Santa Claus Sprains His Ankle
The boys were still small in those days, and the house they lived in was small. It was a house of white boards with a red inclined tin roof, it had the railroad tracks fully within view and a hedge in front that barely reached above a grown person’s hip. In the hedge there was an opening where everybody from the house, themselves and the upstairs neighbors alike, walked in and out marking a path across the narrow stretch of lawn. The proprietor – the Coyote the boys called him, in reference to their favorite Coyote-Roadrunner cartoons – spent hours propping the opening with obstacles that nobody paid any attention to, except Mom. Mom got a scolding from the Coyote with each new obstacle he raised and she in turn scolded the boys (and Dad) for being too lazy to walk in and out through the gate, although nobody ever saw her open and close the gate herself to walk into or out of the yard the proper way. The white iron gate stood five steps away from where, quote the Coyote, the path wounded the hedge.
Back of the house was a beautiful, badly tended lawn, a miniature meadow hardly ever cut and a gravel pathway in the middle for the cars to drive up to the garage. A bigger street ran to the right alongside three neighboring yards, between them and the railroad tracks beyond, past a mound and a grove and all the way into town. All around it was a landscape of pines and birches, hedges and knolls, a landscape partly urbanized foxes, rabbits, black crows and mice would love. The snow would come any day, but now the nights were dark.
Mom came from the kitchen where she’d left the freshly baked buns to cool. She took off her apron and sat down in the worn-out living room couch. Through the door to the study she could see Dad at work at the desk, taking out files, reading them and shutting them back into their folders. He handled the folders with his left hand, with his right he was constantly making notes.
“Hold on just a second,” Dad told her; he’d let go of the folders and was writing something with a ballpoint pen on a pad. “I’m just finished, I’ll be with you in one second.”
“Is it okay if I turn on the radio?” Mom asked.
She liked it so to sit like that in the living room couch, the days before Christmas, hearing all those songs on the radio. That was always a great moment for her.
“Go on, I’m practically finished anyway. I’m right with you.”
Mom got up and tuned in a station she preferred. Then she sat down again, happy. Exhausted, yes, but happy. In a few minutes Dad joined her on the coach; he walked slowly, limping slightly as he came across the room. “So, Mom? All ready and done?”
“Yes, just about. The food and so, the final details I can leave for tomorrow. Bread and cookies and ham and all that, that’s all ready.”
The lovely smell of newly baked buns filled the house. Dad leaned backwards in the couch tying the fingers of both hands behind his neck. He thought he wouldn’t have to go to the office anymore, just put in a good day’s work at home tomorrow, and the morning after. That would do, the rest he could finish later, the days before New Year. A relief anyway to have the Holidays fall on a Monday.
“I’ll do the parcels now, if you don’t mind,” Mom said to him. “It’s time for your walk, get the boys and yourself out of the way.”
“You can’t be serious. A walk? How will I go for a walk the way my foot is injured, it’s impossible.”
“Oh, I forgot.”
He’d sprained his ankle the weekend before playing tennis. The indoor tennis court was squeezed so tightly between the walls you couldn’t rush to pick a cross-ball up without risk of injury – and that’s exactly what he’d done, he’d rushed to pick up a backhand cross and sprained his ankle trying to turn before the wall. He hated that court. There was no room for them to play any place else in town, that’s the trouble; so now he’d pass the Holidays limping around in the house.
“But I can’t have the boys in here if I’m going to do the parcels,” Mom insisted. “They’ll find out. You have to get them out of the way.”
“I can’t go for a walk,” Dad repeated. “What the hell, where would I go? I just about can’t get from one room to the next, in a house as small as ours.”
“Use your head then. Think of something so they won’t be in the way.”
Dad leaned deeper in the couch and tried to think. He had his eyes fixed on the ceiling, he thought as hard as he’d ever thought. The night outside was cold and crispy and pitch-dark, on the radio Tony Bennett sang Christmas carols with a scratchy voice (scratchy from the radio, not from the quality of Tony Bennett’s singing, of course). Dad knew exactly how much Mom loved to sit there and do the parcels, hearing the songs, he thought hard until he felt he’d come up with an idea. “Where are they anyway?” he asked. “How come they’re keeping so quiet?”
