It must be two in the morning, later than usual, and I’m standing on my porch in Frisco, Texas, watching a haggard reindeer trudge across the lawn. My children are with me. I’ve got my hands on the backs of their necks in case they get excited and run after it. We can smell it. It smells like a dog. I explain to my kids that Texas is hot and so the reindeer is sweating, and aren’t we lucky it’s enduring discomfort to visit us on Christmas Eve? While I’m outside with the kids, my wife moves all the presents from the hall closet to under the tree. But there are a few presents that she doesn’t move, presents that are surprises for the kids, and for her and me too. These presents, like the reindeer, are from Santa Direct.
The reindeer is close now, and it looks bad. Chunks of fur are missing, and its remaining fur is matted in different directions as if the reindeer just slept one off. There’s no harness. A single row of bells hangs off its neck by a rope, a little to the side. Without a harness it looks naked. I think about covering my daughter’s eyes, but the reindeer is so close that she’ll freak out if she misses one second of it. It smells acrid now, like a homeless man in the downtown library. One of its legs is dragging, making a shuffling sound against the lawn. Tim asks if he can touch its fur, but I say no. “Never look a gift horse in the mouth,” I say. The kids nod and appreciate the strange animal in that silent way they have. Really I’m thinking God knows what diseases that thing’s carrying. I’m holding my breath. I’m hoping it makes it across the lawn before it collapses.
We watch its wide, swaying hindquarters as it noses into the darkness of my neighbors’ yard. Thank God, I think, and I’m about to corral my kids into the house when a motion-sensing light comes on next door and my daughter claps her hands. Terrific. We’re going to stand here watching that thing clomp from house to house setting off motion-sensing lights all the way down our straight, flat block. Then what happens, I wonder. What if it climbs into a horse trailer to get driven to the next house with Santa Direct? I can’t let my kids see that. Then again, what if it blasts off into the sky? Wouldn’t seeing that make Christmas even more special? Sure, if I had to guess I’d say that Santa Direct keeps this reindeer in a petting zoo somewhere and trots it out once a year, but I can’t discount the possibility that it flies and is magical. There’s a fuzzy space between belief and disbelief, a space no one talks about. Take knocking on wood: even rational people knock on wood, just in case, because if something’s going to get you, do you want it to be because you didn’t knock on wood? Lots of people pray when a loved one dies, for the same reason. Even if you only kind of believe in God, do you want to be the guy standing between your mom or dad and heaven?
I whisper to my kids, “Let’s go inside.” The rule with Santa Direct is not to look too closely, even if you kind of believe in Santa Claus.
The kids muster feeble objections, but they’re tired and I easily steer them into the house by their necks. “Go upstairs,” I say. “Go back to bed.” Emma asks if Santa ate his cookies. “I don’t know, sweetie,” I say. But then I say, “Yes, he ate his cookies.” She’s only five and doesn’t need to be dealing in ambiguities, even about cookies. And if Santa or the man from Santa Direct left one behind, I’ll eat it myself.
I end up having to carry her up the stairs and put her in the little bed where my desk used to be (now my desk is in the mudroom). Tim is standing beside me as I turn off the light and listen to her breathing, which immediately becomes loud and full of sleep.
“I wanted to touch it,” Tim whispers.
“I know,” I say, putting a hand on top of his head. He’s ten, and his head is all the way up to my chest. “But what do I tell you every year? What did my daddy tell me?”
“Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”
It was one of the last things my father said to me, not the last thing, but around there—in that last conversation, the one when he gave me the Santa Direct business card, when he was lying in the middle of his and my mother’s king-sized bed on top of the covers in his best robe and all the machines and tubes had been wheeled out of the room on his orders. He said, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” Then he gave me the card. Then he said something about skiing and how it was stupid and a waste, but the thing about the gift horse stuck with me. Most would say the gift horse is the gift, and you don’t look it in the mouth because you’re supposed to be thankful you got a horse and not check it for a horse disease right there in front of whoever gave it to you. But the horse can also be the giver, as in the reindeer that goes from house to house delivering gifts. The same rationale applies: you’re thankful for the gift and don’t scrutinize the magical creature that gave it to you. But what if the horse looks awful, as if it’s been tortured or raped or worse? What if some bad men are abusing Santa’s reindeer? Shouldn’t I call Santa—Santa Direct, rather—to check up on things? My father paid a lot of money for my lifetime membership, which covers spouses and children, and this, of all years, I need Santa Direct to come through. My wife and I couldn’t spend very much because I lost my job. She still has hers, but on her teacher’s salary we can barely pay the mortgage, let alone buy the bicycles and videogame consoles on our kids’ extravagant Christmas lists. This year, after I called the number on the Santa Direct business card and listened to the recording of the kindly male voice asking me to list my “Christmas wishes” at the beep, I listed nearly everything, even earrings for my wife. I worried the tape would run out I was listing for so long. I can’t call again. It’s embarrassing.
After putting Tim to bed I think about going outside to check on the reindeer.
