When I was a boy my parents hired one of the neighbors to come to our home dressed like Santa Claus. His name was Anton Gottlieb and it didn’t matter that he was Jewish. He came. And he was a sight. He had the well-polished boots, the grisly beard, the jingling bells, and the red velvet coat. He even rambled with a near incomprehensible German accent. He smelled of day-old whisky instead of reindeer shit, so we knew this wasn’t the real Santa. But who cares? It was Christmas. We sat on his lap and said we had been good little boys and girls. We made promises we had no intention of keeping. For good behavior we were awarded candy canes or gum that made our jaws hurt after three chews. After we told Santa what we wanted he pulled out of his gunny sack a little bearded elf doll named Mr. Goodie. We were allowed to keep Mr. Goodie for the holidays if we promised to take good care of him. After a few tumblers with my father Anton Gottlieb, in his best Santa Claus chuckle, warned us Mr. Goodie would make nightly reports to him on all the doings in our household. Every morning we had to search the house for this wandering elf. We found him in the bathtub, the laundry basket, even the pantry. He was Santa’s little helper prone to mischief who, when we behaved, left little chocolates and other hard candies under our pillows. If we couldn’t find him then we knew we had been naughty and Santa would punish us. The day after Christmas the elf disappeared and with him the enchantments of the season. It was only years later I realized Mr. Goodie was a kind of capitalist bureaucrat who dabbled in homeland security and Augustinian morality.
When he wasn’t playing Santa Claus, Anton Gottlieb was a handyman—mostly plumbing, though he knew his way around HVAC. He was always happy to work for the Mormons in the neighborhood who hired him out and paid in foodstuffs rather than cash. He got canned peaches, potato pearls, and dehydrated apples. Anton Gottlieb, who never went to synagogue, liked to say the housing prospects in the Mormon afterlife were much more promising. Jews might be God’s handiwork but most couldn’t fix a leaky toilet.
“I’d rather end up in Mormon hell than Jewish heaven,” he said. “At least it will be well-ventilated.”
The memories of Anton Gottlieb were on my mind as I parked the car in the old neighborhood and swallowed the last bite of leftover blackberry cobbler. It was Christmas Eve. I had dried eggnog in my hair and a belly that felt full of pine needles. It would be a lie to say I wasn’t a little drunk and that my business was entirely honorable.
It was my first adult Christmas alone. My wife had left town with the kids for a family extravaganza in the canyons with her new asshole of a husband named Oliver whose only talent in life was a fake British accent. I didn’t get an invitation.
Oliver is a Christmas aficionado. He knows the lyrics to every carol. He wears corny wool sweaters embroidered with snowmen. He convinced my children Santa eats one seed from a magic pomegranate each year to stay warm in the North Pole. When I tried to match his Christmas wisdom and told my kids Rudolph’s nose turned red after he was struck twice by lightning they rolled their eyes.
“Everybody knows that,” my daughter Becca said.
“Oliver is a reindeer doctor,” my other daughter Emily said. “He travels to the North Pole once a year to help deliver the babies. Why don’t you have a fun job delivering reindeer babies?”
“Not all of us are lucky like Oliver and have a degree in bullshit,” I said.
“Not bulls, reindeer,” Emily said. She shook her head. “Mom was right: you never listen.”
Oliver spent weeks decorating the house to look like a deranged vision of Santa’s workshop. He had indoctrinated my children to believe Santa gives more gifts to little boys and girls who make him feel at home. Inflatable figurines covered the lawn. Lights dangled from the trees and rain gutters. No space had been left unimagined. The festivity and joy of so many twinkling lights and colors was nauseating.
My ex-wife got the house after the divorce. It has been in my family three generations but lawyers have a way of redistributing genealogy. I currently rent a three-hundred square-foot room at the Motel Xanadu in the canyons. I moved in after the accident. There are two queen beds, poor television reception, and a hot breakfast every morning of either packaged oatmeal or burnt waffles. My days are a rerun of the same cartoon: drinking enough booze until I devise a plan to win back my wife and make my kids believe I’m more of a hero than Oliver the animal obstetrician. But when I leave the motel I only seem to succeed in buying more booze. Pretty soon I’m back at the motel writing out new plans.
Now I had a plan. It was my best one yet. It came to me after a conversation with Becca.
