The following story, “Rapture,” appears in Jeremy T. Wilson’s new book Adult Teeth, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
I first saw Mary at the live nativity auditions. She was barefoot, decked out in a motherly white robe and sky blue headscarf like she’d already gotten the role, while all the other girls were tarting around in short-shorts and deep cut V-neck sweaters and beat-up canvas sneakers, popping their chewing gum and taking selfies with their elbows akimbo. The audition didn’t ask for much. I said who I wanted to be, and they asked me if I had arthritis or any lower extremity issues that would prevent me from staying on my feet for six hour shifts. Then they asked me to stand still for five minutes and stare at something in the room. I picked Mary. She was sitting down in a line of metal folding chairs, holding a baby doll in her arms and rocking it like it was the one true Messiah. I was flooded with peace and love.
“You’re a shepherd,” they told me.
“What about Joseph?”
“You’re no Joseph,” they said.
The gig was in the front yard of a mega church off I-75 south of Atlanta, a thirty minute drive from my apartment, forty-five to an hour in our notorious traffic, but I needed the work, which was why I signed on with a Christian talent agency in the first place. My sheep weren’t real, but they were three-dimensional. Ceramic. Baby Jesus wasn’t real either, but nobody seemed too bothered by this fact, probably because he was battery-operated, and his little arms and legs went around in circles as an attempt at authenticity, and if you stared at him long enough, his moves would begin to seem totally random and baby-like, almost as if he’d miraculously come alive under Mary’s tender gaze.
It took me until the 21st of December to ask her out.
“We may have breakfast at eight o’clock,” she said, like a queen granting me an audience.
The night before my morning date with Mary, I met Balthazar for a drink at a bar in East Atlanta. He was the first dude I’d ever seen order eggnog. It was last call. He said he was feeling adventurous.
“You reckon she’s a virgin, Mary?” Balthazar asked, a line of nog-froth riding his upper lip.
“Doesn’t make a difference to me.”
“She’s probably one of those that’ll make you marry her first.”
“I’ll start with breakfast.”
Balthazar huffed. “See,” he said. “This is why I don’t hang with the shepherds.”
“I’m not a real shepherd,” I said. “I do want a dog, though. A real smart one like shepherds have. Shepherds usually have real smart dogs.”
Balthazar took another nip from his glass of holiday cheer. “Dogs are free at the goddamn humane society.”
“Maybe I’ll go get one.”
“No, you won’t.” Balthazar made this retching sound like he was scratching the back of his throat before he hopped off the stool and ran into the bathroom.
He was in there for some time, so I went to check on him. I found him hovering over the sink, his cheeks wet and puffy, his fingertips drawing his eyelids down like he was trying to pop out a contact lens. “I think I’m allergic to eggs,” he said. I offered to drive him to the emergency room, but he said he’d be all right.
As he backed his car out of his parking spot, I saw him load up and fire a sneeze into the steering column, causing him to surge the gas and crash his rear bumper into a white van. I knocked on his window. “I’ll take you,” I said.
He moved over to the passenger’s side. “Good shepherd,” he said.
He wheezed the whole way there, but once we got inside he seemed better, so Balthazar was deemed low priority among the late night knifings and drunken hijinks gone awry. We waited for hours, and after exhausting the magazine inventory, I found a threesome of armless chairs that made for a nice place to curl up. I fell asleep, my jacket serving as a comforter.
When I woke up, Balthazar was gone. The triage nurse handed me a red envelope and told me my friend had left and didn’t want to bother me because I looked so peaceful. Inside the envelope was a Christmas card, a manger scene on the front not unlike the one we depicted every day at the mega church, minus the faithful throngs praising our life-likeness. “Unto You A Child Is Born,” it said. I opened the card and saw he’d scribbled a message for me. “No good way to deliver this news to you, bro, but I’m in love with Mary.”
It took two slow-going buses to get me back to my car at the bar, at which point dawn was already breaking. I knew if I hauled ass I could probably make it to my date in time, but when I turned the ignition, I got nothing but clicks. I checked under the hood, which was already popped without me having to pop it. Balthazar was way ahead of me. The bastard had stolen my battery.
