Tuesday, August 13, 2002


Santa's Best Delivery

I've never known heat like wearing red velvet in December with a wriggling child in my lap.

Maybe it was because a department store during the Christmas shopping season is not the coolest place in the world, for either bodies or temperatures.

Maybe it was because I was pregnant, with swollen ankles that held the impression of my finger like bread dough on the third rising.

And then maybe, just maybe, it was because I was dressed as Santa Claus.

You got it.

A pregnant Santa Claus.

Wouldn't Virginia just lose it.

Well, I didn't know about Virginia, and her perennial questioning of Santa Claus, but I knew that I had lost it about 3 o'clock that afternoon when Peg convinced me to show up as the Amman's Department Store Santa Claus.

"Lynnell, it's $100 a night - you KNOW it's our biggest fundraiser, providing Amman's Santa Claus!" she had said, in her best pleading voice. "It keeps the kids from bombarding us with chocolate bars all year. And we're so close to the new band uniforms! If someone doesn't show tonight, we could lose our contract!"

It must have been the mention of chocolate that unhinged my brain. One more bar passing my lips and we'd have to take out the front door and replace it - with a garage door.

"Ok, Peg, calm down," I said. "As long as it's just two hours and someone is there to put the kids on my lap, I guess I can stand it." I patted my tummy, which my husband Luke claimed held the next William "Refrigerator" Perry - just judging on size alone. "And you're right, I won't need any padding. I haven't ever been this big before - and I'm still two weeks out!"

"You're a doll, Lynnell!" Peg gushed. I hated it when she gushed. I always felt slightly sticky afterward. "I promise to be by to pick up the kids by 8 in the morning. Just imagine - a whole free day to yourself for just two hours of sitting in a red suit!"

As if that was a small price to pay, I thought, settling into my chair and looking out at the line of kiddies waiting to tell Santa what they wanted this year. It was the third time in an hour I'd gotten up - Santa or no, some things a pregnant woman has to do. I was relieved to see that my assistant Marsha had closed off the line. Only ten children were waiting - ten sweet, warm, cute little children...

Who was I trying to fool? Each of them gleamed with avarice, holding the hands of their fathers - one assumes the moms were shopping to fill the little ones' lists while they told Santa what was on it. One angelic looking toddler - the last in line - reminded me of my own Annalee, all chubby and golden with long curly blonde hair. She stuck her tongue out at me and then hid her face in her dad's pants leg. He had the grace to turn red.

Just then the newest addition to the Cavington family shifted and pushed down hard - I grunted, pressing a white-gloved hand to the small of my back. It had been hurting since my arrival at the store, and I felt a little feverish, but the show must go on.

"Daddy! Wanna sit on Santa!" a shrill voice cried out.

"Ready?" Marsha leaned close, whispering. I could see her concern - she could tell I wasn't in a very good mood - and I nodded, smiling.


She moved down to get the shrill-voiced boy, who looked about 4. My Matthew is four, I thought. I wondered how he would feel, having a new brother when he'd been the only boy. Maybe he would welcome someone else to draw the attentions of his 12 year old twin sisters, Marisa and Alisa.

A soft little body plopped into my lap. I felt a pain shoot up my abdomen, and I shifted in the chair as I put my arms around the boy. His name tag said Stevey. I launched into my speech.

"Stevey, my boy! Have you been good for Santa this year?" My voice, a natural alto, dropped an octave lower, easy now that I was hoarse from nearly two hours of talking.

Stevey poked me in the stomach, hard.

I ooomphed.

"My mommy says you need to lose weight, Santa! She said you can't get down our chimney because Mrs. Claus feeds you too much and so this year we're going to leave you carrots and cucumbers and a glass of skim milk and if you don't come to my house anyway I'm going to write your mommy!"

Stevey stared at me while I caught my breath. I looked up at his dad, who stood there nodding as if to say, "That's my boy!"

I decided Stevey needed to learn a lesson.

Not to mention his dad.

"Young man, hitting Santa Claus is not the way to get presents!" I sat him on his feet and he immediately began crying. "Your parents can buy you presents this year, and maybe next year you'll be good for Santa!"

