“…and I heard him exclaim as he drove on through the night, ‘Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!'”
Jim shut the book with a decisive snap. “And to bed with you now,” he growled playfully, wrestling four year old Matthew up from the couch where he and his brother Andy had been listening to their bedtime story, and giving him a small push toward the stairs. “And be quick about it, or Santa won’t come and fill up your stockings.”
“What’s a sugarplum, Daddy?” inquired Matthew, as if sugarplums held some new and very important meaning for him now.
“It’s a kind of candy.” Jim tried to sound annoyed. “Come on, now. I’ll be up in a few minutes to tuck you in.”
Matthew scampered obediently up the stairs giggling. “On Donner, on Blitzen,” he cried, disappearing around the corner at the top of the stairway and romping off down the hallway that started there. Jim waited until he heard the bedroom door shut. Smiling to himself, he turned from the stairway and started back to his chair in the living room.
Andy was still firmly rooted to the couch, staring at the Christmas tree. Jim stood by him for a moment, entranced by the changing colors on Andy’s face, made by the blinking, red, pink, green, and blue bulbs. Fathers are proud of their oldest sons and Jim was no exception. He could have stood there for hours beaming with pride, but tonight was not the night. “You’re thinking,” he said.
The rainbow of colors showed the change in expression as Andy turned to look at his father. “There’s no such thing as flying reindeer,” he said matter-of-factly. Jim tried not to let his own expression betray him. “How does Santa really get around with all those presents, Dad?” Jim pretended to think about it. He ruffled his fingers though Andy’s hair. “There’s really a very logical explanation for it,” he said, hoping the big words were formidable ammunition. “But it would take much, too much time to explain, and you need to go to bed too.”
Begrudgingly, Andy pushed himself down and stood staring for a second at his slippers. “You can tell me tomorrow, I guess,” he said. He turned and headed slowly up the stairs. “Make sure your brother brushes his teeth,” Jim called. “I’ll be up in a minute.”
He collapsed on the couch and stared vacantly at the hearth. The tinkling sounds from the kitchen told him his cocoa was on its way, bringing with it the moment that he hated, but knew he could no longer avoid. The tinkling stopped. He forced a casual smile back onto his face and turned to watch Annie carrying two steaming cups in from the kitchen.
She set the cocoa carefully down on the coffee table, and then settled into his lap, wrapped her forearms around his neck and kissed him. “Mmm… you ready to tuck a couple of boys in, Santa?” she asked. Jim nodded, welcoming the momentary respite.
In the bedroom, Jim and Annie took their turns with each boy. “Do you think Santa will bring sugarplums?” Matthew wanted to know. “I’m sure I don’t know,” his mother answered, tucking the blankets snugly around his neck. “He just might.” Andy lay staring at the ceiling, completely lost in his own thoughts. “Good night, boys,” Jim paused at the door. “No, like the book,” said Matthew. Jim looked at Annie and she smiled. “Merry Christmas to all,” they said together, and then Matthew joined them giggling, “and to all a good night!”
Jim closed the door and followed his wife silently down the stairs. His feet beat the steps like a funeral drum. He sat reluctantly next to her, back in his spot on the couch. Annie waited for him to pick up his cocoa and then pulled her legs up under her and turned sideways on the couch next to him. He was sure she was staring at the lump in his throat. He swallowed hard.
“They fired me.” The words froze his lips as they passed. The whole world turned to ice. The Christmas tree lights turned pale blue. Frost formed on the surface of his cup, and howling winds filled his ears. He knew he should have said something sooner. He knew he deserved what was coming. He turned to Annie to face his fate.
Annie’s face was calm and warm. It melted through the ice, brought color to the tree and replaced the howling winds with the pounding of his heart. He couldn’t meet her gaze and sheepishly turned away again to finally sip at his cocoa for the first time. Annie let the cocoa settle on his tongue. “How is it?” she asked.
Jim nodded. “It’s perfect,” he said. He cast a furtive glance to catch her peaceful smile. Annie’s face was so simply beautiful, he couldn’t endure it. The anger he feared wasn’t there, only a patient anticipation of what must be a good explanation. “Well, not fired, laid off,” he said, “but it’s the same thing.”
