The speakers in Kmart bellowed out that age-old admonition that Santa Claus was coming to town—that you better be good for goodness sake. Rather disconcerting as I’d been hearing it and other familiar Yuletide jingles since Halloween. Before going any further, let’s be clear. Though I am annoyed by the commercialism, I’m not one of those bah-humbug, Scrooge types that despise Christmas. In fact, as I headed for the automotive department, an endearing memory returned, triggered by the sight of a little girl (four at most) bouncing toward me, her little feet doing double-time to those of the two adults at each side, her arms hugging a large package—the source of her huge smile and the buoyancy with which she hurried along. The memory had nothing to do with gifts or shopping, simply the spirit, the familial warmth surrounding my dad, brother, and myself as we went about setting up the platform for our tree. When finished, it would be complete with a train and a little town of model houses and businesses. This was a family tradition that stood out on this particular evening because a blown fuse had pitched us into a world of darkness. My dad, already bigger than life to me, remedied the situation by inserting a penny into the empty socket after removing the blown fuse—until he could get a new one at the corner market a few minutes later.
The girl and memory adjusted my attitude—the music was perfect. As I watched her go by I couldn’t help wondering, “What if Santa really did come to town?”
In hindsight, I had fallen into a mundane life that felt like my summer workdays as a teenager, plowing and disking fields of wheat stubble or weedy earth that seemed to go on and on so that I thought I could truly feel the curve of the planet. At least then I knew things would change with my return to school in September. Everything current seemed to be either unmercifully repetitious or just not how I had expected or hoped it would turn out. It seems that something cataclysmic needed to occur to allow me to see the deep rut I’d been trudging. I was aware of my numbed acceptance of the bombings and shootings, the abuse and neglect occurring daily, but the small events that started late Friday and continued into the early hours of Saturday awakened me to the fact that despite my continual strife to make the best of everything, those daily atrocities and the ritual wrongness of the so-called civilized world had tainted my disposition and soul with a desperation that affected my innermost times of peace, sending me to bed at night as though having just listened to the anguished voice of Herbert Morrison during his eye-witness account of the Hindenburg crash.
I have a deep understanding of the benefits of positive thinking, maintaining a good outlook, and the acceptance of things beyond my control. I have an overall sense of purpose. I know that life is good and that I—like everyone else—can only do the best I can. That doesn’t mean I stick my head in the sand in reaction to life’s negative aspects; it means I don’t have to let them get me down.
I was once a terrible cynic living under a concept of perpetual gloom and doom, certain of an apocalyptic future of the sort that would destroy most of the population and life as we know it, with the only hope for humanity resting upon the way the survivors chose to live in the aftermath.
I won’t bore you with details, but my life story contains a few epiphanies that have altered that miserable perception of reality. However, the events of this weekend enabled me to see that I had been sinking into that familiar cynical quagmire again.
Friday night after work I picked up a few things at Kmart then stopped at the grocery store to grab a can of Hormel’s corned beef and a package of frozen hash browns to satiate an abrupt craving. Walking through the parking lot, I couldn’t help but wonder why the hell thesnowbirds were running off to Florida and Arizona, what with the misty days and foggy nights of the recent weeks. Even the latest snow showers hadn’t amounted to much, as the unseasonable temperatures turned the would-be winter wonderland into a greasy slush. This was northern Minnesota, after all.
Let me describe the events as they happened that night.
As the automatic doors slide open I hear the tinkling bells of the Salvation Army Santa.
There’s a quality about him that doesn’t fit but I can’t define it. Unsteadiness? His gruff Merry Christmas sounds a bit off, like the mild weather, his cheeks a little too rosy—even his red tassel cap seems out-of-whack.
Probably just my attitude.
Up ahead a little old lady rifles through a newspaper looking for the correct coupons, bringing to mind the recent story about the demented bastard who’d gone to the supermarket on the west end and randomly perused the patrons until deciding to slit the throat of a woman in her eighties.
Nice way to end my day.
