[I’ve wanted to write this story for over a year now. Olga, my B&D Muse, finally took pity on me and let me get it down.]
Santa Claus lives in a mobile home in Lumpkin County, Georgia.
I suppose if you want peace and quiet all year, that would be the thing to do: spread rumors about the North Pole, or Finland, or Spain (Spain?), then slip away to a modest place in the country — but I’m getting ahead of myself. The thing about Santa is that he’s never caught out. If you see him, it’s because he wants you to. Or knows you need to.
My wife was running a little food distribution ministry out of the church last year, and we got a request one Saturday afternoon. “Whatever you have is fine,” the caller told her, “but if you can put in a bag of flour, we would really appreciate it.” No problem there; Mrs. Fetched always buys me extra flour for holiday baking, so I added a bag to our box of canned goods and fresh fruit. As usual, she was busy with a chicken house issue, so I volunteered to take the box over. I really wasn’t in a frame of mind to deal with people that day, but anything is better than chicken house duty.
The directions were pretty clear: up GA400, left at the light with the Exxon station, first right, 1.2 miles down on the right, look for a trailer with a porch. The road was one of those windy, narrow little country lanes that were great for motorcycling. The first thing I noticed was that the place was kept up much better than most places we took food. The yard was kind of scraggly-looking, as are most North Georgia yards that don’t get intensive care, but the trailer itself looked to be in much better shape than its age (given away by the design) would suggest. The walkway to the porch was lined with pansies, and a half dozen brilliant poinsettias stood guard at the corners of the porch.
“It’s open,” a man called from the porch as I approached the door. “Just push.” Smart move on their part, I thought; you don’t have to put down your stuff to get the door. The man behind the voice was reclining in what looked like a canvas beach chair on the porch; it was fairly warm for early December and the sun was doing a pretty good job of keeping the porch warm. He was wearing some old-fashioned red flannel get-up, open at the top, and the long sleeves pushed up to his elbows. A furry gent he was; his arms were covered with white curly hair, and the same peeked out of the top of his — jumpsuit? pajamas? Full beard, long straight white hair. He was a big guy, but not really fat, he could stand to lose a few pounds but so could I.
“How ya doin’?” I said. The basic pleasantries.
“Pretty good. Drop that box off in the kitchen and come sit down. The missus will have some hot cocoa ready in a few.” His accent, like mine, told me he wasn’t from around here originally — but it wasn’t the same. It had an almost-upper Michigan lilt to it.
The door to the trailer proper was open — either they like it cool, or don’t mind wasting fuel, I thought — so I nodded and went on in.
Stepping into this place was a little strange. I could have sworn it was a single-wide trailer, but it looked much larger on the inside. It was mostly dark; a few strategic candles provided beacons to warn of reefs of furniture, but I found the way to the kitchen more by following the scent of cocoa than by sight. By contrast, the kitchen was well-lit, and it looked bigger than the one in our house. Something was really messing with my perceptions in this place. But the lady of the house was going full speed ahead in there, and the oven and stove were heating the house all by themselves. She, like her husband, seemed neither fat nor thin, although her billowy apron mostly hid her shape. Her hair was white, streaked with black or deep brown, and pulled back in a bun. She had aged well; the wrinkles added a sweetness to her face that would have left most middle-aged women looking forward to growing old.
She smiled at me, and gestured toward an empty place on the counter, just big enough for the box. I know enough about cooking to know that sometimes you can’t spare much concentration, so I didn’t think much of her not saying anything. “You look pretty busy,” I said. “You want some help putting this up?”
Her smile widened with amusement, and she shooed me out of the kitchen… I felt like a kid being chased out by his grandmother. It was such an odd feeling, and her smile was so contagious, that I ended up running and laughing the last few steps to the porch.
The old man was grinning around an unlit pipe. “You tried to help her, didn’t you? The missus is kind of old-fashioned that way — she appreciates you wanting to help her out, I’m sure, but she just doesn’t let men in her kitchen. She’ll probably put some extra cream in your cocoa to say thanks, though. It’ll just be a minute, take a load off your mind.” He pointed to the other deck chair, so incongruous among the Christmas decorations.
I sat and looked at the guy again, pipe and all, and shook my head. “I’m sure you’ve heard this a zillion times, but you’re a dead ringer for —”
He took the pipe out of his teeth, winked, and nodded. “I look like me.”
“I —” I laughed. “Good one. I’ll bet you’re the best Santa I’ve seen, though.”
“Of course I am. Didn’t I bring you that model airplane when you were twelve?”
