by Jonathan Sload
Admit that you’re stuck in the chimney. Stop using the phrases “sliding down” and “squeezing through.” You stopped doing those ten minutes ago. Stop feeling bad for yourself. You’re not fat. No, really, you’re not. There are plenty of reasons you’re stuck in the chimney, but that’s not one of them.
Don’t try to remove the Santa costume. Things are bad enough already. It was wise to ditch the bag of presents, but attempting to wriggle out of your red nylon pants would be the latest in a long string of poor decisions.
Concede that the night has not gone according to plan. Pray that Nicole doesn’t involve the fire department. They’ll remember the barbecue incident, and you don’t want to relive that.
Take a deep breath, but resist the urge to wriggle. You’ve realized by this point that the chimney narrows just above the fireplace, and that’s good. No, really. Standards are low at this point, so that’s a victory.
Stop moping. The kids still love you. They’re not babies anymore. They understand that you have work. You see them as often as you can. They’re not sure what an ‘accountant’ does, but that’s okay.
This isn’t as bad as missing a basketball game, or a poetry reading, or a choir performance. Not even remotely as bad as the Great Linda Fiasco. Even if they find out, you can spin this. It’ll be a funny story next year. You’ll turn a little red when someone brings it up, you’ll laugh along because it’s easier than arguing, and you’ll go back to drinking eggnog, or chatting with the brother who’s in town for Christmas.
Now stop lying to yourself. This is a catastrophe. You’ll be in the firm’s Chicago office for all of January and part of February, so tonight needs to go right. If it doesn’t, you won’t be around to fix it. That job will fall to Nicole, and Lord knows she cleans up after you enough already.
But that’s not a concern, because you will get out of the chimney. Remember the things they taught you in college about being goal-oriented, and come up with sub-goals, or whatever they’re called.
First step, catch your bearings. Well, you’re upright. That’s something. You can see the stars above you, past the sack of presents and through the haze of soot that you stirred up during your descent. You’ve been here for about ten minutes, so it’s probably midnight now. You’re certain that Amy, Jane, and Luther are awake, because they always make a point of observing the exact moment when Christmas Eve turns to Christmas day.
You’re not sure why they do that, but not knowing is half the fun. Part of you suspects the fun might fade when you truly understand your kids. Most parents hate the terrible two’s, but not you. They learned so quickly then. The thoughts behind their eyes were mysterious, and spellbinding.
At any rate, the kids are definitely up, and they’re definitely listening. You’re not exactly discreet with your excitement, and the moment you came up with “Operation Authentic Santa,” they knew you were planning something.
You wanted them to hear. You counted on them coming downstairs to a soot-covered man in a red suit with a sack of presents. It would be a magical, spontaneous moment. Then Nicole would run down with the camera, and she would be so touched by how much planning you must’ve put into this whole affair. Maybe you really are trying. Maybe the problem really is work. If she would just believe, maybe you wouldn’t be stuck in the chimney, trying to impress everybody.
But you are, which brings us to step two: strategy. Possible ways out. Well, going downward stopped being an option about three feet ago. The chimney walls are sheer, except for mortar lines between the bricks—devoid of handholds. There’s a ledge that you can feel with your toes, where the chimney connects to the fireplace. You’re wearing black dress shoes to match the boot covers that came with the costume, so maybe—
Shit. It’s a rental costume. You completely forgot. Shit. You wonder if anybody else ever wound up buying a Santa costume because it was too soot-stained to return. Is that the club you’re about to join? Jesus Christ.
In any case, the shoes. They have almost no rubber on the sole, so you can’t get any traction on that ledge. But you haven’t done laundry in a while, so you’re wearing that pair of hospital socks from when they removed your gallbladder. Those socks have tiny rubber rings on the bottom, which might do the trick.
So, the plan: remove shoes. Use rubberized socks to push off ledge. Brace forearms on bricks, prove your personal trainer isn’t a waste of money, and butterfly press your way out of the chimney.
Step three: execute the plan. Slip off a shoe. Wince at the noise as it strikes some decorative logs. Shut your eyes when the wrought iron grille in front of the fireplace clatters onto the tile. Wake up. Ha-ha, funny dream. Try really, really hard to wake up. Please.
Ignore the footsteps coming down the staircase. No, on second thought, pray that Nicole doesn’t have the shotgun. Pray that she recognizes “classic Gordon” when she sees it.
