Jesse shoved his dead beagle out of the way with his bare foot and set another log on the fire, watched the smoke curl around it for a second, then leaned back in his cracked red leather easy chair. “Okey-dokey,” he said. His favorite word. He reached for the cup of hot cocoa on the tv tray, let the sweet steam waft up into his nostrils, and smiled. He took a small sip. A bit of melted marshmallow clung to his upper lip. He felt it sitting there, wiped it off with the back of his hand.
“Bet you would’ve liked some hot cocoa, Samson,” he said to the immobile dog. Samson had been dead four days now, but he was the only company Jesse had. Better a dead dog than no one. Even if Samson had still been breathing, Jesse wouldn’t have given him any cocoa. He knew that chocolate was bad for a dog, something about their digestive system not being able to handle it. And he sure wouldn’t have done it with just one more day til Christmas. Ain’t no way to find a decent vet on Christmas day, he knew. All the good ones are at home with family or on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, he figured.
Outside, a soft snow began spreading its stark winter blanket across the neighborhood. The first snow of the year, and what better time than on the night before Christmas. He looked out the window. “Okey-dokey.”
Jesse thought about the dogs of his life. His best friends. Dogs that died before they left puppyhood, dogs that trembled and slept into old-age. Samson was one of his favorite dogs, probably the last one he’d ever have. “Got you the year after Emma passed,” said Jesse. He remembered other Christmas eves, when Emma would hang the stockings on the mantle, wrap last minute presents, slide chocolate chip cookies out of the oven. Forty-six years of chocolate chip cookies must be some kind of record, both for baking and eating, he thought. He wondered how many chips of chocolate had melted down on their behalf.
Emma had gone off her meds before she passed, twelve years ago. Except she didn’t know she had. She had become impossible to live with, drove Jesse up one wall and down another with her incessant complaining and whining, her mind melting down like those chocolate chips. So he dumped her meds, all seven bottles of them, down the toilet, replaced them with placeboes. He liked that word “placebo.” It took a couple of weeks, but eventually Emma passed in her sleep. “A peaceful placebo departure,” said Jesse at his most poetic.
He lifted Samson by his tail, half off the floor, to reveal the tattered book under his rump. He picked it up and turned to the first page. He always felt a thrill when he read aloud the very first line. “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house...” What magic, what power, what craftsmanship. Not “It was the night before,” but “Twas.” Not “Christmas Eve,” but “the night before Christmas.” Jesse stretched his legs out to let the fire warm his bare toes. Samson slid across the hearth to the edge of the fire. Outside the snow thickened, swirled, piled along the curbs and bushes. The street lay silent, no headlights, no crunch of tires.
Jesse continued his annual ritual aloud, to deaf, floppy ears. “Not a creature was stirring...” He stopped on that line and laughed. “You can say that again” and looked at Samson. “...not even a mouse, The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.” Jesse looked at the mantle. Yep, the stockings were still there. He had never gotten around to taking them down from last year, although Emma had complained about that until midsummer.
Jesse got as far as “... had just settled down for a long winter’s nap” when he smelled the burning, an acrid smell that was neither oak nor hickory. He looked down at the fireplace. Samson was smoking. Or at least the fur on his backside was, turning the dull brown fur into stringy black ash. “Move away, dog,” he said, and reached over and scooted Samson to the side. Luckily the dog had not burst into flame yet, and as the smoke subsided, Jesse approached the conclusion of the poem. He stopped before the last page. “Not so fast, not so fast,” he thought. “Gotta let the magic last a little longer.” He drained the cup, scooped the remaining marshmallow with his finger and licked it clean. “Okey......” He felt his eyes getting heavy. The fire, the cocoa, the snow, his dog. “How lucky I am,” he said aloud. His eyes started to close. But he had to get to the part about “But he heard him exclaim as he rose out of sight ...” and the rest of it. His head nodded and his chin dropped to his chest.
The peace was shattered by a loud rap-rapping at his door. Jesse lifted his head. “Who could that be, Samson?” He struggled out of his chair, shuffled to the door. Another series of rap-rap-rapping, this time louder. “Keep your shirt on, I’m coming, fast as I can,” said Jesse. He opened the door. And what to his wondering eyes should appear, but Santa Claus standing there, with no shirt on.
“Sorry couldn’t keep my shirt on,” said Santa. “Are you named Jesse?”
Jesse nodded. This was wonderful beyond belief.
“Then let’s go for a ride,” said Santa with a hearty laugh, making his stomach shake like a bowl full of jelly. He slipped on his red coat.
“I’ll get my coat,” said Jesse.
“No need to. I’ve got a propane heater in my sleigh. I just wear this because it’s expected.” He laughed again. “Here we go.”
Jesse and Santa walked out to the sleigh and climbed in behind the eight reindeer. “Good looking reindeer,” said Jesse.
“I take good care of ‘em. Thanks for noticing.”
“Bet you never give ‘em any chocolate.”
Santa smiled. “You sure know your reindeer.” He grabbed the reins and gave them a shake. “Hold on, Jesse.”
As they rose above the house, the neighborhood, the town, Jesse heard Santa shout, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”