Not yet anteater boot-top-deep in suicide art and esophageal cathedral, the open rush of mole negro alley and chipped abalone shell catching the sun in its drying marine mitt, strange creams and Aztec knives—long-gone virginal—loved, hated, ignored, we ditch, thanks to Juan Pérez’s biscuit-faced generosity, our suitcases behind the Rioja’s front desk for the day—our flight to Oaxaca City only at 9:00pm tonight, and sup from Ciudad de México/Méjico/Distrito Federal, this triple-named beast of a metropolis, its belly heaving with street-scene and food and market and fake snow in 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and Juan Pérez’s patulous hugs (He actually runs his hands over the backs of our heads, kisses us on our cheeks, his lips warm and smooth, his face prickled with graying stubble, rife with effluvium—clove, citrus peel, musk, the back of a grandparent’s closet, the mothballs there and peeling floral shelfpaper, the spice of age and the uncontainable joy that can sometimes penetrate loneliness, calling to my own grandparents long-lost in their Long Island deathbed Yiddish mumblings and sweet neuroses bound to triple-checking the thermostat before bed, and Louisa’s, their quiet passings after being robbed in Johannesburg, handcuffed to their toilet), and stepping from the lobby, our ultra-temporary home, our one-night sanctuary and port in the educational protest deluge, we are naked and stuffed with beating hearts, two turkeys bloated with garlic and apple and breadcrumb and quick pace, heated demeanors, breasts drying out in this city-oven, juices running clear and exhilarated over the haldz and pupik of Avenida Cinco de Mayo and the corners we have yet to turn.

We blow kisses to the Virgen de Guadalupe calendar, the nightstands that once, if only for a storied night, held our books and our beer. The courtyard inhales, inflates its ribcage and we stare upward to its lack of ceiling, the sky washed-out, pale and filthy. We slip sheets of yellow paper beneath our suitcase handles with our Mexican names: Mateo y Luisa Franco. Wheel them behind the front desk. Juan Pérez implores us with a string of ten cuidados, clapping the air between his thick hands in applause or prayer, we can’t tell. We assure him we will be careful, our breaths sick with cheap toothpaste, his with cigar tobacco, leaf-acrid and heady, and step in toward those celestial embraces. He will not be here when we return, his shift over, his forty-minute drive to his ample wife and one daughter who still lives at home (of his remaining seven children, only two reside in Mexico City, and one of them in Chicago! which injects our goodbye with the additional five minute fever of memory and a list of stateside Mexican restaurants; Juan Pérez tells us he has never traveled north to visit. Muy caro,” he laments, rubbing his fingers together, empty of the many dólares he would have to spend to get there, my hometown, his son’s apartment, the last place my parents will likely live). We will retrieve our bags from that reincarnated eagle of a front desk clerk we saw briefly last night. In Juan Pérez’s adiós, the weight of the caretaker world.

We step, again, into the street, carrying with us our own decades in the service industry—my sixteen years in the restaurant trade, my start at age eleven, washing dishes in a fast food chicken shack on the outskirts of Chicago, moving through the worlds of server, busboy, wine grape picker and cantina floor mopper in Italy, line cook, garde manger, sous chef, sommelier, manager, catering business owner; Louisa’s journey including much of the same, though peppered with au pair in Israel, counselor to teenage drug addicts and prostitutes in South Africa (which temporarily earned her the status of nun), laundress in Key West (where she and I met in a Latin jazz bar called Virgilio’s, indelibly earning her the status of Fallen Sister Louie); our lives now in academia and massage therapy and, in Mexico, wherein we step toward the Zócalo, Juan Pérez’s graciousness still clinging to our necks like barbate scarves.

He makes us miss the service industry. We talk of this as we walk, our pace enflamed with our forthcoming evening plane ride, how the past has its sneaky ways to force us to desire it, return to it, even though we know disappointment imminently looms.

“Human nature,” Louisa says, as we pass an old woman playing the xylophone at the street curb, “we always want to be what we’re not, sweeten the things we used to do.”

“Or where we used to be,” I say.

