On the Wednesday before my kid’s holiday break, school let out two hours early. I wasn’t able to pick him up; I’d gotten some temp work that week. So I called my ex-girlfriend, Anne. Ben liked her a lot. When I returned, they were wrapped in twin Afghan blankets, Ben with his fingertips poked through the holes. They were couch-bound and watching the Ghost of Christmas Future refuse to say anything to the man in the nightgown and cap.
In a rush I called thanks. Anne shooed my word away with her hand.
“Does this actually happen?” said Ben.
She said, “Wait.”
“I mean is he dead?”
“Spirit!” the old man cried.
I ran water—for dishes. Then I stood waiting there, at the sink, at the window whose old wooden frame needed paint. In the yard, the dusk hour was on. Blue afterlight buried the leaves in the grass and managed even to pretty up the lighted plastic Santa deal, which was anchored with sand from the bed of my truck, and which this—what I’m telling—is about.
Because what happened next:
A vehicle stopped in the road. A teenager got out and took it—took the large Santa.
It was, I maybe should say, not worth much, and not really ours. A week earlier, Ben had come across it wrapped in tarp in the shed that was filled with stuff discarded by previous tenants, and had said, “He’s the same, he’s the one from my Advent calendar. Look.”
Both faces were undetailed, both right-hand mittens lifted out and spread in cheery hellos.
So I told him, “All right,” and picked the thing up—it was cracked on one side—and got Ben started wiping it down while I went for an outdoor cord and forty-pound bag of sand.
Because of the crack that ran to the hole in the base, that bag just fit. Because of the crack that ran to the hole in the base, this boy who’d entered the yard was now able to free the Santa just by tipping him as he pulled.
I cursed. I ran, threw open the door, then swung back around for my keys.
“What is it?” called Anne.
But I wouldn’t say anything: I was not going to take what was happening here, not going to give it the firmness I knew it would have if I put it in words.
I jumped in my truck, jabbed the ignition. The boys—there were two—had an open Jeep. When they saw me behind them, their taillights shook, but the vehicle stabilized right away, even while picking up speed. They had the head and chest and lifted arm of the Advent Santa through the roll ball on the driver’s side. The thief—if the thief was not the one driving—had hold of the base by the cord. But the base blew around. When the boys took a left—without slowing—the shadowed bulk of Ben’s Santa Claus tore free and smashed down in the pavement.
To keep from running it over, I had to lean sideways, yanking the wheel.
I was still on them. I got myself close enough to count bolt holes in the spare.
The road that the boys had turned onto is the road leading out of our neighborhood. And the road that we were all coming to next is a big one.
I saw the red light.
The boys flew into the intersection on faith, and something preserved them. They crossed four lanes of open traffic almost like they’d never been there, like they were just one of the twilight shadows racing the orderly grid. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t blaze into that road without slowing to see what was in it. I gunned the truck to loop around some blooming lights in the first two lanes, then braked and sharpened the cut of my wheels to keep from hitting a speeding car in the final northbound lane. This swung me around. I twirled. For what seemed a long time, I waited for how things would be.
Nothing happened. Cars stopped in a blaring of sound and light before I was hit.
Waiting for me to right myself, though, was a cop. He never even put on his siren—just set his top lights running.
I rolled down my window. “Red Jeep,” I was trying to say. “Did you see it?”
I was still catching my breath; the cop asked how much I’d been drinking.
I said, “No—red Jeep. Two boys. They were trying to steal my kid’s Santa.”
The cop kind of studied me.
“DDJ or DOJ,” I went on. “That’s the plate. You could run it. DDJ, I think. For a red Jeep.”
The cop asked to see my license, my registration and proof-of-insurance. I let my eyes close.
“Do you know what you just did?” the cop asked.
“They took my kid’s Santa. His yard… decor.”
“Failure to stop at a red light.”
“He doesn’t have much.”
The cop spoke quietly. “Speeding. Reckless endangerment.”
Again my heart was banging.
I sat with my knuckle bones hung to the wheel while the cop ran my plate in the squad car. I waited a long time. Fine snow had started to pour from the sky in the last of the light.
The cop gave me a break—one ticket: the failure-to-stop. Still, the fine was probably going to wipe out my earnings that day. I drove back slowly. I looked for the Santa Claus, wasn’t too shocked not to find him. Once I was nearing my place again, though, I peered: I could make out a glow.
Anne and Ben had retrieved it somehow—the Santa. Its plastic back was cracked in, which meant that it wouldn’t stand up anymore; still, they had hooked up the power.
When I rose from the truck, we all looked at each other—Anne, my kid, and me. No one knew how to act—what to wonder or ask about first. In Anne’s face—in her eyes—I saw more of her than could have been sorted out. All the trouble and tenderness. All together in there, on hold. She’d opened one glove by her hip: knit glove—with a coating of snowflakes.
“Guys tried to steal him,” I began.
“What happened, Dad? What’d you do?”
I gave an account. I was looking at Ben, and at Anne, who seemed like she could have had questions.
But for now she didn’t ask them.
“We found him,” Ben explained. “We tied him on top of Anne’s car.”
I said, “Good. That’s good.”
And I nodded. And Anne pushed some snow from her nose.
And it might have been one of those times—one of those moments in holiday tales—where good things happen for those who are good or have faith. Except nothing happened at all. Anne stood in the yard in her coat and gloves. My kid horsed around in the snow. The Santa Claus, laid on his back, on his hip, still raised a lit mitten, like he was upset, maybe trying to free himself from the twine he’d been tied to Anne’s car with.
“He looks a little ridiculous,” I mentioned.
Anne nodded. “Yes.”
And then I was thinking: how dark, how late it was. How swirled with the coldness of snow. I saw I could maybe just do something here—something to get us inside.