After serving his favorite dinner - lasagna and garlic bread - Sophie brought out a cake aglow with dozens of candles.
"Careful. You'll set the house on fire," he warned. He'd told her not to make a fuss - he was too old for such nonsense - but he had to laugh when she serenaded him with Happy Birthday. What she lacked in pitch, she made up for in sheer volume. Buster huddled under the table between Marshall's legs until she was done.
They carried their cake into the living room. Sophie sipped wine while her father nursed a bourbon and water. Buster sprawled so close to the fire that Marshall worried his fur might get singed, but he figured the heat must feel good to the dog's aching joints.
"So are you really going to Santa School?"
Marshall polished off his drink. "I'm considering it." The cancellation deadline had slipped by a week earlier.
"So, do I get to see you in that outfit?"
"The Santa suit. Come on, model it for me." The reflection of the fire danced in her hazel eyes that looked so much like Elaine's.
"Sure," he said, "but promise you won't laugh."
He climbed the stairs slowly. He didn't know when he'd decided to go through with this Santa School thing. But Elaine was right. He was becoming a hermit. He rarely left the house except to go to the store or to take buster to the vet. He missed being around people. Throughout their marriage, Elaine was the one who'd nurtured friendships and networked, as they called it these days. He'd simply been happy to tag along with her. Once she was gone, some of their friends called with invitations, but Marshall wasn't ready then. After he'd said "no" enough times, the invites dried up.
He sat on the bed and pulled out the worn Honey-Do list and a pencil stub from the pocket of his flannel shirt. He added, "Santa School" in his own cramped writing to the bottom.
After he donned the red pants, white ruffled shirt, red and white striped vest, and red coat, he checked himself in the mirror. Not too bad, he thought, twisting right and left like Elaine used to do. He'd better watch the French fries and ice cream, though, or he wouldn't need any stuffing. He tried out a quiet, "Ho! Ho! Ho!" and patted the sides of his belly. Something bulged in the coat pocket. He pulled out wire spectacles, a set of red suspenders, and a pair of white gloves - all the extras he needed to complete the outfit.
"Are you okay, Daddy?"
"Yes, honey." He slipped on the spectacles and said, "I'm coming."
When Marshall entered the living room still struggling with the tight gloves, Sophie leapt off the couch. "Daddy, you look great!"
Buster barked and tried to push himself up. After a few false starts, he got to his feet and staggered over to sniff Marshall.
"It's only me. Guess the old eyes are going, eh, Buster?"
"And his legs, too. Poor baby." Sophie scratched his ears, and he licked her hand.
"He still thinks he's a puppy. We both do." Marshall helped the dog back onto his bed. When he straightened, Sophie was studying him. "You've got a head start on the beard too," she said.
"I keep forgetting to buy shaving cream."
Elaine had always taken care of those things. Truth was, shaving seemed unnecessary now.
Sophie caressed the white scruff on her father's face. "All you need now is a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer."
"And a pair of boots." Marshall pulled up his pant legs and displayed a pair of hole-riddled socks.
"And new socks," Sophie added. "I should have gotten you some for your birthday."
He hadn't bought socks for himself since he got married. "Yup, there's nothing a man looks forward to more on his birthday than new socks."
The morning after Sophie left, Marshall discovered his top dresser drawer crammed full of new t-shirts, socks, and briefs. While he was deciding which color Fruit of the Loom he wanted to wear, he heard a low moan from the living room. Marshall raced down the stairs to find Buster laying half in and half out of his bed. He lifted his grizzled muzzle off the carpet and moved one paw as if trying to get up, then slumped back down.
Oh, no. No. Marshall lifted Buster to his feet, but the dog crumpled as soon as Marshall tried to let go. Marshall gently laid him back on the bed. He bundled Buster in an afghan he'd pulled from the couch and carried him to the car, all the while cooing into his floppy ear, "It's going to be all right." It had to be all right. Buster lay across the back seat, panting shallowly, as Marshall raced to the vet's office.
An hour later, Marshall walked out, carrying only a leash and dog collar. He sat in his car for a long time, unable to drive.
Santa School was out of the question now. He had no interest in going there - or anywhere else for that matter. What was the point?
Marshall stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. So, what was he doing here at the Econo Lodge? He scratched his chin. The last time he'd grown a beard, it was as black as his boots. Now his whiskers were almost completely white with only a few streaks of gray matching what was left of his hair. The beard looked Santa-like, but the dark circles under his eyes gave him away. He turned on the tap and splashed cold water on his face, dried it with a thin paper towel, and headed for Conference Room B.
Marshall expected the class to be made up of old fogies like him, and there were a few, including a couple of older women. He was surprised, however, that most of the people sitting in folding chairs around the stuffy room were young or middle-aged.
He was more surprised when one of the old fogies stood up and introduced himself as their instructor, Ralph Salisbury. "Tonight's meeting is an opportunity for us to get to know each other. I spend most of the year in Reno performing in a ventriloquism act, but starting tomorrow, I will be Santa Ralph. My number one rule is that once you put on The Suit, you never break character. Ever. Kids can sniff out a fake a mile away, and once that magical illusion is broken, there's no fixing it."
He paused to scan the room. "How many of you remember the moment you realized that Santa isn't real?"
Marshall raised his hand. So did most of the others.
"And how many of you wished almost immediately that you could go back to believing?"
Everybody's hands shot into the air.
"Ralph Salisbury nodded his head. "What's done can't be undone. It's up to you to keep the magic alive."
The next morning they arrived at the Econo Lodge to find Santa Ralph in full costume standing at the front of the room. For the entire day and the next two weekends, he showed them how to become the world's most beloved character. Santa.
Ralph taught them everything from using their diaphragms to produce the deepest "Ho! Ho! Ho's," to obtaining liability insurance. They learned all the reindeer names (it's Donder not Donner), Santa's favorite cookies (whatever the child likes), balancing a child on your lap (use your whole arm to cradle them), and how the magical sleigh works (they were sworn to secrecy).
Before Marshall knew it, it was the last day of class before the practicum, and Santa Ralph sat on the edge of a table and reviewed the guidelines for Mall Santa behavior.
"No drinking or drugs before shifts. Come clean and tidy - trim those nose hairs and buff those boots. And for Santa's sake, brush your teeth and stay away from the garlic. Accepting gratuities is not allowed. Show up on time. Stay in character. No grousing to the Santa's helpers or mall staff. Oh, and I gotta say this one nowadays. For your own protection, keep your hands visible at all times. Most important of all, never promise the kids that they will get what they ask for. Now repeat the Santa Pledge with me."
They all said in unison, "I will keep the magic alive!"
"You have your schedules," said Santa Ralph. "See you this weekend."
For his first official Santa shift, Marshall pulled Sunday at eleven o'clock.
Join us Friday for installment 4 of this lovely story on Friday the 12th. Mahala