“They’re in their room. You’re right, they’re quiet now, I don’t know what they’re up to. You better go and check at once. Try to keep them away, I don’t want them around when I’m taking out the presents.”
The night was pitch-dark, and so Dad believed that, yes, on a night like this the idea he had might be a good one, it might work. “How long would you need?”
“Oh, one hour. One hour today, one hour tomorrow.”
“Okay, good. You’ll have an hour. Just call as soon as you’re finished, we’ll be in their room.”
“But they can’t come out before, or they’ll find out what I’m doing. What will you do there one whole hour?”
“I have an idea,” Dad replied, and limped away to the boys’ room. His foot was hurting him a lot.
“What’s this, a crap game?” Dad wondered as he entered. He closed the door carefully.
“I’m winning,” Stacey, the younger of the boys, answered without much enthusiasm.
“No, you’re not,” Joe said. Joe was two years older, he’d be eleven in the spring. He was big for his age, his hair was thick and so blond in a certain light it looked an old man’s white. Both boys were leaning on their elbows on the floor, piles of fake money from the Monopoly Game box in front of them. They were shooting the craps monotonously, with no real interest. So that’s the reason they’re so quiet in here, Dad thought, they’ve been at it for too long and by now they’re too bored to even argue earnestly about the score. Another ten minutes and some kind of squabble would have broken out.
“Come on, get those things back in the closet, Joe,” Dad said. He lifted Stacey from the floor and put him on the desk in front of the window. The boys had to have a new desk soon, it occurred to him, this old piece of furniture was slowly falling to pieces. He moved Stacey to the other side, and all the time he thought the desk was swaying. “Turn out the light, would you, Joey. Let’s pull this desk away from the window so we can sit on the edge and look out.”
They sat side-by-side looking out into the dark of the backyard.
“What are we looking at?” Stacey wondered.
“Yeah, Dad. What are we doing?”
“I’ll show you something you never knew before. I’m sure no one ever told you about this. See anything out there, Joey?”
“I see the dark. And the usual things. The tracks and the houses. The lights in the windows.”
“What about you, Stack? See anything else except what Joey said? Look closely, Stack.”
“No,” Stacey said. “Except now I see a car. I see Coyote’s Volvo coming high-speed this way.”
The car had turned off the street running alongside the tracks, and was driving past the house back of them, by the white iron gate. They all listened, but it didn’t stop.
“That wasn’t the Coyote’s Volvo,” Joe said.
“Yes, it was. I saw it, it’s the Coyote. I know, because nobody else drives a new 122S-model Volvo here.”
“How would you know it’s a new 122S-model Volvo anyway?”
“Because I know, that’s how.”
“The Coyote would have stopped and checked the hedge, wouldn’t he? That wasn’t the Coyote.”
“It was, I saw him,” Stacey maintained.
“He would have stopped, don’t be so stubborn. The Coyote would have checked the hedge, wouldn’t he, Dad?”
“He very likely would have, yes. But that’s a new 122S-model Volvo all right. Anyway, forget that now. See anything else, Stack? What exactly?”
The stars were out, but down on earth it really was tremendously dark. Really pitch-dark, except those few things Joe had mentioned.
“You know they’re out there, don’t you? Or do you really mean nobody told you?”
Dad could sense their heads turning to look at him in the dark. “Who’s out there?” Joe asked.
What should he call them now, Dad hadn’t thought of that. “The hobgoblins,” he improvised.
“Hobgoblins? What’s a hobgoblin?”
“Yeah, what’s a hobgoblin, Dad?”
“You mean you actually don’t know? One of those small old men with white beards and a red cap. You know, a hobgoblin. The hobgoblins.”
“You mean the ones that come on Christmas cards?” Joe asked.
“That’s it. That’s the ones.”
“What would the small men from the Christmas cards do out there in the dark?”
“Hobgoblins, Joe. Santa Claus sends them, they’re engaged as his assistants.”
“What? Santa Claus? Santa Claus sends them?”
“That’s right. He lives on that big mountain in the north, you know. You know that much at least, don’t you? Don’t tell me no one told you that, because I won’t believe you. I know that. Everybody knows that. In the north, far up where there’s snow all year round. He’s got a workshop up there and a staff of hobs working day and night making presents for the children.”
“I’ve heard that story. Yes, or something like it,” Joe said. “What would the hobs be doing all the way down here?”
