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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007 03:12 am

“Is America Great?”

If somehow we could only work Santa into this story

Untitled Document If somehow we
could only work Santa into this story

I was in a school hallway, collecting work that had to be done the next day, pile after pile, beginning to feel despair, till a rotund professor said that only some would be due. The scene changed; I was in a car with three other young women who were gaily chattering. I was in the front passenger seat, and it seemed like an outing until one said, “You have half an hour to write the essay — better get started.” I looked at the paper in my lap, my clasped pencil, thought, “I can do this: You spend 10 minutes quietly contemplating your subject, then you write furiously for 20 minutes and you cream it.” But what was my subject? The driver informed me: the Iowa Writing School or the Hittite Empire or “Is America Great?” No decision there; I didn’t have enough information on the first two, though I had some attitudes about the Iowa one, but surely I could wing it on “Is America Great?” I began my quiet contemplation, but it was no use in that car with those companions. “Let me out,” I said desperately. “Anywhere — just let me out, come back in half an hour, and honk.”
On a corner in a quiet suburb I started up a winding sidewalk, scuffing through dry leaves and acorns, noticing the scattered houses almost hidden on the wooded hillside. I was alone. Where was a picnic table? I finally found a flat surface, laid out my paper. “Is America Great?” Should I say that it had been and could be again? Should I go for the awful things? Or just concentrate on the good? Try mixing? And then my lead broke and I couldn’t write at all. I felt sick. Minutes were ticking away. Three kids came through the trees. “Whatcha doing?” asked the older boy. “I’m writing an essay, but my pencil broke — can you find me a pencil?”
“Sure,” said the girl, and she produced a stub.
I began to write. “Whatcha writing?” asked the other boy.
“ ‘Is America Great?’ ” I said. “Is it?”
“Sure it is,” said boy one. “It’s my country tizathee. It’s amber waves of grain. What’s amber?”
“I have an ant trapped in amber,” said the girl. “It’s on a chain.”
I wrote down amber, started to explain, but gave up. “Is America Great?”
“We get to go to school and everything,” said the first boy. “Then why aren’t you in school?”
“It was such a nice day, we just sort of, well, left,” said the second. I wrote down “school.” “What are your names?” I asked. “I’m Cletus, and they’re LL and Jeannie,” said Cletus. “You’re Nick,” sneered LL. “I never heard Cletus before.”
“It’s what I was named, my father’s name and my grandfather’s, just nobody calls me that.”
“Is America Great?”
“Land where our fathers died, from every mountainside,” sang Jeannie. “Don’t you want to know what LL stands for? It’s because he has a little — ”
“Shut up,” said LL. “Is America Great?”
“I’m asking you,” I said, thinking hard what the second L could stand for. I wrote down “L” with a question mark. “It’s November now, but pretty soon it’ll be December and Santa Claus’ll bring presents — that’s pretty great,” said Jeannie. “Santa Claus can’t say ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ no more because that’s a dirty word,” said Cletus. “Think of Santa saying dirty words.”
I wrote down “Ho-ho-ho.”
“Ha-ha-ha,” suggested Jeanie. “That means he’s laughing at our presents or else not bringing us nice ones,” said LL. “‘He-he-he’ isn’t nice, either — it’s sort of sniggering, like he has a secret.”
“Besides, it’s sexist — all boy presents,” said Jeannie. “Haw-haw-haw,” said Cletus. “Hee-haw,” said LL and Jeannie in chorus.
I knew by now that I was asleep and dreaming, just like you sometimes do know that you’re asleep and dreaming. I was on the verge of waking but fighting to keep asleep because I still felt the panic of finishing the essay; the horn was going to honk at any minute and I wanted to get down the rest of what the kids were saying before I woke up. “Look,” I pleaded, “this could be a Christmas story if we just keep on with Santa Claus. I know a place that wants Christmas stories — ”
“But it’s supposed to be ‘Is America Great?’ ” said Cletus. It was no use. I woke up. Cletus and LL and Jeannie and the autumn hillside were still clear. Their voices, their opinions, their breathing down my neck. The bedside phone rang — an early call from a daughter. “Wait,” I said, and before she could broach her subject I began babbling the whole story, leaving out all punctuation. “So what do you figure Santa Claus can say?” I finished. “I don’t know,” said Ellie. “I quit listening as soon as I realized you were telling a dream; I quit at the Iowa School. I can’t say my dreams are ever that vivid.”
“Mine aren’t, either,” I said. “But Santa Claus — and Cletus, where would I get that name? and ‘Is America Great?’ — ”
“I have another call,” Ellie said. “I’ll get back to you.”
I lay on my pillow and thought. And thought. All right, I thought. He has to say something. Here’s what he’ll say. He’ll take off his red coat and he’ll put on the red cardigan his mother knit him, and he’ll say, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”

Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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