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Toby the Elf
Five — Toby
At noon the Bronco finally gives into the cold and ice and dies about a mile from the pole. We shimmy into our parks and hats and scarves and gloves and boots and snow shoes. We grab two sacks of food each from the back of the vehicle and begin to walk due North.
I am very nervous. I know Santa will not be expecting to see me. I wouldn’t have come at all except that I wanted to make sure Chrissie made the trip safely.
It is very cold, of course, but it’s not too windy right now. I keep my eyes on the horizon; keeping a look out for some sign of the complex. But I can’t see very far because it is dark. (The sun won’t make an appearance up here for another two months.)
Chrissie swats me with a gloved hand. “Listen!” She shouts through her scarf.
I obey. At first I don’t hear anything but then I do. I hear bells. Jingle bells. I smile beneath my layers of protection and I can see by her eyes that she is smiling too. We quicken our pace all the way toward the “jingle, jingle” and soon enough we can hear a high-pitched voice yelling “Yar, Dancer, good boy…Keep in step Blixen, that’s the way…” It is one of the elves. Someone is exercising the reindeer.
The complex appears before us. It is smaller than I had remembered, but that, I guess, it’s to be expected. The reindeer are to our left. I wave at their tender — I recognize him by his coat, it is Blinkie — but he makes no gesture toward me.
“Come on.” Chrissie leads me toward the main building, the workshop. As I follow her down the hill Blinkie runs for the nearest building. He is calling an alert.
I am not surprised to find most of them congregated at the entrance when we come into the workshop.
“What do you want?” One of them asks. It is in such an angry, inhospitable tone that I am not sure which one of my friends has said it.
I realize that they don’t know who we are so I pull down the hood of my parka and yank off my ski mask and goggles. But, they still don’t recognize me. Then it dawns on me — it’s because I’m a human now. I smile at them. “Stanley, Pot-Belly, don’t you recognize me?”
Pot-Belly steps forward and examines my big face, then he turns from me and walks back to the group. “You shouldn’t have come back Toby; the Old Man won’t like it.”
“You here will only cause trouble.” Carrie, the stocking maker tells me.
My cheeks are hot with embarrassment “I had to come back.” I hadn’t expected a triumphant return, but… “Uh, I brought back Chrissie —” I try to explain.
By now she has gotten her Parka and ski mask off too and is warming herself by a wood stove. “Well don’t expect ‘em to be happy to see me, Tob — they never much cared for me in the first place.”
She says it with light sarcasm, but I know that she thinks it is the truth, and it breaks my heart that non of my friends has the energy or the courage left to deny it.
I move next to her and find her hand with mine. “Where’s Santa?” I ask with determination.
“He’s in the cottage.” Stanley tells me. “But I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.”
I am already headed for the hall way that leads from the workshop to the cottage. “Why not?” I say with my own bit of sarcasm. I want to get the maelstrom of confrontation over.
“Because he isn’t going to like it.” Stanley warns.
“Don’t tell me what to like, elf!” Santa’s big voice fills the room.
Suddenly I am not so sure I want to confront him at all.
He walks in from the hallway. He is big. I am surprised that he is bigger then me in my tall, gangly, human state. His suit is smudged with dirt, and his beard is grizzled. He would scare children away. He fixes his eyes on me for a brief minute then gives me a dismissing Harumph. He looks passed me and sees Chrissie and his face changes. His eyes actually sparkle. “Look who came back.” He says as nastily as he can, but clearly he is glad to see her. “The prodigal elf.”
“Hello, Santa.” Chrissie’s smooth, southern (for us) accent answers him. “How are you doing?” She moves around me and takes his arm.
“Not too good Chrissie, not too good.”
“Uh-huh.” There is enough sarcasm in her voice to let him know that she isn’t buying his self-pity. “Well, we’ll just have to see what we can do about that.”
They start to move toward the cottage hallway, but then he stops. “You can go now,” he says over his shoulder to me.
I want to protest. My mouth wants to move up and down, and say “No, I’m staying, I belong here.” But I have obeyed him for so long that my rebellion can not over come my well-warn obedience. I duck my head and zip my parka.
“No.” Chrissie’s voice holds command with both Santa and me. “If Toby goes, I go.”
Santa looks at her, trying to judge her resolve. Chrissie has never been a woman to mess with, clearly that hasn’t changed, so he shifts gears and turns to me. “So, you finally got it, didn’t you?” He asks me meanly. “The minute you headed South you went straight for her…Like a dog after a bitch in heat.”
Now my mouth does move. My voice does find it’s way to my lips. “You watch your mouth in front of her.” I say before I can stop myself.
Santa steps away from Chrissie to rebuke my defiance. “You know Toby I used to think you were a nothing little shit, but I can see that that is no longer true.” He says softly, almost kindly. But his smile turns sour. “Now you’re a nothing big shit.” He says angrily. “This is my workshop and my compound, and I don’t have to watch my mouth around anybody! You got that!”
