Here it is, the third and final of my new Christmas short stories for this year. Short, however, is a term I use loosely for this tale. It does run a bit long, but it’s only as long as it needs to be to tell the story..
Again, I fall back on my Santa theme this year as I pay tribute to my late mother, although this story shows a different side of my writing. Sometimes, I write dark, somewhat offbeat tales such as the aforeposted “Santa’s Worse Stop” and “An Inconvenient Christmas”. Sometimes, however, I delve into the realm of uplifting emotion and hope I don’t get any on me. Part of me is Stephen King, part of me is Nicholas Sparks. What can I say other than I hope you enjoy “The Many Santas of Shepherd’s Hollow”?
I hope anyone reading this has an enjoyable Christmas and the promise of a wonderful new year.
ETA: Due to the length of this piece, I added a cut at the bottom of this entry. Just click where it says “Read the rest” and it will show you, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.
THE MANY SANTAS OF SHEPHERD’S HOLLOW
The snow began December 23rd, flurries sliding in from the west as though they were ordered especially for the holiday. White Christmases were rare in central Kentucky and the gray skies with their white flakes offered the first promise of one in years. Children looked out their windows and smiled, pointing and declaring with the authority granted to them during the holidays that this year, finally, there would be snow on Christmas Day.
Their parents also looked out the windows. They did not smile. They had seen the weather forecasts and knew what was coming.
Becky Garrison had not seen the weather. Waiting tables at the only restaurant in Shepherd’s Hollow, she had overheard vague conversation about the weather, but there was always such talk at the Corner Café. Old farmers and older retired farmers, deep into their sixth refill of free coffee, sat at the small tables all the time and talked about the weather, the tobacco crop, deer hunting, and the occasional Kentucky basketball game. Becky only paid attention to the basketball talk, the rest fading into a dull drone that formed the soundtrack of her working day.
“Jim,” Becky called to the kitchen as she pulled off her apron, “you need anything else before I take off?”
Jim Cantrell, wearing a grease-stained Santa hat instead of his usual grease-stained chef’s hat, looked up at her. He smiled at her, the warmth of it a bittersweet reminder of her father, dead of lung cancer the previous April. Jim had been her employer since high school and the only man she really trusted since Robbie had left her, four months pregnant with his child, to go to college out west.
“No, hun, you go ahead,” Jim said. “You and Beth have a good Christmas and be careful.”
“I will. Thanks.”
Becky tossed her dirty apron into a cloth bag beside the kitchen door, spun on her coat, and made for the front with a casual wave at the last four customers in the restaurant, all regulars she had known since childhood. Thee of them returned her wave, throwing in a “Merry Christmas” along with it, but the fourth, the oldest of the group, stood up and motioned for her to wait.
“Hold on, Becky, before you go,” Mr. Cosley said. A withered-looking man in his mid-eighties, Mr. Cosley looked even smaller in his tan coveralls, zipped halfway down to reveal his customary v-neck tee beneath, and his heavy, insulated boots. He hobbled through the tables and chairs to Becky, reached in his pocket, and pulled out a fifty. “You can’t leave without your tip.”
Becky stared at the money, but didn’t move to take it. “Mr. Cosley,” she said, her voice low, “that’s a fifty. I think you grabbed the wrong bill in your—“
“Ain’t the wrong bill, either,” the old man said. He reached out and stuffed the bill into Becky’s reluctant fingers. “You take it and have a good Christmas with that little girl of yours.”
Tears stung the corner of Becky’s eyes and she did the only thing she could to keep the sweet old man from seeing them, wrapping her arms around his shrunken shoulders and kissing him on the cheek. She held him there for a moment until she was sure her voice would work properly.
“Thank you,” she said. “And Merry Christmas to you.”
She kissed Mr. Cosley again, smiling as the pasty skin of his ears turned bright red, and waved again at the others before nearly dancing out the door into the parking lot.
Outside, Becky realized for the first time that it was snowing. Her mood higher than it had been in some time, she stood and watched the bits of white drift down, swirling in the yellow lights of the parking lot. Night had fallen, still and quiet in the small town.
