The king stood over the toilet. The reluctant owner of that famous belly, that bowlful of jelly, lifted the overarching fold with two hands, exhaled, concentrated and waited for the stream to bolt from its alcove. No luck. Seconds passed, and a soreness grew in his knees.
With a sigh, he unbuckled the oversized black belt, turned around and descended onto the throne. The bathroom door was open, and outside the living room window, long cones of ice hung over the roof. He considered the life of an icicle, to grow, melt and suddenly break. The phone rang five times.
“Hello. You’ve reached Santa and Gertrude Claus. We’re probably out caroling, ice skating or helping the elves prepare for Christmas. Please leave a message. Thank you.”
“Yes, hello Mr. Claus. This is Ryan Brittle, your mediator. I am calling to confirm that I received the naughty/nice list, draft eight, and to remind you that our, uh, bargaining session is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 12, at 8:00 a.m. That appointment has been confirmed with Kirk Chestnut of the Elvin Labor Federation. I look forward to working with you and Mr. Chestnut, who told me he, uh, looks forward to finishing this contract and returning to production ASAP. Good day.”
With gnarled hands secured to his thighs, Santa ascended to his feet, flushed the toilet and made his way to the kitchen, where he deleted the message on his wall-mounted telephone.
“You have two old messages.”
“Hi Santa, this is attorney Carol Cracker calling on behalf of Gertrude Bonbon, the former Mrs. Santa Claus. We wanted to ensure that you have completed the transfer documents from the loan officer. We expect the divorce will be final following our family court hearing this – ”
“Message deleted. Next message.”
“This is Kaiser Permanente calling with a message for…Santa Claus…your refill of…Rucynase…is available for pickup at the Polar pharmacy on…Holly Berry Drive. Goodbye.”
“All old messages deleted.”
Santa lumbered over to the pantry and grabbed two cookies from the shelf. He popped one in his mouth and squinted at the medicine schedule that Mrs. Claus had, in better times, scrawled across a calendar on the freezer door.
This would be a difficult week. There hadn’t been an ELF strike in more than 60 years, but the threats coming down from leadership were more credible than ever. The elves insisted that Santa return to classifying select boys and girls as ‘naughty’ on the annual gift list. This would lead to giant exports of coal for their stockings.
Even five years ago, the reemergence of coal production for the Christmas shipment would have been inconceivable, after the union had successfully lobbied for a ban on arctic coal mining with an ad campaign that featured ELF workers with black lung disease.
But in recent years, toy demands had shifted from hand-crafted dolls and action figures to video games and other digital offerings. Some of the elves were educated in integrated circuitry and could build electronic toys, but most of them were not and the money that might have gone toward this technical training was absorbed by worker benefits and pensions.
With growing numbers of its membership out of work and a shortage of manpower to feed the demand for digital gifts, the union had reversed its stance on coal as a way to usher in scores of new blue-collar jobs. In the long term, the elves were prepared to discuss a less generous retirement package, but in order to plug the immediate hole, they wanted Santa to lift the ban on coal and bring it to the stockings of 20 percent of the world’s behaviorally challenged children. These were the terms articulated by Kirk Chestnut via text message.
Santa sat down at his kitchen table with a glass of milk and a copy of The 34th Street Journal. He heard the door knock but was slow to get up. The door opened and hooves clicked down the hallway.
“Cookies. Really?” said Donner, wearing a red satin ascot that must have been a recent purchase. “C’mon Santa. We can’t believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself.”
Startled, Santa grabbed the second cookie from the table and stuffed it into his coat pocket. “Ever consider calling before you come over?”
Donner twisted his head sideways. “I Facebooked you about coming over this morning. And then I texted. Don’t you check your phone?”
Santa winced. “Dr. Holly said that one cookie a day is fine, as long as I go on my walk, which I intend to.”
“Did you go on your walk yesterday?”
Santa mumbled something inaudible and then said, “How is your home project coming along?”
“The roof? Blitzen won’t even consider looking at anything but gingerbread. The man becomes more stubborn every day. He says he wants vintage, and all I can hear is cha-ching, cha-ching.”
“Hmmm,” said Santa, adjusting his hearing aid. He hadn’t heard what Donner was saying, so instead he observed him. Gray fur had spread across all four of Donner’s legs. The muscular definition around his tailbone had atrophied, but overall, the reindeer still carried an impressive figure in his golden age, served by triweekly Pilates workouts that had been his obsession since the ’80s.
“You brought reality to the North Pole. And once we listened, the world went digital and pension costs exploded.”
Santa, meanwhile, hoped Donner wouldn’t judge him for the wrinkles in his suit. Since Mrs. Claus had left, Santa’s suits were never ironed, and this particular one had a mustard stain on the sleeve from a team-building barbeque the HR department had organized a few years earlier.
