Monday 11 December 2006

Pink Santa, Part Seven

Pink Santa is a Christmas novelette of twelve chapters, posted serially by me, your curry-eating host, Cheeseburger Brown.

A strange mix of motifs: at work I'm editing a video projection for a museum exhibition about textiles from India and Pakistan; also, it's Christmastime. This means that under the glow of string-lights and seranaded by seasonal carols I spend all day listening to South Asians chatter about saris, Vishnu and the smell of Mumbai. It all serves as a sensory reminder of what a weirdly woven tapestry Canada is.

Our tale continues:


Confronted with an impossible proposition, Chloe did what she thought was the most grown-up thing to do: she doubted stuff.

Her central doubt -- the doubt that made her feel the least dizzy -- was her doubt that the old man with the big white beard could be telling the truth about being Santa Claus. She didn't know who the old man really was, but she felt good about being sure that he wasn't Santa Claus any more than Mr. Baron had been.

Mike and Chloe were riding the bus. The bus jostled around a lot so Mike and Chloe held on to greasy metal poles so they wouldn't fall down. Mike's Santa was sprawled out on a seat. For the tenth time Mike said, "No but yes, Chloe, it's really true."

Chloe rolled her eyes. "You're just little, Mike. You don't even know about anything."

"Okay but still, it's really true," said Mike. "He's Santa."

Chloe made a very adult doubting frown. "Mike, one day you'll be eight and you'll know that every grown-up thinks they're Santa."

Mike considered this seriously. Both kids looked over sideways at the old man with the white beard, his head on his shoulder as he slept. He snored, but it was hard to hear his snoring over the noise of the bus.

It made Mike feel sad that Chloe couldn't believe in Santa Claus. Believing in Santa Claus had brought Mike a lot of comfort lately. "So why don't you run away again?" Mike dared to say.

"I can't. I'm taking care of you," tried Chloe.

"Bologna," said Mike.

"What?" asked Chloe.

Mike said, "Santa is taking care of both of us, Chloe, and you know it."

"Mike," groaned Chloe, "he isn't really --"

"I don't care," interrupted Mike. "He's my friend. And I'm going to help him stop the evil Baron. And then we're probably going to fly to the North Pole and eat candy and dance with elfs. And you won't be able to come because you don't think Santas are real, but I'll be able to come and everyone will be nice to me."

Chloe asked, "Is that what he promised you, Mike?"

"No," said Mike. "I figured it out all by myself."

"You figured out that I can't come because Santa isn't real?" asked Chloe, smirking at the five-year-old.

Mike nodded. "Because you don't believe Santas are real, yeah."

"Santa," corrected Chloe. "There's only one. I mean, only not one."

Mike shook his head. "Nuh-huh. There's lots of Santas. Look, there's some now." He pointed to a couple of bearded fellows waiting at the bus stop. One was a very, very old man wearing a puffy red fishing parka and the other was just a regular old man wearing a grey rain-coat. Both of them had long white beards. The bus slowed down, stopped beside them, and the doors chuffed open.

The bus driver called out, "Industrial Crescent Road!"

Mike's Santa blinked and snorted. "Are we there?" he mumbled.

They got off the bus and Santa smiled as soon as he saw the other Santas, who smiled in return. "Brother Dominick!" grinned the ancient fellow in the fishing parka, squeezing the shoulder of Mike's Santa and looking down at Mike and Chloe. "And friends, I see."

"Brother Paolo, Brother Xavier!" Santa cried, clasping the hands of the other two Santas. "These are my good friends Mike and Chloe. They'll be helping us out tonight. What's our situation?"

Brother Xavier blinked at Mike's Santa through a pair of thick spectacles and spoke with a heavy French accent. "We're all set up for ze incursion at ten ho'clock, commandeur. Frere Walenty should return from ze security office at any moment, and then he'll brief ze whole platoon over dinner."

"Splendid," nodded Mike's Santa. "Where do we eat?"

"Chinese Buffet," answered Brother Paolo solemnly.

"Yum!" cheered Santa.

