Keep The Car Running

I have baking and wrapping to do. But instead I decided to try another flash fiction challenge this morning from Chuck Wendig. The task was to get a random song title and work from there. I clicked on my local alt rock radio station half-way through Arcade Fire’s “Keep The Car Running. ” What came out has a seasonal flare, but it’s certainly not festive. Hope it’s readable anyway!

Keep The Car Running

“I told you Jax, just one quick stop and then we’ll get a tree. And can you keep your voice down so your sister doesn’t wake up?”

Jax turned to look in the backseat and saw Lily’s head slumped against the side of her high-backed booster seat. Her pink fleece hat was pushed back, and a dark lock of hair pressed against her forehead in a upside-down question mark. The age difference between them made it easier for Jax to realize how cute she was.

Dad was driving fast — faster than he usually did. The snow on the streets had turned to a brown mush, on this unusually warm day. Jax liked that he didn’t have to bundle up in snow pants and all the gear to play outside, but he wished things were a bit whiter and brighter this close to Christmas.

Dad pulled off onto a side street and parked in front of a narrow, yellow two-story house. Someone had erected a snowman next to a tall pine, but the thaw turned it into a snow skeleton, barely standing. A string of blue Christmas lights outlined a picture window, and with dusk settling in, Jax had a clear view into the house’s lit living room. They had a big tree — one of the fake kinds though, painted white at the edges to look like snow. Still, Jax thought a fake tree was better than nothing.

He was pretty sure he and Lily wouldn’t be getting any presents this year. Maybe that lady who came by to check on them once a month might bring something. She brought Jax a baseball cap on his birthday, and even though he already liked her, it made him like her a little bit more. But Dad still didn’t have a job, and like he told Jax every week when he asked for Oreo’s at the grocery store, “The little money we have can only stretch so far.”

He didn’t care much about presents anyway, or at least he told himself he didn’t. But he did want a tree. When Mom was alive she always made a big deal about the tree, and they still had all her homemade ornaments, packed in a ripped brown suitcase they kept under the basement stairs. Jax’s favourite was the blue crocheted ball, starchy and stiff, with a thick white ribbon. On it Mom had written, in neat black letters, Jax’s First Christmas 2005. Lily didn’t have a matching one, probably because Mom was already getting sick then, so Jax tried not to make a big deal about his special ornament when Lily was around.

Jax asked Dad for a tree last night at supper. He said no, they couldn’t afford it. And even though Jax knew that’s what his Dad would say, he couldn’t stop himself from shouting,”We can never afford anything. If Mom was here she’d get us a tree!” He ran to his room where he could cry without Dad seeing.

Later, when Jax was sleeping, he woke to the weight of Dad sitting on the edge of the bed. His eyes looked damp and droopy, He squeezed Jax’s shoulder as he said “You know what, we’ll get you a tree. Tomorrow, OK?”

Gazing now at the stiff, white-tipped pine in the stranger’s window, Jax wondered if Dad was here to collect an old tree this family had tossed. Maybe this was some friend Dad knew from his old job.

“OK Jax, I have to run an errand for a sec, but it’s very important that you and Lily stay in the car and just wait until I come back. And keep the car running, but don’t let anyone but me in. OK?”

“Yeah, where are you going?”

“I need to get something. I won’t take long. You can turn the radio on if you want but keep it quiet.”

Dad unbuckled his seat belt and opened his door. Before he closed it, he leaned back in and said “Love ya Jax. Be right back.” He pulled his hat lower on his forehead. Then he walked quickly down the block, away from the yellow house. Jax watched in the rear view mirror as he disappeared around the corner.

He wanted to hop out and follow him, but he knew he had to listen and he couldn’t leave Lily alone. He thought about what they’d passed on the street, and he remembered a few fast food places, a chiropractor’s office, and a gas station. Maybe Dad was going to surprise them with burgers or pizza for supper. They ate pizza lots at home, but it was always the frozen kind with hardly any cheese and sawdust crust. Jax remembered biting into cheesy, warm take-out pizza and his mouth began to water.

Lilly stirred in the backseat, and woke up with a combination whine and sigh. She scratched her head under the edge of her hat, looked at Jax with sleepy eyes and asked “Where’s Daddy?”

“He had to run an errand. Can I turn up the radio?”

“OK.”

Jax cranked the dial further than his dad would ever allow, and a twangy , country version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” belted out the speakers.

“Not that! Too loud!” Lilly shouted as she threw her hands up to her ears.

Jax hit a button, and an upbeat pop song with a girl singing about “love on the weekend” filled the car.

“That one!” Lily cheered. Jax turned it down just a bit, and smiled as his little sister began wriggling in time to the music.

