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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006 01:02 am

Father Christmas

Wrapped and carried, like a long-ago hobo's treasures


Green Christmas bulb. Blue Christmas bulb. Green bulb. Blue bulb. Green bulb. Blue bulb.

When I was a boy, my mother — blue bulb — insisted that the tree — green bulb — always be blue spruce and strung — blue bulb — with only two alternating — green bulb — colors.

Blue bulb. Green bulb. Blue bulb. Green bulb. Blue. Green. Blue. Green. Blue-green — till the end.

And not only this but also plastic wreaths with UL-approved General Electric faux candles, also with blue and green lights, suspended from all the windows.

So when the Big Boys — my three older brothers (in high school and junior high) — and my twin brother, Ryan, and I (in the first grade) built snow forts in the nighttime in the field near our house, all we knew of Christmas was the darkness — and the refracting of blue and green, shining out our parents’ windows, crisscrossing, bouncing all over the wide white expanse of Ohio, the colors glinting off the snow, the snow forts, and the snowballs, twinkling in a friendly blue-green confrontation, then joining in Christmas alliance against the street lights and the multicolored chasers of our misguided neighbors on the block (who did not comprehend our family’s green-blue sense of order), and, finally, sending reflective, refracted green-blue Noël messages from our pinpoint on the earth to the moon above and to the brilliant white, white stars and all the blackness in between.

On the first floor of our house, as opposite as you can be from Mom and Dad’s bedroom, is the blue room, where Ryan and I have our twin beds, the footboards of them touching, so we can have our pillows next to wreathed windows (Ryan’s with a green light, mine with a blue) so that when we see out across the snow-ravaged field — looking as if a hundred Neil Armstrongs have snowball-warred the lunarscape — Ryan will find Santa hued in green, and, for me, he’ll wear a beard that’s blue.

Our father knows Santa’s phone number. He will call if we leave our beds to wander in our puddy-mooner sleepers with rubber footies that skiff along the linoleum in the kitchen and dining room to the living room afire with the blue-green light of my mother’s tree and to my parent’s room beyond it. If we make this journey, he will not come. If he has come and we make this journey, if we see this tree, in the dark this night, after our father has tucked us into bed and told us to dream of sugarplums dancing in our head, then Santa will make the presents disappear. In the morning, in the light, when the sun pales all blue and green bulbs, we must let the Big Boys wake us.

Tell us, Daddy, have you ever seen Santa Claus? (Yes, once he had, we knew, but we pretended we forgot.) Tell us. Tell us. Tell us about the whole day, the day you saw Santa. Tell us, please. We aren’t tired, and morning is so far away. Tell us everything.

There isn’t “everything” to tell, he says, because when you grow it isn’t days that you remember, only moments.

But tell us, tell us, tell us, we ask. Ryan is sitting up in his bed, all bathed in green, and I am blue opposite him, and Father is sitting on the foot edge of Ryan’s bed, in the middle of green and blue, and he will tell us all he remembers about seeing Santa Claus, years and years ago.

“I was little then,” he says.

“As little as us?”

“No, somewhere between you and the Big Boys. I lived on the other side of town, then. Remember? I showed you — on Eastwood Street, near the ball field right in front of the railroad tracks?”

“Our railroad tracks?” Ryan asks. He looks out his window, toward the train tracks. (At night, when the trains come and rattle the windows, Ryan and I rock our beds, so our footboards bang a little at first, but then rock to and fro to the rhythm of the passing train. We call this “sleeper car” and we say where we are going: with the troops to fight the war; to the Klondike for gold-digging, to the Orient on the Express.)

“No,” says Dad. “The tracks you see are the Chessie System. The tracks I grew up near are the B&O.”

I imagine how my blue light and Ryan’s green would look from the passenger window of someone riding alone on Christmas Eve on a Chessie System southbound train. Would they know Christmas if they saw our lights?

