The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Tiny Points of Life

Island Santa (an excerpt)


[An excerpt]

. . . .

The Christmas-in-Hawaii idea was a strangely difficult sell for everyone in my family except my father. Strange because all of us except my father had talked longingly about going to Hawaii some day.

I am kind-of friends with a kid who moved to Iowa from California. Cody Simms. Cody is two years older than I am, his parents having delayed his schooling just to give his self-esteem a shot in the arm. I always thought that was at least a kind of cheating, if not outright illegal.

You can’t just flout the rules like that and expect to get away with it.

Except that apparently you can. Cody is in the ninth grade just like I am. He sits next to me in social studies so that he can “borrow” my notes. He also “borrows” a lot of my lunch money. Cody is the most developed sixteen-year old I’ve ever seen. He can unbutton the top button on his shirt by expanding his chest. I can’t do that. I don’t know anybody who can do that.

My uncle Moe can unbutton his lower buttons with no hands. The button on his pants too. But that is hardly the same.

Given his parents’ strategy, it is just a little ironic that Cody has turned out to be so insecure about his intellect. People think he’s eighteen. They wonder, sometimes out loud, why an eighteen-year old doesn’t know anything.

Having given him an unfair leg up, Cody’s parents divorced and his dad moved to Honolulu. Whenever Cody returns from a visit, he brings stories of topless women. He says they are everywhere you turn in Hawaii. He has photos to prove it.

Cody is always deeply tanned and wears his shirts open down to the third button. He smokes Camels and says his favorite drink is dark rum. His dad even got him a tattoo of a hula dancer on his arm. Her hips move when he flexes his muscle. It’s like being friends with a teenaged pirate.

Hawaii has been on my radar ever since.

My mother has friends that go to Hawaii every single year, like it was some sort of religious pilgrimage or a migratory instinct. She was not shy about saying that she felt a little deprived.

A lot of money to blow for a one-week vacation, my father would observe. Sometimes, as they were busy pondering the financial considerations, he would toss a follow-up comment out on the table: been awhile since we took the trip out to Milwaukee to see your parents.

No one can be sure of why he was so disinterested in Hawaii except that frugality for my father is something of a sixth sense. It’s part of his survival instinct. If my father is ever mauled by a bear in our backyard when no one else is around, he will find a way to drive himself to the hospital just to avoid the ambulance fees.

And he’ll bring his own gauze.

But the idea of three nights and four days in Hawaii with the Steincamps had somehow managed to slip past the financial barricades. This time my father was eager to go.

It was the rest of us that had to be sold on the idea.

Hawaii itself wasn’t the problem. Christmas was the problem. The holiday season and all of its contextually dependent ritual was the problem. What about the snow? What about the gaiety of firelight in the dark of December? What about shopping for a sacrificial tree? What about holding a leash of colored bulbs as my father clings to the corner of our roofline and my mother leans nervously out the window talking to him in tense whispers like she is trying to talk a suicidal man off a ledge? A little to the left, Stuart, that’s it, easy now, easy, I can’t raise these two kids by myself.

Or what about the Christmas Eve party over at the Hanson’s house with the pool table and the first-person shooter video games I am not allowed to own but for which there is some strange seasonal amnesty in honor of the baby Jesus? What about opening presents on Christmas morning beneath a dead and rapidly drying fire hazard?

And speaking of presents, how could abandoning the holidays for Hawaii not have a devastating impact on the volume of wrapped loot that Katie and I have come to expect? Will my parents actually take the time to come in off the beach and go shopping? And even if they do, who knows if Hawaii even sells the right kind of stuff? How will we bring it all back? Our suitcases are only but so big.

Instinctively, Hawaii seemed to be the opposite of all of the things that have come to identify the Christmas season. My father was proposing a kind of anti-Christmas.

We always attend the Christmas service at the Presbyterian church in our neighborhood, even though ours is not a particularly religious family. Can we really just up and go to Hawaii for Christmas? What would Jesus think?

My mother obviously had her own reservations, although I have no idea what they were. I assume they had nothing to do with the opportunity to blow ragged holes through the heads of advancing zombies on the Hanson’s big screen television. Whatever my mother’s concerns, they were strong enough that our eyes had met across the dinner table, reacting in understated alarm to my father’s mid-August proposal.

“Whaddaya say, gang? Christmas in Hawaii with the Steincamps!”

It was Katie who had actually voiced objection.

“What? Are you kidding? Dad! You can’t do that! You can’t do that!”

“Really,” he said. “Why not?”

I was prepared to calmly speak my mind. Perhaps my mother was too. We had our concerns. But Katie had taken the conversation firmly in her jaws and was sprinting toward the border of Fantasyland.

“Why not? Why not? Dad! What about Santa?”

My father stared at her, dumbfounded. If he had anticipated any objections to his proposal, he certainly had not considered that one.

Katie looked at my mother and then at me, hoping for reinforcement. I didn’t know what to say. None of us did. She was ten. It wasn’t natural for her to still be a believer. Preserving childhood fictions in a world this cynical shouldn’t be possible for that long. Some of Katie’s friends were just heading into their hunky vampire fixation phase. Katie was still resisting. In her head, teenaged Vampires were silly kid stuff. Santa was real.

Katie looked back at my father, pumping her arms in the air, palms open, like an Old Country Italian grandmother demonically possessing a ten-year old girl. “What… about… Santa?”

. . . .

“Island Santa” is available for purchase on

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