It began like any Christmas Eve. I had a little too much eggnog at the office party and I'd spent a little too much time in the supply closet with Tina, the accounting department's administrative assistant. By the time I arrived home I was wasted, so I laid down for a nap knowing full well that when I awakened the entire room would be filled with gifts. That's how my Christmases went.
When I awoke, the room was indeed filled with presents, most notably the new pool cue, a Meucci Gambler, I had been hoping for. Also present was a package, a large red one, that I hadn't been expecting. It was Santa himself. He was sitting on my sofa, leaning forward, his head in his hands, obviously distraught about something. Oh, and one more thing, his white gloves were soaked with deep red blood.
I watched him for the longest time, not knowing if he realized I had awakened. Certainly, I was curious, but beyond that I became extremely uncomfortable, especially when his sobbing gave way to uncontrollable weeping. I feigned a coughing fit and punctuated it with a few, "Oh brothers," until, finally, Santa turned my way.
"I know you're there, Michael," he said. "You don't have to cough."
"It's just my throat," I said lamely, grabbing my Adam's apple to illustrate.
"Keep it up," he said, "and I'll take back the stick. You know what Santa thinks of liars... don't you?"
He was alluding to the dry Christmas of 1954 when I had told that whopper about Lorraine Fish. I had been 7 at the time. "Don't remind me," I said.
He wiped the tears from his face, then blew his nose. "Don't give me reason to."
"Well... uh... I was trying to get your attention... I felt funny, awkward, watching you cry. I didn't think you realized I was awake."
"That's more like it," he said. There was a trace of a smile on his lips. "You're a good boy, Michael."
"Hardly a boy, Santa. But thanks."
"Don't kid yourself, Michael. You're still very much a boy... which is why... why I still come round to see you each year."
I took a moment to look around the room. I scanned the walls, the tree, all the ornaments, and, of course, the gifts. I checked out everything except Santa's blood-soaked gloves. I could feel his eyes on me.
"Something on your mind, Michael?" he asked.
"Oh, nnn..." He lowered his brow disapprovingly. "Well, yeah."
He was waiting.
"Well, I was wondering about all the blood... on your gloves."
He glanced at his hands, looked up at me, then back at his hands again. I watched closely as the corners of his mouth curled up ever so slowly until he broke into the brightest grin. Then he exploded into a fit of that uproarious laughter he's noted for, the kind that can't be duplicated by any dime-store imposter. It almost subsided a couple times, only to rise up again with more ferocity. Finally, he laughed himself out. He looked at his gloved hands front and back, then extended them towards me. "Last minute wagon work, Michael," he said. "It's paint." He read my skepticism. "Go ahead...," he said, laughing again. "Smell!"
I did. It was paint, alright.
Santa chuckled. "Well, Michael" he mused, "you always have had a grim imagination."
"Oh?" I observed. "I didn't realize that."
Suddenly somber, Santa rose to his feet. "It's not really important. But what is important is that I get on my way. Lots of stops to make."
"Lots of children," I added.
"Yes, lots of children," Santa agreed, as he made a move toward the fireplace. He pointed to the cue case protruding from my stocking. "Custom made," he said.
"Thanks," I said. "Thanks for everything. It was nice seeing you again. I mean, I expect you to come every year, and it's always obvious on Christmas morning that you've been here - but as far as actually seeing you... it's been a long, long, time."
"I suppose so... though I do see you every year, and sit with you a while."
"I didn't realize that. I guess I figured..."
"That I was in too much of a hurry?"
"Yeah... I guess."
"Well, I'm not... not for you or any of my special children."
Santa surveyed the room as if taking a final inventory. Then, something occurred to me. "But, Santa?"
"You were crying."
He nodded. "Can't help that. I'll try not to wake you next year."
"You don't mean you cry every year!"
"Oh... I didn't know that." I thought about that a few seconds, then asked, "Why, exactly?"
Santa thought hard about my question. It seemed as if he were debating whether or not it would be wise to confide in me. "Because I remember, Michael."
"Yes, remember. I remember the first time we actually spoke. That night..."
"Oh, yeah," I said. All at once, I felt a surge of emotions, though I couldn't pinpoint their source. "I was crying, wasn't I?"
Santa sat down beside me and set his hand on my knee. "And praying."
"Yes, praying... Don't you remember?"
I couldn't for the life of me.
"You were praying for God to take you away from here. You wanted to be with Him."
"No kidding," I said, a little embarrassed. "Praying to die. Pretty heavy stuff for a kid to be thinking about."
"Indeed," agreed Santa, "pretty heavy."
"And crying," I reiterated.
"And crying," confirmed Santa. "Do you remember why, Michael?"
"Oh...," I said, thinking aloud. "The old man, probably. He probably beat the hell out of me for something or other. Right?"
"That's right. He beat you because he caught you tossing a piece of tinsel into the air."
"Tinsel... Yeah, he did a lot of hollerin' and screamin' about tinsel... It was a touchy subject for him."
"... and he kicked you a few times, and smacked you, and chased you up the steps, screaming and flogging you with his belt and promised to give you more of the same if you stepped one inch out of your room... I probably shouldn't be telling you all this. Forgive me, Michael."
"It's okay, Santa. Really! I mean, no big deal. Stuff like that happened lots of nights."
"But, that..." said Santa, almost crying again, "that was my night. That was Christmas Eve." He composed himself. "Anyway, I heard you praying, and came down to see you, to tell you I cared about you."
"And you promised you would come back to see me every year. I do remember that," I recalled, triumphantly.
"And, I do. And I will," said Santa.
I thought about that for a long moment. "Jeez, Santa... I'm thirty-seven years old, now. Maybe..." I don't know why, but as the thought entered my mind, I began to cry. "Maybe, I'm too old for Christmas."
That's when Santa put his arms around me. "No, no, no, Michael," he said softly. "You'll never be too old for me."
© 1998-2005 by Ace Toscano