Icy wind stretched the full 250 miles separating Savannah from Spartanburg, but that was more the fault of my means of conveyance than it was some kind of force majeure. A motorcycle was all I owned, and my father demanded that it was important to my mother that I return home for Christmas, so for four hours the humid Southern air sliced me to pieces. I arrived after midnight. All that welcomed me home were a few glowing fireplace embers. I tossed a little more wood on the fire, thawed out my feet and hands, and walked to my childhood bedroom.
One couldn’t jam a playing card into the fissure separating my childhood from that moment. I was only 19 years old, but being out on my own made the chasm separating separating the two epochs feel enormous. My attic apartment in Savannah may have been cold and mostly unfurnished, but it was mine–nobody to criticize me, nobody to complain about what I ate or did or didn’t do. And while nominally this was my room, it clearly wasn’t. It was a space in my parents’ house that held the childhood jetsam cast overboard on my way out the door. None of that mattered, though. I was out of the icy wind, the bed looked warm, and I was exhausted.
Breakfast was never the most important meal of the day in my family. As a young boy, my sisters and I lurked behind boxes of Trix, Kaboom, and Alpha-Bits rather than speak to each other before trotting off to school. If one of us dared to speak, the others adjusted their cereal box walls to more clearly block the noisy offender. At some point during my 18 years under my parents’ roof, my mother must have cooked a hot family breakfast, but not one that I can remember–no plates of crispy bacon or golden waffles, no porcelain egg cups or cherry-topped grapefruit halves, no fresh-squeezed orange juice. If we wanted juice to go with our Apple Jacks, the Tang was on the counter.
And so on that December morning in 1986, I did not arise from bed well-rested and follow the aromatic trail of coffee wafting from the kitchen, where my mother busily fried potatoes and stacked Jimmy Dean sausages on serving trays already weighed down with more pork than a congressional spending bill. No, I dragged myself up the basement stairs, opened the door, and saw my parents sitting in their respective places on their respective couches, my father with his giant glass of iced tea and my mother with her steaming cup of hot water.
“Well good morning, sunshine,” my father said.
“You made it,” my mother added.
“Yeah, I’m here,” I said.
“Well don’t sound so happy about it,” my father said.
“Just tired. Long ride.”
“Do you want something to eat? I think there’s still some cereal in there,” my mother said.
“Our cereal isn’t fancy enough for you, I guess,” my father said.
“I don’t even know what that means,” I said. “Cereal is cereal.”
“Still grouchy when you wake up. Some things never change,” he said.
“How am I grouchy? I just walked in and you are accusing me of cereal elitism.”
I ate the cereal. It was off-brand and stale, and with my sisters long gone there was no need to build a cereal box fortress. While I ate, I told my mother about art school, the record store, my girlfriend, the freezing cold ride home. The longer we talked, the higher my father increased the television volume until we were completely drowned out by a not so Christmasy World War II documentary.
The Christmas tree blinked, my mother sipped her hot water, and I gagged down my stale Frute Circles while Hitler invaded Poland. I rinsed my dish and opened the garage door. “Where are you going?” my father asked.
“I’m going to go see if Lee G. is home,” I said.
“Home twenty minutes and you leave. Why even bother coming home?”
“I’m just going to go say hi.”
“Eat us out of house and home and then go see your friends,” he shouted over the television. “Your mother really wants to talk to you.”
I looked to my mother. She hunched over her mug, thick glasses masking her sad eyes. He was right. “Could you maybe turn the television down a little then so that we can talk?” I asked. My father looked wounded, and then he turned the television off and stormed out of the room. I took his place on the couch. “How you doing, Ma?” I said.
“I don’t know why he’s like that,” she sighed.
“Because he hates me,” I said.
“He doesn’t hate you, he loves you.”
“Strange way of showing it.”
“You two are just different. He doesn’t understand your creativity. He worries about you finding a job.”
“I have a job, Ma. I’m managing a record store.”
“After college, I mean. A career. He says you can’t do anything with an art degree.”
“Maybe not, but I don’t want to be an engineer,” I said. “The tree looks great. You finally got a real one.”
“Your dad says they’re too messy, but he finally let me have one. I just wish you kids could’ve been home to decorate it with me,” she said. No Protestant ever worked Catholic guilt as effectively as my mother.
“So what did you want to talk to me about?”
“I need you to not make any plans tonight. Trudy from work is having a Christmas party.”
“Okay,” I said.
“And I want you to be Santa Claus,” she said.
“What do you mean, like hand out presents?”
“No, for the kids. Trudy rented a Santa suit.”
Clearly my mother expected me to leverage my vast stage experience, a career that began with a second grade production of Stone Soup, where I played a soldier who stood there in a uniform and said nothing, and ended with a third grade Christmas pageant, where I portrayed a thoughtful Joseph who stood there in a bathrobe and said nothing. Just the thought of performing in front of people sent my blood pressure into the furry red. “I can’t do that,” I said.
