I wore a long overcoat made of soft wool. I felt an unfamiliar hat on my head and took it off to look at it; it was a gray fedora with a maroon band. I liked it, and put it back on.
“Where are we?” I asked. "A department store?"
“Eaton’s,” Chloe answered, looking at the watch on her wrist and counting to herself. “Five, seven, eight…it’s nearly Christmas, 1947.”
“Toronto,” she agreed, preoccupied. “Queen Street at Yonge. Where else would Eaton’s be?”
We had surfaced in the clock section. I looked around at the glass shelves; there were clocks of every description, all of them set to eleven. In the aisles, people carrying bags passed by on their way to somewhere else. We joined the flow, and took an escalator up to the next floor.
The air was warm, nearly overheated, and smelled sweetly of frying doughnuts and perfume, floor wax and hair oil. The upper floor was a mass of activity and noise. A woman leaning against the cosmetics counter looked at us insolently as we passed by.
An arrow sign, hung from chains, read “North Pole”. Past a grazing herd of antlered hobbyhorses, Santa Claus sat on a gaudy, striped throne. He was guarded by slender female elves dressed in green. They were giving candy canes and red-and-white smiles to the parents and children who were lined up to make Christmas wishes.
“Look…!” Chloe said.
A small girl with honeyed skin sat with Santa. She was lovely. Nearly swallowed by the old man’s corpulence, she looked up at his white beard and twinkling eyes and spoke earnestly. Her face was serious, pretty in a way that was compelling… and completely familiar.
“Is that... you?” I whispered.
“When we were little, I saw you,” Chloe whispered back. “It was perfect.”
An elegant woman, her mother, stood outside of the velvet rope with us, and looked on. I had seen her somewhere before, but I didn’t remember where; it was something to do with ice cream. I sketched a hello. She took my arm, leaned in close, and spoke confidentially.
“You’re going to love the rainbows here,” she said.
The little girl finished up her Christmas discussion with Santa and came back to her mother. She looked up at me solemnly. Her mother smiled and took her hand. As she was led away, the girl looked back over her shoulder at me. I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat; I didn’t want her to go.
Chloe was waiting next to Santa Claus' throne, and she motioned me up. One of the green elves unhooked the velvet rope, and then latched it closed behind me.
“Santa’s going on his milk-and-cookies break now,” I heard the elf say to the people in line. “He’ll be back in seventeen minutes.”
The old man got up with great difficulty as I approached. He was much taller than I had expected. When he straightened, he stood several inches over six feet; perhaps he was even seven feet tall. He peered at me over his half-glasses, and smoothed the red fur over his belly.
“Don’t introduce us,” he said to Chloe, peevishly. “He thinks he’s known about Santa Claus his whole life. He supposes he knows who I am, even though he doesn’t.”
“Of course I know who you are,” I protested, faintly. “Everybody knows about you. Toys and Christmas lights, stockings and wrapping paper, a house at the North Pole… what could I possibly not know?”
Chloe looked at Santa Claus and shook her head. They both looked at me.
“He’s very nice,” she sighed. “But he doesn’t believe in you, I’m afraid… not really, not truly. I suppose he’s mine, so I take some responsibility for it… but he doesn’t know a thing about anything. Not yet.”
“He’s too old to learn,” Santa said. “There’s no point. If I tried to show him, it would just be invisible. He can’t believe in me. He’s too real.”
Chloe turned me to her. Her eyes searched mine. They were deep-down-dark, and saw everything. Like it always did, her look made me feel as if I was falling and flying, both at the same time.
“Can we try?” she asked Santa. She was suddenly close to tears. “He believes in me, so maybe he could believe in you, too. And…his heart’s been broken, in just the right way.”
Santa looked at her, interested despite himself.
“His heart is broken? Really? He doesn’t look it.”
“Yes,” she said. “I saw to it myself… it was done perfectly. Also, he can see with his eyes closed, and not many people can do that. He sees me, when nobody else does. I think he could see invisible things, if he did his best and I coached him, just a little.”
“Does anyone want to ask me about any of this?” I wondered.
“No,” Santa said.
The old man leaned on his cane, considering things. After he had looked at his own feet for a long time, he looked up.
“He really believes in you?” he asked Chloe.
“Cross my heart,” she said, and then she did, with a figure eight and a fingertip. “He believes in me, for good and always. He always has.”
( -A Christmas Song for Chloe)
… to be continued