When the truth is
I miss you.
The truth is
That I miss you so.

Warning Sign

No one knows why these things happen, but say them aloud at the right moment and no one will doubt your integrity. For many years have passed, and each year at that twinkling anniversary I would ask myself why in all the hours of hapless rambling I've done have I never written a Christmas story for my children.

It has always been my favorite holiday and I have not hidden the silly tickling I still feel in my stomach when I see those endless cartoon reruns. They remind me of my childhood. Of laying beneath the tree, smelling the pine, and watching the tiny glowing lamps reflect off glass spheres, creating a small galaxy inside my world around which orbited everything I dreamed.

Despite the religious significance and my Catholic upbringing, Christmas never held any parochial significance for me, but rather, was an exercise in kid hedonism that eventually led me to the presumption that anything, anything at all, was possible if one asked correctly.

And the more pious would provide the scorn of which my greed makes me no doubt worthy. As a child there was little else in the holiday except the wonder of the receipt of gifts.

So it never surprised me that as time went on and I could no longer be amazed or made grateful by the moderate material goods dispensed to me by others, that I buried myself in my work and lost the spirit of the holiday I thought I'd had. First it was college. Working until the 24th, late at night, lab reports, my thesis, take home tests. One hour I'd be poring over books, and the next, have to bring birth to a thorough gratefulness in return for a pen or leather binder I'd have no use for and would inevitably lose.

I didn't see it happening. I felt the spirit of the holiday was indeed buried somewhere in my heart and that I need only mine my conscious intent to bring it back.

But for now, it was work.

Undergrad. Grad school. Then the onset of my career. The continuation. The pursuit of wealth.

I became that accursed lender whose name one applies to the miserly and the loveless. I knew it. It didn't bother me to become Scrooge.

After all. We were all Scrooge. We all worked weekends. We all missed our kids birthday parties, cursed our fellow motorists in Christmas shopping frenzied parking lots, cut in front of each other in line at the grocery stores.

But we were different. Our living rooms burst forth with gifts on Christmas morning. We dropped twenties into the Salvation Army pots and handed out witty gifts to our work mates. We gave our spouses diamonds, and made sure our children had the toys that would make them the envy of their peers.

Our Christmas was a myth we held for the hour per season we allowed ourselves to enjoy reruns of "It's a Wonderful Life", "A Christmas Carol".

And then we got back to the work that needed to be done. After all, Scrooge reformed, handed out his gifts, and remained wealthy and happy for the rest of his years.

This would be us. This would be me.

Into this numbing life sorrow descended like freezing rain. Four years ago I lost my father to terminal cancer. I watched the man wither over two years and die miserably. Over the thirty plus years of my life I had grown to understand him. He'd shepherded me through business. Passed down his hard-learned business know-how, and had become my colleague and my best friend. His death left a hole in my heart that remains unfilled to this day.

Still, I had my wife and children, and the love they provided was the rock upon which I stood to weather the pain of my dad's passing. It was more than enough.

With a lump in my throat I went back to my job and my life, and provided Christmases which I thought could rival any ever enjoyed by the Rockefellers or the Windsors. I showered my family with gifts, remembering the meager fetes my father provided on his small wages as first a shoe salesman, then an office clerk in heavy industry.

They would have things I dreamed of. I would be Scrooge reformed. No amount of money would limit the wishes I would fulfill.

And so, dear ones, what I tell you now you must believe I know to be true, because it happened exactly as I'm about to tell you. As all miracles must seem like dreams, this one started that way.

Two years ago at this very time I was sitting on the sofa, having finished wrapping and admiring the pile of gifts I could provide, a mountain with a peak taller than a small child. Our house guests had just departed. The haze of scotch and wine still lingered but I had one or two more gifts to dig out of the car before my work as a Christmas elf was finished.

My eyes were heavy, burning. I thought I would rest them a minute, then continue.

My lids had hardly closed when I felt someone kicking my foot. I thought at first it was my brother's dog. He'd gone back to the east coast for the holidays and so, as usual, we were dogsitting for Christmas. The dog must need to go out.

Another kick. Firm.

Now I knew it was my wife and I would have to ask her to go upstairs to the bedroom while I finished collecting the last of my booty. I opened my eyes to tell her this when the image and the voice I heard stopped my heart.

"Hey kid."

When I opened my eyes I did not understand what I was seeing. There in the dull reddish orange glow of the Christmas tree lights was a shape. At first I saw only the two blue eyes, and then the body.

In front of me was a young man, no more than eighteen-years old. He wore a sweaty, sleeveless T-shirt. A thin gold chain suspended an Italian horn and a crucifix below his neck

He wore loose chinos, white socks, and penny loafers.

"Kid. Wake up," he said, in a thick New York accent that made me think at first Billy Joel had broken into my home. Then I realized I had been somehow transported into rumble scene in "West Side Story" and at any moment this Italian punk would pull out a gravity knife and threaten my life.

My nerves alight with electric fear, I scanned the room for a weapon. The heavest object at hand was the wrapped razor scooter I'd bought for my youngest daughter.

I grabbed it and held it between us.

"Honey? Call the cops," I screamed.

"You gotta problem, kid?" the youth said.

"Get the hell out of my house. Get out now before you have to spend Christmas Eve in the Santa Clara County lockup," I said, as loud and deep and scary as I could summon. Then I added, yelling again to the stairs, "Honey. Nine one one. Fast."

He ignored me, looked around at the gifts, and said, "Nice spread." I was going to clock him with the razor scooter, but he looked up quickly.