In the frozen section, grabbing a bag of hash browns, I smile at a little girl dragging her even littler brother along by the hand, his resistance causing them to lag behind what I assume to be their parents. The woman is surely their mother, but I’m not as certain as to what her companion is, other than a hulking Native American with coal-black hair trailing down to where the top of his jeans should be. At least the oily mane helps to conceal his holey undershorts.
Their cart is full of frozen pizzas and they’re arguing over what flavor of ice cream to get. The boy grunts, pulls his hand away from his sister (my assumption), and stoops over to push on the toe of his well-worn sneaker, then stomps his foot as he looks up at her while uttering guttural sounds to announce his complete inability to accept an issue that only he is aware of. Both boy and girl look ahead to the disinterested couple nearing the end of the aisle.
I’d retain my amusement, but I see the degree of rage in the woman’s eyes when she finally turns and yells at the kids to quit piss-antin’ around. She stomps her feet in the same tantrum-like manner as the boy, before charging up to the kids, all the while lobbing curse words and remarks that would sting most adults.
Suddenly aware that my attention is focused on nothing but the mini-drama playing out in front of me, she locks her cutting eyes on me.
“Mind your own fucking business, asshole. What the hell do you think you’re looking at, anyway?”
Not wanting any kind of answer, but alert to other possibilities—none which she or her shopping partner would find in their best interest—she bends over, picks up the boy, and marches down the aisle, commanding the girl to follow.
Just a little more of the holiday spirit.
After checking out, I head for the entryway where they keep the shopping carts, where Santa is tinkling his bells, and yes, I definitely see him stagger—not a wild lurch (just a little jig back, then to the side). He squints his eyes when they meet mine, winking as if he and I share knowledge best kept between us.
When I’m close enough to smell Santa’s stale, liquored breath he reaches out, teetering in his attempt to block my path.
With a hand on my shoulder, he says, “Hey, buddy. Can ya gimme a lift home?”Not always as tolerant as I should or want to be, and certainly not in the best of moods this evening, I look around for some kind of help—an excuse is what I’m searching for. My sight lands on the vivid, poinsettia and ivy décor of a gift-wrapped box with a wide slot cut into the top.
“What about your donations box? Don’t you give it to somebody at closing?”
“Ah,” he lifts the hand, waving the question away before it can gather importance. “I can give it to ‘em tomorrow. Slow night, anywayz. I ain’t feelin’ so good, an’ they won’t be here fer another hour.”
He draws out HOUR so it comes in two distinct syllables: OW-WERE.
“I’m kind of in a hurry,” I say.
“Awe, it ain’t far. Prob-bubbly right on the way.”
In my attempts to help others, I’ve given lots of rides that deteriorated into many an unwanted excursion; they’re always right on the way. And though my rusty pick-up is nearly thirty years old and the inside of the cab doubles as an open toolbox and storage area for a variety of items, the floorboard littered with tie-downs, ropes, pry-bars, c-clamps, rags, and gloves, I’m a bit picky about what other passengers leave behind. In this instance, I’m concerned with the possible expulsion of bodily fluids.
Santa doesn’t appear to be too sick, so I give in.
So here I am, not in the best frame of mind taking home a drunk Santa who complains the entire drive about all the things wrong in his life—none of which, according to him, is related to his drinking.
I stop at his command, in front of a nice duplex. An outside light above the side door comes on. My experience with drunks is that they aren’t always welcome where they think they are. I intend to see that Santa is not making an unexpected visit. He’s out of my pick-up walking toward the door as I’m reaching for my door handle. With oncoming traffic on the narrow road, I wait before opening my door, then skirt around the truck cab to quickly follow. I stumble over an uneven section of concrete in the broken walk. By the time I catch up he’s banging on the door as a secondary activity to the shouting match between himself and a woman inside. I put my hand on his shoulder trying to turn him back in the direction of my pick-up. Ducking down, he pushes my hand away, spins, and throws a nice punch into the lower left of the four small window panels.