All the other children - and Marsha - gasped. I looked around at the shocked faces, and felt a little remorse. Just a little. I reached beside me into the huge red velvet gift bag and pulled out a present.

"Here, Stevey, hush your crying," I said with a sigh. "Santa will be there, but tell your mommy that Santa needs his energy to fly all over the world in one night."

Stevey's dad led the sniffling boy away after giving me a look that said, the store manager will hear about this - in writing, from my lawyer!

I sighed again. It isn't easy being nice to kids when you have four at home and a surprise one on the way, I thought. I knew I would love this baby, I just didn't know if I would live to see him get his college degree. As my daddy always said, I'd just about enjoyed all I could stand.

Marsha recovered enough to grab the next child, a round-eyed little girl who didn't know whether to smile or tear up. I hugged her lightly.

"Katie!" My tone was gruff but kindly. "I see you've been a very good girl this year! What can Santa give you?"

I listened with half my mind as I thought again of the disbelief I felt when I learned I was pregnant.

"Excuse me?" I had said, rubbing my ear as if to clear it of some obstruction. "I'm sorry, I thought you said I was pregnant?"

"Just a few weeks in, Lynnell, but it's positive," Dr. Helen Hoston said. "Hope you haven't given away any of those baby things."

"Um, I can't have a baby, Helen," I informed her. "I'm just getting to the point where all my kids are potty-trained and in pre-school at least part of the week. I might run screaming off into the wilderness if I have to face another dirty diaper."

"You need to start training Luke then, because you're pregnant."

I sighed. "Well, Helen, it has gotten easier every time. But you'd better mark your calendar for my due date, because you know I deliver right on time. And Annalee popped out just two hours after my first contractions, so keep that pager on!"

Dr. Hoston grinned at me. "How about I have the Guinness people there to clock you? Might make a world's record this time."

Then I chuckled.

Now I wasn't laughing anymore.

I just didn't know if I could stand it...and facing all these children while swathed in red velvet with scratchy whiskers on wasn't helping me feel better about it.

Katie finished up her long list, and Marsha sent her off with a hug and a candy cane. The next three children were dispatched quickly, each a little girl wanting a Barbie with a full wardrobe, fully-furnished villa in the Riviera and a Ferrari convertible. Or so it seemed, from the list of doll accessories they rattled off. What had ever happened to making construction-paper dresses, like I had with my friends, and the excitement of finding the missing stiletto pump from the only pair of shoes Barbie came with?

The next child was a little boy, Anthony, with big brown eyes.

Anthony sat looking at me for a full minute before piping up, "Santa, why were you so mean to Rudolph? I love Rudolph!"

Patiently I explained that I didn't know how mean all the reindeer had been to him, and as soon as I found out I made them apologize to Rudolph and go to bed without any hay. He seemed satisfied, and sped through his list of wants - the new Nintendo, a computer game, a bicycle. He was sweet, and I gave him an extra candy cane as he left.

Would my new baby be like Anthony?

My expression must have shown some of my thoughts, even through the whiskers, because the daddy with the Annalee look-alike was watching me with some concern. I smiled slightly at him as Anthony walked away with his dad, and he smiled back. He reminded me a little of Luke and his air of quiet capability that always calmed my frequently-scattered nerves. Maybe...yes, with Luke, surely I could do this fifth child thing.

I sighed as Marsha put yet another sweet child in my lap, this one a little girl with a tooth missing, older than the others. I was grateful for the stool under my feet, which kept my lap flat and steady. What lap there was, I thought ruefully.

I listened with scant attention and lots of pats and uh-huhs, watching the shoppers around me sift through the toys and games stacked in piles nearby. The Santa Village where I held sway was tucked in a far corner of the store, where shoppers would have to go through several departments to get to me. To Santa. To give them credit, Amman's had done it up right. I sat enthroned on a large wide chair, padded with leather-look vinyl upholstery in Christmas green. The chair was on a small stage about a foot from the ground, and was in turn surrounded on three sides by the walls of what was made to look like a wintery cottage. Green indoor/outdoor carpeting cushioned the tile floor, with the area surrounding the cottage for 20 feet in each direction decorated like a child's view of the North Pole and Candyland combined. The line could stretch out for 30 feet, and had a few times tonight, but now we were down to the child on my lap and three more behind her. Everyone fit in the cottage, which seemed for some reason to be getting warmer by the minute.