A forty-two dollar Uber ride later, I arrived at the Waffle House just in time to see Mary wheeling out of the parking lot in her blue Mazda. I knew it was hers because I recognized her bumper sticker from work: In the Event of Rapture This Car Will Be Unoccupied. I wasn’t sold on the likelihood of the rapture or my inclusion in it, but I really hoped it didn’t happen before I could get to the humane society.
I didn’t see Mary again until New Year’s Eve, at a party the agency threw for all its actors. She walked up to me while I was digging my hand into a bowl of Chex mix.
“I thought you disappeared,” she said.
I’d called in sick for the rest of my live nativity contract figuring they’d be all right with just two shepherds. “Sorry,” I said. “Family emergency. I didn’t have your number.”
“Is everything okay?”
“I’m looking forward to a better year.”
Mary grabbed a sandwich triangle from a holiday plate and popped the whole thing in her mouth.
“Can I get you a drink?” I asked.
“I don’t think there’s any alcohol here,” she mumbled through a mouthful of pimento cheese.
“Sure there is,” I said.
She followed me out to my car where I had a fifth of Jack smuggled in the center console.
“You seen Balthazar?” I asked.
“He’s gone. He got a part in one of those Left Behind movies.”
“The end of the world ones?”
“With Kirk Cameron?”
“I’m not sure he’s in this one.”
I twisted open the bottle and dropped the cap in a cup holder. “Are you two, like, a thing?”
“Me and Kirk Cameron?”
“Not that I know of.”
I swigged from the bottle. “That’s good.”
“Are you born again?” she asked.
“I’ve been baptized, if that’s what you’re asking.”
I passed her the Jack. “Every bit helps,” she said. She stared at the open mouth of the bottle, held the liquid up to the street lights eyeing its enticing hue, then plucked the cap out of the cup holder and twisted it on tight without ever taking a drink. She put the Jack back in the console, and we talked for a little while. I found out that Mary’s real name was Mary, and that she was younger than me, but not young enough as to make my desire criminal.
When it was close to midnight, we went inside for the countdown. Everyone was in good spirits, their faith renewed for the days ahead. And I knew what I would do once we counted down to one and everyone shouted, “Happy New Year!” And I knew from her smile that Mary knew what I was going to do and was saying go ahead. And when we kissed it was electric, sparklers and lightning and confetti and jet packs and Hawaii, and after we let go, we threw our arms around each other and sang that song nobody knows the words to but is all about
forgetting your old, dead friends.
“You taste like booze,” she said.
“I love you,” I said.
“You don’t even know me.”
“You are the mother of God,” I said.
Mary was a filthy housekeeper. Everything in her apartment was dirty—dirty dishes, dirty clothes, dirty food-smeared magazines, dirty dust bunnies carrying around other dust bunnies—and she had an entire wall full of crosses above her bed, which served to remind her of the sacrifice Christ made for her. Since she’d been born again, Mary had been tempted many times to backslide, although attentive prayer, the right social group, and the Christian talent agency had helped her keep her faith. She told me she would “prefer” not have sex again before she was married, but I convinced her there was a threat of icy road conditions, especially on bridges and overpasses, so she caved and said I could stay in her bed. We kissed and did some other things that usually lead to more things, but she stopped herself and put her head on my chest muttering her multiplication tables, “Two times one is two. Two times two is four. Two times three is six. Two times four is eight.” I fell asleep before she got to her nines.
Sometime in the middle of the night I woke up when I felt a bug scurry across my cheek. I got up and checked under the kitchen sink where most people who clean things keep their supplies. A quarter bottle of Windex lurked at the back behind a calcified shaker of Comet. First I picked up all the junk and sorted what didn’t look like trash into neat piles that I placed on an ottoman ripped to shreds from what must’ve been a former cat, because there was no cat to be found. I carried around her small plastic trash can from the kitchen and stuffed it full. Once I could see most of the surfaces, I went after them with the Windex. Before then, I had no idea a woman’s habitat could be so disgusting. I left the dishes piled in the sink because I didn’t want the noise to wake her up, but I did fill it up with hot water and suds to try to soak off all the crud.
