GEORGE STARED AT the countryside with the Christmas lights
twinkling red and green and blue and the distant homes across the
wetlands with their porch lights. He could see low-flying planes
rumbling overhead toward O’Hare airport and an early moon rising
over the trees. The wiry man with the short beard and squinty eyes
stood like he was on the ground and not straddling two ladders on
the lower roof.
“Well, you got two chimneys here and pretty creosoted up I might
add,” Joe of Joe Williams Chimney Repair said with his voice hollowing
down the blackened sleeve. “When was the last time you cleaned this
baby?” Joe pulled his head out from the chimney.
“I never did,” George replied, grasping the chimney like a man
hugging a life preserver .
“You know, usually homeowners don’t come up on the ladder.”
George looked down at the roof below. “No … No, I have to get
used to this,” he muttered.
“You do, huh?”
George swallowed and took a deep breath.
“Yes. So how feasible is it to widen these chimneys?”
Joe stared back down into the snout.
“Well, looks wide enough for the smoke to go up, but you said
you are looking to make it bigger?”
George kept his hands on the roughened brick. He was beginning
to get used to the height. This was good. He would have to learn to
be calm this high up. The thought that he would lift himself to the
top of the chimney and go down it seemed unbelievable.
“Yes. I want to make it as large as possible.”
Joe leaned over further.
“Like I said, I don’t really see the need for making it bigger, friend.”
“I need to make it bigger so I can go down the chimney.”
Joe shut one eye, pulling himself high above the chimney.
“You want to go down the chimney, you mean like Santa Claus?”
George nodded to the man plastered against the star-filled night.
“I want to go down the chimney with gifts and then come back up.”
Joe spat some of the Skoal swelling his lip.
“Are you joking me?”
George shook his head.
“No. What will it take to make this chimney big enough for me
go down it with a sack of presents and then come back up?”
Joe stuck his head back into the dark maul of the chimney.
“Well, now … have to get rid of this wall here,” he echoed into
the sooty cavern. “Have to break up the wall of the chimney … yep,
probably best thing to do would be to break down the adjoining wall
between the two chimneys.”
Joe looked up.
“But I never done nothin’ like that before.”
“Are you saying you can’t?”
“I ain’t saying that. Times being what they are, I’ll do anything.”
“I need this ready to go by Christmas Eve.”
Joe put his head back in the chimney. “Well,” his voice hollowed
out. “Best thing to do would be to jackhammer the chimney and just
work your way down. Hell of a mess, but once I got the wall out I
could chip the walls to make sure you had enough room, ’course you
couldn’t use it. It would have to be repaired and put back together.”
Joe popped back out. “Going to cost you some.”
“How much to make it big enough for me go down this chimney?”
“Well, unless you gain a bunch of weight … hmm. I figure it’s
going to take a full week of hitting it every day … hell, I don’t know.
I hate to peg it, but if you push me, I reckon I could do it for five
George felt his breath leave. In the space of one day he had blown
fifteen thousand dollars. Dean had asked for seed money to get the
digital projectors (“They are two thousand a piece, mate, just to rent
them.”) and let him know it could be more. He nodded. “Done.”
Joe stuck his head back down the chimney and sneezed. “You
don’t use them too much do you?”
“Not too much.”
Joe shook his head. “It’s going to be noisy as hell and one hell of
George thought of Mary. Things were escalating, and the fifty-
thousand-dollar equity line could be sucked dry quickly. It wasn’t
so different from working with contractors on projects he designed.
There were always problems and cost overruns. Mary would just have
to trust his judgment on this.
“Fine.” He nodded. “Let’s just get it done.”
Joe rolled his tongue against his cheek.
“You mind if I ask yer something?”
“It’s my daughter. She’s nine and is questioning Santa Claus. I
want to prove to her there is a real Santa Claus.”
Joe nodded slowly. “So yer going to be Santa Claus and go on
down this chimney?”
Joe belched and moved the wad in his mouth.
“My daddy would have never done that for me, I can tell you.”
“Nor mine, but that’s why I need you to get this chimney ready.”
“How you fixing on going down?”
“Rope-and-pulley system. Much the same as a mountain climber.
I’ll rappel down.”
“What about coming back up?”
“I’m going to have two men pull me up.”
Joe shoved his head down in the opening again. “You know, I
might be able to put some rungs in there for you to hang on to if I
have space or maybe some footholds in the brick.”
“If it works, that would be great.”
Joe popped up with a cigarette in his mouth. George marveled at
the way he cupped his lighter, not hanging on to anything. He looked
out over the snow-darkened landscape.
“This will be a first for me.”
George nodded and felt snow spray from the brick flashing. “Me
too,” he muttered.
“What happens if you get stuck in there?”
“I hope it won’t happen.”
“Chimneys ain’t straight. They move around, but I’ll give you
enough room so you won’t get stuck in there.”
“I appreciate it.”
Joe looked out over the countryside, elbows on the chimney. The
winter night suddenly froze around them and a half-moon creased
the darkness like a pearl.
“Santa Claus,” he said, looking across the top of the world. “Don’t
that beat all.”
Real Santa....one man armed with snow machines, digital projectors, and nine reindeer
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. 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."
Best-selling author Hazelgrove (e.g., Ripples; Tobacco Sticks) captures the human need to believe in something good. This book will satisfy readers looking for a happy Christmas story.-- Library Journal
"Hazelgrove's lively improbable narrative will appeal to the readers in the mood for holiday fiction."