My wife is pointing out a big Santa in a chimney on the left. “Watch” she says. Then, to our daughter Kaley, “There he goes”. It’s one of those inflatable deals where the chimney and the Santa are both big balloons. Animatronic, I guess, because, sure enough, down the chimney the thing goes. It looks big, cartoonish. Kaley giggles. She and my wife are enjoying themselves in the backseat. My son is hard to read. I look from the yard with the balloon Santa to the house itself. The curtains are drawn, which doesn’t mean anything automatically, but it’s not something to gloss over, either. I pull over and say, “Let’s see if he’ll come out again.” Kaley’s excited, but Jimmy, who’s edging closer to teenage years, is playing with his Gameboy knockoff. I’m preparing myself for the fact that he and I will come to be opponents in a very short time. It’s the sort of thing that you can’t really believe will happen, but that you eventually go through. I assume you, do, anyway. It’s hard to remember how things like that went with my parents, and I don’t know if asking would even help that much. Getting it comes too late. That’s a lot of what parenting is, of course.
“He’s coming up,” Kaley says. My wife, Liz, says, “I see him.” I look in the rearview mirror and say, “You see him, Jimmy?” He says, “Yeah” without looking up. I don’t say anything, and I don’t know if that’s the right thing or not. I look at this house’s garage. Doors for two cars and plenty of extra room in between the two doors. It doesn’t look like there’s real security, either. The husband might have nice tools, and it might be easy to get into the house. “Santa’s funny,” says Kaley.
“He sure is,” I say. I look at the mailbox. 2013. This’ll be one to come back to. I drive on a little, slow down in front of a display that has just a couple of trees lit up with strings of multi-colored lights. These can often be old people who have a lot of stuff, poor security and not much strength to put up resistance if they do wake up. Not that we’d ever seriously hurt someone. “Do you like the trees?” I ask Kaley.
She says, “Yeah,” in a quiet, reserved way. I try to make eye contact with Liz, but she’s looking out the windows. “How about you, Mommy?”
She hums for just a few seconds, then says, “I think they look nice.” I look at the address. 2027. There was one house in between the two that we might check out, but, more likely, we’ll just do those two. It’s not a good idea to do too many in a row. I notice that I think “we”, but, tonight, it’ll just be me so that Liz can sleep with the kids. She’s better at catching the little things that we could pick up, but I’m a little quicker in terms of getting in and getting out.
I drive a bit, then roll to a stop in front of a house with those wire animatronic reindeer that look like they’re eating. Kaley says, “It looks like Rudolph.” I quickly write down the two addresses and we move along. For the first time this season, I wonder if Jimmy has some kind of suspicion that Liz and I come back to these houses. It doesn’t seem likely to me, but it’s hard to tell. I wonder if him not getting it makes him gullible. Everything about my son is getting less and less readable to me.
There’s a strange set of lights on the other side of the road. It looks like it’s supposed to be a UFO. Or maybe a tank where the cannon won’t stay on. Either way, it doesn’t seem very Christmasy. This might be a house we’d break into on principle. “What do you think that is?” I ask.
I peek into the rearview mirror, and I see that Jimmy actually does look up, though only quickly. He doesn’t give an answer, and he must not be curious enough to look up again. After a few seconds of quiet, Liz says, “Maybe it’s a big Christmas bulb”.
Jimmy says, “Looks like a hamburger.” It’s possible that he’s right, though that’s not really any more like Christmas than a UFO or a cannonless tank. “Could be,” Liz says. “Think it has pickles?” I ask.
Kaley twists in her seat, trying to look for green, but I can’t tell if she can actually see what’s behind her or not. “Dylan Mueller puts barbecue sauce on his hamburgers when we have them for lunch,” Jimmy says. This is a rare moment of sharing, even if it’s about something so mundane. I check and Liz is running her fingers through Kaley’s hair. “To each their own,” she says. Kaley starts to tilt her head towards Liz’s shoulder. She’s tired, which is fine. Over the course of tonight, we already have six or seven possible houses to go back and visit, so we should be in good shape. Kaley will pick out clothes for school tomorrow, part of her goodnight ritual. There’s a good chance it’ll be one of the dresses we’ve stolen for her. Liz had the idea to check in people’s laundry rooms for clothes. The laundry rooms are almost always by the outside of the home, easy to get into. If you see a home that you can tell has kids, you can pop in quickly before a larger house, take a couple of decent looking outfits and get out. But you have to be careful not to do something that would draw attention before hitting another home, and you can’t take something that looks custom made, or your kid will be a target at school, and you’ll get busted. If you’re smart and careful, you can do it. We haven’t bought new clothes for the kids in a little over a year. We always tell them that we go shopping while they’re in school.
I look back again, “Jimmy, did you finish your report on Benjamin Franklin?” He doesn’t answer, which is his answer. This complicates things not so much because we’ll be scrambling to help him. That’s not a big deal. It’s more that it upsets the balance of how tonight will run. It was supposed to be: get home, have some Christmas cookies, put Kaley to bed, finish homework with Jimmy, put him to bed, then Liz wraps gifts while I go out and get some more. A simple, predictable plan. Sadly, these sorts of hiccups are becoming more and more common for Jimmy. Thanksgiving weekend, Liz was supposed to do a little purse picking during Black Friday, but Jimmy said that he had to take care of a display of Indians that he was supposed to have finished the day before Thanksgiving break. Liz ended up sitting over his shoulder and coaching him while he downloaded some graphics. I took Kaley to the park for a while. Technically, I could’ve kept Kaley and helped Jimmy, but we feel it’s important to show Jimmy that he needs to do his work, and we don’t like to punish Kaley for Jimmy’s mistakes.