Becky found her car, an older model Toyota, covered in a light dusting off snow and brushed off her windshield, not minding the cold bite on the exposed skin of her hand. She worked fast, only clearing off enough to drive safely the few miles to her home, and sat down in the car, flexing her frozen fingers as she dug her keys out of her purse. The car started on the fifth try and as it idled, she reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out the wad of cash. Singing along with a Bon Jovi song on the radio, she smoothed out the bills and laid them into stacks on the passenger seat, organizing them by denomination. Then, she started with the fifty Mr. Cosley had just given her and counted the stacks, her spirits rising as the total rose to and past what she had hoped to save by today.
Yes, she decided, it would be enough.
Tucking the money back into her jeans pocket, Becky put the car in gear and pulled onto the quarter mile of Highway 650 that became Main Street as it passed through Shepherd’s Hollow. The street, like her car, wore a blanket of white marred only by a few sets of tire tracks that were already starting to disappear under the steady accumulation of powder. Becky traveled slow, her headlights soon replacing the street lamps as the only source of illumination on the two-lane road out of town. Her father, a truck driver until the illness took hold, had taught her how to handle slick roads and she felt no fear as she handled the curves and rolling hills, only a cautious confidence that she would make it home to her Beth.
The radio station came out of commercial and the DJ started the weather forecast. Becky reached down, her eyes locked on the road, and switched stations until she found Kenny Chesney and joined him in a mid-song duet.
Reaching her turn, Becky did as her father had instructed and began braking very early, allowing the car to come to a near stop on the icy road before allowing it to coast onto the gravel road. Even with such caution, the Toyota’s back end slid a bit as she turned, causing Becky to stop singing abruptly and grip the wheel tighter, even as her foot automatically let off the gas to allow the vehicle to correct itself. The back tires caught traction again and, reaching the relative safety of the gravel, dug in for a better grip.
Becky lifted her voice again, joining Kenny for the last chorus and singing along with Reba as she sang about a girl named Fancy. “Fancy” was one of Becky’s all-time favorites, the story of a young girl living a life of poverty who rises up, through sacrifice and hard work, to a life of luxury. The song gave Becky hope, something, like money, that a single mother working at a local diner rarely had in surplus.
But as she pulled into her driveway, the lights of her rented trailer winking through the increasing snowfall, she had just over two hundred dollars in her pocket and the kind of hope that only Christmas can bring.
She pulled the Toyota beside the Dodge pickup already in her driveway, the larger vehicle’s features all but vanished beneath the blanket of white. Doing a twirl in the gravel before she went inside, Becky placed a tentative foot on the first of the two steps leading up to the front door and, finding it slippery, grabbed the rail for support. The sound of laughter, unusual coming from her, accompanied Becky as she pulled her way up the steps and turned the door knob.
The trailer was small and old, but thanks to Becky’s knack of decorating on a tight budget, it felt cozy and inviting. She had strategically placed pieces of furniture, rugs, and pictures of Beth to cover up the various burns, stains, and holes left by the previous tenants. Instead of the smell of smoke and urine that had greeted her first visit to the place, the trailer now smelled of pumpkin spice and apple pie thanks to the aromatic candles she kept burning in the kitchen. This year, she had even placed a Christmas tree for the first time, a live one she had cut herself in the nearby woods and hauled back as a surprise for her daughter.
Beth met her at the door, her footie pajamas sliding on the snow-slick tile. Her hair, still damp from her bath, stuck to Becky’s frozen cheek in warm strands that seemed to radiate the love between them.
“I was starting to worry about you,” Paula said from the kitchen where she was finishing the dishes from dinner. “Roads look like they’re getting bad out there.”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Becky said, putting her daughter down. She looked at Beth as she took off her coat. “What was for dinner?”
“Fish sticks,” Beth beamed. They were her favorite, a staple Becky could count on at least three nights a week. “I ate nine.”
“Wow,” Becky beamed back, “that’s a lot.”
