Against all good reason Old Oak drove the Volvo. The fact that he had the oldest superior-style genitals of our party surpassed the danger of his being a cyclops. Despite this and the snowy season we arrived alive, and barely skirted the ditch only once.
He only drove two blocks after we told him to turn for the community centre and hockey arena where our village Christmas festivities were taking place, applying the classic geriatric braking technique known informally as too late, too hard. I peeled my face out of the leather of the chair in front of me and frowned.
"It's back there, Pop!" explained Littlestar again.
"In the gas station, ja?" asked Old Oak, squinting out his side window.
"No, two blocks behind us, Oakey!" scolded Littlestar's Mother (whom I am assured is too insecure to tolerate any kind of naming, no matter how kindly intentioned, thus she is doomed to remain Littlestar's Mother in these diaries forever; I've made suggestions, many of which I think were nothing but cute, but each one's been vetoed).
Old Oak then executed a quantum kind of decision making, almost making several manoeuvres at once and consequently not making any at all as he vacillated over the Turning Around Conundrum.
"Why don't you --" suggested Littlestar's Mother.
"Vill you quit intervering!" he snapped.
"Okay, okay," she agreed.
He squinted meaningfully and pointed his good eye forward with determination, wrenching the wheel around and making an elegant twelve-point turn in the snow. This time we were able to find the semi-hidden driveway of the arena, and we prowled the slushy parking lot while enjoying a lively debate on the likelihood of this arena being the one we were looking for (as if Lefroy, the hamlet to the north of our arena-less village, were big enough to support two arenas). The big objection seemed to be there were an awful lot of sweaty children carrying hockey equipment, which didn't seem appropriate for a Christmas party.
I closed my eyes and counted to a billion.
Littlestar's Mother, Popsicle and I waited by the entrance while Old Oak parked the car and Littlestar waddled after him to fetch something from the trunk she'd forgotten (home-made cookies, I think). She was muttering to Baby Two, who was boxing her liver for larffs.
Littlestar's Mother found the world to be damp and drafty. She complained, but I didn't listen. There was a river of hockey children pouring out of the double doors, and attempting to stand in their way would be highly antisocial in my estimation. Then a fool parked her locomotive-sized SUV directly in front of the doors and got in everyone's way, so it became a moot point and we shuffled inside the arena.
People in small towns know where everything is, so they don't put up signs. Never the less, when Old Oak and Littlestar joined us again we found a narrow stairwell up to a second level. This led to a cloak room full of children's boots, so Popsicle pulled off her own boots and ran into the arena's cafe where clouds of other children were running around making noise.
We observed that only the children had removed their boots. The parents, feeling more secure while shod, I suppose, had kept their footwear on. Thus, the floor by the entrance was a swamp of puddles and ice chunks. Many of the children therefore had soaking socks. "Brilliant system," I commented. "I declare cold and flu season: open!" Littlestar giggled.
Because of my failure to get my laundry ducks in line I had experienced some difficulty finding a reasonable approximation of dress-casual wear for the party. I am no slave to fashion, but I admit that I had felt somewhat compromised by the way my grey sweater didn't really go well with my dusty grey-blue slacks...
That is until I stepped into the arena cafe, and got a dose of what my fellow villagers consider "dress-casual." Then I felt like a million bucks.
For the men the term dress-casual obviously meant "no sports motifs" because the sharpest tacks were wearing logoless sweatshirts and jeans, while the occasional man-boy who had baulked at such guidelines wore their usual baseball cap, sports jersey and pseudo-sport leg-striped pantaloons that looked like giant pajamas with zippers on them.
For the women the term meant they had to choose something their toddlers hadn't stained that didn't make them look too fat, which evidently left them few options because in some cases it appeared that their toddlers had in fact been the ones to assemble the outfits. "Do dark blue, red and orange go?"
In line for a cup of juice I met a nice lady who had one of those unfortunate strawberry-nebula birthmarks exploded over half her face. She had a nice smile, though. She was wearing a ruby-red blouse with giant floofy epaulettes, and a pair of coarse grey unbelted trousers pulled up to her armpits. She was about seven feet tall. Her husband ambled over so they could investigate the sweets table together -- he was the size of an elder Wookiee, a nine-foot middle-aged Quasimodo in a yellow woolen sweater whose lumbering footsteps made the juice cups shudder like in Jurassic Park. He had messy, scholarly hair.
