The Time Santa Almost Didn’t Make it to Birchmont Village

It was the eve of Santa’s annual visit to Birchmont Village, the most anticipated event of the season, and disaster had struck: Santa was laid up and out of commission! Well, not the real Santa, though he certainly was to the children of Birchmont Village who circled this day on their calendars — those who had calendars — as soon as trick or treat ended. It was actually Hank Walters Bryant, the ranking member of the village council and official Birchmont Village Santa, the latter going on seven years when he first happened upon a hand-me-down Santa suit at a flea market in Cole’s Landing and bought it as a gag to wear to his office party before being struck with the brilliant idea to wear it around the village to imbue amongst the townsfolk some much needed holiday spirit. This simple notion had since grown into a parade on the third Sunday of December through the heart of the neighborhood with Hank, or Santa, riding high aloft in the fire truck from the nearby district of Limerock waving to families lining both sides of the street and tossing out candy — suckers and gumballs and toffees and chocolate drops wrapped in red and green foil — culminating in cocoa and sugar cookies inside a heated tent in the parking lot of the Birchmont Village Church, children queued up for a chance to sit on Santa’s lap to tell him what they wanted for Christmas.

Alas, this year would be a no-go for Santa, or Hank, on account of a nasty spill he had taken earlier in the day in the official golf cart boldly emblazoned with the letters “B.V.” as he hit a patch of black ice rounding the corner at the intersection of Swan and Forest, and luckily it wasn’t rush hour, sliding clear across and jumping the curb in front of Ms. Patterson’s house, with her ill-tempered — although some referred to the animal as simply plain hateful — Maltese, Koukla, vehemently barking at him through the bay window. Hank flew out of the cart, airborne an impressive three-and-a-half feet, and landed with a thump on his thumb onto the frozen ground — and his wife Eloise had long been after him for not having a seat belt on that “rickety contraption” but this was not the time for second-guessing.

Successful outpatient surgery repaired Hank’s thumb nearly good as new with a tiny metal plate and five even tinier metal screws. Ever the trooper, and plus he just loved Christmas, Hank insisted he could carry on with his tradition despite a plaster cast that extended well over his forearm approximately the same size and unwieldy shape of a small club. But the effects of the pain medication proved too much, causing poor Hank to behave exceptionally loopy and nonsensical, which, while amusing, was not appropriate around the children. Thus, the decision was made at an emergency meeting of the village council, with just barely a quorum as members were otherwise engaged in last minute Christmas shopping, by a unanimous vote, with Eugene Bowlering abstaining, and Lloyd Farnsby, Hank’s archenemy for reasons best left unexplained as it was the holidays after all, presiding as Chair, to procure a replacement. But there wasn’t much time!

The calls went out at once, over the phone lines and the Birchmont Village neighborhood website, and via the emergency messaging system which caused a bit of a panic to those who were prone to panicking. Handheld devices and computers throughout the community began lighting up and ringing, beeping and bonging. Austin Crothersville waved down folks as they passed by on their constitutionals, jogs and dog walks. Lizzie Strumblesom and Poindexter McGregor, in a good faith attempt to renew their friendship — just as long as Poindexter didn’t get the wrong idea though he swore to her that he was seeing other people — canvassed the area tacking to lamp posts, street signs and telephone poles flyers they had made from poster board left over from the leaf collection protest last month that only vaguely alluded to “help wanted, holiday parade, red suit provided” out of an abundance of caution in case any inquisitive kids saw it. Young Billy Milner, eleven years, seven months, four days, four hours and thirty-six minutes of age — or was it thirty-seven? — according to Billy depending on the time, inserted a comprehensive notice of same, being forewarned beforehand not to read it as it concerned grown-up business, folded into each newspaper he delivered on his route the next morning.

Nonetheless, as of nine-sixteen in the AM of the day of Santa’s scheduled ride there were no takers, nary any interest from anyone wanting to don Hank Walters Bryant’s Santa suit — and it had already been cleaned and pressed and was neatly hanging in a garment bag in Hank’s cedar closet. Another emergency meeting of the village council was convened, still just barely comprising a quorum, Lloyd Farnsby still presiding as Chair — and if Hank only knew. Following a lengthy, and surprisingly heated, exchange, it was decided by a unanimous vote, with Eugene Bowlering abstaining, that this seasonal position would have to be filled by conscription. But the question remained: who?