Beth held out her flannel-clad belly, leaning back so that it protruded as much as possibly against the snowman designs. “I know. Look.”
Becky reached down and rubbed her daughter’s belly. “Wow,” she repeated. “Now, you go get in bed and I’ll be in a few minutes to tuck you in.”
Beth took off in a sprint for her bedroom down the hall, Becky watching her go.
“She’s pretty excited about the snow,” Paula said, drying off her hands and reaching for her coat. “Can’t say that I second that emotion, but I remember being her age.”
Paula had been Beth’s sitter since Becky had been able to go back to work following childbirth. Her husband, a contractor, made more than enough money to support them, but Paula loved being around children and saw Becky’s situation as a perfect way to get out of the house and feel needed. To Becky, she was a saint who had been more than a blessing to her and her daughter, she had been like a wise older sister, one she could ask for advice and count on for whatever she needed. Paula had been there many nights in the beginning, mopping the tears from her eyes or the morning sickness from her lips, and she was still there, as much a part of their family as either of them.
Becky reached into her pocket and pulled out the wad of bills and thumbed through them as Paula came into the living room.
“You put that away,” Paula said.
“I told you I’d pay you today,” Becky protested.
“And I said put it away,” Paula said. Her tone made it clear that the matter was not open for debate.
“You use that money on Beth,” the older woman said. “You can make it up to me later.”
For the second time in less than an hour, Becky was rendered speechless by gratitude. She reached out and hugged Paula hard, kissing her cheek. This time, she did not try to check the tears that flowed down her still-red face. Paula had seen them enough to not be shocked by them.
“Thank you,” Becky told her.
“Merry Christmas, girl.”
They let go of each other and Paula opened the door to let herself out.
“Watch out for those steps,” Becky warned her, “and the roads. I fishtailed a little pulling onto the gravel.”
“I’ll be alright,” Paula said, using to handrail to slid down to the ground. “You shut that door so you don’t let all the heat out.”
Becky laughed and waved at her friend as she climbed into the big Dodge. She mostly shut the door, leaving open a crack while the big V-8 roared to life and the truck backed out into the road. She continued to watch it until the red tail lights were lost in the heavy snowfall and then she shut the door, locking it against the winter cold.
“Mommy!” came Beth’s voice from down the hall.
Becky slid off her wet shoes near the door and peeled off her damp socks as she hopped down the hall to her daughter’s bedroom.
Beth was in bed, her pink comforter piled on top of her like whipped topping on a sundae. Becky smoothed out her covers and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“You two have fun?” Becky asked.
Beth nodded. “We played Uno and watched Wheel of Fortune and I ate nine fish sticks.” To emphasize the point, she held up eight fingers, looked at the result, furrowed her brow, then added one more and held them out again.
Becky laughed again, unable to remember when she had felt more like doing so. After so many years of struggling, so many nights when everything in their lives seemed uncertain except for the constant fear that they would not have enough to survive, Becky finally felt like they were finding some traction, gaining some ground on that paralyzing terror that she was not the mother Beth deserved.
“Does Santa come tonight?” Beth asked, her eyes wide.
“Not tonight, honey. Tomorrow night.”
“And he’s bringing me presents?”
“Have you been good this year?”
Beth narrowed her eyes. “Mommy,” she said, as though she were the parent, “you know I’ve been good this year.”
“I know,” Becky agreed. “And I’m sure Santa knows, too. Now, you go to sleep and when you wake up, you’ll be one day closer to those presents.”
Beth closed her eyes and gave a mock snore.
Becky leaned over and kissed her daughter on the forehead, barely able to contain another outburst of mirth. “I’ll see you in the morning, you faker.”
Leaving her daughter’s room, Becky thought of going into the small living room and seeing what was on television, but her feet screamed at her from the cold and from being on duty all day, so she turned left into her own bedroom and shut the door. A few minutes later, she was in bed, thinking of all she had to do tomorrow. Even though the Corner Café was closed for the holiday, she had to drop Beth off at Paula’s so she could go to Wal-Mart and pick up the things on Beth’s Christmas list. The girl had not asked for much and, for the first time since they had been together, Becky could afford to get what she wanted.
