Experiment #24

The Year Santa Got Stuck (Part 1 of 2)

A professionally edited and fully designed version of this story appears in Story Lab Magazine Issue I. You can find it on the App Store, the Google Play Store, and the Amazon App Store

One Christmas morning, when we came downstairs, the rear half of a large man in a red suit greeted us. Given that we had no chimney, Mr. Kringle, as we came to call him, (except Dad who always called him Nick) had attempted to push himself through the window and gotten stuck. As Mr. Kringle explained later, his magic works proportionately to the size of the opening, and this being a larger opening, the magic shrank him almost not at all. He’d somehow been able to make it into our house, but having polished off a plate of Mom’s triple chocolate crumble bars, he was significantly rounder on the way out.

From within the window he introduced himself as “Nicholas Christopher Kringle” and gave his address as simply “North Pole.” He apologized to my mother for the inconvenience and thanked her every few minutes for her delicious baked goods.

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” Mom kept saying. She seemed delighted just to have him there. She had not seen him much since her childhood, but she knew just who he was. And more than any adult I’ve ever seen, she believed in this man in our window.

Mr. Kringle had no sack with him, and, as he explained, once he knew he was truly stuck, he sent the sack on ahead with Rudolph and the elves. He was very concerned that no little boys or girls be disappointed.

“They were supposed to come back for me by now,” he said with a chuckled, “Ho ho ho,” and an embarrassed look, “but one of the reindeer probably threw a shoe, and they’ve been delayed.”

It took us a good hour and an entire tub of spreadable butter to get Mr. Kringle out of the window. Once we did, he bowed to my mother and asked if he could come in and sit by the fire while he waited for his ride.

My older brother, Tim, reminded him that we had no chimney and thus no fire, but my Mom shook her head at Tim and offered Mr. Kringle a rocking chair and a warm blanket all the same.

He heartily agreed.

Mom volunteered to wash his butter-soiled clothes, but he chuckled and said the Mrs. would kill him: his coat and trousers were dry clean only.

After a few more hours and a long conversation with my little sister Jamie about why he had not properly “completed” her list, he requested the use of a phone. He’d left his on the charger in the sleigh and hadn’t thought to request it when the elves went on without him. Dad handed him his cell phone and joked about international calling rates. With spreadable butter dripping from his waistcoat, Mr. Kringle punched in a number.

When an automated voice came on the line, Mr. Kringle pressed a few buttons and waded through some awful hold music. His face, however, turned from cheerful to dour as the elf who picked up the phone did not believe his story. After a few minutes of good-natured arguing, he hung up.

His dour face only lasted a moment, though, as he turned to my mother. “My apologies, Ma’am, but I’m going to be here a bit longer than expected. Would you be willing to let me stay here a few nights until this mess is sorted? I’d be in your debt.”

“Absolutely,” Mom said, “we’d be glad to have you.” I’ve never seen my mother that star struck, before or since.

“You’ll definitely be making the nice list this year,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Mom had Dad move his exercise equipment out of the spare room. She asked Jamie to find a new place for her tea parties. And she made Tim and I move our table full of building block airplanes, spaceships, and heavy artillery back into my room.

She made up the spare bed with clean sheets and forbade our dog, Ghengis, from ever again sleeping on it. Mr. Kringle thanked her, kindly, but Ghengis was quite upset.

The next few days passed without much incident except that Mr. Kringle didn’t leave. Every day there was a call to the main line of “The Workshop,” as he called it. And every day his secret passwords and celebrity status would get him nowhere.

“Hmmm,” he’d say to himself, “Now what did I change that password to? Memory’s not so good as it used to be.” Then he’d shake his head and give a great belly laugh, “Ho, Ho, Ho. the Mrs’ll miss me soon enough.”

Days went by, then weeks. Tim and Jamie and I all went back to school. At thirteen and ten, Tim and I were both too old to think of telling our friends about our guest, but at six Jamie was right on target for believing. She told everyone at school. Eventually her teacher, Miss Pritchett, had a phone conference with Mom. Mom smoothed everything out but Miss Pritchett still looked at me funny any time I saw her in the hallway.

Perhaps it was her age, but, of the three of us, Jamie was Mr. Kringle’s favorite. He’d sit and play tea party with her for hours, all the while, very honestly asking how Mr. Bear’s day was and whether Miss Dolly Madison was enjoying her imaginary crumpets.

Don’t get me wrong, he played a lot of video games with Tim and me too, we just weren’t always good sports about it. He had a knack for beating the pants off us. Let me tell you, his jolly, “Ho Ho Ho,” after every victory was not endearing.

Every day he’d call the main workshop line and everyday he’d apologize to my mother that he’d be in her house another day.

