The doctor reads the sperm count aloud, and Ben comes to a sudden, sickening realization. Even with his own rudimentary understanding of science and mathematics, he is almost certain that the number disclosed in the file should consist of many more millions.
The doctor, a slim, grey man, stifles a yawn and taps a rhythm with his pen; his indifference resonates within the small confines of the examination room. ?Of course, you do have options. It’s not the end of the world.?
Ben tenses his jaw, ready to spew a thousand expletives. His small hands ball into fists, and he envisions punching the doctor in the face, bloodying his nose, and jolting him from his grating nonchalance.
?I have some literature here you should probably take a look at,? the doctor continues, rooting about in his desk.
Ben watches the old man shuffle through reams of paper, and his vitality suddenly abandons him. His anger has dissipated as quickly as it had erupted, and he can now manage only the most basic of gross motor skills.
So he pulls on his coat and stumbles from the room.
Ben drives home as the daylight wanes. His dark eyes stare, unseeing, at the snow falling against the windshield. The Christmas lights that line the streets waver in his peripheral vision and blur into bright, watery, smudges of colour. From the rear speakers of the pickup, a radio announcer vies for his attention, but Ben silences him with an angry snap of the dial.
He circles the neighbourhood twice before finally pulling into his driveway. He idles in the fading light, studying the bungalow he shares with Sarah, staring at the red and green floodlights she has placed to brighten the front entrance. It is a good house, he thinks, with good bones?one that they had imagined filling with children. As it is, though, there have been only an old cat and a dying houseplant to share their living space. He knows why.
The snow finally stops, and Ben sits and listens to the intermittent squeak of the wiper blades across his windshield. Sarah appears, fair and angelic, in the large square of light cast from the living room window. She beckons Ben with a wave of her hand, and then disappears from sight. He has no choice now but to go inside.
She greets him at the front door with a kiss and a smile. ?Might I ask what you were you doing out there, skulking about in the dark??
He eyes the small, gold crucifix nestled in the hollow of her neck. It glimmers in the light.
?Just listening to the end of a song,? he says.
He looks at the floor, the bare walls, anywhere but in her eyes.
She wraps her arms around Ben’s waist and tries to meet his wandering gaze. ?What’s wrong?? she says, but she knows.
?Nothing,? he says.
?Ben, what did he say??
His silence conveys all that she needs to understand.
She pulls Ben close and holds him tight. For a long while, they simply share the stillness that has fallen over their home. Ben looks past Sarah to the wreath that sits on the kitchen table. He has yet to nail it on the front door.
Finally, Sarah holds his face firmly in her hands, forcing Ben to level his eyes with hers. ?It’ll be okay,? she says. ?we’ll figure something out.?
The cat enters the room, eyes them both with disapproval, and begins calling to them with long, drawn-out howls. Ben withholds the urge to kick the cat into the next room. With a sudden chill, he pulls away from Sarah and goes to bed.
He lies in the darkness that night, listening for Sarah’s breathing to settle into a rhythm. Once he is able to hear her slight snore, he slides out of bed and pulls on his jeans and a sweatshirt. It is not until he is on his way out the front door that he realizes he is wearing one of Sarah’s oversized sweatshirts?white, with a pink Roots logo emblazoned across the chest. In one seemingly fluid motion, he takes the sweatshirt off, turns it inside out, and pulls it back on. Inside out, the pink stitching is barely noticeable, he decides. But for good measure, he zips his coat up to his chin and steps out onto the front porch, quietly locking the door. He wonders if he will ever return to hang the wreath he has left neglected.
Just outside of town, Ben pulls into the parking lot of a dilapidated little pub. He would have guessed the building to be condemned and abandoned, but the few cars parked out front suggest otherwise. So Ben cuts the ignition, drops down from the cab, and makes his way toward the entrance. As he draws near, he can see that the windows of the establishment are vibrating with the muffled pulse of rock music. The neon sign over the door used to read ?The Gown and Gavel,? but most of the glass tubes are dead and dark, leaving the sign with only a few consonants and vowels. Ben steps over a mess of bodily fluids and broken bottles, and then enters the building.
The pub is dark and half-empty. A band plays ?Born to be Wild? as a drunken woman in a short, red, sequined dress moves about on the dance floor. Her partner, an angry-looking young man with a mullet, shifts moodily from foot to foot in time with the music.
Ben seats himself in a corner booth where the upholstered bench is stained yet comfortable. A pretty but surly waitress approaches and raises her eyebrows in anticipation of his order. She appears to have no inclination to speak with Ben, and stands there, rubbing her one free hand absently over the small swelling of her belly.
Ben has to shout above the music. ?Red wine??
She does not offer any selections, nor does she write down his order or acknowledge him in any way. She simply walks away.
Ben waits and waits. After a while, he begins to feel like a phantom that might fade into the wallpaper. He could disappear entirely, he thinks, and no one would ever be the wiser. Not in this room, anyway. With the exception of the drunken woman in red, everyone in the pub seems shadowy and strange. Their faces are husks.
Just as Ben is about to give up hope of the waitress’s return, she arrives?grudgingly?with his wine. It is a white wine, a Chardonnay, and not a very good one. But after the second, third, and fourth glasses, Ben is not quite as discerning.