“Oliver is friends with Santa,” she said. “They talk on the phone. Why aren’t you friends with Santa?”
That made me feel like my guts had been turned inside out. What did they think Christmas was, a few thousand dollars in decorations that was all glitz and no heart? Store-bought magic. When we were a happy family, I picked out the gifts each year. I insisted on chopping down the damn tree instead of going to a crummy lot where they don’t even know a slip knot to get the damn thing fastened on your car. I unraveled string all through the house they had to follow to find a special gift on Christmas morning. It was me who, one Christmas when the weather didn’t cooperate, bought four hundred pounds of shaved ice and spent all night coating the house so the damn kids would believe Santa had made it snow just for them. I had brought to life the lie of Christmas but somehow that wasn’t enough. Somehow all the good memories of me had been thrown away like so much wrapping paper.
Tomorrow, Oliver and my ex-wife will return home with my children to the greatest Christmas surprise since Washington crossed the Delaware. Sure, I’ll put the dog shit on the roof to give the illusion of reindeer, the candy in the stockings, and the gifts under the tree. But when they open the door I will be dressed like an elf waiting with a real Santa impersonator. I will be waiting with Anton Gottlieb. Merry fucking Christmas.
The sleet that had been falling off and on since last night now picked up and turned into a nice little ice storm. The sidewalks were slick. I nearly slipped and broke my neck more than a dozen times as I wandered the old neighborhood trying to remember which house belonged to Anton Gottlieb. About a year ago, when my own marriage was falling apart, I heard Anton Gottlieb’s third wife died. She choked on a chicken bone. It wasn’t long after they put her in the ground that he married his fourth wife. He was eighty-nine.
He had never been without women. After the war he immigrated with his first wife who was nine months pregnant. The paperwork was not in order and during the weeks of delay the baby kept pushing to be born but, supposedly, Anton refused to let her give birth until she was on American soil. When she finally had the baby Anton estimated it had been eleven months, twenty-two days and fourteen hours of gestation. She died a few hours later. After she was buried Anton gave up the child for adoption.
His second wife was a seamstress. She made him the Santa Claus outfit. They had six children. While he was with her Anton juggled a few mistresses. He had mistresses for the mistresses. He beat them. He bought them lavish gifts. He could never feed his own kids so my parents were always bringing food to his house. Whenever we visited Anton would sneak into my hand a butterscotch candy or strawberry bon bon. After the second wife died there were always women coming and going from the house. He didn’t have any money and everyone agreed he was ugly. It was a mystery.
The end of my own marriage was much less dramatic. After nine years and two kids I woke up pretending we were the same people as we had always been but my wife stopped believing this lie. It wasn’t hard to figure out why she had plans every night when before she sat around the house in her pajamas watching made-for-TV movies. One night I got adventurous and followed her up the canyon to a cheap motel. She was in the honeymoon suite and I was next door. I got drunk listening to the sounds of her infidelity. When I drove home the car spun off the road and flipped. There was a sign that said Caution: Bridges May Be Icy. I never saw it coming. When I woke up in the hospital she served me divorce papers. I told her she was a liar and she said she had only lied to herself about her feelings, as if that was supposed to make things right. When they released me from the hospital I moved into the motel.
The only room they had available was the honeymoon suite. I asked for clean sheets.
Nobody answered the door at the house where I believed Anton Gottlieb once lived. Maybe it wasn’t the right place. Maybe he was dead. How I was going to convince Anton Gottlieb to come with me, let alone put on the Santa costume? I hadn’t thought that one through. He probably hated how stupid he looked dressed up like that. There was nothing I could say to make him come with me. I only knew I had to try. I had the crazy idea we would be best friends. We would drink liquor, remember bygone days, and wait for the real Santa to squeeze his fat ass down the chimney so we could hold him hostage until he granted our wishes. There was no other choice. I couldn’t pretend otherwise. I had to believe it.
I looked in through the windows but it was dark. I tried the door in the back but it was locked. I sat on the rear porch and grinded my heel on the steps. An icy drizzle fell.
“Hey, what the hell are you doing?” someone on the other side of the fence said. He spoke in a hissy voice halfway between a yell and whisper and it sounded like he had drunk too much eggnog.
I brushed my pants and went over to the fence. “I’m your neighbor.”
“You don’t look like my neighbor.”
It was getting dark and we could barely see each other through the gaps in the wooden boards.