She watched the snow falling outside as snuggled into her warm bed, thinking of how her daughter’s face would light up on Christmas morning.
Becky ignored the familiar little voice that called her name. Clutching her comforter closer to her chin, she rolled over and stayed asleep.
“Mommy,” the voice said again. This time, it was accompanied by a shaking of the bed and an insistent prodding of her left shoulder.
“What, baby?” she muttered, still unwilling to open her eyes.
“Mommy,” Beth said again. She was nearly breathless with enthusiasm. “Come look at the snow!”
“I’ve seen snow before.”
Beth tugged at the comforter. “Prolly not like this. There’s so much!”
Something pinged at Becky’s mind and she opened her eyes. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll come take a look. Then I’m getting back in bed.”
Beth jumped down and vanished out the door, her tiny feet thumping against the floor as she ran down the hall.
Becky looked up at the windows above her bed, but could see nothing through the thick glaze of condensation that had settled on them overnight. She rubbed her eyes and stood up, throwing her robe on as she slid her feet into a pair of white bunny slippers Beth had gotten for her, with Paula’s help, as a birthday present. She left her bedroom, passed her daughter’s, and turned into the bathroom. Again, the glass was frosted over, but she could see a lot of diffused white in the tiny dots of moisture clinging to it. She emptied her bladder, flushed, and went out into the living room.
Beth was standing on the couch, her little hands pulling apart the curtains so she could stare out through small space she had wiped clear on the window.
“Look, mommy,” she said. “Look outside.”
Becky yawned and went to the front door. She turned the knob and pulled, expecting to see an inch or two of snow, just enough to cover the ground and excite a five-year old into near hysterics. Instead, what she saw drove her to near hysterics, though not ones caused by excitement.
The flurries from the night before had grown into an impenetrable curtain of white. Snow flew sideways beyond the storm door, so thick that she could not see more than a foot or two beyond the frosting glass. The Toyota, which she knew to be no more than ten feet or so from the bottom of the front steps, was completely concealed by the maelstrom of snow. Now that she was more awake, she could hear the wind howling around the corners of the trailer, a baleful moan that Becky began feeling inside herself.
“Isn’t it great?” Beth asked from the couch. She was bouncing up and down on the cushions. “Can I go out and play in it?”
“No,” Becky said. The word came out sharper than she intended and Beth stopped bouncing.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?”
Becky looked outside again, her high spirits from the previous night draining out of her. She hit the latch of the storm door and tried to open it, but a drift of snow, nearly rising the two feet or so to the bottom pane of glass, held it back, forcing her to push hard to open it out over the top step. Snow blew in harder than rain and, in just a few seconds, formed a growing drift around her bunny slippers. A gusting wind seized the door and, if she had not been gripping it with such firmness, would have ripped it from her hand and likely off its hinges. She pulled hard, shutting the screen door with extreme difficulty, the aluminum base dragging in another pile of snow onto the small patch of tile at Becky’s feet.
“Why can’t I go out and play?” Beth asked.
Becky forced herself to smooth the edges off the word before she said it again.
“No, baby,” she said, closing her eyes. “Not right now.”
Beth, not a child given to tantrums, sank onto the couch and said nothing.
Becky went to the television and turned it on. A map of the region sat beneath the women of The View, all the counties shaded in white while the crawl beside it listed them alphabetically. Beneath the map were two words Becky never thought she’d see in rural Kentucky.
“Oh, my God,” Becky said as she stared at the television. She sank onto the couch next to her daughter and watched until the meteorologist broke in during the commercial break, talking about such things as a “state of emergency” and “impassable roads”.
Becky thought of the trip she had planned to Wal-Mart. She had intended to drop Beth off with Paula for an hour or so, head to the store fifteen miles away, and purchase everything she could for her daughter with the money she had saved, all of it to be placed around the tree that night, gifts from Santa for a good girl.
