Bah, Numb Bug, Dec 7, 2022
After Sabrina Orah Mark's "Bah, Humbug," The Paris Review, January 16, 2020
It is December in Tennessee and warm. There are three Lego minifigurines on the mantel. I’m trying to decide which one is going to be a baby Jesus stand-in because one of the dogs has eaten the Christ child.
I’m running a Twitter poll and Yoda is winning, probably because of Baby Yoda.
“Can I have a Christmas tree?” My son asks.
“No,” I tell him.
I’m resistant because I know why he wants one; he might not be home for the holidays and that numbs my heart like Novocaine.
Not-holiday music is playing and our neighbors’ holiday lights are up and abrasive in the daylight. There are lights lining the eaves and sidewalks and they feel vintage but aren’t; they match the neighbors’ xenon headlights speeding through the neighborhood; a perpetual train of too-big SUVs and too-big houses and too-big blow-up holiday figurines that scare the dogs. The light lines are Rockette-soldier-perfect, too straight to be parents and kids wonkily hanging them. I imagine their nativity scenes are Willow Tree or from Italy or at least matching and not filled with two broken-handed Joseph’s tending to multiple Mary’s and a variety of wise men clutching whatever gift is the MLM essential oil one, because—suburbs. CHRISTMAS feels like bigger letters with bigger screen televisions and cars with obscenely-large red bows on them.
It isn’t all garishness; there’s one special night where our entire small city sets out lumanarias with candles and sand weighing them down. Every cul-de-sac and every neighborhood is lit up. The next day there are only glowing and flaming white bags at curbs. The night time glow is all sand and soggy paper as the Boy Scouts come by and pick up remnants.
When I was a kid, my grandmother’s tree went up on Christmas Eve while we were sleeping. It was part of the gifts with a strand of bubbling lights in primary colors encircling the table tree and soft packages that meant socks and underwear and warm gloves because those were practical, needed gifts that I hated because I was a kid, because I didn’t know that there was no money for other things. I think of her bass voice O Holy Nighting the night in a way that still makes me cry when I hear the song.
At my other grandmother’s house, I naughtily watched The Love Boat and Fantasy Island with my older cousins and cracked nuts with my grandfather’s silver nutcracker until the shells made a neat pile in the basement and my mother yanked me away from the television and pecan halves.
In the not-quite holiday music days and daze, I’ve heard two “numb” songs in a row, both Tik Tok sensations first, and radio hits second. I hum the numb songs, numbly because they’re what’s on. I think of the music that played at Montgomery Ward during 90s holidays when I was a manager; two polar opposite songs competing every hour with each other to overtake the numb shoppers and number employees: Madonna breathily and sexily singing Santa Baby and Burl Ives crying about a baby laying in the holiday snow for a not-Yoda Jesus to find.. Who thought those were the right holiday songs? The numb songs are actually a better fit. Scrooge would have liked them and I imagine Mary might have used them as white postpartum noise to get Jesus to go to sleep.
My husband tells me about a news story where people at Dollywood have had their Apple watches call 9-1-1 because the watches think they’ve all careened to their deaths. This is funny because he has a Tesla and we have a Roomba and they are both equally-confused about near death. Both semi-robots—one car and one vacuum—often think they’ve plummeted off the road. They are numb. There are bugs in their systems—the Apple watches, the self-driving/self-loathing cars and the vacuums that hate vacuuming so much they get stuck under couches and spin until death or my husband comes to take them back to home base. I remember I need to plan when to bring my son back from college to his home base too.
It’s time to put up our Christmas tree. I try to have it up after Thanksgiving but I’m late as usual. The nativity, with its Yoda slash baby Jesus has stayed on the mantle all year as I was late putting it up too and later thinking about taking it down, but it has come full circle so maybe I’m now early?
I honestly hate our tree.
We can’t have a real one because of ME. I’m allergic to all things pine. Ironically, I worked at a Christmas tree farm as a teenager and lived with perpetual hives. An MLM woman I know who definitely doesn’t put up her own lights, rubbed “stress oils” on my arms until I swelled up like a Kardashian after fillers and smelled like a Christmas tree and looked like a round Christmas tree ball ornament. I kind of hate her. Almost as much as the scratchy tree but I know she’s numb too with her essential oil gifts.
