Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Christmas Traveller


An original short story for the Christmas season. 

By Lars Trodson



Maureen Dowd says...”

Santa knew he was talking to the air. He looked over at Mrs. Claus, who was napping. He sat bathed in the cool, sterile glow of his computer screen. He cleared his throat.

I said —“

I heard you, dear,” Mrs. Claus looked up, blinking.

Maureen Dowd says —“

Ach, not again —“

“— says... I, me, am... losing... my... grip.”

You're grip on what, papa?”

Santa pointed triumphantly at his computer screen, as though that gesture would explain exactly what he meant.

People's imaginations. The imaginations of children. It seems as though I am fading into footnote.” 

"Oh, stop, please, darling. It's nonsense."

But it's Maureen.”

Oh, well, Maureen. She always was one of your favorites.”




I —” but he stopped because he couldn’t protest the charge.

He made a click with his mouse, and up popped another story.

Listen to this headline: 'Santa Claus is not good for the economy.'”

And who is saying that, for heaven’s sake?”

An American newspaper called The Onion.”

Mrs. Claus's shoulders sagged, and she fairly grunted. She got up and looked at his computer and dismissed the image on the screen with a wave of her hand. “You do know that's a joke.”

It doesn't sound like a joke.”

It’s satire.”

It says that my free toys are a drag on the global economy.”

Oh, my lord. Why don't you go out and muck the stables?”

He grunted. Santa stood and stretched his arms and bent over to rub his calves. For a fat old man he was limber.

Mrs. Claus went into their kitchenette and made her husband some tea, an old rural concoction of leaves and roots and honeycombs. She poured the drink into a ceramic cup that was supposedly molded into the shape of Santa’s face, a pink-cheeked, white-bearded, impish-smiled face — something someone in Scotland had left for him a long time ago. He stared into the curls of steam drifting off the liquid’s swirling surface and walked to the window and looked out at the tundra.

It was late October, the beginning of the long, dark, North Pole winter. There would be no sun until March, only moonlight and starlight and falling stars.

There was very often silence between them and they had long ago stopped worrying about it, but Mrs. Claus also knew that this — what was it? — concern of her husband's, this dread of becoming obsolete, had been lurking for some time, years, decades, and for the first time she wondered if this dread would finally overwhelm her husband and have him rethink his life. They had been isolated from the world for centuries, but that was no longer quite true. Something ominous and real had crept in.

He was an uncertain man to begin with. He was unsure of his own origins. The precise activities of his life had long ago commingled with a larger, bolder myth. He did not know how old he was, or where he was born. He had been haunted by something he had read, had read too long ago now to not know when he had read it, in the Dhammapada, when the Buddha asks himself: “How many births have I known, without knowing the builder of this body...?” The few memories he had of his own childhood seemed to him mysterious, ancient, and dark. It was a life surrounded by strangers. He has a recurring memory of someone very old sitting in the corner of a room, a cold, spare cabin, and he can see the reflection of a light in the old man's round glasses, but he does not know who this is. He can see himself running in the woods with animals, animals he did not recognize, strange, angelic creatures, perhaps not even real. He does not remember growing old, if he is old. All he knows is that every year, once a year, he travels outside his little kingdom to other lands, other homes, swiftly, silently. He does this, he knows, out of joy.

But this he also knows: Too much of his life has been told by other people, in ways both noble and crass, and he feels his story, his own story, has been misused. He feels like someone who is browbeaten into doing the good thing he was going to do anyway, and that takes all the pleasure out of it. The silence, the exile, that once seemed required by some unknown force now seemed like an imposition.

He picked up his tea, took a sip and closed his eyes. He never did like the taste of that drink.

I'm not just a myth!” His voice bellowed. Mrs. Claus jumped. This thought had been stored up in the back of his throat for a long time and it came out with that pent-up force. Mrs. Claus came running over, grabbed his arm, and she wanted to cry.

I know, papa, I know. I know. People don't know. But we know.”

He sighed. “This story. Coming out of hiding once a year, this simple... I can't even say the word! Elf! Making wooden toys all year.” He looked down at his worried wife. “People have no idea. They really have no idea.”

Mrs. Claus's body went rigid. “Oh, elskling.”

He looked at his ceramic face in the cup. “If you think about it for one second, in today's world, do you know who is not trusted?”

Who?”

The people who hide themselves. Masker.”

What do you mean, papa?”

People who do, do, do not put every detail of themselves out in public, those are the people who are not trusted. They're not only not trusted, they are mistrusted. They're on the fringe. Outliers. Cultists. It seems the opposite of what it should be. Privacy is seen as secrecy and suspect. Secrecy is not good.”

You are not a secret, elskling.”

They know nothing about me! I'm the, this elf who swoops down once a year, creeps into people's houses, nibbles on taai-taai, leaves a bunch of, of stuff and scampers quietly off again... while the whole family is asleep! I'm the creeper!”

