Christmas Day

Ricky Ginsburg - Christmas any year you'd like

Nearly eight thousand miles, yet only a few milliseconds flight by sleigh south of the northern tip of the globe (nine deer-power, greased rails), on an island not much larger than your neighborhood, a content and well-fed deliveryman sat on the trunk of a fallen palm tree and peeled a banana. At the other end of an invisible eight thousand mile-long-string, a black woman with perfectly straightened hair and considerable girth lay naked on a bed of fresh goose feathers and straw, waiting for the driver of said sleigh, just as she'd done for centuries.

Only this year, he wasn't coming home.

Yes, Virginia, there once was a Santa Claus. Fat, jolly, all the appropriate adjectives you could shovel into a sack. And yes, he did manage, through the trickery of science fiction and an outlawing of disbelief, to deliver presents to every deserving person on the face of the Earth in a single night. And finally, yes, he did once live in a place so cold and snowy that matches froze the moment you lit them and where refrigerators were un-doored, de-shelved, and used as bathtubs.

But not anymore. Old Jelly Belly hacked out one curtain-closing "Ho, ho, ho" and cut the reindeer free last night at one minute after twelve - Christmas Day. His sack was empty, save for cookies, cakes, and a few miscellaneous items he'd accumulated on the trip. The reindeer were gone, all nine of them covered in slobber and soot, and what whale blubber was still on the rails had hardened to a sharp gleam. Three, four, possibly five centuries at the same job was enough to burn out the strongest of the seasonal icons; Santa Claus had been at the helm for ten, a full thousand years.

He'd been to every country, every city, town, and hamlet; every house, apartment, and teepee man had ever cobbled together and most of them hundreds of times. Was it any surprise he had no need of a travel agent when he decided to retire?

His island, roughly four square miles at low tide, had been Amelia Earhart's home for the last years of her life. Commercial aircraft missed the tiny atoll by hundreds of miles in each direction. Cruise ships failed to document the place on any chart. The only visitors to Santa Claus's island on Christmas Day were a family of night-feeding crabs who scuttled back into the Pacific for safety when he landed, only the second such arrival in the island's career.

Santa had brought the famous aviator a collection of engine parts and struts every Christmas, but never enough to get her airborne it seemed. Yet she was determined to finish her journey and refused his offer for a ride home, even as the pieces of her plane lay rusted and useless. She left behind an eleven-hundred square foot thatched hut on the beach, a dozen acres of coconut palms, and hundreds of fruit trees from seeds that had lodged in her wings and flaps on her aborted flight around the world. Santa had eaten his last reindeer steak, polar bear patty, and seal stew; in the waning years of his life, he was going vegan.

There were birds on the island, both indigenous and migratory, but Mr. Jolly hadn't even packed a Bic disposable for the trip. If a lightning bolt hit a pile of tinder, there'd be fire, but the only thing he'd ever cooked was a Meerschaum pipe and that too had been left behind. Clothing was no longer a requirement for the four-hundred pound Santa; no cameras, no paparazzi, not a single blip on a government radar screen to capture his image. The thick red coat, size too many Xs, made a wonderful blanket and his waterproof boots would capture rainwater.

Santa finished the banana, his fifth of the day, and lay down on the talcum powder beach, spreading his arms and legs several times to make a sand angel. Above him, more stars than adorned every slaughtered pine tree in Des Moines twinkled for his pleasure. At his feet, a murmur of small waves burbled and faded, the pulse of the ocean in the dark. He looked over his shoulder at the full moon and howled with the glee of a timber wolf in heat, "I'm free!"

***

Mrs. Claus waited until sunrise before slipping into her nightgown and shuffling over to the workshop. Elves, drunk and snoring were scattered about the floor half-covered in shreds of cloth and pieces of cardboard. To someone who'd never seen the workshop on Christmas Day, it would have appeared as though thousands of homeless children had congregated for some pagan ritual in a toy store. Stepping over, around, under the few who hung from the overhead lighting like green bats in a cave, she made her way to the garage.

Three of the four sleighs were parked where they'd been on the day before Christmas Eve. Xmas One, her husband's favorite and the sleigh he'd used for several centuries was still gone. Snow filled the tracks just past the open garage door, but blubber drippings had congealed on the wood-planked floor, marking where the rails had been prepped for Santa's annual 'round the world excursion.

All of the reindeer had returned with the exception of Rudolph, who, if the truth be known, couldn't find his way off a dead-end street, and Blitzen, who made it as far as Marin County, California. (Rudolph had flown south instead of north and was currently munching on several mossy outcroppings in Antarctica. Blitzen had found vegetation better suited to his demeanor but was having trouble standing.) And although she'd only driven a sleigh to WalMart and back, Mrs. Claus began the arduous task of hanging a long-distance harness rig on the seven available beasts.

Elfis Presley, foreman of the housekeeping staff, arrived at the garage just as Santa's wife had locked Dancer into the lead harness. Staring at the odd configuration for a moment, he pointed at the empty space and asked, "Where's the old man?"

"If he was here, I'd be able to tell you." She reached for the oilcan, mounted alongside the driver's seat. "But he didn't come home last night, so I can't."

"Did he call?"

"Sure. He called and said, 'Roll out number two, just in case I missed someone.'" Mrs. Claus shook her head and mumbled something about little people under her breath.

"He did?"

"Oh for God's sake, you idiot. In a thousand years, has he ever missed a stop?"

Elfis shrugged. "I've only been here for nine hundred."

"No, then. He's never missed a stop; he's never been this late getting home." She squirted a stream of oil into the lubrication groove of the closest rail before pointing the can at the elf. "Get a dozen of those drunks up and sober enough to harness the other two sleighs. There are enough stinking reindeer in the pen to put six on each. Start the coffee pot and fill me several gallon jugs when it's ready." She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. "And get the Governor of Alaska on the phone. She's probably on her porch still looking for Russia."