But the footsteps are too light, and too numerous, for your wife. Keep silent as your children enter the living room. This won’t be a funny story next year. This is a disaster. Is this really what it takes? Renting a Santa costume, and climbing onto the roof in the middle of the night, and taking apart the chimney cover, and—and this? Part of you wishes you could just have dinner with the family a few times a week, but most of you knows you’re past the point where that would suffice.
Amy and Jane have started to mutter. Luther won’t say anything, you know, but you can bet he’ll be scanning the room like a hawk. Sometimes you think he has something. OCD, maybe. Nicole tells you he’s fine. She shows you his poetry. Not bad, you suppose, but you never understood poetry anyways, much less from an eight-year-old.
Someone picks up the grille that fell over. Amy, probably. She’s the oldest, the protector, the one that’ll be an executive some day. “What happened?”
“Is someone up there?” Jane’s only five, but she can be shockingly on the ball, and if anyone stands a chance of figuring out what’s going on, it’s her.
More footsteps coming down the stairs. I’ll give you, let’s say, ten seconds of denial. It’s not Nicole. She’s still asleep. She’s not going to see how badly you’ve fucked it up, and she won’t be furious about the damage you’ve likely done to the chimney.
“Sweetie, what’s wrong?”
“The thing fell over.” The grille scrapes against the tile as Amy picks it up. “I think we should search the house.”
“Well that’s weird. Hm,” A foot, tapping. “Luther, do you know where dad is?”
No sound. He’s probably shaking his head.
“Mom,” Jane, “What’s that?”
“I don’t know.” She grunted, bending down. “You tell me.”
“Uh-huh.” She sighs. “Amy?”
“Run outside and see if there’s a ladder out front.”
Alright, she knows. Fess up now. Don’t drag it out. “Hey, honey.”
“Gordon, no. Come on.”
“Merry Christmas.” Laugh. Hope they join in. Don’t let the silence discourage you.
“Sweetie, stop. Get out of there.” A pause. “Gordon, no.”
“I know, I know.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Mom,” Jane, “Is Dad stuck?”
“I don’t know, sweetie. Ask Dad.”
“Yes, I’m stuck, alright?” It’s not her fault. Don’t snap. “Nicole, just hold on.”
“You know, this is just like—” She pauses. “Kids, go back to bed. We’ll be up in a minute.”
Amy coughs. “We’re not gonna help dad? I think we should help him.”
“Um,” Jane says, “Is dad gonna be stuck forever if we—”
“No, no. I’ll get him out. Don’t worry. Just—go upstairs. Please.”
Footsteps, dragging, heavy, up the stairs. Don’t take it too hard. That was confusion in their voices, not anything else. You’re fine.
“Um…” Luther. “Merry Christmas, Dad.”
Laugh. Don’t imagine Nicole glaring at the fireplace. “Merry Christmas, little man.”
You can hear their bedroom doors close. Nicole sighs. “You couldn’t have rented a pony, or something? Amy’s been asking.”
“Never asked me.”
“Well, she’s been asking.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I wanted to do something special, before Santa stops being a thing. Can you blame me for that?”
“Gordon, come on. I have to call the fire department.”
“Don’t. I’m serious.”
“No, you remember the last time—”
Alright, wriggle. It won’t help, but you need to move, and things can’t get any worse. “I don’t feel like this is a fair argument. The counselor said not to corner each other, didn’t she?”
“Easter. That was the last time. You pulled out those fancy Benihana moves. Same concept, Gordon; barbecue would’ve been fine.”
“I feel like if the counselor knew about this, she would not be okay with it.”
You hear the couch wheeze as Nicole sinks into it. “And surprise parasailing tickets, and that time you dropped two grand on a band for Jane’s birthday—”
“That was different. Jane talked about them constantly. That was different.”
“Look, I’m sorry. Is that what you want? I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m apologizing for, but—no, here. I’m sorry for screwing up. I’m sorry these things never work out, but I can’t help trying. Now, there’s a rope in the garage. Just toss it down the chimney, and I’ll climb out. You better hold the end, or something.”
“For Christ’s sake, I’m not going to hang myself.”
“No, I—you really don’t need me to call the fire department? You’re sure?”
“Yes, Nicole. I’m fine. I promise I won’t screw up—again.”
Enjoy the coffee steaming between your hands. It really ought to be hot cocoa, since it’s Christmas…but do not say that. You’ve done enough tonight.
Nicole looks at you. Not sad—disappointed. Smile at her. If you don’t act like something’s wrong, nothing will be wrong. She sips her coffee, and glances at the sooty trail leading through the carpet, toward the stairs. You forgot about that when you went to shower.
