Saturday, February 16, 2013

Playing Doctor

Chris Roll
Playing Doctor
                A new problem was loosed upon the world the day three-year-old Eunice Maywether first pulled the arm off the porcelain doll she had received for her birthday. She stared at the arm for hours, amazed that it could be looked at from the usually unseen angle of the empty socket and the disconnected shoulder. Then she ran giddily to find the rest of her doll collection.
                The idea that physical forms could be dismantled prompted an immediate, insatiable interest in medicine and the way bodies worked, although with her father’s low-paying job at the sawmill there was no chance she’d ever get to go to medical school. Instead, her fascination moved to vivisection. Many an unfortunate animal, wild or relatively tame, was disassembled behind the barn before her parents put a stop to it . . . temporarily. Little Eunice was nothing if not resourceful when it came to hiding her pursuits.
                Eunice Maywether grew old. Living by herself in the Ozarks, her once-productive garden became choked with weeds and thistles. The barn that once housed horses and goats was on the verge of collapsing. And her yard was strewn with old, cast-off doll parts as far as the eye could see.
                This unsettling sight was what the occasional visitor would see as he or she warily pulled into Maywether’s driveway. Not that she ever received deliberate visitors, of course; it was only the handful of people each year who got lost in search of a gravel road not hers. They would drive up to her front gate, sometimes getting out of their cars, only to recoil and drive away as though the devil were on their tailpipes once they saw the doll carcasses. Eunice would peer through the window at them as they drove away, her dead green eyes joining the unblinking eyes of the countless doll heads in watching the cars depart.
                Sometimes, though, a more brazen traveler would ask for directions, having stepped past the minefield of broken faces to reach Eunice’s porch. Eunice would come to the door at the fifth or sixth insistent rap, putting on her most pleasant brown-toothed smile. She would invite the unintended visitor inside, offering the use of her phone (which was ridiculous because she didn’t have one) or a cup of tea (which was ridiculous because she didn’t drink tea). There might be an awkward moment when she asked the person to have a seat in one of the recliners, broken down and sunken in from years of use, and she would sit across, still smiling but looking intently at her visitor, mentally processing every joint, every muscle, every detail. Then she would invite her visitor to the kitchen, letting the visitor go ahead of her. Then she would bean her visitor with the wooden mallet she had stashed behind her favorite chair. Comical, really.
                You see, dolls were fun to take apart, but they were too passive. Animals reacted to being cut or pulled apart, but they, too, grew tiresome after a while. But people were different—what better thrill could there be for an aspiring doctor than to pop the limbs off something so similar to yourself? Or to cut them open and to pull out all the things you could never examine inside yourself without dying?
                “Tell me where it hurts,” Eunice Maywether would say, her rotten grin stretching from ear to ear as she applied the tools of her trade. Knives rusted from years of being soaked in fresh blood, handsaws dulled from cutting through ever so many bones, hammers and chisels that had pried loose many a kneecap—these were her instruments of discovery. This was what was in her doctor’s bag.
                When you find yourself on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere, take care. When it takes you too far from the main road and you think you’re a bit too isolated from civilization, you very well may be. Don’t stop. Don’t ask for directions. And make sure you don’t get a flat. Because sometimes asking for help is far worse than being lost. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Christmas There Was a Santa

