He didn't look amused. "Yes," he said. "I fail to see the humor."
"You're not putting me on?"
"I want to see if you can move things. In the material world."
"I told you, I can't even see the people, let alone pick their pockets, and
even if I could, I've never been a thief." At once my conscience twinged. "At
least, not deliberately. Not systematically."
"You got a better job offer?"
"I want a shot at heaven," I said. "As long as I'm not completely in hell,
"Me too," said Santa. "Some years I've been so close."
"What about getting into the devil's workshop? Been close to that, too?"
He shrugged. "As a novelty act, they've invited me now and then. But
not to stay. Strictly in the back door, you know."
"Why should I do this? I mean, you've been at this for what, fifteen
hundred years? And you're still here."
"Got any better plans? It's not like you're running out of time."
"Santa, excuse me for saying this, but as far as I can tell, you're as
looney as a one-legged duck."
He shook his head. "My friend, nobody's crazy here. We might be wrong
about a lot of stuff, but we can't lie and we aren't crazy. Still, like I said, no
hurry. Look me up if you decide Santa's gang of elves sounds more interesting
than ... whatever it is you're doing."
"How would I find you?"
He rolled his eyes. "Just ask. In case you didn't know it, I'm famous.
People keep track of where I am."
"I was afraid I'd have to go to the north pole or something."
He shook his head, turned his back, and walked away.
He was right. I could see living people. And it wasn't a matter of slowing
down or speeding up, either. It was more like you had to pay attention to
something else, sort of look away and then be aware of what's going on at the
edges of things. Only that's the strange thing -- when you're dead, there are
no edges. You have the habit, from all those years of binocular vision, of seeing
only this window in front of you, with out-of-focus glimpses to the sides, and
most dead people never get past that. But the fact is, when you're dead you
don't have those limitations. You can see ... well, you remember how people
used to say that teachers seemed to have eyes in the back of their heads? Or
it's like, you could feel someone's gaze on you, even though they were behind
you? Well, that's how it is when you're dead, once you get the hang of it.
You're aware in every direction. It's not really vision. It's just knowledge, but
your mind kind of makes sense of it like vision. I wasn't consciously seeing
those moving cars or pedestrians, so I didn't "know" they were there. But I was
aware of them, aware of the people in the cars, aware of the people on the
street, and some old reflex made me dodge them, weave among them without
Thanks to the tip from Nick -- I hate calling him Santa Claus because
that name's too loaded down with cultural freight, I just have to laugh
whenever I think of saying, "Hi, Santa!" -- I got pretty good at seeing mortals.
Got to be a habit, really, knowing where they were, knowing what they were
doing. I found my range was pretty good, too, because this awareness thing, it
isn't blocked by mere walls, I know who's coming around the corner before they
actually come into my field of view. And I'm not a genius, either, I can imagine
there's those that can see for miles, right through hills and cities and whatever
else is in the way. Maybe see forever, if they've got the mind to sort through all
the stuff you'd see in between.
And it wasn't just awareness. I could move stuff.
The thing is, touching the material world, changing it, that doesn't come
the way awareness did -- it isn't just automatically happening, so you only
have to notice it. Ordinarily, when you're dead you simply don't affect the
material world in any way. You don't sink through the earth or walk through
walls, but only because you still have the respect for those surfaces you
learned when you were alive. You can go through them, just as you can sink
down into the earth, though that's extraordinarily boring, since nothing much
is going on once you get past the earthworm and gopher level.
But you can affect things, not by touching or pushing or pulling, but by
-- oh, how else to say this? -- by really, really wanting things to move. Yeah,
OK, by wishing. But we're not talking about some wistful little desire. "Oh, I
wish I could eat a candy bar again." No, it takes a desire so intense it
consumes you, at least for the moment, the way a campfire consumes an
empty marshmallow bag. You feel shrunken, thin, weak. But it's funny,
because you also feel amazingly powerful. Like a superhero. Just because you
got a chair to move.