“What they’d be doing? That’s my point, that’s what I wanted to tell you. Not any sucker in the world knows this, so listen carefully. Santa Claus sends out the hobs to gather information. He needs to know who’s good and who is not, and he can’t find that out all by himself. That’s where the hobgoblins help him, they gather facts and then Santa decides who gets what for Christmas. They’re out there watching all the time. All the year round they’re working at it, but the closer Christmas comes the busier the hobgoblins get. They have to hand in full reports before the shipment goes off, and that’s soon now. That’s very soon. They’re very busy these last days, you can see yourselves they are.”
Dad felt Stacey’s body tightening against his elbow. He put his arm around his shoulders, don’t overdo this now, he thought.
“How can you see that, Dad?”
“Well, can’t you see the small lights from their lamps moving, Stack? Look closely.”
Stacey looked very closely into the dark. “No, Dad,” he said.
“You should be good the whole year, shouldn’t you?” Joe asked. “Not just close to Christmas, but always. Why are they busier this period than other times of the year, that’s not right.”
“I told you that, they have to write out their reports and hand them in. It’s like at school, you have to know your lessons the whole year, but before the exams things kind of pile up on you. And the closer they come the busier you get, although you should acquire all that knowledge throughout the year. Or look at me, the amount of work I have the end of the year. But it’s the dark as well, of course. The hobgoblins, I mean, they prefer the dark. They do their job much better in the dark, because then they can’t be seen. If people saw them – yes, if every sucker knew they’re out there people would just put on a show. They’d pretend to be good, and that’s no deal. That’s not what Santa wants, he wants real things.”
“Are they out there now?” Stacey wondered.
“They must be, this is their season. It’s the darkest time of year.”
“How many of them, Dad?”
“Oh, a lot. We must be careful though and keep our voices down, otherwise they’ll find out we’re watching them. They wouldn’t like that, not at all.”
Stacey’s body promptly tightened again.
“But we don’t have to worry, really, as long as we’re really careful. They usually go for the windows with light, where they know they can see people. They come in the dark with their small lamps, the ones you’ve seen on the Christmas cards, and at night they go for windows with light. They’re good at their job, they always know the best way.”
“Why do they carry the small lamps?” Stacey whispered. “The lamps might give them away.”
“They love the dark, you see. In the daytime they hide somewhere where they maintain a good view but can’t be seen. They don’t move much then, only stay put and keep their eyes and ears open. They might be anywhere during the day, they’re real pros, extremely good at hiding. Also during the day they take a nap sometimes, to be fresh when the night comes. And with the dark they start to move, they watch behind the windows and look for good spots to hide the next day.”
“What about the lamps, you didn’t answer that,” Joe said.
“Well, what about them?”
“Why do they have them if they might give them away?”
“Sure, they need the lamps to see where they are going. They have to have something so they don’t stumble. If they step badly and make a sound they’re caught for sure, and at once people start to pretend. That’s the worst thing, for then they don’t know who’s good in the heart and who isn’t. They’d have to work much harder to find out, and you can see they do long hours already.”
“But how do you know all that? You never see them.”
“It’s a secret, it goes from father to son. Not everybody knows. You’re old enough now anyway, that’s why I thought I’d tell you.”
“I’m two years older than Stack, I should have known before.”
“Come on now, Joey. I couldn’t spill a thing like that to you and then not tell it to your brother, it wouldn’t work.”
Dad pushed Joe in the side with his elbow, and put an arm around his shoulder too. “Would it, Joey?” he said.
“Sure, Dad,” Joe said. “It wouldn’t.”
“Look closely, Joey. Stack too. Can’t you see the lights moving?”
Both boys looked out into the dark and didn’t speak again for a while.
“See the light that moves across the tracks, on our right. You see it? It goes straight across the tracks, from left to right, three hundred steps away.”
“Yes,” Stacey whispered. “Is that a hobgoblin? Is that his lamp?”
“What else could it be, moving straight across the tracks? (What could it be? Dad wondered. The headlights of a car reflecting from a switch, maybe, although that obviously wouldn’t account for why it moved.) See how it goes, see how it goes! That one’s in a hurry.”
“There’s another one,” Joe said.
“Out there, next to the mound.”
