The cell phone vibrated in Kurt’s pocket. He grabbed it before the Pink Panther theme blasted out in the candlelit dining room. “Yeah,” he answered, too rushed to check the caller ID. He was surprised to hear his wife’s voice.
“Are you busy?” Courtney asked.
“I’m always busy.” Kurt managed the Chez Henri, a black-tie restaurant in Park City.
“You have to go to the ward party tonight. Bishop Nielson needs a Santa. The fellow from second ward got sick at the last minute.”
“What?” Kurt had forgotten all about the ward Christmas party tonight. “That’s impossible.”
“I told Bishop Nielson you’d do it. He’s desperate.”
Kurt felt his blood pressure rise. It was Christmas Eve and the diners were in a holiday mood. “I’ve got a restaurant to run.”
“Tell that to the bishop.”
Kurt knew he’d lost the argument. “All right. When do I have to be there?”
“Ten minutes ago. The program’s already started.”
Kurt explained the situation to Zack, his assistant manager.
“Hey, you’re covered.” Zack was an over-achieving college student, single, and eager to work extra hours. “Your family needs you tonight, man.”
Kurt grimaced. “Merry Christmas. Ha, ha, ha.”
Fifteen minutes later he walked through the meetinghouse doors. The sound of children’s voices singing “Christmas Bells” came from the cultural hall.
Bishop Nielson was waiting in the foyer. He rushed up to grab Kurt’s hand, obviously nervous. Perspiration glistened on his balding head. “Thanks for coming on such short notice.” They hurried down the hall. “Change in my office,” the bishop said. “I’ll wait out here.”
The Santa suit lay draped on a chair. A box containing the white, fuzzy beard and red hat had been left on the desk. Black, one-size-fits-all irrigation boots completed the outfit. Kurt knew why Bishop Nielson had asked him to fill in. No extra padding was needed for the suit. As he flung the large black garbage bag of goodies on his back, he had only one worry.
“I don’t want my kids to know I’m Santa,” Kurt said, closing the door behind him.
“The beard hides your face.” Bishop Nielson patted Santa on the back. “You’re a natural.”
The bishop escorted him up the steps of the curtained stage at the far end of the cultural hall. “Watch for Sister Skinner’s clue,” he said and left Kurt on his own, itching his whiskers.
Kurt plunked the heavy bag next to the decorated Christmas tree and parted the curtain a crack, searching for his family. The room was crowded. He found his boys in the choir, singing “Silent Night”. Ten-year-old James wore his plaid bathrobe. A towel was tied on his head with a rope to make him look like a shepherd. Seven year-old Sam wore an aluminum foil crown. Where was McKenna, his five year-old daughter? Not surprised, he spotted her dressed as an angel with a golden halo and cardboard wings.
Courtney looked like an angel too, smiling sweetly at the children. The chair next to her was empty as if she had been saving it for him. Kurt wished he could be seated there right now. He was perspiring in the furry, red suit.
Sister Skinner said, “Boys and girls, let’s sing “Jingle Bells”. If we sing it loud enough, I think Santa might hear.” The pianist played a short introduction and then the children joined in. Some sang, “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg.”
“Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” Kurt shouted as the curtain parted.
Everyone clapped and cheered and for one crazy moment he felt like a movie star.
Bishop Nielson took the microphone. “Santa has taken time out of his very busy schedule to be here tonight.”
You got that right, Kurt thought.
“He has gifts for each of the children. Let’s form a line and one by one, Santa will listen to what you want for Christmas.”
Sister Skinner led the children to the stage door. Parents with cameras stood ready. With a deep sigh, Kurt sat in the metal folding chair next to the Christmas tree and opened the black plastic bag. He hoped Santa didn’t lay an egg tonight.
One by one, the children climbed on his lap. Kurt asked what they wanted for Christmas and listened, nodding as though every wish was granted. Then he gave each child a paper sack filled with Christmas candies, peanuts, and an orange.
Kurt knew the parents were trying to guess his identity. So far, none had. As his family approached on line, he heard a friend ask Courtney, “Where’s Kurt?”
“He had to work tonight? That’s too bad.”
She laughed. “He practically lives there.”
Kurt winced at the sarcasm in her voice.
Courtney took pictures while the boys sat on Santa’s lap. Sam, the ten-year old, asked for a four-wheeler.
“Ho, ho, ho,” Kurt laughed. Not on your life, he thought. A remote control, maybe.
Seven year-old Jimmy asked for an Xbox.
“Ho, ho, ho.” In your dreams, Kurt thought. Maybe when your math grades improve.
And then five-year old McKenna sat on his lap. “You can’t fool me,” she said, fidgeting with her halo. “I know you’re not Santa. My daddy is Santa. He puts the presents under the tree. Mommy helps him too.”
“Ho, ho, ho!” Smart kid, Kurt thought. “What do you want for Christmas, little girl?”
McKenna leaned close and whispered in his ear, “When you come to our house, break the TV.”
“You want a new TV?”
“No, I want you to break our TV. The big one in the living room.”
Kurt stiffened. What was she thinking? He’d bought that TV last summer. It cost over a thousand dollars, a lot of late nights at the Chez. “Why?” he asked, forgetting to disguise his voice.
“Daddy’s at work all the time,” she said, “When he comes home, he just sits in front of the TV. He doesn’t play with me. He doesn’t even talk to me.”
“Ho, ho, ho.” Kurt laughed but he felt nervous. He was tired when he came home from the restaurant--definitely not up to playing with a five year-old. Didn’t she know that her daddy had to work? He’d explain that to McKenna when he got home. But then he remembered—he wasn’t going home after the party. He had to return to the restaurant. Kurt probably wouldn’t get home until after midnight tonight and McKenna would be sound asleep by then.
“Boys, hurry. Stand next to Santa,” Courtney said. Jimmy and Sam crowded close on each side. “Smile.” Courtney clicked the picture.
Kurt glanced at his daughter. She didn’t smile.
“Thanks, Santa,” Courtney said, blowing him a kiss.
Kurt watched her help McKenna with her coat and mittens. He wanted to go home with them. It was strange, watching his family leave. Without him.
Later in the bishop’s office, Kurt looked like himself again in his suit and tie. Bishop Nielson stood at the desk folding the red suit. “We had a good turn-out,” he said. “Almost all the candy bags are gone.”
“Santa gave me a gift too,” Kurt said.
“Oh? What’s that?”
“A new perspective,” he said, pulling on his coat. Kurt smiled as he left the bishop’s office. He was going home to spend Christmas Eve with his family.