By Frances Kerridge
I wasn’t living right. I didn’t know what it was I was doing wrong, but after spending a week sitting in the chair, I was beginning to realize that it was more than just Steve that was missing from my life. I’d hardly eaten, hadn’t talked to anyone and no one seemed to notice. I’d considered going to the doctor and getting some Prozac, but I didn’t know how it would mix with alcohol.
To top it off, it was Christmas.
Go into the woods.
It wasn’t a voice exactly, but the kind of thing they once talked about on Oprah, a feeling with words. But it didn’t make any sense. I was already in the woods. Hell, I had lived here for two years on the side of this mountain; how much more woods-like could you get? Besides, I wasn’t the kind of person who heard voices. I was the logical type. A woman.
Go into the woods.
It was pulling at me hard now, an insistent kind of thing. But I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want any of those miraculous experiences associated with nature, where you suddenly see everything so clearly you’re lifted above all worldly experiences. I had tried that by moving here. I could blame it on my aunt Masie for dying and leaving me this cabin, but I knew it was my fault for taking her up on the posthumous offer to move in.
Go into the woods.
I wiggled my foot. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be a positive experience. For one thing, it was twenty-two degrees outside and the night had just begun. There was frostbite and hypothermia. There were hungry mountain lions and dead trees so loaded with snow that they were about to fall down. Something could be about to do me a favor.
I got up, pulled on all my bad weather gear, then I put my cross country skis on the pile of snow in the back of the pickup, hand-shoveled snow from off the hood and windshield and away from the door. The snowplow had come by a few hours ago, but for once, hadn’t packed my truck in too tightly. I’d be able to make it through the berm in front of the truck. I got in, put the truck in four-wheel-low, and stepped on it.
It had snowed all day, about a foot, thick and heavy, and it was still falling lightly. I drove a few miles down the road, then turned in to a snow park beside a cross-country trailhead.
The parking lot was lit up like a Christmas tree from the headlights of four-wheel drive vehicles parked in a circle so that they faced each other. I cranked on the steering wheel to turn my truck around. A man wearing an orange coat ran up to the passenger side, and flung open the door. “Park right over there,” he said, and he pointed to a space between two trucks.
“I’m just going to turn around here.”
“Come on. We’re waiting.” He slammed the door, ran around the back of the truck, reached in, and grabbed my skis. “Hey wait a minute,” I wanted to yell, but all I could do was think, “They’re waiting?” Maybe it was some kind of mass suicide, and by some psychic force of nature, I’d been invited.
I pulled into the space the man had pointed to and got out. It was then I saw the Sheriff’s vehicle and the group of people hovering around a map placed on the hood.
This wasn’t a Jim Jones experience. There was a mistake being made here. I walked up to the man in the orange coat. “My skis,” I said, and I held out my hand.
He handed them to me. “The guy that’s lost is a flatlander.”
“Yeah, but. . .”
“He went out skiing at eight o’clock this morning, was supposed to be back by noon but didn’t show up.”
“Well, I’m not. . .”
“He’s wearing a Santa Claus coat and hat. And jeans. He’s thirty-eight years old. His name is Tim. And he’s not in the greatest physical shape. If you know what I mean.” He looked at me. Our eyes held. “I’m not search and rescue,” I wanted to say. “I was just going out skiing in the dark.” Instead I heard my voice say, “Santa Claus?”
He turned abruptly, waved his hand in the air. “Let’s go.”
He straddled a snowmobile, made a motion toward the back. There were two other snowmobiles, two more drivers and two more skiers climbing on the backs.
My new friend cranked on the throttle. “Get on!” he yelled over his shoulder.
I pulled down my goggles, tucked the skis under my arm, straddled the seat, and sat down.
The snowmobile took off so fast my head snapped back. I recovered, leaned into the man in front of me. I tried to keep my thighs away from him. I didn’t know this man, couldn’t recall ever seeing him before. And the last man I had allowed between my thighs had broken my heart.
