Originally written in December 2012
One Christmas Eve, my family and I stopped in at the local family restaurant, Grandma’s. With its name, my brother, Mitchell, and I were always unsure if our car would pull up to a restaurant with stained glass lampshades hanging in the windows or to our grandparents’ warm yellow mobile home across town. Either way, we were getting food out of the it.
The same waitress has worked at the Greek family restaurant for as long as I remember. Her wiry brown hair is always pulled back into a pony tail; any straggling strands are pinned down by her glasses. Her face is bony though her cheeks are a little puffy. She looks like the colonial drawing of “Grandma” on every plastic-sleeved menu.
Mitchell and I place our order with Grandma Waitress, same as always: large chocolate milk with the syrup running down the inside of the plastic cup, Mickey Mouse pancakes with whipped cream eyeballs, cherry pupils, a pineapple grin, and three sausage links. I was seven so I was old enough to order my own food. Mitchell was only five so he still needed Mom’s help telling Grandma Waitress what he wanted. Mom and Dad order the pork roast holiday dinner special: three tender slabs of pork, smothered in gravy, heavily whipped and buttered mashed potatoes, a mound of sweet corn, and a thick slice of cornbread. Mom gets iced tea and Dad gets Pepsi. Their meals come with soup or salad; they both get the baked French onion soup.
Mitchell and I have downed our first cups of liquid chocolate before the waitress brings our parents’ soups and the complementary bread basket adorned with breadsticks, saltine crackers, rolls, and butter packets. Half the saltine crackers are already crushed to powder when the basket reaches the table, which Mitchell and I only manage to spread over the tabletop. We dab the tiny salty flakes with our fingertips until they stick. Then, the mini morsels make their way to our lips and our tongues snatch them into our mouths.
Mom and Dad talk to Mitchell and I about Christmas and ask us if we’ve been good, if Santa will be making a definite stop at our house that night. You’re our parents runs through my mind. Shouldn’t you know if we’ve been good or not?
They broke up an argument that Mitchell and I were having over dinosaur toys the other day. I couldn’t help that he wanted to play with them so his new barn set would have “typical” barnyard animals. The barn was his new birthday present, his birthday being only a week and a half or so before Christmas. Yeah, well, tough. Even Noah’s Ark didn’t have such staples as the Brachiosaurus or the Triceratops, so I told Mitchell that he’d have to get by without them for another hour. Besides, I had already been using the dinosaurs as students in an institution of higher learning built beneath the coffee table. Mitchell couldn’t withdraw all the dinosaurs from their classes halfway through the fall term. It would be detrimental to their career paths and the school’s morale. The scuffle blew over quickly, but like the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs, it left its marks.
So, why did our parents have to question us on whether we’d been good or not? Santa had the final say in it anyway. I mean, he’d be the one making the effort to come to our house, magically shimmying down our chimney, leaving our presents under the tree, levitating back up said chimney, and taking off from the non-existent landing pad that is our roof. All of this while also having indiscreet sleigh bells and a herd of flying reindeer accompanying him throughout the night. It’s a good thing he moves so quickly; otherwise, he probably would’ve been caught on camera or at least by air traffic control by now.
The bell above the front door jingled like sleigh bells. Naturally, a young child’s reaction to such a noise is to search for the herd of reindeer pulling a polished red sleigh. I drop my fork against my plate. The metal utensil clatters against my plate, its echo filling the quiet restaurant. My stare narrows towards the front door where the sound originated.
A glimpse of a red coat with white fur on the cuffs and its collar disappeared behind the booth seat in front of me. I try to lean over, my head knocking my dad’s arm aside as he tried to cut his pork roast dinner. He nudges me away with his arm, whispering “what’s with you?” to me, and I am back to sitting up straight on the cushioned booth seat. The plastic crumples as I shifted my weight back and forth as I try to see who came in through the door.
Above the backrest that my mom and brother are sitting against, a red stocking cap with the iconic white fur bobs with the muffled chuckles of its owner.
Is that? Did he? Could it?
I am sure that Santa Claus just walked into Grandma’s Restaurant. If so, he and Mrs. Claus are browsing the freshly baked desserts in the rotating display case by the front door. I wonder if Santa ate Baklava. I didn’t know what it was; I thought there was meat in it. I didn’t want meat in my desserts and apparently others felt the same because only one of the triangles from the flaky mosaic were missing when my family came in to the restaurant. It looked like the same piece was missing from two weeks earlier when Mitchell and I had come to eat with our grandparents.
