Skip to comments.O Come Little Children (A Christmas Primer)
Posted on 11/24/2001 3:07:59 PM PST by Joe 6-pack
"It even smells like Christmas, the boy told his mother, as they strolled down the narrow aisles of the farmers market. That it looked and sounded like that happiest of holidays went without saying. Carols blared everywhere, from the tiniest of stand-holders transistor radios to the brass choir booming from the markets PA system. Meat cases were framed with strings of lights, a myriad of small trees adorned a myriad counters across which bills the color of holly were pushed and goods and coins returned, and red and green predominated above all other hues. But it was the odors that entranced: the pungency of gingerbread, the sweet olfactory sting of fresh Christmas cookies. There were mince pies and pumpkin pudding, and a concoction of cranberry sauce and dried fruit in syrup whose aroma made the boy pucker and salivate as though a fresh lemon had brushed his tongue. The owner of the sandwich stand was selling small, one-dollar, styrofoam plates of turkey and stuffing to those too rabid to wait until Christmas, three long days away. The smell was intoxicating, and the line was long.
The boys mother, smiling and full of the spirit, bought many things that would find their way to their own Christmas table, and the sights and sounds and smells kept the boy from being bored, as he usually was at the Great Tri-County Farmers and Flea Market.
It was on the way out, as he and his mother walked through the large passage that divided the freshness of the food and produce stands from the dusty tawdriness of the flea market, that the boy saw the man dressed as Santa Claus. At first glance he did not seem a very good Santa Claus. He was too thin, and instead of a full, white, cottony, fake beard, his own wispy mass of facial hair had been halfheartedly lightened, as though hed dipped a comb in white shoe polish and given it a few quick strokes. There, the boys mother remarked, is one of Santas lesser helpers.
The boy was way past the point where every Santa was the real Santa. In truth, he was just short of total disbelief. TV, comic books, and the remarks of older friends had all taken their toll, and he now thought that although the existence of the great man was conceivable, it was not likely, and to imagine that any of these kindly, red-suited men who smiled wearily in every department store and shopping mall was the genuine article was quite impossible.
Even if he had believed fully, he doubted if anyone under two would have accepted the legitimacy of the Santa he saw before him. Aside from the thinness in both beard and frame, the mans suit was threadbare in spots, the black vinyl boots scuffed and dull, and the white ruffs at collar and cuffs had yellowed to the color of old piano keys. His lap was empty. The only person nearby was a cowboy-hatted man sitting on a folding chair identical to that on which the Santa sat. A Polaroid Pronto hung from his neck, and next to him a card on an easel read YOUR PICTURE WITH SANTA - $3.00. The $3.00 part was printed much smaller than the words. The boy and his mother were nearly by the men when the one in the red suit looked at them.
The boy stopped. Mom, he said, loud enough for only his mother to hear. May I sit on his lap?
She gave an impatient sigh. Oh Alan
Honey, do you really want your picture taken with ?
I dont want a picture. I just want to sit on his lap.
No, sweetie, she said, looking at the man looking at the boy. I dont think so.
They were in the parking lot by the time she looked at her son once more. To her amazement, huge tears were running down his face. Whats wrong, honey?
I wanted to sit on his lap, the boy choked out.
Oh, Alan, hes not Santa, hes just a helper. And not a very good one either.
Cant I? Please? Just for a minute She sighed and smiled, thinking that it would do no harm, and that she was in no hurry. All right. But no picture.
The boy shook his head, and they went back inside. The man in the red suit smiled as he saw the boy approach without hesitation, and patted his thigh in an unspoken invitation for the boy to sit. The man in the cowboy hat stood up, but before he could bring the camera to eye level, the boy said, No picture please, and the man, with a look of irritation directed at the boys mother, sat down again.