Pages of the village directory were divvied up and distributed to the members of the council, with numerous names bandied about and discussed but ultimately rejected for one deficiency or another. Ted Canari was deemed too unpleasant and unlikeable, and plus he was rather full of himself, and Dwayne Weatherbly a bit unsettling and, some would conclude, icky, and Trevor Vincinesse too off-putting with how he spoke in a phony British accent since learning from one of those mail order DNA kits that his grandparents’ cousin twice removed on his mother’s side was born on the Isle of Man. Sarah Delahaney, while not technically a resident yet she was around enough as a flagger for the gas and electric company road crew that the council was willing to forgo strict adherence to the residency requirement for her, had the requisite amount of spunk and gumption, and ranked off the charts on the likability scale, but she was sadly too petite for the Santa suit and there wasn’t time enough to tailor it. This rundown wore on for a long while — and at various points various members of the council pondered what kind of neighbors they had when they couldn’t warrant anyone acting as Santa for an afternoon — longer than anticipated, with the council members becoming impatient and cross with each other in yet another surprisingly heated exchange, and it was the holidays after all.

Finally, in such a eureka moment it was as if the yellow light bulb was visible going off above her head, until it turned out to be a hall lamp set to a timer switching on automatically at noon for some odd reason, Paula Porter proudly proclaimed the name of Old Man Williams as a potential substitute Santa. There were sideways glances and smirks. Old Man Williams could come across as curmudgeonly, and somewhat standoffish, a crotchety codger, and he didn’t normally speak unless spoken to, and even then not much. But there didn’t seem to be anything to legitimately eliminate him from consideration, especially given the increasingly shrinking pool of names. Old Man Williams was an interesting candidate for the job to be sure, and the council ordered in lunch — grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, with a brownie, and two steaming pots of coffee, regular and decaf — to deliberate and contemplate. Eventually it was settled, there being no one else available or generally agreeable, and they were in a pickle, and Old Man Williams was the appropriate age and build of Jolly Old Saint Nick — though perhaps lacking in the “jolly” quality — and as such, everyone had to concur that Old Man Williams was the one and only choice, if only by default.

Posthaste a committee was formed and dispatched to Old Man Williams’ home, and without a moment to lose, to provide him with the wonderful news. However, Old Man Williams was not nearly as enthused and, moreover, when provided this wonderful news he did not consider it wonderful in the least, the exact opposite it seemed, as he simply shrugged and mumbled a half-hearted, uninspired “nuh-uh” and “nope” before closing the door in the collective face of the committee. Nonplussed and bewildered at such an unexpected reaction, the committee members stood dumbfounded, not knowing how to behave or what to feel, in awe, slack-jawed, mouths agape, hands on hips or chins, before Mary Ellen Plumberly, with a second wind, rang the doorbell again, and when that failed to rouse Old Man Williams, knocked quite forcefully on the door, and after still no response, resumed with both fists, until a rather annoyed Old Man Williams opened it and offered the same reply, with a heaping helping of aggravation. “Nuh-uh!” he repeated, and “Nope!” Lest there be any doubt as to how he truly felt, he finished with “No, I said — no!” and slammed the door shut.

The committee, further flummoxed and not prepared for such a rebuking, remained still, astonished that such a privilege could be refused — and after the exhaustive vetting that had occupied all of the morning and through the lunch hour that now seemed for naught. “Perhaps,” interjected PJ Cross, “Old Man Williams just requires some coaxing, cajoling, an incentive, perhaps … a bribe.” That last bit took some of the committee members aback and Etna Pataskata audibly gasped and had to fan herself with the palms of her hands, yet they proceeded along this course of action for what other course of action remained, spitballing and brainstorming to conjure what they could proffer.

Regrettably, nothing the committee came up with convinced Old Man Williams to change his mind, not free yard work for a year, not a gutter cleaning in the fall and in the spring, not a twenty-five dollar credit at Lilabelle Durham’s upscale boutique in Poplar Square, not even the gratis taxidermy service of Dwayne Weatherbly. Nothing would change Old Man Williams’ mind as he was adamant that he would not be the Birchmont Village Santa Claus this year “nor any year for that matter!” Defeated and dejected, the committee members stared blankly at one another in the off-chance that perchance someone might think of something else. But nothing. So they slinked and slunk off Old Man Williams’ porch, one-by-one, sheepishly, heads bowed, bodies swaying, and went solemnly on their separate ways. “I guess Santa just won’t make it to Birchmont Village this year,” one of them was overheard to say.

Of those to overhear that was Young Billy Milner who, while steadfastly obeying the warning not to read the comprehensive notice he was directed to fold into that morning’s newspaper — because that was how his parents had raised him — surmised notwithstanding that something was amiss and had stealthily tailed the committee to Old Man Williams’ residence, spying on them from behind the overgrown azalea bushes, accompanied by his trusty sidekick, Chubz the cat, the Johnson family pet. The mere mention of a year without Santa sent chills down Billy’s spine and made his stomach go all aflutter — and one could only assume that the feeling for Chubz was similar. Once the committee members had departed, Billy sneaked up onto Old Man Williams’ porch and, with a deep breath in through his nose and out through his mouth, and a glance down to Chubz for moral support, gave the front door a confident rap, rap, rap — and never had this front door received such attention in such a brief span.