Dad watched the mound, the small hill beyond the dirt road where he took the boys skiing every year as soon as there was snow. There was a light blinking between the trunks in the grove.
“It’s bigger,” he said. “This hobgoblin is older, he’s got a bigger lamp. And he’s not moving either. He’s waiting there to collect the information the others bring. It’s the younger ones that move around. They’re fast and their eyes are still good, so they’re in charge of the fieldwork. The older ones collect the information and see that it gets to Santa in time.”
“How many do you think there are?” Stacey whispered.
“Oh, a lot. Today’s their busiest night, today and tomorrow. They really love it tonight, because tonight it’s so dark.”
“Dad,” Stacey said. “Dad, how much do the hobgoblins love the dark? As much as you and Joey and me love Mom?”
“Not that much, but almost as much. Very much, you know. Extremely much.”
“Do you mean us three together, or each of us?”
“Together how? What’s the difference, Stack?”
“I mean, could they love the dark less than you and Joey and me love Mom taken together, but more than we love her each of us?”
Dad leant his head down and squeezed Stacey’s shoulder. “You think you love Mom as much as I do?”
“Yeah, Dad. I think I do.”
“There couldn’t be anything bigger, Stack, could there? I mean, there really couldn’t be. So if you multiplied by three it wouldn’t be bigger than it is inside you now, or inside Joey, or inside me, the three of us apart. That’s what I mean, see, the hobgoblins love the dark almost as much, but not quite. Quite as much just couldn’t be, you can feel that inside.”
“How can the hobgoblins love the dark almost as much as that,” Stacey wondered, and that was the first lump Dad had felt in his throat that Christmas. He swallowed.
“It’s not the dark so much, it’s the whole season. People trying to be good to each other, all that. And the darkness protects them, they don’t want to be seen. The saddest thing is when a person pretends, when people act as if they’re good although they’re not; the hobgoblins don’t like to give people occasion to do that.”
“They might be watching Mom now. She’s in the couch, she’s got a light in her window.”
“They’ll be pleased, won’t they?”
“I think I’ll get her,” Stacey said. “She’s alone. She’ll miss all this.”
“No, Stack,” Dad held him back. Jesus, would Mom be happy if they escaped from him right now.
“Why, Dad? Why can’t Mom be with us?”
Got yourself in a spot now, Dad, did you? Dad thought. He tried to think of something quickly.
“You see, Mom’s a girl, Stack, that’s the point. (Oh boy, that’s brilliant, Dad! That’s really great!) We can’t tell the girls, it’s not allowed. The hobs know we know, or at least they almost know that we know, they almost know that some of us are aware that they’re out there. I mean, they don’t actually know, but they suspect some of us do, and they don’t care. As long as they don’t catch us spying or see that we pretend they don’t care. But they wouldn’t like the girls to know, no way. To tell the girls you’d need a special consent.”
“Why? Don’t the hobgoblins like girls?
“Of course they do. They like girls and boys the same, they don’t make any differences. But they’re shy, that’s the trouble. They’re shy of the girls. (You’re in a spot here, Dad, the boys are just too clever for you.)”
“Why should the hobgoblins be shy of the girls?” Joe asked.
“You see, Joe, it’s like this. The hobs are old men, the youngest of them too, the ones that still run quickly, they’re all old men. And they live all together all the year round, so in time they seem to get a bit strange in certain ways. Shy and like that when it comes to girls. Like yourself at times, you know. Like at times when you see a girl you really like, I mean really. You get shy, Joey, don’t you? You too, Stack. Don’t you?”
“I see what you mean, Dad. Sure.”
“That’s what it is with the hobgoblins. They’re shy, that’s all. (And if one of you says Santa has a wife, you’ve seen her on the Christmas cards, I’ll run to Mom myself crying, I promise.) But they don’t make any distinctions, none whatever, between anybody. You hear? It’s what you do, and what you think when you do it, and nothing else, nothing else counts. Get that, Stacey?”
Stacey nodded his head.
“All what you do, and what you are doesn’t make any kind of difference. Not girls and boys only, but all the way. Not how you look, not where you come from, nothing. Everybody’s the same with the hobgoblins, all of us have to get the same chance, take it or leave it. Okay, Joe?”
“Okay. But you’ve said that before, a million times at least. Are you one of them, Dad?”