The boy remained on the mans lap for less than a minute, talking so quietly that his mother could not hear. When he started to slide off, he stopped suddenly, as though caught, and his mother saw that the metal buckle of the boys loose-hanging coat belt had become entangled in the white plush of the mans left cuff. The man tried unsuccessfully to extricate it with the fingers of his gloved right hand, then put the glove in his mouth and yanked his hand free. With his long, thin fingers he freed the boy, who hopped smiling onto the floor and waved a hand enclosed in his own varicolored mittens. When he rejoined his mother, he was surprised to find her scowling. Whats wrong?
Nothing, she answered. Lets go.
But he knew something was wrong and found out later at dinner. I think he must have been on something.
Oh come on, his father said, taking a second baked potato.
His mother went on as though he were not there. He just looked it. He had these real hollow eyes, like he hadnt slept in days. Really thin. The suit just hung on him. And, uh She looked at the boy, who pretended to be interested in pushing an unmelted piece of margarine around on his peas.
His hand. He took off his glove and his hand was all bruised, like hed been shooting into it or something.
Shooting what? the boy asked.
Drugs, his father said, before his mother could make something up.
Whats that? Like what?
His mother smiled sardonically at his father. Go ahead, Mr. Rogers. Explain.
Well drugs. Like your baby aspirin, only a lot stronger. People take some drugs just to make them feel good, but then later they feel real bad, so you shouldnt ever take them at all.
Whats the shooting part?
Like a shot, when the doctor gives you a shot.
Like mommys diabetes.
Yeah, like that. Only people who take too many bad drugs have their veins He saw the question on the boys face. their little blood hoses inside their skin collapse on them. So they might stick the needles in their legs, or in the veins in the backs of their hands, or even their feet or the inside of their mouth, or
Thats fine, thank you, his mother said sharply. I think weve learned enough tonight.
He wouldnt do that, the boy said. He was too nice. The next day, the boy told his mother that he wished he could see Santa Claus again. Santa Claus? she asked.
At the market. You know.
Oh, Alan, him? Honey, you saw him yesterday. You told him what you wanted then, didnt you?
I dont want to tell him what I want. I just want to see him because hes nice. I liked him.
After the boy was in bed, his father and mother sat in the living room, neither of them paying attention to the movie on cable. He say anything to you about Santa today? he asked her.
She nodded. Couple of times. You?
Yeah, He really went for this guy, huh?
I dont know why.
Oh, Alan can be so compassionate probably felt sorry for the guy.
She shook her head. No, it wasnt like that. He really seemed drawn by him, almost as though She paused.
As though he really thought the guy was Santa Claus? her husband finished.
I dont know, she answered, looking at the car crash on the TV screen but not really seeing it. Maybe.
She turned off the movie with no complaints from her husband, and began to go over the final list of ingredients for their Christmas dinner. Uh-oh, she murmured, and went out to the kitchen. In a minute she returned, frowning lovingly at her husband. Well, its not that I dont appreciate your making dinner tonight, but I just realized your oyster stew used the oysters for the Christmas casserole.
Nope. She was amused to see that there was actually panic in his face.
Whatll we do?
But but oyster casseroles a tradition.
Some tradition just because we had it last year.
I liked it.
And where are we going to find oysters on a Sunday?
Its not the day, its the month. An December has an R in it.
Sure. But Sunday doesnt have oysters in it. The IGAs closed, Acme, Weis
His face brightened. The farmers market! They have a fish stand, and theyre open tomorrow. You could run out and
Me? I didnt cook the oyster stew.
You ate it.
She put her left hand over his head and pounded it gently with her right. Sometimes you are a real sleazoid.
Now, Mrs. Scrooge, he said, pulling her onto his lap, wheres that Christmas spirit, that charity?
Good King Wenceslas I aint.
How about if I vacuum while youre gone so my mother doesnt realize what a slob you are?
How many pounds of oysters do you want?
It started to snow heavily just before midnight and stopped at dawn. The snow was light and powdery, easy for the morning trucks to push from the roads. The family went to church, then came home for a simple lunch, as if afraid to ingest even a jot too much on the day before the great Christmas feast. Well, the boys mother said after theyd finished cleaning up the dishes, Im off for oysters. Anyone want to come?
