Dear Santa,

  I'm too old to be writin' you these letters. Truth is, I'll be 9 in a few months and I been thinkin' for awhile that you ain't real. But just in case you are there's this cool chopper bike at Wal~Mart I'd like to have. My l'il sister Lily wants a Cabbage Patch doll (she likes cat things, too, and race cars). She's 7. My brother Louie is 6. Louie's just about crazy for fire trucks. The smallest of the Lanes is baby Lisa. She's 1 and a half. She likes those ol' dolls with the blinky eyes (sometimes she pokes 'em out).

Like I said before, if you're too busy or you ain't real just forget about this letter. I'm gettin' so old it's probly the last one you'll get from me. Seems to me like good 'n bad don't have as much to do with presents as Daddy's job. When he has work you always bring lots o' stuff. When he don't you don't.

Santa he ain't been workin' much at all this year. His foot got hurt and he started takin' pills then the doctor wouldn't give him no more but it still hurt a lot. Well he started drinkin' whiskey and beer and him and Mommy took to fightin' all the time. She cries a lot and that makes my l'il brother and sisters cry. I try to wait and do it by myself when nobody can see me. If you pray Santa could you say one for Larry and Laurie and Lonnie (that's me) and Lily and Louie and baby Lisa? Yeah that's us the L Family. Kids in school use to tease me 'bout the L's and I'd get mad at Mommy and Daddy for namin' the whole Family like that. Lately I been writin' our names down in a row over 'n over and now I think maybe it's kinda neat that they got together and decided to have all us l'il L's.

And that's my real wish Santa. That Mommy 'n Daddy'll be like they use to. Never mind the bike and toys. Maybe if you're real you could get together with God or somethin' and sort o' teach 'em to smile again like they use to at each other and us kids. I know it sounds sappy and I use to hide my eyes when I was a kid so I didn't have to watch 'em makin' eyes at each other and kissin' 'n stuff.

Well, I'll let you go for now. You probly won't hear from me no more since I'm gettin' so old now.

Your Friend
(if you're real or not)
Lonnie Lane

Laurie waited until after ten o'clock just like she had each Christmas for the past eight years. She went to the Children's rooms, nibbled at the snacks and sipped the juice they left out for Santa. Her hand trembled a bit as she wrote, "Ho! Ho! Ho! See you next year! Be good boys and girls!" on the backside of some leftover Christmas wrap. She wiped a tear from her cheek as she picked up Lonnie's letter to Santa and replaced it with her Santa reply. This was the thinnest Christmas ever, barebones and nothing left over. She'd managed to scrimp and save to buy gifts for each of the younger Children but the bicycle Lonnie longed for, any bike for that matter, just plain cost too much… if only Larry could find work.

Larry had a warm fire going in the fireplace and was getting ice cubes from the fridge when she returned from visiting the Children. "Want a nightcap, Honey?"
Laurie bit her lip. "Just one and make it light. Come on in the living room and read Lonnie's letter to Santa with me."

Larry laughed derisively. "Isn't he getting a little old to be writing letters to Santa? If he hopes to realize his dream to be a writer someday, just like Jack London, he'd better start writin' somethin' stronger ‘n letters to Santa. Not much power in Santa notes." He finished preparing the drinks and went to sit with Laurie on the sofa. She sobbed into her drink and handed him the letter.

He put an arm around her shoulders. "Don't cry, Sweetheart. Next year'll be better for us. I'll straighten up and fly right, I promise. I don't know what's gotten into me." He paused and sipped his drink. "If I could just find work."

Laurie turned toward him, teary eyed. "Just read Lonnie's letter, Larry."

Larry bent forward, using the glow from the fireplace to light up his oldest Child's words. "Ah damn," he said and kissed the top of Laurie's head, "I'll be back."

He got up from the sofa, grabbed his coat, and headed for the door. "Please don't go to the bar tonight," Laurie said as the front door closed behind him. She heard his truck start, held her face in her hands and wept.

Larry drove directly to the nearest Super Wal~Mart, thankful they stayed open late. The bike rack was near the front of the store and he marched straight to it. "May I help you?" asked a blue-vested clerk.

"I hope so," Larry replied in earnest. "My son wants one of those chopper bikes for Christmas. I probably don't have enough money to buy it but maybe I can work out somethin' with the manager of the store to make up the difference. I'll shovel snow, sweep the floor, unload trucks… anything. I gotta have that bike for my boy."

"I'm sorry, Sir," the lady said. "Those bikes were a big hit this season. All our stores have been sold out for over two weeks."
Larry stared at her in disbelief. Tears filled his eyes. "I told you I'd work. I'll do anything; if you could just.."

His desperation startled the clerk. She edged away, offered him a nervous smile. "I'll get the manager," she said consolingly, "Maybe there's something he can do to help you."

Larry paced back and forth but felt relieved when the store manager appeared a few moments later. He shook Larry's hand and gave him an appraising look. "Good evening, Sir. Liesel told me about your problem and asked me to have a word with you."

"Liesel?" Larry mumbled, "L… L. Liesel, L's on both ends?"

