The old man walks with practiced ease on the spine of the roof and stops in front of the glowing plastic Santa. The offending decoration has a small bulb threaded through a hole in its back. Its unnaturally large baby blue eyes glow manically over cheeks painted a garish red. The old man pulls a cigarette from behind his ear and lights it with a battered Zippo. The lighter snaps shut with flick of his wrist before he shoves it back into his canvas jacket. He leans an elbow on the hollow figurine and survey’s the neighborhood. The house next door is boarded up. Bass thumps from its basement, making the plywood nailed over the broken windows vibrate. Even with six inches of fresh snow on the ground he smells moldering wood and garbage. After a last drag, he crushes the cigarette butt against Santa’s snub nose. He tucks his hands into his jeans and kicks the figurine into the ally between the track houses.
A chuckle turns into a cough as he turns and gives the reindeer a stern look. Their breath hangs in the fridge air in white puffs. They watch him with soft black eyes, their ears forward. The old man sighs and walks back to the sleigh. A manifest hangs on the sleigh’s side door. He checks it before pulling a present from the back. It’s wrapped in dingy green paper that is slightly crumpled. A bow with frayed ends is smashed on top. He pats one of the reindeer on the rump as he waddles past.
“Remind me to tell operations to stop using this paper. It’s depressing.” He says. His voice is raspy from the cold and chain smoking.
He walks back to the chimney and stands in the bare spot left in the snow where the glowing Santa had been. He squints down the cold stack and stabs his earpiece with a chubby finger. “Really? Haven’t I done enough of these tonight?”
“Yes sir. I know. But it’s not really about the number. It’s a matter of protocol.” The voice on the other end replies.
“Protocol.” The old man grunts as he tosses the present down the flue. He pulls the International Harvester baseball cap over his eyes. “I hate this part.” He says. His ponderous backside presses against the edge of the chimney. He hitches up his jeans under his protruding stomach. Closing his eyes, he leans back letting himself fall into the opening that is too small to take him. His body stretches like warm rubber as its being pulled down. A sucking noise grows louder until it ends with a champagne bottle “pop!”. Snow shoots from the stack like confetti.
The reindeer are quiet. Blitzen stomps his hoof to dislodge a painful snow pack. “Wait for it.” He mutters as they stare at the chimney.
“Damn!” echoes up the stack. The reindeer look at one another and burst into laughter.
“I love that part.” Comet says shaking his head.
“Is it just me or has the old man put on thirty pounds?” Dancer asks rolling his shoulders.
Donner turns and glares at Vixen, Cupid and Dasher. “Hey guys don’t worry about the entire right side of the sleigh. I got it. Ok. Just take it easy back there.”
“What?” All three ask at the same time, giving him an innocent look.
“I know your lazy asses have been drafting for the last, oh, what? Six or seven hundred miles.”
“Oh, come on Thunder.” Cupid says. “Maybe you’re just getting a little long in the antler for this run.”
“Don’t call me Thunder.” Donner says. “You’re such as ass.”
“Your momma’s an ass.” Cupid replies.
“Enough!” Dancer calls from the back. “Everyone’s pulling their own Donner, so quit bitching. Cupid you are an ass. I can’t speak for your mother.”
“How many Santa’s does that make?” Comet asks. He cranes his neck to see the shatter pieces of the plastic Santa.
“Ten-thousand six-hundred and seventeen.” Prancer replies.
“Eighteen.” Dasher corrects. “You forgot the one in
“What? That doesn’t count.” Prancer says. “He clipped it with the sleigh.”
“It counts.” Blitzen says. “That puts Cupid ahead in the dead Santa pool. The old man really hates that suit.”
“How many years has it been since Coca-Cola put him in that suit? Eighty? Let it go.”
“Screw Coke. Did you see the commercial last year? They had him dancing around with polar bears.” Vixen shivers. “Polar bears. Can you imagine? And penguins, smelly little runts.”
“What’s going on?” Rudolf asks.
“Nothing Rudy. We’re talking about soda.” Vixen replies.
Comet asks under his breath. “How long has he been out of rehab?”
“Don’t forget the laugh.” Cupid says. “The old man hates the ho-ho-ho shtick.”
