Hello everyone! As part of Short Story Saturday, I have posted another short story, this one entitled Christmas Eve in Utqiagvik. Please enjoy.
I’m sure for most diners having a stranger visit isn’t exactly breaking news. It’s an industry that thrives on that sort of thing. However, when you live in my neck of the woods, or should I say tundra, all you have regulars so an out of town visitor leaves an impression. Having said that, I think the visitor I got a few nights ago would leave an impression, even the busiest restaurants in New York.
My diner was closed for nearly an hour. I had just finished mopping the floors and was about to head home when my plans suddenly changed. It was subtle at first. A low rumble that I initially thought was a passing eighteen-wheeler as those vehicles tend to make a lot of noise especially when their chains scrap against the few patches of snowless road that contrary to popular belief do occasionally exist in this town. Yet the noise and shaking did not dissipate right away as it usually did. Rather, the sound continued to crescendo and the shaking only increased. My legs turned to gelatin as a cacophony of clacking noises thrashed against the pavement and continued to grow. It was followed by several gigantic gusts of wind that blew against my diner and though I’ve never experienced it first hand, it is what I imagine a sonic boom would feel like. I grabbed the counter in a desperate attempt to stay on my feet.
After what felt like a long while but was probably no more than a minute, the shaking and the noises ceased. I’m not ashamed to admit that my legs still shook as did my nerves. It took me a moment to regain some of my composure mostly by remembering some breathing exercises my parents taught me as a child but when I did I checked my appliances and various other similar apparatuses to see what had been knocked over. I was utterly shocked to find nothing was out of place. The salt shakers remained were they were, the pots and pans were still in the cupboards, the grills were behind the window of the kitchen as they always were, and even my mop bucket did not spill a droplet of water. Everything seemed to have been completely unaffected by the vibrations. It was quite a pleasant surprise but one that utterly baffled me.
I stumbled to the window still a bit apprehensive that the world could shake at any moment and my legs still wobbling but I needed to see what was outside. I tentatively opened the blinds and was stunned to see a bright red orb of glowing light and I was even more stunned what I realized what it was which I eventually did through a multi-stage process. At first, I believed it something was attached to the deer’s nose but upon further assessment, I realized nothing was attached and that it was the deer’s nose and it was luminescent for reasons that defied science, well, the little science I know, admittedly. As I scrutinized the creature further, I realized from the general size, antler structure, and fur pattern that he was a reindeer albeit a rather young one.
It was difficult to see due to the droplets of snow accumulating on my windowsill but slowly I realized he was attached to someone, or rather someones. Eight identical reindeer, not identical to him but identical to each other. Each were of similar size, much larger than the first one I saw, had larger and more pronounced antlers, and their noses were black. Their only distinguishing features were the white fur patterns on their sides. My eyes followed the harnesses and I shortly realized, though my mind refused to admit it at first, that all nine of them were attached to a red sleigh and their reigns were held by a rotund gentleman with a flowing white beard clad in red and white. I couldn’t believe my eyes and even as I tell this story, I’m still not sure whether it is true. It seems ridiculous just to write. Santa arrived at my diner.
I nearly slipped on the ice-covered road as I sprinted out the door to greet the man.
“Santa! Is that really you?”
“Well, I’m certainly not the Easter Bunny,” he answered as he exited the sleigh, “That’s kind of a cliché answer these days, isn’t it?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Looking for food. What else?”
“But you’re parked in the middle of the road? I mean, aren’t you going to block people, not that there’s much traffic at this hour, but I mean, you’re practically a celebrity! People will be shocked to see you and you’re just going to walk into my diner like it’s no big deal? I mean, Santa Claus. In my diner. I sound insane just saying it!”
“Relax, Bill, nobody can see me or hear me but you. That goes for my reindeer and sleigh as well.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re still open, right? I’m in the mood for eggs.”
“Technically we’re closed but for you, I’d be happy to warm up the fryers again for you.”
“You’re a good man, Bill. Thanks.”
“You know my name?”
“Of course, Bill, I know everybody’s name, though yours is displayed for the entire world to see.” He pointed at the neon red sign attached to the top of my building.
I followed Santa into the restaurant. He sat on a barstool across from the kitchen. I went over to the stove closest to the window and started frying the eggs. “How would you like them?”
“Scrambled’s fine. Do you mind if I bum a cigarette off of you?” He pointed at the cigarettes I carried in my shirt pocket.
I gave him one. “I didn’t know Santa smoked.”
“Thanks. It’s a bad habit I picked up during the 1600s during my visits to Jamestown. Don’t worry. I’m magical so cigarette smoke doesn’t affect me at all. I do it mostly because I like the sensation. It’s the same reason I eat. I don’t need to but I still enjoy it.”