Now, however, there would be no trip to Wal-Mart. The fifteen miles might as well have been the distance to the North Pole. The Toyota could handle the rough roads and various hazards that came with normal driving in Kentucky, but her little car could not plow its way through two feet of snow.
Following her first impulse in a crisis, she went to the phone to call Paula. With her pickup, she might be able to get out and negotiate the roads, even in the deepening snow. When she picked up the handset and hit the “Talk” button, the line was dead. She tried again, and then a third time, all with the same result. Not only was she snowed in, Becky realized, she had no way to contact the outside world.
“Mommy?” Beth called from the couch. “What’s the matter?
“Nothing, baby,” Becky said. “Why don’t you put a movie in?”
Beth padded off to her room and, a moment later, came back with a thin DVD box in hand. The title, Becky saw as her daughter took the disc out, was “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.
Tears rolled down Becky’s cheeks as she watched her daughter insert the movie into the player.
“Not this year, baby.”
For most of the day, Becky stood at the kitchen window, staring out at the snowstorm. The wind continued to howl as the white flakes obliterated the world outside and her hope of providing the wonderful Christmas she wanted for her daughter. Tears streamed unchecked down her cheeks, dripping onto her bathrobe and into her coffee. She made oatmeal for Beth’s breakfast, then more fish sticks for lunch, eating nothing herself. Her stomach, she decided, would have to content itself with the awful feeling of dread that weighed inside her like stones.
Beth, for her part, tried to contain her excitement. Sensing her mother’s distress, she played movie after movie, all of them Christmas themed, and occasionally cast a worried look at her mother.
The wind let up near mid-afternoon and the snow stopped falling completely near dusk. Becky, allowing herself a thin sliver of hope, dressed in three layers, including a pair of coveralls she had received secondhand from Paula’s husband a few years earlier, and opened the door again. Pushing the storm door, she found the snow had drifted higher this time, pressing against the glass like a starving orphan outside a restaurant. She pushed again, inching the door open as she shoved the snow off the top step.
Beth, still in her pajamas, ran to her room and returned with her coat and a pair of snow boots.
“Can I go out, too?”
“No, baby,” Becky said. “Not right now. The snow’s too deep. You might fall in and I wouldn’t find you until spring.”
Beth laughed at the idea, then her mouth opened as she poked her head through the doorway and looked outside.
“Look at all the snow!”
“I know,” Becky said. “Now, go back inside where it’s warm.”
Beth did as she was told while her mother stepped outside. Wearing her boots instead of her work shoes, she found better traction on the covered steps, but the snow when she stepped to the ground was past her knees. She plowed her way one leg at a time to the small mound of snow she knew to be her car and started brushing away what she could. The work was exhausting and after ten minutes, her hands and feet numb, she had barely cleared one side of the vehicle, not even enough to open the door and get in. In frustration, she pounded her hands against the snow-shrouded roof.
Forced to admit defeat, Becky went back inside.
Beth’s coat and boots were still by the door and the girl gave her mother a hopeful look as she came back in, knocking her own boots against the threshold to remove the snow from them.
“I’m sorry,” Becky said to her daughter. And she was sorry, for the snow and for the cold and for every other difficulty the two of them had not asked for, yet faced every day. In those two words, a mother apologized to her daughter for every failing she had ever had.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” Beth said. “I can play in the snow another time.”
Becky smiled, marveling that, despite her questionable parenting and their circumstances, that the little girl could be so good. “Come here.”
Beth did as she was told and Becky swept her into her arms, holding her tight. “Baby,” she said, “with the snow this high, I don’t know if Santa is going to make it tonight.”
The girl backed away. “What do you mean? He lives at the North Pole. They have lots of snow there.”
Becky struggled to argue with her logic, but could not find a way around it.
“I know,” she said. “We’ll see. But if he doesn’t come tonight, I’m sure he’ll come soon.”
“He’ll come tonight,” Beth said, sure of it. “It’s Christmas Eve and he has Rudolph to guide the sleigh.”