I picture it collapsing down the block and being discovered by an eager child early tomorrow morning. Seeing a big dead animal would ruin that child’s Christmas. But it would break my heart too, and I can’t muster the courage to go out and check. I whisper, “I’m sorry,” thinking that by some sort of Christmas magic the reindeer might hear me.
I go to the living room. I love the way it looks, lit by the lights of the Christmas tree. The plate of cookies on the stone ledge in front of the chimney is empty but for one half of one cookie. I’m not surprised, because one of the cookies had a piece of fuzz on it from where Tim dropped it by the oven. Santa or the man from Santa Direct must have noticed this after taking a bite. I eat the cookie anyway. I want Emma to picture Santa as a big fat man who eats all of the cookies without worrying about how he looks or how other people see him. He has a healthy self-image, I’ll explain. It’ll be one of the casual life-lessons that my children remember me by.
I go over to the tree and inspect the presents. There are lots of them, but not as many as last year. Typically, there are two types: the presents my wife and I wrap in the same drugstore wrapping paper every year, and the presents from Santa Direct, which have big florid bows and shiny or homemade wrapping paper. I search for these, hoping the sickly reindeer isn’t a sign that all of Santa Direct is flagging.
There aren’t any bright packages or big bows. I search for anything that I don’t remember wrapping. I find a small box wrapped in brown paper. I shake it. It rattles, which means there’s something inside that hasn’t been wrapped in tissue paper. Santa Direct always puts tissue paper inside its boxes. I hold the package, which is about the size of my forearm, up to the Christmas tree lights, inspecting it for tape. Santa Direct never leaves any tape on the present where you can see it, but this present has a big piece of tape laid diagonally across its bottom. The tape is wide and opaque too. It isn’t even the right kind of tape. I think about opening the present because I don’t want my children to open anything bad, and what if the Santa Direct people have gone crazy? But the present has my name on it in black marker: “To Phil from Santa.” I can’t open my present before Christmas morning. It just isn’t right. I put it back where I found it and scour the rest of the presents for others with strange wrapping. I find only three more, one for each member of the family. Each is the exact same size and makes the same rattling sound. Where are the rest, I wonder? Emma alone should have five or six. Panicked, I check and check again, but each time I find the same four rattling presents. Perplexed, I sniff one. It smells like dirt. Gift certificates, I decide. Gift certificates. Six years ago Santa Direct gave me a gift certificate to an electronics store. My wife joked that Santa hurt his back and couldn’t carry the new computer I wanted.
When I was a kid we got everything we wanted. Every year my sisters and I made little lists on the day after Thanksgiving. It was a good day to get Santa’s attention, my father said, because he was hung over and sitting around his house at the North Pole. We made the lists directly in a memo pad my father kept, one page for each of us. There were twelve lines on each little page, so we could ask for twelve things. We spent most of the morning drafting and redrafting our lists before copying them into the pad. Most of what we wanted was books and games and toys, but even when we wanted something more expensive we got that too—chemistry sets, pogo sticks, a basketball hoop. One year we banded together, and each of us asked for a swimming pool. Under the Christmas tree in a little flat box with all our names on it was a picture from a magazine of a family splashing around inside a pool. I was the youngest and didn’t understand what this meant, but my sisters went wild. I jumped around with them and hugged them, and my parents were smiling. Ground was broken in our backyard for the pool the following April. It was a happy moment for the family, and we all stood in a line watching a fat man wearing a hardhat inside a bulldozer. I remember wondering if the fat man was Santa. Maybe he had shaved his beard. Another year I asked for a purple bike. The bike under the tree was blue. I was happy to have it anyway, but my father must have noticed the moment of hesitation after I ripped off the wrapping paper. He told me that boy’s bikes came only in blue or red. I told him that Santa’s workshop had all the colors, and that Santa must have gotten it wrong because he was so busy. My father agreed with this possibility. For years to come, “Santa’s busy” was his and my mother’s laughing explanation for when a gift wasn’t quite right, which was often. I wonder if my own children will come up with the same excuse or if—and this is what shakes my heart—they’ll see the far better excuse, tipped by their father preparing all their meals, driving them to school and back, and volunteering to assistant-coach Tim’s soccer team, secretly hoping there will be some money in it but not caring when there isn’t, just glad to have something to do in the afternoons, which are the worst time of day for him.
There’s noise out front. Muffled cursing, it sounds like, and a strange honking sound that might be an animal. I go to the door but stop, arrested by my father’s words: never look a gift horse in the mouth. The noise persists, and I retreat to the back of the house, to the bedroom, where maybe I won’t hear it. I press open the door and stand in the dark beside my sleeping wife. Her breathing is like Emma’s, high pitched and loud. I know I won’t be able to sleep, and to lie down next to her might wake her up, so I sink to my knees. I can make out her face by the yellow light from the lamp down the alley, sliced through venetian blinds. Lydia is a beautiful woman. The darkness lends her an air of graceful mystery, with her black hair and serious nose. I pull off the green Christmas tree shirt I’ve been wearing, thinking again of climbing into bed next to her, but my body disgusts me. It’s new, this disgust. Maybe when I had a job I never bothered to look in the mirror, because what disgusts me isn’t anything new: thin hair I shave close, thick everything else, fingers like breakfast links. Why now am I disgusted?
