The Time Santa Almost Didn’t Make It To Birchwood Village

It was the eve of Santa’s annual visit to Birchwood Village, the most anticipated event of the season, and disaster had struck — Santa was laid up and out of commission! Well, not the real Santa (although don’t tell that to the children of Birchwood Village who circled this day on their calendars as soon as trick or treat ended), but Hank Walters Bryant, the ranking member of the Village Council and “official” Birchwood Village Santa, the latter going on seven years when he first happened upon a second-hand Santa suit at a flea market and bought it for a laugh and a giggle to wear to his office party before being struck with the brilliant idea to wear it around the Village to imbue among the villagers some holiday spirit. This simple notion had since grown into a parade on the third Sunday of December through the center of the neighborhood with Hank (or Santa) riding high atop the firetruck from the nearby district of Limerock waving to families lining both sides of the street and tossing out candy (suckers and gumballs and chocolate drops wrapped in red and green foil), culminating in cocoa and sugar cookies inside a heated tent in the parking lot of the Birchwood Village Church, children queued up around the building for a chance to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas.

Alas, this year would be a no-go for Santa (or Hank) on account of a nasty spill he had taken earlier in the day in the Village golf cart, hitting a patch of black ice while rounding the corner at Swan and Forest and sliding clear across the intersection (and luckily it wasn’t rush hour), jumping the curb in front of Mrs. Patterson’s house (her ill-tempered Maltese, Koukla, vehemently barking at him through the bay window), flying out of the cart, airborne an impressive three-and-a-half feet, and landing with a thump on his thumb onto the frozen ground (and here his wife Eloise had been after him for not having a seat belt on that “rickety contraption” but this was not the time for second-guessing).

Successful surgery at the university hospital reassembled Hank’s thumb nearly good as new with a tiny metal plate and five even tinier metal screws. Ever the trooper (and plus he just loved Christmas so), Hank insisted he could carry on with his tradition despite a plaster cast that extended well over his forearm approximately the same size and unwieldy shape of a small club. But the effects of the pain medication proved too much, causing poor Hank to behave exceptionally loopy and nonsensical, which, while amusing, was not appropriate around the children. Thus, the decision was made at an emergency meeting of the Village Council, with just barely a quorum present as members were otherwise engaged in last minute Christmas shopping, by a unanimous vote, with Gene Bowling abstaining, and Lloyd Farnsby, Hank’s arch enemy (for reasons best left unexplained as these were the holidays after all), presiding as Chair, to procure a replacement. But there wasn’t much time!

The calls went out at once, over the phone and World Wide Web, and even via the Village emergency messaging system (which caused a bit of a panic to those who were prone to panicking). Handheld devices and computers throughout the community began lighting up and buzzing, beeping and bonging. Austin Crothersville waved down folks as they passed by on their constitutionals, jogs and dog walks. Lizzie Armstrong and Poindexter McGregor, in a good faith attempt to renew their friendship after Lizzie, Poindexter’s ex-fiancée, had left him at the altar two years ago June (just as long as Poindexter didn’t get the wrong idea), canvassed the area tacking up flyers they had made from poster board left over from the leaf collection protest last month that only vaguely alluded to “help wanted, holiday parade, red uniform provided” in case any inquisitive kids saw it. Young Billy Milner, eleven years, seven months, four days, and eight minutes of age (or was it nine?), according to Billy, inserted a detailed notice (being forewarned beforehand not to read it as it concerned “grown-up business”) folded into each newspaper he delivered on his route the next morning.

Nevertheless, as of nine-sixteen in the AM of the day of Santa’s scheduled ride there were no takers, nary any interest from anyone wanting to don Hank Walters Bryant’s Santa suit (and it had already been cleaned and pressed and was neatly hanging in a garment bag in the back of Hank’s front closet). Another emergency meeting of the Village Council was convened, still just barely comprising a quorum for the same reasons as before, Lloyd Farnsby still presiding as Chair (and if Hank only knew). Following a lengthy, and surprisingly heated debate, it was decided by a unanimous vote, with Gene Bowling abstaining, that this seasonal position would have to be filled by conscription. But the questioned remained: who?

Pages of the Village directory were divvied up and distributed to the members of the Council, with numerous names bandied about and discussed but ultimately rejected for one deficiency or another. Tom Canari was deemed too obnoxious, and Dwayne Weatherly too creepy, and Trevor Vincennes too off-putting with how he spoke in a phony French accent ever since learning from one of those mail order DNA kits that his great-great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side was born in Nova Scotia. Sarah Delaney, while not technically a resident yet she was around enough as a flagger for the gas company road crew that the Council was willing to forgo strict adherence to the residency requirement for her, had the ideal amount of spunk and gumption, and ranked high on the likability scale, but sadly she was too short and slight for the Santa suit and there wasn’t time enough to tailor it. This rundown wore on for a long while (and at various points various members of the Council pondered to themselves what kind of neighbors they had when they couldn’t warrant anyone acting as Santa for an afternoon), longer than anticipated, with the Council members becoming impatient and cross with one another (and it was the holidays after all).

