Pink Santa is a Christmas novelette of twelve chapters, posted serially by me, your involuntarily flakey host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Anybody out there into dream interpretation? Carl? Sigmund? For ten days I have dreamed of a white rat. The white rat is not the focus of any particular dream narrative, but rather makes cameos at surprising moments. Before making an appearance the white rat is preceded by loud scraping and scuttling sounds from dark corners or from inside the walls.
I have determined that, if picked up, the white rat will not bite me. In my dreams it seems important to me to communicate to people that, in my opinion, the rat is not rabid.
It's a strangely persistent image. Dreams are funny. Go figure.
And now, on to the climax of our Christmas tale:
On the Bridle Path beyond tall iron gates the Baron Estate was aglow for the holidays, its every arch and gable decked out in winking Christmas lights and every threshold festooned with boughs of plastic mistletoe.
As the sun set the estate's driveway became a traffic jam of delivery trucks, catering vans and taxis. Mr. Baron himself was stationed at the front doors, greeting each cluster of guests as they stamped the slush off their boots and handed their parcels to footmen dressed as elves.
"Aunt Melody, how wonderful to see you!" crooned Mr. Baron jovially. "Uncle Nathan, you're looking fabulous! Come in, come in."
Around the back of the house at the staff entrance was a line of very busy people ferrying in cakes and candies, and among them was poor Mrs. Green trying to balance a giant armload of wrapped gifts. "Oh dear!" she said as she slipped on a patch and ice and juggled the gifts to keep them from falling.
Someone caught her arm, and helped her find steady footing. "Thank you!" she said, and then turned around to see Santa Claus, comlete with a fur-trimmed red suit, black boots and a flowing white beard.
"Ho ho ho," said Santa Claus. "Watch your step, Mrs. Green my dear."
Mrs. Green smiled. "I hadn't realized Mr. Baron had hired a genuine Santa Claus this year," she said.
"Well," said Santa, "someone has to hand out all of those lovely gifts you've bought."
Mrs. Green hugged the gifts to her. "I hope I haven't forgotten anyone on Mr. Baron's list."
Santa smiled through his beard. "Don't you worry, my dear," he said, "I've brought some gifts of my own. No one will go wanting."
Mrs. Green looked at Santa's little wagon filled with two large sacks and a collection of boxes. One of the sacks jiggled. Mrs. Green seemed puzzled. "Did one of those presents just hiccup?" she asked.
"It must be a talking doll," said Santa quickly.
"Of course," agreed Mrs. Green. Then she said, "I wonder why this is taking so long!" She craned her head around to try to see to the front of the line.
As the line advanced the situation at the staff entrance became more clear: two burly private security guards were stopping everyone at the threshold to ask them questions and examine their packages. "Let me see your purchase order," said one of the guards to a baker.
Despite the fact that the guards were standing under a bough of mistletoe they did not kiss.
"I'm not sure I have anything I can show them," Santa Claus said quietly to Mrs. Green. "I was hired over the telephone. I'm filling in for a fellow who came down with the flu."
"Don't you fret," said Mrs. Green, "I'll vouch for you. Who made the arrangements with you?"
Santa hesitated. Finally he said, "Chloe."
Mrs. Green furrowed her brow. "I don't know any Chloe at the office..."
"Chloe is a little girl," added Santa Claus. "She said you were very nice to her. She said..." he paused, and then leaned closer to one of the sacks in his wagon. "She said you tried to arrange a grilled cheese sandwich for her."
"Oh my goodness," exclaimed Mrs. Green. "Chloe from Saint Anne's? There's an alert out -- the police are searching everywhere for her! Do you know where she is?"
Santa said nothing, but one of the sacks in his wagon fidgeted. Mrs. Green looked up sharply. Santa gave her a sheepish smile. "Mrs. Green," he said very seriously, "I think you are aware that your employer is not as well acquainted with the true meaning of Christmas as would be ideal."
Mrs. Green looked around quickly, then nodded agreement.
