GEORGE STARED AT the electric candle in his window. It had
been burning all night in his bedroom, and he checked every thirty
minutes to see if the yellow glow had dimmed by horizon light. But it
was just three AM. His parents had tucked him into bed seven hours
before and then gone down the stairs. He had lain awake, willing
himself to fall asleep, but he just couldn’t. So he stared at the candle
and imagined it as a beacon for Santa and his sleigh. Several times
he went to the window to look at the sky, examining the clouds for
a big man with a beard and reindeer.
Then he heard something. He wasn’t sure if he had imagined
the hard steel runner of a sleigh touching down on the roof. George
jumped up and went to his window, a boy lit by a solitary candle on
a snowy city street. He tried to crane his neck and see where Santa
must have landed, because that was where the chimney was. He threw
up the window, inhaling an Arctic blast of Chicago night air. George
stuck his head out and looked up on the roof. The dormer eaves of
his window kept him from being able to see the chimney.
He pulled his head in and ran to his desk, pulling out the Kodak
Instamatic he had squirreled away for this moment. George went
back to the window and held the camera up over the eave, shooting
a cube flash into the night. Then he pushed the window down, feeling
the biting cold still on his face and hands. Several crystals of ice were
on the hardwood of his bedroom. He crept to the door and walked
out into the hallway. He listened.
There was someone down in the living room. Even up on the third
floor he could hear the sound of someone walking. His father had
told him a month ago that Santa would implode on reentry when he
had asked if there really was a Santa. He had stared at George and
frowned with the slide ruler in his top pocket, taking off his glasses.
“Think about it, George. You know those astronauts with a heat shield
in their capsule? Imagine them without that heat shield. They would
be French fries. Besides, the g-force would make Santa combust like
an overboiled egg.”
It had taken him a good two weeks to reason his father had not
said there wasn’t a Santa Claus. He had just said the physics behind
Santa Claus didn’t add up. He had done some reading himself and
reasoned his father could be wrong. Santa might not go up in the
atmosphere and might fly at lower altitudes. His father was just being
cranky, he concluded. Besides, he now had a picture that would prove
his father and all the other doubters wrong. And now he would get
George crept down the stairs to the first floor, passing outside his
parents’ darkened doorway. He paused and heard the rhythmic low
snoring of his mother. His parents were asleep, and Santa was down
in their den where the fireplace was. He felt the excitement in the pit
of his stomach. No one he knew of had ever taken a picture of Santa
Claus. He would publish it worldwide and start by sending it to the
Chicago Tribune. Surely they would put his picture on the front page.
George made the last turn, holding on to the banister like a man
holding on to a dock. After this, he was going into history. He checked
his camera and saw the glowing orange light. His flash was charged,
and he had advanced the film. He placed one bare foot ahead of the
other on the cold oak boards. His father kept the furnace low at night,
and George shivered but he thought it was from nerves as much as a
fifty-nine degree setback. He carefully placed his toes on the floor, trying
to minimize the creaks and gasps of the hundred-year-old joists.
George heard Santa’s breathing. He sounded like a man laboring
up a hill. Well, of course he was tired! He had probably been up and
down hundreds maybe thousands of chimneys. George didn’t know
how old Santa was, but he had to be over fifty. He probably wasn’t in
the greatest of shape with that big belly. George saw the light spilling
from the den into the hallway. The breathing was louder and he heard
the tinkling of metal striking metal.
George raised up his camera and positioned his finger on the top.
He had to be ready because Santa might just shoot up the chimney.
The breathing was loud, and he thought he heard a muffled shit followed
by another muffled dammit. Santa curses! He wish he had a
tape recorder, but the pictures would be enough. He would soon be
famous as the boy who proved the existence of Santa Claus!
George turned into the den and heard an even clearer, “Jesus
Christ. Do they have to make these bolts so damn tiny?”
He paused in the doorway with his heart pounding in his ears,
then peered into the den and saw a formless shape by the fireplace.
There was only the one light on. George saw the Christmas tree and
piles of presents around the base. He’s already left the presents! That
meant all he had to do was go back up the chimney. George hunched
over behind the couch, and again he heard the low cussing: “Piece of
Japanese shit … Japs really screwed us with these …” So even Santa’s
toys were made in Japan! He had to get the picture now before it was
too late. George gave himself a count. One … two … three!
He jumped into the den, swung up his camera, and pressed the
His father jumped straight up like someone had shot him.
“What the … ?!”
Santa was blinded, and George had his picture for all time—a
disgruntled parent in the middle of the night trying to tighten the last
bolt on a Schwinn bicycle. His father recovered, holding the crescent
wrench out like a scepter.
“What the hell are you doing up?” he roared.
George stared at his old man. “Dad!”
“Who the hell else do you think is down here in the middle of
George shrugged, feeling his face warm.
“I, I, I thought you were Santa.”
His father frowned. “Whadaya, nuts? I told you there ain’t no god
damn Santa! Now get the hell to bed so I can get to bed,” he shouted.
George turned and walked up the stairs silently. He cried himself
to sleep and got up late the next morning, causing his mother to feel
“He always was up at the crack of dawn before,” she murmured
His father never said a word about their nocturnal meeting and
neither did he. But George developed the picture and kept it in his
dresser drawer for years. It was now the faded photo of a tired fortysomething
man with a crescent wrench. George tied the end of his
childhood to that picture. And maybe Mary was right. Maybe he was
trying to put the genie back in the bottle for that ten-year-old boy.
Maybe that’s why he went into his bedroom and slipped the picture
into the pocket of his Santa suit.
REAL SANTA...Holiday Special .99