“Yes, sir.” I whisper.
Chrissie has come back over to us and she takes my hand and pulls me toward the door. “Come on.”
“What?” I plant my feet firmly on the wooden floor. I’m not going to let one temper tantrum scare her off.
“We’re going.” She says tugging at me. “If he can’t speak to you like a being of worth than he can go to hell!”
“Oh, that’s right, doll maker, run away.” Santa says nastily to her. “That’s what you do best isn’t it? If things don’t go exactly according to your plan you just run away.”
“Looks who’s talking!” She yells back at him. “Of course, you don’t run away, do you? You just push everybody away from you!” She is very angry. “How many elves have gone South, Old Man? How many have you scared off?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He protests.
“Toby, how many?” She asks me.
“Uh, 39.” I half whisper, she still doesn’t understand that Santa views anything that comes out of my mouth as a lie.
“44” Pot-belly corrects me.
“Shut up!” Santa commands him.
I look up and search the crowd of elves to see which of my friends are missing. Pete is gone, and Gimble and Lucy, Smite, and Corey. I am both relieved—that they have escaped from all of this and—very concerned for their safety in the world below.
“Five more in so short a time?” Chrissie asks. “Come on, Santa, you’ve got to admit that something is wrong here.”
He looks at her with defiance at first, but that melts quickly and he bites his lip and turns so she can’t see the tears welling up in his eyes. “Of course there’s something wrong.” He whispers with self-pity. “I can’t do this any more.” He tells her — successfully ignoring all of us. “There are too many children…too many request…too many disappointed faces on Christmas day. They open their presents expecting to find XBox One, and they get a wooden truck.” He sighs. “I haven’t been able to keep up with the technology for decades. I thought that the clones would help, but they’ve turned out to be more trouble than help.” He looks around the room at the elves. “A third of the elves have gone South, and the ones who have stayed aren’t good for anything but giving me grief.” He looks over to Chrissie now; tears trail down into his grizzled beard. “I’m a tired old man Chrissie; I can’t do this any more.”
We all stare at him for a minute. For Santa to admit this in front of all his elves tells us just how deep his depression has gone.
Chrissie is shaking her head. “Cry me a river, fat man.” She says as she pulls on her parka and gloves.
“What?” He says still too steeped in self-pity to see she’s not buying it.
“I didn’t come here to listen to you blame this on the people who are trying to help you.” She tells him. “When you are ready to stop feeling sorry for yourself call me.”
“Don’t be so hard on him.” Darien protest.
“That’s exactly what he wants.” Chrissie chastises. “You feel sorry for him and let him use you as a crutch.” She looks around to all the elves, pinning each of them with guilt. Then she looks at me, and she makes me accept my portion of the guilt too. When she finally looks away from me I feel so bad that I want to die. The blood is in my cheeks pulsing up under my eyes, making the water in my eyes collect in the corners and threaten to come streaming out. “In that way he is right.” She continues. “You are partially to blame.”
“We stay with Santa because we love him.” Jimmy is brave enough to say.
“Well, I’m not going to stay because I love him…I love him too much to let him use me as a device for his down fall.”
Every one is quiet for a minute then Santa straightens up. “Well, what exactly did you have in mind?” He asks with all the strength he can muster.
“Call Dr. Munchler and get him back here.” She suggests.
Santa rolls his eyes. “Now you sound like Toby!” He complains.
“No, Sir.” I feel my voice coming from me but I am as surprised as anyone else that I am speaking. “I sound like Toby. She sounds like Chrissie, and I think you ought to listen to what she has to say.” Now everyone is looking at me and I am embarrassed, but not so embarrassed that I don’t finish what I have to say. “Just because she agrees with me doesn’t mean that she is speaking for me.”
“Come on.” Chrissie pulls at Santa’s arm, distracting him before he can lay in at me again.
“All right.” The old man says as he lets her pull him toward the cottage. “We’ll call Dr. Munchler.”
As soon as they disappear around the corner the elves relax. Dotti, who makes children’s books steps up to me. She lifts her right hand over her head and pokes me in the chest. “You sure got big, Toby.”
“I -I know.” I stutter, self-conscious of my size.
She smiles at me and covers her mouth when she begins to giggle. “And you were a small elf.”
I look around the room and see other smiles. For the first time I feel as if I have come home.
I haven’t seen Toby for a couple of days except at dinner which we all eat together. I sit up front with Santa, at the head table. Toby sits at his old place at the elves’ table on the right, ninth from the front, wall side. He looks like a football player sitting at a child’s table. His knees are bent up to his chin as he sits on his little stool. He is always very careful not to reach to far, because he could lose his balance and fall off the stool.
Every time I see him I’m with Santa and there is enough friction between the two of them that Toby doesn’t dare approach.
Not that I’ve been too eager to talk to him. We got very close on our trip North, but things are different now. He is home now; he is surrounded by all his friends. He doesn’t need me. And I’m just not sociable enough to hang on to the outskirts of his circle.