“Dad. Are you a hobgoblin, Dad?” Stacey said after his brother.
“Oh yeah, I’m fucking Santa Claus,” Dad said.
He felt both boys turning their heads in his direction in the dark, and he knew it was too late. He knew he’d blown it.
“You said ‘fucking’,” Joe told him.
“Did I? I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry.”
“’Fucking Santa Claus’ you said,” Stacey told him. “Why’d you say that, Dad? What’s wrong with Santa Claus? He’s a friend, isn’t he?”
“He’s the best. I didn’t mean it like that, I meant myself. I’m a bad Santa Claus, is what I meant, I’d make a lousy Santa Claus. And you can see I would, or else I wouldn’t say such things.”
“You’re not bad, Dad,” Stacey said. “You’re as big inside my heart as Mom is, so you can’t be bad. I don’t know why you have to talk like that.”
Dad bit his teeth and swallowed. That’s the second lump he’d felt in his throat that Christmas, and this one hurt. “Thanks, Stack,” he mumbled.
“Gee, Dad. I hope the hobs didn’t hear you,” Joe said.
“I hope so too. But you really can’t fool them, so I guess that’s it for me this Christmas. You can count me out, I guess.”
“You didn’t mean it so bad, Dad,” Stacey said. “If it’s all you did I’m sure they’ll forgive you.”
If that’s all I did, Dad thought to himself. “I’m not sure, but I hope they do. I really hope they do, Stack, really. See how easy it is to do something bad? You have to watch it all the time, lay in there all the time, try and try until you think good in your heart, not only act it. You have to train yourself to it. Just one small slip and all the good you did before goes to pieces, it shows it wasn’t really honest at all. (And, boy, wasn’t that true. Look how he’d blown this thing himself simply because he wouldn’t try.)”
“There’s one going up the tree in front of Sigurd’s house,” Joe whispered.
Dad watched the tree. There was a light moving up the trunk, past the first branches all the way to the top, where it stopped. It remained still for some seconds, and then went out, and how could a light move straight up a tree by itself, and at that speed, Dad wondered.
“They’re checking Sigurd,” Stacey whispered.
“Yes,” Joe said. “But his window is dark.”
“That’s it, they’re suspicious,” Dad said. “I guess they heard something and thought it’s strange. The windows dark and all.”
“That’s why they climbed so fast,” Joe said, nodding his head.
“Gee, Stack, if we could climb like that. I bet we wouldn’t make it up that tree, not if we had all day.”
“You think Sigurd did something bad, Dad?” Stacey wondered.
“I’m sure he didn’t. He probably snored or talked in his sleep, that’s all they heard. Nothing bad anyway, Sigurd’s okay I think.”
“See how quick it went, Stack?” Joe asked again, and Stacey said yes, and watched the tree closely to see if the light would reappear. But of course it didn’t, what use would the lamp be when the hob was on the watch-out. The lamp in that situation would only give him away.
Mom opened the door to the boys’ room. “I’ve been calling you for half an hour, what’s going on in here? What’s with the light, what are you doing in here in the dark?”
The boys rushed away from the window before she had time to turn the switch. They stood side by side glancing at each other.
“We’re...” Stack began. Dad pushed him in the side with his elbow.
“Aren’t you a guilty looking crowd, the three of you. You’re... what?”
“Shhh. Girls, Stack,” Dad said. “We’re... We’re checking Coyote’s new Volvo. That’s what we did. To see if he’d stop by the hedge or not.”
“Listen here, Dad,” Mom said. “Girls, what? What’s this with girls?”
The boys glanced at each other. “Girls... Girls don’t like watching cars,” Dad said.
“Oh, don’t they? Oh, that’s what you did in here in the dark? You watched the Coyote’s car?”
“That’s what we did, Mom, honest. We’re watching Coyote’s new Volvo, like Dad says.”
“For over an hour? In the dark?”
“Well, yes. Well, in a way.”
“Only it wasn’t the Coyote,” Joe said.
“Oh yes, it was. I saw him,” Stacey insisted.
“Listen, Dad. You’re in charge. Would you explain what’s going on.”
The boys looked at each other. Then they looked away from each other again, quickly. They did all they could to keep from looking at each other.
“We watched the Coyote’s car, Mom. Honest.”