“Are you awake?” I whisper.
She makes a noise and turns to her other side, away from me.
“It’s okay,” I say. “Never mind.”
“What is it?”
I tell her about the reindeer and the dirt-smelling presents and how I wonder if Santa Direct isn’t in some kind of trouble.
“We should just quit that thing,” she says, and murmurs sleepily about how every year I’m up all night worrying and what’s the point?
The point, I explain, is tradition and love and Christmas magic and, paraphrasing my father, how Santa Direct is a modernization of Christmas into a form today’s young people can believe in, at once real and magical.
“You’re yelling,” she says. “And if you mention Santa Direct one more time in this house, I’m leaving you.”
I can’t sleep and I can’t bother my wife, so I creep back out of the bedroom and pace around the house. Everything is in order, waiting in silence for Christmas: stockings on the mantle, red and green tinsel around the banisters, a vaguely German carving of Santa Claus next to the door, his sack thin and deep for umbrellas. He’s staring at me, that statue, but the white and black paint of his eyes is distorted through a tiny pair of reading glasses. Is he looking at my flabby chest? I drape my Christmas shirt over his head. Then someone whispers, “Daddy.” For a moment I think it’s the Santa Claus, under the shirt. But I turn to see Emma standing at the top of the stairs in her nightgown.
I assume it’s Christmas excitement until she speaks again: “I saw a man.”
I wonder if she saw the man from Santa Direct, if they’ve gotten that sloppy. Feebly, I offer, “Maybe it was Santa Claus.”
She shakes her head. Then she runs out of sight down the hall.
I find her in her room, the tiny bedroom that used to be my study. The lights are on and she’s sitting on her knees holding up two dolls, one male and one female, both nude. She’s humming an old-fashioned Christmas song to them. “Dona Nobis Pacem,” I think it is. Of all the members of the family, she’s the only one whose passion for Christmas matches my own.
“Hello,” I say from the doorway.
She hugs the dolls to her chest and looks up at me.
“Sorry to interrupt,” I say, “but do you want to talk about the man you saw?”
I walk into the room and notice, once again, that the bedspread matches her nightgown. This bothers me for some reason. I sink to my knees in front of her, careful not to allow the fly of my boxer shorts to open. Kneeling there, as I have so many times before, I feel like a supplicant monk before his wise but cryptic little master. She reaches out one of the dolls and pokes me in the nipple with its head.
“Thank you,” I say. “Emma, what did the man look like?”
We have a routine involving the Junior World Books, a present to her brother that now lives on her shelf, and she stands up and goes across the room to them. Usually she makes a show of picking one out, with her chin on her fist like a librarian, but this time she seems to know which one she wants. She slides it out from the rest and carries it over to me with both hands. It’s the S book. I take the book and lay it on the floor between us. I flip through the pages. “See anyone you recognize?” I ask.
She pushes my hand away and flips through the book herself. She flips towards the beginning and stops at the entry for Santa Claus. I’m relieved.
“Oh,” I say. “I see. You did see Santa, huh?”
I point to a fat Santa squinting his eyes in a puffy smile. Emma shakes her head. She flips to the next page where there’s an old-timey engraving of a thin Santa sitting in a chair. He’s surrounded by a strange crew of wild looking hangers-on.
“These guys are scary,” I say, but I don’t finish the thought. One of them, a man with wavy black hair, pointy eyebrows, and a goatee, is perched over Santa’s shoulder, nearly as prominent as Santa himself. There’s something feline about him, predatory. The thing is, he looks an awful lot like my father. In a confused flash I picture my father creeping down the hallway rattling chains and moaning. Has his ghost returned to haunt me because I lost my job and can barely provide for my family?
There’s a terrible, bleating honk, and Emma runs to the window. I go after her and lift her into my arms just as she pulls back the curtain. I hold her head against my neck and look outside, where, a few houses down, headlights outline a bulky, twisting silhouette. I tuck Emma tightly into bed with her dolls and tell her that if she doesn’t get some sleep Santa will take back her presents. It’s a horrible lie, but I can’t let her see the bleating gift horse. I turn out the lights and make her promise to go to sleep. Then I go down the stairs and out the front door.
Barefoot on the lawn, I turn both ways, forgetting in my panic where the noise came from. The headlights are gone. The sky is turning blue but it’s still too dark to see, and the spindly trees are in the way. I walk out to the road. The asphalt is cold and damp beneath my feet. In the distance I see a van. Behind it, two men are struggling with a beast that’s lying flat on the pavement. It’s the reindeer. I’m certain of it.