“I’m too skinny.”
“We’ll put a pillow in your suit.”
“I’m too young.”
“They won’t be able to tell behind the beard.”
“Ma, I don’t know how to be Santa.”
“But you’re so creative and you’re great with kids. You’ll be a wonderful Santa. Please, it’s all I want from you for Christmas.” She didn’t smile when she said this, she beamed. Christmas was a big, bright, hot air balloon that lifted her far above her perpetual sadness: the songs, the decorations, the carefully wrapped gifts, all of it rendered her lighter than air. Many years later I asked my mother why she loved Christmas so much. “It was the only time of year my father noticed me,” she said.
Anyway, she stood there beaming and firing her lightning bolts of guilt, love, and adoration, and I knew I was sunk. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
The party seemed to be going well. Laughter erupted over the drone of competing conversations and the screams of playing children. Perry Como crooned Christmas classics while the aromas of cinnamon and nutmeg wafted through the heat register. That’s all of the sensory detail that I could gather from my hiding place in the master bathroom.
I tried my best to avoid the mirror, where the most ridiculous Kris Kringle in the history of Christmas lurked. Even stuffed with padding the red suit drooped on my bony frame, my face so narrow that the white beard couldn’t find a place to rest. The fat vinyl belt’s cardboard buckle sagged. Oversized white cotton gloves dripped from my fingertips like a Dali Christmas card. The suit didn’t come with boots but rather a pair of matte black vinyl spats that hung above my glossy dress shoes for what was supposed to be a convincing boot-like appearance.
There was a gentle knock on the door. “It’s me,” my mother whispered. “Can I come in?” I unlocked the door. There stood my mother in an elf hat and a holiday sweater, Christmas light earrings flashing away. “Are you ready, Santa?”
“No,” I said.
“You’ll do great.”
We made the short perp walk to the living room, where a Rockwellian tableau awaited us. A burgundy La-Z-Boy recliner rested between a crackling fireplace and a Christmas tree half buried by gifts. The outer perimeter of the room was encircled by sweet southern mamas in sweaters and Dynasty shoulder pads, their children seated in haphazard rows in front of Santa’s plush throne. Mr. Como implored all of us to have ourselves a merry little Christmas.
“Look who’s here,” my mother sang.
The room fell silent. Even Perry stopped singing. The kids stared at me. I don’t know how many there were. If I had to guess I’d say 28,000, and they all carried some unique contagion: croup, mumps, whooping cough, chicken pox, smallpox, measles, flu, rubella, ringworm, beriberi, encephalitis, Nigerian goat distemper, Reaganism.
“Ho ho ho,” I bellowed. “Merry Christmas.”
“That’s not Santa,” a little boy in the front row said.
“Daniel, quietin’ down,” his mother ordered from the back of the room.
I eased myself into the recliner and the kids and I returned to our stare off. Daniel pointed at my foot. “Those ain’t even real boots,” he said.
“Daniel, behave! You want to go home without a present?”
“I am being have, Mama,” Daniel whined.
She may have only been speaking to her child, but the parental threat of leaving without loot startled the eight and under set into suspension of disbelief. Maybe that dry North Pole air preserved Santa’s youthful complexion. Perhaps he had to shave for a cameo on Mr. Belvedere and didn’t have time to regrow his beard prior to this appearance. And wasn’t everybody getting in shape these days thanks to Jane Fonda’s workout tapes? Of course he’s the real Santa, now give us our presents.
One by one the little typhoid carriers crawled onto my lap and rattled off wish lists filled with Nintendos, Cabbage Patch Kids, and BMX bikes. When they were done they exited lap left, where my mother the elf handed each kid a wrapped gift. I’d never seen her so happy.
I looked toward the back of the room. The rest of the mothers chatted with each other, picked at their sweaters, or stared at the Christmas tree lights. I was a long way from having kids of my own, but it was one of those moments of clarity. One could be the self absorbed parent who sucked all childhood joy out of the holidays, or one could roll up his or her velvet sleeves and make it fun for the kids. Even shitty little Daniel. My mother’s objective wasn’t to get me into a Santa suit, but rather to ensure that someday I wouldn’t be that disinterested parent at the back of the room.
I don’t remember much more about that Christmas. My parents and I may have exchanged gifts and eaten a traditional dinner of canned ham, canned peas, and canned yams while war movies blared from the nearby television. But I do remember that when it was time to head out, my father stopped me before I started my bike. “Did you check your tire pressure?”
“You have a blowout on this thing and that’s it.”
“I checked it.”
“What the hell do I know, right? You do whatever you want.”
“I checked it, Dad.”
“You made your Mom real happy. She was glad to see you.”
“I know, Pop.”
“Call when you get to Savannah. She worries about you,” my father said.
I fired up the engine and headed toward the interstate, headed away from home. The wind didn’t seem so cold anymore.