A short time later Mike and Chloe found themselves sitting in a dim back room of a big Chinese restaurant, scribbling with crayons on paper placemats that had pictures of dragons on them. Old Brother Paolo tucked a napkin into his shirt and sipped at his glass of water. Brother Xavier squinted at a menu. Brother Dominick, Mike's Santa, stood up and waved as a cluster of other bearded men appeared at the door. "Come over and sit down!" called Mike's Santa.

Brother Walenty was the youngest Santa Claus Mike had ever seen. He was so young that his beard was brown. The hair on his head was brown, too, and it had a little bald circle shaved into it on top. He was thin, and dressed up as a security guard. He winked at Mike as he took a seat.

The other two Santas were wearing stained jumpsuits like car mechanics. One of them was bald headed and had streaks of red in his grey beard, and the other fellow had narrow eyes, and he had white stubble of the exact same length on his head and on his round, copper-coloured face. Mike's Santa introduced them as Brother Gunther and Brother Lo.

"Our mission tonight is simple," said Mike's Santa, Brother Dominick. "In the name of Saint Nicholas we're going to foul the machinery of this key factory for Baron, and thereby hamper the roll-out of their dastardly new line of subscription toys."

Everybody went quiet when the waiter came in. He had black hair and wore a fraying tuxedo. "Buffet, okay yes?" he asked, and everybody nodded. He filled up the water glasses, bowed, and walked out again.

Chloe spoke up, causing all of the Santas to turn their heads at once. "You guys are going to break into a factory and wreck the machines?" she asked sharply. "Isn't that against the law or something?"

Mike's Santa cleared his throat. "Naturally, money for repairing the machines will be left in the office to cover all damages. We know the factory is empty so no one will get hurt."

"But it's still against the law, isn't it?" pressed Chloe.

Brother Paolo folded his hands on his paper placemat. "Some laws are more important than the laws of the land, child," he said.

"Who gets to decide that?" challenged Chloe.

"Each of us," said Brother Dominick heavily. "Every time any of us makes a choice, we choose a standard to decide. Sometimes it is the head, sometimes it is the heart. Our Order serves the heart." With that said he stood and looked slowly up and down the table. "Now let us attend to a matter of the belly: brothers, let's eat."

Everyone stood up and filed into the buffet hall where two rows of food-filled trays lay steaming in wait. The lights over the trays were decorated with fake bamboo. On all of the walls were faded posters of China: a long wall, a palace with a curly roof, a habour full of boats.

Following the lead of Brother Dominick, Mike and Chloe each took a warmed plate and stood in line. Mike hopped up and down so he could catch a glimpse of the different foods in the steam trays. The Santa Clauses muttered prayers and then licked their lips. "Ho ho ho!" giggled Brother Paolo.

Chloe asked, "Brother Dominick, who are you guys, for real?"

"We're members of the Order of Saint Nicholas," he replied, "for real."

"I doubt it," said Chloe casually.

"Do you like chicken balls?" he asked Mike. Mike nodded, so Brother Dominick scooped some onto his plate. "Chicken balls?" he asked Chloe, gesturing with the tongs.

Chloe wasn't listening. She said, "You can't honestly expect me to believe you guys know who's naughty and nice, can you? Mike's only five, but I'm eight. I know when grown-ups are lying."

Brother Paolo chuckled in a friendly way. "We never lie," he said.

Chloe pointed to Brother Walenty's security guard outfit. "Isn't it a lie to pretend you're a security guard when you're not one?" she asked, raising one eyebrow.

"We never lie to children," said Brother Paolo, correcting himself as he filled his plate with stir fried vegetables and nuts.

Mike, Brother Dominick and Brother Paolo moved along in line, shuffling away to the next part of the buffet. Chloe stood where she was, her empty plate hanging at her side. "So what do you guys do besides wreck factories? Do you want me to believe that on Christmas Eve you zoom around to every house in the world, squeeze down the chimneys, and leave presents for every kid?"