Finally, in such a Eureka moment it was almost as if you could see the light bulb going off above her head, until it turned out to be a hall lamp set on a timer switching on automatically at noon for some odd reason, Paula Porter proudly proclaimed the name of Old Man Williams as a potential substitute Santa. There were hushed murmurings and sideways glances while this was deliberated and contemplated for no one really knew much about him, Old Man Williams mainly keeping to himself. He could come across as curmudgeonly, and somewhat standoffish, a crotchety codger, and he didn’t normally speak unless spoken to (and even then …), but nothing to legitimately eliminate him from the competition, especially given the increasingly shrinking pool of names. Old Man Williams was an interesting candidate for the job to be sure, and the Council ordered in lunch (grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, with a brownie, soft drinks and coffee) to completely consider him. Eventually it was settled, there being no one else available or generally agreeable, and they were in a pickle, and Old Man Williams was the appropriate age and build of Jolly Old Saint Nick (albeit a tad lacking in “jolly”), and everyone had to concur that Old Man Williams was the one and only choice (by default).

Post haste a committee was formed and dispatched to Old Man Williams’ home, and without a moment to lose, to provide him with the wonderful news. But Old Man Williams was not nearly as enthused and, indeed, when provided this “wonderful news” he did not consider it wonderful in the least, really the exact opposite it seemed, simply shrugging and mumbling a half-hearted “nuh-uh” and “nope” before closing the door in the collective face of the committee. Nonplussed and bewildered at such an unexpected reaction, the committee members stood dumbfounded, not knowing how to behave, slack-jawed, mouths agape, before Mary Ellen Pomeroy, with a second wind, rang the doorbell again, and when that failed to rouse Old Man Williams, knocked quite forcefully on the door, and after still no response, resumed with both fists, until a rather annoyed Old Man Williams opened it and offered the same reply, with a hearty helping of aggravation. “Nuh-uh!” he repeated, and “Nope!” Lest there be any doubt as to how he truly felt, he finished with a “No, I said — no!” and slammed the door shut.

The committee, further flummoxed and not prepared for such a rebuking, remained still, astonished that such a privilege could be refused — and after the exhaustive vetting that had occupied all of the morning and through the lunch hour that now seemed for naught. “Perhaps,” interjected PJ Cross, a lawyer by trade with a fondness for crafting dioramas from grains of wild rice that he hoped to someday make his prime vocation as he was done with the practice of law, “Old Man Williams just requires some coaxing, cajoling, an incentive, perhaps … a bribe.” That last part took some of the committee members aback and Naomi Persimmon had to fan herself with the palms of her hands, yet they proceeded along this course of action all the same (for what other course of action remained?), spitballing and brainstorming to conjure what they could offer.

Regrettably, nothing the committee came up with convinced Old Man Williams to change his mind: not free yardwork, not a thorough gutter cleaning in the fall and in the spring, not a twenty-five dollar credit at Lila Durham’s upscale boutique in Poplar Square, not even the gratis taxidermy service of Dwayne Weatherly — the odd squirrel or chipmunk or some such varmint that failed to make it across the road. Nothing would change Old Man Williams’ mind as he was adamant that he would not be the Birchwood Village Santa Claus this year “nor any year for that matter!” Defeated and dejected, the committee members stared blankly at one another in the off-chance that perchance someone might think of something else. But nothing. So they slinked and slunk off Old Man Williams’ porch, one-by-one, heads bowed, arms folded, and went solemnly on their separate ways. “I guess Santa just won’t make it to Birchwood Village this year,” one of them was overheard to say.

Among those to overhear that was Young Billy Milner who, while steadfastly obeying the warning not to read the detailed notice he was directed to fold into that morning’s newspaper (because that was how his mother had raised him), surmised even so that something was amiss and tailed the committee to Old Man Williams’ residence, spying on them from behind the overgrown azalea bushes, with his trusty sidekick, Chubz the cat, the Johnson family pet, in tow. The mere mention of a year without Santa sent chills down Billy’s spine and made his stomach go all aflutter (and one could only assume that the feeling for Chubz was similar). Once the committee members had departed, Billy sneaked up onto Old Man Williams’ porch and, with a deep breath in through his nose and out through his mouth, and a nod down to Chubz for moral support, gave the front door (and never had this front door received such attention in such a brief span) a confident rap, rap, rap.