Santa continued, dropping his voice to a whisper: "Let me trust you with this secret, my dear: Chloe has brought me here tonight in order to help Mr. Baron understand what the holidays are really all about."
"Who are you?" asked Mrs. Green nervously.
"I'm a friend to everyone who loves Christmas," he told her gravely.
"This is very peculiar," she Mrs. Green. "I don't think I can vouch for you. I could lose my job. What are you going to do?"
Santa reached over and picked one of the gifts out of his little wagon, and handed it to Mrs. Green. "Peek under the paper," he said.
She did. "Why, this is one of our toys. It's a Baron toy."
"That's right," said Santa. "What we'd like to do tonight is to make sure that every member of Mr. Baron's family receives a Baron Toys gift."
"But Mr. Baron told me very clearly where I was to shop," said Mrs. Green, casting a worried eye at the staff entrance as the line advanced. "He wants the finest of the fine for his family -- expensive collector toys, every one of them."
Santa sighed. "Doesn't it seem odd to you, Mrs. Green, that he doesn't consider Baron Toys products to be good enough for his own family?"
Mrs. Green had to admit that it was odd indeed. "There's no denying that," she said. "Is that all you intend to do -- to switch the presents?"
"That's it," said Santa. "I think everything else will take care of itself."
They were almost at the staff entrance. Mrs. Green looked back and forth between Santa Claus in his red suit with white trim and the unsmiling security guards flanking the door. "I don't know what the proper thing to do is," confessed Mrs. Green, hugging her packages.
Santa Claus touched the side of his nose and winked. "You must do what you feel is right, of course," he told her.
The security guards faced Mrs. Green and Santa Claus. "Name and purpose?" asked one of the guards. Santa looked over at Mrs. Green.
She said, "I'm Natalie Green, Mr. Baron's executive assistant, and this gentleman is tonight's Kris Kringle. We're quite behind schedule and we don't have time for any shennanigans."
"We've been ordered to check every package," said the second guard.
"Nonsense!" barked Mrs. Green in her best imitation of Mr. Baron. "There's going to be big trouble unless these presents are under the tree by six o'clock, and I'll tell you right now that trouble has your name on it." She awkwardly managed to pull a small telephone out of her purse. "Shall I call Mr. Baron right now to sort all this out?"
The guards looked at each other, shrugged, and then waved Mrs. Green and Santa Claus through the door. "Merry Christmas!" called Santa.
"Let's keep it moving, pops," said the guard.
"Ho ho ho!"
A moment after Santa and Mrs. Green disappeared inside the house Stewart came upon the line and scanned it with his sharp eyes. "Anything unusual?" he asked the guards in a cold, clipped tone.
"Not really," said the nearest guard.
Stewart nodded, pulled his overcoat tighter around him, and then continued his patrol around the grounds.
In the mud room of Mr. Baron's giant house Santa pushed his little wagon behind a rack of coats and then gave the kids the signal to come out. Mike and Chloe pushed out of the burlap sacks and breathed a breath of fresh air. "Goodness!" exclaimed Mrs. Green. "There are two of you!"
"This is my friend Mike," said Chloe. "He's helping save Christmas."
"Hi," said Mike.
Mrs. Green watched in baffled wonder as the kids got busy unloading boxes of Baron Toys products from the wagon. "Now," explained Santa Claus, "we need to switch the gifts you've bought, Mrs. Green, for these ones. I suggest you leave so that you don't get in any trouble with your boss."
Mrs. Green nodded but she did not leave. She wrung her deeply lined, brown hands together and then touched the tiny silver crucifix hanging around her neck. "I want to help, too," she said at last.
So Mrs. Green helped Mike and Chloe unwrap the boutique boxes and put the glossy paper in place over the Baron Toys boxes, making sure each label stayed in place. "This one is for Mr. Baron's third cousin twice removed," she said, passing over a box. "It's a hand-carved wooden doll house."
"Let's replace that with a plastic Baron Toys Dollyshack Subscription Starter Set," said Santa.