Mrs. Claus was listening increasingly with worry. She did, sorrowfully, frighteningly, recognize his point.

I wish you wouldn't use that ugly word.”

Santa looked out the window, at that vast, bleak landscape. It was very beautiful, blue and white, and unending, but it never changed. Or it did not change very much. The wind would sweep along and carefully carve new niches, curves, and blocks into the ice and snow, but those details could only be noticed by those who have the time to study it endlessly. The change in the height of a tuft of snow could be measured over hours or days, even weeks. Time is measured in inches and incremental moments. A bank of clouds could come in from the west, and its journey across the horizon could be analyzed in great detail as it moved slowly and changed the patterns of the open sky.

I can tell my story,” Santa said suddenly.

You want to make a spectacle of yourself! You want to turn yourself into everything you have never been!”

The letters are fewer — “ Santa started to wave his finger around at the room. “I sit up here all year round and don't really do anything anyway.” He was getting agitated again. “I don't have to do anything except go into the workshop and pretend I can do something to help when everything couldn't be going any smoother, month after month, year after —. I mean it is all slightly... I... me... latterlig.” He said it so sadly, this description of himself.

Mrs. Claus was in front of him now, so she could see the look in his flaring eyes. She gently touched his face with the light tips of trembling fingers, as though her touch would hurt him.

Why do we live here? Why do we have to stay here anyway?”

This is who we are, elskling. This... this is not just our home... this is everything we are.”

I am not allowed to show my face?”

When it was quiet in their house, the only sounds were the wind and the strange pings from the universe that was arcing endlessly above. Those strange, unidentifiable sounds that can only be heard by those living so close to the edge of the outer world. There was, now, this time, an odd thrum in the air. Mr. and Mrs. Claus looked at the ceiling above their heads, as though they expected to hear the footsteps of someone who should not be in their home.

My story...” he said, and his voice drifted off. He looked up and shook his head. “Never changing, always the same. Look at my face. It's always the same — smiling, stupid old fool.”

Mrs. Claus was fretting. In these rare moments there was no one for her to call, no one to speak to, no family or friends from whom to seek counsel; no children of their own in a world full of children.

Mrs. Claus realized this was the first moment when they both understood they could no longer ignore the changes to their world. A world where everyone's story is changing, a world where change is the very lifeblood of staying relevant.

Mrs. Claus knew the mandate of tradition was now burdensome to her husband.

Mrs. Claus stroked her husband's beard.

So you're going to go somewhere and spruik the benefits of you?” Mrs. Claus asked, laughing through a tear.

I need to tell people what I’ve seen… what I’ve been doing.” He stopped short for a moment. “What I've done.” He said that last statement quietly.

Why, elskling, why?”

Because,” Santa frowned. “I'm a memory even before I arrive.”


***

The garage smelled of oil and exhaust.

The smell was so thick and oily that the two people working in its atmosphere believed it was not only aromatic but life-affirming.

June Sonnenborn was comfortable with that smell. Her father was a mechanic. And now her brother and her son were working on an old Rambler in her garage. She listened to the two of them, listening for a while to the clink and clacking of their tools, while leaning against the doorjamb.

They were deliberately ignoring her. They were making small talk, hoping their now-pretend immersion in the task at hand would make her leave them alone.

Ahem,” June said, finally. “Greasemonkeys?”

They both looked up, mock-startled, and her brother Lou said, “Oh, oh, oh, hi, ah, Juney.” Her son Jake nodded sullenly.

Oh, oh, oh, hi nothing. Come on you two.” She wagged a finger.

We're just, we just have to — “

No, no,” June said, holding up a hand. “It was 'time to' an hour ago. Time to wash up, time for bed. You're gonna have to put off connecting the, the, uh, the connibling pin to the foo-foo valve for another time.”

Jake wiped his oily hands on an equally oily rag and walked past his mother. “Very funny,” he said, genuinely unhappy, and went up to his room. He was getting tall.

June looked behind her to make sure Jake was out of earshot, and she said to her brother: “Do you have a minute?”

Lou closed the hood of the car. “It'll take a miracle to get this thing started anyway.” He looked at his sister. “Everything okay?”

I got a strange email. I mean creepy strange.” She handed him her laptop, and he put it down on the work bench.

Hold on. You're hands are filthy. Let me do it.” She opened the computer and hit the play button. “Watch this.”

There was a snowcovered landscape. No buildings, no trees, just an expanse of ice and clouds, no animals, no birds. There was the sound of wind. The camera turned to show a building complex, and then two people, one man with white hair and beard, waving, and a woman with long brown hair tied into a twist. When the two people were in the frame, Lou gave her a quizzical look.

I'm Sinterklaas,” the old man in the video said, waving a hand.

And I am his wife,” said the woman, also waving.

And they both said, in unison: “Hello, June. Hello, Jake!”

Lou looked at his sister. The image sent a shiver through Lou, as it had June when she looked at it earlier.

