My father cleared his throat and fixed me with a serious eye.
“Let’s go down to my office,” he said.
I was only 10 years old, but I knew trouble was on its way. Downstairs was Dad’s domain. None of us were expected there, unless we had a load of laundry in our hands. Trouble -- bad trouble -- was coming, and I knew exactly what it looked like.
Dad was going to tell me there was no Santa Claus.
When it came to The Santa Claus Question, I was the local Defender of the Faith. It was November and the other kids in the neighborhood were already whispering among themselves. No way could he do all that stuff in a single night. No way.
They'd huddle up and talk like that outside Fitz's Deli and I'd interrupt and tell them they’d forgotten the first thing about Santa Claus: that he was a magical guy. And magical guys did magical things, like sliding down chimneys all over the world in a single night, getting the correct toys to the kids on his list, steering a sled pulled by flying reindeer. It was magic. It didn’t have to make sense.
Then, if I hadn’t convinced them with that argument, I gave them the one we good Catholic kids could not argue against. Years before, I told them, I’d heard Sister Serena say that of course Santa Claus was real. He was, after all, a saint, and couldn’t saints do anything?
That one always worked.
As I followed my Dad down the basement stairs that day, every muscle and sinew in my skinny body screamed for me to turn back, don’t go down there, you’ll be sorry.
But I followed, an unquestioning son on his way to the gallows.
Dad’s office wasn’t much – a small box carved out of a musty basement by drywall with pasted-on knotty pine veneers. He was a sports reporter for the evening paper who was almost as new at his job as he was at being a father. I was his oldest son, a position of some privilege and a lot of pain, my visit to his office being Exhibit Number One in the latter category.
There was a dry bar in the corner of the office, which was odd because Dad didn’t drink, nor did he and my mother do much entertaining.
Dad sat in his creaking wooden office chair and suggested that I sit opposite him on one of the bar stools “like a big boy.”
I wasn’t feeling much like a big boy and I didn’t want to either. Suddenly being a little guy -- a kid – seemed the most important thing in the world. And the most endangered.
Dad took out a Phillies Blunt and fired it up, giving me a chance to imagine one last, golden explanation for all this solemnity: someone in the family had died.
Yes! An aunt. An uncle – of which I had many – must have died and Dad was trying to break the news to me. Maybe one of the scary old aunts I used to only hear about – Auntie Anna or Auntie Nell – maybe one of them had died. I could live with that. Especially if it meant Santa was still alive.
But no. In tones more somber than doddering old Father Geary’s, my Dad began telling me that pretty soon, I was going to be a big boy and there were things I needed to know about that.
I started slowly spinning on the barstool seat, like a five-year-old. Like a kid.
“Jerry, you should know that girls aren’t like boys.”
I stopped spinning ands stared at him. I must have looked at him as if he’d begun speaking in Swahili.
He cleared his throat, drew on his stogie. His eyes moved around the room, as if he were looking for help. He began talking about “holes” and “sticks” and boys and girls and babies.
It was all Swahili to me. I listened, returning to my spinning, keeping quiet when he asked for questions, fearing only that somehow, all this talk about sticks and holes and boys and girls and babies would somehow culminate in a final, fatal Santa Statement.
I remember the thrill I felt when Dad smiled and gave me a hug and said I could go but not before giving me a strange sort of warning: “Don’t tell the other kids.”
I shook my head. No way I'd do that. They’d laugh themselves silly if I repeated what he’d just told me.
I bounded back up the stairs, grabbed my coat off the mudroom rack and ran out the back door, my heart wild with relief.
I stood outside the door on the driveway, staring up in gratitude at the dim November sun. I was a boy re-born. No one was dead, and Santa still lived.
I hadn't a clue what Dad was getting at with his speech, but some part of me knew then, as I know now, that never had a reluctant, well-intentioned and baffled young father given a son a more welcome Christmas present.