We zipped out of the parking lot, into the opening where the trail began, careened around a curve, climbed uphill, then leveled off.
The snowmobile slowed. I heard the others doing the same. We stopped. In front of me, in the light from the snowmobile, I could see an orange tag dangling from a tree limb.
“Here,” the man said, and he motioned me off. The other skiers were putting on their skis. I placed my skis on the ground, positioned my toes in the bindings, and snapped them down.
“You guys ready?”
“Yeah,” someone behind me said.
I looked up. The man was looking at me. My name was Sara. I straightened. “Ah, yeah. I’m ready.”
He pointed from me to the two men. “You guys all know each other?”
“No,” I said.
“Stan, Jim, Karen,” he said, pointing at each of us.
“All right. Through here to Marmot. We tagged the other side. We’ll pick you up there.”
This past week wasn’t the first time in my life that I had been filled with a big empty feeling of sad. It was the reason I’d started visiting Aunt Masie in the first place. I was sixteen then, and had suffered for years with periodic bouts of despair. The only thing that intrigued me was this black-sheep aunt that my father—Masie’s older brother—referred to as “The Queen.”
I didn’t understand how a woman who lived alone on a high altitude ridge in the middle of the forest could think of herself as better than everyone else, and my despair was pushed aside with my need to find out. What I discovered was a woman with a sense of independence and self-reliance that could make anyone with a smidgen of insecurity feel inferior. A woman who had never felt a black hole day in her life. It was as if she had an immeasurable source from which she drew strength. That source, I decided after years of visiting her on this mountain, came from the wilderness itself.
I kicked off behind the man named Stan. It was rough going, a dense underbrush only partially visible in the layering of fresh snow. I could see that the snowmobiles wouldn’t be able to traverse this area. We skied into a downhill clearing, let our skis go, then began to climb again.
At the top of the hill, the terrain began to level off. The sound of the snowmobiles became faint. We made our way around the thick brush and came out into another clearing. Stan suddenly stopped.
I plowed into the back of him.
“What in the hell you doing?”
“Sorry.” I backed up. “Didn’t see you.”
“Where’s your light?”
“Shit,” I heard him say beneath his breath. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
“Guess I forgot that too.”
“Okay,” Jim said. “Ready?”
“One, two, three. T-i-m-m-m!” Their voices bellowed in unison. I heard their intakes of breath. “Ti-i-i-i-m-m-m!”
Stan turned to me. “Are you with us or not?”
“Oh. Yeah.” I let my poles hang from the straps around my wrists, put my hands around my mouth, and yelled, “Ti-i-i-m-m-m!” Next to the men’s voices, my own sounded high-pitched, shrill, inexperienced, as if I had never bellowed before, which was a lie; I had, but never for a legitimate reason.
Stan tipped his head sideways and listened. I did the same. No noise of a man calling back, in fact, no sound now at all. I had never known the night to be so quiet.
“Where is this dumb asshole?” Jim said, and he spat on the ground.
Dumb asshole. I’d heard it enough times. Flatlanders would come to the mountains and get themselves lost and some of the townspeople would get up from their dinner tables or out of their beds in the middle of the night to go look for them. Calling the lost person names kept from personalizing him; after all, you didn’t want to think that the guy you might find dead also had a dinner table and a bed.
I called them names too. While I’d never actually looked for anyone, I’d hung around town listening for news and a hint of an upcoming celebration while participating in the jokes and laughter. But this time felt different. And it wasn’t only that I was one of the people doing the looking. This time I knew what the lost person looked like, and with the thought came the vision of Santa in his big red coat. I didn’t want that vision, but there he was, sitting in his big chair, beckoning to the kids to sit on his lap and tell him what they wished for.
“You’re calling Santa Claus an asshole?” I heard myself say.
“Santa Claus,” Jim said. It came out in a high-pitched voice.
“Isn’t that who we’re looking for?”
“We’re looking for a man named Tim.”
