Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Past Stave 2

Stave 1 is here.

Carl had many regrets. One cannot live long in this world without acquiring a few, and do not believe anyone who claims otherwise.

Carl's primary regret, the one late at night that needled at him as if he were a sampler, was walking out on Tangie and her mom several years ago. On a night in midsummer when Tangie was a young girl not much older than Irene, Carl had gotten up from the dinner table, taken the car keys from the rack hanging beside the kitchen door, announced to the house he was going out for a beer, and slipped off into the salmon-colored evening world. No reason, at least no reason he could articulate. It just seemed, at the time, like the right thing to do.

No love was lost, or at least none he knew of. It was several years until he noticed it: love. He noticed it this way: sitting alone in his livingroom many miles from Kansas, Carl happened across an airing of 'Miracle on 34th Street.' Young Natalie Wood reminded him of his daughter--dark features, innocence, trust. Carl began to sob.

During a brief encounter not long after that lonely night, Tangie told her father to continue living as if she didn't exist. "You've had plenty of practice in doing that," Tangie told him. They were sitting across from one another at a sticky table in a sticky diner in downtown Wichita. Her stomach, swollen in pregnancy, pressed against the table's edge. Neither acknowledged the rather poor choice of meeting up over a meal, since the last time they'd seen one another had also been over a meal.

So. Here they all three were. The little girl, the grown woman and the deadbeat father Christmas, all pretending their lies--Santa was real, Santa was a fraud, even Irene pretending because the instant she was placed in Santa's lap the truth hit her with the power of a religious conversion. Santa doesn't exist. Otherwise he'd have a more convincing beard.

Carl tried to control his emotion. His hand trembled. Tangie, noticing this, assumed poor Santa was late for his afternoon drink. Irene, also noticing this, asked, "Are you cold?"

"No," Carl responded. Now self-conscious, he trembled harder. "I'm just so excited to meet you." He added, "Little girl," casting a quick glance at his daughter and grateful for the enormous white false eyebrows stuck to his forehead which all but obscured his eyes.

"I bet he says that to all the little girls," Tangie mumbled lightly, smiling at her daughter.

"I say that to all the moms too," Carl replied. Realized it sounded more like a proposition than he'd intended. "And dads." Another added phrase, another cautious glance at his daughter. Tangie was still smiling at Irene.

"Tell Santa what you want, Irene," Tangie said.

Irene, Carl thought. Tangie had named her daughter after his abandoned wife. He wondered if Irene knew he existed.

"Ho-ho, not so fast. First we've got to work out if Irene," and her name nearly brought tears to his eyes, "has been a good girl this year."

"Don't you already know?" Irene asked. Her eyes were trained on him, looking for more cracks in the facade, more hints betraying the strange man's identity. He wanted to return her observing gaze but feared Tangie would become suspicious. Carl took to staring at one of his black boots.

"Oh, I know you've been a good girl," Carl said. "Santa's job is to make sure all the good boys and girls realize just how good and wonderful they really are."

"Mommy sometimes says I'm not a good girl."

"Not true!" Tangie protested, laughing slightly. "You do not-good things sometimes."

"Like the pancake batter?"

"Yes, like the pancake batter."

"But I learned from the mistake. Right?"

"Seemed too. We'll see."

Irene listed her good deeds. She cleaned her room without being told, she rode her bike only when Mommy was looking, she was polite and respectful, and she knew how to tie her own shoes. Carl marveled over each deed, ventured a few head-pats, smoothed her hair with his white glove, wished he could remove the glove to touch her hair with his own trembling palm.

And then: "A parrot."

This was an unexpected thing for the child to say. Both Tangie and Carl, surprised, locked eyes for a moment, only a moment, but it seemed an eternity to Carl. Tangie's eyes were tired, lined with wrinkles and mooned with baggage. The sharp bright brown eyes Carl remembered were still there, but the face in which they were set had seen kinder days.

He again looked at his boot, hoping she had not recognized him. But it was true: the unexpected gaze shared by father and daughter had been mutually intense, mutually curious.

"A parrot," Tangie repeated. "When did you decide you wanted a parrot?"

"Yesterday."

"It's Christmas Eve," Tangie said mostly to herself. Carl knew the tone, could read her mind: where on earth could she possibly buy a parrot this late on Christmas Eve?

"Why do you want a parrot? Fine birds!" Carl was way off script by now and embracing his freedom.

"Because I can't have a brother or sister. I want to teach something to talk to me."

Carl wasn't sure how to respond because each response running through his mind was inappropriate. "Mommy can't have more children?" was one thing he wanted to say, "Do you still have a daddy or did he leave as I did?" was another, and still another was "I would give anything to talk to you each day, and buy you a parrot too." In the end, Carl settled on, "Why, I'm sure there are plenty of things willing to talk to you." Then, "Ho-ho."

"But they're not as pretty."

"Thanks, Irene," Tangie mumbled.

Joyce, Carl's helper-elf in charge of getting kids out of Santa's lap and keeping the line in motion, stepped up to Carl and whispered, "Santa, I think it's time to take the picture and move along." Joyce was a sharp-faced elf, which was appropriate during Christmas but rather unsettling during the rest of the year.

"I know," Carl sighed. Then to Irene: "You ready to smile for the camera? Mom, would you like to join us?" Please say no, Carl thought. Please don't come closer, please don't look at me.

"Certainly," Tangie said, and crossed the fake cotton plains, took her place at Santa's elbow, kneeling down to place an arm around Irene's waist. Tangie's hand brushed Carl's. He gasped slightly, cleared his throat, and gestured ahead, to a digital camera poised atop a tripod. Joyce adjusted the camera.

"Say, 'Merry Christmas,'" Joyce commanded.

The three--Carl, Irene, and Tangie--echoed the phrase, the flash went off, and then Irene was whisked from Carl's lap. He watched as Irene and Tangie hurried out of the flimsy green fence, discussed photo costs with Joyce, grabbed a print, and disappeared into the crowd of shoppers.

Later that night, against regulations, Carl printed out his own copy of the photograph. He stared at it for a moment, then took it home and stared at it more, and he continued to stare at it throughout the next year.

Then, a year passed and his illness grew more severe, and money dwindled like a yule log on the 26th of December. He took the job as the Santa of the Vernon Hills Mall again, reclaimed his plywood throne. Waited. Resolved this time he would tell Tangie, tell Irene, who he was and how wrong he'd been.

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