A Christmas Panzer
GEORGE TURNED INTO his neighborhood, with the box of
his belongings on the seat next to him. He drove past inflated Christmas
globes that looked like incubators. There was a giant Frosty the
Snowman, St. Nick, and a few penguins. George didn’t care for the
inflatables with the pneumatic pumps and the flaccid plastic on the
snow like giant rubbers.
He had come to accept the smiling pumpkins lolling on their
tethers and even a few turkeys during Thanksgiving after they had
moved out of the neighborhood bordering the city five years ago. His
country home with the wraparound porch swung into view. It was a
Victorian built around the turn of the century, and the Realtor had
almost not shown it to him. It’s too old, she had told him. George
reminded her they were moving from Park Ridge, a community of
old homes, and she had stubbed her cigarette and shrugged. “It’s
George slowed to look at his lights. Two weeks ago he had lined
the entire roofline with fat Christmas bulbs like his dad used to do
when he was a kid. Most people in the neighborhood had their homes
professionally decorated, but George took pride in the multicolored
lights running up to the peak, the icicle lights bordering his porch, the
swirled twinkles around his pines. He put a wreath on every window
and an electric candle in the center. His house was Christmas, and
he felt the hurt of the day subside.
George breathed deeply. He loved the Christmas rituals. They
had to buy their tree right after Thanksgiving and decorate it that
weekend, complete with the old G-Gauge Lionel train from when he
was kid. Then over the next three weeks they would go downtown to
Chicago and see the windows at Macy’s and then Santa. After that
they went ice skating on Michigan Avenue or had lunch at the Walnut
Room on the top of Macy’s. At some point they would go see the big
tree at the State of Illinois Center and catch Scrooge at the Goodman
Theatre or watch It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen at the Music
Then they would catch the lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo and
have a Christmas Eve dinner of fondue with chocolate. During all
of this, George made sure they watched the prerequisite Christmas
movies, Miracle on 34th Street (old version, noncolorized), White
Christmas, Holiday Inn, Christmas in Connecticut, Scrooge (1941
version with Alastair Sim), then the newer additions—Elf, National
Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and then the final movie, his all-time
favorite: A Christmas Story. George loved Christmas because it was
the only time he felt like a kid again. The rest of the year he felt like
an overburdened adult getting older with each passing year. But at
Christmas, he was young again.
George turned from his house to find a Panzer cannon pointed
at him. The cannon wobbled slightly in the wind and bobbed up and
down, then continued its sweep of the neighborhood. He watched
George Shanti’s inflatable warn all comers that Christmas would be
brought in with a Panzer. It was the inflatable that made you wonder
about the man. Why would anyone purchase a tank with a turret that
rotated and flashed Merry Christmas when it shot you?
He and George were neighbors in the classic Midwestern sense.
They waved and talked occasionally. They had found little to connect
on after mowers and rakes and grass seed. The inflatable Christmas
tank made its debut the year before, and George had vowed to take
it down. He had purchased a Daisy BB gun,( the same kind in the
movie A Christmas Story) and one night, after Mary and Megan were
snug in their bed, he had slipped out the back door and snuck down
to the three pines in his front yard.
From there George could see the tank very clearly. The night
was bitter cold and the electric pump worked to keep the tank inflated
and turning on its axis. The turret wobbled and jolted along
as George lay down in the snow like a GI in the Battle of the Bulge
and extended his BB gun out of the pines. He watched as the turret
rotated around and pointed directly at his house. Sometimes it got
stuck and bumped up and down as if taunting George.
George cocked his gun and lowered his eye to the site. He aimed
dead center on the tank and squeezed the trigger and heard the soft
thunk of the BB. The tank continued on its merry rotation, flashing
Merry Christmas with each shot. George listened and heard no hiss
of pressurized air. He cocked his rifle again and aimed at the center
of the tank . The soft thud of the BB hitting the polyethylene reached
him like a defeat. He then stood, like John Wayne with a Winchester,
and began to unload a volley of BBs, trying to find a weak spot where
the inflatable might give way. But the cold had turned the plastic
into a tank, rendering the BBs as harmless as summer gnats. George
emptied his gun and contemplated attacking the tank like a crazed
soldier who has run out of bullets, but realized Shanti would press
charges if he caught him. So the tank remained.
George sighed and pulled into his driveway, feeling his phone
vibrating in his chest. He glanced at the number and considered not
“You’re a hard guy to get hold of.”
George put his Prius in park and settled back into his parka.
“Yeah, well, a job and kids and Christmas will do that.”
“Kids! I thought you only had one kid.”
“Well, I do have another family.”
“Oh, well I don’t count them.”
“That’s great, Dad.”
“How’s the job?”
George paused. “Not so good … I got fired today.”
“Jesus! Fired! You got fired before Christmas! How the hell did
you manage that?!”
George shut his eyes and rubbed his brow. Leave it to his father
to put getting canned into the category of a choice. You opted to get
fired before Christmas? “I didn’t manage anything, Dad, but yes I got fired before Christmas.”
“How the hell did that happen?”
“They just pulled me in and told me I was fired.”
“But what happened? Were you drinking on the job? Were you
banging some broad in the office?”
