Becca and Carl, Becca’s second husband, were in town. Tammy and I lived in Brentwood then with three children: Two from Tammy’s previous marriage and our own feral three-year-old. Tammy used to call Carl a bottomless pit of whiskey. She hid the Pappy Van Winkle behind the breakfast cereal and brought down the big plastic jug of Canadian blend.
Our kids were asleep and it was dark. Becca and Carl and Tammy and I sat at the wooden kitchen table like we did the year before, and Tammy put a Sam Cooke record on the record player and I put ice in everyone’s glass but Becca’s. She drinks it neat, two fingers. Carl steered the conversation to love. Carl was an anesthesiologist and always wanted the first word and last word. He was about to say something big about love and spiritual love, but Tammy slapped the table.
“Did you move the Elf?” she asked me, with urgency.
I tipped my glass toward her and winked. “It’s your turn, babe.”
She shook her head. “No, I did it last night. The Elf got hog-tied by the American Girl doll. Remember?” She turned to Becca and said, “Carolyn Abbott, that’s the doll’s name.” She took a sip, and the ice tinked against the glass.
“It’s still your turn,” I said. “I put the Elf by the fireplace, lifting Eli’s slipper like Superman. You made me get up in the middle of the night.” I put my finger aside my nose. Sometimes that gesture meant Santa Claus. A long time ago, it meant cocaine. Now it meant something else: “Not it.”
Tammy bit her lip. “Brad.” Then, “Can’t you just do it? Just this once? I mean.”
“I was saying—” Carl said, as though we’d accidentally forgotten that he was in charge. Before medical school, he was in the seminary. He was probably about to tell us a heart-wrenching story about a dying patient.
“Hang on, Carl,” Becca said. “Tams, really? An elf?” Becca was the first person I ever heard say that thing about days lasting forever and years lasting seconds when you have kids. I wished people would stop saying that.
Tammy smiled. “You don’t have an Elf on the Shelf? Surely it’s post-post-ironic by now.”
“Shouldn’t be part of Christmas,” Becca said. “I know Christmas. I love Christmas. And Elf on the Shelf isn’t Christmas. It’s a panopticon. I saw a paper in a journal, by a psychologist. We’re preparing our children to live in a surveillance state.”
Panopticon. Where did she come up with that? Becca looked great. Her arms were tan from all the tennis she must have been playing, even though it was December. Maybe it was the yellowy light in our light fixture. Then I looked at my Tammy, and she looked great, too. Then I looked at Carl. Carl looked great too, for that matter. Sort of. But he was kind of an asshole.
“What the hell’s this Elf? In a panopticon? I went to school for a lot of years.” Half-smiling but fake, he looked at me conspiratorially — wives, am I right?! — but I knew all about the Elf. Tammy and I fought about it every year. I didn’t like anything about Christmas. I am an atheist. Damn Elf.
Tammy laughed, too loud and too harsh to be friendly.
Becca said, “Ted’s new wife is into Elf on the Shelf. She keeps a blog.”
Ted was Becca’s ex. The new wife was the embodiment of evil. A blogger, no less.
“Becs,” Tammy said, “The kids love finding the Elf on the Shelf. I rigged a zipline for the elf through the kitchen. What’s wrong with more magic? God knows we need more magic.” Then she said it again, shaking her head. “God knows we need more magic.”
Becca’s cheeks were bright red. “To what end, Tams? I mean, do what you want. I love you. I love you! But it’s not what I want for my kids. Not that kind of magic. Not magic that comes with a police state. That magic is fascism.”
“Everything’s different now!” Carl said. “All shit. Seat belts! A nanny. We can’t send them to the playground by themselves. No one loves anyone anymore.”
Becca rolled her eyes. “Jesus, Carl. Take a pill.”
“A goddamned elf,” Carl said, then passed out, his head knocking hard on the table.
“I thought Carl could hold his whiskey,” I said.
“He drank on the way over,” Becca said. “He thinks you’re stingy.”
The electric buzz from the speakers grew and faded like a pulse. After a few minutes, Tammy took Becca’s hand.
“Half the time, we forget to move the Elf. Then in the morning we say the Elf was so happy where he was that he didn’t move. Or I make Brad do it. In the middle of the night,” she said. “I’m awful. I’m just awful.”
“I have to tell you something,” Becca said. “Maybe it’s the whiskey. But as we’ve been talking, I’ve grown to really love Elf on the Shelf. I have a great idea for what to do with it tonight. Can I do it? Can we do it together? We can make it look like it’s smoking a cigarette. While baking. And we can smoke and bake while we do it.”
Tammy smiled, her face bright and sparkling. “I love that idea. Like old times. Smoking and baking. I haven’t smoked for a decade. We can raid the leftover Halloween candy while we do it. We can smoke and bake and eat Snickers bars and do the Elf on the Shelf all night.”
Becca cocked her head. “Leftover candy? Don’t you do the Switch Witch?”
Tammy said, “Of course not. The Switch Witch is for fascists. Please don’t tell me — ”
“Shh,” Becca said, smiling. “Let’s stick to baking and smoking. And the Elf on the Shelf.”
Stephen Ornes is a dad of three mischievous children and writes from a backyard shed in Nashville, Tennessee.