“It’s got a lot of torque, you see,” Peter Hareman gestured with his hand, as if his brand-new car parked in the office in front of the crowd of his assembled co-workers. “That’s why it’s so fast and, what was it the dealer said? Efficient.”
Many of the people nodded, sloshing the punch in their hands as they hung on Peter’s every word. Leo Sheldon, however, turned toward the coat closet.
“Leaving so soon?” called out Peter, abandoning the attention of the assembled audience and rushing to catch up with Leo.
“Yeah,” Leo drew out the word like he was pulling taffy. Although he’d never show it outwardly, he didn’t like Peter Hareman. He was too fast, too busy, and far too self-important. “Yeah, I promised my wife we’d take the kids to the Cookies with Santa event at the mall. I think they’re still too young to appreciate it, but—“
“You don’t say!” Peter’s voice rose to a higher, louder pitch. “My family attends Cookies with Santa every year, it’s a tradition! But surely you can wait until the office party is over.”
“Don’t want to be late,” Leo said, zipping his jacket.
“Nonsense! There’s plenty of time! Unless it’s the old jalopy holding you back?” Peter threw his head back and laughed heartily, showcasing his overlarge front teeth. “You know, you really should upgrade! My Lincoln—”
“I guess we’ll see you there,” Leo interrupted, trying to mask his rude exit with an encouraging grin.
“Sounds like a plan,” said Peter, and turned back to his waiting congregation.
The Sheldons sat quietly as they inched down Main Street, holding hands across the center console. In the backseat, the toddler and baby slept, lulled to sleep by “Away in a Manger” and the ponderous motion of their chariot, a twelve-year-old Volkswagen.
“That’s a pretty tree,” Leo opined, pointing at a flocked display in a store window.
“I didn’t realize they’d put up the street light décor already,” replied Serena, twisting her neck to get the best view of the twinkling lights. She picked absent-mindedly at a fraying thread on the bottom of her black turtleneck sweater.
“Can’t believe this traffic,” Leo mused. “I didn’t realize there was a parade tonight too.”
“Oh, hon, it’s your turn,” said Serena, pointing forward at the line of cars slowly plowing forward.
“Right you are,” Leo nodded, and put the car into drive. “I thought we might never move.”
“Well, this is ridiculous,” Peter Hareman sighed, slumping over the steering wheel of his motionless SUV. “We’ll never make it in time to see Santa at this rate.”
After scurrying home from the party twenty minutes after Leo, Peter had rushed his children into the running car and skittered out onto Main Street, where traffic was at a standstill.
“I told you we needed to take Lake Shore Expressway; it’s never as backed up as Main Street. But of course, you never take my advice.” Peter’s wife, Lola, clicked her long, sparkly, artificial nails on the dashboard in time to the radio blaring “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
“The Expressway is the slowest route of all, I’m turning left up here to get back on the highway and loop around.”
“That’s the worst possible thing you could do! The highway is always more congested at this time of night! You might as well make a U-Turn and go back to Lake Shore!”
“Mom!” screamed an angry boy from the back seat, “You said we could listen to my music on the way to see Santa!”
Another voice: “I’m starving! Why didn’t we go to dinner first? There’s a McDonald’s just up ahead, Dad, hit the drive thru!”
Yet another: “He won’t stop hitting me.”
“Calm down, everyone, we’ll be able to see Santa soon!” Lola chirped. “Just sit tight, Dad’s going to get us there.”
Fumbling through the glove compartment she retrieved half a bag of stale popcorn. “Here,” she said, holding it toward the nearest set of outstretched hands.
Just then a light turned green and Peter aggressively began a left turn, to the great consternation of oncoming traffic. Car horns blared and the popcorn flew from his wife’s hands, carpeting the car’s floor like snow.
“What on earth are you doing?” shrieked Lola, quickly snapping the visor mirror down and vigorously patting her bleached blonde hair back into place.
“I told you, I’m taking the highway!”
The car erupted in protest.
“I’ve always wanted to see that show,” Serena remarked, looking up at a billboard of “Disney’s Frozen on Broadway” to her right. “I know it’s for kids, but it actually looks really cool.”
“We should go. How about Thursday? I’m sure your mom would watch the kids.”
“Good idea,” Serena said, and she began typing, “Frozen Broadway tickets” into the search bar on her phone.
“Now we’re cooking with oil!” cried Peter, slapping the steering wheel as he flew down the highway. “We’re gonna make it kids, don’t worry!”
A teenage voice from the darkness of the backseat muttered, “Yeah, except you’re going the wrong way.”
“I am NOT going the wrong way!” hollered Peter, glaring into his rearview mirror at a face illuminated only by an iPhone screen. “I’m taking the highway to exit 35, then looping around back toward the mall.”