She woke up anyway and stood against the doorframe in a T-shirt that hung off her shoulder and struggled at the hem to make it to mid-thigh, her arms folded across her chest.
“I thought you left,” she said.
I shook my head. “Just cleaning.”
“I’m a mess.”
“We’re all sinners,” I said.
“Do you give back rubs, too?”
I thought she was going to lie down on her stomach in the bed so I could massage her naked back and shoulders, hopefully with some kind of sensual lubricant, but that wasn’t the kind of back rub she was talking about. She wanted me just to hold her and run my fingers lightly up and down her back, under her T-shirt, while she rested her head on my chest. Her hair smelled like candy canes and buttermilk. Something was wrong with her spine, the knobs uneven and crooked, and every time I touched a certain spot, she shuddered. I asked her if that’s where her wings had been.
“Don’t ruin this,” she said.
Mary went with me to the humane society to get a dog. He was a mutt, smallish, brown and black with some white on the tips of his pointy ears. I named him Chris, because I like it when pets have people names. Chris and Mary hit it off right away. He ran to her and she bent down to greet him and he licked her face and she scratched behind his ear. She even got him to sit for a dried up piece of granola bar she found in her purse. Having a dog was a challenge, but he filled my days with a joyful purpose, made me beholden to a creature other than myself, and I began to understand the long and storied historical relationship between man and canine, best friends indeed.
I got a commercial gig for a weekend in St. Simons, where I played a counselor at a Christian youth camp. I held an earnest heart-to-heart with a young boy while we sat on a piece of driftwood near the surf. No audio. We moved our lips but didn’t say anything. Mary took care of Chris at her place while I was gone, and when I came back, he didn’t want to leave. When I tried to drag him out by his collar, he hunkered down and growled at me, something he’d never done before. When I threw a treat out the door hoping he’d fetch it, he sat on her rug and blinked his heavy dog lids at me like—you think I’m an idiot?
“He likes it here,” Mary said.
Probably because food hid under every paper towel, between the couch cushions, under the bed, in corners and closets, dog paradise. Pretty soon Chris made a full migration over to her place, which was okay because it gave me plenty of pretense to stay over. The three of us would sleep in the bed together, Chris a buffer between us. But whenever I went home and saw his empty kibble dish, his leash hanging by the door, his rubber chew bone unchewed, it was like he’d run away, or like I was some crazy person holding on to empty symbols of my dog’s life long after he’d died.
I told Mary I needed my dog back.
“Chris is our dog,” she said.
Then she told me it was time to meet her parents.
They lived in a modest ranch house in a small town near Macon. Their house was clean, so there was no telling where Mary’d gotten her lazy housekeeping. Her mom wore an apron that said “Goose the Cook” while she made us grilled pork chops, asparagus, and mashed potatoes. Chris tromped around the back yard, chewed on sticks, treed squirrels, having a grand time. Mary had warned me that her dad was an alcoholic, but she’d said that just meant he was in bed by eight o’clock. She had two older brothers, but neither one of them lived there anymore. After supper we sat in their family room and her parents showed me pictures of Mary when she was little.
“Mary has always been an actor,” her mom said.
“A drama queen,” her dad said.
We watched a video of Mary when she was in seventh grade. She was in a play called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and she played this urchin named Imogene Herdman who smoked cigars and cursed in church and was the ringleader of the Herdman crew, all of them trouble. Imogene bullies her way into playing Mary in the church pageant where she undergoes a transformation and demonstrates to everyone the true meaning of Christmas. Mary had played Mary before. She was cute in this play and superior to everyone in it, and Mary in the room smiled at the compliments we were giving Mary on the TV, but as the play went on, her dad’s compliments turned bitter. He clapped at times when clapping wasn’t called for and laughed an obnoxious, knee-slapping guffaw at lines of hers that weren’t funny.