Old Man Williams flung the door practically off the hinges to the mutual surprise of both of them, as he was expecting the committee members with yet another paltry attempt to sweeten the deal and alter his opinion, and he was ready for that with an emphatic finger wagging and some choice words beginning with “Listen here you …” And Young Billy Milner had rarely been this near to Old Man Williams and was expecting at a minimum “How may I help you, son?” since he had been nothing but diligent with his newspaper delivering duties. The two jumped aside when they met under these circumstances. But when Old Man Williams saw Billy standing there, in all of his doe-eyed innocence, with Chubz, as usual, at his feet, so sweet, something inside of him that he wasn’t sure how to explain warmed and thawed and melted. And when Young Billy Milner, his poised facade belied by the quiver in his voice, asked why there wouldn’t be a Santa Claus this year, that was all the convincing Old Man Williams needed, recalling precisely in that instant his own youth, those decades and decades prior, when a visit from Saint Nick meant all the world to a child.

“Why of course there’ll be a Santa Claus in Birchmont Village this year,” Old Man Williams answered, feigning disdain, pooh-poohing it as if it were the silliest thing, his valiant attempt to reassure. “They just want me to get on my radio to give him directions. You see, Santa’s rather up there in age and, like a lot of us, has become quite forgetful these days.”

Billy seemed to sort of understand but he also seemed not entirely persuaded, nor did Chubz, so Old Man Williams showed them inside to the ham radio setup he had in the near corner of his living room, by his skinny Christmas tree and its smattering of ornaments, one of Naomi Persimmon’s vintage scarves wrapped around the base, no presents beneath. He flipped the switch and the impressive conglomeration of dials and nobs and buttons and wires and antennae came crackling to life with a burst of static like a thunder clap through the massive speakers, followed by a faint stuttering of some far-off distant dialect, possibly German, which wasn’t any help whatsoever in heartening the boy but it was still kind of neat.

“Now you go,” Old Man Williams ordered, ushering Billy and Chubz out. “I’ve got to find the right frequency to reach Santa so he can make his way here.”

No sooner had Billy and Chubz left when Old Man Williams rushed to his Rolodex, flipped through the entries, then called the main number for the Birchmont Village council, leaving a terse message for its answering service. “I’m in,” was all that Old Man Williams said. He hung up the phone and proceeded to prepare himself, primarily by stretching, deep knee bends and hip circles and the like, for he knew he had a tall task ahead, and especially where his muscles and ligaments were susceptible to straining and spraining in the cold, what with his bursitis, along with a litany of other ailments and conditions of varying severity.

Within thirty minutes, Officer Fifeson pulled up to Old Man Williams’ house, lights flashing and siren blaring, which was not at all necessary but Officer Fifeson wanted to seize the moment and stress the notable significance of the situation. He ran up with the Santa suit, still neatly hanging in its garment bag, then kept vigil outside while Old Man Williams dressed. A sizeable and quite curious crowd formed, drawn by the flashing lights of the Ridgeland cruiser and the palpable sense of exhilaration that charged the air, but Officer Fifeson blew his whistle and shooed them back beyond the secured perimeter he had established. Moments later, Old Man Williams emerged in full-blown Santa Claus mode, to the ooh’s and aah’s of the lookie-loos. As if on cue, the Limerock fire truck arrived to take Old Man Williams for his Birchmont Village Santa ride. And what a glorious ride it became!

Old Man Williams had never seen Birchmont Village in this manner, from this vantage point, this angle. He was always too focused on himself, his little patch of land, what went on within the isolated walls of his quaint Cape Cod, oblivious to the whole wide world that lied just outside. Here were his neighbors, his fellow villagers, the people he would typically encounter without any thought, with hardly any acknowledgement, on his way to the bank or the five-and-dime or the grocery, who he secretly admonished to himself for not retrieving their empty recycling bins from the curb once trash collection came through or for playing their music too loud or for walking on the road with traffic rather than against. Yet these were also the same people who came together to help the Johnsons’ when their house caught fire — and twice in one day! — and when Chubz ran away, who turned their lights off in support and solidarity until electricity was restored to the totality the time the power went out on Independence Day, who helped to solve the mystery of the spray painted blue heart on his driveway for heaven’s sake! And they had all come out to greet him, well Santa, but still. It was enough to make Old Man Williams, typically so stoical, choke up and get teary, but he had a job to do, and he was determined to do it as best he could, to be the greatest Santa Claus this place ever knew — with all due respect to Hank Walters Bryant.