"Excellent...." I looked at the little girl's nametag. "...Miranda! I don't know if it will all fit in Santa's sleigh, there's lots of little ones who get presents, you know! But we'll try."

I nodded at Marsha, who handed Miranda a candy cane and shooed her out the door with her dad. The newest Cavington made his presence known again, and I bit my lip as the next child - Henry - settled softly in my lap and smiled up at me with delight.

"I've been waiting so long to talk to you, Santa!" He beamed at me, almost vibrating in his excitement. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little tissue-wrapped bundle, putting it in my hand. "I know you've been watching me all year - I could feel it! Momma read "Twas the Night before Christmas" to me every night! So I didn't want to tell you what I want, I already know you know. I wanted to give you a present!"

I stared at him a minute, shocked. A present for me? This little boy had brought a present for Santa? I felt my face turn red as tears filled my eyes. Slowly I unwrapped the little bundle.

It was a hand-painted ceramic pin, spelling SANTA with the S and T striped like candy canes. The merging of colors and a somewhat-random approach to staying in the lines told me who had painted it.

"Henry!" I hugged him tightly, tears rolling down my cheeks. "That's the sweetest thing anyone's done for old Santa in a long time. You're a wonderful boy, and I know your mommy and daddy are so proud of you!"

Henry hugged me back, almost bursting with pride, and I looked up to catch a look of happiness so bright it almost hurt on the face of Henry's dad. Here was a man who loved his son, and was thankful every day to have him. Could I do less for my son? The thought made me sniff harder, and I gave Henry another squeeze.

"Elf Marsha will give you some things from Santa's bag, Henry, and I want you to know I will wear this Christmas Eve when I fly on my sleigh!"

I watched him walk away, dabbing my eyes with the tissue Marsha had pressed in my hand, waving back when he turned to wave at the entrance to Santa's Village.

I was reaching for the next child when it happened.


Wetness flowed from me like the cash from an ATM on the day before Christmas.

"Daddy!!!! Santa peed in his pants!"

I looked down in horror as moisture soaked my velvet pants, and dripped slowly from the vinyl seat onto the green carpet below. The child who was about to sit in Santa's lap was immediately whisked away by a red-faced father. I felt faint, whispering, "Marsha, call the ambulance."

A hand touched my shoulder, and I tilted my head back to look into the eyes of the Annalee-lookalike's dad. They were blue, I noticed, and very concerned.

"Santa...I mean, ma'am...I mean," he shook his head, frustrated. "What I'm saying is, you are a woman, aren't you? and pregnant? I'm not misreading this, am I?"

"I sure hope not, " I said, always ready to find refuge in humor. "If you are, we're both in big trouble!"

He smiled.

"I'm a doctor." He looked over his shoulder at Marsha rushing back toward us. "Not an obstetrician, but I've delivered a few babies. Let's hope it doesn't come to that now."

His little girl tugged at his coat. I could see her name-tag - Rachel. It suited her.

"Daddy!" Rachel said in a high piping voice. "Why is Santa peeing?"

It suddenly struck me as hilarious, and I shook with laughter - like a bowl full of jelly - while Rachel's daddy explained.

He did a fine job.

"Rachel, honey, this is one of Santa's Christmas helpers, and she's a woman. She's pregnant, and going to have her baby. What has happened is all the water around her baby is coming out so the baby can come out too."

Rachel listened with wide eyes, nodding.

Marsha reached us, breathless and looking scared.

"Santa, I mean, Lynnell, it's started snowing and the roads are really bad. There's been three big accidents, and there aren't any ambulances. When I told them you were having your baby, they said to have someone drive you to the hospital."

I stared at her, speechless as a contraction stiffened my body and made me shudder.

"No...no...," I whispered finally. "My babies come out like greased pigs on a water slide! I refuse to have this child in the back seat of a car!"

Just then another contraction hit...already they were close. Apparently the pains I had been feeling, and ignoring, were my body getting ready to deliver. I hadn't realized it because I had never been early before.

I guess there's a first time for everything.