“Maybe I’m Santa Claus.”
“Oh yeah, what did I ask for Christmas?”
“A better-looking wife and a fast car,” I said.
“Shit, you must be the real deal.”
“All the way from the North Pole, asshole. Now get back inside your house before I have my reindeer shit all over your roof,” I said.
“Amen,” he said, and stumbled away.
I finally banged loud enough on the front door that a woman answered. She was older with wild tufts of salt and pepper hair, but she still had all her curves. I could see why Anton had married her. I smiled and said I was an old friend of the family. My voice was hesitant and wounded, struggling to ignore the possibility the old man was dead and my standing here was yet another lost cause into which I had flung myself so helplessly.
“I’m here to see Mr. Gottlieb,” I said.
She slammed the door in my face. When I persisted in ringing the doorbell she yelled back at me, saying she was not opposed to returning with a shotgun.
I crept along the narrow side of the house where it bordered the neighbor’s fence. The windows were hung low so I could peer over the ledge and into one of the bedrooms. That’s when I saw him.
Anton Gottlieb had lost none of his strangeness. His face was gaunt but the rest of him fleshy. He had lost a few teeth and his skin was the color of aged lemon rinds. He was dressed in festive green and red plaid pajamas. He sat on the bed and did not blink. His wife—or maybe it was his caretaker—put on a holiday record and shimmied through the rooms wearing a Santa hat. She tried a few dance steps. Anton did not watch her. After a while she didn’t bother for his attention.
When I was a kid Anton Gottlieb had a cigarette every night on his front porch. Tonight was no different. I sat on a curb around the corner listening to a group of carolers who went door-to-door until I was sure the woman had gone back inside the house. When I came up the porch steps he recognized me immediately.
“Little Tommy Pflueger,” he said. “Your father was the grocer. He used to sell me the most expensive potatoes. He said the Yukon gold ones had been touched by the finger of an angel.”
I stopped half-way up the steps. It wasn’t the wheelchair that surprised me or that he smoked a cigarette while hooked up to an oxygen tank. What surprised me was he was missing his left leg. Everything about him was the same as I remembered, only where his leg had once been the pajama was balled into a knot at mid-thigh. Here he was, Anton Gottlieb, the one-legged Santa.
“You’re staring, Tommy. It’s not polite,” he grinned.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“They burnt down the grocery store years ago,” he said. “I told them who did it but nobody believes an old man.”
“Can you spare an extra cigarette?”
“No. You’re too young to smoke, Tommy.”
He didn’t offer me a place to sit, but I stepped under the porch awning. We reminisced. He was surprised when I told him my mother had died. People get old, he said, then poof. Later, he spoke fondly of a sister I never had. I didn’t correct him. I offered to buy him another pack of cigarettes but he said it was for the best—the smell upset the reindeer. He seemed rather convinced of this. The carolers were getting closer.
“They should be in bed waiting for Santa Claus.”
“Doesn’t Santa Claus have a retirement plan?” I laughed.
“I tried to get a few of the little brats to come by the house this year,” he said. “I hoped with the extra money I could get Mona some of those fancy chocolates she likes. You know, the ones shipped from Norway. But nobody wants a one-legged Santa.”
“I could sit on your lap,” I said half-seriously, trying not to sound desperate.
“Don’t be an idiot, Tommy. I only have one leg but I could still kick your ass.”
Mona, who had been watching us through the window the whole time, came onto the porch but instead of warm cookies and milk she brought us rum and cola. She eyed me like I was an encyclopedia salesman to the blind. After two drinks Anton seemed to know he wouldn’t be allowed another.
“I’m Santa Claus, goddamn it,” he muttered.
“Santa Claus has two legs and a belly full of jelly. Not diabetes,” she said.
She kept pouring me drinks. I think her plan was to get me drunk and call the police to have me arrested for trespassing. I still had no idea how to persuade Anton to come home with me. Given the circumstances, it would be too much hassle to kidnap the old man now. When Mona left for another bottle I asked him how he managed to attract so many women. He laughed.
“Are you married?”
“The best way to attract women is to marry them. Divorce is a turn-off.”
I tried to flatter him by remembering the names of all the housewives and floozies that visited him. “You must know something the rest of us don’t.”
“They pitied me,” he said. “All those women you named, sad and lonely, they pitied me. And I took advantage of it. Not much of a secret.”