“Hi guys, how ya doing?” Grandma Waitress calls through the serving window from the kitchen behind the bar. “Gimme one sec and I’ll be with ya, okay.”
Grandma Waitress was taking her sweet time with mine and Mitchell’s second rounds of chocolate milk. Just put the syrup in, I think. Mitchell and I are fully capable of stirring the drinks ourselves. Just get Santa and Mrs. Claus seated and served.
“Santa,” I mutter, my eyes still watching the bobbing hat above Mitchell’s head.
As if something grabbed my brother’s ankles, he springs up from his seat on the plastic. His hand falls onto his Mickey Mouse pancake, the bubbled cake pressing through the gaps between his fingers. The lake of syrup on his plate surges towards the outer edge of the plate, riding up to the rim before slowing sliding back into the basin.
“Mitchell Alan, what are you doing?” my mother asks.
His eyes clear the mahogany ledge above the back cushion and catch sight of Christmas in the flesh. His jaw unhinges and a gasp begins to rush out when my mother grabs ahold of his wrist. With one swift tug of his arm, she manages to turn him around and have him sitting again. In her other hand, a napkin soaked in condensation from the complementary water glasses begins rubbing the sticky slime from his tiny fingers.
My brother’s eyelids have retreated in the shock and his eyes are wide open, white. I simply nod when we make eye contact. Either Mom and Dad are in on this Santa appearance, simply do not care (not possible), or they haven’t noticed (as if). Wait, Dad just smiled in Santa’s direction. A smile? That’s your best, Dad? You get up from your seat and you bow to that man. You’ve only named your first-born son after him. I was honored to share a first name with St. Nick.
Suddenly, Grandma Waitress whisks Santa and Mrs. Claus to a table diagonal from our table with a “this way, guys.” There is no denying that it was Santa and Mrs. Claus. It is the same couple who are Santa and Mrs. Claus at the VFW Christmas parties that Grandma and Grandpa take Mitchell and I to, so continuity right there said without a doubt that we are dining with the Claus’s. Mitchell’s face becomes as white as the rumpled napkin next to his plate. He is in direct eyesight of Santa. Judgment Day has come for the McDowell boys.
Mitchell only looks at his half-eaten Mickey Mouse pancake. The cherry pupils of Mickey’s pineapple eyes have bled red dye into the golden cakes and the red only reminds Mitchell of the Christmas deity staring at him from across the restaurant. His wary glances creep across the table, up my button down plaid shirt until they find direct contact with mine.
“You think he knows the fight?” Mitchell whispers.
His words are booming since he never really learned how to properly whisper. Santa and Mrs. Claus start snickering across the room. Their giggles are in time with the spoons stirring their coffees. There’s no way they didn’t hear that.
I pause. My lips curl into my mouth as my eyebrows furrow inward. “Smooth” reads across the creases on my forehead.
Mom and Dad bounce quickly in their seats as they try to choke down a laugh. They start discussing grown up things, to which Mitchell and I quickly tune out.
The two of us lean forward in our seats, looking out towards the Claus’s. Our ears rest on table as if we were listening for a heartbeat.
It is all smiles over with the Claus’s. They sip their coffees that were now beige instead of black after all their creamers had been added in. Smiles spread across their faces like the actors in those coffee commercials; I’ve never seen anyone smile after taking a sip of coffee. But Santa and Mrs. Claus are magical so they do. Tiny mounds of torn sugar and creamer packets look like scale models of the snowdrifts bordering the parking lot outside. Mrs. Claus butters a fresh roll while Santa tries picking the cheese from soup out of his pristine beard. Occasionally, the two look up from their meals towards our family’s table, but before eye contact can be made, Mitchell and I have plastered ourselves against the backrests of our seats and stab a hunk of pancake with our forks. I accidentally grabbed a spoon one time. I had to follow through with it if I was going to convince Santa that I’d been eating my food. Surprisingly enough, spoons are not the best utensils to use when attempting to eat platter-sized pancakes in a hurry. Stabbing the fluffy cake quickly enough, I propel a piece into the air with a swooping motion towards my mouth. I manage to slop syrup onto the edge of the table and down the front of myself. I don’t care, I have to be convincing.
“Nick! You’re getting syrup all over your shirt,” my Dad scolds.
“Sorry,” I quickly reply, my extended palm trying to hush my father.