To the farm market? asked the boy. His mother nodded. Can I see Santa?
His father and mother exchanged looks. I dont think so, she replied. Do you want to go anyway?
He thought a moment. Okay.
The parking lot was still covered with snow, although the cars had mashed most of it down to a dirty gray film. Only the far end of the parking lot, where a small gray trailer sat attached to an old nondescript sedan, was pristine with whiteness. It was typical, the boys mother thought, of the management not to pay to have the lot plowed anyone whod hire a bargain basement Santa like that one and then charge three bucks for a thirty-five cent picture with him.
The seafood stand was out of oysters, but its owner said that the small grocery shop at the markets other end might still have some. Could I see Santa? the boy asked as they walked.
Alan, I told you no. Besides, hes probably gone by now. Hes got a busy night tonight. She knew it sounded absurd even as she said it. If that Santa was going to be busy, it wouldnt be delivering toys it would probably be looking for a fix. Repulsion crossed her face as she thought again of those hollow eyes, that pale skin, the telltale bruises on his bare hand, and she wondered what her son could possibly see in that haggard countenance.
She thought she would ask him, but when she looked down, he was gone. In a sharp, reflexive motion, she looked to the other side, then behind her, but the boy was not there. She strained to see him through the forest of people, then turned and retraced her steps, as her heart beat faster and beads of cold sweat touched her face. Alan! she called, softly but high, to pierce the low, murmuring din around her.
It took some time for the idea to occur that her son had disobeyed her and had set out to find the markets Santa Claus on his own. She had not thought him capable of such a thing, for he knew and understood the dangers that could face a small child alone in a public place, especially a place like a flea market that had more than its share of transients and lowlifes. She told herself that he could be all right, that nothing could happen to a little boy the day before Christmas, that someone she knew would see him and stop him and take care of him until she could find him, or that he would be there on Santa Clauss lap, smiling sheepishly and guiltily when he spotted her.
She was running now, jostling shoppers, their arms loaded with last-minute thoughts. Within a minute, she entered the large open area between the markets. The chairs and sign were there, the Santa and his photographer were not. Neither was her son.
For a long moment she stood, wondering what to do next, and finally decided to find the manager and ask him to make an announcement on the PA system. But first she called her husband, for she could no longer bear to be alone.
By the time he met her in the managers office, the announcement had been made four times without a response. The boys father held his mother, who was crying quietly, very much afraid. Where was he going? the manager, a short, elderly man with a cigarette in one hand and a can of soda in the other, asked.
"I thought it was to see Santa, but he wasnt there when I got there.
The manager nodded. Yeah, he quit at noon. I wanted him to work through five, but he wouldnt. Said he hadda meet somebody.
The boys father looked at the manager intently over his wifes head. Who is this guy?
Santa? Dont know his name. Just breezed in about a week ago and asked if I wanted a Santa cheap.
What do you mean you dont know his name? You pay him. Dont you?
Cash. Off the books. Youll keep that quiet now. And Riley, my helper, he got a Polaroid, so we made enough to pay him outta the pictures.
The boys father took his arms from around his wife. Where is this guy?
Hes got a trailer the other side of the lot.
All right, the father nodded. Were going to talk to him. And if he cant give us any answers, were calling the police.
The manager started to protest, but the couple walked out of the office and down the aisles, trying hard not to run and so admit their panic to themselves. Itll be all right, the boys father kept saying. Well find him. Itll be all right.
And they did. When they walked into the open area where Santa had been, their son was standing beside the gold aluminum Christmas tree. He smiled when he saw them, and waved.
They ran to him, and his mother scooped him up and hugged him, crying. His father placed a hand on his head as if to be certain he was really there, then tousled his hair, swallowing heavily to rid his throat of the cold lump that had been there since his wifes call.
Where were you? the boys mother said, holding him ferociously. Where did you go?
I wanted to see him, he said, as if that were all the explanation necessary.
But I told you no. You know better, Alan. Anything could have happened. We were worried sick.