“Hey, you!” I call out. “Hey there!” I jog towards them holding my boxer shorts closed. They say something in Spanish. One of them jumps into the cab of the van. The other hesitates, holding up the reindeer’s head with a tarp. Then he drops the tarp and runs to the passenger side. The reindeer’s head bounces once. The taillights come on and exhaust blasts into the reindeer’s face before the van wiggles into motion and sets off down the long, straight road.
The reindeer is lying sideways on a blue tarp. Its chest goes up and down very slowly, and steam comes out its nose. Its eyes are black and shiny, unreadable. I can’t tell if it’s in pain or insensate. Up close, its antlers are fuzzy. One has been broken near the front, and the core of the break is dark like marrow. It makes me think of my tooth being cracked. I position myself behind the reindeer, squat down, and grab the tarp with two hands, rolling it up a little to get a good grip. The smell is overwhelming. I try to breathe through my mouth but keep gagging. But the reindeer isn’t as heavy as it looks, and the tarp slides on the smooth asphalt.
I fully believed in Santa Claus until I was fourteen. That year, when I was getting bigger and had started shaving, my father asked me to help him do a little Christmas shopping. It was a first. I had a notion that some gifts came from Santa and others from people, but the prospect of participating in the ritual, being indoctrinated so cavalierly, unnerved me.
“What about Santa?” I asked, more for affirmation of his existence than anything.
“Don’t be a wiseass,” said my father. “Come on.”
We drove to a car dealership where a man in a blue suit was sitting on the fender of a white Volkswagen Rabbit. My father took the keys from him, palmed him a fifty-dollar bill, and tossed the keys to me. “It’s for your sister Karen,” he said. “Let’s go.”
I told him I didn’t know how to drive.
“It’s like I showed you at the lake, just without me in the car. Stay right behind my bumper, and we’ll take the back roads. Just park it at the neighbors’ so Karen can’t see it; otherwise she won’t think Santa brought it.” He winked. “Right?”
“Right,” I said. I didn’t dare tell him that it was me and not Karen who thought Santa brought everything. My hand was shaking, and I had trouble even unlocking the door. The man in the blue suit saw this.
“Why don’t you let me drive, Marco?” he said. “You can drop me back here afterwards.”
“Much obliged, Carl, but you’ve done enough. The boy can drive.”
Carl raised his hands and backed away—a pitiful effort, in retrospect, but I wouldn’t have done much better faced with a man like my father.
Except for when an old woman got between us, whereupon my father slowed to a crawl and honked again and again until she pulled off the road, the drive was uneventful. Afterwards, I stood trembling in the neighbors’ driveway for a few minutes before walking down it to the street and towards our own driveway, feeling, in the shade of the tall trees, as if I had just stepped out of cold pool water. The houses in our neighborhood were perched on the side of a hill, unusual for Dallas, which is so flat you can see the curvature of the Earth. My father would explain to guests how the hills meant more dirt above the clay layer, which is why the trees were so tall and formed a canopy above the wide, flat roof of our modern house. The house and trees loomed over me as I walked up our driveway towards my father, who was waiting for me at the base of the tall stone stairs. He was smoking a cigarette, arms crossed, one elbow resting on the back of his wrist as he waved the cigarette back and forth with his words. “Hey there, Beaver,” he said. He had called me Beaver, after the TV show, when I was very young. “Do you think you can keep a lid on this for three days?”
I nodded, but he must have sensed some hesitation in me because he said, “What is it? You’re not still sore at me for making you drive, are you?”
“Will Karen get other gifts on Christmas?” I said. “Gifts from Santa? I know they’ll be small ones because the car is a special gift, but she’ll get gifts from Santa, right?”
My father took a long drag from his cigarette without looking at me. I wondered if I was an idiot to say what I did, but then he flung away the cigarette and pulled out his wallet. He spread a small stack of business cards around in his hand until he found the one he wanted. He held it out to me between his thumb and forefinger. On it, written in big curvy letters, was Santa Direct. Karen had mentioned something to me about this card, about Santa Direct, but I hadn’t wanted to hear it. I knew that my father, a lawyer, had a way of corrupting things with inside knowledge—how a batter should rarely if ever make a sacrifice fly, how pie crust tastes good because of the lard in it—but now, faced with no alternative, I took the card from him and inspected it as he explained about Santa and how, out of necessity, the fat old Hun had modernized Christmas. The middle of the card, where Santa Direct was written, felt thinner and slicker than the rest.
Back inside the house I’m drenched with sweat and smell like the reindeer. I can’t get the perverted image of my father from Emma’s Junior World Book out of my head, or the idea that Emma saw him, that he’s somehow, from the grave, the orchestrator of tonight’s disaster. Quietly, I go up the stairs and into Emma’s room.
The room is turning blue with morning light. I take the S World Book from the shelf and open it to the picture. Santa and my father stare back at me. The caption says, “St. Nikolaus and his coterie,” and identifies my father as a creature called Krampus.
“Krampus,” I whisper.
