In honor of Short Story Day and the approach of Christmas, I am re-posting a short story from a couple of years ago (before I knew many of you ((wink)). Have a happy holiday season however you spend it. In the words of one of my favorite stories, “may you have enough. . .”
The first snows of December had already fallen. It was the winter of 1975 and like many winters that had come before, Petoskey was already blanketed in snow. Garland hung between the lamp posts of Mitchell Street suspending plastic bells above the busy street. Earnest shop keepers shoveled snow even as it fell, a lesson in futility I would carry well into adulthood. Banks were formed along the sidewalks by the snow that could be pushed no farther. These banks created a type of frozen bowling alley for unwary walkers who often slipped upon the sidewalk.
This was it. This was winter. This was Christmas coming. I had been somewhat insulated from this Christmas at home. I had navigated the Christmas challenges at school. I had not made the paper plate Santa, I did not ring bells with the class at lunchtime. I did not take part in the Christmas play.
But now, now I was in the trenches of the season. There was Christmas in all of the places I could go any other time of the year when Christmas wasn’t.
In front of the Woolworth’s Five and Dime was a Christmas display. A cardboard doghouse decorated in lights and plastic candy canes. Jutting from the open window of the box was a dog puppet. I am usually given to details, but I cannot tell you the name of the dog or the business that was being promoted by his presence. I can tell you a young boy dressed in an elves costume stood with the house and was passing out candy canes to people walking by. He had not offered me a candy cane yet. Perhaps there was some rite that needed to be observed. Perhaps this wasn’t a casual handing out of candy but rather an exchange of some sort.
“What are you going to ask Santa for?” the dog asked in a kind of voice that was part elderly, part mentally impaired.
“What?” I responded, knowing full well what the dog had asked. I was trying to buy time, hoping that mother would pull at my mitten in a signal to move on. When she did not, I could tell: this was a test. Hadn’t I passed this test at school, bravely telling my teacher what I could do and what I could not do? Wasn’t there a phone call that occurred that left mother so angry she slammed the telephone down and asked if I had participated in music class this month? Hadn’t I endured the spanking that came of singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” Hadn’t I taken one swat with a wooden spoon for each day?
I had passed these tests. I had made it to December 19th, the first day of Christmas break. I would weather Christmas at our rural home and would return in January a normal student. But now, this inanimate puppet. So seemingly friendly. So seemingly non-combative. What would I say to the dog’s inquisition? How would I respond to the question of Christmas asked from a puppet? The dog would be one, among the legion, of inquisitors I would face during the Christmas season. His funny fur and funnier voice did not distract from his divine purpose: to seek out children and solicit from them their Christmas wishes.
“I said;” he responded, maintaining character, “what are you going to ask Santa for, little boy?”
He had added little boy to the question. This confirmed a fear I had already begun to process in my young mind. He could see me. There was some other hole or mechanism through which he could see through the box. He could tell my age and my gender. Like the god I had only just begun to study, there could be other creatures who would be able to see me and tell what I was doing at any given time. This dog had seen me eating my grilled cheese at the store’s lunch counter and had been waiting for me to come outside. He had rehearsed this question. Though many people were on the sidewalk passing the display now, many with children, there was only the dog and me now.
If he were truly all-seeing, he would know that I had been finishing early in art class, cutting plain green trees out of construction paper and sitting quietly in the hall while the other students embellished theirs with glitter and glue. He probably saw me declining bell-shaped cookies at snack time, maintaining a milk-only regimen through to Christmas Break.
There would be no escaping his question. I was wearing a hand-knit hat with strings hanging from the earflaps, a brown one of a kind hat that could be easily identified in a lineup of children. He had seen me and could surely describe me to the holiday authorities if I simply walked away. I would be the non-respondent. The boy who wouldn’t answer the question. Mother looked tentatively. Nodding her head toward the dog, she was quietly indicating that I needed to answer the dog.
“We don’t believe in Christmas, ” I responded, “We believe in Jehovah.”
There was double take from the elf-boy. He curled the candy cane in his hand and held it against his chest. He looked toward the cardboard doghouse looking for his next action. He looked back and me with a look that said he probably didn’t hear me correctly. The cane stayed firmly planted in his hand.
“What did you say, kid? Jahwhat?!” the dog asked. “What do you mean you don’t believe in Christmas?” His question sounded as though I had never heard of Christmas before and was mistaken about how it should be handled.
“No, sir, we don’t” I said respectfully, “We believe in Jehovah. We don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“Okay, just wait a minute, Kevin,” the dog said and the elf-boy responded with a nod. Good, the elf-boy’s name was Kevin. I could remember this for later when I told the story of my bravery and my standing up for Jehovah in the midst of the great furry dog sent by Babylon the Great to test my new faith in the truth. Kevin was left dumbfounded looking at my mother and then back at me. Then he turned his gaze down the sidewalk. I could tell he didn’t want to be in this scene any more than I did.
The puppet dog looked down, perhaps at the man working his mouth and voice. This was some kind of puppet/handler interaction that otherwise would have been delightful to other children. The illusion that the dog was real, not handled by a grown person with his or her hand extended working the large lipped mouth. Now, it seemed a conference within the cardboard box was happening. “Did you hear this shit, Bob?” The kid doesn’t believe in Christmas!! Alright, look kid, everybody believes in Christmas! Now, I’m gonna ask ya’ one more time. Now you be a good boy and answer up. You better get it right this time! What are you going to ask for this year from Santa?!” The dog’s face was completely out of the box now; I thought I saw the box tremble.
Mother was not leading me away. I was face to face with the dog and I could smell schnapps on his felt. I knew schnapps as my uncle often drank it before his motorcycle accident. Whenever he offered me a taste of his schnapps, I had to say no as Jehovah frowned upon peppermint. It was the same stuff that made candy canes, the forbidden winter fruit. Now this dog was breathing peppermint into my face, my eyes; my nostrils burned from it.
Mother was not leading me away. She was going to force me to face this felt distracter. In the name of Jehovah, she had thrown me to this dog and his handler. I had to say something to get out of this interaction. People had started to gather awaiting their chance to interact with the puppet. Children began grabbing for candy canes, candy canes that Kevin was now passing out freely in an effort to move these children on.
Quietly, I offered. “Someday, Jehovah is going to come and make this whole world new. We are going to get a new house up on the hill after Armageddon. All the bad people will be gone and only Witnesses will be left. That is why I don’t believe in Christmas. Santa will not get me and my mommy and daddy a new house. Only Jehovah can do that.”
I was having my first theological conversation on a snow-covered sidewalk in front of Woolworth’s Five and Dime. I was preaching Jehovah to a dog puppet and his handler. I would earn points for this on Sunday morning. The anecdote of Paulie vs. the dog would be the stuff of legend. The story would live on as an example of the struggle of Witnesses everywhere. We had heard about them in Russia meeting under busses to avoid being punished. I had taken on the demon dog of Christmas in an effort to minister to him on the sidewalk. I had responded appropriately to his questions and stood tall in the face of his torment. This would be the stuff of Watchtower heroics.
“Yeah, yeah, kid,” the dog replied. “Look, move along will ya’? There’s lots of kids waiting.”
There were no kids waiting. It was just us, locked in a battle for souls I had only begun to hear about from mother. The dog was resisting the word of Jehovah and therefore must have been under the power of demons. Kevin thrust out his hand with the candy cane and said, “Merry Christmas, kid.”
I did not take the candy cane from him. I walked away with mother, my mittened hand in her larger hand. Moving down the sidewalk, I licked the inside of my cheeks. I could taste peppermint in my mouth.