"What's that?" he asked, reaching out with what seemed to be genuine curiosity.

"I'll kill you, you son of a bitch."

"Merry Christmas to you, too, man," he said.

"Screw Christmas. Take what you want and get the hell out before the cops come."

"Screw Christmas?" he said. He ran a hand through his dark curly hair. "Is that what you've learned? All these years, nobody taught you better?"

I picked up the desktop stereo I'd bought my middle kid, knowing full well I could replace it in a post-Christmas sale on the twenty sixth.

"Here. It's a stereo. Take it and go before I bash your brains out. I'll cripple you, you bastard."

He shrugged, raised his hands, and turned a lazy circle in my living room like kids do when nothing they say is understood.

"I don't want the goddamned stereo, idiot."

He reached forward and smacked me on the side of the head. The motion was so fast I had no time to react.

It hurt. I yelped like a puppy.

He laughed.

"I didn't come for this stuff. Is that what you think?"

It passed through my mind I was standing in front of a serial killer. I prayed my wife had managed the call to the police, picked up the scooter and drew it over my shoulder like a baseball bat. My aim was never very good, but I remembered to keep my eye on the ball, that being his head. I hit him as hard as I could. At the very minimum, the pain would disable him. At best, I'd damage his brain to the point his senses would no longer allow him to motate, and commit his heinous evil.

Somehow though, as must always happen when violence is brought to bear in fear against the infinite, when I swung the Razor missed its mark completely, and he appeared two feet to the right of where I had aimed.

"Be cool, man. Chill out," he said. Adrenaline turned my blood to lightning.

Then he said, "You can swing all you want. You know you can't hit me. So think a minute. Use that big brain of yours. Take a break. Cool it."

The words, "cool it," were still running through my mind when he added, "Put down the toy, Joe-babe."

My hands relaxed as if I'd asked them too, but I hadn't.

The difference between dreams and your real life is that when you are dreaming, you don't know you are. But you always know when you're awake in your real life.

"What did you call me?" I asked him in the dream I knew I was having.

"This is a lot of good stuff," he said, ignoring me. "A whole lot. You buying for the whole city?"

"My family," I said.

"How are they?" he asked as if he knew them. "How are the girls? They still doing okay in school?"

"Good," I said. "How do you know my kids?"

He reached forward as if he was going to put his hand on my shoulder but I pulled back without thinking.

"Okay," he said, holding out a palm. "It's cool. I'm not here for them, anyway. I'm here for you."

"Me?" I said, wondering if I hadn't died. Was my guardian angel Bobby Darin?

"You can probably figure out how this works," he said. Then he asked me if I minded if he sat. I told him it was okay and looked down onto him while he dropped onto the sofa.

"You've seen 'A Christmas Carol', what, two hundred times?" he said.

"And you're the ghost of Christmas wop, I suppose," I snapped.

"The last guy who called me that wound up in Bellevue with an arm missing," he said.

"Came to give me a Christmas whacking, then?"

"Aww, cut the crap. You know why I'm here,"

"Sure," I said, getting impatient. "You're going to show me shadows of things that only happen in pizzarias."

"This is going nowhere," he said. He got up, and stepping gingerly over a pile of packages, turned once and said, "It's too bad. There only ever was one ghost, you know. I'll see you later, Joe-babe."

Maybe it was the twinkle in his eye, the way he looked when he knew something you weren't ready to hear. The way he'd sounded like he'd just said he was proud of me. The way he called me what his best friends called him.

I wasn't expecting him as a young man. I'd never known him that way.

"Wait," I said, guts melting. "Are you okay? Please..."

"Don't I look good?" he said.

"Great," I managed.

"You too, kiddo," he said. "I just wanted to tell you one thing. You know how it is? You get to come back once, just to let people know what's going on. I decided this was a good time for you. You always liked Christmas Eve."

"Yeah," I said, my throat tightening.

"You need to cut it out," he said. "This," he pointed to the gifts. "They don't need a frigging pile. But you know that, right?"

I nodded. I did my best. I'd be strong. This was not coming out.

"Do you realize how blessed you are? Open your eyes. You would be just as blessed if you didn't have two cents to your name."

He stepped toward me and put his hands on my shoulders the way he did when I was a kid. This time I didn't back away.

He said, "You think you're so smart. You gotta live your life with these people." He tapped my chest, then looked around at the gifts.

"Inside. You can't get any of that shit in here. Cabish?"

I nodded, because I couldn't speak anymore.

Then he kissed me on the cheek and started away, stepping over the clots of wrapped gifts on the floor. As he went he told me, "You remember I used to write? Wrote that play in college?"

Somehow I told him I did. He opened the front door like a normal person, and paused for a moment.

He said, "You're not so bad yourself," then smiled and went out into the night.

I tried to say, "thanks," but couldn't. It probably didn't matter.

I had to close the door behind him. There was no one outside when I did.

When I turned, my wife had come down the stairs.

"Who the hell was that at this hour?" she said, standing in her nightgown. Her face contorted to alarm when she saw me. "Oh my god. Are you okay? What happened?"

I said the only thing I could think to ask.

"Are we awake?"

She said, "Of course," and wiped a finger against my cheek.

"When was the last time I said I love you?"

"Oh, I don't know," she said, then added, "Come in the kitchen and let me get a tissue. Who the hell would come over at this hour on Christmas Eve?"

You get to be a certain age and you stop believing in things. You think the world has been fooling you and you've grown out of all the myths.

Then things turn. Then you realize how wrong a person can be.

I kissed my lady. I hugged her as tightly as I could.

I told her, "Santa Claus."