He’s trying to get the door unlatched as the lady inside uses her cell phone to call the police, while I attempt to drag him back. An artery has been punctured or severed and it sprays blood all over the entryway, hitting his wife or girlfriend, causing her to jump back and scream into the phone. I’m working to get a grip on his arm, so I can see where to apply pressure as he continues fighting to open the door.
I cuff him a good one, back-handing him first, then slapping the opposite ear and cheek on return.
“I’m taking you to the damned emergency room, you drunken fool.”
I have him by both shoulders now, shaking him as he stares at me like I was breaking every natural law known to man.
“Now let me see your fucking hand.”
I still need to pull it out through the opening left by the broken pane, but at least he isn’t resisting. Deep red blood leaks profusely from several cuts on his fingers and both sides of his palm, but the geyser is coming from a slashed artery just above his pulse. It’s shooting blood so high I think of a grade-school classmate who’d created a large-scale model of an active volcano using an oil pump from a Chevy 283, powering it with a cordless drill. I grab his other hand in mine, positioning his thumb over the wound and order him to keep it there with his fingers wrapped around his wrist.
I have a hold of Santa’s wide black belt, sewn into the red coat, guiding him down the walk. He looks over his shoulder, raising his good hand in a gesture. A burst of crimson fluid spurts out in front of us.
“See ya later, dar—”
“Keep your goddamned hand on that cut!”
At the truck, I open the door and dig through the clutter on the floor until I find duct tape. I pull my bandana out from my back pocket, tie it around his hand, then wind several feet of the tape over it as tight as I can.
“Ow-ooh!” he protests.
“Too bad,” I yell back at him. “Can’t trust you to hold it, so this is what you get.” The trip to the hospital is uneventful and without two-way conversation, only because I ignore Santa’s apologies, self-condemnations, and curses—except to issue a few of my own.
So now, if you can picture this, we push through the intake doors of the hospital’s emergency entrance—a guy dressed as Santa Claus leaning heavily on me. He is bloody and shaky, not just from booze, but a bit weak from blood loss and an overall capitulation of his willfulness.
I yell for some help. To my surprise it comes at once, a young man and woman in green scrubs taking Santa to a side room, an older guy escorting me to the registration desk.
Even though I don’t know Santa, I must help fill out some papers, and while doing so the police show up (they suspected I’d pick the closest hospital) and agree to take over from here. They say the woman isn’t pressing charges. Santa (her boyfriend) will take care of the cost of the repairs at the house when he sobers up. “He’s not really a bad guy,” she’d told them. The usual kind of excuse involving co-dependents during domestic disturbances.
Washing up in the bathroom, I remember that a close friend of mine is in this hospital— on the fourth floor dying of cancer. I decide to go see him, hoping he’s not already checked out. I look at myself in the mirror. My coat nearly covers all of Santa’s bloodstains on my clothes. Even though it’s late—after visiting hours—I head for the elevator to get to my friend’s room. At this hour, the lights in the halls have been dimmed. Sneaking past a nurse’s station I expect someone to tell me I can’t be here. No one is there, and I get on the elevator without issue. The doors open on the fourth floor not quite directly in front of another well-lit nurse’s station. I step off and turn down the hall, looking straight ahead, moving as fast as I can without running. I let out a sigh as I pass it and look back, shaking my head at the second unmanned station.
My outlook on society isn’t catching a break tonight.
I recall a few years back when I worked nights at Walmart, covering an understaffed department in which I knew little. I’d apologized to a female customer because we were shorthanded, stating that I usually didn’t mix paint.
“Oh, I know how it is,” she empathized. “It’s the same where I work.”
“You work in retail, too?”
“No. St. Mary’s (one of the local hospitals).”
Walt’s eyes come alive when I walk into his room and sit in the chair facing him. A machine beeps. Other unpleasant odors beneath the antiseptic smell linger. He has tubes in his nose for oxygen, one in his mouth. He doesn’t talk. He probably wouldn’t if he could. That’s why we’re friends.