George stared out of his fogged up windows. In his father’s world,
people only got canned for being a drunk or banging Betty the floozy
secretary. No one ever got canned for a bad economy, performance,
or because they just didn’t like you anymore.
“There’s a depression on, Dad.”
“This ain’t no depression! Let me tell you, I was a kid when there
was a depression and this ain’t no depression. You still got your house,
“Yes, I still have my house, Dad,” George said dully.
“Then it ain’t no depression, but seriously, son, what the hell
happened? This is your third job in six years!”
“Fourth in six years, Dad.”
“Fourth or fifth, does it matter?”
George really didn’t want to go down this road again. He felt kind
of stupid and silly for waving his ass in the air and barking. He had
to clean out his desk and office, with his coworkers staring at him.
He should have just flipped Mike Soros the bird and walked out.
“There were some political issues, Dad.”
“Political? What, they fired you because you were a Democrat?”
“Yeah, Dad. They fired me because I was a Democrat. Jesus!”
“Those dirty bastards!”
“There were performance issues, Dad.”
“Performance issues? What do you mean? When I worked for the
railroad, you just did the work. There was no performance involved.
When I was in that caboose testing the bridges after WWII, Floyd
Habersham and I were out there in the middle of nowhere and—”
George sighed. The story of his father going all over the country
in a railroad car with Floyd Habersham was legend. He had heard
many times how he tested every bridge in the country and big steam
locomotives backed onto the bridges to see if the steel would give
way. He was glad to hear the familiar beep in his ear of another call.
“And Floyd and I went all over the damn country—”
“Hold on, Dad. Hold on. I have another call.”
“Yes, hello, Jeremy,” George said, feeling the good tidings of his
“Dad! Everyone at college has a new car, and I just have that old
clunker you gave me.”
“I see. Is that a problem?”
His twenty-year-old son made a sound in his throat. “Yes, it’s a
problem, Dad. My car sucks! And Mom says it’s your fault that I don’t
have a good car because you won’t let her sell the house!”
George rubbed his eyes behind his glasses. “Now, that’s not true,
son. We can’t sell the house until the economy comes back.”
“Mom says you are a liar. That you live in a big house in the
country while we are in this shitbox!”
“She shouldn’t say that—”
“Hold on. Jamie wants to talk to you.”
George sat up in the car.
“Dad, I want an iPhone!”
George breathed heavily in his fogged over Prius. “Well, now,
you have a phone. I gave you my old BlackBerry and—”
“I don’t want your shitty old-man BlackBerry! I want an iPhone!”
“Mom says you have to get me one because you don’t pay her
“Well now, you are eighteen, and by law, I don’t have to pay that
anymore, but I do and your mother—”
“Dad, I’m a senior in high school!”
“I know honey, but—”
“It’s embarrassing not to have an iPhone and be a senior!”
George breathed heavily. His Prius was a steamed up capsule, and
he really wanted to forget about this day. “I’ll see what I can do—”
“Mom wants to talk to you.”
“Yes, Cynthia,” he said wearily.
“I didn’t get the check! It’s Christmas. I need money!”
“I sent it to you. You should have it today or tomorrow,” he re
“It better be here or so help me we are going back to court. It’s
bad enough you won’t let me get out of this shithole, but now you
stiff me on support!”
“Shithole,” George murmured. “So, that’s where Jeremy gets that.”
“He knows a shithole when he sees one. I could move on with
my life if you would let me sell this shithole!”
George rubbed his forehead.
“Cynthia, if you sold now you couldn’t pay off the note.”
“That’s your opinion! And I got a kid driving a beater and a daughter
who needs a phone while you’re out there in your perfect home
with your perfect family while we get screwed!”
George drew a small circle on his fogged over windshield.
“I’ll see what I can do for the kids.”
“That check better be here tomorrow, George, or I’m going to
The phone went dead and George paused, remembering his dad
was on the line still. He sighed and clicked over.
“What the hell? Did you forget about me? I would think you need
family now that you got canned.”
“Dad, I’ll call you later.”
George turned off his phone and got out of his car into the clear,
cold night. He stood in the drive, staring at the lights winking in his
pines. He felt some of the stress leaving. It was Christmas again. He
heard a slight whirr, a sliding of cold plastic, and turned. The Panzer
pointed at him and fired.
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STARRED REVIEW BOOKLIST
"If somebody doesn't make a movie out of this book, there's something wrong with the world. This could have been played as an out-and-out slapstick comedy, but instead the author approaches the story like a character study: a portrait of a man with the best intentions in the world watching those intentions collide with reality. It's a steamroller of a story, starting small, with George's idea, and getting bigger and bigger as George tries to put the elements together, as his obsession takes him further and further away from reality. Beautifully done."
David Pitts Booklist
"The author marries the everyday dramas found in the novels of Tom Perrotta and Nick Hornby to the high camp of Carl Hiaasen or Dave Barry.It's not as frenetic as Christopher Moore's The Stupidest Angel or as maudlin as all those holiday staples (read: A Christmas Story), but adults looking for a funny holiday-themed tale that doesn't lose its sense of wonder in the face of realism will find a treat here. A lovingly crafted comedy about the madness that fatherhood inspires."
"Hazelgrove's lively improbable narrative will appeal to the readers in the mood for holiday fiction."
"Charming...Hazelgrove has real compassion for his characters." Chicago Tribune