Mad Joy
Richard Wehrenberg

A gathering of penguins not far off. Males atop their eggs, incubating the unborn. The calm glow of purpose on their faces.  Females waddle to a slope, pause in line, then hurl themselves, belly down, when it’s their turn for the ride. Plomp. Into icy water. The oily fur of them slithering through it. These are the fortunate ones. The unfortunate ones can be seen, too, stage left from where we’re at. Those penguins who, mate-less, all of a sudden take off and run. Running begins in a moment. A thought to run. Their mad, solo traipse into vast blankness, white nothingness, arms outstretched toward the void. Until the muscles give, the blood no longer fueling. They fall into snow, into another place. Ploof. White powder rising. Freeze.

Santa sits bewildered at his table. He’s recently relocated to the South Pole, for cheaper rent, just a stone’s throw from the science base, after the housing bubble burst and he lost his more northernly home to Glacier Banks Corporation. Things get worse before they get better. He consoles himself with this line. But not today.

The traditional head-in-hands tableaux. On the floor, milk. Spilled moments earlier. Local reindeer. Skim. The general malaise that results from failing to complete simple tasks (ie. pour milk into glass, walk over to table, drink jovially) and not understand why one could not complete said simple task looms above him like winter clouds brewing snow. How these little failures magnify larger ones. His dwindling purpose / meaning. More families buying presents online. Safer they say, faster, they argue, in their rational 21st century heads.

The fluff of fur that is Santa’s Burnese Mountain dog, Riley, laps at the wood floor. Unconsciously, Santa remembers that spilt milk platitude, mutters an affectless, no use in crying, through thick, white mustache. The small phrase lifts Riley’s head from the milk on the floor, and up he looks, at his dear, dear friend, Santa Claus, with a tilt of the head. Full of confusion, or wonder, Santa can’t say which.

Out of the window Santa’s gaze goes. Beyond the penguin gathering, a figure, short and plump, approaching his cabin. Snow falling in tufts in the same magical way it always does. Oh, small things. A thought that has rarely occurred, occurs. How old was he even? What age? He had been doing this gig—the sleigh, the presents, the reindeer, the emblematic facial hair, the red hosen, the ho-ho-ho-ing, the jolly aplomb and optimistic temperament, all of it—for hundreds, quite possibly, it now dawns on him, thousands of years, never pausing, even briefly, to smell the roses. Thousands! Like, truly, really smell them forreal tho, he quips in his head. Truisms like these, the spilt milk, the smelling of the roses, the worse before the better, mottled his thought process. Who put them there, he suddenly asks out loud. When exactly, he found himself now wondering, no, accusing, had all these vapidities actualized? How had their accumulation manifested in this single moment of frustration, just now, and never before? Because of a little spilt reindeer milk!

He had just said all of this. Literally. Riley looks up, magnificently, innocently. Jesus, Santa thinks. His reflection in milk.

In this state Santa opens his Gmail account. 1,079,311 unread messages. Jesus. Slams the laptop back shut, exhales exaggeratedly. Opens up the NPR app on his phone. Exits the app after scrolling for a little, forgetting already what he just read. Slightly flummoxed look on the face. He submits to the table’s neutral support, face down on it, arms crossed, laptop and phone, the glass of non-milk surrounding his slumping upper half like a cairn.

Then. A knock at the door.


Nick, hey. Boss. Buddy. Bruvna. Just swingin’ by for a chat. You lookin’ glum bruv, what’s the haps? You OK?

This, a soprano voice, vaguely British, or Bostonian, he thinks uncertainly, but mostly probably one of those post-millennial-internet mixes of every kind of English. A mile a minute. New slang conceived just minutes prior. Santa squints without his glasses. One of his elves, right? Horace? No, no. This was Aaron. Aaron, Aaron, Aaron! Of course! The rosy cheeks, skin tight, kelly green jumper. Mini pot belly hard as a rock. Pierced ears with fat Russian diamonds Santa had extracted from a client’s home ‘accidentally’. So huge on his tiny head. Ah, his loyal Aaron. How fortunate his coming in such a dejected state! Aaron always cheered him up with good news.

My clientele is vanishing, Aaron. Literally. Yelp reviews are the bane of my livelihood.

