Every December in Apache Flats was the same. Long as anyone could remember, whether frost was already on the pumpkin or the mercury had only plummeted to the balmy 70's, each Saturday before Christmas, Santa Claus took up residence in the local feed store between the hours of 2 and 4.
Lonnie Johnson's dad started the tradition, which Lonnie continued. In fact, both he and Hooter could remember standing in line as kids waiting their turns to recite a list of Christmas wishes longer than a well rope. Now, Lonnie owned the igloo Santa called home a few hours each year and Hooter was the Santa Substitute.
Every Saturday was the same, too. Harried Moms—who had coerced their questionable other-halves to wait until Saturday to buy feed, or to make an extra trip then so the kids could go see the jolly old elf—all beamed with protective pride from beside stacks of feed, secretly suspecting that their kids were indeed the pick of the litter. As it should be.
The Dads beamed with pride, too, but they spent more time shuffling in and out of the igloo/feed room checking their inventories and swapping thoughts on the markets, football, and those damnable electronic toys that kids kept gabbing about.
“Closest we ever had to electronic toys was that game called Operation, you remember that?” said Elroy Peters to no one in particular. “I never could get at the funny bone without that clown nose buzzing,” he sniffed.
“Yeah, and now you're a veterinarian. Mebbe you should think about lowering your prices,” said his cousin, Jim.
Each Saturday in the Santa Seat was the same, too. At least it had been for Hooter McCormick ever since he inherited the privilege five years ago, due to the untimely electrocution of Shorty Spires, who had apparently been trying to boost the power of his bug zapper by hijacking some extra volts from a nearby power line. May he rest in peace.
Hooter liked kids. They never pulled any punches. If something was on their minds, they said so.
For instance, Hooter remembered it was one of his first knee-high customers who informed him, “I don't get this whole cookies and milk deal. I thought you brought me stuff because I was good or because you liked me or something.”
“That's right sweetheart. Have you been good this year?”
“Good enough. So why do I have to give you cookies and milk? That seems kind of like a bribe. Come to think of it, can't you get into trouble for peeping in people's windows? Mom says that's why my Uncle Bob had to go away.”
“Hmmm…ahhh, yep, that's right,” Hooter had said. “So, you don't ever want to peep into anybody's windows. Santa doesn't. I just wriggle my nose and poof, there I am underneath your Christmas tree with my bag of goodies.”
“Impossible,” said the little boy, crossing his arms in defiance. “Mom sets up rat traps all around the tree so the cat will stay away from it. You'd get mooshed.”
So it went, but Hooter always enjoyed the challenge.
One thing had changed, though. Hooter noticed as time went on the kids were asking for fewer material gifts and for more of the stuff that kids used to take for granted. Some of them asked for a new mommy or daddy to replace the one that had disappeared because of unexplained causes, natural and otherwise. Others asked if Santa might not bring a job for a parent or for the parent of a friend in need.
Hooter did his best to explain that he could only do his best, but he always felt like waddles on a porcupine about then.
All I Don't Want
It was going much the same this year when little Hector Rodriguez showed up on Santa's lap. Hector is a favorite of all the Moms, small for his age, big black eyes, straight black hair and a mischievous smile that glows in the night. Mr. Rodriguez ran some cows but spent most of his time on the road in West Texas with the construction company he'd built from scratch. Mrs. Rodriguez tended Hector and his new little sister. In between, she was a whirlwind of help to everybody for miles around.
Hector was polite, but he seemed a whole lot less interested in his visit to the Apache Flats North Pole than his Mom.
“Hector, have you been good this year?” asked Hooter, gleefully sticking his frosted beard into Hector's face.
“It's hard to tell sometimes, you know?” said Hector, holding Santa's gaze.
“Indeed. I know exactly what you mean,” said Hooter, stroking his beard. “Well, what would you like this year, Hector?”
“There's nothing I really want,” said Hector. “Just give anything you were going to give to me, to my sister. I'll tell you what I don't want, though,” said Hector, lowering his eyes, then following with his tiny head.
“What's that?” said Hooter, instinctively ready to fight anything or anybody who was taking the joy out of the season for his little friend.
“I just want that Mr. Pilkington to not come to the Christmas Pageant. I get to play little Baby Jesus, you know?”
The man in question, Maurice Pilkington, was an agent from the Texas State Judicial system. He'd come to a city council meeting a month before to tell the residents of Apache Flats that it had come to the department's attention that the town intended to have public prayer as part of their annual Christmas Pageant, and since that pageant took place on what was technically state ground, the state could not allow the pageant to take place there unless the town promised to remove prayer from the evening's agenda.
“But we always have prayer,” pleaded the gravel-to-rafters crowd that showed up, kids and all, to defend their right to do what they'd always done. “Nobody in this town is against it, why should you folks care?”
To his credit, Pilkington appeared to be an unwilling messenger who would have much rather been playing bugle at the Alamo than face the crowd he saw before him. But he had a job to do he told them. He empathized, but if the pageant was going to take place in the exhibit building at the county fairgrounds, there could be no prayer. Technically the exhibit building—the only structure in the county large enough to accommodate the annual pageant crowd—was built on an annual easement granted by the state after some eagle-eyed land manager spied shifting property lines two decades ago.
Hooter looked down at Hector, as much at a loss as all the parents had been at the city council meeting. How do you defend what's right in front of the kids without teaching them to act in a way that you've been telling them isn't right?