"Call her husband," Rachel's dad told Marsha, taking my hand and standing me up. "Go to the store manager and tell him you need a bunch of towels and don't let him argue with you. We'll pay up later."

Marsha ran off again and Rachel watched wide-eyed as her dad helped me lie down on the carpet, my head toward the entrance to the cottage so passersby wouldn't have a free birthing floor show. In the part of me that cared - a rapidly diminishing part - I was grateful.

"What...what's your name?" I whispered as he leaned down to take off my cap and untie the whiskers. I felt immediately cooler as he tossed them behind him.

"Rudy Thomas," he said, grinning at the surprise in my eyes. "Yes, Rudy, short for Rudolph. Aren't you glad that you punished the other reindeer?"

I managed a laugh as another contraction hit. For some reason we hadn't attracted a crowd - maybe the shoppers had headed home to avoid the worst of the storm. I was grateful, whatever the reason was.

"Thank you, Rudy," I said, squeezing his hand.

"Thank me later," he said. "Right now, tell me if you have anything on under this suit so we can get you comfortable and cooler."

"Yes, I have a t-shirt on under the jacket, and shorts under the pants."

In short order, Rudy had me down to my long T-shirt - actually one of Luke's - and had hung the jacket in the doorway so we were screened from passersby. Marsha came in with towels and the store manager, who went aside for a whispered conversation with Rudy. I didn't care. I was too busy trying to remember to breath.

Wouldn't this be a great story to tell the newest Cavington, when he was old enough to understand?

I lay sprawled in the ignoble position so hated by pregnant women, on my back with my knees drawn up and spread wide, a rolled up towel under my neck. Marsha held my hand in hers, and I tightened mine hard enough to hurt as the contractions got closer.

I looked up as Rudy came back to sit beside me, leaning to look how things were going. How embarrassing, I thought.

"Rudy, what about Rachel? Should she see this?"

He smiled.

"Her mother's not here. It'll be okay, she's seen her cat have kittens before."

Rachel sat wide-eyed on Santa's stage, not making a sound. I hoped she wouldn't be traumatized for life and refuse to have children after this, but it wasn't my decision. I put it out of my mind.

Time wore on. The store manager arrived with water, which everyone drank but me, and a report that the storm had gotten harder and they were recommending that no one travel unless necessary. In fact, they had just closed the store, half an hour early, so the employees could go home.

The contractions were a minute apart now.

Marsha and Rudy were exchanging childhood stories of Santa, and Rachel still sat without a peep. I thought about children, and Santa, and having five young minds looking to me for guidance and nurturing and three meals a day.

I nearly retched.

Another contraction rolled through me, making me cry out unexpectedly. Rachel jumped, and whimpered. Rudy moved to look, leaning down with a flashlight thoughtfully provided by the store manager. I would have died of embarrassment if I hadn't been in such pain.

"Push, Lynnell, I can almost see him!"

Rudy's words cut through my thoughts and focus on pain, and I sucked in a deep breath, then pushed like the elves trying to get Santa in the sleigh after his Christmas Eve snack.


I did it again.


I did it again, and screamed, "I'm trying!!!!!! I'm not lying here sleeping, you know!"

Marsha put her hand over her mouth, her shoulders shaking. I didn't think she was crying. Rudy grinned at me, and then a voice came from the entryway.

"That's my Lynnell!" It was Luke.

"This is all your fault!" I screamed, apparently locked in at one volume. "I didn't want five and this is five! What are you going to do about it?!"

There was silence as I sucked in my breath and pushed and pushed. Luke sat down opposite Marsha and took my other hand. I looked up into his eyes, those wonderful deep brown eyes, full of love and humor.

"I'm going to love him, Lynnell, and I'm going to love you, everyday, all you can stand."

My breath went out of me in a rush, and I felt something come loose as Rudy yelled, "He's coming out!" With another hard push, Luke Cavington Jr. came sliding into the world on a snowy December night, landing on the finest towels Amman's had to offer. Another push and I was done.

Rudy tenderly wiped my baby boy clean, then wrapped him in a soft white bath towel, and laid him on my stomach. I tried to catch my breath as I looked at him, so tiny and soft, warm and trusting. My heart flipped over. Yes. I could do this. With the Lukes and the Rudys, the Marshas and even the Henrys of this world to help, of course I could do this.

