The playground hummed with noxious rumors. Kids were huddled up, whispering in hushed tones. Something was going on in these last days before Christmas break. It didn’t take long to reach me. I was standing outside the trailer for my third grade class. It was early and the teacher hadn’t unlocked the door yet. She was late. We were wrapped in thick winter coats, hands shoved down deep into pockets, exhaling white plumes like what we imagined was cigarette smoke.
Usually I wouldn’t run with this gang, these punks that sat in the back. But it was cold and I was bored. A tall lanky kid made an O-ring with his lips. He blew out a lament, “My cousin tol’ me that Santa is dead.”
“Nah, he ain’t dead.. he ain’t real,” said another goon.
Working up my courage, I explained to them how Santa was real and very alive. I pointed out how only a few Christmases ago I had found reindeer tracks in my snowy front yard, how there were half-eaten carrots left behind, how Ole Saint Nick turned cookies into crumbs. The guys laughed. One of them lifted a leg and farted. They laughed even harder.
Anxiety exploded in my brain. Tiny sweat droplets squeezed through my forehead. Doubt tugged my stomach down into my colon. After all, I had been wrong about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Could Santa be just another schmuck in a costume?
You may say I am prone to delusional optimism. I prefer to think of myself as a scientific detective. If necessary, I will delay a conclusion until ample evidence presents itself: an innocent-until-proven-guilty kind of thing, a beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt type deal. That night I lay in my bed trying to sort it all out. How would I know? Who could I trust? What is the irrefutable truth? Finally, it slapped me on the ass like a wet towel. I would go to the source of the information, the primary witness, my mother.
She was in the living room, engrossed in a book and sipping her tea. A single antique lamp lit the words she read. My sister, Brittany, was long asleep in the other room. I stood in my bedroom’s doorway, afraid to step out of the dark.
“Mom,” I began, “does Brittany know that Santa isn’t real?”
I expected her to go into distress. She would be confused, ask where I got such an idea. She would reassure me that Santa was, in fact, real. She would tell me to go back to bed and sleep well. I would obey and drift off into slumber–confident, happy. Instead she didn’t look up as she turned the page, “No. But please don’t tell her.”
Truth vertigo gut punch. Cold empty abyss free-fall. Desolation and broken candy cane dreams. Plus the sensation of needing to go numbers 1 thru 3.
“Ok.” And I retreated into my bathroom.
As I glared at my own reflection, I sighed and took pity on the boy staring back. He seemed both older and younger than myself. You’re gonna be okay, kid. At least you got your religion, I thought. At least you got your religion.