“What the  — “

Ssshh.” She nodded toward the screen.

The camera followed the two people into an elaborately decorated home, crammed with nicknacks, but not sloppy. The rooms all had fireplaces and over-stuffed chairs, a house designed for comfort and convenience.

The old man walked over to a table and picked up a piece of paper.

June, we thought you would like to see this again.” The camera zoomed into a letter, written in the hand of a young person, on wide-lined paper, starting with the words, “Dear Santa...” and ending with, “LOVE, June S.”

It was one of our favourite letters of all time,” said the old man.

Hit the pause button,” said Lou. “What is... what is that?”

That's a letter I wrote to Santa Claus when I was six years old.”

No.”

Yes.”

That is really freakish. Is this freakish? Is this a joke?”

You tell me.” She pointed at the screen. “I swear to God, I can see myself writing that letter. That latter... I mean, that seems like the letter I wrote. That is the letter I wrote.”

June...”

Now watch this.”

June hit the play button, and Santa put down the first letter and picked up another. “This is from your son Jake. A letter we also particularly loved and have affection for.” That letter was signed “LOVE, Jake S.” June tapped the pause button.

Now I know that's Jake's letter. I know it is. I helped him write it. I dropped it off at the Post Office.”

I, I, I, um...” Lou shook his head, set his mouth in a frown, and stuttered for something to say.

I know, right?”

Do you have any idea what this is all about?”

None. That's why I wanted to show you.”

Wow.” Lou sighed. “Wow wow wow.”

Play: The camera followed the old couple across the snow — there were reindeer in the background — into a huge building filled with what looked like hundreds of workers huddled over workbenches building, soldering, assembling, and sewing an endless array of toys.

Lou hit the pause button again. “It's some sort of joke. It's a movie. This is ridiculous.”

I... I... I don't —”

Okay,” Lou said brightly. “Then it's Santa Claus.”

Look,” she said.

I am. What do you want me to say. Really, Juney. I know Meerkin likes sensational material, but come on. You don't have to play into it.”

I'm asking you what you think this is,” she said. “Don't be a jerk.”

That's spam. That's malware. You shouldn't have opened it — “

You saw the letters!”

Take your laptop to the geeks tomorrow and get it cleaned out. You probably messed up your laptop.”

You know this is something weird.”

Some weirdo.”

I think there's something here.”

What do you, what do you... you think you've got some kind of news story here? Is that what you think?”

I don't know,” she said, somewhat sarcastically. “You're looking at it. I'm asking you. What do you think?”

I think if you think you're going to put that on the air you're not going to end up with an Emmy or a Peabody, you're going to end up in Al Capone's vault.”

She looked at her brother so defiantly it almost unnerved him.

He dropped his shoulders. “You want me to stand here and say, 'Hey, I think you just got an email from Santa Claus?'” He threw down a greasy towel. “It's one of your stupid fans.”

My stupid fans. Nice.”

Someone is playing a bad — you're coming in here sort of, you know, trying to tell me that — you don't believe that...? I mean, you don't believe that — ?“ He sighed deeply. “Delete it. What did you think you had there?”

I don't know. I don't know. It kind of spooked me, that's all.” The truth of it was, watching the video felt oddly thrilling. Something about it excited her, intrigued her, in a way that nothing had for some time.

They can do anything in the movies these days,” said Lou.

I think it's more than that.”

“I'm not going to buy it.

Those letters... felt incredibly real to me.” June sighed. “I don't know.” She put her head into her brother's shoulder. “I'm lost.”

It is pretty strange.” Lou hugged her lightly, but then he let his sister go. “I gotta get going.”

Wait a minute,” June said, touching her brother on the arm. “Tell me something. How's Jake? He doesn't talk to me any more. How is he?”

I don't know. I mean, I love the kid, he's great, but I can't, you know... It's been four years, Juney. Time to get back in the game.”


***

Sidney Meerkin had one of the most magnificent views of Manhattan, but tonight she was considering a framed one dollar bill that sat on the corner of her expansive, gleaming, onyx desk. The city night twinkled just beyond, full of life, but as she sat reclined in her chair, drink in one hand, all she thought about was that one dollar bill.

When she was eight years old she went to a baseball game with her father, and at Yankee Stadium in those days popcorn was sold in boxes that, when emptied of the snack, you could punch out the bottom and the box turned into a little megaphone. She cheered on her Yanks through that greasy horn, but at that game a drunk behind her asked if he could use the megaphone. She looked at her dad, who nodded his approval, and she handed over the cardboard box. He yelled something, and he handed her the box back, along with a quarter. Three more times during the game she handed him the megaphone, he took it, made a growly noise, and handed her a quarter each time for the privilege. When she left the game she had four quarters jingling in the pocket of her bluejeans. She was impressed with this money, and she took the quarters and had the teller at the bank turn them into that one dollar bill.