The manager laughed heartily and Larry was taken aback at the portly man's gaiety. He was middle-aged or older, had a full white beard and twinkling eyes and for a moment Larry thought… but no… Stop it! Larry chastised himself, this is the real world, not some eight-year-old's fairy tale fantasy. "Sorry for my outburst," the jolly man said, "But your response struck me as funny. Of course Liesel has L's on each end of her name."

Larry offered him a sad smile, the best he could muster under the circumstances. "Guess I got a thing for L's." His smile went a bit deeper, became more genuine. "Life and love, my whole Family; L's have been kind to me."

"My name's Nick," the manager said, not sure what to make of Larry's statement. He scrutinized Larry for a short moment. "And hey, about the bicycle; I have one in back that was damaged in shipment or something. I don't remember precisely what happened to it. There was something wrong with it that was fixable but we don't have the resources here, time, machinery, a welder… something like that. We planned to claim it out after the holiday and take it to a recycling facility with other damaged merchandise. Mind you, if it appears beyond repair, I won't be able to sell it to you." Having said that, he turned on his heel and headed for the back of the store. "Come along; let's see what we can do for you."

Larry followed close behind, hands in the pockets of his jeans. He worried the fifty dollar bill there, his stash, with his fingers and in his mind. What if it wasn't enough like countless other things this past year that hadn't been enough; like Larry himself wasn't enough anymore, his self-esteem at an all time low.
‘Here we go!" Nick announced while jingling through a ring of keys. He tried a couple and finally found one which unlocked a large metal door that led to a chain-link cage outside the rear of the store.

"Lot o' stuff," Larry commented as Nick flipped on a light. "Everything out here damaged?"

"Pretty much," Nick replied, "Oh, there it is, over in the corner." He started down an aisle littered with the miscellaneous debris of broken and damaged merchandise. "Wait by the door; I'll pull ‘er out and we'll have us a look-see."

Nick moved some boxes, then returned up the aisle, pushing a bicycle with a fat back tire, long front end with a thin, chromed spool wheel. Just as he reached Larry the front wheel fell off. Nick shook his head. "I remember now. The front tire was flat and when Jim, our bicycle assembler, repaired it, the front axle threads were stripped." He looked down at the bicycle, disappointment evident on his kind face. "I don't know, Sir. It's been sitting out here in the weather for a couple of months. Look at all that rust on the chrome."

"I can fix it," Larry assured him. "I could probably fix most of the things out here. I've worked with tools and machinery all my life, construction, roofing and stuff, done some garage door repair. Always fixed my own bikes when I was a kid."

"Hmmm," Nick mused, "Did Liesel mention something about you being out of work?"

"I get a side job every once in a while," Larry replied honestly, wondering what it was about this man that made him feel so comfortable, urging him to open up. "But nothin' steady for the past year or so."

Nick picked up the front wheel, lifted the front end of the bicycle, and rolled it past Larry. He leaned it against the inside wall of the store, turned off the outside light, and closed the metal door. "Well Sir, don't know if you'd be interested but Jim's retiring at the end of the month, been with Wal~Mart for thirty-two years. You come in after Christmas, fill out the paperwork, a proper job application; might just be a job here for you. If you're interested, I'll leave the manager a note saying you seem like an apt young man to me."

"Uh…" Larry began, "I thought you were the store manager."

Nick chuckled. "Me? No, I'm Home Office/Toy Distribution… whatever you want to call it. I'm here on a tour of the stores in Colorado; just happened to answer the call when Liesel requested a manager for assistance.

Larry screwed up his courage and looked Nick straight in the eye. "I'd appreciate the recommendation. I'm definitely interested in the job. I'd be in your debt."
Nick fiddled with his beard, obviously uncomfortable. "No one's ever in my debt, young man." Then the smile returned to its home on his face. "Well then," he said brusquely, "Let's get you back home to that boy of yours." He appraised the bicycle doubtfully. "A lot of work there; sure you can get ‘er up to snuff?"
"That bike'll be better ‘n new when I'm finished with it," Larry assured him.

"I believe you and that's good enough for me," Nick chuckled, "We usually don't sell damaged merchandise, liability and all that." His eyes twinkled when he looked at Larry. "But it's Christmas eve, isn't it? I got me a good feeling about this."

"Thank-you," Larry said with relief. "Uh… how much do I owe you?"

"Let's see here." Nick bent to look at a tag hanging from the gooseneck of the bicycle. "Well she has a price tag for $177.00 new… hmmm.."

Larry felt a lump beginning to form in his throat. Half off the selling price would be around $90.00, a generous discount but $40.00 more than he had in his pocket, $40.00 more than he had to his name. What was he going to do now? The question spun round and round in his mind and his knees felt like jelly.

Nick squeezed his upper arm. "How ‘bout forty dollars? Does that sound fair to you? Tax'll bring ‘er up to around $43.00. Can you swing it?" Larry was surprised at the strength of the older man as his hand squeezed a bit harder. "Listen Son," he said softly, "I've been penniless and on the streets before in my life. I know how difficult life can be at times, how hard we can be on ourselves. Your boy's gonna have that bike if I have to pay for it myself."

