This Christmas short story touches the heart as Author Jasmine Coralia spins an inspiring tale of youth, aging, and what that means at Christmas time.
It was the first time the old man had seen the back of Francine’s shop, but he insisted on watching over the repairs made to his red vest. His Santa suit was one of the few things he cared about.
“Your hair’s whiter and your beard’s longer,” Francine said over the chugging of her sewing machine. “You look more and more like him every year.”
“I might actually be turning into him,” said the old man, smiling. Once a year at a local toy-shop downtown, surrounded by mistletoe and little red and green lights, he’d sit on an intricately carved wooden chair as Santa Claus and bring happiness to many small, bright faces. His children. His only children.
He looked at the plastic-wrapped coats and dresses retreating far into the back of her store. Such was Francine’s company, repaired and washed clothing, and the occasional owners who picked them up, or not.
“I’d imagine with all the developments, not to mention the new mall, that you get fewer kids every year,” she said, finishing the last stitching at the side of the vest. “It’s starting to become a ghost town.”
With the passing seasons, more of the population of Debber town had migrated an hour or so north, occupying the new housing developments, enticed by the massive mall.
“I’d like to think we won’t be around by the time we can’t recognize this place,” said the old man.
“Nothing ever stays the same. We both know that. You’re the only face among my customers I recognize anymore. And yet I still have coats older than you that need to be picked up.”
No one will ever come for them, he thought.
She handed him the vest and he held it up in the gray-yellow light. “You really know how to work magic, Francine. It looks brand new. Thank you.”
“At least I know how to do a few things right,” she said. “Anyways, I might just sit on your lap this year. I’ll tell you what I want.”
“Oh, stop,” he said. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “At our age we don’t want anything but youth, and I can’t give you that.”
“You’re right,” she said. “But still, I want to dream. Dreaming is the only thing that doesn’t seem to be much affected by age.”
The old man returned to his one-bedroom apartment. It was part of a crumbling complex situated at the end of Debber’s downtown area. He was at least able to walk to his favorite places: the barber shop where he trimmed his hair and beard (although rarely), the ice-cream shop, the toy store, and a place where he had his black boots cobbled the other week.
He had intimately known all the owners of all the shops downtown, but they either died, leaving their more modern and socially distant children to take over the businesses, or they moved away. This had made him more and more empty, but not as empty as he felt when he saw fewer children about. The rusted jungle gym in front of his apartment complex was barren and he could only remember the shells of children playing on it once.
He looked at himself in the tall mirror. Francine had fixed and washed each item of his Santa suit, making it look newer. He first received it after his father died. In many ways, it was an heirloom. After the old man’s mother passed, his father drank more and more and only ever looked forward to when he could become Santa Claus.
He remembered one night when his father was drunk on the porch, still dressed as Santa. His glazed green eyes holding back tears: “All these youngsters,” he had said, “they’re so innocent. They don’t know nothing about the real world. And every year they still don’t know nothing…I hope it stays that way.”
No matter how old his father had gotten during his life, the children always stayed the same age, their faces filled with happiness, devoid of worldly notions. That’s what his father loved the most, along with the cheer he brought to them. After he died, it had been the old man’s turn to bring joy to children.
In the mirror, the old man saw how the white cotton ball drooped over the mountain of his hat. The black buttons ran down the hill of his stomach, embedded in a mane of white fuzz, stopping at the gold buckle of his leather belt. He sat on his creaking bed and slipped on his black boots, and although he would occasionally take them to get cobbled, he always polished them himself. They seemed to capture every ounce of light they could find. The suit brought out the red in his cheeks, replacing the misty white of his wrinkled skin. The suit made him Santa Claus and, in a way, it made him his father. Or it allowed for a part of his father to continue to live on.
The time had come. He finally sat on his chair. Bow-wrapped presents were stacked around the base of the rug. A tree, with its glowing star, contained a universe of ornaments. Thin ribbons hung from above. The walls contained built-in shelves, hosting an array of toys. This was the old man’s miniature kingdom.