Our Christmas tree is as old as our marriage, 75% off at Kmart two decades ago. It has tiny colored tags that used to have numbers on them, but in twenty-two years, the numbers and the holes in the dark green metal base are worn and disconnected. Those tags are supposed to lead the way to installation like the Christmas star, but they don’t anymore. I drag the tree parts out of the battered box. It looks more like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree than the one or three or six that are set up in my neighbors’ front rooms and front windows and back porches and upstairs stair niches. The only miracle is I finally get it together but there’s always one stray branch that never quite fits.
My husband reminds me it doesn’t matter because the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol like the Easter Bunny but I can’t imagine anyone worshiping our tree. They might burn our Christmas tree at the HOA stake because it isn’t pre-lit or pre-put-together. The nativity is the same age as the tree, Mary is missing a hand and Joseph may or may not be the shepherd boy and there are five Wise Men from different nativities we’ve bought over the years, none matching but all vaguely in the same realm, ready to welcome the arrival of baby Yoda
My son is a Christmas baby, not home from the hospital until the 23rd of December. I was numb that year with a sick baby and staples in my gut, swaddling him like the baby Jesus in a jaundice blanket so we could go home.
Both kids are really too old for Christmas now. There will be a few presents under the tree that will cost more than a few dollars—electronics and cash. There won’t be visits to see The Nutcracker because there are college apps to fill out and exams and holiday parties with friends. I hate our city’s new version of The Nutcracker anyway. They’ve reimagined it, turned into some kind of rock opera with Russian nesting dolls in hip hop costumes and Mother Ginger singing raps and Clara in some kind of Victoria’s Secret babydoll nightgown with her pointe shoes. I long for the old school version. I long for an old school Christmas where kids glue glitter on paper and there’s a nutcracker that cracks nuts and doesn’t just look pretty.
I’m numb this holiday and the last and maybe the ones before that. Putting up the tree is a tangible way I use to force myself into the festive spirit. This year, the numbness looms like The Nothing crawling into The Neverending Story. I think about both kids not coming down the staircase on Christmas morning for the first time next year. I can’t replace them with Lego figurines. I don’t know how to match the my-kids-have-flown-the-nest-tags with what next year will look like. I thought I didn’t know what was bothering me this year but I know it’s because I’m going to hand both kids cash and headphones and dorm towels and things that are grown up gifts and that next year they’ll both be away, with their own small trees.
“Do you want to visit Dollywood over break?” My husband asks.
I think about getting on the rides and having my Apple watch call 9-1-1 because I’m going loop-de-loop on a rollercoaster and have the heart rate of a numb person.
We haven’t been to a holiday church service in two years because of the pandemic and I miss toddlers with construction paper and cotton ball sheep and drummer boys and choir boys and the Hallelujah Chorus.
I think back to other holidays and settle on one when we were invited to a Muslim friend’s home. There was a bookshelf style-tree in their living room. Religious figurines and other small items lined the shelves. At the very bottom (kid-level) was a row of toys and action figures, Lego minifigures, elephants and G.I. Joes. They were worshiping with the family, with us. I know the lower shelves were designated for the kids but I wonder if some of those toys were fillers added by an exhausted mom.
I don’t know why I’m holding onto our Peanuts tree. I salivate over expensive pre-lit trees but never buy even when they go on sale. The tree is from when we were newly married and newly pregnant and newly parents and too numb and too poor, and never-too-joyous, when Christmas was a struggle and when it was a triumph and when it was not a $2500 team of light engineers in the cul-de-sac. I wonder if my Apple watch would call 9-1-1 if I suddenly ditched the scraggly tree and its scratchy branches. Would it pick up on my fancy tree heart rate and bring in an ambulance?