Only how much can you really care about moving a chair? That's why
poltergeists are so rare, and why they're usually so mean. They're angry all the
time, and they move things around in order to cause fear in the living. That's
the consuming desire -- to make the living afraid of them. To have power. It's
a pathetic thing, and it's definitely on the evil side of the ledger. Evil, but the
bouncer doesn't let poltergeists into the netherclub, because they don't need
somebody inside moving the furniture or spilling the drinks, I guess.
I'm no poltergeist. I'm not mad at anybody. OK, well, so, that's a lie. I'm
pretty steamed about being stuck between heaven and hell, and I'm ticked off
about getting killed before the prime of my life (at least I assume the prime was
still ahead of me, seeing how nonprime the years I actually lived through
seemed to be). So how was I going to move anything?
It was Nick who showed me how. Once I realized he'd been right about
my seeing the living, I looked him up and he kind of took me under his wing,
he and a few of his elves -- who are not little and not cute, they're just dead
people like me -- and showed me the work they do.
It isn't just at Christmas, though Christmas is for them like tax time is
for accountants. All through the year, Nick and his gang are watching out for
children. They'll pick a kid -- almost at random, or so it seems to me, though
maybe there's some system in it, some signs they look for -- and they just
follow, watching. Most kids, their life is OK. Sure, they get yelled at, spanked,
ignored, ridiculed, the normal stuff that makes life interesting, but most of
them, somebody loves them, somebody's looking out for them, somebody
thinks they're pretty good to have around. You can live through a lot of hard
times, if you've got that.
There are other kids, though. Two kinds. Bullies and victims. And
Nick's on the look out for both. The victims, they break your heart. The ones
that are getting tortured or beaten, there's not much we can do for them. The
rage in the person hurting them, that's a powerful force, it matches any wish
we can come up with, and then on top of that they've got bodies, which pretty
much makes us helpless. What Nick's gang does in those cases is, they try
their best to make it obvious to other living people what's going on. You know,
cause a shirt to ride up so a bruise is visible, or get a neighbor to look in a
window or hear a sound, something to make them suspicious. A lot of them
call the cops or child welfare, if it's a country where the cops care, or where
there is an agency whose job is to look out for kids. But a lot of them don't,
and in the end, our hearts just break for those kids and we sort of just wait for
them to join us. Because a lot of Nick's best recruits come from among those
children. His scouts, so to speak. They've got a nose for it.
The neglected kids, though, Nick's gang can help a lot, there. We get
food to them, sometimes. We open a door now and then -- that's a lot harder
and more complicated than you might think. And when they're alone, some of
Nick's gang, they can't move things, but they can make sounds that the living
can hear, so they sing to them or talk to them. Tell them stories. We get
tagged as imaginary friends sometimes, but it's not like we're looking for credit.
We just try to help the kids know they're not alone, that somebody cares what
they're going through. And those singers, they do a sweet lullaby, I tell you.
Songs that even the deaf can hear, cause they sing right into the mind.
Sometimes I go with them, just to hear them sing. We can't save all their lives,
but we can make what life they have a little better, and that's good. It's not like
we think of death as all that big a deal, anyway. I mean, we are dead, and so
death doesn't hold any fear for us. That's why we're generally not in the
lifesaving business. When we can get a few crackers to a kid, sure, we'll do it,
but ... they'll just need more tomorrow, right? While a good song can live in
their memory through a lot of dark nights of fear and loneliness.
But that's not the kind of work I do. I'm not a singer, and when I move
things, I've got to be mad. It's my sense of injustice that has to get riled up.
And so I'm on the bully patrol.
You know the kids I'm talking about. Some of them are physically
violent, but most bullies do their damage with their mouths. They've got this
instinct for the thing that makes a weaker kid hurt the most. Sometimes it's
obvious -- a kid with a big nose, you don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure
out what to make fun of. But some of these bullies, it's like they can read
minds. Their victim has a drunk mother, the bully goes straight to the mother
jokes -- how does he know? The girl who's lonely and scared she's not good
enough for anybody, the bully girls taunt her clothes or play really mean jokes
where they pretend to be her friend until she commits herself, says something
that shows she really believes in their faux kindness, and then they can mock
her. Some of the things they do are so elaborate, it takes so much thought and
effort to do them, you can hardly believe someone would go to all that trouble
just to make another person unhappy.
