My wife and I retired early on Christmas Eve this year, that is, by 1:30. The elves must feel something akin to this: weeks of workshop labor, shorted sleep, and unhealthy food, and then, finally, when the taillights of Santa's sleigh crests the horizon, they take to their beds. It felt that way. To be horizontal and still alive is to be deeply thankful. The cat stared dreamily at me from her pillow-bed near our feet. As she settled deeper into her cushions, I lost consciousness.
And then, out of the dark, a clunk. I looked at the clock: 1:30. "Was that a door shutting?," she said sleepily.
"Must have been a cat," I said. Silence. I lay there. It could have been a cat, a very heavy cat, and yet the large one still lay at the end of the bed and the other wisp of a cat would not make such a large noise and, besides, was likely tucked away in a crevice somewhere.
I threw off the covers and went to the window, lifting the blinds to peek outside. Fog curled around the single street light. A neighbor's window light cast a single square of yellow light on the lawn next door. A black cat stole across the street, the one we call the Mayor, dutifully checking drain pipes, ground holes, and sewer drains for riff-raff. The usual. But then, in the corner of my eye, something red moved. At the corner of my house, a man was pushing something, and having a hard time of it, calling out to the darkness, "On. . .
"What are you doing over there?"
"Nothing." I dropped the blind. "Go back to sleep."
"Did you figure out what that sound was?"
"A cat, I think." Scapegoat for all, the cat. Silent when accused.
"Will you go down and check it out?"
"Sure." I will? I guess I will. I didn't really want to, yet I started out my door, feeling my way.
"Dad, did Santa come?," said my son from the darkness.
"Sssh. He can't come if you're awake." That's what my parents told me anyway.
"I'm not awake."
"You have to be unconscious for him to come." I added that bit. That is, you have to at least act like you're sleeping.
"I am unconscious. Can't you tell?" And then, after a pause: "Where are you going?"
"Nowhere. Checking on things."
From the other room, my daughter, "What's going on out there?"
"Everyone go to sleep. I'm just checking to be sure all the lights are out."
I started down the stairs, avoiding the creaking one. About halfway down, I heard a slight creak behind me. I paused, one foot in midair, and turned, only to see the cat behind me, one paw in the air.
"You too?" I whispered. I knelt close to her face. "Listen, when we get to the bottom, you go right, I'll go left," I said. She nodded, ever so slightly. "And be quiet." At the bottom, she turned left, not right, inexplicably, and I followed. As she entered the kitchen, she dropped to the floor, paws spread. I crouched. "What is it?," I whispered.
Looking up, I saw a small, bearded man in a red suit kneeling beneath our Christmas tree in the near-dark, placing packages under the tree. I rose, drew a breath too quickly, too loudly, and he turned.
"Hey, you're. . ."
He put a finger to his lips, smiling, indicating that I should remain quiet, and then turned to his work. Looking down, I saw the cat walk by me carrying a catnip mouse in her mouth. Then, looking up again, he was gone. Just vanished. I turned to walk back up the stairs. At the landing, I stopped.
"Aren't you asleep?"
"Yes, but did Santa come?"
"I'm sure he'll get here. You go to sleep."
"I am asleep. I can sleep and talk at the same time."
And I can be awake and dream at the same time.
"I want a sugarplum."
"They don't grow here."
"What is a sugarplum, anyway?"
I lifted the edge of the covers and slid back into bed, settling on my back. The cat lay unconscious in a half-circle at my feet. I re-positioned her gently with a slight kick.
From the dark, my wife: "Did you see Santa?"
"What'd he say?"
"He asked if you'd been good."
"And you said?"
"I said you'd been better than me."
"Was that OK?"
"Well, he smiled, anyway."
"You sure you saw him?"
"Sure you did."
In the morning, I rolled over, opened my eyes. A catnip mouse lay beside me. The wisp of a cat sat on the floor beside the bed, looking up at me.
"You see him too?"
"OK, that settles it."