The bus resembles a big blue loaf of Wonder Bread and it shuttles my sister and me downtown. I am 7, and she is 16. The bus windows are glazed with trickles of ice, and the light posts and traffic signs that drift by are plastered white with recent squalls of snow.
In the near distance are the buildings of downtown Des Moines: the Equitable building, Iowa’s tallest, doing the best impersonation of the Empire State building it possibly can; and the KRNT weather beacon: “Weather beacon white? Colder weather in sight!” We all know the rhyme by heart; it has been drummed into us by KRNT news anchor and weatherman Russ Van Dyke every night at 6 and 10 p.m. “And Santa Claus visits Des Moines once again, thrilling the young and the young at heart at Younkers’ winter wonderland 1 to 4 p.m., and in the evenings from 6 to 9 now until Christmas Eve.” The news camera footage flickers: the man with the white beard and the engorged red suit gives us a mittened wave hello from his throne of burnished gold.
The sky is purpled with dusk. We disembark at 8th and Mulberry into the biting wind that at one moment whips down the open avenue, and the next is hushed as we skirt the granite mass of an insurance building. The lights of cars twinkle dimly like the eyes of rodents, and as we walk, the shush and rush of winter traffic muffles loose in the city’s journey home from work. It is 5:45 p.m. A traffic cop aids the flow of traffic at the intersection of 10th and Walnut with frantic waves from his black-gloved hands and shrill blasts from his whistle.
We cross the street and my hand is clutched, pinched by my sister’s grey mitten. I look down at my galoshes as they stumble across the tire tracks in the gritty ice and snow. “Come on! Watch what you are doing!” I am being dragged, steered through the downtown foot traffic now: the huge ladies with their cumbersome shopping bags, the incredible wafts of perfume, and the aromas of roasting nuts and popcorn.
Seven-year-old Rustin with his sister Terry in 1966.
“The line is long, but it’s worth it, right?” my sister looks down at me encouragingly. The line turns the corner and hugs the edge of the building. We are shielded partially by a canopy, but on this side the wind is biting and I pull my scarf over my cheeks. I lean into my sister and use her as a windbreak. The only other thing that looks like it might warm me is the crepe paper fire in the “fireplace” in the window display we stand nearby. The mannequins are gathered in their winter sweaters and are joking and laughing over cups of wax-solid cocoa and marshmallows. I know it’s silly, but I envy them.
A loud speaker anchored on an upper story tinkles “Silver Bells.”
Strings of street lights
Even stop lights
Blink a bright red and green
As the shoppers rush home
With their treasures. . . .
My sister grabs the flaps of my hunting cap and controls my head. “And were you a good boy this year?” she mocks in a feminine baritone. No, my head shakes involuntarily. “And is it all right if Santa brings you nothing?” Yes, my head nods. Oh, yes, yes, yes. I giggle and the little girl in front of me turns and flashes a gap-toothed smile. The corner of the building slowly edges closer like the prow of a great ocean liner, and we are nearly there.
Santa’s throne room is a Younkers display window, and there is a golden glow and an oval pattern of frost and condensation. Mechanical elves saw and hammer away at quaint wooden train sets. Gigantic peppermints, taffy, and lollipops wrapped in large sheets of colored cellophane dangle alluringly from the ceiling. A great Christmas tree stands decorated with red ribbon, gingerbread men, tinsel, twinkling lights, and silver globes. Mounds of neatly wrapped presents slush onto the carpet.
A temporary set of red and green stairs allows us little supplicants and our escorts to step from the sidewalk into the magical room. And there he is, large and red, with a mountain fog of white hair tumbling from his head and face. He has a stern attendant dressed in green felt, an elf, a scary one with a long nose and pointed ears. The elf wears hose striped like peppermint sticks, and green felt shoes with tendril-like curls on each toe. The elf is a creature one would see only now or in the throes of a high fever, and he is unsettling.
The elf beckons the little girl with the lamb earmuffs to come sit on Santa’s lap. She quivers forward, and, with some effort, climbs up onto this God, this man-mountain, to ask meekly for a toy. “An oven . . .” she squeaks, “and a doll.” “Please?!” her mother prompts. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” the hillock of flesh bellows and quakes, and with that the girl leaps and snatches the candy cane offered by Mr. Elf as she scurries from the throne room and ventures with her mother out into the snow and cold once again.
It is my turn. I feel suddenly very hot. The elf motions for me. I see the elf smiling; his teeth are brown and bad, jagged and broken from a diet of hard candies in the sub-zero temperatures of the North Pole. I want to run, run far away, but my sister pushes me from behind and I climb onto the fat old man’s lap. “And what do you want for Christmas, young man?” This god of red felt and fur has breath just like my uncle’s when he is savoring a glass of schnapps. “Big Bruiser,” I whisper. “What’s that? A Big Bruiser?!! A Big Broooozer?!!” he yells. Everyone in the world hears that, I’m positive. There’s laughter. My face flushes, and I emphasize, hissing to him, “It’s a tow truck!”
“HO! HO! HO! HOE!” he screams. “A Big Broooooozer it shall be! HO! HO! HO! HOOOOOOOE!” I’m out of there! I whiff at the candy cane as the hideous elf offers it from his felt satchel. The freak can keep his peppermint. “Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa!” My sister catches up with me on the sidewalk and collars me and I burst into tears. She kneels and pulls a Kleenex out of her pea coat pocket. “Well, at least you did it,” she says.
To help me regain my composure, she takes me inside the store and guides me to the candy counter. Johnny Mathis’s smoky voice croons, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.” I’m hiccuping, but I feel better. The candy counter gleams like some feast from the Czar’s palace: silver chalices are topped off with mounds of roasted cashews and chocolate-covered peanuts and dozens of other delicacies. My sister buys me a dime’s worth of Swedish fish, and she treats herself to a few powdered cubes of Turkish toffee. She looks at me, chews, shakes her head, and sighs.
There is a nativity scene displayed nearby. The baby is lying in a trough of hay and is wearing only a cloth diaper. This kid is poor, but things are looking up. Three kings kneel and offer gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gold makes sense, but the other things are highly suspect to me. What do you do with a myrrh, anyway? All I really want is a tow truck.
Soon it’s time to go out into the glittering darkness and catch the next loaf of Wonder Bread home. I clutch my white paper bag in one hand, and my sister’s mittened fingers in the other; we are sucked through the revolving glass doors and out into the crisp December night. In the diamond glitter of traffic—buses, cabs, tow trucks, and cars—we hear laughter and the crystalline tinkling of bells.
Read more of Rustin’s essays and fiction at his blog on www.iowasource.com. Scroll down past the articles to find Rustin’s "Fact of the Universe."
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