A Story by Bob Thurber
The first time I saw Santa’s eyes they were the same pale green as the plastic holly my mother hung on the door on a hook she left up all year, and the rawness of the flesh around them was the same blood-shot red as actual holly berries, which are technically ‘drupes’ and contain the plant’s seeds. The second time I saw his eyes (a year later, same store, after waiting in a line for nearly an hour) they seemed larger, but less round, and their color had cooled to the crystal blue you find in glacier ice — which, at the time, I called North Pole Blue — and this made sense, even though I was only six, still too young to understand the density and compactness of anything so old as a glacier. That was the year Santa asked my name, and, when I stammered Bobby, he said, “Ah. Bobby. Of course.” As though we were old friends.
The third time I sat on Santa’s lap and looked up into the old man’s eyes they had changed dramatically, become far less wrinkly and slightly almond-shaped, with pupils the burnt brown of old acorns. I got a good long view because Santa was focused on the camera the whole time, fidgeting like he had someplace better to be, and he repeatedly scratched the same spot of his beard; in a faint and tired voice he asked what ‘big gift’ I wanted for Christmas, and though I don’t remember what I said, I do recall that he didn’t acknowledge the request, or in any way signal that he had heard, so when I climbed off his lap I felt less sure of everything. Oddly, my mother always liked that picture the best because of the shy, inquisitive, almost contemplative expression on my face, plus the camera’s flash put a dot of sparkle in my left eye, so there is, I will admit, a dreamy magical quality, but it’s purely an illusion, a trick of light, because my absorption at that moment was really my gut-wrenching disturbance at the weariness I saw on the man’s face, and my utter confusion at his not remembering me.
Years and Christmases and more photos went by. Santa took to wearing glasses with wire frames made of gold or silver, which I liked. Though, whether I looked through their lenses or above them, I’d be lying if I said I glimpsed anything other than vagueness.
The last time I had an up-close, personal view of Santa’s face I avoided his eyes entirely, focusing on his nose, which had not only widened and flattened but now contained tiny broken veins like intersecting highways on a roadmap. He asked how old I was and I said ten. He asked what I wanted for Christmas and I said, “A pocket knife.”
He shifted me slightly on his lap. “You a Boy Scout?”
I wasn’t, though I wanted to be. But I felt he didn’t need to know that.
His breath rolled out the smell of coffee and cigarette smoke. I turned my head, found my mother behind the elfish-looking girl working the camera. Mom was waving, trying to get me to smile. She’d painted her nails a garish Christmas green, and I didn’t like the color.
Right before the flash went off Santa pulled me closer and I felt his beard brush against the top of my ear. “You know,” he said, “you’re a little too old for this crap.”
And that man, I’m certain, was the real deal.
Bob Thurber’s short story collection Nothing But Trouble is now available at bookstores everywhere.