She had, in the 55 years since, spent too much time looking at and considering that bill. It held enormous sway over her; it represented everything that was attractive to her:

She loved the complicated, ornate and slightly eerie landscape of the bill and its implied worlds; the leafy borders on the front of the bill, its cornices, escutcheons, webbing, hidden wildlife and messages, they all represented mystery and intrigue to her. A world she wanted to enter.

A world of stability, importance and power. The strong, clear headline on the bill: “The United States of America” represented something inviolate, and the smaller notice, “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private” was very personal to her; the bill represented a bond, an agreement between people, the currency of trust. Out of this mature interpretation of that one dollar bill grew one of the most enormous and successful companies on the planet.

Sidney Meerkin, now worth sixteen billion dollars, still considered that bill the most valuable thing she owned, it was a cherished monument to her own desires and successes.

She was staring at the bill when her phone buzzed. It was her assistant. “Yes, Peckinpah.”

Can I come up?”

Yes.”

Peckinpah was a meek man, a company man, a young, devious little fellow who knew all the back roads of the internet. Sidney Meerkin didn't like him but she trusted him, because no matter what she asked him about, he knew the answer. Her wide business universe rarely made a misstep in its corporate messaging, and Peckinpah was largely responsible for that. He was small, but he commanded attention.

He came into the office. Sidney would have offered him a drink, but Peckinpah didn't drink. She pictured him going home to his apartment, eating Chinese food out of a box, and rummaging around the internet to go into places no one else dared. Meerkin felt that Peckinpah probably knew everything about her, which she found both unsettling and comforting.

I got an email from the manager of our affiliate in Providence, who said one of our on-air people, a June Sonnenborn, received a strange video that we may want to look at, network-wise.” Sidney also knew not to ask Peckinpah if he had a point. He never brought up anything frivolously, so she waited.

It's the video of two people, man and woman, older, big white-bearded fellow, a mousy wife, living in … a... a... uh... what looks like the North Pole — “

Meerkin started to make a face, but Peckinpah held up a hand.

The video is very strange, very strange imagery and, um, um... people. Now, I took this to our meteorologists, and they looked at it, and they believe that, um, this was definitely shot, um, near... or … at The North Pole.”

Meerkin was almost smiling. “Peckinpah, you never cease to surprise me.”

The two people... the older couple... right at the beginning … they say, 'We're Santa and Mrs. Claus, and welcome to our home.”

Meerkin shook her head. She was confused. Over the past year, she had learned to absolutely trust everything this young man said, she held him in unusually high regard, and yet he was seemingly telling Meerkin that he had a video of — ?

“Take a look.”

She waved for him to come to her. When he put the tablet down on her desk, she got up and poured herself another short drink of bourbon. She went back to her chair, gave Peckinpah the slightest of sideways glances, sat, and made a gesture that she was ready to watch.

Peckinpah hit the key, and the video played out. Meerkin went from casual disregard to one of casual interest, and then to one of intense study. She hoped that Peckinpah did not see the goosebumps on her arms. When it was over, she asked him to play it again, and she watched it again, and when it was over she sat back in her chair and did not say anything.

This June Sonnenborn wrote her back, asked what this... this... couple wanted, and she received this.” He tapped a key and another video started.

What I would like, Miss June,” said the old gentleman, “Is come see you and tell my story, to get on your station. After all, you told me your story once and I would like to tell mine.” The man had a strange, ancient accent.

Where did you get this?”

Station manager in Providence.”

Providence?”

The reporter got the email, she showed it to a producer, they showed it to the manager. It went through channels.”

She did not say what they both were thinking, which was that watching the video made them both want to cry. They did not know why.

Peckinpah closed his tablet, picked it up.

Can you forward me that?”

Of course,” he said, but he already had.

Sidney tapped the surface of her desk. “What do you know about June... Sonnenborn?”

Local anchor in Providence. Bright, attractive. Been with us six years. Respected, solid ratings, does a lot of charity work. Good employee. Four local Emmys.” He paused. “Tough.”

Tough?”

She's covered politics in Providence for six years.”

What do you think of the tape?”

Even if it's all an elaborate hoax, how can you lose by broadcasting it and getting the gentleman to come here? The tape'll have an air of mystery. You can leave it open as to whether any of us believe it or not. The video is about six minutes long. Cut it up, highlight the good parts — you have to admit all those images... those strange little people working away in the building, is pretty odd. You could get an hour out of it. And then build up to the interview.”

Interview?”

With, um, hah, Santa Claus.”

You can't be serious.”

Sidney, our tech guys have looked at this. There's no CGI, no fakery, nothing. It's not a clip from a movie. There's the letter. I've done my homework.”

I bet you have.”

It's very weird and strange and very much worth our time.”

Santa Claus,” she said.

Yes.”

He could be useful.”

Yes.”

Ratings-wise.”

Yes.”

I want to talk to Miss Sonneborn personally.”