At my request he took me inside and showed me the Santa Claus costume hanging in his closet. He unzipped it from the plastic covering. The single light bulb filled the closet with a dull glow. The red velvet coat had all the trimmings. On the floor were the leather boots with dangling silver bells. When they jingled my heart skipped and sudden I was nine years old again.
“I haven’t been able to put it on since the operation,” he said.
I could tell he didn’t want to be seen like this. It was too terrible to be confronted by this reality. With a little encouragement I helped him get dressed in the costume. We cinched the belt around his belly and placed the cap on his head. He looked different. He looked alive. He smiled. I had always believed he hated that costume, that it was the great shame of his life to live like a fool among strangers. But now I saw it was the triumph of an otherwise mediocre life.
“People won’t mind a one-legged Santa,” I said. “That’s the magic of Christmas.”
“No, this is the magic of science,” he said, rubbing the stump of his leg and smoothing his palms over the fabric. “They tear you apart and let you pretend you’re still in one piece.”
After another round of drinks on Anton Gottlieb’s porch we started caroling and were soon joined by some of the neighbors. A line formed and soon people were sitting on Anton’s lap making their drunken Christmas wishes. He was sweating and wheezing with laughter. He put his hand up like he was exhausted but the neighbors could not resist the enchantment. I stood by his side like a loyal elf.
We were enjoying ourselves until Anton sloughed to one side in his wheelchair. The neighbors let out an uneasy laugh and kept belting their way through “Good King Wenceslas” until Anton slumped off the wheelchair and whapped his head on the bricks. He let out a soft moan. The caroling stopped as everyone looked at the old man bleeding. We pulled off the Santa costume to see if he was breathing. Mona was hysterical.
“Murderers!” she screamed.
She didn’t understand what she was saying. She said it again and the crowd slowly shuffled onto the sidewalk. Someone was crying. Another kept saying “Please baby Jesus, please baby Jesus.”
I slipped away unnoticed before the ambulance arrived, the dirty bundle of Santa Claus clothes tucked under my arm.
I stood in the living room of the house that was no longer mine and spread the Santa Claus coat on the floor. It was covered in dirt and stained with an icy slush. Stretched that way on the floor it seemed as if Santa had melted away leaving behind the ghost of him.
I looked at the empty dinner table and the years of birthday cakes and Christmas dinners that lay ahead. There were six chairs. Oliver and my wife would probably make more babies with fake accents. I looked in Becca’s bedroom. Then I looked in Emily’s. There were dolls and crayons littered on the floor. The beds were empty. It was all empty, waiting to be filled with memories. Is there anything more sad than a child’s empty bed? I was paralyzed with the thought that when I went to sleep I’d dream of these empty beds. It hurt even worse to think my girls would wake up tomorrow and call for dad to see the Christmas tree and all the presents and Oliver will be there in his sad-ass Christmas sweater. I had to save them from this. I had to save them from Christmas.
I set fire to their Christmas tree. I smashed the gifts and left the wrapping paper mangled on the floor. I punched out a window to make it look like a break-in. Then I used leftover cranberry sauce to write on the walls. Ho! Ho! Ho! Motherfuckers! On another wall I wrote, Fair Wages for Elves! I took the Mr. Goodie elf doll I had found on the mantle and wiped mud on his feet and made footprints all over the house. The last thing I did was massacre the Santa Claus outfit. I stabbed it with a kitchen knife. I stained it with cranberry sauce. I left it half-burnt inside the fireplace. It looked like a crime scene with Santa as the murder victim.
I imagined them coming through the door tomorrow. Oliver would tell them he was sorry and it wasn’t the real Santa. He would make excuses. He would tell them it was a cruel joke. Then, defeated by the tears, he would have to tell them none of it was real. Not Santa. Not Christmas. They would never forgive him. They would never call him daddy. He would always be the man who murdered Santa.
I ate another slice of cobbler. My throat was tight with fear, but my hands had stopped trembling. Before leaving I searched for the Mr. Goodie doll. I was going to dissect it and scatter the limbs all over the house. I looked for more than an hour, but he was gone.
RYAN HABERMEYER holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts and is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of Missouri. His fiction as twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Cream City Review, Fiction Southeast, Los Angeles Review, Carolina Quarterly, Chattahoochee Review, Bat City Review, Fiction International, and others.