originally published in Farmer’s Market, Vol. 14 No. 2
I was headed home for Christmas for the first time in a long time. Or rather, I was going to my father’s home for Christmas. He’d moved with his new wife to a private, gated community in Santa Claus. I have friends who refuse to believe there’s really a town with that name, but I just tell them to look it up in their road atlas next time they’re in the car. Follow I-64 east across southern Indiana to Highway 162, head south and it’s the first town you come to. My friends will tell me later they looked it up, shake their heads. It’s no big thing, I’ll say. I lived in a half-dozen little towns around that area when I was a kid, and nobody at all down there thinks a thing about it. What’s strange is the other stuff around that town. Lake Rudolph. An amusement park that used to be called Santa Claus Land, but has since branched out. Now it’s Holiday World, with Halloween and Fourth of July rides. And there’s Christmas Lake Village, where Dad and his wife live. “She says she remembers you from when you were in school,” he’d told me. I didn’t believe him. I had no idea who this woman was that he’d married.
On my way down I hauled a load of Christmas trees into Kentucky, a haul I didn’t need to make. I could have just driven down in my car, but Owensboro was only about an hour from Santa Claus across the Ohio River, and the money was good enough. The father and son selling the trees were happy to see me. Only two days before Christmas, and they were down to a row of picked-overs that would have barely made good fenceposts. We unhitched the trailer–it belonged to the tree farm–and then stood together around a barrel fire away from the trees. The boy was maybe nineteen. They’d been sleeping in a hard-shell on the back of a pickup for a week, watching over their inventory. Cold as it was that winter, I didn’t envy them a bit. I knew how much they made on a tree. Their coveralls didn’t look all that warm.
“So where you headed next?” the father asked.
I told him about my Dad’s new house in Santa Claus. The boy perked up.
“Hey, you gonna be passing through Rockport then,” he said.
“Pop, I suppose I ought to go home. You don’t need me here.”
“The boy wants to see his girl,” the father said to me. He spit yellow into the fire, looked sideways at his son. “I suppose you better go. She’ll raise hell otherwise.”
The boy loped away toward their truck. Got him on a tight leash? I said.
“Pregnant,” the father said. He spit again. “Living in our house. What you gonna do?” He shrugged.
The boy came back with a thermos and a rolled up paper sack. “You want me to come back down tonight or in the morning? I’ll borrow Jack’s car.”
“In the morning.” The father pulled a long trucker’s wallet from his back pocket. “Hold on,” he said. He took off his gloves and counted out a dozen ten-dollar bills and handed them to the boy. “Twenty’s yours. Give the rest to your mother. Tell her I’ll see her tomorrow night.”
The boy and I got into my truck. There was still some heat left in the cab, and it felt pretty good. It hadn’t yet snowed, but it was cold. Cold, cold. The boy’s paper sack smelled of barbecue sauce.
We’d crossed the Ohio River bridge and were heading north through the river bottoms toward Rockport before either of us spoke. “Santa Claus, huh,” the boy said. “You ever been to that park they got up there?”
Not since I was a kid, I said. It was a lot smaller then.
“Yeah. I ain’t been but once,” he said. “Got some friends that worked there in the summer.”
What’s that make them, Santa’s elves? I said. It’s an old joke. The kid snorted anyway.
“Naw. I was working on a road crew around there once. You know where they put in that new road from the interstate down to the park?”
I nodded. He meant 162. Leads to the park’s employee entrance. Across the road is a liquor store and pizza place and an antique shop, all in log cabins.
“So we were working on that road there and this other guy points over at the park and says to me, ‘Hey, you know who that is walking up that hill?’ So I look over and there’s some guy with a lunchbox walking up the hill in the park real slow. I said I don’t know, and the other guy says, ‘That’s Santa Claus. That there’s Santa Claus.’”
Well I’ll be, I said. How’d he look without the suit?
“Man, just like any old guy off my street. Didn’t have no beard. Hair wasn’t even white. Had a big belly, though.”
I laughed. Suppose that put any lingering doubts you might’ve had to rest, I said.
“Yeah, I suppose.”
You can tell your kids you’ve seen Santa in person, I said.
“No,” the boy said. “I’m not telling my kid about no Santa. I don’t want him believing in Santa Claus.”
I laughed again. Mom had told me once, when I was being a brat, that the letter I’d written was going to end up in a big bin down the road in Santa Claus. I was about eleven, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but still. Found out later it was the truth. Letters to Santa Claus get sent to zip code 47579.