Mrs. Green grabbed another box. "This is a robot puppy from Japan."
"Swap it for a Baron Toys Pound Friend."
"What about these die-cast soldier toys?"
"Operation Desert Storm Action-Play Platoon Lite."
"And this arts and crafts set?"
"Baron Toys Disposable Crayon Factory."
When the exchanges were complete Mrs. Green gave Santa and the kids a sharp salute, then took a big breath and carried the gifts away to the livingroom to put them under the giant Christmas tree. "Come on," said Santa. The three friends left the mud room and cut through the busy kitchen, then turned down a corridor lined with suits of armour standing in mahogany niches along the walls.
"I think somebody's following us," whispered Chloe urgently.
"Quickly now, children," urged Santa. They rushed past the suits of armour and turned into another hallway lined with hanging tapestries.
"It's a maze!" said Mike. "Where should we hide?"
They could hear footsteps approaching from behind them. "Mike, hide behind these curtain things!" cried Chloe, slipping behind a tapestry and making it push out in a conspicuously girl-shaped bulge.
Mike and Santa spun around to see a man walk into the hallway, blocking their only route of escape. The man was wearing a butler's tuxedo beneath his dark overcoat. His eyes narrowed. "Stop right there!" he commanded.
Chloe quivered behind the tapestry.
"Maybe you can help us," said Santa, "we seem to be lost."
The butler walked closer, his eyes fixed on Brother Dominick and his festive costume. "I know who you are," he said crisply. "Mr. Baron told me to be ready for you."
Brother Dominick opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Mike hugged his leg, hiding behind the furry trim of his red coat.
"You're the ones who have been working against Mr. Baron," continued Stewart the butler in a cold voice. "You're the ones who tried to sabotage the factory."
He came to a halt right in front of Brother Dominick, so that they were practically touching nose to nose. Brother Dominick said, "What are you going to do with us?"
Stewart hardened his mouth into a thin line. He grunted, "Come with me."
Brother Dominick and the kids had no choice. There was nowhere to run. Reluctantly, they followed the butler as he led them through another maze of corridors filled by works of art. They went up a spiral staircase and down another corridor, then the butler opened a door and gestured at his captives to go inside.
It was a washroom that smelled like pot pourri. Brother Dominick was puzzled. "Why are we here?" he asked.
"Because," said the butler, picking up a sharp razor that glinted under the washroom lights, "unless we get that beard shaved off Mr. Baron is going to recognize you right away."
Chloe said, "You mean you're on our side?"
Stewart gave her a prim little smile. "Now now," he said, "let's not dawdle."
"But Santa can't shave off his beard," protested Mike. "That's what makes him Santa!"
Brother Dominick knelt down on one knee next to Mike. "My boy, looking like Santa isn't important. There are lots of people who look like Santa at Christmastime. What matters is acting like Santa, and I can do that no matter what I'm wearing and no matter what's on my face. Being Santa is about doing, and we know what needs to be done, don't we?"
Mike nodded, but he still seemed worried. "Will it hurt Santa?" he asked the butler.
Stewart shook his head. "Not one bit," he promised.
"Well..." said Mike. "Okay."
Downstairs in Mr. Baron's massive livingroom all the members of his family had gathered to open gifts. A man was playing carols on the grand piano accompanied by a woman with a violin. From the kitchen wafted the smells of a delicious dinner: turkey and stuffing, yams and yorkshire pudding.
Old Mr. Baron Senior sat in a big cozy armchair surrounded by his sons and daughters and cousins, with a blanket over his legs and a cane with a shiny top leaning at his side. The relations had all brought their children, and they were dressed in their best clothes.
Old Mrs. Baron, Mr. Baron's mother, called the children to sit down in a big circle as she began taking gifts from beneath the tall, tall Christmas tree. She read out the first label, "This one is for Virginia," she said. "Come here and take your present, darling."
Mr. Baron was holding a drink, standing next to his father's chair. He flashed a big smile at everyone as he stroked his thin mustache.
