By Maureen Langloss
The Virgin Mary was lying next to me on the hospital examining table. A good four feet tall, she took up almost as much room as I did. She was hollow inside, which made her light enough to carry around. Lord knows I’d carried her enough places. I’d wanted to get here early enough to ditch her first, but Billy had a runny nose, and Valerie needed help with her family of apple dolls, and I had to pee three times and scrub the countertops once before the apple carving and once after, and the traffic into Peoria was bunchy, and—let’s face it—I was jittery as hell.
I put my hand on my stomach and then instantly wished I hadn’t. The technician who did the warm-up ultrasound had left gel all over it. And now my hand was sticky too. The nice ones cleaned you up before they fetched the doctor, but this one was too busy. One-in-twenty. That left a ninety-five percent chance everything would be just fine.
I looked over at Mary and fought the urge to wipe the dust from the chip on her forehead. I didn’t want to get gel there too. It was already darker than the rest of her face, like a bruise. Some nights, when I couldn’t sleep, I found myself thinking about what caused that chip. Children with stones. A fall from the pulpit. A senile nun with slippery hands. The other statues’ jealousy. But it was probably just somebody’s carelessness. I held Mary’s ceramic head a little tighter in the crook of my arm so she wouldn’t fall off the table. I was pretty sure it would be bad luck for her to crack into a million pieces. If she broke into two or three parts, I could probably glue her back together real nice. Then maybe the luck wouldn’t be so bad. Burt said I was a genius with crazy glue. But I didn’t want to risk it. One-in-twenty chance and all.
This Mary was one of the pregnant versions. Her stomach bulged out right beside mine. I’d say she was a month or two ahead of me. Her veil fell to her feet and would’ve mostly covered her white, flowy dress if she weren’t holding her arms out, palms up to God. I held my gelled-up hand in the same position so I wouldn’t mess my clothes. Mary’s veil was painted the exact shade of blue Aunt Betsy always used to ice her cupcakes—real stingy so it barely covered. She could stand to add a touch more butter and sugar too. Instead of sprinkles, Mary had bits of sparkle dusted over her. They were noticeable when the light was right, which it wasn’t here. These hospital fluorescents were holding back secrets, if you asked me. They made Mary look like she was hiding something too.
Was it three months already since Billy and I had hauled her and her secrets over to Mrs. McGraw’s? I remembered how badly he’d fidgeted in the backseat. We were both pretty worried what the old woman was going to do to us. I made Billy hold the Virgin so she wouldn’t get hurt in the car, but she’d probably never been in greater danger. Billy kept tapping her against the back of my seat. I was afraid her head would snap off.
“Do you think the real Mary looked as pale as this?” he asked.
“That’s none of your business,” I replied.
I straightened Billy’s shirt as we walked up to the house. Mrs. McGraw opened the door but didn’t step out all the way. She had hips like boulders. There was no way we were getting past them. We would have had a better shot if we’d made it inside. We could have put Mary on the davenport in front of the TV, gotten her involved in a good soap opera and made a run for it.
“I’m sorry,” Billy whispered to Mrs. McGraw.
“Speak up, son,” she said and adjusted her bifocals like they’d help her hear.
“He said he’s sorry. He took your Virgin Mary, and we’re here to give it back.”
“That thing ain’t mine.”
I looked around her yard. The place was crawling with garden gnomes.
“Yeah, it is. Billy stole it while you were out back tending to the yard. He did it on a dare from the Sundberg twins. And we’ve come to return it.”
I put my hand on Billy’s shoulder to let him know it was okay. He could stay quiet now. I’d promised him all he had to do was say one sorry. One seemed bad enough. He was only eight after all. And everybody knew Mrs. McGraw was the crankiest old lady in Henry, which was a pretty cranky place to begin with.
“I’m telling you, Gwen, it ain’t mine.”
“My son doesn’t lie.”
“He just steals.”
“Yes, he steals, but he doesn’t lie. If he says he took this Virgin from you, then I believe he did.”
I set the Madonna down as careful as I could on the front porch. I positioned it nice so it could greet Mrs. McGraw’s guests. Then Billy and I turned down the gnome-lined front walk to our car.