“And I’m telling him, ‘Blitz — hello — there’s no energy efficiency in gingerbread. We really need those tax credits next year,’ or, you know, whatever discount it is the government offers.” Donner dismissively shot his hoof in the air. Politics had never interested him.
“How do you two figure that stuff out?” asked Santa. “I mean, I always made the home improvement decisions, and Mrs. Claus did the decorating. We didn’t always agree, but …” He trailed off.
“Yes, it is different when you don’t have any conventional gender roles to fall back on. It’s all about finding your own way in the world, I guess.”
Donner sat down beside Santa, softly signaling that the small talk was over.
“So,” he said. “Have you made the list?”
“In fact, I have. I already sent it to the mediator, and I have it right here.” Santa plunged his hand into his right pocket. Instead of the folded sheet of paper, his hand collided with the cookie, smearing crumbs and melted chocolate across his fingers.
Confidence drained from Santa’s face. If the list, now stained with a sugary spread of incompetence, couldn’t stand up to his best friend’s scrutiny, how did Santa expect to push it passed the entire ELF union?
“Um, the list?” said Donner.
The old man removed his hand from his pocket and rubbed his fingers together. He longed to get up and wash his hands and be done with it — not just the cookies — everything. The list, the labor negotiations, the divorce, the Rucynase. He wished it were December, the month when he fled the North Pole and all its confusion and listened to empty gift requests from children seated on his lap.
“Santa. What’s going on?”
“I presume you thought that all my personal and professional problems could be traced back to Rudolph’s death. I’m sure that’s what everybody thinks. And now with the divorce …”
“We just want you to be happy, Santa. We’re all coping in our own way.”
“Unlike the elves and reindeer, my world is not confined to the North Pole. Nobody ever seems to appreciate that. Donner, I have something to show you.”
Santa hoisted himself up and started toward the living room.
“I don’t care if you appreciate this or not. But you should know what I deal with. You should know the truth.”
He stopped at his bookshelf and picked up an aged scrapbook and began thumbing through the pages. “Maybe this will change your mind.” Donner got up and met Santa half way. “The workers represent themselves, but who do you think St. Nick represents? Here. Look. ”
Santa pushed the book under Donner’s face. The page was turned to a yellowed clipping of The Los Angeles Times dated March 17, 1989. The headline: [Stocking Coal Leads to Imprisonment, Study Finds.
Children who receive coal in their stocking on Christmas morning are twice as likely to drop out of school and three times as likely to end up in prison, according to findings from a 30-year study by the University of California.
For decades, St. Nick’s sooty penalty for a year of immoral conduct has served as a strong lesson in consequence for pre-adolescents. But after closely monitoring 600 youngsters through adulthood, researchers have concluded that the yuletide tradition often backfires.
“Children feel humiliated when they see their peers playing with toys and they have a sock full of coal. That often leads to the worst kind of antisocial behavior,” said Noel Pang, the UCLA psychology professor who led the study].
“You see,” said Santa. “We can’t go back to distributing coal. We were ruining these children’s lives!”
Donner took a step back. “I don’t see how a study from two decades ago has any bearing on our current problem,” he said. “The reindeer will support whatever naughty/nice list you bring to the elves, but we want you to find a solution, not just add more pieces to the puzzle.”
“I don’t have the luxury of ignoring the facts,” said Santa. “The reindeer and the ELF have always operated in a fantasy world.”
Donner frowned and started toward the front door. “That was the whole idea,” he said. “But you insisted that we start paying attention. You brought reality to the North Pole. And once we listened, the world went digital and pension costs exploded.”
“Are you leaving?” asked Santa.
“I get the feeling you want to be alone right now. I’ll come back later.”
Santa straightened up and ran his hand down his white beard. “I’m going to do what I have to, Donner.”
Donner pressed the door handle and walked onto the patio. “Nobody blames you for trying to help everybody. They blame you for not thinking it through all the way.”
Santa pulled the mashed cookie from his pocket and popped it in his mouth. “What happened to closing your eyes and believing in something bigger than yourself to make it come true? Has everyone forgotten the meaning of Christmas but me?”
“The elves didn’t create this mess, Santa. They just went along with it. They have families to protect. Don’t forget that.” Donner tightened his ascot and walked into the snow. Santa stood on his porch with his arms at his side. A string of icicles dangled over his head. The glacial cylinders were so wondrous, so delicate. But a push in any direction would make them shatter.
“Don’t lose your faith,” called Donner, but the wind carried his voice away and Santa did not hear him. “If you do, what chance do the rest of us have?”
Justin Bartosh spun a soccer trophy around on its head like a top, thinking about his upcoming novel. Justin had never written a novel before, nor had he read one in several years. But he enjoyed imagining himself as a famous novelist.