“Bravo!” he said. “Genius!” his hands slowly clapping. “A child prodigy! Steve, are you bearing witness to her gift?”
My name’s not Steve, but I kept my mouth shut.
Mary tried to get up and walk out of the room, but he jumped from his chair, sloshing his vodka across the carpet, and grabbed her by the elbow.
“Imogene and her pussy willows,” he said. “Always bullying boys with pussy willows. She get you that way, Steve?”
I didn’t fully sense what was happening, but I knew he was upsetting Mary.
“No, sir,” I said and stood up. “I think you should apologize.”
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself.”
I’d never seen anything like this in real life. Behavior of this sort was not on display in my household, a generally loving and nurturing one. Probably what made me who I am today, for better or for worse. “You can say whatever you want to me, but tell Mary you’re sorry.”
Her mom stared into her drink the way she must’ve done every night of her marriage. Her dad nodded his head. Mary cried. He cupped his free hand around the back of Mary’s neck and pulled her to his face and kissed her hard on the lips before wheeling around to face me, wobbling as he spun. He smiled, took a dramatic bow, and stumbled off to his bedroom, almost knocking over a side table along the way.
He never did apologize.
We got ready for bed in a bathroom at the end of a long hallway. Mary wore nothing but that loose T-shirt and her underwear. She pushed her hair back with a headband and washed her face with some pre-moistened sheets, flossed and brushed her teeth. My pee smelled like asparagus. She closed her eyes and held her nose. I washed my face and brushed my teeth, following her lead.
“Thank you,” she said. She kissed me, and given the emotional thrust of the night, things got heated pretty quickly and were headed in a direction she’d “prefer” not to head, but she didn’t break into her multiplication tables, so the situation was allowed to escalate. I was on top of the toilet lid, shirt off, boxers still on, Mary straddling me, and I told her to wait. I said we ought to wait until we got married like she’d said she wanted to wait.
“Are we getting married?” she asked.
“You want to?”
She got off me. “All right,” she said, “but you’ll have to ask my daddy.”
“I don’t think he likes me,” I said.
“He won’t remember a thing,” she said.
Mary and I couldn’t sleep in the same bed under her parents’ roof, so I was sent to a twin bed in one of her brother’s rooms, while she and Chris went off together. My bed had a footboard that came up short. Gold trophies were all over the shelves. Medals hung off the closet knobs. This brother of hers was a runner, or at least sometimes he was a runner, other times he was a wrestler. On top of his desk, where he used to sit and do homework and dream of wrestling glory, was a globe, an electric globe plugged into the wall with a white cord and a thumb wheel switch. I got out of bed and clicked the switch to see what this was all about, and not only did it glow cool and blue from the inside, it spun slowly on its axis with a minimal hum. I watched the globe spin for a while, high from all that had happened. I watched the globe, and I noticed there were countries on there that didn’t even exist anymore, countries lost to history, places I’d never be able to take her.
I didn’t ask her dad the next morning, because I never saw him again. Her mom made us a big breakfast and told us that Mary’s dad wasn’t feeling well. Mary didn’t even tell him goodbye before we drove home. I can’t say I blame her.
We never did get married, even though I’m pretty sure I was in love with her, and I know I would’ve gone through with it had her dad been sober enough to deliver his blessing. I like to remember her at the live nativity scene. That battery-operated, fake baby Jesus coming to life before her. I’d imagined our whole future then, Christmas after Christmas after Christmas, the two of us telling our kids how God was born the night we’d met in a manger. We had two more good months before Balthazar rolled back into town and whisked Mary off to some promised stardom in California. She left Chris behind. I was glad to have him, but I could tell how much he missed her by the way he chewed up one of my throw pillows and spread the contents of my garbage all over the kitchen, leaving another mess for me to pick up.
Jeremy T. Wilson is a former winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in literary magazines such as The Carolina Quarterly, The Florida Review, Hobart, Sonora Review, Third Coast and other publications. He holds an MFA from Northwestern University and teaches creative writing at The Chicago High School for the Arts. He lives in Evanston, Illinois with his wife and daughter.