“You’re no trouble,” she’d say. “Stay as long as you’d like.

Somewhere along the way Ghengis and Mr. Kringle became the best of friends. Ghengis followed him everywhere around the house. Mr. Kringle would try to teach him new tricks and laugh as the old dog tried to learn them. One Mr. Kringle had particular success with was what he called a “snow devil.” Ghengis would spin around as fast as he could then leap up into the air and grab a piece of bacon or some such out of Mr. Kringle’s mouth.

Mom made a face every time she saw them do it. Out of the side of her mouth she’d say to me, “Don’t tell Mr. Kringle what you found Ghengis eating this morning.”

After a while, Mr. Kringle got a job at the local bookstore to pass the days more productively. That didn’t last long, though. He kept telling customers to consider their books an early Christmas present. A similar incident at the local big box store made him give up on retail. “Too much commercialization anyway,” he’d said.

He bought a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts and wore them everywhere. Apparently Massachusetts is tropical compared to the North Pole.

Weeks passed into months and soon it was spring. I’d find him sometimes with tears rolling down his face, missing his wife and the elves and reindeer. And sometimes I found him pacing and mumbling about schedules and toy manufacturing. Inevitably the next day I’d walk in his room and find intricate paper cutouts or origami folds of snowflakes and dolls and soldiers and balls and animals and rocket ships and tea sets and hair bows. He’d gone through an entire box of paper, page by precisely folded page, before Mom suggested Mr. Kringle use Dad’s wood shop.

“After all,” Mom said to Dad, “He gave you most of those tools anyway.”

Dad objected at first, but with Mom’s reassurances and a few hours of observation, Dad left Mr. Kringle to his work.

In the wood shop, Mr. Kringle thrived. He used to take a hunk of wood and study it for an hour. “There’s a toy in there,” he’d tell me. “I just have to find it.”

Somehow, thirty minutes later he’d turn off the saw and present a fully finished toy. He so skillfully used the saw blade and so intelligently followed the curve and flow of the wood grain that the toy wouldn’t need much sanding, it would come out almost smooth.

He could have made a fortune three times over if he’d been willing to sell a few, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “They’re for the children,” he’d say. So when he’d sawed through our woodpile and cut down all the trees Mom and Dad would let him, he resorted to scraps of wood and sticks he’d gather in the woods. He found the toys even in these and believe it or not, with the extra challenge, his work improved.

He helped us with our homework too. His first hand advice got Tim an A on his Arctic Circle research paper. His knowledge of countries and time zones saved me on more than one occasion. And then there was Jamie’s Jamestown diorama, or “Jamiestown” as she called it. Lets just say Ms. Pritchett had never seen such intricately carved log cabins in thirty-seven years of teaching.

One day I got curious and called the number for The Workshop. “Federal credit union of Omaha,” the voice on the other line said. I got scared and hung up. I asked Mr. Kringle about it the next day, but he just laughed.

“Of course they say that,” he said. “They couldn’t very well say, ‘Santa’s workshop,’ could they? I’d have to hire all the polar bears and walruses just to answer the phones.”

Experiment #25

The Year Santa Got Stuck (Part 2 of 2)

A professionally edited and fully designed version of this story appears in Story Lab Magazine Issue I. You can find it on the App Store, the Google Play Store, and the Amazon App Store

When school let out and we went to the beach for a vacation, Mr. Kringle came along. He wore an inter-tube, a snorkel, and a slathering of sunscreen wherever we went. “The beaches at the North Pole aren’t nearly so warm,” he’d mutter through his rosy-cheeked sunburn. He wasn’t nearly so jolly those two weeks, but he faced it bravely.

He passed most summer days in the wood shop. He’d worked out a deal with the local lumberyard owner to trade a few of his “wood sculptures” (as he called them to adults) for logs. And thus he kept himself readily supplied with raw materials.

Most summer nights we’d play board games, but no matter what game we played, Mr. Kringle always won. “Five hundred years of experience,” he’d say as he raked in the Monopoly cash or sent me home in Trouble or told Jamie to “Go fish.”

Before we knew it, Fall was upon us. The leaves turned vibrant oranges and brilliant yellows and luscious reds. One morning I found Mr. Kringle out on the back deck looking at the trees. He wiped tears from his eyes. “They’re just so beautiful,” he said.

Eventually Mr. Kringle’s regular calls to The Workshop spluttered to a halt, skipping a day here, then calling for a week, then skipping three days and calling five until he just stopped all together.

In early October, Ghengis got sick. The vet said he had “necrotizing pancreatitis,” which, terrible as it sounds, is treatable, but after the treatment began to work he got blood clots. One went to his brain and that was it. We all loved him, but Mr. Kringle took it hardest. He spent three whole days carving a memorial. It’s the most life-like wooden sculpture I’ve ever seen.