“I was looking out the window Christmas Eve, and I saw a very tall man with his pack. I yelled for my father, and I said, ‘Father, Father, it’s Santa, and he has passed our house — and hasn’t left anything.’ My dad — your grandpa that you never knew — came to my window to see Santa Claus with me. I have no idea what made him do it, but the tall man stepped into the streetlight where the tracks cross Eastwood Street. He stopped and looked right at my window, and for a second I thought Santa had realized his mistake, that he was returning to put grapefruits in the stockings of me and my brothers and sister — like he did every year — and to bring me a new ball glove with oil to break it in. But in the streetlight when the man turned around, my father and I saw that the man was not Santa Claus at all but some lonesome bum out on Christmas Eve, with everything he had — probably not a lot — in a green army duffel bag. The hobo looked at our house, as if he heard someone inside it calling his own name, and then he must have lost the sound of his own name, because he turned back around, headed up the tracks a little ways more, quickly stepping out of the light.”

I try hard to picture my father and a grandpa that I have never seen, not even in pictures, but all that I can conjure is my nearly 6-foot-tall, skinny father in skiffy-footed puddy-mooners looking out at the chewed-up snowscape lit in green and blue from our own windows, seeing not the B&O but the Chessie tracks that Ryan and I stare at all that Christmas Eve after Father tucks us in. Even when we’re sure we hear the heavy footfall of elves in the living room, and ratchet and hammer sounds, and muffled commands, we stare out at the Chessie tracks. If not Santa, we hope to see our father’s hobo, and we look until we fall to sleep.

I wake, and it is dark except for the blue of the wreath at my window and, faintly from the other window, Ryan’s green wreath light, bending a little toward my sight. The pillow is wet, my hair plastered on my brow, and I am all an ache. I wiggle to make our beds the sleeper car so that Ryan will wake up with me and sway to the North Pole until morning, when the Big Boys come to tell us it is all right to open the stockings we have left by the heat radiator because there is no fireplace in our house. But Ryan will not wake.

I step out of bed and skiff in my PJs to the door, open it slowly, and begin to wail, like a cat left out at night, “Daaaddy, Daaaddy.” There is nothing but stillness outside our bedroom, and Ryan does not stir from within. (He is deep in sleep, and I know from so many times that I wanted to take the sleeper car to Brussels or Afghanistan that he will not wake till the morning.) I shut my eyes and wail for Father more. I do not want to see the tricks the green and blue lights of my mother’s tree play three rooms away. I will not be the cause of losing Christmas. I wail and wail across the house: the lights and the stockings and the sugar cubes left for Rudolph, my secret note to Santa telling him some things he ought to know about Ryan’s behavior (and somewhere, I imagine, Ryan’s note about me), and Santa’s answer saying that we have all of us been good boys — that he gives red checks by our name for bad deeds and blue checks for the good ones, and we all have more blues than red, except that I do have three red checks and must do better next year. I hear a rustle from the living room — maybe from the tree — and shut my eyes, hoping it is Father coming to rescue me from being sick and not Santa come with magic to make our Christmas disappear. And then a hand falls gently on my head, and I open my eyes, not knowing truly whether it is Father or Santa that I hope to see.

“You’ve got a fever,” father says. “Too much snowball fight.”

“Yes, I need an aspirin.”

I find the blankets on the floor where I have kicked them. I pick them up, arrange them about me, and sit up by the blue light in my window and wait for Father to come back from the kitchen. I have heard the high cupboard open and shut, heard him fiddle with the bottle cap, find a glass, open and shut the refrigerator door. I see only his shadow until he steps close enough for the blue light to illuminate my father. He extends a hand in which two tablets are almost lost. I pinch one and then the other in my fingers and place both in my mouth, at once tasting that he has not forgotten to find the children’s aspirin, and I chew the orange pills with gusto, a treat not unlike my mother’s rollout cookies. I hold both my hands out, and he delivers into them a mug from which I can hear the crackle-fizz of Pepsi-Cola.

“Do you want to sleep with me and Mom?” he says. (The sick boy — little boys only — gets to sleep with them at night.)

I nod yes but say that I can’t.