“How long ago?” Annie held her smile.
Another sip of cocoa to assist another difficult swallow. “Two weeks. Right after our big shopping trip.” Annie’s smile remained unchanged, but the tension showed in her unflinching eyes. “I know I should have told you,” he confessed.
“But you didn’t,” Annie’s voice trailed a little, but still sounded unsettlingly pleasant.
“I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to ruin Christmas. I thought…” Jim fidgeted nervously. He could feel the tension that Annie’s face didn’t show, hear the questions her lips weren’t asking. The worst of those questions had been gnawing at him since his notice. “There won’t be any Special Gifts from Santa this year,” he answered it unasked. He cupped his hands around the warm cocoa and hung his head. “The boys are going to be so disappointed.”
Annie picked up her own cocoa and sipped at it thoughtfully. She pushed her fingers into Jim’s hair, pulling it away to study her husband’s brooding face. Frustration with Jim wasn’t new, and now wasn’t the time for frustration. Christmas wasn’t ruined. It would just be harder to pay for. “You know what?” she said. “Things have a way of working themselves out!” She leaned forward and kissed underneath the hair she had lifted away. “Don’t forget your milk and cookies, Santa Baby,” she said in her sexy voice.
The treats for Santa had been set out, according to their young family tradition, before the bedtime story. Jim wasn’t in any mood for milk and cookies. A little whiskey in his cocoa maybe. He almost smiled at the thought of the melted marshmallows floating in a cup of scotch. Annie’s hand twisted through Jim’s hair as she stood silently to leave him with his thoughts. He watched in the back of his mind, listening as she walked quietly up the steps, picturing her undressing and finishing her cocoa with her book while she waited for him.
Jim’s thoughts dragged him away. His company had been struggling. Business was down for the winter. Jim was not the only employee who had received a notice when the budget meeting had closed the doors early for the holiday season. He had tried to remain hopeful when he had been called into Mr. Whitmore’s office. He even allowed himself to be relieved when he heard the word “layoff”.
Mr. Whitmore had been deeply apologetic, but he had made it clear. There was no cause for the optimism Annie clung to. This was no temporary layoff. He had already secretly submitted his resume to several companies, but there would be no job offers. Certainly not before the new year was under way. By then, the bills would arrive and there would be no way to pay them, including the extra bills from the presents that now gnashed their teeth at him from under the tree.
He slowly finished his cocoa as he watched the flickering bulbs toying with the patterns on the wrapping paper. Red, pink, green, blue… He shook off a few of the wild dreamlike images they conjured. The boys had been to see Santa and they had made their wishes. They would be expecting the Special Gifts that wouldn’t be there. Red, pink, green, blue…
His thoughts are interrupted by a loud clatter came from the kitchen. Startled, he looked at the cup in his hand. It was empty but he didn’t remember finishing his cocoa. There was the noise again. Had Annie gotten back up? He set the cup down on the coffee table and walked into the kitchen to see what the disturbance was. He almost fainted when he arrived at the kitchen doorway. It was not Annie.
A hideous, disheveled warthog-like monster stood on its hind legs in his kitchen. Its front feet were on the table. It had knocked over the milk and was lapping the last of it from the table when Jim walked in. Only a mess of crumbs remained from the cookies. Coarse hair stood out in grotesque tufts about its body and legs. A long tongue wrapped out to clean the remaining milk from a flat nose and the two short tusks on either side of it.
Equally startled by Jim, the creature stood upright away from the table, and to Jim’s complete surprise, it spoke. “I’m sorry,” it grated in a voice that resembled a tracheotomy voice box. “Note said the milk and cookies were for me.” It pointed back at itself and shrugged its shoulders. Jim blinked in utter disbelief. He definitely didn’t remember getting up to fill his cup with scotch. Fascinated, and a little dizzy, he pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. “I’m pretty sure the note said ‘Santa’,” he informed his guest. “I helped the boys write it.”
“Santa Claus,” the warthog said, its voice as coarse as its skin. It stretched out a hand that more resembled a hoof. Jim simply stared at the outstretched appendage. “Ah yeah, I understand,” it continued in its guttural grunt, and withdrew the offered handshake. “A thousand apologies again there, James. I know how this must look.”
