THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL
by Anthony Wallace
He sets up the Christmas tree in the family room, untangles the lights and strings them around the tree in lazy loops from top to bottom, drapes a few strands of tinsel at the ends of prominent branches. He gets a good hot fire going in the fireplace. Later his wife will come home from work and they’ll have dinner and then put the star on top of the tree. The star is not really a star but an angel from his wife’s childhood. It’s large, about ten inches high, with sheer wings like an insect’s wings and overlarge blue eyes that the man considers overly sentimental. Perhaps it’s not an angel at all but a fairy, like Tinkerbell. Whatever it is, there is something annoyingly Disneyesque about it.
He opens the slider and goes out to see how the tree would look to someone passing by; he closes the slider behind him so as not to let the heat escape. It occurs to him that he is more interested in how someone passing by might see the tree than with how he himself sees the tree. He has no interest in any of this, if he is honest with himself, but he does it for his wife. He doesn’t really like the angel, but that of course is part of it: it’s for his wife anyway, what does he care what they put on top of the tree since on his own he’d never put up a Christmas tree to begin with. They’re dirty, they’re a fire hazard, and one year the house became infested with fleas that could only have been carried in on the Christmas tree.
While he stands looking into his own house as if he is someone passing by, he thinks about the possibility of being locked out. He would have to stand here in his sweater until his wife gets home, within the hour, or he’d have to go and bother one of the neighbors, none of whom he is particularly crazy about. He likes the way the lighted tree looks through the slider, how the partially frozen glass diffuses the colored lights, how the slider frames the tree as if it is a scene in a Christmas card, how inviting his glass of scotch looks on the side table next to his reading chair. Someone passing by would undoubtedly think of this tableau as picturesque, might stop briefly to look into the family room of another family, the cozily arranged furniture, the Christmas tree, the cat which is just now coming closer to inspect the tree and to bat amiably at a low-hanging strand of tinsel.
They would not be able to see the angel from the wife’s childhood, the doe eyes and the stalky eyelashes, the gossamer wings that have grown slack over time, and soiled (there is something vaguely louche about them), the paint blistered on one cheekbone, the silky crevice within the body of the ornament where the angel is fitted to the top of the tree a nest for mice, for black beetles, for other things.
The end of the story is that the man really has locked himself out, that he really does have to wait without a coat for his wife, or go to the neighbors, that this predicament really does heighten, for a short while, the sensation of looking into his own home as if into somebody else’s life, that it is a pleasant sensation, that he does not go to the neighbors, that the wife arrives all too soon with the customary Christmas Eve Chinese take-out, that during dinner they get into another one of their low-grade arguments, that the angel from the wife’s childhood remains in the cardboard box, swaddled in excelsior among the other ornaments, that as he continues to drink and the argument escalates it gets tossed along with the other ornaments into the fire, that the man will regret this action above all others for years to come, that he will tell this story at meetings with the inevitable refrain that he wants his life back more than anything in this world. He always knows he is crossing the line into sentimentality when he observes that the Christmas angel has performed a paradoxically graceful function, that it has risen victoriously from the ashes, or permitted him such a resurrection.
He does not believe that but would like to, which is why he must tell the story, year in, year out, over and over again.
Image credit: Gwenael Piaser on Flickr
Anthony Wallace is a Senior Lecturer in the Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University, where he is also Co-director of “Arts Now,” a curriculum-based initiative to support the arts at BU. Tony has published poetry and fiction in literary journals including CutBank, Another Chicago Magazine, the Atlanta Review, River Styx, Sou’wester, 5-Trope, the Republic of Letters, and Florida Review. His short story “The Old Priest” won a Pushcart Prize and was published last fall in Pushcart 2013. His short story collection The Old Priest is the winner of the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published in September by the University of Pittsburgh Press.