The tips of the tall turquoise and green hats bobbed in the lightly falling snow as the elves weaved through crowds of painted dolls, toy soldiers, shepherds with their sheep, reindeer, poultry, clowns, sugarplums, gingerbread people, and candy canes.
“I feel like an idiot,” Jackie grumbled. “If Kyle dumps me because he sees me in this ridiculous getup, it’ll be on your head, Merry Wilkinson.”
I paid her no attention. Jackie always grumbled; it was her natural state. I could only imagine the level of grumbling if she’d been left out of our group. She wore a knee-length tunic of gold, turquoise, and forest green over black leggings. Her hat was a foot-high turquoise triangle with a green pom-pom bouncing on the end. Papier–mâché formed into hornlike appendages and then covered with green felt had been attached to the front of her high-heeled, calf-high boots. Turquoise triangles, outlined in gold glitter, were painted on her cheeks, and her eye shadow was a matching shade of turquoise. I thought the playful makeup brought out my shop assistant’s natural beauty much better than the overly applied stuff she normally wore. I kept that opinion to myself.
“Shouldn’t you . . . ah . . . be helping?” I nodded to the line disappearing into the crowd. One of the littlest of the elves was in great danger of wandering off, so enchanted was he by everything going on around him.
“If I must.” She sighed heavily, but hurried to take the boy’s hand and, with a soft word, guide him back into the line.
My mother marched at the front, leading the group toward our float. She was singing scales, and even if the children couldn’t see over the crowd they should have been able to follow the sound of her voice. My mother had been a diva at the Metropolitan Opera. She knew how to make herself heard.
I adjusted my mobcap and retied the strings of my apron.
It was December first and we were assembling for the Santa Claus parade, the biggest event of the year in Rudolph, New York, otherwise known as Christmas Town. If there’s one thing we know how to do in Rudolph, it’s Christmas.
I checked behind me for stragglers and then hurried to catch up. The children were from my mom’s vocal classes. The youngest ones would sit on the decorated flatbed while the teenagers marched beside, singing carols. They were all dressed in the same colors and style as Jackie, in varying degrees of quality depending on their parents’ sewing skills. They were elves, and I was Mrs. Claus.
Jackie had argued for considerably more décolletage in her elf costume and a much shorter tunic. I’d put my foot firmly down on that. Then she stubbornly refused to let her mother make the costume roomy enough to fit over her winter coat. I let her win that one. Jackie could freeze if she wanted to. The children’s costumes had been made large enough to fit over winter coats and snowsuits. I wore two wool sweaters under my dress, a pair of thick tights, and heavy socks, all of which added about thirty pounds to my frame. I didn’t need thirty pounds, but it was Christmas and if I was going to be Mrs. Claus, I wanted to dress the part.
Up ahead, I saw Mom climb onto the float. Small children scrambled up after her. The teenagers took their positions and immediately pulled out their smartphones while waiting to begin. Parents milled about snapping pictures.
“Ho, ho, ho,” Santa Claus boomed, waving greetings left and right as he walked through the crowd, heading for his own float.
The youngest children squealed in delight; the teenagers rolled their eyes and continued texting, while the parents clapped their hands and tried to look thrilled.
It was, of course, not Santa but my dad, the appropriately named Noel. Dad’s round stomach was real as was his thick white beard and the shock of white curls only slightly tinged with gray even though he was coming up on sixty. He totally looked the part in the traditional Santa costume of red suit with white fur cuffs, red and white hat, wide black belt, and high black boots.
I was the last one onto my float. I grabbed my long skirts in one hand; Jackie took the other and hauled me up with as much grace as if she were landing a pike through a hole in the ice.
“Everyone ready?” I called. The children cheered. It seemed like we might actually be able to pull this off. This was the first year I owned my own shop in Rudolph, and thus was responsible for my own float, but in the past I’d always tried to get home to help with the parade. Other years, we’d used a handful of the younger kids from Mom’s classes to sit on the float, but this year—without consulting me first—she decided to make the parade the focus of their fall program. All told, there were thirty children, aged five to seventeen.
I’d decorated the float so it looked like Santa’s workshop. It had bales of hay for the elves to sit on, a couple of battered old wooden tables as workbenches, whatever I could scrounge in the way of hammers for tools, and some broken toys that looked like they were still being assembled. It was, I thought proudly, just great. George Mann, a crusty old farmer who’d been roped into helping by my dad, provided the tractor that would pull the float. I’d tried to get George to dress in costume, but he’d looked me in the eye and said, “No.” I doubted George owned anything but muddy boots, brown overalls, and faded flannel shirts anyway. If anyone asked who he was supposed to be, I’d say the farmer in charge of the reindeer.
I had high hopes for my float. My goal was nothing less than the best in parade trophy.
One thing we didn’t have to concern ourselves with was creating a north pole-like atmosphere. Here on the southern shores of Lake Ontario we get snow. A lot of snow. It was falling now, big fat fluffy flakes. The temperature hovered just below the freezing point and there was no wind; people would be comfortable standing on the sidewalk or sitting on blankets spread out on the curb while waiting for the parade. All the shops, including mine, Mrs. Claus’s Treasures, were closed this morning so everyone could participate in the festivities, but the business development office had set up stands at regular intervals to serve hot drinks and baked goods.
The semiannual Santa Claus parade is the highlight of the tourist year in Rudolph. People come from hundreds of miles away to see it. When I’d walked through town this morning, going to check that the float had survived the night, I’d noticed that all the hotels and B&Bs had “No Vacancy” signs outside. That would make everyone happy. I say semiannual parade, because we have one in July also. What the heck, gotta get those marks, I mean tourists, to town somehow.