I lit his cigarette with a lighter I kept in my back pants pocket. “Thanks again. You, on the other hand, should quit smoking, though. It’s really bad for humans.”
I stared. As if he could read my thoughts, he smiled and nodded. “Yeah, I know how ironic it is for me to tell you to quit while inhaling one myself.”
“No, it’s not that. A lot of people have told me to quit, I just never expected one of them to be the legendary Santa Claus.”
“Maybe you’ll take it seriously now.”
I silently tossed the pack into the nearest trash bin.
“You could have given those to me.”
“Sorry”. I placed the finished scrambled eggs on a plate and set it down in front of the man. “Can I get you anything else? Perhaps some milk? Maybe some cookies?”
“God no, especially not tonight. I’ve had my fill. It’s nice of people to leave them out for me but the truth is I’ve been tired of milk and cookies for over two hundred years. Do you have any orange juice?”
“Pour me a glass of that instead.”
I did as the man instructed. “So what brings the fabled Santa Claus here tonight?”
“It’s the last stop of the night. I wanted to talk to someone before I spend another year in the North Pole. Don’t get me wrong. I love talking to the Missus and the elves, but when you’ve been around as long as I have you start getting tired of seeing the same old faces over and over again.”
“You make it sound like you’re stuck there.”
“That’s because I more or less am.”
“God, that must be awful!”
“Eh, it’s not so bad. Most of the time, it’s actually very pleasant. My wife’s the sweetest person in the world and the elves are like the most well-behaved children a father could have, not that they’re actually my children, mind you. Sometimes I just wish I could go somewhere on a day that isn’t Christmas Eve. I’d really like to spend a week in Hawaii, bring the elves and the Missus. I bet that would be a lot of fun.”
“Why don’t you?”
“It’d be against the rules.”
“I don’t understand.”
“And there’s no reason you would. Basically, in exchange for becoming a magical being who is able to spread joy and cheer to all the little girls and boys in the world, I have to abide by a certain set of rules. Think of it like a pact.”
I stuttered. “B-But h-how? A-And with who? W-Who did you m-make the pact w-with? H-how was he, or s-she for that matter, a-able to grant you magical powers? What’s going on?”
“Sorry, Bill, I wish I could tell you more, but I’m afraid you’re just going to have to accept the fact that there are things you are simply not meant to know. “
A myriad of questions rattled in my brain. There were so many things to ask but finding the appropriate one seemed exceedingly difficult. I’d often start one only to cut myself off as I did not think the question would be any more intelligible than a sputtering, “W-w-what?” Yet, of all the things I wanted to ask, for some reason, the one I felt most appropriate was, “Did you visit a lot of children tonight?” I covered my mouth as if I could take back the words I just blurted. “What a dumb thing to ask. Of course, you visited a lot of children.”
Santa shook his head and sighed. “It’s not as dumb of a question as you might think. I didn’t visit nearly as many as I used to. There are more people in this world, William, but ironically enough I’m visiting less and less.”
“The world’s too cynical these days. Far fewer children believe there’s a fat man delivering presents on Christmas Eve. Some of it I understand. When you’re living in a war-torn country and you wake up to the sound of gunfire every morning, it’s hard to believe there’s a man like me in the world. I wish I could help them out anyway but like I said, there are rules. As for the other children in more favorable conditions, I couldn’t say exactly why they no longer believe. If I had to hazard a guess, I think it’s because parents no longer let them. It’s funny. Parents these days are so quick to have their children grow up they forget to let their kids be kids. It’s ironic too because so many of them act like children themselves, at least I think I’m using the world ironic correctly. Anyway, I think that’s the worst part, how adults treat their children and each other. The truth is, if they kept the Spirit of Christmas in their hearts all year round, even if they didn’t believe in me, that wouldn’t be so bad. They don’t, though, and that’s been hard to deal with lately.”
“Is faith in you the only criteria for getting presents?”
“That and being nice, of course.”
“That’s what I thought but now I’m a little confused. I’ve heard stories of children not receiving presents despite of believing in you and being good all year. What happened then?”
