Magical bartering

Linda Turbyville

December 30, 1992|By Linda Turbyville

TWO weeks ago, my son, a pre-med student in Tucson, wen to the dentist with a terrible toothache -- a visit that was clearly overdue.

Tucson dentist Dr. Donald Saelens reported that he needed root canal therapy on one tooth, fillings in several others, and that the bill would be in the neighborhood of $1,000. Tommy called home. can't come home for Christmas, Mom. This is going to be so expensive! But the dentist said that we would work something out. He said that maybe I could paint his house."

Last week when I phoned, he'd finished his final exams and had begun seeing the dentist in earnest. He sounded a little tired.

"Well, Mom," he said, "every day I've been going to the dentist and then when I leave I go to his house and paint. My jaw and face are kind of sore. And my arms, too."

"Hmm," I said. "Still, it sounds like a pretty good arrangement. Will you be finished soon? With your dental work? With the painting on his house?"

"Well, actually," he said, "he's got another job for me."

"What's that?"

"I'm going to be Santa Claus."

"Santa Claus?"

"Yeah. It's a big deal. I have to dress up like Santa and climb up on the roof. He invites all the children in the neighborhood, and he and his wife bake lots of cookies and decorate the house inside and out. The children all wait to see Santa appear on the roof. And then they have a party.

"They turn on the soundtrack and the fog machine. You hear Santa calling, 'Whoa, Dancer and Prancer, Donner and Blitzen', you know, all the reindeers' names. You hear sleigh bells and the clatter of hooves on the roof. Then the floodlight comes on and I appear out of the fog. I have to look as though I'm landing on the roof. I really do have to steer the sleigh -- though the sleigh has only one side. You can see the reindeer antlers sticking up through clouds of mist on the other side of the roof. The dentist's son-in-law is a taxidermist, so they're authentic antlers.

"I climb out of the sleigh to the tune of 'Here Comes Santa Claus,' and I clamber down one side of the roof, close to the JTC guests -- of course, I'm saying, 'Ho, ho, ho' -- and I get out my list and read the names on the list. Then I go back up the roof and, lugging my sack of toys, I peer into the chimney."

L "My goodness!" I said. "Do you have to go down the chimney?"

"No, actually, what happens is that I climb into a barrel that is hooked on to the top of the chimney -- but it's painted to look like the real chimney. When I climb in, no one can see me. And then Santa -- another Santa -- appears out of the fireplace in the Saelens' living room."

"Are you on the roof all that time?"

"Yep." He sounded a little doubtful.

"Well," I said, "be careful up there."

On Christmas Eve, I found myself thinking about the first time Tommy asked me about Santa, the real Santa. Did he really exist? Did he really live at the North Pole? I remember that I hedged. Not that I doubted that Santa existed. I knew he did, because, in fact, I was Santa. We talked about the spirit of Christmas and we talked about Santa being that spirit. It was a good conversation, and I remember that we were both quite satisfied; nothing had been said to upset our traditional Christmas observances. And Tommy was able to report back to his younger sisters with philosophical authority: "Santa is the spirit of Christmas."

Dr. Saelens and his wife, Tommy told me, are very much the way you might imagine Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. Dr. Saelens has a fringe of white hair, is jovial and generously proportioned around the middle.

"And Mom," my son said, "Mrs. Saelens is so nice. She reminds you of an elf, a fairy godmother, a real Mrs. Santa Claus."

About 2 Christmas morning I called Tucson, where Tommy and friends were having a post-rooftop fiesta.

"Merry Christmas! How did it go?"

"Oh, it was great, just great! There were probably a few hundred people at each show. Everything went pretty well except that my pants fell down when I was coming out of the chimney during the first show. The kids didn't care. I guess it seemed natural to them that Santa might have a problem like that. But all the stage hands noticed and told me about it in the middle of my act. So, of course, that made me pretty uncomfortable, trying to pull up my pants and maneuver all the theatrical properties at the same time.

"And listen, Mom!" he continued. "After each show I came down from the roof to greet the kids. I was mobbed by 30 or 40 children every time. You know, Mom, there was very little skepticism. Most of the kids were convinced that I was the real McCoy. I felt like myself on the inside. But I was magic to them. I've never had people react to me that way. And then I had to realize that it wasn't me they were reacting to. It was Santa!"

"Well, how's the dental work coming along? Are you almost finished?" I asked.

"Almost," Tommy said. "He still has some more drilling. And I still have to finish painting the house."

"Dr. Saelens sounds like a wonderful man," I remarked.

"Yeah," Tommy said. "He has a great sense of humor. One day during all this he came up to me in the parking lot. 'Can you do this?' he asked. And he started hopping up and down. I said, 'Sure I can.' 'Good!' he said. 'We need an Easter bunny!'"

Linda Turbyville writes from Baltimore.

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