The bed squeaks, and I hear Emma sliding out from under her sheets. She touches my leg from behind and silently puts her head into the space between the book and my stomach. She wags her finger at the men in the picture, as if they’ve been naughty. Then she shakes her doll at the picture. I imagine the doll scolding them in hushed tones.
“What are you guys doing?” a voice says behind us. Startled, I raise the Junior World Book by its spine to throw it, thinking for an instant that the voice came from this Krampus person. But it’s Tim. He covers his face with both arms instinctively. I drop the book and go to him, pull him by his head into my bare chest. Emma comes up to us and buries her head in my backside.
“Is everything okay?” Tim asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Time for breakfast.”
“I don’t smell breakfast.”
“Krampus wants breakfast!” Emma says.
“No, no, shhhhh.”
I try to shush her again, but it’s too late. My wife is walking up the stairs.
“Thank you for riling them up,” Lydia says to me. “They weren’t going to wake up early enough as it is, what with it being Christmas morning.” We’re sitting on the couch watching our children open their presents. The sun is up now, and the room has a soft glow. Their sleepy hair is dusted with light.
“You smell awful,” she says.
“I went jogging,” I lie. “I couldn’t sleep.”
She leans her head on my shoulder. I feel guilty. It isn’t the first time I’ve lied about jogging. I made a single pathetic attempt at jogging three days after getting fired. It hurt my knees, and my sister said I needed the right sneakers. I wasn’t about to spend a hundred dollars on sneakers, but Lydia liked the idea that I was making the most of my time, getting back in shape. Have I ever been in shape? I run my fingers through her long black hair.
The children have opened most of the presents from us, and Emma finds one of the brown presents. She shakes it and smells it, turns it around in her hands. Tim watches her.
“Uh oh,” says Lydia. “Do you remember those?”
I don’t respond.
“Smells like Santa Direct,” she whispers. As if sensing my discomfort, she pats my chest. “It’ll be okay. They’ve gotten lots of nice presents.”
I take stock of the floor. There’s a doll, two videogames, a chess board, a big plastic car, an old Etch-a-Sketch that held Emma’s attention for about thirty seconds. “I guess you’re right,” I say, but I’m lying again. The presents are cheap. The Etch-a-Sketch came from Goodwill. I had never even heard of Goodwill when I was a kid. But I can’t blame Santa Direct, not yet. A sick reindeer doesn’t mean the money—my father’s money—has run out, and Santa Direct isn’t about money anyway, not really. It’s about Christmas magic. I watch Emma peel the brown paper off a gray box, then slowly, almost reverently, lift its lid. Christmas magic, I think, I nearly pray. Christmas magic. Then her face squishes into a confused rictus. She puts the box down, looking at whatever’s inside without touching it. Tim leans over her shoulder to see it too. He’s less affected; it’s for her, not him.
“What is it, cutie?” Lydia asks her.
Emma reaches into the box and pulls out a bundle of sticks tied together with twine. The sticks are thin and uniform. My face pulses with anger.
“That’s the last time we’re using Santa Direct,” my wife whispers. “Sticks? Really?”
I don’t respond.
“Don’t you think this is the last time we should use Santa Direct?”
I push her off me and go to the tree. The other three brown packages are all that’s left. I toss the one that says Tim at my son, then take up another, my wife’s or mine, and rip it open standing up. It’s a bundle of sticks. They’re flexible, with lots of pock marks from leaves. “Sticks,” I whisper.
“Daddy?” says Emma.
I untie the twine and spread the sticks around in my hand, searching for the gift certificate. But it’s just sticks. I fling them away from me with both hands and they rain down over the living room, the toys, my children’s heads. My wife is standing now, clenching her lime-green terrycloth robe to her chest. We make eye contact. She brushes her hair back from her forehead. The look on her face is one of guilt, and I feel horrible. What does she have to feel guilty about? She has a job. She sleeps through the night.
“Why don’t you call them?” she says.
“Never look a gift horse in the mouth,” I say.
“The horse gave you sticks!”
The children are watching us, kneeling in silence. I bend down to clear the sticks off their new toys. I wiggle Emma’s plastic car in front of her. My wife holds the cordless phone out to me. I take it, look up at her.
“It’ll just be the voice message,” I say. “There isn’t a help line.”
“That should tell you something,” she says.
The children have started playing, and I take the phone into the mudroom. My hand is shaking as I punch the number, which I know by heart. I’ve never called except the day after Thanksgiving. I raise the phone to my ear. It rings five times then clicks to voicemail, the same voicemail: “Christmas greetings,” says the kindly male voice. “Have you and yours been good this year?” I always picture Santa saying these words, but a businessman Santa in an old fashioned suit-vest with a gold watch chain hanging across it, across Santa’s big stomach, as he leans back in a cozy chair by a crackling fireplace. Suddenly I feel silly. “Get your lists of Christmas wishes ready,” he continues, “and read them after the beep in a slow, clear voice. Merry Christmas.” At the beep I hang up the phone.