Well, that ticks me off. That gets me all intense, and I feel it building up,
and I can move things.
The trouble is, what do I move? It's not like the bully deserves to die or
anything, so I can't make the roof cave in on them. Death may not be a big
deal to us, but murder still is, and one of the rules that seem to govern the
universe is that while we can do a little messing around with the material
world, we're not allowed to kill. Just can't do it. Wish all we want, but if the
thing we try to move might kill somebody, it just won't budge.
So we've got to be resourceful. I mostly try for justice. A girl makes fun
of another kid's big nose, I make sure the bully girl bumps into a door that
wasn't quite where she thought it was. Big swollen nose, a shiner. Let her see
how it feels to have other people stare at your face for a while. Or a bully boy
who shoves little kids around -- I can arrange for him to twist his ankle or trip
and fall headlong right as he's going after a kid, make him look bad in front of
everybody or distract him with a little pain. My favorite, though, is to make it
so when the bully just touches his victim, I make the victim's nose bleed like a
river, make him bruise up around his eye or jaw. Doesn't really hurt the victim
when I do it, but it makes it look like the bully did a full-out assault, gets him
in so much trouble. A few times the bully's been so frightened by the injury he
"caused" that he gets control of his hostility and stops picking on kids.
But here's the problem. I'm working on justice, protecting kids from
each other, trying to help change kids who've fallen in love with cruelty, help
them start being a little more decent, learn a little compassion. But when you
come right down to it, what am I actually doing? Causing pain. Hurting
people. All in a good cause, right? But remember, the guy who judges you is
the same one who said, "Turn the other cheek."
I tell myself, I'd turn my own cheek. But he never said I have to turn
away and not notice when somebody else is getting slapped, right? I mean, he
also said that it was better to tie a millstone around your neck and jump into
the sea than to hurt one of the little ones.
But then I also have to be honest and tell myself that I'm hurting some of
his little ones, too. The mean ones, the vicious ones, the ones that maybe he
doesn't really think of as his. But if his capacity for forgiveness is infinite, the
way some people say, then they're all his. Didn't he get ticked off at some
moneychangers, though, and lash out with a scourge and knock over some
tables? Surely he understands how we feel, those of us who are working on
trying to stop the bullies.
You know the real problem? There are so few of us. Few who have the
ability even to see the living -- can't do much unless you can see what's going
on! -- and even fewer who, seeing, care. Because most of the dead, they just
disconnect from the living. So mortals are mean to each other. Big deal. Get
over it. Get on with your ... well, your death. Whatever this is. You can't fix
anything in the mortal world. You get no credit for it. You're already judged to
be unworthy of heaven. So it's not like you've got a stake in what's going on.
Just a few of us who care about the kids and have the ability to do
anything about it. So even if we're making a difference in the lives of some
kids, there are thousands, millions of others that we never see. That's not a
reason to stop, though. It's a reason to try harder. It's not like we sleep.
That's something, anyway. We got twenty-four hours a day.
You do get tired, though. Not physically tired. Just tired in your soul.
Seeing how many mean people there are. Seeing how eagerly the victims keep
hoping that their parents will love them, that they'll find friends at school. And
here we are, trying to help keep those hopes alive. It breaks your heart. It
makes you want to despair sometimes, that despite all that hope, there's
always a bully to dash it. Why do they hate happiness in other people so
much? Especially the children -- where do they learn to take such pleasure in
someone else's misery?
Was I like that?
Oh, man, that's the thing that comes back again and again. Every rude
thing I ever said to another kid. There was this guy in junior high and high
school, we were friends, you know? In plays together, in band. He was smart
and talented, and I liked him. But one day, I'm sitting there with a song going
through my head, and for some reason I come up with a new lyric for it that
makes fun of this friend. A song about Bruce, talking about how conceited he
is. And, well, he is, not so much conceited as really excited about all the cool
things he can do. I think back on it and I realize, he wasn't vain, he was just
thrilled to keep discovering new things he could do, and he thought he could
share his excitement with his friends. Well, I cured him of that. Cause it
wasn't just the one song. I sang that to my friends and they all laughed and
that was it for me, the first talent I ever had -- a talent for musical meanness.
