I was up late—Johnny Carson late. Mom and her new friends were in the kitchen, where they’d spent the evening making jolly, singing and laughing and carrying on well past dinner. Every once in a while she’d pop her head around the corner, the phone cord stretching as she reminded Angie and me that Santa would be over in a few minutes.
This was a week before Christmas, and the news of Santa’s special trip meant sleep was out of the question for me. So we lay on the floor, where I had my head propped up in my hand, listening to the tick and hiss of the kerosene heater. Angie kept saying how I was going to burn myself again and I kept asking her if she really thought he was coming.
She didn’t answer, just kept on pretending she understood whatever old Johnny Carson was yapping about. But I saw the way she kept eyeing the door, just like been doing since Dad took off a few months ago for his sales job. Mom had said Dad’s new job was on the moon for all she knew, but when I told Angie about Dad in outer space, she’d said I was the only one buying anything.
I was watching my spit sizzle on the heater when the steps hit the porch, followed by a knock on the door. I leaped up just as Mom came shooting out of the kitchen. “That’s him, Willie! He’s here!”
I looked at Angie, who stood slowly, suspiciously, while Mom’s friends crowded the room so that I couldn’t see through the bodies greeting Santa at the door.
He walked in to a haze of smoke and revelry. He ho’ed and hacked several times. Mom made a fuss over it, but Angie didn’t. She took one look at that sorry Santa and spun off for the stairs. Sure, he was weathered and haggard looking (sleigh travel will do that to you), but I just couldn’t believe that my sister would dash off after he’d gone to all the trouble to see us. What a poop.
“Ho, ho—” Santa barreled into another coughing fit that knocked around his chest like the pipes in the walls. Someone made a joke about what he’d been smoking and he managed a “Merry Christmas.”
We got Santa over to the couch and Mom fetched him a drink. He took a swallow and grimaced, his beard like a filthy mop in need of wringing. But at least he’d stopped hacking.
Mom shoved me forward. “Well, go on, Willie. Go tell Santa what you want for Christmas.”
I was only about halfway onto the couch when the smell hit me good in the face. Santa’s suit must have been hanging in the manger, or he must have flown over the sewage treatment center. Seemed once again Angie had outsmarted me.
“Come on, come on, get up here,” he said, smacking his knee. I did like I was told, but my eyes screamed from the lava hot flecks of spit that escaped his soggy beard. I blinked and wiped while everyone had a merry old-time as Santa took a greedy slug of that drink—something that smelled like it belonged in the heater on the floor.
“Now Willie, there are two types of boys in this world,” Santa slurred, pausing to take another swig of his drink. “Those who are naughty, and those who are nice. Now which have you been this year?”
I assured him I’d been nice. Whatever sped things along. His fleshy jowls and wobbly eyes consumed my vision, but I knew Mom was somewhere behind me, I could hear her squealing and taking pictures, winding the roll. Another blast of the flash. Another picture I’d find in an attic years later.
Finally, Santa popped the big question. And that should’ve been the easy part. I wanted a brand new Supercat Big Wheel with the quick-stop racing brake. But now, on his filthy lap, seeing the splotches and stains, I thought again about what would be the best gift this year. Not just for me, but for Angie too.
“I want a space suit. And a rocket ship.”
Santa stopped swigging, his droopy eyes fell to me, then he looked to Mom for help. “Oh?”
“Yeah,” I said, and all those people got quiet. Only Johnny and his jokes filled the room. “I want to go to the moon.”