When Walt was in good health, we’d visit each other to talk about our lives—good stuff and bad stuff—then just sit there. Our relationship hasn’t been about trying to fix things that can’t be fixed or making each other feel better. It’s been about being who we were while learning from each other how to be better than who we were. About doing the best we could when that didn’t seem to be good enough. We discovered a lot during those long silences. When a person can be that way with another human being, he can be that way with himself, and that’s pretty important seeing as how we spend more time with ourselves than anyone else.
As he lies there looking at me, I can tell his mind is drifting, as does mine. It’s been a long day, with unexpected extra innings. I think death is the single most unifying event in all our lives. No one does it better or worse than the next person and if it can be said that they do, what difference does it make? Nothing quiets my mind like contemplating death—mine or someone else’s. My judgment, my criticism of the world and all its people, and all that’s wrong in the cosmos stop when I come up against death and I begin to comprehend eternity. I think that’s why whenever I am confronted with someone’s death, I find myself thinking of all the other death experiences I’ve had the opportunity to share in. Sitting here with Walt, I recall when my mother died.
At that time, I lived in a small town in the southeast corner of Kansas. It was about three hours away from where I grew up in a similar town in the central part of the state, a travel time that would decrease immensely in the next few years with the construction of a multi-lane highway.
Earlier that morning when I’d gotten to the grain elevator where I worked, I had a message to call home—what used to be home. Immediately I thought my dad, who had previously suffered a stroke that severely limited his normal activeness, had died. It turned out my mom had had a major stroke late in the night. She wasn’t expected to live, so I drove back.
I had time for dinner and a nap before accompanying my brother and sister in my mother’s hospital room when the doctor unplugged the life support. I remember the doctor giving us a kind of blow-by-blow of the activity on the monitors and such. Then it was quiet, the universally accepted deathlyquiet, and I felt certain I heard a lifting sound, like the sound of a breeze blowing a sheet in the wind—not the flapping of the sheet, but what comes before that; perhaps it’s not a sound, but an awareness that something is about to happen.
I catch myself in a doze, jerking my head up. Walt’s eyes are closed. I pick up a small paperback someone has left on a cart. Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom. I read it some time ago. It’s about dealing with death. Or life, depending on your outlook.
The wind whips snow and sleet against the window, drawing my attention to the sill, deep enough to be a small storage area. With heavy eyelids, I detect movement and after a more intense look, I see little men moving about on the ledge. Their bodies are cylindrical with large green heads, the arms thin, legs short. I think of the little peg-men that fit in the Playschool toys that my nieces and nephews played with when they were toddlers.
My mother told us of a dream that had bothered her one night—about seeing little green men on the windowsill and later standing out on the lawn. She caught a lot of teasing about it from us over the years.
I get up to go to the window, thinking the physical exertion will awaken me fully and the scene on the ledge will be exposed for the fading remnant of the dream it is. By the time I reach the window I am fully awake but the little men are so real I can hear them gibbering in some language that brings recall of the gerbils in my eighth-grade science room.
Something illuminates the sky—no, the whole outside lights up. Not just bright but overflowing with whiteness. I no longer stand on the inside looking out. There is no inside or outside. Cotton-like steam arises from below and I am moving forward even though I take no steps. Two large versions of the little men are at my sides, each holding one of my hands.
After a short time, the steam or fog (whatever it is) dissipates and we come upon a gathering of people sitting around a long picnic table with bowls of fruit on it. Deep red cherries, dense bunches of purple grapes, colorful muskmelon and watermelon slices, bananas as yellow as the sun, and kiwi as green as the fresh-cut grass of a golf course. Some of the folks I recognize as friends of my mom, some I don’t, but they are all talking and laughing—engaged in a genuinely happy fellowship unlike any I have ever witnessed.
Nothing about the scene changes when she sees me. I continue looking at her, thinking she will direct her attention to me but she is focused on socializing, her eyes merely returning to me from time to time. Watching her, I am filled with a wonderful, peaceful feeling.