“Well, maybe their faith or behavior wasn’t as strong or as good as they thought!” Santa rubbed his eyes. He paused and then started to look around as if he were in search of something and a gesture with the hand that held his cigarette told me what he needed. I handed him an ashtray and the man graciously accepted it, placed it on the counter, and put out his cigarette. “Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to shout and I admit that’s a bit unfair. People are naturally cynical, I get that. It just seemed like you guys were more resilient before and that your faith wasn’t shaken so easily. It’s not like this is the first era where bad things happen to good people and vice versa. Evil has always existed. Violence has always existed. Greed has always existed. Hypocrisy has always existed. Tragedy has always existed. Yet people these days seem to let things shatter them more than ever before. More importantly, the Christmas Spirit just seemed more prevalent. People just seemed more willing to try to believe. Odds are humanity will never achieve peace and serenity, at least not globally, but at they should at least try. People used to find meaning in this effort. Not anymore. The world is just too nihilistic.”
“Isn’t there any way to convince them you exist? I mean, you are right here in front of me, the real Santa Claus! Surely if you just called a press conference somewhere you could prove your existence. Sure, you look like any other man dressed as good old Saint Nick, but I’m sure you can prove you’re the real deal. Just show them your flying reindeer and maybe perform a few tricks.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Bill. People have to believe in order to see. It’s why I’m invisible to so many adults. It’s why I had complete confidence that parking my sleigh in the middle of the road would be just fine. You’re literally the only one who can see me right now Bill.”
“I am? You said that before but I still can’t believe it. Wait a second. Does that mean anybody who passes by will think-?”
He interrupted. “Yes Bill, they’ll think you’re speaking to nobody.” I turned pale. “Don’t worry about it,” he continued, “It’s almost midnight in Barrow. Nobody’s going to be out and about.”
With a relieved sigh, I conceded he was correct.
“The city is called Utqiagvik now, by the way,” I said.
“What?” he asked.
“It’s no longer Barrow. It’s Utqiagvik.”
“Get out! When did that happen?”
“A couple of years ago. A city referendum changed it to a traditional Iñupiat name.”
“No kidding. I really need to update my records. It’s been a few years.”
“I have a question for you, Santa,” I said as he finished his eggs, “How can I see you if you only appear to those who believe?”
“What do you mean? You believe in me.”
“No I don’t, or at least, I didn’t. I’m an adult.”
“Bill, you tell people that but who do you think you are fooling? I know what’s in your heart. You never stopped believing. You just denied it for obvious reasons. Society just wouldn’t accept it. Humanity certainly hates those who don’t follow the crowd.”
I reluctantly nodded and told him he was correct. “That hardly speaks well of my intelligence, does it?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. At most, it’s a commentary of your naiveté, or so people would have you believe. I don’t think so, though. I think you have resolute faith. Besides, the word naïve implies gullibility. Can you really be called gullible if you were correct the entire time? I do exist, after all.”
“Nobody’s going to believe that Santa came to visit me.”
“Does that really matter, though? Faith isn’t about how many people agree with you. Faith is about believing in what you know is right even if no one else agrees.”
“Should I spread the word? Should I try to tell people that you really exist?”
He paused. “You know something, Bill? I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I think it’d more beneficial to spread the Spirit of Christmas into people’s hearts as opposed to having them believe in me as a real thing.”
“You said that earlier. What do you mean by Spirit of Christmas?”
“Peace on earth, goodwill towards all men, generally being kind to each other, you know, basically the opposite of what most of humanity does.” Our conversation was interrupted by the chiming of the clock hanging above the kitchen window. “Would you look at that? It’s already midnight. Merry Christmas, Bill.”
“Merry Christmas, Santa.”
“I need to get going. It was good talking to you, though, Bill. It’s good to talk to an adult for once, besides the wife I mean and a few of the elves and the occasional toddler that stays up too late. I love kids but I need a conversation with a grown man every now and again, though I suppose all of you are kids compared to me.” He let out a belly laugh customarily associated with good old Saint Nick.
“How much do I owe you?”
“Like I’d ever charge Santa Claus.”
He smiled. “You were always a good one Billy.” Santa got out of his chair and headed out the door.
“Will I ever see you again?”
“We’ll see. Maybe next year. A year can be a long time, though, Billy. For all I know, you may not be working or even living her anymore. Who knows where any of us will be in a year?”
“What you said about the world being too cynical, about there being serious problems in the world causing people to lose faith. Do you think that could ever change?”
He hesitated before answering. “I honestly don’t know. I’d like to think so even if that is naïve, as long as there are people like you who continue to have faith.”
I followed him as he exited out the diner. He got into his sleigh, waved, and with a hearty “Ho-ho-ho!”, he and his majestic reindeer ascended into the starry highway in the sky bringing with them a gust of wind so great I was nearly toppled over. As I moved my arm that was shielding my eyes from debris, I looked towards the heavens. There the iconic silhouette of Santa and his reindeer were illuminated in the moonlight before they disappeared over the horizon.
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