Chicago asserts itself in the distance—some prohibitive force, forever muy caro.

When we emerge from skinny side-street into the behemoth Zócalo, we see at its center, on this 80-degree day, a snow machine spewing its cold manufactured flakes into the air. A team of smocked employees works with inadequate gloves to mound the snow into piles from which children, for a few pesos can pack snowballs for the throwing. The line to do this is obscene and snaking, two hours long at least, but oh, sweet novelty! This is the white sand beach to Siberia! All we can do is stop to watch a seven-year-old girl finally reach the line’s front, fork over her mother’s coins, and build a pathetic eight-inch snowman with the aid of a rigid burlap mold, under the supervision of a beautiful red-vested employee with matching red Santa Claus barrettes.

To her mother’s snapping camera, the girl beams as the barretted employee supplies her with a small pieces of cork and a reusable string of carrot, mounted on a long pin to stick into the molded snow-dwarf’s face, machine-pumped flakes waltzing around her head, collecting like diamonds in her black hair. Though this world is melting quickly, and she’s already being ushered out to allow for the next child, her face, as if trapped in a mold of its own, will not lose its smile. This is a past that may not require sweetening. Louisa and I take each other’s sweating hands. It’s been a strange winter.

Last year, at the age of eight, my daughter left a letter for Santa Claus by the fireplace (along with some carrots and cookies). She said she knew she was fortunate and didn’t need anything herself besides maybe a good long book series or two. She said she’d like to communicate with Santa at the North Pole all year, if possible. Other than that, she wished for all the unfortunate kids to get presents and for it to snow everywhere on Christmas Day.

To her astonishment, Santa wrote back. Here’s what he said (in a script font):

Dear M. Fishman,

Thank you for your letter. Since I am very busy, I have had to dictate my reply to one of my elves. I apologize for his poor handwriting.  I will answer your requests one by one.

First, the North Pole is only open one magical day per year, and we’re very busy that day, so there is no way to contact me directly.  I’m sorry.

Second, there is only so much snow to go around, so it can’t snow all over the world on Christmas.  Everyone has to take turns.

Third, I just gave my last long book series to a little girl who is much less fortunate than you. So maybe your parents or your grandparents will give you one.  Either way, the important thing is that you keep reading everything you can.

Finally, Santa does his best for the poor children all over the world. But even Santa doesn’t have the power to help everyone all the time. That’s why it’s important for you to have a kind heart and to help the poor people of the world yourself whenever you get a chance.  I know I can count on you to do so, because the elves tell me you have one of the biggest hearts in the world.

Be good always and remember: love is not measured in gifts or other material things, but in the way we treat all those around us, especially when it is hardest to do so.

Love,

Santy Claus

This year, at age nine, she writes again:

Dear Santy Claus,

I enjoyed hearing from you. This year I decided to type this on my computer to show you something, your elf has quite neat handwriting, see it’s as good as the computer can do! Any how, I really would like to know a bit about this elf who is writing my letters for you. I’d really like to know his name, his favorite color, it’s gender, it’s favorite thing to do, and it’s favorite job that it does at your work shop! I don’t want any thing for Christmas except a letter back and some answers to some questions that I will soon list. Actually, I know I’m very fortunate and am not in big need of this, but if you could get me some more doll house things and a french bulldog puppy for my mom (this is not very important just a thought) that would be excellent! I want to tell you a few things about your letter…

First, I completely understand that the North Pole is only opened one day, and I’d like to know where you live when you are not there? At the beach perhaps?

Second, it’s a cool fact that snow can’t fall all over the world! Can you make it snow where ever you want or does mother nature do that?

Third, I think it’s really great that you give your biggest things to the less fortunate people. I feel so happy for the girl you gave your last long book series to! I wish her and all others less fortunate than I a merry Christmas this year!

And last, I love that you try your best with the poor and less fortunate, and as I grew older I realized that nobody can change anybody else’s lives except their own lives. And that is a very unfortunate thing on this earth.

