Back before Santa had Mrs. Claus to keep him in line, he stayed in our house for an entire winter.
One foggy Christmas Eve, long before he ever had to worry about Rudolph filing a discrimination lawsuit, Santa’s sleigh broke down while attempting to leave our roof.
The ceiling above our bedroom began to clatter so violently, I eventually shimmied with the groggy energy of a geriatric snail from my bed to see what was the matter. Moments later I was standing out on the lawn in my boxers squinting to make out a man muttering a flurry of exclamations under his breath.
“Everything alright up there?” I whisper-yelled, a tactic I’m sure my grandfather used often during brave World War II battles on enemy shores.
Santa looked down at me, bare legged, shivering, and desperately trying to look like I was in charge of something, even if it was only the square patch of sod and hydrangea bushes that comprised our backyard.
“Yeah, hang on,” he bellowed back deep from his diaphragm in a way that seemed unconcerned with anyone else in the neighborhood who was currently nestled or snug.
“Uh, actually...” he continued, “you got a ladder?”
“In the garage,” I said trying to remember the details of my home owner’s insurance policy.
“Hang on a second.”
A few minutes later, Santa and I were standing giant-black-belt-to-boxer brief on my lawn.
“I can’t believe this happened again,” lamented Santa. “I mean, I’m glad you guys were the last house on my route this year, but now I’ve got no idea how the hell I’m supposed to get home. It’ll take at least a week to order that sleigh part...and that’s IF the problem is actually what I think it is. It’s been a rough year, what with Amazon and all. And now this.”
During a medley of “huhs” and “oh boys” and “wow, that’s toughs” I mulled over whether or not to offer that Santa stay at our place for a week or so, just until he got back on his feet. My wife was still sleeping, but I’m sure she’d feel bad too if she knew the situation. And I mean, come on, this wasn’t some nobody from off the street. This was Santa, a reputable representative of the people, a guy with a track record, references, and a moral compass. Sure it was a literal moral compass that told him which houses to visit based on whether their owners were naughty of nice, but still. Before I could even finish putting my hesitant offer on the table, Santa replied “oh, I’d never want to impose” in the same tone used by someone who’s about to grab the last appetizer at the restaurant table.
I replied, “It’s really not a big deal. We’ve got a futon in the basement. It’s not much but it’s comfortable.” With that I shook his hand, brought him inside, scrounged around the hallway closet for a couple of blankets and went back to bed.
All this time the reindeer were still up on the roof.
I didn’t even think about the reindeer.
It was 3 o’clock in the morning, and frankly, I didn’t think about a lot of things.
The prancing and pawing of each bigger-than-you’d-guess-for-a-reindeer hoof started promptly at 5:30, this time waking my wife up as well.
“Merry Christmas,” I said with a sheepish grin.
Just then Santa, dressed in an undershirt and a pair of red-and-white polka-dotted boxers opened our bedroom door with a PBR in his hand.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of those guys in a minute. Know where I can get two or three more ladders?”
Two weeks went by. Santa mentioned that the initial part came in the mail but didn’t end up working. Another week came and went. He said the same thing about the next one he ordered. A few weeks later he asked me for a small loan to test out a third part. I never heard how that one worked out. Pretty soon a few weeks turned into three months. But who was counting?
I started getting notices from our HOA that we couldn’t leave a sleigh sitting on our roof for more than 6 weeks after Christmas. Neighbors would give me dirty glances on my way home from work. My boss commented that I seemed stressed lately.
The first thing that drove me nuts about Santa were the beard trimmings all over the bathroom.
Everything from the soap dish, the faucet, and the toothbrush holder to the corners where the tile met the drywall were covered weekly in coarse white hair. You’d think Santa’s beard would smell like nutmeg and fresh cut pine needles. It actually smelled like peanuts and Jack Daniels.
“Santa, would you mind using a towel over the sink next time you shave?” I asked him awkwardly one morning before work.