Becky hugged her daughter again, as much to hide her sadness as to appreciate the little girl’s faith. “Of course he does.”
The evening passed much as the day had. Beth played her considerable collection of holiday movies and sat cross-legged in the floor. At times, she played with Barbies, building a Christmas tree out of green Legos and using the other colors for the presents around the tree, present that, had they been life-sized, would have filled the trailer. At other times, she played with her plush toys, using shoelaces to harness them like reindeer to a sleigh made from an empty shoebox.
Becky watched her daughter as the evening grew later and later, hating the snow, hating the patch of nowhere where they lived, and hating herself. She marveled at her daughter’s imagination and wished she could use a little bit of it, some of that wonderful childhood ingenuity, to find a way to Wal-Mart to make Christmas happen. She tried the phone several times and hour, finding no change from the dead hum from before, and finally threw it down on the couch in disgust.
Beth looked up at her mother. Concern furrowed her tiny brow as she held Donner the Dog and Blitzen the Zebra, one in each hand.
“Stupid phone,” Becky said, forcing herself to smile. “You ready for a bath?”
Beth lost her worried look, nodded, and ran for the bathroom, stripping off her pajamas on the way. Only while her daughter was in the bath, happily splashing and talking to herself about Santa, did Becky allow herself to sit down at the kitchen table and sob. Twenty minutes later, when Beth called for a towel, Becky forced the sorrow from her features, sticking on a mask that she hoped would fool her five-year old long enough to get her into bed.
“Mommy,” Beth asked as Becky tucked her in, “how does Santa know where everyone lives?”
“Because he’s Santa.”
Beth thought that over. “Okay. Goodnight.”
Ten minutes later, Beth was asleep and Becky, her stomach roiling from worry, went to her own bed, hoping for the first time since she was Beth’s age, that there really was a Santa Claus.
She was awake by the second knock. Sitting upright before she realized what had woken her, Becky was halfway down the hall before her consciousness caught up with her. With every step, more and more of the day before crashed over her in waves of despair until she reached the front door of the trailer and understood what the noise was.
Someone was knocking. Someone outside in the snow was knocking on her front door.
Before she could open the door, Beth appeared at the near end of the hall, rubbing her eyes and looking around.
“Mommy,” she said.
Becky knew she was about to ask where her presents were and, deciding that she was not quite awake enough to kill her daughter’s dreams, she pulled open the door.
Outside, she could see little through the frosted door. The expanse of white she had seen the previous day was now broken by an amorphous patch of red very close to her door. The red patch moved and the knocking sound came again.
Becky opened the storm door and looked outside at Santa Claus.
“Ho, ho, ho,” Santa said in a voice that sounded very much like Jim Cantrell, “Merry Christmas!”
Before Becky could respond, Beth was at the door. “Santa!” the little girl squealed. “Mommy, it’s Santa!”
Santa Jim stomped up the two steps to the trailer door in the thermal hunting boots Becky had seen him wear on several occasions. The grease-stained Santa hat was now joined by a crumpled Santa suit and a frizzy beard that showed the borders of Jim’s own graying stubble at the borders. In his hands, Becky now saw, were two large packages wrapped in plain red paper. These he set down in order to scoop Beth into his arms.
“See, Mommy,” Beth beamed. “I told you he’d come.”
Becky, still staring at her boss in shock, said nothing, her hand still holding the door open. She turned and looked out at the snow, still piled high over everything in sight. Everything, she noticed, except for the large John Deere tractor now parked at the end of her driveway.
“Shut the door, girl,” Jim said to her in his best Santa voice. “Even Santa doesn’t want to freeze his butt off.”
Beth giggled and Becky, almost giggling herself, did as she was told.
“Are these for me?” the girl asked as Santa put her down next to the presents.
“Have you been a good girl this year?”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
“Then, I guess they are for you.”
Beth started to dive for the presents, but Santa Jim caught her with velvet-covered arm.
“Not yet,” he said. “You have to wait for the rest of them.”
“The rest?” said mother and daughter together.