The second letter is for Mrs. Claus and the elves. Please give it to them. I hope you take some treats home for Mrs. Claus and the elves but I hope you enjoyed the ones you chose for your self. This year once again we have some carrots for the reindeer, but if they like something else please tell me so in your letter back so I can get the treat for next Christmas. Hope you have no trouble with getting stuck in the chimney!

Love,

M. Fishman

Dear Mrs. Claus and elves,

Do you all work a lot on Christmas Eve? Does Santa have an iPad? What do you guys (gals) want for Christmas? How many reindeer do you all own? Do you ever ride them? What are their names? What does Rudolph’s (if you have a Rudolph) nose look like? Is it hot? Can you use it as a lightbulb? Do you guys (gals) ever do another job besides work for Santa? I’m really proud of all of you for doing such a good job!

Love,

M.

And Santa replies:

Dear M. Fishman,

How nice that you keep writing to me and what wonderful questions from such a little girl.  But wait!  I just realized that you are a pretty big girl by now.  I have so many children to follow that I lose track of their ages sometimes.

Last year I discovered that my writing elf was cheating by using the computer’s script font instead of writing by hand.  Ah, well.  What’s Saint Nicholas to do?  There are so many letters to answer that I can hardly blame the little fellow.

This year, my writing elf is so busy, in fact, that Mrs. Claus has had to help out.  She’s taking dictation while I tack up my sleigh.  If we make a mistake, please forgive us.  Tacking up takes lots of attention, and if I get just one little strap out of order the sleigh won’t fly and the presents will be late!

So, to your questions.  The elf’s name is a secret, I’m afraid.  We don’t give out elf names because we don’t want them to be overwhelmed with individual requests.  His favorite color is red, which is the favorite color of all elves.  His favorite thing to do is to make toys, of course, especially Wii games.  Sometimes it makes him sad to know that Nintendo takes credit for all the Wii games he makes, but I remind him that forgiveness is in the spirit of the season — well, so long as they’re not on the naughty list.

Now, with regard to your feedback on my letter…

First, when I am not at the North Pole, I am at the South Pole.  With my big belly and my thick beard, hot places are not for me.

Second, I cannot make it snow wherever I want and I’ve no time to worry about that, as I’m busy coordinating toy delivery for a big world.  Everyone has their own job on Earth — it’s called compartmentalization.

Third, the little girl in question did indeed love her long book series.  Thank you for being so understanding.

Last, you’re right that no one can change anybody else’s life but their own.  Yet I must add that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show compassion for those who are having problems making those changes.

Now, with regard to Mrs. Claus, I will answer for her, as she is not authorized to communicate with anyone but elves.

First, yes she does work on Christmas Eve.  She slaves over a wonderful stew that she cooks in a great cauldron for me and the elves.  We never touch a drop of it until the last present is delivered in Kamchatka. (No iPads, by the way.  I keep everything in my head.)

Second, the number of reindeer is classified information.  Also, I can’t say anything about their names except that the man who wrote that silly poem got almost every one wrong.  Shows what he knew!

This whole thing about Rudolph has also gotten blown way out of proportion.  Poor thing just had a little shine there from moisture and that was years ago.  I fly above the clouds, where the visibility is always perfect, and the moon guides me. No need for lightbulbs or glowing noses.

And, no!  You can’t ride reindeer.  They’re too small.  A man of my size would crush them.  (That goes for Mrs. Claus, too.)

Finally, yes, I do have another job.  You may see me most days in the off-season, sitting at my—

Whoa!  Uh-oh!  The last bit of tack just slid under the last keeper and off we go!

Merry Christmas to all and to all — aw, you know the rest, kid.

Love,

Santy Claus

My wife and I recently had a wedding here in Finland. We’d already been married in the eyes of America last winter, but we decided that we wanted more gifts, so we did it again.

Instead of going on a honeymoon or paying the mortgage, we also decided to give gifts to ourselves. For a long time it was a toss-up between a solar-powered hydrofoil or a refurbished Ukrainian tank, but in the end we decided to get two dogs. That way we could stuff them under the blankets to help thaw our feet after walking to the bathroom.