In life, my mom was a strong, opinionated woman with harsh judgments of people and how things should be. Like all of us, she was a product of her time. I neither see nor feel any of that now.
Electricity crawls up my arms as the previous gibberish fills my ears. The Playschool Guys are pulling on my hands telling me it’s time to go. I take a last look at my mom.
Again, my head snaps back, and I am aware I have dozed. Or have I? I see the glimmer in Walt’s eyes, again, and the corners of his lips turn up. His face has wrinkled so much in these last months. Walt is only a few years older than me but his deterioration reminds me of my dad.
In his last few weeks, my father had been put in a rest home, something that all of us had hoped would never happen. Because of the strokes he suffered, he was not able to communicate well and on my last visit, I couldn’t keep a handle on where his thoughts were. He seemed lost at times. He could answer simple questions and talk about current things but there was a puzzled air about him. One thing that sticks out like a bitter grape is his surprised—even stunned—look when I said something to the effect that he had done the best he could with all of us, that maybe it was time to just let go. His expression grabbed me in such a way that the image of it still dominates the visit so that I cannot remember exactly how things were when I left that day, a remarkable fact considering that I remember previous departures in painful detail; we would say good-bye, then he would hug and release me but whenever I took a step or two away, heading for the door, he would start crying, with me returning to embrace him.
As I allow myself to recall our last visits, I become lost in jumbled thoughts and emotions. I feel as though I am more there, then—than here, now. From a far-away place a dog barks.
This is the fourth floor.
I get up and walk to the window focusing on the sill—no little green men. I look up. Although foggy earlier, the sky is clear with a bright, full moon. The longer I look at it, the closer it appears to be. I think if I could open the window, I’d reach out and touch it. There is a sudden, blinding light and in a flash, I realize I am no longer in Walt’s room but in a flying vehicle of some sort, all white on the inside except for the one curved window from which I see stars whizzing by like telephone poles along the side of a highway. The inside appears round as there are no edges.
In a few moments my vision is obscured as the spaceship (what else could it be) encounters what appears to be a blizzard. The ship shudders briefly, but otherwise, it is a smooth ride, so much so that I am surprised to see that when the window clears the ship is no longer moving but stopped in a white landscape. An automated voice announces:
DESTINATION REACHED. PLEASE EXIT.
I hear a soft, electric whirring noise as a curved section of the ship rises like the door of a Lamborghini and a ramp extends itself from the base of the opening, outward to the ground.
Awestruck, I am surprised to find my feet moving, walking the bridge from the ship to this other world of whiteness. As I step off the ramp, a yellow Labrador retriever bounds up through the snow to greet me in a whirlwind of pure white powder. She dips her snout into the drifts at my feet and tosses snow in the air, jumping up and twisting as she lands, repeating these antics as if to say come on, follow me. Overcome with amazement, I do.
With few clouds in the gray-blue sky, the bright sunlight shimmers and reflects off every surface that holds moisture, nearly blinding when I look at the ground cover. The dog is not just running but hopping and twirling in the air as it leads me into the nearby forest. Tall pines, spruce, and fir are so dense that the sun enters this dark oasis only in beams that seem to flash in front of me as I follow a curved trail.
Hurrying to keep the canine in sight, I am aware of expecting something—but what? The anticipation drives me deeper into this majestic forest.
After a time, I stop, leaning forward with my hands on my knees, panting. Looking first down, then past my elbow at our tracks behind me, I realize the trail has been taking us to a higher elevation, the incline getting steeper the farther we come. I hear a bark, so I stand erect to look. The dog waits at what seems to be the top of this rise, about forty yards from where I stand.
Continuing my climb, I smile, wondering—not for the first time—why do I not find any of this unbelievable?