“You can’t leave that thing here!” Mrs. McGraw shouted.
“But it’s yours,” I said over my shoulder, without slowing down.
Mrs. McGraw still wasn’t having it. She charged out her door after us, hips and all. She was surprisingly fast.
“Is it because of her forehead? Because Billy said she was like that when he took her.”
The old woman didn’t answer. She just heaved the Virgin into my arms. The blessed thing damn near fell. So there I was, holding Mary again, the pee stick having shown two pink lines that morning, wondering where I got off having a third kid when my first was stealing Virgin Marys that couldn’t be returned. Stealing before the child had even outgrown his super hero underwear.
As soon as Dr. Hill walked into the room, my heart started racing. His hair was cropped short like an army soldier, and I’ve never cared much for that style on a man. It makes me jumpy. If it hadn’t been for the hair, I might not have shaken his hand. Instead I passed stomach gel from my fingers to his.
“Have you ever had a CVS before?”
When I shook my head, he started explaining what he was going to do in a slow, sympathetic voice. He smiled a lot. I heard him say something about how, at thirteen weeks, you have to go in through the stomach instead of the vagina. But I didn’t hear another word after that. One-in-twenty sounded okay this morning. I’d made it sound okay. It meant there was a ninety-five percent chance the baby would have all its chromosomes in order. I pulled out my calculator to be sure, the one I do Burt’s books with. I’d put it on print mode, so I could hear the numbers bang into place and see them on that long strip of paper. I had the paper in my pocket now. Ninety-five percent was a good number this morning. But now one-in-twenty sounded like the kind of odds Burt bet on at the track. I tried to remember how many times he’d won with one-in-twenty odds. It seemed like he brought home that gambling money all the time.
My OB had called last Friday to tell me my PAPP-A number was low. I was cooking fried chicken and rice, and the oil made a crackling sound the whole time we talked. I didn’t know what PAPP-A was. No one had even told me they’d tested for it. From what I could tell, the doctor didn’t have a good idea either. She told me they added up my age and this PAPP-A number that they got from my blood and the size of this little fold on the back of the baby’s neck that they measured on the ultrasound. Then they came up with a number that was somehow equal to my kid’s odds of not being normal. The number was one-in-two thousand in my last two pregnancies. God knows Billy wasn’t normal even though he tested just fine in the womb. People didn’t always get him, and he sure didn’t get them. He couldn’t say hello out loud to teachers or anyone with long hair or too fake a grin. And besides that, he had night terrors at least once a week, even though the doctor told me he’d outgrow them by now. He got sweaty and kicked and hollered, then yawned and fell right back to sleep. Valerie was even worse. She had all sorts of trouble remembering the words to songs and where she left her shoes. She was six-years-old and still couldn’t pick out the number nine. Her teacher told me to start pasting nines all over the house, which I did even though I knew it wouldn’t make any difference. She wasn’t ready for nines yet. Maybe if she’d been one-in-three thousand, she’d be there, but not yet.
My OB told me I should drive to Peoria as soon as I could to have this CVS thing in case we wanted to… And then she trailed off. She told me there was a new doc who came from Chicago two Tuesdays a month to do nothing but amnio and CVS tests.
I pulled my calculator paper out of my pocket and held onto it as tight as I could, like it was a train ticket to somewhere good. The doctor from Chicago was hovering over me, but he wasn’t doing anything yet. He stood there a long time, and I wished he’d get on with it already because my pants were down to my hips and I was pretty sure he could see my private hair. Plus, they’d told me to drink a bunch of water beforehand and now I could pee like a sprinkler.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Williams, do you need this here?” The doctor was pointing down at the Virgin, all delicate and respectful-like.
“Is it in your way?”
“Sort of. If you need it, though, I can reach over it with the needle. I think.”
“Oh goodness, no. I don’t need her. I don’t want you reaching with any needle.”
“You must really need her, if she’s here with you today. We understand how stressful this is. I’m pretty sure I can work around—”
“Don’t you worry. See, I’m not religious. I probably look religious holding this thing, but I’m not. I go to church every week like everybody else, but I can kind of take or leave Mary.”
The doctor looked confused.