Raisa immediately starting perusing the ads on an online adoption site, but she wasn’t satisfied with your average Canis lupus familiaris bearing two ears, a tail, and fur in all the right places. No, she wanted the ones with bits of tongue missing and prison tattoos where their balls used to be. Within minutes her heart was set on two gnarly looking Russian dogs being extradited for matters of national security.

Desperate for help, I made some hot chocolate, crawled under the sink (it’s warmer there), and wrote a letter to Santa Claus, known in Finland as Yule Goat.* Mr. Goat has an office in Northern Finland, so I figured my request for two fluffy, photogenic, poop-free dogs would be expedited.

Alas, it was not to be. By the time my ink fob had thawed, Raisa had already paid for our dogs via RublePal, rendering the deal all but done. Now all we had to do was meet the dog dealers near an abandoned munitions factory along the Finland-Russian border, sign a non-disclosure/non-litigation agreement, and take our animals and their troughs home.

As we made our long and arduous journey through the Finnish countryside, I mentioned to Raisa that the deal seemed a bit shady. She told me not to worry, since Finland is considered the the least corrupt and most democratic country in the world. However, the closer you get to the Russian border, the grayer the market becomes. As do the trees, the food, and the atmosphere. We drove for hours through rain and fog and icicle storms, and when we got within 10 km of Russia, the GPS told us to turn around and never look back.

Undeterred, we navigated via dead reckoning toward the heavily guarded tower on the horizon. When we finally did locate the meeting point, we found one Cadillac-size dog squeezed into a Fiat and the other chasing his shadow through a poppy field. We managed to lure the animals into our car with hunks of maggoty reindeer flesh, at which point the dogs promptly went about tearing some skin from each others faces (which Raisa said is a custom in their home country).

While the dogs tended to their wounds, I finally asked Raisa why exactly these dogs were being given up for adoption. She told me not to worry about it, but when my wife tells me not to worry about something, it means that something is deeply, truly wrong.

Turns out that when the youngest of our Russian canines is left alone, he tends to rip knobs off doors, shred clothes, and tear pipes out of walls before finally opening a window and leaping to his freedom. At one point there was evidence of these crimes, such as photographs and insurance claims, but he ate those too. The other guy, an older hunting dog with a litany of scars and claw marks decorating his face like tribal tattoos, has never learned basic commands. Or his name, apparently. He mostly just stands there smiling and wagging his crooked, truncated tail while we beg him to climb down from the top of the television.

Luckily, both dogs know not to take their massive dumps in the house. Unfortunately, like many Russians, the dogs have terrible smoking habits** and prefer potato spirits over boring old water. Despite these deleterious traits, the dogs are as strong as Mongolian llamas. They’re also ludicrously competitive: on our daily 100-km jogs, they insist on chasing down every runner and cyclist and tearing the rubber off the athletes’ shoes (or wheels). When we really want to wear out the dogs, we yoke them up with the polar bear and have the trio plow our street.

I personally share a special kinship with these dogs, being a fellow expatriate***. The dogs and I often gather in a drunken heap on the floor and reminisce about our respective motherlands, which have been at war since before the sun was born. Sometimes, when the discussion lands on on current transnational commerce barriers or disarmament talks circa 1988-1993, the mood grows downright ugly. Fur flies. Flesh is ripped. Epithets are hurled. Curses are unleashed. Raisa is forced to send us to our respective cages. After a good nap though, we forget what the fuss was about. Our comradeship survives another day.

Yes, we love our Russian dogs. (If we don’t, who the fuck will?)

 

* Yule goat – a frighteningly ugly little beast – actually demands gifts from children.

**And Finland is increasingly becoming a bad place to be a smoker, even if you’re a dog. Strangely, the Finnish government is striving to eradicate smoking from its borders, despite the fact that marathons, bike races and quilting bees are all conducted while the participants are puffing away. The dogs had better be careful though, as it will soon be a crime to give a cigarette to an underage smoker (seven years old or younger) or to smoke on your balcony (which is strange since 75% of the country is covered in forest and the other 25% is balconies). In the near future you won’t even see cigarettes in stores unless the cashier is getting them out of the kryptonite safe beneath the register. The dogs are worried.

