CHRISTMASTIME IN NEW COUNTRY
It had been a warm, sunny day, clear skies, the kind of day that makes you forget that Christmas is only three weeks away, forget, that is, until the sun drops behind the coastal range and the mercury goes skipping after it. We had spent the late afternoon picking out a Christmas tree at Rodriguez’s, the only tree lot in our precious small town of Valley Center, and BW (aka JoAnn) and I slid down off the tailgate of the red truck where we had been perched, talking with the owner’s sons. I reached behind and thunked the tailgate closed, our new Christmas tree safely in the truckbed. After two decades in the desert, lightyears away, we had finally made the long-overdue breakout eight months ago with all of our four legged critters and this was our first Christmas in Valley Center. We looked at each other. “Fat’s…”
You would never find Fat’s, more accurately Fat Ivor’s Rib Rack, anywhere near the pages of Bon Appetit magazine or Guide Michelin, not in a million years, but it’s a local institution, one of the few restaurants in town, and the ribs are great and so are the burgers. Just down the road from the feed store, Fat’s is a genuine joint by anyone’s definition, a darkish sort of a cowboy bar kind of place where you see everyone sooner or later, cowboys, flat hat vaqueros, truckers, city slickers, a place where, as soon as you sit down, the waitress brings you your favorite adult beverage without asking. Fat’s would fit right in on any street in Dillon, Montana or Island Park, Idaho but it’s here in VC and it’s ours.
It was early enough for a space to be waiting for Artie (the Red Truck) up front and for our favorite table to be waiting for us inside and we had just sat down, still chilled, when Santa appeared at my elbow. I hadn’t even had time to take off my hat. No, not Santa really, I knew better, had figured that old swindle out when I was a kid at Bamberger’s Department Store at Christmastime but this Santa was sure enough different. His Santa suit was well made and his white fur cuffs and white hair were, well, different, and he had granny glasses with gold frames and he didn’t say “Ho, ho,” not even once but he leaned close and asked me, very soft, very serious, “What do you want for Christmas?” just as casually as if he was asking whether it was cold outside. I looked at him, saw BW watching from across the table with that oh, come on look on her face but looking exactly like the woman I fell in love with 30 years ago and I answered, just as matter-of-fact, “I’ve got everything I want” because I realized in that moment, even with everything that had happened this year, that I did.
He handed me a candy cane from his bag, gave BW a candy cane after mugging with her for my iPhone and then came back to me and leaned in closer this time. “Are you telling me the truth?” in a softer voice and this time he was close enough for me to see his light blue eyes, indescribably kind, behind his librarian gold frames. “You bet.” I said, and he nodded and walked away and out into the night without another word and when Natalie, the waitress, came over, BW asked who he was and did they do that every year and is it a VC tradition and how cool that was. But no one had ever seen him before. In a small town like Valley Center, everyone knows everyone including Santa but no one had ever seen that Santa before. No one remembered anyone ever doing that before.
Just my luck, I thought, What if it really was Santa and what if he actually did come over to me and ask me what I wanted and he was going to get it for me and I blew it? I could have asked for a finished bridle horse or a new knee to replace the one that bay mare named Barbra crushed years ago or a Bruce Haener Santa Barbara spade bit, but I didn’t. In that split second, when I looked over at JoAnn, I realized I did have everything I wanted.
I still want a horse that goes straight up in a bridle and a new knee and a Bruce Haener bit but I know I wouldn’t trade anything for what I’ve got.
Maybe that’s all it takes, a man in a red suit with a white beard to remind you what’s really important.
Merry Christmas from Valley Center