Jim’s eyebrows pushed together of their own accord. He looked back over his shoulder suspiciously at the cocoa cup sitting on the coffee table in the other room. “I don’t think you have any idea how this looks,” he said. “How do you know my name?”
His guest drew a curious expression and then slid out a chair, seating himself opposite Jim at the table. He studied Jim’s face for a moment. “Well, I know because I’m magic,” he said. It sounded like something Jim would say to one of his boys. “Maybe… you should be more curious what I don’t know. What do you say? Think that cute babe Annie’s still waiting up for you? How’ve things been working out for you at the office there, James?”
Jim frowned. The creature obviously knew the answers to both questions. “If you’ll pardon me, I had Santa pictured a little differently.”
“Fat guy in a red suit? Comes down the chimney? Big bag of toys?” The warthog seemed to smile under his tusks. “You have to admit that image is more appropriate for children. Why you can just imagine if little Cindy Lou Who had wandered out to find a Grinch like me.”
“I don’t know that that was exactly what I pictured,” Jim started.
“Nap… fat guy in the red suit… not me. Didn’t have a thing to do with it.” He waved a hoof at the table. “I’m more in the milk and cookies business, you see. All that other stuff… the North Pole, workshop full of elves… all for the children. But children grow up James. Why Andy already doesn’t believe in flying reindeer.”
Jim shook his head. “How…”
The warthog went on. “Flying reindeer might be nice. I can see it.” He spread his hooves out in front of him. “Hmph! Might want one with a search beacon though. Not sure how much good a red nose is gonna be.” He raised an eye up toward the ceiling. “Nap.” He shook his head. “Just slow me down, you see. Same as the elves. Sit around waiting for some elf to hook me up… never get a thing done.”
He stopped, suddenly lost in his own train of thought. Jim took the opportunity. “You can’t expect me to believe any of this,” he said. “I’m an engineer. The physical logistics just don’t work out. You’re trying to convince me you are visiting all these different homes, and you’ve probably been in mine ten minutes already. You couldn’t visit a hundred more houses by morning at this rate, certainly not millions. And delivering all these gifts is an enormous task. You couldn’t do it. You would have to be able to carry tons. It’s not just about flying reindeer. There’s no such thing as Santa.”
Warthog Santa roared with laughter. He leaned forward across the table. Jim winced at the close-up view of the mucous wetting the end of his nose. His breath was sickly sweet like turning hay.
“You don’t believe in Santa,” he leaned even closer.”But you believe you’re sitting in your kitchen with a talking warthog!” He leaned back slapping his hooves against his side and laughing so loud Jim was sure it would waken Annie and the boys. “That’s just rich, James! Just rich!”
Jim watched as he chuckled himself out.
“Listen, let me help work this out for you, engineer,” Santa said. “You think you’re imagining me, right?” Jim half-nodded, not sure what he believed anymore. “Right! So if you’re imagining me, what’s the problem if I tell you I’m magic? You imagined me that way, you see. And if I’m magic…. it’s completely possible I can be everywhere at once.”
Hardly an explanation, Jim thought. Just a little verbal slight of hand.
“You’re making it too complicated, James. Christmas isn’t about gifts. Gifts are nice, but…” He leaned forward a little on the table again for emphasis. “James, you of all people should know it’s the parents who do that job.” He stopped and stared into Jim’s eyes waiting for the thought to sink in. When he was sure he saw the lights come on, he made his point. “Christmas is about people believing in miracles. That’s my job. One miracle at a time.”
Jim began to get angry. “You listen,” he barked. “Miracles are no more real than flying reindeer. I lost my job. I have hundreds of dollars in extra bills coming. No way to pay them. No way to make my house payment. I have two little boys upstairs, I love with all my heart. I’m their miracle. I’m Santa Claus. And you know what? Tomorrow morning they are going to come down those stairs and find out there is no Santa Claus and there is no miracle.”