***Whenever I call myself that, I feel like I’ve betrayed my country, or have been fired from a football team.

One of the great tragedies of childhood was my inability to harness the forces of witchcraft. It wasn’t for lack of trying. You have no idea how many times I stared at my homework and wiggled my nose, hoping to cause math problems to magically solve themselves, how many times I urged the kitchen dishes to become spontaneously clean with a snap of my finger. For years I was convinced the problem had to do with sound effects, or more specifically a lack of them. On “Bewitched,” whenever someone cast a spell, it was invariably accompanied by the sound of a harp or a bell or both. My spells were devastatingly silent.

SantaJesus

By Robin Antalek

Memoir

Santa and I have long had an uneasy relationship. It began a few weeks before Christmas in 1962, the only time in my life when I looked good in cranberry velvet. My mother had ventured with me into Macy’s in Herald Square for my first real holiday experience. An experience that ended with me kicking Santa in the face with my shiny patent leather Mary Jane’s as she tried to pass me off into his enormous gloved hands. I was under two but at close range the Mary Jane’s had enough force from my sausage encased white clad thighs that Santa sprouted a cut lip and a drop of blood on his snowy beard. Santa’s helper promptly thrust me back into my mother’s arms while another Elf called for a wet cloth and bandages. My mother thought she heard Santa utter an expletive while she slinked away under the glare of angry parents and their wailing red-faced children who obviously thought I had killed Santa.

Coming from a large Italian-American family where church was something you did, not really explained, we all trooped to mass every Christmas Eve save for my grandmother who seemed to be excused by the man himself preparing the Feast of the Fishes while we were gone. Christmas Eve services: I was always hot, itchy and overdressed – wearing too many layers of clothing: tights, slip, sweater, blouse with peter pan collar, plaid skirt, wool coat, a hat, and gloves. I would slip slide along the pew, kicking my feet against the padded kneeler, crawling over my mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins until I reached my grandfather’s lap, where I would fall asleep. The singing would wake me and I would be carried from church by my grandfather out into the night where everyone who greeted us assured me that now, Santa would be coming soon and somehow I took that to mean that since church was over, SantaJesus, one and the same, was cleared to deliver the gifts. I remember thinking I should have paid more attention inside the church, that maybe now he won’t bring me that Chatty Cathy doll. In my mind the two have forever become one.

Singy. The following Christmas, my great uncle returned from a trip to California with a special gift for me: Singy. So christened by me who was insistent, obviously on combining then shortening SantaJesus. Singy was a compact little man about sixteen inches in height with a hard plastic face and molded features. His painted blue eyes were affixed so it appeared he was permanently looking off to the side in a mischievous kind of way, his mouth partially hidden by a fluffy white beard, a solid, sawdust stuffed body covered in red and white flocking, a black belt with a buckle and hard plastic white boots for feet. In the pictures that year I am sitting on a small wooden chair in front of a soaring tinseled covered tree in my grandparents’ living room. I am wearing plaid flannel-lined corduroys rolled at the ankle, a sweater with snowflakes and flyaway pigtails that barely touch my shoulders. Singy is tucked beneath my arm, his eyes turned toward me like he thinks I’m going to hit him. I hadn’t been back on Santa’s lap since the Macy’s incident and my wary expression says it all. I’m afraid if I put him down he will be angry so I clutch him to me all night long, but when we go to sleep that night I turn his face to the wall.

When we were small enough not to care, my brother and I shared a room, twin maple beds at right angles to the other. A night light between our heads. My brother’s bed was covered by an army of stuffed animals. On my bed my mother propped Singy, brought out of Christmas storage and he grinned at the wall evoking anything but visions of sugarplum fairies. But I am still nice to him. I include him in all our games. I bring him to the table. I insist we set a place for him and give him some food. I shove his plastic head up the dirty fireplace to show him how it’s done. Just in case.

