Mom was way into Santa. But I always found the red suit, flushed pigmentation, and overall jolliness a bit creepy. Not to mention the standing invitation for strangers to sit on his lap.
When I argued that he couldn’t possibly visit every house on every continent in eight hours, Mom countered with an alleged list from the Internet naming all the children who had failed to be good that year, for goodness sake. I was young enough to still believe in the Internet.
“Besides, you ever heard of time zones, Smarty Pants?”
“East and west, maybe,” I said, then drew an imaginary electrocardiograph with my pointer finger for emphasis. “But how’s he covering so much ground north and south?”
“Magic reindeer, son. And don’t even try to explain that with textbooks.”
“Reindeer cannot fly, Mom.”
“Are you forgetting the turd?”
My longstanding opposition to the idea of flying caribou was based on the abject lack of reported reindeer droppings. Then one Christmas morning Mom dragged me out onto the slushy sidewalk in my socked feet, pointing and shrieking, “See there, Brainiac? Behold… the turd of Blitzen!”
I can just see her scavenging for steaming piles in the snow, then lofting poo-bombs at the windshield of our battered Corolla to make her point. It would not have been the first time she’d used hard work and specificity to dash my logic.
When I was eleven, Mom scolded me into a clip-on tie and too-short blazer so she could finally prove her case. We drove to the mall where she plied me with candy canes and hot chocolate as we milled about with the horde of expectant children to watch Santa Claus parachute onto a large circle in the parking lot. Of course, I questioned the need for an airplane if he already had the reindeer, but I drowned this argument in tepid cocoa. Mom was having a good day.
Santa leapt from the open hatch and we all gasped appropriately. But St. Nick missed his mark. Instead, his chute failed to deploy and he torpedoed onto the roof of JCPenney. For months, I was plagued with nightmares of Santa going splat onto our turd-stained Corolla.
I never knew my father but I’d heard the stories. He went from skater to stoner to pleading guilty to possession-with-intent-to-sell. The judge showed mercy when my father’s father suggested the Army in lieu of juvi camp. Peter and Sally (not yet Mom and Dad) parked in the tall grass of an abandoned drive-in where I imagine him promising much, then crying just enough to finally coax Sally out of her jeans. He shipped out to Iraq a few weeks later and had to learn about the embryonic me in a handwritten letter. I was born on Christmas Eve, in the shadow of the savior of the world. How could I not resent that?
Dad was supposed to arrive home on furlough just in time for my second birthday. I’m not sure if it’s actual memory, or my mind just filling in nostalgic blanks, but Mom spent weeks cleaning up the house, baking cookies, getting her nails and hair done, all to the soundtrack of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
The story Mom told was that he died rescuing children from a burning building. But according to the private detective I hired, Dad went AWOL as soon as he landed stateside. This, I believe, is when my mother’s mind started to bend. It didn’t actually break until she realized he wasn’t coming back. He died a few years ago on a commune in some remote part of Alberta.
The house smells like gingerbread and pine needles. Sometime between the turkey and pumpkin pie my cell phone lights up. Amanda catches my eye and I let it go to voicemail. The boys are allowed to open one gift on Christmas Eve, usually something boring like jeans or socks or underwear. My phone rings a few more times and I keep ignoring it until the boys are nestled into their beds with visions of Xbox dancing in their heads. This is typically the point where Amanda slips into her ridiculous Sexy Elf negligée and we retire to the bedroom and tease each other with strategically placed mistletoe.
Instead she frowns while I listen to the message.
Our Decembers have always been riddled with calls from my mother or my mother’s friends or sometimes even her therapist. There’s no real consensus on her actual diagnosis, but the holidays make her manic, delusional, depressed, and even more paranoid than normal.
“What is it this time?” Amanda says.
“Looks like she’s actually been arrested.”
I shrug, trying not to look pitiful, and likely missing badly.
“You want me to come with?” she says, sincere enough that I almost believe her. “Nope, I’m good,” I say, neither of us quite believing that.
This is not the first time my mother has tried to seduce a man in a Santa suit. It is, however, the first time to my knowledge that she’s been picked up for soliciting prostitution.
“What were you thinking, Mom?”
“I asked him to buy me a drink,” she says, “not pay me for sex.” I mostly believe her. My mother’s morals are fine; it’s her discernment that’s lacking. “And how was I supposed to know he was a retired cop with an acute moralist agenda?”
When it becomes clear I’m not driving toward her apartment, she crosses her arms and stares out the window. Mom resents this almost as much as Amanda will when I finally arrive home. But regardless of the trouble I’m inviting, I cannot allow my mind-sick mother to spend yet another Christmas alone.
We’ll get through this, I think, banking on holiday cheer and the naïve adoration of grandsons. Maybe dragging the Santa suit down from the attic will help. This will all work out, I keep telling myself, if only in my dreams.
Michael Snyder writes (mostly) fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The First Line; Cease, Cows; Relief Journal; Lit.Cat; The Burnside Collective Infuze and various online haunts. His first three novels were published by Harper Collins/Zondervan. He lives in middle TN with his amazing wife and children.
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