I must have written twenty Brucie songs. Till Bruce stopped hanging around
with us and it was no fun to sing it when he wasn't there. Made me look bad
instead of clever.
I think back on that, I wonder where Nick was. Maybe Nick's gang saw
me but figured, Bruce really was talented and smart, he really didn't need a
loser like me for a friend. They didn't have to stop me, because I just wasn't
important enough in Bruce's life for him to need rescue. I sure hope that's it. I
hope I did no harm.
That's the kind of thing that goes through your mind when you're on
bully patrol. Way too much self-examination, if you ask me, but you can't help
it, you keep seeing yourself in the bullies as much as in the victims. They're all
kids, after all. Even if they're rotten and mean, they're kids. They might still
become something worthwhile.
Christmas, that's the tough time. I had a whole year of learning, mostly
on American streets because I knew the culture well enough to recognize what
was going on with the kids and to be able to think of ways to help them. And
just when I'm getting pretty deft and clever at bully-stopping, Nick comes to me
and says, "It's the Christmas rush. Bully patrol is over till after the big day."
It's obvious that it's Christmas. I mean, there's no missing it -- because
Nick's in a red suit. When the decorations go up, there's all these pictures of
him looking like Norman Rockwell's Coke-drinking Santa, and he just can't
hold onto his civilian image, the red suit just pops right out of him and that's
how he looks. And it's a good thing I can't see myself in mirrors, because I've
got to tell you, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that I look really small and
I'm wearing green. Sometimes you just want to yell at those advertising guys.
Can't they leave us a little dignity?
Christmas and the elves. That's when the serious thievery begins.
Right, like you thought we actually made the toys! We're dead, and even
if we were alive, most toys that kids actually want require serious machinery.
Do you have any idea just how much equipment it takes to make one lousy
little Lego? Let alone a whole Toy Story action figure. No, we don't make toys.
We just redistribute them.
And not in the stores. Think about it -- who goes to Toys R Us? People
with no money? Hardly. So going to the parking lot and taking things out of
one shopping cart and putting them in another, what good is that going to do?
We can't move things far anyway -- it just wipes us out even to jostle stuff. So
none of this stuff about bags of toys going down chimneys. It's pretty rare for
something to show up under the tree that Mom and Dad didn't know about in
Besides, we have to be really intense in order to move things, right? So
here's what we do on Christmas patrol.
We watch for people with more than they need to be out around poor
people. Or for poor kids to be in a place where there's plenty of money
changing hands. I'll be teamed up with one of the singing elves, and she'll
distract the rich guy while he's handling his money, while I liberate a five-dollar
bill or sometimes even a twenty and cause it to drift down to the floor. Then I
stand watch over it, keeping it from being noticed by anyone until the singer is
able to entice some poor kid to be close enough, and then I push the five or the
twenty -- or, heck, the buck or the quarter, cause sometimes that's all I can get
-- out into the open, where the kid can see it.
You know the amazing thing? The number of kids who immediately try
to give it to the store owner, or take it straight to their parents. Well, once we
give it to them, it's theirs to dispose of. The gift has been given. And when you
think about it, maybe the best gift is for the kid with no money to give that
twenty to the store owner, to prove that he doesn't really need that money, that
it's more important to be a decent person than to have what money can buy.
Or if he gives it to his parents, well, maybe that's food on the table. Sure,
maybe it's booze, too, and that's why they're poor, but it's not the kid's fault,
the kid did the right thing. He contributed to the family.