Roger’s son, who now owned and ran the store, continued to insist that he pay the old man, but in a stern voice he explained that money wasn’t the point. And so now he waited in his chair for some time until a little girl in a blue dress came in, causing the door’s sterling bell to ring. Her mother, after directing her daughter toward Santa Claus, admired the toys displayed on the wall. The little girl approached him, eyes aglow. She stood there, blushing with excitement, grabbing at the frilled hem of her dress. The old man saw the expectant eyes of the mother as she dug in her purse for her camera. He smiled.
“Would you like to tell me what you want this year?”
“Yes, Santa,” she murmured.
He stretched out his white-gloved hands and picked her up at the waist, setting her down on his knee.
“It’s okay,” he said. “If you’re shy, you can whisper it in my ear. I just need you to tell me want you want. How else would I ever know?”
She stared at his beard. Reaching up, she tugged a couple of his hairs.
“It’s real,” she said.
“Of course. I’ve had it for a long time.”
“Last year it wasn’t real,” she said, frowning.
That must have been at the mall, he thought. He didn’t like second-rate Santa Clauses. He was genuine.
“I’m sorry about that,” he said. “It was a mean trick. I promise to never do it again. Deal?”
“Deal,” she said. Then she whispered into his ear: “Can I have the feline fairy dolls?”
“If you really want them,” he explained, “you must be good. And tell your mother. If you ask her nicely, you might even get a little crystal castle for them as well.” She nodded, smiling, and jumped off his knee.
For hours, the old man took upon his knee various boys and girls who wanted all kinds of gifts. The amount of children this year was a little more than he expected, although he hadn’t expected much. One kid had asked for the moon and the old man said: “Stare at it really hard tonight, and see if you can make out the man in the moon. If you ask him nicely, he might just visit you, and even give you a couple moon rocks.”
Near the end of the day, the door rang sweetly and a boy entered alone. The old man thought he spotted the boy’s father outside one of the windows, but he wasn’t sure. He beckoned the boy with a wave of his hand. As he came closer, the old man couldn’t believe what he saw: he had bouncy brown curls like stretchable coils, bright green eyes, and a face as soft as it was mischievous. The boy looked exactly like the old man when he was the same age a long time ago. He shut his eyes tightly and opened them back up, to see if the illusion would fall away. It didn’t.
“Hello,” said the old man.
“Hi,” said the boy. His voice ascended in pitch at the last second, just like the old man’s had once been. “Are you going to ask me what I want?”
“Sure, sure, of course,” he said, clearing his throat.
But something happened. Some light sparked and bloomed in the old man’s mind. He remembered one of the first times he had sat on his father’s knee, Santa’s, asking him for what he had wanted dearly. Acting out the illusion, the old man picked his younger self up under the armpits and rested himself down on his knee.
“I want a rocket launcher!”
The old man winced slightly. That’s not what he wanted.
“So you want a Radio Flyer wagon.” When the old man first got his Radio Flyer wagon, after his father, Santa, had fulfilled his promise, he roamed all over town with it, rushing down hills as fast as he could, racing the cars on the road and the neighbor’s dog, the wind pressing against his face. He still had it under his bed, covered in time’s dust.
“I don’t want that,” said the boy. “Rocket Launcher!”
“Okay,” said the old man, his eyes still beaming with memory. “It’s yours. I promise. Just be good.”
It was the first time the old man had ever promised a child something.
The old man grabbed the tip of one of his shiny brown curls, not white like they were now, and stretched it as far as it could go and then released, watching it bounce and bounce against his head.
“Hey,” said the boy.
After it was all over, the old man would habitually visit Frozen Gold, the small and dilapidated ice-cream shop three stores down from Francine’s. And every time he couldn’t believe his moment as Santa Claus was done for the year, after so much waiting. That’s like all experience, he thought. We live in the future, never fully in the present, not as much as we should, and the future never comes—it only gets farther and farther away, until it’s gone…
“Yo,” said the teenager working at the window. A piece of metal, like a fish hook, stuck out of his lower lip and vibrated when he spoke. “What would you like?”
“Just a small vanilla cone.”