Near the apex, I come to an open area where the topography levels out. My leader has disappeared into an opening of a large circular maze of arborvitae and hemlock, about a foot taller than I am. In following, the moment I pass between the ends of the hedge, I experience dizziness that passes quickly when I am fully on the other side, which I realize is actually inside—as in a glass dome or bubble. I see rays of light refracting the same as they do when you hold a drinking glass up to the sunlight. It is springtime, here, with the heady aromas of cedar, hemlock, and other evergreens flourishing in the hot sun. The Lab’s tail disappears up ahead into another opening and I run to catch him, not fearful that I will be trapped if I lose sight of him, lost in this living labyrinth, but because my urgent need to know what lies at the end of this journey will be satisfied sooner. Running at top speed I’m able to keep the animal in sight. The dog barks steadily now, bursting through each opening with high expectation, then turning sometimes left, sometimes right.
At last, I come to the final row of hedges, abruptly halting at a brilliant explosion of sight and smell: a colorful multitude of circular plantings of roses.
The hues are too numerous to count, blended and swirling together, like one of those giant assortment boxes of crayons (the ones whose ads boast numerable amounts of colors) melting on the asphalt during a hot August afternoon. The pigment seems to rise from the roses like steam, shading the air with polychromatic life—stained glass windows in flux. The same, scintillating air takes on still more life as the aroma permeates my soul with sweetness and purity unlike any perfume ever could.
Among the rings of roses that seem to go on forever stands a wooden swing with bench seats facing each other, one that could easily accommodate four adults. It sways lightly back and forth, causing the faintest of squeaks—so faint that they do not drown out the barely audible whoosh-swish of the bottom boards skimming the grass.
But there is only one adult on the swing, with a child on either side of him and four more sitting in the opposite seat. They each have a book, including my dad, his full, gray hair flittering in the breeze. Though I hear no words, their lips appear to move in synchronized conversation. My canine leader sits on his haunches among a horde of other dogs circling the little study group, all of them looking up at the swing’s occupants with the rapt attention of animals at feeding time. Huskies, bulldogs, labs, collies, wiener dogs—any breed imaginable.
My dad loved dogs and my finest memories of him are of times he spent on a similar swing with his grandchildren.
I take a few steps closer, thinking it odd that wherever this is, my dad still wears his dark-framed glasses.
A thump at my feet jolts me to attention. I must have dozed again, dropping the book. But I don’t feel the least bit groggy like I normally do upon awakening after unfulfilled rest. Instead of the way I feel after short cat naps, this is more like the first images and sounds you experience when an elevator door opens on a new floor.
Having ducked my head and bent to pick up the book, a rough, grumbling voice startles me. I sit erect abruptly, surprised to see Walt’s face nearly even with mine, his hand gripping the bed rail, giving him the needed force to pull himself closer to me. I am disconcerted by his wild-eyed stare.
“Wh-what?” I mumble.
Never breaking eye contact, he clears the phlegm built up in his throat and then smiles, despite the distress I see this causes.
“Like I told you before, every day’s Christmas if you’re still alive.”
There’s a long pause as we look at each other, then he says, “Remember?”
This part continues to get eerier each time I think about it but during that long pause, I recall a time in the mid-’90s when I was returning from one of those long trips in Kansas I mentioned earlier—before they’d finished the expressways.
It was late at night. Probably early morning. I was returning after visiting my folks—by then it might have been just my dad. The winter air was bitter cold and the heater was on the fritz. I had an old ¾-ton Ford, with lots of unwanted ventilation, like the hole between the gas pedal and the transmission hump. My right foot would get so numb I couldn’t keep steady pressure down, so I’d shift my ass a little to the right, enabling me to use my left foot to operate the accelerator while the right recovered mobility. I was making pit stops just to warm up, but as I got farther from Wichita, the gas stations became few and far between.