“I mean ‘Ave Maria’ is a great song, don’t get me wrong. I love that song. Burt and I had it at our wedding. I wish they’d play it every Sunday. But I only put this one here because I didn’t know where else to set her down.”
The doctor stared at me like he’d just swallowed a rosary. I hoped he didn’t hold it against me when he put the needle in. From the look on his face, I got the feeling he was one of the Mary-Christians. There were the Jesus-Christians and the Mary-Christians. If you grew up with a Mary-loving Mom, you pretty much turned out that way too. It was always the Hail Mary before supper. My mom made us say it before bed too.
“In fact, Doctor, you’re more than welcome to have this here Mary. Isn’t she nice? I’d really like to give her to you as a gift for doing me this favor.”
“Of helping us, you know, find out if there’s Down Syndrome in there.” I pointed at my belly.
“I couldn’t possibly take your statue.”
The doctor nodded at the technician, who gently lifted Mary from inside the nook of my arm and put her on the counter, right next to the ultrasound screen.
“They didn’t even have these tests back when Mary was pregnant,” I said because it was suddenly so quiet and the doctor wasn’t smiling anymore. “She just had to take her chances, I guess.”
When Mrs. McGraw didn’t want Mary back and Billy couldn’t remember where else he might have stolen her from, I drove around all the neighborhoods within biking distance to see who else it might belong to. I made Billy come along. I told him it was part of his punishment so he’d never steal again. But, really, I only wanted his company. He had some funny stories, that kid. His teachers kept saying, serious and worried, that he was the class clown. I always liked the class clown. I even had a crush on one of those kids. Andrew Ward. In the second grade, he gave me a card that opened with, How do you stop a fish from smelling? On the inside it said, Cut off his nose. Billy loved that joke, so I helped him make a bunch of notes like Andrew’s for the girls in his class. We got pretty good at drawing fish without noses. Puffer fish mostly, because that was Billy’s favorite. One of the moms complained that the card was sexual in nature, but I didn’t see it. I guess that’s the kind of complaint a class clown gets, even when there’s no call for it. I told her Billy didn’t know what sex was yet. We hadn’t explained what the “virgin” part of Virgin Mary meant.
Aside from a few houses with birdbaths and some sunflowers on sticks, we didn’t see any yards that came close to looking like Mary’s true home. So Billy helped me put “Did you lose this Madonna?” signs up at school and church and on some trees. We took a picture of Mary and taped it on the signs. No one called. I had some spotting that week, but the doctor told me not to pay it much mind. I paid it a lot of mind. We waited for days for someone to call then reprinted the signs on neon-colored paper, even though neon was more expensive. I took the statue to six different churches, but not a one would take the donation, not even for the rectory. They only wanted cash, on account of things being so bad at the Caterpillar factory. Parishioners were losing steam at the collection plate. I stopped bleeding, but I still checked my underwear every time I peed to make sure it didn’t start back up again.
“Why are you letting this Mary get to you so bad?” Burt asked. “It’s a cheap statue.”
“I think she’s pretty,” Valerie said. She was stroking the Madonna like it was one of her Webkinz. “Why don’t we keep her?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“She’d look so good on the table next to my first holy communion cake.”
That child hardly had any of me in her. At her age, I’d begged my mom to let me wear my baseball uniform to my first communion instead of the silly lace dress she bought. “The uniform’s white,” I told her. “The only rule is we have to wear white.” But Valerie demanded a special dress and wanted me to sew it myself. She picked out a pattern with Aunt Betsy almost a year before the big event. I had to hand it to her, it was unlike any dress I ever could have dreamed up—so pretty and intricate I probably wouldn’t have it done in time. I’d have to start praying there wouldn’t be pins falling out of her hem the whole way down the church aisle.
“Let’s put Mary out at the tag sale on Sunday,” Burt said. “Somebody’s sure to buy her after sitting in church all morning.”
I never had such bad morning sickness as I did that particular Sunday, which was actually a relief because it meant I still had the pregnancy hormones. I kept chewing on the saltines, but it didn’t do a lick of good. We still weren’t telling people about the baby because anything could happen before we made it to fourteen weeks, right? I was thirty-eight. My womb’s grip probably wasn’t what it used to be. So I had to smile at people who didn’t want the Virgin, even though I’d really rather have retched onto their shoes.