“Yeah, except that exit doesn’t connect behind the mall, they changed it when they did the construction last year.”
“I think she’s right, babe, I’m pretty sure you can’t get to the mall from exit 35,” Lola said, turning the volume on the radio up to match her husband’s. Instantly: “Turn it down, I hate this song!”
Peter, through gritted teeth, said “I’ve taken Baird to the mall a dozen times in the last year alone, when will you women realize I know how to navigate a car!”
The roar of a siren suddenly matched the timbre and amplification of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Angrily, Peter stomped on the brakes—he’d been traveling a brisk 90 mph—and maneuvered his car to the side of the road.
From the backseat, Toddler Sheldon woke with a shriek and began clawing at her winter coat with one hand and scratching her chapped red cheeks with the other.
“Hi sweetie!” Serena twisted to reach the backseat and deftly unbuckled the child, removed her coat, and swept her on to her lap.
“Are you sure you should be doing that?” Leo questioned. Serena was usually the car seat safety stickler of the two.
“I’ll put her back in just a minute, it’s not like we’re moving,” she said to Leo, then to her daughter, “Look! It’s Elsa! Look at her pretty dress! Do you think Elsa ever gets itchy in her dress?”
Serena pulled some lotion out of her purse and, to her daughter’s disgust, applied it to the toddler’s red-hot face.
Toddler Sheldon was now screaming and kicking as Serena wrestled her back into her car seat.
“Leo!” Serena said impatiently, “She wants Elmo.”
“I hate Elmo,” Leo sighed, as he inserted a well-worn CD.
After struggling against her restraints and finding them firm, Toddler Sheldon sullenly accepted the offering of “A Sesame Street Christmas” and settled into perfunctory whining.
Serena offered Leo a stick of gum.
“Are we there yet?” Leo asked, with a grin.
“Yeah, Merry Christmas to you too,” Peter said curtly as he rolled up his window, then added, “jerk.”
Teenage laughter floated from the back. Impatient fingernails clicked to the right. Peter waited for the policeman to pull back on to the highway.
“We could just call it a night,” Lola said, her tone clearly indicating that if this family tradition were to be broken, it would be permanently noted on her mental list of Peter’s most horrible transgressions.
“Absolutely not,” Peter spit. “This visit to Santa has already cost us,” he glanced down at the ticket on the center console, “$175, so we are not going to miss it. Besides, I told Leo we’d meet him there.”
“Suit yourself,” Lola said, “But you should get off the next exit and get on Lake Shore Expressway, if you want to get there before morning.”
“We NEVER have snacks in the car!”
“She won’t get her feet out of MY foot-space, she’s leaning over completely into my seat!”
“Can we PLEASE stop listening to Christmas music, I can’t stand it anymore! It’s just the same songs over and over and over, let’s just turn it off already!”
Peter accelerated onto the highway.
“Just be quiet, kids, you’re giving me a headache!” Lola hissed. She turned the volume dial back up and took a long drink of her Diet Pepsi.
“Mommy and Daddy are allowed to read.” Leo’s voice was measured but growing impatient. “This is a Christmas book; listen, you might like it!”
“DON’T READ!” yelled Toddler Sheldon.
Continuing as if she hadn’t heard, Serena lifted her copy of “A Christmas Carol” and resumed her oration.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” she read.
Leo looked lovingly at his wife. He had always appreciated her voice: level, calm, floating from her mouth like delicate flower petals on a spring breeze. The streetlights lit up her face, making her dark hair glow and her the tiny diamond studs twinkle on her ear lobes. The first gift he ever gave her. She wore them every December, all month long.
Just then, a gagging sound from the backseat interrupted Leo’s reverie. Serena jumped out of the car this time, snatched her vomit-covered baby boy from his buckles, and re-entered the car within seconds. Just in time for Baby Sheldon to vomit again, all over her sweater.
“Why is he doing that?” asked Leo, bewildered and unhelpful.
“I told you, he gets carsick! He always does this if we’re in the car for over an hour, every time I drive to your parents’ house, he throws up.”
“How could he be carsick!?” Leo nearly shouted, gesturing up at the Frozen billboard they still hadn’t passed. “We aren’t even MOVING!”
“MORE ELMO!” cried Toddler Sheldon.
Peter was sure Baird Street connected to the back of the mall parking lot.
Baird Street did not connect to the back of the mall parking lot.
No roads connected to the back of the mall parking lot, so the Haremans would have to get onto the frontage road by way of Main Street. Main Street, where a Christmas parade was still ongoing.