“Jesus,” Stan said. The men’s headlamps swung around in the opposite direction and began to move fast. I followed the beams, trying to stay in the men’s tracks. We were breathing hard, Jim, the track maker, even harder. From below us came the rough-edged sound of the snowmobiles. We stopped and listened as they started their climb up the hill parallel to us.
The men suddenly stopped. “This is it for the night,” Jim said, and he spat on the ground.
“You mean you’re quitting?”
“We been out here since afternoon.”
“You can’t just go home.”
“We’ll come back in the morning,” Stan said. “We got to get some sleep.”
“It’s not that far until morning now.”
“Look,” Jim said, “We ain’t seen ass or shine from this guy. At this point, his tracks have been covered. All we’re doing is going in circles. Round and round ’til we freeze our asses off.”
He was right. The temperature was continuing to drop. Even though I was dressed right, I could feel the cold coming up from the snow through the bottoms of my boots, into my legs, and up into my torso, and with the feeling came the vision again, only this time it was different: I could see his droopy beard, his red hat sopping wet and hanging crooked from his head. I could see a happy man in trouble.
“I’m not quitting.” I heard myself say the words, and at the same time, felt the voice saying them rise up from deep inside me.
“I mean it. You quit, you quit without me.”
“What’s your point, girl?”
“Don’t call me girl. And my point is that I’m going to find Santa Claus.” I’d never felt such conviction in my life. It was as if something had overcome me that I had no control over. Something that I wanted.
“Just think what the kids are going to feel like when he doesn’t show up on Christmas Eve.”
“You on drugs? ’Cause if you are . . .”
“She’s got a point there, Jim. You should know that.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?”
“You’re the one who believed in Santa Claus ’til you was thirteen.”
“I ought’a kick your ass.”
“It’s true and you know it.” Stan’s light turned toward me. “I went over to his house that Christmas morning and he was crying ’cause Santa didn’t come. Standing there holding the rifle he got and crying. Thirteen years old.”
“You son-of-bi. . .”
“I know what he felt like,” I said. “The same thing happened to me,” and with the words a memory: Standing in front of the Christmas tree and realizing there were no extra presents from Santa. “At least Jim got him a year longer than I did.”
It was true. I was twelve that Christmas he didn’t come. I knew he wasn’t real; I’d known it since I was six, but I loved him anyway, and it wasn’t just because of the presents. I loved watching television on Christmas Eve when the show was interrupted by an announcement that NORAD was tracking a flying object in their air space. I loved waking up on Christmas morning, going into the living room, and seeing the presents that hadn’t been there the night before and knowing that it was Santa who was supposed to have left them. It was this part, his visible invisibility, that I loved the most.
“Hell, he stopped coming to see me when I was ten,” Stan said.
“Because you went around telling everybody he was a scam. You didn’t have enough sense to know you had a good thing going.” Jim moved closer to Stan. “You still don’t.”
Stan’s light beam shone on his feet.
“The guy’s overweight,” I said. “The guy they’re calling Tim.”
“He’s not going to last long out here. And that’s no scam.”
Stan’s light went off.
I stared at them. “I don’t have a problem,” I said. “It’s not my name.”
“Yeah. I mean, no.”
“Then what is it?”
“Doesn’t matter. If I don’t answer to Karen, it’s not my fault because it’s not my name.”
The night was silent.
Stan spat on the ground.
“I wish you guys would stop that. I have a weak stomach.”
“You can’t see anything.”
“Just the sound makes me sick.”
The snowmobiles started. They came down from the top, around to the side of us. They stopped.
“Jim! Stan! Kare-n-n-n-n!”
We didn’t move. A moment later, the snowmobiles started up again. They continued until they had nearly circled us, then hit the straight-a-way.
“Well,” Stan said when the sound had died. “How do we find this old fart?”
We headed North. It was first back downhill. We traversed to a wide, clear area, then turned our skis downhill, and let them go. We passed an orange tag sticking out from a tree limb. The clouds had settled low near the canyon; they whipped past me in wet puffs. I felt free and easy like I’d gone into another dimension. I felt like I was flying through time.
