Somewhere in Georgia. The gas station pump had a TV in it. All gas station pumps have TVs now.
If you buy gas in America, you have to watch loud commercials, selling everything from smartphone apps to foot powder. And in true TV-commercial fashion, the ads are roughly the same volume as a nuclear weapons field test.
So there I was, pumping gas, trying to ignore the ad for hemorrhoid cream, when I noticed a car pull beside me. It was an old-model Nissan. Lots of rust. Dings everywhere. The car made more noise than a tambourine salesman riding on railroad tracks.
A guy stepped out. He was big and portly. He wore a thick white beard. The tips of his mustache were waxed. He wore red, from his head to his foot. His eyes, how they twinkled. His dimples how merry. His radio was playing “Hotel California” by the Eagles.
He stood beside me, pumping gas, checking his phone, and he saw me looking at him.
“Hi,” he said.
I could not find the words. “Are you…?”
the real…?” I said.
He was on his way to Atlanta for a gig. He would be visiting a group foster home. I asked what it would be like, visiting all those kids.
He shrugged. “They’ll sit on my lap. They’ll tell me what they want. They’ll ask if they can pull my beard. I’ll give them a candy cane.”
“Is it real?”
“I don’t use fake candy canes.”
“I meant your beard.”
“One hundred percent Santa.”
I asked what sorts of things kids in orphangaes request for Christmas. He said it’s been the same wishlist every year. Only the names of the children change.
“Last year,” he said, “a little boy asked if I could ask God to let his mother into heaven after her overdose.
“I had a girl cry on my shoulder and beg…