There was a little plywood house on the town square painted white. Every second week of December they brought it in on a flat bed. Stored it at Old McElroy's farm the other fifty weeks of the year. It was Old McElroy's wife and the ladies in the Mother's Club who had the idea for this some twenty six years before.
The men in the Chamber of Commerce put the money up to build the house and the guys from the Fraternal Order of the Eagles made sure that it was manned from 9 AM to 7 PM six days a week for twelve days, give or take when the Saturday before the Twelve Days Of Christmas fell.
It was real town effort, the Santa Claus Haus in lovely downtown Marseilles, Ohio, and the grown-ups got almost as much of a kick out of making it happen every year as the children did of wishing inside of it. No one ever complained about it at all. Sure, occasionally there were Santa snafus and little discrepancies in what Santa said would happen and what the parents could afford. But all in all, it was a much-used and much-loved landmark during its short existence each year.
Wired for light and heat, there was also a speaker that churned out Christmas music from a tape recorder. Two windows on each side to let light in were curtained in red gingham. Fake evergreen garland ran along the top of the room bedecked with red plastic ribbons and bows. A "throne" sat directly in front of the door, to the left of it sat a big red velvet bag filled with wrapped empty-yet hope-filled cardboard boxes.
Outside the door was a little porch with three wooden steps leading up to the door and the Magic Mailbox, which was really Old McElroy's old mailbox painted green and sitting atop a candy cane colored post. But to the children in town, that mailbox was a conduit to the Big Man himself. It was almost always full of paper and was emptied more than once every day of the week and several times on the days of the weekend.
The Mother's Club was responsible for getting the letters returned to the proper child's parents when the children had left a name. A task which they gleefully undertook and eagerly awaited each year. But there were always the few requests better handled by the Churches. "Dear Santa, Stop my Daddy from drinking..." or "Dear Santa, Just give my mommy a coat", for instance. Those went to the Churches.
It was a quaint little town and most had enough to eat and more than enough to make them happy. But there are always exceptions, and for some poor unfortunate souls, those cold, dark, bleak days of December are a constant tooth-grinding battle. Mrs. Miller, for example, whose son had died in Vietnam and with him her happiness. Or Old Sloopy, the bait shop owner, whose wife had run off Christmas of '54 and left him four kids to raise, the scrutiny of the whole town breathing down his neck, and no best friend, because she took him too. There are as many kinds of heartbreak as there are people in the world. And in a town like Marseilles, every one of them is more intriguing than the next. The people that carry these broken hearts within them and within the town limits of Marseilles, Ohio do a heck of a lot of drinking to cloak them in some semblance of normalcy.
Penelope's life wasn't normal.
Not even close.
And in the "smile and nod" area she failed miserably.
She had always been a pot boiling over, like her Grandma said. Whether she was distraught and brimming over with tears and wailing, or on the ever-so-rare occasion that she allowed herself to be happy, she was a ringing volcano of mirth and melodic laughter. There wasn't much in between. This was about ten years before the word "bipolar" existed in Parke County, though. So, for all that knew her, which was Everyone, Penelope was just the weird, somehow exotic and completely eccentric 9 year old basket case they all knew and loved. Or hated. Mostly hated.
Yes, it was one thing for the kids to tease her and bully her mercilessly. They'd always done that. And with her it was just too easy. But, it was another thing for the adults to visibly dislike a nine year old girl.
But she made them horribly uncomfortable. They didn't like her around their kids because she seemed incapable of playing or fun. Instead she pried at the kids for Answers. All she seemed to want was Information. She wanted to know how the kids Felt, for Chrissakes. She didn't want to play Barbies or watch the Brady Bunch. She wanted to know what they thought God LOOKED like, or how long they would survive after a nuclear holocaust!
The things the adults heard through the open doorways when Penelope came over would simply curdle their blood and they'd find themselves tightening their toes and clenching their fists at the mere mention of her name.
But, she rarely went to other children's houses, anyway. Maybe once in a while, when a sermon was especially guilt-inducing, a kid would decide that they'd better be nicer to Penelope or spend eternity in hell. But children soon forget, and Penelope was so boring and awful that those cases rarely lasted past Tuesday.
So, she was Lonely on top of it all. On top of having a brain that was way too big and filled with clattering marbles, broken glass, and what felt like the gunk at the bottom of the lake. On top of her heart that swelled with the love of all Humankind and on top of an ocean of tears, happy and sad, within her, that would drown an elephant. On top of the cold and the bleak and the darkness that is just the virtue of Tuesdays in December.
On just one of those Tuesdays, December 18th, 1985, Penelope found herself on top of Santa's porch. She found herself full of Magic and a sense of hopefullness as numb as her fingertips. She felt as though when she turned around, she would see not the Hardware Store with its display of Franklin Stoves and anamatronic elves in the window, but the Real Live North Pole.