He glanced up at the rear view to see if Dad was on his way back yet. He watched the cars whir by, shooting brown slush from their tires as they whisked off to wherever they had to be.

Jax started to plan out how he would decorate the tree. If it was a big one, then the small string of white lights they had wouldn’t go all the way around, but he could place it in a big zig-zag across the front. Then he’d do all the felt gingerbread men his Mom had sewn, each with tiny black button eyes and red and green ribbon edges that looked like icing. He liked to do the paper snowflakes next, and finally all the odd ones, like the reindeer made from an old light bulb, and the cross-stitched angel. He’d leave his blue crocheted ball until the end, just before topping the tree with the gold star. This year he might hold Lily up and let her put the star on the tree. She would probably like that.

“I’m hungry!” Lily said. “I want fruit chews!”

“I don’t have any snacks Lily. Dad will be back soon.”

“Do you got any juice?”

“No, nothing.”

Lily stuck out her lip, but didn’t ask for anything else.

Jax looked up at the mirror again and saw Dad half-jogging around the corner, with a plastic shopping bag gripped in his left hand.

He yanked open the driver’s door and quickly shoved the bag on the floor of the back seat. Jax didn’t see what was inside, but it didn’t smell like burgers and it wasn’t shaped like pizza.

His Dad pulled away from the curb in a hurry, without even doing up his seatbelt. He seemed angry, but after they’d gone a few blocks, and turned off the side streets onto the freeway, he finally looked over at Jax and gave him a half-smile.

“There’s a good tree lot your Mom and I used to go to just a few miles out of town. Let’s try there.”

“What did you buy? Is it a present for us?” Jax asked.

“Don’t worry about it, JJ-boy. Just think about how tall you want that tree to be.” Jax liked it when Dad called him “JJ-boy”. He hadn’t done that in a long time.

“Money!” Lily happily screamed from the backseat. “Look! Money!”

Jax turned and saw the edge of the bag on the floor by her seat. Several twenty-dollar bills spilled out.

“Whoa! What is that? Dad, where’d you get that money?”

Dad glanced over at Jax, and barely met his eyes, then looked back at the road and said “It was a gift. But let’s not tell anyone about it, OK?”

He stared at his Dad’s profile for a moment. He knew it wasn’t a gift. Dad didn’t lie to them much, but Jax could tell when he did. And no one would just give some guy a bunch of money for no reason.

Jax felt a weight in his belly like he’d eaten stones. He looked down at his hands and realized he didn’t want a tree anymore. He didn’t want anything.

My angry call to Santa

I am a liar. A big, fat, Santa’s jelly-belly sized liar. I try to be honest in most aspects of life, but when it comes to perpetuating the Santa myth in my house, I weave that lie good and strong. My husband goes along for the sleigh ride, but I’ve never heard him busting out the Santa tales the way I do. Or the Santa threats…but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Apparently there’s a new movement in parenting to be completely forthright, and tell kids from the start that Santa’s not real. In these households, even three-year-olds know. They’re too streetwise for this North Pole crap. Ain’t nobody got time for that silly stuff…and hey Mom and Dad, I know I’m only in pre-school, but why don’t you shoot me a smart phone in my stocking? I guess I get the idea of not lying to your kids, but in this instance, it makes me kinda sad too. Kids grow up WAY too fast nowadays. Can’t we do this one small thing to keep the fun and innocence in childhood?

For me, perpetuating the Santa myth wasn’t even a question. I loved believing in Santa when I was little. It made Christmas so much more exciting and magical. It added a sense of wonder and sparkle to the holidays, that no Christmas since my “discovery” has ever been able to match. I held on to that belief years longer than I truly believed, because I thought abandoning the Santa myth would ruin Christmas. When my older sister basically told me to cut the crap and that I was too old to believe in Santa anymore (which I was) it resulted in a tearful, melodramatic display complete with me shrieking “But I’m just a little girl!” This became a running family joke at my expense for years. I like to think they were laughing with me, not at me.

But even that harsh dose of reality was worth it for all the years of fun. All those fanciful thoughts about what he would put in my stocking. Would he remember that Cabbage Patch Doll I was dying to have, or surprise me with some fantastically perfect gift I didn’t even know I wanted? What would he say in his note? (My dad, a storyteller by nature, wrote epic letters from Santa that somehow thrilled us kids and entertained the adults too). Santa was omniscient, benevolent, comforting and jolly, and he had those amazing flying reindeer to boot. Sacrilege here, I know, but Santa was a god.

