[dropcap]H[/dropcap]e was a cheerful kid, with a razor-sharp sense of humor, and a wide waistline. We were both unfortunate enough to love fried chicken.
The week after my father’s funeral, my buddy drove to my house in his mother’s blue station wagon. I took one look at his chubby babyface and laughed. “You’re too young to drive. We’ll get in trouble.”
“Trouble’s my Latin name. Now get in.”
We parked by the creek. Together, we sat on the hood, throwing pebbles. Finally he said, “You know, my daddy left us when I was born.” He lobbed a rock as hard as he could. “Bastard even wrote a letter, blaming me.” He turned to look me in the face. “Me.”
And that was the only time I ever heard him speak of his father.
His first job was at a skeet range. He let me in free, and we shot clay pigeons all day long. We shot so often, my right shoulder will never be the same.
We drank some of our first beers together. We had our first barroom fight, side by side, in a real beer-joint. Which might’ve been a rite of passage, if it hadn’t been so humiliating. I had my cheeks polished by a sweet old woman in a pink sweatshirt.
We fished together, cried over girls who’d flattened our hearts. And it was he who read my first story, a pathetic piece of writing, and said, “Man, this is the best thing I’ve ever read.”
It was the kindest lie anyone’s ever told me.
This year, children will sit on my buddy’s knee, explaining what they want for Christmas. They’ll tug his fake beard, and he’ll wink and give one of those laughs. The same laugh his own daddy never got to hear.
I couldn’t think of a better Santa Claus.