Old Man Williams flung the door practically off the latch to the mutual surprise of both of them, as he was expecting the committee members with yet another forlorn attempt to sweeten the pot and sway his opinion, and he was ready for that with an emphatic finger wagging and some choice words beginning with “Listen here …” And Young Billy Milner had never been this near to Old Man Williams and was expecting at a minimum a “How may I help you, son?” since he had been nothing but diligent with his newspaper delivering duties. The two jumped aside when they met under this circumstance. But when Old Man Williams saw Billy standing there, in all of his doe-eyed innocence, with Chubz, as usual, at his feet, so sweet, something inside of him that he wasn’t sure how to explain warmed and melted. And when Young Billy Milner, his confident facade belied by the quiver in his voice, asked why there wouldn’t be a Santa Claus this year, that was all the convincing Old Man Williams needed, recalling in that instant his own youth, those decades and decades prior, when a visit from Saint Nick meant all the world to a young child.

“Why of course there’ll be a Santa Claus in Birchwood Village this year,” Old Man Williams answered, feigning disdain, pooh-poohing it as if it were the silliest thing, his attempt to reassure, “they just need me to get on my radio to give him directions. You see, Santa’s rather up there in age and, like a lot of us, has become quite forgetful these days.”

Billy seemed to sort of understand but he also seemed not entirely convinced, so Old Man Williams showed him to the ham radio setup he had in the near corner of his living room by his skinny Christmas tree and its smattering of ornaments, a ratty dishtowel wrapped around the base. He flipped the switch and the impressive conglomeration of dials and nobs and buttons and wires and antennae came crackling to life with a burst of static like a thunder clap through the massive speakers, followed by a faint stuttering of some far-off distant dialect, German perhaps, which wasn’t any help in heartening the boy but still kind of neat.

“Now you go,” Old Man Williams ordered, ushering Billy and Chubz out. “I’ve got to find the right frequency to get a hold of Santa so he can make his way here.”

No sooner had Billy and Chubz left when Old Man Williams picked up his phone and dialed Hank Walters Bryant, whose number he had memorized as he was a frequent caller to the councilman, mostly to complain, but not today. “I’m in,” was all that Old Man Williams said. He hung up the phone then proceeded to prepare himself, primarily by stretching, deep knee bends and the like, for he knew he had a tall task ahead, and especially where his muscles and ligaments were susceptible to straining and stiffening in the cold.

Within thirty minutes, Officer Chadwick, the police officer from Ridgeland who was contracted out by Birchwood Village to patrol the streets in his off-hours, pulled up to Old Man Williams’ house, lights flashing and siren blaring, which was not at all necessary but Officer Chadwick wanted to seize the moment and stress the significance of the situation. He ran up with the Santa suit, still neatly hanging in its garment bag, then stood vigilant outside while Old Man Williams dressed. A crowd formed, drawn by the flashing lights of the Ridgeland cruiser and the palpable sense of excitement that charged the air, but Officer Chadwick shooed them back beyond the secure perimeter he had established. Moments later, Old Man Williams emerged in full-blown Santa Claus mode, to the aah’s and ooh’s of the lookie-loos. As if on cue, the Limerock firetruck arrived to take Old Man Williams for his Birchwood Village Santa ride. And what a glorious ride it became!

Old Man Williams had never seen Birchwood Village in this manner, from this vantage point, this angle. He was always too focused on himself, his little patch of land, what went on within the isolated walls of his quaint Cape Cod, oblivious to the whole wide world that lied just outside his red front door. Here were his neighbors, his fellow villagers, the people he would typically encounter without any thought, with hardly any acknowledgement, on his way to the grocery store or five-and-dime, who he secretly admonished to himself for not retrieving their empty recycling bins from the curb once trash collection came through or for playing their music too loud in their cars or for walking on the road with traffic rather than against. Yet these were also the people who came together to help the Johnsons’ when their house caught fire (and twice in one day!) and when Chubz ran away, who turned their lights off in support and solidarity until electricity was restored to the entirety of the Village the time the power went out on Independence Day, who helped to solve the mystery of the spray-painted blue heart on his driveway for heaven’s sake! And they had all come out to greet him, well Santa, but still. It was enough to make Old Man Williams choke up and get teary, but he had a job to do, and he was determined to do it as best he could, to be the greatest Santa Claus this place ever knew (with all due respect to Hank Walters Bryant).