“Jolly, my furry backside.” Blitzen says.
“Speaking of your backside, Blitz.” Vixen gives Blitzen’s rump a shove. “What have you been eating? You’re peeling the felt off my antlers.”
“Is that why you’ve been using ‘felt-in-a-can’?” Prancer asks, giving Vixen a wink.
“I do not touch up my antlers.” Vixen sniffs. “Some of us are just born with naturally thick felt. Jealous much?”
“Doc put me on a high fiber diet. It’s not my fault.” Blitzen replies.
“Nice. You couldn’t lay off for twenty-four hours until we’re finished?” Vixen asks.
“Shut up!” Dasher shouts. “Can’t we go one year without you two bitching at each other? Or all the backbiting?”
“Geesh.” Vixen mumbles, looking him up and down. “What his problem?”
Cupid whispers. “His mate ran off with a caribou from the highlands.”
“Oh yeah? I know some highland caribou. What’s his name?”
“Monica.” Cupid replies.
“Monica?” Vixen frowns. Oh, Monica. He mouths, arching his eyebrow.
Cupid rolls his eyes.
“Hang tough, bro” Vixen nods at Dasher.
“Incoming!” The old man yells. The drab green present sails through the air and lands on the roof.
Dancer breaks formations and steps to the edge.
The old man climbs up a trellis using no small amount of Christmas magic to hold the rotting wood together.
“Give me a hand, will ya?” He swings a leg over the guttering and reaches up. Dancer presents him with an antler and grits his teeth as he drags the old man up.
“Whew!” He lands his back and wheezes. “Next time I’ll just take the chimney.”
The old man presses his earpiece again. “Knut? Get me the guy in charge of distribution and statistics? What’s-his-face?”
“Huh, Todd, sir?”
“Right, Todd. Patch me through to him.” The old man catches his breath. He slowly rolls to his feet and pats Dancer on the neck. “Thanks D.” He drops the batter green present into the back of the sleigh.
“Yes sir?” Todd’s voice quivers.
The old man smiles.
“Todd? Listen son, I know you’ve never been in the field, so I’m going to cut you some slack. I’m not giving this kid a pack of Uno cards. I was thinking more of an Xbox or maybe a PS3.”
“You understand what?” He asks patting down his jacket for the Zippo as another cigarette dangles from his snowy beard.
“Statistically speaking, the probability this kid’s dad will pawn any gift with a value greater than $25.00 is 86.3%.”
“First, the kid’s name is Michael. I know his dad’s a tweaker. I just came from the dump he lives in.” The old man kicks at a loose shingle.
“That’s not all, sir. There’s a 56.7% probability that Michael will commit his first felony within the next 365 days.”
“He’s nine.” He says, incredulous
“Yes, sir. It’s unfortunate, but—”
“So we’re withholding a gift for something he might do?” The old man paces waving the unlit cigarette. He looks over at the reindeer. Their ears are plastered to their heads, nostrils flared. “Easy boys, it’s just a discussion.” He thumps Vixen’s side.
“Sir you put this task force together for exactly this kind of thing.” Todd replies. “You said yourself that it was getting too complicated, that we needed a way to simplify the good/bad policy, to make it more cut and dry.”
“Well this is just horse shit.” The old man flicks the cigarette into the alley where the broken Santa rests. He growls as he fumbles with the earpiece trying to turn it off. Todd’s voice fades as the small phone sails into the alley.
He sits down in the sleigh. Its ancient springs creak and groan under the weight. He stares at the northern star and absentmindedly flicks the top of his lighter. The reindeer wait for the signal for takeoff.
“Screw it. He’s getting the Xbox. The kid’s a walking heartbreak. There were saltines with jelly and half a glass of ice tea left for me. He wants to believe.” He looks around and grunts. “Needs to.” He rummages through the presents and finds one with silver paper that shines in the moonlight. “If he tries, I do to.”
“I’ll be right back.” He climbs out of the sleigh. The present clutched to his chest as he makes his second trip down the chimney.
“Damn it!” His voice echoes. No laughter this time. The reindeer stand with their heads high and chests out waiting for the old man to finish this year’s run.