Having breached my father’s command not to look at the gift horse, I feel emboldened. I turn on the computer, wait for it to warm up, and type “Santa Direct” into the Google search page. Nothing comes, which doesn’t surprise me. Websites are cheap and lack mystery. Santa Direct wouldn’t use one. No, I decide, Santa Direct is doing what it’s always done. The problem is that something—or someone—is interfering. Cautiously, I type “Krampus” into the search page. Most of the hits are in German. I scroll down to one in English, an encyclopedia entry about how Krampus gives bad children coal instead of presents and hits them with switches. There are pictures. In some of them he looks like the devil, and in some, my father. An occult website describes him as “a conjurer of black magic, covered in hellish fur” and goes into extreme detail on the practice of birching: “the whipping of a fresh, flexible birch rod against bare buttocks, still common in remote Alpine regions.” A 1940 issue of Weihnachtsplatzchen Zeitung, which improbably translates as “Christmas Biscuit Magazine,” describes Krampus, Black Peter, Knecht Ruprecht, and the rest of “the coterie of St. Nikolaus” calling children to their doors on Christmas Eve to perform in front of the whole crew and, if they perform badly enough, putting them in sacks then tossing the sacks full of children off a bridge onto “the thin ice of a barely frozen river, which cracks under the weight of their sins and shrouds them in cold death.” I think of Emma and Tim being bagged and tossed into an icy river. I turn off the computer, sickened. I picture my wife getting birched. Were we naughty, I wonder? What have we done to deserve this?
I walk into the living room where Tim is lying on his stomach in front of our TV, which is the size of a dumpster. There’s a cartoon on, but he’s concentrating on the Etch-a-Sketch in front of him, drawing something that looks like a staircase. In the cartoon a child or midget in rocket boots is going around shooting cavemen with a laser that comes out of his helmet. I’m transfixed by this.
Tim twists to look at me standing in the back of the room, in the darkness. “Hey, Dad,” he says. He wrinkles his nose. “You’re still in your underwear.”
I nod. “We’ve had a special Christmas, huh?”
“For sure.” He turns back to the Etch-a-Sketch. “I’m hungry, though.”
I realize that I too am hungry and decide to make breakfast.
In the kitchen Lydia is sitting at the breakfast table reading one of her newspapers and drinking coffee. Motown Christmas plays from speakers hidden in the ceiling. I walk over to the coffee maker and pull out the carafe. It’s empty.
“It got cold,” she says without looking at me, then sips her own coffee.
“That’s fine,” I say, overly friendly. “I’ve been trying to drink less.” I methodically take out the ingredients for migas eggs, which is what we make every Christmas after opening presents. My wife turns to me. I smile, holding the carton of eggs in one hand and a brick of Monterey Jack in the other.
“Mmm,” she says. “I was just about to ask what we were going to do about brunch.” She says this as if there were any question, but maybe in her mind there is; maybe she worries that Christmas is ruined. Well, I won’t let Christmas be ruined, not even by Krampus.
As the Jimmy Dean sausage begins to cook, Emma and Tim come into the kitchen with toys. Tim has the Etch-a-Sketch, and Emma has the plastic car, into which she’s placed her naked dolls. They sit at the breakfast table. Lydia smiles, watching our beautiful children over her steaming mug of delicious coffee. I nearly burn myself twice, staring at the children and at my wife. Her legs are crossed, and the terrycloth robe has slowly crawled up her thigh to reveal its pale length and grace. Emma makes a crashing noise and hits the lazy susan with her car.
No one birches children anymore, I assure myself, but I can’t shake the image of Emma standing next to Lydia with their palms flat against a brick wall, trembling in anticipation of another round of birching from Krampus, who, in this strange fantasy, is also my father. They haven’t done anything, I want to tell him. I’m the one who lost his job. Is that what makes me naughty? Does that make me a terrible father?
When Lydia and I decided to have our two kids, I was convinced I’d be a better father than my own. I’d read books about it, I thought. I’d talk to my kids about everything and impart important lessons in a casual way, while shooting hoops in the driveway maybe. I took for granted that I’d have a job and be able to pay for food, clothes, piano lessons—all the things I had when I was a kid, when I lived in our big house in Dallas, cantilevered from a hill and surrounded by sheltering trees. Now I know that Jimmy Dean sausage costs six dollars. My father wore trim suits tailored short in the ankles and wrists to call attention to his graceful limbs. I wear boxer shorts from Target. My father smoked his cigarettes from a holder in front of guests and had a patrician way of speaking that involved the word whom. He was described, invariably, as rakish. Our friends, all of them rich Dallasites, called him That Rakish Man from Back East. But that wasn’t the story at all. The family had fled from Rome to Quito, Ecuador, in the thirties, after a few of their neighbors’ shops were closed under mysterious circumstances. In Quito, my grandfather made a fortune by leaching quinine out of the rainforest with some other Italians and selling it to America for the war. My father joked that the old man thought he was saving Italians but really he was killing Japanese. Then he’d feel guilty and add that quinine put food on the table and they never lacked for anything. Much later, when he was dying, he told me that fathers were luckier than mothers because all the worst of them had to do was put food on the table and then, after they were dead, everyone would nod solemnly and say, “He put food on the table.”