We didn’t say anything the rest of the way to Rockport. I dropped the boy off on the main road, a block or two away from his house. We wished each other Merry Christmas and I decided it was time to head for Dad’s.
I had to take 231 through Ellis before I got to Santa Claus. The decorations were up all over town, every single house on the south side outlined in colored lights. A lot of people were doing the whole house in one color. Lots of solid blue, one or two in red. It was just getting dark, and a house suddenly blazed up as I drove by. Luminaries up the driveway, a manger made of hay bales out front, lights tangled up in every tree and bush in the yard. Plastic snowmen, electric candles in the windows, stars on the chimneys.
There were fewer and fewer lit-up houses as I went farther into Ellis, and by the time I got to our old house, the last one Mom and Dad and I had lived in, the one Dad had just moved out of, the street was just about dark. I pulled over. Our house was empty. Looked about the same as it had for the last ten years since Mom had passed away. She went all out for Christmas. She picked out the tree and it was always too tall for the room and so this little cardboard angel she’d made when I was born never quite had the halo room it needed. It had to lean forward and fell off whenever the front door slammed. For a few years afterward, Dad put the angel up. Then he set her up on top of the TV, bent wings and crumpled gold skirt and all, and then as he holed up more and more and the house got darker, he didn’t even bother. By then I’d stopped coming home. There the house stood, front porch ten feet from the road, covered up in dead leaves. Ghosts of Christmas past all over it.
I started up the truck again, headed on through town. I noticed that some of the tinsel stars hanging off the lightposts were shiny. It was about time Ellis had sprung for some new decorations. I passed the convenience store and the Farmer’s Co-op and pretty soon there was nothing but moonlit country as I headed north towards Santa Claus.
I had no idea how Dad had met this woman. She was a widow, a retired teacher. He said she’d taught at my old high school but I could not picture her to save myself. How she claimed to remember me seemed damn near impossible. I couldn’t even remember the name of the kid I’d dropped off in Rockport, I had a hard time remembering the name of the receptionist at the trucking company, and this woman who had seen a hundred or more new kids every year for thirty years remembered me?
I figured they’d met at church. When Dad was getting at his worst, staying in the house for weeks at a time and sleeping weird hours, not eating, someone from one of Ellis’ churches had come by and talked to him or tried to sell him something. I figure he felt he owed it to whoever it was to attend the next Sunday, and he pulled himself out of the pit long enough to walk up the street. And that Sunday led to another. Which led to another. Pretty soon he was answering the phone again. And then in November he called me, told me he’d married, he’d moved, and he wanted to see me at Christmas.
I turned east. They’d built another new road heading toward the amusement park, wide and flat, all the hills torn out. At the entrance to Christmas Lake Village, the guards gave my rig a frown and told me to park it behind the gatehouse. They checked my name off a list, then took me out to a pickup and one of the guards drove me into the village. The roads were narrow and wound all around the hills surrounding Christmas Lake. The houses were large, tucked back in trees. They were either decked out brighter than anything in Ellis, or had one bright, white star in an upstairs window, which I almost liked better. We drove down a half-dozen little streets, which I imagined had names like Holly Circle and Blitzen Place. The lake came into view from the top of one hill. It was much bigger than I had ever expected, and was dark except at the shoreline, where there was a thin edge of ice, white-blue in the moonlight.
The driver dropped me off in front of a neat, long wooden house. Dad’s name was on the mailbox and I waved to the guard that he could go. There was a huge green wreath with a red bow on the front wall of the house, and fat colored lights in the hedges. I smelled woodsmoke. I stepped up on the front porch and just before I knocked on the door I realized I’d not brought a present. My breath clouded up on the storm door’s glass. I knocked twice.
Dad’s wife opened the door. She had a sweet, round face and short gray hair and I recognized her immediately. She taught a math class that I never took, coached cheerleaders. She was a tiny woman with bright eyes.
“Well hello,” she said. She called into the room behind her. “Hon, guess who’s here.” The warm air from inside spread toward me. From the porch I could see into the room where they’d set up their tree. The cardboard angel leaned forward at the ceiling, golden paper skirt set firmly in the needles.
Hi, I said. Remember me?
And then my father. He was barefoot, wearing a huge red plaid shirt and jeans. His hair was thick and brilliantly white, his face red and alive. He smiled shyly and walked toward us. “Come in, son,” he said. “Please, please come in.”