Janine DeBaise

Prostitute in the Christmas Village

The Christmas village under our tree was a family project, inspired by two little lead ice skaters from my mother’s childhood. My father used scraps of wood to make little houses and a church. My mother painted on Christmas wreaths with red ribbons. We kids arranged the houses on a white sheet, adding a round mirror to be the skating pond, pine cones for trees, and an old-fashioned car from my brother’s matchbox set. Every December, I spent hours lying on the floor to stare at that village, which seemed magical to me.

Then I became a teenager. My focus shifted to the exciting world of dances, roller-skating, and boys. I wore tight jeans, black mascara, and a nonchalant attitude. I started going to parties that featured games like spin-the-bottle, and I had a crush on a boy named Randy. Childish Christmas traditions were beneath me that year. 

I was sprawled on the living room carpet doing my math homework in front of the television one December evening when Gus, the little neighbor boy, knocked on the door. Gussie’s mother had recently moved into a dilapidated house near us. She had eight kids, I think, although it was hard to tell because some of the kids lived in foster homes and came only on weekends. 

When Gus came into the living room, the colored lights from the Christmas tree were glowing, and the newly hung tinsel swayed in the shimmering light. By Christmas, the tinsel would be tangled from drafts and our household cats, but for the first few days, it was shiny and beautiful.

Gus stopped abruptly and just stared, his errand forgotten.

Then he saw the village. He flopped on his belly and looked at the houses, the bridges, the festive scene. He reached out to the little ice skaters and began moving them around the pond. “Look!” he squealed. “They’re skating!”

Our big cat Lucky napped near the grey church with its carefully painted steeple. 

“A dragon,” Gus said dramatically. “Attacking the village!”

My mother sat down on the floor next to him. “A furry dragon,” she said. “Listen to him purr. He loves the villagers, and he’s protecting them from harm.” 

That weekend Gus came to the house proudly clutching a small statue. “A present,” he said excitedly. “For your Christmas village.”

He handed the figure to my mother.

“Oh, my,” she said.

The gift was a scantily clad woman leaning against a lamp post. She had unrealistically large breasts, which were popping out of her shirt. This was the ‘70s when basement bars and sexist decor were in style. The lamp post did, admittedly, look quite Victorian and was just the right size for the village.

I went upstairs to the bedroom I shared with my two older sisters. Laurie stood in front of the mirror, putting on make-up. Carroll sat on the bed with a magazine.  

“Guess what Gussie gave us for the Christmas village,” I said gleefully, “A prostitute!” 

My sisters smirked.

At thirteen, I was curious about sex, and I knew what the word prostitute meant, and that’s where my understanding stopped. It was still years before my heart would break for Fantine in Les Miserables, years before I began to think about the economic conditions that create prostitution. I knew only that Gussie had, in all of his innocence, brought us a most inappropriate gift.

When I came back downstairs, my mother and Gus were sitting at the kitchen table, eating Christmas cookies. My mother had taken out her little jars of paint.

“What color?” she asked Gus.

“Red,” he said without hesitation. 

“Just right for Christmas,” my mother said. 

She picked up the little figure. A few quick brush strokes, and the shapely woman was wearing a red Christmas sweater.

“Everyone should have a warm sweater in this weather,” my mother said. 

By the time Gus finished his snack, the paint was dry. Carefully, he carried the little figure into the living room and sat down on the floor by the tree. My mother sat cross-legged next to him. He looked at the little church, the houses, the skating rink, and the forest of pine cones, and then he set the figure near the peach-colored house. 

He turned to look shyly at my mother. 

“Thank you, Gussie,” she said. “What a lovely gift.”

Janine DeBaise’s creative nonfiction has been published in Orion Magazine, Southwest Review, and The Hopper, amongst others. Her poetry books are Body Language from Main Street Rag and Of a Feather from Finishing Line Press. Her essay “The Space Between” won the 2020 Vinnie Ream Medal from the National League of American Pen Women. She teaches writing and literature at SUNY Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse, New York.