Brother Xavier touched her shoulder gently as he helped himself to some sweet and sour spareribs. "Not at all, petite," he told her, spooning extra sauce onto his plate. "We do not confine ourselves to just ze Christmas Eve, non. We work all ze year long!"

"So how do you know who deserves presents and who doesn't?" challenged Chloe.

Brother Lo gave Chloe a little bow as he scooped up some pork fried rice. "Young miss, we serve the neediest. We do not know who is good and who is bad, but we do know who is sad. We offer the gift of hope to those who are farthest from the light of love."

Chloe put her hand on her hip. "How do toys do that?"

Brother Gunther considered this as he sniffed each tray, deciding what to eat, his red and grey mustache twitching. "To tell the truth we do not usually give toys, because the neediest boys and girls make their own. We give chocolate and oranges. We give sausages and candles. We give fresh water and incense."

"So they won't be hungry?" asked Chloe, furrowing her brow.

Brother Gunther shook his head. "No, so that they don't stop dreaming. We try to fan the flames of hope wherever it threatens to go out, because if a child has no hope they have no future."

At that moment Brother Dominick returned, having visited every tray and filled a plate for himself and a plate for Mike with delicious, hot Chinese food. He put his plate on the edge of one of the trays and knelt down beside Chloe, his knee joint cracking loudly. "Chloe my dear, you must understand: we cannot make the poor rich, and we cannot make the starving fat. But we can be servants to their most impossible wishes, so that they continue to believe that impossible wishes can come true. Sometimes all it takes to keep hope alive is one unexpected act of kindness: a fruit, a bell, a bow -- a symbol that the whole world isn't against them."

Chloe looked down. Very quietly she said, "The whole world is against me."

Brother Dominick smiled in a sad, slow way. Then he took a chicken ball dripping with orange sauce and placed it on Chloe's empty plate. "I'm not against you," he said gravely. He stood up and took a step back.

"I'm not," said Brother Paolo as he stepped up and put a piece of broccoli on her plate. Then Brother Xavier gave her a sweet and sour sparerib and said, "I'm not, either." Brother Lo put a little scoop of pork fried rice next to the rib, and Brother Gunther made a small pile of noodles next to both of them. "We're not," they said. Finally young Brother Walenty ambled over and gave Chloe a cube of green Jell-o. "I'm not against you, Chloe," he said shily. "Do you like green?" he asked.

Chloe nodded. "Green is yummy," she said.

Brother Dominick gestured downward. "Look at your plate, Chloe."

She did, then looked up again. "It's full," she said.

"Which fills you with more feeling?" he asked, looking her right in the eye. "The food or the fact that friends found the food for you?"

Chloe blushed. "Friends," she whispered.

All of the Santa Clauses smiled warmly. "Eat well, dear," said Brother Dominick.

They returned to their table and sat down. As the Santas dug into their food Brother Walenty talked about how they would have to fool the security systems to get into the factory without the police being summoned. He handed out some notes on little pieces of paper; the Santas read the notes and then dipped them in sauce and ate them.

"How come you don't have white hair?" Mike asked Brother Walenty.

"I'm too young," said Brother Walenty, his watery blue eyes twinkling.

"Brother Walenty is a novice," explained Brother Dominick. "We don't usually let novices out into the world, but this is an exceptional case. Brother Walenty is quite a computer expert, and we need his talents if we're ever going to prove that Special Operations can make a real contribution for the Order."

Mike squinted. "Who's Special Operations?"

"We are," replied Brother Paolo. "Taking on Baron Toys is outside of our usual mandate. We are an experiment."

"But something has got to be done!" cried Brother Gunther, thumping his fist on the table. "Experiment or no experiment, this work is important."

"Hear, hear!" agreed Brother Lo.

Chloe looked up from her noodles. "But what's so bad about Mr. Baron's toys, anyway? He told me he was helping to make sure kids always have new toys."

Brother Walenty shook his head. "No, Chloe, I'm afraid it's worse than that. I've seen the schematics for these new toys: they're made to break. They break on purpose."

Chloe was shocked. "Why?" she asked. "Why would anyone want the toys to break?"