A little girl in a green dress stood up from the circle of children and approached her grandmother. "There you are, sweetheart," said Old Mrs. Baron, handing a gaily wrapped gift to Virginia.
Virginia sat down and began unwrapping the box.
"This is something really special," Mr. Baron whispered to his father. "It's a collectible."
"Oh, indeed?" said Old Mr. Baron politely.
Virginia reached inside the box and took out a plastic doll, just like the one Chloe had held when it's head popped off in the department store. Mr. Baron frowned. "It's a dolly!" giggled Virginia, holding it up by the arm for everyone to see.
Mr. Baron looked very confused. "That can't be right..." he muttered.
Just then the doll's arm tore off. The doll dropped to the floor and its head cracked. Virginia looked down. For a second her mouth was fixed in an O-shape of surprise, but it disappeared as she began to wail. "Dolly!" she cried.
Mr. Baron rushed into the middle of the circle, accidentally knocking over one of his nephews. "Don't carry on now, Virginia -- we'll get that taken care of by tomorrow morning."
Virginia looked up, tears running down her cheeks. "You can fix my dolly?"
"Even better," said Mr. Baron, "we'll replace it. You'll get a whole new dolly! That's how Baron Toys works, child."
"But...what about my dolly?" asked Virginia, cradling the broken doll in her arms. "She's hurt."
"That's not even what you were supposed to get," Mr. Baron said, stomping over to the Christmas tree. "Now where's your real present? Let me see here. There must have been a mix-up." He dug through the pile, tossing gifts aside after tearing their paper back to peek at the boxes underneath. "I don't understand at all...this is all wrong! These are all our toys."
Old Mr. Baron leaned forward in his armchair and frowned. He tapped his cane on the floor. "Now why should that be a mix-up, son?"
Mr. Baron was becoming quite agitated. "These are subscription toys. They're meant for the mass market, not for us. It's all about a sustained revenue stream through pay-in-advanced replacement packages!"
Old Mr. Baron shook his head. "What?" he exclaimed.
"Don't worry," said Mr. Baron. "Someone will get fired over this, let me assure you."
Old Mr. Baron leaned on his cane and slowly rose from the armchair. Everyone grew quiet as they watched him carefully hobble over to the Christmas tree. Stewart tried to help but Old Mr. Baron waved him off angrily, leaning down to scoop up a gift. He unwrapped it to reveal a Baron Toys Police Patrol remote-control car. The wheels fell off as soon as he slipped it out of the box, bouncing to the floor and rolling under a pastry cart.
Two of the younger kids crawled under the cart to chase the little wheels. They upset the cart, which crashed to the floor and spilled pastries everywhere. The man playing the piano and woman playing the violin fell silent as a brace of elves rushed out of the kitchen to clean up the mess.
"Oh, son..." said Old Mr. Baron sadly, shaking his head. "This is not good at all. No sir, not at all."
Mr. Baron looked desperate. "But, Father!" he exclaimed; "Have you seen our financial reports this year? I've tripled our profits -- tripled! Baron Toys is making money hand over fist. We're going to be number one in North America!"
Old Mr. Baron sidled over beside Virginia and gave her a hug. "Come sit with Grandpa," he cooed to her. She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her green dress and leaned against her grandfather. Old Mr. Baron looked up at his son. "R. P.," he said seriously, "I can see that it was a mistake to put you in charge of our family business."
"Father, didn't you hear me?" cried Mr. Baron. "I said I've tripled our profits!"
Old Mr. Baron sighed again. "Son, do you know what a toy company actually makes?"
"Well of course!" snapped Mr. Baron. "We manufacture products for the juvenile play market."
"Wrong," said Old Mr. Baron. He pulled himself up on his cane and stood, facing his son face to face. Everyone was watching. Old Mr. Baron licked his wrinkled old lips and said, "A toy company makes children happy."
"But, Father!" whined Mr. Baron.
Old Mr. Baron held up his hand to silence his son. "Tell me, R. P., does this child look happy to you?"