Im Sorry, Mom. I just had to see him.
But you didnt, his father said. So where were you? Why didnt you answer the announcements?
Oh, I saw him, Dad. I was with him.
He was here. He said he was waiting for me, that hed been hoping Id come again. He really looked different, he didnt have on his red suit or anything.
His mother shook her head. But I looked here.
Oh, I found him here okay. But then we went to his place.
What? they both asked at once.
His trailer. Its sort of like the one Grandpa and Grandma have.
Why did you go out there? his mother asked, remembering the trailer and the car at the end of the lot.
He asked me to.
Alan, his father said, Ive told you never, never to go with anyone for any reason.
But it was all right with him, Dad. I knew Id be safe with him. He told me when we were walking. Out to his trailer.
Told you what?
How he always looks for somebody.
Oh my God
Whats the matter, Mom?
Nothing. Nothing. What else did this man say?
He just said he always comes back this time of year, just to see if people still believe in him. He said lots of people say they do, but they dont, not really. He said they just say so because they want their kids to believe in him. But if he finds one person who really believes, and knows who he really is, then its all gonna be okay. Til next Christmas. He said its almost always kids, like me, but thats okay. As long as theres somebody who believes in him and trusts him enough to go with him.
The boys father knelt beside him and put his big hands on the boys thin shoulders. Alan. Did he touch you? Touch you anywhere at all?
Just here. He held up his mitten-covered hands. My hands.
Alan, this man played a mean joke on you. He let you think that hes somebody that he really isnt.
Oh no, Dad, youre wrong.
Now listen. This man was not Santa Claus, Alan.
The boy laughed. I know that! I havent believed in Santa Claus for almost a whole month!
His mother barely got the words out. Then who ?
And you were wrong too, Mom. He didnt have any little needle holes in his hands. Just the big ones. Straight through. Just like hes supposed to.
Her eyes widened, and she put her fist to her mouth to hold in a scream. Her husband leaped to his feet, his face even paler than before. Wheres this trailer? he asked in a voice whose coldness frightened the boy.
They strode out the door together into the late afternoon darkness. Street lights illuminated every part of the parking lot. It was there, she said, staring across at the white emptiness.
The bastard. Got out while the getting was good. He The father paused. There? he said pointing.
Yes. It was right over there. The boy nodded in agreement with his mother.
It couldnt have been. He started to walk toward the open space, and his family followed. There are no tracks. It hasnt snowed. And theres no wind. He looked at the unbroken plain of powdered snow.
Hey! Hey, you folks! They turned and saw the manager laboring toward them, puffs of condensation roaring from his mouth. That your kid? He okay?
The boys father nodded. Yeah. He seems to be. We were trying to find that man. Your Santa Claus. But hes gone.
Huh! You believe that? And I still owe him fourteen bucks. He turned back toward the warmth of the market, shaking his head. Left without his money. Some people
Never mind, his wife said. Hes all right. Let him believe. She touched her husbands shoulder. Maybe we should all believe. Its almost easier that way.
When they got home, the boy took off his mittens, and his father and mother saw the pale red marks, one in each palm, where he said the mans fingers had touched him. They were suffused with a rosy glow, as if the blood pulsed more strongly there. Theyll go away, the boys father said. In time, theyll go away. But they did not.
...Will keep you apprised of future posts.
My favorite line in the whole story...so matter of fact. I can hear my 7-year old nephew saying those exact same words...
If it's not too much trouble, let me know if you post more like this as well.
Thanks in advance whether you can or not.
...would be my pleasure.
Just for you...
DOES the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow, dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you waiting at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
This story is one that my ex-wife would give me grief over. She harassed me for being emotional about things like this, and for being "hoohah crazy" over poems like the one just recently posted about the soldier alone at Christmas time...or any military type poetry for that matter. Can't help it though. Her loss.
BTW, thanks for posting this story and the poems. I love good writing.
Doesn't even begin to compare with what I believe is the perfect 19th century poem...