On one of the most remote stretches of the road, the rear passenger-side tire blew. I had pulled off the highway on the right shoulder (which was more like a ditch) as much as I dared.With the truck jacked up and the spare tire already on, another car pulled in behind me. I had already tossed the defective retread (16-inch tires don’t come cheap) in the truck bed when the driver got out and asked if I needed help. After I replied something to the effect that I pretty much had it licked, he continued to talk, rambling on about unrelated topics. With his scraggly beard, ’60s lingo, and senseless babbling, I suspected he was high on something.
He kept saying he wished people would treat every day like Christmas instead of acting like assholes for eleven months out of the year. During our brief encounter, he explained that he had been staying in a nearby rest area—a piece of information I didn’t find odd until after getting back on my way.
I hurriedly lowered my jack and was picking up my tools and blocks. Due to the cant of the ditch and the truck’s high clearance, I’d had to lay on the ground, reaching in to situate the jack and blocks, raising it using a two-step process.
I had everything in the cab, slammed the right-side door shut, and was heading back around to the driver’s side, absently scanning the ground as I walked. The guy was enjoying having someone to talk to but I was tired and cold and in a hurry to get moving, as I had many miles to go, yet.
The intense shine from his headlights cast long shadows in the weedy ditch. Every dark indentation of the tall grass looked like an object. Thinking back on it, during the remaining drive home and many times since, I am amazed that one of those matted areas got my attention enough for me to bend down for a closer look.
It turned out to be my wallet, containing several hundred dollars. Three or four hundred dollars means something to me now but back then it meant more—I probably needed part of it for gas to make it home.
A lot of puzzle pieces came into play during that trip. For instance, the heater had always worked fine. Because I was bundled up with another coat over my coveralls, my wallet was hard to get to during my warm-up stops for coffee so I had put it in an outside pocket, where it was easier to lose. And of course, the biggest piece of all—a stranger out on the road during the earliest morning hours, who claimed he was staying at rest areas in the middle of winter, talking like, hey dude, I think every day’s, like, Christmas, you know, man?
Now, I’d never heard Walt say any such thing, and I am thinking exactly that when another soft smile crosses his face.
I nod and mouth yeah, patting the hand on the rail. By this time, we’d been eyeing each other for quite a spell. He eases back, letting his hand slide off the bed rail as his head sinks into the pillow. He closes his eyes.
Walt is still breathing when I get up to leave a few minutes later. At the door, I turn back, first to look at the window contemplating my time here tonight, then to him, listening. His breathing sounds like something heavy being dragged across frozen snow. The machines softly bleep.
I whisper, “Merry Christmas.”
Late on Saturday morning, I returned to the hospital to check up on Santa. Since it was a different shift and because I didn’t have a name for Santa, no one could tell me anything about his condition, or if he was even there. Upon leaving I decided to check the grocery store.
As I neared the doors, I heard the tinkling of the bells. You probably think I’m going to rattle off some sappy Christmas lore—how no one had any idea about the drunk Santa working the previous night, no hospital records for him, and no broken window at the house where I took him.
Sorry—no can do. What I can tell you is that after dropping a ten-spot in this Santa’s donation can, I went out and bought some Christmas cards and candy and spent most of the day with friends and co-workers, the entire time my head filled with Christmas songs and movies from the distant past and some from more recent days.
Most of us have grown up with favorite stories of Christmas miracles of one sort or another, whether they were movies we watched with family members, animated films with a moralistic slant, or stories we read.
Who is Santa other than a spirit—an enduring and uplifting spirit like the ones that entered the hearts and lives of Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey, Susan Walker, and young Virginia O’Hanlon? … and if we’re willing—you and me?
A resident of Minnesota and Wisconsin since leaving Kansas in 2006, R. A. Savary completed his first novel in 2011, at which time he started writing short stories for magazines and contests. R. A. Savary has been published in several online magazines which include Midlife Collage, Filthy Secret Books, and Flash Fiction World, and most recently in the St. Croix Writer's Anthology, Many Waters. He received an honorable mention in the 2018 Lake Superior Writers annual contest for his flash fiction piece Safety and the same for his entry Change in the 2022 Iron Penn Contest sponsored by the Midwest Writing Center.