“Yep, I know you get to play Baby Jesus. And, I'm looking forward to it. You'll be the best Baby Jesus since the real thing,” said Hooter. “Don't worry about Mr. Pilkington. The town has it all worked out.”
“Really?” said Hector, brightly.
“It'll be fine,” said Hooter, thinking the only thing that would make it fine is if someone could swat Mr. Pilkington between the ears with a small anvil. “Say, isn't that your baby sister? Whatya say we ask her what she wants?”
The Right Light
Actually, since the town didn't want to expose the kids to such ugly nonsense, they agreed to the traditional presentation of the Christmas story, acted out by the children of Apache Flats and directed as always, by both the Apache Flats First Baptist Church and the Rio Rojo County United Methodist Church. Unlike past pageants, however, which ended with a benediction and the Lord's Prayer, they agreed to finish up singing Christmas Carols. No one felt good about it.
Sure enough, on the night of pageant, Pilkington showed up, along with a couple of Texas Rangers in tow.
“You ever notice how that guy looks just like Ichabod Crain?” said Izzy Franklin, leaning over to Hooter in the front row. He was referring to the eagle nose and the adams apple that looked more like a skin-covered tennis ball set on constant quiver.
“Good observation,” said Hooter, “But wrong season, knucklehead. Now, hush. Game's about to start.”
Like every year, on cue, the lights went out. Then, after a fair amount of ruckus, the lights came back on, revealing the Nativity scene set atop the makeshift stage: Mary on one side of the Manger, Joseph on the other and nestled in the crib so you could barely see the edges of his black locks was the Baby Jesus, Hector Rodriguez. Standing warily by were several other local kids dressed as sheep, oxen and donkeys. Justin Fenster had wanted to dress up like a camel but the oversized head constructed for him was too heavy. He kept losing his balance and flopping into the donkies, who then fell into the oxen, domino style, and so on.
Dangling high overhead was an old tattered tinfoil star, the Christmas Star that Lonnie Johnson's dad had fashioned years ago.
Things went without a hitch as the first two Wise Men clambered up the stairs and offered their gifts at the foot of the Manger. But Justin Fenster, relegated to Wise Man status after the camel fiasco, tripped on his long robes just as he reached the manger. As he went down, the metal box that was supposed to contain Myrrh flew out of his hands, hit Joseph square in the eye, and the rabbit pellets kept inside for ballast went scattering across the stage floor.
Joseph, a.k.a Michael Bucklin raised his cane with the intent of giving the clumsy Wise Man a good sock on the noggin. Thankfully, Mary, a.k.a. Jesse Brown, quietly reached out, took hold of Joseph's arm, then went back to beaming at her baby with the smile of grace. The pageant continued without another hitch.
“A child is born, a child is given,” said the Wise Men finally and in unison. “Let us rise up and give our thanks.”
Suddenly, as the crowd rose from their chairs, Mr. Pilkington leaped from his chair and onto the stage like a bottle rocket launched from a gas can.
“Please, please, I'm sorry,” said Pilkington waving his arms frantically as the Rangers joined him on stage. “I know how you feel, but we had a deal. We cannot allow public prayer inside a public building.”
Before the crowd, fire in its eyes, could react, the small arm of Hector Rodriguez reached up from the manger to tug Mr. Pilkington's pant leg. Mr. Pilkington jumped at the unexpected touch and turned to look at Hector who was climbing up out of the rickety manger. The crowd followed Pilkington's gaze in hushed silence.
Hector walked over to Mr. Pilkington and stared up his towering, adams-apple-bouncing height. “But mister, we were just going to sing Silent Night, like you said we were supposed to. Besides, Jesus says I'm s'posed to love everybody, even you,” said Hector, wrapping his arms around Pilkington's leg in a giant bear hug. “It doesn't mean I have to like you, just love you. What's wrong with that?”
Pilkington looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. “I, ummmm, I, ah, I…”
“Yeah, Mr. Pilkington,” shouted Hooter. “What's wrong with that? Make all the laws you want, but there's no way to legislate the Truth. You can't make rules for loving people.”
“I ummmm, I…” stuttered Pilkington.
Hector was still hugging Mr. Pilkington's trembling leg as the Rangers gazed on from either side of them. The crowd started to move silently forward. Then, Jesse Brown, looking like an own daughter of the real Mary surely would have, rose to her feet, nodding to Joseph, the Wise Men and the assorted livestock to join her. She stepped toward the front of the stage and stuck her right hand out to Joseph, who stuck his other hand out to one of the Wise Men and so on. Hooter stepped forward and took Jesse's left hand. Soon enough, the kids and the crowd, linked by hands, formed a giant circle surrounding Hector, Mr. Pilkington and the Rangers.
“See mister, this ain't so bad,” said Hector looking up at Mr. Pilkington. “We do this in church every Sunday. It's one of my favorite parts. Now, just look at your boots. You don't even have to do anything.” With that, Hector started and the rest of crowd joined in, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…”
As soon as the crowd looked up, old lady Dinkelmeyer stroked the keys of her portable organ, finding new magic in Silent Night. The crowd just smiled and look at that tattered, shining star hanging from the rafters.
“See there, mister,” said Hector, still holding Mr. Pilkington's pant leg with a small hand. “It ain't that complicated. All you have to know is that He lives. That's what Christmas is all about.”