Sunday, December 17, 2006

Better Image

(A Modern American Christmas Story)

Charmaine Frost headshot by Charmaine Frost

smiling santa Santa leaned back in his extra-wide Barca-lounger and pushed the remote control's "off" button.

"Bertha!" he called. "I've decided to make some changes. A mid-life personal upgrade."

Mrs. Claus waddled to the archway and leaned her flabby arm against the ice portal until the cold burned through her red velvet jacket and woolen underwear.

"You can't be middle-aged," she snapped. "You're supposed to live as long as the world's around; you can't know if you're middle-aged unless you know when the world's going to end. And what's this mean - a personal upgrade?"

"Read this," Santa muttered, and handed his wife a holiday copy of Modern Maturity; the edition was only a year old, very up to date for someone who'd lived as long as Santa.

Mrs. Claus read: "Despite his wide girth and a woefully retro fake-ermine and red velvet look that calls to mind the fashions of guillotined kings, Santa remains the most widely pictured figure of human history. The greatest miracle of Christmas is Santa's longevity; scientists should study Old Blubberbelly's DNA to learn how he has survived for hundreds of years, free from diabetes and cholesterol-packed arteries, despite morbid obesity. Historians might research the famous eccentric's early life for keys to some long mysterious magic tricks and clues to extremes of human adaptability. How does he never get stuck in chimneys despite his girth, how does he enter high rises which are heated electrically? Does he really shout Ho-ho-ho when he awakens in July to another breakfast of polar bear stew, in a wintry wasteland where angels fear to tread?" Mrs. Claus glanced at her frowning husband.

"So?" she shrugged. "You're a famous guy and unlikely to fight back from up here; critics always attack the renown and helpless. Besides, the writer's probably a Hindu."

"Look at this." Santa clicked the remote until the TV showed a gaudily decorated street. On every roof, lit from inside, a giant plastic Santa glowed; reindeer made from tiny blinking lights leapt over the chimneys and frolicked behind the Santas. "It's Santa Claus Lane in Suburbia, USA, telecast to every country including the North Pole. All the reporters rant about the epidemic of obesity but here I am, with a holiday honoring me and 580 pounds."

"Dear," Mrs. Claus whispered. "I don't know if the North Pole is considered a country. And remember a baby called Jesus?"

Santa grunted. He recalled picture books featuring a divine kid born parthenogenically while Daddy Joseph happily looked on, content not to contribute sperm and never suffering a twinge of jealousy. Wise men galloped on camels as fleet as reindeer, guided by a magic supernova to that rickety manger where Mary groaned in labor on hay scented with dried donkey dung; old shepherds hiked for miles, leaning their exhausted frames against giant candy canes when they paused to rest. Santa had delivered many such books to the children on his route, even though the story strained credibility even more than one of the National Enquirer's publicized births of a three headed freak.

"Maybe so," Santa huffed. "But I'm better known. Ask any kid what they think of when they hear 'Christmas'; they'll all shriek 'Santa'! And, given that I'm so well known, it's time for me to improve my image."

Mrs. Claus sighed. Probably, hubby was bored again; when he was bored, he started scheming. Like the time five years ago when he'd gotten thousands of cats licensed as professional vermin trappers in hundreds of states, kingdoms, principalities, republics and archdiocese, then ordered the workshop tailors to stitch together vole and mouse pelts so that each elf could strut about in lederhosen of velvety vole fur and tug at a belt woven from mouse tails. Like the time he built a special battery, that would never go dead, to power Rudolf's nose.

"It's a matter of doing unto yourself as you have done unto others." Santa exclaimed. "Now it's time for a new image for me, a make-over. In the morning, I make an appointment for liposuction."

"Liposuction?" Mrs. Claus gaped, then sucked in her own stout belly. A thin Santa might look like any other old man, liver spotted, with horny yellow fingernails and sagging jowls; she might not even recognize her husband in the stooped figure with shattered bifocals forgotten in the back pocket of baggy red pants that smelled of Ben Gay. In a world where Santa was thin, tinsel might grow naturally from fir limbs; shuffling pines might brandish hatchets and invade houses, to cut down humans as they slept. "You'd confuse all the kids," Mrs. Claus objected.

"And then, a facelift; fat old fogeys just aren't in fashion. But first," he bellowed, "Something I can correct now! Bring me scissors! Bring me a razor and brown dye from one of the gift kits! It's time for the clean shaven look."

Mrs. Claus sighed, then whistled for an elf.

After Christmas, the sleigh skidded to a stop in front of the igloo and a slender man in a newly tailored, red velvet suit climbed out silently; the ermine trim on his cap contrasted stylishly with his glossy dark hair and his tight belt emphasized a firm, muscular abdomen. He lingered by each reindeer, patting its sweaty neck and letting it munch from a bucket of chocolate chip cookies donated by children from everywhere; then he flipped off the switch to the light in Rudolf's nose.

"Hmmmm," he muttered, as he shambled past his wife.

Santa's skin stretched, taut and glossy, over a prominent chin and cheeks; curly locks hid the few forehead creases which plastic surgery couldn't smooth away. He looked young, only 50; for the first time in centuries, Mrs. Claus worried about her own attractiveness. A slim rugged man, especially one as rich and generous as Santa, would attract women. She dusted quickly around the Barca-lounger as he staggered towards it, slid a steaming cup of coffee on the table beside it and offered him her cheeriest, fat-cheeked smile.

"No Ho-ho-ho this year? How was the trip."

Santa sat on the edge of the Barca-lounger, stoop shouldered and staring listlessly at the floor.

"Dogs tried to bite me, cats hissed at me," he moaned. "Some mothers called the cops when they saw me tiptoeing to the tree; the New York City police tried to arrest me as an imposter. Worst of all, the kids didn't recognize me when I walked the streets a few days before. Some told me to stuff pillows under my jacket. Others asked me where I'd dropped my beard and suggested that I use better glue next year. A few asked me why such real looking reindeer came with a fake Santa."

Mrs. Claus sat beside her husband and patted his muscular thigh. "They'll get used to the new you; give them time," she reassured. "Change is always hard. They just need a few years to adjust to the new look. With some clever advertising from the Madison Avenue gang, they'll be comfortable with a thin Santa in just a few seasons."

Santa shook his head. The few who'd recognized him instantly didn't like the change. Fat cheeks seemed jolly, a fat belly seemed comforting like a big soft pillow. Fat was expansive and uninhibitedly generous, like the man who tossed gifts under every tree and shouted a "Ho ho ho" that echoed from the rooftops. A thin, firmly muscled man seemed too deliberate to give with abandon; he was the kind of man who'd exercise on schedule, carefully calculating exactly what he'd take in or give.

"No, the people don't like me," Santa grunted. "And I'll have to do something about that."

Santa lifted the phone and pushed a long series of buttons, hoping that the Arctic winds hadn't knocked out his connection. Mrs. Claus stared.

"Hello, Doctor," he barked into the receiver. "I need waist implants - you know, like breast implants, but at the belly. And butt implants. And cheek implants, to make my face look round and rosy... Yes, yes, I know you just made me skinny... And I'll need a referral to a cosmetics expert, someone who can teach me how to draw wrinkles on my skin."

After arguing for several minutes, he made an appointment with his plastic surgeon.

"There," he sighed. "Problem solved." Then he leaned back, closed his eyes and began to snore.

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