She clears her throat. “Definitely a unique Christmas morning.”
“Mhm.” Don’t apologize again. She knows you’re sorry.
“Guess we won’t be taking that costume back.”
“Huh. Nope.” You sip your coffee.
She shakes her head. “It shouldn’t be this hard.”
“You can see that I tried, right? Please tell me you see that.”
“I do.” She chuckles, but she won’t meet your eye. Don’t try to force it. Don’t interrupt. The counselor said to let each other talk. “And I really appreciate it, but it’s not fair to the kids. They see the effort—trust me, they do. But you look like a clown with these things.”
Try to think of something to say. Anything? That’s okay. Just wait.
Nicole sips her coffee. She’s not wearing any makeup, and has an awful case of bedhead, but you’ve been married so long you couldn’t care less. She’ll always look beautiful to you. Tell her that. No, not now. Let her talk. Nicole takes a breath. “It’s Linda, isn’t it?”
Hearing the name makes you flinch. She becomes a person when someone says it out loud, rather than a bad memory. A real person, with real flesh. A real desire you used to have, back when you got laid off, and just didn’t care anymore. You can feel your body shudder. “Absolutely not. No, not even remotely. I haven’t seen her since—back then.”
“No, not like that. I’m not saying you—I know you’ve been—it’s because of what she did, past tense. But you don’t need to make up for it.”
Go ahead, sigh. It’s a hard topic. You don’t like remembering that part of your life. You’re ashamed of it. Let it show. Nicole might notice. “Is that it?”
“Maybe? I just get so little time with you. And the kids. They’re so busy taking tests, and lessons, and practicing school and things and, and they have friends, and I’m going to wake up one day and they’ll be applying to colleges…” What are you saying? Run a hand through your hair. Refocus. “I won’t get to see them for a while, starting January. I wanted to leave on a good note.” Stare into your empty cup. “They should have good memories of me. Us.”
She doesn’t say anything. Is that good? No, that’s bad. Say something. “I’ll clean the carpet.”
“Really, I will.” Smile. Even if you don’t feel like smiling. “Merry Christmas.”
“We’ll do it later. Together.” She puts a hand on your arm. “Okay?”
Ah, but don’t get comfortable. You’re not out of the chimney yet. At least, part of you is still up there. Remember yet? No? Think harder.
“Shit, the presents.” Bingo.
“Hold on.” Fish around in the chimney—the presents fell further down when you climbed out. Grab the bag. Drag them out. They don’t look half bad, so feel free to breathe a sigh of relief. You’re out of the chimney. Well done.
“What did you get them?”
Think back. “Um, I got Luther the last few books in that series he loves—Ranger something?”
“He finished that a month ago.”
“Really?” That’s okay. Move on. “I got Amy a bow and arrow. She’s still—she still takes classes, right? And I got Jane a Barbie set.”
Nicole shakes her head. Let her take the bag when she reaches for it. Don’t loom behind her when she kneels in front of the tree. Resist the urge to protest when she starts switching the From Mom and From Dad labels on the presents. She stands up, and wipes her sooty hands on your shirt. “You got Luther a microscope, you got Amy a skateboard, and you got Jane a Barbie set.” She smiles. “One out of three. Not bad.”
Kiss her on the forehead. “I love you.”
She blinks at you. “I—love you, too.”
You blink at her. She laughs, and puts a hand on your chest. She covers her mouth with the other hand. “Sorry. You just—your face, you look—mm, never mind. I flashed back to Italy—you remember that trip?” She grabs your arms, thinks for a second, and then hugs you. She starts walking you both toward the stairs. “Come on. Am I going to have to carry you?”
Tell her you’ll be up in a moment. Let her go to sleep, because you know she sleeps like a rock, and won’t hear you scrubbing the carpet. You can clean the presents afterwards, and call someone to come and inspect the chimney, and—
Stop. No, really—stop. Look down at your wife, chatting about when you should wake up the kids, with her hands locked behind your back and her face mostly buried in your shoulder. You think she’s worried about the carpet? You think that’s what she wants to see in the morning? For Christ’s sake, just stop.
Hug Nicole back. Lift her up. Teeter back and forth as you carry her up the stairs.
And leave the carpet for tomorrow.
Jonathan Sload lives in Houston, Texas, where he works as an English teacher. Although his publication history is short, Jonathan has always been an avid writer, and graduated from the University of Houston in 2017 with a degree in English Creative Writing. When he’s not working or nursing his caffeine addiction, Jonathan enjoys blacksmithing, riflery, and fencing.