Peter Hareman swore profusely. Teenage Hareman said “I told you so,” just loud enough for her father to hear and promise to take away her phone privileges for a week. Lola did not say “I told you so,” but did mutter something about the Expressway, to which Peter bellowed that the Expressway was the LONGEST POSSIBLE WAY to get to the mall, and he wouldn’t take the Expressway to the mall if his life depended on it!
Youngest Hareman was still starving and asked Lola could she please check if she had any candy in her purse, to which Lola responded that even if she did, she would never hand it out to be eaten in her brand-new car by spoiled, whiny, ungrateful children. Oh, and as soon as they were home, Lola expected every last piece of the popcorn to be cleaned up!
Middle Hareman continued to purloin foot-space and object to music.
Peter pulled into a neighborhood to try to get on to Main Street in front of the parade. Christmas displays streamed by unnoticed as the car careened through cul-de-sacs.
After a baby wipe bath and a change into spare pajamas (a size too small, but they still zipped), Baby Sheldon was restored to a slightly smelly car seat.
“What am I supposed to do about this?” asked Serena, gesturing to her fouled sweater.
Leo shrugged, more out of genuine puzzlement than a desire to be rude.
“I can’t go to the mall like this,” Serena said, put out. “Maybe we should just go home.”
“Maybe we should have taken the highway,” Leo added.
The car pulled forward a whole two blocks. Serena looked out the window, spotted a lighted display window and began to laugh. She pulled the sweater over her head and opened the door, wearing only a pink camisole to guard against the winter chill.
“What are you doing?” Leo cried, utterly perplexed.
“I’ll be right back,” Serena called back over her shoulder. “Don’t go anywhere!”
“I won’t,” muttered Leo to himself, staring at the long line of stationary vehicles.
Peter bit his bottom lip until his graying mustache was nearly drawn into his mouth. A police officer was walking up from behind the pulled-over Lincoln Navigator.
“Not. A. Word.” Each syllable was like a shard of glass.
The Hareman family, for once, was silent.
Leo did move the car forward in Serena’s absence, but only a few feet. Six minutes after she’d left, Serena came running back, carrying her soiled sweater in a shopping bag and wearing—
“What on Earth is that?” Leo spluttered, taking in with horror his wife’s new sweater.
“You like?” she asked, giving a quick twirl before sliding back into the car.
“I’ve…never seen anything like it,” Leo responded diplomatically.
Serena’s new purchase was the ugliest Christmas sweater Leo had ever seen. It was fire engine red, with white stripes down the sleeves. A realistic fuzzy reindeer head emblazoned the front, its antlers bedecked with a tangle of tinsel and functioning Christmas lights.
“It was on sale,” Serena said coquettishly.
“Peter and his wife will be…” Leo looked over at his wife, treading carefully, “…impressed by that.”
“I’m sure they will,” Serena said, and they both began to laugh.
Toddler Sheldon fake-laughed from the backseat, so she could be included.
“Like your shirt, Mama!” she squealed.
“Thank you, lovey,” Serena said, wiping tears of mirth from her cheeks. “Oh, Leo, look! The traffic is actually moving!”
The Sheldons maneuvered their vehicle into a space at the mall parking lot and began to slowly disembark from the car. Children were unbuckled and re-bundled into winter gear, used wipes were thrown away and dirty clothes put into the trunk to deal with at home.
Each holding a child, Leo and Serena made their way into the mall, where their toddler “decorated” sugar cookies with piles of sprinkles and mini M&Ms, then sat on Santa’s lap with an expression of mingled awe and terror. Leo and Serena laughed and took pictures and held hands and passed the baby back and forth.
As the loudspeaker announced the mall would close in fifteen minutes, Leo looked up to see Peter Hareman bustling toward him, his four other family members straggling along in his wake, shoving grumbling, and eye-rolling.
Lola, spotting Serena’s sweater blinking wildly from beneath her unzipped jacket, stared conspicuously and took a small step back, as if the tackiness might be contagious.
“Some traffic, wasn’t it?” Leo said good-naturedly, and Peter ran a hand through his thinning hair, his bald spot glowing crimson with fury.
“Unbelievable. It’s the holiday rush, and this idiotic town…when will they put in more roundabouts and lights like they said they would? It’s a mess. I tried to take the highway—”
“But Baird Street doesn’t connect to the mall,” interrupted Teenage Hareman, whose phone was promptly snatched and deposited in Peter’s pocket.
“So, we got a little, ah, detained.” Peter attempted a friendly laugh, but it died in his throat and became a cough.
His wife attempted to salvage the situation. “Better late than never!” she said with false cheer, and began ushering the Hareman children, who insisted they were far too old, toward Santa’s arm chair.
“Well, you guys have a good time,” Leo said, and put an arm around his wife as they began to walk toward the exit. Almost as an afterthought, he said into her ear, “I guess slow and steady won the race.”