His voice was raised almost to yelling, when suddenly he realized he was yelling at his cocoa mug. He blinked as the images quickly faded. Annie’s hand was on his shoulder. “Are you coming to bed tonight?” she asked. Jim shook off the malaise. He looked at the empty mug in his hand and sniffed at it. Just cocoa. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I must have dozed off.” She took the cup out of his hand, set it on the table and took him by the hand. “Come on sleepyhead.”
Jim woke up to the happy Christmas morning sounds of the boys scavenging presents under the tree. Annie was already up with them. She must have taken care of the stocking stuffers. He dragged himself from the bed, grabbed a robe and trudged down the stairs. He arrived at the bottom and rubbed his eyes in disbelief. Two Special Gifts from Santa stood beside the tree in their customary place. They had come in spite of him. The boys had emptied their stockings and their happy voices were like Christmas carols on his ears.
Annie came over to kiss him. “Merry Christmas!” she said. He rubbed his eyes again, remembering his dream on the couch and smiled. He did believe in miracles after all. Annie was a miracle wasn’t she? No wonder she had been so calm. She must have already known he’d lost his job, and somehow found a way to find some help. The resumes. Of course! One of the companies he applied to must have sent back a rejection letter in the mail. “Merry Christmas!” he sighed.
“I don’t know how you did it,” Annie said, still snuggled up to his chest. “You’ve got sleepy eyes. You want some coffee?” She smiled. Jim sighed again. This was going to be his payback for keeping his mouth shut. At least she held back the sarcasm in her voice. He watched her toward the kitchen.
Matthew ran over and began tugging at his robe. “Daddy, can we open the presents now?” He ran his hands through Matthew’s hair. “Well, what about it?” he asked. “Did Santa bring you those sugarplums?” He knew Santa had. Matthew ran to get the contents of his stocking.
“Oh Honey,” Annie stopped at the kitchen doorway. “Santa brought something else too.” She pointed out an envelope sitting on the mantle above the fireplace. “It’s addressed to you.” She smiled again and winked.
Jim walked over and picked it up. The envelope had no return address or postmark. He looked to see if Annie was watching but she was out of sight in the kitchen now. This was going to be her way of telling him a man needs to talk to his wife. She was right too. He knew he deserved far worse than what was probably only her way of forgiving him for being himself. He took a deep breath and opened it.
Matthew tugged at him again. “Are these the sugarplums?” Jim nodded. The envelope contained two letters and two checks. Puzzled, he peeled the first letter and began to read…
Did you forget me that quick? Reindeer fly, James. Elves make toys. The North Pole is an amazing place this time of year. It’s all true. True every word, because kids all over the world believe it is. That’s where you and I come in, James. And that’s why I’m not for kids. That’s why they get the red suit and the chimney. They believe in miracles so we keep giving them the ones they believe in.
You’ll find here a letter of explanation from your company, James. Appears there was a clause they overlooked in your contract. Can’t terminate you without cause unless they keep paying you. Sweet deal, you see. Couple of checks there too. Ought to help out a bit with those bills you were so worried about.
Christmas isn’t about gifts, James. Christmas is about believing in miracles. One miracle at a time, you see.
Jim skimmed over the second letter quickly and then stared at the checks in in his hand. One covered his pay for the two weeks he had been laid off and the the other was a Christmas bonus. He shook his head. He didn’t remember any such clause in his contract. The second letter even mentioned a recommendation and a reference for a position with another company.
Annie came back with his coffee. “Who was it from?” she asked and then noting the bewilderment on his face, “What’s wrong?” Jim just stared in confusion. She took the letter from his hand and read it. “Oh, that’s nice,” she said handing it back. “Mr. Whitmore sent a personal letter of apology. See? I told you things have a way of working out.”
Jim snatched the letter and looked at it. The company letterhead was unmistakable. “But…” He didn’t know what to say. He turned to look at the two Special Gifts standing there and turned to look back at Annie. “What?” she asked, handing him his coffee. Jim took the coffee from her and turned to look once more at the gifts, then the letter, then his wife.
Annie smiled and winked. “Oh by the way,” she said. “‘Santa’ made a real pig of himself with the milk and cookies this year.”
© 2010 Anne Schilde