Old Man Williams tossed suckers and gumballs and chocolate drops wrapped in red and green foil with vigor and vim to the eager children below as they scrambled to grab up the candy by the mitten-ful, anxious parents cautioning to “take it slow” and “save some for others — it’s the holidays after all!” He pointed to Walter Bozeman in the crowd, and to Max Chetak, and Pastor Simmons, and Mr. Hernandez, and Timbo Donathon and his daughter Joella, and Chip Caruthers with his sleeping infant son, Chip Junior, in a stroller. There was On-Your-Left, which was what everyone called the guy who ran through the neighborhood and barked “on your left!” when he passed, and the starting lineup of the St. Martins Dragons, the reigning regional Little League champs, who always traveled in a pack. He caught a glimpse of Lizzie Armstrong and Poindexter McGregor locked in a passionate embrace next to the dumpster in front of Poindexter’s house where he was having his hardwood floors refinished (and he actually wished he hadn’t seen that). And he saw poor Hank Walters Bryant, sitting astride the Village golf cart parked in his driveway, dented and broken, the front tires flattened, his thumb in a cast, his arm in a sling, appearing exceptionally loopy from the pain medication and its effects but enjoying the parade nonetheless.

As the sun set over the horizon, the decorations shone exponentially brighter, in brilliant colors that lit up the evening sky. Some residents had gone well overboard, vying tooth and nail for the title of best decorated home and the bragging rights that came with it — along with a twenty-five dollar credit at Lila Durham’s upscale boutique in Poplar Square and a stuffed squirrel wearing a miniature red stocking cap courtesy of Dwayne Weatherly. Harris Maggiano had mechanical reindeer outlined in silver bulbs and the Thingstons’ yard was crammed full with all sorts of inflatables and Etna Pataskata had her collection of hand-made wreathes she fashioned from sprigs of her holly tree (after fending off the flock of sparrows that liked to dine on the berries). The Chichesters’ display not only consisted of thousands of twinkling lights but it played a medley of classic holiday standards. And atop the Johnsons’ house (and what a difficult year it had been for them), a shiny yellow star. It was truly a glorious ride for Old Man Williams.

When the procession reached its destination at the Birchwood Village Church, Officer Chadwick helped Old Man Williams down from the firetruck and escorted him to a chair decked out like a throne draped in fabric of crimson and gold inside the heated tent, then he ordered the children to “be still now” and “be still now, you hear” and had them line up for their turn to sit on Santa’s lap. Old Man Williams listened attentively to each and every request, for more than an hour he guessed, ignoring the cramps in his legs, the stitch in his side, the fact that he hadn’t eaten, what with all the hubbub, his belly churned and growled. He sat there as Santa and listened until all of the children told him what they wanted for Christmas — and all Old Man Williams wanted was to be the Birchwood Village Santa Claus next year (not that he would ever wish ill to befall Hank Walters Bryant, but if something unexpected were to occur again, well that would be a different matter). Old Man Williams sat there and listened to the very last child, who happened to be Young Billy Milner with, of course, his bud, Chubz. Billy didn’t ask for anything, just simply whispered, with a knowing grin, “Glad you could make it this year, Mister … I mean, Santa.”

The Villagers continued to mingle and mix, many wondering aloud why they didn’t do this more often, with cocoa (or hot toddies smuggled in thermoses for those daring adults willing to risk it with Officer Chadwick) and sugar cookies. There was a fruitcake from someone that was politely admired for its festiveness but which went untouched and uneaten. Youngsters who had consumed too many sweets raced about at top speed and playful dogs yipped and barked. A circle of graduate students, winding down from two taxing weeks of finals, kicked around a hacky sack. The renters who shared a two-bedroom suite at the Stonemill Apartments at the end of Blanchard next to the park performed an impromptu Christmas concert on a makeshift stage with their guitars and bongo drums and tambourines, with vocals exuberantly provided by the spirit squad of Crabbe Elementary. Mrs. Shuttleford tapped her feet in rhythm.

It seemed as if this celebration would never end, when suddenly, without warning, everything came to a screeching halt as the power went out in the tent and throughout the neighborhood proper. Everyone looked about, as best they could in the dark, and let out one long, deflated sigh. But then, as suddenly as it went out, the power came back on, to one loud, elated cheer. “Power surge!” shouted Sarah Delaney, who had been spray painting images of blue snowflakes onto the blacktop of the parking lot (with paint she promised would wash off after a few good rains). “From all the lights,” she added as she ran off, clutching her fluorescent safety vest, to investigate. Everyone else resumed what they were doing, enjoying each other’s company, merrymaking and fellowship, soaking in this holiday spirit, led by the unlikeliest of them all, Old Man Williams, the time Santa Claus almost didn’t make it to Birchwood Village.

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This short story is from the collection (Mostly) True Tales From Birchwood Village. A prior installment, “The Time the Johnsons’ House Caught Fire,” was published in The Saturday Evening Post (June 30, 2017).