Larry swallowed deep, then answered enthusiastically, "No Sir, you've done more than enough. I've got cash in my pocket. Let's do it!"

"That's the spirit!" Nick released his grip on Larry's shoulder and gave him a bear hug. Larry couldn't believe how good it felt and, though he'd never hugged another man, found himself returning the embrace. Nick broke away and beamed at Larry, cheeks and ears as red as beets. "I hate to rush off but I've a busy night ahead of me, if you know what I mean." He offered Larry an exaggerated wink. "I'll tell the cashier up front to price override the damaged bicycle to $40.00. You just take it up there and hey, have a merry Christmas!"

Larry gathered up the bicycle and turned to thank the man but Nick was gone. Lonnie's note crinkled in his pocket and Larry thought, Yeah, I'm pretty sure I know what you mean.

Larry backed his truck up to the garage and there she was, barefoot in the snow, his silly girl, his Laurie. She was wringing her hands with worry. Larry got out of the truck, picked her up and carried her into the house. She was crying and trying to speak but Larry smothered her mouth with kisses and hugged her in a slow circle through the room. He set her down on the sofa, then threw another log on the fire.

"Larry, what?" Laurie's face was flushed, deep with concern but ready to be happy. She was as beautiful as Larry had ever seen her, more so in fact. He wanted nothing more than to hold her through and until the night went away.

"What, what?" he said playfully. "I love you, that's what! I got our Lonnie a bike, that's what what but it needs some work, what? I'll be busy out in the garage for a couple, three hours gettin' it ready." He made that face, the sexy face he knew she loved to see. "Why don't you just snuggle up warm and wait for me?"
Laurie leapt from the couch and hugged him ‘til it hurt. She wet the front of his shirt with her tears. Larry stroked her hair. Leonard Cohen's Take this Waltz came unbidden to his mind and he danced her slowly around the room. How could he have ever abandoned their romance? "Don't cry, Baby," he whispered into her ear. "I got the bike and well, maybe a steady job. Don't cry, Honey. Whatcha wanna go ‘n cry for?"

"I'm scared," Laurie's muffled voice spoke against his chest where he held her head and refused to let go.

"Don't be," Larry consoled, "Everything's gonna be alright, it really is." Take this waltz, take this waltz, take this waltz," he crooned as round and round the room they danced.

"I'm happy," Laurie sobbed, "It feels like you're back from that awful place and I don't ever want to lose you again. I'm happy and I'm scared; that's why I'm crying."

Larry led her to the couch and told her about his incredible visit to Wal~Mart, his meeting the man, Nick, and finding the damaged bicycle, how he knew he could fix it up better than new. He had some tricks up his sleeve alright, ol' Larry, some parts from his Harley including an ooga-ooga horn he knew Lonnie loved. Laurie stopped crying and breathed a silent thank-you to her God for answering her prayers, prayers gone empty in their year of darkness. Larry pressed Lonnie's letter into her hands. "What did I say just before I left… that Lonnie was gettin' a little old to be writin' letters to Santa Claus.." He choked up and had his turn at a jag of crying. He stood up from the couch, arms akimbo. "Enough o' that! No more happy tears; it's time to go to work. I won't be long, believe me. You just wait and save me some hugs."

"We always did it together," Laurie said softly.

"What, Sweetheart?" Larry asked, nonplussed at Laurie's statement.

"The toys," Laurie replied, "Wrapping presents for everyone and putting things together."

Larry clapped his hands, a true and genuine smile softening his young man's tough leather face. "That's right, girl! You'd better get some jeans and shoes on… and don't forget your coat!"

Laurie ran to the bedroom and put on her jeans and warm felt boots. She looked every bit the excited Child to Larry when she bustled back into the room. "I'll get the fire truck," she chirped happily. "We have to put it together. And I found a few things to go with the girls' dolls at the secondhand store, even a race car for Lily. We'll have to clean them up a bit. Larry, I'll make some coffee and bring everything out to the garage. We'll do it like before."
Larry kissed her on the mouth, long and hard, took her breath away. "We'll do it like forever, my Sweet Lady."

Laurie went to the closet, began unearthing hidden treasures. Larry got the bicycle from the truck, took it into the garage, and stoked a fire in the steel drum stove he had built a few years before. He got his tap and die set, cut new threads into the axle, and had the front wheel on in a jiffy. He reached absently into his left-hand jeans' pocket and felt something crinkly there. When he pulled his hand out, it was holding a hundred dollar bill. Now how did that get there? He stopped for a moment, amazed at how wonderful he felt. Hope, he thought, don't know how or when I lost it, what with all I got to be thankful for, but I got it back. And with hope, I have faith. One more tear on the seat of Lonnie's bicycle. He was polishing the chrome on the wheels, chasing the rust away, when Laurie came into the garage with two steaming mugs full of coffee.

"Oh Darlin'" she exclaimed, "You didn't just get a bicycle, you got the bicycle."