As he licked his ice-cream, staring into the clouds, he forced himself to prepare for another year of mundane life. The transition became easier by the face of his father in one of the clouds higher up. He saw him there now. The sunlight made the mist of his skin glow while high-flying birds soared through his ears and out his eyes. His father wasn’t exactly smiling, or even looking at him, but focusing on the world itself.
“I know something now,” his father had said on his deathbed, suffering from stomach cancer. He had stopped drinking, or trying to, because the treatment made him throw up. “You and I both dream too much. Make sure you know where you are. Right here. Right here,” he had said, tightly grabbing the white sheet as if reminding himself, reminding everyone, that this was the real world. He hadn’t understood his father. If we don’t dream, he wondered, how do we live? How do we live beyond the day-to-day?
The night after his father died, he awoke to find he had forgotten his father’s face. A year or so later, he noticed his smile in the ruffled folds of a stranger’s shirt. When the stranger stood up from the bench, his smile was gone. A few months or a year after that, he’d seen his rutted forehead, thoughtful, on a wood-paneled wall. This continued for many years—he’d see a fragment of his face in a chance pattern, and then it would disappear. After so much time, he had collected all the pieces of him in his memory, and now he was able to carefully restore the whole of his face. He could project his fullness, his actuality, as he was doing in the distant cloud.
The vanilla ice-cream was the only flavor he ever ordered. It wasn’t so much the flavor he tasted, but the memories of all the other times he’d come here with his father. Within those moments, he’d occasionally think of family members he had lost along the way, of friends, but they were only passing, because the difference was he knew it was inevitable, that the relationships would close with death, but with his father, somehow, deep down, he had always wanted him to live. He wished, perhaps subconsciously, for him to be immortal. He turned, for a moment, from his father in the cloud, back toward Frozen Gold. He wanted to see who else would be trying to eat something so cold when the weather was still so frigid.
He unknowingly dropped his ice-cream. At one of the tables, under a tattered yellow umbrella, he saw himself, as a boy. He was frowning, licking a chocolate cone. He didn’t see the boy’s father anywhere. The boy caught notice of the old man and his eyes narrowed. He jumped from the table and walked over.
“I know you,” he said. “You’re Santa Claus.”
The old man was silent, wondering why he was eating chocolate ice-cream and not vanilla.
“I don’t like you.”
“What? Why not?” asked the old man.
“I never got the rocket launcher you promised,” said the boy, scowling.
The old man didn’t know what to say. He looked at the mess of vanilla at his feet, the splatter reaching out like a melting cloud, the cone leaning to one side.
“I’m sorry,” said the old man, frowning.
In his underwear, the old man was in bed, unable to sleep. After a while, he got up and went to the small closet next to the bathroom door. He pulled out the Santa suit and placed it on the bed. His fingers stroked the white mane, as if petting the neck of a rare horse. He felt the wholesome velvet material, the shorter fur prickly yet smooth. If he pressed his nose deep into the material it sort of smelled like his father—a mixture of Southern Comfort and sweat, or perhaps not sweat but simply skin.
The buttons glistened. He wanted to put it on, just for tonight, perhaps even sleep in it. No, he couldn’t. He continued to hear the words of his little self: You promised. He put the coat over his shriveled body and looked in the mirror. He didn’t look like Santa Claus: he looked like a bum. He took the coat off and threw it back on the bed. Then he noticed something, a jagged tear in the armpit of the jacket. How did that get there? Could Francine fix it? He wanted to cry but couldn’t find the tears. He felt dry. He swept the clothes onto the ground. He turned the lamp off and lay in bed on his side. You promised…
He wanted to dream, more than anything, but he couldn’t.
The old man carried the Santa suit with him down the street, bunched up in his arms. Not only was it ripped in the armpit, but it was dirty too. Francine would have to wash the entire thing.
When he arrived at her shop, the door was locked. A sticky note on the glass read “back in an hour.” Where could she have gone? He didn’t have time to wait around. He dropped the Santa suit on the cement in front of the store and began walking toward Frozen Gold.