Santa Jim turned to Becky. “You think we’re going to let a little snow ruin this little girl’s Christmas?”
Santa Jim smiled, the gesture pulling at the corners of his fake beard. “Just a few of us who watch the weather more than you do.”
Becky started to say something else, but Santa Jim had already turned his attention to Beth.
“You just hang tight and wait for the rest,” he told her. “When the rest of them get here, then you can open them. Got it?”
“Yes, Santa.” She spoke the words with reverence.
Becky again started to say something to her boss, but a moment later he was gone, slipping down the steps and into the snow on his way to the large green tractor. He climbed in, an odd sight in the red suit, and started the engine.
“Mommy,” Beth said, picking up the smaller of the two boxes and shaking it. “What do you think are in them?”
“I don’t know, baby.”
Just as the sound of the tractor faded into the distance, another sound caught her ear, growing louder as she walked to the door and listened. She opened the door and saw another shape through the fogged glass, a larger one, and when she opened the storm door to look out, she saw the massive dump truck coming down the snow-covered gravel road. Its wheels, nearly as tall as Becky, had no trouble negotiating the deep piles, flinging a cloud of white behind it. When the massive vehicle parked in the middle of the road in front of her trailer, Becky saw the decal on the side.
It was Paula.
When the driver’s door opened, however, it was Jerry, Paula’s husband, who got out, his muscular frame bulging against the Santa suit. He skipped down the side of the truck with practiced ease, landing in the snow, and drove his legs through the drifts toward the trailer, a burlap sack slung over his shoulder. He waved at Becky, his cheekbones raised from the invisible grin lurking beneath his fake white beard.
Just as Santa Jim had done, Santa Jerry stomped up the steps and into the trailer. Becky yielded before him, her prior shock fading into amused disbelief.
“Ho, ho, ho,” said Santa Jerry, “and all that mess.” Jerry was normally a man of few words, preferring to let his wife do the talking for both of them. He could speak with authority on a few things—construction, football, deer hunting—but Paula often chided him on his lack of social skills.
Yet, Becky thought, here he was, dressed in a red velvet Santa suit and enjoying every moment of it.
“There’s a little girl here, isn’t there?” Santa Jerry asked, pretending not to see Beth hopping up and down in front of him. “Now, where is she?”
“Hereheredownhere,” Beth squealed.
Santa Jerry turned a full circle and, feigning the same kind of surprise Becky felt, started and bent down to look at Beth.
“There you are,” he said. “I hear you’ve been a good girl this year.”
Beth put her hands on her hips, sure that something was different about this Santa, but not quite able, or willing, to figure it out.
“I already told you I was,” she said.
“Don’t get sassy,” Becky warned her daughter. “You might be on the naughty list next year.”
The idea seemed to scare Beth. “Sorry,” she said.
“No, no,” Santa Jerry said, shaking his head. “This here’s a good girl if I ever saw one. And I think I might have some presents in this bag for her.” He swung the burlap sack around and rummaged inside, pulling out three boxes and handing them to Beth.
Beth looked at her mother, expectant.
“No way,” Becky said in answer to her daughter’s thoughts. “Under the tree.”
Beth looked disappointed only for a second before she shrugged and turned to put the presents under the tree with the earlier ones.
“Thank you,” Becky whispered to Santa Jerry. She flung her arms as far around him as they would go and hugged him. “I . . . I don’t know what to say.”
Santa Jerry blushed. “We know how hard you work for that girl. Paula loves you like you were her own and, well, that goes the same for me.”
Becky hugged him again. “You guys are great.”
“I hope she likes ‘em. Paula picked them out, of course. I’m just the messenger. Well, one of the messengers. The others’ll be along later.”
“Others?” Becky asked. “How many–?”
“Gotta go,” Santa Jerry said, cutting her off. “Merry Christmas.” Before Becky could ask any more questions, he was out the door, retracing his steps through the snow to get back to the massive truck.
