Holiday 2014 — THE POTOMAC

Santa Claus is Real

  Jan-Erik Asplund

               They first kissed on the train from Toronto to New York City. For the brief moment their lips were attached, it seemed as if the train had come to a complete stop, as though the lakes had stopped passing by, as though whole forests had ignited in the distance and then frozen, mid-conflagration. But something in the kiss also gave him pause, and he then felt himself being pulled out of his own body and into that still, countryside scene where a burnt red sun hung as if stuck over the mountains to the west. As he looked to the forest he saw that it was indeed burning, that there was a budding blaze somewhere directly ahead on its floor. In his vision he moved toward it, seeing in the forest a group of five or six children huddled around a burning car. Their faces transfixed with awe pure and clean, their language choked out by smoke, strange, nameless thoughts floating within young, feeling brains, the crippling sensation of time passing in the smallest of all registers: the trance state, eyes blinking in perfect, compulsive sequence. The first landscape in a while not totally boring and exasperatingly familiar, and the faint, acrid scent of what might have just been human bone.
               Later, when the train had finally stopped, the scene had changed entirely.
               It was three months, six days, two hours and fifty-two minutes since Arthur had seen Anna. The sixth of June, the year nineteen-ninety-three, the day of the Incident and the beginning of the Emergency. That was the last morning he had woken up next to her, had dug the sand out of his eyes and smeared it gently on her sleeping cheek, had crept silently out of their bed so as not to wake her.
               Arthur had tried constructing the past entirely in the form of episodes, discrete scenes that could do no more, placed side-by-side, than a roll of film can do without a projector. He felt that rupturing those links could only be good, could only give him a kind of unbounded freedom. The way scientists had split the bonds holding atoms together.

               The door at the front of the car had burst open and there she was, practically skipping her way back to me.
               —I just saw the most amazing thing.
               Apparently, a large man who looked just like Santa Claus had gone and purchased a huge spread of food and drink for the car directly ahead. The children loved it, and their love had been so infectious that even their parents loved it. The grave old man in 32B loved it. The conductor, though he too had loved it, had come through the car not to indulge Santa Claus but to punch tickets, and when he approached the man it became clear that he had never purchased a ticket. Santa Claus started apologizing profusely, his face turning a deep shade of red, and someone raised their hand to lodge a protest, but the conductor just shook his head. The children grew silent; their parents turned to the windows and watched the countryside pass by.
               —He's up there now, Santa Claus. They're holding him in the vestibule until the train stops, and then they're going to toss him off.
               She turned and placed a hand on his arm.
               —Isn't it just awful.

               The doors opened and Arthur looked out upon throngs and throngs of loud, vigorous people, their shouts too loud to comprehend. As he sidled past them and ascended out of the Dyckman Street Station, he realized that he must have arrived just at rush hour, because the street was completely empty. Sunlight beat down, cutting the block in half, but neither top nor bottom held out any promise of life. Turning back toward the station, he saw Anna — but she was descending, not following Arthur.
               Thoughts of this woman would run through his mind like shadows over the sun until the day of his death. But of course he didn't know that then. Such are the limits of our knowledge. Would it not have been beneficial for God to swap them, to make the past that which is shrouded and impossible rather than the future, on which so much depends and which is so hard to imagine? The past looms over everything, and it has to be reckoned with if one is going to have a go at existing in the present.
               He lingered listlessly in the empty apartment, the glare of the fluorescent light like a lance running into a block of ice, his own block of ice yet frozen impenetrably, solid as brick. The rumblings of the elevated trains outside had long since disappeared, replaced instead with the rumblings of something internal, that inevitable and permanent slide into insanity. Recently, for Arthur, there have been voices: a cacophony of them, not too loud, the kind one recognizes as human without needing to parse out and understand individual word. He understood it, all in all, as a kind of distant chorus, making noises that seemed to advise the taking of caution.
               As he gazed at the shape the light made as it fell across the floor, he thought again of trains, and then had a vision. But this time it was not a vision of Anna. It was a vision of an old, gaunt man waving a black briefcase in the sky, his throat forced open by a scream. A pulsing red light, burning to signify an emergency. The old man's briefcase hurled now to the ground, splayed open like a cadaver. Blurry, indistinguishable bodies on their knees, convulsing, collapsing. And two men off to the side, gas masks strapped tight to their faces. Shrouded in darkness, tall and erect, presiding over the whole spectacle. These two silhouettes hung burning in his mind until one of them suddenly gave, knees buckling under him, head cracking on the cement, the whole scene then going black, the people all disappearing, Arthur's eyes finally opening.
               Like a folk song, really.

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