"Those freakish circus people were very nice," I mentioned to Littlestar.
Littlestar was chatting with J., one of the mothers she knows from the village playgroup. J. and her husband are in the process of creating a grand clone army of red-headed boys, the most recent of whom is in his third trimester. J.'s husband was not around (I can only assume a very compelling sporting match was on television), so she was managing the brood alone. She looked tired. She and Littlestar were comparing bellies.
The entertainment portion of the afternoon was a visit from the nice folks at ZooTek who brought tupperware containers full of exotic animals for the children to fondle. The village's next generation gathered as commanded in a semi-circle around the tupperware cubes, a ring of mothers standing behind them. The fathers lounged back at the cafe tables, chatting about sports with one another or staring blankly over the ice-rink down below.
Myself I wanted to see the animals so I hunkered down and sat cross-legged on the floor with the kids. Exotic animals are cool!
Various lizards were passed around, and then an African rabbit with feet so hyper-sensitive to vibration they quivered whenever they lost contact with a solid surface. A few snakes came around, including a mustard-coloured python the length of a sofa. Next came a tarantula and a giant black scorpion, the latter of which glowed a cheery indiglo shade of blue when a black light was pointed at it. (This display would have been more impressive had we been able to turn off the overhead lights as requested, but none of the villagers pawing at the room's dizzying array of switch-banks was able to broker more darkness.)
In the end a great white parrot was brought out and the children lined up to have her stand on their heads so they could have their picture taken.
Lunch was served: a basket of lukewarm hot dogs welded into milk bread sleeves, slices of Papa D.'s pizza, orange-coloured juice-like liquid, home-made cookies and brownies and doughnuts donated from Tim Horton. There wasn't a spoon for all of the condiments, so I used a popsicle-stick for the relish and made a bit of a mess. I figured some kid would get blamed for it, so I ran away.
After eating Popsicle was tired and wanted to sleep, so I pulled out a couple of chairs and draped coats over them to make a tent for her. She crawled inside and used her toque and mittens as a pillow. Her little feet stuck out from underneath, and she wanted me to hold her ankle so that she didn't feel all alone. So I sat on the floor and held her ankle, watching the hot dog line shuffle forward.
There was one well-dressed man in attendance, and it was obvious that he worked in the city. He wore a charcoal-grey shirt and matching creased slacks, with non-sneaker shoes, hair cropped too short for a pony-tail, and he had a number of digital devices on his leather belt. He made his presence known by standing up on the small wooden stage and tapping experimentally on the plastic microphone of his daughter's Barbie-themed karaoke machine. "Is this -- on? It does -- to be work -- operly," his garbled voice stuttered like Max Headroom.
An older woman who must have once been beautiful (or thought she was) slinked over in a tight-fitting Mrs. Claus ensemble and proceeded to poke experimentally at the pink karaoke machine, her velvet-hugged derriere pushing monstrously out at the crowd of children who scooched backward in alarm.
"I think that -- omewhat better," said the nicely dressed man. "Can every -- ear me?"
It was eventually communicated that Santa Claus himself was on his way, and that he had a gift for every boy and girl in attendance. Popsicle sat down on my lap in the middle of the huddle of the children. "Are you going to sit on Santa's knee?" I whispered in her ear.
"I don't know," she said.
"Are you feeling nervous?"
"Yeah," she admitted with a nod. "I a little bit scared of Santa, but he's not a mean guy."
I have mixed feelings about Santa Claus, piqued especially by a recent viewing of Robert Zemeckis' phantasmagorically creepy motion-capture adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express, in which the central more is the devout and unquestioning belief in the reality of St. Nicholas' magic. Watching the movie with Popsicle made me uncomfortable, as if she were being introduced to a spiritual leader with the power of Jesus Christ or Buddha, but with a theology which is, at best, murky.
I have nothing but positive memories associated with believing in Santa Claus, and recall no sense of betrayal at figuring out the truth. Never the less, I hesitated in the wake of The Polar Express to affirm its message. I felt icky. The child's awe was so untainted and unrestrained that I felt like a liar introducing into the embrace of that belief a known fiction.