Literally was one of those words that Santa found had entered his vocabulary without permission. He accepted it, like illness.
I know, boss. I know. I do the spreadsheets. I see the numbers. Shit’s tight this year. But you gotta be lookin’ skywards, you know? No use cryin‘ over a lil’ spilt milk, right bruv?
Aaron slaps Santa on the knee, about the highest Aaron can slap on Santa’s body. A playful roll of the eyes from Santa.
What did you want, Aaron?
Just checkin’ in on…some stuff. Uh—

The kind of sigh that emits right before you say something that is very difficult to say to someone whom you very much love.

Alright, boss, basically, I need a break. I been workin’ for you for 341 years straight with only X-mas’s off. Don’t get me wrong, I love the work. I do. That’s why I did it for so long. I just gotta see the world. You go online, I know. You see their cities. I want to get lost out there, Nick. I wanna see…America. All that land that’s not just white screen upon screen of white…you know I’ll come back. Just gotta see that world, Nick, you know.

Before Aaron began speaking, Santa knew. His omniscience unparalleled, Santa had always held the ability to feel and really know what others always longed to say.
Just kidding. He knew because he followed all his elves’ Twitter accounts, surreptitiously, had seen them retweet photos of other places’ prosperity and color, with hashtag after hashtag of longing. But the thing about the internet was that you could know something intimate about someone, and still not know how to talk about it in real life. IRL, Santa thinks, now.
Santa walks him out. Watches him skip home for a little. The utilitarian task of giving without expecting return. Oh, how he now longed for other days. An icicle hangs imploringly off of the slanting tin roof and Santa breaks it off. Inside he goes, starts a kettle for coffee, keeps the icicle in his hand until it becomes entirely water. Hand wet with it.
Coffee now in mug. Unspilled. Laptop open. Caffeine high. Thoughts happen. In pairs. Two words. End period.
He selects all emails in his gmail account. Hovers the mouse over the delete button. There is a certain kind of mad joy in abandoning everything without thinking it through.
No. Not yet.

Slams the laptop closed. Chugs the coffee. Out the window his gaze goes.

Oh, small things! Oh, time!
Walks to the bedroom. Long johns. Red hosen. Black belt. Fleece long sleeve. Red coat. Incredibly undersized spectacles. Hat with endearing white ball on top. Gloves. He whistles to Riley. The dog rises like fog and out the door. Santa following. He thinks he feels a smile forming on his face. The lips curving slightly upward. Time is motion leading to next motion. Brain decoding it all.

To the barn. Heart at a minimum 300 bpm’s. No longer the slender man he once was. The sleigh ready with Rudolph, who is aged but still viable, the last of the living reindeer, all the others now the robotic, cheaper to maintain, Reinbots. Red nose now more a deep, black-red, the color of blood. Waning light bulbRudolph looks longingly at Santa and nuzzles his gut a little with a wrinkly, tender nose.
Riley runs along their side as they pull out of the barn. Out into white nothingness. The elves’ village stage right gleaming with frost and candy cane lamp poles.  He waves for some reason.
It’s not too long before they spot one. Arms outstretched, the eyes black and wide, staring at everything and nothing. They swoop in. Santa ho-ho-ho-ing out of habit. A little embarrassing, he feels. The penguin is now next to the sleigh. They’ve slowed to get very close. The bird waddling in a maniacal grin. Off the deep end, Santa thinks.
Santa lifts a pudgy, triumphant arm out the sleigh and scoops up the mad bird. It’s feet still trying to run. Fueling. Going crazy and leaving everything you tried to love, because, for some inexplicable reason, that’s now become your only real option.
Rudolph does a perfect U-turn, the kind no Reinbot could pull. At Santa’s call, without buttons or wires attached, the sleigh heads back toward home. The immediacy of voice, the here, the now of the senses. Riley jumps in and licks the penguin. The penguin kind of laughs. Santa leans in for a lick, jealous. Starts guffawing. Can’t stop. Life was now to be lived in this way. IRL. He’d snip the internet cord the moment they got home! Throw his phone away! Remember postage stamps! Haha!
In his arms, the penguin returning to sanity. Cautiously, tenderly, the wings tuck back into their oiled pockets, the breathing more spaced, the legs quit their mad dashing. Swaddles the penguin in red coat. Still laughing from Riley’s wet lick, now freezing on the beard. Motions toward the gathering of penguins nesting their unborn, stage left, and says, mostly to himself, but in hope that these dear animals near him can hear it, too: that’s one way to be alive. Let’s not let it define ours.