“Oh yeah sure” he said all in one breath as if taken aback by the question.
I can’t prove it because I had already turned my head to go out the door, but I swear I felt him roll his eyes.
The second thing that frustrated me was having to live with Donner. Santa had agreed to release the other seven reindeer into the woods on Christmas morning after my wife made a justifiably passive aggressive remark about a lack of garage space.
“I only really need one to get me back to the North Pole anyway,” Santa offered. “And Vixen was causing a lot of infighting with the other males as it was. Better off in the wild if you ask me.”
House training a reindeer was not something I signed up for and yet seemed to default to me. Having to alert Santa that Donner pooped in the dining room again would only a warrant an occasional “Don’t make me put you on the naughty list bro,” a faux scolding he said while laughing and looking around the room to see if anyone caught the joke.
He called everyone “bro” by the way. Women. Children. The reindeer. Everyone was “bro” all the time.
Then there was the constant supply of milk cartons and cookie boxes we’d find laying around in our living room surrounded by crumbs and curdling white puddles that had seeped into the couch. He hadn’t offered to pay a penny in rent and as far as I knew wasn’t bringing in any income. I wasn’t sure who was bankrolling the guy’s sugary addiction or why he seemed so cavalier about it in front of us.
My wife had about had it after the third reindeer potty accident. My only line of reasoning to her was, “It’s Santa. How can anyone kick out Jolly Old St. Nick and live with themselves? We’d go down in history with King Herod, The Abominable Snowman, and Starbucks red cups. ” But I knew for the sake of my marriage, for the sake of my own sanity, hell, maybe even for the sake of Christmas itself, I had to do something and I had to do it soon.
One night while Santa was puttering around the kitchen, I got up enough guts to bring up to him the idea that he should, you know, maybe get a job... that is as long as he was planning on staying in the neighborhood for a while. I reminded him that it was almost Easter and the local mall was looking for someone who could take pictures with kids while wearing a bunny suit.
“This is your wheelhouse Santa: Malls. Kids. Theatrics. Commercialism. You’d be perfect.”
Santa didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm.
“What I do isn’t commercialism.” He replied with an extended blink. “What I do is art.”
Really? I thought to myself. What’s your medium of choice: Cheeto dust or empty Chips Ahoy sleeves?
Except I didn’t just fantasize about my sarcastic burn. I said it. Out loud. In front of Santa Claus. It was as if all my veiled frustration and muffled anxiety had violently ruptured toward the roof of my mouth forcing my teeth open and was now just sort of hanging out there in a gaseous state between us.
“I’m.. .I’m sorry Santa.” I said after a brief moment. “I didn’t mean that.”
Santa let the awkwardness linger like a weapon. Then, laying a finger aside of his nose, he picked it. Afterward, he shuffled to the fridge, grabbed a beer I had initialed with a permanent marker, and went back downstairs into the basement.
The next morning I opened the garage door and noticed Donner wasn’t in his usual spot — tied to the elliptical and licking the weed wacker. As I pulled out of the driveway I saw the sleigh was gone from the roof. I got out of the car and went back into the house, ran down to the basement and found our futon neatly assembled back in upright position, the blankets folded and pillows tucked neatly to one side.
My mind began to flood with a series of new questions and quandaries: Did I permanently offend an international cultural icon synonymous with joy and happiness? Were there voicemails from worried elves and toy manufactures wondering if and when Santa was coming back to work? Was the sleigh ever really broken to begin with?
I began walking up the stairs, Guilt and Relief both swishing around in my brain like a very strong margarita.
From out of the corner of my eye I noticed something elegant displayed on the card table next to the futon Santa had been using as a night stand. Beside a glass of fresh milk was a plate of cookies — dark chocolate, my favorite kind.
A warm rush of Christmas magic swept over me. I tipped toed back down the stairs to marvel at the intentional gesture up close.
It was coal.