Breakfast is delicious. Everyone says so.
Tim and I do the dishes while Lydia reads another newspaper and Emma makes a jacket out of tinfoil for her doll.
After the dishes are snug in the drying rack, I kiss my wife on the head and say, “I’m sorry about earlier.”
She reaches back and rubs my scalp. “I know,” she says. “It’s that Santa Direct. It drives you crazy. Let’s not use it again, okay?”
Her insistence on this point is beginning to annoy me. What did Santa Direct ever do to her? She didn’t even care about Christmas before she married me. “Maybe you’re right,” I say. “I’ll be outside if you need me.” I take my hands off her shoulders and go to the back door.
“Your mother and sister will be here soon,” she says. “Are you going to shower?”
I pretend not to hear the question and step into the cool, bright morning.
The winter sky here is so blue that you think you’re in a western movie. There aren’t any big trees to get in the way of it, just one- and two-story pink brick houses, and the pink sets off the blue so nicely you think God planned it this way. For a moment I don’t think of Krampus or Santa Direct or even my father. Then I smell the reindeer. My neighbor is in his yard pouring woodchips into his smoker. Does he smell it, I wonder? I scan my own yard for anything suspicious before saying hello.
“Merry Christmas,” he says over his shoulder to me. My neighbor is a real Texas type who insists on smoking meat for Christmas dinner. His children come from all around like pilgrims, with spouses and children of their own. I don’t know how they fit into his house. He’s from Killeen or someplace like that, German or Czech. I remember my father saying that Germans—Huns, he called them—know about four things: clocks, cars, Christmas, and murder. I wrap my hands over the top of the chain-link fence and rest my chin on them, watching him spread the wood chips around with a metal spatula.
“Can I ask you a question?” I say.
“Shoot,” he says, patting the woodchips.
“Do you know anything about Krampus?”
“That’s a name I haven’t heard in a while.” He closes the smoker and puts his hands on his hips, one of them still holding the spatula. “My granddaddy, he grew up in Germany. Whenever he came up for Christmas and we hollered or carried on, he told us that Krampus would come down the chimney instead of Santa—St. Nikolaus, rather. He told us about how Krampus whipped children with a stick or some such thing. My mother, she didn’t tolerate that sort of talk.”
“Did Krampus ever come?” I ask.
My neighbor gives me a queer look. “Tough Christmas?” he says. His face, with its chubby wrinkles and shaggy gray hair, is full of sympathy. He knows I lost my job, and his wife brings us pies and trays of lasagna. I can’t bear to look at him and turn to my own yard. I put my hands on my hips and lean back, as if surveying it.
“I’m cooking three racks,” he says behind me. “You and Lydia and the kids are welcome to join us later.”
“Thank you,” I say. I listen to him hang his spatula on the smoker and pad across the dried grass to his back door. After I hear it open and close, I sit down in a white plastic chair. I’m beginning to shiver when Tim comes out of the house.
“Dad!” he says. “Grandma called to say there’s traffic on the toll way.” He looks at me from the gray square of concrete that serves as our back patio, rocking from foot to foot because it’s cold. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I say, “just tired.”
“Mom wants you to take a shower.” He pauses. “What did we get Grandma and Karen?”
I look at him. He’s stopped rocking. “What did Santa get them, you mean?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “because it’s Santa.”
He looks at me for a moment before retreating into the house, silent as an animal. I get up and follow.
The house is strangely dark because the lights are out and the fat Christmas tree is blocking the front window. It feels empty. Where has Tim gone, I wonder? My wife, I imagine, is changing clothes in our bedroom. Is Emma with her?
“Daddy,” whispers a tiny voice. I feel something on my shoe. I look down and there’s a little hand poking out from under the tablecloth. I lift up the cloth to see Emma crouched like a bear, still in her nightshirt.
“What’s wrong, sweetie? Why are you down there?”
Silently, she points a finger straight up. “Krampus,” she whispers.
The name makes me cold again, as if the word itself has tossed me into a frozen river, me and the rest of the naughty children. My heart drums in my ears, and my throat feels like someone is squeezing it. I whisper, “He’s upstairs?”
I briefly consider taking the chef’s knife from the magnetic rack over the sink, or the fire poker from by the fireplace, but in the end I walk through the living room, past the twinkling Christmas tree and the scattered toys, empty-handed. At the base of the stairs I make eye contact with the short wooden Santa Claus. I hear something like paper being wadded up, and a long dry creak. I quietly mount the carpeted stairs. Step by step I ascend. Near the top, I hear breathing. Somewhere between belief and disbelief I imagine Krampus waiting around the corner with a bloody birch branch, and I imagine my father straightening his Christmas necktie before he comes down the stairs. I compose my face, ridding it of fear. If it’s my father, I want him to see me calm and assured, a man who’s willing to protect his family, to do what he can for them even if he doesn’t have money. But I’m careful not to bunch up my eyebrows or frown, because I want him to know how much I love him. Cresting the stairs and turning the corner with my arms spread, with that calculatedly placid expression on my face, I must look like a chubby, balding Jesus Christ. Because when my wife sees me, she drops the bag of sticks.