His head shook ever so slightly as he tried to make sense of my behavior. He was going to make mine and my brother’s spying efforts worthless. It’s hard to slyly see if Santa thinks you’re on the naughty list when your dad scolds you for getting syrup on your clothes, which only blows your cover completely. The chances of Santa overlooking this week’s debacle over dinosaurs and barns are looking pretty slim at this point.
Dad grabs a clean napkin from beneath the bread basket and rubs it around his sweating water glass. I look down the row of buttons as the soggy white paper scrubs the syrup off of them like someone using a washboard. Bits of the napkin roll off and cling to the plaid like they are being locked into cells within the shirt’s fabric grid.
As I watch this, snow boots clack to a stop outside our booth. Mitchell’s fork clatters against his plate and makes dull thumps as it hits the taught plastic beside his leg and the thin carpet beneath the table. Snow finds its way through the radio station playing back in the kitchen and Grandma Waitress hums through it. I could hear bits of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” through the static and I turn to see what made my brother drop his fork like I had earlier.
There he stands. Santa Claus. Standing at the edge of our table. The man who we write letters to every year, though he never writes us back. However, the man does come through every year, one way or another, so I figure I shouldn’t say anything about not returning correspondence.
“Hi, how are you doing?” my mom asks.
Santa chuckles and his bunched cheeks turn only more rosy.
“I’m good, thank you,” his voice is hearty and happy. “I just wanted to come and check in on the boys. Make sure they’re behavin’ and all.”
He doesn’t know? I should’ve asked for a pool this year if his system’s so out of whack- some bigger things if his elves were going to be slacking this much. Mitchell and I flash the brightest, widest smiles we could physically create. Our shoulders find their way to our ears, the cute sucker punch that adults eat up and the one that helps you get away with anything. If Santa hasn’t heard about the fight, he isn’t going to hear about the fight. This is our opportunity for certain redemption.
“Well, they’re boys,” my dad says.
Santa chuckles. Okay, Santa understands that boys get into fights. After all, he was a boy at one point. We are good to go present-wise.
“Now, I want you boys to listen to your parents tonight and eat all your pancakes before you head home to bed, all right?”
Mitchell and I become bobbleheads as we agree with every word that came out of his mouth, regardless if it made sense to or not. We treat each nod as if it’s tally for another present to be left beneath our tree.
“Well, I will be stopping by later tonight so be sure you get into bed soon. Have a nice night everyone!”
“You too, Santa,” Mom says, shaking Mitchell’s arm as if it will shake his awe away.
I can only muster a wave and Mitchell grumbles something that sounds like “Bye.”
“Okay, boys, you heard Santa. You gotta finish your food before we can leave.”
And we are off. Mitchell doesn’t even bother getting the fork off the ground; there isn’t time for that. His hands have already been covered in syrup tonight, what’s once more before we leave? I am double-timing it with my fork and the spoon that I mastered a mere five minutes earlier. My dad waves to Grandma Waitress for our bill, callsfor two take-home boxes, and finishes the last of his mashed potatoes. Mitchell and I make sure that our plates are clear by the time Grandma Waitress makes her way to the booth from the kitchen.
I toss the silverware onto my plate again and I start slipping my arms into my coat that had been bunched up next to me. Mitchell starts to mirror me, but Mom puts the kibosh to that once again by wiping off his hands before he puts syrup-covered hands through his coat’s sleeves.
We both slide down the booth seat until we are against our respective parent. Once they don’t budge, or take the hint that it is time to leave, that we have to get home and in bed before Santa can come. We give our parents another bump with our hip when they still can’t take a hint.
“Are you ready to go?” Mom asks, taken-aback.
Mitchell bumps into her for the third time. Then, his impatience had grown too much and he starts climbing over her lap to get out.
“Hold on! Geez, can’t I get my coat on first?” she says firmly, shaking her head. A laugh sneaks into her sigh as she stands up.
Dad follows after Mom and goes to the counter by the front door with the bill in hand. Mitchell and I stop at the front door and turned towards Santa and Mrs. Claus. The excitement rushing through our bodies make us move similar to the potty dance. Mr. and Mrs. Claus look up from their pork roast dinners and wave to us. This is real. This just happened. We could die tonight and be happy. Actually, scratch that. Tomorrow night. That way we can open our presents and play with them. Our arms stay tucked close to our bodies, but we manage to sneak quick waves before barging through the doors out to the car.
That Christmas Eve, we shower, get dressed in our PJs, brush our teeth, and find ourselves in bed by eight-thirty. All of this within ten minutes of getting home. We hold up our end of the bargain and Santa follows through with his in the morning.