The parade assembly area was in the parking lot behind the town’s community center. This morning the lot was a churning mass of adults and children in costume, marching bands, flags, floats, some definitely better than others, and tractors to pull them.
“Hey, kids, give us a smile,” a voice called out. Russ Durham, editor in chief of the Rudolph Gazette, lifted his camera, and the giggling children struck a pose. Jackie, supposedly embarrassed to be seen in her costume, leapt to her feet and cocked a hip as the camera clicked.
At an unseen signal, engines at the front of the line roared to life. Marchers stamped their feet. Trumpeters and French horn players blew into their instruments. Children applauded and the high school cheerleaders did cartwheels.
Nothing, however, seemed to be happening at the front of my float. I clambered up onto a bale of hay and peered through the plastic-wrap windows. George was in the tractor’s seat, where he should be.
“Let’s get going,” I called.
He shrugged, not bothering to turn around. He might have said something but I couldn’t hear over the noise of the parade starting. Then, to my horror, George got out of his seat and jumped to the ground. He opened the flap at the front of the tractor and his head disappeared into its mysterious depths.
My heart dropped into my stomach. I made my way through jabbering kids and climbed off the back of the float.
Russ had gone to see what George was up to. When I reached the engine, the two men were scratching their heads.
“Your kids look great,” Russ said to me. His accent was slow and sexy, full of the color and spice of Louisiana.
“They sure do.”
“So do you.” He gave me a smile full of dancing hazel eyes and straight white teeth.
“I do not. I look like a harassed old lady.” I peered at him through my spectacles. The frames contained nothing but plain glass, part of the costume. I’d stuffed my black hair inside the red and white checked mobcap that came complete with attached white curls.
“A beautiful harassed old lady, then,” he said. I felt my color rise. Hopefully Russ would think the red cheeks were part of the costume.
But I had more important things to worry about right then than how I looked. “Please, please don’t tell me there’s a problem,” I begged George.
“Darn thing won’t start,” the old farmer replied.
“It has to start!”
“What’s the holdup there?” someone called.
The floats near the beginning of the parade, where we were, represented a toymaker’s front window, a candy store, a turkey farm, a groaning dinner table, and the stable in Bethlehem. The quilters’ guild had red and green quilts arranged on their laps, and the high school marching band members were grinches. The book clubbers wore long skirts and bonnets and were led by Ralph Dickerson, wearing a nightgown and cap and carrying a candlestick. The role of Scrooge definitely suited Ralph, the town’s budget chief.
It all looked like total chaos, but the town had been doing this for almost twenty years and they had it down pat.
“Why don’t you try it again?” Russ helpfully suggested.
“Been tryin’,” George replied.
A man vaulted over the bar at the back of the toymaker’s float, the one directly in front of mine, and landed lightly on his feet, his movements a considerable contrast to his appearance. He looked to be about ninety years old with his enormous gray mustache and sideburns, nose accented by a lump of putty holding up his glasses, and an outfit of woolen jacket, knee-length breeches, and shoes with buckles, but I knew he was a thirty-year-old by the name of Alan Anderson; occupation, toymaker. Alan was the second-most popular man in Rudolph, after Santa, but only when wearing his toymaker regalia. He was tall and handsome with blond hair that curled around the back of his neck, sparkling blue eyes, and a ready laugh, but he could be quite shy, and he preferred to go incognito, so to speak.
Alan and I had dated for a short while in high school. It didn’t last after graduation. He’d been happy to remain in Rudolph, learning woodworking from his father and making beautiful things, slowly and carefully. I had stars in my eyes as I planned a fast-paced life in the hectic, exciting magazine world of Manhattan. We’d each got what we wanted, but one of us—me—had given up the dream and returned to Rudolph.
I’d wondered briefly if the old spark might be rekindled, but December in Christmas Town was not a time to be courting. We were all too darn busy.
Alan gave me a smile before going to join George and Russ. “Need any help here?” He also stared into the depths of the tractor engine, the three men looking as though it would start if only they focused hard enough.
George’s tractor might have been at its best during World War II, but that was no reason for it to give up the ghost now. “Can’t you do some kind of temporary fix?” I asked.
George didn’t dignify that comment with a reply. Russ looked confused—I guessed engines were not his thing, but he didn’t like to admit it. Alan patted his pockets as if he might find exactly the right tool.
Jingle Bell Lane, Rudolph’s main street, down which the parade would pass, was out of sight of those of us at the back of the community center, but we could hear the excited murmur of expectation.
I groaned. George continued to scratch his chin.
Alan threw me an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, Merry, but I have to get back. We’re about to leave.”
“Sure,” I said, forcing out a smile.
“Are you, uh, going to the post-parade party?” He shuffled his feet in their buckled shoes.
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
“Perhaps I’ll see you there. Good luck with the float.”
I might have spent a moment wondering if Alan merely meant he’d be at the party, or if he was trying to say something deeper, but one of the orange vest–wearing marshals arrived at a trot. “What’s going on, Merry? You have to get moving.”
I waved my arms. “It won’t start. We can’t push the dratted thing.” In the line behind me, drivers began shouting at us to get out of the way. I could see the front of the parade turning into the street. I wanted to cry.
“You’ll have to walk,” Russ said. “Let’s get the kids down.”
“But my float! All my work.”
“Nothing you can do about that now, Merry.”
“What,” my mother sang, “is happening down there?”