"Money," said Brother Xavier darkly. "It's halways about ze money."

Brother Dominick nodded. "It's to keep the parents paying more subscription fees, Chloe," he said sadly. "It's business instead of play, dollars instead of love."

Brother Paolo said, "If Baron succeeds, we will have even more children to include in our work. We didn't used to have to worry about the ones who had loving parents to take care of them. But now, with toys like these -- we might."

"Baron threatens the spirit of play itself!" yelled Brother Gunther, slamming his fist on the table again. "It's rotten, I tell you: rotten!"

All the Santas nodded.

Chloe didn't know what to say. Mike brought her a fortune cookie. She broke it open and took out the fortune, which read: GIVE AS YOU HAVE RECEIVED, AND HAPPINESS WILL FIND YOU. "What does mine say?" asked Mike.

Chloe read it. "It says, Chloe sure is glad to have a friend as nice as Mike."

Mike giggled. "It doesn't really say that," he said.

"No," agreed Chloe. "But it should."

When dinner was finished the Santas pushed their plates aside and began talking about their plan in detail. Brother Dominick kept checking his watch. One by one the Santas went into the washroom and changed their clothes -- they came out dressed in black, with soft shoes and hoods.

Mike said, "You Santa guys sure do look ready to be sneaky."

Brother Dominick folded a hundred dollar bill into the shape of a teepee and put it in the middle of the table. He took a deep breath. "Santa Clauses, Sinterklauses, Pere Noels, Babbo Natales, Kerstmen, Father Christmases, Chalas and Saint Basils: the time is upon us. We are blessed with the presence of two children pure in spirit, and our mission is just. Saint Nicholas himself will smile on us, I am sure."

The Santas, now dressed as ninjas, raised frosty glasses of milk in toast. "To Saint Nicholas!" they called in concert. "To victory!"

"To the Order," agreed Brother Dominick. "To joy."

They drank.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant concept on altruism from the Order of St. Nick.
"We offer the gift of hope to those who are farthest from the light of love."
The back room of the Chinese restaurant made me think of the Duck dinner in A Christmas Story (FA RA RA RA RA)
combined with the mafia movies with a bunch of large men in suits stuffing pasta into their face while plotting their next action.

The Chinese buffet backdrop recalls familiar sensations in me -- They fed me through college (and beyond).
My boys will certainly react to it, as I have taught them the TAO of Buffet.

gl. said...

it's hard to approximate the sound i was making in my head as the chinese buffet speech & plate-filling ritual was happening....

chocolate and oranges. sausages and candles. fresh water and incense. fruit, bell, bow.

ohhhhhh....! ohhhhhhh!

and then... "Chloe looked down. Very quietly she said, "The whole world is against me.""

*sniffle sniffle blink blink*

and then a cube of green Jell-o. "Green is yummy," she said.

*sniffle, smile*

but the "Which fills you with more feeling?" graph may have been a little over the top. nonetheless i forgive you completely. *sniffle*

is "shily" meant to be "shyly"?

Anonymous said...

Ninja Santas!

This is the best fictional Christmas story ever.

"zkksgkqo": voice-recognition software's failed attempt to transcribe that weird vocalization in the Ferris Bueller soundtrack.

Mark said...

Indeed, lots of fun to be had here. And getting deep, too (in a good way). The piling of food on the plate was a nice touch.

If it's written for kids (which you plainly stated), then some schmaltz is allowed.

Mark said...

I've been trying to comment and Blogger keeps eating it.

I wish now that I had never merged my gmail account with my Blogger account. What a major pain.

Great story, is what I originally intended to day. I like the plate piling, too, and I think we can forgive an extra helping of schmaltz in a story written for kids.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mark,

Yeah, I think I'm going to hold off "upgrading" my Blogger stuff until they've worked more of the bugs out of the system. From all reports things are going more wrong than right, and I don't want to risk fouling the blog somehow while we're mid-story.

Those of you who have upgraded, don't be stingy with your reports. Inquiring bloggers want to know.

Cheeseburger Brown