds worse than it is. I don’t want to get dogmatic about it, but,” and here he took a gulp of wine. He liked the effect of this unintended pause. He liked that she was listening. “But you’re asking our baby to play Jesus in a Christmas pageant. Don’t you think that’s a little inconsiderate? Julie’s not even a boy.”

“I knew you would bring that in,” she said pushing her glass a few inches away from her with the tips of her middle fingers, slowly. The sunset was gone now. He could stare into the sky without it hurting. The clouds were mostly the gray of winter birds.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or a girl. They just want the baby that’s littlest, and this year, the littlest baby is ours.” Jonathan could see the blinking lights of a jetliner moving through the trees behind her head. “Why can’t you do this?”

He was ready for this. “But we already baptized the baby! And I’ve already said you can take her to church every week.” He took a big sip. “I think I’m being pretty accommodating.”

Laura did not immediately counter with anything, so he continued: “And I’m not going to be Joseph. You can be Mary, and I suppose there’s a tiny chance that Julie could be Jesus, but there’s no way I’m getting up — in front of an altar — to play Joseph.” He finished his glass and waited.

Laura wouldn’t look at him. She stared at the napkin in her lap, at which her nail was scratching to remove some small and crusted stain. “I don’t think it’s hypocritical at all, if that’s what you’re getting at,” said Laura. “I think it shows you’re open-minded. I think it shows how big you are.”

She flicked away what must have been the stain, smoothed out the napkin, and finished off her wine. “Besides,” she said. “It’s only two shows.”

“Two shows!”

“Christmas Eve afternoon and Midnight Mass,” she paused. “I thought I told you that.”

“No.” Jonathan rubbed his palm slowly into his forehead. “I saw the script you left in my briefcase.”

“You’re lucky. You’re the only one with lines.”

“Do you really think I’m going to lift up our child and stare out at the audience and say ‘Let us rejoice that the son of God is truly among us’?”

There was a lull. The sky was drained of all significant light. Their glasses were empty. They stared at separate, empty parts of the walls, each refusing to get up and refill the other’s glass.

The baby began fussing in the next room. In a minute, she’d be crying and hungry and demanding to be held. Jonathan stared into Laura’s face, but he couldn’t tell if she was looking back at him or away.

“I just don’t think it’s right,” he said. He pushed his chair out to leave, then didn’t.


The recipient of a 2009 NEA Fellowship, Charles Rafferty’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker and The LIterary Review, among other venues.  His most recent book is “Appetites” (Clemson University Press)


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