About half the kids, though, they hang on to the money, and that's fine,
that's even better, because you know what? Almost every time, they use some
of it to buy themselves a treat -- ice cream or a candy bar, maybe a cooky --
but then the rest of the money goes straight into buying a gift for somebody
else. A little brother or sister. Mom or Dad. Sometimes a teacher who's been
good to them. I even saw one kid who had four dollars and twenty-eight cents
in his fist -- change from the ice cream bar -- and he sees a kid who looks
even more poor than him, and he just walks up and gives it to him and says,
"Merry Christmas." Right then I loved that kid so much. Because he got it. He
understood. None of that stuff goes with you when you die. Only what you did
for other people, or to them, and what they did for you, and to you. That's all
you have with you when you're dead. That kid, when he dies, he's going to
have so much cool stuff. Because he has a good heart. He won't be walking
around the streets of hell, no place to stay. He'll fit right in with the light, he'll
pass that entrance exam, they'll greet him with songs, you know? And I got
him the fiver that he was able to mostly share. That's something.
That's Christmas. We just use the season to get gifts into the hands of
children who don't have anything. It's about hope, just like what we do the
rest of the year. That's what Nick does -- he's in the hope business.
So it's the day after Christmas, and we're back on the regular schedule,
but Nick, he comes to me -- and the red suit hasn't faded yet, so he really
looks like Santa Claus -- he comes to me and says, "Want to take the long hike
I don't know what he's talking about, but I say, "Sure," because he wants
me to and it's only thanks to him that I feel like I'm worth the space I take up,
even on the streets of hell. Whatever the long hike is, it's not like I'll get tired
or have to carry a pup tent on my back. So I say sure and off we go.
Straight up to the light.
And it's not a very long hike at all, not heading there. It's like, no matter
where you are on earth, once you decide to find the light, there it is, just a little
out of reach, up and over your shoulder. Nick, he goes like he knows the way,
and I guess he does. Every year after Christmas, he goes back to the light and
tries to get in. That's what I was along for. The other elves, I guess most of
them have gone with him, some of them more than once. And I guess they
were just as happy to have the new guy go along.
Because there goes Nick, straight into the light, and you think, "Man,
this time he's going to make it. This time he's getting out of hell!"
He's in there so long. You have so much hope for him.
And then ... pop. He's right back out. He looks at you. Shrugs his
shoulders. "Better luck next time," he says.
Only I was new at this. And I'd been working on my sense of outrage all
year, you know? And it's not like I was getting into heaven any time soon. I
mean, if Nick can't pass the entrance exam, you think I stand a chance?
So I stand there and yell -- not speaking loud, because it's not actually,
sound, but I'm really intense, you know? -- and I know I'm not supposed to get
ticked off at the light for heaven's sake, but anyway, I yell, "Did you ever think
that your stupid requirements might be too high? What've you got in there
anyway, a bunch of pious martyrs? A bunch of goody-two-shoes never broke a
rule in their lives? Well take a look at Nick here, he's on the front line, dead
though he may be, he's trying to do something about it! I don't see you down
there on the streets trying to make life better for kids! So what about
that, huh? Ever think about how maybe some of the people in heaven aren't
doing diddly-squat and maybe some of the people in hell are actually doing
some good in the world?"
Finally I say enough that the intensity wears off and I remember who I'm
talking to and I think, Man, it's going to take, like, ten thousand years to work
off the sheer blasphemy of what I just said.
Only right then I hear something inside my mind, the way it must be
when the singers do their lullabies for the suffering children. This voice, so
soft, so kind, and all it says is, "Whatever you do for the least of my little ones,
you've done it for me."
And it about knocks me over. He sees. He knows. What we're doing.
What our work is. He knows, and he loves us for it, and yet ...
And yet Nick still can't get in.
I look at him, and he shrugs again. "Yelling doesn't solve anything," he
And then he leads me on the long hike back. Yeah, that's the "long" part
of the long hike. Getting to the light is quick. Getting back, that's hard and
slow, because every step hurts, coming away from that beauty and going back
to the plain old world with all the dead people preaching or being cool, and all
the living people going about their business as if life were really long and they
had all the time in the world. And you can't help but think, when you look at
the living, you think: It's so easy for them, they can just do things, only they so
rarely do anything that matters. So many children, all they need is a word and
a smile, all they need is an act of kindness and generosity, something that any
living person could give them, but so often they leave it up to the dead. But the
ones who don't leave it up to us, the ones who are good to the kids, they're my
friends, you know? They're my sisters and my brothers. I can't do anything to
show them how I feel, but I'm glad they're alive. They're the only reason hell
isn't more, well, hellish.