We got rid of an air conditioner that was always on the fritz, a bag of matchbox cars, twenty-two DVDs and a whole carton of scratchy toilet paper we won from the IGA over in Lacon for spending way too much money there, but no one wanted Mary, even priced to sell at ten cents. Mrs. Farson bought my old Christmas cookie plate with the angels on it, and I offered to throw in Mary for free.
“Oh no, I couldn’t take on something like that. I’m running the art program at school this year,” she said. “Besides, Joe swears so damn often, it wouldn’t be right to have her in the house.”
I picked Mary up and studied her from all directions. I couldn’t think of anything to do to make her more attractive—other than filling in the chip on her forehead, which I didn’t have time for—so I sprayed her with Windex. That’s when I noticed her eyes were staring down at her belly. Always down. It really irritated me. Was a little eye contact too much to ask? No wonder no one wanted her.
Dr. Hill was cleaning my stomach now. I wanted to ask why he had to get the entire area so good when the needle would only poke one little hole.
“You’re going to feel a sudden menstrual-like cramp when the needle goes through the uterus, and then it’ll all be over in less than a minute.”
I felt sorry for women whose menstrual cramps did stuff like this. Mine never came close to the lightning bolt that struck my stomach. It made me want to jump, except I couldn’t move. I didn’t even want to breathe for fear of sending that needle straight through my baby’s skull. No wonder there was such a high miscarriage rate with this test. What had I been thinking agreeing to it? I didn’t want to watch the screen, but I couldn’t help it. If you asked me, that needle was way too close to my baby. One wrong breath and it would be curtains. I tried not to panic. One-in-twenty. One-in-twenty. It was all I had to focus on.
More than a minute had to have passed. Jesus, it felt like thirty. The way this doctor was rooting around in my placenta, he reminded me of Burt, snaking a drain. Not much difference between a plumber and a doctor, I decided. Just trained to suck out different stuff.
I felt so afraid to move that I didn’t even want to blink my eyes. But I couldn’t look at that ultrasound monitor any longer. It was making me sick. So I shifted my pupils, real careful and slow, to Mary. She was above me on the counter. For the first time, she looked me right in the eye. If only I’d raised her above my head before, we would’ve made contact easy. Turns out the Madonna wasn’t as distant as I thought. Her eyes were calm, like you’d expect them to be. I tried to let them suck me into all her peace. Then I started wondering if she ever worried about Jesus in her womb having some awful disease. Probably not. I mean, why would God knock her up with a kid who didn’t stand a chance of being able to multiply the loaves and fishes into a feast and all that other stuff he had to do? Still, if Mary had a low PAPP-A number, would she have hitched a donkey to Bethlehem for a CVS? Would it have felt like a menstrual cramp to her? They would have had to pull her long robes up all the way over her belly. She would’ve been even more exposed than me. I bet her legs would’ve frozen in this air conditioning.
I wished I hadn’t tried to throw her out. It’s just that I got so nervous with her around. I was pretty sure having a stolen Mary in the house was bad luck for the baby. I waited one night ’til it was nice and dark. Then I tucked her into our trashcan and wheeled her down to the curb. The can screeched like mad against the driveway. Mrs. Benson peeked out her window and waved at me. I swear she knew what I was doing. The next morning, I couldn’t stand being home alone with Mary down in the trash, so I headed to Burt’s office to make some promotion calls.
Hi, Shirley. I see you haven’t had your septic tank checked in a while. You wouldn’t believe how many people called this month with overflows. Backs up right into the tubs. Bernice’s mother-in-law was visiting when it happened. Can you imagine?
That night we came home to find Mary standing on the curb, keeping vigil over the otherwise empty trashcan.
“Damn garbage man,” Burt said and rubbed my neck.
I let a week go by and then I rolled Mary up in an old throw rug. I buried her at the bottom of the trash, snug and tight and hidden.
This time, the trash collector left Mary on our front step.
“Why don’t we take her to the dump ourselves?” Burt asked.