Tomorrow?”

Yes, tomorrow, early.”

She was staring at her old one dollar bill. Peckinpah left the office. Meerkin went to the email account that she and Peckinpah used to communicate, and she clicked on the video and started to watch it again, amazed and haunted.

***

Young's Department Store was founded in 1896 in Providence, Rhode Island. 

In the flush of its success, the company entered the fledgling radio industry. WYOU began on the top floor of the store and went on the air in 1925. The studio was cushioned by a wall of curtains and had an upright piano, a megaphone, a Universal double-button carbon microphone, a couch, a chandelier, a tall Tiffany lamp, a round table in the center of the room that was adorned by a fresh flowers that were changed every day, and a Persian rug to absorb the sounds of moving feet. It had a broadcast range of 360 meters. Its TV affiliate went on the air in 1946.

Over the next six decades, it becane a gleaming, shiny, glittering space filled with computer monitors and technicians, broadcasting images that could be seen all over the world.

Sidney Meerkin bought it in 1984 when the store was bankrupt. The store itself had no appeal to Sidney, but it came with the TV and radio frequency, both were thriving despite their parochial point of view, and out of that she built a global broadcast conglomerate.

Sidney had an affection for the call letters, and the store. The store itself never made any money, it merely served as the quaint, homey face of her sprawling, impersonal empire. Each floor still featured one product: on one it was garden and landscape products (and the soda fountain); on two, home appliances; on three, toys; on four, apparel; on five, tools and auto parts. On six was the TV and radio studios, where June Sonnenborn worked. The station's call letters, if this even needs to be said, came from the original owners, the Young family name.


***

The promotion of the interview with Santa Claus had been playing for weeks, and it became a global phenomenon. June had emailed her correspondent several times since their original contact, and the date, December 15, had been set for an interview. Santa said he had to be in Holland in November and couldn't do anything sooner.

Reporters from all over the world descended on Providence on the day of the interview, and Weybosset Street was cordoned off. No one knew quite to expect. No one knew how this... this, this Mr. Claus would arrive, or even if he would arrive at all. Well-meaning people, serious people, were scanning the overcast sky for a sleigh, and they felt foolish and thrilled at the same time. Sidney Meerkin was in New York. She was interested in what happened, but wanted to stay away if things went bad. She had liked June, thought she was even network material, and she had to suppress a mutiny when all her network stars resented the fact that this June, this unknown, this local nobody, had gotten the assignment. Some had threatened to quit, and Meerkin told them that there was a raft of talented people just waiting for a vacancy, so go right ahead and quit, she invited. None did.

It was appropriately frigid on this December day. “We could use a little global warming now,” was the tired joke that went around. So there they were on a Friday in December at 10:30 in the morning, waiting... waiting... playing Christmas music, and the store manager had doubled the size of his staff.

And suddenly it got quite dark, a storm cloud rolled over the city, and some people audibly expressed their nervousness, and at least one person screamed. The crowd was huge and tense.

Please God, don't let anything happen,” Meerkin said out loud in her office.

While everyone was looking at the sky, a voice from the center of the crowd, as though the person had been standing there the entire time, said, “Please let me through, please let me through.” And here was this little man, dressed in a beautiful suit, with his long white hair and beard. He smiled, but it was not a friendly smile. “I've got to see Miss Sonnenborn.” When people turned to tell him to be quiet, what they noticed right away were his eyes. The irises of his eyes swirled with ever-changing color, they did not have fixed hue, they seemed to twist like a hurricane, and people let him pass.

When he entered the store, he was immediately surrounded by security, which took him to the elevator and up to the top floor, where June was waiting for him in the lobby of the studio.

To prove to you I am the man I said I am, here is your letter, which I said I would bring.” He handed June her old letter, and he also handed her Jake’s. The cameras clicked and purred. June took the letters with a sinking feeling. This was a man, she thought, who had somehow gotten these letters and saved them; an old mail carrier, someone who always wanted to play Santa Claus, and who was now fulfilling some crazy, stupid dream.

Don't worry,” the man said, as though he was reading her thoughts. “I am the man I said I am.” But June realized he could have been anybody, but the children outside were screaming and hopping up and down, and the security guards in the building were smiling. 

And then June looked at those swirling, mystical eyes, and something changed.

Mr. Clause, please come into the studio,” she said.

***

June Sonnenborn was never nervous. She had a gyroscopic inner serenity; she had always had it, even when she was a child. She had it now, with this man, this person, this … individual sitting next to her, also preternaturally calm, smiling, but with those eyes that would not stop flashing. He had politely said hello to all the staff and gathered officials — the mayor, the governor, senators and congressmen, and families of everyone who worked at the station and the store. His voice seemed to come from some other place, as though he was a ventriloquist throwing his voice. Slightly accented. Social media would spend the next two hours trying to locate the place he came from, but no one succeeded in that endeavor.