Finally we got back, down on the streets of hell. And Nick says, "Another
year to go."
And I say, "Nick, thanks for letting me be part of it. Maybe it's not good
enough for them, but it's good enough for me."
And he grins and even though he doesn't move, it feels like he just
clapped me on the shoulder, and he says, "Then it's good enough for me, too."
And off he goes.
Only there's something wrong with this picture. I'm seeing him but
there's more to him than the red suit. There's a kind of jauntiness in his step,
and even though that's probably my own mind creating the image that fits
what I'm sensing about him, the fact is that it's still true. Nick just failed for
the fifteen hundredth time to get into heaven, and he's almost dancing.
"Hey!" says I. "Hey, Santa!"
He turns around and there we are, face to face, and I say, "What are you
so happy about?"
"It was a good Christmas," he says, all innocentlike, and I know he's not
lying because you can't, but he's also not exactly answering me.
"How come you didn't make it this year?" I demanded.
"I don't think you get a list," he says.
"Bull," says I. "I came out of that light knowing every little sin I ever
committed. You got the whole inventory, Nick. And I want to know what it is
that keeps you out."
He turns around slowly, indicating the street around him. All the
Christmas decorations are still up, of course, and there in every window,
there's his face, Santa Claus, grinning and selling stuff. "It's all that," he says.
"What, the Christmas decorations?"
"The fact that it's my face and not his."
"You don't paint those pictures! You don't hang them up!"
"Yeah, but I like it that they're there. I like being famous. He never did."
"And that's it? That's all?"
"I don't even know if that's the reason," he says. "Because they don't give
me a list of sins. But it's a story. Better than nothing, right?"
And off he goes, this time for real, and it's time to get back on the bully
patrol, but a thought crosses my mind. Maybe the reason they don't give him a
list of sins is because there isn't one. Not for him. Because there aren't any
sins. He was in the light an awfully long time before he bounced out. What if
he didn't get bounced at all? What if, every year, he chooses to come back even
though he doesn't have to? Because he'd rather be here, homeless in hell,
doing the work he does, than to be happy in heaven. In fact, maybe heaven
would be hell to him, knowing that he could be leading us in helping kids, only
there he is with a harp or whatever. So the only way for him to be in heaven is
not to be in heaven. He's got work to do, and he's doing it, and that's heaven
And then this really strange thought comes to me. What if that's all
heaven is for anybody? What if everybody gets bounced down to the streets of
hell, but if you find the right things to do, it becomes heaven for you? Look
what I've got: A job to do that matters in the world. Good friends to work with.
Nick leading me, a man I can look up to. Tell me what heaven's got that's any
better than that.
Hey, it can't be true. I mean, if it were true, wouldn't St. Francis and St.
Peter and all those guys be down here, working alongside us? No, heaven's
heaven, and I'm in hell. Maybe Nick's an angel in disguise, and maybe he's
just what he seems to be -- another homeless dead guy desperate to figure out
a way to get off the streets. What difference does it make?
I'm not in torment. In fact, I had a pretty merry Christmas. I saw a lot of
sad things, but I saw some good things, and a few of those good things, I made
And then I thought, maybe I could make even more good things happen
if I could just tell the living about how it is here, about how it works. I can't do
it like an angel with a trumpet, so that everybody would have to believe. But I
can tell it like a story. Making letters appear on a computer screen, that's a
piece of cake compared to getting a five-dollar bill out of a wallet and onto the
street. So I found a guy who leaves his computer on day and night, and I wrote
all this down, and now you're reading it, and you can take it as fiction or you
can take it as truth, it doesn't matter to me. I don't care what you believe. I
just care what you do.
Well, I've taken just about as much time off as I can spare. Like the old
joke says, "Back on your heads!" I'm up to my neck in it and there's only a few
of us to shovel. Merry Christmas. God bless us every one. Suffer little
children to come unto me. All that stuff.