On this particular Christmas Eve, my brother and I crawl into bed exhausted, aching from too much food, overheated houses, relatives of all shapes and sizes pinching our cheeks. We are wearing our Christmas pajamas. Me in a candy cane striped nightgown and matching ruffled sleeping cap and he in red and green plaid pajamas that button up the front purchased from the pages of the 1967 Sears Wish Book. It is not too much later when rustling noises at the bottom of my bed wakes me. I open my eyes and there is SantaJesus, resplendent in red suit, white beard, black sack rumpled on the floor at his feet. I had twisted my brother’s fingers in church tonight and made him cry after he broke my candy cane and so I think SantaJesus’ appearance in our room may have something to do with that. He is not as tall or as round as I imagined him to be and at first I try and pretend I didn’t open my eyes, but I can feel him watching so I flutter open my lids just in time to see him press a gloved hand to his lips. I pull the blankets up over my head but create a flap where I can peek out. He hangs our stockings on the posts at the end of our beds and then he exits the room, leaving the door just slightly ajar like my mother always remembered to do. I can see a Pez dispenser, the vivid green asymmetrical head of Gumby, the hook of a candy cane and the metal curve of a Slinky popping out the top of one stocking. While I’m debating whether I should go back to sleep or wake my brother, the door to our room swings open and my mother enters with SantaJesus. I am still hidden so she can’t see me. SantaJesus has his arm around my mother’s waist and she says something into his ear and he turns his face to her and presses the side of his white beard against her head and they both smile before leaving the room. I don’t know what to do with this piece of information and I ruin Christmas morning, ignoring the Barbie in the red plaid cape with the moveable arms and legs to pester my parents’ with questions. I spend the rest of the day searching for clues, but find nothing and instead come to the conclusion that because my mother’s name is Mary just like SantaJesus’, mother, then the two of them must somehow be related and I had better start paying attention during mass.

By the age of twelve I have long known that SantaJesus doesn’t exist, although I am still unclear on the reason why I must go to church. As far as I can see the pay-off of life ever after up in the clouds is just too far fetched of a concept for a girl who has yet to be kissed here on earth. During mass, instead of watching the altar, I stare at the ceiling hoping to see the face of Jesus in the shadows making me special and possibly a candidate for absolution of past and future sins. The only thing that holds my attention is the drama of benediction, where the priest swings the smoking incense filled bejeweled ball and speaks in Latin. I have long suspected that this is what SantaJesus smells like and a few years later, as a teenager, when burning cones of incense becomes the thing to do, I alternate between feelings of guilt over becoming a lapsed Catholic and intense longing to sit on SantaJesus’ lap.

But that December of my twelfth year I was still a semi obedient willing to please Catholic school girl. So when Sister Jean, the director of our Christmas Pageant had emergency surgery, Sister Mary Catherine announced there might not be a play unless a volunteer from the class came forward. I offered myself as writer and director. I constructed a play about an angry Santa and a Mrs. Claus who longs to travel and a few reindeer that refuse to participate in Christmas along with a monster and a wayward Elf. The storylines cobbled together from every televised Christmas special I have ever seen. I also, to please the church loving crowd, throw in Mary and Joseph and in the cradle, where the baby Jesus is to lay, I place the precious, albeit mangy, Singy with his shifty eyes turned to his supposed stepfather, Joseph

 

At the end is the big production number where we dance to Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and I instruct the boy who played Joseph to toss Singy into the air for a grand finale. That is when, carried away by the music, the end of the play, the bag of candy kisses that I had backstage, the jubilation that we are done, Singy becomes the holiday equivalent of a hot potato. He is catapulted over and over again by greedy little fists that punch him, volleyball style, higher and higher into the air. When I finally get him back his beard is torn, the pom-pom from his hat is hanging by a thread, his belt is gone and the stitching on the side of his left leg has come unraveled.

That night when we get home my mother salvages his leg with thread and glues his beard back to his face. When I wake up in the morning I see that she has placed him at the end of my bed, his shifty little gaze looking off toward the wall. I sit up and stare at Singy; I demand that he look at me. Under the covers I rattle my feet so he moves. His squat little body tilts to the right, as does his gaze. Look at me, I say again.

Understandably, our long and tortured history not withstanding, that painted twinkle in his eye gave me a glimmer of hope.

But he refused.