Virginia sucked a string of snot up her nose and looked at her uncle, her eyes puffy from crying. She was still cradling her broken doll.
Chloe couldn't stand to watch anymore. She burst out from under a table of cakes and ran straight into the middle of the ring of children who were staring open-mouthed at the discussion between the two Barons. Chloe unzipped her knapsack and pulled out Polly the dolly.
"Here," she said, holding Polly out to little Virginia. "This dolly's name is Polly, and her arms don't rip off."
"She's pretty," said Virginia.
"You...you can have her," said Chloe, wiping a tear away from her own eye. "Um, she likes to eat pretend crackers and drink pretend apple juice. She's a really good friend."
Virginia took Polly and gave her a hug. "I like her," said Virginia.
"Yeah," said Chloe, "I like her, too. Merry Christmas, Virginia."
"But what about the broken dolly?" Virginia asked.
Chloe showed Virginia the broken doll head inside her knapsack. "I tell you what," said Chloe, "she can live with this broken dolly, and they can both be friends with each other. Maybe I can even fix them, if I learn sewing or something."
"Your bag is a dolly hospital," observed Virginia.
"Yeah, it is," agreed Chloe. "Don't worry: they're not sad in there."
Virginia started to smile, but stopped as Mr. Baron rushed over and grabbed Chloe's knapsack out of her hands. "You're a thief, girl!" he shouted. "Nobody told you that you could keep this product."
Old Mr. Baron held up a liver-spotted hand. "Now now, R. P., let's try to stay calm."
"You don't understand!" yelled Mr. Baron, looking around the room. "This girl was with the people who broke into your factory, Father, to try to stop us from making our shipments on time. She's a criminal!"
Something had caught Old Mr. Baron's eye. He was staring across the room to the door to the kitchen where several members of the household staff had gathered to see what all the commotion was. Beside Stewart the butler stood a rotund old fellow with a wrinkled, cleanly-shaven face and sparkling blue eyes. He was wearing red pants and a stretched T-shirt that said BARON TOYS CHARITY PICNIC 1991.
Old Mr. Baron squinted. "Dominick?" he said. "Could it be you?"
Brother Dominick nodded. "It's been a long time."
Mr. Baron's face turned purple. "That's him!" he screamed. "That's the leader of the terrorists who broke into our factory! He's kidnapped this girl and brainwashed her! Stewart: call the police at once!"
Stewart didn't move. Old Mr. Baron shambled over and shook Brother Dominick's hand, and then pulled him into a hug. He turned back to his son with a dark, dark expression his face. "R. P., this man is a member of the Order of Saint Nicholas."
"I know, Father. He tried to --"
Old Mr. Baron held up his hand for silence again. "Our company has been donating toys to the charitable works of his order since my father's time," he said gravely. "If the spirit of Christmas truly lives anywhere, it is in the brothers of Saint Nicholas."
"They tried to sabotage us," sulked Mr. Baron.
"I told you about them so you could help them," said his father. "And now you want to have this man arrested? I simply can't believe what I'm hearing. Have you lost your mind, son?"
Mr. Baron said, "Business is business, Father."
"No, son," said Old Mr. Baron, "business is a means to an end. And I think you've shown us all here tonight that you've lost sight of that end. Dollars and cents aren't any good by themselves -- it's what you use them for that makes good things happen."
"But what about the shareholders?" asked Mr. Baron desperately.
"The shareholders have children, too," said Old Mr. Baron. "And I think they will be happy to know that I'm relieving you of duty. As much as it pains me to do it, son, you leave me no choice: you're fired."
"I'm..." Mr. Baron stuttered, his mustache quivering. "I'm -- what?"
"You're fired," repeated Old Mr. Baron.
"But Daddy!" whined Mr. Baron. "You simply can't!"
Old Mr. Baron fished his wallet out of his pants and opened it up. He peeled out a handful of bills. "Now, why don't you run out and buy these children some real toys? They don't need collectibles any more than they need plastic junk that breaks."
"You want me to go...shopping?" said Mr. Baron, shocked.
