Ann plopped down on the sofa and frowned at George. “I was hoping Mrs. Hopper would call, instead it was Marie Jones,” she complained. “I despise that woman, but we need the money so I agreed to clean her house on Friday.”
George grunted and glanced at her over the edge of the classified section of the paper “At least you make fifteen bucks an hour, that’s worth a little aggravation.”
“Not bad for an unemployed librarian. And you! Mr. Engineer. Your specialization at NASA didn't stop them from outsourcing your job. How will you ever find a decent job in this economy?” Her expression, at first good-humored, had changed to almost fearful when she addressed his predicament
George felt stung. He could have avoided this conversation by being more sympathetic in the first place. His severance pay was running out and the occasional work at the Tool and Die Company didn’t put a dent in their budget. Pastor Perkins’ sermons frequently centered on hard times ahead. “Let us take courage and trust in the Lord.” George clung to his faith, as did others in church who had not only lost their jobs but were threatened with foreclosure.
“Surely the signs are positive that the economy will turn around,” he offered weakly, knowing things were getting worse by the day. “By the way, Pastor Perkins asked if we would do the manger scene again the week before Christmas. I told him I would ask you. What d’you think?” George said, laying down the paper. He watched her expression turn to apprehension, just as he had expected.
“You mean if we have the guts, after what happened last year? I’m surprised he still plans to have a live manger scene.”
“You’re right. We’re probably the only ones who’d dare do it again. All the other churches have thrown in the towel. They even wish people happy holidays on their event boards. It sickens me.” George got up, paced the floor, coming to rest near her, and put his arm around her. He leaned closer and whispered, “I don’t know what it is, but I love the feeling of holiness I get when we play Joseph and Mary, with the babe in the manger.”
He felt choked with the memory of the previous year when a group of strangers began to ridicule them loudly, telling them it was unlawful to have a manger scene in public. A stone someone had thrown had bounced off the cradle and hit George on the cheek. Just as he’d gotten up to confront the attacker, the ushers and a deacon dispersed the crowd. It was a good thing the babe was merely a life-like imitation. Ann had been clearly frightened by the expression of hatred, and this year things had grown even worse, with the burning of two churches in their county, and a general fear in the Christian community. “Of course I’ll understand if you’d rather not, we have a whole month to think about it.”
“I love it as much as you, and if Pastor Perkins puts a watch over us, we should be okay. With all the festivities surrounding us that week in the sanctuary, we should be safe,” she said firmly.
Thanksgiving passed with family and friends gathering at their home, and on black Friday, the shopping season officially began for Ann, who loved the bargains for early shoppers. In the bustle of decorating, they hadn’t discussed the manger scene anymore.
“What?” Ann sat, watching George pace the floor one evening.
“Pastor Perkins called. He asked if we’re going to play Joseph and Mary--he needs to know,” he said tersely, frowning.
Ann gawked at him. “Why, of course, I thought it was all arranged, did you think…”
“I didn’t know, you were pretty scared last year and you didn’t really commit when we talked about it. We have to consider it might be worse this time. I don’t want you hurt or upset.”
Ann got up, draped her arms around his neck and kissed him gently. “You forget, I come from a long line of military men. I’ve got their fighting spirit. And besides, it’s the only time I get a chance to be a mother of a newborn babe--a holy babe at that,” she teased and bit her lip before she said too much. How they had wanted a baby in their five years of marriage. George looked at her sadly; she knew he remembered their unmet hope. She wanted to blurt out the news of her pregnancy but she had decided to tell him, dressed as Mary, and looking at the baby Jesus in the manger.
The week before Christmas came upon them amidst lunches and Christmas parties among family and friends.
“Whew, I’m beat,” Ann, yawned, waiting for George. He slipped into bed beside her and plumped up his pillow.
“Did you get my outfit back from the cleaners?” he asked after he lay down.
“I got both of ours this afternoon. We’ll have to be there at five-thirty when the first performance starts.”
“I am!” Ann exclaimed, thinking of how she couldn’t wait to tell him her good news.
The first three nights went well, everyone who passed them on their way into the church marveled at their performance as a loving couple with the baby Jesus, asking if the infant might not catch cold in the chilly night. They laughed when they looked closer and discovered the life-like doll in the hay. “But it looks so real, I would’ve never guessed it,” said a woman in passing.
On the fourth night when the performance inside the church started, and no one passed by them, Ann picked up the swaddled baby and rocked it gently in her arms. George watched her with hungry eyes. She handed him the bundle, but he shook his head and grinned. “I’d take it if it was real,” he said, turning to see if anyone was watching.
“You will next June,” Ann smiled brightly so like the Virgin Mary, he thought.
So taken with the vision of her, he didn’t comprehend her words. He nodded.
“George, I said you will hold your own baby six months from now,” she said patiently, placing the infant into the straw.
“Ann, you mean—you are—pregnant?” George’s eyes grew wide. He rushed over to her, drew her to him and kissed her gently. “Oh, Ann, I am so happy,” he laughed. Something struck him hard in the back and he stumbled, letting go of her before he fell to the ground.
“You’ve been warned, don’t come back,” someone hollered; then the sound from across the street, of running feet receding into the darkness.
Two men sprang from the bushes surrounding the church building, one stayed with George and Ann, helping him to his feet and the other pursuing the attacker.
“I’m fine,” George said when the man offered to get an ambulance, “I tripped over my gown,” he grinned wishing the man would leave. He wanted the moment back when he was reveling in the news of Ann’s pregnancy. The bruising pain in his shoulders where the rock had landed now brought a sharp pain to the back of his head. The man excused himself and went off in the direction his partner had run.
“I think I need someone to look at my shoulder,” he said finally to Ann when he thought he couldn’t bear the pain any longer.
Ann moved swiftly, leaving him to rest at the foot of the stairs to the sanctuary. She found someone to take them to the hospital.
The doctor drew back the curtain in the emergency room two hours later. “We’ve found the problem, Mr. Walters, The rock that hit you injured a nerve in your shoulder. You’ll recover shortly.” He gave George a prescription and told him to follow up with his physician.
“Looks like your job as Joseph has been outsourced as well,” Ann said on the way home. “No one will take it on after this ordeal. They’ll have to change back to a plastic manger scene if they want to stand up for our freedom to worship.”
George gave a low moan, his hand holding the back of his neck. “Oh, but it was worth it, I’ll never forget the way you looked when you told me about our baby.”