As the day went on, more and more Santas came to the trailer. Eddie Waddell, who owned all the farm land around Becky’s home, arrived in his combine shortly after Jerry was gone. Bill Gorman, head of the Shepherd’s Hollow sanitation department, came in another dump truck, this one smaller than Jerry’s, but no less welcome. Sonny Long, his fake Santa beard doing little to hide his full red one, drove a grater from the Highway Department depot. All of them came dressed in Santa suits, from elaborate to hurriedly homemade, and all of them bore gifts for Becky’s daughter.
“One more, I think,” Sonny told her as he headed out the door. The clouds trailing the previous night’s storm had thinned, then given way to brilliant sunlight that set the snow-covered landscape ablaze with light. “And I think he’s coming right now.”
Becky leaned out to look where Sonny was pointing and could see nothing at first in the blinding reflection. Finally, she saw a shimmering shape that solidified into a sleigh—an actual, Santa-like sleigh—that slid and bounced along behind two large horses that plowed through the snow with their strong legs.
Sonny turned his grater around and went back out toward the highway, waving at the sleigh as he passed.
Becky watched, still amazed at the day’s events, as the sleigh stopped in the clear space left by the previous Santas. This time, however, the Santa that got out did not spring to the ground and high step his way through the snow. This Santa, thinner than the rest and walking with a cane, trudged through the snow as if his reaching the steps was far from a certainty. In his free hand, he held one, small package. He walked with a familiar, stunted gate, but only when he reached the bottom step and looked up at her did Becky recognize him.
The old man eyed the steps warily, then tested them with his cane. Satisfied, he stepped up onto the first, then the second, with meticulous care. Finally, he handed the small, wrapped box to Becky and made his way into the trailer.
Beth was at the door again and, this time, she knew something was not right.
“You’re not Santa,” the little girl said.
“Beth,” Becky said, but stopped when Mr. Cosley raised his hand.
“Now, girl,” Cosley said to Beth. “You’re used to seeing the Santa for children. I’m the Santa for grown folks.”
Becky, still holding the small box, looked at him.
“You go on and open that,” Santa Cosley told Becky. “You’re only getting the one, so you shouldn’t have to wait.”
Becky tried and failed to hide her smile. She couldn’t help the childlike enthusiasm as she tore away the paper with as much speed and violence as she could muster from so small a package. Beneath, she found an unmarked box, its hinged lid begging to be lifted.
“Go on,” Santa Cosley urged her. “Open it up.”
Becky did. She stared at the object inside for a long time, not sure at first what it was, then not sure what it meant.
“It’s a key,” she said.
“That’s right,” Santa Cosley said. “It’s the key to my almost-new Chevy pickup . . . well . . . your Chevy pickup now. A year or so old. Eleven thousand miles. Still got that new car smell inside. Would’ve brought it here myself, but it’s parked down at the café whenever you can get to it.”
Becky stared at the old man, still unsure what he meant.
“I’ve decided I’ve had about enough snow to last me the rest of my life,” he explained, “however long that is. I’m moving to Florida and there won’t be any need for a truck while I’m sitting on the beach.”
Becky continued to stare, continued to disbelieve.
“You need something better than that little foreign job you’ve been driving around. It’s time you started driving something with some American horsepower.”
Though she felt the realization coming toward her, threatening to overwhelm her, she could not prepare herself for it. She collapsed to her knees, then to a sitting position, and there, in the floor of her tiny living room, she wept.
Mr. Cosley patted her head. “Little Beth ain’t been the only one that’s been good this year.”
An hour later, Becky sat on her couch, the key still in her hand. Santa Cosley was gone and she could not remember him leaving. Wrapping paper lay in drifts around the perimeter of the living room while Beth sat in the middle like the eye of a hurricane, playing with her assortment of new toys.
“Mommy,” the little girl asked without looking up from her new Barbie playhouse. “Were any of those people the real Santa Claus?”
Becky thought about it for a long time before answering. Her eyes remained locked on the key and, beyond that, the image of the new truck—her new truck—parked down at the Corner Café.
“Yes, baby,” she said at last. “I think they all were. Every single one of them.”