“None of your business,” I said and carried her up to the baby’s room. It was actually only an extra wide hallway off our bedroom, but I was going to make it real cozy. I’d always imagined the room in pale green with a fish bowl on the dresser because I’d heard that, if a room didn’t have a window, a fish tank would make a good substitute. I was sitting on the floor next to Mary when Billy walked in.
“Sorry, Mom,” he said. “If I was the garbage man, I’d always let people throw out what they want to throw out. Even if it was a Nintendo DS.”
As soon as the doctor eased the needle back to the safe side of my stomach and I could breathe again, a question flushed right out of me before I could stop it. Sure, the thing had started bubbling up in me the second the OB called on Friday—real hot like the oil in my fry pan. But I never let it get anywhere near the surface.
Do you think Mary would’ve had one of those abortion things if Jesus’s CVS had gone bad?”
Dr. Hill didn’t look as shocked as I felt for having let the question slip out. Maybe women asked this all the time.
“We’d be happy to direct you to our genetic counselors or the hospital chaplain if you want to talk this through,” the doctor said with his same old smile.
He took my bits of placenta over to the counter next to Mary and started examining them. One-in-twenty odds.
“We’re good here. Don’t need to get another sample,” he said.
This time the technician wiped my belly off until it was perfectly dry. She handed Mary back to me and told me to rest until tomorrow. God, did I need to pee.
“Don’t lift any heavy objects for the next seventy-two hours,” she said.
“What about her?” I asked, pointing to Mary.
“Don’t worry. She’s pretty light.”
I started pulling up my pants while still in the lying-down position. I was trying to figure out the best way to sit up without making the tiny hole in my uterus split wide open, when the technician got real close to my ear. She whispered so quiet I almost couldn’t hear.
“Mary was a brave lady,” she said and paused like she was about to share a fat piece of gossip. “She wouldn’t have been afraid to do anything.”
She took me by the elbows and pulled Mary and me right up to sitting.
Walking down a hallway with pregnant ladies pressed against the wall waiting for their tests, I held Mary to my chest like a baby in a sling. My stomach was sore and I was having more lightning cramps. I couldn’t believe they didn’t wheel me out of the hospital in a chair. It didn’t seem right for me to walk. I decided not to stop in the bathroom. Who knows what could fall out of me? I shuffled as slow as I could, wishing I hadn’t helped Valerie with the apple heads for the crafts fair. Then I would’ve had time to deal with Mary before my appointment. I didn’t like those crafts fairs anyway, even if Valerie’s apple dolls were the best the town of Henry had ever seen. She got the cornhusks just so and the expressions on the faces were sharp and happy.
Thank God the hospital chapel was close to the maternity ward. Only problem was, the door was closed and looked heavier than any normal door. They really went the extra mile to make sure God didn’t leak out. I stood there a while, going back and forth about whether the door was too heavy for me to open. They didn’t tell me what “heavy object” meant exactly. I decided I could risk it if I used my back, so I turned around against the door, cradled Mary in my arms and pushed as gently but forcefully as I could.
It wasn’t much of a chapel. The flower arrangements were dusty and fake and there wasn’t a cross over the altar. I stepped onto it to find the right spot for Mary. Actually, it might not have been an altar at all. It was just a tiny, lopsided platform. I didn’t think it was a good idea to stand anywhere lopsided in my condition, so I stepped right back down. I felt guilty leaving Mary in this kind of a chapel and not even on the altar itself, but the place definitely could use sprucing up. She’d be a great addition, no doubt about it. People were always leaving newborn babies on hospital steps, so it seemed right to leave this orphan Madonna here. I turned her at an angle to look into her eyes one last time, whispered goodbye and placed her carefully beside the fake daisies. Just as I did, the heavy door opened and a cleaning cart came pushing through.
“Do you mind holding the door?” I said to the cleaning lady.
I was halfway to the exit when she called, “Wait. You forgot your statue.”
“I was leaving her here on purpose, as a contribution to the chapel.”
“We can’t have no Marys in here. This ain’t a religious place.”
“How can a chapel not be religious?”
“It’s only a place to pray. And I got to keep it clean. That there statue’s gonna break the first day it’s here. What am I gonna do with the mess then?”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“What’re you doing leaving something like that behind anyways? She’s precious.”