I decide I can't face the crowds in a holiday church service but I need to do something. Yoda is sleeping in his ceramic straw bed and with him overseeing, I drag out ornaments and kids to help decorate. When we’re done, I look at the scraggly tree and it has perked up somehow. It’s suddenly not as lopsided with its sentimental hodgepodge of homemade ornaments. I am less numb too when I see tiny hands and snowmen and macaroni and construction paper and walnut shells glued on cardboard, glued on glitter.
On Christmas Eve, the ceramic Baby Jesus is still missing. The dogs look suspicious while Yoda looks even more at home. Both kids are home. Madonna is crooning and Mariah Carey is belting over Alexa. There’s a strange light glowing on baby Yoda’s face as we gather by the mantel and stare at the rag-tag nativity.
I’m not sure I’m going to take it down.
I want to help both kids find their own tradition, their own fill-in-the-manger-with-what-they-find holidays. I don’t know what that looks like either. They don’t know either. Will there be spouses and children and Christmas mornings down staircases and Chinese food on New Year’s Eve? Will there be rows of white flickering bags when they come back home? Why haven’t I bought a full Lego nativity?
We leave the house for mall shopping and the grocery store to buy pre-shelled and chopped pecans for pies. I take Lego Yoda in my pocket to remind me of what’s on the mantel and to find joy. We play Settlers of Catan in the basement and frost a wonky gingerbread house in the kitchen and pop crackers filled with paper crowns and jokes and corkscrews. There are lights on the house and in the house— holiday lights to lighten my heart, not as bright as the Christmas star but still leading us home.
I mutter Bah, Numb Bug at the dogs and ask if they’ve seen the Baby Jesus.
When I sat down to write this “cover” essay, I didn’t know exactly what that was, so I started by thinking about television talent competitions. The judges admonish the performers to keep the original song at heart but to also make it their own—with tones, styling, lyrics or pacing. The goal being to keep the original song recognizable but also with the voice of the competitor, with emotion and resonance. I immediately thought of a holiday-themed essay by Sabrina Orah Mark. I’ve always thought it is risky to write “after” poetry or prose that is inspired by an admired writer because it can cross a line. My goal was to give the feeling of the essay, focused on the holiday season, without straying into dangerous “after” territory.In the case of this Mark essay, I tried to take the approach of covering a song but with all new words, instead of a new singing style or pacing. I decided to focus on nine main parts of the essay to “cover” that I found in the original: objects, religious aspects, a sense of place, memories, family, food, holidays, pacing, and a search for meaning. My religious background is different. My kids are older and leaving the nest soon. I tried to “cover” the original by integrating mentions of things like nuts and a holiday tree—but with my own memories as the impetus.
But first, I started at the beginning. To keep with a musical cover theme, I also included mentions of music and played with Mark’s original title to reference currently-trending songs. Her "Bah, Hum Bug" became my "Bah, Numb Bug" in the cover essay. I opened my essay with a line similar to her opening but grounded in my own place. The pacing of the essay felt important and I tried to maintain my own version of Mark’s rhythm as well in the writing tone.
I explored my approach to the holidays related to each of the main elements in “covering” the related topics. Just like a song chorus or refrain, I also inserted repetitive elements through objects and intangible things. Christmas tree. Searching for a replacement Baby Jesus. My dogs. Light. The holiday season. My hope is that in the end, I created a good enough writing homage to not get voted out by the reading public slash judges.
Amy Barnes has words at The Citron Review, JMWW Journal, Janus Lit, Flash Frog, No Contact Mag, Leon Review, Complete Sentence, Cease, Cows, Gone Lawn, The Bureau Dispatch, Nurture Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit, McSweeney’s, SmokeLong Quarterly, and many other sites. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, long-listed for Wigleaf50 in 2021 and 2022, and included in Best Small Fictions 2022. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn co-editor, Ruby Lit assistant editor and reads for NFFD, CRAFT, Taco Bell Quarterly, Retreat West, The MacGuffin, and Narratively. Find her at @amygcb on Twitter. Amy is the author of three collections: Mother Figures (ELJ Editions), Ambrotypes (word west press), and Child Craft, forthcoming from Belle Point Press in 2023.