Santa smokes Marlboros. I know this because I've seen the legend in action.
It was 1971, and along with my cousins from my dad's side of the family, we'd all been packed, double occupancy, into any and all available beds in the upstairs of my house. I was sharing my white princess canopy with my six-year-old brother, who, when he wasn't kicking in his sleep, was making me scream by running creepy-crawly fingers through my hair, which was all tied up on the ends with old socks so I'd have perfect tube curls in the morning.
"Stop it, buttface," I said.
"Stop what?" my brother said innocently. "I'm not doing nothin'."
"Not doing anything," I corrected.
A wedge of light sliced through the dark and my mother stood silhouetted in the doorway. "Go to sleep now," she chided, "Or Santa won't come."
It was an effective threat. At the time, I believed in Santa almost as much as I believed in Jesus; to my mind, they were all part of the same Christmas story, Santa having been present at the birth of the savior along with exactly four shepherds, three wise men, two sheep, and one glittery blonde angel who hovered right at the pitched roof of the perfectly clean manger which sat on the top of the television-stereo console in the den.
By the end of Christmas Day, the holy crèche would be hidden away in my parents' bedroom closet, saved from my irreverent uncles and aunt, who were Jewish and delighted in the blasphemous abuse of my tenaciously Southern Baptist mother's holiday decorations. In later years, they would take to burning elves on the barbeque and launching plastic angels from ceiling fans - but by that time my mother enjoyed the annual decoration demolition almost as much as they did, protesting lamely from behind her video camera.
But for now, I knew Santa was coming, and I imagined I could see his sparkling sleigh across the moon outside the small slide windows near the ceiling of my bedroom. My brother had finally gone to sleep, one leg twitching outside the covers. I curled up on my side, hoping sleep would come and fast-forward me to morning. Then I tried my ballerina position: on my back with one arm curved over my head and my right foot hitched up flat against the side of my knee. Even thought it was becoming obvious that I was going to be zaftig, as my Aunt Harriet put it, I dreamed of being a ballet dancer and would continue to do so until the next school year when fell I in love with dinosaurs and realized that archeology was my true calling.
Eventually my bladder decided that since I was awake anyway, I should empty it. As I made my way to the bathroom, I heard my father's voice, then laughter, then what sounded like my mother, scolding my dad. They were all downstairs in the den, where I knew our Christmas tree -- with its rotating disco-ball star on top -- was waiting for Santa to come and unload piles of presents for me, my brother, and all of my cousins who had already had Hannukah but still got a presents so they wouldn't feel left out.
I also knew that Santa wouldn't come if the grown-ups were down there. Forgetting about the need to pee, I gingerly crept down the stairs. The laughter grew louder. I stepped on to the last stair and crouched down, ruffled nightgown wrapped tightly around my legs. My heart was fluttering as I peered around the staircase into our den.
The room was cloudy and blue with cigarette smoke, and the disco-star tree topper threw multi-colored spots of light against the wood-paneled walls. The television blared with a news show about Christmas celebrations 'round the world, where Santa had come because the earth had turned night to morning already. In a sea of bagged bows, ripped boxes and wrapping paper rolls sat my father and his brothers, arguing about the best way to put together a Barbie Dream House. My Barbie Dream House.
"What the hell are ya doing, Bobby?" My dad yelled, grabbing the directions from my uncle's hand. "The roof doesn't go on until you got all the walls up. Gimme dat!" My dad still had quite a bit of the Lower East Side in his speech; the neighborhood kids teased my little brother when he would call us in on the nights he was home. "Mahk-O!" my dad would yell. "Michele an Mahk-o! Time to come home!"
My Aunt Harriet sat on the earth-toned couch, eating some goodies my mom had brought down from the kitchen. "Oh my gawd, Shelby," she said as she bit into a crumbling sausage ball, my mother's specialty. "These things are ice cold. You can't throw them in the oven for a few minutes?" My aunt loved to drive my teased-hair shiksa mother crazy complaining about her food.
"You want them hot, you can take them upstairs and throw them in the oven yourself," smiled my mother. "I've got to get these socks wrapped." We always got socks and underwear for Christmas and even though she dutifully wrapped them every year so they'd look nice under the tree, she didn't even try to pretend they were from Santa.
Meanwhile, my Aunt's husband Ira looked like he was about to cry. Screwdriver in hand, he sat on the brick fireplace stoop with a bicycle frame leaned up against his knee. Bolts, screws, a chopper-style handlebar and a green metallic banana seat were strewn on the floor around him, an overwhelming battalion of parts that had him rubbing his shiny forehead in despair.
Over by the tree, my father's gangly, big-toothed youngest brother and his second wife sat slap-happily wrapping six identical presents for each of us kids.
"Goddammit, Carl," said my Uncle Bobby as he watched. "Did you really get 'em all boxing gloves? They're gonna beat the hell outta each other!"
"If we're lucky," smiled my Uncle Carl, wiping some stray ashes off his lap. "I figured we could put some money on Mitchy and Michele, since they're the biggest. Maybe double the payout if there's blood." His wife gave him a half-hearted swat on the arm. Later that day, my cousin Mitchell would indeed emerge victorious in the middle of a makeshift boxing ring made out of wrapping paper rolls and ribbon. He would still spend most of the day pouting, however, because the bike he got fell apart when he tried to ride it.
Back on the staircase, I put a hand over my mouth, swallowing a laugh and a little cry. I took deep slow breaths so I wouldn't give myself away, and started to back my way up the stairs.
Santa was here, and I couldn't let him catch me spying.
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