“Who’s Benjamin Frankman?” Kaley asks. Liz kisses the top of her head. “By tomorrow, Jimmy will be able to tell you all about Benjamin Franklin.”
Kaley says, “Oh forget it,” and Liz and I try not to laugh too hard. “How about one more block, and then we’ll head home.” Jimmy doesn’t say anything. Kaley leans back into Liz, and that’s about it. I could’ve said that we’d go straight home, but it would’ve been like giving in to Jimmy. We see a couple of pretty flat, white lights on the eaves of roofs. Having Jimmy is a little like having a preview for where Kaley might be heading. I think she’ll be easier in a lot of ways, but I still feel a little dread thinking about it. I know it’s cliché, but she’s my princess.
“Eeesh,” I say. “Santa looks a little down.” Everybody looks out the window to see a half-inflated balloon Santa. He’s deflated enough to look like he’s bent over. “Why is Santa like that?” Kaley asks. Before Liz or I can answer, Jimmy says, “He’s waiting for his boyfriend.” Liz and I are quiet, but Kaley giggles. “Santa doesn’t have a boyfriend,” she says. I’m pretty sure that Jimmy doesn’t actually know what he’s referring to, but I can’t be sure. There is the possibility that someone has explained it to him, but it seems hard to believe that he’d really get it yet. The actual mechanics of sex. I remember sex seeming very abstract at his age. I knew that something went on, but wasn’t totally sure what it was that grown up men and women did. Probably I would’ve been grossed out.
“Jimmy is being not nice,” says Liz, “probably because he’s ashamed that he didn’t finish his homework.” Liz has a knack for oversimplifying our psyches in a way that can be deflating. Luckily for us, she only uses this power for good, like cutting off any further explanation from Jimmy. “The Santa balloon is falling over because the cold from outside is making the air inside him get smaller,” I say. “It’s something that you’ll learn about in science class in a couple of years.” I feel stupid, having said it. “Everyone gets a little down when it’s cold,” I say. There’s total quiet from the back. I wish that Liz would say something that could pick me back up. Maybe she thinks that I should’ve been on top of Ben Franklin before this late in the evening. She’d be right. It makes me wonder, again, if Jimmy knows what we do. If he were doing this to keep us from stealing, there would be something sweet about that, but that seems impossible to me. His rebellion would almost have to be stealing himself. What will we say when that starts?
“What cookies are you guys having?” I ask. Kaley puts her hands up and says, “Frosted.” Jimmy sighs. “Do I get cookies, or am I punished for the report?” Liz looks out the window. “Maybe you can have one while you finish your report, which you’ll do on your own this time.” I’m a little surprised by this, but it’s probably the right thing to do. She’s usually right when it comes to things like this.
“Another Rudolph,” Liz says, which both smooths things out and ends the conversation. I put in a Christmas CD that I got from this little Cape Cod home that had these blinking light-up icicles hanging from the eaves. It was weird, sorting through their CDs, being I their living room next to a turned-off Christmas tree. Trying to take just enough stuff to have them not call the authorities or push hard to pursue things. We’re lucky we haven’t had so much of a brush with the law yet.
The first song is “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” I feel like I should skip to the next track instead of making everyone listen to us being told that we should watch out and not pout, but I let it go. I take couple of turns that’ll get us home faster but miss some displays. Even over the CD, I can hear Kaley’s breathing starting to slow. I like getting to carry her into the house when she’s sleepy. There’s something reassuring about the weight of a little person that depends on you. It’s the weight of your love and obligation. When I’m breaking into a house, a lot of times I operate under this stupid assumption that God won’t let either Liz or I get caught because we’re watching over these two children, even though we’re the ones who wanted kids. When Kaley fatigues and I carry her off, I feel protected, when Jimmy blows off his report, I feel like things might crash. And for good reason. As we near our home, I feel restless, which isn’t necessarily a good mindset, if I’m going to go back out tonight. “What was your favorite display?” I ask. “Hamburger,” says Kaley, giggling. “I liked the moving reindeer,” says Liz, which is what she always says. Jimmy is quiet for a bit. I have no interest in pressing him, but Liz says, “Jimmy?” Out my window, I see what I know is a doctor’s house, and I wish that I could get in and take his cufflinks or golf clubs or whatever might be worth a lot, but I’m always nervous that those are the homes that are going to have serious security systems or other unpredictable barriers. You always have to watch out for signs of a dog.
“Bent over Santa,” Jimmy says. I turn my head just a bit, and although he doesn’t say anything, I can tell he knows. I look back at the road and make the final turn, just five blocks from home. “What was yours, Papa?” Liz asks. I think about it for a couple of seconds. I end up pulling into the driveway before I answer. I turn off the car and say, “I think I liked the Christmas donkey.”
Kaley laughs. “Christmas Donkey?” I turn back and pretend to pinch her nose. She puts her hands over her face and buries it in Liz’s side. I make eye contact with Jimmy, and he puts his Gameboy in his pocket. I’m trying to remember where we stole it from, and it occurs to me that we might have actually bought that one. I want to tell him how much it costs, but I have no clue, and I know it wouldn’t matter. Even though she’s awake now, I get out and go to pick up Kaley. Once again, I’m glad for her. I’d pay anything to get her something. Or, I’d do what it takes to get it for her, which really isn’t the same thing. As I carry her into our own house, I’m glad to see that our things are safe, that our kids can sleep soundly in a warm house. I look at Liz, who smiles at me, even if I’m not sure quite what that means.
About the author:
Zeke Jarvis is an Associate Professor at Eureka College. His work has appeared in Bitter Oleander, 2 Bridges, and Petrichor Machine, among other places.