“You think so? Maybe you’d like to have her?”
The woman frowned. “No.”
“Mary’s not for me.”
She pushed her cart to the side and sat in a folding chair. I sat beside her. The cramps were better that way.
“You’re not the only one,” I said.
“I never could understand her.”
“I know. God’s baby. Who’d agree to that?”
“Agree to what? I think she made the whole thing up. It was Joseph’s baby, if my name ain’t Elma Green.”
“Really?” It had never occurred to me that Mary’s story might not be true.
“Or the baby coulda been some other man’s, and she made up the son of God story so Joseph would still marry her.”
“I might like her better if she was a liar,” I said. Maybe then I’d trust her. I crossed and uncrossed my legs to try to find a better position for my bladder. “My mom always told me I should think of her as a friend. But she was the kind of friend who made me feel bad about myself. You ever have one of those?”
The woman took Mary from me. “This one sure is pretty though. Kind of sparkles, don’t she?”
“She could sparkle more,” I said.
There were magazines and pregnancy books and candy wrappers and number nines all over my bed. The phone was right next to me in case they got my test results extra extra fast. Valerie was acting like it was a day of rest for her, too, lying beside me with her head against my shoulder, popping Tootsie Roll after Tootsie Roll. She was warm and sticky and I loved her that way.
“I’ve had a change of heart,” I started to tell her. I should be less determined. I should let things be and not force them.
“The doctor can change your heart?” she asked. “Is that why you have to lay here?”
“Is that why your stomach’s all blue?”
My pajama top had shifted up, and she was right. There was a stain on my stomach like a blue sun rising up from my pubic bone. The old me started to panic. What did they do to the baby to make it leak blue? Then I realized it was the antiseptic the doctor used. I’d shower tomorrow and it would come off. But if it didn’t come off right away, I wouldn’t scrub. I was done with scrubbing. A light rinse was what I was willing to give.
Ninety-five percent chance that all would be fine. Fine didn’t need to be perfect, did it? I wasn’t going to get rid of something just because it wasn’t perfect.
So we decided to give up trying to throw out the Virgin Mary. Billy came in with the paints and newspapers. He spread the papers over the blankets like I asked, and we set Mary on top of it. I watched as the two of them dipped their paintbrushes and went to work. I tried not to tell them to be careful about dripping paint everywhere. I tried not to tell them what designs to make. Valerie had taken a shine to hot pink recently, so she spent a long time making the color out of red and white and a hint of blue. Billy didn’t waste his time mixing. He set right to work with pure blue. He started with the arms, making crooked stripes on one and a bubble pattern on the other. I expected the kids to fight over who got to paint what, but they didn’t. Valerie stuck to the back and Billy took the front and arms. Neither of them touched her face. They left it just as it was.
“I’m pretty sure this Mary would’ve waited for Baby Jesus Number Two if she had bad CVS results.”
“She wouldn’t have stuck with Baby Jesus Number One. Fate of the world resting on her and all.”
“Whatever,” said Billy.
“Whatever,” repeated Valerie. “She looks beautiful now.”
“You two do amazing work.”
Billy shook his head. “Something’s missing.”
We all stared at Mary. Billy was right. We chewed Tootsie Rolls and thought it over. The weather was supposed to be good for a few days, so maybe we’d go down to the river with a picnic basket after I was up and about. I’d make chicken sandwiches and fruit salad. Valerie shouted something we couldn’t understand through her mouthful of chocolate.
“Swallow first, honey,” I said.
“We forgot the glitter!” she repeated, more clearly this time, but there was still a lot of chocolate in that mouth of hers.
The kids fetched the sparkles. They dumped them all over the Madonna, and she was helpless to stop them. There was glitter in my bed for months, even after I washed the sheets. I kept finding gold and silver specks in Burt’s hair and in the creases of my skin.
Maureen Langloss is a lawyer-turned-writer and mother-of-three living in NYC. Her work has been published in Literary Mama, Necessary Fiction, Prairie Schooner blog, Timberline Review, The Good Men Project, and Project Eve. She can be found on Twitter @MaureenLangloss or online at maureenlangloss.com.