“Nick, what are you going to do with all these toys?” Dad asked one morning in mid November. The workshop out back was bursting at the seams and several hundred more were in storage. Mr. Kringle had taken to working eighteen hours a day in the shop. And, “to meet demand,” as he put it, he studied less and cut more quickly leaving Tim and I to sand down the rough edges. “You have so many,” Dad continued. “What are you going to do with them?”

“So many?” Mr. Kringle asked. “There aren’t even enough for the county!”

“You can’t be serious,” Dad said.

“I’m always serious about toys,” Mr. Kringle said.

Dad stared at him, mouth open. Finally Dad threw up his hands, shook his head and went back to the house. Mr. Kringle went right back to work.

The day after Thanksgiving Mr. Kringle paused his carving long enough to help us decorate the tree and sing some Christmas carols. He somehow remembered every ornament on the tree, even the ones from when Mom was little.

He lifted Jamie up so she could put the star on top, but she was heavier than he’d expected. With a shriek and a shout they fell into the tree and brought the whole thing down on themselves. Mr. Kringle roared with laughter and Jamie after nursing a sulk for a minute couldn’t help but join in.

Mom rushed into the room from the kitchen, Christmas apron newly stained with flour and butter and chocolate. “Are you alright?” she asked. She saw the tree on the floor and Jamie and Mr. Kringle laughing in the midst of it and she burst into tears. Dad went over to comfort her. Tim grabbed a tissue, but she waved him off. “No, Timothy,” she said, “they’re tears of joy.”

As the first two weeks of December came and went, and the toy pile grew larger, but his goal grew ever more elusive, Mr. Kringle would stop his work and take long walks by himself. We never knew exactly where he went or how long he’d be gone, but he always came back in a better mood.

Christmas Eve night I had a terrible stomach bug and couldn’t go to the service with the rest of the family. Tim stayed home with me as Mom was working in the nursery and Dad was working the soundboard. Mr. Kringle was still very busy with his toy making and hadn’t left the wood shop all day. I laid down on the couch to watch a movie and Tim went up to his room to read.

Just as the movie was getting good, Mr. Kringle came in the house with Dad’s old army duffel bag over his shoulder. He stopped by the couch, set down the sack, and began rifling through it. “Normally you should be asleep when this happens,” he said, “but you’ve been very good this year.” He pulled out the memorial he’d carved for Ghengis, and handed it to me.

“No, I can’t,” I said.

“It’s yours,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

“He was a good dog,” I said.

“He was the best dog,” Mr. Kringle said. He smiled.

He heaved the sack back over his shoulder. “I’ve had a lot of fun this year,” he said with uncommon gravity. “Merry Christmas!” He walked to the front door and left.

I tossed off my blankets and ran to the door. I threw it wide, somehow knowing he wasn’t coming back.

“Wait!” I shouted, “Don’t go!”

He turned back toward me with the widest smile I’ve ever seen. A light snow had begun to fall.

“Nicholas, my boy, I have to go,” he said to me. “It’s Christmas Eve.” He smiled and turned toward his mission.

“I love you, Grandpa,” I said quietly.

He turned back once more and faced me. “I love you too.” Then he shifted his bag, adjusted his cap, smiled, and walked into the night.

Dad went right back out to look for him when he got home and Mom called all of their friends and every place she could think of looking for him.

Mom’s calls turned up nothing, and it was late before Dad came home alone.

No sugar plums danced that night.

We went through our Christmas morning traditions as usual, but there always seemed to be an empty chair.

After the morning festivities Dad got dressed and went out to look for him. Before he pulled away though, Mom called him back. He held her close as she handed him a tear soaked smart phone.

He looked at it and read the news headline: Santa Shot and Killed During Home Invasion.

We had his funeral on New Year’s Eve. The service was not well attended, but the pastor prayed long and hard.

The next day the five of us loaded up the van and took turns handing out the wooden toys to kids throughout the county. It took eight full loads to give them all out.

Near the end, one little girl asked me, “Why are you doing this?”

“Mr. Kringle wanted you to have it,” I said.

She stared at me while she fingered the wooden tea set, intricately carved and delicately painted.

“He wanted to come himself, and come on Christmas, but… he wasn’t… he wasn’t able to,” I said.

“Are you one of his elves?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I am.”

“Do elves get Christmas presents too?” she asked.

As I opened my mouth, Dad interrupted. “They don’t need them,” he said, “they get the best gift of all.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“They get to be with Santa,” he replied, “all year long.”

It has been many years since my grandfather died, but every year on Christmas Eve I leave a window open.