At first, I think she must have gathered the sticks from our presents and put them in a bag to be disposed of. But there are too many sticks in the bag, and the bag is clear and square like shrink-wrapping. It has a label on it written in florid German script. And she’s standing on the first step of the creaky attic staircase, which folds down from the ceiling. She’s taking the sticks into the attic. To use them again next year?
“I’m sorry,” she says. Her voice is defiant. I half expect her to continue, “but you’re a grown man and this is how it is.”
I nod. Has she been Santa Direct all along, like my father before her? It’s easy to imagine him putting her up to it. He only met her a few times and was barely able to sit through the wedding, embarrassed by his oxygen tank, but he told me how much he liked the look of her. She reminded him of his girl cousins in Italy, with her black hair and elegant arms and tendency to curse in a full voice. He must have seen in her the strange and hidden strength to be the architect of an elaborate, unending lie. “Nothing untoward about it,” he would have said. “The boy just loves Christmas.” The unspoken message would have been, ‘I’m dying; don’t let Christmas die too.’
Standing before her, I see the same strength. She keeps pushing up her sleeves and pulling her hair back from her face—anything not to look at me. I take her hand, kick the bag of birch branches out of the way, and pull her towards me. She reaches her arms under my mine, up my back, and grips me with her hard fingers. I feel the weight of her as she presses her face into my neck, crying now.
“I wanted you to hate it,” she says. “I could have just blown it off this year, but I wanted you to hate Santa Direct. Your father gave me money for it, but—” She stops, as if by implicating my father she has gone too far.
“I understand,” I say, and I think I do. My father gave her money, but with money so tight now there are better ways to use it. She’s right. I suppose I’m relieved that my father isn’t haunting us, even by way of his money running out. My mind is full of questions like who is the man in the voice message and where do the reindeer come from, and I struggle not to ask her. I concentrate on running my fingers through her hair and kissing the top of her head. She whispers on and on about how she’s sorry and how maybe there is Christmas magic but it’s in our hearts.
“Mom and Dad!” Tim shouts, coming up the stairs. “Grandma and Aunt Karen are here!” He stops a safe distance from us and waits until we follow him down the stairs into the living room, where Emma is showing Karen her toys, and my mother is sitting on the couch in the Christmas-themed Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt my father got her as a joke.
“You’re in your underwear,” my mother says to me.
I nod. “I’ll get y’all a drink in a minute, but first there’s something I want to show you in the back yard. Emma and Tim, you too.”
Everyone stands up to follow me. My mother gives me the usual incredulous look—you’re even weirder than your father, it says—but I don’t mind. I lead them into the yard. There are three unkempt evergreen bushes in the farthest corner, a magnet for Frisbees and balls.
“It smells like dog back here,” my mother says. “You didn’t buy a dog, did you?”
I walk onto the brown grass, but the rest of them remain behind on the cement, as if the yard is the haunted woods of a fairy tale. I wave them towards me. Tentatively, they step onto the grass. Tim is closest to me, and when I pull back the rightmost evergreen bush he gasps. Buried in the branches are the powerful hindquarters of the reindeer and its once fluffy tail. Together Tim and I pull the tarp and slide the big animal out from its hiding place. Before, I closed its eyes and its mouth, so its tongue wouldn’t be hanging out. It looks peaceful, as if it’s sleeping. All of us stand in a circle around it. Even my mother is silent. I can tell my wife is looking at the fence and not the reindeer. I gather she rented it, just like every year, and feels responsible for its fate. I take her hand and squeeze it before I sink to my knees.
I can’t quite say what I’ve got in my head at this point, but I put my hands on the animal’s chest and close my eyes. The surface is so bristly that it stings my palms, but beneath that, beneath the stinging, coarse fur, there’s nothing. The blood is still, no doubt pooling at the bottom, unstirred by its big dead heart. Were I a doctor I might have massaged that heart, but instead I think of Christmas and of Christmas magic. I visualize the words “Christmas magic” in my head and half expect the heart to shake beneath my hands as the blood is sucked into motion and the animal lurches back to life. Nothing happens, of course. When I rise, I tell my family I was praying for it. My mother crosses herself. My wife runs three steps towards me and wraps her arms around me, nearly crying again. Emma hugs her leg.
“Tim,” I say. “Get the shovels.”
My mother makes a gagging sound. “You can’t bury an animal in your backyard.”
“It’ll be a good father–son activity.”
Tim nods like a soldier and runs into the house.
With my wife wrapped around me and my mother shaking her head and muttering, I find myself watching Karen. My sister never married, and her arms are crossed girlishly as she stares at the reindeer. She hasn’t stopped staring at it since the moment I pulled back the evergreen bush, and she alone may understand the significance of this burial. After all, he was her father too.