He had very strong hands, rough and hard, the hands of a Greek fisherman.

Jill seated herself behind the news desk and she gestured for her guest to sit. Mrs. Claus, far away, sat at her husband's computer, trembling.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to WYOU in Providence. I'm June Sonnenborn. This is of course something we have all been anticipating, something I'm, I’m… not sure what the right word is about all this. Intrigued. Slightly in awe and somewhat cynical. I may be more cynical than I am admitting, as you may be as well. At the same time it’s hard to be cynical about something you very much want to believe in.”

She paused for effect — she knew what she was doing — and the camera alternated shots between her and her guest.

We have — it seems even strange to say out loud – we have here in the studio with us a man claiming to be Santa Claus, and I must say —”

I should be clear, Miss June, that it is only in the United States that I am called... Sinterklaas” — this is the way he seemed to pronounce it — “and spelled like you spell it. Many people know be my many other names.”

That’s very true. Do you mind, then, since you are here with us in this country if I call you Santa Claus?”

Yes, no. What I mean to say is, of course. In my house, we prefer français Père Noël.”


Well, Père Noël — Mr. Claus —“

He nodded approvingly.

“ — you have brought with you some intriguing pieces of evidence.
These letters, these letters that I very much believe to be mine, written when I was about six or so, and my son, who was perhaps the same age when he wrote his, many years later.”

They are authentic.”

They certainly seem to be.”

Miss Sonnenborn, if I may, I would like to say that English is not my first language, and, as I do not speak at length to anyone, I may falter. The second thing I want to mention is who you won’t be hearing from is anyone with any... credibility... saying they know me, or they matured with me, or worked beside me. Anyone who states this to be so will not be truthful, and they’re assurance of who they claim me to be will very quickly be dis- dismantled. I am not an imposter. I am me. Truly.” The crowd outside roared its approval.

People are understandably skeptical.”

I understand, but soon they won’t be.”

What we’ve agreed to do, here, prior to your arrival, is take random calls and you're going to tell those people on the line what toys you've brought them, where they lived as children, maybe something they asked for they didn't get. Perhaps even what you gave to their parents or grandparents. Are you ready, Père Noël?”

For the next two hours, the man answered questions, told stories, reminded adults of things they did as a child; he answered questions in a dozen languages, languages he seemed more fluent in than English, he recited arcane histories, remembered details of people's homes, addresses, and details no true stranger could ever know for so many people.

Peckinpah and his team monitored the online chatter, and as each minute went by, the skepticism gave way to wonder, if not, in many cases, outright belief.

With each phone call, the visitor seemed to become more energized, delighting in each story and to get reacquainted with each person on the phone that he had the uncanny ability to converse with as though he had just encountered his oldest and dearest friend.

June decided to not interrupt, to let the phone calls speak for themselves, because with each phone-in it became apparent that something rare was happening.

When the final call was answered, June paused for a moment, and the world paused with her.

And then she said:

I guess the first thing I wanted to ask you – why are you here? Why now?”

I recognize I have a most durable biography. I appreciate the confidence people have shown in me, and the, the affection so many people express with great honesty, I believe, and vulnerability. But now,I feel very many young people are not taken with the old ways, that there is a, a push, if you will, to grow up — or not, let me say, to grow up or mature, but rather to slough off the iniquities of innocence and naivité. It seems in today's world one can be many things, including being a very bad actor, but to be naive seems to have become a great sin. I decided, then, that there was some value in reminding people of the roles I have played in their childhoods, and how important those childhood memories are when we become adults. What I am trying to say is that belief in me and what I represent, which is, if anything, the beauty of childhood, which is separate from naivité. It's just a pure thing, and it is fine to live like that, at least for a while. And the way to remind people of that, I... presumed, was to show my pretty little face.”

Here, he laughed, and the audience laughed.

I do play a role, you see.”

I think what I'm most intrigued about is your annual journey —"

What did you call it?”

Your journey, your trip.”

My journey?”

Your annual visit.”

Ah.”

The idea that you travel such great distances, to so many places, and what I have always wondered about is what ... what you experience on this trip. What do you remember?”

That is a very good question, thought Sidney Meerkin, who thought June would ask how he did it in one night, but this was much better.

Oh, everything, everything.”

He paused. He closed his eyes.

This is what I would call temps magique. There is nothing quite like it, flying low over the earth and water, over rooftops in Maskva, Québec or... or Ciudad de México. You see, I live in a place that is quite often always dark and almost always cold, so that is why I love the lights that I see in this world of yours. The lights of, of... kerstmis. I glide over cities during times when people have no hope. I travel over Berlin and see the fresh ruins of Gedächtniskirche, with people crying. I have flown over the fields of Virginia during your own révolte..., and later seen the endless meadows of Pennsylvania turning white with tents where soldiers lived and died. Sometimes I flew so low I could hear the singing of the soldiers. I flew over Normandie when the remains of the battle you and so many others fought could still be seen. I flew over Saigon, and I flew over Verdun, and I flew over Boston. I can find my way through burning jungles and desert sands and destroyed buildings that you have all created. I have flown through smoke above Auschwitz.”

