by J. G. Buckley
part 1 of 2
“I’m getting too old for this,” said a beleaguered-looking Santa to no one in particular as he stood in front of a group of nondescript elves gathered around him in the pre-flight room at the North Pole workshop. He looked sleep-deprived and a bit hung over; probably from the party Mrs. Claus threw last night for all the workshop personnel.
“Look at this damn sleigh. I might as well be trying to keep a hummer in the air. Lately those gnomes have gotten real half-ass; used to be you could count on them for quality sleigh mechanics. But lately they must be smoking too much dope or something; they don’t have their minds on business.” He said no more but he vividly recalled at least two of the bigger gnomes trying to cop a feel of Mrs. Claus after their tenth eggnog last night.
The sleigh in question was one of the newer models, a piece of crap. Long gone were the big 12-cylinder Lamborghini modules specially adapted by the gnomes for cold weather, trans-global flights and reindeer accessories. Since he had been Santa, going on about a hundred years now, he’d seen a lot of changes. His predecessor had not benefited from the advent of the internal combustion engine, just some clever gnome magic, industrious elves and some damn fine reindeer.
The latest sleigh was the equivalent of a rice-burning econo-model as far as sleighs went. It was undependable in some conditions and went through parts like a Buick. Last week in what should have been a simple warm-up for Christmas Eve it nearly crashed because one of the magneto heads had already worn out. Scared the hell out of the deer and left Prancer with a hoof burn.
“It’s a good damn thing I’ve just got two more years till retirement. I guess I’m just fresh outta jolly and good cheer.”
“Yeah, boss, you deserve it,” said Growler, the shop master and walkin’ boss to all the other elves and helpers. His voice, raspy and guttural, was the reason for his nickname. Three packs of Marlboros a day for seventy years will make you growl.
“Deserve what, Growler? The abysmally bad luck of recent years, the lack of quality gnomes and elves, the declining belief in Christmas as a whole, or my impending retirement?”
Growler said nothing but shrugged and turned away rolling his large eyes. Christmas Eve was always a bit tense, like the moments before a big game or that first meeting with the soon-to-be in-laws. There was tension in the air.
Growler had been with this Santa for nearly fifty years. While familiarity may breed contempt, it can also breed respect and loyalty. Growler knew Santa had a beef; things had not been that great the last few years. So, he just kept on with his checklist and quietly walked away.
Santa slowly walked over to the sleigh and started a pre-flight inspection. He noticed a young-looking elf making some adjustments to the left rail.
“Don’t think I’ve met you, lad,” Santa said in a professional manner.
“I’m Ike,” the elf said in a disgustingly cheery voice. “I got assigned up here two months ago. Just finished alternative aviation technique class, and I have my certification in motor and fuel cell technology. My father was with Keebler for thirty years and did right well by himself. My family comes with the highest recommendations. But me, I wanted to work at your workshop. Number one assignment for elves, no doubt,” he said with exuberance reserved for the young.
“Hope you can keep this piece a crap in the air tonight, kid. That would really be good,” Santa said with lukewarm hope in his tired voice.
The thought of dying on the job a year or two short of the big day due to a faulty sleigh danced through his head like a rotten sugarplum. What about that poor guy down in the Florida Keys that died on his last day as a bridge tender after twenty-five years. What the hell kind of Christmas spirit was that?
“Are the deer ready?” he asked the stable elf in charge of the team.
“Yes, Santa, rarin’ to go,” the elf responded with a heavy cockney accent that left no doubt to his origins. High elves of Britain, probably Liverpool area. They were not to be confused with the Irish elves who could usually be seen carrying out their tasks with a flask close at hand. They did excellent work, but could be bingeing for a week in the off-season. Just don’t mention Darby O’Gill around them or you’ll get an Irish earful.
“Jesus, I just don’t have a good feelin’ about this tonight,” Santa muttered under his breath.
“What did you say, Santa?” asked the young aeronautical elf Ike as he sauntered past on his way to the break room.
“Nothing, kid. You got that rail on there good?”
“No problem, Santa, got it hummin’ smooth for you,” he said with honest enthusiasm.
“Well, kid, I hope the hell you know what you’re doing,” he said abruptly as he headed over to talk to the stable master again.
“See ya’ later, Santa,” the young elf said with irritating optimism.
The stable master and his crew were systematically hitching up the team. Donner and Blitzen were showing their usual attention to detail and berating the poor elf assigned to harness them up.
“Dummkopf, not zere,” Blitzen said in an annoyed tone.
The young elf assigned to the detail was overwhelmed by the whole deal and was just trying to do what the unforgiving Black Forest duo wanted.
“Yes, sirs, you’re completely right,” he said in a lilting Irish accent. No doubt he’d be looking for a drink once everything got airborne.
It was like opening night at some big Broadway play. Sure, most of the older deer took things in stride, but the younger ones sometimes got caught up in the hoopla. At any given time they tried to keep at least 75% of the team as veterans and work the replacements in slowly. Kinda like old dog-young dog. Of course they kept the names, but now, it was Dancer No. 25, not the original.
“Alright everyone, thirty minutes to lift-off,” Growler’s voice carried over the hubbub in a decidedly authoritarian tone. The side talk died out and there was elvish intensity in the air for several minutes.
Santa was going through his personal checklist much like a fighter pilot. Over the years he’d run into some bizarre events on Christmas Eve. What about that time in 1944 when both the Americans and the Germans were trying to knock him out of the sky. Jesus, everyone thought God was on their side. Not to mention that storm over central Europe in 1957, which nearly crashed him. Countless other memories ran quickly through his head. “T-minus 10 and counting,” Growler’s voice cut the reverie.
He was looking forward to retiring with Mrs. Claus. She was still his gal. They were good in bed and she was a helluva cook. Of course, there had been that sordid little dalliance with the toy rep about 25 years ago. But stuck at the North Pole surrounded by a fat, rosy-cheeked jolly guy and a bunch of elves you could see where a woman might stray. They had a live and let-live thing going on and besides she never said a word about all those little Lolitas sitting on his lap.
“You a go,” said Growler breaking Santa’s thoughts of Mrs. Claus.
“Yeah, Growler, let’s do it.”
The big sleigh was packed full with a never-ending stack of wrapped gifts. The deer were pawing the smooth alloy-finished floor of the pre-flight room. Growler looked around and gave a tacit nod. Suddenly the large southerly wall began to break open into two sliding panels. The polar night sky could be seen with shimmering, wispy strands of northern lights streaking across the horizon.
Santa walked up to the lead deer and slipped him a cube of Christmas candy. The neon-red nose glowed like a beacon. Santa whispered something quiet and quick into the pointed ear. The deer stamped the floor and gave a long bestial reply. Santa walked slowly back toward the sleigh along the line of harnessed deer talking to each pair with calm surety. The deer responded with more stamping, snorting and antler–shaking that indicated their willingness.
Growler stood by as Santa prepared to enter the sleigh. Santa paused and waited for Mrs. Claus to give him the ritual kiss on the cheek prior to take-off.
“You be careful out there tonight,” she said with more concern than usual. It might have been a premonition, maybe it was just menopause. Santa nodded; he’d be careful.
Copyright © 2011 by J. G. Buckley