Littlestar has been cool to Santa from the start. She is dead set against the most fabulous gifts being attributed to his benevolence, as was the ritual in my childhood home. Last year she set a strict limit on the number of trinkets allowed to be ascribed to Kringle. Our explanation at the time: Santa spends most of his efforts getting gifts to children whose parents can't afford to buy nice things -- children who would otherwise receive nothing at all. "It's Mama and Papa who buy you gifts at Christmas," Littlestar made clear.
This line was harder for the child to tow when she watched Santa Claus Himself stride into the arena cafe with a sack of wrapped gifts over his back. He took his place on a large red leather throne and began handing out the gifts to the children who were called to sit in his knee through the broken squawk of Barbie's karaoke.
"Is it my turn?" asked Popsicle.
"He has a present for me?"
"Yes. You don't have to sit on his knee if you don't want to, though. You can still have a present."
"I want to sit in his knee, Papa."
A little red-headed girl came to sit next to us after receiving her gift, which she declined to open until her best-friend had hers to open, too. "She's my best-friend who I met at Bible camp who is the same age as me almost because her birthday is really close to mine but mine's first," she said conversationally.
"What do you think your present is?" I asked.
She squished it experimentally. "I don't know," she admitted. "But it's got hard parts and soft parts which I can feel. I'm six and next year I'll be seven."
"How splendid," I said.
"What that girl name?" Popsicle asked.
"Ask her," I prompted. "Introduce yourself."
Popsicle obediently shoved out her little hand, which had a temporary tattoo of two crossed candy-canes on the back. The red-headed girl shook it. "Popsico," said Popsicle. "I'm B.," said the girl quickly. "That's spelled like this: Big B...little E...little T..."
We were hailed by the squawk box, so Popsicle and I made our way through the kids. I helped her up to Santa's knee and the toddler kept her eyes on me dubiously. She could not bring herself to look into the face of the big man himself, so holy was his gaze. "Do you want to tell Santa how you've been a good girl?" I prompted her.
"I go poo in the potty," she whispered into her chest.
"Ho Ho Ho!" said Santa, who hadn't heard a word.
Littlestar stepped up with the camera and tried to get Popsicle to smile. The child flashed her teeth briefly in a smile-like grimace of duty and then went back to lingering on Santa's knee bashfully. Santa was handed a gift with Popsicle's name on it and he handed it to Popsicle, who awkwardly stuffed it under her arm next to Bo the teddy bear.
"You should thank Santa," I suggested.
"Thank you," she mouthed, her voice failing her.
I noticed my fly was open, so I tried not to face the crowd as I escorted her offstage. The pink karaoke machine belched the next incomprehensible name and a brace of parents flanked the well-dressed man in an effort to read the call sheet over his shoulder. "Now it's -- ourtney's turn to -- anta!" announced the well-dressed man ineffectually. "This thing doesn't seem to be working very well for some reason," he confided to me as I passed, toeing the plastic case with his Italian loafer.
Popsicle's gift? A small pink pony with absurdly long purple hair and a tattoo of a doily on its rump, a plastic stationary set including a pad of notepaper inscribed Friends shop together! in pink letters, and a Clifford the Big Red Dog sticker album with four pages of stickers.
It was this last element she fancied as the greatest prize after getting over a two minute fascination with combing the tats out of the pony's tail out with the included pink plastic brush. The stationary set enjoyed five minutes of attention while she drew a picture of Santa on the pad once I'd sharpened the pink pencil with the pink pencil sharpener. I put the shavings in my pocket so that we didn't leave a mess.
Then we took down our chair-tent and put on our hats and scarves and boots to brave the viper wind between the arena and the Volvo, which Old Oak had warmed up by thoughtfully hotboxing the cabin with tobacco smoke. As we nosed the car toward the road he wondered aloud, "Now I can't remember if it vas to the right or to the left..."
"You just turn --" began Littlestar's Mother.
"Vill you stop always talking, ja!" cried Old Oak. "I can't remember vit your talking all the time, no. Let me think vor just one moment, vill you?"
He turned right, which was correct.
Posted by Cheeseburger Brown at 10:46