Rachel jumped up and ran to her father.

"Daddy! Did you see?" she said in a loud stage whisper, leaning close. "She had her baby just like Fluffy did! Does that mean she's going to have three more?"

This time the silence was broken by laughter, none harder than mine.
A Corny Day

Hank revved up his cherry-red '62 Vette, leaning out the window to shout one last instruction to Marty.

"Tell your mom it's gonna be 2 or later before I get back! I need to pick up that stone thing for Miz Wilson on my way back from Kriston."

He ducked his head back in and scattered gravel on his way out of the drive, not even looking to see if Marty nodded. She was a sharp child, only 10 but straight As and no boys - thank you, Lord! - yet. He knew she'd get it right.

Hank noticed the creek was right up against the top of the flood wall, but the radio said it'd crested and they didn't expect more rain. Wind whipped through the car, bringing with it sunshine smells with moist undertones. Somewhere in there lurked something rotted, and Hank kicked the Vette's engine up higher, zooming down the road to outrun the cloying ripeness.

"Fresh corn." Hank shook his head as he muscled the Vette up another notch to eat the Mile Stretch in front of him. "Middle of April, garden not even sprouting, and she wants fresh corn."

His smile was wry, because he loved Trisha and looked forward to the newest baby, but thought that driving two hours round trip to buy fresh corn was not a consequence of sex that had gotten much discussion in 7th grade health. He thought that might've done the trick in dampening those little hormone packets called "boys."

By the time he reached Kriston, both he and the Vette had blown out some cobwebs. Hank pulled into the Winn-Dixie knowing the big supermarket was the only place that would have fresh corn. Sure enough, there it was, in the produce section, $4 for 8 ears. Fifty cents an ear! Man, he'd be rich if he got that for his crops! Sighing, he picked up a package and walked to the cashier's line.


Hank turned to see a little girl with big pansy eyes, no more than six or seven, holding up a tiny pot of African violets.

"Mister, my Brownie troop gets to go to Disney World if we sell enough plants. Would you buy your wife a flower so I can get to see Mickey? He's my hero!"

The little girl smiled tremulously, and Hank reached into his pocket for a $5. He was glad he wasn't daddy to this one- he'd be parked on the porch with a shotgun from the time she was 12.

Hank tucked the corn and violet into the front floorboard, then cranked up the Vette again and headed out. He had flashed by the turn-off to Mason's Masonry Manse before remembering the stone thingy for Miz Wilson. With a moan he turned around at the next wide place and headed back.

"Can you take this to Miz Wilson too? It'd sure be a blessing," Carmen Reed said, holding out a glass jar of some slimy looking orange stuff. "It's some Fisherman's Friend soap, she called and said Trapper'd fought with a skunk again, and this always gets the smell out."

Hank sighed as he hefted the 30 pound concrete horror - Carmen called it a "gargoyle", whatever that was - into the passenger seat of the Vette.

"Sure, Carmen," he said, taking the jar - Carmen called it a "vial", but it looked like a jar to him, guess that was what a college education had done to Carmen. A wave and Hank was off again, with the jar held between his legs so it wouldn't spill on his upholstery. It was closed with just a cork, and Hank didn't trust it.

Time was moving on toward 2, and Hank zoomed around and over and through the hilly wet landscape, eager to get his tasks done. He was sure that Trisha would love the violet, and he already had points for the corn. He grinned, and looked over at the evidence of what a good husband he was.

It was that moment when he hit the patch of water lying still across the road, remnants of last week's flood. The Vette hydroplaned, Hank fighting the wheel, then went airborne over a fence into a shallow field. The liquid spilled into the seat, Hank's head hit the roof, and the last thing he remembered was the gargoyle landing on the violet and the corn.


A bright light shown in Hank's eyes and he flinched.

"Hank! You're gonna be fine, just a bruise!" Hank opened his eyes in time to see Dr. Powers march from the emergency room cubicle, pulling the curtain closed behind him. Trisha moved into Hank's line of vision and leaned down to kiss him, tears of relief in her eyes.

"Honey," she whispered, "I didn't want creamed corn!"

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