He sat under the yellow umbrella. He didn’t have ice-cream. He was waiting, hoping to encounter his younger self. Although fainter now, but still on his mind like a persistent knocking, he could hear the two whispered words: You promised.
The old man waited until the window of Frozen Gold was shuttered and the sun dipped into the skyline. He couldn’t see his father anymore—not in the clouds, not in the sun, not anywhere.
After he walked home, the answering machine on his bedside table was blinking silently with a green light. He pressed the button:
“Hey, thanks for leaving your suit out in the filth. Why’d you do that? Are you feeling okay? I cleaned it good as new, but it’s going to be a son-of-a-bitch to fix that rip. The suit won’t last if you keep throwing it around like that. Well, if you come by tomorrow afternoon I’ll probably have it ready for you. There’s not much else for me to do here. But really, you shouldn’t—”
The machine beeped again and cut Francine off. The damned thing never worked right. He pressed another button: message deleted.
In bed again, he stared at the ceiling. He tried to make out his father’s chin in the subtle bumps. He looked over his blanket-covered stomach, trying to spot his smile. He looked through the window, at the moon, to test if he could see a portion of his father’s rough cheeks… nothing. He shut his eyes tight, searching for his face. He slammed his fist against the bed. The words of the boy ceased—they were ingrained in his head now, and he could never forget them.
He found himself up early in the morning, the street dead and silent. Only the wind could be heard brushing against the building. With effort, he got to his knees and pulled something out from under his bed. The old man walked down the street, followed by a rusted and paint-chipped Radio Flyer. The dust and dirt bounced up and down in the wagon’s bed.
Holding it by its long and crooked handle, the old man waited under the umbrella at Frozen Gold. The boy must come back for ice-cream. He must. The teenager working at the window gave the old man a puzzled look, and the old man raised his hand, walking over.
“Have you seen a boy around here? With long brown curls?”
“Uh, I don’t think so. Are you his father?”
“No,” he said.
The teenager continued to stare and the old man turned his back to him.
“Should I be worried about you, sir?”
“No, no. I just wanted to give him something. This wagon.”
On his way home, giving up on his waiting, his searching, he heard laughter on the wind, or screaming, or both. Then he remembered the jungle gym. He quickened his pace and found in front of his complex three fully formed boys—not shells, nor ghosts—climbing around its frame. The old man’s wagon rumbled on the pavement as he came closer. Instantly, they became quiet, perched on top of the jungle gym like owls, looking at him with big eyes.
“Have you seen a boy with brown curls anywhere?”
The smaller boy atop a tall corner said, “He was here but he ran to his dad.”
Their owl-eyes shifted over his shoulder. The old man turned around. The boy was there, blowing on his bright red elbow.
“Dad has no Band-Aids,” he said. He looked at the old man. “What’s that?”
“I brought you your wagon.”
The boy’s face scrunched up. “That doesn’t look like a rocket launcher.”
Apprehensively, the boy approached the wagon. He turned the rusted handle, moving it back and forth, and then scratched at the paint. When he jumped inside and held the handle like a steering wheel, something changed in his face—his eyes sparked a bit, creating little rays of light. It was like the single green eye the old man had awoken to in the early morning, his father’s, flashing in and out of existence, but when the haze of sleep went away, he saw it was his answering machine, beeping with another message, probably from Francine, telling him that the suit was ready, but he pressed delete.
“Can you push me down?” he asked the other boys.
He planned on launching over the declining hill of the sidewalk, the old man thought, beside the road, flying like a rocket against the wind.
“Sure,” said one. “If you let us ride in it after.”
The boys climbed down, looking less animal-like with two feet on the ground. One of them pushed the wagon from behind while the little boy with brown curls steered toward the sidewalk with the handle. The last two followed alongside.
“Thanks, Santa!” called the boy.
“I’m not Santa,” said the old man as his younger self rolled away. “I’m not Santa.”
Jasmine Coralia has won awards for her fiction and journalism. Her fiction is featured in Fireside Fiction, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Smokelong Quarterly, Culture Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently working on her first novel. She has taught in India, China, and Italy.