The studio was quiet now.

I have my own pleasures. There is a field in your state of Maine that is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Who remembers what Los Angeles” — and he pronounced Los Angeles the old fashioned way, with a hard 'g' — “looked like in the winter of 1917? I do. Caravans of camels walking over the dunes in the deep lavender color of the desert night. I see lights coming out of the sea. I see these lights on the ocean when there isn't a ship for miles around. I see the lights from homes everywhere, in the middle of the dark night, shining into the streets. I see lights in the homes that no longer have people in them, ha, when I go to Constan — Con — Is — Istanbul — “ he laughed lightly — “You know...”

He paused and looked around the room. He breathed in deeply.

I do know that everything is very clear on my journey, every moments of the, of the… julaftenen… your Christmas Eves… I experience, and I experience many during my visit, is very detailed. But I have always said — you know, I wake up on Christmas morning like everybody else — in my house and wonder what happened, but I can see everything that happened the night before very clearly.

And then he suddenly seemed to focus on his words.

I see a place that is entirely and beautifully connected. I can see the patterns of the ocean currents and the clouds and winds. I know everything is connected because I receive letters from kinder who would say, you gave my cousin a Zug — a, a, a… train — last year, and I would like that train this year. I am able to see how this journey, as we know call it, connects people in the most wonderful ways.”

But you do, and I have to, forgive me, but this is all done in one night?”

Oh, yes, I know that is everyone's favorite question. I get it all the time, but don't ask me how. I have a child’s concept of time. I don’t know how to use it, I don't know how to spend it wisely and I don't know how to save it. This isn't about time, after all, is it?”

What is it about, then?”

Good for you, thought Sidney Meerkin.

The eyes flared. “I'm. I'm... “ He shook his big white head, the beard fluffed, and his chest heaved. “It's about foi —. It's the, it's the...”

And here June faltered, just a bit, too.

I know, I know...” and she reached out and grabbed his hand. Then she drew her hand back, and sat up again in her chair. “Our time is short. I know you have to go...”

I do want to get back home, yes.”

Will you come see us again?”



I don’t know. You’re asking — what you don’t know is the tremendous strain this has put on my wife, and the folks who work with me, who worry, and I suppose quite rightly, they will be exposed and put in some kind of danger or… position that makes them un- uncomfortable, and I have to understand that. I have to say that I’m aware of that. My people are different, you see, but where they are and where they live, they are not different, or looked upon as curious, or strange. I would not want them looked at in the same way that I am being looked at today.

”

We are curious, though.”

I understand, but I don't want people to continue to believe in me or invoke my name simply because of nostalgia.”

Can you explain that?”

As people become more and more... detached from real emotions they become more sentimental, as if to make up for it. This is especially true of you Americans. I have never seen such a sentimental country, foolishly so, because you're sentimental without any core beliefs, and I don’t want to exist here or anywhere else because of sentimentality. That is why I chose to visit you here and tell my story.

He then reached into his pocket.

This is something that Sidney Meerkin, your... your boss... sent to me when she was a little girl.” There was a gasp in the studio, and Sidney shot right up off her divan, and stood rigid as she stared at her monitor, barely comprehending what was about to happen. Santa Claus unfolded the paper and he turned it toward the camera. It was a drawing of a man and a woman, and two children, and a dog. It was, in fact, a beautiful drawing, very lovely and detailed, a work of art.

The little girl Sidney Meerkin drew this with some very great magic. And what happens to people, like Miss Meerkin, like many of you, who have the soul of an artist and who turn their faces away from that soul will fill that need with something much more pernicious and voracious, the need to acquire, and acquire, because they are trying to fill a need that was lost, and they become … vengeful? — because of that and they, as your great writer said, smash things, and all the while crying over the loss of the very things they smashed. Sidney was a magical little girl and she should remember that, and if she remembered it with honesty she would have no need to be sentimental about the very things she has done a great good deal to destroy.”

And then there was silence.

And now, if you will forgive me, I have to go.” Here he closed his eyes and the lights behind them looked like flashes of lightning inside a gray storm cloud. “Vaar- vaar... au revoir.” He bowed and shook June's hand. “Au revoir.” He nodded toward the assorted guests. “Au revoir. Oh! Goodbye. Goodbye.”

Santa went outside and walked into the crowd, and he seemed to climb onto something, and when he did he became a silvery shadow, an outline of himself through which light and color shined, and the streetscape shivered and blurred, like asphalt under the southern sun, and the outside audience felt a concussion in space, a burst of wind, and then silence.


