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DANCING SANTA

By Frank Haberle

 

"Daddy!" Two yells. She drags him to a halt. "Lights!"

Above them, a last gasp of pink light brushes a cornice.

"No Daddy," Four says.   "She’s pointing over there."

He looks down at the girls, packed in mittens and snowsuits and boots. He looks to where Two is pointing.

"Well, look at that. Christmas lights," he says.

The three of them stare at the string of blue lights in the window of an empty sushi restaurant.

"This neighborhood used to be crazy with Christmas lights," he says.

"Crazy?" Four asks.

"Crazy. Wooden soldiers. Candy canes. Mary and Joseph, plugged in and glowing. All along the Avenue."

"Where did they go?"

"I wish I knew," he says.

An hour earlier, looking for something to buy his wife for Christmas, he discovered the Dancing Santa. Six feet tall, it chugged its arms and wiggled in the window of the Dry Cleaner on Fifth and Garfield.  Its jaws snapping open and shut, it sang "Jingle Bells" through the glass. The girls will love this, go crazy, dance. He ran all the way home.

Rushing the girls out the door, he forgot his own hat and gloves. Now, with daylight gone, the wind cuts more forcefully up from the harbor.

"Daddy!" Two yells. "You’re squeezing my hand!"

In front of a boutique, another Santa stands, holding a bottle of coke.

"Daddy, look!"  Two shouts.   "Santa!"

"That’s Santa, all right," he says. "But he’s not the Dancing Santa."

"Where’s the Dancing Santa?" Four asks.

"In a minute," he says. His eyes focus on a glint in the window. "I’m looking at something. Tell me what I’m looking at."

"Oh! Skaters," Four says.

"Skaters!" Two adds.

He picks up Two so she can see the row of miniature chrome skaters. They wear red, or orange, or green painted coats.  Silver hair billows from featureless oval faces. They hold the same pose – arms stretched, one stiff leg extended behind them.

"What else do you see?" he asks Four.

"Well, I see sledders," she says. On the top shelf two tiny little girls sit on a rusty flexible flyer.

"Sledders," he says. "Two little girls sledding. What do you think? For Mommy? For Christmas?"

Four takes a deep breath. "I think that’s a great idea!" she yells.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah!" Two adds.

He takes their hands and wedges the door open with his foot.

"Hi," he says to the storeowner, who stares over the rim of his glasses at the girls.

"Stay right here girls," he says. "Touch nothing. Can you tell me please, where the skaters, from the window, where they are?"

The owner points to a shelf behind him. A lone red skater, her chin dented, stares blankly out the door.

"Last one," the owner says.

"How much?"

"Fifteen dollars."

"Fifteen dollars? They’re two inches tall."

"They’re antiques."

"That’s seven-fifty an inch."

He holds the girls hands a little more firmly.

"Ouch," Four says. Two struggles to break free.

"The two on the sled?" he asks. "In the window?"

"Not for sale," the owner says.

"Not for sale?"

"That’s right."

"Thanks! C’mon girls."

"Why couldn’t we buy the sledder girls?" Four asks once they are back on the street.

"I guess they’re not for sale," he says. "I guess I was mistaken."

"But why?"

"I didn’t like that place," he says. "Not one little bit."

"Daddy! Ride!"  Two commands. He picks her up and tucks her under his arm. Her face is glowing red.

They pass a new French restaurant. Bundled couples crowd the sidewalk. A tall blonde woman turns, a cell phone pressed to her ear. She nearly tramples Four.

"I’m in front of the restaurant," she yells into the phone. "What’s that? I’m in front of the restaurant!"

Daddy pulls the girls through the crowd.

"Goddamn it," he says.

"Daddy stop pulling me!" Two yells, fighting.

They cross the street and stop in front of the dry cleaner.   Steel gates are pulled shut. Santa stands still behind the bars, in the dark, staring out into the street.   

"Darn," he says. "That’s him."

"But he’s not dancing," Four says.

"He was earlier, my friend. Singing too. Singing like a fool."

Four looks up at him doubtfully.

"Santa dances. I swear. We’ll come back in a couple of days. We’ll dance with him. I promise."

"Daddy?" Four asks.

"What’s that, hon?"

"What are we going to give Mommy? For Christmas?"

"I don’t know, hon."

He looks back up Fifth Avenue, at the row of new stores. He thinks of the gifts he discovered down here in past years, always at the last minute. A holy-water statue of Mary and Theresa. A sweeping Buddha. A necklace of crushed sea glass. Ancient magic hidden in dusty glass cases, all gone now, all swept away.

"We’ll find her something," he says. "Maybe up on Seventh Avenue. Let’s go try Seventh Avenue."

As he turns them away from the dark storefront, a shadow moves from the back of the store. He senses somebody peering out at them. He feels a hand wave.

A sustained wind blows between the buildings. He’s so cold he panics. He grips Two closer to his chest. He wants to pick them both up, stuff their warm bodies under his shirt. He wants to run.

But he waits, holding them, their breath filled with anticipation.

From the darkness, a shaking, gnarled finger reaches between Santa’s legs and pushes a button.

Santa starts convulsing. He churns his arms and pumps his legs. His mouth drops open and he starts singing through the windows, the canned version of "Jingle Bells".

The girls scream with joy. Four jumps in the air. Two twists out of his grasp.

He takes their mittens again, one in each hand. And there on the sidewalk, in front of a closed and gated dry cleaner, at six o’clock on Christmas Eve, they have their dance with Santa.

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