He’d been so lonely when we were on the road that even I seemed like good company. But, compared to Pot Belly or Carrie or Boxie I just don’t stand up. He’s with the most popular of popular elves now. The only thing I’ve got to offer him is size proximity…hardly a basis for a growing relationship.
So what am I doing here? Why am I standing in front of his door about to embarrass myself?
Somebody comes out of another door and heads down the hall toward me before I can knock. It is Skeeter one of the Reindeer handlers. The hall is small, it caters mostly to elf traffic, and I am too big to be standing in the middle of it.
“Hi Chrissie.” Skeeter says as he squeezes passed me. “It’s good to have you back.”
“Thanks.” I mumble after him. I don’t bother to lie and say that it is good to be back.
Skeeter disappears around the corner. I don’t want to be standing here when he comes back so I knock.
When Toby opens the door he is almost squatting. I look past him into his room and see that the ceiling is even lower in there than it is in the hall way.
“Chrissie.” He says with a warm smile.
“How ‘bout these spacious accommodations?” I tease him. My voice is high and nervous.
He looks over his shoulder. “I guess it’s a good thing that I’m not claustrophobic, huh?”
I look inside the room again and see that there is no furniture, just his parka and a rumpled wool blanket where the bed should be, a small lamp and a pile of folded clothes where the dresser should be.
“I took out the bed.” He explains. “I didn’t fit in it, and it took up too much room as a purely decorative item.” He smiles at me, really smiles at me. “I miss you.” He says sweetly.
“Sure you did.” I snicker.
“I’d, uh, I’d invite you in, but I don’t really think we’d both fit in here.” He gives a little laugh and I do my best to smile back at his joke. I can’t help wondering if he’s trying to blow me off. “Would you like to go someplace else?”
I shrug. “Sure, if you’re not too busy.”
“No,” He half laughs, “I’m not too busy,” Then he looks at me with sincerity, “uh, unless you’re too busy.”
“No.” I say firmly. “I’m not too busy.”
“Uh, let me get my sweater.” He ducks back into the sparse, tiny, room and moves to the pile of folded clothes. I guess a clothes’ locker would be too big for the room too. He finds the “Buckeye” sweatshirt we bought him at the Goodwill store in Boonesburg — that’s where most of Toby’s wardrobe came from — and slips it awkwardly (because of the low ceiling) over his head. Then he comes back to the door. He has to go through sideways to fit, but once he is out in the hall he can stand almost all the way up. His bulk fills the hall, and I have to think that it IS a good thing that he isn’t claustrophobic.
He leads the way down the passage and when we get to an intersecting human sized hall he reaches over and takes hold of my hand. “Where to?”
“Workshop?” He suggests. “It should be pretty quiet in there by now.”
“No.” I say trying to keep my grumpy mood to a minimum. “Not the workshop, O.K.? Lets go some place neutral.” I begin to lead him toward the dining hall.
“Neutral?” He prods. “How is the workshop less than neutral?”
“The workshop is elf territory.” I tell him. “I’m not an elf anymore; I don’t feel comfortable sitting in a little chair.”
I didn’t say it to hurt his feelings, but clearly I have. “Oh.” He says too quietly.
“How are you adjusting?” I ask and get a shrug in reply. “Everybody’s probably real glad to have you back.”
“Well, not everybody.” He says meaning Santa. “I don’t know…I guess it’s going O.K. It’s just, I’m so big.” He tries to smile. “I don’t fit in anywhere. Even the most friendly elf gets tired of looking up at me all the time.”
I realize that maybe the reason he’s been so quiet during lunch isn’t all Santa. Maybe he hasn’t had any body to talk to.
We are at the dining room. We go in and sit down at the big table. “You hungry?” I ask him. “I could find us something to eat.”
“No, that’s all right.” He says quietly. “He thinks I eat too much already.” Santa has complained about this even to me. I tried to explain that we brought enough supplies to get us through the first thaw, but he is consumed with the thought that we will run out. I tell him to go to hell when he brings it up, but Toby listens to the old man’s ranting and eats only elves’ portions. That is like a full-grown man eating from the children’s menu. I know he’s got to be hungry.
“Trixie said you’ve been getting the workshop organized.” I compliment him.
“Na-No- they’ve done it themselves.” He stammers, not able to take the compliment. “I’ve just made a few suggestions.”
“Well, whatever you’ve done it’s working. Production is way up.”
He looks at me with disbelief. “It is?”
“You sound surprised.”
“A little, morale isn’t very good.” He shrugs. He looks at me and smiles. A twinkle lights up his eyes. “Sorry,” He says, “I don’t mean to complain.”
I smile back. There is something in that glint in his eye, that smile, that apology for nothing, that makes me realize that nothing has really changed between us. I lean over to him and kiss him. Then I rest my head against his shoulder.
“What’s that for?”
“I miss you, too.”