Chris Roll
14 January 2013
The Christmas There Was a Santa
            Until that Christmas, six-year-old Caylee and three-year-old Jacob didn’t believe in Santa Claus. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though; they wanted to believe. They wanted to feel the same excitement they saw in other children. They wanted to experience the magic that comes from generations of jolly Christmas lore. But there had always been a Grinch in their midst—a nay-saying Scrooge who emphasized reason and rationality in his children: their father, Lonnie.
            Lonnie was a very successful used-car salesman, so he wasn’t hurting for money. Indeed, he was a very generous father who made sure his children had plenty of presents waiting for them every Christmas. However, he refused to entertain with them even the possibility of there being a Santa Claus.
            As Christmastime drew nigh, Caylee and Jacob would see other children standing in line at the mall to sit on Santa’s lap. They would peer at the kindly looking old man in the red suit and see the looks of delight on the faces of the children. They wanted to join these children, to see what was so wonderful, but Lonnie would urge them to keep walking.
            “You don’t want to sit in that old guy’s lap,” Lonnie would insist, chuckling at himself. “He’s got old man cooties, and he’s carrying flu germs from every single kid who’s sat in his lap today.”      
His wife, Gwen, would roll her eyes at this but say nothing. Lonnie meant well, but he had zero concept of imagination. He claimed not to understand the appeal of Santa Claus, and he reasoned that his children would appreciate honesty over illusion.
I’m their security blanket,” Lonnie would proclaim proudly. “I’m their binky! My kids don’t need fairytales and Easter bunnies to comfort them.”
But in that moment, on that Christmas day, when shiny black boots descended the staircase and little bells on a sack of toys began to jingle, Caylee and Jacob finally knew what magic was.
But there is no Santa Claus, the children thought, trying to fight back their wide-eyed wonder. Daddy said. But that’s him. He’s real.
Ho-ho-ho!” Santa Claus bellowed, more deeply and more warmly than Caylee and Jacob could have ever imagined. Everything they had heard—every Christmas story they had seen and heard and been forbidden to take to heart—all of it was true. The twinkling blue eyes, the fat belly, the white beard and the red suit, all of which flew directly in the face of what their father had told them. It was no illusion—Santa Claus was real and he was in their living room.
Ho-ho-ho!” Santa chortled again, setting down his sack with a mighty thud. “Merry Christmas!
Santa knelt down before the children, who were still standing awestruck by their mother.
“And have you been good this year?” he asked, smiling broadly.
“Y-yes, Mr. Claus,” Caylee stammered, her heart fluttering with joy. Jacob merely nodded, too giddy to form words.
“Then I have presents for you!” Santa declared happily, pulling brightly-wrapped packages from his sack. “Presents for both of you!”
“Santa!” Jacob cried out, gleefully looking up at his mother. “Santa’s here!”
“Yes,” Gwen replied, a strange, sideways smile on her face. She looked quizzically at Santa, raising an eyebrow. “Santa’s here.”
“Santa,” Caylee whispered, and Santa turned to her. Caylee looked into his eyes and saw all the warmth of a crackling fire on a winter night. She saw red cheeks like the blush on Grandma’s fresh summer apples. She saw a smile that radiated goodness and sincerity. She looked at Santa Claus and she saw the Christmas miracle she had been forbidden to believe in for so long.
As Santa handed out presents, ho-ho-hoing as he went, Gwen pulled out her camera and snapped a few pictures of Santa with the kids. She wasn’t sure, but Caylee thought she saw Santa wink at Gwen as he knelt beside the children.
Entranced, amazed and delighted by the feeling of Santa’s gloved hand gently clasped upon her shoulder, Caylee only barely heard Jacob ask the question she, too, had in the back of her mind, the question she wanted to ask but could not bear to voice.
“Where is Daddy?” Jacob asked, for he knew Daddy would be more amazed than anyone to see Santa Claus in their living room—to see him alive and real, bigger and warmer than they had ever imagined.
“He must be outside shoveling the driveway,” Gwen suggested. “I bet Santa will see him on his way out.”
Santa stood up and shook a few more presents from his sack. Jacob eagerly fell upon them as Caylee watched, still awestruck.
“Oh, boy!” Jacob exclaimed. “A fire truck! A crane!”
“Open yours,” Gwen said with a smile, but Caylee merely held hers close to her chest.
“This is the best Christmas ever,” Caylee whispered, a single tear starting to well up.
Santa Claus smiled again, but it was different this time. Was it sadness? Was it pride? Was it cruelty? He reached for his hat and pulled it off, revealing thinning blond hair. He pulled off his thick white eyebrows, revealing darker brows that nearly connected in the middle. Finally, he reached for his beard, and suddenly Caylee and Jacob knew the magic was gone.
The beard came off.
“Merry Christmas, kids!” Lonnie declared, standing proudly before them in his red suit, hands on his hips in a heroic pose. With his lean face and padded belly, he looked ridiculous to the point of perversity.
Caylee and Jacob stood there silently, presents in hand. They didn’t run forward to hug their father. They didn’t scream or cry. They didn’t run to their rooms. They just stood there as Lonnie grinned absurdly, crunching down on a candy cane while Gwen picked up the wrapping paper and bows that were strewn around the room.
“Why did you do that?” Gwen whispered under her breath.
“What do you mean?” Lonnie asked, twirling the candy cane with his fingers.
“You rented the suit. You spent money to make them believe only to bring it all crashing down. Why?”
Lonnie just shrugged.
“Didn’t your parents do the whole Santa thing with you and your brother?” Gwen asked. “Didn’t you tell me that one Christmas, when you were already strapped into the car to go visit your grandparents, your mom ran back into the house for a minute? And what did she go back to do?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, honey,” Lonnie muttered, rolling his eyes.
“She said she had to turn off the stove, but she was really setting out presents so you’d be surprised when you got home. You said that Christmas, you actually believed in Santa. Lonnie . . . I agreed with you when you said we should be honest with our kids, but what was the point of this? It was cruel.”
 “Oh, come on,” he chuckled. “It’s Christmas. I was just having fun.”
“So it’s all about you, isn’t it?” Gwen said softly. “That’s all it’s ever been about.”
Nobody talked about Santa after that. From then on, Christmas was a quiet affair. Although family, food and presents remained a staple of the celebration, there was no talk of chimneys or sleigh bells, nor was there any mention of elves or reindeer. But if Caylee and Jacob could not believe in Santa Claus—if their moment of faith had been rewarded with pain instead of pleasure—how could they put any stock in what the holiday was really supposed to be about? Was the baby in the manger just a Cabbage Patch Kid in an apple crate like in the town’s nativity scene? Was God just another story parents told to keep their kids in line? Was heaven no more real than the Bunny Trail? What good was honesty when the man who demanded it went about in disguise to deceive them?
Santa Claus was a lie. Christmas was dead and pointless. Flights of fancy gave way to calculating logic. Magic gave way to hopelessness.
“Merry Christmas, kids,” Lonnie said again, grinning as he chomped down on his candy cane.  

This story is property of Chris Roll, 2013. Long story short, if you want to share the story with somebody, go for it, but don't present it as your own or attempt to profit from it, because, frankly, that's not very nice, and I wouldn't do it to you if I were in your position. Otherwise, enjoy!