She felt that when she got done asking Him and opened the door again, she wouldn't be walking back out into this horrible town full of falsely happy-looking Mannequin-people, but into her New Life. Not like she would walk the cold grey concrete walk back to her creaky, dank, drafty, frozen and unpleasant lonely room, but to a castle where she would live forever as a beautiful Princess.
She would sleep on a mattress filled with money! She would have a Court of people who wore fine clothes and lived just to entertain her and clamor for her friendship. She would have a library full of her very own books that she could read away from the sickeningly piteous looks of the dowager librarians at the library in town.
She would wear wool and furs and sit by roaring fireplaces and never be cold again! She would be happy! Really happy. She would feel Happiness in her bones. Her brain would feel like feather pillows and lemon meringue pie and her heart would again turn from a stone to meat and pump warm, comforting blood throughout her newly beautiful body.
She HAD to wish like this. She had to want the magic this intensely. She had to become Belief itself in every inch of her beingness. Because Blake had told her there wasn't a Santa. Blake, her dear boy whom she loved best in the whole world, had told her there was no Santa, just some old schmuck from the Eagles where her father played pinochle all day. Told her to look him right in the eye and ask him if he wasn't Tom Pearson or John LeMay. Blake told her to stop being a baby. There wasn't a Santa who would ever give her anything that cost more than $25.
So, she stood there, white-knuckled, and watched her hand turn purple as it clutched the door knob. She wiped the snot from her lip with her free hand, rubbed it on the tail of her flannel jacket, and turned the knob....
It doesn't matter what He said.
(Luckily it was Billy McFlarety, the "Irish Poet", the guys at The Bar called him, who was wearing the Santa Claus Suit on that Tuesday at 4:48 pm and not old Roscoe Moyer, who was due in at 5. For decades afterwards, not a December passed without a thoroughly maudlin Billy McFlarety spinning the yarn of the Poor Little Princess From The Santa Claus Haus. By the turn of the century, it was a local fairy tale- but by then, so was Penelope.....)
It only matters that seventeen minutes later she stood on the porch of the Santa Claus Haus, licking the sugar Santa-face off the absolutely delicious lollipop that all the children got from Santa. (the boys making it a game to see who could collect the most before being barred from trying....)
It only matters that when she walked back out of the plywood door and into the dark but tree-lit street outside, she Believed. She knew in her heart of hearts that she would someday have the very life she had wished for. That she would have the beautiful life she believed she would have.
She just had to get through the one she had now. And there was some good in it. Santa had shown her that! Had told her that he wanted not to hear what she wanted but what she already Had that was good. And it worked! Like a dam broken, it all gushed out. And she saw a tear roll down Santa's cheek as she told him all the tiny, vast wonders and beauty in her life. (and just barely missed his beard shift when his white-gloved hand went to wipe it away....)
And he called her Beautiful! Santa said she was by far The Most Beautiful Girl In The Whole Town, because she had the most love in her heart!
And he said that even if he only brought her Things every year, that it was just a signal to remind her that she could have any Thing she wanted if she believed enough. And that even if life got hard and she felt all alone, He would Always be there in her heart reminding her how good this felt to list what she already had that was good and to not want Things just because other people had them.
And that someday she would be the Queen of her life, just like she wanted. He Promised her that!
So she walked the cold, grey, concrete walk home, but she didn't see it. The Spell was broken! She was free as a bird! She thought to herself that she would go home and start making presents to leave anonymously at the Old Folk's Home like she did every year. It was getting close to Christmas, after all. She didn't have much time.
And she couldn't wait to call up old Blake and tell him that there most certainly WAS a Santa Claus, that he absolutely was in the Santa Claus house in Marseilles, and that he told her that she would definitely be a Queen someday!
Twenty years later, Penelope Fairheardt, noted millionaire children's author of a series of books about a little girl from a small town in Ohio who becomes the first Queen of the United States, and changes it into a fairy land of happiness of sorts, received an epidural while in labor with her first child. At the instant the doctor pierced her nervous system, Penelope had a flash memory of the Santa Claus Haus in downtown Marseilles.
She was overcome with a deep feeling of well-being. In between contractions, she asked her husband, Blake, if he remembered the day she had called him up and told him in no uncertain terms that there WAS a Santa Claus and that Blake would marry her someday and that they would be richer than anyone in that nasty little town ever would be. He smiled wistfully and said, "Of course...." Three hours later, their son was born. Instead of naming him Duncan, like they had planned, they named him Claus.
Three Saturdays before Claus' first Christmas, famous author and apple of the eye of Marseilles, Ohio, Penelope Fairheardt stood on the steps of the brand new, permanent Santa Claus Haus on Fountain Square and as she cut the candy cane ribbon, she looked out into the adoring crowd of her former horrifying townspeople and exclaimed, "Each of you are The Most Beautiful Children In This Whole Town because you all have so much love in your hearts!"
And in that moment, so much love radiated back to her from the crowd that she felt like she was the Queen of Marseilles and the Queen of Christmas and she knew that she would never be cold or lonely again.