Old Man Williams tossed suckers and gumballs and toffees and chocolate drops wrapped in red and green foil with vigor and vim to the eager children below as they scrambled to grab up the candy by the mittenful, anxious parents cautioning to “take it slow” and “save some for others — it’s the holidays after all!” He pointed to Wilbur Bozeman in the assemblage, and to Max Chetak, and Pastor Simmeons, and Widow Skiouros, and Timbo Donathon and his daughter Joella, and Chip Charoothers pushing his sleeping infant son, Chip Junior, in a stroller. There was On-Your-Left, and Preston Burgher, and the starting lineup of the St. Martins Dragons, the reigning regional Little League champs who always traveled in a pack. He caught a glimpse of Lizzie Strumblesom and Poindexter McGregor holding hands. And he saw poor Hank Walters Bryant, the deposed Santa, sitting astride the damaged golf cart, dented and dinged, the front tires flattened, the side mirror knocked off, his thumb in a cast, his arm in a sling, appearing exceptionally loopy and nonsensical from the pain medication but enjoying the parade all the same.

As the sun set over the horizon, the decorations shone exponentially brighter. The residents had again gone well overboard, vying tooth and nail for the title of best decorated home and the bragging rights that came with that — along with a twenty-five dollar credit at Lilabelle Durham’s upscale boutique in Poplar Square and a stuffed squirrel wearing a miniature red stocking cap courtesy of Dwayne Weatherbly. Harris Maggiano had mechanical reindeer and the Thingstons’ yard was crammed full with inflatables and Etna Pataskata showed off her collection of handmade wreaths she fashioned from sprigs of her holly tree. The Chichesters’ display consisted of thousands of twinkling lights and played a corresponding medley of classic holiday standards. And atop the Johnsons’ house, and what a year it had been for them, a single, shining star. It was truly a glorious ride for Old Man Williams.

When the procession reached its destination at the Birchmont Village Church, Officer Fifeson helped Old Man Williams down from the fire truck and escorted him inside the heated tent to a chair decked out like a throne draped in fabric of crimson and ivory. Old Man Williams ordered the children to “be still now” and “be still now, you hear” and then had them line up for their turn to sit on Santa’s lap to tell him what they wanted for Christmas. Old Man Williams listened attentively to each and every request, for more than an hour he guessed, ignoring the cramps in his legs, the stitch in his side, the fact that he hadn’t eaten, what with all the hubbub. He sat there as Santa and listened — and all Old Man Williams wanted for Christmas was to be the Birchmont Village Santa Claus next year, not that he would ever wish ill will or malice upon Hank Walters Bryant, yet if something unexpected were to occur again, well that would be a different matter. Old Man Williams sat there until the very last child, who happened to be Young Billy Milner with, of course, his bud, Chubz. Billy didn’t ask for anything, just whispered, with a knowing grin, and a nod and wink, “Glad you could make it this year … Santa.”

The villagers continued to mingle and mix, many wondering aloud why they didn’t do this more often, with cocoa — or hot toddies smuggled in thermoses for those daring adults willing to risk it with Officer Fifeson — and sugar cookies. There was a fruitcake from someone that was politely admired for its festiveness but which went untouched and uneaten. Youngsters who had consumed too many sweets raced about at top speed and playful pooches yipped and barked. A circle of graduate students, winding down from two tough weeks of finals, kicked around a hacky sack. The renters who shared a two-bedroom suite at the Stonemill Apartments at the end of Blanchard next to the park staged an impromptu Christmas concert with their guitars and bongo drums and tambourines, with vocals exuberantly provided by the spirit squad of Crabbe Elementary. Mrs. Shuttleford tapped her feet in rhythm.

It seemed as if this celebration would never end, when abruptly, without warning, everything came to a screeching halt as the power went out in the tent and throughout the village proper. Everyone looked about, as best they could in the dark, and exhaled one long, deflated sigh. But then, as suddenly as it went out, the power came back on, to one loud, elated cheer. “Power surge!” shouted Sarah Delahaney, who had been spray painting images of blue snowflakes onto the asphalt of the church parking lot with paint she promised was meant to wash away after a few good rains. “From all the lights,” she added as she ran off, clutching her fluorescent safety vest, to investigate. Everyone else resumed what they were doing, enjoying each other’s company, merrymaking and fellowship, soaking in this holiday spirit, led by the unlikeliest of them all, Old Man Williams, the time Santa almost didn’t make it to Birchmont Village.

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This short story is part of the collection, (Mostly) True Tales From Birchmont Village, now available on Amazon or order from your favorite independent bookstore [ISBN: 978–1–7375801–1–9]

Author and playwright in Louisville, Kentucky. www.peterjstavros.com.