We reached the bottom, crossed over the snowmobile tracks, then started uphill. It was rough going, a dense underbrush. We clamored over a fallen tree. Behind us came the sound of the snowmobiles returning to the trailhead.
“Jim! Stan! Kar-en-n-n-n-n-n!” we heard behind us.
“Sounds like they got a hold of a bullhorn. They expect us to yell our throats out but they get a bullhorn.”
“That’s the bureaucracy for ya.”
The brush broke loose to free flat terrain. Our rhythms joined. We were breathing in unison.
On that first Christmas morning without Santa Claus, I was shocked. My parents knew I didn’t believe in him, but they hadn’t said he wasn’t coming anymore, and as I stood in front of the Christmas tree, staring at what wasn’t there, the shock settled into a deep disappointment. I went back to bed before my parents could get up and see what I knew had to be a bad look on my face. After all, I was twelve years old. I knew my father was giving me a necklace, the first piece of jewelry he’d ever given me. I didn’t want him to think he’d made a mistake in seeing my maturity. And I didn’t want to appear ungrateful for any of the other gifts my parents had carefully chosen and wrapped, and so by the time we all got up, I was able to pretend I didn’t notice the absence of Santa Claus, and by nightfall, I believed I’d convinced myself that an imaginary fat man and his flying reindeer belonged in my past with dolls and teddy bears.
The tracks appeared. Jim saw them first. He stopped, kneeled down. “They’re fresh,” he said.
“Pretty much,” Stan said.
I looked down but all I could see was a subtle indentation in the snow, nothing that looked to me like anything I’d ever seen on TV. “How fresh are they?”
“He’s not that far ahead of us.”
A flutter in my chest, too high and too close to my heart to be an indication of pregnancy. I straightened. The men did the same.
“Let’s give it a try,” Stan said. We cupped our hands around our mouths. “San-n-n-n-nta-a-a!” We tipped our heads, listened hard. Still nothing.
“It’s okay,” Jim said, excitement evident in his voice. “We’ll stay with them.”
I fell into line just to the right of the tracks. We followed them around a dense brushy area, went into a clearing, fast and easy, then headed uphill again.
In the light from Jim and Stan’s foreheads, the tracks were becoming clearer to me. I could make out the way he moved, the bend of his ankles, the stride of his short legs, the heavy weight of his body on the skis. I felt his presence as if he were skiing alongside us and I suddenly realized that I had lied to myself that Christmas I was twelve. I wasn’t too old for Santa. On a certain level I knew that, but I pushed that knowledge deep down inside of me. And it had cost me. Over the years, that knowing had carved out a big empty hole inside of me, one that I had unconsciously tried to fill with people and their places. But nothing—not Steve nor Masie, nor the wilderness I erroneously thought Masie had obtained her essence from—could replace that one essential thing that I understood now was missing from my life: The need to believe in the unbelievable.
A straight uphill. The tracks herringboned. We herringboned. They sidestepped. We sidestepped. There was sweat on my forehead beneath my hat. Beneath my clothes, on my arms, were goose bumps.
We reached the top, took on an easy, fluid slide beside the tracks. Then stopped.
It was too dark to see, but I could feel the chasm of the cliff below us.
“Can you believe it?” Stan said. “The bastard went over the edge. Just like that. Just fine and dandy.”
“Zoom,” Jim said, “like an airplane,” and he aimed his hand up toward the sky. My eyes followed its movement.
“Yep,” I thought to say. “That’s a man for you.” But past Jim’s hand my eyes caught the break of clouds being tracked by a now visible moon. The clouds moved fast, now dark, now light, and between their combining and separating, I could see him in that sleigh, his beard flapping in the wind, his hands holding the reins tight. I could see him riding high across the face of the moon.
Frances Kerridge’s stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Ascent, Redbook, and Santa Monica Review. She lives with her husband in the Sierra Nevada backwoods, where there is no cell phone signal.