It does not take long for the alcohol to cloud his mind, and soon he is scanning the room with slow, tired, stupid eyes. The drunken woman is still kicking up her heels on the dance floor, shaking and shimmying to ?Jumpin? Jack Flash? now. Her man is at the bar, sitting this one out, stewing in his own surliness.
Suddenly, it occurs to Ben how desperately he needs to urinate. He rises to his feet, only to find that the floor has become unstable and he must now concentrate on each step. He stumbles across the room, attempting to appear sober. He narrowly avoids a collision with the unpleasant waitress, but bashes his shins against something hard and angular in the process.
Somehow, he makes it to the washroom, relieving himself and washing his hands purely by some unconscious, routine means. It occurs to him in one brief moment of clarity that there is a tampon dispenser in the washroom and no urinals, but the thought is fleeting and he soon dismisses the matter entirely.
On the way back to his table, Ben crosses the dance floor. There he finds the drunken blonde alone, swaying slowly to ?Freebird.? She sees Ben and begins grinding her hips in his direction. He feels almost preternaturally obligated to complete the ritual, so he begins to dance with her. He hears a few catcalls from the darkness beyond the lights, and he thinks dimly of the boyfriend at the bar. The lights are hot and blinding as the woman presses her body up against Ben, moving in perfect rhythm to the music.
But the wine has dampened Ben’s libido. He stumbles off the dance floor, hearing jeers and laughter from all sides. He throws down some crumpled bills at his table?a few coins scatter in the dim light?and and then he leaves.
In the parking lot, Ben is searching his pockets for the keys when he hears scrambling footsteps approach from behind. A sudden solid and painful blow at the back of his head sends white spots flashing in his field of vision. His keys drop to the pavement. Ben turns and finds the drunken girl’s boyfriend raging behind him, fist raised and ready.
?Think you can dance with my girl, dickwad?? he shouts.
The boyfriend is younger than Ben. Although he is small in stature, his shoulders are broad and his biceps stretch the thin material of his shirt. There is an almost feral quality about the young man, something that Ben knows he should fear. He considers for a moment that he might be able to talk his way out of this particular predicament.
The boyfriend keeps his fist raised over Ben, waiting for him to cry mercy.
But Ben decides he does not want to cry mercy.
?I don’t wanna dance with your girl,? Ben says finally. ?I wanna fuck her.?
The boyfriend’s eyes widen, his lips pull back from his teeth. He smashes his fist down, splitting Ben’s bottom lip wide open. The fresh stab of pain, and the blood that follows, sober Ben somewhat. He looks up and sees the boyfriend’s face all twisted with anger. He notes a small, gold crucifix stud in the young man’s ear. It glimmers in the available light.
The boyfriend picks up Ben’s keys from the pavement, throws them up on the roof of the pub, and walks away, laughing.
Ben lies on the ground, looking up at the stars. He listens to the low bass pulsing from the pub’s interior. He listens to the passing cars and figures that if he lies there long enough, someone will come along and run him over.
But eventually he pulls himself to a sitting position. He then rises to his feet on shaky legs. Although his body has suffered only minor damage from hitting the pavement, the crystal face of his watch has shattered. Time is left trapped at 1:03 am.
He grabs a handful of snow and cleans the blood from his face. He puts some of the snow in his mouth to slow the bleeding, and soon there is only a faint trace of pink in the slush that he spits to the ground.
He looks across the street and sees an old church, brightly lit, with a Nativity scene constructed on the front lawn. He crosses the street and staggers toward the manger, bathing himself in white light. Mary, Joseph, and the three wise men are only poorly drawn wooden cut-outs, but Ben feels himself drawn to the makeshift crèche nonetheless.
He moves ever closer to the bed of hay. He feels a strange anticipation; he draws a breath and holds it in his lungs. He inches himself toward some hazy sense of salvation.
But the bed is empty. There is only a small, dirty blanket left strewn in the hay.
Ben exhales, and then collapses into the manger, knocking Mary and Joseph to the ground. He vomits in the snow, and then everything is blackness.
Ben awakens to the sounds of birds and distant traffic. He opens his eyes to the bright blue sky above. His head and face hurt, and as he rises to his feet, he vaguely recalls his defilement of the manger only a few hours earlier. Mary and Joseph stare up at him with accusatory glances. The bed of hay still lies empty.
Alongside the church, though, something catches Ben’s eye. There he can see that repairs have been partially completed on the exterior of the building.
Next to the church is a heavy piece of machinery, a motorized scaffold with an elevation device resembling the workings of an accordion. However, it is not the machinery itself that interests Ben; it is the small limb he sees protruding from the top of the scaffold.
He studies the machine in order to find a foothold, and then makes his ascent. The climb is not difficult, and when he reaches the top he finds what he had expected: a baby doll, the Christ child, lying face up on the scaffold, his limbs askew?tossed from his bed, no doubt, and left to the elements.
Ben takes the doll gently in his arms, and he climbs down from the scaffold. He swaddles the babe in his blanket and places him back in his bed. He returns Mary and Joseph to their upright position so that they might continue their adoration of the child.
Ben stands back to assure everything is in its rightful place. And then he begins his long walk home to Sarah.