My grin, and my lower jaw, dropped to my lap. I wanted to jump to my feet, but my legs had taken a holiday of their own. I settled for gaping and stammering, “But — you — what —”
He put the pipe down and chuckled. “The Big Guy knows everything. But you… there’s a lot of things you want to know, right?”
“Yeah.” I opened my mouth to continue, but everything I wanted to say, everything I’d ever wanted to ask a legend if ever I met one, had flown away like so many reindeer. The arrival of “the missus,” carrying a tray with two mugs and two plates, rescued me. She served us, silent as ever, then watched me expectantly. To stall for time, I took a sip of cocoa — it was just the right temperature — and then goggled at her. “This is fantastic,” I said. She smiled, patted my cheek (she had a way of making me feel like I was five again) and went back inside.
“She makes good cocoa,” Santa said (I had to accept it), “but wait ’til you try her cookies.” He glanced at my plate, sitting on a small table — almost a stand — next to my chair. They looked — and smelled — and tasted — like a choco-holic’s concept of heaven.
“Wow. What does she put in those?”
“Magic, of course,” Santa winked again. “That’s why you won’t gain two pounds or sugar-crash.”
The cookies and the cocoa worked their magic… or perhaps it was only the normal choco-buzz. Either way, after another sip of cocoa, I regained my composure. Or as much of it as I could under the circumstances. “Why here? If you’re not going to live in the Arctic, why not the beach? I don’t get it.”
“I’m everywhere, of course. And right where I need to be.
“I’m in the hearts of parents who forgive their naughty children. I’m there when the ‘heartless’ businessman leaves a box full of presents at the doorstep of a low-income apartment when nobody’s looking. I’m riding with the good ol’ boys when they pull people out of ditches on icy days. I’m helping the kid at the grocery store keep his balance when he gets things off the top shelf for somebody’s grandmother.
“And… I’m there when a temperamental writer gets frustrated with all the commercialism and just wants a quiet holiday with his family.”
“But what about you?” I asked. “Don’t you get fed up with what marketers make you into just to sell some junk?”
He shrugged. “I know who I am. You know who I am. Everyone who believes in me knows who I am. I don’t sweat the commercial part — for everyone who’s selling stuff to turn a buck, there’s others trying to spread Christmas spirit. The world’s a big place, and I can’t be everywhere — I never could. When you delegate, you have to accept that the results aren’t always going to be exactly what you want.”
I laughed. “Go with the flow, then?”
“No,” and for the first time he looked serious. Here was the other side of Santa that I’d always imagined; the spirit that chided the naughty ones and urged them to rise above themselves. “Going with the flow means giving into human nature, and not caring about anyone but yourself. Swim against the current, man! Bring aid and succor to those who need it, and not just in December. And be kindest of all to those whose very presence annoys you — the Hummer driver on the road, the rude old lady — or the little girl who tells you she hates you. Remember?”
I did: she had said that to me one Sunday after church. I blurted, “Well I don’t hate you, I love you.” She stood there, stunned for a moment, then hugged me and said “No I don’t.” And she was a changed kid from then on.
“Sometimes, the naughty ones — kids or adults — are just trying not to be hurt. A kind word at the right time… well, it can be a Christmas miracle.
“Well, you knew all this already, but sometimes you need a reminder. This is a busy time of year, and it’s easy to be caught up by trivia. Finish your cocoa — look, you’ve hardly touched it — and take a cookie on the road.”
My cup was nearly full, but I could have sworn I’d been drinking it all along. It was simply too good to put down. But I drank it down, and took a cookie as instructed. “Y’know,” I said, “something just occurred to me. Why bring you food? I don’t mind — I mean, the reward was more than double — but do you need it?”
Santa laughed; the jolly old elf was back. “Of course not. But I know of a family nearby that needs it, and won’t ask for help. It will show up in their kitchen like it was always there, and it won’t run out for a while.”
I stood, and Mrs. Claus came back out, smiling quietly as always. She kissed my cheek and took up the dishes.
“Don’t you talk?” I asked her.
She grinned, and Santa answered. “Of course she does. But the wisest are always the most quiet. Remember the guy in the Earthsea books? ‘To hear, one must first be silent.’ It’s true.”
I nodded; there really wasn’t much I could say to that. I bowed — it seemed to be the right thing to do — then took my leave. The wisdom and reassurance weren’t the only gifts they had given me; the road itself was another. I’ve ridden down it several times over the last year — and the trailer is there, but different now. Weedy trees obscure it, and it looks abandoned and seriously run-down, but that’s just protective camouflage. I know someone lives there. They probably won’t answer the door if I knocked, but they’re there alright — whoever needs them will see them.
Santa Claus lives in a mobile home in Lumpkin County, Georgia.
I’ve been to his place. His wife makes the best cocoa.