With the red-suit in charge, Christmas rocked. So when my kids got old enough to participate in the excitement, I was more than willing to build-up the big guy in their minds. “We have no fireplace, how will Santa get in?” my older daughter wonders. “Well, he can come in doors and windows too.” (Santa is a master B & E artist, after all). “How does Santa know what I want, Mom?”. “Well, he’s always listening, and watching, and we can write him a letter too — just to be sure.” And my favourite question, a statement actually, came this year from her five-year-old mouth: “Mom, there are two great mysteries in the world. One, what exactly made the dinosaurs go extinct, and two, how do Santa’s reindeer fly?”. The juxtaposition of legitimate scientific query and childish wonder had me laughing inside for days. And of course I had answers, even if they were crap: “Um, might’ve been a meteorite or volcano or something for the dinosaurs, but as for the reindeer, they fly with magic dust .” Naturally.

I like to think that I’ve painted Santa in a positive, sparkly light. Yes, they know about the naughty or nice stuff, but I’ve also mentioned that Santa’s pretty forgiving and if you’re mostly a good kid, he’ll drop by. He’s all about generosity, love and joy, after all. Until…until earlier this week when I was feeling particularly crushed by the stress of a billion “to-dos” of the season, suffering from sleep-shortage, and just not in a good place to deal with crap from my kids. This is precisely the time when my three-year-old decides to use her mighty will to refuse to get ready for bed. There are adamant shouts of “No!”, followed by hysterical screaming and flailing, then the super-effective “I will go completely limp” strategy when I try to physically compel her to move. “You are acting very, very naughty right now and Santa will NOT be bringing you any presents!” I bellow. Idle threat, apparently. “I don’t want any presents!” she proclaims with pouty lip. “I’m calling him right now. I’m telling him you don’t want or deserve any presents!” And as I walk to the phone I am already thinking how completely stupid this is. I’ve never won an argument with a toddler yet. But I’m just as stubborn as my kids — they got it from somewhere — and so the script proceeds. I dial five random numbers until the Telus lady starts beaking in my ear about how my call cannot be completed as dialed. I put the phone to my three-year-old’s ear long enough so she can hear there’s a voice, and then tell her it’s Santa’s elf line and I have to leave a message. This is the point where my five year old, whose been silently observing the whole time, starts to freak. “No Mom! Don’t leave a message! She’ll be good! I’ll help her get ready for bed!” I leave the faux message anyway and older sister starts to cry. Three-year-old is completely unfazed. “Why are you crying?” I ask my older daughter. “I didn’t tell him not to bring you any presents.”

“I know Mom, but she gets good toys too, and we can share, so if Santa doesn’t come  for her, I only get to play with half as much stuff!” I admire her logic and reasoning, but am also sad she’s apparently got a huge case of the greedy guts…already.

Once three-year-old has calmed down, and come to her own decision that she in fact will get into her pjs and brush her teeth, older daughter implores me to call the elf-line again. So I do. “Hi Santa, it’s Kim. Please ignore my earlier message and keep both my girls on the nice list.” Five-year-old is visibly relieved. Three-year-old still doesn’t care. I, on the other hand, think WTF did I just do? These silly threats and my big show did nothing except taint all the wonder of Santa I’ve been so keen to build. Is this what my daughters will remember about Christmas –anger, punishment and Santa withholding — more than the ideas of generosity and kindness? Plus, I am a bit disappointed that they didn’t even call me on the fact that I don’t make the naughty or nice list — Santa does.

I silently resolve to cut the seasonal Santa threats and try better parenting strategies to get them to behave, for the sake of behaving instead of for the promise of material goods. I will still build the benevolent Santa myth though. There will be cookies eaten, and personal notes with Santa’s signature catchphrase (“Ho ho ho and away I go!”).  We’ll watch the Christmas Eve Santa tracker on TV to see how close he is before bedtime, and if it’s not too cold, there might be “reindeer tracks” in the snow to discover Christmas morning.

I’m gonna keep spewing the lie, in the hopes that it’s even half as much fun for them as it was, and is, for me. And as for the fall out when some non-believing kid spills the beans at school? Well, I’ll cross that bridge when it comes. And hope my kids see my good intent in being a big, fat liar.

Writers Take Wing

I am excited to be reading some of my poetry at the Writers Take Wing event at the main library on Thursday evening! I was invited to take part by Margaret Macpherson — an utterly cool woman and outstanding writer. She, and another fantastic local writer, Jason Lee Norman, will be reading some of their own work, which will be a treat. This event is a sort of pass-the-torch shindig for the city’s next writers in residence and a great way to show support for the writer in residence program. If your up for some warm words on a wintery night, come on out to the Stanley A. Milner Library, Thursday, December 11 at 7 p.m.