"Yes, I do."
Mr. Baron called for Mrs. Green, who timidly peeked out of the kitchen. Old Mr. Baron shook his head. "No, son. I don't want you to delegate. I want you to find the presents. I want you to choose each one, and to decide what will make each of your nieces and nephews and cousins most happy."
"But I have no idea what children like," protested Mr. Baron. "I'm a grown man, Daddy!"
That's when Mike popped up from the under the cake table, brushing chocolate icing off his face. He said, "I'll help you, Mr. Baron. I'm a kid. I know what kids like."
"You..." said Mr. Baron slowly, "you're the one who called me a bad man."
"That's okay," explained Mike, "I forgive you."
"...You forgive me?" echoed Mr. Baron, his mustache drooping. "I don't understand."
Brother Dominick chuckled. He took Mike's hand and put it in Mr. Baron's hand. "Don't fret, Baron, you'll catch on. Mike is a very good teacher."
And so Mike and Mr. Baron drove off in a taxicab to do some last minute shopping, and everyone else sat down at the diningroom table to enjoy a wonderful meal. There was gravy and cranberry sauce, ginger ale and wine, and crackers with little prizes and paper crowns inside. Old Mr. Baron wore a purple crown, and Chloe wore a pink one.
"Ho ho ho!" laughed Brother Dominick. "This is the best Christmas dinner ever!"
Mike and Mr. Baron returned in time for dessert, their arms laden with bags and boxes. When the children had opened their new presents everyone gathered around the grand piano and sang carols. Mr. Baron hovered on the edge uncomfortably at first, but Mike took his hand and pulled him closer. By the last song even Mr. Baron was singing along. "Fa la la la la, la la la laaa!"
Mr. Baron presented bottles of champagne to Mrs. Green and Stewart. "Thank you," he told them awkwardly. "Thank you for doing the right thing tonight, and helping me learn something."
"You're welcome, Mr. Baron," said Mrs. Green with a wide smile.
"A very merry Christmas to you, sir," added Stewart.
The hour was late. Mr. Baron's brothers and sisters and cousins bundled up their sleepy children and packed them into cars for the drive home. Mr. Baron stood by the front doors to wish everyone good tidings and to apologize for his earlier outburst. Little Virginia awoke in her mother's arms to say, "Merry Christmas, Uncle R. P."
Finally Old Mr. and Mrs. Baron themselves shuffled up. Old Mrs. Baron gave her son a kiss and squeezed his hand, and then Old Mr. Baron said, "I'm proud of you, R. P."
"You're proud of me?" replied Mr. Baron, confused. "Why?"
"Because it is hard to be a good man, but it is even harder to change into a good man," he said. "I want you to continue running our company for me."
"Really?" exclaimed Mr. Baron, his eyes wide.
"Absolutely," said Old Mr. Baron. "I know you've learned a lot tonight, and I know you'll run things right from now on."
"Oh Daddy, I will, I will!" gushed Mr. Baron. He pulled his father into a tight hug and kissed the top of his balding head. "I promise."
"Merry Christmas, son," said Old Mr. Baron, wiping her rheumy eyes.
Mr. Baron was so excited that he wanted to find little Mike and little Chloe right away to thank them for helping him change, but the house was empty. He wandered around from room to room to find them, but all he found were members of the staff cleaning up. He told them all to take the night off, and then resumed cleaning up all by himself.
He swept the floor. He loaded the dishes in the dishwasher. He put the leftovers away in the refrigerators. And when he was all done the house was very clean, and Mr. Baron felt clean inside, too.
He poured himself a glass of sherry and stood out in the front yard while a gentle snow fell all around him. He thought about how things would be different at Baron Toys from now on, then raised his glass in a toast. "To the Order of Saint Nicholas!" he called out, laughing.
A dusting of snow collected on Mr. Baron's head, but he didn't mind one bit. He had never felt so full of the Christmas spirit in all his life.
Later, the clouds moved aside and Mr. Baron saw the stars.