**
Jake and June were sitting in the back of Lou's car.

It was snowing now, and they both looked at the silent, empty city through the windows. June was uncomfortable because for some reason Jake was being defiant. He had not said a word during the show, he seemed stunned by it. He stood in a corner, arms across his chest, when Santa left the studio. He went to his mother after almost everyone had gone and said, “I want to go home.”

In the car conversation seemed useless. June wanted to ask her son what he thought of... what he thought of what, exactly? What he thought of her questions? What he thought of a world newly acquainted with such a mysterious soul?

Did you believe him,” she finally asked.

Believe what,” said Jake.

Do you believe that man was who he said he was.”

You're asking me when you can't even say his name.”

Because it seems so... so... silly, even kind of... it's like if you knew someone believed in God and you told that person that you had actually seen God, they would probably think you were nuts.”

You would be crazy,” said Lou.

I'm talking to Jake.”

What did you think, Uncle Lou?”

I, ahh, I... Jakey boy, I have to say, he was a pretty convincing old man."

You brought him here,” Jake said to his mother. “Do you believe him? That's what matters. Do you? Or was it all just bullshit? Some stunt by your station.”

It was no stunt.” June close her eyes, and then she said, “Yes, yes I do. I do believe him. I do. I really do.”

Jake cackled meanly. “Say it one more time and you might even believe it.”

Be nice,” said Lou.

I do believe him,” June said.

There was a long pause as Lou drove through the driving snow. Then June said: “Have you thought about what you want for Christmas?”

Jake closed his arms tighter around his chest.

Is there anything you'd like, that you need?”

Without turning, Jake said, “What does any kid my age need?”

I'm... I don't know what's trending, honey.”

What do you think, genius?”

Hey, now, wait just a minute. That's out of line.” She waited for her son to say something. “I don't know what you want, darling.”

Jake was silent for a moment, and then his voice had an angry edge. 

“Where's dad, anyway?” he demanded.

I don't know.”

I want to talk to him.”

I honestly don't know where he is.”

I want to see him.”

I can't just make him appear, honey.”

You could let me see him if you wanted to.”

Okay, okay,” said Jill. “Okay. I'll try.”

***
Sidney Meerkin was looking out her office window, looking out at her city. She had always loved the sight of this city at night. Some people belong to the prairie, some to the mountains, others to the sea. Sidney Meerkin belonged to the city. At night, from her office, she would look into the windows of the neighboring buildings and see a hundred different stories, partial stories, vignettes; each its own scene: people sleeping, making love, cooking, eating, drinking, arguing. Over the years the people changed, the lights went out, rooms were repainted, rewallpapered, furniture replaced and rearranged, but the sounds never changed. She heard stations on the radio, snippets of things, old radio plays, the sounds of a violin or trombone, the news reader telling the time, what the traffic was like, a baby laughing happily, babies crying, babies screaming in terror, sirens, horns, skateboard wheels scraping the blacktop, stickball arguments. The sounds floated up out of the buildings and streets, up from the air shafts, they billowed up around her building until she was cocooned by these sounds of life. She listened now and then everything seemed to go quiet except for one thing. Someone was playing that song. That sad lovesong that flowed without tempo and left the listener melancholy with yearning. Who was playing that song now, wondered Sidney. She heard a flute, but there was no flute in that version of the song.

Sidney Meerkin left her office, took the executive elevator down, and went out into the frigid night airs. Her breath burst out in a plume like smoke from the stack of a train engine. Her car was waiting, but she walked past without acknowledging the driver.

The streets were still, no one walking about, no cars, empty. No horns, no yelling, no talking, no laughing. The last refrain of the lovesong faded away. Buildings were lighted, but the lighted rooms were empty. She walked down a street, turned left, then right, then walked several city blocks, and she seemed completely at ease with wherever it was she was headed. Her clicking heels echoed, and she looked above and the night sky was dark and purple and quiet. She saw no planes blinking in the sky. She was serene and unafraid.

She turned a corner and stopped. The ringing of a bell. On the corner of the block, a Santa Claus was ringing his bell. Santa was small and smiling, and he was ringing the bell with conviction, and the clang was low, deep and soulful, an ancient, liturgical sound that echoed among the vast empty mesa before her that was surrounded by cliffs of buildings. Sidney walked toward Santa and when he saw her he nodded and kept ringing the bell. Then she noticed he had no bell in his hand.

Sidney heard the voice of a little girl. Santa rang his bell. Sidney took her hand out of her pocket, and held forth an old dollar bill folded crisply in half. Santa extended his gloved hand and took the bill. He did a deft soft-shoe shuffle, tipped an imaginary cap, snapped his fingers and the bill disappeared. He bowed, extravagantly, like a burlesque comic.

Every little thing is appreciated.” Santa snapped his wrist and the bell rang.

Sidney Meerkin wanted to go home, but one more thing. A block down the street she turned. She never looked over her shoulder, but Sidney Meerkin looked over her shoulder now to make sure that what she had just seen was real.


THE END

Copyright 2017 Lars Trodson