“Yes, honest, Mom. We did.”
“Why are you giggling then?”
“We’re not giggling,” Dad giggled. “Is anybody giggling?”
“We’re not giggling, Mom,” the boys held their hands over their mouths, doing all they could to keep from looking at each other. They put their hands behind their backs to seem more unconcerned.
Mom shook her head. “Oh, isn’t that a lovely crew I have here, honestly.”
She watched them standing side by side in the middle of the room, their eyes so innocently going form the floor to the ceiling, from the ceiling to the walls and to the floor again, and that’s the first lump Mom had felt in her throat that Christmas. My God, how she could love her crew.
When the boys were in bed she and Dad decorated the rooms, to have them wake up with that sense of a small wonder, how the house had changed in just one night. She asked Dad not to forget to remind her the next day of the card and the cookies for the neighbors upstairs, they’re so nice people, she really liked to make a point of remembering them.
“Okay,” Dad said. “But I’ll have them for a drink anyway before New Year, you could as well leave it till then.”
“No,” Mom insisted. “I’ll hang a small gift on their door, that’s better.”
“Or are we going up to them this year?”
Mom didn’t know. They had a coffee in the kitchen before they went to bed. They lay awake a while and talked, it was barely past midnight.
“I hope it’s nothing big for me this year,” Dad said.
“Oh, we’ll see. You’ll have to wait and see what Santa brings.”
“No, listen. I mean it. Don’t give me much this year, I don’t deserve it. It wouldn’t really be fair to the boys.”
Mom watched his face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I tried to make them look deeper, but then I did a bad thing. Don’t give me much, they’ll get the wrong impression.”
“What did you do?”
“I said ‘Fucking Santa Claus’.”
Mom laughed. “Oh, you’re nuts. What were you doing in there anyway?”
Dad tried to find the right expression. “I invented something, something good,” he said, “and in the end it was too big for me to handle.”
“Fucking Santa Claus?” Mom laughed.
“Yes. But don’t laugh, I’m sure they know how it was meant. They’ll grow up and all the time they’ll sense it.”
“What will they sense?”
“I don’t know. The bitterness, I guess. They’ll grow up and they’ll remember, and I’m sure they’ll sense it. It’s the feeling deep within, you know. The fear. The feeling that I’ll fail, that I’ve been failing all along.”
“You didn’t fail at all, how could you. We just began, we’re only starting and we’re doing fine so far. Things are coming along. I really think we’re fine.”
“That’s not the way I mean. I didn’t mean it on that level. There’s really more to it than only that. I had to take it out on the boys, that’s really stupid.”
“You didn’t take it out on anybody, listen. All you did was slip some words.”
“Oh no, it came from deep within. Compared with that what I invented only stayed on the surface.”
“Don’t blow things up, it’s not so bad. I’m sure they didn’t notice.”
“They’ll sense it,” Dad said. “It was too big for me to handle, I couldn’t open enough room. There’s how I fail, I can’t grow out to what I feel, or what I see.” (Lots of kids don’t even get a meal on Christmas, Dad, could you account for that as well? What’s Santa Claus to them? Some day the boys will like to have an answer.)
“Okay. Then make it good and give a big present to me. As big as I can handle, please.”
“Listen,” Dad laughed. “It’s not quite Christmas yet.”
“Be a good boy now, please. It’s what you do throughout the year that counts.”
“You didn’t happen to sneak up behind the door, did you? You didn’t happen to be listening all the time?”
“No. Honest, no. Why?”
“Just wondering. Okay, let’s make a deal. You cut my share, for that I’ll give you a big present in advance.”
But, deal or no deal, he’d already rolled to her side of the bed and kissed her.
“Tell me something,” he said afterwards, as he was lying with his head on her shoulder. “How can a light move by itself straight up a tree, at a tremendous speed? Can you explain it to me?”
“What light? What were you doing in there, honestly?”
“Ask the boys. We watched Coyote’s car,” Dad laughed. “You have to trust us, Mom. Why don’t you just trust us?”
“Trust you? I love you so. You’ll never know how much I love you.”
“I love you too,” Dad said. He rolled over one more time, deal or no deal, and kissed her.
In the night the first snow came. Stacey went out before the others were up and came back and said he’d seen the footsteps.
© 2001 Arndt Britschi