"Anything else?"

She shook her head. "No."

Elfis bowed. "Ah, thank you very much."

***

As Santa had only been to the one dwelling on the island, and his last visit was over sixty years ago, he spent Christmas Day exploring. Weight, heat, and humidity combined to slow his expedition, but concern for those annoyances was light-years from his mind. A small lake, half a mile inland, was filled with rainwater and wrapped by a solid blanket of lush, green vegetation. He found a bar of Irish Spring in his sack, purloined from a house in Bangor, Maine the night before, and marched into the cool water to wash the last of the chimney dust from his beard. "I am king of all I see," he bellowed to several flocks of birds watching him from the surrounding trees. "You birds want fresh worms next Christmas?" He nodded. "Best not crap on my head when I'm sleeping. Ho, ho, ho! No, that's not right. Ha, ha, ha, perhaps? Hee, hee, hee?" Tossing the soap over his shoulder, Santa floated on his back, scratching the white mound of his belly. "Nah, that's not me." He shouted to a passing cloud, "Yuck, yuck, yuck!"

One of the birds swooped down from a palm and landed next to the sack. It walked tentatively into the bag and flew out moments later with a large chocolate chip cookie in its beak. Santa watched the bird and gave a few seconds thought to getting out of the refreshing water to tie the bag closed. "Go ahead and eat them," he urged the birds, "you'll get fat and then what?" He rubbed his massive stomach. "And then what?"

***

Never having spent any time alone, save for one night a year, Santa Claus found the lack of voices disconcerting at first, straining his head into the breeze every time he thought someone was speaking to him. The birds crackled and whistled at each other and occasionally it seemed as though they were mimicking human speech. A coconut, too long in the tree, fell behind him and Santa jumped, thinking that Friday had marched out of the jungle as he'd done for Crusoe on his private island.

Slowly the heat and pace of last night's efforts wore him down. The short walk back to the beach exhausted the last of his strength and he collapsed in the late morning sun, muttering the word "alone" as he drifted off to sleep.

It was not without surprise and a modicum of disappointment then, when the sleeping recluse was awakened by the shrill voice he thought he'd escaped twenty-four hours earlier.

"What in the name of all that's holy are you doing? Where are your clothes?"

Santa rolled over, face down in the sand; not wanting to believe the voice was really there. "Oprah? How did you find me so fast?" he murmured.

"Oh good Lord, the damn GPS."

"GP what?" He rolled back and shielded his eyes from the morning sun.

"The global positioning thing that you liked so much." Mrs. Claus pointed at his overturned sleigh, now partially buried in the sand as the tide had receded. "Leftovers from one of my audience giveaways. We put them into all the sleighs last summer so we could track your route this Christmas."

Santa spit several grains of sand. "Ugh."

She stood with her hands on her hips and looked down at him. "Only we didn't think you'd do something stupid like this." Mrs. Claus kicked a pile of sand at one of the birds who landed next to her. "Do you have any idea what's involved in re-tasking a satellite? I had to give new Camrys and a set of Craftsman tools to a group of young technicians at a military outpost."

"You couldn't give them American cars?"

Mrs. Claus blew out a breath and threw her husband a blanket from her sleigh. "Get yourself covered up and fly us home."

Santa wrapped the blanket around his waist and sat up in the sand. "I'm not going home. I'm staying here."

"Oh?" She stuck her tongue in her cheek and folded her arms across her chest. "Really?"

"Yep." He stood and turned from her, spreading his arms wide. "Look at this place. It never snows, there's fresh water, a beach, and more fresh fruit than a farmer's market."

"And what about Christmas?"

Santa shrugged. "Let them celebrate Chanukah."

"That'll go over well with the Pope."

"I'm tired of being a delivery service." Kneeling, he picked up a seashell and skimmed it across several waves. "Give the job to UPS."

Mrs. Claus frowned at him. "You tried that once and they went on strike."

"Yeah, and then thanks to you, the elves learned about unions and minimum wages."

"You've no one to blame but yourself." She walked over to the sleigh and refueled her coffee mug. "This is your job, Santa. No one else can do it. Lord knows, I've tried but you can't fit the entire world inside a television studio."

He pulled the blanket tighter and started to walk toward the beach hut, pausing to ask her as he reached the doorway, "Do you really expect me to do this job forever?"

"If not you, then who?"

Santa Claus tugged on his beard for a moment and winked at his wife. "How about you?"

With the sun at full bake, Mrs. Claus' temper had boiled. She dumped the cold coffee on the sand. "I'm retired, chubby. You think all those years of listening to screaming housewives and annoying producers is something I'm going back to?" She pinched the bridge of her nose and slowly shook her head from side to side. "No way, baby. This is your job." Tossing the whip at his feet, she turned toward the sleigh. "How about you get your big, fat chimney scraping ass into this sleigh and we go home?"

"Hey, it's Christmas. Don't I get a day off?" he protested.

"International Dateline, dumbo." She smiled. "Christmas Day was yesterday. You're on the wrong side of the International Dateline. You had your day off."

He looked up at the sky as though the line was part of the breeze. "No."

"Uh, huh."

Reluctantly, he reached down and snatched his coat, throwing it over his shoulders, and stepped into his boots. "Nice place for a vacation, though."

Mrs. Claus nodded. "Maybe we can come back for Easter."

They mounted the sleigh, Santa taking the whip in hand and ordering the reindeer to depart. But as they climbed through the clouds, he reached down, ripped the GPS unit from its bracket, and let it fall to the clear blue water below.

The rest of Ricky's website.