“Sure you can,” he says.

“I’ll see the tree,” I say, “and then no presents for anybody.”

“Oh,” my father says. He tells me to stand up beside him. I do. He spreads my blanket the length of my bed, picks me up, and places me wrongways at the foot of my bed. He folds the corners of the blanket over my head and tells me to put the end in my hand and hold tight to it, no matter what. I clutch the cloth. He gently turns me over once. The blanket wraps around me. I must be a woolly felt lump by now. My father turns me — the lump — over and over the length of the blanket until I sense that I am at the head of my bed and there is no more blanket to roll about me.

I feel the push of my father’s face against the blanket. He is bending over the bed. The layers hardly muffle his whisper. “I’m going to carry you over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes,” he says, and then I am flying in the air. My body is stiff and doesn’t relax until I feel that my waist has landed on my father’s shoulder, and only then does my body bend to discover that my legs brush against his chest and the side of my face, padded again and again by the winter blanket, comes to rest lightly on his back.
I feel the motion — not at all like sleeper car — but how it must feel to fly by night in a balloon. I hear the tread of my father’s steps against the linoleum of the kitchen, feel the motion of the angle of his turn into the dining room, all the while hearing the thud, thud of his barefoot step on the floor while I am happily in the air. Next will be the hardest turn — into the living room.

My sight has grown accustomed, even with the mummy layers around my head, so that barely I perceive — or do I imagine? — the shadows of the images of all the things in my home. My father turns into the living room; I feel the swing of it, do not hear the thud, thud of his footfall anymore. The living room is carpeted. My eyes are wide, and they should not be. Even through the blanket, siftings of green, blue, green, blue force their way to my sight. I shut my eyes tight, but too late. Orbs of green and blue shimmer there.

Was that enough? Was that enough? I wonder. My father unrolls me in the bed. My mother stirs a little. She kisses my forehead — was that enough? — and she says I’m hot. My father lies beside me.

“I didn’t see the tree,” I whisper, desperate for it to be true.

“I know,” he tells me. “Go to sleep.”

I try to shut my eyes, but instead of dreams there is blue and green and blue and green. Was that enough? I wonder all the way to sleep.

There is a rustle at the bedroom door. My mother wakes and shakes me a little, thinking that I am asleep. Mother feels my head. “Fever’s gone,” she says. I am well.

Ryan opens the door. There are daylight and the Big Boys behind him. They have rescued him and come to find me. Their hands are full of grapefruits. Come open stockings, they say. My father will have to rise and shave and eat a grapefruit before anyone can open a gift from beneath the tree, and then the rest of the grapefruits that we have fished from the gold toes of the Big Boys’ longest gym socks will be pitched into the garbage pail as of no use.

The Big Boys will find beneath the blue-green tree overladen with foil garland, icicles, and, on a low branch, a glass ball ornament with my name spelled in cursive glitter paint, three flexible flyers for the Memorial Field hill, and Ryan and I will have matching orange snow saucers to go with them. There will be bouncebacks and ball gloves, Pete Rose-model bats, a catcher’s mitt, a mask to go with it, long underwear from faraway aunts, a kicking tee, a football, gloves from my grandmother, long stocking caps and scarves that we must tuck in so they don’t get caught in the runners of the Flexible Flyers, and robots with batteries to make them walk across the kitchen floor. We will rip the packages and forget to say or be told from whom these gifts come so that we can write thank-you cards tomorrow. Our day will be so full, so completely occupying, that no one will ask or even understand about the moment when my father (with me rolled up in a wool blanket, warm but nowhere thick enough to keep out blues or greens) slung me over his shoulder.

And using a trick that he learned from a shivering hobo wandering through the dark, in and out of streetlights and our lives, carrying — in that same way — all he had in a green army duffel, my father saved Christmas for us all.

Rodd Whelpley grew up in northeast Ohio, and spent his childhood Christmases there. He has lived in Illinois for 14 years. His mystery novel Capital Murder is a tribute to the novels of the late David Everson

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